The Slopes of Chel Kol

I met Chel Kol while passing through the village of Staidsbury on a Court errand for my father, the Elder Magistrate of the four counties. I yearned to tear myself away from home, where most days, my wife and progeny distracted me with every available nuisance until my head sang like a struck tuning fork. I wasn't happy, but travelling in luxury, as I felt I deserved, kept me from throwing tantrums.

I was wed at a foolish age, and held onto Courtly notions of romance as long as I could stand it. After children came, though, it was a downhill disaster much like an avalanche. My wife and I had long fallen out of love. We circled one another with a sly guile, like two foxes trying to outwit the other. I pressed my father for more court duties whenever I could, anything that would take me out of town as often as possible and for as long as possible. He obliged in his cantankerous way, if only to prevent stoking the fires of hostility at home and jeopardizing the reputation of his Court with rumors of yelling and screaming between husband and wife.

I grew accustomed to long carriage journeys where the rumbling of the road and the singing of the meadowlarks put me to sleep. When in towns like Staidsbury, I drank myself under a table after Court business, but I rarely got into trouble that didn't blow over by morning. There was the time I was caught with the wife of a local judge, but in all fairness, the judge seemed thankful when I paid him off. He did not want a scandal, or for my father, the Elder Magistrate, to strip him of his title. It was one of many advantages to having been born into the inner sanctum of the Judicial Magi du Josta. The only disadvantage, as far as I knew, were the arranged marriages, like mine, and the torrents of unhappiness they caused.

One fateful day, during the last blustery weeks of winter, my carriage set out from Court toward Staidsbury. We took the usual route through Grayman's Trough, a deep fissure cutting through the stone quarries separating the Court from the vast plains. Once the stone walls of the quarry sloped low, we emerged out into a small thicket of birch trees. The carriage jostled over the roughest part of the road there, then spilled out into the bluelands, a long stretch of grassland dotted with bluefin and honeysuckle. We continued on for the duration of the morning until noon hit, and it was then that distant plumes of smoke rose from the trees past the bridge. The town was near. Through the shades, I spotted a cart at the far side of the bridge marking the town line. It was a perfume cart, lined with tonics and decanters of various sizes, and run by a dark girl enveloped by a hood and cloak. There appeared to be at least three customers in a kind of half circle around her.

I recognized her immediately as a member of the Kosh Kol, a mountain tribe rarely seen roaming the dry soil and switch grass of the bluelands. The Kosh abhorred visitors and hangers-on, preferring to slink among the frozen roots of the mountain's knuckles and wade through the meters-high drifts that hung off the ridges like thick duvets near the peak. The Kol range stayed wreathed in freeze all year. The climate never shifted there, not even in summer. A kind of superstition hung all about us valley people about it, and few of us wandered there. The Kol themselves were rarely seen. They weren't a pretty people; so my father's family told me, and there were good reasons past the ugly looks to steer clear of them, they said.

This girl, however, was clearly from the Kol range, but she was no typical Kosh Kol, and the moment she came into view through my blinds, the very sight of her compelled me to stop.

I tapped on the forward cabin wall. The sound of clopping hooves ceased, and the carriage lurched slightly. My carriage master and footman, Zooth, approached and unlatched the door. He stooped to place the footstool in the grass, and I fastened my accouterments before stepping out with a flourish. The three men who surrounded the girl no longer appeared to be customers, but rather, 'admirers.' They chatted all at once. 

By the way she stood, she appeared on the defensive, overwhelmed by their attention, but she kept silent and her angular face was as fixed stone. She took care not to frown or grimace at their words. It appeared as though she was very accustomed to such attention, and knew how to avoid inciting rage. The men flashed their teeth, stepping closer to her when any one of them spoke, like she was a desert oasis and they were men coming in from the wastes to drink long and deep from the pool.

She was extraordinarily beautiful. A kind of urgent radiance danced off her like a dark winter stream, even through her thick, dusky cloak. Something intangible in the shape of her, I sensed, could easily drive a man into a lustful fever. I may have even succumbed to it myself, but I felt it my Courtly duty to protect her. After that, I would have to fight being overtaken by my own desire for her.

"Step away!" I commanded the men. I counted on the prominent crests on my cloak and the side of the carriage to precede my authority. "I said, step away, gentlemen!" I repeated, louder this time so the girl could hear me.

One of them, a bright-faced youth with blond curls and a moon face, scowled.

"You t'aint got nuh jurisdicting here, me'lord!" he spit. "Now ye jest step off now and go off. This is between us folk, don't you mind!"

His friends, a pair of tall and dirty beanpoles, leered at the girl and stepped awkwardly behind her. They said nothing, but one of them reached for her cloak. I kept my sword sharp out of habit, yet hadn't used it in at least three years. I drew it out, and the blonde man immediately drew his. He stepped between me and the cart, leering so nastily that his youth faded, showing me instead a broken, poor lout.

"Now that's mohr like it, hargh!" he laughed, licking the corner of his mouth and drawing into position. "You ain't gonna know whut hit you, creempoff!"

A small crowd had formed along the banks of the river, gazing up at the bridge, all aware there was a ruckus brewing. A vagabond group wandered in from the direction of Staidsbury. They surrounded us now, eyeing our conflict with the interest of starving vultures. I heard whispers of 'He's from the Courts!' My resolve to demonstrate my authority, save the girl, and protect the honor of my station overwhelmed my reason.

I held the blade defensively. I'd honed an effective defensive strategy at the Academy, but fear still surged through me. This was my first fight since my Academy days. A long stretch of fatherhood and inactivity had softened me. I suspected moon face and his friends might be a great deal more accomplished than I. He lunged and his steel snapped against mine with uncommon strength. I flexed arm muscles to stay on solid footing and return the parry.

I barely had the chance to strike when I heard one of the two beanpoles cry out in pain. He was doubled over just behind the girl. Moon face lowered his guard to look back at the noise. I noticed then that she had leaned into her cart to kick one of her legs back into his groin, and subsequently, the cart had toppled over. As for her shoe, it was embedded in him with metal spikes, and blood already blossomed through his clothing. The other beanpole looked astonished as the girl wrenched her shoe out with a sickening 'plusch,' and wriggled out of her thick cloak. Before either of the two gaunt lads was able to stop her, she had stepped behind the kart, silent as a mouse, a look of intense concentration on her face.

I danced to the right to approach her, and the petulant youth moved to flank me before I could. I shot glances between her and him. The girl's lithe and supple figure leaned against the overturned cart. I thought I saw her smile. She wore dark, tight leather bound mail with metal thorns. Both of her shoes, if they could be called shoes, were covered in the small, deadly looking spikes, and one was soaked crimson.

Moon face went for a lunge, but I was ready this time. Some of my Academy instinct kicked in and I dodged the blow without raising my blade, then reached out and bonked the youth on the head with the flat end. This only enraged him. He temporarily forgot his senses and led me towards my destination, the cart, with a flurry of raging strikes, until the girl and I touched, back-to-back. I felt the brief prick of spikes through my cloak as she backed against me instinctively. The other two men, meanwhile, flanked her on the other side, and the one with the crippled groin led the pack, snarling.

"Oh, yer gonna take it now, you are!" the bloody one snapped. "Yes, you gonna take it all it from me!"

She had not yet spoken a word, but I could hear her breath, quick and light, as she grabbed something from her cart and moved away toward the men. I could smell her now as the breeze of her movement wafted up to my face, a mixture of cedar and jasmine, and it exhilarated me.

Moon face's blade swings at me were strong and violent, and tested the limits of my strength, but his technique was not as accomplished as I had feared. He had courage on his side, but I had something more. I kept both hands on the handle to compensate for his incredible strength, but as we both grew weary, I danced to his left, then his right, and he seemed to lose his momentum. With one swing, he lost balance, and I clapped the blade out of his hand and with another swing, dug the sharp end into his belly. He went down grasping for his sword, his face rosy red.

The sun lit up the water under the bridge and bounced off my sword, projecting a shimmering pattern on the stone as I raised my weapon for another strike. I wanted this kill so badly. I said a quick prayer to Josta and the Seven Saints and did a clean strike through his chest. Blood spurted in a geyser from his mouth and onto the stone of the bridge.

I heard muffled screams from behind me. A body lay on the ground just meters from where I stood, the face burned away. It was the beanpole she'd kicked. I dashed around the cart and saw that other man had gotten the girl into a kind of lock and his hands fumbled with a knife. As she struggled to pull his arms away, I saw that her forearms were covered in scars old and new, as though years' worth of knives had drawn across them. I whacked the remaining man's lower spine with my sword, and the dagger clattered out of his hands. The girl wrested free and breathed low, gasping.

"Finish him off," she rasped. Her chest rose and fell in ragged breaths.

Something came over me. I really had no choice. County law supported my actions - indeed, the Elder Magistrate would never have me punished for this - but it was something beyond that. I wanted to do the girl's bidding, even at my own expense; because I realized that I wanted her more than I'd ever wanted anyone. Even now, crouched like a dark tigress and struggling for air, she compelled me to act on her behalf.

So, I drew the blade back and swifted the steel through inches of flesh, muscle and bone. It took another hack to finish him off, and his body lay twitching in an ocean of blood.

"Your cart's ruined," I said. I noticed that most of the bottles were knocked away and had mostly busted open. "You used something on his face." I motioned to the beanpole whose faceless head was still attached to his body. "Did you use something?"

She stood and reached out for her cloak, then drew back, disgusted. It was soaked in blood.

"My cloak is ruined, too." she said. I heard a strong accent, jagged and distant and cold like the mountains the Kosh Kol called home. A cloud passed overhead and the river and bridge and all the surrounding blueland grass lost their glow and became ashen grey.

"Did you use something on his face?" I asked again. "From there?" I motioned to the cart.

"I did." she answered. "It is how we pro-tect from you." She stopped, puzzling over her words. "How we pro-tect, from men such as you." She said it with a sort of deference, but the distance in her voice was now, I realized, much more than her accent.

I wanted to sound caring, and kind, but I wasn't in the mood. I felt like I was being set up to merely send her on her way, and never see her again. I'd be another nameless hero with provincial interests and the blessings of the court, sending the wild mountain woman on her way. I didn't want to be that. I wanted to know her. I didn't know why, but I needed to know her.

"You need to get cleaned up," I insisted, gesturing to Zooth, who, up until that moment, was cowering under the carriage. Mud spotted his liveries.

"My lord..." he began, sausage fingers fumbling.  "I..."

"Get us to town. Get my table and my room ready." I instructed. I spun around with another flourish, and determined I'd be bold.

"I am Malon, officer of the Magistrate's Court! You're coming with me!" I announced.

She looked unsure, but something like a smile twisted through her mouth and then vanished. I saw that she was gazing at the emblem on my carriage.

"You'll pay for that." she said, gesturing to her toppled cart. "And you pay for the cloak."

"I will pay." I said. "Whatever you need, I will pay. I would like to honor myself with your company, to give you an opportunity to recover from your injuries."

"There is no recover." she said, plainly. "But I will go with you."

I sent Zooth to procure a new cloak for the Miss, and to fix her busted cart before morning of the following day. He didn't question my orders, but instead hooked the cart to the back of the carriage and waddled up onto it, disappearing out of sight.

Night pushed through Staidsbury. Hints of the last light peered from the clouds as the sun fell, casting the Tudor style facades in amber and honey yellow. The girl and I sat, side by side, on our third round of ale, gazing down at the common tables below from the Official's perch on the second floor of the Inn Bar. Every night it was like this - filled to capacity, pipes billowing smoke all around, table wood buckled and popping from years of drinking in ale and fire water. Mystics adorned with beads circled and wandered the tables like dancers spinning solo on a ballroom floor.

My companion moved rhythmically next to me, in time to lute music being played down below. She'd refused to part with her thorn mail at the door, and it lay stripped off at her feet like a crumpled and obedient pet. She reached down into it and lifted up a small Vallum case, and dipped her index finger inside, and moved her finger inside her mouth along her inner cheek. Her eyes drooped. She gazed lazily over at me, head nodding more. She looked like she wanted something from me, but her head lolled over away. I suspected it was all the Vallum. I took a swig of ale and spoke.

"When we sat down, you said your name was Chel Kol." I began. "Is is customary for all of you to take the name of the Kosh Kol?"

She looked deeply confused - her eyes still drooping - then really angry. Her eyes got wide and she shook her head back and forth at me disapprovingly.

"No, Malon. Do you take the name Jackass like all your brethren through the Valley?"

She said it, and then her eyes drooped again. I laughed heartily and took a much deeper gulp this time, letting the cool ale flow down my throat. I set it down and made a wide gesture across my mouth with my sleeve, and laughed some more.

"Very nice, Chel Kol." I said. "I really like you." I couldn't help looking a little fearful as I glanced her way. The light danced upon her face from the barroom below and coated her skin in deep warmth. The shadows of her bosom lay just below, and that same fire surged in me as before. I took a breath and struggled to regain control of myself.

She just shrugged. Once she sat, her mood grew catatonic, a far cry from the way she carried herself on the bridge.   I wanted to ask her more questions, but was fearful that she might just lose her mind and jump up from the table and wander out into the night. Just as I feared she would, the girl instead leaned toward the railing impulsively, and gazed down, and asked:

"What do you think of the mystics, Malon? Do you believe in their cards and bones?"

"I've never given it any thought. My family lives by law and code. We have no room for superstition. Why - do you?"

"We are like you - 'laws and codes.' Although I dare say, we are less corrupt, less savage, in our ways than you. But our laws are laws you do not understand."

"How are we savage?" I set down my tankard and put my elbows up on the table.

She changed the subject, as was her want.

"Malon, do you want to know what a mystic told me, the day I wandered down from the mountain to make a living for my tribe, my Kolleh?"

I took a moment to consider if I wanted her to lead me down this path. I had immense pride in my family. Nothing more than desire brought me here. My manner and my dress might fool those around me. The fight - and the kills - from that day - had inflamed and aroused me, and compelled me still, to this mystics' bar in Staidsbury.

I said nothing to her but kept my eyes on her, on her silken black hair and expressive lips. She went on.

"She told me that I would meet a good man, somebody who might show me where I am wrong about the bluelanders." She turned to face me, the sleepiness from her eyes all but gone and replaced by fire. "Am I wrong, officer Malon of the Magistrate's Court?" 

She paused again, then asked: "Are you good?"

She asked so bluntly that I felt a shock rip through me. Nobody had ever asked me that question, and something changed as she asked it. She was not a dalliance or a lark. She hadn’t followed me to town because I asked. She believed she was meant to be there, with me, and each passing minute with me began to test her resolve. I looked down at the bar, at the card games and bone scattering and foamy mugs and breaking glass. Past the barroom, I saw the windows and yellow lanterns beyond, passing back and forth. Night had descended completely onto me. My face changed and I began to speak more slowly.

"I don't know, Chel, if I am good. I know that I am a coward, and if a scoundrel and a fraud can be good, then I guess I am good. I guess your mystic was right -- she just did not tell you the whole truth."

The shadows deepened among the upper rafters around our heads. We had the balcony to ourselves, and it seemed the noise from below began to wane. All those below collectively drew in breath as the games began in earnest and the mystics sat with their bone bags and their customers sat silent, waiting for word on their fate.

"You have bluster." Chel answered finally, after what felt like minutes. "You are not serious about anything in your life, and I know why you did what you did today." She reached over and touched my left arm, almost reassuringly. "But it is not the first time I am in danger, and you are the first who stopped. It also takes courage to want without fear, Malon, even knowing what you cannot have."

"It doesn't make me good." I retorted. I used my right arm and lifted the tankard and drank. The ale tasted like the blood of the men on the highway now. Her touch made me numb. She hadn't rejected me outright, but I felt the poisonous sting of rejection and self recrimination coursing through me. We sat in silence for another few minutes, her hand on my arm. The shadows deepened and my desire dampened.

I left word with Zooth to take Chel back to her lodging, and arrange for her possessions to be returned to her. She bowed deeply and wandered off with him in silence, and I wandered to my provincial cabin on the edge of town, and locked myself inside.

I lay awake for some time, listening to the sounds of wolves and midnight scavengers outside. I thought of a memory from my childhood. I was eleven. My favorite Uncle Lidea, the Elder Magistrate then, caught me teasing a local girl by repeatedly lifting up her dress with my wooden sword. He dragged me to a quiet corner of the palace and beat me harder than my father had ever beaten me. I've never seen Uncle Lidea angry before.

"Don't you ever do that to a girl, boy!" he screamed, hot with rage. "Tell me you get it, boy!"

Tear-stained and red with shame, I cried some form of an apology.

"I pray there comes a day," he said, still furious, "When you meet somebody..." I averted my gaze and he slapped my face back to attention. "Listen to me! When you meet someone who will change all this nonsense, all this..." he gestured around us. "...Magi Du Josta entitlement! I'm sick of it myself, and have half the mind to..." he stopped speaking and sent me on my way.

A year later, Lidea fled the Four Counties, and was rumored to have taken up doing rigging jobs on the vast seas past the Kol Ranges. My father became Magistrate soon after, and my ascension began.

I wondered if Lidea was my mystic, if I had merely heard him too early in life to understand his words. I drifted off with thoughts of the cold ranges, and a roiling sea beyond. As dreams flooded my mind, I saw the image of Lidea, salty and lean, hanging from a foremast and shouting to the horizon. His shouts and the shouts of the crewmen continued through the night, and it wasn't clear where dreams and reality collided.

I woke late to the sound of light scratching at the window. A bone-weary weight still clung to me from the night before; too much ale, too little sleep. The scratching became a tapping, and it grew louder. I sat up quickly, seized by the notion that someone was trying to break in. Darkness still infested the room and in the cracks between the stones and the shadows under the bed throbbed. What time was it?

The light tapping came in spurts, every few seconds. I heard a voice past the thick cloth over the window, and I leapt up and tossed the sheet aside. Light flooded the room. It was easily past noon. The wood stove in the room created a stifling warmth. I saw a shape past the fogged glass, a head and shoulders. The delicate impression of a hand pressed on the glass. Someone giggled.

"Yes?" I called gruffly. "Who is it?"

I peered through the glass and made out the shape of a woman's head, dark and angular, black hair slung forward in neat, dark points on either side of her face. My eyes adjusted to the light and I then saw that she knew I was on the other side of the glass, looking back at her. It was Chel Kol. My heart began to race uncontrollably in my chest.

"Let me in!" she said, her voice muffled through the window. "Let me in, Malon! It is Chel Kol!"

I leaped to the door and she came inside, breathing hard and fast, shutting the door behind her. I thought at first she had been running, but her dark eyes flickered and blazed as she gazed at me. The room was still but for the sound of her breathing, which only grew louder as the seconds ticked by. This mountain girl with the fighting spirit was really leaving me no choice now. I had desired her the day before but now, melting in the heat of the lodge and still swimming of thoughts of the night before, I ached for her, and I let my gaze say as much.

The very next moment, she ran up to me and pressed herself to me, and opened her mouth to mine. It didn't take long for us to peel ourselves loose in the heat and pull each other down in a tangle. I lost myself in her scent, that of cedar and jasmine, and the taste of her, that of clove and metal. She spoke to me all the while, letting out small whispers, and long sighs of 'good' and other things so raw as to be for another two lovers somewhere else, two lovers who had known each other longer than she and I. The shadows of the afternoon deepened.

She lay next to me, breathing.

"Malon, you are too big for me!" she said out of the blue, with the same unfettered focus she'd exhibited over the last twenty four hours.

"Men of the Court are often fat!" I joked. I ran my hand along the small of her back.

"You speak like a fat man, Malon, but that is not what I meant."

"Chel..." I began. She sensed the change in my tone and rose up off the floor and pulled herself together. Something spun in her brain, something just beyond my comprehension. She sensed my confusion and said, "Malon, I do not want to know about your life at Court. I know there is much we have not told each other. I think there is good reason for this. Just -- just..."

She placed her fingers on my lips, and said:

"I must open myself to the river. It is a ritual that must be done. I would like you to see."

She clung to me as we exited the lodge. The back end of the Staidsbury River lay at the bottom of the ridge beyond the lodge. The water sparkled through the thick branches. The sun was high and clear and wood smoke from dozens of lodges stung my eyes. We reached the river, which was wide and clear, snaking through the woods behind the lodge before winding around the town and under the bridge near the town line. We headed to the water and she got on her knees and began to chant. She took a small blade from her mail and drew it along her forearm - a long, thin slice to join the other scars there.

The blood trickled onto the sandy bank and into the river. Every one of her movements was deliberate. It entranced me. I stood, silently, watching her as she wrapped her arm up in a cloth tourniquet.

Just then, I heard shouts from somewhere through the trees. They were indistinct at first but it became clear the voices were amassing at the top of the ridge.

"Massacre! Massacre!" they shouted. "Kosh Kol came through last night! Massacre!"

My eyes grew wide and I backed away from Chel, who looked as alarmed as I.

"Did you know about this?!" I yelled at her, pointed up at the ridge. "Is this why you came to me? Did you come to hide?! Hell of a way to hide!"

All she did was shake her head vehemently at me.

"I woke, and... and Zooth told me where you were, and..." she stopped, as if snapping herself out of a daze. The fighter came out. "Be damned, Malon!" she yelled, throwing on her cloak.

The men were already filtering down through the trees. I heard the stretch of bows somewhere, and the sound of steel unsheathing. I hoped to Josta that they weren't Sastran Knights.

"Stop!" I yelled. "Officer of the Magi du Josta on Court business here! Announce yourselves! Court Business!" I went to grab Chel's arm, but she pulled it away and made to leave. "If you leave my side, they will come after you!" I hissed. "I've seen you handle yourself against one or two men, but you have no chance against thirty."

She stopped, looking every bit as dark and lovely as I'd ever seen her.

"What chance do you have?" she muttered.

"I have something you do not..." I shot back. "...the backing of the Elder Magistrate. Now stand with me, by Josta!"

She took my side, fuming.

The men were not Sastrans, but rather local patrol, from the looks of it. I breathed a sigh of relief. Sastran Knights would not have hesitated to cut her down and turn me into the Courts. Patrols, on the other hand, were a more malleable lot. A single knight archer on horseback often led town patrols, but these were foot soldier volunteers bursting with local pride, and not like the trained warriors of the Great Court...

"There's been a massacre in town, sir." said their leader, an older bowman with a head full of grey hair. "I am Byrne. I'm sorry to report, sir. You are Malon, you say? Your servant is dead. Massacred with the rest of 'em, out on the main highway. Happened about six this mornin'. Whole load of Kol fresh from the mountain, sir."

He saw the girl as he approached.

"By Josta!" he cried. "You got one!" Byrne called back to the other patrol. "He got one!" He looked back at me. "You caught 'er, milord? She's the first we've seen of the mountain folk."

"The Court caught her, bowman." I advised, keeping my expression cool. "She was performing a ritual and I caught her off guard. I need to take her in for questioning." I sensed her near me. By her stance I knew she readied for a fight. I didn't know whether to follow her lead or stay calm.

"I know you!" another voice cried. A younger man, no more than twenty years of age, stepped forward. "He's the one, sir! He killed Prince Lozano's son yesterday! He burned the face right off one of 'is servant boys!"

The others streamed in and heard what the young one had to say.

"Is this true? Was this you?" Byrne asked sharply.

"I saw no Prince's son yesterday." I said. "I killed a rascal, and a rapist, out on the bridge, but I saw no Prince's son. I am backed by the Elder Magistrate. I suggest you let me pass with my prisoner, or all of you will pay dearly."

It was clear the two incidents - this massacre and the bridge fight - were related. There were now at least fifteen armed men assembled in a broad circle around us. The Magi du Josta emblems on my clothing stood us between safety and death. Something subtle had changed on Bryne's face, but I couldn't tell what it was. I reached out and found Chel's arm, and gripped it tight, and murmured, 'Close, stay close' through my teeth. Byrne clearly didn't believe me about Chel, but backed the others up the hill. His face was that of deep consternation.

"You're alone, sir!" the young man pressed me. He didn't even bother looking at Chel, who all the while made efforts to lose her arm from my grip. She was not accustomed to being held under any circumstance. "Malon, is it?" the youth continued. "How can you say that the Court..."

"Silence!" yelled Byrne. "Do not say another word to this man without my order! Let him by!"

I heard grunts of frustration from the other thirteen men who surrounded us. Some of them were more heavily armed than their leader. Any of them might have stepped at me from the rear or taken me out; it all hinged on their loyalty to Byrne. I sensed deep discontent in their ranks, but I stepped ahead anyway with my chest puffed out and my head held high.

"Do not speak." I whispered to Chel, who had, like me, realized the futility of taking so many men on at once. "Stay close to the bowman."

The lot of us moved slowly up from the river and through the trees. The afternoon sun shot down through holes in the tree canopy, glinting off armor, helmets and swords on every side. Needles from the spruce carpet of the forest crunched underfoot. The bright singing of birds in nests overhead serenaded our grim procession up the ridge and into Staidsbury. I kept one hand around Chel's arm, and another on my scabbard under my cloak. It would be close. Even if we made it up the hill, we had no way to escape town before it became decided that I had no lasting claim of innocence for my crime, and no lasting claim on the girl.

As we walked, I kept my breath steady and thought it over. I had always counted on protection from the Courts to keep me from harm when abroad, but everything about this day was different. If what Byrne said was true, and the Kosh Kol had ventured down from the mountains, performing terrible deeds, then the local province would usurp Court Authority for its own protection. There was also the matter of the Lozano prince - that moon faced bastard on the bridge. It was within my right to kill him, of course, but a terrible notion hit me.

There was the small chance that the Kosh Kol, that distant peoples rarely seen in the Valley, had caught scent of the bridge incident, and came to investigate. Perhaps they came across the ruined cart and the blood on the stone, and the missing Chel Kol. They might conclude she was dead, and that someone took her wares, and her life. They'd see Zooth with the cart and come to the obvious conclusion. The Kosh were not forgiving. From what I'd heard of the mountain tribe, they'd relentlessly purify the town. If they had done so, I could not imagine our fate.

We hit the crest of the ridge, just outside of town, and I saw the faceless torso propped up against a tree there. It confirmed my worst fears. I knew it wouldn't be the last body. The band of men had already seen the body on their way down to the river, but seeing it again caused their fists to close tighter around their weapons.

As we walked, I saw Chel's dark, beautiful eyes gaze up at the body, even as she kept her head low. Her eyes flickered for a moment, and then moved up past the trees. Her gaze pushed out past the town, beyond the bluelands, over the foothills and up the treacherous paths beyond to the mountain passes of her Kolleh. She was in agony. A storm of conflict raged in her eyes. She knew then, as I knew, that our only hope was in getting her up the mountain, to her people, and proving that she lived. This act would not bring the victims in Staidsbury back from the dead, but it might prevent further atrocities on either side.

Instinctively, she moved to run.

"Please! You'll die if you run!" I begged.

She spoke low.

"The Kosh were here. My Kolleh sent them to watch me. And now they have done... this." Her eyes grew glassy and distant. She could not bear to look at the bodies any longer.

"Where are they now?" I asked, mindful of eyes watching us on all sides.

They have purified this place. They are far from here... where, I do not know."

Byrne sidled up against me then, suddenly.

"By Josta, stay quiet!" he ordered. To his men, he exerted his authority over us with his words, but I saw through him. I sensed in him a deep concern for our safety.

I seized Chel's arm again and gripped my blade to pull it out, but the bowman placed his hand on my forearm.

"You have no time left!" he rasped. "These men have loyalty to Staidsbury, not to me. They will lose cohesion at any moment, and take arms against you. Listen hard." He nodded at Chel. "You too."

"I knew your Uncle," Byrne said to me, quietly. "Lidea was the best man I ever knew. He loved his family. You heard stories of him, yes? Stories of the sea?" Byrne shook himself hard and cursed himself. "There is no time for me to say. I have my horse up ahead. A good, hearty stallion. You take him, and you go. You don't stop, you don't fight, you just go when I say. Ride the girl home. I see she already yearns for the mountain. Don't ever come back here."

His spoke emphatically, like a man cursed or facing execution. He understood, as Chel and I did, that our only chance was to bring her back alive. It might be too late to assuage the Knights' blood lust - they hated the Kosh Kol - but we might prevent further massacres by steering the Kol away from town.

Bodies lay all about the main road. The armed guards all seethed with sight of them.  

The Sastran Knights would hear of this outrage, then move up the mountain and slaughter those they could find. There had not been war in many years, but the first traces of it now lay strewn all about us. I had only to know that Chel understood this, too. We had to be the first to reach the Kolleh, and get her to safety. She and I both exchanged a glance, and she grabbed my arm.

"Come with me, Malon." she urged.

I took a moment, and let the last of my thoughts of Court drop away. I couldn't leave her side.

Byrne's horse was up ahead, tied to a hitch and stomping its muscular feet nervously in the dirt. Byrne gave me a single look that said it was time to go.

The second Chel began to run, the other men made straight for her. I ran behind her, untied the hitch quickly, brazenly looping the rope in my hands. A few patrol looked to Byrne in disbelief, but the majority was already crouched to charge us. Chel rushed low at the rear of the horse, as though she would dive right underneath it. Instead, she dropped her hands in the dirt and pushed out, and did a graceful, wide-arced somersault though the air and flipped up over the horse, landing squarely on the saddle. Her thorn mail glimmered in the light as she sat atop the horse. I had only a moment to stand and gawk at her.

"Men, stop!!" I heard Byrne scream. "Malon is an Agent of the Courts! Let him go or your life is forfeit!"

I jammed my feet in the stirrups and hoisted up behind her. The moment I landed, she gave out a raspy "Hargh!" The horse snorted and let loose down the main highway, and I held on for dear life.

"Malon is an Agent!" Byrne shouted far behind us. "Let the knights get him! Don't risk your lives for a single Kosh Kol! Stop!"

Byrne's voice and the shouts of his men - if they were still his men - grew indistinct. Chel rode, quiet and fierce. The violence of the gallop, the noise of wind and sound of my own labored breathing hacked at my senses, so I clung to her. We flew over the blood-stained bridge where the water flowed cold and quick. I recognized the highway I knew so well, but it was a different sight from on top of a stallion, besieged by cold air and in awe of the elements.

Chel veered west off the highway, and we made across the plains. It felt as though twilight came early in the Valley. The flaxen grass turned orange long before the sun dipped down, then went red as we rode, then grew deep purple once the sun disappeared. We rode forever, it seemed. The blue shade enveloped the land, and took any succinctness of shape and form and consigned it to a netherworld of lilac and crimson. There was little to see now but bands of horses, wild and tame, setting out across the plain. Traders' caravans were far off, mere shadows in the distance, appearing and disappearing with the shadows. We steered clear of the roads hacked through the grass, and stayed out of sight, to avoiding sighting by local patrols, or worse, Sastran Knights. The main highway lay far behind us now, having dissolved into the horizon. As the night cleared away all vestiges of the day, we found ourselves quite alone, and speeding hard through the endless plain toward the towering mountains far off in the distance.

I wanted so badly to speak to Chel as we rode. I needed to ask why she hadn't left me behind, but her naked stoicism put me at an uncommon lose for words. She was a force of nature, not to be reasoned with. I was a twig in her storm, letting unfamiliar winds carry me instead of the winds of my birth. She had every reason to drop me, to set out on her own for the mountains she called home. She might have left me with the patrol, but instead, she kept me close. Our pairing had already endured hours longer than I guessed it should have, by any measure. The words of her Kolleh mystic must have dug into her. They weren't just words, after all. Chel believed that I was a good man, she said. Are you good, she had asked me at the bar the night before. Good, she whispered to me when our bodies met. It was a word different to her than to me. She felt fated to cross my path. It was good enough for her. As for me, I was not so sure. I knew I loved her, but the word love took me back to something unformed and unsophisticated from my youth, so I pushed the idea away and let the sounds of our breathing carry me along.

I leaned into her hard, not at all feeling like the man I was just a day before. I let the thorns of her mail stick me through her cloak. I knew they caused me to bleed, but I did not care. I recalled someone else from the other day: a snoozing, pompous Magistrate's son, rocked to sleep by the syrupy rhythms of an intemperate life in a padded carriage. I thought of the road on past Grayman's Trough, and the high, outstretched walls of the Great Court. I thought of my family, sitting in silence at executions and ceremonies, stopping for only a moment to wonder where I had gone. It all felt so far off.

We ducked past a high mound of grass to rest. The new day was upon us. The cold range of Kol sat to the west, edged in clouds, jagged and fierce, taking with it all traces of a blue sky.

I'd never been this close to the mountain. A trading post poked out at the edge of a rocky slope where the barren foothills met the jagged malevolence of the range. Stiff with cold, I slid uncomfortably off the horse and hit the ground. Chel Kol stood over me, a look of intense impatience on her face.

"I will feed the horse." she said, and helped me up off the ground. "Go in. Warm up. Buy what you need. The slopes do not forgive." Before I went inside, she reached in her cloak and pulled out a small decanter too dark for me to see through. She dipped her finger inside, and then slid her fingers into my mouth. It was bitter. I might have protested, were it not for the cold, and were it not for her touch, which I could no longer refuse.

A surge of warmth overcame the bitterness, so much that I could stand. The blind and stooped ward of the post ordered his sons to bring us clothing and a bit of food for sustenance. I knew that Chel wore the clothing in spite of her resistance to cold, for fear of sticking me more with her armor as we headed up the mountain. Once in the saddle, she brought her hood up all around her head, and reached back and pulled my arms up around her.

"There." she said, satisfied. "Now I will not hurt you."

We pushed up the trail and passed a handful of riders descending on their burly Calabrese, heavy packs slung through the saddle. It now sunk in that we aimed for her Kolleh. My silent Kosh Kol companion shifted herself to the cold of the mountain. Her thaw re-froze. As if heeding her calls for silence and meditation, the winds swooped down around us from the steep slopes above, harsh and cutting, so that speech became useless. I kept my hood up and dared not look back or down, at the twisting paths and steep drops we left behind. I began to think of the warmth of the plains. It became more difficult to see Chel clearly in front of me. She was as a wraith, almost, and thought I stood in awe of her, I feared her now. I wondered if she was riding me to my death.

The drifts rose around us. A darkest purple settled over stone and snow. Fearing I'd fall off, Chel leaned back and used the rope to tie me securely to the saddle. As she tied the last knot, I felt like an errant child being strapped to a bed. It's for your protection, her eyes said. They flashed at me with a steely blue pallor, but grew dark just as quickly. The skin of her face grew ghostly like the drifts around us. With the rope holding me on, I let my body drift. With eyes closed, it felt as though the horse climbed down, but whenever I pried the ice from my eyelashes to gaze out on the world, I saw that we climbed ever upward.

The air grew thin and the sky overhead dark and grey. I thought once again of home. A thick sheen of frost covered my thoughts. Hours passed, and we did not stop until my teeth chattered so loudly that Chel snapped from her stasis to help me. She applied more salve to my mouth.

"Too much will make you sick, Malon, but you need it."

Her fingers were devoid of warmth now, but still moved nimbly along my inner cheek. The bitter taste subsided quickly, and with the warmth came nausea. I leaned over the side of the horse and vomited into the snow. I grew disoriented.

"Why am I here?" I muttered. "I've lost my mind, Chel!"

"The storm is stealing your air." she said. "You must stay still."

She lifted back her hood. Her hair was tinged with deep blue, and her skin had gone almost totally translucent. I supposed it was a sickness-induced hallucination. It wasn't real... it couldn't be. With the cold, too, came a pronounced, heightened sense of fear. It hammered at me through the chill, though I tried and tried to push it back. I could only stare upon the woman before me, at how the mountain air made her like a wraith. Thoughts of warmer climes dragged my soul away from the trail and down the mountain, despite me and all I'd fought for to get here. I was a coward. I was afraid. I wanted to lie in a bed of grass, somewhere at home. I wanted the walls of the Great Court to separate me from the ravages of a terrible world.

"Malon," she said plainly, as if reading my thoughts. "Malon, do not ever leave me."

The cold infested every part of me. I could only stare dumbly at her, paralyzed by cold and by fear. I wanted to speak, but my words slowed and stopped on the slopes. A look of stunned alarm passed over her face then, and for a brief moment I thought she reached out to push me from the horse. Instead, she only pointed down past me.

"They are behind us." she warned.

I turned my head slowly, teeth chattering, and saw what she saw. A trail of lights snaked up in the darkness just beneath us. I saw torches flickering like a line of stars in the deep gully below.

"Are they Knights... or Kol?" I asked, after some effort.

"Not Kol!" she said loudly.

She turned and kicked, and the horse stumbled ahead. I reached and put my arm all the way around her to hold on. I gazed up at the peak around us and saw the faintest outline of buildings. The Kolleh's stronghold lay just beyond the last sloping trail, but it was shrouded in flurry and shadow. Something in its shape, invoked in me a deep fear. I scrambled to contain it, but it spilled out. I could not run from the Knights. My father commanded the court that set them out on us. I had to explain. It was not my time to betray my family.

Voices rose behind us in the wind. They came through the air in foul grunts and battle cries. The Sastrans had arrived. I had to confront them. I could not go any further. Chel didn't need me. She'd push on without me. She'd ride on to the stronghold, and find her tribe, and tell them what happened. I knew if I could only talk to the Sastrans, talk them out of it by invoking Court authority. I could protect Chel, and save her, and save everyone. I had to try.

"I'll hold them back!" I gasped, sliding my arm back from around her. "Go! Go! You'll ride faster without me!"

I pulled my arm away from her and untied my ropes, and slid off the horse

"You are not safe! Stay with me!" she yelled, almost frantic. The stallion reared up and kicked the air. Her face seemed to come alive. Her eyes blazed. "Be damned, Malon! Stay with me, you bastard!"

"They have to know the truth!!" I yelled. I wasn't sure if she could hear me, but it no longer mattered. She seemed to realize this. Her pale face full of sadness and fury, she kicked at the horse so that it jumped around me in a circle, trying to coerce me up the trail.

The knights were upon me. I spun to face the encroaching horde. They rode as dark shadows through the blinding white. They all sat back on their saddles, letting the swaying of their ghastly steeds carry them forward. My planned sacrifice had failed. Chel would not leave my side, and now she would likely die at my side, protecting me. As the tall knights rose over me, blotting out the sky, Chel's horse cowered back against the cliff side. She had removed her cloak and was sitting still in her horse, eyes closed.

Sastrans' helmets set them apart from other forces in the realm. They hammered them from heavy ore and were fashioned like animals - anteaters, stags, cobras. Forceful puffs of steam pushed out from their long, exaggerated nostril holes. Their voices reverberated out over the snow, low and laced with metal and gravel.

"Magi du Josta!" spoke a voice from a grey, blood spattered anteater helmet. He sounded almost pleased. "We are pleased to see you alive. The Kol murderer is with you."

I looked back to Chel, hoping she had decided to turn up the slope toward the stronghold. Instead, she blended into the mountainside, perfectly still, her hair and skin matching the snow. I turned back, desperate, to the knights. The cold had already swallowed my legs up below the knee. I was in no position to fight, but I brought out my sword, anyway.

The other Sastrans did not move or react. They only laughed. The laugh came out in guttural and dry spurts, louder than it had any right to be.

"This Kosh is dead, like the others of her tribe. Put it down. Put it down, Magi du Josta." said the anteater. Another knight, a cobra head, added his voice to the laughter all around me. "You are under a spell, Elder's son."

"She did nothing!" I screamed. "I killed the Lozano boy!"

"Under a spell, you did, Elder's son."

"No, no spell! No spell!" I kept screaming "Her people thought we killed her!!”

"The unnatural, cursed cold here has stolen your judgment." the anteater rasped.

"We can end this now!!!" I shouted. "She did nothing!" I repeated. "Nothing!"

I tried yelling more, but exhaustion enveloped words, and they no longer heard me. I swung violently at the anteater, but only met steel as his blade moved to defend. I drew back and swung again, exhausted, but this time he slid his blade along mine until it raised up out of my hands and dropped into the snow. Half of the knights had already passed me and ambled up to the trail where Chel sat. I tried to yell, to scream, to scrape for a trace of strength somewhere inside, but nothing came. I smelled blood and horsehair as the foul smelling behemoths passed on either side, treating me like useless vermin.

"Chel..." I sobbed.

It was all my fault. Had I only stayed on the horse, and had I not let the weight of the Court and of my own sense of importance drag me down off of it and into the crippling snow, we might have both escaped. The stronghold seemed to disappear in the air, like a mirage, and the only dark I saw in the whiteout were the forms and shapes of hulking Sastrans approaching their prey.

I lost myself to the cold, and the sounds of shrieking and metal sounded out from the cliff side. I swore I saw blue sparks. A thunderclap pierced the air, and knocked me into the piling snow. The sensation of warmth I felt was unlike the hot surging of the Kol salve. Instead, it was the warm embrace of oblivion before all senses dimmed and died. My last thought before losing consciousness in the snow was that the screams I heard, which grew louder and seemed to pass me on either side, belonged not to Chel, but to the Sastrans.


Even today, I am hunted by dreams of dark people covered in bones and scars. When my mind drifts off and the unconscious world lowers around me, dreams overcome my station. There, I am no longer Malon, Elder Magistrate of the Court, but I am small and lean, mingling with steel and snow and blood. Memories capture me as never before. I turn the day over again and again in my mind, obsessively, like a puzzle box missing its vital parts. The memory from that day is more dream now than real, colored over and pushed down.

I can still smell fresh cedar and the deep bloom of the jasmine flower on my clothes. Someone carried me down the mountain. My body was gently lowered into the grass. I was kissed, and then nothing but the sound of the wind on the stalks. My broken body lay on a cart. I spied an overcast sky and the high stone walls of Greyman's Trough rising above me, then finally the Court - high walls of ornate stone stretching across the valley. Then I woke.

In the daylight hours, the Palace guards shadowed me to keep me safe. The laws and codes of our people spin a labyrinthine web through the land, but I felt as though I'd lose myself if I did not wander the spirals of the Court. I wandered the spirals so fervently that my father ushered me into his blessing, and I took over from him when he died. The Court guard was loyal to me, and they, unlike their Sastran predecessors, followed a code of honor. 

My first act as Magistrate was to dissolve the ranks of the Sastran Knights. Nothing that followed in my reign was ever as brutal and swift and vengeful as that single act. From that point on, I only sought to unite. The reconciliations I performed - with the Court, with my family - led me inevitably toward my place in the high box in the gilded hall of the Seven Saints. I dismantled the icons there, and I lost the swagger of my younger days, wiping away the corruption and favoritism that infested my father's court. I did what I could to seek the Kosh Kol, but all remnants of the tribe seemed to have vanished. 

Traders found empty vessels and broken buildings at the summit of the mountains past the plains,but the people had scattered, or fled, or simply vanished into the rock and snow. I read much, and discovered things I did not know, and I modeled my Court after their faith. Truthfully, all the while, I dreamed of following in the footsteps of Uncle Lidea. Now that my age has advanced, it is unlikely that I will leave here ever again, and I pray that have done enough. 

Just a moon's phase ago, I presided over a plea for representation - they were missionaries, by the looks of it. They wore robes embellished with markings I did not recognize. During the plea recitation, one of them lifted her face at me, and I saw a flash of blue. I inhaled so quickly that the whole court heard me, and stopped their activity to be sure I had no suffered an attack. By that time, whoever had stood there was no longer there, but I trembled. After granting their request, I sought them for answers, but they were mostly old and frail, and none of them knew the name or face I asked them about. 

For the remainder of that day, I felt filled up with something so raw it threatened to consume me. I had not been to the Great River in some time. Flanked by the Guard, I wandered down the slopes in my robe, and I set out the blanket near the edge, where the quick current flew down from the mountains. I undressed, and laid out the cloth, and the bag. I took out the bones, placed them in a crescent formation and lifted my hands to the sky. I resisted the urge to fall face-first into the water. Instead, I took out the blade, and raked its delicate tip down my forearm. The many scars there snaked like fissures through my skin, translucent like ice where they ran deepest.

Blood ran out in a neat thin stream down my arm, and through my fingers. The purification quelled the surging tide within me, and I reached out the the water. I let my blood fall into the river, where it ran over the land of my birth, through the rock and stone, then drifted out to sea.


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