It was quiet; too quiet. Even the wind had ceased blowing and the flags fell against the wooden poles supporting them. They swirled around silently, like snakes hiding away their royal symbol. Alchantar looked impatient at the red material shying away and he groaned unhappily. His pride had to show, from the shine of his men's armor to the upstanding of his flags, but it looked as if today none of his glory would be revealed and he resented the loneliness of the battlefield. It made him feel small. He pierced into the distance observing the walls of Uyack. Their flags were still as well. The Wolof inspected the sky; the Gods weren't favoring any of them today. His eyes narrowed trying to see any slight movement behind the enemy lines but the air seemed to go against him blurring his vision with waves of heat so unfamiliar to these lands. He groaned again thinking that perhaps the Gods were favoring the Tekaras after all. He chased the poisonous thought away and went back at preying on the small village in the distance.
Nesrin folded the dress tightly in her fists waiting for Laitham to bring her armor.
"All right. Turn around." He was demanding and she was too confused to fight anything he said. She turned her back to him and heard the sound of the chains falling to her feet. She took in a deep breath. A moment later his fingers touched her skin and she startled. Laitham unknotted the laces holding her dress together, sneaking his fingers underneath to pull it open but when her skin was revealed his courage failed him before that pale softness that bewildered his eyes making the morning sweeter for him. Slowly he walked the back of his hands up her shoulder blades pushing the edges of the material aside and Nesrin hurried to catch it, keeping it from revealing her breast and Laitham gave her time to breathe. She listened carefully not knowing what he was doing behind her back; but she did not dare to look. Laitham rolled out the cotton cloth stretching the material then came so close she felt his breath on the back of her neck. His arms embraced her and when she saw the wide bandage he held she didn't know what to make of it. But as her eyes were distracted, Laitham slipped his other hand underneath her arms and pulled the dress down to her waist and she screamed in surprise jolting back. He bolted her against his chest trying to bring the material around her breasts but she had sealed her arms hiding them in what she believed to be an impenetrable lock. "Nesrin, stop it."
"You stop touching me!"
"I'm not touching you, woman! Now stand still!" But she pushed him harder, elbowing her way out of his arms.
"I'll do it myself!" Laitham threw the cloth on her shoulder cursing in his chin. She spent a moment waiting before letting go of her breasts; she took the cloth gently but her innate stubbornness still caused her to naturally fight back. Still, eventually, she thought that upsetting him further would not be to her advantage. She tried her best to fit the material around her voluptuous bust but it kept slipping under before she could make a new turn. She mumbled unsatisfied with her failing efforts. Laitham watched her struggling and did his best to keep his frustration at bay; and his amusement as well. Alchantar Wolof was at his gates, with his armies ready to attack and instead of being up on the walls along with his men, there he was, watching this tiny woman wasting her energy to fight him. He sighed; enough was enough. He grabbed the material almost causing her to spin around and she screamed again, this time with a vengeance in defiance to his unexpected gesture and dominance.
"Stand still Nesrin, or I swear…" She backed off, still holding her arms to her chest and Laitham grabbed her pulling her to him. "Nesrin!" She jolted but didn't have enough strength to fight him. "Damn it, Nesrin, we don't have time to play!" His hands forced hers to open and her breasts bounced gently before his eyes and it cost him all his might and power of concentration to shift his eyes from her blooming nipples, darkening in the morning chill. He turned her around hastingly then bowed his head, taking a moment to savor the lurking fresh vision of her tender skin and he felt the need for a new breath of air. They were running out of time but Nesrin was reluctant still. He placed the material on her chest without looking and waited for a moment for her to help him and not make things worse for them. She slowly fitted the curves of her body in the soft hold of the material and then rolled it a few more times around her until her breasts were safely secured. She moved a bit and it felt a little hard to breathe. "Hands up!" She brought them up without giving it a second thought now that she felt the worse was gone. Laitham slipped the tunic down on her slender body, forcing it on top of the folds of her hanging dress, then pulled the dress down to her ankles making Nesrin step out of it. She shied away again being left almost butt naked in that shirt but Laitham warned her silently to not start yet another of her scenes. The cries of a few men outside obliged them to share an eager look, for a moment. Laitham helped her with the rest of the armor, tightening the fenders on her legs and she bent with the burden of the metal forcing her to straighten her shoulders until their eyes met again. The general took a moment to support her, his hands gripping on her small shoulders, his eyes embedded in hers and it made the ring armor feel less heavy. He fitted the leather belt on her waist, added the dagger and the sword and Nesrin's knees weakened further under the pressure. She was ready; almost. Laitham looked at the helmet in his hand then again in her green eyes. Her lips shivered and he got caught in the sweet memory of that fullness molding on his mouth and his fingers gripped harder on the metal edges of the helmet. He breathed in wishing it hadn't sounded so loud. She bowed and he placed the helmet on her head, tucking away all the cupper strands straying from underneath. She lifted her head and from the shadows of the metal she stared at him and her eyes flickered with fear. Laitham's lips fretted wanting to speak but she was staring and it sealed his mouth. All his thoughts, everything he wanted to tell her, vanished. The general had to take over otherwise Laitham would be lost.
"Stay at my side at all times, do not venture alone. Do not speak if addressed, do not look them in the eye." His lungs filled with air again, so much it almost hurt him. Or maybe the air was too rough this morning. "We must keep Alchantar in the dark for as long as we can." Nesrin nodded without releasing him from her eyes. "Understood?" She saw Laitham was gone and that the Tekara General she did not enjoy so much had replaced him. She grinded her teeth, but nodded again.
Laitham took his helmet and stepped outside. In the door way he turned around to check on her one last time. She looked tiny and helpless draped by so much leather and metal. He kept it together and did not allow his emotions to surface. From inside the armory Nesrin admired silently his tall posture; he looked carved into the light coming from behind him, his fingers gripping on the sword handle, the crest of his helmet still in the morning silence. He appeared brave, but merciless. She turned her eyes from him and he left. Now the day light seemed too merciless on her and he wished him back to protect her.
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Leora let the air out slowly and loud, listening the sound like when she was little and the healer would ask her to count her breathing to see whether her cold was severe or not. Something in her chest hurt and she bent a little, supporting her weight against the railing. There was no wind, nothing to sooth the pain of this scorching sun. The desert before her was only stained by his armies, a dark brownish spot, lurking in the distance, like old blood drying on the hot sand. They stood motionless and she wondered what went through his mind. Damor Kane…
"How is my princess today?" Jairo stepped on the terrace, leaning his weakened body against the door way. Leora turned around to face him and his eyes rejoiced the image of her dressed for battle. She was lean and rather tall for a young woman, her hair braided to the side, her eyes shining like pebbles underneath clear sparkling waters.
"How is my right hand?" she smiled, but she worried seeing Sir Goldhawk's pale face.
"Weaker than it used to be… but strong inside." Even the strength in his voice had faded away. He took a few hesitant steps coming into the light and it embraced him with the warmth he needed. Jairo closed his eyes letting himself be filled with the energy of the sun, like leaves shading the dew under the touch of its rays. He sighed; he held strong for her, but some things he could not control. A quick prayer came to his mind but he dismissed immediately. Now it was not the time for prayer, he had to focus. "How are you Leora?"
"How are you?" but Jairo did not answer; his eyes did it for him. He did not want to disclose more of the sorrow his illness was causing him. But she had read it in his blurry vision and responded with a smile. Goldhawk's regard shifted, looking at the Dhanwars gathering in the distance.
"I know you are afraid, but –"
"I am not afraid." She followed his eyes looking upon Kane's armies. "Not anymore. If there is no other way then I shall give to this day everything I'm worth…" her voice fainted a bit. "… and I hope I'm worth enough…"
"Let an old man speak." He took her arm leading her to the edge of the terrace. The warmth was gone making room for the scorching heat to burn his temples and he sweated with the effort and his inner fever. "What drives this arm into battle? The sap, the strength, what helps you cut through the enemy? It is here." And his finger rested on her forehead. "Use your head to fight. Use your heart to defeat."
"I am not sure I follow, Sir Goldhawk."
"The Dhanwars are savage warriors. Yet appearances deceive." He put some more weight on his elbows as he sat against the stone railing. "They do not fight blindly. They know constantly where their enemy is, where to strike and where to move next." He pointed at the desert before them. "They look scattered, mindless; their war cry is meant to kill your spirit before you even cross blades with them." He turned to her and she looked blinded already. "Leora!" Her eyes came back to him but she seemed lost. "It's good that you don't fear them. They are just men." Leora paused, sieving his words through.
"How does one fight using their head if the heart aches madly in the chest?"
Unexpectedly, Jairo sent his staff right into her shoulder and she froze on spot, her eyes wide, her hand clutched on the railing but she stood her ground without flinching.
"We are all animals. Our body knows what to do."
"Some animals are predators, some animals are prey."
"All animals are predators, only on smaller prey."
"I am the smaller prey."
"This is where we are luckier than most animals. Size does not really matter for we have this." And he again pointed with the staff at her head. "Use it when you fight and you can sneak your way through that sea of death."
"What about dignity and fighting to the death?"
Jairo grinned playfully.
"Running is just as dignifying at times if you understand that staying alive will help your cause. Otherwise how could you defend your purpose the following day if you're dead?" He chuckled and almost released another demon in his lungs. He took a moment to breathe. "Good soldiers know their bounds and right of way. And life should always have right of way for without it nothing else matters."
In a moment of silence they both waited for something that never came. And then her voice brought them back.
"How does the heart defeat?"
Jairo smiled, like only an old man can; a man who's seen much in his life, a man who's seen what mastery of the mind could do.
"Damor Kane is a unlike the rest of the Dhanwars. When you face him do not think. Feel."
Leora giggled and Jairo enjoyed her short laughter.
"Yes, that sounds wise. To fight my way among his men so that when I'm in front of him, I break into tears and cry, tortured by fear. Or flee, if I can…."
"His men are trained to fight; not judge nor think. They are here upon his command; he alone has the privilege of reasoning and with him alone you shall be able to discuss."
"He is not here to discuss Jairo. Otherwise he would have knocked at our gates by now."
"Think more of him Leora or you will be caught off guard in his presence. This man is hard to read; it's in his blood to remain passive to all that surrounds him. To refrain from emotions, to cut deep and stop right before the last drop of blood has been spilt. He could surprise you when you least expect it."
"So what do you suggest my Lord?"
"That you surprise him too. It will distract him, it will catch his eye."
"If I'm smart, I will not try to attract his attention to me. I should rather find a swift way to kill him and be over with it."
Jairo chuckled again short and a bit convulsive. So young, so immature. So unprepared!
"I think he is going to like you."
"Jairo, this is not the time to mock at me!"
"Leora listen to me! Never lose your sense of humor. It's the remedy for panic and fear. Shy away if you must, admit the truth about your strength and that of your enemy, it will help you know where you stand. But above all things, be yourself for you are beautiful and that is enough to allure a man's eye. And defeat him."
"It all sounds so good and simple coming from you Goldhawk. In reality, I fear that man is waiting there convinced that victory is already his. That makes me dead before I even step outside these walls."
"It does, doesn't it?" silence again. "Because you let him."
"Look out there. Look! Do you see them restless? Do you see them fretting? Kane sips on his wine as we speak thinking that at the end of the day he will sit on your throne. And now look here, look at you. You are already practicing how to bow before him when he dines in your home. Do not grant this man such gratuity and empower him before the battle has even begun."
"You'd do the same if you were me. You know as well as I, that I'm no match for him." She looked down at the city lying at her feet. "We're no match for them."
"You spoiled and ungrateful child! What if the Wolofs had also been here? Then what? We should have surrendered at the first light of dawn!"
"My people are probably suffering the consequences of our plan right now!"
"Yet I do not believe Laitham is complaining so much!"
Laitham… Her eyes bowed; she missed the support of her general. The dust rose in the distance; the Dhanwars were on the move.
"It’s time." And against the terrifying view of Damor's army coming closer her voice sounded like a whisper of the wind. She turned around towards the door with her hand on the sword handle. She was reluctant to look back. Jairo followed her with confident eyes, but his heart was filled with worry.
Don't look back princess; we'll see each other again. I'll pray we do.
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She fell on her butt a bit stunned with the blow. She looked like a broken doll and Laitham put her arm around her to give her support. He pushed her behind him to recover her strength while he took on the Wolof before him. Nesrin forced back the helmet; it irritated her skin and her hair had tangled so badly with sweat and dirt that now it hanged on her forehead like a mass clouding her eyes. She sneaked her fingers under the metal trying to clear her vision, when a blow in her shoulder blades sent her flying into Laitham's back. He reacted in a split turning around cutting down the soldier attacking her then pushed her aside to take his knife from between the man's eyes. Nesrin watched him with weary eyes as he wiped the blood away; she looked at the dead Wolof, staring at the cracked skull, the wide lifeless eyes, the reddish foam bubbling from his mouth and she felt sick to her stomach. She bent, pressing down on her chest, trying to control the nausea going up her throat. A loud roar and an ax landed right between her and Laitham. She got thrown to the side with dust in her eye. She thought she had vomited and now she was choking on it. She felt the acid taste in her mouth and she struggled to the side to help her lungs breathe. Her eyelashes were moist with sweat and the dirt got stuck onto them like clay and she could barely distinguish anything. She coughed trying to find her own hand and wipe them clean. But instead, her fingers clawed in the grass and she pulled on it harder and harder with the increasing pain in her chest and the stinging in her eyes. She heard the roar again, somewhere above her and like a blind dog she looked up confused and scared. The sun was shadowed by a moving ghost. The ghost became larger, hiding the sun completely and her gut told her she was in danger. The shape of that man made her panic; she screeched her teeth feeling the taste of sand in her mouth but succeeded in forcing her body to roll among the fallen and the legs of those who still stood and fought. Inches behind her, the ax hit the ground deep, with a dry blunt sound and her heart pounded fast and dizzily in the confined space of her congested chest. Laitham! She looked for her sword but it was gone; she couldn't even remember if she had it in her hand before falling or where she had lost it. A cry behind her and she thought she recognized his voice. She hurried to wipe her eyelashes clean with the tip of her dirty fingers. When she could finally find her way back to the light she saw the glitter of the blade lying in the dirt in front of her. She grabbed the sword quickly, with the urgency of someone who knew little of its use, but acknowledged its outmost importance. She kneeled supporting her weight on the sword until she finally got up and brought it to her chest as if her whole defense stood in that blade. And indeed, it did. Her breath died out slowly and the sounds around her faded. Even the light seemed to dim, everything blurred and only he stood tall before her, his eyes piercing through her skull like daggers. Alchantar Wolof was preying on her with eager eyes. Laitham!
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The horses were restless. The men were restless too. Leora looked at the Dhanwars piled up in what seemed a cohort of no military logic. Yet it made her fall back a bit in the saddle looking at their appearance. All of Jairo's words could not describe it. The wide leather belts, the animal skins falling to their knees, the long braided tails and beards. The way they held their swords and axes; easily as if they weighted nothing. The air stood still, the heat came down on her so hard she breathed fast, taking in all the oxygen she could find, feeling her eyebrow sweat heavily; heavy salty drops came down her temples and from underneath the shade of her helmet she searched for him. But they all looked the same. Big, savage, perilous. Wild. Where are you? Her horse neighed and she pulled on the reins trying to keep it calm. She patted him gently on the crest whispering words that also comforted her. But from the top of her eyes she saw movement in the ranks of the Dhanwars. She slowed down, her palm slipped numb on the horse's neck while she fixed the shifting rows of the Water tribe. They were stepping aside as if signaled, bowing their heads to someone she could not see. Until he came forth in plain view and her fingers tangled in the animal's crest. Merciful Gods!
Damor Kane, the man she had heard so much about stood before his armies and he looked like no one she had seen before. His men no longer seemed imposing for he outran most of them. Her first instinct was to pull back but she glimpsed at her men and they stood their ground with the same petrified looks on their faces and she felt guilty for being the only coward. She straightened her back and clenched on the reins so tightly the leather burnt her skin. The armor suffocated her all of a sudden. His stature from beyond the small dunes and waves of sand was appealing to her, calling to her to come closer. She wanted to look in the eyes of the man that spread so much fear, yet so much respect. But the way he kept motionless, staring into the distance it made her think he was staring at her; and she felt it searing through her head. She breathed again hating the hotness of the air. What now? She had never led a war on her own, never attacked without being advised, never faced such a large army on such an open battle field. And what an army this was!...
Out of nowhere Kane started walking her way. She breathed from the pit of her chest as if there was not enough air left to breathe. She glanced at her generals but none of them moved instead they looked back at her pleading. I must take the fall… She knew what they wanted from her. She turned around in the saddle and looked up at the walls. The archers were ready; soldiers who had seen too few springs or too many winters. Those who had tasted war before kept the young ones behind them as if that could save them when the time came for death to hunt them. She went back to Damor. He was walking, undeterred by the sand, by the heat, by her army. Unconsciously, she kicked her horse guiding it away from the first line of defense.
"My Lady!..." The general's voice behind her stopped her in her tracks. "Don't!" She eyed the old man, his grey beard, in his worried eyes. Then she hawked at Kane who kept a steady pace approaching her. "He's not here for peace! Don't go my Lady! Don't go!" Leora swept the tip of her tongue across the dry lips and she finally felt the air entering her mouth. She wanted to speak but before she could utter anything, the general's arm went up in the air. "This is our chance!" Her eyes followed his hand and in a blink of an eye she knew what it meant and yelled at him to stop but it was too late. Above her head the arrows were released with a fury cutting through the afternoon bleach with a vengeance. She chased after them and saw Kane stop, sniffing at the air like a predator. Behind him his men cried and it ripped her apart. And like the wind hits the sea shores before the tide, so did the powders of sand rose to sting her eyes when his men rushed to cover their leader. Shields were thrown so fast, so hard she thought they were thrown at her. In the ambush her men cried out embracing the fear that had been gripping on their throats all morning and acted upon it, going insane. She lost track of Kane; she lost track of her people rushing to their death, unorganized and blinded by a sudden rush of mad courage. There was no turning back; she kicked the horse harder and took her sword out. As she galloped into the chaos lying before her she couldn't help thinking it had all gone terribly wrong.
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She reacted involuntarily pushing the helmet forth to cover her face more; it made her feel safe if she hid behind the metal, but Alchantar wasn't fooled. He had recognized the armor; he thought he had recognized her, his target. His sword came up and the blade shone in the afternoon light. Beads of sweat dropped down her cheeks and her chest murmured with a deaf pain. She glimpsed over her shoulder, but Laitham was left behind and his way to her was blocked by two soldiers struggling to bring him down. They had been separated and now she was on her own. She clenched her fingers on the handle of the sword, getting the feeling of it. Blood was rushing through her veins, her heart beat was erratic; not even the hair in her eye mattered anymore. Alchantar took a step forward and he was so much taller than she imagined him to be. She had heard of him, so many times, so many things, but she had never seen the leader of her tribe. He had a dark beauty, a dangerous attraction and now she understood why they all fell under his spell. Her father was like that, a mind mage making people fall in his web of lies and mislead by his sweet talk. He pushed herself up but almost fell back down when her feet slipped on the bloody grass. She remembered who she was; who she was supposed to be and she knew Leora probably never slipped, never stumbled. Never showed any fear. Nesrin straightened her back bringing the sword before her eyes, holding it with both hands. Alchantar grinned; you're all mine now!
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Jairo went to his knees slowly, his hands still gripping on the railing; in prayer. He saw the Ammermans running scattered like an infuriated mob and he knew the outcome would be disastrous. What happened! What happened? This couldn't have come from Leora, she was too fearful to precipice an attack so blindly and he was sure she had minded his words before the battle. Why would she throw herself at Kane in such foolish unthought-of manner? His eyes moved left to right between the intricate carvings in the wall, following the sparkle of the blades disappearing into a cloud of dust. He couldn't tell warriors apart anymore; it was chaotic. His heart beat incoherently resonating in pulsation waves shifting his temples. Somehow the dust and the heat vapors rising from the battlefield found their way to his lungs and he choked violently. His fingers grasped harder on the railing; the pulsation grew stronger in his head, his skin swelled slightly with the blood pumping heavily underneath and setting in motion a few sweat drops that fell down his temples. For the first time in many years tears were surging in his eyes and he knew it was because of his impotence to be at her side. His body was failing him when she needed him the most, out there in the heat of battle and the utter impotence growing in his heart caused him more sorrow than his illness. Among the tears he looked across the battlefield again. Poor child! He had always respected Kane and during their very few encounters he had gained his approbation and silent attention. But Kane was a different man in battle.
Years before, he had visited Kane's camp during the annual tribe meetings. There was a quarrel among his generals; Kane, much younger at the time, yet not less impressive and persuasive in his attitude, was observing the conflict from his corner without intervening. The discussions had flared to such extent that swords were drawn and threats were made; still the chieftain had done nothing and Jairo was partially amused partially in awe to his calm. Kane continued sipping on his wine and dinning on his fruit as if nothing was happening. His generals had crossed blades; young studs with too little honor to defend but an overwhelming ego to feed. Kane had picked his men right; he needed fresh blood with renewed strength at his side. His men had to have the power and resilience to walk, fight and survive for days. But a strong body did not always compensate for the lack of brain and Kane had always known that, but he simply did not care. He left the reasoning and the decision making to him and to the council. Jairo had dared question his choice at the time and against all odds, Kane had answered in all truthfulness. Most of them are brutes; the young ones most of all. Is what I need. He had paused serving Jairo with his plate of grapes. It is how it is and must be. Young people have the strength of arms, old people have the strength of mind. Cunning young man!
Even in his debilitated state Jairo smiled with his forehead pressing against the stone of the railing. Damor Kane was young himself but used his head more than those his age. He kept his ego at bay and his desires hidden. Jairo's eyes closed for a moment. He saw Kane get up from his chair, chewing on one last grape. He had passed the first quarrelling general, taking his sword; the weapon had swung silently and in the shadows of the tent only the chatter of the wind could be heard. But before drawing another breath, Jairo witnessed the beheading of the second general, his head rolling through the dirt. He had looked at Kane, still holding his breath. Damor had spat the seeds giving the sword back to his man; this one had kneeled immediately before him, as had all Dhanwars in his presence. Do you think of me as barbarian? He had stretched his hand to help Jairo up but Sir Goldhawk had taken a moment to observe the calm smile on the young leader's face. I think you had your reasons. Jairo had accepted his help and Kane had waited for him to straighten his bones. And I think your means are as good as any. I'd say, more efficient than most others. Later on, he had learnt that the general Damor had killed had been raping his slave girls as a reward for his deeds in battle; it was against Kane's beliefs. He may have taken prisoners, but he did not treat them as slaves. We are like trees Sir Goldhawk. Uproot but one from their forest and they will all soon wither and die. Dead trees are of no use to me so I water them and give them a reason to live. Some of his prisoners never left, not even when he allowed them to. He was a good man.
The tears dried on his cheeks and he struggled to bring his hands together in prayer. You are a good man. Be a good man. Don't kill her, Kane!
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His sword came down on her so hard it forced her knee to sink in the grass and she held back with all her might. Her arms shook a bit, but sheltered by the chain metal she escaped Alchantar’s eyes and he didn't see her weakness. She kept her eyes on him and for once she was thankful for the hair being in her eye protecting her identity further from her attacker. What would Leora do? Show no fear! She focused her hearing one last time to perceive Laitham's voice in the crowd behind her, but the clash of the weapons, the anguish of the wounded and the cries of the men distorted all other sounds and she gave up hope of being rescued. One, two, three! She pressed on the knee and brought her body up, slowly, so that Alchantar didn’t perceive the slight shaking in her joints; but the Wolof still enjoyed her struggle. Stalking his prey gave him the thrill of an early kill and he could already taste victory in the signs of her defeat and so he moved forth, making her weaker and succumb to him. He looked for her eyes; those pebbles shinning so dauntingly from under the helmet. They had been haunting him and for some reason it was easy for him to admit it now that she was so close to him, so in reach. But his grin froze when their eyes finally met. That glow was not there; her eyes were different, they were brighter yet faded. They betrayed fear, moving restlessly to then stop on him in expectation; like a cornered animal. If there was something Leora never did was to avoid his eyes; it was that boldness in her that had allured him. But now she glissaded away from him, sporadically, frightfully as if she took her time observing him, learning his moves, guessing his next attack. Alchantar's eyes narrowed watching the girl move around him slowly, knees bent a little, sword up as if she was taking a stand, but not to attack, just to defend herself and the Wolof became even more incredulous of her attitude. Maybe the rejection at the Ammerman court had demoralized her. They have taken that glow away from you, Leora! What a shame! He grinned again. He would fight her and reignite that spark in her and turn her back into the leader she had proven herself to be.
Nesrin barely had the time to see it coming when Alchantar's sword dropped on her swiftly almost sending her back to the ground. She rejected the initial attack and fled to the side, trying to catch him off guard. Her sword rushed down to the back of his knees but the fire in the Wolof leader grew stronger and he jumped above the blade rising in the sun and she found herself on her knees again when her sword bit the dirt. She pulled desperate to free it when his leg stepped on the metal forcing the handle out of her hand. Nesrin looked at the sword stuck under Alchantar's foot and she didn't dare look him in the eye; in the distance she glanced at a familiar face fighting his way through the enemy. Laitham's forehead was sweaty and dirty, but his arm was restless. Her heart kicked in with hope but before she could even grip on it, Alchantar grabbed her from behind the neck forcing her eyes into his. She felt her neck crack from the pressure and she tried to get up to ease the pain but the Wolof pulled harder almost dragging her up to him while still half hanging on the ground. His face was so close she could not refuse his regard and from beneath the helmet her eyes stared into his and she prayed a wordless prayer.
Alchantar looked at her and it seemed to him he was looking at a child. Now that his body sheltered her face from the sun he could clearly see the green gaze in her eyes and he remained hypnotized with it for a moment. He buried his sword in the moist soil bringing his hand about to touch the side of her helmet. Her eyes remained fixed into his and he took a moment to search more into that forest depth. It was in his nature to deceive weather through words or actions; so deceit was something he recognized easily. The helmet came off her head gently releasing the long copper hair and Alchantar's jaw trembled slightly to the sight. His grip loosened up; he took a step back looking at her. White skin stained by bloody mud, heavy eyelids shadowing the lightest green, thin eyebrows burdened by sweat. She looked tiny in that armor, just like her, but that was not Leora. His eyes left her, traveling above and around the men fighting across the field. All of this was in vain. His eyes searched for her, as he did not want to believe he had been deceived for the second time. One time was a lesson, two times was an insult and he was taking it personally. He saw Laitham putting another of his men down. He then returned to her and it felt as if his eyes had all of a sudden grown in weight for it hurt to roll them in the eye sockets. Sounds faded, it was just him standing there in that windless afternoon – and her, kneeled and defenseless, a stranger to his eyes; a decoy. He could have beheaded her right there, on the spot but his hand remained numb as the story behind this entire plan unfolded before his eyes. Kane! In a moment of realization, he knew he had to be somewhere else. He looked at Nesrin again chuckling cockily and the sound of it chocked his early attempt to comfort himself for he knew he had been tricked yet again. He turned around and left without calling upon his generals; without even retrieving his sword. I'll kill you all, I'll kill you all! But later. The words echoed in his head; still his body was inert responding to his inner anger for it was set to do one thing and one thing alone from that moment; and that was to ride like spreading fire and warn Kane before it was too late.
"My Lord! My Lord!" His general ran after him but he was ignored. "My Lord, your sword! The men!" But Alchantar kept walking among the soldiers shoving fists wherever the path was not open moving untouched among the gnashing weapons. The general followed him closely by, fighting his way behind him, struggling to keep up the pace and not die in the process.
"Call them back. Leave everything behind. We ride to Catal Huyak. Now!"
His general stopped as if struck by lightening. He wasn't sure he understood well but he couldn't ask Alchantar again for he had already disappeared into the crowd. In a glimpse, he saw the girl kneeling in the middle of the men; he saw his king's sword and rushed to get it. He almost stumbled before Nesrin grabbing the precious weapon. She watched him carefully without caring. Everything had been lost. The only thing he had asked of her was to hold on to their plan for as much as possible. A moment later she was lost without him; her identity betrayed after just a moment of struggle. Tears washed clean traces down her dirty cheeks and things blurred before her eyes. A growl behind her and Alchantar's general fell back with a sudden attack. Laitham jumped her above forcing the Wolof general more and more into retreat. But they were all retreating. Laitham looked around quickly; there was no trace of the Wolof. His eyes fell on Ortezza who had just fired his last arrow into a fleeing Wolof. His eyes were asking the same unspoken question. Laitham saw them run leaving weapons and wounded behind; even the general ran. And then it became all too clear; he turned around slowly and saw her staring blankly, with numb hands and loose copper strands stuck to her face. Nesrin, oh Nesrin, what have you done!
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"Ah!" she hit him with all her might, so hard she did not know she had it in her. Her cry made her men push harder into the enemy lines. But there were no lines; the Dhanwars fought like loose rebels, unorganized, yet deadly. She was blinded; they were everywhere and she feared she might strike on of their own cutting back and forth like a mad woman. Her legs were so tense they hurt and she had curled her toes so hard in the leather wrappings, they had turned numb. But her arm continued to fly above the horse's crest, making her way further into the heart of the Dhanwars army. One of them came rushing from the side and she couldn't free her foot from the saddle fast enough to hit him; he grabbed on her leg and tried to pull her off the horse. In her struggle to cling on to the reins she kicked back with her head breaking the man's eyebrow with her helmet; it gave her just enough time to get back on the saddle and sent her foot right in the face. The soldier lost balance and fell back a step, not nearly enough for her to regain her strength. It was too hot and the armor weighed heavily on her tiny body. But she was so scared her only thought was to survive and nothing else mattered. The man attacked again, so viciously she had to improvise something to bring him down. She turned her sword around and sent the handle flying in between his eyes. She expected that to be the final blow, but the Dhanwar just shook his head then looked at her as if she had finally stirred his interest in the fight. He grabbed her with both hands and threw her off the horse as if she weighed nothing. She rolled in the dirt and when she stopped she coughed the sand out trying to clear her nose and eyes from the dust. She barely turned her head around when his foot slammed in her stomach sending her across the small dunes, bouncing like a ball. She landed face up, the sun in her eyes, no air in her lungs. It was impossible to breathe. Her body twisted suffocating under the force of the blow. Her hand released the sword, then clenched again, in spasms. A shadow above her and she felt lifted off the ground.
"My Lady! My Lady, breathe!"
Water! Water on her face! Water in her mouth! She choked again and almost burst into tears thinking she'd been salvaged from certain death. A hand rubbed down her eyes clearing her vision but before she could open them, her guardian angel was taken away from her. She fell back into the sand hearing the man cry. Two blunt sounds of an ax followed planted into a body and then the morbid gush of a dieing man. She turned her head around and cracked her eyes open to see her general dead at the feet of the same Dhanwar she had tried to kill. Her eyes focused difficultly and in the sparkling sand she saw the handle of her sword. She stretched until her shoulder ached and her breath died out again, but she got it, but by that time the soldier had set his eyes on her again. She turned to the side, so slowly, she was sure she would feel his blade between her ribs before she could even get on one knee, but she turned nonetheless. She came on all four, looking down at the sand beneath her, breathing regularly to keep the blood pumping in her hot temples. Why isn't he coming? Why isn't he striking? She didn't bother look; she pushed her body up and from where she stood and saw him waiting for her. She would have smiled if she could've; but her face was numb, her skin scratched, her eyes red and swollen from the sand. She supported her weight on the sword and stood up, dragging the blade enough to bring it before her. She hesitated for a moment; it was hard keeping steady and she knew she needed her balance back. So she dug slowly with her feet in the sand, burying her soles inside for stability. Now she was ready. I must do this right! Must do… Her mind spoke for her lips were too bloody and chapped. She felt the sweet taste of blood in her mouth; her fingers curled around the handle of the sword and all of her energy, all of her strength flowed in those arms, preparing her for what would be her salvation or her doom.
Kane saw the soldier run straight at him but before reaching any closer his dagger found a resting place in the middle of the man’s forehead. Damor bent and removed it gently, as if he was taking an ax out of a log. He cleaned the blade on his furs and looked unsatisfied with having dishonored the blade of his ancestors on such unworthy prey. Another Ammerman sneaked on him from the side and he elbowed him to the ground before stepping on his throat. He heard the neck crack; the man's eyes remained fixed on him and Kane observed him silently knowing the spirit had left the body. He was a silent warrior; he did not care to frighten the enemy through his cries of war and display of savageness. His fame preceded him. He looked above the masses looking for her; she should have been easy to spot. They had told her she was slender and rather withdrawn. Fearful and demented, an easy prey as the Wolof said. His eyes searched again. One of his men had probably gotten to her first. He sneered unhappily; he wished he had talked to her first. He had wished for that, but she gave him no chance with her foolish attack. Mindless girl! His fist found its way under the chin of a soldier crushing his tongue in between the teeth and the man yelled in pain, his mouth pouring with blood. From behind, another Dhanwar ended his misery and Damor saw the Ammerman fall to his feet. Then his man bowed to him before continuing his killing spree. Something was wrong; these people didn't seem to fight or maybe they hadn't fought in so long they had forgotten how it's done. They were weak and scared. Kane took another look around and saw his men cutting through the Ammerman ranks. And then, from the top of his eyes, as he stood there, in the middle of it all, he saw him. It was impossible not to notice that tiny skinny man holding such a big sword as if it were too heavy to even lift, less fight with it and it caught his attention. His eyes narrowed observing the little man as he took one insecure step at a time, with his much taller Dhanwar chasing his every move. But it didn't take long for his man to get bored and attack and Kane turned away convinced the young Ammerman couldn't survive the ambush. But before he could part his eyes from him entirely, his soldier stopped abruptly with a cry that made Kane stop in turn. He looked back and saw the massive warrior bent on top of the tiny Ammerman. And then with a push, his Dhanwar rolled in the sand with a small knife rooted deeply in his stomach. The Ammerman crawled from underneath his dead body and soon a few others came to help him up. The way they cared for him, so gently… Unknowingly, Kane walked towards them and his men built a path for him through the battle field.
"My Lady, are you alright!" But she felt too sick to speak. She had felt the warm blood of that man bathe her hand and now it made her want to puke. She could fight, but she could not kill. It wasn't right. It enraged her and she pushed them away grabbing her sword; it slipped from her wet hand, but anger gave her strength. She took a few steps, pushing down on the moving sand when she saw a path opening among the men. It looked as if the waters of the sea had split in two allowing him to pass and she stood her ground watching him approach her. She did not need to ask for she knew who he was and all of her earlier courage melted in the early afternoon sun. Her eyes opened wide, her hand felt weak for the first time. She was grateful her helmet was still on. She glanced at his big hands and they looked like weapons to her. Her breathing became agitated again with all the men watching them silently; Dhanwars and Ammermans alike knew this moment would decide the fate of the war for their leaders were about to cross blades.
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"There was nothing she could do!"
"Do not defend her!" Laitham yelled and Ortezza was too tired to put more strength in his words and convince his friend no one was to blame for their short lived mission.
"It will take Alchantar at least a day to get to Catal Huyak! Much can happen in a day!"
"He left everything behind Ortezza! His weapons, his supplies, his wounded and his dead! Even his infantry! His infantry Ortezza! We both know what that means! He wants to travel light and get there before sunset! And the day has just begun!" Laitham didn't seem to find his peace pacing nervously through the throne hall.
"He will not make it that early! Unless he is favored by the Gods, the sun will set before he arrives to Catal Huyak." Ortezza paused on a short breath considering other options. "Maybe there is more to his plan than we know. Not even he can afford leaving troops behind! He needs them to fight!"
"He doesn't need his men in Catal Huyak! He never did, that's why Kane's there!" Laitham finally sat down in a chair, hiding his face away in his dirty palms. His shoulder ached and he pressed down on it for a moment. When he looked again his palm was bloody; he closed his eyes cursing the moment when he had not been careful.
"Have that taken care of and rest for the night. What is done is done and all we can do now is wait." Ortezza didn't look at him and he didn't sound worried. He was too tired for that as well. But when Laitham continued to sit so he called for one of the girls rushing to bring more water from the other room.
"Girl! Girl!" She came fast and bowed before him looking scared. There was blood on her apron and even though she had rolled up her sleeves they were soaked in blood as well. It gave him a bitter taste in his mouth. "Take him! Give him a bath! He is wounded!"
"I don't need –"
"You order me around all the time! So keep quiet and go!" Ortezza put his last efforts into demanding obedience from his long time brother in arms. "I don't want to wait alone, brother." They shared a regard for a moment and Laitham approved of his request, getting up slowly to follow the girl. Ortezza sighed and for the first time that morning it felt like he had actually breathed air and not fire.
She looked at her hands and they were shaking. They were swollen and the veins protruded from under the pale skin, looking like pulsating blue rivers and she applied a little pressure and watched them swell. She sank her hands in the cold water and even though it soothed her, the guilt inside took that small happiness away. She was naked waste up, with her tunic hanging from her hips. She glimpsed at her feet. They were dirty and swollen like her hands. Bloody... Her feet were bloody, her hands, her face. The water in the vessel was bloody and the small red flowers painted on the white enamel were mingling colors with the remains of blood. Her eyes darkened with tears again. She rushed down and threw cold water on her face, again and again until it stung her eyes. She looked out of the window and as the sound of the water rested in the vessel she could hear the cries in the market. The cries of the widows, mothers and wives of those left behind; dead. Water dripped from her chin down between her breasts, marking sinuous paths through the dirt settled on her neck and chest, until it reached her waist, being sucked hungrily by the dry material. The door opened behind her.
He was half naked, but when she glimpsed at him her eyes could only care for the bandage on his shoulder. Laitham eyed her standing there, with her back at him and couldn't help looking at her bruises. Against her white skin, the blows were violent like she had been beaten but he could not feel mercy for her right now; I must not… He stepped hard, purposefully to attract her attention, but she barely glanced at him.
"A little, that's all I've asked for! A little time! Not for her, not for us, but for you!" he cried his frustration and Nesrin startled with the unexpected rise in his tone. "For you and Dene!"
She wanted to turn around and face him. Somehow she did not care about her nudity anymore; she cared for what he had to say, about what she was truly feeling. If courage hadn’t helped her reveal her thoughts, then perhaps anger would.
"Why for me and Dene! This is not our war! I helped you! You asked and I helped you! What more do you want from me!"
"You selfish –" but he did not bring himself to finish the sentence; the anger and the anguish of the day took the better of him. He grabbed her by the elbows turning her around to face him. But he did not expect her to be just as angry as him. They breathed in silence like two animals ready to jump at each other's throats.
"I don't owe you anything! I did not oblige you to take me in the morning you found me!"
"You snake of a woman! What would you have done in my place?" and his voice never succumbed facing her fierce attempts to attack.
"Not send someone whom I've just rescued into a ragging war! A war I don't even understand!" she sobbed quickly hating herself for such a display of weakness. She had forgotten all about her breasts bouncing slowly with each jolt of her body; their eyes were so focused on each other that neither of them seemed interested in the details of their nakedness. "I'm so small, I don't even matter for your cause!" and she bit on the words bitterly, feeling like all of her dreams and hopes for a peaceful future had been burnt to ashes. Her eyes filled with tears again and it hit deep inside him. He groaned pushing her away. It angered her even more. Now he was mild; now he was cruel. Now he called for her, now he pushed her away. No man can ever treat me this way again! All of you! You're all the same! And those long awaited tears finally found their way down her cheeks. She rushed to him pushing him against the table and he didn't see it coming. She crushed her tiny body against him and for the first time since he had entered the room he acknowledged her; the girl, copper hair and plump lips, the full breasts now pressing against his chest and he fired up with a different feeling. She held tight with her hands around his waist, too small to reach up to his lips without him bending a little. But she struggled and she placed a short heavily breathed kiss on his collar bone.
"I know this is what you want! What you really want!" Laitham blinked short and fast, her touch and her closeness fogging his mind. "No need to pretend with all false interest in my well fare and that of my brother. If I were rich, if I had a name for myself, then I would have let you name your price. For I know nothing comes for free. But as I have nothing –" and she stopped to helplessly and unsuccessfully prevent another flow of tears flood her face "- this is the only price I can pay. So take it. You've been thinking about it ever since the day I came here." And by the time she finished she sounded bitter, yet her spirit remained undeterred. She knew he had higher hopes, she knew he had asked her for more, but she couldn't do it. She had fallen before Alchantar too soon, their secret revealed too fast and now she couldn't undo what had been done. But she had to secure her brother's safety. She hadn't learnt much from her father, but one thing had become clear to her after he had forced her to work in that brothel of his. The anger of men could always be melted by the pleasure in their groin. She closed her eyes with renewed disgust born out of memories that had never left her. Her lips fell on his chest again, but somehow the taste of his skin, the smell of his body, cold and fresh made her struggle with her disgust. It frustrated her that she couldn't feel disgusted by him; she had to if she wanted to subdue him this way. If she wasn't disgusted, then what else could she be? She didn't know of any other feelings for men, she had never felt differently. Her thoughts roamed but so did her lips and before she could realize it she had gone from his shoulder to his neck and tip-toed to reach under his chin and Laitham continued to remain frozen. His lips had gone dry; his arms remained numb on the side of his body and all he could feel was an annoying pulsation pooling in his groin and her hot small kisses on his right shoulder. His locked his jaws; he couldn't even understand her. What was she trying to do, what could he do… He looked at her and for one second their eyes met just before he decided to kiss her and he stopped breathing feeling that mouth on his again. It got him dizzy; it got her dizzy.
Nesrin pulled back, tortured by this new feeling she did not comprehend. She was deceived by her own doing. It was turning against her, but it was too late. Laitham's arms had now come to life encircling her waist. Her eyes fell to his wounded shoulder and unknowingly she placed a soft kiss next to the bandage, staring at the wound; she was afraid to move now. Reality had rained down on her and she felt there was no way out of her foolish plan. His eyes were burning her temples and she looked at him and just as he had done with her, they shared one last look before she rushed to take his mouth with hers so forcefully that he awarded her with a deep groan in his throat. Laitham took over forcing her lips open, sinking his tongue inside and he almost lifted her off the ground, embracing her closer and she gripped on his shoulders involuntarily. His head fell to the side suddenly, changing angle and she barely had the time to breathe before he kissed her again. No, no, no! She looked for anchorage somewhere on his body to force her way out of his imprisoning embrace, but there was nothing; nothing that she could touch and that wouldn't call her back to him. She struggled, deafened by the drums of her heart, baffled by her own reaction to his kisses, yet, incredibly so, Laitham released her.
He stared at her as if they were seeing each other for the first time and she took a step back, ready to run. She dug in his eyes searching for that one thing that would reveal the liar, the man inside him that wanted to harm her. But all she saw was a man reaching out for her; just reaching out for her and she didn't know what that meant. She saw him stretch his hand towards her but she didn't go for it; instead she pulled another step back. And the closer he came, the further away she stepped from him.
"Nesrin…" Her lips parted, her eyes widened and more tears dropped on her pale skin. His voice resounded in her head clear and hoarse, like in her dream, calling for her and it uprooted her for a moment from the surrounding reality. But it gave him enough time to grab her and force her back into his arms. She struggled like a caged animal but Laitham didn't let go. She scratched him, she groaned, she bit, she moaned. She cried. But he wrestled her on the bed, falling on top of her kicking and biting like a wild animal and her untamed raged concerned him. She yelled one last time, giving all she could and it would have terrified him if it hadn't been for the tears flowing relentlessly in her hair. She stopped; sobbing, weakened, defeated, with her eyes in his and she was pleading for something she herself did not fully apprehend. But she was pleading; maybe she just wished he proved her to be a different man, one that would make a difference in her young wretched life. Laitham watched her unfold before his eyes and whatever grudge he held against her was now a matter of the past. What do you want from me? Her breathing soothed his face and he felt her nails sliding down his sweaty back. He discovered his fingers curled in her hair and perceived her slight movement underneath him; his eyes became eager and he slid his hand on the side of her breast down between their bodies and she closed her eyes turning her head around. They all did the same, so now she waited for him to take her. It's what you wanted, isn't it? Dene will be safe… But the thought of her brother's safety didn't mend the pain of him proving to be like all others. And she waited for the inevitable; and she waited, with her eyes shut tightly, but it never came. She opened them again to look at him and he was looking at her, waiting as well. And when they finally met, he bent to kiss her, so gently, so unexpectedly loving that it took her breath away. His hands came to life, massaging every tiny portion of her skin, up her ribs to her breasts and he pushed his body to the side to reach them faster. His lips never left hers, his tongue took the air from her and she locked her arms around his neck not knowing what to do, but feeling it was right and he took advantage pulling her even closer. His knee came in between hers, parting them enough to push her body up his and he trailed down her neck, spreading fire underneath her skin, until he sheltered her breasts in the cups of his hands, prisoners to his hungry mouth. He let his tongue roam around the plentiful globe, one at a time, circling the dark nipples who dared him shamelessly and he darted for them eagerly. She tasted like salt and dirt, sweet and spicy and it stirred a twirl of emotions in his stomach. Nesrin freed him for her grip, her hands weak and feverish when he sent her to a world of sensations she had never known. He toyed with the sensitive globes in ways she had not even begun to conceive and she arched beneath him. It shamed her to crown his name and she could not admit the betrayal of her own body, but it was beyond her to control it. She lifted her head in an attempt to free herself but the image of him feeding on her breasts cost her that will and she fell back on the sheets hating herself for being so weak.
Laitham saw her give in and he didn't know whether to rejoice his victory or leave her before it was too late. Too late for what? He stopped for a moment, truly not knowing what to make of this girl. The sight of her, so beautiful, so fragile, lying there, for him to have, contorted his mind and he gave in to the urge of possessing her. As he struggled with his pants he felt guilty for doing this. She was right, it was what he had wanted all along; but it was more than that, it was… his hand slipped beneath freeing her core from the material caught in between their bodies, sliding his fingers up her cleft intentionally, not resisting the desire to feel her ready for him. And it scorched his hand, so moist, so hot; he felt it, her sensitive spot and he touched her, massaging it gently. Nesrin responded with an invitation that made him fall and he buried his face in the crook of her neck groaning with unbearable desire. He couldn't wait anymore. He brought her legs further apart, enough for him to fit in between them and before she could follow his movement he fell inside her, slowly at first, probing her, until she molded around him entirely and when he reached her limits she choked with a cry she did not want to voice. He caught her arching body in his embrace, letting his weight drop on her and pushed harder inside her hips. His teeth bit in her flesh and she paid him back leaving long fiery marks on his back, the adrenaline of the early fight and the pain of their wounds making the pushing their want to uncontrollable boundaries. He rocked harder and with each thrust she felt her skin melt and her cheeks burst into fire with the blood was boiling inside. He cut through her deep, in circles, or straight, to her very end, making her moan; but she did not want to give him that pleasure yet. She did not trust him entirely; she did not trust herself entirely with this man. But he wanted more; he wanted it all. He grabbed on the covers for support and struck inside her faster and harder, vengeful for not hearing her crown his name and their love making. She felt it; she felt his annoyance and wanted to sooth it the best way she knew how. She forced his head up and kissed him with all her might causing him to soften his mad thrusts in her. And Laitham kissed her back; he kissed her tenderly but kept the rhythm of his hips against her sweet plea and her embraces intensified, trying to convince him to slow down. Instead he sank his tongue in her ear, biting on her lobe and she pushed him away, broken with her unsuccessful attempt to calm his assaults. He claimed her body possessively, one thrust at a time, so deep that a deaf pain resounded in her womb and she gripped on his buttocks trying to warn him. He pushed her knees up, coming down on her slower, but just as deep and soon the pain was gone but the pleasure striking inside her drained her every fiber. She cried muffled, hanging from his shoulders and he was remotely satisfied to hear this last stance of her defense fall as he pushed inside her one last time before finding his own release. It exhausted him and he fell to her side, weakened and trembling.
Nesrin stared at the ceiling waiting for her body to regain from the shock of this incredible love making. Love making. She had never made love to a man before and Laitham had been harsh on her, had possessed her roughly, without uttering one good word to her. Yet it felt like love making and she could tell, because it had never happened to her before. He looked at her as she lay motionless at his side; she was shivering slightly, covered in a thin layer of sweat. He put his arm underneath her and tried rolling her to him but she opposed him. His lips narrowed annoyed with her relentless stubbornness. He forced her to his chest and held her tight until she gave in. Her heart was beating frantically and he followed its rhythm until it calmed down under the gentleness of his caress. He could finally sigh in relief; he had forgotten all about the battle. All about Leora. Leora… But the name didn't startle him anymore. He straightened his hold on Nesrin's body, locking his hands around her. He thought it would be easier now, that this had happened. But he found himself staring at the ceiling, with her eyelashes flickering against his skin and other than not letting go of her, he still didn't know what to do with this girl.
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She looked at him from behind the helmet and in her head, searched crazily for Jairo's words. But they seemed meaningless now. The man must've forgotten how big Kane was, how menacing and cruel he looked. She breathed in and out and it seemed her breathing covered the sounds of the world. Was he so still and silent that she could only hear herself pace? Kane seemed indifferent to her menacing pose. He had not moved an inch since coming before her, while she looked like a caged lion. She breathed again; what are you waiting for?
Kane looked at this young man. It was almost amusing how tiny he was without the armor; he was probably nothing more than a sack of bones. He smiled keeping his eyes on the small creature circling him. The Ammerman's eyes moved slightly, passing him by and he realized he was looking at the crowd behind them. He glanced over his shoulder and saw the soldiers had stopped fighting to watch them. It cannot be! He turned towards the challenger again, this time with renewed interest. Samara?
He’s coming! He took a step towards her. Leora's heart startled violently, almost draining her chest of blood and it echoed in her already bruised knees. Her breathing became a necessity to keep her focused. Attack damn you! Attack me now! Her heart could only take this much pressure. She was ready now. Come on!
Kane sneered, caressing his beard, slowly and observantly, taking another step closer to his victim. Could it be that Samara Ammerman had just killed one of his men, the tiny mild woman Alchantar had told him about; the fragile princess who had barely walked outside her city walls, a murderer? And one foolish enough to address him! He was challenged. No woman had ever challenged him; he found it hilarious. But he would indulge her; after all he felt pleased to find her alive. Perhaps once her little display of manhood was over they could have a word and settle matters in a less violent way. He hated being in the sun for too long, especially for no apparent reason. He wanted to call her name, but he thought it would scare her. Women had fought him before; like desperate cornered animals looking for an escape from being captured. But never a princess armed and wounded. He stopped, signaling her to come for him. She stopped looking at him as if she did not understand. Kane hated the sun blinding him; he wished for a breeze of wind, anything to help him distinguish her features.
Leora looked at him standing tall and proud before her. He had signaled her to attack. I must be mad! She screeched her teeth but brought her sword up and in a second she sprang for him. She stopped abruptly right before him sending her blade straight in his face. He flinched to the side and she missed. She regained position fast, trying again, but again, she missed. She took a deep breath striking one more time. She shouldn't give him time to attack back. She went back and forth and about him failing in all her attempts until the sword started weighing heavily in her tired hands. He annoyed her with his arrogance. He hadn't even pulled his sword out. She turned with her back at him leveling the sword with following the smoothness of the blade, and then she weighed the force in her arms. One last breath and she span on her heal sending her blade through the air aiming at his throat. He bent before it could reach him, spinning underneath her; he hit her across the legs and she lost balance falling on her back and she was thankful for the sand softening her fall. She scrambled to get up and he was waiting for her; same smile, but maybe less arrogant.
Kane brushed away the sand on his palms looking at her pushing the helmet back to clear her vision. She may have been small but she was definitely trying. He had not expected it; nevertheless, the girl must have not weighed her odds evenly if she ordered the attack against him without even speaking to him first. Seasoned leaders would have known better; but she was young. His thoughts were interrupted when she rushed her blade in his face again; he stepped to the side wondering if no one had told her never to take on someone his size. A little more of his patience and then he would put an end to this game.
Her breathing in her head was all she heard and that smile on his face was all her eyes could see. She was going to prove herself; none of her struggle and Jairo's fading away would be in vain. She cried her frustration out and sped towards him one last time; and she hit and she bent, and she span and she hit again. Kane anticipated all of her moves, avoiding her blade with each strike with purposeful predator skills.
He almost felt like taking his sword out; she was a little pest this woman. She had to be taught a lesson before her own men. She tried again and when she left her guard unprotected he sent his fist right in her face. She flew steps away from him, on her back; motionless. An unexpected gust of wind rushed through his hair and he could hear the flags flutter across the battle field that had now grown unbelievably quiet. He looked at her; she tried to get up; it took her a while, but she only managed to sit, to then fall back again. Half of her face was numb and she wondered whether she still had all her teeth. She spit blood.
He shadowed her with his imposing stature but in a way she was grateful for the shade. Kane looked down at her not really knowing what to do. He looked at his men wanting to call them to lift her up and take her to his tent. Then looked at her again thinking how little dignifying that would be for her. After all, she had fought him or at least she had tried. He bent himself, on one knee and his men fretted at the sight. He pushed the helmet off her head forcing her to sit then brought her chin up. Her chestnut hair was a tangled mess and he wished for that wind to blow again. Touching her face was too much for him; she looked so puny, so dirty and worn out, that touching her felt like a sign of weakness on his part. But nothing happened; the Gods did not wish to grant him this small favor and the wind never returned. He used his index finger to clear her face away expecting to see her eyes bowing to him. Instead, charcoal pebbles burnt vividly from underneath the brown locks, pinning him in place, right where he stood and his fingertip remained frozen on her cheek. She watched him with daring tired eyes and his initial theory that she could have been foolish to act irrationally, lost value. Perhaps this was part of her plan. He focused his attention around to grasp on any possible ambush; he groaned deep inside. The men remained still, watching them. He looked at her again but there was no sign of her fearing him. She stared at him in a way no woman in his tribe would ever dare. Her nose was bleeding; her lips were chapped and swollen and blood was dripping from the corner of her mouth. Her eye would soon swell as well, but she would not release him from her sight. He got up, shadowing her again. It was hard for her to follow him now; she was exhausted and he was so tall and moved so fast she lost track of his features. But those green eyes of his haunted her, darkened by the thick eyebrows as they were. The scar on his cheek had captivated her attention and against all odds, there was something in this man, that from afar she had not seen; a peace so deep like the valleys in his eyes, and somehow she did not feel frightened. I have gone mad…
She watched him stepping away from her and wondered what that meant. Was it over or was this just her sentence to death that he didn't utter it out loud? Through the fog of her own thoughts she saw two of his men approach her. Before she could do anything, they swept her off her feet carrying her across the battle field and towards his tent. She wished she could scream; but as her head fell back, all cries got stuck in her throat and her eyes closed baring the image of her men dropping their weapons to the ground.
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She opened her eyes to semi-darkness and weather it was the night or just the swelling of her eye that made it so hard for her to see, but it took her a while before clearing her foggy eyes. She turned her head slightly and it fell to the side heavily; it was a rock hanging from her neck, pulling on her weakened shoulders. She felt each tendon, each muscle stretch in her neck and she thought that moving her head back would take all of her strength, so she didn't even try. She could see fires burning outside; the light penetrated in playful shadows through the tarp. It flickered against golden vessels and weapons spread across the tent. She couldn't see much of anything else. She thought to get up, but when she succeeded in moving just her fingers she knew it was going to be a struggle. She leaned to the side, trying to roll over, thinking afterwards she could crawl her way up, but even that was an inhuman effort. She fell back with sweaty eyebrows and tears in her eyes. She was drained; her body had become the tomb of her soul and did not allow her to roam free outside this place she was in. Her chest moved up and down slowly and she felt grateful for it. She was alive, but other than that she knew nothing, she remembered nothing. The bright light of the early afternoon that day came to her mind, the slippery image of the Ammermans dropping their weapons. That was all she remembered. The tarp flapped with a gust of wind and it cooled her burning body; her hands began to shake; she was cold with a fever.
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Keion Fairclaw watched Jairo Goldhawk put on his best clothes, pulling the cape a bit more on his shoulders, straightening the massive golden chain hanging from his tired fragile neck. It had been a while since he'd seen his old friend so nervous. He wished to comfort him, like he always did. Throughout their many years together at the court he had been the optimistic one, trying to make a too down to earth Jairo take things a little lighter. But whatever he could say at this time, it would have been a lie so he did not insist. Instead he put his hand on Sir Goldhawk's shoulder to ease his anguish and the gesture sufficed to make the old man stop looking like a frightened swallow facing winter time. Kane entered the tent followed by few of his generals, the only ones allowed to sit at his side during such meetings. They were there to observe and give word to the Council that Kane kept his word and respected their decision. Yet tonight, he would use that free will he had reminded the elders of and decide for himself. He looked at the two Ammerman nobles. He knew little about the Magister, but when his eyes fell on Sir Goldhawk he recognized a friend and honest man.
Jairo bowed before the Dhanwar leader as did Keion. But he did not expect Kane's hand on his shoulder, helping him up, yet again, like many years before.
"It has been a while, Sir Goldhawk."
"It has been indeed, my Lord." Against all odds, the war that had brought them together and the many years that had passed in between, the young chieftain and the Royal Councilor still shared much respect towards each other.
"Sit." He left them to take his seat across the tent and his men sat at his side, forming a circle. Eerie silence; only the deaf smoldering of the flames in the torches around the tent disturbed the air. Kane spoke first. "I wish we had done this earlier, without having to waste each other's time."
"You are right, Kane."
But Damor didn't seem happy with just that; Jairo had never been limited in his responses but now it seemed that his wits had dried and his guts had shrunk, like cut grass left to die in the sun. He rested his face in his palm, sliding on a side comfortably, waiting for more from Jairo. The Ammerman knew he had to do better than this if he wanted any sort of understanding with him. But Jairo took his time and Damor's eyes fell on him, worryingly. His green gaze gave way to suspicion, his eyebrows frowned; still waiting.
Goldhawk looked at him and he could guess from the way he frowned that Kane was observing him closely. It was too late and utterly useless to find excuses for Leora’s actions earlier in the day. Invoking a misunderstanding wouldn't have changed the facts for the chieftain. He had been attacked and dragged into a battle that could have been avoided. Explaining what had been done would have been more of a loss of time for him still, so he had to approach matters differently.
"I know why you are here." Jairo spoke calmly and he was grateful his voice didn't screech like it had been lately. Kane's eyes sparkled, with a tiny raise of his eyebrow and a flicker of a smile in the corner of his lips. But he remained silent. "And you have every right to demand it from us. The Throne of the Ammermans has lost its former glory, its pride and honor along with it. But with your guidance and advice, we can mend the tied that have been broken for both our people; as it should be."
"If I may my Lord, mighty Kane!" Jairo's face went pale, white as a sheet of paper. His hand shook and he placed it quickly on his knee, but remained with his eyes into Kane's, even though they had almost lost color when hearing Lorday's voice from behind him. Keion turned back at once almost hitting him with his staff, but he refrained in the last minute knowing he had to be careful and not attract more suspicion. If it hadn't been for the Council, they would have left this leach behind, but they were forced to take him to the Dhanwars camp. Keion looked at him in the most authoritarian way his magister face could depict; one wrong word from Lorday and Leora's cover could be turned to ashes. Jairo waited with his back at the young noble and his attitude forced Keion to follow his example leaving Lorday room to address Kane. And he didn't waste any time in doing so. "My lords, if we are to discuss peace, we should all be here then."
"We are all here." And for the first time Lorday felt incredibly small against the rough low voice coming from Kane's mouth. He was different than anyone he'd faced before.
"Our understanding my Lord, is that Alchantar Wolof had joined forces with you, in this… proceeding." He bowed his eyes quickly remembering his statute before Damor. It wasn't in his nature to bow, but he cared for his life so he stepped on his pride and did it.
"Your understanding does not concern me!" He straightened his position in the chair, bending forward to make sure the young Ammerman understood perfectly what he said. "We are all here." His eyes shifted back to Jairo and he disliked this weakness he saw in him.
"Continue, Sir Goldhawk."
"I believe it is you who should tell us what is on your mind. I dare to believe I know a little about you and from my scarce knowledge I reckon you would have not left to war without a plan in mind." Jairo kept his eyes bowed and Kane tried to catch a glimpse of them. Jairo was the kind of man he wanted to look him in the eye.
"No one would come unprepared to war."
"Yet very few come prepared for the aftermath." And Jairo finally granted him that regard he was waiting for. Kane sustained it for a little while and smiled. He knew what the old man was saying. People battled, spending nights to forge flawless military strategies, but they never considered what would happen after the battle was over. Not even plundering was easy, less asking for peace. But he did; he always planned everything ahead, from the moment he left his tribe to the moment he returned, otherwise his men and his riches would have been spent carelessly and perhaps in vain.
"What I want is simple. You must end your deceiving trading practices and give the tribes the freedom they need to buy their own supplies at the right price. Your location at the gates of the Northern Kingdoms does not empower you to take charge of trading. And if at least you had done better for yourselves. But while your nobles are feasting others are starving."
"I know my Lord."
"The loss of your King is not an excuse. Neither is your poor judgment as a Council."
"Unfortunately you are right in everything you say Kane. But you are also familiar to these traditions, for you must obey your own Council. The power does not lie with one man alone and thus one cannot change the course of things if he must fight against the tide."
"Do you stand alone in this struggle?" Kane waited looking at Jairo, and he turned his back towards Keion signaling the Damor that the Magister was his only other weapon of defense within the Ammerman nobility. Kane fell back in his chair, walking his hand slowly on his beard, observing both men silently. But with the corner of his eye, he saw Lorday fretting behind them.
"Yet you have gone against the Council's decisions many times Sir Goldhawk."
"At no avail. Little does it matter if one flower breaks through the snow; alone it will not bring spring upon the land."
"What of her?"
Jairo's heart kicked in and his cheeks blossomed. In Kane's eyes it meant more than words; Sir Goldhawk cared for Samara. He must have been her only shield against the nobility. His earlier thoughts invaded his mind again. Before the battle, when watching the high walls of Catal Huyak he had remembered the words of the Elders’ Council. He remembered Alchantar pleading. No! The tribes were left better off on their own, each with their duty to their land and the Gods. But the Wolof was right about one thing. No one else could help settle peace and administer these affairs better than the most powerful tribe among them all; his tribe. And at that moment he realized that having an alliance with the Ammerman throne not only would have helped him control their greed but also keep Alchantar and his men from plundering and scheming against the smaller tribes, like the Tekaras. But just a peace treaty could not grant him that much power.
Jairo looked at the Dhanwar leader and from his experience with Kane he knew something was going on. He never let anything transpire but now he seemed to lose track of their conversation for a moment, with his mind elsewhere. What's on your mind Kane?
"Samara does not find approbation within the council due to her fragile estate." Damor looked at him and his eyes demanded a clearer answer. "She is a kind soul left alone to face the consequences of her brother's deeds."
"I wasn't told she could fight."
"She does what she must when it comes to defending her people."
"All she defended was the interest of your nobility."
"It is the only thing she can do. She is just as impotent against them as we are, as long as she is not admitted to the throne."
"She has the right to that throne by blood and no one can deny it."
"Where you come from, you make the law. Where she was born the law is made by those who hold the power and it doesn't always follow the teachings of our ancestors. It bends and molds to the Council's needs until it breaks and she is now left to mend that rupture. She is not to blame."
"What is a princess worth if she can't take her throne?"
A silent moment fell between them and Lorday munched unhappily behind Keion but the Magister's staff in his foot stopped him from taking further action.
"Not much." And Jairo was overwhelmed with sadness; Samara had been like morning sunshine yet she was sacrificed for nothing and now Leora stood in peril because of the same wrong doings of a hand full of people who cared less for the well fare of others.
"I have a proposition to make you." Jairo's heart startled. This is it! "Leave us!"
His generals looked at him surprised, but Kane didn't seem impressed and showed them the way out. One of them opened his mouth to talk but Kane did not let him, otherwise he would have suffered the consequences of his short temper. He was about to do something he had not done before and he needed to be alone. "Now!" His generals got up and left one by one; Damor looked at Lorday and Keion was but happy to kick him out as well. The three of them were left and the tent seemed much bigger all of a sudden. Kane took his time and Jairo grew more anxious; his earlier feeling that the Damor was planning something was now strong in his heart.
"I will marry her." Keion fell back into his chair as if struck by the mighty Gods themselves and Jairo, against all his predicaments, locked his mouth so to keep his astonishment at bay and unheard. A long moment followed where none of them dared to break the silence, nor face each other, staring blankly. Jairo forced his mouth open.
"What about your Elders…?"
"It is my decision."
"Against the Council…" And finally their eyes met and they hovered around each other for another moment weighing the validity of his words. Not even the tribe leader held all the power in the heart of his tribe. He was bound by the decisions of his council and surely his council was not willing to receive a stranger as their Queen. Kane sensed their suspicion but was sympathetic to their concern. It concerned even him to step across the line he had never crossed before. But now he had warned the council that the final decision would be his.
"I do not trust Alchantar, he will never repent and he will never stop. It's in his nature to burn until the very flame in his chest burns out and dies. And he will scorch many in his path. And I do not trust your council with taking the right decision, nor do I trust that they will hurry to help the tribes. The times of Aiken III are long gone and with them the light of these lands. Mad he was, but sane in his decisions."
"What you ask…" Jairo laid back in his chair as well, considering Kane's words.
"Will help us all. Now that she'd have a king, Samara cannot be denied her throne and I will have enough power to keep the Wolofs at bay. And you would have enough authority to make your Council follow on the right path."
Keion got up pacing slowly, sticking his staff in the sand.
"This is insane!" He stopped abruptly realizing the insult but Damor only smiled amused. It had been long since he felt the thrill of a provocation and it reminded him of his years as a young boy about to do something forbidden and he enjoyed it. "Our Council would never accept a tribe leader on the throne, be the Dhanwars leader himself and your people would crucify her for being the stranger that took the hope away from all of your nobles into marrying their daughters with you! I have been brought up differently but I know how they hunt you for this! Being the wife of the chieftain is the most wanted prize in the realm of tribes!"
"That's why I'm going to have a say in it before they bring it upon me."
"But why her?" Keion's voice sounded a bit louder, but his worried eyes put Kane at ease. He turned to look at Jairo keeping his eyes closed, breathing in and out slowly.
"Jairo?" Was Damor Kane asking for his advice? He opened his eyes looking at the Dhanwar standing across from him. He searched in his eyes for signs of deceit, of mockery, but there was nothing.
"I find it hard to decide her fate without her even being here."
Kane fell back gently in his chair thoughtful. He had not expected that; he had not even remotely considered the option of asking weather she approved of his plans. It wasn't his way of doing things. But the disturbing truth was that the Ammerman princess had intrigued him and that lingering thought made words surface from his lips that surprised even him.
"Then go ask her." Keion span on his tired feet to look at Jairo getting up slowly.
"Stay here Fairclaw. I will take care of this." Keion fell back like an admonished child seating back down left to rummage in the sand with his foot. But he knew it had to be Jairo; he was the only one who could bring such news to her. He also knew she had no say in the matter, regardless how Jairo felt about the situation. As he walked out of the tent, Kane looked at him, and his eyes pierced through his burning temples.
"Sir Goldhawk… Ask her the right question."
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"My Lord, we should go around!" The general wiped his forehead looking at the tall trees ahead.
"It would take too long." His horse neighed kicking the dirt nervously; he shook his head and foamy sweat fell from under his crest. Alchantar had sacrificed too much to get here. He couldn't afford a detour now. Time was not on his side so he had to do his best with the day light he was left. "We go through."
"My Lord, these woods are dangerous!"
But Alchantar knew that. He looked again in the distance at the tall white bark trees. Lean poplar trees. So defenseless yet so traitorous in their innocent look. Behind this thin curtain the thick woodland of Thakur lay ahead of them and not many dared enter its domain. It was the country of rebels, outcasts obeying no one's rules but their own, apprentices of the dark magic and ruthless killers. Alchantar kept still in the saddle; he was no fool. He knew the dangers of crossing through Thakur, but he had no choice. The Ammermans had not forged such a plan just to fight Kane alone; there was more to it than he could presently acknowledge. A gust of wind passed above the trees and the forest sang to him; it was music to his tired ears. All the screaming the chatter, the loud voices of the past weeks had exhausted his senses. The horse finally rested for a while, picking on the green grass and Alchantar loosened his grip on the reins and his men could use a few peaceful moments. They had marched for days to get to Uyack then fought all morning and now rode like mad across the plains to reach Catal Huyak. Not much was said since they had left the Tekaras but despite their unanswered questions they continued to follow their leader.
"Gather the men. Have them stay in formation, alert and ready. With a little bit of luck we'll cross these woods easily." He turned towards his general smiling insecurely. "We don't really look like prey do we?" But in the back of his mind he wondered whether he was asking himself that question more than he did his general. He never got an answer back; secretly, they both knew the answer.
He looked back. He had about fifty men left, all cavalry. He was in sorrow for leaving his infantry behind. Dead meat as he called them, was hard to find these days and he had just wasted so much of it. Maybe some of his smaller generals had survived and would lead them to Catal Huyak. But with no clear orders, they might've as well just stood their ground and defend their makeshift camp in Uyack. He looked away and into the forest; he couldn't afford losing focus because of that now. He went first and the men followed; it seemed as if they were crossing the boundaries into a dream. Tall lean grass, slowly bending with the unheard wind, small forget-me-not flowers popping their tiny heads out of the green carpet to sip on the warmth of the sun. A spot of blue, here and there, caressing the feet of the white trees. The path curved a little and a few bloody poppies winked at them hiding among the saplings. Another gust of wind and the forest sang again; it soothed the hearing like the touch of satin, like the touch of rain drops in a torrid day. The men were silent; Thakur was a mermaid land. It crept into the hearts of the lonely and lost, into the souls of the tired, appeasing their sorrow, mending their wounds, until they reached its core where it swallowed them whole, spitting their bones on the other side. Very few wretched creatures dwelt here; murderers and scavengers.
The Wolofs rode quietly, exhausted from the day. A few drowsed in the saddle, leaning dangerously to the side. The wind brushed gently against their sweaty cheeks, soothing the burning flesh and here and there you'd hear a sigh of relief. Alchantar alone stood alert ahead of the small unit. He felt the armor rub hard against his shoulders, moist hair strands clinging on the back of his neck and he rolled his head slowly to get rid of the annoying pressure. It allured him as well, this peaceful and quiet place but he knew what lay ahead and he was not willing to give in to the temptation. His horse stepped lightly, lazily and the dirt softened the noise of his heavy hooves. The Wolof kept his eyes ahead, darting in the distance. The sun was playing among the choir of leaves, sparkling like gold powder in the small clearings among the poplar trees. Another gust of wind and the grass called for them with a silent yet appealing ripple, like green waves in a pond. His eyes closed gently, narrowing his vision; his head fell back slightly, but in a moment of awareness he forced them open again and changed posture in the saddle to help him stay awake. It had been a long march to Uyack and a frustrating morning. This forest was a patch on his bitter soul, but he couldn't…
His eyes closed; his fingers loosened on the reins and he felt carried away from all his worries. He felt the sweet caress of the sun on his cheeks, as if tiny children of the woods were playing on his face, tickling him with their little feet. A sudden choked sound and a disturbance in the trees. His eyes cracked open and colors mingled and danced before them: gold, green, grey, shadows. A short muffled cry and his body startled in the saddle. His eyes opened wide, but still he couldn't fully grasp at the surroundings. He looked up at the sky and somehow the joyful feeling of a piece of heaven was gone. The grey of the clouds was menacing the crown of the singing trees. He looked ahead of him and a whole was slowly opening through the woods, as if the wind had collapsed to the ground spinning uncontrollably taking everything along with it; leaves, flowers, the sun. Thakur was opening its mouth ready to suck them in. He looked back rapidly and saw his men just as baffled as he was, alert and afraid. But nothing happened; another silent moment with just the wind intensifying above and around their heads. A cracking sound, somewhere up in the trees; a black figure swinging down from above, so fast they couldn't anticipate it. It flew among them, swiping one of his men off the horse to carry him with it back up in the green bushes. They took their swords out, pointing them and the nothingness around. A moment later a desperate frightening scream in the distance and their brother fell to the ground, dead. Alchantar drew his sword as well and turned around to look at the vortex stretching before them. The black mouth of hell was lying ahead; there was no way back for the innocent poplar trees had sealed their fate, hiding the return path away.
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She trembled visibly. Her hands were cold, her forehead was sweaty and her right eye wasn't helping her much with acknowledging her location. It felt like she had a lump of meat on her eye and she gave up trying to open it. She thought she heard movement and opened her good eye to pierce through the thick darkness. She had been in and out of consciousness for the past hours. Maybe it was her imagination. With the corner of her eye she saw a light coming towards her and when it approached her enough she felt the warmth of the fire on her face. She followed it in the dark like sun flowers following the sun for she was so cold. Jairo's face contoured from behind the small flames, emerging from the darkness like a beautiful dream and her eyes came to life with the vision of him.
"Child!..." his voice was caught in between despair and mercy. He hurried to place the torch in the sand then disappeared into the darkness again and she listened to the sound of the torch for a little while. Suddenly he returned bringing her water and she sipped on it thirstily. He changed the bandage on her swollen eye and she jerked away feeling the chilling water on her face; he hurried to take her hands in his and he felt her tremble. Jairo sighed helpless and went to bring more blankets and animal skins to cover her until she was hidden almost completely underneath. He waited for her to warm a little, but her eyes remained just as anxious and he couldn’t find the proper way to sooth her.
"Jairo…" He sat at her side, holding her hand allowing the time to pass until he found the proper words to tell her the inevitable. "Are we lost?" Her almost dying voice didn't help did not make it easier either; she sounded so broken and hurt he couldn't bring himself to give her the news.
"Perhaps; but still together." And his hold on her hand grew stronger. "Never forget that." In the dim light of the torch her eyes succumbed to anguish even further. "The people are safe; for now." Leora continued to look at him with her good eye and it impressed him more than any word she could have uttered. Jairo chuckled. "You are such an incredible person Leora! You speak pages without a word. I hope you use that…" but he stopped abruptly knowing what he was about to say. A deep breath followed. "Kane has agreed to a truth. His reasons are just and his approach, dignifying. His terms are…good for our people. For your people." He plaid with her hand, massaging slowly her cold white fingers. "His terms… oh, Leora." He let go of her to rub hard on his forehead, shaking his head. "The only way to bring order to our kingdom and among the tribes is to marry him. He wants you to marry him."
"He wants Samara to marry him." And unexpectedly her voice had become stronger and harsher. Jairo looked at her and she seemed rather calm for the exceptional news he had brought her. But a moment later she left him to look in the darkness above her head. Tears rolled down her temples, hiding in her hair and Jairo mourned her pain. "I am nothing but seeds in the wind." Gods have mercy, I cannot endure her this way…"I was born here but fate carried me away to blossom in a different land. And now that I have returned to where my roots are, I am yet again taken against my will." Jairo watched her cry and for what was worth, she had the right to. Life had not been easy on her and if a week before she was a young girl living in a small world in the woods of Uyack, now she was the princess of a large kingdom that asked the outmost sacrifice of her just when she had grasped on her new life. He bent to kiss the back of her hand, holding it tight against his face and Leora looked at him compassionately.
"I am so proud of you Leora. You speak like a leader and you have not yet accepted being one. Only someone who truly understands their role in this world, speak the way you have. In your heart, you know what you must do."
"Do I? I wanted to go home and see to my life. Learn of my responsibilities; give a proper burial to my sister whom I lost before I could even truly find. And now this."
"Nothing is without solution Leora. And what it might seem like a living hell today, it might turn into a new chance tomorrow."
"A chance to what Jairo? You know him."
"Do you remember my words?" They locked regard for a moment and she shivered under the blankets, breathing the feverish hot air from inside her lungs. "You surprised me right now with how wisely you have accepted this conclusion. Much of what you will do and say, I know it will surprise him as well."
"I am doing this for my people, for I have started this and I must end it. But I am not here to surprise him or to please him, or to be of any importance in his life!" Suddenly she struggled with the weight of the many layers on top of her trying to free her hands and Jairo helped her. She sat, clanging on his shoulders and he came on his knees to offer her more support. The bandage on her eye fell again and Jairo looked at her purple bruise and loved her more for her courage.
"Leora! Think things through! Your sacrifice is honorable but it does not grant you your life!"
"This is a peace treaty and it shall be treated as such!"
"Marrying Damor Kane means exactly what it is: being his wife, being with him, at his side!" Jairo paused unsure whether to voice the rest of the obvious truth. "Having his children."
She shook involuntarily sinking her fingers in his shoulders as if that would have helped her stay at his side.
"Never! As soon as everything is resolved and all dangers to us and the tribes have been dealt with, we shall break this treaty apart. It's how it is Jairo, it's how it must be!" her voice sounded broken, shivering and barely breathing. But Jairo shook his head.
"He did not ask for an alliance Leora. He asked you to marry him." She wished she asked what would happen if she had said no, but the answer to that question had come to her the moment he told her about Kane's plans. She let go and Jairo barely had time to lay her back on the covers. She was shaking again and he covered her quickly. She waited for her fever to burn out and still her voice turned back to a whisper.
"Why me? Doesn't he have his women? Isn't there someone who wants to marry him? Some king that wants to give his daughter away for protection and fortune?" she quivered. "I am worth nothing to him and once all this will be over, so will I be done." Jairo took a moment to let her finish; somehow he could tell she wasn't finished. "Why would he have his heirs with a stranger?" She paused. "I wouldn't."
"Who would you have them with? An Ammerman? A Tekara? Does it matter?"
"Someone I'd love." They looked at each other again and she seemed to be slightly better; in her eyes she looked defeated.
"Then make that love happen."
"There are things in the world that can't be bought Jairo."
"But they can be won." Jairo smiled bending over to caress her forehead. "Nothing in life is fortuitous my girl and when you have lived long enough, you'll see that. An alliance is treacherous with its many parties involved and interests at stake while marriage is nothing but a trial to be overcome by two people."
Leora smiled and for Jairo it was as if morning had already come. He smiled back with his pale lips.
"I told you, you make it sound so simple." But the glow in her eyes came and gone. "I am tired. And I am scared. More scared than I was before the battle. Facing him is harder than being killed."
"Death is always a coward's first choice." She giggled and it mended his heart; he was tired as well but did his best to hold on for her. "I must go back." Silence; he felt her hand squeeze his hard and he endured it. Another tear rolled from her left eye. He gave her a long kiss on the forehead, then got up and left taking the torch with him. In the dark she covered her face, hiding behind her palms. Her tears seared through her bruised skin and only the night witnessed her choked crying.
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"My Lord!" one of his generals yelled desperately but Alchantar was already trying to round up his men into a more coherent formation.
"Bring them together man! Look behind you! Defend your flanks!" But Alchantar's orders made no sense because they didn't know what to expect. One of the soldiers thought he spotted something. He looked carefully, moving out of formation to take a better look and when he saw it coming he yelled from the top of his lungs but it was too late to even avoid it, less retreat. The log flew down from the trees, sustained by ropes, swinging straight into the man's chest, crushing him against the row of trees on the other side of the path. And as it swung back it released the torn body on top of the small army beneath. Horses neighed getting on two legs scared by the falling corpse. The soldiers looked horrified seeing one of them ripped apart, with his gut hanging from waist down, spreading into the dirt, his face carved in terror. They were all experienced soldiers; most of them had seen horrific scenes before, but only in battle, not when being hunted down one by one by an invisible force. In the back of the line another scream cut through the air and they saw another soldier being dragged into the bushes like cattle lassoed down.
"Move men, move!" Alchantar signaled his two remaining generals to push the men deeper into the woods and follow him. He entered the vortex, holding tight to his sword. It was all an illusion created by the foragers living in these parts of the world. They had burnt down the forest to make it look like the pits of limbo, stirring the ashes with their swift movements. They were everywhere and he had to keep an eye out for them. Behind him the soldiers moved in rows of two, watching each other's back as they moved along the trail and into the scorched forest. It was as if they were passing from one realm into another, so suddenly and unexpectedly.
From behind the trees, several pairs of eyes watched them ride in the middle of a trap. For a little while they walked without anymore incidents, but Alchantar never lost focus. In the back of his mind he knew he had to stay alive, with or without his men at his side and he was thankful for this selfish part of his nature never failing him; it had won his life in so many dear situations. The forest sang again; this time a sinister song and he looked back just in time to see a cascade of logs, sharpen at both ends, tumbling down on his men. It tore through the hand full of men, sending some flying across the woods, smashing into trees to fall breathless to the ground. Others found their death faster, pinned into the killer ends of the massive weapons. Few others struggled to cut the ties holding the logs together and when they did, the trunks rolled on them bringing men and horses alike crushing down against the black dirt. Their defense was broken, the men had been scattered. The eyes behind the trees sent signals across the path. Alchantar saw them emerge like shadows from the bushes, hidden by the injured poplar trees. They were dressed in black, with their faces painted in charcoal dust, their eyes so white against that blackness. With hoods shading their eyes and daggers held menacingly in their hands, the Wolof army now stood face to face with the Sunasi, the inhabitants of the Thakur woodlands.
Alchantar looked beyond them envisioning his way out of that place. He glanced back; the path was too narrow to group his men in battle formation. With a third of them gone and because of the difficult terrain, their chances of success were slim. The only way was to create chaos and amidst everything to dig a path for him through the bodies and slip far from the fight. But before even finishing his thought, the Sunasi launched their attack; so many of them flooding from every corner as if they were springing from under the ground or from the thicket above. They rushed into the scattered men likes wolves ambushing the prey and the Wolofs fought them blindly but one by one they fell. Few would face their unusual fighting techniques; they were like ghost serpents, one moment here and one moment there. They were silent and deadly, climbing up trees to then throw themselves at the enemy from above. The horses left without master got scared and in their madness crushed everything in their path, wounded and dead alike, until they were free from the torture of the sounds and cries around them, fleeing into the heart of the woods. Alchantar fought mightily and soon his sword weighed heavy with the blood dripping from its blade. He kept his horse steady and his posture right in the saddle, sowing death among the Sunasi but they were too many for him to take on alone. He only glimpsed at his men in the back and saw one of his generals being brought down and killed. They did not waste time with slaughter. It had to be swift and definitive so then they could move on to the next man. Time was of the essence for these dark warriors and so was for the Wolof King. But when his eyes fell back upon the Sunasi he was surprised to see one of them come before his horse out of no where and guessing his intentions, Alchantar threw himself off the horse. The animal fell on top of him, succumbing to the daggers embedded deeply in its throat and the Wolof struggled to free himself. He grabbed the first Sunasi he encountered, pulling him by the ankles. The man dropped to the ground and Alchantar rushed his elbow in his jugular, crushing his airways, then he twisted his head to the side, breaking his neck. He scrambled to take the man's dagger but just as he did he saw a second pair of feet before his eyes. He looked up slowly, in what seemed to be an eternity. The foot came right in his face sending him on his back. His eyes burnt like mad in the eye sockets and the pain in his temples thundered to the back of his head. The poplar trees sang again and their golden leaves snowed down on him bright and beautiful. As his eyes closed, the leaves lay on his cheeks together with flakes of grey ashes.
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Kane watched Jairo entering the tent and placing his torch down with careful slow moves. Keion fretted in his chair looking at Jairo with expecting eyes. In his heart he knew Jairo wouldn't have come back unless he had their fate sealed the way they expected to; which meant giving her away to Kane. He looked down, guilty for having laid this burden on her as well. Coward, coward old man! He breathed in and for the first time in many years, the Magister felt weak in his decisions. Jairo came before Kane and bowed. He may have not been at ease with respecting Damor's plan but, the respect towards him as a leader remained undeterred.
"She agrees." Kane couldn't help a bitter ironic smile.
"Or perhaps you decided for her?"
Jairo looked him in the eye and Damor had always appreciated the honesty he saw in this man.
"If I may, my Lord. All of us here agree that your plan has chances of success and both Keion and I will do our best to assist you in the
Ammerman Court. It is clear as day light you have thought things through thoroughly. Yet I dare say, you may have not considered bringing a bride back home." And Jairo kept his eyes with the Damor until the young Dhanwar lowered his, which rarely ever happened.
"You remind me of my father, Sir Goldhawk. He was the only one able to guess my intentions and foresee my worries." Kane went to pour wine for himself and looked back at the two noblemen silently asking them whether they also wanted a cup, but both denied shaking their heads slightly. He stirred the liquid a bit to sense the crude smell. Behind him Jairo looked at his broad shoulders and the black tattoo scattered across his muscular back. It was barely hidden by dirt and blood after the battle he had fought that day. The dust alone had made its way onto his skin darkening it more. Kane turned around and Jairo remained still looking at him. "Indeed, I did not plan for this. I never did, before this battle; I didn't plan for it ever.”
"But has marriage never been in your interest my Lord?"
"We may not come from the same place, but your world is not that different from mine. People seek fortune and fame, regardless of their allegiance, color or tradition." Kane sipped on his wine slowly and his face betrayed his discomfort talking about the matter. "I am expected to have heirs."
"So it does not matter the race of the mother, nor her nature?"
"Not to me."
"I beg to differ." Keion pointed at Kane with his staff. "I have been married, long ago." The Magister paused with a sad look in his eyes. "I remember her still, right now as if it were yesterday. She was sent to me; many were sent to me. Girls from across the land, whose families hungered for my name. I was young, bored and distracted. I didn't need a wife; I had plenty of mistresses, slaves, women who threw themselves at me." Jairo looked away unable to hold back a smile and Kane leaned against a pylon enjoying the conversation. "Now, now, it may look… incredulous today, when you look at me –" Jairo did look at him mumbling something in his chin and Kane smiled widely, sipping again from his wine. "- But I had them all. I didn't have to be handsome, I didn't have to speak nice to them, nor treat them like people. I had the money, the name and the power. That's what they really wanted, they didn't want me, so why give them something they didn't want? Until she came along. She hated me you know?"
"She must've done terrible things to you if even now you cannot get her out of your mind."
"Yes, yes, most terrible my Lord." Keion stopped rummaging through the sand and looked at him. "She taught me how to love. It ruined me."
The three of them fell silent.
"I know what you are trying to tell me Magister, but where I come from love comes out of need not choice and it will be no different for me." He finished his wine, putting the cup back on the little table. "But stay assured; your princess will be safe with me as long as she understands our ways and her place at my side." Jairo looked away; that would be the hardest part to teach Leora. But then again, some things should be left the way they are for her rebellion and quick silver spirit would most likely be her salvation. He glimpsed at Kane approaching him; you'll have raw meat in your hands and it will be hard for you to cook it! He bowed before the Dhanwar. "The wedding will happen tomorrow at sunset. Here, if that does not displease you or… your princess."
Jairo's heart startled. Tomorrow?
"If there is anything we can do to assist you with the preparations, my Lord…"
"I will send someone to you in the morning." He left but as he was preparing to get out of the tent, Damor stopped, looking over his shoulder. "If there are any customs she wants to keep to…" Jairo bowed again.
"Thank you, my Lord." And Kane walked away into the night.
Keion dragged slowly across the sand coming before Jairo who remained bowed, with the burden of the world on his shoulders.
"What happens when he finds out she is not Samara and that he has married a half-breed?"
Jairo closed his eyes tight and the desire to cry burnt him.
"Let's hope that will remain a secret until more time passes."
"What do you expect old man?" Keion sounded nervous. He didn't like this anymore than Goldhawk did. "That they fall in love and he forgives her afterwards?"
"You said it yourself Fairclaw! Love can be learnt even by the most inapt of us!" he frowned looking straight at his old friend. Keion pouted hitting with his staff in the sand. He wished he replied back but Goldhawk was right; and he missed his wife so much.
"Kane is different. His world is cruel."
Jairo went back to his seat and brought his hands in prayer. Lorday barged inside anxious to find out the details of their small reunion with Kane, but neither Sir Goldhawk nor the Magister hurried to enlighten him.
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His head felt the size of a bucket. His eyes were swollen and it felt as if the skin on his cheeks was coming down on his eyes. He could hardly focus; the earth was swaying underneath him. The night had fallen. Alchantar inched angered with the realization and struggled impotently. He looked around and then he scrambled to look up at his feet. He was dangling hanged from a rope in the middle of the Thakur forest. His last standing general and a couple of his men had joined him in this upside down prison. He wondered how the thin poplar trees could sustain all this weight but through the dark he realized they were hanging from beams nailed in the trees, like sheep waiting to be disemboweled. He wished he stopped swinging but he had his hands tight to the back and couldn't control the movement. He tried to take a closer look at his few remaining men. His general was awake and two others appeared to be alert. For the others he couldn't tell for sure, but when he met the eyes of his general the man shook his head, so he lost hope of them being alive. Further away the Sunasi had built the fires for the night.
Alchantar decided they were at a safe distance from the enemy to be able to communicate. He looked at his general trying to get his attention.
"Is this all that's left?" The general looked back at the soldiers lined up head down behind him then nodded. Alchantar was not pleased. Because of the dark he couldn't tell for sure how far up he was. But he had to try his luck. He stretched forth as much as he could, knowing that he had stashed a pocket knife at the back of his pants. He was grateful the Sunasi had stolen his cape and breast plate allowing him to be more flexible. He tangled his fingers around the belt remaining in a weird position where every muscle in his belly stretched to a maximum and he resented it. In his mid forties he sometimes felt like an old man. He walked with his hand, inch by inch, not letting go of the belt, until he reached the inner pocket and took the blade out then he let go bouncing above the ground. He waited for the movement to stop then slowly used the knife to cut through the bindings until he freed his hands. By the time he was done, his shoulders hurt with the effort and sweat bathed his temples. Finally he lifted his body slowly up trying to reach his ankles, but they burnt with the rope twisting tighter around his legs, but he kept going, bending his body, progressively, griping with his hands on the knees, then went higher and higher until he reached his ankles. He heard movement behind him and stopped abruptly to take a look back. He waited patiently for any sign of danger, with his head to bend back that it almost choked the breath out of him. But there was nothing so he started cutting the rope, faster and faster. He tried to focus through the dark and see what he was doing but he could barely tell how deep he was with the knife in the rope. Then all of a sudden a deaf sound and he felt as if the rope loosened a bit. The next moment he plunged to the ground at full speed and he took a nasty fall reverberating through his lower back and neck.
The world span for a moment and he tried to regain clarity of mind fearing someone might have heard him fall. He got up slowly and saw his general struggling to attract his attention. He looked around with his knife ready, but there was no one there.
"My Lord! Quickly! Cut us loose!" Alchantar hurried behind the man and started cutting his ties. The general was impatient and kept kicking making the rope turn.
"Stand still man!" Alchantar couldn't see a thing. The dim light from the fires was now taken away by the general's body. The general rested, his eyes rolling left to right, keeping an eye out for any intruders. The Sunasi seemed caught in their small celebration. But with the corner of his eye he perceived the slight movement in the trees before him. He looked carefully wishing for his king to move faster and free him. And as he stood there with his heart beating frantically he saw them; a pair of eyes, with the white glowing eerily in the dark and he scrambled to warn Alchantar.
"My Lord!" Alchantar looked past the general and saw the shadow sneaking on them. He grabbed the general from the back holding tight on his shirt and keeping the knife in his right hand, looking carefully around. The voices of the nearby Sunasi covered any sound of footsteps. A short cry and he saw the stranger attack from upfront and he flinched to the side, pulling the general with him. The rope rotated and so did Alchantar using his man as a shield. Another swish in his ear and the Sunasi snapped at him with his sword but missed again. It was his turn and Alchantar pushed the general forth running underneath the hanging man to stab the Sunasi in the gut. The man retracted holding tight to his bleeding wound but instead of calling for the others he tried to take vengeance on his own, going for Alchantar's throat. But the Wolof king was fast; he bowed before the blade reached him and instead the sword swung cutting across the general's throat, almost decapitating him. The assault caused him so much pain that he took a moment to breath in and accept the weakness gripping on his joints. Alchantar watched him from beneath the general's body not trusting his signs of surrender; he felt something dripping down his forehead and he looked up. The blood spilling from his general's throat rained down on him and in moments he found himself drowning in it so he pulled back disgusted. He wiped it off his eyes with his sleeve, clearing his vision right when the Sunasi tried one last attack. He fell on his back but did not hesitate to embed his small blade right under the man’s chin. What a bloody venture… Now the enemy blood was dripping down his hand and he didn't remember a time when he had been covered in so much blood. He pulled back leaving the knife in his victim. He took the Sunasi's sword and crawled silently towards where the horses were tied. The animals were restless with his approach, but he soothed them in a mild voice, taking one by the reins. He walked alongside the horse for a little while, enough to sink in the deeper in the woods. He looked back and saw the eyes of his soldiers following him, like gallows birds seeing the judge give the order for a kill. He turned his eyes away, following his black heart, black as the tar night swallowing him as he fled.
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"If he wants to be King in Catal Huyak, he should have allowed the wedding to be held there, for his future people to see him!" Lorday commented unsatisfied with the entire outcome of their discussions the night before. The news of the wedding had poured into the streets of Catal Huyak creating chaos, but Kane did not care. He had rounded up the Royal Council informing them personally of his terms and as expected, there was no one there to refuse him. He put Jairo and Keion in charge until his return. First he had to take his future bride to his home and introduce her to her new country, and then he would be back to arrange matters in Catal Huyak. His decisions sparked numerous animosities to say the least, but no one had the courage or conviction to fight him. Jairo knew he had to keep a tight grip on the nobility once Leora and Kane left, so that they didn't do the unthinkable and plan against their new king.
Keion wanted to admonish the young noble, but refrained from wasting more energy on him. They had fought enough the night before. He looked around at the hand full of Ammerman nobles in their shiniest and richest clothes, chattering like old women at every step. On the other side, Kane's generals and soldiers were as different of a picture as one could see. Half naked, with talismans around their necks, golden daggers hidden in the animal skins around their waists. Tanned, tall and muscular, like bows ready to be released. Keion was uneasy.
"Where is Leora?" he asked Jairo sitting next to him, but his eyes continued to prowl the surroundings.
"She is getting ready." Jairo didn't sound much calmer either. The dry air of the desert caused him to cough continuously and he sipped on water to keep his illness at bay.
"Children of my children will not witness this again."
"Neither have your forefathers." Jairo swallowed in again feeling the tingling of the dust down his throat.
"You know my friend, when I sent you to get Leora that fateful morning, I never dreamt it would come to this." Keion sighed. Too much had happened in such a short time.
"Neither did I, Magister. Neither did she." They shared a quick regard, but they were interrupted by the murmur in the crowd. The Dhanwars bowed and Jairo saw Kane coming.
"You better take your place. It's about to begin." Keion pushed his heavy cape aside and rushed among the people. Jairo bowed and the Ammermans, baffled and unaware, followed him hesitantly. Kane stepped slowly, with his eyes set on the small shrine they had arranged for the ceremony. Keion had just appeared behind it, arranging his clothes and gold chain. He had taken his golden staff, baring the royal insignia, the symbol of his authority as Magister of the Court. The tarp above the shrine moved slightly with the wind and Kane sighed. He had spent the night doubting his decision. He had never taken marriage seriously, knowing he could never have a woman to really love him for the man he was. A downside to his statute as the Dhanwar leader. But he had at least hoped to know more of her before he took her in. He wasn't sure how had such thought crept into his mind, but he couldn't get rid of it. Her eyes were still burning him, so angry and daring. He wasn't used to that. He sighed as he passed Jairo, almost ignorant to his presence. A few more steps and he would reach the point of no return.
She looked at them with tears in her eyes. From behind the tarp she saw them gather waiting for her and she wished she could flee. And then she saw Jairo, her dear Jairo. They have known each other for so little, yet she appreciated his advice and patience with her. He was her guiding light in the dark times ahead. Behind her, one of the servant girls brought from Catal Huyak arranged her veil. She did not care about her looks. With all the medicine and care she had gotten through out the night and day her bruises were still visible, blooming on her pale skin and her eye even though no longer swollen bore its sickening color. Suddenly, the crowd outside went quiet and the Dhanwars started bowing one by one. She leaned closer and saw him walking with her back at her. She pulled back inside the tent, leaving just her eye into the light to watch him. It was the first time she could actually take a better look at him; her husband to be. He was so tall! She wished she knew what that half black half white tree on his back meant. His hair was longer than hers, braided carefully in a long tail, bearing small colorful bells in it and her eyes followed the soft sway of the brown hair across his back; she saw the muscles in his waist tense with each step he took and her lips parted unwillingly. He had not put much effort into wearing anything special on this day. His belt was an intricate carving of drawings, encircling his waist, supporting the golden dagger unfolding from the animal skins hanging down his hips. He had chosen lighter colors this time that contrasted with his tanned skin and her eyes ran down his powerful legs observing the flexing in his muscles and the way he stepped hard sinking his feet in the sand. He stopped before Keion under the small altar her people had put together for them.
"It is time my Lady." The voice behind her startled her frail heart. She clenched tighter on the tarp. I'm not ready, not yet! "My Lady?..." A few heads in the crowd turned towards the tent. She could hear her breathing so loud it covered all other sounds.
Keion looked worried over Kane's shoulder and Jairo became impatient with Leora's delay. He didn't see any movement in her tent; he sneaked away slowly going behind the crowd to check on her.
Leora saw Jairo approaching and she backed off from the entrance. He entered and they stared at each other for a moment; she looked like a hunted animal about to run for its life. He stretched his hand to her.
"Let me walk you to the altar." Tears surged in her eyes and she shook her head. And by the Gods, she was beautiful! "Please child." She placed her hand slowly in his and allowed him to tuck it safely under his arm.
The sun was about to set but she found the light merciless to her tender eyes. In her mind, she looked like a slave girl. Bruised, with a purple eye and chapped lips, broken fingernails, pale and skinny. She looked down as they took one step at a time approaching the altar.
Kane observed her coming out shyly out of the tent and it took him aback with how small she was. Without the armor, the helmet and the shield she was thin like a flower, stepping lightly on the sand that barely bore the mark of her soles. She kept her eyes on the ground and wondered if Jairo had told her about his traditions. He doubted he had. She wore a plain white dress, embroidered here and there with thin golden threads, like sun rays twisting and swirling on the sleeves. The material was cut deep on her chest revealing her soft skin and beneath it he could guess the shape of her round small breasts contoured shyly by the intricate drawings. The wind blew gently and forced her long veil to fall in waves down her back and all the way on the sand following the golden train. She wore the crown of the Ammermans; pure gold shaped into a thin yet majestic piece of jewelry enriched with sapphires and rubies. She passed slowly through the crowd and the sun caught up with her, sneaking among the tents and the people; the crown jewel, her Queen Emerald shone brightly as she lifted her head slowly to welcome the breeze that brought this warmth. Kane kept his ground but that short glimpse of her face made him want to see more; so he waited.
Jairo patted her hand gently and let go of her before Kane. The two men shared one last look then Leora came before him and Keion cleared his voice, ready to start the ceremony. Damor Kane looked at her so inquisitively, she felt it was penetrating though her skull, but she kept her eyes down. She was not going to give him anything more than what he had bargained for. A muscle flexed in his jaw as he wanted her to disobey his own rules, but she didn't. Keion started talking, but neither of them heard what he was saying. Leora kept her head so low it almost hurt her neck and she knew he must've observed the exaggeration in her gesture, but she did not care. She counted her breathing, trying to remain calm. What if I make him mad? Thoughts roamed through her head and she tried to chase them away. You don't want to bring his wrath on your people! She almost shook her head, convincing herself that she wasn't. Kane looked at her carefully, from so close and she was the strangest girl he'd ever encountered. She was shaking her head looking as if she spoke with someone and his mind he went back to what Alchantar had told him, about her dementia. He took a deep breath not knowing what to make of this girl.
"… with the consent of the Great Powers and the approbation of your people, I, humble servant of this throne and servant to its rule, unite these hands to walk the same path, now and forever."
But despite their thoughts and predictions, nothing prepared them for the moment when Keion placed her hand in his. She jolted back while he just locked her hand in his by instinct and their eyes met at once, alert and weary. Mine! The silent hoarse tone of his inner voice took him aback and his lips parted with a gasp; and the air never returned in his chest when he met her eyes. They stared and time stopped, if there was a sound around them they couldn't hear it. What a tiny little face… her bruised eye did not take away any of the beauty that shone through those chestnut irises fixing him so powerfully. Her lips were almost white with how tired she must've probably been and chapped from the day before; it made him want to touch and moist them. He clenched his jaw and unfocused his eyes from her. The spell was broken. What is this? He was confused by the novelty of his feelings and it annoyed him to have shown it to her. He looked at Keion who bowed his head slowly, inviting him silently to end the ceremony. Kane turned back to her, still holding her hand and bent down slowly for her alone to hear him.
"Where I come from, women do not look me in the eye."
His voice sent chills down her spine. So hoarse, so low and appealing. It was the most haunting voice she'd ever heard and she thought he could tell from her breathing how captivated she was with it. But finally, his words had an impact on her.
"Why not?" and that was not the impact he was counting on. She whispered and her warm breath came onto his face caressing it, pushing that veil of stubbornness off his face. Why not? Why not? And the more he repeated the question in his head the more it angered him with her boldness. For you get punished for it! Those were his last unspoken words before he did what any man would; kiss his woman.
It hurt her wrist with how hard she pulled back but his hand was an unbreakable lock and she remained pinned where she stood with his mouth on hers, so suddenly, so unexpected that she continued to stare at him, an inch away, with the tip of her nose buried in his cheek and his beard felt heavenly against her soft skin. She didn't kiss him back; she couldn't because she never expected his lips to feel so tender and moist. Her eyelids burdened and gave in, her sight darkened and she was about to close her eyes and run back to her own world where she did not enjoy his kiss so much. But as she was about to close away from him, he opened his eyes and looked at her, so deeply it uprooted her from the surrounding reality. His mouth pressed harder on hers, sucking on her lips gently and she wondered again how such a big man could be so soft. Still gentle drift from reality ended abruptly when she felt the dry wind on her free lips and the arrogance and superiority she so much despised in him already reappeared on his face. She blushed ashamed with having been caught with her guard down so quickly. He never let go of her hand all throughout the applauses of the crowd, the false cheering and the dishonest wishes sent their way. She gave up trying to keep her distance. It seemed to give him pleasure fighting her.
Soon the fires were lit and they roared up towards the sky. The night was young, the food was plenty, and the drinks kept pouring. But she did not eat, she did not drink, she did not dance. She remained at his side, silent and observant of his people. Jairo was barely there; he spent his time together with Keion making sure none of the Ammermans present would have too much to drink and reveal her secret. She watched the fires burn, she heard the laughs of the men with her mind wondering across the night yet to unfold before her. As the moon rose higher on the sky, her heart went colder. The time would come when she had to follow him in his tent. Her heart skipped a beat and she closed her eyes against the full moon.
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Alchantar saw them burning from afar. He knew the horse would betray his presence and he did not want the Dhanwars to be misled in the dark. His death would have come swiftly and mercilessly. So he let the animal go and decided to walk to the camp of his ally. The torches on the walls of Catal Huyak gave a bit of light across the sands and he saw them first like shadows; flags and weapons spread across the sand; but no bodies. He stopped for a moment. He took another look in the distance and watched the fires burn into the night then continued walking disappearing into the night until he reached their tents. He sneaked in quietly and carefully and saw a few of his men drinking in a corner absorbed in small talk. He reached the middle of the camp butt when he glanced beyond the tarp, he remained silent and confused. He recognized the Ammerman rich wear, the flags of the Ammerman throne. In his mind he grinned. He didn't mind not being part of the men slaughter, as long as he got his share of the catch. But celebrating? It wasn't in Kane's nature to be so kind. He switched corners and looked again. A colorful carpet was laid on a wooden structure, above the sand. Kane sat in his chair, eating his fruit, like he knew he would. But there was something more; you! Leora sat down at the foot of the improvised throne, looking down; looking sad. He took a step out of his hideout. … yes she is! He fell hid again into the semi obscurity of the tent. How can it be? She was dressed as a bride, he recognized it and he was not mistaken. All of a sudden the world seemed a much darker and overwhelming place. Alchantar closed his eyes, in defeat, breathless. The Tekaras’ plan had worked. Or could it have come from Kane, this betrayal. No!... Kane couldn't commit such nonsense. But then he looked again and in his cunning mind a new gate opened, one that Jairo had feared all along.
The soldiers saw a man appear from behind the tent and they got up abruptly taking their weapons.
"Honorable Dhanwars, it is I, Alchantar Wolof, your humble ally, if you have me." He bowed before Kane's men looking surprised to see him there. "If I may trouble you with a small favor. If you could indulge me and call upon your chieftain to see me in private. It is in his immediate benefit that he does." But even though he kept his head down he knew no such thing was ever asked of Damor Kane, but he had to push things into motion if he wanted to satisfy his curiosity. The Dhanwars looked seemed even more confused with his daunting attitude but they agreed and one of them left to get Damor. Alchantar withdrew in a tent waiting anxiously.
Soon the tarp pulled away and Kane entered if not amazed at least annoyed with the Wolof bothering him unannounced.
"Alchantar Wolof, you have a gift to show in the most inappropriate of times."
Alchantar bowed, taking his time in showing Kane how sorry he was for bothering him.
"I rode hard and long my Lord to reach you before… before any of this happened, but it looks like I might have arrived too late."
"What are you talking about? And stand up. Your bowing is meaningless to me." Kane paced around the tent undecided whether to pour some wine or just listen to the Wolof king and then go back to his bride. He had much to learn about her and he did not want to spend that time with Alchantar.
"I see there was a battle."
"So I had mine."
"I hope it was successful, like mine." Kane grew impatient; he really didn't want to be there. He glanced outside and saw the moon cutting through the dark. It was almost time. In the back of his mind he could already taste her, but curiosity was eating him inside so he indulged the Wolof a bit more.
"Unfortunately, through my efforts I have discovered we have been deceived."
"Deceived? Explain yourself Wolof." Faster!
"The Ammermans sent a decoy to Uyack, for me to follow thinking it was Leora."
"The half-breed princess of Ammerman; the one you wanted."
"Yes my Lord."
"And how do you know you've been tricked? Have you captured the decoy?"
"Yes. And it wasn't whom I expected."
Kane sighed, bored with the conversation. He had made it clear to Alchantar that he was not interested in his fight with the Tekaras or the bastard child. But he was in a good mood so he allowed the discussion to continue, out of complacency.
"So where is this Leora now? Do you know?" and Alchantar smiled in the dark. He had brought Kane right where he wanted; finally. He took a few slow purposeful steps towards the opening in the tarp looking over the roaring fires. And as if she could sense evil approaching she hawked at him from afar, searching in the dark and Alchantar’s courage faulted for a moment. But then…