Saturday, September 27, 2014

Beyond Price, conclusion, short fiction by Rebecca P Minor

Part V
Part VI
The wee hours of the morning wore on, and Veranna’s cheek bounced against her father’s back, since the strength to hold her head up another moment had left her long ago. The horse they rode grew slower and slower, tripping more often. They splashed through a shallow brook at a plodding trot, and the water spattered Veranna’s face with cold spray. She flinched but did not lift her head. How odd to be clutching a virtual stranger so closely, and yet at the same time, to feel more at home than she could ever remember. If only the fierce tingle harassing her skin would abate, she could almost be comfortable. Drift to sleep, even.
Her father reined the horse to a stop once they had put the stream behind them. “Veranna,” he whispered.
“Yes.” Veranna grimaced. In the time her swollen lips had gone unused, they had stiffened. Were any of her teeth loose? In all the commotion, she had failed to check.
“Let us see to your hurts and put you in some proper travel clothes, now that we have put some distance between ourselves and the caravan.” Veranna’s father bent his knee to his chest and pulled his foot over the horse’s neck, then worked his other boot free of the stirrup and hopped to the ground. He reached up and took her by the waist. When he slid her from the saddle, she eased gently to the ground, and her father showed no sign of the slightest strain in lowering her. His ageless face bore no lines of weariness in the wan glow of the setting moon.

Veranna rubbed her forearms.
Her father quirked an eyebrow. “Cold?” He pulled Veranna’s pack from the cantle of the saddle and unbuckled it.
“A little. But I think there’s something else wrong with my skin. It tingles.”
A bright smile broke across her father’s face like the sunrise over a plain. “You can feel my presence. I knew it.”
Veranna looked at him sidelong. “I’m sorry?”
“You’re a sensor, my daughter. A most useful skill, though in places where you find more recipients of the Maker’s gifting, it can get to be a bit of a nuisance.” He handed her a pair of riding trousers. After she had taken them, he closed his eyes and took a series of long breaths.
A sensation like the warm stroke of a hand ran down her arms, her legs, and over her trunk. In its wake, the tingling vanished.
Her father opened his eyes. “Better?”
Standing with the trousers in one hand and jaw slack, Veranna said, “Yes. Completely. How did you know?”
Her father clenched his hands and paced in a quick circle. His countenance beamed. “I have so much to teach you. Finally!”
Veranna shook her head. Would she spend the coming years of her life in a constant battle to have any idea what this elf was talking about? “What’s a sensor?”
“You are too weary for the full explanation,” her father said. “But in brief, you have the ability to perceive whether someone you meet has been gifted as a vessel of Creo’s power.”
Veranna bit her lip. “Creo?”
Her father sighed. “My, we do have work to do.”
Veranna’s shoulders sagged. She pressed the heels of her hands into her eyes. “I’m so overwhelmed.”
“I know,” her father said, his voice smooth and calming. He laid a palm on her cheek.
At first, the contact was soothing, and Veranna closed her eyes. Like a smack across the face, the image of Veranna’s mother dangling from the gypsy caravan gallows slammed into her mind. She staggered back from her father.
“What is it?” he asked.
Somewhere to the northeast, a hound bayed.
“I—I don’t know.” Veranna’s stomach heaved, but thankfully, what little might have been in it stayed down.
More barking joined the first bay. Veranna’s father squinted to toward the sound. “For all my efforts, they’re tracking us. On the horse, Veranna.”
She corralled tears of utter weariness. Bodini’s hounds had never been known to lose their quarry. The lands around them rose and fell in knolls covered in course grass hardy enough to endure the sandy soil, and the few acacia trees that dotted the landscape offered only a mockery of concealment. Veranna grasped the saddle, and her father hoisted her into it. In a light spring, he landed behind her.
The barking intensified, and the rumble of hoof beats joined it.
Veranna’s father drove his heels into the horse’s barrel, and the mount leapt forward. They galloped for perhaps a dozen strides when the horse screamed and its hindquarters buckled. In a blur of wrenching and confusion, Veranna’s father enveloped her in a bear hug and hauled her from the horse’s back. The beast crashed to the ground, and enclosed in her father’s limbs, Veranna rolled clear of the fallen mount.
An arrow stuck deep in the horse’s right hindquarter, and dark blood pulsed from the wound.
“Stay low!” Veranna’s father commanded. He jumped to his feet and swept his long blade from the scabbard. Another arrow whistled in, and he cut it from the air with a blurred arc of his blade.
Veranna caught sight of the archer riding on the left flank of the approaching horses, who reached over his shoulder for another arrow. She scrambled to her feet in a flurry of flinging sand and dove in front of her father. The archer set the arrow to the nock. Veranna stretched tall, grimaced, and closed her eyes.
“Stop! Don’t shoot,” a familiar voice boomed from the approaching cluster of horses. “I will not risk that you hit her.”
Despair crushed Veranna. She was a fool to ever hope she would escape Bodini. She never should have entertained the idea when the first coin hit the performance stage. The caravan master’s three bloodhounds paced restlessly and growled, lips drawn back from ragged teeth.
Bodini and three more gypsies slowed their horses to a walk. Bodini’s twin bodyguards served as two members of the hunting party, and the archer, Veranna could not name.
“Ryathil, one-time thievery was offense enough,” Bodini said. “But twice you steal what I desire above all else? Is time you suffer.” He turned to his companions. “Take him.”
The three gypsies in tow leapt from their foaming horses.
“Veranna, get out of the way!” Ryathil cried.
Instead, she spun and grappled her father. “Bodini won’t let them cut through me.”
“They can still stab me in the back,” her father said. “Now give me room.”
Indeed, the three gypsies ran an arc around them to approach from her father’s rear. Veranna staggered to the side, broke through the cluster of dogs, and made a frantic search for any advantage. What did she know about sword fighting?
Veranna’s father braced his stance, but showed no sign of fear or hesitation. In a surreal swiftness of motion, he parried all of their attacks, even though to Veranna’s eye, they seemed to fall simultaneously.
The elf spun, kicked, parried, thrusted, and slashed with such precision and fury that two of his attackers had lost sword arms before they could even bring their weapons around for another advance. They collapsed, and their screams rent the pre-dawn quiet.
The third gypsy, however, one of the bodyguards, grabbed Veranna by an arm and wrenched it behind her. He pressed the edge of his sword to her throat.
Bodini whistled through his teeth, and the dogs turned on the elf, barking and snarling.
Veranna’s father froze. After a slow backward step from the bodyguard and Veranna, he pushed the tip of his sword blade into the earth. The dogs simmered to low growls, but their hackles still stood on end.
“Get away from my property, elf,” Bodini said.
“I am prepared to pay any price you would set for her,” Veranna’s father responded.
Bodini sneered. “There’s no price—not from your purse.” He turned a hard expression to Veranna, “My succulent queen, you are now coming back with me.”
“Which is it?” Veranna said. “Am I a queen or am I property? You can’t have it both ways.”
“Because you are still young, I forgive for not knowing what you say,” Bodini growled. “Do not test limits of my gentleness with even you.”
Tears burned Veranna’s eyes. “What good is it to be a queen of people who hate you, one and all?”
Bodini shot a dark smirk at Veranna’s father. “Hate you? You think you would escape such thing by following this philandering pirate? You would learn true meaning of scorn among his people. To them, you are less than nothing. A half-elf among Celevonese? If they do not turn you away at gate, they spit on you in every street.” Bodini dismounted his horse and advanced on Veranna with ponderous strides. “There is only pain for you on this road. Come back by choice. Be my beautiful bride. Salvage this life your parents have left in such ruin.”
Veranna clenched her teeth. Certainly, she did not know what was ahead, but Ryathil wanted better for her than did Bodini. He must.
“Don’t you want your mother to be free?”
Veranna gasped. She closed her eyes against a recollection of her momentary vision, the gruesome display that had flashed before her mind’s eye just before they had heard the hounds. Try as she might to dismiss it, the image throbbed in her mind, refusing to be ignored. Prickling, sharp as knife points, ran from her head to her toes. A resigned disgust swelled in her chest.
“It’s too late for that,” Veranna whispered. She glared straight into Bodini’s excrement-brown eyes. “She’s already dead. Did you have the decency to cut her down before you left? Or did you leave her for the crows and buzzards like you do all the other examples you string from the gallows?”
Bodini paled. “Is lie. Did he convince you of this?” He jabbed a finger at Ryathil.
Her father’s eyes bulged. His look of shock surpassed the caravan master’s.
“No, Bodini, he said nothing of the sort,” Veranna blinked slowly. “I am a seer. I know it to be true beyond any doubt the words of men could cast.”
Bodini cleared his throat. “Well, will be one less shock for you to get over, I suppose. Khaldun, put her on my horse.”
“As you wish, Master Bodini.” The bodyguard shoved Veranna forward, the kiss of steel still at her throat. She craned as much as she dared to send her father a look of desperation. Would he do nothing? Had he spent forty years planning, only to give her up so quickly, even with as swiftly as he killed the other guards?
He met her glance with a countenance where no shock remained, replaced by oddly placid expression. He then ducked his chin in an almost imperceptible nod, not to her, but to Khaldun.
Khaldun ushered Veranna past Bodini, who folded his arms across his chest and sneered at her father. “You have failed in all . . .”
When Veranna reached the horse’s stirrup, the blade left her throat. Khaldun leapt back toward Bodini.
“Your daughter is mine. Return to your ship knowing—”
Khaldun’s short sword drove into Bodini’s back. The hulking caravan master staggered forward. Veranna clapped her hands over her mouth and stifled her scream.
Her father lunged forward, wrenched his blade from the earth, and swung it for Bodini’s neck. Veranna buried her face in the horse’s saddle blanket. A gasp, a series of gurgles, and a thump followed, and Veranna shuddered. Her heart was empty of rejoicing, even in the end of so great a villain.
When she did open her eyes, Khaldun and her father clasped arms.
“I am in your debt for being my eyes these many years,” her father said. “When Bodini brought the archer, I’ll admit I entertained some worry.”
“Your daughter is a brave girl,” Khaldun said. “Or foolish. Not sure which.” He laughed for a moment, but then his expression drooped. “I only wish my brother had not grown so blind. I still mourn to lose him, even as wretched as he had become.”
Their conversation faded from Veranna’s attention as she sunk to the ground, numb and exhausted beyond thought. The next thing she knew, her father had scooped one arm under her knees and the other around her shoulders. She leaned into his chest and let the sobs break loose.
“Come, my precious one,” he whispered. “I must help Khaldun with the dead, for even corpses deserve some dignity. You will sleep, and when you wake in the morning, this nightmare will be over. Forever.”

Veranna stood at her father’s side, high on a rocky ridge, and drank in the sights across the misty expanse between their vantage point and the towering peak a handful of miles distant. Lofty cedars reached to a sky blushing with sunrise. The light of dawn reflected from the thousands of eastward windows in the architecture that circled the mountain in a stately march. Her feet ached and her pack made her shoulders stiff, but it was worth it.
“It’s just like the city I would see when I was a child.” Veranna gaped. “Except more amazing.”
Father took her hand. “You have seen this place? What do you mean?”
“When I danced,” Veranna replied. “Sometimes I would envision a place just like this, and other times, a ship on the sea.”
Father’s eyes glistened. “Across all those miles, through all these years, you heard the cry of my heart. Astounding.” He whispered, “Gratiserra, Creo.”
“I don’t understand.” Veranna searched Father’s face.
“So often,” he said, “I thought of you, and I prayed the Maker would fill your mind with visions of hope—to sustain you through dark times. I always wanted you to know there was a bigger, more wondrous world waiting for you.”
“But what is it that is awaits me here, Father?”
With a shake of his head, he pulled Veranna close and pressed his lips to the top of her head. “Perhaps you can say better than me, prophetess of Creo.”

“Though I don’t have any foresight to guide me yet . . .” Veranna began the descent on the path that wound down from the ridge. “I’m pretty sure I’m going to grow a quick fondness for being free.”

Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this story, you might also like the other serial fiction stories and novels in The Windrider Saga. You can get them all via ebook to purchase, or read on Kindle Unlimited! See what Veranna ends up doing with her gift of prophecy, later in life:


4 comments:

  1. Oh yeah, this was such a good story! The PG 13 thing had me worried, but it wasn't so bad. Poor Veranna!

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    1. Since I often have teen readers (but don't technically write for teens,) I figured the caveat was better safe than sorry, you know? Since the subject matter of an aging man pursuing a teen might give people the willies, I went with the warning. But yeah...I'm pretty careful when it comes to warning people about content.

      I'm guessing a lot of people probably reacted with, "Psssssh. PG-13 content? Where?"

      Thanks for reading, Kessie, and I'm glad you enjoyed it. :)

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  2. This was great. And as a tantalizing carrot for The Windrider Saga, well, let's just say it worked!

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    1. Woo-hoo! Thanks for riding along all the way to the end with me.

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