When the doors to Az’Kabek opened, it was an issue of great importance.
When the doors to Az’Kabek opened, merchantry stopped and schoolchildren craned through windows to see.
When the doors to Az’Kabek opened, Ravena never bothered to stay on the ground. It was useless for seeing anything at her height. Instead, she slipped off the noose around her waist – the one tying her and all the girls her age together – and scrambled up a lamppost to see.
It was not difficult. It was easy. Nothing was as easy as climbing high.
The doors were slow, opening with a ponderous and deep grinding sound that reminded her of sword-hilts on stone, if swords could be so large they belonged to giants bigger than the distant mountains. They rumbled, those doors, and while she could always feel that vibration through the smooth paving stones, she felt it better with the lamppost gripped tightly between the arches of her bare feet.
What would it be today? An army? A collage of dragons, dripping with jewels and chains of sparkling metals, claws full of rings large enough to circle her wrist? A cloud full of fairies on leashes connected to ugly big trolls who smiled kindly and spoke with the quiet, rumbling fire of the forge?
No, it was none of that. The doors had opened for one weird guy wearing weird clothes.
He had great big curls for hair (she couldn’t have resisted the baby-desire to yank on them, had he been closer), sorrowful green eyes, and a sort of dress-robe-thing that looked like one white sheet wrapped around his body. He didn’t carry much; if he was a merchant, he didn’t have anything to sell. A small leather pouch hung around his neck (she knew enough to recognize that as holding one of Hestur’s coins, so that was all right), two other small bags of indeterminate nature, and a knife, which he carried as if he had no idea what to do with the thing.
She huffed. This was a man not meant for survival. Hestur had taught her. She knew. This stranger was practically a daisy-fingered princeling, wealthy and spoiled and unable to even wipe his own hairy bottom.
The girl giggled and put her hand over her mouth to stifle it. Hairy bottoms. She knew about those. Sometimes things got learned from peeking, and they weren’t always pretty.
Still, the doors had opened. Anyone they opened for had to be worth something.
The man walked through the doors as if they were just any old doors, looking around without the surprise that always accompanied visitors, but with intent as if looking for someone.
Others moved forward, adults. Guards with weapons – though the doors had opened, and the man had Hestur’s coin, so what did they think they were doing?
She couldn’t quite hear. She huffed, blowing black curls away from her face, and slid back down the lamppost.
That was teacher’s voice, but Ravena had no intention of returning. She ducked, holding up her skirt so as not to trip (past experience and scraped knees had taught her well), and raced between the merchant stalls.
The man had amazing green eyes.
It wasn’t normal, that green. She’d seen green like that, but never on a human, and he looked human like her. Then again, as teacher said, looking human didn’t mean anything.
“Name yourself,” said one of the otoroshi-guards, pointing with his double-bladed spear.
The man with green eyes blinked slowly, as though this question were one of great heft. His brow knit. “I have been called Fish,” he said, and his voice was soft. It felt like a hand inside velvet, a pleasant caress.
Unfortunately, he had Pael for an interrogator, and Pael had neither a sense of humor nor an ounce of poetry in all his bones. “Your name, or your blood on the ground!” He poked, the tips of his spear dimpling the man’s skin.
The man did not react to either, ignoring the spear as easily as he ignored Pael’s tusks and bright blue mane. “I have thought on a name for myself,” he said.
Pael scraped the spear down, breaking the man’s skin.
The man was suddenly naked.
He’d ripped off his white robe, holding it away from the small rivulet of blood Pael had drawn, and Ravena’s mouth fell open. The man met Pael’s eyes, frowning. “This stays clean.”
Pael (who seemed more surprised at the swiftness of the man’s behavior than anything else) reacted by trying to stab him again.
And the man –
The man turned into –
The man was suddenly dust, particles, swirling sparkles that coalesced behind Pael with such speed she wasn’t sure she saw it happen, and then the green-eyed man’s velvet voice became thunder. “It stays clean!”
Pael stumbled forward, and Ravena made a tiny sound and clapped her hands over her mouth. Authority, that’s what that voice was, and the wind seemed to respond with a wild skittering of debris across the paving stones.
“Enough!” and that was Hestur’s voice, which was an entirely different kind of authority.
Ravena backed up, hiding behind a fruit-stall. Getting caught by him would be horrifically bad.
Hestur, General of the Seven Armies, Black Hoof of Abaddon, and Kelpie’s Own King trotted forward, parting crowds like hands parted hanging cloth. Most bowed; many murmured thanks or words of worship, and Ravena found herself murmuring them, too. He’d saved her. He’d saved them all. Without him, she’d be….
“I see you have found your way here at last, Night-child,” said Hestur the great and mighty, and he stomped one hoof.
It was barely a typical horse’s clop, but everyone reacted as though he’d shot a cannon. They bowed, genuflected, murmured praise.
Everyone except the green-eyed man.
Ravena inhaled. No one refused to bow before Hestur but the Shaqalu, and they were different. Everybody knew that.
This man did not bow. “Horse,” he said.
“I am here.” The green-eyed man held up the little leather coin-holder. “I have brought the coin, as bidden. Now what must I do?”
“Continue to ask that question,” said Hestur, shaking his mane, “and I will continue to answer. This is now your new home. Do you accept this?”
The man looked around. “If it provides me with what I seek.”
“To stay here, only one thing is needful. Only one, and no more; you must swear yourself to me. You will love what I love and hate what I hate; you will protect the things I find precious, and stomp underhoof that which I abhor. Do you so swear?”
Ravena gasped. That was ritual wording. What was this? Hestur was binding this man – this stranger – to his service already?
“I swear,” said the green-eyed man.
He’d said it. He’d just said it, like it meant nothing more than a vain promise to pick up flowers on the way home from dance.
“To be here, to find your path, to be granted forgiveness, you must be mine. I will protect you, Night-child. I will guide you – if you swear yourself to me, and only me. Do you swear?”
The second time! Second question! One more and he would be –
“I swear,” said the green-eyed man (surely “night-child” could not be his name) as if it meant nothing, and this whole conversation merely a way to fritter time.
“I will shape your path; I will feed your mind. You will follow my hooves all the way to the end, and I will give you your earned freedom. Do you swear to follow me?”
There it was. The third question. No one moved in all the world, waiting for the answer, waiting for the reply, waiting for the green-eyed man to at least ask a question of his own.
The man eyed Hestur for a long moment, unafraid of him, unafraid of anything, even Pael with his spears. And in that moment, Ravena envied him. His fearlessness; his power. The way he’d commanded wind, and the way he stood now, willingly oathing himself to bits as if he had a plan for escaping.
“I swear,” said Night-child, and at those words, thunder clapped in the clear blue sky. Some ducked and screamed. Ravena did neither; she watched the green-eyed man.
He frowned up at the sky, visibly annoyed at its odd behavior, as if he did not know the magical contract he’d just put in place.
“Welcome, Night-child,” said Hestur. “Welcome to your new home.”
So the man was staying.
Ravena smiled. This was far more interesting than dragons and gold and clouds of fairies. It seemed not everyone was afraid of Hestur, after all. Already playing at owning the wind, Ravena scurried back the way she came, making whooshing sounds as she kicked her way through the leaves.