The Bridge of D'Arnath, Book 4
Daughter of Ancients begins five years after Gerick and his father defeat the Lords of Zhev'Na beyond the Verges.
J’Savan stared unblinking at the dark blotch moving slowly across the dune sea, out where fingers of green grass were reaching into the desert. The young Gardener stared, not so much because he was concerned or felt any urgency about his assignment to watch for Zhid stragglers; after all, no Zhid had been sighted in southern Eidolon for almost two years. But he knew that if he so much as lowered one eyelid, the utter boredom of his post was going to put him to sleep. A man could appreciate only so much of the burnt copper sun and the heady scent of moisture, and the cool storm clouds the Weather Workers sent out from the Vales ensured that the blustering wind never ceased. The reawakening desert was beauty transcendent, life reasserting itself over the dead lands of Ce Uroth. But enough was enough.
He squinted into the western brightness. The blotch was likely a wild goat or perhaps a lame gazelle - too slow and erratic for a healthy one. At worst it was a scavenger wolf. The creature disappeared behind a dune, reappeared, vanished again.
J’Savan yawned and stretched out on his back, propping his head on his rucksack. The grassy dune underneath him was warm and comfortable, the day pleasant, but he would prefer to get back to his regular duties of digging, planting, and coaxing the earth to do his will. He enjoyed his work. Even better would be an early start to his coming leave days and his planned visit to the charming young Singer he’d met at his aunt’s house before the autumn’s turning. Her waist was plump, her laugh as musical as the patter of spring rain, her spirit tart and flavorful like new-cut limes. Yawning again, he lowered his chin to rest on his chest, closed his eyes, and envisioned her breasts…soft…curving above the neckline of her gown like a sweet sunrise…flushed…warm…
“Kibbazi teeth!” he yelled, as a fiery sting on his neck startled his drooping eyelids open. “Who are you? What do you think you’re…wait…”
He scrabbled his feet for a moment, but fell still at once when a few warm droplets dribbled down his neck from the sharp edge pressed against his throat. A filthy, ragged woman of indeterminate age hunched over him, rifling his pockets with one hand while threatening his heart vein with the other. A scavenger…but no wolf.
She wrenched the small leather tool packet from his belt, sniffed it, and threw it aside, then yanked his rucksack out from under his head. She needed both hands to untie the leather thong that held the sack closed. J’Savan used the opportunity to scramble away, backing up the reclaimed dune like a nervous spider until he was far enough to be out of her reach.
She didn’t seem afraid of him, now she had his things. Greasy tendrils of hair hid her face as she ripped the sack open and pulled out the stone water flask. Yanking the stopper, she cradled the flask in trembling hands and took a sip, no more than a taste. She moaned faintly.
“You can have it all,” said J’Savan, peering at her anxiously, desperate to see her eyes. No matter how much he would rather run away, he had to discover if she was Zhid. He was responsible for his fellow Gardeners’ safety, for the camp… Summoning power, he shaped a simple enchantment of confusion and delay, holding it at the front of his mind lest she attack again.
The woman set the stoppered flask aside and rummaged in the rucksack. She stuffed a crumbling biscuit into her mouth, and after it, the bruised pear J’Savan had decided not to eat earlier as he didn’t like them so ripe. Only after she’d consumed every morsel, thrown down the empty rucksack, and taken a second sip from the flask did she seem to remember the young Dar’Nethi. She stood up slowly, clutching the water flask in one hand and her knife - a crudely worked strip of bronze - in the other.
She was tall for a woman, so thin that her sunburnt skin stretched over her bones like silk across the spars of a sailing ship. Sand caked her arms, her bare feet, and her legs that stuck out from her stained, shapeless gray tunic. A dirty cloth bag the size of a man’s fist hung from a thong around her neck. She moved toward the Gardener.
J’Savan backed away slowly. “Who are you? Show me your face. I can get you more water and food, but I’ll defend myself if need be. I don’t mind what you took…” His tongue would not be still, as if chattering might set her at ease - or maybe it was for himself. She was so mysterious, so intense. “…or where you’ve come from. I can help. Find you clothes. Are you hurt? Are you…?”
She stepped closer, using the hand with the knife to push the salt-stiffened locks of hair from her face, and J’Savan’s voice dwindled away. Her eyes might have been windows on the sky. Huge, blue, limitless. So young, much younger than he’d thought, no older than himself. Her cracked lips moved slightly.
“What? Sorry, I couldn’t - What did you say?”
She was clearly Dar’Nethi, not one of the warrior Zhid or their Drudge workers. Her eyes said it all. Yet, she was not a Dar’Nethi slave, freed by the victory over the Lords, for she wore no collar nor the wide terrible scar from one. Perhaps a Dar’Nethi fighter, lost in the last battles? Surely not. Not after five long years. And her language was unfamiliar, some corrupt dialect, just on the verge of understandable.
“Regiré. Desene, s’a nide regiré.” Even rough with thirst, her voice was commanding, urgent.
“I’m sorry. I don’t understand you. Look, come with me to the camp. There’s water - all you could want - and food. Not a quarter of an hour’s walk from here. We’ll help you. Find someone who can understand what you’re saying.” Never quite turning his back on her, he beckoned, using gestures to guide her toward the Gardeners’ camp. He breathed easier when she trudged after him, her steps weary and slow, as if she didn’t believe he could help, but had nothing better to do.
It was difficult not to run ahead. No one would believe this, someone wandering out of the wasteland after so long. Rumor had it that Zhid still lurked in the jagged mountains of Namphis Rein, the Lion’s Teeth, far to the north. But in those first years after the fall of the Lords, the Zhid had been aimless and leaderless. Everyone believed that those not captured were long dead. Was this woman even real?
Quickly J’Savan turned and swept his mind over the woman. Her lank hair had fallen down again, masking her marvelous eyes. But she was no illusion. He sensed no enchantment about her at all.
When the woman squatted down and began pawing at the sand in the middle of the rootling grove, J’Savan averted his gaze, embarrassed to keep staring at her when she clearly needed privacy. He walked through the slender trees more slowly for a few moments, until he heard her plodding along behind him again.
The other Gardeners spotted them while they were still five hundred paces from the camp. Three women and two men stood up from the mounds of dark earth they were working and shaded their eyes. A gust of wind snatched away their calls of greeting.
“Eu’Vian!” shouted J’Savan. “This woman’s come out of the Wastes. She’s starving and parched. Sun-touched, I think.” He ran toward his comrades in fits and starts, slowing whenever he glanced over his shoulder to make sure the woman hadn’t vanished, then speeding up again.
A sturdy, capable-looking woman in a dusty yellow tunic and brown trousers stepped out from the other Gardeners and extended her palms to the stranger. “Welcome, wanderer,” said the gray-haired Eu’Vian. “How may we help you?”
“Be careful!” said J’Savan. “She’s not Zhid, but she’s fierce. Those stains on her tunic…” He hadn’t noticed the rust-colored blotches earlier. His neck hadn’t bled that much.
The woman pushed her straggling hair aside and looked from one kind, curious face to the next. “S’a nide, regiré.”
“That’s all she’s come out with,” J’Savan said. “I can’t understand her speech.”
Eu’Vian crinkled her brow, but did not lower her voice. “It’s just an ancient mode. She’s asking to be taken to the regiré, the king.”
“But - ”
“Hush, lad.” Eu’Vian’s face fell into puzzled sympathy.
The warm wind fluttered the strange woman’s rags and the wide hems of Eu’Vian’s sandy trousers, as the Head Gardener spoke haltingly with the woman. At the end of their brief exchange, the stranger dropped the water flask and bronze knife to the grass, closed her eyes, and clenched her fists to her breast. “Regiré morda…D’Arnath morda…” She sank slowly to her knees and began a low, soft keening.
“I told her we have no king in Avonar, that we honor D’Arnath so deeply that no successor has taken any greater title than his Heir,” said Eu’Vian quietly. “Then she asked if King D’Arnath had truly died, and when I said, ‘yes, of course,’ the result is as you see. She mourns our king as though he’s been dead three days instead of nine hundred years.”
As the evening light swept golden bars across the sweet-scented grassland, Eu’Vian crouched beside the stranger, laid her hand gently on the woman’s shoulder, and spoke as one does to a child who wakes from a nightmare or an aged friend who has lost the proportions of time and events.
But the stranger shook off Eu’Vian’s touch. With her hands clenched to her heart, she turned to each one of them, her very posture begging them to understand. “S’a Regiré D’Arnath…m’padere… Padere…”
Eu’Vian straightened up, shaking her head. “Poor girl. Who knows what she’s been through to put her out of her head so wickedly.”
“What is it she says? What sorrow causes this?” said J’Savan, unable to keep his eyes from the grieving stranger. His chest felt tight and heavy, and tears that were nothing to do with wind or sand pricked his eyes. His companions, too, seemed near weeping.
“It is for a father she mourns,” said Eu’Vian. “She claims she is D’Arnath’s daughter.”
Copyright © Carol Berg, 2022