Mikial reached the border ridges late in the afternoon. Climbing up a ragged trail, she strained to hear more meaningful sounds besides the constant rumble of the gorge falls to her right. A Datha Line could be dancing around up here and I wouldn’t know, she complained to herself while negotiating intervening jabs of wet and sometimes icy rock. Her vision was thwarted by an enveloping mist, but so would the eyes of any non-Datha observers. Like her, they would use their hunting eyes. Right now, hers were picking up nothing. A good sign. She made the crest, the footing treacherous thanks to an over abundance of roots belonging to trees taking advantage of the constant moisture rising from the chasm’s lip. Turning left, she soon left the obscuring mists for a clear view down the shelves of tree-tangled granite slabs. No evidence of….
She dropped to her belly with bared teeth. Between the bolls of two trees, an angular silhouette cut across the waning sunlight. Creeping forward, she shortly made out the lines of a two-person tent tucked within a small depression. Her hunting eyes brought back nothing, and the westerly wind carried only the cool scents of wet foliage and dead grass. When she wormed her way closer, she caught the faint smell of ash. This was no Datha encampment. It could, however, be a Passion Camp where Kiorannan girls sought to ensure a Servant child. Then where were the girls, let alone their luring scents? Emboldened by the apparently empty camp, Mikial rose up and made a closer inspection. Probing a stone ring’s ash, she found it still warm at the core. Pulling off her back pack, she crawled into the tent to find a padded orange-and-red sleeping pouch inside. And there was food too. She opened a leather satchel to find a wealth of rolled meats, breads, and even a bottle of wine. Bemused, she took the bottle outside and used the Curtain’s dim radiance to make out a distinctly Qurl label. Winged skathes coiled around a cluster of juice berries. “Kinset?” she muttered. “What idiot drinks water at a tavern? We’ve thrown away better than this.” Curiosity growing, she ducked back in and returned the bottle. Further rummaging produced a neatly wrapped set of small hammers and exquisitely tiny chisels. So her mystery guest was a Cothra. Mikial sniffed at the sleeping pouch, drawing in scents that were distinctly male in origin, a not entirely displeasing smell like warm leather.
Outside the tent she found another bag containing a coil of thin climbing fiber, anchor pins and various metal clasps. A climber too. There was also evidence of a yhas about. Feeling a tug of concern, she moved back toward the gorge. She searched along the granite lip for another line. There was only wet rock, stubborn lichen, and mist swirling up from thundering waters.
Mikial stared into the abyss. Halfway down sheer granite walls and half-concealed by its own spray, the White River crashed its way through a violent staircase of rock before foaming waters were sent hurling over sixty spans of sheer cliff face. To her ears came a sound like the echoing bellow of some great cave beast. She leaned dangerously over the precipice. If her camper had fallen here, his scream wouldn’t even be heard. Nor would he feel much beyond the first strike of skull against stone. There were worse deaths. Much like what a civil war would bring. Mikial breathed in the cold rush of water and wind. So where was this Cothra?
It felt good to think of something other than her own darkening predicament. The frontier wasn’t a place for wine-toting tourists. She had time enough to chase this idiot down and be elsewhere after steering him toward a Datha patrol. Mikial turned back to the camp, awarding herself with a slight smile at the thought of giving this visitor some misinformation to help confuse the Datha even more. She make it look like she was heading into Kioranna, then double back and head deep back into the hills again. Sooner or later she needed to start negotiations with someone. Suddenly appearing on Tasuria Sencia’s doorstep might be a good start.
The Cothra’s small encampment gave no further clues, but a game trail along the western slope pointed like a finger down into the band of forest rimming the Kiorannan plains. The trailing edge of yhas hooves were still well-defined where the animal leaned back against the slope’s incline. She guessed the tracks were left anywhere from eight to ten chimes earlier. Nor were there any attempts by its owner to hide his footsteps. Frowning, Mikial looked down slope. Maybe she was going into Kioranna after all.
Retrieving her rifle, she followed the trail into the shadows of tall sheld and common trees. The wind was drifting in from the north to north-west, bringing in little other than the green tinges of moldering leaves semi-thawed by the day’s sun. And something else. Each time the cold breeze came from the north, it brought with it a rich trace of blood. Breaking from her still pose while sampling the air, Mikial gave a hiss ending with an earnest run northward. What have you done to yourself? Keeping her silhouette low, she darted silently through the trees with barely a scrape of boot on rock while hopping over loose granite jumbles. Ahead, the river’s surge grew in intensity. So did the smell. The tang in her nostrils carried with it a sharp taste of something suggesting animal.
Her hunting eyes picked up the verens’ canine emanations before she even reached the clearing. Hopefully this was just a pack kill. Hopefully it wasn’t …. Mikial broke out onto a rocky wash spreading out from frothing river banks. Within a semi-circle of boulders, the two predators wheeled protectively in front of their prey with hackles raised and teeth bared. Mikial replied in kind with drawn back lips, throwing her rifle aside. I’m still Dathia. She charged into them with a soul-cleansing scream. Her kick sent the first veren sprawling against the boulder, giving her the instant she needed to twist around as the other leapt for her throat. Her claws sunk into its matted gray fur first, using the animal’s own momentum to break it’s back against an adjacent stone wedge. Spinning, she met the other veren’s recovering lunge, seizing its skull instinctively in a killing grip. Her wrist glands surged with a bioelectric discharge. Dropping the corpse, Mikial looked down at their meal, her body recovering from its exhilarating rush. She’d found her Cothra’s yhas.
A quick inspection revealed that the animal had died before being disemboweled. Gripping the yhas’s long-eared head by its harness, she inspected the single oozing hole above its round staring eyes. She glanced over at the veren. They hadn’t gotten much beyond eating the liver and other softer organs. The yhas’s body wasn’t warm, which meant that these veren had traveled some distance on the scent alone before finding it. Four chimes…six at the most. Fetching her rifle, she made a quick inspection along the river, its rapids boiling up water in deep thundering gouts. Jumping into that stuff would’ve been as certain a death as getting shot. Since her hunting eyes hadn’t found any trace of this visitor, his fate was one of only two grim assumptions. Returning to the yhas, she inspected the thing’s saddle bags. Chunks of rock. Probably picked up from around the falls, further defining the victim as a miner of some sort. She also found out his name, carved neatly into a small wooden case containing a set of worn-looking hand picks. “Jaim Tanith…where do I find you now?” Straightening, she looked westward. The river would’ve killed him. The Kiorannans would have other plans in mind for a healthy Qurl male.
She found what she was looking for a few hundred spans from the wash. Snow-dusted grass was downtrodden by boots. A pile of stones guarded the husk of a dead log whose insides still glowed from embers fanned by the wind. There were plenty of yhas hooves, and wagon tracks too. They led off into the exposed plains with only a sparse sprinkling of trees to break an otherwise endless rolling sea of snow-covered grasslands. Mikial regarded the fire. Four chimes at the most. This had been a party of males. Six or seven from the look of it. Had this been the eastern frontier with Minnera, this would be the telltale signs of a capture party. The Kiorannans sent their women into the hills instead. At least until now. Or was a lone stupid Cothra too much a temptation to resist? Mikial glanced back at the wooded ridges bordering the plunging falls. The Kiorannans wouldn’t mind waiting until she was in Passion either. A child was a child by any means. Even if she was Servant-born herself, they’d be desperate enough to take a chance that she’d produce one of their own. Who could blame them? They were the progeny of an ancient Taqurl crime – the crafting of a subservient race whose very existence was dependant on their masters strengthening deliberately weakened bloodlines. Modern day Qurls turned their backs on them, condemning Servants to slow extinction. So there were kidnappings or passion camps...and baby exchanges when the result wasn’t a Servant. Sighing, Mikial shouldered her rifle and began following the wagon’s obvious passage through the snow. Here I go again.
# # #
The Curtain spread across the clear night sky in all it’s star-studded glory like glowing purple die dropped into ink. Getting lost in its eternal beauty was easy. So was watching the activities of a sprawling ranch from her cover within a patch of dried rushes along a frozen stream. It was seventh chime, yet the upper story still had lights on. Probably hall lights to benefit a guard. Her exhales coming in frosty puffs, Mikial scanned the barn-like home with her set of field glasses and tried not to think about how numb her cheeks felt in the cold. Smoke drifted lazily from six chimneys along the house’s sloping roof. The ranch was like a small village in itself. Three barns flanked the house, with two smaller buildings probably containing the usual odds and ends of farm life. A curving garage flanked the left side of the house. A row of twelve huge silos stood behind the barns, suggesting that grain was the main produce here. And now babies.
Normal tactics would have had this ranch hit by a full Line of Datha. Not knowing which irony to laugh at, Mikial edged down toward a small wooden fishing pier whose path led directly into the ranch. Someone had thought to line the path with a picket fence. No doubt it looked nice in the spring. For now, it was all the cover she needed to break her outline. Like all Servants, Kiorannans were like Cothra except that they couldn’t even warm a glow stone between them. Not did they have much hope in a fight – providing she didn’t end up facing a wall of bristling rifle barrels. With no evidence of tents, Mikial hoped all she had here were ranchers. At best, she could get this Jaim fellow out without anyone getting hurt. All these people wanted were a future that included children they could keep. That hardly made them monsters.
They had a guard. The male was silhouetted in the light of an upper window, forcing her to take almost a chime in a careful crawl through frozen grass until she reached the garages. Now cold and wet, she reconsidered not shooting someone for the trouble this was causing her. What would these fools do if they saw a Datha assault coming? Everyone wore armor designed for the human-enhanced weapons used in the Minneran War. The balls from Kiorannan long rifles wouldn’t even break a Datha’s stride. Armor I’m not wearing, Mikial reminded herself, reaching the garage’s back southeast corner.
Her avenue to the second floor was a stone chimney rising from the side of the house and passing adequately close to an upper porch balcony. She found the stones welcomingly warm to the touch as she climbed up the corner between the masonry and wooden siding. Easing herself over the balcony’s thick wooden railing, Mikial swung the rifle off her shoulders and hazarded a glance through the crack of a window’s closed shutters. It looked like a carpeted hallway, light coming in through the bottom of a closed door revealing a mosaic of blue, red, and green flowers upon a dark blue weave. There appeared to be three rooms on each side of the hall before it met a balustrade separating the hall from another series of rooms further down. She tensed. More light flooded the hall as the door was opened. He couldn’t possibly have spotted her…could he?
The male was young, only twenty or so years from the look of him. He had hair clipped loosely around his ears, and a weather-worn completion across a sturdy face. He wore a rough brown woolen sweater and gray pants. He also carried a holstered pistol. The Kiorannan’s eyes were on the facing door across the hall, and his expression radiated the kind of pain one usually expected at a death watch. Dark eyes, deeply set with remorse and anger, stared at the other door. Mikial knew that look, having seen ghosts of it in the eyes of her own natural mother when she recounted her own attempt to have a return child in a stranger’s grasp. She also knew where to find Jai, but judging from things, she wouldn’t be finding him alone. The door was garlanded in small gray flowers. The aile blossoms would effectively mask the distracting scent of Passion. Mikial gave a slow growl. There was no possible way she was going to avoid confrontation now.
There were two doors at the front of the house facing the balcony, but they were closed. Gingerly testing the windows resulted in equal disappointment. Sure, she could just crash through a window, take a hostage, and help finish off the tenuous alliance with Kioranna that these ranchers were already well on their way to accomplishing. Teacher Rensa said she had to be more diplomatic than that. Fine.
Hopping the railing, Mikial landed directly in front of the house’s main door. Shouldering her rifle, she walked up and grabbed an iron door knocker and slammed it repeatedly against the rear plate. Lights went on all over the house. The first set of running feet arrived to crack the door open enough for a face and pistol to push through. It was the male from upstairs.
Mikial put on her best intimidating smile, leaned an arm against the ajar door next to the male’s startled face, and began a rhythmic tapping with her extended claws. “Good morning. I believe you have something of ours?” Her grin broadened to display teeth. “We’d like him back now.”
The door swung open to reveal more Kiorannans with more guns. There were at least five males ranging in age and partial dress, with expressions from panic to stunned disbelief. Keeping her smile, Mikial slowly reached out and pushed aside one of the rifle barrels. “Now you wouldn’t want us to upset our good relationship with you, would you?” Her expression quickly lost its humor. “You’ve a tenth-chime to get him out here before we come in after him.”
“I didn’t see anyone!” the young male guard gulped, staring at the rest.
“You don’t want to,” she hissed back. Mikial glanced meaningfully at the timer on her wrist.
The door slammed shut again. There was more running and shouting, some of it female this time. Faces started appearing at lit windows, trading astonished looks as they peered out at her. One shrill elder female voice was telling someone “I told you! I told you!” Mikial took that as a good sign.
It didn’t take too long for the door to open again, disgorging a lanky Cothra male looking as disheveled as the brown leather clothes he half-wore. Eyes as dark as ink gave her a stricken look above broad cheeks and a narrow but firm-looking jaw line. Long brown hair ended at his shoulders, his front locks bound up in a tight forehead braid running back along high-set ears. His brief nose and thin lips would’ve looked cute in other circumstances. Right now her only impression was that of Cothra who’d gotten far more adventure than he bargained for. “Mikial?” he gulped in a smooth tenor.
“Be silent,” she hissed, catching a heavy leather coat flung out after the Cothra. Grabbing his shoulder while he struggled to button up a shirt featuring a harness-like strapping along the shoulders, Mikial pushed him forward. “Walk.”
“Mikial?” This time the voice came from behind him. “Mikial Kior? Steward’s daughter?”
Lovely. “Just keep walking like someone’s out there waiting for you,” she whispered, drawing a shocked look from the Cothra. Mikial turned to face the crowded doorway. “Yes?”
An older male stepped out, wrapping himself tighter in a heavy robe. “You don’t know me, but I fought alongside the Steward and yourself at Fort Asul.”
“I wasn’t aware that anyone lived through that,” she replied, stepping back for a clearer view. She saw that he was missing a left forearm. “What happened to sending your females out to us?”
The rancher’s jaw set. “Would you send your own daughter out there in winter if you had another choice?” He inclined his head to the young male. “Kennar promised not to shoot the fellow…we were going to release him. We’re honorable people, Mikial Kior. Your father taught you that much, didn’t he?”
“Both did,” she countered. “There’s got to be a better solution than this.”
“I’m listening.” He folded his arms in a manner that suggested he’d be right back at the frontier looking for more males with the morning’s light.
“The Chadrak ranch already does exchanges,” she said, coming up with as good an idea as she could muster in short notice. “Something more respectable for both sides could be arranged.”
“Better make it soon, Steward’s daughter.” The door closed behind him with an irritable thump.
Giving a frosty breath of relief, she sprinted back down the creek path to catch up with her prize. By now he had his coat on, and a quick inspection revealed that they’d let him have his boots back as well. “Daylight’s going to be in a few chimes. We need to be far from here by then.” She favored this Jaim with a sharp look. “How did you know my name?”
“Datha came by saying you might be out my way,” he replied while they extended their departure with a fast trot. “Besides, there’s not too many Dathia around, especially any that would come out into Kioranna alone.” They continued without further words for a few moments before he spoke again. “Thank you.”
“You were an idiot!” she spat back. “So what’s next? Tell the Datha that you saw me?”
Jaim stopped, his breath coming in quick puffs. “They’re afraid you’ll come out here. That you won’t return.”
“So they told you everything, except that you didn’t belong out there,” she surmised. “Welcome to Kioranna.”
“Where they treat you like breeding stock?” he shot back, his dark eyes gleaming with vehemence.
Lips curling back, she seized the loose collar of his coat in her claws. “Where we treat them like animals! You think that girl wanted to be with you? With her own husband outside the door?” She pushed him away, her anger growing. “They come up alone into our hills and have to give themselves to whoever will take them. At least you had a bed and a roof.” She shook her head, not knowing quite how to deal with this. Most Cothra talked about the Passion camps along the border like an inside joke. However, from the look on this one’s face, he’d been shaken to the core of his Kinset aloofness. It served him right. “Kioranna’s villages are emptying even with these Passion exchanges, even as our Holdings fill with their rejected children. The least we can do is offer something better.”
“Not like that!” he seethed, pointing back toward the house. “They made us drink wine until it was practically flowing out our ears! Until we could stand to look at each other!” His voice broke. “Until our pride was gone.”
“Jai, I am sorry you had to learn about Servants this way,” she said with a shudder at her own lack of compassion. “I’ll get you back to the Shandi…they’ll help you through this a lot more than I can.”
“Why don’t you just do as you said you would? Arrange something. You’re the Great Suria, remember?”
“How nice to be reminded of that from a Kinset Qurl,” she snarled back. “One of you gets a taste of what’s been going on here for centuries and suddenly I’m not a mistake. Sorry if you haven’t noticed, but I’ve been a bit busy as of late. Kept in the dark up at White Canyon. Disowned by my own Holding…minor distractions like that. Oh, did I mention that I’m being hunted right now?”