Though Cho and Nika were neutral on the matter, Ayden and Nasir had not agreed with Joel’s decision to involve them in the Sky People’s problems. They were not here to interfere with Skaikru, they were hunting Azgeda trikovas—Ice Nation spies. The two spies they were tracking at the moment had led them to the Stegeda kom Monstas—the Village of Monsters.
While it was possible the spies had met their end at the hands of the monstas in the village, it was much more likely that the spies chose to run their trail through the village to both deter anyone from following them and to throw any foolhardy enough to actually follow them off their tracks. The monstas make no effort to hide their tracks, and the old town was riddled with them. Following anything that passes through was nearly impossible. Thus, when the trail led to the village, Ayden had suggested moving around the outside of the town to see about picking up the trikovas trail after they left the village.
They were in the process of doing just that when they spotted a horde of monstas gather and make a run towards the other side of the village. Thinking the monstas were possibly going after their targets, Joel had spurred his horse to head them off. As what the monstas were after came into view, it was apparent that those being attacked were not Azgeda, but Skaikru. Ayden had already started to turn her horse when Joel blew his horn.
They had learned over the years that the monstas generally did not like the sound of the horn. Often it was enough to run them off, particularly if they were few in number. When he’d blown the horn, Nasir had questioned his motives. Joel pulled rank, however, and, without giving an explanation, ordered them into the village to offer aid to the Sky People—most of whom were looking much worse for wear, and one of which was already dead.
Unfortunately, the monstas did not truly scatter, but rather re-grouped for another attack—this time on them. The fight was not an easy one, though it was highly likely that one or more of them might have died had the Skaikru not rejoined the fight. The only one to escape unscathed was Nasir, which wasn’t surprising. He was, after all, the most level-headed of them in combat. The same could not be said of Ayden.
Perhaps it was the fact that she’d had another fight with her nightmares the night before and had gotten very little sleep. Perhaps it was the fact that her eyes landed on remains of the headless Sky girl when one of the monstas had knocked her to the ground. Most likely it was the combination of the two that had her vision shift from seeing the headless Sky girl in the road to seeing the headless body of her sister and hearing shift from the sound of the battle to the mixture of the laughter of the Azgedakwin with her own screams of rage and grief when Ayden’s comrades restrained and drug her from the throne room after the Commander agreed to let the Ice Queen live.
For the first time in her life, Ayden ran from the battle. Without even realizing what she’d done, she found herself inside the house sheltering the Sky People near collapsing, unable to find her breath. The next thing she remembered was hearing a man’s muffled voice telling her to breathe. When he touched her shoulder, the ringing in her ears stopped and she was able to bring her eyes up from the floor to focus on his face. He was older than her, but not overly so. Though his hair was silver, his face held no age marks, and his eyes were a deep, steel blue. His stare was intense. If circumstances were not as dire, the genuine look of concern she found in his eyes would have puzzled her. The Skaikru she had encountered had never shown concern for any but their own kind. Like the Maunon, the ones that fell from the sky looked down on the clans as savages, though it was their kind that had killed more than a dozen Trigeda for every one of them that fell.
But in the middle of her panic, she didn’t have time to think about the fact that she was receiving aid from a former enemy. As he led her to follow his breath to regulate her own, she felt the world shift back into focus. Just when the last of her nerves were being stilled, Nika appeared in the house beside her with a doe-eyed Sky woman in tow. Like the man, the woman appeared to be trying to tend to Nika’s bleeding shoulder, though the girl kept shaking her off.
Ayden could still hear fighting outside, though her memory told her that the remaining threats were on the roofs. Despite the wound in her side and the blood dripping from the gash along her collarbone, Ayden knew they needed to put the last of the monstas down before they could even try to tend to themselves. As another Sky man—this one with a mangled arm tied to his chest—made his way downstairs, she turned to Nika.
“Ste hir. Shil em op. Bilaik eni baga gothru, hod em op hir en tag in fou sis. Ai na sis Skaikru op der.” She ordered before wiping the blood from her swords off on her pants and turning to the stairs. Stay here. If an enemy comes through, hold them here and call for help. I will help the Sky People upstairs.
“Sha. Ai nami chit dula op.” Nika called after her before moving into a position that would let her ambush any mutants coming through the door, and block their path to the doctor. Ok, I got it. (Technically, “Yes. I understand what to do.” But said in a less formal inflection.)
Just before Ayden reached the door to the room with the remaining Sky People, the silver-haired man dashed in front of her, and yelled for her to stop. He seemed even more concerned now than when he’d first appeared in front of her. Realization hit her. Her weapons were out and she was covered in blood, most of which wasn’t her own—though a considerable amount was. He thought she was going to kill the ones in the room.
She shook her head, after a couple of seconds, she remembered the words she was looking for. “We are not hunting you.” The Mountain Men’s language sounded strange coming out of her mouth. It had been over a year since the last time she’d had to speak it. The words were correct, as the man called in to his comrades that she and her party were not here to fight them. When the door opened, however, the small Sky man leveled his gun at her and began shouting aggressively. This small Sky man—he was like the other branwada Skaikru gonakru she’d encountered. Unlike the ones downstairs, this one had murder in his eyes. She tightened the grip on her swords, her muscles tensing as she thought out the best way to avoid his bullets while she closed the distance between them. It would take less than 3 seconds, and her sword could be in his neck. While she was planning her move, she heard the scuffling above her on the roof.
Before she could move, however, the silver-haired man stepped in front of her defensively as he addressed his comrade. He was trying to protect her. It was obvious that, unlike the small one, the silver-haired man was no warrior. He didn’t even appear to have a weapon. More puzzling still was why. Why was he trying to protect her?
At that moment, she heard Joel yell from outside: “Chil yo daun! Dison gonplei ste odon! Gon hedon kom Heda-de, nou jomp Skaikru op!” Stand down! This battle is over! On order of the Commander, don’t attack the Sky People!
Ayden hesitated for a second longer. If she defied the Commander’s orders, not only was her life forfeit, but so were the lives of every remaining member of her family. Slowly, she sheathed her swords as she stared down the Sky soldier. When the silver-haired man turned to face her again, she inclined her head, turned, and walked slowly back down the stairs. He followed, and the small one took up position on the stairs, training his gun on her as she joined Nika by the door. Joel’s second looked to her, apprehensively. They were both badly injured and so was Joel. Cho, their healer, was injured even worse. If they had to fight the Sky People, they would likely ultimately win, but not all of them would survive, and those that did would be in no position to continue their mission. Not to mention, a battle with the Skaikru would start a war that the Commander specifically wanted them to avoid. While Ayden may not be the biggest fan of the newcomers, in this she actually agreed with Heda. Even Ayden knew that warring with the Sky People would leave them greatly vulnerable to an Azgeda invasion.
Nika shifted her weight slowly in favor of her right side. When she did, Ayden noticed that in addition to her shoulder wound, her left leg had also been hit. If she wasn’t tended to soon, Nika’s leg was going to give out. The soldier on the stairs continued to shout at them angrily. She turned to speak to him, but found herself cut-off by the other Skaikru. The blood-soaked woman and the two, equally blood-soaked men began to argue with the soldier. All three of them were now attempting to come to their aid. She glanced at the girl beside her and noted that she was even more confused at this turn of events.
Just then, Cho stumbled through the door to collapse beside them. As her body fell to the ground, a bullet lodged itself in the wall where she had been only a second before. The soldier had shot at her, and, had she not fallen over on her own at that moment, he would have hit her. Ayden’s hands shot towards her swords, but before they closed on them, the older, injured man jumped in front of Cho, just as the woman and silver-haired man moved in front of Nika and herself, respectively. The one-armed man was furious. All three of the protective Sky People were. He yelled at the soldier to leave, as the other two turned to begin tending to their wounds. The woman and silver-haired man were healers! That explained much of their odd behavior.
Joel called in to them: “Ste osir ogud?” Are you all ok?
Ayden lowered her hands back to her sides and answered: “Sha, Gonawon! Oso ogud!” Yes, Chief! We’re fine.
Surprisingly, the soldier finally backed down and disappeared into the room up stairs. When he’d gone, the healers began in earnest. Ayden heard Nika mumble, “Mochof, fisa.” as the woman began to bandage her leg. She herself remained quiet as the silver-haired man went about his work tending to her wounds. Though the pain was considerable as he cleaned and stitched her wounds, Ayden refused to make a sound. Instead, she watched his face intently as he worked. His eyes were hyper-focused and his hands moved deftly, and it was clear that he was trying to be a gentle as possible in his work, despite the inherent pain involved. That he possessed considerable skill as a healer was evident.
When he had finished bandaging her wounds, she inclined her head in appreciation. “Mochof, fisa. Beja, din yu na sis oso fisa au seintaim?” Thank you, healer. Please, would you help our healer as well?
After he stared at her for a few seconds in confusion, she realized that she’d spoken in her own tongue and not his. She couldn’t help the small tug of a smile at the corner of her lip. She really was out of practice speaking Gonasleng. She tried again. “I said thank you. You are a very skilled healer.” Ayden motioned to Cho. “Cho. She is our healer, but she is badly hurt. Would you please help her also?”
He nodded and moved to do just that. As he was doing so, the woman finished tending to Nika and Joel and Nasir finally joined them inside. Noting the Nasir held little more than a couple of scratches, Joel sent him after the horses, and allowed the woman to begin tending to his wounds, now that she had finished patching up his Second. Just as the man was finishing with Cho, the other Skaikru warrior entered the house. He apparently had gone looking for something that the Sky People had lost to the mutants. He told them it was destroyed. The woman became visibly upset and the older injured man looked dejected. Much like their own party, whatever the Sky People had lost was the reason they’d actually come to the village in the first place.
After a moment, Joel inquired of the woman, “What was lost?”
She explained that they’d come to the village to retrieve some medicine for their village.
A quiet voice from across the room offered, “I know where you can get more.”
All eyes fell on Ayden, and she was even more surprised to realize that they were all looking because the voice who’d just offered aid to the Skaikru had been hers…