Svara felt ill when she finally woke. Her bones ached, her head was pounding, and her throat was dry. Despite all this, she was overcome by how lucky she was. Was it ungrateful to hope her parents had also been blessed with such a miracle?
The tent was large, but still a tent. Its floor was earth, and only a meager amount of sunlight could penetrate the stretched leather. Svara was a member of the clergy caste, and until her flight, she’d enjoyed a life of luxury. A few months ago, she would have found these conditions appalling. After being on the run for so long, even these accommodations seemed lavish.
Sitting up, she found herself sharing the tent with an elderly woman and a short young man. The woman sat on a stool, cleaning and mending Svara’s clothes. She smiled warmly when she saw Svara rise. The boy sat with his back to Svara. Worried he’d turn around at any moment, she pulled her fur blanket higher.
The elder seemed to understand. “Trent, dear, could you please fetch Jedrek for me?”
“Can’t now.” Trent was tinkering with something Svara couldn’t see. “I need to focus.”
“Trent,” the elder said more firmly. “This is important.”
Trent shot a glare over his shoulder, but paused in his work. Svara wasn’t sure what she was watching.
“You’re a brilliant young man and integral to the clan, Trent.” The elder’s tone shifted. “But the things that make you special also make you bad at certain ‘people’ things. We’re having one of those moments.”
Trent grimaced and looked back to his work, stung by the truth. He sighed heavily. “I’ll go if you tell me what cues I’m missing.”
“This is a difficult one,” the elder said. “You’re accustomed to your siblings who have always been members of the clan. Svara is different, though. She comes from a place where it’s very bad for a boy to see too much of a girl’s skin. They’re used to complicated rules about when boys shouldn’t be in the same room as them.”
“I have no interest in making a child with Svara.” Trent replied simply.
Svara blushed, but chuckled. This boy had completely missed the point. She’d met people like this, helpless in social situations but savants in other subjects. Something about the familiarity made her feel a little less naked.
“I believe you, but this is purely a matter of comfort. I need Jedrek, she’ll be clothed by the time you’re back, and your work will still be here. Please, Trent?”
The tent was silent for a moment, then Trent sighed again. He swiveled around and made a point of looking Svara in the eye as he stood. “Sorry, Svara.”
“No, it’s quite-” Svara started, but Trent was already halfway through the tent flap. She chuckled again. “Thank you, madame… I’m so sorry, I forgot your name.”
“No you didn’t,” the elder grumbled, but then smiled. “Nobody around here uses it. My name is Inga, child.”
“Thank you, elder Inga,” Svara remembered now. The hunters had only ever referred to her as ‘the elder.’
“Think nothing of it. I’ll mold him right if it kills me! Come now, child, he’ll be eager to get back. I’ve done what I can, but you’ve worn these through some hell. Forgive me, we’re not equipped to repair such finery.”
Svara was quick to obey. “There’s nothing to forgive, I’m the one who ruined them.” They were the clothes of southern laborwomen, Svara wasn’t too concerned about their condition. If it weren’t for the pure, rugged utility of this clan’s clothing, she’d struggle to understand how this outfit could be mistaken for ‘finery.’
“Are you still in danger, dear?”
The question caught Svara by surprise. “I’m not certain, to be honest.”
“You don’t know how many were after you, then.” Inga inferred.
Svara had never encountered a tribe like this before. Words like ‘uncivilized’ and ‘savage’ were often used to describe such groups, and there was a general understanding that they were inferior. If this old woman was any indication, these people had been sorely misjudged. Svara could interact with her easily, like she was a fellow member of the clergy.
“At first, there were about forty,” Svara considered. “As you might expect, one person can move much faster than a group of that size. They must have split the faster ones off to make sure they didn’t lose me.”
“Yes, I can see how one person could outrun many,” The elder observed. “Particularly if that person had your gifts.”
Svara didn’t reply. She wasn’t sure how much Inga understood about Breathing, or if Evan’s story would lead the elder to the right conclusion. Even if she identified the element, would it help her understand how it was being used? A Breather could be considered a traitor for even practicing in front of a foreigner. Svara hoped she hadn’t broken tradition...
It suddenly occurred to her: who was left to benefit from her discretion? Did she need to keep these secrets any more?
“They may still have my trail,” Svara admitted. “It will depend on how fast they make it through the woods. They’re certain to find the bodies, but there’s no way to know if they can find this camp.”
Svara paused, looking the elder in the eyes. “Elder Inga, I may have brought danger on your people. I am so sorry.”
“Ah, that reminds me,” Inga snapped her fingers. “How do your people pay respects for the dead?”
Again, Inga’s reaction caught Svara off-guard. “Fire. Those who keep the faith say their remains will delay their rebirth, so they must be burned.”
“Reincarnation. I think I remember that about the north now.” The elder nodded. “Thank you, dear. I’ll send the hunters to take care of that.”
“No, elder,” Svara took her by the hand. “Thank you, and thank your people. But I’m also so sorry. I’ll put some distance between us, but you need to be ready. There’s no telling what they’ll do when they discover their losses.”
“Oh, stop apologizing,” Inga put a reassuring hand on Svara’s shoulder. “By all three of the hunters’ accounts, you never asked for their help. If we incur your enemies’ wrath, we have those three to thank, and they have their matron and I to thank for raising them the way we did. You may leave if you wish, but won’t you rest some more?”
The elder frowned and began fretting over Svara’s clothes again. Now that they were on her, Inga seemed even less tolerant of their condition. “Oh, and you don’t owe it to us, but I would like you to remain long enough to help us understand how you made it through the woods. It could help us if anyone came looking for retribution.”
Svara bit her lower lip. She’d been raised to protect those secrets. To teach and protect; that’s what her family did. It was the duty of every member of the clergy caste, the reason they stood above the warrior caste.
It was also what led to her family’s exile.
“We call it ‘Breathing,’” Svara blurted. “One of my ancestors developed the practice. It makes use of the air element, or wind if that’s more comfortable. It’s a school of magic, is that the term in your culture?”
“Aye,” the elder nodded. “We’d call you an airspeaker, where I come from. How do you make use of it?”
“The same way you do.” Svara winced. That was a clumsy explanation. “I’ve heard foreigners say that ‘to live is to wield magic.’ Everything that walks on land makes use of the air element to survive. Breathers are just better at it. The wind just gives us more; energy, information, nourishment, all the things it gives you.”
“Very interesting. That’s how you move so fast, how you were able to navigate the woods, and how they managed to follow you?”
“Yes.” Svara hoped she wasn’t making a mistake. “There are ways an opponent can counter a Breather’s advantages. They need to think ahead, to know how a Breather thinks…”
“Can you teach that to one of my daughters? Ah, not by blood, family works different for us.” Inga chuckled to herself. “Cascata, the hunters’ matron. Can you stay long enough to help her understand Breathers?”
Svara considered. That all depended on how quick this Cascata could learn. “I can try. I’m not sure how long I was in the Dawnless Woods. It felt like weeks, but I know it was most likely a couple of days. I mean, I never ate…”
“So you have a couple days at most. I should think one would be the most she’d ask for, can you afford that?”
Svara nodded. “I’m sorry.”
“No, don’t be.” The elder insisted. “We’ll be in your debt!”
That couldn’t be true. It was Svara who’d been given something she could never give back.
“Let’s get you some food before I send you off with Jedrek.” Inga turned away.
“Oh, no, that’s alright…” Svara tried to protest.
“Nonsense. You just told me you haven’t eaten since you entered the forest. Here.” The elder pushed a small clay pot into Svara’s chest. The assortment of nuts and berries made Svara salivate. “We’ll make something more meaningful at dinner. Until then, the only way you’re parting with this is if you empty it.”
“Yes, elder.” Even hungry as she was, Svara didn’t think she could manage to eat all this on her own. She didn’t much like the idea of carrying it everywhere, but disobeying the elder seemed like a bad idea.
“Ask Jedrek about water, too.” Inga ordered. “I’m sure they’re back, he’d have the tact to make Trent wait outside.”
Svara hesitated one last time. The north had betrayed her family first, but betraying this secret might be worse. “Elder.”
“You can burn a live Breather. It’s easier than it will be for your hunters to burn the dead ones. The wind… when it blesses us, we become more like it. If we’re confronted with fire, we’re at a disadvantage. In those cases, we have to focus on when to Breathe and when not to. I already know your children are good enough to match a Breather one-to-one, but maybe this will help you deal with their numbers.”
Inga gave her a knowing look, one of real gratitude and sympathy. “It can’t be easy for you to share such a weakness. Thank you, dear, I’ll make good use of the information. Get along now, midday is about to pass us by.”
“Yes, elder.” Svara gave a shallow bow before leaving.
1.) It's all a conversation. Was it interesting enough?
2.) Any problems with vocabulary?
3.) This is probably the most frank discussion of magic anybody's had in the series so far. Was that disjointing in any way? And do you feel like you understand how "Breathing" works?
A.) Inga and Trent; do you remember both of them? Did anything seem out of character for either of them?