Warmth and blissful numbness. Niko awoke to both, as if he were floating in an ocean of silk. His limbs felt indistinct from his body, nimbus entities only vaguely related to his torso. Cool wetness patted his brow. A cloth, he realized, held by long, delicate fingers. And then he recognized the almond darkness of Akerke’s eyes staring down at him. She exhaled sharply when she realized he’d regained consciousness.
“The winds bring you back to me, yes?” she said. Without looking away from Niko, she snapped, “Ruan. Get some fruit and meat for my guest.” Morning light poured into in through the tent-flap as the slave scurried off to fulfill her duties.
Akerke wetted her cloth and patted Niko’s cheeks and neck. “Do not move quickly, Naiz Khol. I will not have you undoing my stitching, yes?” It was about then Niko realized he was lying in her bed and the only thing between him and her was a blanket.
Niko blinked, squinting his eyes against the bright morning light. "Where am..." He stopped, gathering his wits. Though he normally woke fully alert, that blessed ability had deserted him with his wound. But it did not take long for him to remember.
"Oh." he said. Then, looking at Akerke, again he said, "Oh!" Then finally, as realization came to him, a more pronounced, "OH!" escaped his lips as he coloured red, quickly jerking the covers closer.
The movement brought a wince of pain to his face, but it was nothing like the night before- and nothing in comparison to his embarrassment. "I... that is..."
The red flush spread, as he grinned stupidly, looking fully the boy that he was. "I mean..."
Akerke raised an eyebrow, curious of Niko's odd reaction. She wrung out the cloth into a copper bowl before setting them both aside. With diligent care, she checked both his eyes and touched his brow with the back of her smooth hand. "Is there much pain," she asked. "Should not be. Herbs should relieve it, yes? But Akerke not know the heart of your people. Perhaps not give you enough." It became apparent that she thought his discomfort stemmed from his injury, not his modesty.
She tried to pull back the covers, her confusion deepening at Niko's reluctance to let her do so. Her dark eyes flashed in the dim light, a quizzical smile raising the corner of her lips. Akerke then yanked the covers back with surprising strength to expose Niko down to the waist. Her hand hovered over his chest, a hair's breath between their skin. As she did so, she stared at him intently. No. Not at him, but into him. It was as if she were gazing through his chest in search of something. She snorted with amusement when she found what she was looking for. "Foolish," she muttered.
He tried to master the grin as he clumsily tried to avert attention from his reaction to the beautiful woman. "What is ... Na is kol?"
"Naiz Khol," she corrected. "In your language, it roughly means Friend from Afar." She wrinkled her perfect nose. "Your people lack the poetry of words, Akerke believes."
"Not my people," Niko countered. "High Valyrian is not my native tongue. But I suppose you are right," he conceded. "Where are my clothes?" He continued, trying to suppress his discomfort at their prozimity- and his own nakedness. He turned so his body was oblique to her, attempting to maintain some sense of modesty. Though he had seen much in the military, he had kept far from it- a habit for which he was often teased. "I cannot lie around here all day- neither can I go out like this."
"Akerke burned your clothing last night," she admits without apology. "Too much blood on them. And they were not of our colors. New clothing shall be given to you later, something more fitting of a Dothraki. Or at least, a shadow of one."
She stood and brushed her hands over her sandsilk dress; if it could be called that, being so sheer as to be emerald mist on her copper skin, revealing the darkness of her nipples and pubic triangle beneath. With an alluring strut of her hips, Akerke walked over to an old trunk. Niko recognized its familiar design, a thing of the Dornish Marches. She unlatched its sandwood top and rummaged inside. "From this point forward you will dress as we do, eat as we do, think as we do. Akerke shall help you with that, yes?"
Akerke lifted a leather vest, painted in rich purples and gold. She folded this over her arm and then retrieved a horsehair leggings and a belt formed from bronze medallions. She closed the trunk and gestured for him to stand up. "My khal was roughly your size. These should fit you, yes?"
"And what is this vision that you had? Are you a seer?"
She smiled strangely, as if she were honored by the question. "Your curiosity does you credit, Niko. Yes, Akerke is a 'seer,' as you put it. We talk with the Winds and they tell us of many things. The past, the present, the future. All times and place touch one another, just as the Winds do. They tell me a young warrior will come to me and I am to claim him should he live the night of our first meeting. So you have and so I shall."
Niko dressed somewhat self-consciously, still asking questions to take his mind off Akerke standing there watching him.
She inspected him appraisingly as he dressed, giving him a coy smile. To his question, she nodded. For the first time in which he'd known her, sadness clouded her exotic beauty. "My khal died some years ago. His domain stretched many weeks' ride, but he was reckless and stubborn. His pride killed him, and cost me my son. I have been dosh khaleen since that dark day. But this is the past, yes? Those storms have passed."
As he finished dressing he turned towards the older woman. "And what is this... 'claim'"?
Akerke sauntered over to him and touched his cheek, "As my khas. At least until the winds carry you from us. And they shall. Until then, I will teach you our ways. Jommo's brother will teach you how to fight."
Her smile was gentle, "And in this we mean no offense. You fight from here..." she tapped his head with a delicate finger. "Not from here..." her warm hand went to his bare chest, resting over his heart.
"Such things will be your undoing, and I will not allow this."
"Why would Jommo's brother teach me?" Niko asked. The look on his face mirrored the turmoil he felt. It had seemed so simple and easy when he set out for the khalasar, but now knowing that so much had been set in motion made him discomfited. He had more questions than answers, and didn't even know how to begin to start asking. "It would seem, if anything, he'd want revenge... right?" he said uncertainly.
"You were challenged justly. You showed no dishonor in the combat, and thusly there is nothing to avenge," Akerke said flatly, as if this explained the depths of the Dothraki heart. "You spilled his brother's blood. That makes you brothers as well. That is your responsibility now. We do not follow the petty way of your Houses."
She adjusted his vest and nodded with satisfaction. "We have invited him for breakfast, yes? You will eat together and bind your paths as one."
Akerke brushed his hair back and examined his face again. She snorted with approval just as there came a disturbance at the front of the tent.
"Jokol is here," Akerke's servant announced as she pulled back the tent flap. A man stepped through, accompanied by the gentle tinkle of bells as his braids brushed across his back and shoulders. He was dressed in very fine clothes in the style of the Dothraki, the colors predominantly rich reds and dark browns. He straightened, tall and wide of shoulder, and Niko could clearly see the family resemblance to his younger brother Jommo.
Except for the eyes.
Jommo's light eyes were simple and uncomplicated, easy to understand: Honor, glory, presitge...these were things that mattered to Jommo. Jokol's eyes, however...they were the color of dark earth, quiet like an unfamiliar stream whose still surface hid just how deep the water was and what treacherous rocks lay waiting along the bottom.
"Akerke," Jokol acknowledged, though he gazed at Niko as he said it.
"Jokol," Akerke responded coldly. She directed Ruan to set the table for the trio, watching over the scrawny girl-child like a hungry hawk. Once she was satisfied that the meal of honeycakes and fruit was suitably prepared, she returned her attention to the men.
"Naiz Khol, this is Jokol," she said, gesturing for them to sit. "He is one of our finest warriors and has taken many bells in his days. He may not speak with flourish and bravado as other Bloodriders, but all his words carry meaning. Heed them as you would my own."
Jokol's eyes slid to Akerke. The corner of his mouth twitched slightly, or maybe that was only a trick of the light.
She bowed to Jokol and sat down on a lush pillow of silks and spun wool. Ruan poured sweetwater for each of the guests, but otherwise remained a virtual ghost in the background.
"I understand that you will teach me to fight as a Dothraki should," Niko said without preamble. He followed Akerke's lead then, bowing to Jokol. "You do me great honor in this," he said, studying the older man.
Early thirties, Niko guessed, though it was hard to tell with these horse men. Jokol held himself easily, confidently, completely in control. He had the upper hand here in this meeting and he knew it.
"I will teach you to fight as a Dothraki _does_," Jokol corrected, then sank down lightly to sit cross-legged beside the table. "Tell me who you are, Friend from Afar."
Akerke allowed the men to talk, quietly directing her slave to serve them and keep their goblets full. She began picking the pecans off her honeycake, eating each on in turn with languid, almost salacious, grace. Her gaze drifted evenly between the men, studying their body language and words with an unnerving intensity.
"A few names have I used, but Nikomedes Sakellaris, or 'Niko' works for the present," Niko responded. "I have truly come from a long way to arrive where I am, serving time in the Third Legion of Bronze, rising rapidly in rank and status. But that wasn't where I belonged- I could see that." He looked at Jokol more intently, sitting forward on his mat, as he continued, "And when we fought against the Dothraki, I felt the next step in my growth was here- that this is where I belonged."
Jokol cocked his head. "Why?"
Akerke smiled softly at that question, regarding Niko with keen interest. Perhaps she already sensed the answer, but would let him explain it in his own words. She remained silent, except for a lightning fast slap to her slave's hand. Without even glancing up, she'd caught the girl trying to steal some food from the table. The young girl scurried into a corner and watched the trio eat with hungry eyes.
"Among the so-called free cities, all I ever saw was an addiction to money, sex, and power, which I guess amount to pretty much the same thing." He shrugged and sighed, in the manner of one who has had illusions ripped away by reality. "I thought they were honorable and loyal to each other, but they know nothing of honor and loyalty, or what combat is really about. To them, it's just another way to get what they want."
"Not to say that there were not good people," he aded quickly, the Wall coming to mind not for the first time since he'd left. "But there are so few that they struggle just to remain true to themselves, losing what they were grasping in the process."
He looked up at Jokol. "That's not who I am, nor what I'm meant to be. I observed the Dothraki- unlike my comrades-at-arms, and saw not what they saw. Where they saw barbarians, I saw the only truly civilised people I'd seen in ... A long time." He nodded, continuing, his voice growing more fervent with the emotion in his words. "Where they saw death, I saw life."
Akerke nodded lightly, but did not speak. However, the faint smile on her lips revealed approval in Niko's words. She finished her honeycake and cleaned her sticky fingers on a wet rag that her slave instinctively handed her. The girl refilled the glasses before returning to her corner. Akerke tossed her an orange dismissively and remained focused on the conversation.
Jokol gazed back at him impassionately while he ate a piece of fruit. "It is hard," he proclaimed when the fruit was gone. "It is hard and you are not as young as Dothraki when they start their training. You are a white man, and white men are weaker. I would not entertain your fantasies about aspiring to become one of us."
He was silent for a moment as he ate another piece of fruit thoughtfully, then washed it down with water. He rested his weathered hands on his knees.
"However, it is not my decision," Jokol continued. "The Khal has listened to _this woman_ or has received a vision himself concerning you. It is not my concern. The Khal has ordered me to train you to replace Jommo as brother. This I do, because the Khal orders it. Do you understand?"
"_This_ woman has a name Jokol," Akerke said coldly, her eyes burning with an unnatural glow; perhaps a trick of shadow and sunlight. "You would do well to remember it. Perhaps as you teach the Pale One the art of the blade, he can teach you the art of tact, yes?"
Jokol grinned at Akerke, looking at her fully for the first time. "The she-snake has teeth. I will beware, for I do not want to find her fangs sunk into my ankle and her venom in my blood."
His words sounded sincere, but he was still grinning.
She stood up stiffly, the bells around her waist swaying silently. Her body hummed with predatory tension. "The winds told us of this one's coming. They have told us of a great many things. They have told us of a red eye and wings of fire. The Burning One will soon rise and we must be prepared for the time of woe and change she brings. Our Khal understands this. This one holds secrets he does not even understand. If teaching him our ways is the price for their revelation, then that is a small price, indeed."
"Secrets he does not even understand." His tone of voice skeptical, Jokol nonetheless turned his attention back to Niko, eyes narrowing disconcertingly as he restudied the younger man.
Akerke returned to the chest from which she'd retrieved Niko's clothing. This time she took out a long curved blade with an ornate hilt. In Westeros, the gemstones alone would fetch a small fiefdom. She tossed it to Niko, "You may use my Khal's blade during your training. Let his spirit guide your hand and my faith in you give your strength."
Niko caught the blade easily. Uninterested in the ornamentation, no matter it's value, he drew it as he looked at the metal. He was used to his own blades, and trusted them. But there would be time for those later.
After listening to Akerke's words just as intently as he had Jokol's, he nodded slowly to the older man. "_You_ would not train me, because you think I will be a weak link, even as a smith would throw out a link that did not properly take to the fire," he answered. "You do not think much of the decision, but once made, it is not your place to question it."
His eyes intent on Niko, Jokol nodded curtly once.
He then looked to Akerke. "_You_ would pay the price of the gods for their insight into events that would destroy the khalasar."
He bowed to them both from his sitting position, very low. "Both of you will see that I shall be more than either of you thinks at this time. But no matter what, one thing will remain true."
He straightened, his young unlined face very serious as he looked to the two of them. "For whatever reasons you have, I am fortunate to have your guidance, and will never shame your teachings."
Jokol grunted in reply. Niko would have to prove his words to him.
Her eyes narrowed to dark slits as she regarded Jokol, "Don't make your brother's mistake with this one." A cold smile revealed the white of her teeth.
Jokol's amused grin returned. "I am not my brother, Akerke. Don't make my brother's mistake with me."
He stood and placed his hands on his hips. "Boy," he said to Niko, "You have been given a weapon worthy of a Khal. Let us see if you have any idea how to use it."
Standing easily, Niko followed Jokol out of the tent into the glaring sunlight, studying the man even as he did. He remained silent, awaiting Jokol's next instruction.
Jokol left and strode away without a backward glance to either Akerke or Niko. He walked with the bowleggedness typical of one who has spent most of his life in the saddle, but his gait was still controlled and economical in execution. As they traversed through the khalasar, Jokol became the bow of a human ship, the sea of Dothraki parting respectfully in front of him and leaving Niko to walk in his empty wake, a spectacle for the curious--which every Dothraki was--in the dead khal's clothes and carrying a khal's sword.
The older man lead Niko to a training field in the heart of the khalasar. A small group of boys practiced wrestling there, the eldest maybe five years younger than Niko. At a curt word and gesture from Jokol they scurried off, leaving the field vacant.
Jokol removed his vest and, while walking over to a stand of practice weapons at the edge of the field, folded the vest carefully and gently laid it on the ground. He picked up a long curved sword from the practice stash of the like Niko carried, chipped and heavily used but live steel nonetheless. He turned then to face Niko, acknowledging him for the first time since leaving Akerke's tent. His chest was hairless, strong, with a white scar running along his left side below his ribs.
"Defend yourself," he said simply, raising his sword to point at Niko's heart.
Though the sword Akerke had given him was lighter than those used by the mercenaries of Braavos, it was heavier than his own. The balance was good- it was indeed well crafted- but he would have to exert himself more than he was used to. Turning his left side towards Jokol, Niko gripped the razor-sharp arakh in both hands, the point barely above the ground. He exhaled slowly, his focus narrowing to include only Jokol as he awaited the impending attack.
Jokol smiled. He gripped the practice sword with his right hand only and matched Niko's stance, albeit right foot in front rather than left. He was perfectly still for the space of several heartbeats, muscles relaxed, barely breathing, a stone god. Then with no warning he exploded forward, bringing his sword around in a tight arc near his shoulder to deliver a downward strike.
Overhead stikes weren't normally that difficult a strike to block--they had the disadvantage that one could see them coming--but Jokol's speed was extraordinary.
Niko could see that it would be possible for him to block, but with the weight of the arakh he held, and Jokol's speed, it would leave him open to a possible counter. So, waiting until almost the last moment, he glided backwards, and to the right, keeping distance between himself and his opponent, letting the sliver of steel pass within bare inches of him as it whizzed past. He made no attempt to strike, instead keeping his attention focussed solely at Jokol's center, waiting.
Jokol used the momentum built up in his sword to quickly turn his blade in a tight arc that brought it into a level strike that--if Niko did nothing--would slice him through from front to back through his belly. He glided forward a step with the strike so he was to Niko's left.
Again, Niko knew that if he simply parried, Jokol could bring his greater strength into play. But he also knew that without giving up more ground than he wanted, he could not simply move out of the way of the stroke. Bringing his arakh into play, he held it at an oblique angle, looking to parry the blow upward. At the point of contact, he gave way, bending backward to let the blade pass, even as he kicked at the man's inner thigh with the point of his toe.
Jokol's blade deflected easily. There was not much power in the strike, only speed. Apparently he was holding back. Niko's kick made contact and he was rewarded with a barely audible grunt from Jokol. Niko was off-balance now, having bent backwards to avoid the sword and extended himself to kick, and Jokol seized the opportunity to push him over with his free left hand. Niko toppled.
Halfway expecting this reaction, Niko wasn't surprised and somersaulted backwards, using the momentum imparted to him by Jokol to put space between him and give himself a chance to breathe. Much of Niko's success in arms had to do with innate skill, but an equal part- the part that made up for inexperience- had to do with the fact that noone expected someone of his age to be able to fight as well as he could. Jokol already knew with deadly certainty that the boy could kill, and as such was leaving no room for error- Niko was having to exert himself more than he wanted just to keep up with the older man.
He stood with his blade held down, across his body, crouched and ready for Jokol's next movement.
Jokol straightened and lowered his sword. "That was a sacrifice move," he stated. "Inspired, but risking your life just to kick me in the leg isn't a wise investment. Perhaps you milk men are soft there, along the inside, but Dothraki live in the saddle. You will find no warriors here whose legs are not like iron."
Niko nodded, thoughtfully, looking at Jokol's corded legs. His mouth set in a grim line as he chided himself for not noticing that.
"Do you like the snake?" Jokol continued, gazing at Niko thoughtfully. "You fight like one, waiting and biding your time for the right opportunity to strike. This has worked for you in the past, hasn't it? You are underestimated because of your age, you feed into that underestimation by playing a defensive game, then you strike."
Niko's eyes widened at that, even as his spirit fell. He couldn't beat him- not now, if ever. This man read him like a book. Despite himself, he sighed as he realized how much better than he this man was.
Jokol paused, then chuckled. The bells in his braid tinkled faintly. "The drawback of the snake is that when it strikes, it commits all. If it misses, its neck is extended and I will cut off its head. Remember that, boy. You play the snake, you pick a better target to strike, or it will be your head on the ground. The Dothraki know the snake."
The older man chuckled again and stepped forward with his left leg. He slid his blade into a relaxed position behind his right hip. "Now you attack me."
Niko squared his shoulders, regarding the older man. He was never one to turn away from a harsh reality, so he truly looked at the warrior in front of him. The man was fast, if not faster, definitely stronger, and could wield this large blade better than Niko could. How must he attack? He almost despaired at the answer. A straight attack he would be expecting- would block- and then his greater strength would come into play. He could apparently read Niko better than he had thought, so a feint was chancy at best.
Exhaling a stream of air between clenched teeth, Niko slid his right foot forward. He began to settle into a stance opposite Jokol's- then rose to the balls of his feet, darting forward suddenly. Freeing his mind of thought, he waited until he was almost on Jokol before bringing his arakh up in a gleaming arc of steel. But though this attack was not a feint, there was little force behind it- he intended to strike twice, not engaging with the first strike, but bringing his blade back down as he raced past at full speed.
Jokol brought his sword across with the grip reversed. When he realized the first strike had no power behind it, he pulled the sword around in a figure eight, blocking the second strike at the same time he shot out his leg and tripped Niko as he rushed by.
Unable to arrest his motion, Niko tucked and rolled, recovering, if ungracefully. His vision blurred as he blinked rapidly to keep tears of frustration from forming. Taking up his guard again, he spit dust from his mouth, his lips pressed into a bloodless line as he faced down the older man.
Jokol gazed back at him dispassionately.
Struggling to maintain his composure, Niko advanced, slowly, the large blade blade held on his right hip as he changed stances. As he reached lethal distance he brought the arakh through an arc, finally engaging in a seemingly standard maneuver.
The older man blocked Niko's strikes but did not return them, playing a purely defensive game. "Which is a better target for you?" he asked Niko. "My hand holding my weapon, my legs on which I stand and move to fight, or my belly where my life resides?"
Niko did not stop, but answered even as he struck. "All three are valid- it depends on what I want to do, and what you are not paying attention to."
He swung a short, tight arc towards Jokol's hands. "There if I wish to disarm you- it does not end the fight, but makes it less likely you can continue."
Jokol blocked easily.
His eyes did not move, but even has he checked his swing ready for an attack, he swept his right leg in a short arc towards Jommo's kneecap. "There if I want to hinder your mobility. Again it will not end the fight, but you will not be going anywhere any time soon."
The older man sidestepped out of the way.
His confidence increased with each swing. He looked towards Jokol's middle as he struck. "There if I want to end the fight for sure." But his blade did not follow his eyes, as he quickly brought it in a short, tight arc towards Jokol's neck.
Jokol brought his blade up to block, putting considerable force behind it so it knocked Niko's blade off-line and he'd have to readjust. He followed up immediately with a full-stregth sidekick to Niko's thigh, just above the knee, knocking him backwards. Had it been a few inches lower, his kneecap would've been gone.
Niko knew he was outclassed, but was too stubborn to give in. Even with the fact that Jokol had saved his knee, Niko could barely stand- there would definitely be bruising the next day.
"You assume I look at your eyes to see where you will strike next. A warrior looks past his opponent to gaze at the mountains. He sees all equally this way. You understand?
Niko nodded sullenly, sighing to keep the disappoitnment off his face.
"Only young boys barely weaned off their mother's milk fight two-handed. You build up strength in your arm, fight one-handed like a Dothraki. Carry knife in other hand."
Almost self-consciously, Niko looked at the sword in his hand. His were so much... smaller. How could he be expected to wield this monstrosity one-handed?
Jokol lowered his sword. "Enough for now. Go back to Akerke, have her tend to your shoulder." He grinned rather ferally. "And other things, perhaps."
He nodded again, not trusting himself to speak. Sheathing the arakh, he walked through the crowd that had gathered, his head down, not even blushing at Jokol's dismissal even for its ribaldity. The crowd parted, as they silently walked him walk back alone. Niko presumed it was for his bad showing, and didn't even look up the whole way back to the tent- he didn't think he could take more of this right now. But what he didn't know was that while quite a few did look at him as he thought, even more looked at him with a modicum of respect in their eyes.
Arriving back at Akerke's tent, Niko was weary, sweaty, and covered in dirt and dust. He finally looked up to see if Akerke was in the tent, calling out to her. "Akerke?"
The tent smelled heavily of sandalwood and roses. Several flaps had been pulled back to let in the day's light and create a comfortable breeze. Food and drink had been laid out on the table, their rich spices mixing with the heady perfume. Akerke herself was instructing her slave to fill a tub of water. She turned when she heard her name and smiled pleasantly.
"You have returned," she said, beckoning him over. "And just in time too, yes. Come, come. Give Ruan your clothing and she will wash. Then we will help you before muscles cramp. Want you ready for tomorrow."
Her dark eyes glittered, "And tonight."
So tired and disappointed in himself was Niko that he didn't even pay attention to her words, nor the fact that the tent was open. He placed his blade carefully in the corner- but that was all that he showed care about, uncerimoniously removing his clothing.
Soon, he was in the tub, the hot water relaxing his muscles as he sat with his eyes closed, and thought back on the day.
Niko heard Akerke shooed Ruan out of the tent to wash his clothing. A moment later, something cool and slick dripped onto his shoulders, filling the air with the soothing scent of saffron. Long, powerful fingers slid down his neck and chest, working the oil into his skin and muscles. He could feel her firm breasts press against his back, bare and warm.
"You are disillusioned," Akerke said flatly. "This is not what you envisioned, yes?"
Normally Niko would be flustered by the woman's presence, but his mind was so pre-occupied that this failed to jar him. "No," he said quickly. Then, "Yes." His brow beetled as he thought for a moment. "Both. More confused than anything. And frustrated." He nodded. "Yes. Very frustrated." He lapsed into a brooding silence.
She continued to diligently massaging his aching muscles, pausing from time to time to splash some cool water onto his skin to get rid of the grime. She sighed faintly, leaning into his back. "You are foolish, Niko. You cannot learn our ways in one day. You have not unlearned your own yet."
He echoed her sigh, but with more of an edge to his own.
Akerke slid around and sat beside him, so she might look into his eyes. As he suspected, she had disrobed to reveal her slender, almost feline body. She brushed back his hair and smiled.
As deep as he was in his own thoughts, the sight of the woman did fluster him, making it hard for him to think. As a soldier, even as young as he, he'd had several opportunities to be with women. But he didn't like the way the other men were around them, nor how they treated them. So he stayed away.
Even naked, it was hard to judge Akerke's true age. She was definitely a woman, having the sensual curves borne of motherhood. Yet her skin remained relatively unblemished and smooth; a sign of youth. Of her confidence in her body, that was undeniable.
"What is it that drives you? Is it this?" She tapped his head. "Or this?" Her hand went down to his heart. "Or perhaps even this?" Without shame or pause, she lightly gripped him between the legs, only to release him just as quickly.
He stiffened, almost jumping out of the water. He wanted to say something but what that wouldn't make him appear an idiot?
The dark flash in her eyes gave him a silent warning to remain exactly where he was. However, his choice to hold his tongue did appear to impress her.
She sniffed, almost annoyed with his brooding. "Well? Where is your fire?"
By now, almost fully distracted from said brooding, Niko merely stammered, unable to think. "I... think perhaps I have been in here too long?" he said, attempting to rise, but finding that he'd had an ... embarrassing response. He flushed, staring down at the water.
His response did not go unnoticed, and she smiled appreciatively. However, her eyes remained locked on his; a serpent's gaze that held him like a trapped mouse. "Don't be a fool, Niko," she said sternly. "You will be one of us. The winds have ordained it. You cannot escape your fate, any more than you can outrun the wind. Eventually, it will find you."
She reached out and brushed his cheek, holding his head up. "Do not be ashamed of who you are. You are not defined by where you come from. You are not defined by your blood. It is your spirit that defines you, that guides you. But you have lost your spirit, yes? I can sense a great emptiness in you. The winds within your heart howl and swirl in a meaningless tempest, yes?"
"The winds are eternal," Akerke said softly. "But they can be tamed, harnessed."
The wisps of incense appeared to drift toward her, as if silently beckoned. They filled the nose and mind with intoxicating scents. Beyond where they sat appeared to stretch away and disappear into shadow. All the existed were Niko and the woman before him.
Her fingernail lightly followed the pulse in his neck. "The wind touches you, me, the camp. It even touched your home across the Narrow Sea. All are connected by the winds. And thus, you are always connected to the world. You are never alone.
"But if you fight the winds, the storm inside will strengthen. You cannot fight a storm, Niko. You cannot fight the wind. You need to learn its currents, its heart, and the essence hidden within. Only then can you tame it, harness it. Borrow its strength when you have none."
His brow furrowed as Akerke's words confused, rather than soothed his mind.
She moved closer, kissing his forehead, his cheeks. Into his ear, she whispered, "I can teach you those currents, Niko. I may not wield a sword, but I have strength. I will share it with you, if you but ask. But ask you must, yes? This is not a gift to be given. It is a burden to be shared."
Her eyes glittered like polished glass. Beyond them lurked angels and demons, eager to come out. But which of them would in the end?
Pulling back, Niko looked into the woman's eyes, seeing all that she said, and more lurking within. His eyes narrowed, for her gaze bore the intensity common to either the predator or the insane. Must he draw back or jump with full conviction into the gale that she showed him?
"I," he stopped as his voice cracked with the intensity of the feelings she engendered, then cleared his throat before trying again. "I would ask for your teachings," he said, his eyes never leaving hers.
Akerke nodded with a knowing smile. And then her expression cooled like frost on tall grass. "Very well," she said, "From this point forward, we walk as one. There will be no illusions, no secrets, yes?
We shall share the same home, the same meals, the same bed." She
paused, letting the last words reveal their grave weight. "The same heart.
"Nothing shall stand between us."
The water was suddenly cold for no reason that Niko could discern. Or was it just the chill down his spine?
She stood up, water cascading down her slender form. She cast her hair back, so nothing stood between them. She took Niko's hands and pulled him forward so that he was kneeling before her, his eyes level with her curved belly. One of her sharp nails went to his chin, lightly outlining the line of his cheekbone.
"First, we shall have truth," she said, her eyes flashing with sensual menace. "Why do you fear me?"
Niko started to answer flippantly, for he feared no man nor woman. But he paused. There must be a reason that she thinks this, he thought. Then he flushed.
"I do not fear you," he said matter-of-factly. "But what you represent, I suppose, more than anything, discomfits me."
Akerke sniffed at that, but her smile betrayed acceptance. Outside the wind shook the hide walls of the tent, creeping in under the flaps to make the candles flutter. In the wavering light, the woman before him appeared to drift between shadow and substance. "Wariness we can accept," she said. "And it is prudent. There is danger in what I teach, more so than any blade, any spear can ever hold."
Niko looked at her warily, hanging on every word. His young face was intense in its conversation, stray wet hair plastered to his face unnoticed.
She stepped from the tub, and pulled a loose robe around her dripping body. She gestured for Niko to do the same. As he climbed from the tub, she went to the small shrine at the corner of the tent. Once there, she ignited a piece of charcoal in a polished brazier. Upon this, she dripped rust-colored oil upon the glowing coal, immediately filling the air with a coy and alluring scent.
Niko kept his eyes on her, but the fire revealed only concentration, not lust, in his pale blue eyes. He silently rose from the tub, unselfconscious now in doing so- he was too rapt to pay attention to his nude body as he wrapped the proffered robe around him.
"Tonight, you will learn about the south wind," she said, kneeling down before the shrine. "The south wind is the Wind of Flame. It controls passion and the will. Until you can understand it, you will be a helpless slave to its influences."
She turned her head slightly, those infinite eyes regarding him. "Tell me," she said, "When you fight another man, what is it that you seek?"
"It depends," Niko answered slowly. "Though there is a purity in battle, it is not an end, only a means. I further my skills not to war with flesh and blood, but powers and principalities." What he said did and did not seem rote. It did in that he quoted someone, but it didn't in that he had made it his own. "Steel is only as strong as the flesh behind it, and that flesh only as strong as the will that drives it."
Akerke crinkled her nose in disappointment, narrowing her eyes at him. "You do not gaze deeply enough, Naiz Khol. The Dance is but the mask for what truly lies beneath. Glory is but a result of it. Blood spills because of it. Steel rusts, flesh rots, bones crumble. They are nothing; mere dust to be scattered and forgotten.
"We wish to know the Wind that guides your hand and fuels your fire. What is it Akerke told you at the beginning?"
She reached over and tapped his forehead with a fingertip. "You must unlearn your ways."
Niko frowned in frustration, his young face lining with the feelings he felt.
Her hand trailed down his neck and shoulder to settle over his heart. "This is where the South Wind dwells, Niko. You must gaze into the darkness that dwells here to see the face of what you seek. Some men seek an ideal, some seek stillness, while others seek to fill the void inside. And then there are some that seek their own death.
"Now Akerke asks again, when you fight what do you seek?"
Niko thought longer and sighed. His face unlined, but his mouth set in a line, he opened his mouth as if to speak. Then her words came back to him.
'We wish to know the Wind that guides your hand and fuels your fire.'
Again he thought. Again and again that phrase turned over and over in his mind, until finally shaking his head, he looked up at the woman that spawned these thoughts.
"I do not know," he said frankly and more than a little morosely.
Akerke sniffed at that, turning her elegant nose with a hint of disdain. "No wonder you cannot control your heart," she said, walking away from him. She returned to her shrine and rummaged through the bottles without looking back at him. The tent felt suddenly very large and empty, as if Niko were alone here, even with the strange woman standing only a few feet away.
The realization that he had been without focus all of this time struck Niko profoundly. In his life, he had been fortunate in his mentors. Was he only an extension of their teachings? He felt as if he had no substance at all of his own, but was merely a vessel, taking on the attributes of whatever was poured in.
Finally, she stood up, carrying a sanguine bottle in her hand. Without a word, she opened it and dabbed some sharp smelling oil on her finger. "Close your eyes, soqura öri," she said, "And will see try to find this fire."
Niko closed his eyes mutely, for a while shutting out the confusing world as he began to breath deeper, to attempt to control his thoughts.
She dabbed the oil onto his eyelids, lightly brushing the skin and rubbing the substance in. Almost immediately, he could feel a heat leaching throught into his eyes, making them water as if filled with smoke. Akerke's face and the tent beyond her became blurry and drifted in and out of true. At the edges of his vision, Niko began to
notice light flickering. It began to intensify, taking shape. Flames, hungry and ready to consume him.
"We strip away your walls and let the Winds in," she explained, her voice somehow distant. He felt her hand guiding him toward the bed as the dizziness began to increase. And all the while, the hungry flames pressed in on him, biting at his skin with their heat.