A traveler told Athia of a small farming village hit hard by the latest attacks. It stayed in Clarient territory, which posed a risk, but the torchbearers didn’t impress her. She figured that could come back to bite her, but she also figured she could escape so long as she wasn’t in the city’s walls. Athia couldn’t imagine that backfiring too badly.
Her kite rippled overhead, and her board clacked on neglected road. She spent her quiet time thinking up new lines to accompany heroic deeds, new ways to apply her power, and enjoying the view.
The sail and board didn’t just offer a fun method of travel, it also forced her to work out her main power. Constant, focused use of her momentum alteration paid dividends. It got easier and more effective with each day.
She’d learned momentum from her instructor and non-blood-brother Kamil. Anyone could learn a power. Most could learn two or three with enough dedication. A few could learn four with talent and great effort, almost none knew more. Kamil was one of the few that put the “almost” in almost none.
Folk wisdom said those powers were the last remnants of long forgotten gods, a boon granted to sustain them past the deaths of their names and titles. Can’t learn too many because those gods didn’t like someone reaching too far. She didn’t know if that was true, but it made as much sense as anything else.
All the powers operated off the same, non-physical muscle. It could only handle so much. Sure, you could grow it and learn more and more abilities, but for most people that resulted in a bunch of poorly practiced effects. Far better, for most, to specialize to a great degree. That was why militaries, almost universally required melee soldiers to learn the reach and pull. A highly efficient skillset for formation battles, but one that often translated poorly to mercenary work. Archers, those with the burst, often found more success after serving than their infantry counterparts.
Some even focused on the cultivation of that muscles above all else, allowing them to enhance their own bodies. Anyone could do that, but usually the returns were lesser than a reality breaking effect like the moveskip.
Athia stuck to specialization. Her kite helped her keep a constant training regimen as even its cord was extended by the reach. From there it became a matter of regular fitness training. Spar with locals when able, exercise when there was time, take the hard route forward whenever possible. In safer territory she ended days with a pure sprint as far as she could go at top speed then at least an hour after at a manageable pace to cooldown. And Athia needed that sort of dedication.
Her mother offered to teach her the moveskip, one of the most sought-after powers for people for mercenaries, but she didn’t want to copy her mom. Or her uncle. She wanted something unique, so she created the acrobatic nonsense that now defined her as a fighter. Wholly original, utterly impractical without her borderline unhealthy dedication to practice.
In these lands, where civilization receded from its former power, darker things lurked. She couldn’t afford to be tired all the time here, so she skimped a bit on her routines. Now that the Einarr and its torchbearers had her name and general description, she really couldn’t afford it.
For that reason, she reached her destination still spry and fresh. A mile out she’d put up her kite and board, that would be recognizable, and the torchbearer’s saw her use it. She walked the last leg with her board wrapped with supplies inside her cloak. Inconspicuous enough.
The Shepherd Sun fell from its apex above, the Creator Sun already receding to rest. Athia looked up and said, “I’m here to do your work. It in the Stars shines through you, night’s guiding light.”
A small tinge of warmth touched Athia’s skin. The Shepherd, most active of the gods, always had a large and devoted following. Now the Shepherd stood as most worshipped of all, elevating the goddess to the top of the pantheon, where the Watcher once resided. In the Watcher’s absence, the Moon shone brighter, bolstered by a link between the goddesses that even the most pious failed to explain. Athia liked to imagine they were lovers, but the most common theory said they were different sides of the same being. She figured that the most likely answer. But then again, who could understand gods?
Certainly not Athia, nor the farmers coming in from their stables and barns. Soon they’d move on to planting the few crops that grew in winter. Nothing substantial, but every little bit helped. Plus, winter berries made great pies.
As Athia neared, eyes settled on her. Not the judgmental stares of the torchbearers, but the curiosity of a folk surprised someone could make it out this far.
She waved at them, “hiyo! I’ve heard you’ve had trouble in these parts!”
A man wearing a straw hat and heavier version of the city’s whites approached her. The sash over his shoulder bore symbols of scrolls and a single star. “From where do you hail, miss?”
“Here and there,” she replied. “All the good places.”
“Ah, welcome,” he said with a smile. “What sorts of work do you do?”
“Problem solving. Today it’s un-lurking. Word is you’re all afraid to leave town.”
“You’d be right. Must say, making it here alone is a feat in itself.”
She grinned, “got that right pal! Athia Fensa is here, your prayers are soon to be answered! For a small price and lodging.”
“We can only pay in Clariens, and not many.”
“I’m sure you have something to trade, we’ll settle it later.”
The man rubbed his palms. “Pardon me being, well, direct. I’d rather set terms before. We’ve been ripped off one too many times.”
“Fair! Clariens aren’t too useful for me, but I’ll take food. Say, a week’s worth of traveling food for killing a lurker? If it takes more effort, or is exceptionally dangerous, the price doubles.” She pointed at herself, “for just me. Not food for anyone else.”
“We can agree to that.”
He held out a hand.
She asked, “your name?”
Athia shook hands.
The farmers gathered in a large, long hall in the center of their town. Everyone lived there, together. Makeshift walls separated beds on one side while communal living room made up most the rest. Children played together in that open space while the adults tended to smaller tasks.
Until Athia entered. Then they all gawked at the odd outsider, like they might at a particularly large bear in winter. Kids murmured quietly about her while the adults whispered a bit too loudly. She didn’t mind.
Athia smiled at them all. “Don’t get flustered for my sake!”
She walked in like a regular, waving and unconcerned by any suspicion. “Tell me about this lurker problem!”
An older man spoke, his beard touching his belly when his jaw moved. “Doesn’t bother us in the field but goes after anyone who travels at night. We’ve not seen a trader in weeks.”
“Does it leave anything behind?”
Athia took a spot in the center of everyone, it felt natural. “Are these well protected travelers or not?”
“Not,” Camann said, “but it’s dissuaded anyone who might have protection.”
The people here showed a little meat on their bones. Not much, but in line with what Athia came to expect from such places elsewhere. Nothing like the tight skinned people of Clarient. That they put up dividers around what were, she assumed, meant to be undivided beds piqued her interest.
“Lend me a cart and some junk that, in bags, looks like valuables. And a horse, or sail, whatever you’ve got. I’ll leave you collateral in case I don’t make it back. The lurker attacks me, I kill it, and you get your stuff back.”
A woman said, “you’ll just be killed.”
Someone else asked, “what if it’s too much for you to handle? You can’t go in blind.”
“It won’t be.” She swept her hand out in a dramatic gesture that ended in a point toward the Shepherd. “Wrap those worries up tight, for Athia Fensa is here to take them off your hands!”
She grinned, holding the pose with one hand on her hip and everyone staring in various degrees of confusion and delight. Mostly the former. It was important to spread the name, and the confidence.
Then she remembered she’d dropped her name at Clarient. Her eyes shut but her grin remained. She was, in fact, a moron.
“Miss,” Camann said, “are you wanting to do that tonight?”
“Nope, I need to rest and get my bearings on the area.”
Her finger dropped and she turned back to the people. “Carry on like I wasn’t even here! I’m new to the area, and curious about life here!”
They returned to their tasks, though many came to ask her questions and hear news from the wider world. Athia obliged them with what she knew; mostly stories from Soshil, Loiys’s center of learning. Word of small wars between provinces, rumors of restless dead in the north, and assurances that Serra the Savior still held Myrene. Stories of Serra always caught the most interest, especially when Athia revealed her parents fought with her once, and that Serra held a toddler Athia. She didn’t mention how awkward the situation was said to have been.
When the hour grew later, everyone gathered to eat. They took turns cooking but swapped the rotation to their best cooks to greet Athia. Which, to her surprise, resulted in a lot of uncooked food on a circular table.
She looked down at her empty plate, then up at all the raw vegetables, waiting spices, and scant amounts of thin sliced meats. People picked up whatever interested them and dunked it into a large simmering cauldron in the center of the table.
Everyone spoke. They talked about the day’s work, all the preparation needed for winter, and the hope of their problem being solved. They helped each other with the food, laughing and passing dishes to whoever requested.
A younger man, who’d eyed Athia since her arrival, said, “it’s a tradition that comes from afar, helps bring everyone together. Started in some of the old communes in the west. Pick what you want, drop it in to the broth to cook, then eat it. At the end it makes a soup that blends al the flavors everyone wanted.”
Athia’s fork moved to the meat, hesitated, then speared a tubular green. She dunked it in the broth, let it soften, then took it out and had a bite. Salty meat stock tinged the sharp but watery flavor of the vegetable.
Her eyes scanned the modest spread, wondering if there was anything she could use to ruin the flavor. Not that she’d do it, but the thought amused her.
“It’s important to revolutionary thinking,” the young man said. “We can’t just speak of being close, we have to build our community.”
“Just not in Clarient,” she said.
Several people turned to look at her as she got more vegetables to cook.
“Be careful what you say,” Camann said. “The Einarr prefer no one dissents vocally. It might not be perfect, but as long as we work towards it and strive to do better, it will be.”
Athia tossed a small round thing in her mouth. “Don’t hold your tongue on my accord. I wouldn’t go back to Clarient. It’ll impress me more if you all keep the faith without the same problems.”
The younger man said, “the Master is in a difficult position. Before he took power my family suffered under the yoke of a lord that gave us nothing but took all he could. We don’t have so much these days, but what we do have is ours.”
Athia’s eyes moved back to the makeshift walls before she scooped out someone else’s dropped greens. Part of her wanted to press the issue, but why do it? These people seemed to have some kind of happiness. Maybe this was what the Einarr once hoped for, but Clarient was what they made.
She didn’t disagree with the notion of people needing to feel closer to one another. And she certainly didn’t care for nobility in any form. It made her wonder how Clarient went so wrong. Norrin told her he liked what they were trying to do, and perhaps this was it.
“What are you thinking?” the young man asked.
Before she could consider her answer, her mouth moved. “How bloody was the revolution? I’ve heard, but only from outsiders.”
Camann worked his jaw back and forth as memories shadowed his face. “All the nobility were executed, if they were old enough to bare a name.”
One of the women spoke up over the conversations in a sing song voice.
“Where do we go, the Suns sit high and the clouds are low!”
A couple people called back, “down to the river were no one knows!”
People started to clap with the song. Athia smiled, because she knew the song. Because everyone from Loiys, any part of it, knew at least the first two verses. What came after that depended on where you were from.
“Meet my love where the lichen grows on the tree by the river in the hole by the sea!”
The old farmer’s song began in earnest. People clapped and sang while hot broth splashed with rhythmic dunks of fresh ingredients. Athia joined in, though she didn’t know the lyrics the locals used. It gave her a chance to forget her worries, her questions, and her desire to have some of that meat.
They needed it more than her.
It kept going, growing more elaborate as the alcohol shrank. The further it went, the less people remembered and the more it relied on improvisation and a willingness to belt out whatever might come. After a few minutes, Athia grabbed her cup for a long sip. She stuck with water.
The people around her laughed and kept going.
And she wondered.
When was the last time someone sang in Clarient?
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