Chapter Four

Hidden Identities

Shining silver gold light filled a long, windowless corridor. Asa stood at one end, hair glowing and eyes sparkling in the light. There was an open door at the other end of the hall, the source of the gold glow. Oddly calm, Asa began to walk toward the doorway. She walked slowly, long hair billowing down her back.

It seemed to take a long time to reach the door, though it didn't appear to be very far. When she did reach the tall door, she waited a moment, as if looking for confirmation that this was indeed the right door. Smiling, she stepped through the door, into the center of the light.

Someone spoke a single word in a strange, high, ringing language that Asa didn't recognize, and the glow diminished. Now Asa could see that a woman stood there. But—Asa drew breath sharply—no woman could be that beautiful. It simply wasn't possible. She had hair of gold thread, golden eyes as mysterious as a cat's, and skin as fine and smooth as a child's. It was a simple, obvious beauty, yet the true beauty of the woman could not be seen. If Asandhael had been asked a day ago if anyone could be perfect, she would have said no. Now… her answer may very well have been yes.

"Asandhael Verakhis." The woman spoke Common. "I am Savannikha. I have a message for you from the god Okhithron." Even her voice was beautiful and deadly. Any who heard it were caught in a spell, until the woman herself released them. Savannikha. It was the voices of a thousand songbirds, of waves lapping against the shore, and of a pack of wolves, mourning the loss of their leader. Both beautiful and horrible.

Asa could not reply. She nodded feebly.

"The Lord Okhithron wishes to tell you this: At least once in their life, everyone is given the choice between doing what is right and what is easy. That choice is theirs to make, and theirs alone. No one can sway that decision. For some, it is a simple task they must fulfill to do what is right. For others, the task is of great difficulty. This is your task. You now believe that your task is to find the southern king, and cure your mother of the shadows calling. But it is a far greater task that you know, though its true identity shall not yet be revealed to you.

"Now I must give you this, though I cannot tell you its uses now. You will find them in time." From her shining gold robes she pulled a gold pendant on a thin gold chain. Asa reached out a shaking hand, and Savannikha placed the pendant in her hand. She clasped it tightly, and pulled it toward herself. Opening her hand to reveal the pure gold pendant in it, she peered at the smooth gold face closely.

It was an image of the sun, with nine rays of light extending from it. It was small, only about an inch across. IN the circular center of the image, there was carved a tower. The tower was plain, its tip coming to a sharp point. Holding it reverently, Asa clasped the chain around her neck. Settling it under her shirt, she turned to look back at Savannikha. She was gone.

Asa opened one eye at a time, peering up at the sky. Where was she? Ah, somewhere along the road to Vardim Wood. Sitting up with a groan, she untangled herself from her blankets, and looked around. Vul was still asleep, snoring lightly. Asa grinned. The fire had gone out, its remains only dusty black ashes. She looked over to the horses and donkey. Nathu watched her dully, looking extremely bored.

Picking up a towel, Asa traipsed through the brush, to the pond. Suddenly remembering her dream, for that was what it had been, she reached up to her neck. The small gold pendant hung there beneath her shirt. Asa pulled it out and examined it carefully. A small gold sun, with a tower in its center. But it was a dream, wasn't it? Asa thought. It wasn't real. But the thing that hung at her neck was real. She could feel it; see it.

Asa pinched her arm. Yes she was awake, very awake. She shook her head. It wasn't worth worrying about. Weirder things had happened in the world. Besides, wasn't the thing that lead her to come to Vatharaea a dream, or something like it?

She stripped down to her underclothes, and dove into the pool. The water was crystal clear. Glimmering wet white rocks littered the bottom. Propelling herself downward through the water, Asa reached the bottom and picked up one of the white rocks.

It's an odd feeling, being underwater, Asa thought. Instead of being able only to move along horizontal lines, you can move yourself up and down along a vertical line. Asa had always been good at swimming, having grown up on the Quetilan River.

All Sanornese and Quetilani people were naturally good at swimming. Asa, Vul, and all their other friends had spent a lot of time floating around on the river, day after day in the hot summers. That's a thing of the past now, Asa though sadly. No longer could she forget all her troubles in a day of swimming and fishing.

Running out of air, the woman surfaced, still holding the rock. Treading water, she tossed it up. It sank quickly, and hit the bottom, settling back in place among its fellows.

Floating quietly on her back, Asa stared up at the sky. A pink tinge was just beginning to creep up into the clouds, the world was beginning to wake. A bird let out a clear, ringing call, and other answered it. The day's head had not yet come, but it would be another bright beautiful day, like the day before. Asa smiled. It was September the 5th. In little more than a month, Asa would turn 20, marking her coming of age, when she could truly be considered a woman. But that happy though also brought a wave of sadness. In normal times, times of peace, when her mother was well and her father still at home, she would have been given a great party. Toasts would have been made, she would have been married off to some merchant's greedy son, and she would have received boatloads of useless knickknacks that would eventually be passed down through all her descendents, no one knowing what to do with them but reluctant to throw them away.

Now none of that would happen (though she didn't grieve the loss of the knickknacks or the merchant's son). There would never be a day of dancing and feasting, storytelling and singing. She would never wear a circlet of golden autumn leaves upon her brown hair, as her mother and all her mothers before that had done.

Without warning, Asa swallowed a mouthful of pond water. She choked, and floundered, but only succeeded in taking in more water. The woman felt herself sinking, and fought to rise to the top of the water. But she only sank lower, like the stone she had so carelessly tossed into the pool.

Strong hands and grasped her beneath the arms, and lifted her to dry land. Coughing, she turned her head and spewed pond water onto the ground. Lifting cold hands, she rubbed water from her eyes, so that she could see Her rescuer. Vul stood over her, watching in concern as she rid herself of all the water she had swallowed. The man could not help his gaze lingering on her barely covered body.

Asa blushed, cheeks as pink as the sky above. Reaching for her towel, she said, "You look tall from down here."

Vul laughed, and offered her a hand. She took it, and gracefully lifted herself to her feet, wrapping the towel around her shoulders to hide her body from the man's piercing brown-eyed gaze.

"I thought you were a better swimmer than that," he remarked. Asa bent down to pick up her clothes. She straightened, and glanced at Vul, looking slightly wounded.

"Of course I can swim. I was just… distracted."

"Ah," Vul said annoyingly. "I see."

Asa sighed, exasperated. "If you must know, I was thinking. Now go on, I'm getting dressed." She shooed him off. He smirked, and disappeared off through the path to the clearing.

The woman watched after him for a moment, then began to rub herself completely dry. The sun was higher now, and it warmed her skin comfortably. Patches of light filtered through the leaves, creating an interesting pattern of light and shadow on the ground. She watched the shadows as the leaves moved in the light breeze. Asa's gray eyes flickered.

"Asa," Vul called. "Breakfast will be ready in a moment. Hurry up1"

The woman cleared her through. "I'm—" she paused, not entirely sure what she was doing "—coming." With a sigh, she stepped into her breeches and pulled her cream colored woolen shirt over her head. Picking up her socks and boots, she walked back to the clearing where Vul sat by the fire, stirring a pot of something. Asa dumped her boots, socks and towel on the ground, and sat down across from Vul. Sniffing the air, she pulled a small green cloth bag toward herself.

"What are you making?" she wanted to know, pulling open the drawstring of the bag. She rooted through the bag and produced a carved wooden comb. Grimacing, she pulled the comb through her tangled mass of long brown hair.

"Oatmeal," Vul replied, as he added a handful of walnuts to the pot.

Asa nodded, and winced as she ran the comb through a particularly large tangle. "It smells good." She peered into the pot. "What's in it?"

Vul glanced up at the woman. "Honey and nuts. Here." He spooned some of the oatmeal into a bowl and handed it to Asa. She grabbed a spoon, and began to eat.

"What was that necklace you were wearing this morning?" Vul asked abruptly, late that afternoon. The sky was hazing the light oddly fuzzy and dim. The air felt heavy, like the air before a storm. But there were no clouds hanging in the sky.

It's an uncomfortable feeling, Asa though. Like having all your senses cut off. Or like knowing the answer to something important, but not quite being able to remember it.

She hesitated, thinking. "A—I found it." Asa was not quite sure why she didn't tell Vul where she had gotten the sun pendant. She only knew he would find out, eventually.

"So what exactly is it? It looks valuable," the man said, glancing at the spot where the pendant lay beneath Asa's shirt.

"I'm not exactly sure," the woman replied truthfully, scratching her forehead. "I suppose it's some sort of good luck charm."

Vul nodded. "What is it made of?"

Asa pulled it from her shirt and peered down at it. "Gold I think." She rubbed her fingers over the nine rounded rays of cold metal sunlight. Sighing, she slipped it back beneath her shirt. "It's not magic, it doesn't glitter to my vision."

"Gold isn't as often used in jewelry making as silver, is it?" Vul wanted to know.

"No, it's not," Asa replied with a shake of her head. Her father had taught her a lot about the merchant's trade when she was small. She could tell the real, very rare Suthoran glass from the fake, bargain just about anything down to the lowest price possible, or convince hesitant customers to buy her wares. "Except in the Kharathadhi Islands. They make a lot of heavy gold jewelry. Why?"

Vul shrugged, like he didn't really care. "I just wondered where it was made."

Asa pulled the amulet out again and flipped it over to look at the back. "By the order of Nuaia, Lindel, Rinthalos, Galmar, Kyte, Steith, Embest, Musavre, and Berlev," she read. The woman looked up at Vul. "Who're they?" She dropped the pendant to rest back atop her shirt.

"The people who made the amulet?" Vul suggested dubiously.

The woman shrugged. "Oh well," she replied. "It doesn't really matter." But it does matter, she thought, as she watched Beotus's hooves, clomping on the ground. It's got to be something important. If only I knew what.

Two days later, Asandhael and Vulkhash's surroundings had finally changed. Though they still traveled the same road, they had left the long line of trees that edged it. The companions now passed through low green hills with little shelter, and few animals.

Black, fluffy clouds had been blown in from the east, promising a storm. Here, with no trees for protection, nothing would stay dry long. The wind whipped Asa's face, blowing her hair into her eyes. She huddled in her fur-lined cloak, pulling up her hood. It was a vain attempt. The wind only blew it back down again.

Asa shivered uncontrollably, and fumbled to pull on her fur-lined leather gloves. Her numb fingers slipped, and she dropped one of the gloves on Beotus's neck. It nearly slipped down to fall on the road beneath the horse's hooves, but she caught it, and pulled the gloves over her fingers.

Vul, who already who already wore his gloves, sat hunched on his horse's back, head bent against the chilling wind.

"We'll be at the next wayhouse soon," Asa told the shivering man in a voice weak with exhaustion from the cold. Vul didn't reply, too frozen to speak.

Sure enough, twenty minutes later, they topped a short blulff to look down on a cozy brick house and its adjoining buildings. With a cry of joy at the sigh of someplace with a fire, Asa took of galloping down the slope, Vul coming after her, just as ecstatic.

The rain hit just as Asa and Vul reached the gate off the inn. Quickly, Asa mumbled a Named Magic spell to keep the rain from her and Vul's clothes. He plucked at his cloak, seeing the rain simply roll of it, then grinned at Asa as he realized what she had done.

She smiled back as she dismounted and pushed open the short wooden gate. Vul hopped off Mirrikh and led him through after Asa, Beotus, and Nathu. When the two of them reached the entrance to the stables, a hostler came walking up. He petted Beotus's nose. The mare snorted.

"Beautiful horse, ain't she?" he said to Asa.

"Yes," she snapped irritably. "Now will you take these three into the stables so we can go inside and get out of the rain?"

"Yes ma'am," the hostler replied, bowing. "I'll be bringin' them packs up to yer rooms when I'm done."

"Good," Asa told him impatiently, and tossed him a silver khuthda from her purse. "Here, take that."

The hostler bowed again, and, taking Mirrikh's and Beotus's reigns, led them inside the warmly lit stables.

Asa peered up at the stormy sky, then hurried after Vul, who was already headed for the door to the inn. The door banged open as Vul pushed it, slammed by the wind. They stepped inside, and with their combined effort, shut the door again. Breathless, Asa leaned against the door, looking around as she brushed tangled hair from her rosy cheeks.

"Come on," Vul muttered, eyeing a big man standing casually behind the bar.

Asa smoothed down her clothes and marched after Vul, who was already headed toward the innkeeper. The woman glanced around the room warily. Its only occupants were a man in a light brown cloak, whose face was hidden by his hood, and two nut-brown skinned Sirakhathans, who sipped their drinks, watching the companions with obvious looks of mistrust on their faces. A low fire burned in the fireplace, bringing a warm red glow to the room.

"Two rooms for the night," Asa told the innkeeper firmly, not really paying attention to the tall thick man as she placed six silver khuthdas on the counter. He appeared to be the sort who had considerably more muscle than brains.

"Two rooms, you say?" he repeated, eyes flickering between the man and woman.

"Oh, don't be stupid," Asa snapped coldly, realizing the innkeeper suspected her of being Vul's lover. She almost laughed at the thought; it was so ludicrous. "Yes, two rooms."

The barman blushed and nodded. "Yes, mistress," he muttered, eyes on the ground. Recovering quickly he looked up and extended a huge hand. "I'm Naelthas. Naelthas Ytan."

Asa took the hand and shook it uninterestedly. "Asandhael Verakhis," she told the man briskly. "Now, may we go to our rooms and change into more comfortable clothes?"

"Yes, yes of course. I'll take you up to your rooms." On the left hand side of the room was a broad staircase leading up, and on the right was a lamp lit hallway. The fireplace was built to one side, with comfortable looking chairs around it. Naelthas swept the silver khuthdas off the bar and into his pocket, and led the way toward the stairs. Asa and Vul stomped along impatiently behind him, not speaking.

The stairs were not fancy, but plain and sturdy, built more to last a long time than to please the eye. Oil lamps burned in sconces along the walls, lighting the companions' way.

"It's not very safe for a lady to be traveling the roads at this time of year you know," the large innkeeper commented, glancing back at Asa.

"You speak of women as the useless creatures men believe them to be, good only for producing sons," she retorted, smiling sweetly. "I assure you, for this woman, it is quite safe. Besides, I'm not alone."

Naelthas fell silent, taken aback. "Who are you," he asked after a moment. Asa laughed.

"I wish I knew," she replied, walking past him up the stairs. "Now, hurry up and get going."

The man nodded absently, not moving anywhere. He was staring at Asa, a look of awed wonder on his pig-like face.

Vul who had watched the whole exchange with a grin on his face, as if he was watching a game of ball with rapt attention, spoke up, "Oh go on, you great oaf." He shoved the man in the back.

Naelthas nodded again, and continued on up the stairs. Asa fell back to follow him again, smiling inwardly. It was a small triumph, but it lifted her spirits, if only momentarily. They came to the top of the stairs. A long hall stretched out before them, with closed doors on either side. A tall window on the far end of the hall looked out upon the hills to the north. The rain still beat down, and, not far away, a jagged branch of lightning struck the ground. Asa counted to five before the thunder rumbled ominously.

The innkeeper led them down the dimly lit corridor, to a door near the windows. Pulling a ring of keys from the pocket of his apron, he unlocked th4e door. The man opened the door, and stepped back to allow Asa and Vul inside.

A bed stood in the corner, covered by a hand-sewn patchwork quilt. Asa grimaced slightly as she examined the quilt—she hated sewing. It was too tedious for her liking, and she had little patience for things one would expect a woman to do.

"My wife makes the quilts for all the rooms here," Naelthas commented from his place leaning against the doorframe. Asa started, and looked up at him. She had forgotten me was there.

The woman smoothed a wrinkle in the soft blanket. "It is beautiful." The innkeeper nodded his agreement.

Next to the window, which looked to the east, toward the sea, sat a bookshelf, which apparently doubled as a sort of small altar. Asa wandered over to it, hoping to find something interesting to read, but she was somewhat disappointed. The shelf only held a book called The Songs of the Gods, a fictional story called Bonefeather, and small statues of the gods and goddesses. There was one figure of Okhithron, one of Antarikha, of Orukhi god of Death, Tanatari goddess of the harvest, and of Sakhitholdos god of wisdom.

In the left wall was another door, closed. "That door leads into the next room," Naelthas said, pointing. "Your room." He nodded to Vul, who was perched on the desk that sat in the opposite corner of the bed. "The door doesn't lock. You'll just have to be sure to knock first if you want to visit each other's rooms."

Vul pushed himself away from the desk and went to open the door to his room. It was almost identical to Asa's, but slightly smaller. The woman herself, who had been looking through the desk drawers, which yielded only a stack of paper, empty ink bottle, and quill pen, noted happily that the packs had already been brought up to the rooms.

Her inspection of the room complete, Asa got to her feet and turned to Naelthas. "Well, it looks fine to me. We'll change, then be down in a minute to have something to eat."

"Good, good." And with that, the man turned and left the room, closing the door behind him.

Vul came to lean against the doorway between the two rooms. "What do you think of him?" the man asked. His dark brown, nearly black hair flopped over one eyebrow as he smiled crookedly, a smile girls back in Sanorn had once loved.

"Naelthas? He's not bad. A bit dim," Asa replied, sitting on the bed.

Vul sighed, and looked away, out the window. Again lightning cracked, illuminating the room in a bright flash of light. Thunder rumbled, closer now. "I don't know," he said softly. "But somehow, I do not trust him."

Asa snorted. "He's too stupid to plan anything evil. He's just a bumbling old innkeeper."

Vul shook his head and looked back at Asa. "that's true. But there's something more to him. Something I do not trust. He may not be planning anything himself, but he is part of a greater plan, made by a greater mast. I can feel it.

With a careless shrug, Asa pulled open one of the bags that sat on the bed. "I guess it's possible. It just doesn't seem likely."

But even Asa's disbelief in the matter didn't seem to stop Vul from believing that Naelthas was untrustworthy. "Well, at least be wary of him. I don't want anything to happen." He pulled the door shut and retreated into his room.

"I don't want anything to happen either," Asa told a sparrow which sat on her windowsill, where the overhang of the roof shielded it from the rain. It cocked its head at her, bright eyes glittering in the light of the lamp that sat on Asa's desk.

Ten minutes later, hair combed, faces washed, and clothes changed, Asandhael and Vulkhash arrived downstairs. The man in the brown cloak and the two Sirakhathans, who occasionally raised a mug to their lips, still sat there, but they had been joined by a woman and a man, both with curly black hair. They ignored the rest of the common room, talking quietly together in a corner.

Silently, the two companions took seats near the fire, and looked around themselves. Naelthas hurried around the bar and came toward them, a pad of paper and a pencil held in his ham-sized hand. "What's you like to eat?" he asked, pencil poised above his paper.

"Soup, and some bread," Asa told the man, studying him carefully. He didn't look evil to her. He just looked like a good-natured old bartender.

"And to drink?"

"Tea," Asa replied. Vul too was studying Naelthas, but he saw a different person than Asa did. He saw a scheming crook, intent on doing whatever scheming crooks did.

Naelthas nodded, and wandered off to get their food. Asa shook her head. "I still see him as a bumbling old fellow," she told Vul.

Vul shrugged. "See what you will. I still think you are wrong."

They were interrupted at that moment by Naelthas's return. "Here you go." He set a bowl before each of them, and a basket of bread rolls between the companions. Mugs he set upon the table, filled with steaming tea.

"Thank you," Asa told the man, stirring her soup with her spoon.

"You're very welcome," he replied gallantly, and loped off, back to his bar. Asa picked up her mug, and prepared to take a sip from it. Abruptly, the man in the light brown cloak stood up, and hurried over to Asa and Vul's table.

"Do not drink the tea," he said in a whisper. "It is poisoned."

A/N: Ooooh, aaaaah, what's gonna happen? Reviews pweas, you know you wanna!