From the author: A stowaway and thief, Enkid, doesn't know what to make of the caring Triloneans who find her after a shipwreck at sea. Has she escaped the claws of a sea monster only to stumble into a more insidious trap?
Wind thundered past the slats of the storage cabin. Hidden within a barrel of fish guts, the stowaway, Enkid, braced herself for lurching. But when the ship pitched sharply sternside, she knew it was no ordinary squall and sensed an opportunity. A storm this bad would force the captain out of his quarters despite his usual drunken stupor, letting her sneak in to filch the beveled, green-glass vial he often wore. It held hemlock tincture, a rare poison that could come in handy for someone in Enkid’s line of work. Someday, she might not find a boat on which to flee from Creftish guards and their immense gangmares, as she had done three days ago.
Enkid scrambled up the rope ladder to the deck, determined to make her way to the captain’s quarters near the gunwale before the storm burned itself out and the sailors noticed an extra head in their midst. Crewmen yelled at each other in the dimness of a crescent moon. Drenched with innards, it took Enkid a few steps to realize there was no rain. No more wind, either, until a clap rang out and a gust knocked her off her feet. A call came from sternside, resonant like a lion’s roar with a shrill undercurrent that raised her hackles.
Wings, immeasurable in the night sky, flapped, sending another flurry her way. Boards splintered and groaned where the creature landed. Its head, large as the fish gut barrel, cocked. Enkid felt its burning, inquisitive stare before it jabbed a clawed spur into the nearest crewman’s neck.
“A Laklor!” A shout rose up.
Panic spread through the crew, and Enkid heard screams and the splashes of men abandoning ship. She had no idea what a Laklor was and no intention of finding out. She dashed toward the captain’s quarters, more than mere opportunity spurring her speed now. Her ankle yelled from the landing impact after leaping through the cut-out square in the deck, but she pushed through the pain and broke the captain’s door lock with a swift down-punch.
The room was empty. Enkid climbed into a chest and pulled the lid over her head. Moments later, the captain stumbled inside the room, latching the heavy metal bar on the inside. He slid to the floor with a whomph, leaving his crewmen to fend for themselves.
Asshole. Drunkards had always disgusted her; sharp instincts were vital to survival. Snores filled the room, loud enough to hear over the continuing horror above. Enkid waited, biting down on a leather belt when her ankle throbbed. The ship rolled like a die over her fingers. The shouting died out, yet the captain’s snores continued. Except for a deepening lilt, the boat steadied. Still, Enkid bided her time. Only when water seeped into the chest and soaked her trousers did she open it.
The water lapped partway up the captain’s protruding belly. She’d have to be quick. Holding a rag over his mouth to stifle any noise, she plunged her dagger into his chest and twisted it. A dark stain spread over his burlap shirt while he struggled. When his body went slack, she unfastened the vial, lifted the moneybag on his belt, and returned to deck.
Feathers, longer than she was tall, lined the ship along with half-chewed fingers and kneecaps. The sharp tang of blood and the stench of emptied bowels reminded her of a moldering chicken coop, stinking worse than she after the entrails. Nothing moved; all hands had been thrown into the sea or torn to bits by the Laklor. Enkid did not wish to wait and find out if the Laklor would return to pick over its kill. Plus, the cold seawater would numb the throb of her ankle.
Enkid climbed the gunwale. A wind burst dropped her to her feet as wings flapped overhead. She held onto the rail with all the strength she had left. Searing pain engulfed her forearm as giant black claws sped past her peripheral vision. Before the Laklor could circle back, Enkid released her grasp.
Let the fates do as they will. The sea engulfed her.
Enkid woke coughing pink-speckled sand. Her matted, jade-colored hair shook as she tried to expel the salty mass in her mouth. There was too much, so she thrust her index finger between her lips and shoveled out the grains. Not until she could breathe did she feel shivers pulsing up and down her body. The breeze was icy and her clothes were wet. At least it muted her ankle pain.
From the dunes, a man approached on a horse almost as big as a gangmare. Too exhausted to wield her dagger, Enkid chose to play dead and pray the rider moved on quickly. She shut her eyes. When the horse was close enough that sand misplaced by his hooves pummeled her face, she took a deep breath and held it.
The muffled clip clop ceased.
“What do we have here, Nessa?”
The horse whinnied.
“Another shipwreck?” The man cupped his ear over Enkid’s mouth. “Not breathing.” He picked up her wrist. “But she’s warm.”
The ruse was over. Enkid gasped noisily for air and braced for the blow that would come. When it didn’t, she opened her eyes.
“You’re alive.” The man clapped his hands together. “Let’s get you to a healer.” His eyes were agate, his hair coral-colored, his skin warm clay, and he appeared . . . concerned?
Enkid was flummoxed. She was defenseless. He should have lopped off her head and taken the captain’s moneybag the moment he knew she was alive. This must not be Creftland. They’d sailed farther than she thought, which meant . . . Trilonea. A name whispered over ground fires, invoked as a banishment threat. Creftish people did not return from these lands.
“Here.” The man swaddled her in a blanket like a child, not a stranger. “Think you can make it to the guard station? It’s not far.”
My head must be full of seawater. “Wha–what?” She recoiled with pain; her throat felt speared by a thousand sea anemone spikes. She was thirsty, so thirsty. Her ankle and her forearm pulsed.
“Nessa and I will get you there. You aren’t bleeding much, but you need to be checked on the inside as well.”
He’s helping me, she realized. And his beast has a name. She mulled that over as he maneuvered her onto the horse. It was her last thought before the animal’s rhythmic pace lulled her back into unconsciousness.
Enkid woke dressed in an amethyst-colored shift and covered with a blanket of woven, dried seaweed. She grabbed at her neck, relieved to find the vial there, though the leather rope that held it was stiff from salt water.
A gate grated over packed sand, and she lunged upward at the sound. Blood rushed through her body like molten lava and exploded at her ankle. She cursed, knowing she couldn’t run and hide, not yet.
Peeking out the window, she watched two people approach the hut. One was the man who hadn’t killed her, dressed in a lightweight, beige kaftan and sandals. His female companion wore an emerald-toned shift and a white water dahlia on her arm.
The visitors reached the hut faster than Enkid could have sliced a man’s throat. Good, the distance to the gate is short. It would not be hard to escape when she was able.
The woman entered her room and smiled. “You’re awake. That’s good news.”
Enkid said nothing. Better to let her do the talking.
“Do you remember me?”
Enkid made no gesture.
“No, of course you wouldn’t. You’ve been asleep these past three days.”
Three days? The length of time surprised Enkid, but the dulled ache of her ankle confirmed it. Dark claws flashed in her mind, and she twisted her forearm around.
“Yes,” the woman kept her eyes on Enkid as she drew her finger over a crimson spot of puckered flesh on Enkid’s arm, “you have recovered speedily from your surface injuries. Vijuan must have found you soon after the accident--your skin had not frosted.”
The woman sat on the cot. “My name is Tera, and I have been with you daily, so you were not alone.” She placed a hand on Enkid’s shoulder, who tried not to shirk at the touch.
“I am a healer,” Tera paused, “and a matchmaker.” She cocked her head toward the man, Vijuan, who grimaced. “The two fields are one here.” Tera rested Enkid’s arm on the blanket. “Would you share your name with us?”
“Filor.” Her mother’s name rolled easily off her tongue. Giving her own was no option. What if word got back to the Creftish guards? There may be other survivors who’d seen her stealing across the deck. She was not safe here.
“What a lovely name.” Tera took Vijuan’s hand, pulled him closer to the bed. “We would like you to take Vijuan as your bedmate when your body is well. He is especially suited for your needs and you for his.”
Enkid laughed. She hadn’t found anyone “suited” for her in her thirty-four years. She’d swallow this Vijuan whole.
He groaned but smiled as he spoke. “I do hope you’ll stay with me.” His voice was rich, confident, as it had been when he’d found her. “If only so we can prove Tera wrong together.”
He winked then addressed the matchmaker. “I think this is enough for now. She’ll decide what she wants to do.”
Tera nodded, and the two of them left. Enkid counted one . . . two . . . three . . . four strides to reach the gate. Not far at all, she thought, taking in the room. It was small, consisting of a bed and chair where her dagger lay along with the captain’s moneybag, sandy and coated with crusted sea foam. If these people hadn’t already robbed her, they likely wouldn’t now--Triloneans were stranger than the stories of them.
She counted the coins, more than she’d ever possessed at one time. Might be worth it to risk home again. She knew a pair of gamblers, half-blind old men who spent every cent they earned distilling liquor on her dice games. Could she stay out of sight of the guards?
Enkid fell asleep running sleights of hand in her mind.
She needed time. Time for her ankle to heal. Time to decide where to run once she could. And Vijuan offered her that. In his return trips to the healing hut, he’d laughed off the matchmaker’s attempts to get Enkid to speak. Yet he ended each visit with one question: “Will you stay with me when you are well?”
Once the mark disappeared from her arm and she could handle her ankle with light grimaces, Enkid said yes. She needed time, and if the man was dimwitted enough to trust her in his dwelling, why shouldn’t she take advantage?
So they walked, Vijuan gathering wood from the shipwreck and leaving it in piles as they traversed the few miles down the shore to his home. The small smile he had given at her assent remained on his face, though she had not spoken again, merely followed him at a polite distance. She knew no men like him in Creftland.
“You will want to work on that scowl,” he said.
Enkid colored at her negligence in schooling her features, not realizing he had stopped.
Vijuan laughed, then stroked her cheek so briefly, she barely registered it before he went on ahead again. Another log clunked hollowly as it joined a pile of driftwood. “The Triloneans will wonder if you are adjusting. Most people do, in time, but still, they will wonder.”
“I am not the first shipwrecked person here?”
“Oh, no.” He met her eyes with a twinkle. “You may have noticed the Laklor?”
She shuddered. “How do you feel safe with it so near?”
He shrugged. “It is no danger to us.”
“No danger? That creature nearly took my arm off.” Enkid spoke more passionately than she’d meant to. The man’s easy manner caught her off guard. She needed to be careful around him.
His brow raised. “That’s another thing you’ll want to avoid making the Triloneans overly aware of, that it targeted you. Perhaps you raise too many warning flags. Time will tell.”
Unnerved she’d said too much, she let him get a few paces ahead. But she had to better understand him if they were to share such close quarters. “Why are you so willing to house me if I am as hopeless as all that?”
“You are my bedmate.” His eyes lit up with mischief as she matched his stride. “Or so Tera would have us believe.”
He slid his hand into hers, and she found she did not wish to pull away.
“I will require that you stop wearing that dagger, though.”
Always a catch. Her fingers went to where it hung on the mesh belt underneath her dress. “It reminds me of who I am. When I feel the dagger’s weight, I know I am safe.”
“When I feel its shadow on you, all I know is the blood and viscera it’s touched.”
“What would you know of such things here, if you are as peaceful as you claim?”
“Who said I was from here?” Vijuan dropped her hand to gather more wood, leaving her in stunned silence. Maybe they were more akin than she had thought.
“And what should I do with my dagger? Toss it in the sea?”
“If you like,” he called back. Something drew his gaze toward the water. “But leaving it in the house will suffice.”
Enkid stumbled to the sand, fear enveloping her. Her eyes focused in on a dark, shifting oblong far off on the horizon, circling.
“Filor.” Warm arms wrapped around her, combed fingers through her hair. “You are safe here with me. I promise you that. The Laklor will not hunt us.”
“Okay, I will leave the dagger beneath our bed,” she promised, wanting to believe his words. The Laklor was a threat she could not control.
She felt his smile in the lips that pressed against her forehead and the hand that brushed sand off her skin. Soon, Vijuan led her up a walkway of packed sand toward his home hidden within pink dunes. The Laklor had disappeared.
Inside, Enkid made a show of depositing her dagger beneath the bed. What did it matter? She still had the hemlock at her neck. And time.
Trilonea did have its benefits. Her mornings were spent guiding a sniffer, a beast that hugged the ground and wriggled its foot-long, scale-covered snout to suss out roots and berries from the meadows. Her afternoons were consumed with Vijuan, relaxing inside or in the shade of a dune during the hottest hours of summer that came upon them. She had never slept with just one man for longer than a fortnight before. But she grew to appreciate the familiar lines of his body and the scent of his skin, of almonds and wet sand.
“What do you dream about?” Vijuan stirred beside her one such afternoon. He’d fallen asleep after sex, which would have been fatal had they been in Creftland. Here, Enkid picked pink specks from his hair while staring out at the beach. One month and there had been no other survivors, not a body washed onshore. She felt safe among these people who claimed companionship more rewarding than wealth. The flutter she felt when thinking of Vijuan was almost enough to believe it true. But a life spent hungry and scheming and running gave her little trust in good fortune.
“Times past,” she answered.
He was too distracted rooting around in his bag to respond. A moment later, he opened cupped palms to reveal a water dahlia armband. It shone like a ruby-studded brooch in the sun.
“Would you wear this tonight? I plan to give thanks at the Balancing.”
She nodded. It would be her second Balancing since arriving in Trilonea. The townspeople gathered monthly to share their appreciation for each other and what life had given them. She’d find it inane, if it weren’t so . . . so charming.
Vijuan bound the flower band to her forearm, over where the Laklor’s deep gash had once been.
“What will you give thanks for?” she teased. “The clear sky? A new caftan?”
He whispered in her ear, “For you, Filor.”
Her cheeks colored with flattery and shame, the latter a new emotion for her. She could not trust him with her real name--did the shame mean she wanted to? She threw a handful of sand at him to hide her blush, which he threw right back with a chuckle.
They rinsed off in the ocean, the water brisk but warmer now than it had been when the waves had tossed her onto shore. Enkid roasted azure-toned tubers for supper while Vijuan swept the hut’s floor. The vegetables oozed a viscous liquid a shade darker than their flesh. She took a moment to breathe in their floral scent. Cooking and feeling the texture of food between her fingers were pleasures she’d never felt back home, all her meals bought in a tavern and scarce resembling anything but mush.
“It’s ready,” she called. They sat outside, pausing to offer a bite to the ground as was his custom. A rodent banded with orange and tan stripes snatched the offering before they finished the meal.
At nightfall, they walked to the Balancing, hand-in-hand. It was so simple, this new life of hers. So easy to feel content and calm. The townspeople had assembled at the Black Pillar, a craggy obelisk whose top disappeared into the dark sky around it. The bonfire’s warmth drifted her way, soaking into her skin. Her hair would smell of ash tonight.
“Welcome, VijuanFilor!” The people greeted them, combining their names as one. Vijuan led her to a tree stump, brushing off insects with pearlescent shells. A few more families trickled in, and Tera hushed the giggling children.
“Let me share with you my thanks tonight for Masi, my lifemate,” Tera said.
A woman Enkid recognized from the meadows rose at the name, but she stumbled when a rush of wind filled the air with a rancid stench. A shadow spread over the group as a nasal bray sounded.
Enkid dove for the bushes, praying this was one of her vivid nightmares. Insects tickled her skin, but she dared not shake them off.
Under the darkness of wings, Tera clasped her hands together. “The Laklor has seen fit to grace us with its presence!” The children jumped to their feet to cheer. Necks craned skyward, and people lifted their arms, standing on tiptoe as though they could reach the monster circling the obelisk.
Are they insane? Claws clicked against the Black Pillar as the Laklor roosted on its tip. Something grasped Enkid’s wrist and she stifled a scream.
“The Laklor is a sign of great fortune,” Vijuan whispered as he guided her out from her hiding place. “It is an honor to have it appear at a Balancing.”
She shook her head fiercely. “I’ve seen the honor it can do. It will kill us all.”
“No.” He placed a hand over her shaking one. “It harms only those it finds lacking. Triloneans do not fear it.”
“It harmed me.”
“And you’ve healed. Have you not?”
The monster fluttered its wings closed, and the moon returned, dimming the bonfire’s glow.
Vijuan flicked the vial at her neck, and she gasped. “Only you can know how hard you cling to what you were before, Filor,” he chided. “If you’re here, truly here with us, you are safe.”
He caressed her cheek before sitting. Enkid took in the complete lack of fright on the townspeople’s faces as they chattered with pleased amazement. The creature preened on its perch, making soft clicks. She tried not to gag at the smell. Vijuan rubbed her shoulder.
“Let us return to our thanksgiving.” Tera took her lifemate’s hand. “Masi gave me a berry from her morning forage. I bit into it, and the sweet juice delighted me. My thanks, my love.”
Both women sat down, eyes only for each other. The crowd murmured its pleasure before falling silent, mulling over whom or what they might offer as praise. When Vijuan stood, Enkid felt the heat of the Laklor’s jacinth gaze, and considered fading into the shadows. But once she heard his voice, the desire to flee lessened.
“Let me share with you my thanks for Filor, our rescued traveler and my well-chosen bedmate.”
She rose in acknowledgment, though her throat tightened when the bird made a harsh trilling sound. Clumps of feather fluff spiraled down like dandelion heads.
“She is a blessing to me,” Vijuan’s face flickered orange from the fire’s flame, “a partner in sleep and wake. She has taken my life alone and made it full of her. I give thanks for the match,” he bowed in Tera’s direction, “and thanks to Filor for rising above the talon’s prick.”
The wound healed itself, Enkid considered, the necklace hanging heavy against her skin. I had naught to do with it.
Vijuan raised one hand toward the Laklor as though thanking it also, then braced himself against the pillar, breaking off one of its jagged spires. Enkid’s eyes widened at what Vijuan’s action exposed: a glowing hollow full of jewels. The obelisk’s slick surface liquefied around the cavity, creating a viscous slime that filled it and hardened.
Vijuan held out the rock spire for her to take. All thoughts of the monster above them fled. She stared at the broken spire agape. Black opals covered its fragmented edge, their iridescence a swirling mix of mother of pearl, amethyst, and garnet flecks in an obsidian sea.
Vijuan kissed her while the crowd babbled its approval, but Enkid’s mind weighed the rock, not his lips on hers. She’d never held such a fortune.
“To you, Filor, my thanks,” he said.
She regarded the smiling Triloneans with new respect. Do they know how rich they are? The chunk held enough jewels to keep Enkid provisioned for life. Imagine what she might do, what life she could make for herself in Creftland if she broke off just a few more. She leaned into Vijuan’s arms, taking care not to glance at the obelisk too lustily. But she kept one hand on her rock while a child gave thanks for an orange as big as a rabbit and passed slices around. When the Laklor left, Enkid could not say.
That night, Vijuan asked if she liked her gift, and she threw her arms around his neck and yanked him down for an extended thank you.
“Perhaps you are becoming Trilonean.” His fingers marched down her hip. “It is customary to give part of the Pillar to whom you wish to pledge your life. Bedmates have always done so when they were certain their matches would work. I hope you feel the same as I, Filor.”
He played with the dahlia on her arm. “Stay with me always. I cannot imagine life without you.”
“I don’t know what to say.” Though she could not see him in the dark, she could picture the look he gave, his eyes soft and smile easy. It made her feel things she did not know how to explain. Things she might want in another life. Things she did not believe this one held. But a tangible fortune that fit in the palm of her hand and would provision her most her days? That she could believe in.
“Will you stay with me?” His hand brought pleasure and comfort, but she felt something else, too, a craving that had burned ever hotter these last few hours.
“Yes,” she lied, wishing she knew another way to be, but knowing there was none for her. She was Creftish, and Trilonea was forbidden ground. She understood that now.
Enkid pressed herself against Vijuan, saying goodbye with her body while being grateful the act also passed as hello.
The next morning, she rose to find Vijuan gone and a bouquet of gavol buds in his place. The paper-thin seed pods resembled silver-dusted lanterns in the sunlight. They brought a smile to her lips but paled in comparison to the rainbow of colors emanating from her jewels. She slung her foraging sack on her back, not so large to be noticed but big enough to make her richer than she’d ever thought possible. Desire sped her actions. Her rock went in first, then the cloth-wrapped bundle of food Vijuan left for her each morning. Her dagger came out from under the bed, and she tied it onto her belt where it belonged. Then she left for the meadows, knowing no one would miss her until afternoon if she reported there first. She waited long enough for the other foragers to disappear from sight. Her hand lifted to pat the sniffer goodbye, but she laughed off the impulse. It’s only a beast.
She kept a casual pace as she passed Triloneans working off-path who averted their eyes or clucked tongues in seeming disappointment. Enkid banished the worry to stay calm. If they knew I was about to rob them, surely they would stop me, not scowl. The obelisk’s zenith loomed higher each step. She walked into its shadow and jabbed the dagger into it, prying fist-sized pieces off. Each time, the emerald and pink tourmaline glints from the opals merely made her want more. The clink they made as she tossed them in the bag brought immense satisfaction.
Stopping felt like sacrilege, but when the sack was full, she did. The black ooze that seeped over each new hole also encased her hands. She didn’t have time to rub it off; she wanted to be well east before Vijuan came home. The sack’s weight would slow her down, but she wouldn’t take a single shard less. She had earned them, spending weeks among these people with nothing to show for it. Her heart ached when she thought of Vijuan, but her mind cleared when she peered into the sack. She could buy the affection of a hundred men like him with those stones.
Enkid headed east, picking her way through branches and scratchy bushes to avoid the paths. Her hands itched, so she flexed her fingers. The hardened black slime cracked, exposing a dusky coloring on her skin beneath it. Far off, the Laklor’s call sent shivers up her spine, but it was too distant for it to have noticed her. Another boat keeping it at bay, she hoped.
The sun had been set a couple hours before Enkid thought it safe enough to stop and eat the rye crackers and candied tangerines Vijuan had packed for her. She walked through the night, shifting the sack from shoulder to shoulder as the weight of it wore a groove in her skin. A moldy smell followed her as she went, and she cursed the wet forest floor.
Early the next morning, she spotted a man fishing a small pond. He wore a golden caftan, but more importantly, he was alone. This far from Vijuan’s village, no one would know who she was, and she needed an idea of how to pace herself. Besides, the dagger on her belt and hemlock at her neck were all the protection she needed for one man.
“Excuse me,” she said as she reached him. He smiled in response. “I’m on my way to Creftland. Could you tell me how much farther it is?”
His expression changed to one of censure, and he glanced at her hands before she could hide them. “Nobody returns there. Why would you want to?”
An excuse leapt to her lips about a sick mother, but she suppressed it. Lying produced more traps than it avoided. “Please, I need to know.”
He pointed off to the side of the road. “It’s only half a league from here, but there is no path. No Trilonean roads lead there.”
“Thank you,” she said, keeping her anger in check at his insolence. “Thank you so much.”
All this time, I’ve been only a day’s journey from home? As soon as he was out of sight, she kicked up her feet and ran despite the heavy sack. Energy pulsed through her body, anticipation propelling her forward. She was so close to what she’d always wanted, to the security only prosperity could provide.
There was no sign, but when her foot struck the ground in Creftland, she knew. The woods dimmed and a concentrated rot stifled the air. Enkid shook off the oppressive feeling. She’d made it back! Now she needed to stay out of sight, find a good hiding place for most of the stones, and start amassing more riches with the rest.
It took a few steps more to realize her shoulders did not ache. She swung the sack around. It was light--far too light--and slack. Her arms shook as she inspected it, finding no holes. All the anticipation drained out of her like blood from a headless fowl. Panic rose as she forced her blackened hands to loosen the tie and peered inside.
Empty. Nothing but fine, pink-speckled sand and a few chunks of hardened slime. No rocks, no gems. She turned the sack inside out, grabbed at its edges, but they weren’t there. The black opals were gone.
She tossed the bag away and felt ill, fell to her knees and yelled, a hollow, gurgling sound she regretted as soon as she felt a lashing wind at her back. Whether the rumble came from the pounding hooves of Creftish gangmares or the flapping of heavy wings, she did not care. Enkid closed her eyes and tried not to breathe.
This story originally appeared in Dark Luminous Wings, Pole-to-Pole Publishing.