The Path Travelled - Part 8
part 7

Part 8 - the Eastern Surrachi Plains 

They left the outskirts of Yeppo with a caravan that had been taking shelter in another caravanserai. Together the two groups made for a formidable sight, a continuous line of camels, horses and ambulants snaking across the rocky terrain, moving ever North.

The road to Zaffre was long, around five hundred and fifty miles by Szigall’s count. Given an average pace and a lack of any obstacles that meant they would be on the road for anything up to thirty days. A long time, even by Chronicler’s standards. He’d been told that they would encounter a handful of settlements along the way, which would help break up the monotony.

Chronicler spent the first days flitting from group to group, hoping to come across any stories or backgrounds that were of interest. The new porters and guards hailed from Sûr Ghath and were not very talkative. Tsuri blamed a historical animosity towards his people though he did not go into details when pressed by Chronicler.

Though they’d travelled over three hundred miles since leaving Ras, Chronicler’s guess was that they had not even covered two degrees of latitude. Ras was just above the thirty-first degree and Yeppo lay somewhere between the thirty-second and thirty-third degrees. It seemed a paltry distance to have moved considering they’d been on the road for two months by that point, though it still surprised Chronicler how quickly the terrain sometimes changed.

The land had eschewed soil and sparse tree-cover for an altogether more rocky terrain that sloped steadily down to the west. Szigall had referred to it as a garigue. There were flowering plants, mostly bushes, with bees and butterflies flitting between them.

Trees clung to patches of soil, their roots cracking the rocks in their search for water. The sheer amount of roots protruding from the broken surface had slowed their progress to a crawl and they’d had to slaughter one of the horses after it tripped and broke its leg. They feasted on its meat and skinned it, keeping its hide. Chronicler had noticed Hadia stop to pray over the carcass before they’d carried on that day. By that point there had been not much left of it but for discarded bones. Everything else had been used.

On the third day they’d come across a group of slavers heading north with a column of pale ones behind them. Chronicler had grown excited, rushing to the slavers to ask them questions about the pale ones. Did they know anything about the group he’d encountered in Ras? He’d tried to describe the woman though it had gotten him nowhere. Where were they taking them? To a place called Kurda, about ten miles east of their route. And no, Sallan was not looking for a detour. Where had they found them? The northern-most reaches of the Salith.

The slavers had been evasive and were not looking for companions on the road and carried on, crossing the caravans in their search of bounty.

Some of the porters and guards, particularly those from the second caravan had avoided the pale ones, spitting on the ground in their wake. In many cultures, Tsuri explained, the pale ones were unclean and it was not auspicious to cross paths with them. That night they had prayed for longer than usual. So too did the Daazi.

The garigue had forked, creating two shoulders between which was a large overgrown depression, possibly the remnant of a sinkhole. It continued for some distance and they stopped along the edge, climbing down the side to make their fires and set up camp while the camels and horses were allowed to graze above. Chronicler and Mahr were sitting on the edge of the shoulder watching the others as they ate the last of the horsemeat.

It was a ritual of cleansing, with ashes from the fire and water playing an important role. One of the guards had assumed the role of a shaman, exorcising each of the others of the taint they had been exposed to. It was a sobering sight, and grim, reminding Chronicler of the traditions that bound men and women together. He remembered his conversation with Hadia in Yeppo, about religion and control. This was the perfect example of how religion acted as a form of control, if only psychological. Or at least it was only psychological to him and others who did not share the same faith. To those down there, eyes closed, arms raised in front of the fire, as the shaman daubed them in mud, it was something far different. Far greater than just a ritual.

Chronicler was watching the Blood Moon rising when he first noticed Hadia meditating. She was sitting alone, some distance from the rest of the group, her back to them.

It was only by chance that he’d come across her, while he was walking with one of the guards, sharing stories of the road. The guard, seeing the stranger alone made a warding sign with his thumb and forefinger and returned to the camp wordlessly, leaving chronicler alone, something that he noticed had become increasingly common over the past few days.

She was sitting cross-legged on a rug she had picked up from a meagre village they’d crossed days earlier. It had been little more than a collection of miserable cabins scattered around a shrine. It was the type of structure that might, if favourable conditions prevailed, one day grow into a church centred around a faithful town that in turn might sometime become a city-state, ruling over the surrounding land. But as things stood, it was just a shelter to those who saw need of that shrine.

Her hands lay limply on her knees, palms outwards, thumb and middle finger touching. Her hair was back in the tight plait Chronicler remembered from their first meeting. A burlap cloak, tattered and dusty, was slung over her shoulders. It was growing close to the summer solstice and though the days were slowly getting warmer, the nights remained cold. It was something that would remain so as long as they kept on retreating from the tropics deeper into temperate lands. Chronicler was huddled in a woollen blanket, itself a memento from the slum markets of Yeppo.

She is so still, he thought. Behind her the Blood Moon had risen to crown her head. The sound of crickets filled the air, as did the scent of plants he could not name, carried on every gust of wind that tugged at him, trying to pull him back south.

“I do not like this new habit you are forming,” said Hadia.

Chronicler stared, looked around, as though looking for somewhere to flee, though remained still.

“I can see you,” she said, turning around to look at him.

Her eyes caught the starlight and flashed white for a moment, but it was gone with a blink.

With a single motion she spun, legs uncrossing, and was standing, facing Chronicler.

“I was walking with Shehem, and he – ”

“Saw me and fled. You did not.”

Chronicler shrugged, and turned to leave.

“Don’t. I am done and, well… The night is large and empty.”

Chronicler didn’t know what to say.

“Care to continue walking?”

He fell into step beside her.

“I grow restless around others. My own thoughts are not always company enough.”

“Something else we differ on,” said Chronicler. “I cannot bear my own company. I would die if I was left in a room alone. I need other people to function properly. Seeing people around me, seeing them going about their lives, it gives me… I don’t know. Solace? No. Comfort, I suppose.”

“There is always safety in numbers.”

Chronicler shook his head, “No, it’s not that. It’s something in here,” he said tapping his chest. “I don’t know.”

She smiled. “I can be myself when I’m alone. With others around me I find I change, I try to accommodate them.”

“So this is not the real Hadia. You impostor. I demand to see the true loner, not this simulacrum of a woman!”

“You jest, yet it is not far from the truth.”

He nodded, still smiling. “I feel empty when I’m alone, like there’s something my own thoughts cannot fulfil. I need others to make me complete. That’s it, I think.”

“That’s dramatic.”

“That’s nothing.”

“You love stories, I have seen you chasing the others for their. Do you have none of your own? I am sure you have tales to tell.”

“Believe me I do. You don’t travel this far without running into trouble on occasion.”

“Funny. The itinerant man is said to be a man of peace.”

Chronicler had heard the legends. The Sammaean Mendicant, a philosopher who walked the land, burdening himself with the world’s woes so others could carry on with their lives. It was a noble tale, though not one that applied to him.

They continued in silence as they approached the camp.

“It is not good to feel hollow. A man must seek completion if he is to be himself. There is a rare breed of mortal who is shunned by others. We know them as nulls: men and women born without the spark of divinity that, ironically-enough, makes them truly mortal – with the promise of perhaps one day being reborn as an otherworlder. Neither the Shadow nor the Helix can see nulls.”

Otherworlder, though Chronicler. Over the past weeks the word had begun to carry more weight than it ever had. Even the last settlement they’d passed had heard the whispers of an otherworlder assembling armies.

He sighed, shook his head, his thoughts returning to the nomad’s words. He could not imagine a life lived without a soul. It must have been a grey life, he reasoned, to be missing the spark that made all others mortal. “Hard to imagine such a life.”

“They are more common than you might think, but do not worry, I doubt you are soulless,” she grinned.

“I’ll take that as a compliment,” he said.

“Well, it’s hardly an insult,” smiled Hadia.

After that talk Chronicler had little need to look at Hadia from afar. They walked and rode by each other when they could. Chronicler found her company refreshing – it was not every day that he had the chance to ride with a woman, and a nomad, at that. She had likely seen much of the Surrachi Plains and knew what life in the region was like. She had the stories and experience of men twice her age and none of the need for pomp that fuelled their boastings. On her part he suspected she felt a measure of trust that was not present whilst in the company of other men. At least that’s what he hoped.

Similarly, Mahr and Szigall had formed a rapport with each other and often rode alongside together, the sounds of their debates carrying across the plains, though they sounded more like arguments to Chronicler. A few days ago they’d almost come to blows, had it not been for the quick intervention of Tsuri and Sallan. Minutes later the two had been talking and joking again. It had been a conflict of cultural hero myths – someone Mahr had grown up worshipping as a cultural legend was regarded as a villain in Saviud, something Szigall had been keen on point out.

Chronicler was walking at the moment, after far too many hours atop a camel. Hadia was walking beside him. A couple of the porters were close-by, throwing her sidelong glances and wry smiles. She ignored them better than Chronicler ever could. It was just the way such ventures worked – women were an uncommon sight on the road, and those who did travel tended to be distrusted or accused of witchcraft or other strange arts that few in the region fully understood. A woman on the road was either fleeing something or a vagabond, whilst a man on the road was just doing his job. A somewhat unjust view, Chronicler had to admit, but there was little he could do about it. He had travelled enough to think nothing of seeing a woman in a caravan. There were cultures that followed matrilineal genealogies, or where women possessed titles of high-rank and prestige as commonplace, or that had adopted matriarchies. Naareth was such a place and was well-known in his homeland.

It was a nice day, warm, the sky a perfect blue that happened so rarely. It was bright, with no shade of grey to mar it but for the occasional wisp of cloud dragging itself south. The breeze, what little of it could be felt, was cool and blew welcomingly from the north.

The land had levelled off, the garigue giving way to open grassland with scattered trees, their leaves waxy and well-adapted to the dry summers. They had even spotted a small group of chiter grazing in the distance one day, a clear sign that the region was capable of supporting life. Chronicler had spent a while sketching the beasts, and their expansive bone crests were of particular fascination to him. Though the others had urged him to keep his distance. They were larger than a horse but far heavier, with bad eyesight, and were prone to being startled. They had solid necks and wide heads that were easily capable of trampling him if so-needed. And he didn’t need much of an imagination to see what would happen to a man rammed by the spined crests.

It was afternoon the next day when they came across the abandoned town. Little more than a collection of decrepit houses, it was unlikely to have boasted any more than two hundred people at its peak, including any surrounding farmlands. Whatever it once was, it had become a hollow place, home to dust and grey memories. A limestone church dominated the pallid collection of half-collapsed structures and was the only thing there higher than one storey, the roof collapsed into a heap of red tiles that were covered in lichen. A rotted door hung unevenly off rusted hinges and Chronicler peered inside, seeing nothing but dust and piles of debris. Anything of value had long-since been taken.

They stayed there for a while resting in the rare shade afforded by the skeletons of buildings. They found a well, and lowered a bucket, hoping to find water, but it was dry.

They left later in the day with the sun dipping to their left and walked on ground that slowly rose to the north east. It would continue to do so for maybe five-hundred miles, until it reached the foot of the Nghalleal Mountains, which cordoned off oghur lands from the rest of the continent. Chronicler thanked the multitude of Sammaean pantheons for those mountains.

It was evening, the sun flitting in and out of low clouds along the horizon when Hadia came galloping back to them. She had elected to scout ahead before the column reached the ridge of the hill they’d been climbing.

She raised a hand, and rode to Sallan, a single word on her lips. “A large group, ahead.”

Sallan nodded, his face a mask. “How many.”

“Difficult to tell, but maybe fifty.”

He dismounted his camel and hurried to the ridge with Hadia and Szigall in tow. They were there for a while before returning. The merchant’s face was grave. “Raiders. Doesn’t look like any militant arm of the Followers.”

“What are they doing?”

“Heading west. If we are careful, and stay here for the night we will hopefully avoid them. Take the caravan back south: we don’t want them hearing the animal’s braying,” he said, turning to the porters.

They followed the instructions without word, turning back down with Szigall. Chronicler remained with a handful of guards, who accompanied Sallan, the other caravan leader, and Mahr. Hadia had already gone away from the group, on foot this time, rushing just beyond the crest of the hill in a crouched run. Sallan and Mahr crawled back up the hilltop and looked over the edge. His curiosity getting the better of him, Chronicler followed them He was lying flat on his stomach, presenting as little of a target as he could as peered over.

They had made a camp of dark tents, scattered across maybe half-an acre of land. Men and women were spread in small groups, some of them sitting preparing food, others sorting through bags and sacks of goods. They were clad in common travelling garb of the region – long scarves wound around their heads, covering their mouths and necks, with heavy burlap and wool cloaks, some covered in patches of thick leather or metal. To one side were at least a dozen mantras tied up to trees. They also had an indrik that towered over everything else, the tendons in its thick brown neck pulled taught as it moved around, grazing from dry grass and storey-high leaves with equal ease. It was covered in heavy leather straps and bags and crates and on its back was an empty howdah. Chronicler had never seen an indrik this far south. From what he knew they were indigenous to Llachatul.

The group seemed at ease and few were on the lookout, and those who were seemed to be concentrating on the west. Most were armed, though their weapons – rifles and battered powderguns, from what Chronicler could tell – were slung over their shoulders, or propped up against trees and boulders.

Chronicler turned to his companions, who were whispering to each other, noting things of more importance than what Chronicler had been observing – how many were armed, how hostile they appeared, where they might have had come from? What might their intent be?

They looked like scavengers more than raiders. They carried no livery or banners, or at least none that Chronicler or the others could recognise. Chronicler was trying to look for an obvious leader figure, but did not see anything. Despondent, he lowered himself below the ridge and walked down the hill to where the caravan was busy disassembling, making camp. The porters had done the best they could with the terrain given, and had moved the camels to behind an outcrop of boulders and had raised a large tarp threaded with knotted rope and dried leaves and twigs for camouflage. It would not likely help them if they were attacked, though its presence was reassuring-enough to Chronicler that he headed towards it amidst the unpacking. He tried to help out, but find his thoughts wandering to the raiders. After making a few mistakes, he moved away to the periphery of the camp and waited for Sallan and Mahr to come back. A handful of the guards, including Tsuri, had remained closer to the ridge, keeping an eye on the other group.

They made camp, though avoided fires and cooking, and ate their dried trail foods. They tried hard to keep the noise to a minimum, and most of them tried to sleep, though for many it came fitfully, with thoughts troubled by what lay over the horizon in wait troubling them.

Chronicler was amongst those who could not sleep, and spent most of the night up, taking notes under the light of the setting Ivory Moon. The sky was bare, with no clouds in sight and the stars alone shed more than enough light for his purposes. Shamar’s Torrent was in full sight, its tight belt of dense stars hanging above like an otherworldly arch. After a while Chronicler paused, eyes growing tired in the darkness and he stared up. He slid down, and lay on his back, watching the stars, seeing the myriad ephemeral colours shining like halos around their white hearts.

It must have worked, for the next thing he remembered was waking up the next day.

“Come, she is not yet returned,” said Mahr, pulling Chronicler up.

“Was it the raiders?” asked Chronicler.

Szigall shook his head, “No, they left before daybreak, heading west. They’re well away from us by now.”

“Then where in the deserts is she?” said Chronicler. He was getting up, pulling his qaftan over his arms. He looked around quickly and found a curved scabbard. He grabbed it and yanked the wedge-shaped blade from it and brandished it like an illiterate man’s fingers trying to grasp a pen “We must find her.”

“You look ridiculous,” said Mahr, little hint of humour on his face. “She is a capable woman and can take care of herself better than you ever will. We’re just being careful, is all. There are men looking for her already.”

“That’s what I’m worried about,” said Chronicler, staring at Mahr. His eyes said more than his fumbling words ever could and Mahr seemed to realise, as his embarrassed look gave away.

“They wouldn’t…” he began.

“I don’t intend to give them a chance to prove things either way,” said Chronicler. He ran to where the animals were being kept and stepped onto a horse.

Behind him Mahr was watching incredulously. “What do you intend to do that five guards haven’t already done in the last hour?”

“I’ll find her. And win your confidence!”

Mahr smiled, shaking his head, and returned to the camp.

Chronicler found her not long after that, near a ruined step well, half-buried, its criss-crossing steps overgrown and crumbling. She had made her way down the steps and was standing next to a pool of water.

He approached tentatively, not wanting to jump to conclusions, but his spirits soared when he saw her lift her hand and wave at him. He grinned like a boy during the equinox festivals and rose closer.

“You know they’re out searching for you,” he said as he dismounted.

“Got thrown,” she said. “Lost the horse, and came across here on the walk back.”

Chronicler realised then that she was sitting on one of the steps, hands rubbing her ankle with water-soaked rags.

“You were walking on that?”

“I think walking was an overstatement,” she said, forcing a smile, but it was expelled by a wince as she tried to flex her ankle. “Afraid I won’t be much help for what’s left of the trek. Consider these my last gift to you,” she gestured to a brace of hares lying on the floor next to her belongings.

“What caused it?”

She waved the question away. “My fault. Rode too close to a snake and startled it.”

“That was silly.”

She did not reply straight away. “It certainly was. You… I… was not expecting anyone to come for me.”

“I was beginning to worry.”

“And you came looking for me,” she said, smiling. It was fleeting, her face struggling between it and a frown. The frown won. “You shouldn’t have come.” There was no hint of false modesty hidden in the words. It was a warning.

Chronicler cocked his head to one side and stepped closer. “What?”

“I was resting after making my way here. It’s amazing how quickly walking on a twisted ankle can tire you out. I was getting my breath back, relaxing. Focusing.”

There was a weight to that last word that kept Chronicler thinking about it. Focusing.

“I was getting ready to do something,” she said, looking away from him, rubbing her leg. “There was not enough life in those rocks,” she said. “I needed life.”

“What…”

“They weren’t as thorough as they thought they were, in Yeppo.”

“You’re…” began Chronicler. He was standing at the water’s edge, hand on knees, leaning forward, trying to see her face. “What are you talking about?”

“In Yeppo, they searched for shapers before we walked into the city, but they were distracted by Szigall. The man is a pariah and has no hope of ever influencing either Shadow or Helix. The Shaper who screened us at the gate saw that, made light of it. I do not think he understood. All the better.”

Chronicler was shaking his head. Slowly the notion was beginning to take shape in his head, but he was trying very hard to ignore it, to think of any other explanation. He was finding it difficult to overrule his initial thoughts.

“They were distracted by him. By the stars above, I was trying my damnedest to mask it. I thought my eyes would burst. I’ve never had to hide it like that before.”

“What are you?”

She turned to look at him, muscles in her neck taught, eyes trembling. She swallowed as she tried to talk. “Don’t tell them.”

Chronicler stood, turned as though to leave and then at the last moment turned back to face her. “You put the whole party in jeopardy.  Do you have any idea how long Szigall spent with me, making sure I wasn’t a shaper. And then you… Shit. How could you…” he was rubbing the back of his head, dislodging his scarf. “Why the hell are you telling me this now?” he said. He was thinking a dozen things. How selfish had she been? How had she hidden it so long? Was he safe standing next to her?

“I thought I could trust you.”

He froze, mouth shutting suddenly. He had no reply for that.

“I was going to heal myself and return to the camp, but you found me first. I had to tell you.”

“No you didn’t. Now I’m in on it with you.”

“Is it that bad?”

“Do you know what Sallan will do when he finds out?”

“You will not!” she said. It wasn’t a question. It was a command.

Her words caught Chronicler by surprise.

She was silent for a moment as she rubbed the leg. “What will Sallan think?”

Chronicler shook his head, shifted uneasily on his step. He stood, stepped away from her, trying hard not to make his retreat obvious. He shrugged, trying to look nonchalant. He doubted it worked. “Who knows. He is a merchant, has seen lots of places. I doubt he is as closed-minded as some. But he is a pragmatic man. He will not take kindly to being taken for a fool – and trust me that is what he will think. Want to know how I know that? Because I feel like a fool. I feel cheated.”

She stood, wincing against the pain and took a step toward him.

He recoiled as though assaulted.

Her face sunk and her body followed, slinking back to its seated position as the will to move, to ignore the pain, left her. “You retreat as though I were…” she fell silent, started nodding her head slowly, as though she were realising something. “You’re just like them.”

“How do I know? You might be… “

“What? Tainted?” she spat, looked away.

“That’s not what I was going to say,” said Chronicler.

“It’s close enough,” she said.

Chronicler did not know what to say. He was just being careful. If she was an Atramentist she might be tainted in some way. She did not look it, but one never knew.

She saw him looking at her, his face uncertain. “If you are wondering, yes it is Atramentism.”

“You don’t look like… I don’t know, what I expected.”

“You’re probably thinking of aepathy. Most people do. Not all Shapers have aepathy, you know. And not everyone with aepathy is a Shaper,” she gestured for him to sit, “please.”

Chronicler remained where he was, nodding. The image her words conjured did not exactly foment confidence in her revelation. Aepathy was a horrid disease that disfigured body and mind, leaving sufferers horribly mutilated. Their skin stunk of death and their bodies rotted from the inside out. Their lives were nothing less than misery and the only saving grace, if such it could be called, was that they lived short lives. Those unlucky to survive long-enough for their condition to become known were sometimes called the Children of the Shadow, after the way the Atramenta was attracted to them.

“I won’t hurt you,” she said, risking a smile.

The smile broke him and he relented, moving closer. His movements were tentative, calculated, though he inched closer and sat, his feet close to the water’s edge, resting on a half-sunken step.

They sat in silence, Hadia rubbing her leg, Chronicler thinking about the situation. He had travelled with shapers before, and knew titbits about their art, though most had been reluctant to disclose anything he didn’t already know. They’d been disparate figures, failing to adhere to the single congealed stereotype conjured by most people’s thoughts.

They any other person a Shaper was moulded by her background and her homeland’s culture. It was just a vocation, tempered by a myriad other facets into something different, more than the sum of the parts. They were people, Chronicler could not deny, but they were so much more than just people.

And that was what made people fear them. Regardless of social mores, whether or not shapers were respected, distrusted, persecuted, deified, there was always a degree of fear and awe: these are more than what I am, what I can do. Everyone knew stories of shapers, likely embellished or distorted through oral retellings, but at their core, they told of men and women who were capable of deeds unimaginable to others. They could manipulate matter, influence the thoughts of others, alter weather, interact with the dead or command beasts. Chronicler often wondered what truth lay in such tales, just how much they had grown from their original tellings.

He thought of Hadia and somehow could not imagine her capable of manipulating stone with her thoughts.

“What?” she asked.

Chronicler shook his head. “Just wondering, what can you do? You know, with it?”

She smiled. “Everyone’s the same. First they’re scared then they want to know if I can boil their blood or commune with gods. Or raise the dead.”

“Raise the dead?”

She laughed. “No. I don’t think anyone can do that, or move mountains or travel to the moon.”

“So what can you do?”

She shrugged. “I don’t much like to talk about it, but to be honest it’s really nothing.”

“Don’t get shy now. Tell.”

“It’s rarely as flashy as most expect. I don’t get lost easily. I know where places are, or where I am in relation to them.”

“Explains why you got lost,” smiled Chronicler.

She ignored the trap. “I can see things… sense things, I think, is more fitting. But it’s nothing anyone with a grasp of the Shadow can’t do as well.”

“And you mentioned something about life before?”

She nodded. “I can leech life from my surroundings if I need to, but… I try not to.”

“Why would you want to do that?”

“To help mend a sprained ankle.”

“You can do that?” said Chronicler. For the first time since the revelation he was sincerely interested. He’d once travelled alongside a pilgrimage destined for the Red Tree that had amongst its ranks a panaceist who served as a healer to the group. He had never mentioned anything about leeching life from the land to power his acts. “Are all panaceists the same?”

“Never heard that name before, but I doubt any two shapers – be they Firmamentists or Atramentists – share the same set of abilities. It’s not as though there’s a unified manual or a guild that shapers can join, with different sects or… I don’t know, orders to subscribe to. Most shapers begin as apprentices to an older shaper who learnt his craft in the same way. They teach what they know, imparting any mistakes about the art, just as they were taught.

“It’s imprecise and very personal. If a slave and a prince were born with the same abilities – which in itself is already stretching it – their different upbringing will certainly push or pull their talents to differing spheres.”

Chronicler was deeply engrossed, and wished he had something to take down notes with. “You say spheres, I’ve heard that before. They sound like the orders and guilds you were denying.”

Hadia pulled a face of disagreement. “Not exactly. Though the art is a personal thing there are, I don’t know, I think you could call them categories? Natural inclinations? I never received much in terms of schooling. Anyway, though no two healers or panaceists or whatever are identical, they share probably themes in common with one another. Some, especially those who would persecute or categorise us, would group us together. Same with other facets. Or spheres. That’s what my mentor called them, at least.”

“How old were you when you started?”

“I was maybe eight when I first realised there was something… different about me, and it was a few years later that I began following the teachings of a shaman. He was an itinerant, moving from village to village and he’d visit my people from time-to-time. It was nice. We would walk for days at times, talking about everything, only rarely touching upon the subject itself. There was a purpose to his method, I know now, but I never realised it at the time. The key is control. Every shaper will tell you this. You must learn to relax, control your temper, your metabolism. Focus. Only once you’ve mastered these acts of Focus can you hope to manipulate the world around you.”

“Fascinating,” said Chronicler. Then, after a short pause. “Is it something I can learn?”

Hadia laughed. “First you recoil as though I have the plague, now you want to join me. Quite the change for a few minutes. If only everyone were as understanding as yourself.”

“No, no, that’s not what I mean. I mean –”

“Can anyone become a shaper?”

Chronicler nodded.

Hadia shook her head. “No. I already mentioned the pariahs. It’s like any skill, I suppose. Some are just better at it than others, and some, well, they can try all they want to but they’ll never manage anything greater than the sight.”

“The sight?”

Hadia sighed. “That’s enough for today’s lesson, mentee. Could you give me some space now please, I don’t want to hurt you?”

“You’re going to do it now?”

“We’ve wasted enough time talking. I would not want to keep Sallan waiting any longer than he already has.”

Chronicler nodded. “How far do I need to go?”

“You, and the horse, as far as you can, at least to that rock, there,” she said, pointing.

Chronicler turned his head. It was over fifty yards away. He stood, took the horse and walked away. “Can I watch,” he shouted as he moved.

Hadia shrugged. “Not much to see.”

He walked, carrying on for some paces beyond the rock, and stood with the horse’s reins in his hands. He turned to see Hadia, who had crossed her legs, placed her hands on her knees, palms outwards. So that’s what she was doing, he grinned. So blatant. He couldn’t help but laugh at his ignorance.

His horse jumped and began straining against the rein, moving sideways, agitatedly. It lifted its head, shaking its mane and snorting, eyes wide in fear. He looked into those eyes, seeing their whites and tried hard to calm it down. He ran a hand down the blaze on its head, managing to calm it down. “You’re alright. You’re alright,” he said, “She’s just using her scary sorcerous powers to sap the life from that pond so she can walk. Nothing we haven’t seen before.”

“Hey,” Chronicler heard her call out.

He turned and saw her striding towards him. He looked to the steps and gestured to her as though to ask may I?

She shrugged.

He rushed to the edge of the steps and looked down. The water was gone, the scum and plants all desiccated and dead, sapped of life. His eyes lingered on the ruined well long after Hadia was standing beside him.

“I’m fine now, thanks for asking.”

Chronicler nodded, eyes unable to tear themselves away from the abandoned stepwell. No one would know there had been water there as recently as moments ago. Anyone coming across it would think it had been abandoned for years, decades. “Amazing,” he mumbled.

“The master shapers can cure disease and knit wounds far worse than this, without having to kill the world around them. That is a gift. What I have is… let’s just go.”

“How much can you do?”

“What?”

“I don’t know. Your limit?”

“It depends on where I am what there is around me. Were I in a desert I would have to concentrate for hours, probably enter a trance. Even then I’d have to touch a span of land far greater than this. Elsewhere, with more life around me? I don’t know. I’ve never had to put it to the test. And I’m not sure I want to.”

“Gods. What even is life? You say leeching life, but what is it? It’s not something we can quantify! It’s just a word we use, life. How do you even…”

“I don’t really care. I take something and move it from one place to another. What it is, where it goes, what exactly I steal, and how it restores me, I do not know. It just is. I am no philosopher.”

“Perhaps you should be. Perhaps all shapers should be philosophers.”

Hadia was nodding. “Starting to realise the weight of it all, now, eh? I try not to think about it much.”

“You should. It’s a great power you wield.”

She laughed, shook her head. “No. I am nothing. Sathep the Risen. The Sphinx Queen Hetepheres. The Iron Emperor of Korachan. Those are true shapers, living for millennia, ruling empires.”

“They’re hardly real people.”

“They’re as real as you and I.”

“Think you can get on the horse?”

“How far are we?”

“Not too far, we’ll be back in no time,” said Chronicler. It was the rocky outcrops that had made the search difficult for the others – line of sight had been reduced to little, forcing them to cover the area meticulously. Chronicler would have liked to say he had found her tracks, or knew instinctively where to look, but truth was he just got lucky. But he would keep it to himself.

“Then let us make haste. The longer we wait the worse mood they’ll be in when we get back.”

How right she was.

They arrived before highsun and the camp was abuzz with activity. The camels were loaded, ready to leave and the camp itself was in the process of being dismantled. Sallan was barking orders to the porters who were struggling to keep time. Mahr talking with a pair of riders who’d recently returned to the camp, pointing to the south, at what turned out to be Chronicler.

“Well I’ll be damned,” he whispered, before shouting to the others.

The riders moved out to meet the returning pair. Chronicler was walking and raised his hands in greeting.

“You injured,” said the rider, nodding curtly towards the girl.

She shook her head. “I just want to get going now.”

A grunt. “Sallan wants to talk to you.”

“Unsurprising,” mumbled Chronicler.

They found him, still ordering his men about, helping with the lifting where he could.

“You two,” he said, standing upright, stretching his back, “have cost me the better part of a day’s journey. All for what? Two rabbits? We have enough rations to keep us going. Unless things turn sour and we begin running out of food, no wandering off hunting. If you do not like the company of this caravan you should not be travelling with us.”

“Zaffre is only so far away. Soon as we pass beneath its gates you will be rid of me, of that you can be sure.”

Sallan regarded her as she spoke and though his expression remained one of neutrality, his lack of comment boded well.

Chronicler’s was the reaction that came unexpectedly. “You’re leaving?”

Hadia dismounted and looked at him awkwardly. “Yes. I was only commissioned to travel as far as Zaffre. Once there I am free to carry on as I intended – alone.”

Sallan left the pair and moved to the centre of what remained of the camp. The porters were almost ready putting it away. “Make haste, we have lost ground to recover!” he shouted.

“That’s not long at all,” said Chronicler.

“It’s the better part of three weeks, it’s long enough. What were you expecting?”

Chronicler did not know what to say. She was right, though. Was he expecting to travel with her until the end of days? The longest he’d travelled with anyone was Mahr, and they’d barely been on the road for a full year. No one wanted to follow the road Chronicler had chosen, and none know that as well as Chronicler himself. He had no quandaries with that. He liked it that way, not setting down roots, moving like a piece of flotsam on the water, the world taking him wherever it pleased. If he came across others during the journey, all the better, if they parted ways later on, then so be it.

He was nodding, more than to himself than anything else, and muttered something to himself and mounted his horse.


Parts 9 & 10