Lanterns hung from the central pole cast flickering shadows along the interior walls of the tent.
“Don’t be foolish, Kasima,” the old man chided. “We are no longer troubled by mages. My grandfather told me when I was young that the last one left this world ages before we were born. Be grateful we live in such times.” He nodded as he sank back into his pillows.
She exhaled and continued staring at the shadows as they danced, thinking of how fond her grandfather had grown of using that particular tone—the familiar one curmudgeons used to assert their will and stop further discussion—ever since she had reached her sixteenth summer and received her falanori, the small piercing high on her left ear that marked her as a woman of the tribe nearly a year ago. She choked on the impulse to share her thoughts, but forced a small smile that her grandfather returned appreciatively as he patted her head.
Yet again, she had given in just to keep the peace.
Her mother pulled the tent’s flap open and stepped inside carrying a small clay pot full of steaming broth. The aroma scrunched Kasima’s nose so as not to cough or sneeze.
Conversely, the old man lifted his bowl up to his daughter-in-law.
“Kasima,” she began, carefully pouring the broth into the bowl, “Will you please refill the water pitchers outside? I used the last of it for your grandfather’s medicine.”
Eager to leave the acrid smell saturating the tent and escape more of her grandfather’s sage wisdom, she nodded to her mother and stood. She pulled her shoes from an ornate box at the tent’s entrance and slipped them onto her feet. Stepping out into the desert’s cool night air, she took a deep breath, filling her lungs with as much relief as she did oxygen, and let the tent’s flap swish shut behind her.
From within, Kasima heard her grandfather bluster, “I don’t understand how you continue to use two pitchers of water for this tiny bowl of broth, Shali…”
Stifling a chuckle, she approached a pair of yellow clay pitchers nearby and just as expected, one was full and the other only half-emptied. She picked up the emptier one and poured herself a cupful of water, taking a drink as she sat on the hard ground.
She loved that her mother understood her.
The majority of her Tribesfolk slept, or at least rested, within their tents or wagons a short distance away and only the occasional sounds of the sheep or goats belonging to them could be heard. Nights like this allowed her quiet and privacy, two things as precious to her as water, and just as difficult to come by in the Charinoma camp. Occasional breezes lifted loose strands of her coal-black hair and blew them into her face, but she paid them no mind. Her attention was already claimed by solitude and the freedom it granted for her thoughts to meander along well-worn paths. She took another drink of her water and enjoyed the clear view of the stars offered by the cloudless sky.
There was never a doubt that she loved her people, especially her family, despite the way that she and her grandfather disagreed on most subjects. His failing health kept her quiet instead of arguing with him about things like finding a husband—or not, the best places to find stone melons, or the mysterious fate of the mages… Which was somehow connected to or perhaps even the cause of her people’s deep fear of anything magical.
No one ever gives a direct answer. They only tell me that it’s just the way things are and that I should be grateful that the mages are gone.
A blinding blue flash flared the camp into momentary daylight.
Her cup splashed across her pants, clattering to the ground. Crouching on one knee, she blinked hard to clear the swarm of colored spots that clouded her vision.
Did no one else see that?
Nothing happened. No people came running to see and the animals still barely made a sound. Still, the earlier calm now wrapped icy fingers around her throat. Whatever had occurred left no visible sign, but an unfamiliar feeling hung in the air with more potency than her grandfather’s medicines, creeping along and prickling her skin with a chill of cold static. Even though her heart settled and stopped lurching against her ribs, she couldn’t bring herself to move.
As her eyesight readjusted to the dark and the spots in her eyes faded, she could make out the shadowy form of something shambling towards her. Her chest tightened. She ducked low, almost laying on her stomach, not daring to breathe. A pair of shoulder-high torches were staked into the ground twenty paces away and when it passed between them, she could clearly see a pair of legs stumbling beneath a hooded black cloak. Should she cry out and raise an alarm or continue to silently study the figure that now appeared to be a man?
He only managed a single step more before he collapsed face-first, thudding hard against the ground.
She spent an eternity watching him, but when he still hadn’t moved she decided to approach, peering into the shadows for any sign of danger but always returning her focus to the motionless black heap. It wasn’t until she practically stood over him that she could see a trickle of dark liquid oozing from his side and soaking into the parched earth.
Blood? She wondered, now concerned for him, and looked around again for others that might have arrived too. Where did you come from? You cannot be alone… Oh, bless me, Ancestors, that is blood!
She knelt beside him, noticing that the bloody trail began just a few feet away as if he had not come from any particular direction, then reached down and gently shook his cloaked shoulder.
“Av’esejerat balati jesa?” She asked urgently.
He gave no response.
She pinched the edge of his hood between her finger and thumb and pulled it back to reveal a mane of loose blond curls. Her eyes widened and she repeated her question stiffly in the tongue she had not spoken since her childhood, “Need help? Do you… need help?”
He grunted weakly into the dust. It was enough to let her know he lived.
“Mother! Help me! Now!”
* * *
Word spread quickly through the camp that the healer’s home had a foreign visitor, one with sun-colored hair and milky skin. Shali had salved, stitched, and bandaged the handsome young stranger’s wound spanning his left side from the middle of his ribs to his waist. It had the look of a large slash that had been burned around the edges. Thankfully it wasn’t deep and the burning may have even been what kept him from losing too much blood. It obviously pained him despite not being life-threatening. Kasima’s bed-ridden grandfather kept watch over him for the two days it took for him to awaken. When their guest finally did open his eyes, the trio of desert dwellers was shocked by their rich gemstone hue.
Kasima’s pale green eyes were already unusual among the abundance of rich brown, but this Outdweller had eyes that matched the deep waters of the Panavalos Oasis, complete with flecks of lighter bluish-white that mirrored the Bright Moon’s reflection on its surface. Kasima had watched her mother treat many people in the past, even assisting her on occasion. Shali’s stiffened spine, squared shoulders, and the way she scrutinized the stranger’s every movement left no doubt that his eyes unsettled her.
“You must go, mother. There are others in the camp waiting for you. We’ll be fine. I’ll look after him.” Kasima frowned at her mother’s reluctant lingering while she approached the stranger’s bed and knelt beside it. Finally, Shali left.
* * *
Sunlight poured in through the open doorway, warming his bare shoulders as Kasima helped him to sit up. She gently arranged the pillows behind him so he could remain upright. He winced, sucking air sharply through his teeth but trying his best to conceal it with an understanding grin as he settled himself and scanned the interior of the tent to get a feel for his surroundings. The entrance was just behind him. It made it possible for him to hear the footsteps of the passers-by and the different tones and volumes of their voices as they talked with one another going about their day.
The family’s home didn’t feel crowded, despite only being a one-room tent. A tall pole of aged, dark wood in the center stood at twice his height. Heavy, bronze-hued canvas stretched from it to four corner poles, creating a large square-shaped room. It was sparsely furnished, mostly with chests boasting highly-detailed decorations that were buried beneath colorful blankets. A few small shelves held dishes, cookware, utensils, and other sundry supplies. Dried meat as well as fruits and vegetables that he didn’t recognize overflowed from the three crates stacked next to a simple table. He saw the back of a wide-bellied stringed instrument, similar to a lute, tucked against the tent’s far wall, and wondered which of his hosts played. Brightly-colored pillows were piled high in the corner just across from him to serve as the old man’s bed, upon which he snored fitfully. He turned to face Kasima and relaxed.
“What is your name?” She asked hesitantly as she leaned back and sat cross-legged facing him .
She was unfamiliar with his language, but even through her lilting accent, he could understand her easily. Now that she settled nearby and he could get a good look at her, the contrast between the dark caramel of her skin, the arch of black brows and thick lashes that framed the clear, light-green color of her eyes, caught him by surprise. He coughed lightly and looked away, “I’m Kell. What’s yours?”
“Kell,” she repeated. “I am Kasima Ledahi. You are in the home of my tashino. My…” she struggled a moment for the words, “my grandfather, Tavedo Ledahi.” Her delicate features screwed in concentration, “Do you feel better today?”
He found his own bed of pillows quite cozy and gestured to his side where the wide strips of cloth wrapped around him and bound his shirtless torso. “I do. You’ve made me comfortable and tended my wound. Thank you.”
“It pleases me to hear you are better, but now you should eat. Soup?”
“Yes.” He accepted the bowl she offered with a wide, warm grin. When he wasn’t given a spoon it took a moment for him to realize he was meant to drink it, which he did, gulping it so eagerly it was obvious he ignored the slight burn from it sliding down his throat. When the meal was half-drained he wiped his chin and sighed contentedly, letting the bowl rest in his lap. “Where am I? What is this place?”
“I have told you. This is the home of my tashino.”
“No, no… I mean what land am I in? What is the name of this land? Uh… nation? Kingdom?”
“Oh! Simoval! This is Simoval. You are in the lands of the Charinoma kumpani… Kumpani… Oh, tribe of Simoval. We camp here at the Panavalos for this time and when the winds come, we will head west.”
He leaned back into the pillows behind him and sniffed, “Simoval, hmm? Then I’m not that far from home… Wonderful.” He turned away.
She canted her head to the side, “No, you must be very far from your home. You look like none of us.” Her eyes narrowed and her tone grew thoughtful, “Yet you could not have made it across the sands to the Panavalos without food or water…”
He watched her, barely hiding his smirk.
Realization widened her eyes and she covered her mouth as she gasped, “Are you…” her voice dropped to a whisper and she leaned close to him, “are you majai?”
He didn’t answer right away. Instead, his brow arched and he took his time lifting the bowl of soup to his lips and slowly draining it, enjoying this game of cat-and-mouse. It was all he could do to keep from giggling like a schoolboy when he heard the child-like wonder in her voice.
Am I majai? Pfft… Oh, you sweet, sweet girl.
He didn’t speak her language but had no doubt as to the meaning of that particular word.
Playful thoughts danced behind his eyes and he wondered just how he should answer her:
Yes, I AM a mage, Kasima, a wielder of wonderful arcane powers, a seeker of the mysteries of the cosmos. I could show you wonders beyond your wildest imaginings. I’m practically ageless, but I look young, don’t I? You must think I’m not much older than you are, lovely girl. But I am indeed much older…
His merry stream of thought broke apart when he shifted from delighting in the inner workings of his own mind to wondering what filled hers.
She hadn’t moved or blinked, but remained fixated on him and waited for his answer. She had barely leaned back enough from him to let him finish his meal and her stare into his eyes was relentless.
She asked again, still quietly, but less awe-struck than before, “Are you majai? Kell?” The full weight of her words demanded an answer and he finally noticed that she wasn’t smiling.
The mage suddenly felt far more mouse-like than before.
He remained silent and thoughtful. Had such a look or question come from anyone more intimidating than this beautiful, exotic young woman, he would have reacted quite differently. As it was, he studied her expression and behavior over the bowl’s rim before smacking his lips and setting it aside so that his hands could return to idly resting against his stomach. She had dropped her voice low to ask that question, despite their privacy in the tent and the ceaseless snores from her grandfather.
What he wanted to know was why.
Small movements typically went unnoticed, especially when unblinking eye contact was being maintained, so when the tip of his right hand’s index finger circled and very subtly drew an invisible design in the palm of his left hand, she didn’t react.
The tender skin around his wound throbbed as a pale, orange light emerged from his palm, rising and slithering like a serpent to circle them. She didn’t appear to notice or move…
From his point of view, the dust motes hanging in the beams of sunlight between them paused where they were and just shimmered. His stitches stung like tiny fire needles now and the pain grew stronger as he focused his concentration.
She didn’t blink when he lightly touched the center of her forehead with his fingertip, but instantly the pain in his side ripped through him and he gasped in agony. Only his strength of will kept him from crying out. The mage achieved his goal and clenched his fists while the internal torture slowly subsided. He now knew her motives and questions were simply innocent curiosity. She meant him no harm.
The orange mist dissipated without a trace as time returned to normal. He pushed his splayed fingers through his hair and exhaled, nodding slightly and forcing his smile to return as he spoke, “Yes. I am, Kasima.”
Kasima clasped her hands together, grinning. “I knew it.”
His voice was strained and hoarse as he asked, “Could I have some water, please?”
The pain ate his ribs and kept him from enjoying the way she fawned over him, unable to turn her eyes away. “Oh, apologies. I will get that.” She picked up the bowl and stood, gracefully rocking back from her kneeling position to rise and turn in a single smooth motion and walk to the table.
Impressed by her agility, he smirked, musing as she strode away: If I could move like that, I might not have gotten hit.
She chose one of the rounded cups, similar to his bowl, but smaller so it could easily fit in one hand, and filled it while he continued watching her. Turning, she smiled and glided back, not splashing a drop as she sank to her knees and held it out to him.
He took it with a grateful tip of his head.
Kasima rocked back and forth, waiting for him to take a long drink before unleashing her storm of questions upon him. “You must tell me where you have come from. How did you arrive? Why are you here? What happened to you? How did you get that wound? Why does being close to your home make you unhappy? Oh, how close is your home? How many majos are there? Is it true that they dwell on the Sky Mountain? I have seen the Sky Mountain when we cross the sands, but it always seems so distant. It keeps away from us no matter which way we travel. Why is that so?” She shifted to sit cross-legged in front of him and leaned forward, resting her elbows on her knees, interlacing her fingers, and began to resolutely stare at him as she waited for her answers to come.
He felt his eyes popping out of his head and he knew that lowering his cup from his lips would mean he had to answer her, so he kept it up and sipped it slowly. “I can’t answer all of those questions for you, but I’ll tell you what I can.” He said finally. “The thing you call the Sky Mountain is named Tyrn and it is my home…”
He then spoke of the large island the size of a city that floated among the clouds, suspended thousands of feet above the desert. From where the Tribesfolk stood, they could only see the bottom of it, craggy and pitted as if it had been ripped from the earth and they could just barely make out the shadowed points that stretched from its surface, causing it appear like a mountain range. But from above, if a person stood on it, there were grand buildings, homes, shops and schools, even palaces of smooth marble, gold, and precious stones, and columns that reached so high that their tops vanished into the limitless blue sky. He told her about the waterfalls that poured over rocky peaks and huge sections of land covered in carpets of grass and fields with flower blossoms as big as a man’s head. He told of the vast libraries with scrolls and books more numerous than the stars—
“What are books?” She interrupted.
His mouth snapped shut. “What do you mean, ‘what are books?’ Books are… well… they’re books. Uh, parchment bound together that’s been written on. It’s a way of keeping records, of passing along wisdom from one generation to the next. Children go to school and are taught to read them.” He looked around the tent again and noticed for the first time there were no books, no papers, no ink, no scripts of any kind on anything.
She shook her head and shrugged, “I have not seen those. Our wisdom is passed in stories.”
“So there are stories of mages among your people?” He’d been talking endlessly of his home and wondered now what she could tell him of his people.
For the first time since his revelation, she was taken aback. Her response was slow and cautious, “Yes. We have stories of the majos.”
He watched her and when she didn’t continue, he offered a smile, “Well… What are they?”
She chewed her lower lip and slowly shook her head. Looking around now, she leaned back to see who was around outside. Her grandfather still snored and no one else had heard their conversation that he could tell, even if another in the camp could speak the Outdweller tongue as she had called it.
He felt his own nervousness rise and he leaned forward a bit, “Please, tell me. What is it? What are the stories? Why do you whisper when you ask about mages, hmm?”
“It is forbidden to speak of. But… I want to know… why my people are so terrified of your kind. Why they fear magic.”
He blinked, “I… I don’t… I have no idea why.” His heart raced, thundering against his eardrums until he could hear nothing else.
He wondered if she believed him.
* * *
“No.” She stated simply. “No. That cannot be true. You must know something.”
He leaned back into the pillows again and shook his head, “I’m sorry. I’ve never met any of your people before. I’d never even set foot anywhere other than Tyrn before you found me. This is the first I’ve heard of any fear of magic or of mages.” He never broke eye contact with her and spoke with such sincerity, he was certain she couldn’t detect his tiny lie snuggled within the various truths. Her disappointment was palpable and he softened his gaze, placing his hand lightly on hers, “I’m sorry. I wish I could help.”
She sighed and patted the back of his hand, “It will be fine. Someday I will learn. The truth cannot be hidden forever.”
“I’m sure that if anyone among your people discovers the reason it will be you.”
That lifted her mood a little and their conversation continued. Now it was her turn to speak of her people and their ways, their fear of magic, and how she yearned to know the reason why.
Kell learned this fear was so deeply embedded in everything they did and believed that there was no separating the tribe’s way of life from it. Ever afterward, he was always careful to avoid answering her more direct questions: how he was injured, why he left Tyrn, and why he was unhappy about still being within the island’s proximity, even if he was still technically miles away.
Shali returned home late in the afternoon. She first tended to her father-in-law, grinding some dried figs, dates, and plums into a sweet paste with goat’s milk that his few remaining teeth would let him chew easily. Then she turned her attention to Kell.
“Did you learn his name?”
Kasima nodded and proceeded to translate between the mage and her mother, asking and answering questions until Shali said she needed to examine his injury. They traded places and Kasima gestured for him to lean forward.
His brows furrowed.
“She must see your wound.” She explained.
He did as he was told and grimaced as Shali lifted his arm and unraveled his bandages, then frowned. “Ask if he is in more pain now than before.”
Kasima obeyed and Shali leaned closer and sniffed his injury before eyeing him with concern.
He glanced between them and shook his head. “It feels about the same, really,” he lied.
Kasima repeated his answer and Shali arched a brow before she lightly poked the puffy, reddened skin around the stitches.
He yelped, making Tavedo chuckle as he slurped another of his jellied fruits.
“Ask again and encourage him that lies will not help,” she deadpanned. “This wound is angry. After two days, it should be binding together, not bursting like a fat man in tight breeches.”
Kell glared as Kasima stifled her giggle and repeated her mother’s words. “Yes, alright? Yes, it hurts more than it did.”
Shali nodded at her daughter’s translation. “Ask how he was hurt. What did this to him?”
“Oh, I asked that already, mother, it was…” She looked thoughtfully at Kell then realized that he hadn’t answered her before.
“Yes?” Shali asked, waiting.
“Pay no mind. I was mistaken.” She said to her mother and asked the question of him again.
Kell had the same realization when he heard the translation and felt the color drain from his face. He swallowed hard. Shali was busy examining his wound so she didn’t notice the slight shake of his head as he looked to Kasima.
“Uh…” he stammered and his heart began thrumming in his ears. Here he sat, injured and surrounded by a nation of people, hundreds by what he had been told, and all of them feared or outright despised mages. Most didn’t even believe in them any longer and thought they were vestiges of a time long forgotten, figments of tales told to frighten children into obedience. He couldn’t disrupt that illusion; the consequences for doing so would make his present injury appear as nothing more painful than a bee sting if he ever did return to Tyrn, either by choice or by force.
He had to trust her to keep his secret.
“Kasima, please,” he began, forcing his tone to remain steady and sound as casual as possible, “it’s a… It was caused by one of… of my people. It’s different, I know. It will heal, but it will take time. Your mother’s care is helping…” His eyes pleaded with her to find the meaning couched in his words. “Please help me. I can’t…”
“You cannot let her know what you are. I know.”
Shali watched the exchange, breathing loudly through her nose and tightly folding her arms across her chest.
Kasima pursed her lips, but answered, “He doesn’t know, mother. He remembers nothing before he awoke here.”
The healer’s forehead creased, “I see.” Her expression was skeptical and she gave her daughter a knowing look as she stood. “If he can stand and walk then he may join us at the Nightfire. It would be good for him to eat more than soup to build his strength. I tell you, this wound is strange to me. I’ll salve and bandage it again, but if he values his secrets more than his health, I may not be able to help him. Tell him this, Kasima.” She insisted and stalked purposefully to one of the chests and opened it to root among the contents for more medicines and bandages.
“Tonight, if you are strong enough, you may join the kumpani at the Nightfire. There will be food and music and you will have the chance to eat and drink. Do you feel strong enough to try?”
He exhaled heavily and slumped into the pillows, closing his eyes and draping his forearm across them, “I’ll do my best.”
* * *
When Kell had first been brought into the tent, Shali cut the top of his mage robes apart to gain access to his injury, splitting them down the front from his neck to his navel. Now, the two women helped him to tie the long sleeves around his waist and secure what remained into a calf-length skirt of dark purple and silver. Fresh bandages wrapped his torso and left his shoulders and arms bare but the night was still comfortably warm and so he left his hooded cloak behind.
He emerged from the tent and stood between them, enjoying the chance to look outside. Not far from the healer’s tent he saw the charred remains of a small fire surrounded by several pots and bottles and assumed they were used in crafting medicines. They had to walk a good while before he saw any other homes and he leaned on them less and less for support as they went on. Most of the tents were similar in design but different colors: bright blue, gold, green, and red compared to the deep bronze of Kasima’s family home. He could see, hear, and smell various animals that were kept pinned behind simple stone fences: horses, pigs, goats, and sheep. As they walked a bit farther, voices speaking the unknown desert tongue drifted through the area and he wondered what the rest of the people would be like and what they might say or do when they saw him.
The setting sun lit the western sky on fire while to the east, stars slowly peeked through the dark blanket of night. Music, drums, and loud talk filled the evening air and Kell saw flames reach past the tops of several tents in the distance as he, Kasima, and Shali approached the central gathering of Tribesfolk. By his estimation there had to be at least a hundred tawny faces of all ages heading in the same direction. They walked past dozens of cook-fires and each one teased his stomach into growling with kettles of steaming grains and skewers of roasting vegetables. Mutton slowly turning on a spit made his mouth water and he inhaled deeply.
Kasima pointed to the pitted stones nestled in the embers. Fruit juice hissed as it squeezed out of rolls of dough and hit the fire. “You must have one of those. They are my favorite.”
He nodded, wondering how much longer it would be until he could actually eat.
Shali and Kasima led him to a place where the heat from the huge bonfire could just begin to be felt and he gawped at its size. It towered as high as his home back in Tyrn and was so wide he could not see around it from where he stood.
Where did they find the wood to fuel this? He turned around to ask her and noticed she wasn’t there. Neither was Shali. He began looking around and was met with a multitude of curious stares and sidelong glances. He didn’t know Shali’s name so he couldn’t call out for her and he chided himself for not asking Kasima how to say a few phrases in her language, not the least of all being, ‘where is the healer?’ which would help him out of this kind of situation.
“Kasima?” He shouted over the din. “Kasima? Where are you?”
Shali emerged from the crowd carrying a plate piled with steaming vegetables and grains and a large chunk of meat. She handed it to him, took his other hand in hers, and helped him to sit.
“Thank you,” he said, hoping she understood what he meant by it. The healer seated herself not far from him and nodded. “Kasima?” He asked her before he took a bite of food.
Shali nodded, “Kasima resharalan.”
He swallowed, “Reshar… Resharalan?” The musical word was clumsy on his tongue.
She smiled proudly and held up her hands, palms toward him. “Resharalan. Sesei.”
He didn’t understand the words, but her gesture seemed almost like she told him to stop or to wait, or perhaps to eat. So he did and went back to his meal. Around him, the music changed. It slowed down and he heard an unfamiliar sound as the sustained blast of a ram’s horn swelled through the crowd.
“Reshai. Reshai.” The gathered Tribesfolk began to chant.
“Re-shai! Re-shai!” The chant picked up in force and volume, joined by the people clapping in rhythm and stomping their feet against the dusty earth.
“RE-SHAI! RE-SHAI! RE-SHAI!”
Kell looked around and set his plate of unfinished food on the ground beside him. No one was looking in his direction, which helped calm the jittery fluttering of his heart, but not by much as he still had no idea what was happening. The chant became louder and the drums began pounding faster, adding sharp taps and the clash of small cymbals and tambourines. Then a deafening roar went up from the gathering and he turned back to the fire.
Kasima stood poised between the crowd and the bonfire, both of her bare arms raised above her head with the backs of her wrists barely touching. Rows of delicate gold bangle bracelets on each wrist chimed softly. She was clothed in red silk trimmed in glittering golden threads. Her breasts were artfully concealed behind a wide strip of fabric that wrapped behind her neck and crossed over her chest before being tied around her ribcage and leaving her stomach exposed. Swaths of cloth hung in layers from a golden scarf ringed with thin medallions that circled her hips. She set the ball of her foot on the ground, raising her heel and bending her knee so that her leg peeked through.
The music began. Kasima’s hips went from percussive pops into sultry upward figure-eight movements, raising her right, then her left hip with liquid grace. Kell could easily see the love she had for what she did. It was visible in every movement and her passion was expressed in each light step and turn. He watched unblinkingly and was so intrigued by everything going on that he forgot about the plate of food left sitting beside him.
The drums held a gentle tempo, and while her bare feet moved with nearly soundless elegance over the ground, her hip scarf rocked with snaps that mirrored the crackle of the flames, adding her own music to the musicians’ tune. Her back arched and an undulating pulse rose from her hips, through her stomach to her shoulders as her arms reached overhead. The dance came to life through her. Each sound, each trill, each drum beat, each strum of the lute or whisper of the reedy flute was given visual representation in the way she performed.
The fire climbed into the sky and he could sense the definite connection building as he continued following her movements. It was difficult for him to separate her outline from the bright glow behind her. His imagination made it hard to tell if it danced to the music with her or conducted it. He blinked and looked down, trying to give his eyes a chance to adjust, but he could not keep his attention away from her hypnotic dance. The drums and sounds of her ringing hips called back to him…
She rested her hands lightly against the back of her head, lifting tumbles of thick, black curls while her ribs circled outwardly, creating the illusion of a serpent writhing through warm sand and basking in glorious sunlight. The music filled her. Each sound matched with a precisely-chosen movement, yet it seemed as natural to her as breathing. The drums’ pace quickened and she spun and leaped into the air with her arms raised while the inferno blazed behind her.
He looked around at the crowd and saw that all eyes were upon her. Again, he could not keep from watching her and noticed the glittering threads in her clothes flashing in a way that she seemed now to physically embody the flames, moving in time with them and the music. The rough, ragged cut of her skirt swished around her legs, each one separate like a single lick of the Nightfire reaching to the sky. Music, fire, dance, and dancer all became one.
She arched to the side; the fire bent. She dropped to her knees; the flames lowered. She leapt; flashes lit the sky with bursts of red-orange light.
Is this real? He wondered, shaking his head to try and clear his mind, but the hazy thoughts remained intoxicated by the rhythmic pulse of the drums, the rise and fall of the music, and the alluring pull of Kasima. Everything around him combined with the heat and excitement of the giant fire that lit the desert night like a second sun.
He couldn’t look away. The audience was entranced but he was certain the dance held his attention more than it did for the tribe because of all those gathered, he was the only one who had never seen it before. Not only had he never seen it before, he’d never seen anything like it before! Then, a strangely familiar tingle began pulsing through the soles of his feet. It crept along the back of his head sending a warm chill through his scalp and along his arms before his trained instincts focused and he recognized the unmistakable feeling of—magic.
His jaw slacked and he turned to stare at the dancer.
What are you?
Kasima continued dancing, but now Kell’s focus was on the energy he felt emanating from her. He looked around at the gathered crowd and could tell that the dancer’s enchantment held them all in thrall. Had he not been a mage, trained and practiced in such arts, he might easily have succumbed to it himself. These people didn’t even understand magic, let alone know that Kasima possessed what his people called The Knowing, at least as far as he could tell.
She can’t know she’s doing this… How could she?
He continued watching the performance, shielding his thoughts in the understanding of what was really occurring so that he would be unaffected by whatever the outcome might be. Magic was never something to play with and the heated pulses that issued from the dancer and the fire were not something to be ignored. He thought it was harmless enough, but was still cautious and his wound stung as he focused on blocking out the power. The discomfort was bearable and as he let himself enjoy what she did for its artistry and beauty, he found he could ignore the pain.
When the dance ended the crowd stood and clapped. He applauded loudly and kept his attention on her until the gathering throngs of men, women, and children approached the fire. The music continued and the desire to move along to the driving beat and let himself become lost in the sound was almost too much to handle. Not knowing what else was coming, especially as far as magic was concerned, he held himself back… until Kasima emerged from the crowd and found him. She took his hands in hers and folded them together.
The heat in her touch electrified him. She smiled and placed his palms together, letting hers fall just a few inches away. His hands separated and she pushed them back together again in a soundless clap. After that, he slowly began clapping under his own power, joining in with the music along with the Tribesfolk. The shielding he had erected during her performance, built out of uncertainty and mistrust, cracked and chipped away. He felt it breaking with a combined feeling of fear and relief as the rhythm surrounding him sank down into his bones, vibrating them. Each time his hands met he felt a small jolt of energy. It was incredible.
He had spent years studying under tutors and the elders of his house, proving himself to be one of the strongest and most talented mages to rise from House Sevis in generations, and he had never heard of or experienced anything like this. His head swam, the warmth buzzed inside of him, and he had to admit loved it. He loved letting the combined energy of the tribe buoy him up in the ocean of sound. He ached to hold onto the feeling, but wisdom and experience told him to let it go. As it faded, it carried away his discomfort and fear. He had never met these people before, yet at this moment, felt connected to them as if he’d been raised here from childhood. He looked around and saw open grins and groups of people embracing one another.
He began to hug everyone within reach.
Kasima took his hands again and pulled him into a group of people dancing and laughing.
After an hour of this, the excitement diminished enough from the people to resume eating and drinking. She filled a plate with food and two of the fruit pies, offering one to Kell as they found a place to sit and talk.
“I’ve never seen anything like this. Your dance was amazing. You were amazing.”
She beamed and dipped her head in a deep nod of thanks, “Eshevrezo, Kell. I am honored.”
“No, eshevrezo to you.” He said, assuming he’d used the word at least correctly enough to reflect his appreciation and took a bite of the pie.
She laughed, “That was not bad. Perhaps you will learn our language, hmm?”
“No, I don’t think I’ll be able to pick up more than a few words. But that reminds me… What is reshai?”
“Reshai is…Dance. But not as we gather to dance. It is as saying “Go!” or “Move!” Do you understand?”
“Yes,” he nodded, “a command performance.”
“That is so.”
They continued eating and chatting, enjoying the night, the music, and each other’s company for some time. All around them people were laughing, singing, and dancing.
Kell smiled wistfully and turned when an older man patted him on the arm with the offer of a large brown bottle. He took a small drink, testing it before he found he liked the flavor and took a larger gulp.
“Do not drink so quickly.” She playfully warned.
He eyed her while the bottle was still at his lips and took another swallow before offering it back to the man. “Eshevrezo.”
The man nodded and clumsily applauded, flashing a toothless grin. When he accepted the bottle, he turned away from them and took a deep drink, handing it off to another fellow when he finished.
“What is this for?” He asked before he took a bite of the fruit pastry and waved his hand to indicate the grand gathering.
“This is the Nightfire. It is the gathering of my kumpani, the Charinoma, from all around. We meet together when it is…” She struggled for the word while looking skyward and pointing to the stars, “When the time is right.”
He smiled, “I’m lucky then, that I happened to meet you days before this happened. I’ve never seen anything like this. It’s amazing. I’ll remember tonight for the rest of my life. I mean that.”
“It must be the wish of the Ancestors that you are here at this time, for the Nightfire. We do not speak to Outdwellers often, and less so within our own camp. Your arrival is indeed something we will remember as well.”
* * *
When he awoke the next morning, Shali was kneeling at his side with Kasima looking down at him.
“Did you rest well?” Kasima asked as Shali gestured for him to lean forward so she could remove his bandages.
He sat up and nodded, “Quite,” and lifted his arm as the healer worked. “You?”
Shali gently touched the skin around the stitches and watched Kell’s expression.
He grinned. “Doesn’t hurt as much as before. Does it look better?” He asked his translator.
Kasima repeated his question for her mother.
“He is doing well. The anger is gone and the flesh is knitting without difficulty. I couldn’t tell how much damage was done to his muscle, but it didn’t seem bad and his ribs were unharmed, so he should mend well. It will be painful for some time yet, but I believe he’ll be left with only a scar to remember this by.”
“She says it is healing well. You will have pain until it is fully healed, and it will leave you with a scar, but the damage will not last.”
“That’s good news.” He leaned to the side and bent his arm to raise it slightly higher. This gave Shali more room and tested his mobility. The tightness told him that while he might be able to move without too much pain, popping a stitch was still a big risk. “How much longer until the stitches can be removed?”
“Nale av’esejeralat bavara bashi adi dalajoru?” Kasima asked.
Shali snorted, “Young men are always in a hurry. It’ll be ten days if he does nothing further to cause injury to himself. In five days, he should no longer need the bandages changed daily, but it must still be kept clean.”
“Ten days, but you must not make it worse.”
“I understand.” He nodded, then sucked air sharply through his teeth as Shali began cleaning the wound and applying a healing balm to it. When everything was finished and his wound bandaged again, the healer stood and nodded to him. She turned and headed over to her father-in-law and knelt at his side.
Kell watched her leave and sighed, “Ten days, eh? That’s longer than I wanted, but I suppose that can’t be helped.”
Kasima offered him a cup of water and knelt at his side as he took it. “I suppose not. Still, at least you are here and not out wandering the Waste.”
“Indeed.” He took a drink from the cup and leaned back into the pillows behind him. “But I also know that I cannot stay here for ten days.”
She chewed her lip. “You must not leave before your wound is healed. Traveling the desert alone is dangerous enough when you are whole. To do this when you are injured is to invite trouble… perhaps even death.”
He met her gaze and exhaled, “I cannot stay here for ten days, Kasima. Now that I know the wound is mending, I should really leave today.”
“No! That would be foolish!”
Shali and the old man both turned towards them at her outburst. Kell’s eyes widened and he tilted his head towards them while staring at Kasima. She exhaled and turned to look over her shoulder.
“I’m sorry, grandfather, mother. I didn’t mean to shout.”
“Is everything alright?” Her grandfather asked.
“Yes, I was surprised, that’s all.”
Kell watched the exchange and hoped that his faith in Kasima was not misplaced. He didn’t hear anything that sounded like ‘magic’, but not knowing what they said made him nervous.
“The Nightfire’s freedom makes him restless. He doesn’t wish to remain inside. We will walk around the camp this morning to take in the sun and air.”
Shali nodded, “That’s good. But don’t go far.”
* * *
“Come, I will show you our horses.” Kasima said after Kell had wrapped a colorful blue scarf over his head and tied it at the base of his skull. It fell just past his shoulders.
“How much does the scarf cost?” He asked her as he gestured to the weaver.
“For that and the shirt it would be eight koperos.”
He searched the small pouch at his waist and found a tiny green gemstone. “I don’t have coins, not that I really would have koros or… what did you say? Nevermind… Will he accept this as payment?” Kell held up the stone and offered it to the man.
The weaver took the stone and examined it, then looked at Kasima.“This is his offer?”
She nodded, “Do you accept? He has no coin.”
He looked at it again, turning it to see the way the flecks of light danced within, “I will accept this. Perhaps my wife can turn it into a pretty necklace, yes?”
Kasima smiled and nodded.
“Yes? He’ll take it?” Kell picked up his chosen shirt and grinned. “Thank you. Eshevarido.”
“Eshe.” Kasima said to the man, giggling behind her hand.
“I thought it was a bigger word than that… What did you say?” He asked as they walked away and pulled the light-colored linen shirt carefully over his head.
“I told him, ‘my thanks’. You told him ‘honor-wagon’.”
* * *
As dusk approached, they arrived at the oasis just outside of the main camp. The sounds of water lapping gently against the stony bank cast a spell of tranquility over the area. Long shadows of tall cypress trees stretched out in front of them across a carpet of bluish-green grass covering the soft earth. It was quite a change from the packed dirt and sand where the tents were pitched and animals penned. The Panavalos Oasis provided water, but also fed the horses and goats the tribe kept and supplied a bountiful area for date and pomegranate trees and vegetables to grow.
“Some of the seeds are planted, others are kept safe with each family. A single piece of fruit bears several seeds. The tribe collects food from here and returns to plant the seeds from what they claimed,” Kasima explained. “This is so new plants can be grown here to feed us and at our other camps when we move.”
“When you head west.” He stated, exhaling contentedly and easing himself to the ground.
“You remembered.” She sat beside him and nodded. “We came to Panavalos for the Nightfire, but it will soon be time to journey back to our other lands.”
“Do you ever go east?”
“Yes, but only as far as the Serai. We have not traveled farther to the east than the Serai for many years.”
“I would like to see the Serai, I think.” He stated simply. “I’ve read about it in books. They say it is a trading post that is almost a city within itself, surrounded by a wall with watchtowers on each corner and within there are all kinds of markets.”
“There is even an inn. You describe it as if you have been there. Your books must tell you stories the way our elders tell us.” She pressed her palms into the grass behind her and leaned back to look up at the sky. “Will you return to the sky island?”
“No.” He frowned. “I can’t go back there.”
She faced him, “And you cannot stay here, so you say. Where will you go?”
“East. To the Serai. Or south. East first, then south. I don’t really know.” He laid back and interlaced his fingers behind his head. “I have to leave before my people think to start looking for me here. I’ve stayed hidden, but that won’t last if I’m still so close to Tyrn.”
“Will you return?”
He exhaled and there was a long pause before he answered her. “I want to. But, not for a long time. Your people believe there are no mages and it’s safer for you all that way. I can’t be responsible for destroying that. I’ve learned so much in just the past few days. You’re such good people. More has to happen. More has to change before they can know the truth of me and my people. That’s what I’m going to do. Then I’ll return.”
“You are also a good person.”
He gave a wry, half-smile, “That’s nice of you to say, but there are many who would disagree with you.”
She arched a brow and smiled haughtily, “That does not bother me. There are many who disagree with me on different things. It does not change that I am right.”
He laughed, “I can’t argue with you there.”
They shared the quiet for a short time, each keeping to their own thoughts. Finally, Kell rolled over onto his uninjured side and faced her. “I don’t want you to take this the wrong way. But, your dance last night was like nothing I have ever experienced and I want to give you something in return.”
She blinked, “That is not necessary. What I did was for myself as much as for those who watched.”
He shook his head, “No, what you did was beyond simply dancing. I can’t describe it, though I wish I could. When I am able, I will return and can explain exactly what I mean.”
He sat up and folded his legs to sit cross-legged facing her. His gaze poured over the area until he was satisfied they were alone and would remain so before he withdrew a small, smooth colorless crystal from his pouch. It was no bigger than a coin.
She pivoted and sat on her hip, facing him and watching everything closely.
* * *
At first, she thought the stone was his present to her. It was pretty enough, and she liked the way it caught the remnants of the setting sun’s rays and cut them into chips of different colors across his shirt, but then it began to glow of its own accord. Her attention was rapt on the changing crystal so much so that she didn’t see the beads of perspiration collecting on his lip or the squinting grimace that told of his pain. The crystal swelled until it nearly covered his entire palm. It pulsed with light from within, slowly and dimly at first, but each wave of brightness pushed it outward until it changed from being an unevenly rounded in its natural shape to a perfect sphere. It lifted and hovered an inch above his hand, a bubble of translucent light, swirling with the same specks of color that had danced across his shirt before. She wanted to touch it, but it looked so fragile and delicate, she was afraid of even breathing on it. After several more moments, it settled back into his palm and the glow dimmed until it faded completely.
At that point, Kell grabbed his side and slumped over. The crystal rolled across the ground between them.
He gasped and wheezed, forcing air into his lungs despite the blatant agony he suffered by doing so. Kasima’s eyes widened and she scrambled to the water’s edge, cupping her hand into it and filling it as much as she could. She brought it to him and helped him to drink, repeating it until he had calmed and caught his breath.
The stars emerged and the Bright Moon had begun to rise by the time he could speak again.
“What is this?” She asked, looking at the crystal that she had not yet touched.
“It’s a crystal sphere. A magical one. Go on, you can pick it up. It won’t hurt you, I promise.”
She stared at him, skeptical, “You could not even breathe after you created it, and you wish for me to believe it is safe to touch?”
“Trust me, please. The crystal is not what hurt me, I swear to you.” He picked it up and held it out to her.
She lingered for a moment, torn between her curiosity of and desire for the crystal and what she had just seen happen to him. “Is it because your wound was caused by magic that using magic pains you?”
His shoulders sagged, “Yes.”
“You knew that would happen and you still did this?”
He nodded, “So please, take it.”
She took the crystal gently with both hands and held it up in front of her face to examine it closely. “It does not feel magical.”
“What’s your basis for comparison?” He teased.
“Nevermind. Hold it in your palm, with your hand open and flat. Yes, just like that. Now, close your eyes and think of dancing, hear the music in your head, imagine what it sounds like. When you hear it clearly, take a breath and blow it across the crystal.”
Questions ripped through her mind: What’s this all about? What would happen if I do as he says? Is this a trick of some sort?
She did as he said and closed her eyes, trying to focus on imagining music, but her thoughts could not quiet enough and so when she exhaled across the crystal, it was practically a sigh of frustration.
He pursed his lips and shook his head. “Try again. Relax first, deep breaths. Allow yourself to really feel what you feel when you dance. Hear the music and then blow. Go on, try again.”
She inhaled and thought for a moment what it meant to her to perform. The joy she felt when the drums called for her to move; the whisper of the flute; the strum of the lute blending with the chime of her bracelets, and the coined scarves knotted around her hips filled her thoughts. She envisioned the heat of the fire on her skin and the clapping hands and stomping feet of her kumpani as they watched. Then, she gently breathed across the crystal.
A tingle crossed her palm and she opened her eyes to see a faint glow begin at the very center of the sphere. It grew into a swirl of colors that mixed back into the soft light. Her eyes widened and she stared, slack-jawed at the marvelous display. Kell grinned and held his finger up to his lips, encouraging her continuing silence. Faintly at first, but then growing louder, the sound of music began filling the air around them. It was a haunting thrum that swelled as the light grew. It came from all directions, wrapping around them until the air surged with the sounds of the various instruments of her imagination.
He beamed proudly at her, “A dancer should always have music, and now you shall. Whenever you wish to hear music, do what you just did, and it will happen. This will also affect anyone around you who is open to the enchantment, but only if they know you are going to dance or activate the crystal. So, you could sit in a crowd of people and blow on the crystal, and none but you would hear the music. Or, if you are at the Serai and there are no musicians to be found, you can blow on the crystal and your entire audience will hear what you hear.”
“How is this possible?” she asked, still amazed by the continuing melody.
He winked, “because you have a gift, Kasima.”
* * *
Two days after Kasima received the mage’s gift, Kell left the Charinoma camp. He traded his largest and most perfectly cut sapphire for a horse and enough rations to last him to the Serai. Shali also insisted that if he was foolish enough to leave while he was still recovering from his injury that he take the pouch full of extra bandages and a jar of balm she packed for him. Kasima was sad to see him leave and for a while, her family wondered why she seemed to have lost interest in asking about the mages and insisting on knowing more about them. Her grandfather assumed he had finally gotten through to her and her mother figured it was just a sign she was growing up and leaving childish fantasies behind.
But at night, when she went to sit out beneath the stars, she gently blew across a small crystal sphere and thought of her friend as the music surrounded her.
And she smiled.