Sem & Sambeth
Let us stand together.
When Sambeth stepped out, a thick moisture shrouded the forest. The sun, climbing higher, sent golden fingers shining through the silver mist. Every branch and leaf, every blade of tall grass glimmered with crystal droplets in a breathtaking display of nature’s glory.
Sambeth delighted in the hushed beauty around her. Rapidly, she scanned the forest. A gentle breeze brushed her cheek. It was heavy with floral scents and the fresh, earthy smell of the forest. No danger here. Birds twittered, fluttering here and there peacefully. There were no flocks screaming and shrieking a warning as they fled across the sky. Good. She started forward. She would find a quiet, safe spot to sit and soak up her surroundings. Maybe Pip would come.
She lifted a hand and pinched the bridge of her nose, easing the tension there. It hadn’t been an easy couple of days. She needed to think. She needed to plan. Rija wouldn’t let her go alone to Aresisia but Rija would be too vulnerable in that city. However, she, Sambeth, could not stay. Not with such hostility from Ajalon. Not with the knowledge that Noesh and T’ajar couldn’t contemplate living with her kind.
A slight noise, like a limb brushing carefully past a branch, sounded behind her. Her hand flew to her knife. She whirled around, knees bent, poised on the balls of her feet.
Sem held up his hands with fingers spread wide.
“I’m unarmed,” he said with mock seriousness.
“What are you doing here?” she straightened slowly, tucking away her knife, “You scared me half to death.”
She peered past him, back the way he had come. There was no one there.
“I could ask the same thing of you,” he said and he wasn’t joking. Sambeth stood at a loss.
“Where are you going?” he asked with a funny look on his face.
It dawned on Sambeth that he thought she was slipping out of Tetrahin and leaving.
She grimaced and rolled her eyes sideways, “Things got nasty after you went to fetch Noesh. I needed some air.”
“I need to speak to you about something,” he said brushing an arm across his face, looking worried, “don’t trust that girl, Bethe. She is more Queen Norea’s than ours.”
“She indicated that she was more yours than anyone else’s,” Sambeth said without thinking. She coloured and bit her lip, “I’m sorry. That’s none of my business.”
He laughed. It was the first time she seen him laugh since he and Amis stood beside the lagoon and ushered them through the forest toward Tetrahin.
“Bethe and I?”
He shook his head, still grinning.
Sambeth was mesmerised. Sem looked like a different person from the grim man that stalked around Tetrahin.
“It’s just lucky that I caught a glimpse of you slinking away and followed,” he was serious again.
The responsibility he felt for her wellbeing was clearly genuine. A warmth stole into her heart. Another friend. He and Rija were the only people to show her the basic decency of kindness. Such a pity Ajalon had to be there, spoiling any chance she had to fit in.
Ajalon was so overtly hostile. At mealtimes Sambeth felt his eyes upon her. When she looked up and caught his glance, his eyes burned, black and menacing, suspicious and probing trying to unveil the secrets of her soul.
As for Rija and herself, their escape from Altor had bonded them.
Her thoughts returned to Sem standing in front of her and a sudden smile chased away the grave expression on her face.
“Would you like to come further out in to the forest with me?” she said, “I may meet someone special.”
His face darkened in sudden suspicion, even horror and Sambeth shuddered at the play of expressions across his face. They so clearly demonstrated his inner thoughts. She threw up a hand almost as if warding off a blow.
“Hey, I think you’d like to meet him.”
She turned toward the forest. For a moment Sem’s expression remained troubled. Then his face cleared and he stepped forward to walk beside her.
He was reasonably quick, she acknowledged. She liked that.
Once they stepped into the forest proper, both concentrated on their surroundings. For Sem the forest this close to Tetrahin was a familiar place. Although most animals kept away from the area, caution was still necessary. For Sambeth, habits kicked in. Her best times had been out here but to enjoy the forest one had to be sharp and alert all the time. This was new country. She didn’t know its rhythms or the habits of its animal occupants.
Instinctively, she veered toward higher ground. Shimerith liked the sort of places where creatures of their bulk and weight could take off in flight. A high hill or large trees were their favourite places.
A sudden flapping sounded at their right. A small flock of five parrots took wing, shrieking through the thick foliage above. Sambeth scanned around them, looking for a potential threat.
She glanced at Sem and frowned, “I guess we just proclaimed our presence to all.”
“We need to move more carefully,” he said shortly.
He dropped back a pace to walk behind her. She could feel his eyes on her back, watching everything she did. Assessing how capable she was in the forest. The last time she had been out here with him she’d been barely upright.
He watched her for a moment. To him she looked awfully small and fragile to be stepping out into the savage forest. However her step was firm and sure. From experience, he knew her reflexes were catlike.
A faint smile tugged at the corner of his mouth at the thought. She was dressed for foresting. Brown leather boots neatly encased her small feet. She wore dark leggings matched with a thigh-length, muted green tunic, topped with that strange, supple leather vest firmly belted at the waist. A soft leather pack bulged on her back. That long, blonde hair was wound up tightly and gathered up at the base of her small head, some of it falling down her back. She was all business, he thought, almost ruefully.
“You seem to know what you’re doing out here,” he said.
She murmured a nothing reply and kept moving. The land was rising. They were getting high enough to be in shimerith territory. Her thoughts were bent on finding Pip.
“Were you taught by Rija’s people?” he tried again.
“No,” she replied briefly, “it was my mother.”
“You speak of your mother, Sambeth. What about your father?”
“Officially, my father is the High Priest of the Asherah,” she gave him a reproachful look.
“Oh,” he replied, feeling inane, “I assumed you were Rija’s companion.”
She gave him a mocking look, “Servant. That’s what you were thinking, weren’t you?”
Sem shuddered and she wondered why.
She stopped suddenly.
“Why did you do that?” she asked searching his face.
She was higher on the slope than he and they were almost eye to eye.
“I guess it was the mention of the Asherah,” he said reluctantly, “as well as the thought of Proximus and then your dreams.”
He turned troubled eyes to hers, “You’ve certainly got a lot on your shoulders.”
Her sigh was from the depths of her bones.
“Yet I never asked for any of it, to have either of them, an Asherah or Fallen One,” she gave a hollow laugh, “a child would choose neither as their father.”
“Sadly, the choice is never theirs,” he said.
Sambeth growled softly, heaviness engulfing her, “For some children it would have been better to never have been born.”
She turned quickly to hide the quick sting of tears and resumed climbing. Although it wasn’t terribly steep, her breath quickly deepened. The short time in Tetrahin had seen her lose some hardiness.
Every so often she paused to let out a piercing, shrill whistle. It wasn’t very loud but carried a long way. She was warm and lightly perspiring when they reached the summit. It was a beautiful place. In front of them was a large, flat topped rock. Scrambling up, she could see the country for miles around.
She sat down, legs dangling over the edge and Sem dropped down beside her. The rock was warm and smooth. The height, the panorama and beauty around her filled her senses. She breathed deep, stretching her arms and lifting her face to the sun. Sem looked around, a long knife across his legs, carefully scanning the countryside.
They remained unspeaking and waited. The treetops spread out before them like a bright green, undulating carpet. Birds of every colour swooped and darted from tree to tree and their calls set the forest buzzing. For the two sitting, straining to hear every predatory noise, it was a joyful, deafening cacophony of sound. Meanwhile, nothing substantial moved in the sky.
Sambeth glanced over at Sem. He’d given up watching the countryside, although the knife still rested on his lap. Instead, he had thrown himself down comfortably, soaking up the sun. A hint of irritation rose momentarily but she threw it off. He was the sensible one, taking a rare opportunity to enjoy being outside. He opened his eyes briefly and saw her glance. One corner of his mouth lifted slightly. She looked at him, waiting for him to explain.
“What are you smiling at?” she asked eventually.
“Oh,” he replied airily, “I was just thinking.”
Curiosity roused, she turned her attention from her surroundings to focus on him properly.
“What were you thinking?” she prompted.
He half sat up on his elbows, long legs still stretched out lazily.
“I was thinking that usually I’d be out here on such a day with my ugly cousin, Amis.”
He smiled again and lay back down, shooting her a wicked glance before closing his eyes. He settled himself comfortably before continuing.
“Yet, here I am, out in the forest on a superb day, with a pretty girl on one hand and an adventure on the other. Bliss!”
She realised with a shock that he was teasing her. She shot him a severe look, shook her head sternly and returned to scanning the horizon. However she caught a quiet smile curling on her lips.
“You should be on the alert,” she admonished, “for predators.”
Where could Pip be, she wondered. Most times, when she sat quietly and wished for him, he appeared quite quickly. Shimerith had an uncanny ability and intelligence. She didn’t know how he knew when she was in the forest or how he located her she just knew that he did. Perhaps being in such different territory had confused him. Perhaps he had finally chosen to live exclusively with his wild brethren. Perhaps he was dead.
Then she heard a faint thrilling call. A shimerith call. It was soft and very close. A heavy rustling sounded in the massive trees behind the rock where she and Sem sat. She looked around and Sem sat up quickly. At first glance, the huge trees behind them were empty. Sem saw the branches and leaves, with the glimpses of sky in between strangely shimmer. They blurred and seemed to go out of focus. He dug his knuckles into his eyes and squinted. Now he could make out a large shape. In an enormous tree behind them perched the massive bulk of a shimerith. Its famously reflective coat providing an clever camouflage in the foliage around it.
They had not seen him fly up or heard him glide in to land on the tree branch. Or heard any rustling of branches. A cold finger of fear prodded Sambeth’s heart. What other creature could have passed by close without her knowing?
Pip shifted his weight on the massive bough beneath him. He eyed Sem suspiciously.
“Hello Pip,” Sambeth called, gladness in her voice.
“Come down,” she coaxed, “this is Sem. He’s a friend.”
Pip cocked his wedge shaped head, poised on the supple length of the serpentine neck. His great, glittering eye turned first toward Sem, the nostrils flared and Sem braced involuntarily waiting for the flames to engulf him. The shimerith turned his head toward Sambeth. He softened as he gazed at his mistress. Without further attention to the stranger, he leaned forward and slipped through the air to the ground. With utmost care he folded his wings, settled his legs under him and stretched his head to Sambeth.
In a moment she had that fearsome head, with its fire-breathing nostrils in a close embrace.
“My boy,” she crooned, “I’ve missed you.”
She pulled back and they gazed at one another for some time. Sem stood and watched in utter amazement. Shimerith were terrible, vicious animals. They held a fearsome reputation among many fearsome creatures. They combined strength, speed, aerial manoeuvrability with fire-breathing and a wonderful intelligence. Sem had never heard of a tame one.
“He’s not tame,” Sambeth said and Sem jumped. Was she able to read thoughts?
“He’s not tame,” she repeated, “he just loves me and allows me to ride on his back. I don’t own him. I don’t control his coming and going.”
“And when you’re on his back flying?”
“He listens to me and goes where I ask, unless he has a better idea,” she smiled, “it’s happened before and he’s always right!”
She kept one arm curled around the shimerith’s neck as she talked to Sem. He could see the creature was listening to the sound of her voice. He heard a faint rumbling noise emanating from deep in the massive chest. Sambeth laughed.
“He’s happy,” she said laying her head against his lowered neck, “he’s purring.”
She straightened up and twitched her fingers beckoningly at Sem.
“Come on, let’s go.”
Sem stepped slowly. He wasn’t exactly scared but no one in their right mind would walk smash up to any strange animal let alone a lethal one. Sambeth was gazing into Pip’s eye again, talking to him.
“Pip, let’s go for a ride! I want to bring my friend along. Is that okay?”
She continued telling the animal that he, Sem, had saved her life and sheltered her.
Was it his imagination or did the creature actually look at him consideringly and then with a much softer eye?
Sambeth made a running jump and, grabbing handfuls of thick, shaggy fur, scrambled up the shimerith’s side. She settled herself down in a dip just behind the shoulders, far above Sem’s head and looked down at him expectantly.
He wanted to live up to the look in her eyes. Sem took a step toward the shimerith. His heart pounded in his chest. He fought to keep his breathing even. He took another careful step and tried to look confident. The shimerith’s nostrils quivered again. It lifted its head high to stare at him intently. Unnerved, Sem wondered if it could smell fear seeping out of the pores of his skin. Perhaps it could actually hear the thump of his heart.
“Come on,” Sambeth urged, reaching down a hand to him.
Her eyes blazed in the small, thin face. Sem could see the crazy excitement gripping her. An answering thrill rose up in him, conquering the fear. He took a leap forward, grabbed her offered hand and swung up behind her.
A ripple went through the great beast under them. It crouched a little and the wings flicked out sideways bursting open like sails on a big ship.
“Hang on,” Sambeth cried and he saw that her fingers were buried in the long fur.
He slung one arm around her waist and leaning forward grabbed a thick seal-brown tuft of shimerith fur, with the shimmering tips with his other hand.
Just in time. The shimerith bounded forward in a sudden leap. Air caught and lifted under the outspread wings and they were aloft. Sem gasped as the air tugged at his hair and cheeks. He was jerked backward then forward in time with the beating wings. The forest rushed up then fell away beneath him.
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