If Love Were Only Part of the Equation
“Why do you fear at the afterglow as the clouds make love?”—Tom Smith
Brinson’s backside, among other things, was tired. Gravitt had said one day’s ride, but they were now on their fifth. Everyone (except Gravitt it seemed) knew that Vane was at least a week away from Briggatt—the dead city was located south of Lyton and west of Tamur. That man has absolutely no sense of direction. He would have pointed this out to Gravitt when he made his mistake, but knew better; a slap across the face would have been rather embarrassing, and what’s the point of correcting him anyway? Everyone else realized the error. Perhaps he forgot we were in Briggatt and thought we were in Lann? Fortunately, he had allowed them to camp after riding through the first night, and rightly so—even the mighty Gravitt was tired.
And now, here as they made camp for the fourth night in a row, he looked over at Sabre as she tended the horses. He was one of the few people who could pronounce her name correctly, SAH-braeh. He was also one of the few people who knew what it meant, and smiled thinking how well it suited her. Although he was not from her tribe (or from Philip or Marcus’s for that matter) like all tribesmen, he knew the language and the correct inflections.
“Hurry up, you idiots. Get that tent up. It’s going to rain soon!”
He gritted his teeth as the man he worked for—slaved for—shouted his latest desire. Working quickly, he and Philip assembled the crude tent and then stepped aside as Gravitt entered it, carrying a sleeping Darian. His employer had ordered Sabre to make her son sleep when he started to fuss after the first few hours of the ride. She would wake him to eat, but then with a quick touch of her hand, reluctantly force the child back into slumber again. Gravitt did not have the patience for the boy, and demanded that such drastic measures be taken. Some father...Since the tent was only big enough for two people, Gravitt and the child would sleep in it, and the rest of them out in the rain. Brinson did not mind sleeping outdoors under the tranquil light of the Blue Star—it reminds me of home. Besides, it spares me the disgust of his presence, and for a little while, it lets me at least pretend I’m free.
As Gravitt’s personal manservant, Brinson learned more than most when it came to his master’s dealings—sometimes too much for his own comfort. Normally, he would have been told where they were going, how long they would be there and what to expect, but Gravitt was keeping everyone on a need to know by the minute basis. I really hope he is just going there for this party he was invited to...
At twenty-three years old, Brinson was a tall and lanky man with glasses. His hair was long—it reached half way down his back—and always tied back in a ponytail. It’s color was not particularly striking—just a typical dirty blonde. He had light brown eyes—almost tawny in color—that were always full of his good nature blanketed behind a curtain of sadness. Although he stood five foot nine inches, his slight build and complete lack of strength and coordination had spared him from active combat and most manual labor his entire life, leaving him more the intellectual work—reading maps, drafting and filing papers, mending and folding clothes. He had absolutely no skill with any weapon, but was Gifted with the powers of the Earth.
His personality was so gentle that once he found a deaf child of no more than seven wandering the streets of Briggatt naked, apparently abandoned by her family as they fled when Gravitt came to power. He took her in, and for that year, he had raised her as his own. The little girl adored him, and he did her. Her parents had never bothered to name her, or if they had, she could not hear it. Together, they decided she should be called Celina. He had taught her to read and to write, and by using gestures and drawings, the two of them managed to communicate. He cursed himself for not being suspicious when Gravitt openly agreed to let him adopt her. I was so naive...
Once, just after Darian was born and Gravitt had been particularly cruel to Sabre, he had tried to cause an earthquake in Briggatt to shake the manor down and kill Gravitt. He had grown tired of watching the woman he adored be beaten into submission and humiliation. Anger cracked through his eyes as he saw her sitting in a pool of her own blood, but it was obvious that she had not been crying—she was stronger than that. She looked at him, hurt and tired. When he had asked what act she received her retribution for she responded flatly, “I asked if I could name my son after my father.” After a moment, she stood up, brushed the dirt off of herself and washed her face in a nearby water tub. As she cleaned the dirt, blood, and sweat from her brow she said to him, “I will name him Darian. It is not tribal, but it is a pretty name.”
Watching her walk calmly away towards the stables, he forced his bravery to break through the surface of his cowardice. He crossed his arms across his chest as he called the Earth. He felt the rush of magic pour through him—it was wild, untamed magic. He raised his hands towards the manor, and silently prayed that by being immune to magic also meant that Gravitt could not locate its source. He was wrong and the attempt was worse than futile.
His master’s ability protected him from all of it—the walls shook, the ground opened up, and Gravitt just stood there, in the main doorway, watching the world move around him as he cackled at the sight of it all, his hair waving like a banner over the broken earth at his feet. He seemed to delight in the terror and chaos surrounding him, but more in the dawning looking of horror on Brinson’s own face as he realized his own failure.
That act cost Brinson Celina’s life, and he still had not forgiven himself for it. No, his master would not kill him—he had asked him to take his life in her place—but he refused. He needed The Quake Child; the girl was of little use to him. “Besides,” Gravitt had said, “Perhaps this will teach you and your tribal friends a lesson—that I don’t make threats, I make—and I keep—promises!” Right then and there, in front him—just three years ago—he slit her throat and threw her limp body backwards into the dirt, her blood painting the pebbles on the ground—and all he could do was just stand there helplessly, restrained by Philip’s strong arm around his throat. He wouldn’t even let me bury her...
I’ll give him this—he is cunning—he uses small, powerful mages as his closest workers—people who can do him no harm and people that he can manipulate.
Over the past four years, Gravitt had been quietly conquering small towns and villages left and right. Most of these states were near Briggatt and the Prairie. (The only one he steered away from was Meryod because the place was full of useless inbred hicks.) Brinson was surprised to find that most of the silver and treasures from the places (and tribes) that were conquered did not wind up in Gravitt’s possession. Oh, he kept his share, but most of it just seemed to disappear. Brinson knew that Philip and Marcus (the only two people Gravitt seemed to trust) would ride out of the towns after they were decimated with the take, but he never knew where they went, and sometimes they would be gone for weeks at a time. I hate those two—they pretend to be enslaved, but they aren’t. They seem to enjoy what we have to do a little too much. I know it is the nature of tribesmen to be warriors, but...
The last city they had ransacked was a small trading town just south of Meryod. Called Rafine, it was the typical type of town they would take out—small, unprotected, and full of families. The raid was business as usual for Gravitt. He rode into town with the four of them and Darian, found an inn to stay at, and gave orders. After establishing themselves there as traders for a few days, making friends and working the taverns, Sabre would be ordered to seduce the town elder and offer a chance for a peaceful surrender, and when he refused, kill him. Philip and Marcus would use their Gifts of Fire and Illusion (respectively) to intimidate the townspeople. They offered the chance for a quiet submission, and those that chose to try and resist were scared to death by visions implanted into their heads or burned by hellfire which rose from the ground around them. Those that were left would be told to find anything worth any value and bring it to the square. Some of them would try and run out of the town gate, and they would meet their end at the hands of Gravitt and Sabre, and sometimes, a handful of hired mercenaries mounted with their blades drawn.
Once all the goods had been brought to the center of town and had been carefully inspected, Gravitt would select a few of the remaining people from the town to ride with Marcus and Philip to deliver them to the secret place where he had been sending all of his booty. Although he tried not to think of it, it had always disturbed him that the men would not return with Philip and Marcus. He, Sabre, and Gravitt would remain in the town until it was established and understood that the people were now under Gravitt’s rule, and he would usually find a local willing to carry out his bidding and appoint him as governor. Finally (usually after a week) they would leave, and just when the townspeople thought their terror was over, he would be forced to use his Gift to shake the town to bits. Gravitt did not want to risk rumors of his activities to spread ahead of him. I still don’t understand why he always wipes out the entire village—cold corpses are less useful than living slaves... I pray he is not going to try anything stupid in Vane—the four of us are powerful, but certainly no match for the wizards there.
Brinson started to make a fire for the group, and looked up to see Gravitt standing before him. He placed a red and blue ribbon in the blonde man’s hand and said, rather condescendingly “That horse—the gray mare—do you remember the man you won it from?”
“He was a Vanetian, correct?”
Gravitt smirked at him. “Make sure Sabre puts those back in. I just thought of a new angle, but I don’t know if it’s worth using. We’ll see when we get to Vane.” So much for not doing anything stupid...
Gravitt retired into the tent, leaving Marcus and Philip to stand watch, Brinson to finish making his fire, and Sabre to tend to the horses. He looked at her and knew that she wanted to hold her son, to make sure he was all right—it was a long enough ride for an adult, never mind a three-year old—but he knew Gravitt would not allow it “You’ll see him soon enough,” their master had said enough times on enough trips. Brinson always had wanted to smack him—how dare he refuse her the right to hold her child? Although on some level, I suppose he feels he does have a right to the boy...not that he deserves it.
Brinson had been there that night four years ago—just a week after Ziggrat died. He had heard the pleas and course laughter, together with screams, sobbing and brutal sound of a fist striking helpless flesh and he could not do anything about it. He had gone to Marcus and Philip, begging them to help him break down the door, and stop what was happening, but they refused. They were not going to risk their lives for Sabre. She was one of them now and that fact seemed to give both of them a perverse satisfaction. No longer Ziggrat’s almost-daughter, no longer treated like one of the family rather than one of the servants. Gravitt had always hated the fact his father seemed to have taken a liking to her, and that night, their new master had put her in her place, once and for all. It may have been the first time, but it certainly wasn’t the last, and each time it happened, it just got harder for him to stand by completely helpless—he could not console her with just a hug when it was over. I am a coward. I need to find a way to stop him once and for all.
Seeing her fuming in frustration from being denied the right to be with her child made him cringe. Each step she took towards a distant stream as she walked each horse to drink seemed to get heavier and more intense. True to her birth sign, she had a temper that would cause her to lose all sight of reality when she was mad. Her only flaw—to him anyway—was that fire-temper. Without a moment’s warning it could ignite, shooting sparks around her until she had burned it out. I’d hate to see her and her twin go at it...they would probably scream so loud you could hear them on the Blue Star! He had begged her numerous times to just shut up when Gravitt was yelling at her...he had pleaded with her to hide her pride and just take it, but she never would, and she usually got a healthy beating for it. Until Darian came along...and Gravitt found a more disturbing way of controlling her...
He loved her. He had told her that once, and knew what the response would be. In another time, another place...she would love him too, but not with Darian...she might have risked her life for him, but not her son’s life. He understood this, but it still hurt him. Thinking about her always made him wonder with a bit of distress—even if they could be somewhere else, how could he love her? He could never touch her, never kiss her, never show his affection other than a careful hug. Loving from afar...even when she is so near. A soft sigh escaped his lips before he could stop it. In a brief moment of panic he looked about to see if any of the others, especially Gravitt, might have heard it...
Sabre returned with Matze then, riding her back to the camp with no saddle or bridle—just gripping the mare’s light gray mane and letting her legs relax at the animal’s sides. He softly called to her, “Look at you—you’ve got a pretty gray horse between your knees and no reins to hold onto.” She smiled at him as she dismounted gracefully, landing without even disturbing the ground under her soft boots. Her hands working out of habit, she slipped a lead over Matze’s neck and tied her with the others for the night. He had gotten that horse for her—he had won it in a hand of cards with a drunken mage in a nearby town some six months past. The high and mighty Vanetian didn’t hold his liquor so well, and he might have felt guilty for taking advantage of the man if Sabre hadn’t loved the animal so much. Quite a pair, they are...I was a bit surprised when Gravitt let her keep the horse, though.
He approached her, his brown eyes twinkling. “Darian is all right. Let’s go for a walk. Gravitt won’t know.”
She looked at their master’s tent with concern and then back at him. “I still have to water Philip’s horse.”
“Then I’ll go with you.”
She smiled a little. “All right. But let’s not be obvious about it.”
She led the dark brown horse and he took her free hand as they walked towards the stream. He seemed to be thinking out loud as he said, “We’re going to Vane. The most respected mages and wizards in the world are said to live there, as well as two of the Heroes. Maybe someone there can help you... with your...” He paused, unable or unwilling to finish his statement.
She nodded—barely. “I’m sorry my Gift frightens you. I would be lying if I said it didn’t scare me, too.”
“I worry about it, yes, but it does not make me want to run away from you. I just worry about all that Gravitt has you do—if it doesn’t have some bizarre side-effect.”
She gazed out into the distance, “I can’t believe he’s making me pretend to be his sister-in-law. I wonder why he chose this relation...I could have easily been another trader.”
“I don’t know. He’s up to something. He wants you to wear your colors,” he said as he placed the ribbons in her hand.
She looked down at them quizzically and held them to him. “Can you put them back in for me?”
He smiled. He could at least touch her hair. Gently, as she let the horse drink, he separated three tendrils of her locks and expertly wove the ribbons into it. She closed her eyes, and he knew she was enjoying what little touch he could give her.
Thunder rattled in the distance, and rain began to fall. He watched her as she looked above—he knew why she did—she was looking to see if it was one of her brother’s creations. Her brother—The Storm Child. She had told him tales of the two of them in the past and he had enjoyed hearing of her life before her capture. She was so happy back then...but I guess we all were...
He had asked her once if she knew where her brother was, and she replied she did not even know if he was still alive, but she would always try and feel him in the storms. Once, when they had a rare moment to be alone together, she had told him of that horrific night when their camp was attacked, and she surrendered. The Setin tribe had come (like so many others) looking for her and her brother—The Death Child and The Storm Child—as they were known on the Prairie, infamous for the strength of their Gifts. She had told him of the horror she saw when she exited the tent—her parents, her friends, and all of her tribe lay dead before her. A man on a horse pointed at her and shouted as she held up her hands. In a gruff voice full of adrenaline and rage over the fight the village had put up, daring not only to resist but actually kill so many of his warriors, he demanded to know where The Storm Child was. She pointed at a body on the ground—her friend, Kuna. He looked like Ashu a bit—same age, same build, and dark hair. The man on the horse leaned down and scooped her up, shouting curses at followers for their sloppiness in killing one of the prizes they had come to claim. Then, he gave the order to torch the village, and as she was dragged away, she had been forced to watch in tearful silence as her tent burned down—with Ashu still inside.
Brinson had shook his head in sadness and sympathy when she told him the story, but as he pet her hair that night, he had told her that he admired her bravery in surrendering. Like her, the Setin had come for him, but his parents had readily handed him over—he was too much of a danger to them, the tribe and himself with his Gift that earned him the name The Quake Child. Not as romantic as her capture, but effective nonetheless.
Handing him the horse’s lead, and dragging him out of his mundane memories, she began to dance in the rain, giggling. She had, to her own surprise, emerged as a talented dancer, and found she could even carry a decent tune. Together, with his lute and soft tenor voice, the two of them would work the taverns of the places they visited. Also, to make money, they would bet on cards or their horses. Since Gravitt never introduced them as slaves (there was always a cover story—usually that they were trusted associates, bodyguards and sometimes servants) he did not mind these extra-curricular activities—as long as it did not interfere with his business, and as long as they gave him a cut of the profits.
Slowly at first, and with flawless rhythm, she danced in time as the thunder sang behind them, her fire-hair swirling about in the wind and engulfing her head. Her soft suede boots whispered across the wet grass as she danced, and the masculine clothes she wore—a beige tunic and pants—just added to the feeling that her head was on fire. He sighed to himself as he watched her; she would only Storm Dance for him—oh, just to be able to touch her, just once...
A symphony of perfect percussion played as she spun, each turn getting faster, each bolt of music adding another layer to the harmony. Her clothes were soaked, clinging to her body as she moved in time. Lifting her head back, she looked at the sky as if she was kissing it, waiting for the next chorus of flashes of white-yellow light, which directed the orchestra. One kiss...just once...I’d never let her go...
The storm grew closer, rain pelted them both, and the thunder played a crescendo behind her. A final strike of lightning shook from the sky, almost striking the narrow gap between them and in it’s brilliant flash, she appeared to glow as though transformed into Althena herself, delighting in the worship of the storm. She giggled as the air tickled around her from the static electricity, and breathlessly she danced towards him.
He couldn’t stand it any longer. He grabbed her waist and pulled her into his arms. He wanted to kiss her, to lay her down in the sodden grass and make love to her, but he would have to be content to just hold her, and careful not to touch her skin. “That was magnificent, Sabre.”
He knew she could feel the tension between them, and perhaps hoping to break it, to take their minds off each other, she whispered “It’s beautiful, but it’s not Ashu’s.”
A moment later he spoke, “We need to get back. We’ve got a long ride tomorrow. Vane is still two days away—no matter what Gravitt says.”
She sighed, but took his hand and followed him (and the horse) back to camp, to sleep at ease next to him under a blanket of raindrops and thunder.