Yes, this is late. Very late. Like a week and some change late, but I have my reasons — mainly, lack of wifi.
(Link back to chapter one in case you missed it)
~ |Let’s Begin| ~
Near the edge of the forest lining the northern kingdom, the Fenza’s half of the basin, sits a cluster of triangular white tents, held up with thick black branches taken from the sturdiest never-green trees, all facing outward from one large central tent. They form a wide, oval-like ring around it, erecting a barrier against any attacks that might come its way. Within each tent, resides a number of warriors ranging from three to seven per dwelling, most are taking quick naps, and the others are waiting for the signal to pack up and set out again. The men are warriors, used to constant motion and battling until the last man falls. Remaining stagnant is not one of their favorite pastimes.
To avoid being in one place for too long, the Fenza warriors travel about in little packs among the tents. The packs seem to be determined by the type of weapon the men carry more than comradery, as the swordsmen stay with the swordsmen and archers with archers. No matter their equipment, though, every man moves carefully, always looking outward from the camp or scanning the trees. One thing appears to remain below their range of sight: the unpainted folk scattered throughout the camp. None of the warriors so much as glance at the unpainted, unarmed folk going about their business in the very center of their irregular circle, some tending to a large, black-encrusted cauldron, others carrying armfuls of weapons or what looks to be armor, each of them in an equally as frenzied hurry.
However, no matter what the men hold or where they’re supposed to be looking, they all gradually slow and stare at the blonde female standing at the entrance of the tiny tent hidden in the shadows of their captain’s – the one that’s supposed to contain the blessings of the sky and the king and nothing else.
Sophia stares out at the bizarre camp she’s found herself in, one hand lifted to keep the flap of thin white fabric out of her face, the other clutched to her chest. There are men everywhere. And almost each and every one of them is carrying a weapon. There isn’t a single woman to be seen, not a hint of femininity in the hulking, muscled natives marching back and forth, pacing the little space there is between the tent she’s in and the ones surrounding it.
Am I on lockdown? She wonders, her eyes trying to pick out any specific men sent to guard her, but it’s impossible. Every person she sees looks like they’re on duty, too tense to possibly be off the clock. In fact, the men look so strung out that she’s almost led to believe that she’s been placed in the middle of an army on their way to battle, but that would be ridiculous. There’s no way she could be so unlucky.
She remembers the woman she’d seen with the long blade still wet with blood.
Or, she thinks to herself, I’m indeed that unlucky.
There’s a swift, whoosh of air from the tent beside hers. She steps a little further from her own. One hesitant foot settles upon the bare soil beyond the wooden bottom of her maybe-prison as her eyes turn curiously towards the source of the sound. Almost immediately, she’s being pushed back.
The stranger wraps their arms around her. Over their pale shoulder, she sees many a person beyond the tent to grind to an absolute halt. Sophia attempts to wedge her arms up between them, only to feel something drape itself around her from behind, her forearms meeting with air as the person leans slightly out of her personal space. A warm, thick fabric is yanked against her hips, sliding up higher towards her ribs as the bottom end of it brushes against her ankles. Her attacker steps back. With nimble fingers, the savage woman from the black forest knots the ends of a beige blanket at Sophia’s hips, effectively giving her some sort of makeshift skirt.
Without missing a beat, the woman starts singing again, her voice almost lulling the girl into not noticing how she’s being steadily backed into her tent. She looks down, taking in the assertive, short strides forward of the warrior, and forcibly remains in place. Before they can be brought chest to chest by the woman’s stubborn pace, the native draws back, one brow raised at the smaller girl as if to goad her into continuing to move on her own. Agitated, Sophia snatches up the ends of the blanket and starts undoing it, tossing it to the side while the woman’s singing gets faster and faster. As soon as the thing falls to the ground, though, the painted lady takes note of what she’s done and cuts off, leaving a chill silence in the air. The calm, placid expression she’d had on evaporates.
Her yellow eyes spark like flint, spitting up flames so hot that Sophia’s almost surprised the skin surrounding them doesn’t burn off. Before the royally ticked off stranger can start speaking a language she doesn’t understand, she decides to speak up. If she hasn’t been gutted by the many swords strapped onto the person before her, then she can at least assume that no one here is interested in killing her, right? Right, she assures herself and sucks in a deep breath.
“Thank you for the, um, blanket?” She hesitates, her gaze straying towards the fallen fabric. What if that was some symbol of kindness and I shouldn’t have let it touch the ground? Do those things happen? Too late either way, I guess. With a shake of her head, she turns her attention back to the completely still woman before her. “I’m not cold, though. I’m actually pretty used to the cold, so if I could just—”
Before she can take so much as a step, the lady’s heaving a deep sigh of defeat and rubbing the heel of her palm into her forehead. The native inhales dramatically, drops the hand back to her hip, and rubs her lips together. Her brows furrow in concentration and then she’s lifting one finger out, the tip directed at Sophia.
“Speck?” The woman releases a long, strained breath, and motions with her other hand, moving it up from the base of her throat to the end of her chin. She presses her fingers to her lips and then tilts them outward like a flap. “Oh!” Sophia almost laughs when she realizes what the other female is saying, a pleased smile curling at her lips. They can talk now. “Yes, yes, I speak English!”
Despite her own joy at finding out that the native recognizes the words she’s saying, the woman herself looks the complete opposite, her expression contorted as if she’s stepped on a beehive and can’t free her foot from it. Her arms fold across her chest, her gaze straying down towards the ground. Sophia watches on curiously as her lips curl, compress together. The girl looks down with her, and tilts her sneakers out to the side, wondering if she might have stepped in something, but finds nothing to suggest as much.
Shrugging it off, she returns to looking at the upset person. “So, as I was saying, can I go outside? Or maybe to somewhere with running water? Do you have that yet? What time is it? Have you learned of Henry Ford? Or . . .” she trails off at the rapid blinking of the other woman’s eyelids. They both stare at one another for a moment, the red painted woman looking rather annoyed.
Then, as if she’s heard all that she needs to, the native spins about, and rips back open the material covering the front of the tent. Sophia hurries after her, watching the woman march straight across the open center of the camp and grab a man by the shoulder. When he attempts to peer over the woman to Sophia’s tent, she can just barely make out the swift, light sound of the native’s familiar singing. It’s more effective than she’d thought it would be. The man snaps to attention, listens intently to what his superior has to say, and then rushes in the opposite direction, disappearing in the surrounding teepee-shaped tents. That settled, the woman turns about face sharply, heading directly for Sophia.
Stepping back quickly, she instinctively lets the entryway fall closed and immediately feels ridiculous for doing so. She’s already been seen. Almost as soon as she turns away, the sound of the flap being yanked up, draws her back around. There, standing just within the triangular gap, the female scowls and directs one sharp finger her way. “No to move,” she says and then the fabric is falling, sealing her captive back into the dimly lit tent.
Arms wrapping about her waist, Sophia pivots where she stands, taking in the tiny, cramped quarters she’s found herself stuck in. In this place, she doesn’t have to be freaked out first to feel like the walls are caving in around her. They already are. At a sharp tilt, they connect right above her head, leaving her about two feet to walk around in any direction, minus the far wall where she would bump into all the black and gold boxes piled up against it.
Squatting down, she scoops up the dense, fuzzy blanket the woman had tried to attach to her, and looks towards the rolled up cot she’d woken up on. It wasn’t the most uncomfortable experience of her life – minus the whole not knowing where she was, being about two inches off the wooden floor, and scurrying outside only to see a small army of armed men. Yeah, other than that, she’d had a rather restful sleep, one of the best of her life, in fact. Before she’d remembered being forced to travel through time, she’d actually thought that she’d managed to leave behind all her nightmares of her mother. Instead, it turned out that she’d simply replaced them with a new one known as reality outside of her father’s compound.
Shivering, she draws the blanket around her shoulders and glances back at the closed entrance to her tent. Who knew she’d go from being his prisoner to someone else’s?
“Two months,” she whispers softly to herself.
She’d been telling herself that since the summer had begun. Two more months and she’d be eighteen. She’d be a legal adult, and he wouldn’t be able to keep her locked up behind the estate’s gates, wouldn’t have a reason to keep his wife’s murderer under constant supervision. She could’ve been free. Instead, she’s rid of the gates and the grown-ups constantly treating her like she’s porcelain, and has replaced them with strangers who walk around ready and willing to kill at any time.
If the sponsors had waited two months to try to threaten her father into working faster, she’d be away, safely tucked away somewhere else, somewhere far from their guns and their misguided ultimatums. Their fault most definitely lied in their choice of bait. They would’ve had better luck trying to convince him if they had chosen the guard dogs as their captive. Looks like she wasn’t the only one who was screwed over that day. If they’d chosen more wisely, perhaps they would have gotten somewhere but now . . .
The reminder of their failure is pleasing, makes her think for just a moment that she’s not the only one who makes bad decisions.
Slightly comforted despite her predicament, she reaches out and unrolls the thick little rectangle she’d been using as a bed. It extends almost the entire length of the tent, stopping just before it reaches the opposite wall. She gingerly lays down on it, being careful not to irritate her already sore-feeling back, the muscles pulling taut as she wiggles onto her side. Keeping her eyes on the bit of fuzzy, gray-ish brown light illuminating the edges of the tent’s entrance, she slowly, gradually feels the pull of sleep coming over her, creeping up on her from behind now that she’s a bit more content.
~ | ~ | ~
Slédaun stares down at the map of the basin, her shoulders hunched over and her hands tightly wound about the edge of the wooden table. She should be seeing the tiny black flags marking the enemy camps littered throughout the Jinza territory and the white ones spread along the Fenza’s length of woods, but she sees none of it. Instead, there’s a dainty, blonde intruder before her with eyes the color of the sky in all the picture books her scholarly friends used to sneak to her. A sky person, then. She has a sky person in her camp, and she speaks the language of the leaders of old: English.
The warrior pushes away from the tattered, worn map, snorting under her breath. What was it that Emsamni had always told her? She should learn beside him because it might help her out when the outside people finally break through the mountains?
She takes to pacing the length of her tent once more, her wrist grasped tightly behind her back.
“I’m a warrior,” she reminds herself, “what need would a warrior like me have for such a useless, dead language? None!”
No matter how she might repeat the phrase she’d answer her linguist friend with, she cannot shake the facts so clearly set before her. There’s a sky person in her camp. She speaks English, but Slédaun does not because she had always scoffed at the idea of learning it. Emsamni would laugh in her face and hold it over her head forever.
Despite how much she wishes to keep her old friend away, she’d had no choice but to summon him. He’s the most skilled of his teacher’s students. If anyone can translate the girl’s words and manage to keep their mouth closed about what they discuss, it’s him. She has to trust in him since she doesn’t know anyone as well as she knows him. He can keep this secret until His Majesty decides what to do with it.
Shaking her head, she returns to the table, presses her palms to the cool wood and drops her head in defeat. That’s it then, isn’t it? The linguist will never stop talking about how her stubbornness got in the way of being capable of taking care of this on her own, but at least she will deliver onto His Majesty a reason to be happy once again. She will.
Nodding in satisfaction, she turns her attention back to the map, putting the mutant behind her.
“Champion of the People!”
Spinning, she clasps her hands behind her and regards the kneeling warrior before her curiously. She’d made it clear earlier that she did not wish to be disturbed. This man is either very dumb or carries very important information. “Speak your piece,” she tells him coolly.
He presses his fist to his heart and bows his head, gaining her full attention. Such deep regard, important information it is. “The Court’s man sent to observe Your Highness has rushed out of camp,” anger sparks in her chest at not receiving proper farewells, but the next words he utters is more than enough to douse it, “he wants the prostitute you picked up executed in the name of His Majesty.”
She steps forward quickly. “What did you call her?”
The warrior flinches, his chin practically touching his collarbone. “Forgive me. They are his words, not mine!”
The legs! She almost hisses in frustration. She’d tried to get the female to cover them up, but the presumptuous creature had taken off the covering almost as soon as Slédaun had managed to get it on her. Of course that power-seeking mongrel would seek out the fastest way to gain the favors of the Court: don’t talk to His Majesty’s favored captain first, just rush straight to the capital screaming about her dishonoring him.
Gritting her teeth, she tells the man slowly, carefully so as not to let on how offended she is, “Send out the scouts. Tell the surrounding villages that we have with us a sky person wishing to bless His Majesty. Make sure that it spreads fast, and I’ll reward you accordingly. Go now.”
She’s never engaged in scheming before. It’s an odd feeling, especially when mixed with the sting of bitterness lingering in her chest. His Majesty had warned her before that once the officials saw how quickly she’s rising, they would move against her in any way, but she’d never thought they’d go after the king’s reputation as well.
Turning about sharply, she slams her hands down against the table, her jaw gritted against the urge to hiss. It’s an undignified thing to do, a habit she hasn’t fully broken out of since her adolescent years that seems to be growing ever stronger lately. His Majesty, she wonders, how will he react with the two rumors headed his way? She surveys the land left to look over on the edge of the forest and wonders if she should just send out an exploratory branch and head back, move nearer to the capital.
“Champion of the People?”
That’s right. She’s one of the protectors of the nation.
She would let down the citizens if she were to allow a hidden band of Jins to sneak past her. She’ll carry out her duty even if it means giving the Court a chance to convene without her. Breathing in deep, she draws back her shoulders and stands a bit taller, secure in the fact that she can at least do her job and no one can find fault with that.
“Forgive me, but the pros—the guest refuses to eat.”
The voice behind her registers as she lets out the breath. Her eyes lift towards the roof of her tent. Why, she asks silently, why did the sky send down this person of all people? At every turn, she’s causing me problems. Steadying herself with a touch of her palm against the hilt of one of her daggers, she calls out, “You may go now. I’ll handle His Majesty’s guest.”
Looking longingly towards the expanse of land between the two kingdoms, Slédaun finds herself wishing for the chance to go there instead of the tent beside her own. It’s so much easier to go into battle than to deal with as temperamental a person as this sky creature. Clicking her tongue against the roof of her mouth, she moves away from the map and down the long fur marking the middle of her tent, heading out into the open air. A few of her newer warriors bow at the sight of her, pressing their fists to their hearts and ducking their chins to their collarbones. She lifts her own hand to her chest and swiftly makes her way to her guest. Being regarded as a leader is odd for her still, but she can only hope that it doesn’t show or the Court will have even more to talk about.
Entering the small home of the sky person, the warrior doesn’t spare a glance for the unmarked servant, dismissing them with a flick of her wrist. The scrawny male places the bowl of porridge on the ground beside her feet and scurries out of her sight, bowing deeply to her on his way. A shiver creeps up her shoulder blades but she lets it go. The faster she forgets her days as a servant, the sooner she can get on with her life.
More important, though, is the shivering girl curled up on the ground. The warrior eyes her warily, refusing to kneel even for His Majesty’s soon-to-be property. The blonde creature gives a full body shake that travels through the floorboards and up into the captain’s ankles. Slédaun hisses under her breath and heads back outside, looking around and trying to remember where she’d had the back up supplies stored. When nothing comes to mind, she waves down a passing servant.
“Bring me one . . . two blankets,” she orders, turning away as soon as she’s done passing on her wishes, not bothering to watch the man hurry away to fulfill it. He’ll either do it or his life will be added to a number of men who have fallen to her blade.
Entering the tent once more, she gets to one knee and grabs the bowl of lumpy porridge. She brings herself right next to the small creature, and marvels at how purple its lips have become. Frowning down at the food in her hands, she lifts the spoon to her mouth and takes a small bite. Freezing, she thinks bitterly, they’re trying to feed a frozen person cold gelatin.
“No wonder you won’t eat it,” she mutters, spinning about and standing. She steps back out, expecting to have to wave down a servant, but the one with the blankets is already within reach. Accepting the bulky items, she passes the bowl on into his hands and motions towards the fresh pot on the fire sitting in the middle of her warriors’ tents. “Send in a fresh, hot serving.”
Returning swiftly to the mutant’s side, she drops one cover to the ground and shakes the other out closest to the entrance. Blankets are so rarely used that there are large holes filling the outside of the one in her hands, the exterior looking ripped and ragged. It’s dense, though, and should be noticeably better at holding in heat than the skirt she’d given the girl earlier. Draping it across the knotted ball of shivers on the ground, she immediately picks up the other and attempts to shake off all of the dust on it.
Once the girl is covered up to the extent that she looks like a giant ringbug, all long and swollen, the warrior sits, legs crossed before her, tucked in close as she waits. The best way to warm a person is to get something hot inside of them. It’ll trick them into thinking they’re better off than they are. It’s while she’s waiting that she notices just how small the creature is.
Eyebrows coming together, she leans forward, eyes straining against the shadows covering the girl’s face. There, she thinks to herself, her skin is taut, stretched around the outline of her cheekbones. No wonder she’s cold. The mutant has not been eating well. Shaking her head at the foolishness of the sky person before her, it’s while Slédaun is reclining away from her that the entryway to the tent is retracted behind her.
Twisting a bit sideways, she holds one hand out for the steaming bowl and dismisses the servant back to his regular duties, having no need for him now that he’s fulfilled his tasks. Later, she’ll probably seek out the one in charge of them and inquire about his name, but until then she has other things to busy herself with, like the freezing creature before her.
“Come, little alien, time to eat the nastiest thing that will ever pass those purple lips,” she calls, making her voice as soothing as she can manage.
The sound is familiar, one she’d heard herself produce only once before: when the creature had started teetering back and forth in the forest, looking like a newborn that had strayed too far from its home and had lost the way back. It’s hard to coolly dismiss newborns. They’re the most innocent beings on Earth.
The creature stirs, mumbles something in English under its breath and then presents its back to the warrior. Slédaun’s lips twist around a sour taste in her mouth. How odd, she muses as she reaches in under the covers and wraps an arm around the creature’s waist, that I should go from being uncomfortable with being regarded as a superior to being upset at being disregarded. She gives a light chuckle and shifts forward, guiding the girl up against her side.
The blankets slip away from her shoulders, drifting down her torso and the sky girl immediately curls herself closer to the warrior. Fighting the urge to scoff at how dependent the mutant is on her, she hefts her a little higher, sitting her up properly. The giant ringbug doesn’t make a noise of complaint, just wiggles a bit closer as a ringbug does and attempts to slip deeper into the throes of sleep.
“Alright, up with you, mutant, and wake up!” Slédaun hisses, the last bit of her patience slipping through her fingers at the continued ignorance of the girl to how inappropriate her actions are. She bounces the thin little thing on her arm, watches her head bobble back and forth before stilling, guilt nibbling at her gut. Huffing, she places the bowl down to the side and shakes the girl awake with a hand on her shoulder.
Wide, pale blue eyes gaze up at her in shocked wonder.
The warrior stiffens, her body remaining fixed in place. Blue is a color unseen naturally on anyone here. Whether of the Jinza or Fenza, it is something you can get dyed into your skin or you can decorate your home with, but it has never been a part of someone’s natural coloring. Everyone Slédaun has ever met has either had brown or yellow eyes, neither of which are remotely close to the startling aquamarine irises suddenly being directed her way.
“What a combo,” she says aloud, knowing that the girl can’t understand a word she says, and also that it’ll definitely frustrate her to be left out, “golden hair and blue eyes. You could become a queen if you so choose.” The creature protests, her face scrunching up in disapproval of Slédaun speaking in a language she doesn’t know. “The feeling’s mutual,” the warrior tells her offhandedly as she looks over to her side and scoops back up the bowl of porridge.
Curious as to what the little mutant will do when she tastes it, she holds it out to her, inviting her in for a taste by making a pushing motion towards her with it. Hesitantly, the girl reaches out and grabs onto the sides, eyeing the white, goopy surface as if it’s bound to leap up out of the dish and try to bite off her nose. She sniffs at the rim, but it doesn’t have a smell. It’s made mostly out of potatoes from the villages mixed with melted ice from the mountains and fat ringbugs. As a warrior, Slédaun has always relied on this meal to develop and maintain her stamina and strength. It was a distasteful concoction in that it tasted like she was licking the bottom of a muddy rock, but it had proven its worth over the years. The worse it tastes the better it is for one’s health.
The girl sends her one last glance before grasping onto the spoon and bringing it to her lips. She watches on in barely suppressed delight as the metal utensil carries its mostly solid, goopy charge closer and closer. The creature’s entire face cringes, warps into a crinkly, wrinkled shell of itself. The warrior watches her closely, encouraging her to finish the bite with a quick motion of her free hand. This, she assumes, is precisely what her younger self had looked like attempting to fight back the rising bile and choke down the chunky paste that her people call porridge. It’s a wonder what the human race can get used to, from awful food to mutated animals and a constant covering of clouds blocking out the sun.
“What a stubborn race we are,” she muses, reaching out and pulling the blankets up closer to the child’s thin, frail-looking frame.
She doesn’t let it bother her that underneath the covers the girl’s partially naked, instead letting her perspective shift to think of the little creature as nothing more than a very large infant, ignorant to the culture of the rest of world. The description, she thinks, is accurate. The girl knows nothing of the language or customs, and has already shown that she is as opposed to the cuisine as most young children that must be sat down and forced to eat for a minimum of one harvest cycle in order to get used to it.
Does that make me the mother?
The thought is appalling, so she lets it go as soon as it takes place, shoving it out of her head before it can infect her.
Apparently feeding off of her agitation, the child rears its ugly head, throwing up words in her own language and babbling on incessantly. Slédaun forgets for a moment about what could be upsetting her until the girl’s practically shoving the dish back her way. Smiling in a way she hopes is comforting, she tries to think of the few words she knows for sure in English, but again all she can really think of is “no”, “to move,” and “thank you.” The three phrases Emsamni thought would come in handy the most for her. She’ll have to remember to thank him later for mocking her life as a warrior.
Now that she’s higher ranked, it’s probably about time that she looks over that dead language once more.
The creature leaning against her attempts to take another bite and cries out against it.
Perhaps the language can’t be considered dead when one of its native speakers is still alive and kicking. She eyes the colorless face of the girl, lingering on the dark purple of her lips. For how long, she wonders, will this little mutant stay that way, though? As she watches, the spoon dips back into the bowl, the need for food overcoming the disgusting quality, and she’s forced to note how even as a mutant creature-thing from the sky, this girl will still choose life over death just like anyone else in the basin.
Sighing deeply, she stiffens her spine and hefts the light child closer, welcoming her bony elbows and hips in favor of not being charged by Emsamni with freezing the only remnants of his precious dead language. She’d have that dangling over her head even longer than the fact that she has a sudden need to learn English.
“Stupid linguist,” Slédaun mutters to herself.