Elli stopped to stretch her back, lifting her packbasket with one hand to allow a draught of air to cool her back. It was unseasonably hot for mid-autumn, and while this was to her advantage for gathering the herbs, she didn't enjoy the precautions she had to take to make sure her fair skin didn't burn. A shadow passed over her briefly, and she heard the hunting cry of a calashi. Squinting against the sun, she looked up to watch the massive prey bird pass overhead, seeing the vague outline of its rider as it banked.
"Mumma says you don't belong here." Elli looked down, blinking to get rid of the spots in front of her eyes. A young boy was standing before her, legs apart and hands on his hips. She wondered amusedly how long he had practised that stance.
"She says that you should go back where you belong."
"Does she say where that is?" He considered this, his hands dropping into his pockets as he did so.
"What do you think?" He took a deep breath and then let it out to think some more.
"Mumma says you should go back where you belong," he repeated finally. Elli resisted the urge to tell him to take a message to his mother and said instead, "I better get going."
"I'm picking tamma herbs."
"I use them to make balm and scent soap."
"What for?" Elli eyed him, "You ask a lot of questions for someone who starts the conversation with an insult."
"What's an in-sult?" Elli was still thinking of a way to answer this when a shout was heard.
"That's Mumma. I gotta go." He ran off and Elli was aware of a mixture of relief, amusement and exasperation. Unconsciously her hand slid up to rub her collarbone. Catching herself she dropped her hand, and continued on towards the clearing where the last of the tamma herbs were growing. She says that you should go back where you belong. That would be fine if she knew where exactly that was.
Elli was still thinking about this odd encounter as she gathered the herbs, throwing them into the basket on her back, when she heard something. She paused and looked around, thinking that the boy had come back to continue haranguing her. Apart from a gentle breeze that had come up to rustle the leaves of the tamma bushes, she was alone. She continued her gathering, but a little slower, pausing frequently to look up from her task and glance around the clearing. There weren't many large predators on Shey, and it was unlikely that any would attack her at this time of year, with food so plentiful; still she was careful.
The sound came again, like a voice on the wind. Elli straightened and glared round the clearing, both in an attempt to convince herself it was nothing and to discourage any possible jokers. When she heard it again, a moment later, the abrupt clarity and volume made her stagger back several steps.
She looked around violently, searching for the source of this cry, her heart pounding wildly in response to this panicked command.
The volume of the cry had increased enough to make Elli press her hands to her ears, and the realisation that accompanied this action made her insides freeze. She wasn't hearing the cry through the air, but straight inside her head. When it came again, she shrugged off her packbasket and began to run in one smooth movement, instinctively following some inner direction that accompanied the cry.
Her headlong progress through the undergrowth faltered as she came to where the river widened and deepened and she saw a calashi hopping and fluttering about on the bank nearest to her. It was the first time she had ever been close to the intelligent and empathic birds, and the sheer size of it shocked her into momentary immobility.
The sight of him hopping and fluttering with ungainly grace might have made Elli smile under any other circumstances. The calashi were designed for flight, not for movement on the ground, but the terror and panic behind each cry was digging into her mind in a way that compelled her to obey. She ran forward again, avoiding the huge, feathered body and saw immediately what the problem was. Below the water, trapped by the bottomweed, the calashi's flyer was desperately trying to free himself to get to the surface. Even as she watched, his movements were slowing. She unsheathed her knife and dived into the water, not even waiting to remove her boots. The weed was quickly cut, and wrapping one arm around his upper body, she dragged him to the shore, floundering under the combined weight of their sodden clothing. She pushed his body as far up the bank as she could, and found unexpected aid in the form of the calashi, who gripped at a fold of the tough leather of his flyer's riding jacket with his beak, and pulled back. Elli dragged herself out of the water and heaved the horribly still form of the rider onto his back. Despite the warmth of the air, the water had been cold, and she had to blow on her fingers to gain enough feeling to check his pulse, bending her head to hold her cheek over his mouth to check for signs of breathing. With the adrenaline still coursing through her system, and seeming to slow everything down, it felt like forever before she felt the pulse beating in his neck.
He wasn't breathing. Trying to control her own frantic gasps for air, she tilted his head back, cleared his airway with the finger of one hand, and pinched his nose with the other. She breathed for him five times before he arched and choked up the water he had swallowed. Dizzy with relief and lack of oxygen she slumped back onto her heels, leaning her hands on the ground for support.
When the blackness at the edges of her vision receded, she leaned back, pushing a dripping lock of hair back over her head. The flyer was looking at her, his dark eyes very intent. Before either could say anything the calashi pushed his huge head between them, and Elli shied away instinctively. The next moment she heard some cries from above and looked up to see several other calashi and their flyers all circling. Two landed, their flyers barely waiting for the birds to touch the ground before sliding off and sprinting over to the prone figure of their companion.
"Kailan! What happened?"
"I'm fine," the flyer struggled to sit up, hampered by the weight of his waterlogged flying jacket. The two other men immediately helped him up, scanning his face worriedly.
"We better get you back to the eyrie, let the healer check you over. Corash was screaming that you'd drowned." Totally disregarding Elli, they helped Kailan to his feet, had a brief argument as to whether he was fit to ride or not, and supported him over to where the other two calashi were waiting. Elli watched them fly off, amazed and a little hurt that they should ignore her so completely. She pulled herself to her feet, and squelched back to where she had left the packbasket and herbs. She decided that she rated her own comfort a little higher than picking extra herbs, and lifting the basket onto her shoulders, she went home, leaving a trail of water as she went.
Elli was engaged in vigorously scrubbing the wooden soap molds free of the residue from her last batch when became aware that she wasn't alone. She looked up just in time to call out,
"Don't touch that!" Springing to her feet, she strode over to where she had set out her ingredients to make soap, "sorry, the lye in the container is caustic and it might burn you." It took her a few seconds to recognise the tall figure who had been looking over her containers.
"Calashi flyer Kailan, isn't it?" she asked tentatively. He nodded, "You have the advantage of me, Lady," he replied politely.
"Elli," she said in response to his prompt, and then for some reason she couldn't quite define she added, "Journeywoman herbalist."
"You make soap," he stated gesturing at the equipment. Elli stiffened slightly at this dry diminution of her abilities.
"Yes, and shampoo, oils and medicines as well." He nodded absently, and Elli gritted her teeth at his bland disinterest.
"I came to thank you for pulling me out of the river." Elli was at a loss as to how to respond to his flat statement, unsure if he had actually thanked her or not. Just before the silence stretched into uncomfortable levels she gave a slight shrug.
"You're welcome." He turned his dark eyes to meet hers, and it took some self-control not flinch as he did so, since until then he had been letting his gaze roam over the small, stone hut she lived in, the neat pile of fire wood stacked against one wall, the equipment she had laid out on the table before them. He had the same peculiarly intent look in his eyes as he had after she had rescued him.
"I'm curious, how did you know to come to my aid?"
"Your calashi told me to help you," she replied, a little puzzled.
"Corash spoke to you?"
"Yes," she answered slowly, unsure of how to describe the urgent summons she heard inside her head, and her reaction to it. She looked up to see his eyes still resting on her; very dark and disturbingly direct. She felt as if he was looking straight into her head, and found it hard to resist the urge to pour out everything that had happened the day before.
"How did he speak to you," he demanded, "what did he say to make you come?" Elli bridled at his commanding tone. Flyer or no, she wasn't going to let him speak to her like that.
"Please," he said finally, his tone more conciliating, "I would like to know." Elli felt a flash of rebellion and was tempted to refuse him, but the feeling was quickly pushed down with a mixture of politeness and the honour due to her visitor's position.
"I was picking herbs in a clearing about a hundred cal lengths from the river. When your calashi first called, I was only aware that someone was calling me. I thought that a joke was being played since no one was immediately visible and so I carried on picking. A few moments later, it came again, like a voice on the wind, and then I heard it a third time, very loud inside my head."
She recounted, keeping her tone flat and businesslike.
"Inside your head? What did you hear?"
"He said, 'help him'. The call was so panicked and urgent, I just reacted."
"How did you know where to go?" Elli frowned, "I just.... did."
"Have you ever heard the calashi before?"
"Only the verbal cries. Hunting screams generally." He raised his eyebrows in languid curiosity, "How did you know they were hunting?" Annoyance was beginning to override Elli's manners, and so she just shrugged and turned to go back to her scrubbing. A short while later she saw the shadow of the calashi fly over her, and despite her resolution not to, she glanced up to watch them fly away.
"Odious, supercilious, egotistical...." she exhausted her annoyance and her vocabulary on the wooden molds.
Elli was heating some water over the fire to dissolve the lye when she had another visitor. As she gave a smile of greeting to the woman, she reflected with inward irony that she, who could go days without seeing anyone, should have two visitors in one morning.
"Journeywoman." The woman managed to turn what should have been a polite acknowledgement of her title, into a toneless greeting. Elli's eyes narrowed slightly, but she answered politely on return, "Lady."
"I need some soap." Elli used the time it took to give her mixture another few stirs and swing it away from the fire, to gather her control.
"Of course, lady. Do you have a particular type in mind?" She nodded, "I need three bars of the pure soap for general cleaning, and...." she hesitated, "I don't know the name, but the one for the body that lathers well." Elli frowned slightly as she tried to put a name to this rather vague description.
"Most of my body soaps lather well. They're specially made that way, and also to leave the skin feeling smooth. It would just be a matter of choosing which herb mixture you prefer." She gestured for the woman to follow her and led the way to outbuilding she used to store the soaps while they aged.
The woman chose the herb soap that she preferred, and then, blushing a little, asked for another item, "Last time you were at the gather meet, you had some oils on your stand. Do you still have any?"
"Yes, several types."
"There was one that.... you said relaxed?" Elli had to turn away in mock perusal of her shelves as she realised what the woman was trying to refer to and silently took down a stoppered, clay bottle and handed it to her. The woman nodded as the scent of the oil became apparent, and still a little red, held out two tokens.
"Are bakercraft tokens acceptable?"
"Yes, thank you." Elli accepted the wooden shapes, marked on one side with a single bold slash, and on the other with a stylised bunch of grain. Placing her purchases in her basket, the woman nodded again, leaving Elli free to chuckle quietly at her embarrassment. She had to laugh, she thought, as she went back to her lyewater, or else such treatment would make her cry.
Elli managed to finish her soap making just before the weather changed, leaving the soap in the molds to harden for two days in her storehouse. The hot weather had quickly become sultry as the afternoon advanced, and the storm broke overhead with a sudden burst of thunder that made her jump.
The small mirror hanging on her wall, had been her only extravagant purchase at the last gather meet, and as she dried her hair, the image she saw in it made her pause, her stomach clenching in grim shock. The unseasonable heat had made her choose a white, short-sleeved, thin tunic top that had turned virtually transparent because of the wetting she had just received. The dark blue lines on her collarbone showed clearly through the clinging cloth. The mixture of curved and straight lines showing which eyrie she looked to for protection, a stylised map for those who could decipher them. She went hot and cold all over as she remembered that she had been wearing a similar top the day before when she had pulled the flyer out of the water. That he had seen the mark was a certainty. It also explained the peculiarly intent look he had bestowed on her, and probably the odd way he had questioned her.
Elli traced the lines with the tip of her forefinger, watching her progress in the mirror, and feeling tears spring up behind her eyes.
"Oh, Poppa," she whispered, "why did you have to mark me like this. Why?" She stood a moment longer, letting the self-piteous tears well up before resolutely pulling the wet tunic off and towelling herself dry.
"I tell you, Ben, I know what I saw!"
"You know what you think you saw." The eyrie leader leaned back in his chair, watching his White wingleader, "you know that the Shohaci eyrie mark is very similar to the Shyan."
"Oh, come on, Ben. They aren't that similar at all. The whole purpose of the marks, is to distinguish easily who looks to which eyrie for protection."
"Which, if you're correct about the mark, would leave your rescuer abandoned." Kailan frowned and slumped in his chair, watching Benetir from under lowered lids.
"I know I'm right," he said with quiet certainty. Benetir bit his lip thoughtfully, his mind moving on to the next conclusion. "Let's just say that you are right, then it leads to a lot of other questions. Why is she tattooed with the mark of a long deserted and dead eyrie? Who marked her, and," Ben leaned forward in unconscious eagerness, "does she know where it is?"
"If she did," Kailan pointed out with brisk logic, "she would surely have made it known."
"Not necessarily," Ben began to argue and then stopped, "there's no point in arguing about this without knowing for sure if she is marked for Shyan." Kailan threw him a look, and then pulled a small folder out of an inner pocket. Flipping it open, he found a blank sheet, and made a few, quick strokes with his pencil.
"This is what I saw," he said, holding the folder out for him to see. Benetir took the folder and glanced over the sketch.
"I still think that this could easily have been misinterpreted, Kai. You did after all, only catch a glimpse through wet cloth." No visible change came over the wingleader; he seemed to have returned to his normal reserve after his initial excitement about the girl.
"I'm a flyer, Ben. Part of my job is to be sure of seeing something, despite having the merest glimpse of it." Benetir couldn't deny this, calashi flyers learned to become very good at seeing the necessary landmarks that would help them in their job, often through cloud cover. Kailan had continued, "and I'm sure of this. There is also the other point - she heard Corash calling for help."
"That isn't that unusual," Benetir replied, still trying to argue the other side of the equation, and finding it hard in the face of Kailan's cool logic. "There are always some who hear the calashi, especially when they talk directly to them."
"Corash was sending out a general call for help," Kailan noted, "aimed at the other members of his wing, and at the eyrie. Moreover, this girl reacted to the cry. When I asked how she knew where to go, she said that she just did. Don't you see Ben?"
Kailan lost a little of his reserve as he leaned forward to make his point, his face suddenly intent, "she heard a general call and she knew how to follow the unspoken directions. The records all say that the Shyan were strongly empathic, often being able to hear the calashi, even though they weren't linked to one. Her appearance is typical of what the Shyan were thought to look like...."
Benetir interrupted at this point, "Kailan, you can't go drawing conclusions on that point. You can't say that all Shyan were dark and all Shinuk are blonde, it doesn't work that way. Besides, the Shyan people were virtually wiped out in the plague decade, any who might have survived would inevitably have had to marry an outsider."
"All I'm saying is that she fits the description of what is in the records. She's small, slender, has wavy, dark hair, and the greenest eyes you've ever seen. I've certainly never seen that colour on anyone else." Benetir sighed slightly and rubbed at his temples.
"Have you ever seen the mark of the Shyan before?" Kailan narrowed his eyes as he saw where Benetir was going.
"Once, when I looked through the records."
"And your mother was Shohaci, wasn't she?"
"And you don't think, keeping this in mind, that there is any chance that you might have got it wrong?" Kailan looked straight at his leader for a moment before answering, "No, I don't."
Benetir leaned back in his chair, rubbing his temples again as his thoughts raced round and round. The opportunity to meet someone who might be of the Shyan was almost too strong to resist. So much mystery surrounded the disappearance of the fifth eyrie, so many barriers, not the least of which was its position. The decade of plague that had ravaged the entire planet had started, somehow, at Shyan. The dead were piled up before anyone had been aware of it, and when, inevitably, the disease had spread, concerns had been with survival of loved ones, not a distant eyrie, gone silent. Shyan had been quarantined, and to stop the spread of the disease, to stop the curious from visiting and looting, all references to the location had been erased. Less than a century later, and the actions of previous eyrie leaders had been so successful that nobody knew the exact location of the place. Fear of disease, of further infection, still kept people from investigating too closely.
"There is of course an easy solution to our arguments of what I actually saw," Kailan's voice broke into his thoughts. Benetir looked up, and nodded, guardedly.
"I could go and fetch her here," Kailan offered, when he didn't speak.
"Is that a good idea?"
"You think not? Well, we could talk down there."
"I meant, for you to go," he saw Kailan stiffen slightly, and continued speaking, "you aren't exactly easy with unknown women, Kai. Not since.... well, anyway, you're not that easy with women you know either...." He stopped talking as he realised that he was just digging a deeper hole for himself. Kailan's face had hardened into total immobility when he had almost slipped up and mentioned her name.
He sighed and silently berated himself. Kailan stood, "I have to go. The novices are going to be put through their paces in a few minutes, and I want to see how they go. I would appreciate if you would let me know what you decide." Benetir nodded his acknowledgement and watched him stride out the room.
Kailan stood watching the novices fly intricate patterns over the eyrie without really seeing them, his mind running over the past hour, his brow crumpled into a deep frown. He didn't need Benetir to point out his faults, or to rub his nose in his failures, he was aware enough of them himself. His frown deepened as his mind went onto subjects he didn't want to examine.
They will think that you disapprove of them. A nudge from behind him shook him out of his reverie, and he turned slightly to bury one hand in Corash's warm feathers.
I don't disapprove, he thought at his friend, welcoming the uncomplicated love the calashi always gave him.
Your face is dark.
Kailan sighed slightly, I have things on my mind.
"Yes," he replied shortly, knowing that Corash at least, wouldn't misinterpret his brusqueness.
She came to help you. She heard me calling.
You think she is of the lost place?
"Shyan. It's called Shyan." Corash made no reply, becoming suddenly occupied with rearranging his primary flight feathers. Kailan guiltily remembered his behaviour towards his rescuer. Even his gratitude had been offered matter-of-factly, and his questions had been less than polite.
Polash's rider is careless. Corash's mental voice interrupted his self-condemnation, and Kailan turned to look, gratefully seizing the chance to turn his thoughts.
"Landis has always been a risk-taker." He watched the young novice turn dangerously close to another rider and frowned again.
"Can Polash handle that, Corash?"
I do not know. The doubt was enough to decide the wingleader, and he told his friend to call the pair in.
"Tell Polash to send Landis to my office when they land."
Yes. Polash says sorry.
"It isn't Polash's fault," Kailan muttered, striding towards the tunnel entrance.
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