Micael Chapter 1
He could see it in the lowest boundary of his field of vision. Propping his head up in his hands rather than sitting up and resting his head on his chest, he gazed at it and frowned. Sitting just below his collarbone, fixed to the center of his ribcage, it betrayed an imperfectly smooth surface. His tunic flapped slightly in the breeze, framing it in loosely-fitting cloth. Its especially bland grayish-black color never failed to remind him that it would not reflect the light any better than it usually did. Throughout his life, his peers frequently took it upon themselves to remind him that he had the dullest core of all the Jumi.
Grimacing, he rested his head back on the ground. The branches above him shuffled back and forth, filtering the sunrays through their leaves and creating a more engrossing sight than his own core. Any amount of time could have passed by before he decided that his muscles needed to be stretched. Clenching his eyes and yawning, he extended his legs just above the plane of the hill and jabbed his arms past his head. As his own fist crunched itself into the oak behind him, he bit his lip and prepared a string of curses that would have stirred the tree itself had he not halted his voice at the sight of a female figure standing over him.
Sitting up at the notice of the sudden visitor, he shielded his eyes from the sun so he could recognize who she was. Her baggy pants and tiara gave her race away, but the bright green jewel sitting in the middle of her chest quickly confirmed who, exactly, she was.
Esmeralda clasped her hands uncomfortably in front of her. Lets go, Micael.
Ready? he asked as he sprung to his feet and brushed the grass off of the back of his cloak.
Sitting around here isnt doing us any good, the Emerald Jumi replied shortly, wandering down the slope.
Where are we headed, then? he inquired, following her and flailing at his hood, which held a spiny seed of some sort pulling at his lengthy hair.
I want to go to Geo, she declared. Thats the only place I can think to go.
Wont the others be somewhere in this area? He dusted his leather gloves and picked a few blades of grass from underneath his metal gauntlets.
Probably not, she responded, glancing over her shoulder, With all the dawdling weve been doing, were probably behind all of them.
He frowned, but said nothing. It was safer for him not to challenge her, as the vibe between them was as uncomfortable as he could stand. She maintained a sprightly pace that masked her attitude well. Micael had no trouble keeping up with her, as he was a good head taller than she, and in better physical shape. Within a few hours, she would be too tired to trot along at that same rate, and he might be able to overtake her and gain control of their path. Provided she eased up on the emotional barrier in which she had wrapped herself.
Having descended the hill, Micael turned and gazed back over his shoulder. Etansel was far out of his sight, and the chances of the Deathbringers troops finding them were slim, but he looked back anyway. The hill had been another landmark of their journey. It was there that they had confirmed that they had ventured far enough from their Bejeweled City that it could no longer be seen with unaided eyes. Days earlier they passed through a forest with the aid of a guide-- a kindly minister who purported to be visiting from Domina-- and decided that the Empires army would not be able to find its way through without similar assistance, and could not be following them closely enough to catch them anymore.
He turned back to his path and jogged a few paces to catch up with Esmeralda. She gave no indication that she heard him running aside from a suspicious cough. He stayed behind her for a while, but quickly grew tired of the silence and tried, as nonchalantly as he could, to approach her from the right side. Nearly tripping as he sidled up to her, he watched her eyes closely. They wandered a little to the left, conveniently admiring a Citrisquid orchard a dozen or so yards in that direction stretching as far along the road as could be seen. Nervously, he folded his arms, and each hand eventually began tapping on the handle of one of the two swords he kept at his sides. The identical pair of weapons rattled clumsily as he walked, and he soon forced himself out of the anxious habit and broke the silence.
What is it that you want in Geo?
Her mouth tightened a little before she responded. You dont need to come with me if you dont want to go there.
I cant leave you alone, he said. Besides, Id like to go myself.
Why? A twinge of interest in her voice threatened to outdo the annoyance.
Well, if youre right about the other Jumi gathering there, I want to be with them. His attention went back to the road and he folded his arms again.
The wind played with her emerald-colored hair as she finally looked at him. Really?
Yeah, he confirmed with slight bewilderment. His right hand grasped the sword handle on his left, and his gaze casually wandered in that direction.
She resumed studying the road for a moment. Its just that... well... I mean, I know how the other treat you. She cleared her throat. I figured youd want to take an opportunity like this to leave the community.
Micael stopped in his tracks and nailed his eyes to her. Esmeralda made it a few steps before realizing this; she stopped and turned back. Looking directly in his face, she felt her throat tighten at the sight of his horrified stare and clenched jaw. His head cocked just enough to accentuate the eeriness of his expression; his arms had dropped to his sides, dangling balled fists that threatened to move at any moment.
Where did that come from? he demanded in a barely contained fury. Before she could reply, he continued. How could you accuse me of doing-- or even wanting to do-- something like that?
I just thought that--
Im not going to desert my people just because some of them arent nice to me. Id never judge the whole race based on a handful of individuals whom I dont care for.
I didnt mean--
This is my heritage, too. These are my people. I was born into this society, and I would never curse it. And dont you ever-- he jabbed a finger in her direction; she jumped, and clasped a hand to her mouth. Instantly, he stopped talking. They stood silently for a moment, and the anger in his face dissipated. She looked at the ground, then shuffled back around and continued along the road.
He caught up with her; she was breathing heavily, suppressing the choked sobs that her cringing eyes betrayed. They kept walking, Micael matching Esmeraldas hurried pace, as he searched for something to say. He looked into her eyes, and although her brow was knotted and her lip trembling, they were completely dry. She could not cry, and the dry-eyed plague that marked their race looked all the more pathetic in the face of a devastated Jumi.
Listen, he said, Im sorry I--
No dont, she interrupted. Its my fault.
He tripped on a root in the dirt and awkwardly restored his balance. But I shouldnt have gotten so angry. I know youre not--
I miss my sisters.
Micael stopped talking. Esmeralda had let her eyes wander up, and she gazed forward, possibly staring at the now apparent crest of mountains before them. Several hundred yards ahead, peaks stabbed out of the horizon, courting a massive haze that appeared to be waiting for visitors to come and challenge the range. He had nothing to say; there was no comfort he could give to her. The Deathbringer himself paraded around Etansel with Esmeraldas siblings in tow at the start of his invasion. Before a phalanx of battle-ready Lucidia, he ordered his troops to rip the cores from the three sisters and about a dozen other captured Jumi. Esmeralda watched her sisters die before her. Micael had no idea what it meant for a Jumi to die; the best he could fathom was that, if he had any siblings, watching them die might be the worst thing to have to experience. Although, thinking about it, it seemed worse that she would never be able to properly mourn them.
He looked at her. Running a hand through his hair, he wrenched his mouth and pondered. She was still staring towards the mountains, her face devoid of expression. Tentatively, he eased his left hand towards her, hoping to catch her back. Whether she noticed or not, she skipped ahead one step and blankly asked:
Are those the Norn Mountains?
Snapping out of his thoughts, he stuttered. Uh-I think so.
She looked back at the conglomeration of trees on her left. It must be. Ill bet this is a Windcaller orchard.
Do we want to go this way, then?
We need to stop in a real city sooner or later, she stated. They should know how to get to Geo.
Ive heard stories that theyre not that easy to deal with, Micael protested.
Well, dont judge them based on what you know from a few people, Esmeralda replied flatly.
He folded his arms, maintained the distance between them, and followed silently until they reached the southeastern base of the mountains and the dense garden of rain-warped houses, sitting atop massive tree trunks, that made up the Windcaller village. Behind the orchard to their left, the sun started its nightly retreat, settling heavily on the edge of the world.
A weird silence wafted out of the town as they approached; the very air itself carried an awkward flavor to it. They barely set foot in the boundary of the village when a flurry of activity erupted around them. Squawking and flapping their wings, a mob of avian creatures surrounded the pair; their deep blue robes wafted dust in sweeping clouds. Some of the Windcallers spoke, but their cries were lost in the din about the Jumi, and very little beyond Who are you? and What do you want? could be discerned. Micael and Esmeralda backed off, but the villagers kept up their display, some stomping and digging their horny beaks at the ground in a threatening manner, others grasping at the two with their frail, human-like forearms. The disturbance abated only when a voice shot out from behind the mob.
Obediently, the entire conglomeration stopped their display. The figure that spoke, a tall member of the tribe clad in bright green robes, cleaved the mob with a gesture and walked up to the pair.
You must forgive them, he said in a high, self-assured tone. They are understandably concerned for the village after sighting the Deathbringer in the area.
Deathbringer? Micael repeated. When was that?
Some weeks ago, the head of the tribe answered, never relaxing his proud and obviously forced congeniality. He had a platoon of soldiers and a prison cart with him; a noteworthy portion of our orchards was defiled as the army progressed. We need none of that sort of rabble in our domain.
The male Jumi snuck a glance at Esmeralda. Of course. I can guarantee you we have no allegiance with the Deathbringer, he declared, twisting the name as subtly as he could.
Indeed, the green-robed Windcaller agreed. Id not suspect a Jumi of harboring an alliance with Enaanshalc. You and your Guardian may enter our city.
Im not his Guardian, Esmeralda piped up impatiently, And hes not my Knight. Were just traveling together on our way to Geo and hoped you could give us the shortest directions there.
The shortest way is through the mountains and the snowfields beyond, the chieftain answered, still looking at Micael. But youll not make it there in your state. Youll need supplies before you attempt a trip thusly. Micael moved to speak, but the Windcaller anticipated the question. We have no shops here; we choose not to conduct business with the outside world. You can buy your food at the next town. Lumina is to the east. It is a longer trip, but you will not make it otherwise. A pause fell, long enough to make Micael wonder if etiquette demanded him to say something. We will give you food enough to make it there, and you may bed in the city tonight. Another, shorter pause. We have no inn, but I offer my dwelling instead.
Micael forced an uneasy smile at the statuesque tribal head. Thank you.
The crowd dispersed slowly, and a pair of villagers accompanied the chieftain as he ushered the Jumi to the northern edge of the town, at which an extremely high trunk and network of stout planks supported a large hut, less weather-worn than most of the other houses. Upon reaching the foot of the large tree, the two accompanying Windcallers grasped Micael and Esmeralda in their spindly forearms and pumped their wings with difficulty, dragging the surprised Jumi up to the top of the pole. Micael caught sight of Esmeralda, who kept shooting nervous glances around herself and down towards the ground. Their shaky ascent ended just above the deck of the hut, and their carriers all but tossed them onto the patio of the tribal heads house.
Landing next to them, the green-clad chieftain pronounced: My abode. Sleep, but do not touch anything unnecessarily. With that, he followed the other two villagers back to the ground.
The wind felt at least twice as strong from the top of the tree trunk, which swayed quite clearly and with an irrefutable creak. Micael stood cautiously and offered his hand to Esmeralda. She drew back a bit and stumbled onto her feet by herself, creeping towards the entrance of the hut. Micael waved her in ahead of him, clutching the doorway as a gust of wind teased the lofty house.
The pair settled onto two high-standing chairs, each with a seat too small for a human to comfortably sit, in the first room of the house. Boasting a single floor with ample headroom, the modestly ornamented dwelling seemed barely able to contain the two young Jumi within its walls. Esmeralda folded her arms and darted her eyes around the hut, making no effort to conceal her displeasure. Micael unbuttoned his cloak, draping it over the back of his chair and tending to a clump of grass that stubbornly clung to its hood; he then removed his belt, resting his pair of swords and pouch of dressing cloths gingerly on the floor. With nothing to hold his robe together, he discarded it and hiked his pants up a tad. Lastly, he unhinged the jewel-encrusted gauntlets from around his forearms and slid his leather gloves off, scratching his arms fitfully for a moment, as the old leather was more abrasive than he preferred.
Esmeralda made an effort not to watch him undress, but as he stumbled around the shaky hut tending to his itching hands and searching for the bedroom her eyes could not help but follow him a little. What little she knew about him was limited mostly to his activity with the Knights. He was born a Clod, as was quite apparent by his obviously bland core. For one reason or another, Rubens had allowed him to train under the Knights; it seemed as though every so often a lower-class Jumi was given a chance to train, as if the monarchy wished to diversify the ranks of Knights. Somehow, Micael actually managed to join their order, even though nobody in his family had ever done so. He was one of few Clods among the Knights, and the only Jumi she knew of who used two swords in tandem; one of her friends claimed that he had developed his own system of sword-fighting, but that nobody else cared to learn it. More often than she remembered, he had been the butt of a good deal of jokes behind his own back, as well as a fair number to his face. Given the public opinion of him, he was not her first choice for a traveling companion.
He emerged from a cramped hallway. Theres only one bed; you take it. Ill... make myself comfortable on these chairs.
Alright, she agreed, carefully standing and easing towards the hallway. When a harsh draft kicked the side of the house, she made every effort not to fall onto him. He moved to help her stand, but she recoiled again and stumbled though the short hall and into the bedroom. Removing only her shoes, she crammed herself underneath the sheets of the narrow bed in the corner and faced the wall, praying that Micael would not attempt conversation, as she was still very much within earshot.
The young man sat in one of the living rooms awkward chairs and peered out the western window. Any traces of the sun had vanished without his notice, and his feet were tired from the walk. Stealing a glance towards the bedroom, he sighed and removed the headband that held most of his hair out of his face. With a few grunts, he settled as best as he could in the chair, slouched, and gradually fell asleep.
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