I’m excited to share this chapter with you, and have even been doing some painting! Here’s my take on part of Rai and co’s journey through the desert (probably when they were running away from Yrin’s city in Chapter 20)
Find previous chapter links here.
“If that is your plan, why did you not use your swords against us?”
Onili reclines on a rock perch as high as my head would be, were I standing. She squints down at us through the evening gloom. The rest of the bandits stand in a circle around us, while we kneel on the ground.
A rock digs into my shin. I shift, trying to dislodge it. “Our swords aren’t ordinary. They were made by the kaites–do you know about the kaites?”
The bandit chief rolls her eyes. “Of course. We all know each other’s beliefs.” She gestures to her followers.
“Well, the kaites who made them…somehow put their lives into them.” Nhardah explained it much better than me. “And now, these are the only two weapons on Orrock that can wound an aivenkaite. That’s their purpose. I didn’t⎼” I glance at Savi⎼ “we didn’t think it was right to use them against humans.”
“How noble,” Vant drolls.
“That’s how Champions are supposed to be,” Liwin retorts. He looks at Hoenna for support. “They’re just like Maraians’ve been expecting, right?”
Hoenna looks at the boy with sadness hidden just below the surface, and it suddenly makes sense. I should have seen it immediately. Liwin’s hair is even braided in the Rhilissi fashion.
“Hoenna,” I ask, “you adopted Liwin, didn’t you?”
The pride in his eyes when he looks at the boy confirms it.
Drigo, the Kedi, tosses a smooth stone in the air and catches it. “Now, I’ve got no problem with the Maraians having themselves some Champions. Good on them,” he says, “but what’s in it for the rest of us? Why should Kedi–or Umwi, or Laria, or Rhilis–care? Some great defender of the oppressed your Aia is, if his great victory over Izyphor still leaves so many under their whips.”
“That’s an interesting question you bring up,” Savi calmly responds. “May I tell you a little about our history?”
“This isn’t storytime. You know how these two Champions would benefit us?” Uner asks. “Turn ‘em over to Izyphor, get us all a reward. Might even buy us our own freedom.”
Laen tenses and looks at her chief. “You won’t let him do that, will you?” she begs.
Savi tilts his head. “Would you really trade the freedom of thousands of people for your own freedom?”
“You bet I wouldn’t let some fools’ dream keep me as an outlaw!”
Hoenna holds up his hands. “Uner, calm down.”
Liwin toes a rock, wiggling it free of the hard dirt. “I don’t know, Dad,” he says. “Maybe Drigo’s got a point? I mean, what would we–if they succeed, if the Champions get Maraiah free, what would we do?”
“You’d go with your people,” Hoenna says softly, forcing an unconvincing smile.
Hoenna hesitates. In the pause, I feel the urge to speak. Maybe it’s Aia, giving me words that will get us free from the bandits. I don’t know what to say, but I speak anyways.
“He could come with us. All of you–any of you–could.”
Vant snorts. “Like Izyphor’d fall for that. Aia’s Champion is only for Maraians. Come on, we all know that.” He rolls his eyes.
Drigo crosses his arms and scowls at Vant. “Oh yeah? Vant, I had no idea you felt so strongly about your people.” He strides closer to the Maraian. “Tell me, what exactly makes your people⎼” spit flies out of his mouth at the ‘p’– “so special?”
“What even makes someone a Maraian?” Liwin asks.
This is why I need my scrolls, so I can teach them about Aia’s promise of redemption to Nhardah, about Vander-Maraiah’s calling, and about the promise of Tion Beriath for our homeland.
That’s what I plan to tell them about. As soon as I start to speak, I realize something is different.
“All who follow Aia-Thaies and seek to know Him are Maraians.”
The bandits jump back. All eyes stare at me. Nihae tries to reach for Savi. “What’s she doing?” she whispers.
“Spriteish magic!” a Rhilissi woman exclaims. She hooks her index fingers, crosses them over each other, and holds them in front of her face.
“Please, it’s okay,” Savi rushes. “Just listen to her.”
“In our language, ‘Maraian’ means ‘The People of Aia.’” These words are different. I only hear my own voice now, but I continue explaining the words that came out with the Voice of a Multitude. “Most of the people who follow Aia, the true creator of everything, are descendents of one man, but it doesn’t have to be that way. If you follow Him, you are Maraian, and Saviayr and I are going to free you.”
It’s quiet enough to hear the night insects whirring and chirping.
Then Vant laughs, long and loud. “That’s the craziest thing I ever heard!”
“How can you laugh?” Laen looks up and scowls at him. “Vant, did you hear what just happened?”
The Rhilissi woman takes another step away from me. She shakes her long braids. “It’s the sprites. May the South Star preserve us.”
“Maraians tell tales of people speaking like that,” Hoenna reassures her. “They call it the Voice of a Multitude. It’s an omen of good.”
“You know our histories?” I ask.
Hoenna shrugs. “I tried to raise Liwin right. He’s got a right to know his heritage.”
“And? What do you think about Aia?”
He rubs the back of his neck and looks at the other Rhilissi. “I used to be a devout Rhilissi, but…if I had a choice? Aia brought me Liwin. The sprites and ghouls only bring mischief and loss.
“Hoenna!” the two other Rhilissi exclaim.
“That’ll never work,” Vant says. “Izyphor won’t fall for it, and the other Maraians won’t, either. Onili, we better kill her before she gets a slave revolt going.”
“Wait,” I try to speak up.
One of the Rhilissi says, “He’s got a point. Izyphor gets mad, things get bad for us.”
“But you could be free,” Liwin argues. “We could all be free. All you have to do is follow Aia, and He’s pretty good. Please, Uncle.”
“You have to admit it’s an interesting idea,” Drigo says, twisting one of the beads at his throat. “If not really probable.”
Uner wrinkles his nose, which curves the tattoo lines on his cheeks. “I’m Umwian and proud of it. We had the dignity to fight every step of the way when Izyphor conquered us. You practically asked them to enslave you.”
“That’s not fair,” Vant argues, pushing out his chest.
Hoenna steps toward Uner. “You will not speak ill of the Maraians in my presence.”
“Or what? You touch me, Onili’ll run you through.”
“Enough, Uner.” Onili doesn’t move.
Laen clasps her hands. “Please, Uner. It’s just a little thing. Don’t you want to really be free?”
Uner explodes. “I ain’t gonna be a baby-killer!”
“Why, you⎼” Vant exclaims, and Hoenna punches Uner, and everyone springs on each other. Liwin gets thrown back, but jumps to his feet and hurtles back into the fray. Onili jumps down and shoulders her way into the mix.
That just escalates their fighting.
Forziel struggles to his feet. “Let’s go,” he whispers.
Then Laen appears. She slashes a knife through the ropes binding us. “Let’s go,” she echoes Forziel, and sprints away.
Our rest during the day strengthened my tired muscles. I feel stronger than two nights ago, when Forziel led us away from Yrin’s land. My lungs don’t ache as soon, though my shoulder hurts.
“C’mon, Nihae,” Forziel encourages. He keeps pace with her.
Eventually Laen dips left and pushes us through a gap in some stones. We climb into a cramped fissure. I have to hunch with my back to curved forward and my knees against my chest, close enough to Savi and Laen, who shimmies in after us, that I smell their breath every time I inhale.
“We’ll wait here,” Laen pants, “and watch for anyone who goes by.”
“We can’t stay,” Forziel argues. “We need to keep going. Follow me, I can get us to⎼”
“Don’t worry. Only the ones on our side will come. We never go after targets once we lose them,” Laen promises.
“Forziel,” Nihae says, “your elbow is in my neck.”
We settle in to wait. My legs burn from crouching.
Laen seems convinced other bandits will join us. Savi and I certainly tried to convince them back at their camp, though I can’t imagine how we would get so many people safely and subtly across miles of desert to the capital.
It wasn’t just us trying to convince them, though. I spoke in the Voice of a Multitude. The words echo through my mind now, a thousand voices speaking at once. All who follow Aia-Thaies and are faithful to Him are Maraians.
What a ridiculous thing to say. Through all history, Aia chose specific people from specific families. Faithfulness is hereditary. Nhardah was faithful, but Neemech and Sain weren’t, so he received immortality and they died. Vander was faithful, and his siblings weren’t, so Aia chose him to be Maraiah.
But now Aia says anyone can be Maraiah. It feels wrong. It makes me angry. All of the people in the world, all of the nations who have worshipped idols and murdered innocents and exploited the weak, and any of them can just decide to be one of Aia’s special people?
What will Nhardah say, when he finds out?
Footsteps rustle the dry weeds outside our hideout. I hold my breath and feel for Savi’s hand. His fingers entwine with mine and squeeze.
Two people pass, dark and light hair braided close to the head. Laen jumps out behind them. “Hoenna, Liwin, you came.” She hugs them.
They each drop the bags they carry and return her hug. “Of course we came,” Hoenna grins. “We choose Aia and freedom.”
“Is anyone else coming?” Laen asks.
“I don’t think so,” Hoenna says.
“They pretty well kicked us out,” Liwin adds, massaging his swelling jaw.
We climb out after Laen. Savi helps me, but I still manage to bump my sore shoulder.
“Was Onili furious?” Laen asks.
“She was furious about the fighting,” Hoenna says, “and Uner’s confined to the camp for a while, but she let us go pretty well.”
“We should keep going,” I interrupt their reunion. “In case they decide to follow. And we need to be at the capital by the Feast of Wheat.”
Hoenna whistles. “That’s just four day’s time. How do you plan to get so far so fast?”
“There’s no other option,” Savi says. “Killing is outlawed during the Feast. It’s the only way we have a chance to be heard.”
Suddenly, Nhardah’s insistence on arriving for the Feast makes sense.
“I thought I’d find you here,” a voice rings out back east. I spin. I’m reaching for Luemikaroeth even as I remember the bandits still have both mine and Savi’s swords.
Drigo saunters toward us, concealing something behind his back. I plant my feet and prepare to fight him. Savi shifts to partly cover me.
“What do you want, Drigo?” Hoenna asks. “We don’t want any more trouble.”
The night conceals Drigo’s expression. He pulls both hands from behind his back. “Then I probably shouldn’t return these,” he says, and throws whatever is in his hands.
They twist through the sky and clang to the ground in front of us.
“Huh,” Drigo says. “In my head, the Champions caught those.”
I crouch and reach for the objects. Cool, smooth, sharp–the instant my fingers touch it, familiarity rushes through me.
“You brought us our swords,” Savi wonders, lifting Elgarnoseth from the ground.
“Yep. Is that enough to get me into your group?” Drigo asks.
I start to remind him of what I said about following Aia, but we’ve wasted too much time as it is. We’ll have plenty of time to clarify that on the road. “Make sure you keep up,” I tell him. “Okay, Forziel, lead the way.”
“Hope you’re up for another run,” Forziel says, hopping forward. “We’ve got a lot of ground to cover.”