By the time dawn swept the horizon with creeping fingers of red and orange, the chestnut horse had reached the outskirts of a city that spread along the coast, white buildings rising above the sea level like row upon row of blocky teeth. Eiri peeled his eyes open, swiping at the gummy corners, and took a good look at the first city he'd ever seen.
"The buildings are so close and crowded," he said, squinting as the sunlight bounced off of the ocean.
The ocean! That had been the morning's main attraction, Kelarion shaking his shoulder some time, perhaps an hour ago, to point out the widening stretch of endless deep blue. Eiri had strained his eyes to see it in the dim light. He could hear it, feel it, and now finally see it as well. It swelled at the edge of the horizon and his mind with a sense of vastness, of ever-shifting permanence, a contradiction that intrigued and puzzled him.
"That's how things are built in the city," Kelarion replied, nudging the chestnut into a faster pace. "Everyone rubs elbows with everyone else. It's not like the farmland you grew up on, where every household is an island. You'll see how different everything is soon enough."
Eiri nodded, picking out details of the city as they grew closer. Most of the houses had squared-off tops, but some had red-tiled roofs. Eiri stared into the distance, towards the sea. In the distance, he could make out what looked like a forest of bald trees.
"That's the harbor in the distance," Kelarion told him, pointing. "That's where the ships sail to and from."
The boy nodded, feeling his stomach knot. So they were here, then. This was Kelarion's destination. He wasn't sure if he was relieved or scared.
As they came into the city there was little movement on the streets. Most people, it seemed, were still in their homes when on the farm they would have been out working already. He looked curiously around at the people, surprised at how many were brown or dark-skinned. He'd never seen people with such brown skin before and now there was a whole city of them here. "Are these people part of my country, too?" Eiri inquired.
"We're still in the Queen's land, yes," Kelarion replied. "Your country is a lot more mixed than you realize, and probably bigger than you have any idea. Some are from different lands, but most have been here all their lives."
"And you?" Eiri asked, trying to slip the question in on him. "Have you been here all your life?"
"No," Kelarion replied, and changed the subject. "Now, the first thing we do when I stop--"
"Will be to find an inn and lock me in?" Eiri said, almost resigned to the prospect. "Or...are you going to sell me?" He was suddenly afraid again, looking around the streets that were more unkempt and trashy than they had seemed from a great distance. It was entirely possible, he supposed, especially if Kelarion was running low on money and needed to buy his passage north.
"No," Kelarion returned, "first I'm going to tether the horse somewhere and find someplace that will buy what little valuables I've got left." He shifted and patted a saddlebag. "It was impossible to sell anything between the capital and here, but now I've got a few investments to cash in on."
Eiri nodded and continued to look around the city. They were passing into better-kept quarters now, and a few people were up and around, sweeping stoops, throwing water into the streets, watering plants that hung in windows and the like. The street broadened from narrow and cramped to slightly less narrow and cramped, with room for two horses now. There was refuse collected in the gutters, but not as much in the street now.
He decided that he didn't like cities, even though he'd only seen a fraction of this one. But the clean sea breeze swirling between buildings and sweeping across his face was almost enough to make up for it.
"Are you going to keep me tethered with the horse?" Eiri asked abruptly.
Kelarion stiffened, and he could almost sense the sharp look the youko was giving him. "No, you'll stay beside me."
"Oh," Eiri said with a nod, injecting surprise into that one syllable.
Kelarion growled and tugged on one of Eiri's ears. "Watch it, boy. If I lock you in it's for a reason."
"It would help if you let me know the reason," Eiri shot back. "If you did, maybe I wouldn't try to scream the door down."
"Maybe I don't consider myself accountable to a child," Kelarion said, and the comment stung Eiri enough to shut him up for several measures.
The youko turned the chestnut's head, leading them down a narrower street. They were entering a quarter of shabby buildings, paint peeling, stones chipped, with more trash in the gutters that lined the streets. There were more people abroad on the stone margins of the streets, though, most of them hurrying around with preoccupied looks on their faces. Some of the buildings or store-fronts had wooden poles in front that, he presumed, a person would hitch a horse to while they did business. Many of the buildings had awnings in bright or faded colors.
They came to a halt in front of a shop cramped between two others in the same building. It had a dusty green awning with a ragged edge, and the windows in the storefront were clouded dark glass.
"Let's go," Kelarion said abruptly, after securing the horse. He carried one of the saddlebags and had Eiri carry the other one in after him.
Inside, the shop was murky and dim. It was permeated with a sharp-scented smoke, almost bitter, that tickled Eiri's nose as he inhaled it. It smelled like some kind of unfamiliar spice. The shop was cluttered with shelves and tables and Eiri stepped carefully behind Kelarion. Everything looked foreign and expensive to his unrecognizing eyes.
"So, you've come to our humble establishment again, Mihall."
Eiri looked up, startled, as they moved further into the shop. He hadn't seen the counter before, blocked as it had been by shelves and tapestries hung from the ceiling. It was a woman's voice, hoarse but not unpleasant.
He caught up to the youko and got his first clear look behind the counter. There was a woman seated behind it on a stool, paring at a piece of fruit with a small sharp knife. Her long bleached hair was half caught back in a multitude of thin braids that furrowed over her scalp and were pinched at the crown of her head with a gold clasp. Her face was thin, somewhat pointy with a beaky nose dominating, but she wasn't ugly; her skin was brown, more than tan.
"Couldn't stay away for too long, I suppose," Kelarion said with a shrug.
The woman leaned forward, green eyes sharp with curiosity. She was older, looking older than Kelarion by about ten or fifteen years, but not nearly Fiona's age. "Well, Mihall, you're picking 'em up younger and younger these days."
"Don't be ridiculous," Kelarion said curtly.
Eiri was surprised to see a woman behind the counter in the shop. From the way Fiona and all of the Bransson's daughters acted on the farm, he hadn't realized women could take on jobs like men. None of the women in Dickenston owned shops or businesses, even though many of the girls worked side by side with the boys until they grew old enough to be married. It only emphasized how many things he didn't know.
He thought of how little he knew about Kelarion, too, as the woman called him by yet another name. He wondered what the youko's real name was.
"I've got some stuff to sell," Kelarion continued, dumping one of his saddlebags on her counter. Eiri hovered in the background, the other saddlebag in his arms.
The woman gave a hoarse-sounding laugh. "Figured you would. You haven't changed a bit, even if I haven't seen you here since I was a good deal younger." She licked her lips, then leaned forward to open the bag. She glanced at Eiri, and her eyes were penetrating, looking him up and down. "You'd make more money selling him, you know."
"Not a chance," Kelarion said, voice sharp, then added more blandly, "Slavery is illegal, Maria." He gave the name a liquid, rolling sound.
Maria laughed again. "Of course it is." Now her eyes appraised Kelarion.
The youko pushed back his hood, but didn't untie his ears. "So? What can you give me?"
The blonde woman glanced through the saddlebag, poking at an item here and there, then leaned back and named a sum that broadsided Eiri. "You expect me to fence your loot for you, Mihall? It's not so easy to sell this kinda stuff outside the capital, you know, or a major center of commerce."
Kelarion snorted. "Please. Don't give me excuses. This is a major center of commerce." He raised the price by a significant figure and Eiri's brows shot up into his hairline. The prices they were talking were out of his league; they were astronomical, and not only had he never seen so much money in his life, he had no clear conception of how much it was.
"Come on, for a saddlebag of courtesan's trinkets?" Maria scoffed. She clucked her tongue. "You may rely on your acquaintance with my family, Mihall, but friendship is one thing and business is another."
"These aren't just any courtesan's trinkets, Maria," Kelarion said archly. He took a step closer to the counter. "But I think you already suspected that, hmm?" Reaching across the counter, the youko touched the woman's wrist. His golden-brown hair slid over one shoulder.
Eiri was surprised Kelarion hadn't denied the charge she'd made about his occupation. Was it true? He remained still in the background as the youko spoke to the blonde in a low voice. Had Kelarion been the Queen's courtesan, and was that why he'd run away when she discovered he was sleeping with her son?
Maria laughed, the sound husky and somehow fitting into the smoke-wreathed interior of the dim shop, wrapping around him like incense. "You drive a hard bargain, Mihall."
"Of course." Though Kelarion's tone was light, Eiri could sense that feeling of bitterness that waited below the surface for a chance to erupt. "Do we have a deal?"
Maria got up from her stool behind the counter and moved through the shop, giving Kelarion a lingering glance. "Only fifteen minutes?"
"Time is money, my dear."
The blonde woman chuckled. She flipped a sign in the window, trading one set of unreadable symbols for another. She brushed against Eiri on the way back; touched his shoulder and flicked a glance over him again.
Eiri took a step back and clutched the saddlebags. The way she looked at him made him feel uncomfortable, as if her very eyes touched things on him that she shouldn't.
"Stay here," Kelarion told him, fixing him with a flat gaze that shimmered with faint copper radiance in the dim shop. Maria took the youko by the wrist and drew him further into the shop, chuckling again in a way that made Eiri's chest feel tight. It was an expectant sort of laugh.
"Right," Eiri muttered, but he had a feeling the youko didn't even hear him.
Somewhere in the back of the shop, a door creaked shut.
Eiri let the saddlebag drop from his hands. He stepped over it, looking around the shop with unrestrained curiosity now.
The shop was crowded with shelves, and he concentrated on examining what they held as if his life depended on it. Most of the things for sale seemed to be items, small statuettes, packets of incense, chimes made of thin-beaten metal, delicate creatures made of crystal. Glass cases on a pair of low tables held glittering jewelry inside. There were books against the far wall, old leather-bound volumes; another wall held a hanging rack of rugs and tapestries made from materials Eiri couldn't identify. The shop seemed crowded and exotic to him as he wandered from one shelf of foreign-seeming items to another.
From the back of the shop came the sound of a woman's laughter, unrestrained.
Eiri clenched his fists and moved from one standing case of shelves to another. He found a row of fox sculptures. They all had eyes made of topaz stones. He moved further, and found one made from some kind of metal. It was sitting up in an alert pose, and something about its tail was odd. It had more than one...no, it had several.
His hand went to the medallion around his neck.
"What are you doing?"
Eiri started, nearly dropping the little fox sculpture. He set it back on the shelf and turned. "Just looking," he said cautiously.
Kelarion had his cloak thrown over his shoulder and he looked uncommonly satisfied. "Don't touch anything. We're leaving soon." It was in his voice, too. The youko was feeling smug.
Eiri opened his mouth to retort but a particularly sharp glance from the youko made him think twice. He looked over at Maria, who was re-seating herself behind the counter with a lazy grace she hadn't showed before.
Her green eyes moved over Eiri. "You sure I can't make an offer for him?" she asked. She smiled at him slowly, wetting her lips with her tongue.
Eiri glanced away quickly, cheeks heating. Maria laughed again.
"The boy's not for sale. Not even after that," Kelarion replied cheerfully. "Now, let's finish our little transaction so I can be on my way."
Money changed hands and so did the items in the saddlebag. Eiri shouldered his own burden again as the youko donned his scarf and cloak. As he moved for the door Kelarion touched his shoulder to guide him out.
"Don't touch me!" Eiri jerked away and glared up at him. He was upset for a mess of reasons he couldn't sort through. The implication he could be sold so casually was unsettling. Having both of them treat him like a simpleton was another. To be told to stay in a corner and keep his hands to himself...
Kelarion said nothing, merely grinned in an infuriating manner and held up his hands.
As they left the items shop, Maria was laughing behind them.
"He's got spirit. I wish you well."
"Don't get the wrong idea," Kelarion retorted, pausing to wave his hand. "The kid's like a little brother to me."
Eiri returned to the chestnut horse mad enough to bite something.
By the time the streets were truly busy they had found an inn to stay at. It was a tavern on the first floor, rooms on the second and third. Kelarion had him wait outside while he got the room, and this time Eiri waited without incident. A few women passed and gave him curious glances that reminded him of Maria sizing him up; the half-dozen or so men who went into the tavern didn't even give him a first look.
"I'm going out," Kelarion said without preamble once they were in the upstairs room and the youko shut the door behind him.
"What about me?" Eiri said, aghast, dropping the saddlebags. Stairs had been a new experience for him and his knees were creaking. He squared off to confront the youko. Maybe Kelarion expected him to wander the streets when he left for his passage north?
"You're staying here," Kelarion told him.
"No, I mean what's going to happen to me?" Eiri was reaching the limit. He was tired, hungry, and he hadn't bathed in days. They were reaching the end of the time Kelarion had said he would look out for him, and still there was no other alternative for Eiri but to look to the youko for guidance. He had a sudden fright. "You are going to sell me, aren't you?"
"I'm not going to sell you!" Kelarion snarled, turning in a whirl of tan cloak. "Now just stay here and be quiet for a few hours!" He opened one of the saddlebags Eiri had been carrying.
Eiri moved over to the window, restlessness and fear making his movements stiff. "When will you be back?"
"We'll see." There was rustling behind him. "There's food in this top one. Keep your hands out of the second one."
"Like I care what you're hiding!" Eiri snapped.
There was silence.
Eiri turned, stretching a hand out. "Wait, I'm sorry..." The door was closing, and a cloak swished out of its path. "Kelarion, wait! WAIT! Don't shut me up in here again!" He banged up against the door as the youko finished closing it.
"Eiri, just be quiet and be good." Kelarion's voice was tired on the other side of the wooden door.
The boy muttered something incoherent and distressed, banging his fists against the panel. His temples swelled with an ache that grew behind his eyes, and suddenly he couldn't hear anything on the other side of the door; the sound of Kelarion's boots on the floor cut off, and the absence of any other background noise was obvious in its lack.
He backed away and stared at the door. How did he do that?
After a moment, Eiri returned to the window. He could see the figure of the youko crossing the street, then disappearing beyond the edge of the window. Eiri tried to pry the window open but it wouldn't budge.
Magic, Kelarion had said a couple of nights ago. But how could that be true? Magic wasn't the same as the things that happened in Eiri's head, the spells that preceded real events, or feeling the wind or the earth or the sea. Magic was...well, it was magic. It involved affecting the world without a physical cause, and Eiri wasn't sure it was possible.
Then again, he'd been unaware many things were possible before he left Dickenston.
There was a basin in the corner of this room, too, a larger one with a supply of water beneath the stand. Eiri stripped and cleaned himself up. He missed the running water behind the Bransson's house. There had been a river nearby and the Bransson's grandfather had diverted a part of it to use for the household.
Still, he could make himself less grimy and he did. There was no place to toss the water, so he left the bucket of dirty water beside the stand. Kelarion could deal with it when he came back.
Eiri combed his hair out with his fingers. It reached below his shoulders now, and mostly-clean it was a soft fall of auburn. His own hair reminded him of the fox in the fire. He thought his father's hair had been about this color, if it had been a true dream and not a normal one, but in his dream the man's hair had been lighter, more true red.
He picked over the food in the saddlebag next. There wasn't much to do but eat and wait for Kelarion to come back. The sun wasn't even high in the sky yet, so he knew it could be awhile. Eiri brought food over to the window and watched people passing by. The people here wore colorful clothing. There were dark-skinned people, light-skinned people, and as many women as men...not to mention, many of the women wore trousers.
He watched them passing in the street and wished he could hear the activity as well as see it. That indicated more than anything that Kelarion had done something -- there was no sound coming through the thin glass window at all.
Shortly after he finished eating, he felt his eyelids drag with each blink. It had been a long night, most of it sleepless as they had been either riding, or outdoors.
Eiri turned down the bedcovers and slept.
He came awake some time later, hearing a click at the door. His head felt fuzzy and he was still half-living a haze of confused dreams. "Kelarion?" he called out, pushing up from the bed.
The ache exploded in his head, spiking through his temples, making him cry out. The room felt like it was spinning around him.
Eiri half stood, half fell out of bed, angry and determined to catch the youko this time at whatever he was doing. As he moved to the door he saw that, as always, it was unlatched. It swung open, nearly catching him in the face. He dodged and plowed into a tall figure just outside; the man gripped him by the arms.
"I thought so," said a voice, accented and melodious.
Eiri looked up. "You're not Kelarion," he stated unnecessarily, craning his head to meet the pale golden eyes of a tall, uncloaked youko. A thrill of excitement ran through him. He recognized this person. "It's you!" This was the fox from the fire.
"It is I," the youko said with a faint smile. He had long bleached-blond hair and his tufted fox-ears stuck up unfettered, looking silvery in the dim light. "You must be Eiri. I am Dorrado."
The street was filled with a sea of summer-weight fabrics, unbleached white and dun and gray, as well as brighter colors for those who could afford them. Kelarion pulled his hood further up to shadow his face and tried not to feel inconspicuous. It was impossible.
He'd never been on the run before. As such, he feared he was making a horrible botch of it. Any moment, the Queen's Knights would swoop down on him like hawks felling prey and it would be over. In retrospect, it might have been better if he'd gone as the youko he was, rather than trying to disguise it. He might have been able to find a party of people and get himself hired on, or barter passage... It was too late to think on it; he was here in the home stretch. Soon he'd sail out for the North.
It was the matter of 'how soon' that might get him caught yet.
The afternoon had been singularly unproductive. Kelarion had been searching since he'd left the Glass Rose for a vessel making passage north. So far, he'd found three ships that couldn't leave yet because they didn't have enough cargo, and one that was booked and sailing on the next tide, with no room for additional passengers.
At least his morning had yielded something. Maria had given him fair prices for his loot, though she'd expected something extra on the side, like her mother before her. Still, she was the only game in town if he wanted to fence the items for anything near what they were worth, and so he put out. Even so, it made him feel like a whore.
Not a whore, part of him corrected automatically. A courtesan, and a highly paid one at that... The Queen had valued him as more than just a courtesan; he had served her well for many years of political intrigue and cutthroat, uncertain times as a bedmate to ambassadors and the like. He'd also served in the capacity of mage and assassin.
Of course, their years of successful partnership were overturned the instant she discovered he was sleeping with her son and only Heir. The Queen had viewed the relationship as a betrayal, as Tori had warned. She could be fair and objective in politics, in her rule, but not in regard to her Heir. And so Kelarion had fled.
He had lost everything.
During the days before he'd reached the edge of the Bransson fields near Dickenston, it had taken all of his energy to break the concerted searches of the few poorly-disciplined mages and petty wizards the Queen had on her payroll. Kelarion had exhausted his energies and it would take time to replenish them, but he took satisfaction from the fact that his enemies had been even more depleted. He was clear and safe from pursuit in that respect.
The only thing he had to worry about was the certainty of Knights catching up with him...
Kelarion turned the corner and pulled up sharp. Ahead of him on the docks, a pair of men in chain mail and the Queen's colors were questioning a sailor. Terror ran cold through him in what was nearly a bodily spasm; he turned tail and literally fled.
They were here. They were HERE! Looking for him!
For a moment he was still, leaning up against the wall, catching at his figurative breath which seemed to have fled along with his wits. Think. THINK, Kelarion! The first thing he had to do was get back to the inn, and Eiri. He couldn't leave the boy behind, and didn't want to. For one thing, aside from any personal charm he had there was too much raw potential in Eiri for him to be left alone to the mercy of Fate. He had to hurry, and...and try not to panic.
He would die before he'd be captured again.
"...and he's been keeping me shut up in the rooms every time we stay at an inn; he uses something...some kind of force, I don't know what, to keep me penned in. I don't know what it is but it drives me mad!" Eiri finished up, barely pausing to finish swallowing his mouthful of fish before speaking. "It is magic, Dorrado, isn't it? I thought that was impossible."
"I see..." the youko said, golden eyes narrowing.
Dorrado was very much unlike Kelarion, Eiri could discern that much in the brief period since he'd met the other youko. There was an ageless quality of calm about the youko...he seemed older for reasons Eiri couldn't quite put his finger on. He had long hair of a shade that was such a light blond it seemed white most of the time. His eyes were large and steady, a shade of pale yellow that regarded him with a great deal of composure. Those eyes had inspired immediate trust in Eiri.
Eiri chased the last bits of sauce with a hunk of bread and thought of something else. "Dorrado? How did you find me?" The youko's earlier answer was unsatisfying. He had listened patiently to everything Eiri had said, but so far no explanations were forthcoming.
"I heard you calling," Dorrado replied. His voice was accented, and it was clear that the common tongue wasn't his first language. That faint frown was still between his silvery brows. "I suppose it was when he locked you in that it started. Then you reached for me, yourself, and I was drawn to you."
"Oh," Eiri said with a frown of his own. He felt like he was missing a part of the conversation. "Was it all in our minds? I mean, I thought I imagined it."
"Yes," Dorrado said simply. He glanced around the tavern. At this time of day there weren't many people, but the barmaids were eyeing him covetuously as if he were a delicacy they wanted to eat. "I will explain it to you later, Eiri, when we're no longer quite so crowded. I promise." There was an earth-steady assurance in his words.
"Thank you," Eiri said, already relieved. Still, he was frightened for what would happen. "Dorrado...Kelarion says he's leaving for the North, but I don't know what's going to happen to me."
"I am taking you with me, of course," Dorrado said, turning back to him, a silvery brow raised as if that was to be assumed already. "As for Kelarion...we will see. I think he will find his plans have changed unexpectedly."
"What do you mean?"
The door banged open and shut. Most of the people in the inn stopped what they were doing to glance around, or stare. A tall, hooded figure was sweeping through the common room, then jerked to a halt.
Eiri lifted a hand in a weak attempt at a wave, feeling he'd been spotted. He was in Dorrado's company now. Why did he still feel a shiver of apprehension when he saw the youko Kelarion? Rather than flying into a rage, surely he'd be glad to be rid of him.
"What are you doing here, Mairisson?" the hooded figure hissed, gliding up to the table he was sharing with Dorrado. Eiri saw his eyes beneath the hood, drew himself up straight in defiance of the anger there, and watched as Kelarion's gaze flicked from him to the youko. Anger dissolved into confusion. "Who..." Then, strangest of all, resignation.
"Dorrado," was all the youko said, then unleashed unexpected fury. "You, of all youko who should know what the humans do to us based on tales and hearsay alone, how dare you? You buy this boy, you lock him up, you take him with you across the country as you flee pursuers...the only thing worse would have been kidnapping him!"
"Who d'you think you are--" Kelarion began, eyes blazing, but Dorrado cut him off.
"There is not much time," the pale-haired youko said abruptly. "We must leave now. I have a horse waiting; I assume you have one as well?"
At Kelarion's amazed nod, he stood. Eiri rose from his chair too, nearly tipping it over in his haste.
"Let us get your things, and go," Dorrado suggested.
"You're coming with us?" Kelarion said, suspicious, off-guard.
"You mistake me," Dorrado returned, lips curving, not a smile, not quite a grimace either. "You are coming with us, Youko Kelarion."
"Home," was the serene reply.
Eiri noted that Kelarion blanched, and filed it away for later reference. "What's going on?" he asked, not really expecting an answer. He was almost getting used to being hauled around wherever he was told to go.
"Our friend has some people searching for him," Dorrado told him, golden eyes clear and gentle, regarding Eiri. "He is coming with us. Right now, I think, it would be dangerous for him to go North."
Kelarion was already heading for the stairs.
"We're leaving again?" Eiri said, disappointed. He was sick of horses. He wanted to be on his own two feet for at least a few days at a time.
"I am sorry, Eiri," Dorrado said, resting a hand on his shoulder. "It would be best if they do not find him here, so we leave at once."
"Once we get..." Eiri paused, unsure of how much to say, "where we're going...will you explain things to me? There's a lot Kelarion hasn't told me, I know."
"Even sooner than that," Dorrado promised.
And after this was over, Eiri vowed, he wouldn't even look another horse in the face for a very long time.
"In the beginning, we were more like the humans."
Eiri sat fascinated, arms wrapped around sun-browned legs as he listened to the fabric of history Dorrado wove for him with his softly-accented voice. The fire burned low beside them and strips of meat sizzled drops of fat onto the logs; their dinner, and Dorrado had caught it himself. Eiri had never seen anyone use a crossbow to hunt before, and the youko's aim was fluid and true. Put together with sharp smoky cheese and bread from his pack, it would be a filling meal. Already he admired Dorrado's resourcefulness, and now the youko would reveal the secrets Kelarion had kept from him.
The boy glanced across the fire, at the darkness that lurked beyond the cheerily-crackling flames. Kelarion was there on the other side, glowering. Every time their eyes met, Kelarion's flicked away.
Fine, Eiri thought, looking over at Dorrado's fine-boned hands adjusting the spits. Kelarion could go off into his moods for all he cared.
"We didn't look as we do now. No fox ears, nor tails. But we did have power, and that set us apart from the humans."
Their flight from the city hadn't been near so frantic as he expected. Dorrado had arranged it all. Acting casually, they had hooked up with a group of theatre performers that traveled from city to city, and this one was leaving today for the next coastal town. Both of the youko had hidden their ears with multi-colored rag turbans and, though Kelarion had said he was being chased, they'd seen nothing of the Queen's Knights. Eiri had been almost disappointed; he wanted to see what they were like.
Dorrado had brought an extra horse along. He'd said it was for Eiri, and the boy wondered how he had known. Tomorrow he would learn to ride.
The pale-haired youko continued to speak. "And the need to Bond, of course; that has been a part of our race--"
"That's a load of horse shit," Kelarion interrupted harshly, from across the fire.
Dorrado glanced up, his look sharp, his large eyes gleaming with eerie iridescence in the dim lighting. "Oh?" was all he said, posture wary.
"Yes," Kelarion asserted, stretching out on his side in what seemed a comfortable sprawl. "I'm not going to let you fill the boy's head with that crap. The Bond is a stupid physical compulsion, not some mystical connection between two life-mates." In the flickering illumination of the flames, Eiri could see his sneer.
"I will not listen to you belittle the most important connection a youko can form with another living being," Dorrado said quietly, tautly. "Not from you. Not in front of this boy."
Kelarion half-pushed himself up, glaring at the other youko. His eyes flicked to Eiri. His expression was mixed, conflicted, and too altogether complicated to read. "Fine," he managed, and leapt to his feet. "Tell him whatever the flying fuck you want." He spat into the fire; it sizzled. Kelarion moved off into the darkness beyond the circle the fire could reach.
Eiri was shocked into silence. He stared at Dorrado numbly.
With a sigh, the youko turned from the fire to him. His large golden eyes were sympathetic. "I am sorry."
"Why should you be sorry?" Eiri blurted. "Kelarion's the one being an ass. He's been changing his mind, and his mood, since the first day I met him."
"I see." Dorrado began to move spits from the fire.
From the glimpse Eiri had caught in his dream, he wondered how hard it had been for Kelarion to leave the capital. There was a lot he had left out of the story, that much Eiri could fathom. But sometimes he felt helplessly as if all he understood was how much he was failing to grasp.
"He told you something of the Bonding, I gather?" Dorrado said casually, handing him bread and cheese on a half-folded cloth.
Eiri nodded. Kelarion had mentioned it...but getting those questions answered wasn't the most pressing of concerns. "Dorrado...I don't know anything about youko, and Kelarion hasn't told me much," he said in a rush. "It's confusing me, I don't know, I...well, what I really want to know is, what's going to happen to me?"
Dorrado blinked, looked at him, and for a moment Eiri thought he was going to frown. Instead he smiled. "I am sorry, Eiri...I am starting to tell you about youko history when you surely wonder where your fate lies."
Eiri nodded, drawing himself into a cross-legged position closer to the youko. "I've been afraid," he admitted. "Scared that...well, at first no one at the Bransson farm wanted me, much, then I was sure Kelarion didn't want me, and now..."
"I am taking you to our home, to the Stronghold," Dorrado replied.
Something in those words triggered a flash of recognition. A smoky bar, extravagant tales, the sweep of a cloaked arm and hypnotic copper-gold eyes...and the images that spun in the air between them. He remembered them, and with a little more insight than he'd had then, he thought that he had probably seen what Kelarion had seen. He remembered when the youko's mind had slammed shut, and now he was a little wiser to exactly what had happened back then.
"Stronghold...does it have anything to do with a giant gray-green cliff face?" Eiri ventured.
Dorrado's eyes narrowed. For a split second Eiri was frightened before the youko smiled broadly. "Excellent...you do have true potential," he said softly.
"Oh, I didn't see anything just now," Eiri scrambled to set him straight. "A while back, Kelarion was talking about places he had been. One of the places I saw in my head was a rocky cliff-face...and Kelarion seemed upset that I had seen it."
"Hmm." Dorrado rubbed at his chin with his strong slender fingers. "That is partly what I mean by potential."
Eiri was confused but he shrugged it off. He was hungry, and the hunger was immediate, while the confusion was a perpetual state these days.
"I promise once we arrive at Stronghold your questions will be better answered," Dorrado said, as if reading his thoughts. Well, the youko probably was.
"What's going to happen to me at Stronghold?" Eiri persisted.
"We will train you," was the calm reply.
"Yes, but..." Eiri frowned. How could he get it across? His need for stability, for the thought that there would be a person who wouldn't let him go or abandon him, no matter what. He glanced up into Dorrado's warm golden eyes and flushed.
"Who will you stay with?" Dorrado filled in for him, understanding without effort.
"Yes," Eiri said gratefully.
For a moment Dorrado glanced into the long shadows beyond the fire's reach, eyes hooded. When he met Eiri's gaze his smile was every bit as bright and warm as it had been. "I will not lie to you, Eiri, a lot may happen between here and Stronghold, and a lot may happen once we are there."
Eiri's stomach dropped.
"But I will find a place for you," Dorrado finished. "Whether it's with myself or whether it is other arrangements, you will have a home. And you will have a place where you are safe and cared for."
"Thank you," Eiri mumbled, lowering his head. Relief flooded him and he didn't want Dorrado to see that his eyes stung.
"You are feeding him a load of tripe, you realize that, don't you?"
They both glanced up quickly. Kelarion had come back into the edge of the firelight. He wouldn't meet their eyes as he seated himself, reaching for his share of the food and settling more than an arm's length from either of them.
"The sooner, the better, if the kid realizes he's the only thing he's got" -- the youko paused, as he ripped some meat off of a spit with his teeth, then made a face -- "is himself. That's it. You're alone in the world, Eiri, don't let him make you believe otherwise. And the sooner you realize, the better off you are." He hunched over his food, not looking up.
"Where is your twin?" Dorrado asked quietly.
"Twin?" Eiri repeated, confused.
Kelarion growled. It was a low sound, almost inhuman, very angry. "He's dead. Thanks for asking." He put his food down on the folded cloth and got up again, then just as abruptly sat back down.
Eiri remembered the silver-haired twins and wondered if that had anything to do with it. He looked down at his own food, and felt queasy. If Kelarion had had a twin, and *that* had happened to him...
"I see," the youko's faintly accented voice came to him.
Kelarion snorted. "I don't care what you think you see; I just don't want you filling Mairisson's head with unrealistic illusions. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to sleep. I won't trouble you with my presence after tomorrow morning."
"No, you're still coming with us," Dorrado said, voice still quiet but there was something hard there, too.
Eiri shifted a bit, trying to get a better view as Dorrado stared at Kelarion, and the copper-eyed youko lifted his head to stare defiantly back. There was something thick and oppressive in the air that felt like it weighed everything down. Even the fire seemed to notice and burned lower.
Kelarion bent his gaze first. "Whatever," he said at last, hoarse.
Sleep held him down in the darkness for a long time, weighing him down like a giant fist clamped on his chest. Eiri's dreams were formless and frantic, shifting scenes of chase and escape, flashing briefly to the Bransson farm, idyllic fields offset by a sense of panic, and in the distance, figures of the family packing and loading to leave as fast as possible. He saw the face of a giant gray-green cliff again, the feel of its serenity crumbling away like stone itself under time's weathering. I am taking you to our home, to the Stronghold. Men carrying torches marched along a narrow shelf of rock. He saw a youko with Kelarion's eyes, ruddy gold in a fine-boned face only this youko smiled and laughed freely.
When the youko turned his back, scarlet runnels of blood coursed down his skin. At the base of his spine there was a gaping crimson dimple where the tail had been.
With a tearing gasp, Eiri's eyes snapped open. His breath was fast and shallow and it took a long moment to adjust to the flickering light of the fire over his face. He wasn't sure if he'd gasped aloud. A sense of fear covered him like the blanket he could barely feel. He gripped the thick covering tightly, afraid for the moment to close his eyes again.
A youko with Kelarion's eyes... The sight of that bloody back was still burned onto his eyelids. Eiri didn't feel that the fear was irrational.
"The way you have been behaving is exactly why the humans hate and fear us."
Dorrado's low, melodic voice startled Eiri. He lay in the darkness, eyes wide and staring at the fringe of overhanging bows and the bright field of stars above. He'd thought he was the only one awake. Maybe the youko had not yet gone to sleep; from the moon's position, less time had passed while he slept than he'd felt.
Kelarion's voice hissed back, full of venom. "What exactly is that supposed to mean?"
"You know what I mean," Dorrado continued, sounding implacable. "Betraying the Queen...and whether you felt it was a betrayal or not, it does not matter. To her, one of her most trusted counselors, a youko counselor despite all advice to the contrary, turned on her. You became a viper in the nest."
"Fuck off." Kelarion affected boredom. "You could never understand."
Dorrado continued, "Then you bought this child, though slavery is illegal in this land, playing on the vices of his uncle..."
"Fuck off," Kelarion snarled, impatience edging his voice. "I don't need to sit here and endure this lecture."
"...and treated him the way you did." Dorrado carried on as if Kelarion hadn't spoken. "This is why the humans call us monsters. You stole that boy, locked him up with your magic; what were you expecting? If he had turned you in..."
Eiri felt queasy.
"He wouldn't have," Kelarion interrupted, low and intense. "The boy and I had an understanding."
"You understand nothing but your own selfish desires." Dorrado's voice, for all its calm and quiet, carried the weight of a broadsword.
"I..." Kelarion was staggered for an instant. "You shit! What do you know about it? What do you know about what I've been through!?"
"I know you're using your past as an excuse for your behavior now," Dorrado replied serenely. "And you're making him suffer as a result."
"Shut up," Kelarion said savagely. "Shut up, shut up. I don't want to hear it. The humans hate us for our supposedly unnatural mating habits, and the much-vaunted siren call of the 'Bond' you revere so stupidly. And it's none of your business what I've done. You don't know me. And you damn well don't have the right to lecture me!" There was a great deal of rustling and shifting on the other side of the fire, then footsteps that faded in the distance.
Eiri held his breath.
"Go back to sleep, Eiri," Dorrado told him, voice laden with an underlying sorrow that the boy couldn't quite comprehend.
"I saw..." His voice was hoarse, and Eiri cleared his throat awkwardly. "I saw terrible things in my sleep."
"I am sorry," Dorrado said, and it sounded like he meant it. There was a faint pressure against the surface of Eiri's mind, then noises he hadn't even realized he was hearing were gone. "Is that better?"
"Yes, thanks." Eiri looked off to the side, where the shadows seethed from the light the fire cast, shifting every instant. "Dorrado, what happened to Kelarion's twin?"
There was silence by the fire for a long moment. A twig snapped, throwing up bright sparks that were echoed in the play of shadows.
"Every youko has a twin," Dorrado told him. "The trueborn, those with youko fathers paired to men and youko mothers bearing the kits, have always been born in pairs. We don't really know why, but they are called the trueborn because of this."
"All right," Eiri said, adding this knowledge to the stack of youko lore that was accumulating.
"Kelarion, as with the majority of us, was born with a twin," Dorrado continued. "It is easy for someone like me to tell, if you know the signs to look for. It's also apparent that something bad happened to his twin, and Kelarion's mind is...not healthy because of that."
Eiri shivered and drew the blanket tighter around him, seeing again the bloody back of the golden-haired youko, and the indent of welling crimson just above naked buttocks. He had only seen it in a dream, but the sight would stay with him in nightmares, perhaps forever.
"That's why he needs to return to the Stronghold," Dorrado finished. His voice was wry when he continued. "Kelarion knows that he needs healing, as well, so he will not argue with me too much."
"But he won't make it easy for you, either," Eiri added. Kelarion had been difficult and ever-shifting from the first days, like the fire that cast its changing shadows beside him.
"Exactly right." Dorrado stirred and tossed more wood on the fire. "Now return to sleep, if you will. We ride early."
Though they had finished talking, Eiri couldn't fall asleep soon after. He kept thinking of Kelarion, and the horrible scars on his back. The sight of the twin with his laughing eyes and missing tail kept the sleep from weighing him down again. For the rest of the night, Eiri dipped in and out of light restless slumber.
The air was cold and heavy with the first damp tendrils of dawn. Fog enshrouded their campsite, seeping everywhere with its moist touch. The hints of roseate light around them were sourceless, seeming to come from every direction at once. Eiri Mairisson rubbed at his chilled arms and scowled up at the round liquid eyes of the horse. The horse eyed him back with an imperturbable gaze.
"Do I have to do this?" Eiri said aloud, to no one in particular.
"I'm afraid so," came the amused, faintly-accented reply of Dorrado. The tall youko approached him from the side, dropping a thick cloak over his shoulders. Eiri tugged it close around him gratefully, making a face at the hint of moisture that beaded the outside. The fog crept into everything.
"Riding isn't so bad once you get used to it," Dorrado told him.
"I'll never get used to it," Eiri said, already convinced of this. His thighs still ached from the first trip over the mountains with Kelarion. Now they were doing it all over again, only going in a different direction this time...and he had to ride the horse by himself.
Behind them, a muttered curse splintered the illusion of morning calm.
"I still don't see why you need me on your little odyssey," Kelarion's voice reached them, snide. "You and the boy make a wonderful pair. Optimists, both of you. I hope you'll be very happy together."
Dorrado swung around, ears laid flat. "If all you can do is fall back on tired complaints, be silent as you get ready to leave!"
They locked eyes. Eiri sidled towards the horse, which had already been loaded up with saddle and pack.
Kelarion, oddly enough, smiled. He rolled out of his bedroll and went about his preparations...silently. He seemed pleased with himself.
Dorrado sighed and moved to ready his horse, ears still laid back. "We'll eat trail rations while we ride," he told Eiri, going to stamp out the last smoldering remains of the fire. "If we're lucky, we may pass through a town or two to eat and resupply."
He turned and looked squarely at Kelarion. "I trust that is all right with you?"
Kelarion tossed his misshapen pack onto the horse's back. He shrugged, bundling up in his tan cloak once more. "You're the leader now. I'm no good at this traveling thing." He mounted up.
Dorrado said something under his breath, and came to help Eiri mount his horse.
A quarter candlemark later, they decamped, and Eiri finally understood how to mount a horse properly. Being dragged into the saddle by Kelarion hadn't really counted before. He still didn't really trust the animal beneath him, but at least for now they had a wary understanding.
They traveled in silence for the morning. Dorrado appeared to be thinking, and Kelarion, after his initial smugness at getting the better of the other youko, had lapsed into a sullen cloud of introspection. Eiri looked all around at the areas they were passing through, wooded and mountainous plains. He wondered why he missed the snug feel of arms around him, and the warm lean body behind his in the saddle.
"How far is the Stronghold?" Eiri asked, after the remains of breakfast had been disposed of and he brushed remaining crumbs from the cloak draped over his lap.
"Several days' travel," came the reply.
Kelarion slouched lower in his saddle, one copper-gold eye glaring at the other youko.
"On the way, we can continue giving you basic instructions," Dorrado told him.
"'We?'" Kelarion repeated.
Dorrado turned in his saddle and simply looked at him for a moment. A brief ringing noise in Eiri's ears alerted him to the fact that more passed between the two than a mere glance. "You understand very little," the pale blond youko said at last, "if you think behaving this way will result in any kind of good."
Kelarion flicked his ears. "Ask me if I care."
"You will," Dorrado said with certainty. "You only make things difficult for you, later."
Kelarion shrugged and slumped lower in his saddle.
"Where are we going?" Eiri asked. He'd never been outside Dickenston before this, let alone any great length in the Queen's land.
"We shall make for the border of Taksis," Dorrado said, with a distracted air. "We will need to move fast, for if the Queen's men find out this one is traveling with us, it will make things harder. The wisest course is to make sure that doesn't happen."
"Taksis?" Eiri interjected, puzzled.
"The Queen's land, Taksis' Land," Kelarion said with a trace of impatience. He was still slumped over his saddle but one molten-gold eye looked at Eiri scornfully. "Don't you even know that?"
"Forgive me for being ignorant!" Eiri flared back, hurt by the youko's odd, twitchy demeanor.
"Enough," Dorrado interrupted them. "The land we are in now is called the Queen's land, and it is called Taksis' Land. We go next to the Wastelands of Arizun, and we will have to travel very swiftly indeed to make it to Stronghold."
"And how are you planning on getting from here to the Wasteland?" Kelarion asked, showing interest for the first time today.
"By way of Sevida Ron, or Delegido. Either way is equally dangerous," Dorrado said calmly. "The Knights of Sevida Ron will at least leave a youko unmolested as long as we use no magic. The tribes of Delegido are...unfriendly to youko. Do you have a better suggestion?"
"Not at all." Kelarion shrugged. "I've been to neither place. I took a long route from Stronghold to Taksis' Land."
"What do you mean?" Dorrado asked.
Kelarion ignored him, and appeared to fall asleep in his saddle, cloak's hood pulled up over his ears, shadowing his face. Eiri rolled his eyes. Kelarion had seemed so exciting to him at first, but now compared to Dorrado's calm demeanor and wise eyes, he seemed like a child.
"Where are you from, Dorrado?" Eiri asked curiously.
The golden-haired youko turned in his saddle to look at him. "I am from the North," he said, and it might have been Eiri's imagination but his accent got a little thicker. "It is so far north the name of the place would mean nothing to you, or Kelarion."
"The names of any places would mean nothing to Eiri," Kelarion put in.
"Leave me alone, will you?" Eiri lashed out, slewing around to glare at Kelarion and nearly falling off the horse. He was upset all over again, almost breathing hard with the force of his anger.
Kelarion averted his eyes, snickered, and collapsed over his horse's neck into a pile of dun-colored cloak.
"Ignore him, Eiri," Dorrado advised him quietly.
The boy's eyes were smarting. He knew he shouldn't let it affect him so much, but it did. Kelarion's words cut him in a way the backbiting, sly comments of his cousins never had. That was strange, wasn't it? He'd known those people all his life, they were supposed to be his family. But Kelarion was a foreign creature he'd only known for a handful of days.
Eiri's shoulders twitched and he grasped the pommel of his saddle loosely, staring between the horse's ears at the road beyond.
"Tell me more about magic," he commanded. "Tell me what you're going to teach me."
Dorrado gave him an approving look.
"We will start," he began, "with the basics of shielding. You have potential. What you lack is subtlety."
The borders of Sevida Ron were less than a day away, and they were headed full-speed there in the throes of a final rush. With Dorrado in charge they were avoiding towns completely, eating what the platinum-haired youko caught or snared. They traveled at night, early hours of the morning, and hid in makeshift shelters during the day.
Kelarion was being an absolute shit about the whole affair, even though the necessity for precautions was his fault.
He complained about the weather, about his hair, about his depleted energy levels, about the food Dorrado served up, about how Eiri and his carrying-on was getting on his nerves...anything and everything was subject for his tirades at the slightest provocation. Even Dorrado's serene attitude was wearing thin.
At last, this day they were to cross the border, and a stop in town was slated for late afternoon. Kelarion was voluble in his relief. Privately, Eiri was hoping the youko would slip away and disappear, making his own way to Stronghold or wherever he wished.
As they advanced towards the border the shape of the land began to change. The forested areas diminished, rolling into vast arid grassland with very little cover. The two youko rode with alert posture, ears up, eyes scanning every direction. If they were caught in this wide-open land it would mean disaster for them.
"How much farther?" Kelarion muttered, drawing his horse closer to Dorrado's. The former courtesan was in a sorry state, lank hair plastered to his nape, exhaustion circles beneath his eyes, expression slack with disinterest even with his ears pricked for danger.
Over the past few days Kelarion had taken to ignoring Eiri and Dorrado, distancing himself both physically and mentally as they rode, ate, slept, or practiced. Despite Dorrado's earlier resolve Kelarion had not joined in to give Eiri a hand with the basics of shielding and energy transfer. Instead he recoiled with clear revulsion each time his eyes met the auburn-haired boy's -- let alone a stray hand or limb. Dorrado, with expressions of resignation, had let him withdraw.
He really does hate me, Eiri thought with something approaching indignation as he watched Kelarion ahead with Dorrado. Angrily, the thought continued, Why did he take me with him if he was going to be like this about it?
As if sensing the eyes prickling along his dun cloak, Kelarion hitched in the saddle and glanced behind him. His molten-gold eyes met Eiri's and they burned for a moment on his -- then quickly, the youko looked away.
Taking a deep breath, Eiri concentrated on one of the most basic exercises Dorrado had taught him.
"We call it magic, but really that's not quite accurate," Dorrado had told him. "It's like another element present in the world. We have air, water, fire, and earth. Some say light and darkness play a role as well. Those are the major powers, and some people are more attuned to one than any other."
Eiri had listened, rapt at the fact that someone was finally telling him something, and it made sense.
"There are other, lesser powers, like blood and sex and emotions -- anything intense, like happiness or despair," Dorrado continued the explanation. "Any discipline that deals with 'magic' deals with one of these. But it is the unseen element, the most powerful, that allows you to deal with them all."
"Energy," Dorrado said simply. "Everything has an energy to it, whether small or great. Our thoughts have energy, a certain type of energy. You are good at intercepting this kind of energy, I think, especially from youko."
"What about seeing the future?" Eiri asked then. He frowned, thinking it through. "Does that mean it's another kind of energy?"
Dorrado had nodded, fine platinum hair seething over his shoulders. "That's right. What we call 'magic' is the ability to see or use this energy, whether it has anything to do with one particular element -- or all of them. The very most powerful can use the energy itself to do almost anything they like."
Eiri had shivered. "It sounds frightening."
"You are right to be scared." The pale-gold eyes of the youko were solemn on his.
Gathering his thoughts into the present, Eiri took a deep breath and opened his eyes. He felt a little calmer. This trip was taking its toll on all of them. Over the past few days they had gotten less sleep and everyone was edgier. Eiri felt like he could almost sleep in the saddle, the way Kelarion pretended to all the time.
It was this haggard feeling he blamed on the irregularity of his shielding, and Dorrado seemed not to notice. Though he was doing everything right, using his energies to center himself and create a 'wall' of sorts between his thoughts and others', he could still feel the sensation of another's thoughts invading his. Now that Dorrado had taught him how to differentiate his energy from another's, the sense of it was unmistakable.
"How much longer?" Kelarion repeated, and he sounded as if he would fall from the saddle. Eiri could hardly blame him at this point. Of all of them, Kelarion was least used to the elements. His skin hadn't burned or peeled the way Eiri's was wont to do in the first days of working in the fields, but it had darkened quickly. His face was drawn and sallow beneath the tan. He complained of chafing, which Eiri had felt somewhat but his work-hardened legs grew accustomed to the riding faster than a city-soft courtesan.
That one thought kept coming back to him. Kelarion had been a courtesan in the Queen's city, Queensdale as the youko had told him it was called. For some reason, that intangible fact bothered Eiri.
"How should I know?" Dorrado's accented voice replied. The northern youko laid his ears back flat as he turned his head to regard their travel companion. "I have never taken this particular route either."
"But you know there's a city," Kelarion countered.
"Yes, a city that runs up against the border between Taksis and Sevida Ron," Dorrado replied. "Anyone can tell this much simply by paying attention."
"I can't," Kelarion said in a dull voice, and would say nothing more.
Dorrado looked at him a moment longer. "We should be there within the hour."
The lands of Sevida Ron were coming closer, Dorrado said, and they could see the difference in the terrain itself. The Queen's land was a lush place, fertile and full of arable farm-land. As they reached the outskirts, it was drier, and the forestland had disappeared completely. Dorrado had talked a little about Sevida Ron; although he had never been there, he had heard from other travelers.
Sevida Ron was a kingdom of man exclusively, the northern youko had told him. Youko and other non-humans were allowed there if they adhered to two strict, rigidly enforced rules. Those two rules kept most inhumans far from the borders of Sevida Ron: firstly, they were to refrain from using magic. When some creatures used different forms of energy merely by existing, it was impossible to abide by that rule. Secondly, they were to refrain from interbreeding with any of the populace of Sevida Ron. This kept most youko far away, Dorrado related, for if a youko found his Bonded in Sevida Ron he could be executed for acting on it.
Such things had happened before.
"Why Sevida Ron?" Eiri wondered aloud, drawing his cloak closer about him. It was still the morning hours and a chill hung over the rolling plains. "If it's such a dangerous place for youko, shouldn't we avoid it?"
"Delegido is much worse," was the grim reply.
Kelarion's cloak rippled as if he had shuddered.
"Worse?" Eiri prompted, cautious, not wanting a repetition of any of the gory images spawned by Kelarion's recall on that one day. The sight of the silver-haired kits, disemboweled, glassy-eyed as they died, was still etched in his memory.
"The tribes of Delegido are barbaric," Dorrado told him. "They are brutal towards youko and other inhuman creatures, and hostile to their own kind as well. The only way to cross through Delegido is with an armed force."
Kelarion spoke up, voice hoarse, from the depths of his cloak. "Delegido means 'The Chosen,' doesn't it?" His voice sounded bitter.
"Yes," Dorrado said slowly. "The Delegido believe they have been chosen to restore humanity to power. That is part of the reason for their vicious behavior towards non-humans. But they aren't the only country."
"No, they're not," Kelarion agreed. There was a stink of dread in his voice.
Eiri swallowed. He could almost see bloody images pushing against his vision, rising up like a veil of red mist. He breathed in through his nose and out through his mouth and thought about wrapping his own energy around him, weaving it so tightly nothing could get through. It didn't help. He saw a golden-haired youko tied against a spire of rock, back bleeding, a dimple of blood welling up at the base of his spine...
He gagged, and the simple bodily fact of choking brought Eiri back to himself. He was clutching the saddle pommel tightly enough he felt he could snap it if he grabbed much tighter. Dorrado had sped up the pace and his own horse was putting forth strides to match.
In the vision, the youko had resembled Kelarion. That wasn't possible, was it? Kelarion had a tail; Eiri had felt it brushing against his thigh.
On the gray reaches of the horizon, the first blocky outlines of a town began to appear. It stretched wide across the plains, bigger than Eiri had expected to see. Beneath his cloak, he groped for the familiar outline of the medallion that hung around his neck. One thumb rubbed absently over its tarnished surface. He had come a very long way since Dickenston, and in that time this was the second large city he had seen. At the other city, the thrill had been the ocean.
Here, the grass and the wind were the energies that coursed over his senses.
"What is this place called?" Eiri asked, projecting the question towards Dorrado. The wind whipped through their hair as the horses stretched the pace.
"Ask the wind," Dorrado replied. At Eiri's incredulous snort, he elaborated. "It's good practice for you, Eiri. If you pay attention, you should be able to pick up the name of a place. The wind hears many things, but it is inconstant and difficult to listen to."
"The earth always knows," Kelarion said unexpectedly.
Eiri bent over his horse's neck and concentrated on the city in the distance. "Is it in Sevida Ron, or is it in Taksis' Land?"
"A bit of both," Dorrado told him.
He tried to obey. He tried to clear his thoughts and listen to the wind, but when he did all he could hear was a mournful, far-off howling. When he tried to concentrate on that--
"Eiri!" Dorrado snapped, breaking his concentration.
Eiri clutched at the saddle pommel, mortifyingly aware that he had come very close to falling off the horse.
When he tried to concentrate, all he heard was screaming.
"That's enough for now," Dorrado said, contrastingly gentle. "The city is Guardian. It's a border city nominally under control of the Queen, but Sevidan Knights are a strong presence as well."
"I suppose it's very dangerous," Eiri said, prepared for this. It seemed any place he went outside of the Bransson's farm was risking his life.
"Breathing is dangerous," Kelarion said sourly, from the front.
"It's no more dangerous than most cities," Dorrado told him, laying his ears back as he looked over at Kelarion. "The Knights will give us trouble, though. We aren't to use magic, and they enforce it on penalty of death."
"How can they tell?" Eiri cried. The wind picked up even more, threatening to snatch the words from his mouth.
Both youko turned on their horses to look at him. Kelarion hauled his hood up over his head again.
"Eiri, the Knights are sensitive to magic, too."