World of Crystals > Green Medicine > The Xana and the Ranger Lord
The Xana and the Ranger Lord
An hour or so later, after nightfall had descended, a familiar horn sounded triumphantly from beyond the trees, and a broad, toothy grin spread across Maritana's face. She would know that horn anywhere. Everyone in the village, residents and Xanthyr alike, excitedly ran to the edge of the clearing to greet the party of returning hunters, sending up joyous shouts and cheers. However, there was one among them above all others that Maritana was longing to see.
The small crowd parted to make way for him, an unbelievably tall and lanky elf with a chiseled physique. His gleaming bronze skin was covered in sweat and stained with blood and earth. He didn't appear to bear any scars beside the old ones, here and there among colorful tattoos of crescent moons, animal totems and druidic sigils. His garb was minimal: a light leather loincloth embroidered with a pattern woven from Elven script, wrist guards and arm bands with dangling chocobo feathers, and fringed moccasin boots. The only truly ornate item he wore was a large amulet that rested on his chest, carved of crystal and surrounded by feathers, that hung from his neck on a beaded chain. A leather cord kept his long, coal-black hair tied back in a high ponytail at the crown of his head, stray strands plastered to his brow. The great Elven hunter seemed even more primal, more powerful than the others; his angular features were harsher but no less beautiful than those of his tribesmen, and he much resembled a hawk. This Elf carried himself like a Xana, his people deferred to him as such, and Maritana thought that he alone among all males would be worthy of the title.
He used the shaft of his tall, brightly painted spear as a walking stick, to support himself as he carried the great prize: the most gigantic wild boar Maritana had ever seen. It was so enormous that it took a full half dozen of the hunters to carry it with him, and he was by no means a weakling. He showed no signs of strain with the log it was lashed to resting on his shoulder, however.
The Lai'Quessir cried their shouts of praise, to the great God of the Hunt, and to their greatest ranger alike, as the hunters carried the massive boar to the communal fire. In unison, they lowered the beast's carcass onto the spit, and the great cheers of the revelers more than shouted down the hunters' sighs of relief.
Maritana waited patiently at the edge of the crowd. Skaldanis planted his spear in the dirt and re-adjusted the bow and quiver slung over his other shoulder, then rolled the one that was supporting the log. He happened to glance up, and his stunning green eyes met hers. She grinned at him, and even the normally stoic ranger lord managed to crack a smile in return. He set his gear down and strode to her with the grace of a gazelle, saluting her in the Xanthyr manner with a fist across his chest.
"Hail and well met, mighty Xana," Skaldanis greeted her, and Maritana was reminded of how beautifully he spoke the Xanthyr tongue. Her grin grew broader, and she returned the salute.
"Lle ume quel, Adaron,," she congratulated him in his success on the hunt, in his own language, clutching his forearm firmly. Skaldanis nodded in thanks, and then she suddenly pulled him into a fierce embrace, utterly disregarding how filthy he was, and startling him. "It's been too long, Skaldanis," she said, reverting to Xanthyr.
"It has," he agreed, stiffly returning the embrace. He pulled away from her, and eyed her curiously. "What brings you here this eve?"
"Xsians," Maritana almost spat the word out. "We took care of them, but one of our sisters was wounded badly. Elysandra is tending to her now."
Skaldanis' angular eyes turned hard as stone, and he uttered an Elven curse. "The Wood and all the world would be well rid of those devils."
"Indeed, it would." Maritana noted the faint puncture wounds on his chest, obviously fresh as they had only ceased bleeding, likely only a few moments before he reached Gilsarath. She stared pointedly at him. "Something tells me that boar was not the only thing you were hunting back there, though," she remarked shrewdly.
"Observant one, as always," Skaldanis grunted. He jerked his head in the direction of the largest home in the trees, then climbed a nearby rope ladder. Maritana followed him as effortlessly as any Elf would, making her way across the vine-strewn platforms, and crossed the threshold of a hollow at the edge of the village. She shut the door behind her, and leaned against a wall.
The interior of Skaldanis' home was simple, rustic, and it would not be so out of place in her own village. Only a few tribal hangings hung on the rounded walls, along with a massive drum and a variety of tools and weapons. A great woven carpet lay in the center of the floor.
The Ranger Lord of the Lai'Quessir passed through a small archway to a side chamber with an enormous basin, and chanted over it to fill it with steaming water. He then nonchalantly removed his sparse garments, utterly oblivious to Maritana's presence, though the reverse was quite impossible; even the battle-hardened amazon turned a shade of pink at his rather impressive natural form. He climbed the small step to sink into the water. "You're welcome to join me. You need it." At the last, he smirked, raising an eyebrow.
Snapped from her reverie, Maritana looked down and realized she'd been so wrapped up in concern for Tesani that she was still carrying the filth of her own battle some hours earlier. And the bath did look rather tempting. She had to stand firm, though, regardless.
"You're a male," she pointed out. "It would be improper." Skaldanis shrugged at her in absolute disinterest.
"My people make no distinction between male and female, and you know that."
"And you know that this sort of thing is forbidden among mine," Maritana insisted. "A male may only look upon a Xanthyr in the natural state in the time for mating. Anything else means death for him."
Skaldanis scoffed at her, leaning back against the edge of the basin. "I offered you a bath, not my vie'nin. Besides, when have you ever cared for propriety?"
She did have to admit he had a point. Maritana was never one to put much stock in custom or tradition. That she insisted on clinging to such notions spoke more about her discomfort about being vulnerable around this particular male.
"We are both children of the Wood. There is no shame to be had in such a thing," Skaldanis said. "But if you would rather cower in Xsian filth than be cleansed of it with a toror' in arms, that is your choice."
That did it. She angrily tore her mask off its resting place atop the crown of her head, and stripped off her armor, tossing it to the carpet, then stepped into the opposite side of the basin. The water was hot enough to create a cloud of steam in the room not unlike the sweat house the shamanesses tended in her own village, but not so hot to be scalding. As she submerged to her shoulders, the heat soothed and loosed her aching muscles, and felt immensely relaxing.
"You win," she murmured. Skaldanis chuckled, tossed a bar of soap at her, then pressed a wet cloth against the puncture marks Maritana noticed before. She raised an eyebrow at him as she wiped herself off.
"You still haven't told me what happened," the Xanthyr said. He grunted again, and rested his neck on the edge of the basin, looking up at the ceiling.
"Dhaerow," Skaldanis spat. "The cowards sought to pick us off while we were distracted by the boar."
"I take it their plan didn't go so well."
"We killed them to a man," he answered with a kind of dark satisfaction. "Perhaps if they were fighting those slack-jawed apes down the valley, they would have had a chance. But no one bests the Lai'Quessir in our Wood."
The pride in his voice brought a smile to Maritana's face. She almost wished she could have been there, fighting the Dhaerow at his side. They were wily opponents, and what they lacked in physical strength they more than made up for in cruelty and cunning. They resembled the Lai'Quessir, with the same thin frames, taut musculature, angular features and pointed ears, though were generally smaller with much darker skin. Always attacking by night, they were no less deadly than the Lai'Quessir, with tremendous speed and agility, and had strange, dark powers that even the most skilled shamaness could not best so easily. Ultimately, though, they were cowardly monsters without honor, slaughtering even the infirm and children in their raids, and Maritana took great pleasure in killing them on those rare occasions when they encroached on Xanthyr territory. For some reason, though, the Dhaerow seemed far more interested in fighting the Lai'Quessir, and the Xana suspected there was a dark history there. But that was a tale no Elf had ever told a human, and Maritana believed none ever would.
"Of course," she said, scrubbing at her dirt-stained shoulder. "But they seem to be testing all our defenses as of late. There have been several attacks on our outlying tribes in recent weeks." Skaldanis' expression turned sour, and for the first time in a very long time, Maritana saw something akin to worry in his eyes. "I assume we're not alone in this, then," she said.
He sighed deeply, resting a hand on his temples. He untied the cord binding his hair, releasing his wealth of thick, shining black locks to cascade down his shoulder and float upon the warm water. And again, Maritana was struck by how handsome he was. "No, you are not." He paused for a moment, then spoke once more. "Have any of these attacks been full blown raids?"
"No, which troubles me," Maritana admitted as she moved to her neck. "Only small bands of soldiers, the occasional scout. I suspect they're testing us now that the Xsians are regrouping at Kunlao." She winced suddenly, accidentally reopening a shallow cut on her neck that she didn't even realize she'd had. It was too small to be a wound from a blade; most likely she'd been nicked by the Xsian's helmet when she dove into her signature roll with him. Small though it was, it still stung to the touch.
"They're likely waiting for the Xsians to wear you down first," Skaldanis agreed. "It's how the demons operate." Briefly, he held his breath and submerged in the water to the top of his head, then after a moment sprung back up--right next to Maritana, nearly pressed against her.
"Be still," Skaldanis snapped. Before she could protest further, he gently tilted her head back to reveal the slight wound, took the cloth from her hand and wiped the fresh blood from it. He gave it back to her then, and placed his fingertips on the wound. Closing his eyes and drawing light circles with his fingers upon her neck, he chanted softly under his breath, a phrase in Elven that Maritana could not recognize. She was suddenly filled with a rush of warmth, shooting from her toes and up her spine to her neck. Remarkably, the stinging pain completely vanished, and when Skaldanis removed his fingers, not even a scar remained.
"How did you..?" Maritana stared at him in awe. In all the years she'd known him, since she was a very child, she'd never once seen him use the medicine of his people's druids. She didn't even think he knew how.
"The druids would say that Khalressa has blessed us all with the power to heal at least minor ailments, because we are all children of the Wood," Skaldanis replied softly. "We rangers would say it means less gauze to carry."
"That's a neat trick. Thanks," Maritana said, absently touching the place where the wound was, as if she almost didn't believe it was gone. "You could warn me next time, though."
"A warrior should anticipate his opponent's every move. Or have those herbs you smoke with your sister dulled your wits?" Skaldanis snickered. She rolled her eyes at him, then splashed water into his face. He spluttered and blinked, and all she could do was laugh at him.
"Heed your own advice, Elf."
The Ranger Lord swiped at her playfully, but she blocked his hand and countered, and they traded blows again and again, never connecting and not doing much but splashing water all over the floor. Skaldanis bellowed laughter when Maritana tried to push his head into the water, and deftly swept behind her, easily dodging her clumsy move with Elven grace.
"This is the great Maritana Nightstalker?" he taunted her, giving her a shove in the back. "But then, the Xanthyr are still only human, right?"
Maritana growled, spinning around with lightning speed, and tackled him against the edge of the basin, sending a great wave of water over the side. She pinned him there, panting. "No one bests a Xanthyr in battle, Skaldanis, Elf or no. No one."
She stared down at him, and his Elven eyes were smoldering. "Haven't I?" He slipped his arms about her waist and pulled her close to him. Intense heat radiated from his body, his blood obviously still racing with adrenaline from the hunt. The Xanthyr's breath was suddenly caught in her throat, and she was at a loss for words. "I'll take that as a 'yes'."
Maritana gaped at him much in the manner of a doe trapped by a hunter. No one had ever caught her off guard the way Skaldanis did. Even at so young age, barely into her twenty-fourth winter, Maritana was cunning, and more than a little jaded. One could even call her cocky, and she had the skills to back it up--she was the youngest of the Xanas, after all, and earned her rank time and again. But Skaldanis was old and cunning even when she was a child.
"I--" Maritana started, then sighed, at a loss. There was no denying the tension between them. She had always found Skaldanis beautiful. She had always dreamed of him holding her like this, of the one opponent who could take her down. There was no denying that she desired him, and always had.
"Why do you hesitate, Mari?" Skaldanis asked quietly, running his hands down her back.
"Because I can't do this. Not like this." Maritana did not often lie, and this time was no exception. No, she didn't give a damn about rules and tradition and never had. Queen Makardan often called her impertinent for such reasons. And maybe she was right. But this wasn't about Xanthyr law and custom. This was about the pride of a warrior, of a Xana, and she would break this taboo on her terms, not his.
Skaldanis, for his part, nodded, and respectfully let go of her. Maritana climbed out of the basin and toweled herself off with a nearby cloth, then went to putting her armor back on.
"...will I see you at Midsummer?" he asked her, his eyes an enigma.
"Of course." Fully dressed, she went to the door.
"Thylarian guide your blade."
"And Bajamu guide yours." Maritana smiled, bowing to him, and left the house.