Updated: May 24, 2020
“There will be a ship.” She could hear his voice resonate in his chest as he spoke. He held her close to him with one arm and let the other play over her hair, her skin, her face. “Before dawn. Not far offshore.” He ran his hand down her arm. “You must be strong in the water.” He grinned down at her. “To carry an axe through the river to destroy my ship.” She wasn’t strong. She was drowning in his eyes. He kissed her. “Come with me.” She pulled back. “What?” “I know what is in your mind,” he said. “You think that I am doing this to you.” He tucked his head in closer, his lips grazing her ear. “But you are doing the same to me.” As the heat and sweat evaporated from her skin, her thoughts emerged like debris from a ship wreck. She struggled to make sense of them, of what he was saying. “Our homeland is far from this island. The land of Moah. It is greater, wider. You could ride horseback for a year toward the rising sun and not meet the end. There are mountains and valleys and deserts.” He must have seen the question in her eyes because he elaborated. “Great expanses of nothing but copper sand and thirsty rock, where the sun is burns ever hot and there is little rain, where it would seem that no life could survive. But people do thrive there. They wear long white robes and move like ghosts over the hills of sand. Every year they come to our Empire to trade. They and many others, people of myriad languages and cultures. Some light and fair, like the people here, others who are darker than the night. They come to our great city, the city of a thousand pillars, Erum-Anai.” She could hear his heart beat double when he said the name. “It stands high above a natural harbor, at the western shore of the Tethys Sea that stretches to the east and meets with the ocean that touches your land. There are twenty gates. It would take you three days to walk the city’s walls. The temples and Palace rise above all. From their heights, you can see the ships a day away and caravans two days out. To the north runs the deep ravine of the great river, Rubal, and to the south a fertile plain fed by the sister river, Hali. Beyond that the foothills of the mountains. To the west, a month’s journey away is a warmer sea, the Ad. There is a wide and busy road that is traveled, both on the deep water of the Rubal and along the shallow banks of the Hali. From sea to sea and from the lands beyond east and west. All trade passes through Erum-Ani. And my father would have been king there . . .” His arm flexed around her, his voice hardening. “Should have been king there.” His voice trembled. “He was the youngest son, but favored of his father and was named heir over his brother, Hodi. When their father died, Hodi raised an army to seize the throne, but the people revolted and expelled him. My father was but a child then and governance was left in the hands of corrupt and greedy ministers. They ruined my father’s name, destroyed his honor, and incited division and uprising amongst the people. By the time my father was old enough to administer his empire, it was fractured by unrest. Hodi returned again, his army greater, aided by our old enemy, the king of Ulam. My uncle conquered Erum-Anai and my father barely escaped with his life. He, his household, those of his army who survived fled. Along the coast of the Tethys, from one kingdom to the next, until the land gave out and they were forced north into unknown waters, else be captured and killed for the bounty Hodi placed upon his life.” He relinquished his hold on her and raised her chin so that he could look at her more directly. “Perhaps you think that would have been better if he had been captured.” He let go of her chin, a dark shadow passing over his face. “Perhaps you would be correct.” He was quiet for a time. She held her tongue, because she did not know her own mind, with her body pressed against the length of his, the taste of him still on her lips. “There is a wide and massive mountain range, north of the coastal kingdoms along the Tethys. It was thought the lands beyond were uncivilized, the peoples little more than animals. But we found that there are many more kingdoms, great cities and societies. And in the great ocean beyond the Tethys, your ocean, many small islands, as though the land here and the great land to the west were once one and the same and the water flooded many lowlands and left only the highest peaks. We settled on those islands, many were uninhabited. My father quickly learned why, the land was thick with trees but the winters are difficult, cold and brutal, and his people did not know how to grow food there. He was forced to sail back to the west and trade for grain. “There is a trade route, from the western shore of the great land, along the current that flows south of the islands my father claimed for his people, to this island. After a dispute with a trader, my father killed him. This began the attacks upon the traders and it is this war that, thirteen years ago, led my father here.” Atal moved, shifted to his side and down so that he was facing her. “He did not intend for this,” he said, “what it is now. When he first came here, he sought only a new source of trade. But the first people he met here were fearful of him. They had not seen weapons such as ours, or ships. They did not understand him. They gave him whatever they had because of this fear. When their king learned of this, he sent his army, and the next time my father returned, there was a battle. Two of my cousins and my older brother, Sudr, were killed. My father swore vengeance on that king and declared this land open to plunder.” The backs of his fingers grazed her cheek. “But now word has come to us that the Hodi has died and left no heir. There is dispute over the throne and the people have called my father back to claim it.” At this, she shook off the spell of him enough to speak. “Your father is leaving?” Atal’s expression was grim. “He will not return. He says that life is behind him now. All his fury turns upon Tireachan and this land, for what happened to Sudr. He will not rest until Tireachan pays with his life.” She sank into herself. “But I will go,” Atal said strongly. “I will reclaim the throne of Erum-Anai and restore the line of Moah. I raided now only to supply those who will make the journey with me. To fill my war-chest to commission the armies of those kingdoms who will support me.” She scowled. “You steal and threaten to starve my people so that you can return to some . . . faraway place I’ve never heard of and make yourself a king?” She stared hard into his eyes. “You kill women and children and rape this land of all she has, and for what? For your father’s vengeance, for your reclamation of his throne? Those things mean nothing to me.” She started to pull away from him, but he coiled her arm to his chest and held her tigher. “After this night, I will leave and never return,” he said solemnly enough that she believed him, though she wasn’t sure how she felt it about. Of course she wanted him gone. Him and all his people. But if Artor remained, Atal’s leaving would make no difference to the people of her own homeland. “There is not another in this world like you,” he said with sudden intensity. “I have seen this world, the people in it. Your eyes are like micah. You place metal behind them and they see only what is reflected by those who look into them. But you cannot hold the metal to me. I see through. And you have not yet learned all of which you are truly capable. You are too great for this small land. They force you to wear a mask, to hide who you are. They would punish you if they knew the truth and yet you do it for them. They will prove ungrateful. They will punish you, even if you destroy my father and all his men.” She hardened her jaw, but an snake of unease coiled around her stomach. “You don’t know that.” “Return to Moah with me.” His hand clenched around hers. “Fight beside me. You will not require a mask. You will not have to hide.” “I thought you said it was humiliating to be defeated by a woman.” He grinned. “Humiliating for those who are defeated, not for the one who is victorious because of her.” He drew her even closer, so the heat of his flesh sent a fresh prickle dancing over her skin. “And I would be,” he said. “And you would rule Enum-Anai at my side.” He paused. “I don’t even know your name. But I know that if I leave here without you I will spend the rest of my life in regret.” She shook her head, dizzied by his impassioned plea, by his smell and his skin, by everything. “I know that your people think mine to be savages,” he said. “I can see why it seems such to them, to you. And to us, your people seem the same. You trade your noble women like slaves or gold and force them to live with men they hate or force them to hide.” His thumb ran over her temple. “The people of Moah learned long ago that if a man wishes ensure his line is strong then he had better marry for love, rather than for land or allegiances. And even the poorest of our women are free to choose who to marry and leave, if her choice is cruel or unfaithful or does not provide for her.” “And what about your slaves?” she challenged. “Those we take as slaves were once our enemies,” he replied cool and unapologetic. “They fought against our ways and so, they are not granted the benefits of them. But many of those who serve us come to be a part of our culture. Many are given their freedom after a time and choose to remain among us. You will see for yourself. People of your own land who were taken as slaves, now live as one of us.” Her fingers curled against the broad expanse of his chest. “You will leave, but your father will stay. He will continue to terrorize my people and wage war on Tireachan. I can’t abandon them.” “If they discover you, you will die,” he argued. “The very people you seek to protect will demand your blood. Tireachan himself would order your execution. Only because you are a woman. These are the people you wish to defend?” “What happens to me doesn’t matter,” she answered sharply. “I would rather be executed for disguising myself as a man as long as I have the chance to fight the . . .” Why had everything been turned upside down? Hadn’t things been complicated enough? “Your father will not be satisfied, even if he defeats Tireachan, will he?” she asked. Atal inhaled deeply. “The empire of Moah is widespread, many kings pay tribute and called my forefathers, Shatrapadi, High King. To rule is in our blood.” The cold began to work on her body again, breaking through the insulated shelter that had formed around them. Atal released her and sat up. “Your people will not know what to call you when you are whole,” he said. “And how shall I think of you in my grief, as the Mhasc Caoin? My shrinagra?” She sat up as well, regretful of the cold space now between them, though she knew that it was right, that it was inevitable. “Caoinlin,” she said softly. He smirked. “Then you are the wolf.” She began to wrap her chest in its binding cloth again, slowly. “The memory of me will fade in the long journey to your homeland.” She cinched the cloth tight. “When you are . . . Shatrapadi of your beloved Moah, this will seem no more than a dream.” His hand grasped her arm. “You are wrong about that.” He released her. “Habibati ila al-abad.” She stood, pulling on her trousers. “What does that mean?” “It is one of the many languages spoken in Moah.” He rose too. “It means you will be mine forever. That is not something I will forget.” She put on her coat. “If you return here,” she said. “If you attack my people again, I will kill you.” “I will not return,” he said, stooping to retrieve his shirt from the ground and the pang that hit her at the sight of his bare back, at the smooth muscles flexing there, filled her with no small amount of regret. Caoinlin held the mask loosely in her hand. Once dressed, Atal walked with her through to the trees to the brat. She untied him. He’d managed to keep from hurting himself, but he snorted and flicked his tail in irritation. “The road is west,” Atal told her, pointing through the misty trees. He kissed her again, deeply. “Reconsider.” “Convince your father to return to Moah,” she said, breathlessly. “And I will.” “He is even more stubborn than you.” He held her dagger out to her. She turned the dagger around in Atal’s hand so that the point faced her. “I cannot return uninjured,” she said. “It will raise suspicion.” The muscle of his jaw twitched. “You cannot expect me to—” She put the mask on, fastening it around her head, and then she looked at him square in the eyes. “I am going to kill your father.” His fingers firmed around the handle, but his jaw remained stubborn, resistant. She took a deep breath. “It can’t be superficial,” she told him. “You are more than a day’s hard ride from the road, further to Orisand,” he said through his teeth. “And if I die, then your father may live,” she replied, already her tones were deepening, the wolf returning. “Do it or I’ll do it myself.” Huffing his annoyance, he pressed his hand hard against her left shoulder, closing his eyes. His hand slid down, his fingers separated into a ‘v’. He opened his eyes, looked into hers, and plunged the dagger in between his fingers. She barely felt it—she was going numb again. Whatever she had felt tonight, she did not think she would ever feel it again. He pulled the dagger out, grabbed her hand, and pressed it against the wound. “Hold there,” he instructed, then stepped back. “Go now. Do not stop.” The blood pumped hotly against her hand. A sick prickle made her head swim. She took a step toward Flegel and rocked. Atal seized her neck and glared into her eyes. “I would rather my father dies,” he said. “There will never be another who might’ve been my equal as you are. Go quick.” He kissed her again and pushed her up onto Flegel’s back. He swatted Flegel’s haunch. She didn’t look back.