Disclaimer; Elemental Truth, the first of the Elemental Wars books, is in the final stages of editing. Hope you all enjoy it.
Thunder shook the small cabin, jolting Tier from an uneasy dream. He pushed himself up, glancing around the one room. The fire had burned down, leaving long shadows. He could make out the forms of Rale and the old man, and from the sound of it, neither were aware that there was a storm outside. Xin’s sleeping mat was empty. Thunder rumbled again and he got to his feet taking another glance around before ducking out the door, onto the porch. Xin was leaning against one of the posts, and glanced at him as he shut the door.
“The horses are still there,” she said motioning towards the shelter. “They don’t look too pleased.”
“They’re out of the rain, at least.” Tier said. Lightning flashed, and he could make out the shapes of the horses under the shelter.
“The road’s on the other side of the stream, isn’t it?”
“Yes. The water runs off quickly, though. We’ll be alright.” She leaned on the railing. “This cabin has been here for a long time and has weathered many a nasty storm.”
“How often do you come up here?” Another flash of lightning illuminated the area and his skin prickled, hair was standing on end as icy fingers clawed up his spine. In the light of the flickering lightning, gathered on the edge of the clearing were the ghosts. Substantial, mostly formed. They were just staring at him with dark hollows for eyes. He ran an impatient hand through his hair, trying to look anywhere but at them, aware of Xin’s close scrutiny.
“When I can get away. It’s far more pleasant on the mountain than down in the village.” She turned towards him. “The next stretch is rough going, you might want to get back to sleep, your highness.”
He nodded looking back towards the stream. As the lightning flickered, he could see the stream, brim full of rushing water, and the insubstantial shapes drifting closer. He forced himself to breathe slowly.
“Shouldn’t you? Seeing as you are the guide?”
She laughed. “I could walk this trail with my eyes closed, your highness.”
“Drop the highness, please. It wears on the ears. I’m just Tier.” He leaned on the railing, staring towards the shapes. They’d rarely been this clear, it worried him. Was he going insane? Or did the Seeress do something to his head? He glanced at Xin. She’d tipped her head to one side.
“The other nobles we brought up here, reminded us all the time that they were ‘Lord’ whatever it was.” She looked towards the stream. “As if they’d break if they weren’t reminded that they were nobility.”
“Titles are an empty comfort.” Tier shrugged. “I’m not my title.”
She nodded slowly. “Goodnight, Tier.” She turned and went back inside.
He was about to follow her but hesitated, staring out at the wispy spirits drifting closer and wavering in the wind.
When he finally did get back to his mat it took some time to get back to sleep and his dreams were dark and confusing, fading away rapidly when he woke. Outside birds sang, the horses nickered, and the old man complained bitterly about his sore joints. Tier stared up at the rafters, listening. Xin snapped at the old man, though he couldn’t make out what she said, Matau snarled something back which was followed by a clattering of dishes.
“I wish that old man would lose his voice.” Rale groaned from his bedroll. Tier glanced over at him.
“Just another day, maybe two.” Tier pushed himself up, head feeling stuffed full of straw.
“How do we find out if she’s an elemental?” Rale asked in a low voice. “The old man…”
Tier shrugged. “I have no idea.” He was at a loss. How was he supposed to convince the young woman to leave everything and everyone she knew? He didn’t want to think about what might happen to her once he delivered her and any other elementals he might find, to the Seeress. Pressure against his mind, Xin was doing it again. He scrambled from beneath his blanket but the pressure stopped before he managed to get to the door. He needed to catch her using her powers. It was the only way he could think of to broach the subject.
With a sigh he resigned himself to pack things up. It took little time to repack the night gear and grab the saddles. Rale followed him, tousled and looking blearily around.
“Gods, the sun isn’t even properly up.” he groaned. Running a hand through his hair.
“Bad night?” Tier asked as he made his way over to the horses. Rale followed, hesitantly taking one of the saddles from Tier. Tier watched his cousin fumble with the saddle blanket, pleased. At least he was trying to help instead of complaining. Perhaps there was hope for the nobleman after all.
“Dreams. We were back in the Oracle and the Seeress clawing through my head.” Rale grunted as he lifted the saddle to the horse’s back. “Every time I tried to sleep, it was the same thing. I can still feel it.” He pulled on the girth strap and stepped back with a satisfied grin. The grin turned to a frown as the saddle slid around the barrel of the horse, hanging upside-down. The horse grunted, swinging his head to look at Rale. Tier swallowed a chuckle, patting his cousin’s shoulder.
“Good, for a first try.” Tier moved over to the horse, showing Rale how to fix it.
Laughter from the cooking fire startled him. Tier glanced at Xin, who crouched by the fire, grinning at them.
“Do you realize how backwards that is?” She asked standing up with two plates in hand. “The prince teaching someone how to saddle a horse.” She handed Rale one of the plates.
“Hey, I’ve never done this before, I’ve always had…” Rale halted, blinking several times. Staring at the plate she handed him. “Eggs? Where’d you get eggs?”
Xin handed Tier the other plate. “Bird nest, kind of lucky, I thought all the birds had already hatched their eggs.”
Rale looked down at the eggs, prodding them with one finger. “These were going to hatch?”
“If I hadn’t gotten to them? Yes, most likely.” She smiled at him. “Enjoy.”
Tier hastily made his way to the porch, snickering at the horrified look on Rale’s face.
“He would be helpless if he were out here by himself.” Xin commented as she went back to the fire. Tier watched her. Water user, cook, guide, smartass. For a brief moment he wondered what she would look like in finery befitting a Lady of the court and squashed that thought. With her large blue-gray eyes, pale complexion, and dark hair, he had no doubts she would catch the attention of most of the nobles. Just the idea made him uneasy. He ate his food silently, forcing himself to look at anything, anywhere but their guide and her grandfather who scowled at him from his seat across the fire.
“Knowing that a little bird was going to hatch from this…” Rale said as he came over perching himself on one side.
“Rale, eat it, and be glad it isn’t boot leather.” Tier advised.
The road twisted around old washouts, downed trees, and boulders that had been carried from higher up the mountain by flash floods. Matau and Xin led them up to a steep gully gashed into the mountain. The road ran along the side of it.
“Come on.” Matau growled limping down the bank and into the gully itself. He half turned scowling at them. “What are you waiting for?”
Tier glanced towards Xin. She was rooted on the bank, looking up the gully.
“Matau, let’s go to the bridge up further. It’d be safer.” She pointed at the dark clouds higher up the mountain. “I don’t like the look of those clouds.”
“It would take longer, Xin. I’m tired, that road is rockier than this stream bed. Come on.” Matau was almost to the middle of the gully. Rale stepped into it. Tier glanced back at Xin.
“He’s right. It is faster.” She looked up the gully. “I hate it when he’s right. Come on.”
“You don’t look like you believe he’s right.” Tier said. She looked at him, nibbling her lower lip.
“Just be cautious.” She shrugged and picked her way down the bank into the gully. Tier glanced towards the clouds and followed.
They’d almost reached the point Matau said they’d need to climb to get back to the road when he heard a low rumble. Xin swore.
“Get out of the stream, now!” She stood in the center of the gully, staring up the stream. Tier was aware of the others scrambling up the bank. Water rushing downstream made the ground rumble beneath his feet. Tier grabbed the young woman’s arm intending to haul her up the river bank, but she batted his hand away.
“It won’t hurt me.” She mumbled, barely audible over the roar of the water. Tier stared at the water, mind numb. Xin lifted a hand, palm facing the wall of water. “Stop.”
The water paused, rippling. Tier blinked several times, aware of Rale yelling from the bank.
“Go around.” Tier barely heard her say it, but the water lurched to their right, pouring around them, taking the rocks, trees and other debris with it. Tier backed towards the bank, tugging at Xin’s arm. She stepped backward, hand still out, not looking away from the water.
“You’re a water elemental!” Rale said in a hushed voice when they joined him and Matau on the road.
Xin lowered her hand, her face pale as she looked at the old man.
“You…” Matau’s voice wavered. “You’re just like your mother.”
Tier rested his hand on the Xin’s shoulder. He didn’t need her running off now, they’d never be able to find her, she knew the area too well.
“Are you going to dispense justice then?” Matau, glared openly at Tier. “You should! She’s an elemental!”
“She’s your grandaughter!” Rale exclaimed, stepping towards the old man.
“That didn’t stop him when he went after my mother.” Xin looked up at Tier.
Matau swore. “You’re no kin of mine!” He threw the bag of coins to the ground at her feet.
“Matau,” Xin’s voice tugged at Tier.
“She just saved our lives, old man.” He snapped. Matau raised his walking stick, using it to point at Tier.
“The laws you enforce, that your people laid upon us, must be kept! How long before she does something to kill one of us? They’re inhuman, possessed!” He turned, waving his cane. “Get you gone, your highness, and take the demon with you. I have no granddaughter. I had no granddaughter!”
Tier dropped his hand.
“Are you going to kill me then?” She turned, looking at him. She crossed her arms.
“We actually,” Rale faltered, looking back and forth between them. “Uhm…”
“I need your help.” Tier said cautiously. She was glancing toward the trees, planning to make a run for it. He didn’t want to frighten her into running off. A crazy part of him wanted her to willingly go with them.
She frowned at him. “What kind of help?”
“I’ve been ordered by the Seeress to locate elementals.” The silence was broken only by the horses and the distant voice of the old man cursing them all.
“She didn’t say.” Tier glanced towards stream.
“You don’t question the Seeress. You do as she says.” Rale said quickly. “We’re supposed to find one of each, and bring them back to her.”
“And then what? What happens to them?” Xin looked back and forth between them.
“I don’t know.” Tier admitted. She looked away.
“If I go with you…”
“Just a traveling companion.” He watched her expression flicker from wary to angry, concerned, frightened. “I still need to get to the fortress.”
“Orders.” He said it before he thought, but he felt a twinge in his mind. Had his mind been tampered with? The Seeress was crawling around in his head back at the oracle. Had she left orders? He inwardly shuddered at the thought. Xin frowned at him. Tier didn’t flinch, didn’t look away. A loose strand of her hair had come loose from the bun, and fell across her face. It was distracting. He resisted the urge to push it behind her ear.
“I’ll go with you, as far as the fortress.” She said. She turned, pushing the offensive strand back behind her ear, and glanced back at him. “We keep following the road, gentlemen.”
Rale handed him the bag of coins Matau dropped. “That didn’t quite go as planned.”
Tier glanced at his cousin. “We had a plan?”
Rale scowled. “Figuratively speaking.” He led his horse past Tier.
Tier watched Xin for a moment, fascinated by the way she moved; the sunlight on her hair. He smothered a sigh. He was distracted. He couldn’t afford to be distracted. Not with the Seeress breathing down his neck, not with an impossible mission to complete. He took a few steps, still watching her, his horse butting his shoulder impatient to get moving.
“I’m an idiot.” he muttered under his breath.
The next chapter will be posted Tues, June 24th.
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