Disclaimer; Elemental Truth, the first of the Elemental Wars books, is in the final stages of editing. Hope you all enjoy it.*
The modest two level house sat atop a steep bluff overlooking the village to the south and the ocean to the east. A path along the side of the cliffs led to the beach below. In the back of the house was a small building and a grove of trees. Xin met them on the porch, nodding and pointing around back.
“The barn is back there, gentlemen.” She said meeting Tier’s gaze.
“Xin.” Matau’s voice was wearing on Tier’s ears. The man rattled on about people and scandals that meant nothing to him.
“This way.” Xin motioned them to follow, stepping from the porch without a glance back. She led them to the shed, which was surrounded by a fence in dire need of repair.
“Does he always talk that much?” Tier asked. Xin glanced up and him and grinned.
“Just think, your highness, three or four days of that.”
“Gods help us.” Tier muttered.
“Try living with it.” She snickered.
Tier led the horses into the small yard, making sure it was going to be secure enough. With the talk of bandits he wondered if there were any reports of raids. Behind him, Rale was attempting some small talk. Tier shook his head, his cousin had a lot to learn about traveling incognito.
“This place could use some work.” Rale commented.
“Matau’s too old to do the repairs, he won’t let me do it, and no one will come do them for us.” Xin shrugged. “So it falls apart.”
“Why won’t any anyone come up to help?” Rale asked. Xin stared at him. “Is it too far up the hill?”
Tier turned back to his horse, pulling the saddle and blanket from it’s back, and giving him a good scratch. The warhorse grunted, appearing to enjoy the attention. He listened for Xin’s response. The silence stretched, broken only by the nickering of the horses.
“None of your business.” Xin said.
Tier glanced around in time to see her walking back across the yard to the house. He frowned. It started sprinkling as they were coming up the hill, yet her clothes were dry. He stared. He wasn’t exactly soaked, but was a bit more moist than he liked. Xin’s clothes weren’t even wet. He rubbed the bridge of his nose.
“I was just trying to be friendly.” Rale said, interrupting his thoughts.
“After insulting her in the dunarch? Not a wise move, Rale.”
Rale opened his mouth then closed it. Tier shot him a dark look and pointed towards the other horse, still saddled. “It’s your turn to take care of your horse.”
They set their packs on shelves in the entry and stepped into the main room. It was cozy, a table set against a window, and a couple of wicker chairs. Against the back wall was a steep set of stairs going up to the upper level. Over near the stove were two simple narrow cots with coarse wool blankets folded neatly beside thin pillows. Matau took a seat at the table and motioned them over. Sitting in front of him was a large sand tray which he tapped. Tier smiled, he’d seen these in other out-laying regions of the empire, a tray about a finger deep that was used to draw out maps. Parchment, paper, those things were for the elite, the rich. Far too expensive for the commoners.
“This is the path up the mountain,” Matau used a gnarled finger to draw in the sand. “It gets steep and winds through trees and by cliffs.”
“And the bandits?” Rale was asking.
“Some say they live in caves near the Vourn road that takes you to Delebeg.” Matau said. “They avoid the Keep itself, but will attack anyone who looks like they’d be carrying anything of value.” He peered at Rale. “The keep is haunted, and they usually avoid it.”
“That’s what you said.” Rale looked doubtful.
“Aye, and it’s true! The spirits are not friendly, not happy.” Matau sniffed. “Most men disbelieve until they’re faced with the vengeful souls of the keep.”
“Some say the ghosts get hungry at night.” Xin added in a dramatic voice, passing by with a couple travel bags. She tossed them into the entryway and wiped her hands. “They say at night, you can hear the screams the murdered souls.”
“Murdered?” Tier asked.
“When Nekar took the Keep.” Matau pinned an unfriendly look at him. “Many innocents died that day.”
“Pshaw, superstition.” Rale snorted. “They probably just heard the wind in their sleep.”
“There are far too many accounts of the ghosts, my lord, for it to be just superstition.” Xin said with a sniff.
“I was taught that Dhaul was the seat of power for the Water Elementals back before the Elemental war.” Tier said. “That was generations ago.”
“True. But their legacy lives on, your highness. In the descendants of the survivors.” Matau stabbed a finger in the direction of the mountain. “They ruled from up there. They say that in the valley and along the coast, there were never floods nor droughts. Always enough rain, not too much, not too little. And they joined the other elementals in battling against the Seeress. That’s why the Nekarian Emperor attacked. The elementals were far too dangerous and conspiring against the Seeress. So they came and wiped out the elementals.” He sniffed. “They’re all gone now, no more elementals. Funny, last year a couple men came from Nekar asking about the fortress and the Elementals.” He peered at them, brows pulling together. “You aren’t looking for any, are you?”
“They’re extinct. You could look your whole life and not find any. Right?” Tier asked sitting back.
“Mostly.” The old man leaned forward, his voice dropping to a conspirators whisper. “But every few generations one will crop up. Oh we find them, eventually. They can never hide for long. When we do, we dispatch them.” He leaned back nodding.
“Dispatch?” Rale frowned. “Kill them, you mean.”
“Nekarian law.” Xin said softly. “No elementals are allowed to live. Surely you of all people are aware of this.”
Rale opened his mouth and closed it again. He looked baffled. Tier almost felt sorry for him.
“Rules are the rules. In fact,” Matau gave a bark of humorless laughter, pointing in Xin’s direction. “Her mother was one.”
Tier looked at her startled. She scowled but met his gaze. The rain hadn’t touched her. Could she be a water elemental?
“They chased her out of town with rocks.” She said blandly. “Swift justice, though they couldn’t catch her.”
“What happened to her?” Tier asked.
“She went into the sea and never came back out.” Matau sniffed again. “They say there are other elementals. That they crop up in the old regions their ancestors were from.”
“Interesting.” Tier tried to feign indifference. Xin was staring at him with narrowed eyes.
“So you are just going to look at the Keep?” She asked.
“Imperial business.” Rale said quickly. “No need to worry.”
“Imperials? On the road with no guards? I’m still finding that hard to understand” She said. “Isn’t it a bit dangerous for imperials, especially the royal household, to travel without a guard?”
“Have you ever heard of the Youskin Charge?” Rale asked, a touch of aggravation in his voice. He pointed at Tier. “He doesn’t need a guard.”
Xin’s eyebrows arched as she looked at him. “Impressive.”
“You don’t seem that impressed.” Rale said petulantly. Tier chuckled, he couldn’t help it.
“Rale,” Tier began.
“Should I be milord?” Xin leaned forward. “Aside from traveling like poor peasants…”
“Xin.” Matau barked.
“Yes Matau?” She asked sweetly, wide eyed. They locked gazes in what Tier guessed was a frequent contest.
Matau glared. “Are the provisions ready?”
“I think so.” She leaned against the counter and addressed them, looking at Tier as she spoke. “It’s a day and a half up the mountain to the Fortress, I could walk it in my sleep. But if you don’t know the way, you’ll never find it. The old roads have been overgrown, the new ones aren’t well traversed in this area, and the bandit issue is very real. They usually stay on the other side of the keep, but they have been known to come closer to the village. I hope you know how to use the swords you wield, you’re going to need them.”
Tier kicked Rale before he could jump on the comment. She was being serious.
“How do you manage?” He asked.
“They’ve never bothered me.” She shrugged.
“They’re still afraid of her mother.” Matau added. Xin rolled her eyes.
“At least they look the part of the seasoned travelers, unlike the last two. Well at least he does.” she nodded towards Tier. She looked at Rale. “He’d be dragon fodder…”
“Xin.” the warning tone from Matau. She flashed a smile at them. “I suggest you get some sleep gentlemen. It’s a steep walk. Goodnight Matau, gentlemen.” She turned and made her way towards the stairs.
Tier watched her and looked back at the sand tray, barely hearing Rale and Matau. When they finished Tier excused himself, to check on the horses and to think.
The rain had stopped, and the clouds thinned. Down the hill the village was quiet and dark. In the distance waves crashed onto an unseen beach. The rising moon cast dark shadows, giving the place an eerie, abandoned air.
Towering above him, a great dark shadow against the velvet sky, was the ancient Fortress of Dhaul, hereditary home of the Water Elementals. Except for the odd phenomena of no water on Xin, nothing he’d seen indicated the presence of any elementals in this region. Not in the other villages they’d passed through, not in this one. Why had the Seeress pointed him in this direction? He rubbed the bridge of his nose.
This was crazy. He’d been taught from childhood that there were no more elementals, he’d never given the rumors he’d heard a second thought. It wasn’t possible, everyone knew that. Yet the Seeress said there were hidden elementals. Hiding and waiting to strike. If there were, why hadn’t his tutors told him about it? They taught what the Seeress taught them. It didn’t make sense, none of it did. If he hadn’t given his word he’d walk away from it. But he had, and it was far different thinking back of the meeting with the Seeress than it was being there.
He was about to go back to the house when he heard a sound. A door opening, perhaps? A figure darted from behind the house and down the narrow pathway towards the bluff. He followed at a distance, silently. It was Xin, and she made her way down the path as one who had done so many times. He hesitated following her as she went towards the beach. A rendezvous perhaps? Secret lover? He shook his head. None of his business. He was about to go back to the house when he felt something, a pressure pressing against his head, a ripple through his mind. Similar to what he’d felt in the Seeress’s presence. He halted, trying to pin point where it came from.
He felt it again, coming from the direction of the beach. He crouched, edging toward the bluff, looking down at the beach. She had dropped the cloak, her long skirt and pale shirt glowing in the moonlight. She reached up and fiddled with her hair, which fell loose. Tier felt the sensation again and for a brief moment it looked like a wave surged upwards towards her, hesitated a heartbeat, then crashed against the sand. Tier scooted closer shaking his head.
“Impossible.” He startled himself saying it aloud. His heart pounded and he half expected her to turn around and see him, though he was certain he hadn’t been heard over the crashing waves. The water did it again. And again, each time accompanied by the pressure in his head. He didn’t know how, but he was certain Xin was controlling the water.
The realization crashed over him. She was a water elemental. His mind went numb. By law he should have her put to death. By the Seeress’s command he needed to convince her to go with him and Rale. He watched her as she lifted her arms over her head again, a large circular blob of water lifted and then floated through the air, matching the movements of her hands. He should be repulsed, put off, angered but instead he watched fascinated. He shook himself, crept back to the house.
He hesitated in the entry, gathering himself, trying to sort his thoughts. When he joined Rale at the table, his cousin frowned at him. Asking him where he’d been. Tier just shook his head, Matau’s unfriendly gaze on them. Their guide was a water elemental, and he had no idea how to convince her to accompany them.
The next chapter will be posted Thursday, June 12th.
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(c) 2014 Necia Phoenix