Weekly Illustrated Fiction Series:
No Dragons Press: A HIGH FANTASY Adventure
by Maggie Gibbs
Illustrations by Emily Ruf
Chapter Twenty-One: Troublesome Intent
Xenia sits, legs folded across one another, arms above her head, and begins to unwind her knots of hair. Against the firelight her motions are smooth and precise, but there’s a weariness to them that tells me she hasn’t had the opportunity to tend to herself like this in a while, and I turn my face away from her pain, her loss. We may all be in the same boat, and this may be her home, but she’s a stranger among us. How much harder losing a loved one must be for her.
Duc passes me Xenia’s water skin—something I’m sure as hell glad she had on her, because in all the commotion we hadn’t exactly found a leisurely moment for dew-collecting—and I take a grateful drink before passing it back. She’s insisted we share it among ourselves because we need it—which after our night in the woods she’s definitely right about—but I can’t help feeling slobbish, sloppy, as if we’re tainting her bottle to the point where someone so graceful would never want it back.
“You are not from this place,” Xenia says by way of opening the topic, one glowing coil after another dropping down around her face. Unconstrained, they begin to untwist, reaching to her waist.
My eyes dart around to Duc and Nate. We’d agreed to keep some of the details to ourselves, but we hadn’t exactly come up with an alternate explanation, and Xenia’s sudden not-question takes us all by surprise.
“That’s right,” Nate says, after a beat too long, though whether he’s thrown by the shift in topic or by a glowing, firelit Xenia, hair slowly coming to life around her, I’m not certain. “We’re travelers. We’ve only recently arrived in your area, and we don’t know the land enough to know where they took our friends.”
Good job, Nate.
Although Xenia shows no sign of picking up on the slight pause, it hasn’t gone unnoticed. Very little does—that I am sure of.
Her deft hands still at work releasing springs of hair, Xenia gives him a pointed look, as if to tell him she isn’t unaware of his not-quite-answer to her not-quite-question. Then, the look is gone. “Your friends—”
“Tristan and Bradley,” Duc offers.
“Tristan and Bradley,” Xenia repeats, enunciating each syllable as if testing it for sharp edges. “We will assume for now they are with my sister, yes?” A muscle clenches in her cheek as she speaks, making my own heart twinge in sympathy.
“A reasonable assumption,” Nate agrees. “What can you tell us about where all these people were taken? What lies in this direction?”
She pauses to free the final coil of hair, then nudges it aside, forgotten. “There are no cities within several kelara of here.” I may not know what a kelara is, but if the vast unbroken woodland around us is any indication, it’s not close. “I have been told there is a building on a mountain.”
“Told by who?” I ask, instantly both curious and nervous about the rest of the local inhabitants. Have I mentioned we have nothing but a Swiss Army knife?
But the icy look on Xenia’s face makes me swallow, then shut up. At least we have her—she can stop any potential enemies single-handedly, either by shooting them or just by looking at them.
“What can you tell us about the place these people are taken?” Nate asks.
Xenia looks at him for a moment without speaking, her face soft in the firelight, her hair now smooth waves around her.
I see that you’re hiding something, her manner tells us, but I’ll play along for now.
Her eyebrows are actually too perfect, I decide. They frame her striking eyes in a way that’s too proportionally balanced to be real. The full effect on Nate and Duc seems almost hypnotic. I don’t love this.
“They are taken to a building built of stone and low to the ground,” she begins, lifting a packet of leaves into her lap from where it’s been cooling beside her, “though a few I have . . . . spoken with suspect the space may continue into the ground another full level. It lies atop a steep cliff to the south, and constantly guarded by armed soldiers. Other than a small wooded area one third the size of this clearing, there is no cover at all for a ground approach.”
Constantly guarded by armed soldiers? I snap my eyes to my remaining companions at this, chilled—I’ve had enough armed soldiers to last a lifetime—but their rapt expressions remain fixed on Xenia.
A sliver of worry worms its way down into my stomach. Why do I suddenly feel like everyone is dropping their guard here way prematurely?
She lifts a slender, powerful arm and gestures with the back of a hand. “It lies perhaps fifty beats in that direction.” At our puzzled expressions, she clarifies, “Perhaps an evenlong of swift scouting, or a two-day caravan.”
Nate nods, looking thoughtful.
“What about the people you’ve spoken to?” Duc says, leaning forward. “What are they like? You’re the only person we’ve met so far.”
She nods slowly, as if to herself. “That is fortunate,” she observes. “Anyone you meet out here has a troublesome intent.”
“Including you?” I say before I can help it.
Xenia raises an eyebrow and does not deny this.
“Where is the nearest town?” Duc asks, his face neutral. I try not to give away my desire to hear her response; we’d agreed that a town was our best option for discovering what the locals did and didn’t know about our brand of visitors—and whether or not there another portal exists somewhere.
But Xenia does not respond. She places her food packet on the ground next to her again and straightens, resting her hands lightly on her knees with an air of casualness that, I’m sure, could turn deadly at any time. It feels as if she imbues the entire space around her with power. I’ve never met anyone more vibrant.
“Perhaps it is time to tell me more about yourselves,” she says in a tone that says it isn’t a suggestion. She peers at Nate, our unofficial leader, and Duc and I lock eyes across the fire. He gives me a pantomimed gulp.
Nate nods, then sets his own food down. He takes a deep breath, as if to steady himself. “We’re from another place, very far away. We’re lost, and we’re trying to find our way back.”
Xenia peers at Nate, then gives a little nod, as if it’s settled. Though somehow I doubt she’s letting us off the hook so easily.
“And what is the link among the three of you?” Xenia asks. “What is the bond?”
I open my mouth to respond, then shut it again. The bond? Good question . . . does being stranded in another world together count? Does she want to know our work history? I look to Nate, then Duc.
“We’re friends,” Duc says simply, apparently not any more certain of the existence of a publishing industry in this world than I am that Tristan would ever find what he needed to make a new portal. “Tristan and I have been friends forever,” Duc says, “and Nate almost forever. Addie is a more recent friend.”
Xenia’s hawkish gaze assesses me, dark cloud of hair hovering around her like a shroud. “And the other?”
I scowl, trying to decide what to say. What qualifiers do I use for a man who—
“He wasn’t supposed to be here,” Nate says, and I could hug him for the tone of finality in his words. Discussion over.
Xenia gives us another assessing look, but she lets this go, too.
“Tell us your story,” Duc prompts, gently enough to make it a request and not a demand.
Xenia’s face tightens. Motionless, her shadowed features jump and dance wildly as she stares into the fire.
Then she begins. “I have a tribe, many evens from here.” She points vaguely southward. “My sister and I”—there’s that clenching of the jaw again, that tell of deep emotion—“were on our way to visit another tribe, across the dunes.” She looks at us, checking for understanding.
Nate and Duc look confused, but I nod. They may be covered by forest and dirt instead of grass, but the topography of this world looks much like the glacial hills that roll through portions of the Midwest, which resemble nothing so much as giant green sand dunes.
Xenia nods. “We have visited these lands before. Dwellers we encountered were always open, very welcoming.”
She pauses, looking almost wistful, and I have a few seconds to wonder what Xenia might consider welcoming. Then she shakes her head and the expressionless mask is back, leaving her face all the more empty.
“On this trip, however, we found shutters closed where they would otherwise be open, fences barred. From the stories we pieced together, we began to learn of djinn from the darkness, beings that took people from their beds at night.”
She glances quickly around at us, as if to gage our interest. At my own rapt expression—no doubt flanked by two others—she returns her gaze to the fire.
“Children in my tribe learn to defend themselves from a very young age, at home or in any foreign situation.” I almost smile at the image of a five-year-old Xenia, terrorizing squirrels and other children with a pint-sized bow and tiny scowl. “Not all tribes are so determined in their education.”
Her mask falls again, just slightly. But it could be the fire.
“My sister and I are both considered top warriors in our tribe. For someone to dare attack either of us is almost beyond telling. For someone to succeed . . .” She shakes her head, barely. “Like you, we were certain that we had nothing to fear.”
I look at her sharply. I can recognize a clenched knot of guilt when I see one, and Xenia’s been walking around with a massive one right in her gut. But she’s not admitting it, either to us or to herself—likely both—and I’m not about to put her on the spot. I wonder if Duc and Nate understand this, or if it takes a kindred spirit to see it.
Before my heart has a chance to lurch for her, she goes on. “Alone I could do nothing, but now . . .” Now she fixes her eyes on each of us in turn, her eyes gleaming. “The steepness of the mountain prevents approach from the rear. But with someone to help draw away the soldiers guarding the entrance, I have a chance at breaking in.” She clenches her cheek muscle again, twice. “I have a chance to save my sister.”
Nate reaches over and places his big hand on her upper back, and now my heart lurches for an entirely different reason. “We’ll get them back,” he says, his low voice a promise. “We’ll find your sister.”
Xenia nods stoically, and I try not to notice that Nate’s hand still rests comfortingly on her back. I look at Duc, my eyebrows raised in an are-you-seeing-this expression, but he’s looking into the woods, his face oscillating between worried and distraught.
“So let’s see,” Nate continues. “constantly guarded, huh?” He waits for her nod.
“Well, I think it’s clear what our next step is,” Nate says, finally dropping his friendly hand and hoisting himself to his feet.
This time I catch Duc’s eye. We both frown. “Not to all of us,” I point out.
Nate ignores me, wiping his hands on his jeans in a gesture of finality. “One evening of swift travel, you say? Xenia, open to leading a small scouting mission of two?”
She nods, not a trace of expression on her face. And boy do I have no trouble guessing which of us is going with her.
“Wait,” I say when the rest of it catches up to me. I exchange a shocked look with Duc, then dart my eyes around the unfamiliar forest before settling them on Nate’s unwavering eyes. “You’re leaving us here?”