Saving Maltira chapters five and six
Short clicks sounded off the marble floor as Hilda walked briskly down the corridor towards the garden. She wore a short white tight-fitting blouse over long white pants that flowed around her ankles as she walked. Her hair was matted against her skull by an unusual gold headpiece that looked like a fancy helmet but only covered her skull and framed her face. Circling her arm were armlets of gold and gold bangles clicked on her wrists. She wore no makeup on her olive skin but her skin shone with the rose oil she had generously applied over it.
As she went to inform her parents of her trip, her mind wandered around the events of the past few days. There was something between her and Zenobe. At first, she had thought it was a carnal attraction, n after all, Zenobe was beautiful and fierce, but after loving her last night, the gnawing feeling was still there. She was beginning to think this was much deeper than raw sexual hunger or physical attraction. Then there was also the matter of mind reading. She had never mind speak with anyone before. Why could she hear Zenobe's thoughts? Even more confusing, why did it seem to be selective? She knew Zenobe was on a mission. She had spent her entire life in training not to know a spy when she saw one. But she didn't know the details. She had to know the details in other to know if Zenobe was a threat or not. The mind-reading could come in handy for that purpose if it would only go beyond what it was presented.
Hilda felt the presence before she saw the person coming towards her. She wiped her expression clear of all worry.
"Hilda”, said a soft breathy voice that reminded Hilda of the way she had eaten her breakfast grapes between Zenobe’s legs and licked the juices off.
"Hello, Mother.” She cleared her throat sharply and blinked to clear the mist that had started forming over her eyes at the memory.
Her all-seeing mother noticed the reaction but chose to ignore it. Instead, she carefully asked: "How is your friend?”
"I wanted to talk to you and Father about her.”
"Is something wrong?”
Queen Petiba came closer to her daughter.
Hilda squirmed a bit but stood her ground.
Her mother reached out a hand and hooked a finger to raise her chin even as her eyes burned into Hilda’s. "Keeping secrets are we?” she asked.
"No Mother. I just want to break the news to you and Father together."
Her mother kept staring at her a while longer, trying to break her, then she suddenly straightened. "Very well then, suit yourself. I'll see you in your Father's chambers."
The young Halfling stood and watched her mother leave. But she didn't see the smile on the queen's face as she walked away. She’s ready, thought Petiba as she went to join her husband.
Hilda walked in to find their bags already packed. "You sure travel light, don't you?"
"It makes it easier. It's not like we'd be using a coach or anything like that. "
Hilda leaned across a table casually. "No coach? Why? "
"So as not to draw unwanted attention to ourselves, a coach is more of a target for bandits than two lone travelers on horseback.”
"OK, true. I'm taking my weapons though. I never go anywhere unarmed."
"Just make them inconspicuous. I don't think anyone would take lightly to an armed woman."
“Hmm. . . I’m of the mind that they’re more inclined to leave us alone if they see that we’re not helpless women.”
“I think I know a way to fix that.”
"When do we leave?"
Hilda had a maid braid her long hair in ten strands. At the tip of each strand, she inserted a small spike. She had seen Zenobe's hair form spikes when she assumed combat mode. Too bad she didn't have that ability. But she was never one to envy others. She had abilities that no one else had and more. She could "borrow" another's ability albeit for a short time.
She went over her plans in her head. Earlier she had spoken to her mother about what was happening between her and Zenobe, conveniently leaving out the physical part. Her mother had told her to figure it out by herself. She didn't need the extra load. But the sooner she uncovered whatever mystery there was, the sooner she could determine if Zenobe was a threat or not.
A chest made of the finest wood stood at a corner of the room. Its carvings and design were foreign but it looked like a normal chest. In reality, no one could open the chest except the Halfling herself. When she was five years old she had formed the combination that opened the box: A strand of her hair bathed in her saliva. The older Hilda had given it to her as a gift at her birth. Then it was a tiny little box that fit into her palm. But as she grew the box grew with her. Now the drawer occupied a good space in the corner and it contained her most prized possessions.
The first level of the drawer contained maps some of which Hilda had drawn using the information she gathered from her numerous journeys around the world. Hilda picked a few. From the second drawer, she picked a locket that effectively hid a compass. She didn't need a compass to navigate the south. But outside on foreign soil, she knew she could get lost without it.
The two warriors rode on in silence. Both were subconsciously aware of the synchrony of their movements. They were both dressed in all black with a black veil wrapped around their heads to cover the lower part of their faces leaving only their eyes exposed. They trudged quietly along the forest until Hilda broke the silence.
"Why, exactly, are we dressed like monks?”
Zenobe blinked. "What?”
"We are covered from head to toe in this hot weather. I don’t see how dying from heatstroke is part of a tour.”
Zenobe grinned. "It isn’t.”
“So we’re dressed this way because. .?”
“Because it hides our identities and prevents sunburn.”
Hilda gave her a long look. “I’ll give you two reasons why what you just said doesn’t make sense. One, we’re in a forest; completely shaded from the sun but exposed to humidity. Two, there haven’t been bandits in these forests since the wolves moved in, so who are we hiding our identities from?”
Zenobe gave a long sigh and said, “Ok, you can take off your veil. I know you aren’t used to covering up your body.”
That comment earned her a glare from Hilda which made her chortle. “What? Your people are infamous for their amorousness.”
“Really! And what are your people known for?” Hilda retorted.
Zenobe puffed her chest and smirked. “Their wealth and valor, and . . . good morals.”
“Ha!” Hilda scoffed. “Agharea has the highest number of men with concubines. It seems because of your . . . ‘wealth’ . . . more men can afford mistresses than any other nation in the south.”
Zenobe’s mouth snapped shut as she had no answer to that and they rode on in silence.
A long while after that comment Hilda decided it was time to hunt. They had an unspoken agreement to go for a wild boar. They spotted one and moved in for the kill. They moved like they'd been hunting buddies forever. Zenobe shot arrows into its body until it fell then Hilda slit its throat. They ate what they could and dried up the leftover meat for later.
The rest of the journey was uneventful.
They rode into Queen at around sunset utterly exhausted. They were fewer people on the streets and traders were rounding up their sales for the day. Both maidens dismounted their rides and led them by their reins down the fast emptying street.
They hadn’t walked for long when they spotted a charming young trader selling earthenware. Hilda walked up to the handsome youth and whispered in his ear. The result was a sudden scramble as he packed up his wares and dumped them in a wooden box which he locked. He looked at them both and said, "follow me.”
Zenobe looked at Hilda with a puzzled expression. What did you say to him?
That I'm sore from traveling and need a massage. And that I'd gladly repay him in kind.
Are you sex-crazed?
My mother is a mistress of the west.
Zenobe shook her head. Is that going to be your excuse for everything?
Hilda merely grinned and followed the trader. When Zenobe hesitated, she stopped and turned to look at her. “Do you want to find an inn or not?”
At the Inn, Zenobe kept her bags and changed into a simple tunic and slacks before heading out to give Hilda some privacy. She toured the streets of the city and watched the people making their last rounds for the day. Queen comprised mostly of traders and innkeepers. The variety of things they had for sale brought in people from the other cities to their markets, so innkeepers flourished in their business too. Zenobe took another turn and noticed a rather flamboyantly decorated inn. Just out of sheer curiosity, she went in. A voluptuous middle-aged woman met her at the door.
"Do you care for our services?”
Zenobe looked at the heavily garbed woman and the riot of colors in her outfit. "I'm just visiting Queen for the first time and looking to have some fun while I’m here.”
“Well, you've come to the right place.”
"Do you mind if I take a look around? I might see something I like."
The woman moved to allow her entry. "Take your time. You'll find the most beautiful things in here. It'll only cost you some money."
Zenobe trotted into a corridor with a row of doors on both sides. She could hear sounds. Moans, grunts, and outright screams.
So that's what their services are, she thought, Courtesans are always in a good position to give information. Perhaps I can find one who would care for my particular needs.
Zenobe stopped in her tracks and listened. She concentrated and her white hair darkened to metallic silver. Her skin tanned as her features altered to disguise her identity.
"Please. No more. Ahhhhhhhhh! Please. It hurts. ."
The young warrior had heard enough. She kicked the door open to find a rather oversized man on a petite fragile looking girl.
"Get out!!!” The fat slob roared.
"No. You get out." Her hair lengthened to wrap around the abusive man. She flung him across the room. Then she extended her hand to the petite girl. "What is your name?”
"Why did you take on that man as a client?”
"He's not a client. He snuck in here through my window and held me captive."
"I see. Give me a minute." She dragged the slob out of Rehesy's room, through the corridor and out of the building. Then she walked back to Rehesy's room. Folding her legs under her, she sat down on the scrubbed stone floor and placed 2 gold coins into the girl's palm.
"How do you want to be serviced?” The girl asked in a soft voice.
"By talking,” Zenobe answered casually.
A confused expression clouded Rehesy’s face and tinted her voice. “I don't understand.”
Zenobe indicated for her to sit down and waited until she was sure the younger girl was listening before she continued. "I'm going to ask you some questions. I need you to tell me everything you know. Do you understand? "
Zenobe smiled at her. "Good."
* * *
The trader was lying prone on the floor! Zenobe gasped at the sight as she walked into the room she shared with Hilda.
"He didn't satisfy you?” An astonished Zenobe gaped at the body.
Hilda was lying half-naked on the bed. Her hair was sleek down her back and her posture reminded Zenobe of a languid cat. "He did. But I want more. We'll be here for a while. I need a guide who will do everything I ask."
"I'm sure he would have done everything you want if you had asked nicely.”
Hilda rubbed her chin thoughtfully. "Maybe." Then she grinned like a Cheshire cat. "But where's the fun in that?”
Zenobe circled the body. "What exactly did you do to him?”
"I cast a spell on him.”
Zenobe rolled her eyes. "Please. You're no witch."
"No. But I know a thing or two about hypnotism."
"Ahh. So he's hypnotized."
"He could be useful to you too.”
Zenobe looked at her sharply. "What do you mean?”
“I mean you can ask him whatever.”
"Thanks but I already have my sources.”
"OK.” She unhurriedly got off the bed, walked over to the prone figure and snapped her fingers. He came awake immediately and seemed eager to be of assistance.
Zenobe shook her head and smiled.
* * *
The streets were empty save an occasional passerby. Zenobe had altered her appearance again. This time darkening her hair to almost black and darkening her complexion to a deep brown. She recalled the conversation she had with Rehesy a few days ago.
"Mr. Kwalots holds the secrets of the city. If there’s anything you want to know about the affairs of the city he is the best person to ask." Rehesy had told her.
She had also given a detailed description of his place and his schedule of activities. So when Zenobe approached the large building that was Kwalots’ residence she was sure he was home and reclining in his bedchambers. She smoothed her hair and tapped twice on the door.
An elderly woman peeped through the door hole to see a beautiful dark-skinned maid outside the door. She raised an arched brow in question as she opened the door.
The maid gave her a shy smile and picked at the gold chain around her exposed waist. "I was told this is the residence of Mr. Kwalots.”
"Yes, it is. What business do you have with him? "
The maid cringed under the hard stare and tone of the much older woman's voice. She said meekly. "I was sent as a gift to him for the afternoon. He'll be delighted to see me."
The elderly woman gave her a slow appraisal and said in a knowing manner. "I don't doubt that for a minute.” She hesitated briefly before inviting her in.
Zenobe followed the woman down a hallway till she got to twin heavy wooden doors. She stopped and rapped sharply on the door before pushing it open and ushering her in.
A handsome well-built middle-aged man laid half-dressed on a large king-sized bed.
The room was dimly lit and smelled of crushed citrus. Citrus wasn't Zenobe's favorite aroma but she forced down a gag and walked seductively into the room. The door closed with a sickening thud and a certain dread settled in her stomach. Her hair began to spike and her facade faltered. She forced herself to remain calm and looked at the man on the bed.
Kwalots’ eyes shadowed every movement Layla made reminding her of a large cat stalking prey.
She took a step towards the bed and heard a click. She barely had time to register what was happening before the floor opened underneath her and she fell into some kind of shallow hole. She had been caught in a trap! Her hair rapidly lost its dark hue and her façade lifted. Fierce blue eyes stared into cold blue ones above her and she snarled at the man as he coolly closed the board over her and secured the latch.
It was pitch black and damp all around her and Zenobe cursed at her choice of clothes as the cold seeped through the flimsy fabric and chilled her to the bone. She tried to relax and figure out a way to get out of the hole but started to panic moments later when she realized she was slowly finding more and more difficult to breathe. With growing horror, she grasped that the air in the hole was severely limited. This trip wasn’t meant to only capture her, it was meant to kill her!
I promised Hilda I would go with her to the city’s arena to watch a bullfight, she mused dejectedly. Hilda! Zenobe suddenly thought of a way out her little dungeon. It was a long call because she had never tried it over a long distance, but, in the circumstances, she had no choice but to try. She calmed her nerves, shut her eyes and concentrated. HILDA!!
Hilda crossed her arms and tapped her foot impatiently as the trader tried to woo his way into the arena. A large man barred the entrance and exchanged rapid words with him demanding his tickets. Hilda was just about stopping him to do the job herself when she felt a familiar pulse in her brain. Zenobe?
Zenobe heaved a huge sigh of relief when Hilda's musical voice came through to her. I need your help. I'm trapped in some kind of cage but it's well hidden and you may need a lot of skill finding it.
Hilda spoke to the trader with her. “I need you to take me to Mr. Kwalot's residence, Reyes. Do you know where it is?”
Reyes nodded affirmatively and took Hilda’s hand.
The bulky doorman grunted as the young couple walked away.
Not too long after, Hilda stood in front of a massive building quickly devising a mental plan. She decided against entering through the front door but opted instead to go around the house and enter through the back. She had walked down a small distance when she noticed that the building was attached to a wall that continued for a long stretch far into the distance. She paused and groaned at Zenobe’s poor strategy. It was a foolish thing for Zenobe to have entered into a place with only one exit no matter how strong she thought she was. And now, Hilda sighed, she was joining in her foolishness. Not that she had any choice every second was crucial to getting Zenobe out alive. She turned to the trader. “Thank you very much, Reyes, but I need to finish my business here alone. I’ll meet you back at the inn, alright?”
He smiled wordlessly, kissed her hand and began the long walk back.
When he was out of sight, Hilda walked up to the door and knocked. An elderly woman opened the door slightly and asked her who she was. Hilda told her she was there to retrieve something from the house. The woman took one look at her hip dagger and told her rudely to go look for somewhere else to rob. She moved to close the door when Hilda shoved against the door and clamped down her open palm on the woman's wrist. As she opened her mouth to scream, Hilda stepped through the door and kicked it shut behind her simultaneously clamping her free hand over the woman's mouth. She looked into the woman's eyes and rapidly repeated a set of similar words as the woman's eyes glazed over. Then she snapped her fingers and she came alert again.
Hilda took her hand off the woman’s mouth and wiped it on the other’s dress. "A young woman was here earlier,” Hilda said. “Tell me where she is being kept."
"She is in the master chamber".
"How do I find it?”
"It's the room at the end of the hallway.”
"Thank you. Go about your activities and forget we had this discussion. "
Hilda walked away from her and walked down the hallway. Two guards stood talking. She walked right past them. When she got to the door, she noticed it was made of heavy wood. She had cloaked herself so the guards couldn't see her but if she opened the door they would suspect something was amiss. It would break her cover. She leaned against the wall thinking of what to do. Just then the door opened and a large man decked inexpensive attire walked out. Hilda looked at the man closely. He looked eerily familiar. But she had little time to waste trying to recall where she had seen him before the door closed so she just moved past him and into his chamber.
Kwalots felt a gush of air blow past him. He looked around and saw nothing. The flames lining the doorway were still, showing that there was no wind. His brows creased and he moved to return to his chambers when one of the guards spoke.
"It's time, Master.”
Kwalots looked around once more before pulling the hood of his cloak over his head. The maiden trapped underground would be dead before the end of the day but he had to move fast before whoever sent her sent others.
Hilda uncloaked herself and moved around the chambers. Everything was in order. She stood and tried to connect to Zenobe. Where are you? Silence. Zenobe! Silence. She concentrated and screamed in her mind, Zenobe!
There was a weak response and she felt a thud under her feet. She quickly knelt down and felt around for a latch. She undid it and lifted a door. Zenobe was already weak from the lack of air and had to be assisted in climbing out of the hole. She lay on the floor and drew in quick gulps of air trying to get some energy fast. The look she gave Hilda was full of immense gratitude. She recovered quickly and cloaked herself. When they got to the door, they opened it and stepped aside. The guards rushed in with drawn swords. Both women walked out the door and raced down the hallway. Once outside, they uncloaked and briskly walked to their lodge.
Zenobe sat on her bed brooding silently. She thought she was an excellent judge of character but evidently, she had judged Rehesy wrongly. An image of a petite fragile looking girl crossed her mind and she sighed. Kwalots had known she was coming. Apart from Rehesy, who else had known she was going to see Kwalots? She hadn't told Hilda anything. A thought crossed her mind. No. She only hears my thoughts when it has to do with her. Her mind went to Agharea. The entire council knew of her quest. Could there be a traitor amongst them? She thought of Agharea’s missing relic. Even with the peace being enjoyed by the nations in the south, her Father never took security measures lightly. Even she didn't know where the relic had been kept. Whoever stole the relic was either a witch or had inside help. But Agharea was too close-knit to have a traitor.
Or wasn’t it?
Zenobe sighed and pressed her fingertips to her temples. This was going to be much harder than she anticipated. One thing she knew for sure was that the relics weren't in Queen. Kwalots had to be connected to the whole conspiracy somehow seeing how he had tried to kill her, but he had left the city as the young trader had found out at Hilda's command. Hilda. She looked at the tall slender beauty that stood guard at the door. Her hand was at the hilt of her hip dagger and her hair fell in big braids down her back. She had saved her life; it just didn’t seem fair to be suspicious of her. “Whomever you meet outside these walls is a potential enemy”, her mother had told her.
Zenobe cleared her throat and spoke up: “Are you ready to leave Queen?”
Hilda answered with her back to her. "You've had enough fun, haven't you?”
Zenobe grinned and lay back on the bed, her hands behind her head. "It's not every day someone tries to kill you".
Hilda grunted in agreement. "When do you want us to leave?”
"When you're ready.”
"I have something I’d like to do. Then we leave".
Zenobe nodded and closed her eyes to sleep, but sleep evaded her. Whoever stole the relic of Agharea was either a witch or had inside help. Witchcraft was discouraged amongst the southerners. It was considered unnatural. The southern people were born with special gifts and they were taught to put their gifts to good use. Sorcery and witchcraft always had evil on its heels so they were strictly forbidden so much that they carried the capital punishment if anyone was caught practicing. No one would dare use magic in Maltira. Zenobe opened her eyes and looked at Hilda. “I know a thing or two about hypnotism,” she had said. Hypnotism was more of science than magic but still, could she be connected to all of this in a way? She tossed off the blanket that covered her and stood up.
"Rough night?” Hilda's voice floated around her and washed over her in calming waves that soothed her senses.
"I can't sleep.” She whispered.
"Let me help. Lie down."
Zenobe lay back down and Hilda began to hum a tune. She vaguely recognized the tune. She tried to place where she had heard it before but soon her senses dulled and she fell asleep.
Mr. Kwalots held a golden bow. He knelt on one knee with his head bowed as he offered the bow to someone in the shadows. An arm stretched out of the shadows to collect the bow. A masculine arm. On the wrist was a bracelet. A familiar bracelet. Where had she seen that bracelet? Suddenly she heard her name. She struggled to see more as someone pulled her.
Zenobe opened her eyes. Hilda stood over her, fully dressed.
"What time is it?”
"It's time to leave. Hurry and get dressed."
Zenobe got up and packed her bag quickly before pulling on an earth-colored gown. The young trader was sound asleep. She pointed to him.
"What about him?”
"When he wakes up he'll be fine.”
They gave some coins to the innkeeper and left Queen.