Still here, still writing (and editing)! Book 6 is currently knee-deep in the Main Draft edits, with not much further work needed so far — but we’ll see what my editor says about my end chapters.
In short story news, the Firkad Sarovy stories continue with this one, Feathered Wolf! This one follows The Lay of the Land, which should definitely be read first, as the wolf-clan plot-line continues.
In The Lay of the Land, Sarovy was 14. This is three years later, putting him at 17 during an escalation of the war between two of the wolf-clans that border his assigned outpost. But the situation, as always, is never just about fighting, and he has choices to make.
Includes: reference to abuse, combat, injury, death.
Recommended Knowledge: The Lay of the Land.
Approx. Date: 17 years before series.
Description: Young Firkad Sarovy participates in clan war and other conflicts.
The Rauvern jendae cowering behind the torn tent couldn’t have been more than fourteen. In respect for her headscarf and soft, empty hands, SKKS Sarovy lowered his blade.
“Re nin iliavan, kav kevatina,” he told her—one of his prepared Ridvan phrases. If you fight me, I will hurt you. “Vylihn?”
“Vylina,” she answered shakily.
“She understands her situation,” he translated to his subordinates as he scanned the camp with a squint. The smoke from burning tents, crates and fortifications stung his nose and eyes, but the fighting seemed to be over—the only Rauverns left either captive jeten or the jendae who tended their wounds. By the far gate, a few of the Vastrein clan’s outrunners were returning, probably with word of the escapees. So far, all seemed under control.
“Ken tirinhagi siriha,” he ordered her, then glanced to SRS Charray. “She’s to go to the prisoners. Guide her.”
“Yes, karoksa,” said the silche-ressa—scout-warrior, lowest rank—with a salute. Sarovy frowned at her, but let it go; scouts wore no insignias while on mission, and were supposed to speak no names nor ranks. A rigid meritocrat, Charray had trouble with that. They would have to discuss it—again—after action.
As Charray led the jendae away, Sarovy used his falchion’s tip to nudge aside the flap of the tent. It held a few mats—two rolled as pillows—and some baggage, nothing worse. A small relief. Finding three blinded and crippled Vastrein jeten and one savaged jendae here had been enough, and more than belied the Rauverns’ claims that these were simple hunting camps.
Sarovy was a bit baffled that the Vastreins had sent the crippled warriors back home, but he assumed they had some fuzzy wolf-brained reason. In Tevestys, where the unofficial kingdom motto was Kill swiftly, without regret, they would have been put out of their misery. Only a mad solitaire would ever force the injured to keep suffering.
Another quick scan and he moved forward, trailing the two remaining scouts from his team. Two more were stationed as lookouts in the trees past the far gate, while his ekchisas and their teams would be doing clean-up with the rear-guard. His job now complete, it was time to rendezvous and debrief before advancing. If any of the escapees had made it to Rauvern territory to report, the coalition assault force would meet far more resistance at the next so-called hunting camp.
That was fine. Warned or not, the Rauverns would be destroyed.
“Vastreins coming up,” murmured SRS Hekka from his left. He nodded acknowledgment and slowed but didn’t look. Even casual on-field interactions with the coalition wolf-kin were discouraged. A half-talon of Vaden Deiek scouts might be here in support of Clan Vastrein, to the point of taking orders from their commander, but under no circumstances were they to give the appearance of alliance.
Nevermind that the Vastreins carried Tevestyn-forged blades from shipments falsely declared damaged or lost over the last three years. Sarovy’s subordinates didn’t know about that, and he considered it part of his mission to keep it that way. That the Rauverns had also found metal blades—straight, heavy swords nothing like the eagle-pommeled sabres and falchions the Vastreins carried—made it easier, though he dearly wished to know their source.
“Hei! Faces-of-bird!” a gruff voice called from behind.
Sheathing his blade, Sarovy made a gesture of negation with his other hand, aware without looking that his subordinates had tensed. “Go rendezvous,” he told them. Neither Hekka nor Tennavrys argued, but he could almost hear their disapproval in their soft departing steps.
Half-turning, he let the lead Vastrein jeten catch his sidelong gaze. He’d found this to be the best way for dealing with them, at once projecting an air of watchfulness and avoiding accidental aggression. Or over-familiarity, in this jeten’s case.
“Ha! I scare off your birds?” teased Eivirn Aekhion in Tevayn, mouth open but teeth hidden in a wolf-kin’s weird grin. Or a wolf’s; Sarovy was fairly certain the jeten’s armored coat hid a tail. Eivirn was a sub-chief—the head of a Vastrein branch line—and the commander of this raid. For whatever reason, he seemed to like bothering the Tevestyn scouts, so Sarovy considered it his job to block for his people.
“The enemy will be expecting us,” Sarovy answered.
“Yes, yes.” Eivirn glanced to one of his guards, who muttered something. There were eight of them in total: three painted wolves and five humans, short and shaggy and muscled in a compact way Tevestyn couldn’t manage. Some bearded, some not. Sarovy was learning to ignore that hairiness and some of their startlingly curved shapes.
“You birds want chase?” Eivirn directed to Sarovy. “Must find core camp soon, eh?”
Sarovy glanced to where his superior officer should be, behind the smoking ruin of the camp. SSS Virkayar was a fairly hands-off sekiisa, especially when playing overseer, but she wouldn’t appreciate him making decisions for her. Not after calling him a promotion-hunter.
“I have to consult,” he told the wolf-commander. “Unless you order it.”
Eivirn blinked, an odd expression on his face. Sarovy couldn’t parse it, but he’d never been skilled at reading others. “I order?”
“Yes. You are the commander here.”
“You Kerystrys Deieksa’s man. Or woman,” he added—a small provocation, a fake doubt. Sarovy didn’t bother reacting. The jeten could feign as much bafflement at Tevestyn gender business as he wanted to, as long as it didn’t impact Sarovy’s scouts.
“Yes. She lent us for your use.”
“Vanvan, tet…” Eivirn trailed off dubiously, heavy brows furrowed.
“Yes,” Sarovy replied, “I do say that. And my superior will back it.”
The commander’s upper lip flickered like the ghost of a sneer. Then he huffed, “Your team with my outrunners. Gone forward already, you catch up. We deal with rest of camp.”
“Commander.” He did not salute; even outside of a mission, non-Tevestyn didn’t merit it. At Eivirn’s dismissing gesture, he started forward, pulling the whistle from beneath his scout’s camo. A long, sharp note would call his ekchisas and his immediate team to him on the move.
The Vastrein outrunners’ tracks were easy to follow, but Sarovy dispersed his team to either side of the trail anyway. It wasn’t impossible that the Rauverns were drawing them into a trap. Three years of mounting inter-clan tension had seen more than a few provocations that ended in tripwires and pits and man-made rockfalls. Sarovy stayed on the far up-slope side himself, to keep an eye on the cliff-face that paralleled their path. He’d painstakingly surveyed this area; if anyone would spot suspicious changes to the cliffs, it was him.
He wished he was up in the trees, taking an overwatch position on whatever happened below. But that would have to wait. In the cliffs’ range, among the scree of old avalanches, the forest canopy was too loose for quick-swinging travel. It was hard enough to stay in the shade, the midsummer sun striking down sharply in the great boulder-carved gaps. Were someone watching from a cliff-perch, they could easily pick him off as he leapt from stone to stone.
Well. They could have if they were Tevestyn. He had no such faith in wolf-kin archers.
SRS Hekka was just in sight, a dark springleg in his peripheral vision. Tennavrys would be on her other side if he was keeping pace. Charray, Tanochir and Finvoray he’d sent downslope of the Vastreins’ trail—not that trouble was likely to come from there. The western edge of this territory didn’t quite border on Tevestys, but by now the Rauverns were well-warned that they fought their Imperial neighbor as well as their clan-rival.
And what else do we fight? he wondered as he darted from shadow to shadow. If the Rauverns’ weapon-supplier was some up-slope clan, Vastrein didn’t know about it. Most of the people in that direction were hog-folk or owl spiritists anyway—not metal-users. Someone further north? That would be Clan Ausheven, whom the Rauverns had also been raiding, and who had no access to steel either. Tevestys’ own steel came entirely from the Empire, mined from the Firebird Mountains across the great farming plains in defiance of the metal-folk.
Was that the answer? Had Clan Rauvern discarded their fear of the metal-folk enough to steal their iron flesh? But no—the blades were too well-made. He doubted that a new industry in these backwater mountains would turn out good weapons so swiftly.
They would know for certain when they took Rauvernden.
Another loose stand of trees, then another patch of scree and dead-falls. Ahead, faint threads of smoke showed above the canopy, marking the next Rauvern camp—
A metallic glint caught his eye, above the cliff-line.
Instantly he dodged into the shade of the nearest tree, cursing his luck that it was new growth. Even standing side-on, an enemy might hit him if they shot from the right angle. But no arrow came, and after a few heartbeats he risked a peek around the trunk.
Neither glint nor shape showed where he thought he’d seen it.
Doubtful. He didn’t imagine much. Nor was it light on water; that patch of cliff was bone-dry. Possibly mica, but as he leaned to check from the other side of the tree, he saw no glitter.
He ran a gloved hand across the back of his neck, frowning. He hadn’t gotten the usual prickle of being under observation, but something still felt wrong. The urge to assault the cliff bubbled up—what better place to overwatch? But it was distant even for his sharp eyes and bow-skills, and he was an officer. He couldn’t place himself so far out of contact.
Still, the urge remained as he cautiously stepped from cover, then continued his darting traverse. The rough, crumbled rock-face would be an easy climb compared to the practice-walls in Vaden Deiek. His fingers itched, that little summit-or-die instinct rearing its ill-timed head.
SRS Hekka had passed him, out of sight now among the trees. Not keeping an eye on her flanks, clearly. Something else to drill on. He pushed his pace, staying close to the trees now, soft boots silent on old leaf-litter. The last thing he wanted was to be late to the party.
Far ahead, a howl went up, then a chorus of them.
He cast a last glance to the cliffs. No chance to pursue that mystery now—he had tree-cover to cut through—and still nothing looked amiss. No figure standing in easy silhouette, no new glint of armor or weaponry.
Cursing under his breath, he turned and bolted toward the howls.
His subordinates knew their business; by the time he reached eye-shot of the new camp’s palisade, he spotted SRS Hekka up a tree just outside it and SRS Tennavrys up another within line-of-sight. Charray, Tanochir and Finvoray would be circling around past the front gate to cover other angles, though they weren’t likely to reach the back gate before anyone escaped. He wished he could have put a leash on the piking wolf-kin, so they could actually coordinate their assaults instead of creating an endless running battle—but no, it would have meant too much Tevestyn involvement in wolf-clan matters. Couldn’t have that.
The ekchisas and their teams would be arriving soon with the bulk of the Vastreins. They would hold the front gate, so Sarovy angled past his subordinates to race toward the rear, eyes on the ground to spot snares. Not ten yards along, he saw one—a tripwire. Typical, he thought as he jumped for the branch above it and hauled himself up. He’d wanted to gain more easy distance, but the treetop route held no such surprises, and he needed to be up here anyway. He could always switch trees as the battle shifted.
Three fast steps along a bowing branch, and he leapt to the next tree, twigs battering his arms as he crashed through the gap and snagged a limb. A glance showed him a better one—closer to the palisade—and he swung around the trunk to get a good angle on it. Another dash, another leg-up leap to clear the shaggy end of that branch, and he landed among more foliage, slipping and then catching enough to hand-over-hand his way to a perch. Below lay the stumps of the trees the Rauverns had cut back to prevent enemy archers from doing just this. Too bad they only accounted for the range of forest bows, not the canyon bow he shrugged from his back.
Bracing one foot on a branch and his spine against the trunk, he strung it, then sought a good shooting vantage. Foliage took up much of his view, but through it he could see the chaos below—Rauverns’ orange-green-white sashes against Vastreins’ green-grey-red—and pick out his other scouts at their chosen posts. Also the Rauverns’ own archers, firing on the fray from guard platforms just within the palisade.
Feet on two different branches, Sarovy drew a bead on an enemy archer. The old scar by his shoulder-blade pulled, but it hadn’t stopped him yet. He loosed, and black fletchings sprouted from the Rauvern’s neck. A bewildered convulsion, then that body toppled from its post, and Sarovy shifted stance to find another.
There—a Rauvern trying to climb over the palisade and escape. He put an arrow through that one’s hide armor and saw him twist as he fell, landing nastily on shoulder and skull. Only death-twitches followed, so Sarovy turned his attention to the next escapee, black-fletched arrow nocking into place as if automated.
Despite the shriek and clash of the melee, he felt meditative. The pull of the bow was like an obeisance, the arrow a prayer sent into flesh. His shoulder nagged him, but it was a distant pain, like the burn of worked muscles. He had two quivers, one depleted from the last fight—twenty-five arrows in all—and so he picked his shots, patient. His subordinates’ arrows flicked into view now and then, just as measured, and by backtracking them he found their positions. SRS Charray was almost directly opposite him, above the worst of the fray where jeten hacked madly at each other with no thought for tactics.
More howls heralded the Vastrein reinforcements, the first of which crashed into the fray naked but for their body-paint. Sarovy closed his eyes, banishing the sight and the memory of the painted wolves that accompanied the Vastrein warriors. That wasn’t his business.
When he looked again, he found Commander Eivirn wading in, blood-red cloak drawing all enemy challengers. He and his guards drove a wedge into the fight, their Tevestyn blades skirling against the enemies’ straight swords or thudding into leather and flesh like butchers’ cleavers. Sarovy watched for a moment, but with the melee too mixed to risk shooting into, he finally glanced away to seek more archers or escapees.
Alas, only headscarfed jendae. He lowered his bow to rest his shoulder.
A flicker of orange crossed the battle and embedded in Commander Eivirn’s back.
The man stumbled, and a roar of rage went up from his guards. The Rauverns surged against them, blades flashing in the afternoon light. Bodies bumped Eivirn from the tip of the wedge to its center, and as he staggered, Sarovy saw the orange Rauvern fletching sticking out from his red cloak, buried deep just below his neck.
What? Where did that come from? The Rauvern archers are already dead.
He scanned the perimeter again, but all the guard posts were clear. He and his scouts had carefully kept them that way. Nor could that angle have been loosed from the ground. Nerves prickling, he checked his subordinates, their motions tree-shadowed.
Through the green veil that sheltered SRS Charray, another orange fletching drew back.
His arms moved automatically even as his mind spat, Politics! It made instant sense—someone unhappy with the alliance seeking to end it. Maybe Charray, maybe a string-puller, but as he drew the black fletching to his ear, he hesitated.
That was his subordinate.
He shifted aim and pierced the trunk next to her head.
To her credit, she barely flinched. He couldn’t see the cant of her eyes from this distance—couldn’t tell if she was backtracking him or still staring at her target. Either way, her aim didn’t waver, and as Commander Eivirn steadied among his guards, Sarovy saw her face tense.
He already had another arrow nocked. He put it through her drawing shoulder and into the tree. Her orange-fletched arrow flicked aimlessly over the crowd.
Yet another arrow nocked itself to his string. He wasn’t meditating now; he could feel his pulse in his ears, some part of his heart screaming about what had just happened. For his betrayal, or hers? What had he done? He couldn’t tell, didn’t have time to think about it—not while scanning the rest of his team, catching the whites of their eyes slanted at him.
Were any aiming his way? What color were their fletchings?
How had she gotten Rauvern arrows? Snatched from the last camp, or hidden in a capped quiver?
As the overseer, SSS Virkayar had organized all of their supplies.
Heartbeats passed, and none of his people shot back at him. He saw Charray’s bow fall from her tree, saw her snap the end off his arrow. The fight below went on as if nothing had happened, Commander Eivirn still on his feet though his guardian wedge was now withdrawing. More Vastreins were pouring in through the breached gate, more Rauverns heading for the exits.
He couldn’t aim. Couldn’t pull his gaze from Charray as she worked her shoulder free and nearly toppled from her perch. His mouth shaped advice—a handful of moss or gauze to staunch it, good, ease into a sitting position on the branch, consider using your rope to rappel instead of one-handing your way down.
Where was Virkayar Sekiisa now? With the arriving Vastreins? With his ekchisas and their teams? She might even be back at the previous camp, doing some Rauvern interrogation. She, at least, knew about the problem of the wolf-kins’ weapons.
Both sets of them.
Don’t think about it, he commanded. There was no time to chew at the political thorns. He had two priorities: finishing the mission and avoiding a potential assassination.
To that end, he headed through the trees toward the rear gate, taking his distance from SRS Hekka and any possible pursuit. With each exposed leap, he felt ice run up his spine, but no arrow found him, and as he glanced back from the last tree, he saw no one on his tail.
Down below, Rauvern jeten fled toward freedom, some in wolf-form and some as men. He drew a heavy breath, posted himself in a convenient perch, and began nailing the human-shaped ones to the bloodstained turf mechanically, his scarred shoulder burning. His second quiver dwindled, the first empty and already discarded.
Peripherally, he saw more black arrows fly into the chaotic camp, but no orange ones.
His ears strained for the sound of clashing leaves, cracking twigs, boots on bark, but caught only howls and shrieks and the pitiful sounds of the few he’d dropped but not ended. He left them for the Vastreins; it wouldn’t be long before they held the camp.
An arm-signal from the trees across the gate caught his eye. SRS Finvoray, trying to make contact. He looked to the man deliberately and then away, and after a few moments an arrow flicked from that side to drop another fleeing Rauvern. Talk could come once he’d used up his quiver.
Once he could no longer shoot his comrades, even if he wanted to.
The reckoning took longer to arrive than he’d expected. Everyone at the Tevestyn gathering-point behaved as if nothing was wrong, even as a scout from one of the lagging teams broke out her medic’s kit to deal with SRS Charray’s shoulder. The Vastreins were handling the camp and the prisoners, with SRS Finvoray and SRS Hekka tapped to watch them while also digging the scouts’ precious steel arrowheads out of the dead. Commander Eivirn had stopped by briefly to thank the scout teams, his covered-tooth grin and straight stance showing no sign of the arrow that should have pierced a lung.
Skinchanger, Sarovy confirmed silently, and felt as if SSS Virkayar did the same.
His thoughts flashed between practical and paranoid. There was no point in shooting skinchangers unless one could take them in the eye or heart; they mended too quickly otherwise. And using a Rauvern arrow for a non-fatal shot—or any shot at all—was pointless. It wasn’t as if the two clans could be any more at war.
The only thing Sarovy could think of, as his two ekchisa and Virkayar Sekiisa formed a casual wedge aimed at him, was that SRS Charray had been meant to get caught with Rauvern arrows. To be spotted by a Vastrein and sacrificed to break the alliance.
That made him angry.
He fought not to show it, just stood with hands clasped behind his back, ignoring the throb of his bad shoulder as he matched SSS Virkayar’s overbearing gaze. Like most Tevestyn women, she was bigger, stronger, and grudge-carrying; obvious women were banned from the Imperial front lines and had to make do with border-guard positions like this. Virkayar had commanded the scouts on this patch of border for over a decade with nothing to show for it, while Sarovy’s surveyor skills and quick rise in the ranks meant that he was likely to snag an Imperial assignment soon, leaving wolf-clan squabbles behind. His presence had chafed her from the start.
Now, in the growing shadows of the trees, Sarovy had the bad feeling that outpost politics was only half the problem.
“You shot your subordinate,” said SSS Virkayar coldly.
“Yes. I did.”
Behind him, a scout hissed; he couldn’t tell who. The scouts behind his ekchisas affected surprise or shock with varying levels of veracity, and he adjusted his paranoia to perhaps I was also meant as a sacrifice. It would explain why others seemed in on the trick. As SRS Charray’s superior, he could have been blamed for her actions.
Virkayar’s eyes narrowed. “Not even a denial? I knew you’d go full mad solitaire some day. I suppose today is as good as any.”
“She shot our ally.”
“Did she? Which one?”
“Commander Eivirn,” said Sarovy, though he knew full well how foolish that sounded. Had the commander not just been here, seemingly unharmed? It was against Imperial law to ever cooperate with skinchangers, so clearly Eivirn could not be such a thing, no matter that Sapphire policy diverged from the Imperial line in many ways.
The Sapphire Eye often chose to be blind.
Virkayar barked a laugh, her eyes like ice. “You could as well have said she shot me.” She held out a gloved hand. “I’ll have your weapons, and your officer’s fledge once we return home. You’re fortunate you merely wounded her.”
A shiver of anticipation went through the gathered scouts. Virkayar’s lips pulled back in a sneer. “No?”
“I will not yield. She shot our allied commander.”
“Where is your proof?”
SRS Charray’s quivers lay beside her, next to the medic’s kit. He could easily have them opened. But if orange-fletched arrows remained, that would put Charray in his position now—and if they did not, what argument did that leave him? Charray had been in the medic’s care under Virkayar’s eye when he arrived here. The sekiisa could have done anything, including switching the quivers.
The thought pained him. Even if Virkayar had a problem with him, he’d never had one with her. He appreciated the strict eye and loose rein with which she led, and it was by her leave—or rather, her exasperation—that he’d investigated the wolf-lands at all, and thus gotten Vaden Deiek more deeply involved in their neighbors’ business.
Perhaps that had been enough to create a vendetta.
To the crowd of scouts, he said, “I witnessed it. I do not care who gainsays me. If you challenge my word, you challenge my honor.”
Virkayar stepped forward, teeth bared, gloved hand sweeping out to indicate Charray and the camp beyond. “You call this a matter of honor? Shooting one of our own, to help a wolf?”
Peripherally he noted Vastreins loitering by the gate, watching the showdown. He doubted they spoke Tevayn, but the alliance could do without adding insult to injury—however easily that injury had healed. “A cooperative neighbor. Do we no longer value good neighbors?”
“There was no shot but yours. Do not compound your punishment.”
“You challenge my honor.”
“This is not a matter of—“
“I challenge you.”
Virkayar froze, visibly surprised. Behind her, the ekchisas blanched two different shades of whey. He wondered if one of them had been promised his karoksa fledge. “Challenge?” she echoed after a heartbeat of silence. “You want to duel me now, mad boy?”
“Yes. Wager your fledge and I will wager mine.”
It was a bad idea. Everyone around him knew it. Even the spectating wolf-kin would probably agree. But it was the best answer Sarovy could think of: skip the tribunal and fight his accuser. If he won, then by Sapphire laws, he would claim her rank. It would clinch his bad reputation and cast him as possibly dangerous to the army—to have chosen so frivolous a thing to fight over, at such an inopportune time. As Virkayar had all but stated, wolf-kin had no value except as swordfodder.
But Virkayar had suborned one of his subordinates. Had brushed off the shooting of an allied commander. Wolf or not, he could not ignore it.
Fury flamed in her eyes. Then she snorted, gloved hand falling to the hilt of her falchion. “Forget the demotion,” she said, gesturing at the others to step back. “I will have you dishonorably discharged. You and your knightly lineage can go rot in a warehouse job.”
“Only if you win,” he told her, and loosened his own blade in its sheath.
As the scouts rapidly cleared a dueling-circle’s worth of space, he considered his foe. Taller, stronger, older—fully grown as he wasn’t quite yet, at seventeen. He’d never seen her duel, but she moved with calm assurance, comfortable with her body and her blades.
Unfortunately, he knew she’d watched his fights. Since his dueling-ban had been lifted, he’d participated casually but regularly, enough that probably everyone here had spectated him. Granted, competition dueling used specialized blades that were nothing like the scouts’ falchions and long knives, but he’d dueled far more than he’d fought for real. He was at a disadvantage.
He drew his blades when she did, raising the falchion in salute. The knife might be a hindrance more than a help, since he was used to the knuckleguard of a parrying dagger and this didn’t even have quillons, but he’d take any opportunity to make her bleed.
“To yield?” he said.
A mystery emotion flickered across her face. Then she nodded sharply. “To yield.”
She didn’t salute, she just came for him. He wasn’t surprised, and cut her first strike aside, stepping in with the knife to slice for her shoulder. They wore the same armor: hardened leather cuirasses and archers’ bracers with quilted padding beneath, in mottled brown and green. The tip of his knife grazed her padding; she turned with him, then broke free to lunge for his face.
He caught her blade again and forced it up, the ricasso edges screeching together. His anger hadn’t kicked in yet—just a cinder in the hearth. The politics of this still plagued him. He should hurt her, yes, but how badly? What signal would what outcome send to whom?
She pushed the clinch, forcing him to retreat lest he overbalance—then pushed it further, her knife arrowing for his stomach. He twisted aside and felt the tip scrape leather, saw the glint as she switched her grip. A surge of adrenaline thrust him away before the knife could do more than nick his leg from her backhanded stab.
That little sting banished his thoughts. As she came on again, blades out like a crab’s pincers, he switched his knife-grip and stepped to meet her falchion with it. Impact shocked along his arm as steel smote hard against blade and bone, but his own falchion was cutting up toward her gut—a bad angle to parry.
She brought her leg up instead, taking a gouge above the knee as she diverted his blade outward. Her shin whacked his forearm aside as her knife cut for his neck.
He was inside her guard, so he stepped further, her wrist bouncing off his neck instead of her knife. For an instant, she was off-balance, her guarding leg just lowering to earth, and he hit her chest-to-chest and saw her knife-arm flail outward. One foot planted between hers, he lurched backward, heaving his sword-arm in and up as he did. The ricasso edge whacked her bracered arm, letting him disengage from her falchion as she recoiled.
They took their distance, her snarling, him catching his breath. She was quick and solid; he wouldn’t be able to play the body-check game again, and his headbutt would get her nose at best. The gouge on her leg might give him some advantage, but by the hard light in her eyes, she’d taken his gut-stab as a sign that he wanted her dead.
Well. He could say the same for her cuts toward his neck.
They stepped in at the same time, and flinched at the same time, falchions tangling from mirrored strikes. She pushed in, forcing his blade toward his chest, and he managed another circling disengage only for her to lunge right back in. This time, she pushed high, and he caught the flash of her knife cutting for his underarm. He turned—
—felt her foot hook his ankle—
—and staggered back, half-falling in retreat as the knife punctured just above his elbow. Pain shot along his arm as he circled again, dogged by her pursuit as he tried to steady himself. It wasn’t a deep wound, but the last thing he needed was to be bleeding from his sword-arm.
The second-to-last thing was to keep being forced backward, and yet she gave him no time to square himself. A jab for the arm, the chest, the face—he parried them all but dared not halt lest her momentum overbear him. Her leg-wound bled steadily down her breeches but her glare held no quarter.
“Why is this so personal?” he asked without thinking, swatting away yet another cut.
She laughed, and for an instant hesitated, the need to find words interrupting her flow. Planting his feet at last, he caught another stab with both blades, holding it with the knife while his falchion shrieked down the steel toward her hand.
She disengaged, then spat, “You’re Kerystrys’ little songbird. It’s time for you to shut up.”
That made no sense. He tried to parse it, but as Virkayar came on in a hacking frenzy, all he could think was, Aren’t we all? Kerystrys Deieksa commanded all of Vaden Deiek; everyone in this administrative area served under her, the scouts very much included.
Her falchion creased his cheek, and he had to step fast in order to slide her heavy backswing off past his shoulder. His overhand chop of retaliation hit the top of her arm with a bruising thwack, but she was turning toward his exposed flank even as he pulled up, and he gasped as the pommel of her falchion jammed hard into his armpit. The old scar.
Her knife followed, drilling through leather and flesh to scrape ribs.
He lurched out of reach, struggling to keep his grip as his sword-arm went momentarily numb. The slash felt like a line of fire, the pommel-impact an expanding knot of pain, and as he brought his falchion up to parry her next chop, he realized it was a mistake. Steel hit steel with an agonizing shock that nearly knocked it from his hand.
Angling straight at his chest, she thrust.
He had no choice: he folded backward, dropping to the turf. His shoulders hit first, and that was a mistake too, especially when her boot came down hard on his bad one. Her falchion rose—
His knife found her calf, driving in to the hilt. With a shriek, she hopped back, tearing the weapon from his hand. That was fine; he had another. He just needed to get off the ground.
Trying to lever himself up by using his sword-arm was also a mistake.
He rolled to the other side and heaved to his feet, still somehow clinging to his falchion despite the abominable tingling in his fingers. His shoulder felt damaged—dislocated, or just bruised? He couldn’t tell, but hoisting the blade shot pain all through that side, the old scar now crossed by a nasty new slash. Reluctantly, he swapped the falchion to his offhand.
Focus, he told himself as Virkayar tore the knife from her leg a touch too furiously. He heard the squelch of blood in her boot as she tried to find a good stance, and saw the gash in her other leg gape like a little red mouth.
“We all answer to the deieksa,” he told her belatedly, bracing himself to defend.
“We answer to Evinrus Haaksa,” she snarled. “The Sapphire Eye General, and through him the Empire—not a petty backwoods commander. We abide by Imperial edicts, including those about skinchangers.”
Sarovy blinked. He hadn’t thought her an Imperialist. He didn’t really care, himself; Kerystrys Deieksa was the local authority, with the right to adapt martial law to the area’s needs. If she thought they should support the Vastreins, he’d do it. He hadn’t ever considered the Sapphire General and his outpost commander to be in conflict.
Certainly he didn’t think one of Kerystrys Deieksa’s sekiisas would turn on her.
“And so?” he asked.
Virkayar sneered. She should have been attacking; with the amount of blood that now painted her legs, she might have to yield soon. Yet as if hooked, she answered, “We shouldn’t be involved in this. Who cares if the clans kill each other, or with what? Their lives and deaths aren’t our problem. Kerystrys should have held us aloof and let it happen.”
He opened his mouth to say, What are you talking about? Then he remembered the flash of metal on the cliff. The possible observer.
“Where did the Rauverns’ weapons come from?” he blurted, gripped by a sense of some revelation just in reach. Who supplied them, and when had it started? Had Kerystrys Deieksa’s ‘lost’ shipments been the cause of their arming, or in response to it?
Who was trying to escalate a war in the Garnet Mountains?
Instead of answering, she lunged.
Wrong-handed, he couldn’t do much beside frantically deter her assault. Her knife was the biggest hazard, slicing at him every time he parried her blade too wide. He tried to use his injured arm against it, trusting his bracer, but the pain hampered every movement and just as often he swiped at thin air. He had better luck with his feet, kicking her once in the calf-wound and once in the thigh hard enough to send her gasping backward. Still the fight seemed like a coin-flip, more little wounds opening on his chin and shoulder and arm even as he landed nothing on her.
Worse, he didn’t think any of the scouts were rooting for him now. All their faces looked the same.
Why is this how we are? he fumed as he deflected another hack and dodged another slice of the knife. Perfectly happy to let our neighbors die… He wasn’t different; it didn’t hurt him to see Vastrein jeten fall in battle, even if their jendae wept over them loudly afterward.
But he didn’t hate them. Didn’t feel contempt for the Vastreins like he felt toward the Rauverns. Didn’t fear them like he probably should—with so many now in earshot, hot from battle, watching.
Didn’t care to hear them disrespected.
Kerystrys Deieksa had never disrespected them. If that put her at odds with Evinrus Haaksa and the rest of the Sapphire high command, then he supposed he’d chosen his side.
Virkayar’s footwork was slowing. He’d been watching for that, still twisting and circling and dodging for all he was worth—trying to draw her after him even though it made the scar-crossed wound blaze. Trying to keep her biting at the bait. Now he stepped in, taking his first stab at her in ages, and as she swatted it down roughly, he slammed his heel into her kneecap.
Her gouged leg buckled, pitching her forward into the rise of his knee. It took her in the chest just below the collarbone, her head rebounding from his thigh—not ideal. She brought her knife up into his shin as she toppled backward, the momentum tearing it through the leather to grate against bone, and with a gasp he hop-staggered aside. He’d planned to put his falchion to her neck, to demand her surrender, but she was already rolling up—
And crumpling again, legs refusing to hold. Spitting curses, she lurched onto one knee, blade still in hand. Her short hair was slicked to her skull with sweat, her eyes white-rimmed.
Gingerly, Sarovy lowered his gashed leg. Putting any weight on it sent agony drilling up the bone, and he could feel his sock beginning to soak. This was bad for both of them. Steady on her knee now, she could defend from any stab or kick—but not pursue him. And while she refused to yield, neither of them could be treated.
You could yield instead, said a little voice in his head. Lose your place in the army, dishonor your ancestors…
It was laughable.
He dropped his falchion, drew another knife from its belt-sheath, and flicked it into her shoulder before she could shift enough to defend. As her sword-arm sagged and she dropped her knife to pull out his, he swung his bad leg up and kicked her full in the face.
The pain almost collapsed him. It took all his mental fortitude to stay balanced, stay upright, and set his foot gently to the ground. Virkayar had fallen backward, blood pouring from her nose, eyes rolled up. She didn’t stir as he bent at the waist to retrieve his falchion.
I should kill her, he thought dimly. Not just because he’d made a permanent enemy of her. The memory of those crippled jeten returned. How well would her wounds heal?
How well would his? If he couldn’t raise his sword again, or draw a bow…
It didn’t matter. He was sekiisa now, until someone else took him down. He looked to the others—the two ekchisas who had abandoned him, and the dozen non-commissioned silche-ressas. His scout-warriors. But were they really warriors, or just watchers?
“Next!” he barked.
No one stepped up.
Later, after stitches and bandaging and a private talk with SRS Charray, Commander Eivirn found him again.
“Camp, we secured,” he declared with that non-grin, then gave a significant sidelong look to where ex-sekiisa Virkayar lay on a bedroll, asleep under the influence of paincease. The rest of the scouts were scattered more or less around her, leaving Sarovy in isolated overwatch. “You in command, eh?”
SKSS Sarovy—silche-kaski sekiisa—stared back at the wolf skinchanger flatly. Pike the eye-contact protocol. He was annoyed to have been hooked into this, even though he’d done his own hooking. His report to Kerystrys Deieksa was not going to be fun.
Of the many things he could say, he chose, “Who has been watching us from the cliffs?”
Commander Eivirn blinked, then furrowed his considerable brows. “Watching?”
“I know you have your own scouts. Have you not investigated the cliff-tops here?”
“Of course we investigate.”
Eivirn’s frown deepened. “Nothing to find. No scent, no sight, no animals. Why?”
“The whole cliff’s edge?”
“From last camp to this camp.”
Sarovy ground his teeth. It made no piking sense. He knew what he’d seen: light on polished metal. An armed or armored person of some sort. But the wolf-kin’s trackers wouldn’t fail to find such a thing, and Eivirn had no reason to hide it from him.
Then another thought occurred, and a tingle ran up his spine.
“Are there metal-folk in this area?” he asked quietly.
Eivirn stared at him, not a muscle twitching. In the waning western light, his yellow eyes looked almost luminous. As the silence strung out, Sarovy realized that the commander’s ever-present bodyguards had gone still as well, watching. A different kind of chill came over him as he acknowledged that he was surrounded by creatures that could tear him apart.
And yet, salved and bandaged and slightly dosed as he was, he couldn’t manage to care.
“I understand that conspiring with elementals is the worst kind of spiritism, to the Empire,” he murmured as low as he could. He did not doubt their ears could catch it. “It does not matter to me. If you have another enemy, I want to know of it.”
Eivirn’s brows climbed slowly, peaking near his hairline before settling comfortably into blandness. Whatever thought process had occurred behind those wolfish eyes, Sarovy couldn’t read it. “Well, bird-leader,” he diverted jovially, “what you do now, eh?”
Sarovy made the choice to let it go. Virkayar wasn’t entirely wrong; they’d become too involved in wolf-kin business.
“We remain in support of you,” he answered. “I hope you’ll lend some guards for our injured. These things happen among my people. I will assign a team to stay with them; the other teams will advance with your vanguard. As the new sekiisa, I will take on Virkayar’s position with the rear-guard.” It meant he wouldn’t have to run, wouldn’t have to fight. He already hated it.
“Not send your injured home?”
“We will all return together.” He wouldn’t let Virkayar or Charray report first.
Eivirn tilted his head, another of those odd expressions crossing his face. Then he made a huffing sound that Sarovy belatedly recognized as a laugh. “Funny. Birds fight birds much, yes? ‘These things happen’?”
“Always thought they fight to death.”
Sarovy opened his mouth to say I am not a mad solitaire, then closed it. His and Virkayar’s suffering might yet prove him wrong, but he didn’t think it was what the wolf-commander meant. Though rank-challenges weren’t always deadly, it wasn’t unusual to hear that an outpost’s leadership had changed through violent coup. Even practice sparring or sport duels could end in death or serious injury, as he well knew.
Perhaps it did look strange to outsiders.
“They are all my subordinates,” he told the commander. “They will come home with me.”
The corners of the skinchanger’s eyes crinkled. “Hm. Not sure you so much bird, Sarovy. Maybe feathered wolf, eh?”
Sarovy’s jaw locked on a vehement refusal. He managed to plaster over it with a faint, flat smile, but by the twinkle in the piking skinchanger’s eyes, Eivirn was in no way fooled.