Jaxon and Bruer lead the weary group through the canyon. The excitement from the escape has faded. Now the once slaves just want to sleep. Jaxon warns them it would be better to keep moving for at least a day to ensure they get far enough ahead of Klaeon’s forces so they can rest. Although many of the slaves still don’t trust Jaxon. Ime’s support of the plan causes them to mumble their approval.
To slow down any soldiers who may be after them, Ime and a few other magic users close the canyon path behind them at multiple points with earth magic. Daniil sends Tanith up the sides of the surrounding slpoes to keep watch for anyone following. After she returns from a tenth scouting without spotting anyone, Daniil stops sending Tanith and the magic users stop blocking the way behind.
Although it’s nearly dawn when the group finally rests. Meah wakes soon after sunrise to see Jaxon standing watch at the far end of the group. She carefully moves away from the sleeping figures around her and stands next to him.
“Still don’t sleep?” she asks.
Jaxon laughs. “Old habit. You seem to be an early riser.”
Meah nods. “Old habit. I’ve had nightmares since I was a child. They used to wake me up early and I just kind of got used to it.”
“Nightmares.” Jaxon watches the sun rise higher. “We should get moving.”
He turns to wake the group, but Meah grabs his arm. “Wait! Just a little longer. They haven’t slept since yesterday.”
“Fine, but only two more hours. Any more and we risk anyone following catching up.”
The two hours pass and Jaxon rouses the group. Once they continue through the canyon path, magic users return to blocking the path behind, and Daniil sends Tanith up the canyon sides a few times to ensure they are still not being followed.
As she returns to his side, Daniil scratches the Khorgoi’s head. She rubs her muzzle against him. Kylii grabs his brother and pulls him close. He whispers in his ear and Daniil’s expression becomes blank. Kylii storms ahead to walk with Bruer and Fleance, surprising both men.
“Is everything okay?” Meah asks Daniil.
Daniil refuses to look at her, instead keeping his eyes on his brother’s back. “It’s nothing.”
She expects him to continue, but when he doesn’t she moves to Ime. “I think something’s wrong between Daniil and Kylii.”
Ime looks from one brother to the other. “They’ll be fine. Fighting is part of being a sibling.”
“Are you speaking from your own personal experience?”
He ignores the question and stares at Meah. “Jaxon was the one who brought you to the Arena.”
“Do the others you came with trust him?”
Ime leans close. “Maybe you should ask why.”
The group walks in silence the rest of the day. As the sun lowers in the sky, plants appear on the sides of the path. They follow the path and find grass growing all around them, adding vibrant green to the otherwise brown landscape. From a small clearing they see a small patch of forest nestled between the steep canyon walls. At the center sits a village built on a stream that flows from the mountains.
As they approach, villagers stop their daily chores to stare at the newcomers. One villager runs through the village, returning with a small group of men. Jaxon steps forward and greets the group, speaking directly to the one Meah assumes to be the Elder of the village.
As Jaxon speaks to the locals, Meah looks at Ime’s face. His expression is calmer and he appears more relaxed. She wonders how long it has been since he first fought in the Arena. Was he the same as Daniil and Kylii? Fighting since childhood?
Kylii has moved back to stand next to his brother, but their expressions are grave. Somehow she can tell it isn’t because of the escape or the thought of being followed by soldiers. There is something between them, creating a strange air of distance. Tanith sits at Daniil’s side and Meah sees Kylii give her a quick look.
“Welcome!” the Elder approaches the group with Jaxon at his side. “We hear you escaped from the Arena and the Blood King. You are all very fortunate to be alive. We wish to celebrate your newfound freedom. Many of our people have seen the terrors of the Arena and know the Blood King’s cruelty. You are safe here. We would like you to join us in a great feast tomorrow night. Until then, rest. Many here would be honored to give you shelter for as long as you choose to stay.”
Ime thanks the Elder for his kind words. Villagers approach and lead many of the once slaves to their homes for rest and clothes. The only ones who stay behind are Ime, Meah, Daniil, Kylii, Bruer, and Jaxon. They follow the Elder to the center of the village.
“Thank you for understanding, Elder Pu’ah,” Jaxon says.
Elder Pu’ah smiles at Jaxon. “We haven’t seen you in many ages, Jaxon. Many wondered if the Arena had taken you. But those who venture to watch the games assured us it had not. Though I have been hearing strange rumors from travelers about a black blooded slave trader who sounded a little too familiar.”
Jaxon looks away from the old man. “You must be speaking of the Black Caravan.”
“And you knowing what I am speaking of answers my next question. I had hoped it was just my old mind trying to confuse me.”
“How do you know Jaxon?” Meah asks.
Pu’ah keeps his eyes on Jaxon a moment longer before turning his attention to Meah. “It is not my place to answer personal questions about Jaxon. Though if he is in the sharing mood, then I do not mind talking about history.”
Jaxon takes a deep breath. “I was born here. This is my home village.”
The others stare at him with wide eyes.
“And you left here to become a slave trader?” Ime asks.
“He left here because he was unhappy,” Pu’ah answers before Jaxon can even open his mouth.
Jaxon finally meets Pu’ah’s eyes. “I left because there was nothing to keep me here. My mother died and my strength made me too dangerous. I didn’t want the Blood King to have any reason to attack this village.”
“Instead, you brought him all the slaves he’d ever need to keep your village safe,” Kylii says, a hint of anger in his voice.
“I did what needed to be done to survive.”
Meah stares at Jaxon, remembering a similar conversation she had with him during the long journey to the Arena.
Pu’ah stops them outside his home. He climbs the steps to the door, turning back to the small group as he says, “You are all more than welcome to stay in my home. Unless, it is not to your liking?”
“It’s fine. Thank you for having us,” Ime says.
“Though it may be a little crowded with six of you.”
“If you guys don’t mind,” Kylii interrupts, “Daniil and I will stay outside… with Tanith. We’d like to enjoy the outside air as much as possible.” He eyes his brother. Daniil remains silent, placing his hand on Tanith’s head. She looks up at him, confused.
“I prefer outside as well. The porch is fine for me,” Bruer says.
Pu’ah looks at the three, smiling. “Don’t forget to come to the celebration tomorrow. There will be much great food for you to enjoy.”
“We never walk away from the promise of delicious food. We’ll meet you there. Which is where, exactly?” Kylii asks.
Pu’ah points to a large hut with the cloth walls that are currently rolled up. The brothers nod and wave their hands in thanks as they walk towards a small collection of trees. Ime and Jaxon follow Pu’ah inside, but Meah hesitates.
Ime notices she hasn’t followed and appears in the doorway. “Meah? Are you all right?”
She turns to him smiling. “I’m fine. Go on inside. I have something to talk to Daniil and Kylii about first.”
He slowly nods and returns inside the hut. Meah quickly walks after Daniil and Kylii. She has trouble keeping up once they enter the trees, but she stops when she hears Daniil’s voice.
“What is your problem, Kylii? You’ve been pissed at me the whole way here, but you haven’t explained to me why. You said we needed to talk so let’s talk.”
Meah moves behind a thick tree closer to where the brothers have stopped. She carefully peeks around the thick trunk. Kylii is sitting on the ground, leaning against a tree. Daniil is standing in front of him, Tanith lying at his side like a guard.
Kylii crosses his arms across his chest. “Ick im na falla batter, Daniil-li?”
Daniil stares at his brother in surprise. “Really? You want to speak like that?”
“Ick im na falla batter, Daniil-li?”
Daniil sighs. “Daniil-li im falla batter. Isk?”
“Iks im na batter falla’s bo?”
“To guaray billa batter. Iks im na meter ma Kylii-li?”
Kylii stands. “We are twins. We share everything. We even share our own language.”
“Then why can’t I hear her?” Kylii points to Tanith.
Tanith’s ears perk up. Daniil looks down at her then up at his brother. “That’s why you’re so upset with me?”
Kylii looks hurt. “That’s all you have to say? We share everything, Daniil-li. Daniil-li o Kylii-li pomised to faways garet achinee. Everything! Now you have something with that beast that I can’t understand and it scares me.”
“What if you start having other things we can’t share?”
Daniil laughs. “There are going to be things we can’t share. That’s life, Kylii-li.”
“I don’t want there to be anything we can’t share! We promised!”
“Tanith is sorry you can’t hear her voice. She can only link with one person at a time.”
“We basically are the same person!”
“No. No, we’re not. You know that better than I do.”
Kylii sits back down against the tree. He glares at Daniil and the air steadily grows warmer. “I still don’t understand why she can’t speak to me, too.”
Daniil walks over to his brother. Tanith moves to follow, but he stops her. She freezes and watches the two curiously. Daniil sits down next to Kylii. “It’s the limit of her magic. You know what that means and you know it can’t be broken. If it is, the consequences can be high.” As he speaks the air fills with a cool breeze, calming the heat.
“It’s still not fair.”
“Magic isn’t that great at being fair.”
Tanith stands and slowly walks towards the brothers. She lowers her head, submissively at Kylii. She nudges his foot, softly. Kylii stares into her white eyes.
“She says she understands your concern. She knows what it is like to have someone you love and trust completely. She doesn’t want to come between us and wishes you to know that once we have reached a land close to her home she will leave. She only wishes for you to trust her as you trust your brother,” Daniil says.
Kylii reaches a hand out to Tanith and she cautiously moves forward so his hand rests on her snout. He strokes her red scales and sighs loudly. “Fine. But no secrets! I want to know everything she says. Especially about me.”
Daniil laughs and grabs his brother roughly around the neck. He wrestles him to the ground and both laugh.
Meah watches in silence and a small smile creeps on her lips. She carefully moves away, trying not to make a sound to catch the brothers’ attention. She makes her way back to Pu’ah’s home and Jaxon is waiting for her, sitting on the top step. Bruer is lying on the far end of the porch, his weapons on the floor next to him.
“How are they?” Jaxon asks.
“Better now that they’ve had a chance to talk privately. Why aren’t you inside resting?”
Jaxon smiles and raises an eyebrow. “I’m not tired and since I’m not sleeping, Elder Pu’ah wants to talk about the old days, which I am not in the mood for.”
Meah walks up the steps and sits next to him. “I remember never seeing you sleep on the journey to the Arena. Are you sure your blood isn’t black? I imagine those who do have black blood don’t need to sleep either.”
Jaxon turns his head away from her. “You’ve already seen the color of my blood. Being the leader of the caravan meant I had to be alert more than the others. I slept when no one was paying attention. But I think rest is exactly what you need now. I had Elder Pu’ah set up a second blanket next to Ime for you.”
Meah blushes. “Why?”
“So you might feel a little more comfortable sleeping in a strange place. Someone you trust sleeping next to will help you ease into a deeper, more restful sleep. Trust me.”
They sit in silence. The only sound is Bruer’s snoring coming from the far end of the porch. Meah finally says, “You should talk with Elder Pu’ah.”
“He sounds worried about you.”
Jaxon leans back and stares up at the night sky. “He’s old. Worrying is part of his daily routine.” He sighs loudly. “Get inside. You’re about to fall over.”
Meah stands and thanks him. She heads inside and sees Pu’ah sitting at a table. His mouth is set in a hard line and his eyes stare at the table sternly.
“Are you okay?” Meah asks.
Pu’ah raises his eyes to her and his expression lightens. “I’m fine. I’ve set you and…”
“Ime and my name is Meah.”
“Yes, sorry. I guess we skipped formal introductions.”
“We did, but you seemed distracted by Jaxon.”
Pu’ah lowers his eyes. “Yes. I had accepted the fact that I may never see him again and here he is.”
Meah places a comforting hand on Pu’ah’s hands. “I’m sure he planned on coming back.”
He pats her hand. “I would like to believe that. Anyway, I’ve set you and Ime in the next room. Feel free to sleep as long as you like.” He stands and walks through a doorway.
Meah walks to the opposite doorway and sees Ime already sleeping under a blanket on the floor. She quietly slips under the one next to Ime’s sleeping form. She faces him and smiles.
Jaxon is right. She falls asleep quickly and it is a deep sleep.