The ship having docked, my duties to my captain discharged, I disembark, my traveling cloak about me, my bundle of weapons slung across my back. As I reach the end of the dock, I hear cacophonous shouting behind me. Turning back, I see the crew of the ship, having taken to the rigging, shouting and waving farewell. Despite myself, I smile, and wave back. Then I turn to face my future.
The day is hot, even by the standards of those living in the desert city Blessed Gathering. The sky is a rich blue dome, unblemished by any cloud. The ground is shades of golden brown sand in places and hard, cracked earth in others. No breeze stirs the air at the moment, but that changes by the moment. High summer in the Desert Realms.
She enters the city alone, on horseback. Like all horses of the Desert Realms, her white stud is hardy, compact, bred for stamina, not speed. He has carried her all the way here from Two Deserts, the coastal town from which she disembarked at the western edge of the Desert Realms. It shows in the layers of dust and sand she brings into the city with her.
As she passes between dwellings of dried mud and a few larger buildings of stone cemented with mud, denizens of Blessed Gathering begin to notice. A lone traveler is not so uncommon as to merit such attention. However, those she passes spy the green markings of Viridian, over flesh a few shades too pale to be desert-born, peeking out from beneath the long cloak she wears to keep off the sun. Either the markings or the lighter skin would each be worthy of note. The combination is enough to start tongues wagging.
The tale of how I came to Asheva is long, but easily summarized: I was fleeing. I fled my homeland in disgrace. I fled my adopted people in fear. I continued to flee each day from a past which haunted me. Then I found Asheva and her beautiful captain.
The cloaked woman rides deeper into the city. As she approaches the center, the buildings become larger, predominantly of stone. Here and there she sees some wood - rarest of all commodities in the Desert Realms - used for doors or windows. Signs of wealth, here. She smiles in reflection as she passes into the shadow under Dragon’s Reach. Where she is from, wood is commonplace and buildings of stone indicate true wealth.
Feeling the cool relief of shade beneath Dragon’s Reach, the woman looks up toward her destination. The great mesa stands watch over the city built around it, over the entirety of the Desert Realms. Another city in the sky, where the rulers of the Desert Realms lives. The Lords, the woman would once have called them, a word which for her carries an unpleasant meaning.
The woman nears the vertical wall of the mesa and turns. She follows it a short way, riding easily, slowly through the crowded streets. A tickle at her ankle draws her attention and she looks down. She smiles at the child who has approached and touched her. A supple vine reaches out from beneath her cloak to tickle the child’s belly. He laughs and runs away.
From my captain, I learned to trust. First her, then the men and women of Asheva’s crew. I revealed to the captain the whole of my truth, and she taught me to look with new eyes on the honor I thought I had lost. In time I was able to let go the doubt of my actions, and to begin looking forward once more.
I remained with Asheva for two years, loyal crew, sometime lover, and ultimately friend to my Captain.
The woman stops by a small stable, dismounting easily. She picks up her saddlebags and the small bundle which ride on the horse with her, then hands the reins to a smiling girl of twelve or so summers. A hand, covered in green vines, reaches from within the folds of her cloak to hand the girl a token of thanks for her assistance: a small knife of steel, its hilt wrapped in leather. It is plain, but tempered steel has value here and the woman has no need of the knife. It is too small for a proper weapon.
Her things slung over her shoulder, the woman turns toward the mesa. She approaches the base of a stone spiral cut into the side, the staircase leading up to the city above. A guard with a small golden sword tattooed on his cheek bars her way, but stands aside easily when she lowers her hood to reveal vines and leaves covering her face. She says nothing, but nods and smiles as she passes the guard.
She ascends easily. There are other ways up, but she prefers the spiral. Usually used by the unmarked who have cause to visit the city above, it reminds her of where she is from, of who she once was. Her thoughts meander as she climbs, not hurrying, nor dallying. Soon enough she reaches the top and enters Dragon’s Reach, the city atop a city. There she pauses.
In the wide, clear area where visitors are greeted, the woman faces a man. He tall, broad. Bared to the waist, he presents a number of golden tattoos on his muscled torso: images of curved swords, of shields, of maces, a strong chain etched around his upper arm. He is handsome, in need of a shave, his dark hair in need of a cut. He is older than she, but far from old. He is a soldier of the Order Aurous, or was seven years ago. She notes several tattoos he did not possess when she left. She considers him as he considers her, both silent a while.
“I have returned,” Hunter begins after several moments of silent regard. “To accept the judgement of my adopted people.”
He considers her a moment longer. “When the word came that a foreign Viridian bearing markings of vines approached, I had hoped it would be you.” His voice is calm, his tone neutral. He considers her for a moment longer, then adds, “Seven Forms Ascendant Hunter.”
His use of her full name confirms what she already knew. Seven years ago she fled when soldiers from her homeland came. She feared they would expose her. But she returned knowing this was likely, and is not surprised by it. She shakes her head.
“It is true, I hid truths of myself from you, among them my true name and my crime.” Hunter drops her bundles and unfastens her cloak. It spills to the ground and she steps forward. Most of her vine-covered flesh is exposed, armed, midriff, legs, neck and face all bearing the endless coil of the vine wrapping her body. Beneath the tattoo - for it is a single, unbroken vine - she is lean, deceptively slight.
“I have no regret for the crime which led me here. However, I have come to regret my hasty departure from those who cared for me in my time of greatest need. From those I called friend.” Here she pauses, looking on the golden-tattooed man before adding, “I have learned many things in my travels, most of all my own worth, and what I hold most dear. Therefore I have returned, to make what amends I can.”
“You speak well,” the Aurous warrior says. “However, words might not be enough” He walks up stand directly before Hunter, towering a head taller than she. “What would you say if I were to require you to prove yourself in combat?” he asks, looking down upon her.
Hunter searches his face for a long moment, then says “I would note the chain on your arm. It was not there when I left. I would inquire whether it bolsters an arm which has become atrophied, weakened by a previous break.” She looks to her left for a moment to a space where warriors train, then back. “Then I would step into the training yard of the Aurous to await your pleasure.”
The Aurous looks at her for a long, silent moment. Then he bursts into laughter. He nearly doubles with it, belting out loud peals of laughter which draw the attention of other soldiers practicing nearby. Hunter permits a smile on her lips while he shares his humor with the sky. Finally, the Aurous warrior straightens and wipes a tear from his eye before throwing his arms around the woman. She returns the affection, and they slap each other’s backs, warrior to warrior rather than man to woman.
“By wind and sand, I have missed you, sister,” he says to her ear. “Welcome home.”
Hunter breaks the hug and looks at the larger warrior. She smiles up at him. “Thank you, my friend. It’s been too long.” Then she steps back, meeting the warrior’s gaze. She straightens, then bows, back stiff, her eyes never leaving his. A formal gesture of her people, not his, but he recognizes its formality.
“I am Eighth Form Hunter. Your people once offered me a home and a place here, honors I never felt worthy of. When men came from my homeworld, I knew you would learn of my crimes, and in my doubt and fear I fled.” The man realizes she is speaking of his people in general, but also speaking to him, directly. “In fleeing, I did you a disservice. By assuming you would reject me without hearing my side of things, I dishonored you. For this I am sorry.”
The Aurous considers her. “Your fate isn’t mine to decide. What if the Viridian masters send you back to your people to face their justice?” he asks.
“I will not go,” Hunter announces simply. After a moment, she elaborates. “I will never willingly return to the land of my birth, never freely submit myself to what they call justice. My crime was the crime of a slave winning free of her master, nothing more.” Hunter falls silent again, looking around at the city she called home for a year. She returns her gaze to her warrior friend.
“It is my wish to make this my home. If that is forbidden me, I will leave once more, and seek a life elsewhere.” She smiles, knowing the crew of Asheva would welcome her. But then she steels her resolve. “However, this is the land, and you are the people I would choose, if the choice were mine to make.”
The master looks at Hunter for a long moment. Finally he stands aside. “Welcome home.”