If you haven’t read Finding Fire – Part One yet, click here to do so.
For Part Two, click here. Now time for the final part:
– TALES FROM YOKENDALE –
Ayana would recognize the sound anywhere, any time. The wooden wheels, studded with steel spikes, had a very particular sound when crafted at the hands of the khan’s men. A prisoner convoy was near and growing nearer. The sound pierced her sleep and wrenched her awake, but her eyes opened to the sharpened point of a spear just inches from her face. Ayana didn’t move, didn’t flinch. Behind the man were two carriages, cages, filled with prisoners from Yokendale and the Hoarfrost alike.
“How was your nap?” said the man that held the spear, but he wasn’t asking a question. He was mocking her for allowing herself to get caught. She didn’t respond.
Out of the corner of her eye she saw three men standing around Tobias with weapons drawn, but Tobias was sitting up right, calm by all appearances. Ayana took a deep breath through the filter of her head wrap; the air tasted dusty. Tobias would save them. ”Get up,” said the man with the spear. “Slowly.” Ayana held her hands up and rose gracefully onto her feet. “Where were you two going?”
Ayana didn’t answer. The man repeated the question. Ayana swallowed nothing and said, “Tobias.”
Tobias didn’t flinch. “Byas is a month’s journey north of the khan’s temple, you fool. You’re almost to the Yokendale border, at the edge of war. Are you one of their field dogs?”
“No,” said Tobias, shaking his head. Ayana thought she heard him laugh. “My name is Tobias. We’re not going to Byas. We’re just salesmen. A salesman and a saleswoman, actually.”
The man guarding Ayana pulled his face mask down and spat on the ground. His lips were cracked and dried by the constant winter. “Selling what?”
“Alchemicals,” said Tobias. His alchemy crate was strapped to his back; he patted it over his shoulders. The three men around him tensed, pointing their swords at his throat.
“Wizardry,” the man with spear said faintly, a subtle fear entering his voice. The prisoners in the convoy began to murmur. Tobias’ eyes flickered, realizing he had made a miscalculation.
“We should kill him, Bakur,” said one of the other men, but the man with the spear, Bakur, raised a fist to silence his subordinate.
“Such things are against the law this side of the border. Alchemists are criminals.”
“My apologies, Bakur,” said Tobias. “We’ll cross back over the border right away.”
“Yes,” said Ayana, nodding furiously. She wasn’t sure why Tobias hadn’t melted them into the snow yet, but she was following his plan nonetheless. “We’re very sorry for trespassing on your laws.”
“Where are you from, woman?” asked Bakur.
“Yokendale,” she answered. Bakur reached out, swiftly, forcefully, and pulled Ayana’s headwrap down.
“No,” he said. “You are one of us. The khan will want to deal with you personally.” He flipped the spear around and smacked Ayana across the face with the blunt end, driving her teeth into her cheek. She collapsed into the snow, blood sputtering from her mouth. “Take the alchemicals, chain them up, and let’s keep moving.” Bakur’s men did as they were told, and after three weeks of travel from Tobias’ cave in the heart of the Hoarfrost Territory, they were being carted back towards the capital. And the wizard hadn’t even argued.
The prisoners huddled to the opposite side of the cart. They stared at Tobias and Ayana as if the devil was in their midst, because even the criminals knew not to mess with wizardry, or a woman. The only light in the cart was what peered in through the tiny barred windows on either side. It was warmer at least, with so many bodies squeezed into a tight space. The unsteady ground beneath wobbled them into one another.
“Why didn’t you fight?” Ayana hissed her words out, low and sharp.
“I don’t use my curse to harm other people. Not anymore.” Tobias didn’t look at her, didn’t spare even a glance. For a moment she thought she saw pain in his eyes.
“Freedom was a day away. A day.” Ayana turned away from him. While only a few weeks ago they had been total strangers, they were nearly friends now. Or they were, before Tobias betrayed her.
“Freedom isn’t what you think it is, Ayana,” said Tobias. His voice softened, tinged with something like kindness, or sorrow, or guilt. Ayana didn’t respond. The prisoners watched them closely, listened closely. “Your khan doesn’t allow women to live as they should. I understand that.”
“When I was a young, the lord of Yokendale sent his hunters, the Taxers, to scour the country for my kind,” said Tobias, taking an uneasy breath. “Those wizards who were found were slaughtered outright. We were lynched because of this curse you see as a gift, this thing wizards are born with. We don’t learn it, or earn it, and most of us don’t deserve it. But nonetheless, unrelenting power rests below my skin. And I’m hated for it.”
“You don’t deserve it because you refuse to use it,” Ayana spat. “You were born that way for a reason, old man.”
“Maybe, but that reason was not to kill these Frostlanders for doing their duty.”
“You’re a coward, Tobias,” is all she said.
He sat quietly for a moment, a very long moment. “I almost got my brother killed, Ayana. A long time ago. I left his son without a father and his wife to raise the boy alone. Lord Panatorn was looking for wizards to fight in his war against your people. Wizards went from social sacrifice to war pigs, and my brother was among them because of me.”
“You probably don’t want my opinion,” said one of the prisoners, tucked into the small mass of them in the other corner of the carriage. “But, you can free us?”
Tobias took a deep breath, ignoring the prisoner.
“The khan will kill me, Tobias,” said Ayana quietly. “He’ll kill me, all of these people, and your nephew.” Tobias looked at her then, for the first time since they were captured. “You abandoned your family once. You’re doing it again, permanently, and all because you’re too much of a coward to stand up for yourself and others like you.”
Tobias clenched his fists, hard. Ayana had pissed him off, and he hated getting pissed off.
“She’s kind of right,” said the same prisoner as before. “You’re kind of a coward.”
Tobias stood, his hands hot red and the chains around his wrists melting off. “One condition,” he spat, pointing at Ayana. “We’re not going back to Yokendale.”
“What?” Ayana stood toe to toe with him and he melted the chains on her wrists.
The wizard threw out his hands, the sides of the carriage turning to shreds of wood in response. The convoy screeched to a stop and seconds later Bakur charged around the side of the carriage, his spear aimed and his voice loud. With a wave of Tobias’ hand the Frostlander general burst into flames and dove for the snow. The fire would die before he did, but it would give the prisoners a head start.
“This khan of yours needs a visit,” said Tobias, climbing out of the carriage. “I’d like to talk to him.”
After this story I’m going to take a little break from short fiction and poetry and get back to a few personal posts. It’s been a while since I wrote an autobiographical post because I’ve been on a MAJOR fiction kick. But for more fiction, check out my Quick Reads page, where I link all of my short fiction and poetry posts.
If winter was a person, what would they look like?