One
A Curious Hand 

I feint in the light of the shadow of myself,
a dearth of hope, a dirge for freedom,
a Soul a splinter’s blink from the black of the eye.
Just try to ask why; prepare for the lye,
the burn, the scald, the scar.
Permanent nothing.

—Tomes of the Touched

Death is not for you, my love.

Solineus’ eyes flittered open to a world of rolling, wispy blues, and he held the suspicion he bobbed in the river dead, no matter her encouraging words. “Why is that? Am I not mortal?”

Laughter. The Lady came to him like a puff of steam from a kettle: hazy, insubstantial, but real and warm. “You’ve washed against a fallen tree, and in a few moments a man will drag you from the river.”

“Dead would be easier.”

“Are you so set in your beliefs? May the immortal soul not be vulnerable to an eternity of torture?”

Solineus grunted, and maybe he frowned… or maybe it was just a branch of tree striking his face as he floated. Nothing in the blue universe was certain. “You’ve a way with making a man feel better about himself. Who do you want me to kill this time?”

Strands of the Lady’s hair tickled his face as she leaned over him. “I only asked you to kill once.”

“Funny how much killing I’ve done without killing that one. I need to get back to Kinesee, my people.”

“Your people will cross the Gediswon and move south to safety, thanks to you. Fear of the Kingdomers and the Helelindin, and the threat of war between the Hundred Nations, will keep them at bay for a time.”

“A war?”

Her smile was beautiful in its self-satisfaction. “The Malstefne rampaged through Malobund territory in your pursuit… this will have consequences.”

“The more you talk, the more I reckon you want something from me.”

Her breath warmed his neck as she appeared by his side, the Lady before his eyes fading. “The Silone people need friends; you are the man to lay such a path with the Eight Kingdoms and beyond.”

“The hells you say. Kinesee, Alu—”

“The Trelelunin woman?”

“Aye, Lelishen. I can’t leave them all behind.”

“You may serve all their better ends, but it is a choice you must make. All I ask is to consider my words.” Her breath landed in the shape of lips on the bridge of his nose.

“Tell me your name. If not, tell me who I am.”

She giggled, puffs of heat on his neck and face. “I won’t tell you who you were, but who you are and who you will be awaits you far to the west, in Kônu Bay. But, this you will know to be so only if you do as I ask.”

She kissed him on the forehead, and a wet hand slapped and grasped his forearm.

Breath returned in a rush to his lungs and his eyelids burst open to a blue sky with veils of blowing clouds. His back drug on rock and his feet trailed in water; he hacked and coughed icy river water, and for a split-flicker his memory took him back to Bloody Boulder and the raper he’d dropped in the stream, and he wondered if some cosmic revenge hadn’t switched their roles. His voice came with a gasp: “Rinold.”

His body dropped to the bank, and a big-toothed smile loomed over him with a long beard braided with silver and brass rings. Morik spoke in Edan: “I will take you to your people when they return.”

Solineus sputtered, spitting water. “What the hells are you doing here?”

“A fine greeting.” He laughed. “I told you, I like booms! Dropping a bridge, this is something I didn’t want to miss. And you, surviving the river? A very lucky man.”

“Takes more’n a little water to kill me.” Solineus took deep breaths. “The Malstefne army?”

“Turned back, but a few are on this side of the river.” A quarrel clattered on rocks a stride from the Kingdomer’s head, and Solineus gazed over the Gediswon; a Tek put toe to the nose of his crossbow and levered to reload while two dozen more slid from their horses. 

Solineus followed Morik, both men scrambling up the bank. “Thought they turned back!”

“I might’ve been wrong!” He laughed and ran as shafts rattled grass and thunked the turf around them.

Solineus’ body ached as they ran hunched over in zig-zag lines until the grasses grew so high seeds slapped his cheeks. A toe clipped a stone and he tumbled down a shallow, rocky ravine, coming back to his feet with a hop. Several incoming quarrels arced through the sky, but they fluttered the grass thirty or more strides short.

He flopped on his ass and leaned against the rocky bank, smiling at the sky, gasping for breath.

Morik chuckled and slapped his shoulder. “Good fun, yes?”

Solineus glanced, pointed at the shield covering the man’s back, linden wood and bound with iron; the bolt sticking from it was near center of mass straight below his head. “You’ve got yourself a passenger.”

Morik grunted with a twitch of curiosity on his face, slung his shield from his shoulders, and twisted the broad-head free. “You might want a shield yourself. Dual swords is a fine thing after the quivers go empty.”

The Twins might take it as an insult. “I’ll consider it. Where the hells did Rinold and the others get to?”

“Your people were forced west but had a strong lead. This is a good thing.”

“My friends being hunted by Tek is a good thing?”

“Indeed. The Malstefne will know my people are not responsible for the bridge, and you and me are free as griffins to fly from here.” He offered his hand. “An opportunity we should take.”

Solineus clasped his forearm and stood, his head spinning with new-found altitude and his heart pounding from the pain through his chest and shoulders. “Tell me you brought a horse.”

A straight-lipped smirk: “One horse, yes. Come.”

They strode up a steep bank following an animal trail with thick brush for handholds. Glances from the top of the washout proved no one in sight, and when he looked back, three columns worth of bridge lay in the river. 

Morik broke into a trot southwest and a quarter horizon later they stood in a second washed out ravine with rocky walls and floor, so hidden he didn’t know it and the horse were there until they were strides away. The Kingdomer stroked the horse’s neck then sat, leaning into the bank. “Wait to see if your friends pass?”

Judging by how the man looked to be settling in for a nap, Solineus figured that’d already been decided. He sat on a patch of dirt amid the rock. “Risky to come alone.”

“More of my kin came to watch the bridge, no doubt they’re hidden about, but I like to feel the shake in my boots. Lucky for you. We should rest, make quiet, so we don’t miss your friends riding past.”

If they live. Solineus leaned against the bank and listened, but his thoughts meandered to the Lady and her words, and he couldn’t keep his lips shut. “The Malstefne rode through Malobund lands, you think the Malobund will retaliate?”

Morik puffed his mustache. “One Nation likes little more than killing another. It is an insult to their king… it could mean war.”

If the Lady spoke the truth… “I would like to meet your king. After all this.”

An eyelid crept open. “Dark Waters take me, no. I pulled your drenched carcass from the river, it don’t make us brothers.”

The stern tone caught him off guard. “Well… Seems to me we’re neighbors, seems to me you might want to learn something about us. Our language.”

Morik rose to a knee with a huff and pointed to a snow-tipped peak in the distance. “See that mountain?”

“Near where we met?”

“The same. That is my mountain—”

“Your mountain?”

“My mountain: Shuntiskâ. You see that great mountain far back there? It is Molikîn, one of the Twenty-Two Foundations and home to Sînhôlar the Ironwing, King of the Helmvilîn, mightiest of the Eight Kingoms. What is it the Edan would say… I’d rather walk the Great Unrest than present you to my king, and explain how I let a bunch of foreigners into our mountains and then explain how I gave you stonebreakers to destroy a Malobund bridge. In person? My king is wise and will not kill a messenger, unless the message is the messenger’s fault, you see what I mean?”

“You plan to keep the bridge a secret?”

Morik turned and poked him in the chest, which hurt way more than it should after damned near drowning. “I intend to send a message attached to a keg of your whiskey. With a couple hangovers and his crown dunked in ice, he’ll have had time to forgive me.”

“Still, I think it’d—” The sound of hooves in the distance echoed and he stared north towards the river, but by the time his ears picked the direction, Rinold, Puxele, and Edlmir thundered past to the south with a riderless horse on their tails. “Rinold!” He jumped up and down, but there was no way in the hells they could hear him. 

“Shut your mouth, I doubt they’re riding alone.”

Fresh dust rose in the west, and this time it veered their way. “Too late.” 

Morik grunted, stepped to his horse, and pulled a heavy windlass from its loop on the saddle and loaded a quarrel. “How many you see?”

They closed fast, but a count was more guess than fact. “Seven, I think.”

“The fômo are on Helm dirt, so I’m obliged to try’n kill them.”

Solineus squinted into the distance and the Twins hummed in his hands as the blades slipped from their sheaths. “Shits, more riders behind them.”

Morik turned to him. “Stay alive, Mikjehemlut.” His eyes turned to the Twins. “Eyes of Môgandar, man! Who are you to wield such blades?”

“I don’t know.” The cloud grew into thunder and Malstefne battle cries, their swords leveled at them. Morik still stared at the Twins instead of the Tek; Solineus pointed. “The enemy is that way.”

Morik couched the butt of his crossbow and the twang disappeared in the tumult of the charge, but a Malstefne rider leaned and dropped from the saddle. The Kingdomer hung his crossbow on its saddle-hook, slung his shield from his back and pulled a small ax from his belt. “As I was saying! Stayin’ alive is the key to survival!” He laughed, and with a single step threw his axe.

The head flipped through the air but it was the haft that pegged a rider’s cheek and rocked him in the saddle. Morik planted his feet and unhooked a bipennis ax from his belt.

And the riders were on them in a pounding rush of hooves, horse-flesh, and steel.

Solineus side-stepped and slashed a man’s leg, but the horses didn’t race by, the riders reined, spun, and hooves struck for his head even as he deflected a blade. He leaned from another blow, but the twirling rump of a second beast knocked his shoulder and he stumbled, then dove to avoid the edge of a curved sword.

A shod hoof clipped his ribs and he rolled, the warhorse prancing and stomping fingers from his chest and head, and a rider swung low in his saddle to bring his saber to bear.

Solineus scrambled and rolled to a knee, pain surging in his calf where a horse must’ve caught him. The Twins screamed in unison. One blade caught the Tek’s sword, notching deep into the steel, and the other flicked the horseman’s head from his shoulders. 

The horse spun as the Tek tumbled from the saddle, its rump bouncing Solineus into the turf. His shoulder slammed into a grassy mound, hooves trampled around him, and the headless Tek’s horse rolled with dead weight in its saddle. He slid close to the corpse and snagged the flailing animal’s reins, and with a surge the beast rose; Solineus wrapped an elbow on an “ear” of the saddle meant to hug the armored rider’s hip, and with a heft swung himself onto the horse’s flank before lifting himself into the seat. 

The Twins hissed amid a thundering crash of horseflesh and steel as shorter, heavy-set horses drove into them. He yanked the war horse’s reins to see bearded men in mail swinging war hammers: Kingdomers. He jammed his heels into the horse’s ribs and the beast kicked, launching a Malstefne warrior from his saddle, but satisfaction hammered into pain as a hoof caught his thigh and hand. He kept his grip with throbbing fingers, and the second Twin shrieked in his right ear; he caught the spear, redirecting it under his arm, then lunged the blade through the man’s chest.

Horsemen broke from the fray, three Malstefne in flight, one with a war hammer’s spike sticking from the steel plate he wore on his back. Five Kingdomers gave chase.

Morik turned and planted his feet to stare up at Solineus; blood streaked his chest and arms, and an abrasion shaped much like a horse’s hoof bloomed on his cheek, promising to swell and turn black. “How in the name of the Five Earls did you get up there?”

Solineus cocked his head, smirked. “What else was I supposed to do? You only brought one horse.” He nodded to the Tek and their pursuers. “Those men from your mountain?”

“Yes. It won’t go well for the Malstefne, Ritik wants his hammer back.”

Solineus chuckled as his new horse snorted, stomping to join in the chase. “One of them horses left you quite a beauty mark.”

The Kingdomer rubbed his face and wiggled his jaw. “A cleaner hit and it would’ve put me in my tomb. Seems we both got lucky today. But at least you’ve a horse, save you the walk back to your people.”

“Aye. I reckon.” He patted the horse’s neck, scratched beneath its mane. “I’d still like to meet your king.”

Morik groaned. “Horse’s kick might’ve softened my head, but... I’ll take you as far as Yurhol to visit a smith I know there. Not often a man gets to see Ikoruv and Latcu together.”

“In exchange for visiting your mountain, I will teach you the language of my people.” Solineus proffered his hand. “The first word is ‘friend’.”

Morik grunted and didn’t accept his hand. In the language of Helm we say: Carhôn maharôk tû. Meaning, a pain greater than a kick to my hungover gut. What words do you have for that?”

Solineus’ brow arched with a squint. “Pain in the ass.”

Morik nodded with the Edan translation. “Pain in the ass, like a thorn? These are good words to fit you. I will take you to the village of Yurhol and send a message to my king. He will decide, and if he says ‘no,’ then you ride back to your people and far from me. Far, far.”

“So far I can’t bring you the whiskey?”

“Not so far as that.” Morik shook his hand and spoke in Silone. “Pain in the ass friend.”

***

They rode for two days with an escort of ten Kingdomers. These others wanted nothing to do with Solineus, not so much as speaking a word to him. 

Yurhol sat in a lush green valley which would’ve seemed a paradise on the island of Kaludor. Wild flowers, hundreds of hues of red and orange and yellow, followed the sun with their black eyes, and trees grew straight and tall. The village rested behind stone walls two poles high and three strides thick, and two square towers stood as the gatehouse. For a village which housed maybe a half a thousand souls, the defenses were formidable, a far cry from the village palisades on Kaludor.

Solineus spent every day of the last three weeks by Morik’s side, and when this wasn’t possible, he wandered to listen and interact with other folks to pick up as many words as he could. He and Morik both made strides in understanding the other’s language, and it wasn’t long before they could hold simple conversations in either tongue, so when Morik arrived with a message he spoke in Silone. “A Choerkin has offered to meet me at the Roemhien Pass to talk.”

Solineus stood, adjusting the straps on a steel breastplate just finished for him by Yurhol’s master armorer. It was far from the fanciest he’d seen in town, but Morik promised the steel was of the utmost quality. Mail would’ve felt more natural after months of living in the rings, but the Kingdomers insisted he adjust his fashion sense. “Which Choerkin?”

“Ivin Choerkin, Warlord of the Seven Clans… and his fiancé, one Kinesee Mikjehemlut. A relative?”

Solineus blinked. “Fiancé?”

“Her father! I can see it in your eye!” And Morik laughed, slapping his knee.

Solineus turned his eyes to the stone floor and scowled. “She’s too young… But, I’ve no doubt neither of them is pleased with whomever made the arrangement.” No doubt Meliu was irritable as well.

The Kingdomer wiped a tear from his eye. “I’ve heard you mention this Choerkin before, a good man. What is it he wants?”

The thing all Silone wanted was peace, a chance to recover their collective breath, but they had that now. “Bringing his intended, I reckon he’s extending his hand in friendship.”

Morik switched to the language of Helm. “But, no doubt he wants something.”

“Passage over the Roemhien… And knowing his mind, a defensible wall across the pass.”

“You still believe your people will move south over the Dragonspans?”

“It’s the only direction we’ve got, the valley will grow cramped soon enough.”

“I will send a pigeon to Molikîn, let my king know what you anticipate. We should have an answer before we ride to Roemhien.”

“You ride without me. I will ride to visit your king.”

Morik grumbled. “He declined. It is time for you to go home. Don’t you want your daughter to know you live?”

“She knows.”

Morik eyeballed him. “She can’t know. She may be as optimistic as any child, but no way she knows.”

Solineus lowered his gaze, but kept his eyes locked with Morik’s. He smiled. “A wager.”

“You enjoy losing gold?”

“I’ll ride with you, but I will stay hidden. You ask her whether I’m alive or dead. If she says anything other than I’m alive, I will return to my people. But, if she knows, you send me to your king.”

Morik scratched his beard. “Not enough.”

“She’ll also know that I’ll be back when she needs me.”

“She will say that?”

“Aye, that’s the wager.”

“And if she doesn’t? You leave, go home.” He rubbed his nose. “I feel I’m about to lose a bet I shouldn’t lose, but I accept.” 

Solineus shook Morik’s hand. “When you send that pigeon to your king… you may as well let him know I’m coming to see him.”

Morik laughed, but with an uneasy tone.

Five days later Solineus swung into the saddle amid an escort of Kingdomers, including Morik himself, their destination: The Royal Halls of Molikîn.

Background Art by Jon Gibbons

© 2018 L. James Rice