They rode single file along the narrow ridge leading circuitously to the east. Tish'ri sat, straight-backed on her chestnut horse, imitating closely the movements of the high priest in front of her. She shifted uncomfortably on the saddle, the bare skin of her thighs chafing on the leather. Her skirts covered to below her knee, but she still felt exposed. Across the plains, she had ridden properly, legs together over one side of the saddle, her skirts underneath her. As the path had narrowed, the descent to right steepened, Ur'in had given her permission to straddle the horse. Initially, she refused the invitation. Then she nearly slipped from the seat, saved only by the guardsman who had quickly grabbed her arm and hauled her away from the ledge.
She kept herself from looking back at him. He never broached the rules of propriety with any of his actions, but his eyes made her uncomfortable.
She felt the urge to pull at her skirts again. She resisted, reminding herself it would only draw more attention to her exposed ankles. Why had she not thought to shift her skirt underneath her? Her under skirt at least, she could have put between her legs to save her this terrible chafing. She considered how she might accomplish it now. It was out of the question though. If a wind blew through while she was shifting her weight, those guards would get a view of more than her ankles. Her chest tightened around her quickening heart. Dismissing the thoughts, she turned to her surroundings for relief.
To her right, the fertile plains stretched as far as the eye could see. Beyond them, the forests of Lu'rik the Elder. Out of her periphery, she could see the guardsman. He too examined the land below. He chuckled as the guard beside him made a comment she could not hear. She jerked her head back to the front, certain they were speaking about her.
Ur'in had insisted she come. Not that he had to insist anything. He invited her to come, and no one refused the invitation of the high priest.
"We are the foundation, Tish'ri K'vel. We are the stone on which they stand. The security of all the clans depends on us." He had said. "That is why I must go and see for myself. It is the only way to know for sure. This cannot be trusted to the eyes of another."
What they went to see was the eastern wall, erected by the ancients as a protection. From what, no one was sure anymore.
“From the evils beyond,” was all she could get from her tutors.
Their way grew dark with the descent of the sun behind them. Ur'in signaled for them to stop, though the path was barely wide enough for a man to stand beside his horse. The guardsman behind her dismounted and came to help her down. She waved him away with her gloved hand. She would not be giving the satisfaction of a better view up her skirts when she raised her legs over the mare. How did people do this? When she finally made it out of her saddle and onto the ground, she glanced back along the line, reminded again that no one else had these troubles. She was the only woman on this expedition.
It was a great honor to be invited. That is what she kept reminding herself. The Rules were difficult to follow anywhere, but especially so out here. That only made them all the more important. This is the place of temptation. This is the place of proving.
Her thighs stung sharply as they rubbed together with her first step. She would apply a salve, but not until everyone else was asleep. From the corner of her eye she saw a thin stream of liquid shooting out from the path. She heard it splatter onto the rocks far below and a few of the men chuckled. She followed the stream to its source before quickly turning her head away, shame sweeping through her at her desire to take a second look. The officer barked a reprimand at the soldier. He was sent to the back of line to carry their refuse for the remainder of the journey. The crunch of gravel next to her drew her attention.
“Apologies miss. That never should have happened. He will receive an appropriate punishment.”
“See that he does captain.” She replied without looking up at him.
Tu’o’s brilliant green eyes were the last thing she needed to see at that moment. He stood, shifting feet for another moment.
“Apologies again, miss. I need to get by to speak with his excellency.”
Embarrassed at her lack of awareness and his obvious discomfort, she pressed her back against the wall. He turned sideways to fit between her and her horse, his body within inches of hers. Then he was passed. She released her breath, scolding herself internally once more. What was going on with her? She lived in close proximity with these men everyday and had never had such reactions to them. Passing them in the hallway of the temple, or the courtyard was different than sweating beside them for hours and days.
The night could not arrive quickly enough for her. She sat cross legged, her skirts neatly arranged to cover every inch of skin, shivering as the cold night air blew in.
"Can I get you an extra blanket miss?"
It was the captain again. He had come to bring her a portion of their evening meal. She took it, meeting those eyes briefly. She wanted to refuse, but that was her lower self and its pride at work. She could see it now, thanks to the tutelage of the high priest. She would give in to the lower self no more.
"Yes. Thank you captain." She replied with thankfulness.
He returned a few minutes later with the blanket, placing it around her shoulders.
"Do you mind if I sit?"
She did not know how to politely refuse, so she nodded her head. He lowered himself to the ground an appropriate distance from her and removed his helmet. She had never seen his face before. It had always been obscured by the helmet, which held only a narrow slit for sight.
The startling green eyes spoke of youth and energy and playfulness, but they were surrounded by age lines. He was older than she had imagined, forty at least. Her fantasy of him faded as reality replaced it. He caught her gaze fixed on him.
"Apologies miss. I can… uh… I can put my helmet back on if they disturb you."
Then she saw the scars. A long, vicious one from the top of his head, down through his left ear. Another began at the back of his head and crossed the first at the top of his neck. His short cut blonde hair refused to hide either. She wanted to reach out, to touch his arm and reassure him.
"No. Please. I did not even see them." She said, surprised that it was true.
He huffed, clearly not believing her, but he kept his head uncovered.
They ate. The silence only broken by the shuffling hooves of the the horse in front of them and the crunch of the dried food in their mouths.
"What is that?" She asked over a mouthful of food.
The man looked around, unsure to what she was referring. She nodded toward his neck. A wide smile broke across the scarred face.
"This?" He questioned, reaching to pull out the colorfully braided necklace. She leaned forward to examine the intricate weave.
"My daughter wove it,” pride filling his voice. “For my journey, as a token of luck .”
Tish’ri stiffened, drawing herself erect, chin high.
"There is no luck captain. Only what the Goddess chooses to give and what she chooses to take away."
He held her gaze for a moment, his eyes narrowing slightly before bowing his head submissively.
"Of course, miss." He said, stuffing the necklace under his shirt again, his smile gone.
Pride filled her chest. She had corrected him, this man many years her senior.
"I misspoke." He followed hastily. "I merely meant that they made it for me, so I when I thought of them, I would have it."
She nodded approvingly at this more appropriate answer. But there was a distance between them now, a impenetrable barrier that had not been there before. She tried to broach topics with him, but his answers were short and quick, cutting down any conversation before it had legs to stand.
When he was done eating, he stood, saluted her and left. Her stomach sank as he went. She pulled the blanket more tightly around her shoulders, missing his smile, the easy comfort of his presence. Why did he have to ruin it? He should have known better than to bring such a token, risking the wrath of the Goddess. Was it not to his benefit that she corrected him? Men could be such sensitive creatures, slinking away at the slightest reproach.
"Tish'ri.” Ur'in called to her.
She rose, the captain’s blanket still wrapped around her shoulders, and went to her masters side.
They left with the first light of dawn. To leave any earlier would have been suicide, so dark was morning and so narrow the trail. To maximize the daylight, they were packed and on their horses when the first rays shifted the sky from blackness into gray. As soon as they could see the feet of their horses, Ur'in gave the signal. They started forward at a slow pace.
Captain Tu’o’s attitude had improved with the new day, recovering some of its usual warmth.
She sensed his eyes on her back during breaks in the conversations she heard between the men. He quickly masked the concerned in them every time she turned to look at him, but it was there nonetheless. Anger burned low in her gut. What right did he have to be concerned for her? She was as capable as any of them to care for herself.
She knew the rumors of course, the lies that were spread about the high priest and his former acolytes. But they were nothing more than that. He had only ever treated her with kindness and civility, never violating the Rules of Public Decorum or dishonoring her in the eyes of others. As to when they were alone, was it not for her to provide what comfort she could to him, given all that he had sacrificed? Who had given more? She belonged not to herself, but to the Goddess. And he was her representative.
All great men had their detractors. All great men had those who fabricated stories to tear them down. And there was no doubt in her mind. Ur'in was a great man. She looked toward him now, straightening in her saddle, the cool morning air filling her chest. Yes, he was a great man. And she was here to serve the Goddess beside him.
Together, they would save her people. They would save all the clans.
The gasps from the guardsmen behind broke her reverie. Swiveling, she searched for the cause of the commotion. There, in the distance, was Thu'sel'ah's Wall. It did not seem so impressive as the stories made it out to be. Is that what they were chattering on about like schoolboys seeing their first shield?
No, it was fear in their eyes, not awe. And they were not looking at the wall, but out beyond it. Tish'ri followed their gaze out into…a lifeless wasteland.
"What is it, Tu’o?” She asked the guard leader.
"The trees, miss."
"What trees? I see no trees."
“That is the problem, child.” Interjected Ur'in from the front. "Everywhere you now see dust and sand, there should be trees. Not ten years ago, and for a thousand years before, that was Thur'seth's forest.”
"That was Thur'seth's forest? But, how? How could it be gone?"
"That is what we must discover,” replied the priest.
It took several hours more of painstaking descent before they were at the base of the wall. What had seemed small from a distance that morning, now loomed gargantuan, white stone gleaming in the midday sun. Her mind struggled to take it in. How could such a thing exist? Perfectly square stone blocks twice the height a man composed its surface, the seams between each barely perceptible. She ran her hand across the surface. It felt almost soft in its immaculate smoothness.
"Come Tish!" Ur'in barked impatiently.
Embarrassment flared at the use of her child name. She hurried after him, fighting down the blush rising her cheeks, hoping the others would think it from the exertion of the ride.
Ur'in waited for her on a smooth platform at the base of the wall. When she stepped on, he pulled a lever next to his foot that sent them whirring upward. She steadied herself, trying to disguise her fright with curiosity.
"How does it work?"
"It does not matter how it works. It only matters that it will get us to the top."
She bowed her head and turned away from him, abashed by his sharp tone. She could hear him pacing behind her. She had rarely seen him this way, so obviously agitated. As they reached the middle of the wall, the sound of his steps ceased. She sensed his presence move to her side.
"I'm sorry." He place a hand on her shoulder, sending warmth shooting through her. "I have treated you poorly."
"There is no need to apologize, master. There are things happening I do not understand." She kept her voice submissive, though a tinge of anger slipped in nonetheless.
He laughed, pulling her into an embrace.
"You hide it, but you have much of your sister's rebelliousness in you."
Resting her head on his chest, she relaxed into his arms.
"I'm sorry, master. I do my best to control it."
"Do not apologize. We cannot help our nature. We can only seek to resist it. Anger is in us all. Rebellion is in us all."
The lift slowed to a stop and he released her. A warm, dry wind swept through from the east. After his embrace, she felt off balance, not sure where to turn or where to go. She followed him onto the wall. He stared out at the remains of the forest in silence.
He reached down and took her hand, holding it tightly.
"It is worse than I could have imagined."
Tish'ri leaned out on to the wall to get a view of its base. She almost toppled over as the stone beneath her palm disintegrated, flowing down in a stream of sand. Only Ur'in's quick reaction kept her from plummeting over with the remains of the stone. She clung to him desperately, her heart pounding, her breath quick. In horror, she watched the giant stone disappear before her eyes.
"The stone... it's as if it has lost whatever holds it together."
Pushing herself away from him, she stepped forward, curious to examine the gap left behind.
He squatted beside her, bringing his face close to the sandy impression, and close to hers. It was a conscious effort to remain focused on the task. From her pocket, she pulled a small, oblong wax-lined bag. From the bag, she extracted the wrap containing her sampling equipment. Setting it gingerly in front of her, she undid the leather straps and unrolled it. Selecting the tools she needed, she brushed a small amount of the dust into a wooden box. The box was then inserted into a second wax-lined bag to protect its contents from moisture damage.
"Come," he said. "We must return."
She nodded, packaging her tools as quickly has she could. Any moisture would damage them, but there was little risk that here.
Ur'in threw the lever as soon as they were on the platform, sending them down. He tapped his foot, glancing furtively. She shared his anxiety. Everything around them was stone and they had no idea how rapidly this disease was encroaching. Would bringing back her sample spread it to the capital? She checked her bag again to ensure it was sealed.
She took his hand, the platform still blocking them from the sight of those below.
"We can solve this Ur'in. We can figure it out."
"No," He replied, shaking his head in disagreement. "This is something beyond our understanding. We need to find your sister. It might already be too late."
She continued to hold his hand, but there was no longer any warmth in it for her. She was relieved when he released it as they neared the bottom. She stepped hurriedly from the platform as soon as it settled into place on the ground, muttering to Ur'in about needing to secure her sample.
She walked briskly to her tent. The guardsman had erected it for her while she was on the wall. Securing the flap behind her, she slumped onto her cot, her hands on her head, wishing she could scream.
Her sister. What solution could Sh'ra possibly bring that Tish'ri could not? Sh'ra knew nothing. She had abandoned her studies to pursue her foolish dreams of winning the trials. And look where that had gotten her. Look where that had gotten all of them.
She breathed deeply. Short quick breaths at first, then slower and deeper. She forced the anger down and back, locking the door on its cage. Satisfied the bars would hold, she stood to walk to the back of her tent. Methodically, she took out each of her tools for cleaning. When the priest summoned her later that evening, she declined, saying she was not feeling well.