Chapter nine: The Guardian
“They’ve been gone a long time,” Belladia observed, “and the rain doesn’t look like it’s going to let up anytime soon. I really hope they are alright.”
Nolle sneezed and shivered, which jarred his foot and his head. He labored to keep his breathing even and steady, because a coughing fit was the last thing he needed. “We haven’t heard any thunder for a while. They’re fine, I’m sure.” Even though with Xarthanias in charge you never know…Now he was worried. What if Xarthanias had decided to try something stupid and they had ended up in trouble? It couldn’t be that hard for him to get one of his imbecilic ideas in this miserable, logic-foiling weather. The shadows lived and moved and the thunder drowned out thoughts. Nolle kept hearing voices. He knew the shadows were probably animals looking for shelter, and the voices were most likely craziness due to the pain and chill, but he couldn’t help being wary. Instead of imagining what his brother could be trying to do at that moment, he tried instead to keep his distance from Belladia. She pressed her nose into his exposed neck again, and again he tried to subtly shift out of her reach.
The rain was a little colder than tropical, but sitting in it for nearly an hour wicked away their warmth. Their capes were thoroughly drenched, and since his served no purpose he used it to wrap his bow and quiver. His fingers were stiff and white, and he couldn’t stop shaking, which vibrated his foot painfully. The horses stayed motionless, keeping each other warm.
Was it wishful thinking, or was the sky beginning to lighten?
The wind had died down. Strands of Belladia’s long hair hung limply down her back. Even when she was soaking wet, dirty-faced, and scratched up from their dash through the woods, Nolle still found her impossibly beautiful.
She was silent once more, but Nolle could feel that something was pressing heavily on her mind. He groaned inwardly. Why was she so talkative all of a sudden, and cuddly? At a time like this? Was it the rain? Was she trying to drive him out of his mind? He waited, and finally she asked him: “I don’t know why Xarthanias is always so mad at me.”
Nolle didn’t reply. He didn’t know either. As long as he had known her, Belladia had been smart, beautiful, and kind. A true princess. What Xarthanias’s problem was with her, he didn’t know. His brother didn’t deserve her. Not at all.
“I don’t know what I did wrong, Nolle,” she went on. “I try to do everything for him, but sometimes I have no idea what he wants, and then my efforts have an opposite effect.”
He shrugged, cringing slightly at the pain in her voice. “My brother is hard to please.”
“Yes, but it can be more than that sometimes. It’s like nothing I do comes even remotely close to being enough, and I get so angry and sad, and then out of the blue he will be back to the way he used to be, but I’m too upset to appreciate it. And the cycle continues.” It was a long confession.
Unsure of what to tell her, he gazed at the dark trees. “But you love him, do you not?”
She blinked. “Love? I…suppose so. But I haven’t thought about it in a long time.” She pushed her wet hair away from her face. “Nolle?”
“What?” The uncertainty in her voice hinted at a weighted question, and Nolle’s heart faltered a moment as his imagination ran away with him.
“Do you sometimes worry, as I do, of what it will be like when he is king? I know that he isn’t even twenty yet and might grow out of his…ways, but for some reason I dread the day he wears the crown.”
Nolle wouldn’t call what he felt dread, exactly. More like a dull foreboding. Surely Xarthanias wouldn’t be so mischievous if he was busy with the responsibilities of being king…In the darkest, most secret part of his mind, Nolle almost wished that Xarthanias would make a horrendous mistake that would make his father think twice about crowning him King. To Nolle, Xarthanias’s self-centeredness and utter disregard for anyone other than himself took all kingly merit away; Nolle didn’t understand the technicalities of a Passing but it seemed Xarthanias possessed something that Nolle could not see. He just hoped, for the sake of the people of Despartus, that it was enough to keep them afloat in the years for which they may be doomed.
“Yes. Sometimes I do worry.”
They sat in silence at last, waiting and listening for signs of Chimley, Fredric, and their brothers. Nolle was quite certain the rain had stopped up above; though water still fell on them, he assumed it was just dripping off the leaves. Little by little, light crept shyly through the branches, inviting the birds to come out of hiding and strike up a song. All of this didn’t solve the problem that they were soaking wet and shaking like leaves.
“What was that?” Belladia sat up. “Osarius? Xarthanias? Is that you?”
Nolle was about to ask her what she was talking about it when the noise came again; a twig snapping on the ground, rustling leaves. A shadowy, humanoid figure passed through the trees just in front of them, disappearing a second later. Nolle squinted, trying to push the darkness aside. Whoever was out there had no essence. Somehow, it seemed, they didn’t even have a presence.
More movement, behind them now. He could even hear voices. Ribbon and Keana, Belladia’s horse, whickered, ears pinned back suspiciously. Nolle struggled to his feet and drew his bow and arrows to him. “Stay behind me,” he told Belladia, readying his weapon.
“Nolle, you’re injured! How are you going—“
“Who’s out there?” he called.
The murmurs stopped. Looking about, Nolle took an uncertain, hop-step forward, trying to see through the shadows of the trees. There, walking slowly toward them with his hands up in surrender, was a man. Belladia sucked in her breath and averted her eyes.
His frame easily surpassed six feet tall. He was dark-skinned, and had black hair longer than Nolle had ever seen on a man. What was most formidable about him was his attire, or lack thereof. He wore nothing but a strip with a piece of cloth hanging down around his waist and a quiver of arrows on his back. Loosely in his hand was a beautiful crafted bow of which Nolle was instantly jealous. In sky blue ink over his tanned chest, face and torso swirled patterns and dots like a painted canvas. His eyes were large and unblinking as he focused on Nolle and Belladia. Nolle could only grasp one explanation: Teideko tribesman. This man seemed to pose no threat to them, so Nolle lowered the dagger. Thegin Fin had an alliance between the people of Vaupen and the rallied Natives, after all.
“Who are you?” Nolle asked the man as an experiment to see whether he would understand. Lowering his hands, the man pointed to himself.
“Pgeden,” he said after a moment of concentration. The word was so strange that Nolle wasn’t sure if that was his name or the answer to another question entirely. Pointing at him and Belladia, Pgeden asked, “Cold?” Nolle nodded. Now that the sun was making an effort to shine through, Nolle could see that Belladia’s lips were blue.
“Wait,” said Pgeden, and ghosted away.
Nolle and Belladia glanced at each other. “Odd,” he said.
“Here, sit down.” With an arm around his shoulders she gently helped lower him to the ground. Pgeden returned only five minutes later with two leather blankets tucked under his arm. Lining them was thick, soft wool that one could sink one’s entre hand into. The leather cut the wind, and the wool sucked the water from Nolle’s hair and most of it from his cloak and trousers, though he would have to let those dry later. He gently unwrapped his frozen, swollen foot and buried his toes in the wool.
“Thank you, Pgeden, very much.” The tribesman bowed his head, smiling, and started to back into the woods. “Wait! Don’t you want these back?” Pgeden smiled again, putting his hands to his colorful chest and stretching them toward Nolle again.
“Chim-ley…friends. Pgeden, friends.”
Nolle blinked in surprise and the man was gone.