Pre-Series Short Story: The Lay of the Land

Due to work schedule adjustments, my pace on editing Book 6 has become pretty slow.  (Doesn’t help that it’s 400+ pages, of course.)  On the days where I don’t have a big chunk of time for editing, though, I’ve been picking at short stories — again.  Specifically, Firkad Sarovy stories set before his summons to the Palace and subsequent exile into the west.

They’re surprisingly fun to write.  He’s…an interesting kid, to say the least.

I have two others also written and currently being edited, both with him younger than here, and plan probably two more for after this one, to wrap up its particular storyline.  They don’t include any spoilers for the series, though might raise some questions in the minds of series-readers.

Includes: reference to abuse, combat, injury, death.

Optional Knowledge: Trivestes, Riddian.

Approx. Date: 20 years before series.

Note: While Trivestes is the name for the province in standard Imperial parlance, the people of that province call it Tevestys and themselves the Tevestyn.

Description: Young Firkad Sarovy’s first solo mission.

The Lay of the Land

The howl that stirred SKKN Firkad Sarovy from his rain-dulled reverie was not that of a wolf, but a man. A hunter. As more voices joined it, he straightened as much as his harness allowed, shifting his weight from his previous slump against the trunk. His feet and legs complained at the adjustment, half-numb from the marks he’d spent crouched here. He’d hoped to wait out the drizzle, since this was a grand vantage for his survey work, but it seemed he wouldn’t have the chance.

Another tri-voiced chorus drifted out from the misty slopes below. From fifty feet up, Sarovy could see a panorama of foothills and forest, including both the Clan Vastrein outpost to the south and the suspiciously furtive-looking camp beyond the ridge to the north, but peering below the tree-line was more difficult. He wasn’t here to watch the ground, but to sketch the changes in the wolfkin clanlands. Even the newest survey maps in Vaden Deiek were a decade old.

Automatically he touched his pack, strapped to the trunk separate from him. He’d found this vantage last evening and huddled here throughout the chilly spring night, expecting a clearer dawn. But it hadn’t manifested, giving him no chance to pull out his surveyor’s case with its charcoal and ink, its completed maps and sketches and the remaining blank sheets.

Someone yelped—a fourth voice. The howling chorus turned to laughter. Callous laughter; even without much ear for enjoyment, he could still tell that. His hand slid further, to the forest bow and the two quivers that hung beside it. Difficult to string it while halfway up a spurbark, but not impossible.

Then he scowled, and let his hand fall. Wolfkin problems are not my problems.

Unless they looked straight up the tree—really intensely sought him out—they wouldn’t find him. He’d been at this for six days now, and had come twelve miles past the standoff border. Had seen clan patrols, game-hunters, and all manner of wildlife pass below, entirely oblivious to his presence. For a fourteen-year-old on his first solo mission, it was an ego boost, but he knew that and tried to keep himself in check. No matter what his scout instructors said, he did listen.

He’d planned this trek meticulously. Pitched it first to his instructor, then to the karoksa he’d been assigned to as aide—and then the scout company’s sekiisa, who’d looked like she wanted to strangle or challenge him but had escalated it to Kerystrys Deieksa herself.

Who had stared at him, and at the plan, for several long alternating moments, then let out the sort of sigh he’d last heard from his father and declared, “Authorized.”

None of his close calls had endangered his mission, and this wouldn’t either. He settled back against the tree and tugged his waxcloth hood down further to ward out the drizzle—and the howls. Nevermind that they were headed downslope, the crash of bodies through brush now faintly audible. Nevermind that he was sure they’d come from that furtive camp.

Clan Rauvern, he thought. Intruding on Clan Vastrein’s territory again, like it often had—one of the reasons the maps were so out-of-date. Clan territories shifted constantly, and the official policy shared by both the Sapphire General and Vaden Deiek itself was to let this part of the Tevestyn-Garnet border fight with itself. As long as the clans remained embroiled in their private wars, Tevestys need only watch and wait.

Sarovy disagreed. The upper ranks—the old people—might be content to nest, but the history of the old Eastern Empire and its disintegration told him all too well what could happen to a complacent Tevestys. A new Wolf King would some day rise, and if it happened in this part of the Garnet Mountains, they might not know until it was too late. Might not see the small signs: new bridges, more fortification, a fall-off of inter-clan aggression, a depletion of tree-cover for roadways and siege weapons.

So much was hidden up-mountain. So much could be happening behind wooden gates or in hill-caves, in hidden vales or on spy-towers. The fact that he hadn’t spotted any spy-towers didn’t mean those possibilities were just his imagination.

He suspected that he’d been permitted this solo trip as much to teach him a lesson as to pass a test. But if the deieksa thought his reading would get the better of him, she was wrong, and if his instructor thought he’d fail at scout survival, he was wrong too. So far, Sarovy had learned that silence and stillness were essential skills—but he’d known that already. Even in the Youth Corps, some had called him Gargoyle.

This was where he belonged. His fingers itched for the feel of charcoal between them, paper under them; his gaze turned the mountainous view into a diorama waiting to be sketched. From the mental map he had of this area, quite a few details of clanholds and terrain had changed. It would be interesting to get back and compare new maps with old.

Three more days until his fish-paste rations ran low and he had to turn back toward Vaden Deiek…

“K’aerhana!” someone shouted, high-pitched in the drifting mist. Curse you, he thought. His Ridvan was bad, but that was a common expletive among the soldiers who’d served with Riddish Sapphires—elsewhere. There wasn’t any such mixing here in the Garnet hinterlands, where the not-quite-Riddish wolfkin were the only possible enemy.

Again that malicious laughter, and all still coming toward him. Up the spine of the ridge that his tree topped, as if to tumble over it onto the Vastrein side. If they really had come from the Clan Rauvern camp, they were taking a gamble—both for their own safety and the camp’s. They weren’t so far out that Vastrein’s watch-wolves couldn’t hear them.

Perhaps it’s the confidence of allies. But if that were so, their camp would be south of the ridge—within eyeshot of the Vastrein outpost. No, it had to be a raiders’ camp, as the laughter below was surely raiders’ laughter.

He shifted on his feet again, trying to peek below. Do they really…? he half-wondered, not sure how to put the rumor into words.

A brightly-colored figure burst through the brush a bowshot to the east. A woman—no, a jendae, he corrected himself. That much he remembered from the Youth Corps’ cultural studies. A gender-irrelevant protected person, Imperially designated as a woman, and potentially a mage but probably just a crafter or caregiver. Someone who should definitely not be running through the woods.

Not in those colors. Red, violet and green—neither Rauvern nor Vastrein. Ausheven, from further north? But…

An arrow hissed up from below and struck her in the leg. With a shriek, she fell to the rocky earth, then shoved herself up with a flash of teeth and scrambled onward, hands finding purchase where leg failed.

Unease coiled in Sarovy’s gut. She should be wearing a headscarf, but it was long gone, her dark hair a grig’s-nest across her face and shoulders. Her long tunic and skirt were slashed not by branches but the clean action of a blade—nor to take them off her. From the flashes of skin he caught through the cuts, they were to provide access while leaving her in her defiled colors. And there were thongs around her wrists, broken ones around her ankles…

Scouring Light, he swore internally. They really do, and to their own people?

His hand went to the bow, but there was neither time nor space to string it—not with her pursuers breaking through the brush now. Three jeten in Rauvern-colored sashes, orange and green and dirty white, over their raiders’ leather and fur. But there was the scout’s blade sheathed below it—a shortsword, not his favorite—and two long knives.

He’d drawn blood in duels before. Nearly cut off one challenger’s fingers. But he’d never yet been to war. Never killed but for food.

It’s not my fight. It’s—

Disgusting. If this is their truth, then we’re right to contain them in the mountains.

The scramble below masked the hiss of steel and the soft clicks of unbuckling harness and cloak-clasp.

Descent was easier than ascent. With sword and knife shoved through his belt to leave his gloved hands free, he dropped from branch to branch, hardly using his feet—glancing only to confirm the position of the next grip before looking back to the brewing assault. A young lifetime up and down the cliffs of Endry Faares let his muscles work on their own as he twisted to keep the jendae in sight. She was still scrambling, straight across the ridge toward the Vastrein side and a certain tumble.

The jeten, unburdened and uninjured, were faster. He was two branches from the bottom when the first one grabbed her by the hair and hauled her around, the arrow snapping inside her calf as she was dropped on it. Her shriek cut off beneath his hand, her colors eclipsed by his back.

The other two slowed, chuckling to each other. One was bare-handed; the other had a bow, and an arrow which he un-nocked as they sidled toward the struggle.

From the final branch, Sarovy dropped lightly to the wet stone. None of them were full wolves, or they would have noticed him. Would have marked the creak of branches and the soft sprinkle of spurbark needles. Still at bowshot-distance, he had a moment’s twinge of regret for leaving his above. It seemed there would indeed have been time to string it.

Too late for that, he dismissed it, and soft-footed forward, sliding the sword from his belt.

It wasn’t like striking a training dummy. At the last moment, perhaps alerted by some footstep or glimpse of Tevestyn camouflage, the jeten bowman started to turn. Sarovy cut him down with a two-handed strike across the back of the neck, not the side. Instead of slashing through arteries and windpipe, the blade lodged in the spine.

For an instant, surprised, he held on. The jeten slumped, keening a horrible scream, and the shortsword twisted in his hands. He put a foot on the man, planning to rip it free, but saw the other draw blades at the same moment. Only a lurching reverse kept the wolfkin’s hunting knives from lodging in his throat.

“Teves!” the jeten barked, bringing the leader’s head up. Then Sarovy saw no more of him, just his opponent’s yellow eyes as he launched over the body of his comrade.

Sarovy swung aside, scrambling for his own knives. He’d left one of the scout-blades up the tree but still had a boot-knife, and as he dipped to draw it, the jeten cut at his face. His boots slipped on the wet rock as he jerked backward and he went sprawling, then turned it into a roll as the jeten knee-dropped where he’d been. They were of a height—Tevestyn grew toward the Light—but the wolfkin had bulk and anger on him. Caught, he wouldn’t last long unless they wanted that.

So as the jeten heaved toward him, he switched his grip and flung the boot-knife.

It went high, gashing across the man’s brow and scalp—and then the jeten was on him, only his bracer keeping the first blade from carving through his entire forearm. The other angled for his face, and though he barely caught that wrist, he knew he couldn’t hold it. Not with the jeten’s full weight bearing down on him and the first blade now seeking the gap of his armpit. His own blade was cramped between the man’s body and his, its edge turned the wrong way. He tried to get a knee up for leverage but the wolfkin man had pinned his hips, and as his expression shifted from fury to leer, Sarovy felt his own anger spike.

The second blade skimmed his neck as he let go and reached in the same motion, latching his empty hand to the back of the jeten’s neck. In one surge, he forced himself closer—and sank his teeth into the man’s face, cartilage cracking beneath the bite. The man’s shriek reverberated through his jaw as he ground down hard, the enemy’s arms now scrabbling to push him away. Dimly he tracked the angles of the blades, the body, the hot metal taste in his mouth.

A knee braced beside his hip. An elbow dug into his chest. He let go, and the jeten jerked back as if breaching deep water, face streaming red, all else momentarily forgotten.

With a lurch, Sarovy jammed his other blade up under the jeten’s jaw, then heaved the twitching corpse off to the side.

“First rule of Tevestyn,” he muttered through a mouthful of blood. “Never put your face near one unless they love you.”

When he looked up, he found the jendae staring at him over the body of the leader.

He flushed automatically, embarrassed to be caught doing something so instinctive. It was one thing to be a little wild child on the cliffs outside the fortress, but quite another when one was a full-fledged Sapphire Claw soldier. An officer-trainee, even: Silche-Kaaski Karoksa-Nerin, scout-surveyor lieutenant-aide. If he proved himself during the trial year, he’d have his own command.

Acting like a face-eating hinterlands solitaire was not acceptable.

But getting killed or botching the mission was no good either, and as he gained his feet, he realized he had a choice to make. The jendae held a bloody knife in her shaking but still-bound hands, clearly pulled from the leader’s belt when he turned from her. Blood and dirt and layered bruises marred her face, just as yellow-eyed as the others’. The arrow still protruded from her leg, broken but in no way dislodged, and from this close the soles of her bare feet looked chewed.

Shouldn’t have intervened, he thought as he rolled his shoulders, then winced at a slash of pain. His fingers found the slice his attacker had made across his flank and the curve of his shoulder joint: the slip of that armpit-seeking knife when he had lurched upward. His arm above the bracer was bleeding as well, though shallowly, from a short gash below the elbow. Both would clot into his absorbent undershirt soon enough; it was made for that. He’d experienced the effect often enough after some illicit duel.

Still, the damage was done. He shouldn’t climb for a while. Or fight, even if his enemy was bound. But could he call her an enemy if he’d swung down to save her?

Only she didn’t look like she wanted further saving. Her upper lip flickered over her teeth, plainly hostile. He should—

His gaze flicked to the corpses. That was right; he’d finally killed. Crossed the line he’d been waiting for since he’d first been authorized to carry a blade. And it felt like…nothing. Not positive or negative, just a job done. No more regret over a man than an animal.

He’d thought…

No, he had bigger problems right now. “Do you speak Tevayn? Imperial Altaerai?” he hazarded in each, just to see. She only snarled harder.

He could just leave her. Get his kit out of the tree—it would hurt, but it was necessary. Hoof it out of enemy territory a few days early, but with a score of decent maps and a report on…what?

Rauvern moving in on Vastrein territory? Then why was there an Ausheven-dae here? That spoke of military action between those two clans, which should have been reported by the deiek further north. But if everyone on the Tevestyn side of the border was just ignoring the Garnet Mountain scuffles, then that was exactly the reason he had come here. He couldn’t go back without answers.

The adrenaline was wearing off, increasing the pain of his slashes. While he could, he took a moment to undo the front of the camouflage tunic and slide the bad arm from its sleeve, then cinch it back up inside, tucked across his front. That removed any option of climbing, but when he forced a smile at the jendae, this time she lowered her knife.

A step toward her, and she raised it again. He ignored that and crouched, just out of arm’s reach. “Ausheven?” he asked.

Her brows jumped, then words started spilling from her in a rusty torrent. He winced, catching maybe one in ten. “Hold, hold,” he said, good hand raised. As she trailed off, he pointed at the dead men. “Rauvern?”

She nodded, scowling.

He pointed past her, in the general direction of the southern outpost. “Vastrein.”

Her gaze slanted that way, a bit of steel filling her spine. Her lips pressed flat—comparatively, as she had the fullest mouth he’d ever seen. The fullest figure, now that he noted it. An adult female in the wolfkin style, entirely alien.

“Da Vastrein sirna dol daravnen.”

Sarovy squinted. He thought that meant something like ‘I go to Vastrein for help’, but he wasn’t sure. Need to work on my Ridvan when I get back.

As he tried to formulate a response, she switched her grip on the knife and started sawing at the thongs that bound her wrists. Too awkwardly, he spotted immediately. The edge just slid off the weathered leather. Clicking his tongue, he reached out with his good hand, and she froze. No words came to explain what he intended.

“Darav…?” he tried. That was some part of ‘help’, he was sure of it.

“Daravn?” she corrected scornfully. Then, with bad grace, she turned the blade hilt-out, staring at him fixedly as he took it.

He wanted to stare back, but that was one thing he remembered about wolfkin. They didn’t think kindly of it. So he focused on the knife as he hooked it into her bonds and nodded for her to pull against the edge. In just a few slices, the leather parted, leaving them too close and tense yet again.

His instructor’s warning surfaced: Don’t leave loose ends. He’d already made a mess of the mission, especially if he couldn’t get back up the tree. Letting her scamper off to report him would just get him shot in the back on his way to the border.

But with that arrow and those feet, she wouldn’t be quick about it. Might not even get there, wherever she thought she was going. It was spring, but the rain hadn’t ebbed, and the nights were cold here in the foothills. And the Vastrein outpost might not welcome her at all.

Don’t leave prey to die slowly. Kill clean, without regret.

But I’m not the one who hurt her.

The worst thing he could do was get caught. The wisest was to kill her now. But they weren’t at war, and somewhere between those poles was an answer. If he helped her just enough, could he convince her not to mention him? By her quizzical stare, she might be persuaded.

“Arrow. Ah…ator,” he said, pointing at it. She looked to her leg, then winced and nodded, stretching it out as much as she could. The head hadn’t gone through, but the shaft was broken—a bad sign. He couldn’t pull it out and the angle wouldn’t let him push it through.

It was her left leg. She had a good right leg and two arms; he had a good left arm and two legs. They could do this. Vastrein would undoubtedly have a shaman, so that one would get the arrow out, if they were inclined to help her.

“Just need to deal with the hanging end,” he muttered, and nodded to indicate her knife even as he gripped the broken part. If he could wiggle it out just enough… Her jaw clenched, her eyes rolling, and he planted one knee on her calf to keep it in place. Almost there…!

But not good enough. Still at least an inch of broken shaft in her leg, linked to the arrowhead-end by some mess of splinters. Cursing under his breath, he eased off, braced both knees on her, then snapped the shaft at the wound. At least she wouldn’t have it catching on underbrush.

Her eyelids fluttered, her upper body slumping toward the stones before she caught herself. He gave her a moment, then shifted to her right side and pulled her arm across his shoulders, wincing as she gripped near the longer slash. A brief disorganization of legs, then they were upright, her hissing and him wincing at the sting.

She took a deep breath, then another. Then another. Then murmured something wry-sounding that ended in rulih, the word for child. He narrowed his eyes, but couldn’t gainsay something he couldn’t translate.

Yet in that word, he heard the echo of his instructors’ exasperation, his father’s aggravation, Kerystrys Deieksa’s final sigh. All had given up on talking ‘sense’ into him, at one point or another.

He hadn’t needed their sense. But then, he hadn’t expected to trip over his conscience.

Funny to find I have one, he thought as they turned south, to the Vastrein side of the ridge. All this time preparing for the inevitable war, and when it shows up at my tree…

But no. Jendae weren’t fighters. They were civilians, like the Sapphire’s support staff. Even during the Tevestyn civil wars, when it had been fortress-on-fortress, the non-uniformed folk were never harmed. Every army needed its backing of farmers and fishermen, weavers and smiths, hunters and tanners and stonemasons. A dozen per soldier, at least. The silent majority that supported the Sapphire Eye.

If his wild ancestors didn’t kill civilians, he’d rather be piked than do it.

Even if he could expect no such immunity.

*****

His plan had been to get her halfway there, to within earshot of the approximate path he’d seen their patrols follow. That would be safe enough; they would find her while giving him space to escape. He hadn’t counted on the trek being so accursedly exhausting.

His arm throbbed with every step, as did a dozen bruises he hadn’t noticed at first. He wondered how clean that knife had been. The cuts hadn’t seemed deep, but with at least two days’ trek before he could reach the border and all his equipment up a tree, the threat of wound-fever loomed large. Bad enough to have been slashed on his primary arm and shoulder, which could mean weeks of mending and physical therapy. To fall sick out here…

If he even managed to get the jendae into position. The rocks were slick, the undergrowth tangled, and the sky showed no sign of clearing. Without his waxed cloak, the rain ran off his short hair to drip down his collar and soaked through the shoulders of his camouflage tunic. It was worse for the jendae in her tattered garments and injured leg. She’d been limping from the start, but now—after half-staggering half-sliding down the scrub-covered ridge then picking their way toward the patrol-path—she leaned on him with almost her full weight, head bowed beneath the wet curtain of her hair. Her breath came labored, her jaw clenching spasmodically. He didn’t have to check to know that she was leaving a trail of blood.

Her injuries wouldn’t kill her, but between them, their progress had dropped to a crawl. A thick screen of trees still hid them from the patrol-path, but Sarovy trusted his navigation. Up that slope, through a thicket, to a flat spot he’d spied before…

They just had to get there. Put one foot in front of the other, until—

“Kurthikha!”

Sarovy froze, bracing the jendae as she stumbled. He knew that word. It was the first one he’d learned as a prospective border-guard: Stop!

And it came from the tree-line ahead.

Slowly, heart hammering, he looked up. Effort and caution had kept his gaze pinned to the wet rocks, but even had he been watching, he might not have seen them. Not until they emerged from the trees. Wolves, brown as damp earth—and behind them, jeten with forest bows drawn, their furs and armor blending with the shadows.

The patrol.

He swallowed a curse. Doubtful that they had heard the scuffle on the ridge, but with watch-wolves at their sides and the timing wrong, it was little surprise that they’d caught wind of him too soon. Their sashes were Vastrein colors, at least. Green, grey and blood-clot red.

Drop the jendae and run—

And die. I won’t get six paces before they shoot me.

Not to mention the wolves, already ghosting down the rugged slope as the jeten kept their aim on him. “Ausheven,” he hissed at the jendae, but her only response was a tightening of the grip on his shoulder. Either to keep him from fleeing, or because she’d lost all ability to stand on her own.

“Ausheven!” he said louder, projecting toward the patrol this time. If she’d had enough faith in this other clan to dare seek them in her distress…

“Krihikha,” one of the patrollers ordered. Stay.

Still cursing himself, Sarovy obeyed, keeping as still as possible as the wolves slunk closer. Waist-height, they were larger than he’d imagined, and as they formed a loose growling ring around him, he made an effort to remember that they were people. Skinchangers. Not wild animals, no matter how savage they looked. If he followed their rules…

Look what they do to their own kind, fool. Rules don’t mean safety here.

But they did mean not being immediately attacked, and so he fixed his gaze past the shoulder of the first jeten to approach. The patrol-leader, presumably. There were four jeten in total, plus six wolves, leaving him no chance of fighting free.

In his peripheral vision, he saw the leader look him and his burden over, thick brows quirking beneath typically-shaggy hair. The he rattled off something in rough Ridvan, too fast for Sarovy to catch anything other than Ausheven-dae and Teves. The gutturals smeared away all conjugations and most consonants.

“A’vylina,” he answered—the best he could do. I don’t understand.

Someone snorted, possibly a wolf. Hot breath tickled his bad elbow through the fabric of his tunic. Another voice muttered something about blood—vakyaen—though whether it meant his or the jendae’s, he couldn’t guess. More half-familiar words flickered past as the leader reached to brush the jendae’s hair back, his other hand on the bone-handled blade at his belt as if expecting Sarovy to grab for it.

Sarovy did no such thing, just stood stiffly, straining his ears as the patrollers muttered and the leader tried to bestir the jendae. His questions, whatever they were, drew little response from her, and it seemed to Sarovy that her weight hung even heavier on him.

Passing out? If so, he couldn’t blame her. Either the patrol-leader hadn’t noticed or didn’t care though, still needling her with words as she slumped further. Finally, having enough, Sarovy hissed, “Ator. Ator, isk…” He couldn’t remember the word for leg, so just shot a pointed look down at what they should have seen.

And saw it himself for the first time since the start of the trek. At some point, the tip had worked its way through, creating a new wound at her shin that had to be scraping bone. Blood coated that leg from both sides, the injuries held open by the unextracted arrow. He winced automatically, ashamed to not have done better. If he’d stressed his bad arm just a little, he could have pushed it through and out, and bound it up right.

When he looked back up, the patrol-leader was staring at him. Unusually dark-eyed for a wolfkin, and bristle-jawed, burly, though no taller than Sarovy himself. He said something including vakyaen, then brushed at the side of his mouth, expression wry. Unable to do the same, Sarovy licked his lips and tasted the lingering tang of the Rauvern’s blood.

“Not mine,” he said. “I’m fine enough. But you probably don’t understand.”

The leader’s brows twitched again.

Then he stepped back, half-turning toward his patrollers as he gave some command. A gesture seemed to indicate the jendae, and as two jeten stowed their bows and moved to grip her, Sarovy let them lift her weight away. In moments she hung between them, nearly inert, and he had the last jeten at his back. The tap of a blade against his good shoulder told him he’d best not try anything.

“As if I could,” he muttered. “Pike my honor.”

The leader gave him a peculiar look. Then, with a last command he couldn’t decipher, the man turned to mount the slope, wolves and warriors trailing behind him. Sarovy didn’t need a nudge from the blade or a nip from a wolf to know what to do.

At least he had his good hand free.

*****

He saw little of the Vastrein outpost past his captors. A timber palisade, a cluster of dome-roofed wooden lodges, some outbuildings masked by the growing veils of rain—then the antechamber of the largest structure, the double doors pulled shut behind them. The floor underfoot was flagstone, not dirt; the place reeked less than he’d expected despite the heavy smell of wet wolf.

The two warriors with the Ausheven-dae went straight on through the curtains, but Sarovy’s captors stopped him short. More words he didn’t know, followed by hands pulling at his garments. He let it happen, face as stony as he could make it. Belt first, then camouflage tunic, the pain flashing up his arm as that support was removed. Then the leather cuirass and bracers—scout-standard, not his own personal armor. That was back home. Still, being stripped of it made him feel more bare than when they pulled off the padded tunic beneath. Only when they tugged at his undershirt did he jerk away, moving to guard his bad arm with the good. No use: the leader caught him by the throat as the other grappled both his arms back, and he felt the scabs rip open at both shoulder and forearm. It hurt worse than being newly sliced.

“Vakyaen,” he hissed as the grappling warrior spat some oath. “That blood’s mine. Stop piking— Kurthikha!”

Narrow-eyed, the leader held him in place, hard fingers digging into his neck. Then he growled something to the other jeten, who eased up on Sarovy’s arms—switching to a one-handed wrist grip instead of that damaging twist. Fingers followed the seam of his breeches, forced a boot off, checked it, then switched to check the other side.

And came up empty. Sarovy wasn’t sure whether to feel glad or regretful that he’d left all his blades behind.

“Enin,” said the jeten. Nothing.

The leader snorted, then gave another order, and the grip on Sarovy’s arms disappeared. For a moment, the hand on his neck remained, and his fingers twitched to grab the wrist—twist it away, bite down on that hand, tear off a finger or two. By the intensity of the leader’s dark stare, he recognized that and welcomed the attempt.

But it was stupid—and after some early mistakes, Sarovy had made it a point not to accept stupid challenges. So he slanted his gaze away and left his arms slack, and after a few tense breaths, the grip released.

“Enakha,” the leader growled. Follow? It had to be, because he turned immediately and pushed through the curtains, and the other jeten nudged Sarovy from behind. Resentful but resigned, Sarovy took just a moment to toe off his damp socks, then obeyed.

The chamber beyond the curtain was some kind of audience hall, with a low stone dais at the rear and wooden seats drawn into a rough semicircle before it. No one occupied them now, the braziers burning low beside the grouping, but the residual light glinted off wall-mounted weapons and skull-trophies—some of great beasts, others lupine or human and draped in enemy colors. Woven hangings covered the other walls, showing a mix of hunting scenes. At a glance, nothing looked Tevestyn in origin, but they gave him no time to be sure.

A hallway branched off leftward. Through another curtain, down a curving passage lit by arrow-slit windows, into a guard-chamber—unmistakable with the easy dozen jeten suddenly sitting up from hide-draped bunks. The leader growled something to them without pausing his stride, received a smattering of answers, and pushed through yet another curtain.

Another hall, still curving. This one had no windows, just open arches into outer rooms, which Sarovy identified as mess hall and kitchen and scullery by the busy clack of dishes. Jendae in Vastrein colors peeked furtively from the archways, sleeves rolled up and hair hidden by elaborately-tied headscarves. What looked like wolf-pups gamboled around their feet—or very hairy children? They had tails, at least.

Around, around, past a few actual doors—and then finally a right-hand turn, through one such door into the mirror-opposite of the audience hall. A private chamber, the other half of the central circle that all the guard-rooms and work-spaces and storage surrounded.

Wooden seats, yes, and a dais—but the latter had been made into a sleeping platform piled high with pillows and furs, and the seats surrounded a raised fire-pit currently hosting a pair of teakettles. The copious wall-hangings showed no battles, just curious abstract patterns; a few even stuck out from the walls on long poles as if to divide the space. And the people—

He blinked. It couldn’t be a private chamber, because jendae and a few jeten were everywhere, the former tying their headscarves on as if caught undressed. At a glance, he counted twenty-five people, plus furry piles of wolves and more children peeking out from every corner. Each of those tapestry-divided spaces was just as filled with pallets and pillows as the dais-bed.

Do they all sleep together? he wondered, horrified, as he followed the jeten-leader around the fire-pit and toward the dais. He couldn’t imagine it. In the Youth Corps, he’d bunked with a single roommate and fought the impulse to challenge her every week, too used to his childhood solitude to tolerate the invasion of his space. Steadier or just less easily irritated, she’d only challenged him twice. Both times, they’d drawn. If they’d been older, he supposed they might have bonded, but she’d gone to another deiek after graduation.

He had his own tiny room now, back at Vaden Deiek. He wished he was there. This looked like torture.

His escort halted as they reached the edge of the dais, looking about. He did so too, not sure what they were expecting to see, beside some sub-chief or perhaps a high shaman. Two curtained areas stretched off to either side of the dais like the wings of a theater, and after a throat-clearing and a rough call from the jeten-leader, a jeten indistinguishable from all the others peeked out from the rightward wing. A few more gruff words passed between them, then the jeten ducked back into the curtained area. Sounds of movement from in there culminated at last in the pulling-aside of the curtain and exeunt of the occupants.

Sarovy blinked, straightening as he ran a cautious eye over them. The one at the fore was certainly a sub-chief, in the Vastrein sash with cords crossing it—yellow and black—to denote a sub-clan. He was also female, from what Sarovy could tell, wolfkin females being much more obvious about it than Tevestyn. Shaggy-haired and toothy like all his warriors, but with that particular indicative shape. Age touched him lightly at the temples and around the mouth, and as his gaze lit on Sarovy, those frown-lines deepened. Respectfully, Sarovy glanced away. The small crowd behind him seemed to be mostly dual-colored jendae, with a few jeten warriors as honor guard. Family?

As his escorts launched into a near-unfollowable report, he stood silent, staring at the distant tapestries and trying to ignore the ache in his arm and shoulder. With each breath, he felt dried blood crack along the lines of his ribs. Light forbid the need for stitches. The last thing he wanted was to be sewn up like some rough hide.

Optimistic, his karoksa would have called him, for expecting such an offer. But the other option was to wallow in defeat, and that wouldn’t happen.

“You,” the sub-chief said abruptly, in Tevayn. Sarovy snapped out of his reverie to stare, then avert his eyes from that keen yellow gaze. “Where weapons, you?” the jeten continued harshly, accent bending the sharp words into a mouthful of growls.

“I dropped them,” said Sarovy, as blandly as he could.

“What do here?”

“I was hunting.”

With a scoff, the sub-chief turned his attention back to the escorts. Sarovy caught a few familiar violence-words, but couldn’t follow how they were being put together. A few mentions of Ausheven, though, and jendae.

“How is the—“ he started to interject, but the jeten at his back twisted his bad arm and it was all he could do not to black out on the spot. When light and color swam back into the world, he found himself slumped in the two escorts’ grips, and barely managed to keep his mouth shut on a snarl. Showing teeth to these people wouldn’t help.

“Nev rerenekha,” the sub-chief ordered at last, gesturing toward the left-side curtain. With obedient chuffs, Sarovy’s captors hauled him about, then half-carried half-propelled him that way as the world once again spun. All his attention fixed on walking, Sarovy barely noticed the jendae that pulled the curtain aside.

Then he was in—to a small space, lightly cushioned but apparently unoccupied, with curtains at two walls and the other two stone. The jeten escorts hauled him all the way to the back wall and dumped him onto one such cushion, then stepped back quickly as if expecting him to leap at them.

He was sorely tempted. But from how weak his legs felt now that he was off them, it was more likely he’d flop at them and get kicked to death for his trouble.

With no other option, he pulled his legs in, pressed his good hand over the low end of the shoulder-slice, and waited.

Voices blurred outside, all but unintelligible. Through the curtains, the light came low and reddish—no lanterns or braziers inside. Even squinting, he couldn’t quite make out his guards’ expressions, but had no doubt that they could see him just fine. Wolfkin hunted in the gloaming. Tevestyn not so much, and as the throb of his wounds dulled down, he found his eyes sinking shut.

A slash of light revived him as it fell across his face. The curtain, open. Another figure slipped in, momentarily just a shadow against the background glow. Then it resolved into another jendae, this one male by the evidence of chin-hair and flat chest, and a shaman by evidence of claw necklaces and a tooth-bedecked satchel. A whiff of incense and sharp herbs stung Sarovy’s nostrils as she booted a cushion over to his side and settled on it.

“You show,” she ordered, reaching for his injured arm. Despite his great desire to lurch away, he let her touch him.

By the light filtering through the curtain-gap, the shaman inspected his blood-soaked undershirt. “Nixa,” she ordered at one point—water. The guards traded a look, then one stepped out to hunt. The other eased a pace closer, adjusting his grip on his axe. Sarovy didn’t doubt he’d get chopped if he so much as sneezed.

Fortunately, the shaman’s hands were gentle as they first probed around the blood-stains, then bathed the stuck-on cloth with tepid water. Sarovy grimaced as she started to ease the fibers from the clotted wounds. Shallow they might be, but as they were disturbed, they bloomed with fresh blood, filling the small space with its stink.

“Cheh,” the shaman cussed, and pressed a pad of wooly-looking fabric to the reopened wound on his arm as she rummaged through her satchel one-handed. Carefully, side-eyeing the guards, Sarovy set his hand over the pad. The nearer jeten shifted on his feet but declined to raise his axe. The jendae glanced at him, yammered something that sounded like ‘good boy’, then dug into her supplies with both hands.

Just as she came out with a pair of scissors and a spindle of gut suture, more shadows filled the threshold: more Vastrein-dae, crowded around the Ausheven-dae like guards. Sarovy fixed his attention on them resolutely as a washcloth swabbed his torn arm. Amid the fluttering colors of the Vastrein-dae, the Ausheven-dae was a thin but dignified blot of brown: her tattered clothes replaced by a clan-neutral robe in the same material as Sarovy’s bandage-pad. She wore a few remnant scraps of Ausheven color as a headband, securing an equally neutral scarf over her hair. By the starkness of the bruises on her face, she’d been given a wash. Sarovy wondered if he’d accidentally slept.

The Vastrein-dae eased her onto the cushions, then settled in a ring around her, chatting in low voices about nothing he could discern. For her part, the Ausheven-dae stared at the curtains, expression austere as she gave only the briefest answer to any chattered question.

“Rulih,” said the shaman, seeking his attention. As little as he cared to be addressed as ‘child’, he looked over, accepting the grubby washcloth she offered with a lift of a brow. “Vakyaen,” she added, gesturing to his chin, and as he swabbed his face obediently he remembered biting the Rauvern. Quite a bit of dried blood came off his chin and mouth—enough that he was embarrassed he hadn’t noticed.

Then the shaman swabbed something across his arm, first stinging and then numbing. Bracing for it, he fixed his gaze on the ceiling as the first bone-needle stitch bit in.

Good sign for my survival, he told himself. They wouldn’t stitch me up if they planned to kill me. Surely they wouldn’t believe he was just a hunter—twelve miles in from the border—but the language barrier made interrogation difficult. Not that he’d been interrogated before. He’d expected it to involve more chains.

Or any chains, really.

The shaman had tied off his forearm-stitches, cut his undershirt away, and started on his shoulder by the time anything changed. Blinking out of his sidelong contemplation of the jendae-group—their interesting tableau worthy of a sketch—Sarovy focused on the new influx of warrior jeten. Four, then the sub-chief, then one more carrying a camp-style chair, which the sub-chief sank into as that last jeten took up position as if guarding his back.

“Ausheven-dae,” he stated, inclining his head to the out-clan woman. Then, turning a cool golden eye on Sarovy, said, “Teves. You name?”

“Firkad Sarovy karoksa-nerin,” he answered crisply. The wolfkin didn’t need to know he was a scout, nor a surveyor, but answering the base question was a point of honor.

“Nerin, eh?” Sarovy wasn’t sure whether to read the slight show of teeth as hostility or humor. “You young helper? Come out of no place to help?”

Sarovy opened and then shut his mouth on an objection that nerin meant aide. Karoksa’s aide—soon enough karoksa in his own right, and no one’s ‘young helper’. Two of the jeten looked his own age, not that he trusted his judgment there. Everything about these people was wrong.

“I saw trouble,” he stated. “So I stopped it.”

“You see far, far trouble, you sharp eye?”

“Yes.”

“You come fast, eh? All way from Tevestys.”

“Clearly.”

“Clearly, clearly,” the sub-chief mimicked, still showing that glimpse of teeth. As he looked to the Ausheven-dae, she dropped her gaze to her hands. “De kav, Ausheven-dae,” he went on, spilling into more of those rough words Sarovy couldn’t follow. Several times, he heard Teves and Rauvern in the stream, but not what the sub-chief meant by them.

By the end of those peppered questions, the Ausheven-dae had sat up straighter. Shoulders back, chin lifted even though her gaze stayed low, she showed her own glimpse of teeth as she gave her rusty answers. This time, Rauvern vastly predominated, and as her previously-folded hands grew animated in their punctuation, Sarovy started to piece together a story. Nothing he couldn’t have guessed already: raids and abuses, infringement upon territory, struggle, deprivation, a desperate escape. A flight toward what, by her beseeching tone, he was guessing she hoped to be asylum.

Or perhaps alliance, as the Vastrein sub-chief’s expression grew more and more thunderous with each repetition of the Rauvern name.

At last, with the shaman midway through Sarovy’s shoulder stitches, she said Teves again. A flick of a bony hand toward him, gaze still pinned to the sub-chief’s chest, and a few more words he knew: treha for tree, ranih for sword. The tight, narrow-eyed look on her face told him she was replaying the fight with a certain measure of satisfaction. He’d thought jendae weren’t supposed to be bloodthirsty, but after what she’d been through, she had every right.

“Up tree with sword,” the sub-chief echoed in Tevayn, looking to him with raised brows.

Sarovy stayed silent. It needed no confirmation, and certainly no expansion.

“No bow?” the sub-chief pressed. “Teves sad with no bow, yes?”

He certainly did regret not just shooting the Rauvern warriors. It would have made his situation so much less troublesome. But that would have left the Ausheven-dae still to suffer below him, and either die or attract Vastrein attention to his vicinity regardless.

In that light, he didn’t regret what he’d done.

“Very sad,” he answered flatly.

“Where bow then, eh?”

“Lost.”

“Where karoksa, eh?”

“Home.”

“Karoksa home where?”

He bit his tongue. The answer seemed obvious, Vaden Deiek being the only outpost within a week’s march north or south, but naming it was tantamount to admitting this was a mission. Granted, it was a self-made one, but still tied to the deiek and permitted by his superiors. Just because there was no current war between Vaden Deiek and the wolfkin didn’t mean one couldn’t erupt overnight.

“Home where, eh?” the sub-chief prompted, showing a few more teeth.

“Endry Faares,” Sarovy answered, telling himself it wasn’t a lie. It was his home—or had been, before the Youth Corps and the birth of his younger siblings. Just because he would never return to his parents’ apartments as their child didn’t mean he couldn’t still claim origin in the fortress.

With a bark of a laugh, the sub-chief sat back, eyeing him beneath arched brows. “Endry Faares!” he repeated. “Far sharp eye! Far sharp ear, eh, and wing! Now cut your wing, eh? Slash slash…”

Sarovy stiffened, feeling another suture pull tight. He didn’t know how the sub-chief meant it, but couldn’t help thinking that wings were essentially arms. Couldn’t help glancing at the axe the first guard still displayed, and the weapons in the others’ grips. It would take only two chops to ruin both his shoulders, not to mention what they could do to his arms and hands.

With…those…

Tevestyn swords…?

His attention locked on a distinctive hilt, the quillons etched as wings, the pommel an eagle’s head. No doubt that it was a Tevestyn blade, as was the one on the opposite guard’s belt and the dagger at the rear-guard’s hilt. Fury lurched up Sarovy’s throat, and he jerked forward without thinking—only to come up short in the shaman’s grip, stripes of pain waking from his wounds. His legs, folded for so long, likewise resisted him, leaving him to catch his balance awkwardly on the cushion.

“Tch,” said the sub-chief to the two guards who’d stepped forward, gesturing them back into position. By the simmer in their golden eyes, they’d have happily broken his shoulders. In comparison, the sub-chief just looked amused. “Now your wing hurt, cut,” he rephrased carefully, gesturing toward the shaman’s work. “No flying back.”

“No flying,” Sarovy answered. “I’m not a skinchanger.”

“Fast run then, eh?”

“Why do you have Tevestyn weapons?”

A low rumble went through the guards, echoed by the murmur of the Vastrein-dae. Among them, the Ausheven-dae remained upright and indifferent, broken-nailed hands clasped once more in her lap. Sarovy respected that sort of poise. He wished he could recapture his own, but recognizing those blades had frayed it thin.

And yet…

There hadn’t been war on this patch of border in years. He’d reassured himself of that throughout this mission, and so far his treatment seemed to bear it out. Nor did the one bared blade look scarred from use. For all its gleam, it could be new.

Someone is selling our weapons across borders?

That was treason. Even more, it was heresy—these wolfkin being pagan spiritists, not proper followers of the Light. Tevestys turned a blind eye to a certain measure of Senket-worship within its borders, as there were too few Tevestyn to start a civil war over respect for the ancestor-eagle. But to aid and abet the children of the Wolf?

For his part, the sub-chief just stared, a strange light in his yellow eyes. Some kind of expression had crossed his face in that first accusatory moment, gone before Sarovy could read it. In its place dawned a look that he recognized as amusement only when the man laughed. It was a low rough sound, yet still held a wealth of humor that Sarovy could in no way understand.

“How is Kerystrys Deieksa these days?” the sub-chief asked with deliberate care.

His superior’s name sent ice up Sarovy’s spine. Was this beast implying—

No. It was impossible.

“I think funny,” the sub-chief said into his silence, “how Teves throw child away so easy. We protect our child. Protect all kin. Even other kin, sometimes,” with a nod to the Ausheven-dae.

“We protect our children too,” answered Sarovy tightly. “But I am not a child.”

“Shame. Nev nixa anyakha,” he addressed to the shaman, “tet enin tangan.” Water but nothing else, Sarovy translated roughly, which meant they took no responsibility for him as a guest. More orders flew out to the guards, impossible to follow, but as the sub-chief’s attention shifted again to the Ausheven-dae, he figured he’d been dismissed from importance.

That was fine. The shaman had finished her stitches. As a swipe of sharp-scented salve turned his wounds’ numbness into abominable tingling, he let himself yield. Let his eyes close and the words wash over him, unintelligible and pointless. When they brought a cup, he drank from it without bothering to sniff.

And thought on his commander, while some sort of plan spun out around him.

*****

By the next morning, he was wobbly from hunger and short sleep, not having managed much of it at the fringe of the long meeting, nor afterward in the ceaseless stir of the hall. How these people could live so elbow-to-elbow, he didn’t understand.

But he’d managed to snap at no one. He’d just let things happen once the jendae left, the Ausheven-dae caught in the center of their soothing bustle. A few words to his warriors and then the sub-chief had ceded him to them, which could have turned ugly if he’d responded to their sneers. Instead, faced with his determined indifference, his guards had pushed him over, dropped a blanket on him, then toed him awake some unknown mark later.

It made a little more sense now, that their two kinds could work together in the Sapphire Eye. They just had to ignore all their native impulses.

Personally, he had no interest in such intermingling, and by the way his new guards glowered at him, they felt the same. Dressed again in his bloodied uniform and light armor, sans undershirt, he followed them as sturdily as possible as they retraced his steps from yesterday. Out from the compound, down the slope, through the trees, up the ridge to where the bodies still lay—substantially scavenged, but recognizable. All weapons were gone, including his own. Likewise, all three heads.

The guards stopped him there, in the midst of the triangle of death, and he felt a frisson of fear. If they meant to ‘find’ his corpse here…

Instead, the jeten and their wolves backed off nearly as one. “You go home,” the leader said, thick-tongued with unfamiliarity. “Take thing, go home, no come back.”

“Take…?” he asked.

The jeten untied a scroll-case from his belt, tossed it down, then turned with his entourage and trudged back down the ridge.

Sarovy waited until they were out of sight, then eased forward to claim the case. It felt light, and untying it confirmed that there was just a scroll inside. Unsealed. He fingered the edge for a moment, then unrolled a few inches.

Kerystrys Deieksa, it began.

With a flinch, he closed the case. He didn’t just not want to know—he wanted to pretend he never could have known. Never could have thought such a thing possible. And yet, too many things made sense when looked at from the angle of a heretical alliance. Foremost right now, his own presence here: free, mostly unharmed, and having made a courier’s contact.

I could bury this scroll, he thought. The deieksa won’t know about it—not until they communicate again. And that can’t be common. Our border patrols tend to stay in the trees.

Almost anything can be dropped from a tree, a darker voice noted. A message as well as a man. A bundle of weapons likewise? And almost anything can be left at the foot of a tree, or shot among its branches if it’s light. An order? A payment? An ongoing communication?

I could take it to Endry Faares. They’re not expecting me at Vaden Deiek for another six days.

Granted, Endry Faares was much further away. Also granted, Tevestys’ internal security was such that he’d be challenged at any checkpoint he passed, and far more strictly than the sub-chief’s gentle grilling. He couldn’t expect to get through unsearched, with the scroll unread.

I could read it myself.

His fingers itched. Mentalism was vanishingly rare among Tevestyn; no one would pry his secrets from his mind. But after barely a night in wolfkin company, the idea of unrolling that scroll and reading their thoughts was a terror to him. Because if they made sense…

“Still time to choose,” he murmured as he finally turned to eye his tree. Even in broad daylight, he could only barely see his gear and surveyor’s kit among the branches. “And if I break my piking neck, I’ll never need to.”

Tucked into his belt, the case had no weight. It was all in his mind.

*****

Three days later, sore and feverish and with several sprung stitches, he stood in the best parade-rest he could manage before his deieksa’s desk. It wasn’t against custom to look at her directly, but he still kept his gaze fixed to the dueling blades mounted behind her. He didn’t want to see her expression as she read.

The silence stretched like a taut bowstring. In the back of his mind, the wolves of his other options still battled, as if he might yet leap across her desk and snatch the scroll away. In the end, loyalty to his direct chain of command had won out over the nebulous others. Whether that loyalty ran both ways, he didn’t know.

The wolfkin knew. That was one point in their favor.

At last, Kerystrys Deieksa let the scroll roll back up. “Interesting.”

Sarovy waited.

So did the deieksa. He felt her attention like a sunbeam through a prism. Under his sleeve, his stressed injuries—well on the way to scarring—crawled with some phantom itch. After this, the infirmary, and a prayer to the Light that his mobility hadn’t been compromised.

“So. Surveyor.”

“Deieksa?”

“Do you have my maps?”

He flinched. Since nearly falling out of his spy-tree, he’d been in no state to climb again, let alone draw. Nor had the weather been kind to him. He’d spent the whole return trek either trudging numbly or curled up on some rock ledge, bearing the rain and listening for the click of claws on stone.

“I will produce them once the medics release me,” he offered. His memory was usually point-perfect. He could draw her that outpost— “And certain portraits, if you wish.”

“Yes.”

“Deieksa…”

She looked at him, pale eyes somewhere to the warm side of platinum. Was there wolf-blood in her veins? If so, of which clan? He’d always known there were other lineages intermixed with Tevestys’ dominant eagle, but it had never meant much before. Tevestyn were Tevestyn, and everyone else was Other.

But that wasn’t true at all. Only skinchangers were just one thing.

He couldn’t put it into words—and knew just as keenly that he shouldn’t. No matter what she was or what she’d been doing, she’d tolerate no judgment from a karoksa-nerin. The many scars on her forearms and the profusion of weapons on her wall told him he wouldn’t last long in her ring.

Her lips twisted, just slightly. Then, with an idle-seeming tap of fingernail on scroll-case, she said, “Once you’re recovered, we’ll see about another surveying mission. A bit further north, I think.”

North. Rauvern territory.

Behind his back, his good hand tightened into a fist.

“Yes, Deieksa,” he said.

About H. Anthe Davis

Worldbuilder. Self-published writer.
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