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Aventurescence

by Iron Eater

“So a little bird told me that you ‘n White-Hair’re gonna be out of the stronghold for a week or two,” said Miid, having sidled up to Riaag as they both helped with dinner preparations in one of Naar Rhoan’s many kitchens. She fluttered her eyelashes at him between chops at a haunch of well-marbled camel meat destined for the simmering stew pot they were tending. “They say it’s so he can help out with some god-speaker business, but my old band used to roam up around Vaz Tarukh all the time, and I know it ain’t that far away.” Her impish smile bloomed into a grin. “You two plannin’ anything romantic, then?”

Riaag didn’t need a mirror to know he’d started blushing; Miid had a knack for knowing exactly how to wind him up like a twine ball. “Maybe a li’l bit,” he said.

Miid cackled with delight. This went mostly unnoticed by the others working the kitchen that day, as much like any other stronghold suppertime the prep area bustled with the courteous chaos of a large number of people all trying to do something at once, but this meant little to Riaag’s easily-flustered temperament, which was convinced the entire valley was listening in. He did his best to focus on the spices he was grinding even as Miid leaned in closer.

“You gonna share any of those clever ideas, sweetie?” she asked, her head tilting so one of the tassels on her headscarf draped across her scar-laced right cheek.

“Them plans ain’t fer me ter share,” said Riaag. He tried to pretend the mortar and pestle were the most interesting things in the world. Anise was not the sort of seasoning to powder itself, after all. “I mean, first things first, we gotta handle the Vaz Tarukh thing all proper, ‘n who knows how that’ll go. There might be complications.”

“Romantic complications?”

Riaag grunted. “Wish t’were an option. The Faaroug is a right fucken lodestone fer discord.” He knocked two gloved knuckles against one of the trio of skulls hung from his belt. “These didn’t just fall outta the apple tree, y’know.”

Miid sampled a bit of the raw cubed meat before adding the rest of the cubes and some of Riaag’s already-prepared seasonings to the stew. “Now since when does a Chosen of Wolf go and complain about keepin’ his pack safe?” she asked.

“Aw, Miid, you know it ain’t like that….”

Sarouth White-Hair, the Faaroug himself, god-speaker of Agritakh and His chosen messiah, was a walking disaster area any way you sliced it. Granted, most of that was because as an outwardly radical cleric he very easily earned the ire of half the people in the valley just by waking up each morning, and even Riaag at his humblest had to admit that a major reason the Faaroug still walked as a mortal man was because Riaag himself had been present to step between Sarouth and the latest iteration of some fucker with a sharp object and a bad attitude. Some days, especially early on, it had felt like the entire world was trying to cut them down. He’d once heard a saying that some people considered it a curse to wish one another to live in interesting times; since taking on the role of Sarouth’s bodyguard Riaag could scarcely remember a moment of his life that wasn’t somehow interesting.

Nowadays their time was spent less freezing their asses off in the woods and more showing everyone in the valley—orcish or otherwise—that there was a better way to live while still upholding the tenets of the Chant, and Riaag didn’t miss any part of wandering around in the highlands, his days spent worried sick over whether his snares would catch anything or if there’d be enough dry wood to cook up a proper supper or if they’d end up having to run for their lives again.

Except that wasn’t entirely true.

“We’s recently come ter a mutual understandin’ what summarizes roughly as ‘Naar Rhoan is the most important fucken thing we’s ever gonna do, but we gotta take breaks now’n again or we’s gonna go just absolutely batshit from the pressure.’ I cain’t recall the last time I had more’n a day or two ter myself, even moreso if you’s only countin’ days which I didn’t use ter catch up on chores or babysittin’, so, well.” He scratched at his beard, making sure it was with the hand he wasn’t using to touch any of the food he was preparing, then cleaned his claws off in a washbucket just in case; he did own some nice kitchen gloves with proper leather finger caps, but it was easy to forget to bring them when cooking was just one of his duties for the day. “It’s nice ter be out in the wilderness so long as there’s a soft bed ‘n clean clothes waitin’ back home, yeah? We spent fucken years out there with so much distance ‘tween us both, so we reckoned it’d be nice ter take some extra days while we’s already hikin’ out in the highlands ‘n, you know.”

“Make up for lost time?” Miid made a rude gesture and waggled her eyebrows with another saucy grin.

“Well you don’t have ter be fucken crude about it,” said Riaag, snapping right back to being flustered.

Crudely-presented or not, it was a good way to describe how he felt about those years. How many nights had they spent in separate tents, Riaag listening to Sarouth’s cacophonous snoring and hoping Sarouth’s latest round of oracular visions would be kind to him? How many mornings had he carefully shaved Sarouth’s chin of the evening’s whiskers, groomed his hair, made sure that his clothing always looked just so, all while trying to keep that crucial divide between them? How many days had he kept Sarouth safe from whatever might harm him, laughed at his terrible jokes, cooked meals that he’d consume with gusto no matter how badly they turned out? It was hard to place just when Riaag’s subservience—the loyalty of a dog given a scrap of meat, the mad fidelity of the enthralled—had become actual love, and harder still for him to know when Sarouth began to painfully feel the same. Seven years of orbiting one another while lying to themselves had nearly torn them both apart. If that wasn’t time lost, what was?

Riaag shook his head to clear it. Dwelling on what could have been wasn’t going to do him any favors, and these days he had a warm bed to share no matter how long it had taken him to muster up the nerve to sleep in it. Sarouth could be patient with him even when Riaag’s own woe-plagued brain was trying to set itself on fire, so it behooved Riaag to try and follow his lead. Miid was right, anyway: as soon as they were done with Vaz Tarukh they’d explicitly planned to fuck off into the forest and spend a few blissful days doing nothing but enjoying one another’s company in the privacy of nowhere. He’d be a liar if he claimed he hadn’t been going through old, longing fantasies to see which ones might be fun to try out in real life.

When she wasn’t busy teasing him Miid was an excellent cook, and so Riaag was happy to study her demonstration of how to make a particular style of dumpling. He’d made plenty of buns with filling in his time; what was important was learning how she got the dough to look so cute once it came off the heat. Making the little glutenous birds and flowers look right was arguably almost as important as making sure the beans were mashed up properly or the middle was hot enough when you took a bite.

An Usoan woman loaded down with an architect’s tools poked her head into the kitchen and glanced around hesitantly. Riaag didn’t know her face, which meant she had to be from the newest group to arrive, which itself probably meant her Rhoanish wasn’t very good, which itself had to have been making life difficult for her as of late. A hint of recognition flashed in her snake-slitted eyes when she saw him; this wasn’t overly surprising, given how even among other orcs Riaag’s appearance made a statement, and given how it hadn’t even been two full years since he and Sarouth had been tried before the whole of their village for someone else’s crimes it made sense that your average River Person could pick either of them out of a crowd.

He waved and greeted her in her own language. “Hello, you are hungry?” Usoan was a more subtly tonal tongue than Rhoanish, but he’d been practicing as often as he could for situations just like this.

“I…yes?” Her long ears slicked back nervously. River People could be so skittish at times.

“Okay. How many to feed?”

The woman glanced around at the other cooks. Save for a young boy who was now ignoring the vegetables he was chopping in favor of staring at her in amazement, nobody else was paying her any mind. She fiddled with one of the dangly parts of her headdress as she replied. “Just me, and one other. We usually eat with a host family, but they’ve gone out hunting, we think. We don’t know. We’ve not been here a week.”

“Two meals, okay. You wait and I bring them.”

Feeding River People was just like feeding anybody else, in that they liked warm food made from good ingredients, and while you had to remember they got very sick if you fed them carrion they were otherwise just another hungry belly. The stew would be a while yet and even then the meat might be a little rare for a palate he assumed was more used to fish, so Riaag went for choices he knew most of the visiting workers enjoyed when they joined public meals: a big scoop of aromatic rice, roasted vegetables, dumplings stuffed with chicken simmered in some of the pungent sauces the Usoans traded with the stronghold, and some salted grapes for dessert. He’d seen a teapot strung on the woman’s belt or he would’ve gotten her something to drink, as well. Usoans could be very proud so allowing her some semblance of self-sufficiency seemed the best idea.

He loaded up a tray with both prepared dishes and presented it to her. “Here. Clean food, no old meat. Cooked with fish sauce so it might be a bit like home?”

The architect’s hands were so tiny compared to his, even adjusting for how her kin didn’t even have claws, but she took the tray gracefully, her wrists barely even tensing as he released his grip. She sniffed the plates. “Not like home at all,” she said, the traditional Usoan sourness creeping into her voice, but it ebbed away as soon as it had swelled. “Thank you for your generosity, all the same.”

Riaag pointed out where she could return things once she was done and did his best to communicate that so long as she washed them and brought them back it didn’t matter how long it’d take her to do so. He caught sight of another River Person wringing his hands a ways outside, a chamois-colored reed among a sea of orcish green; River People didn’t wear clan patterns the way the Rhoanish did, so who knew if they were related or not, but the tools he had with him marked him as another builder, and the way he kept pulling his shoulders in any time someone walked too close belied his lack of familiarity with the stronghold and its people. Riaag was glad the poor man had someone who’d share a meal with him.

“One of these days I gotta learn more’n a few words in Usoan,” said Miid once Riaag returned to wrapping dough around blobs of red bean paste. “They’re so cute, don’t you think?”

Cute was maybe not the word Riaag would’ve used. Even when he wasn’t being held at knifepoint by one of their sharp-faced neighbors he’d never quite managed to be enchanted by the narrowness of their jaws or their complete lack of tusks, to say nothing of how smooth and slimy their tongues looked. He always reminded himself that different folks needed different strokes. In the case of River People said strokes were ideally nowhere near the contact poisons they smeared on everything.

“They’s very elegant,” he said, which was true. “I know plenty of folks is interested in gettin’ closer, ‘n that’s just fine by me, but I personally think of ’em more in terms of which ones is willin’ ter be diplomatic ‘n which ones I try ter only deal with through members of that first category. Gotta make sure they’s flourishin’ as a people even when they leadership’s bein’ real bratty.” Thoughts of the River People he knew that were courteous to him—or, land forbid, even friendly and pleasant—were a sorely-needed balm any time he had to sit through another round of Usoa’s chieftain’s bloviating. Politics were so difficult when you couldn’t just get someone in a headlock until they agreed to stop being an asshole.

Miid tipped more rice into the steaming stew pot, gave it a stir, and tasted the broth before continuing. “I just woulda thought, well, given how svelte the Faaroug is ‘n all—”

“He’s different,” said Riaag, firmly. If she didn’t see much difference between Sarouth (who was as lean as Riaag was fat, small of claw and short of tusk, his skin the cool, deep hue of conifers beneath the vibrant red ink of his tattoos) and a River Person (who on the whole were just too damned small and had white around their eyes like animals did, which were fine for trading partners but a bit too gross for romantic prospects), well, there just wouldn’t be much point in arguing. Less subjective than the relative pulchritude of their neighbors was the time of day. “Speakin’ o’ the Holy One, I oughtta go let him know supper’s ready.”

With a glance from the stew pot to the position of the sun outside the kitchen tent, Miid cocked an eyebrow at him. “There’s at least a half hour left to go before servin’ time,” she said.

Riaag shrugged as he loaded up a tray with a big pot of fresh tea and several cups; one never knew how many would be necessary. “Knowin’ him I’ll get caught up in somethin’ religious-like long enough fer it ter be done by then.”

“True enough. You tell him I said hi, now.”

“Done ‘n done.”

Naar Rhoan was big even as strongholds went, which meant it was very easy to lose someone among the many tents and paddocks, even if they were as important a someone as a demigod. Riaag racked his brains for where Sarouth had said he planned to be when they last saw each other. The newest births had all been blessed the other day, so he probably wasn’t with the midwives, and the healers’ tents only hosted people with minor recoveries at the moment, so he probably wasn’t helping change bandages or steeping poppies, either. It wasn’t so hot or dark that he was likely to be indoors with his loom, there weren’t any visiting diplomats that needed schmoozing, and these days he liked to swim when Riaag did so they could help scrub each other’s hair, so where could he have possibly gotten to? Some days Riaag considered tying a bell to Sarouth’s robes just so it’d be easier to find him again.

Riaag closed his eyes to think. The smell of the tea wafted past his nose as the steam from the pot curled across his face, not unlike the way the vapors inside the sacred hill flowed around Sarouth as he meditated on the visions they brought him, the fumes and the brilliant white of his hair sometimes difficult to tell apart from one another…and that was it, that was all the guidance Riaag needed. He lengthened his stride and aimed himself accordingly. Now all he had to do was make sure the tea didn’t lose its warmth.

Once Riaag reached the outskirts of the stronghold’s holy ground it didn’t take long for him to find his quarry. A bonfire blazed at the edge of the ritual field, Sarouth silhouetted against it with two people kneeling before him, each clasping one of his hands in their own. It was too busy for Riaag to hear his smoked-honey voice over the usual sounds of the stronghold, and the way Sarouth’s hair fell over one side of his face made it difficult to read his lips, but the patterns on the supplicants’ clothing were clear and the way tears shimmered on their faces in the firelight was a sight Riaag knew intimately: it was the better part of a decade ago by now, but sometimes it still felt like only yesterday it’d been him begging for forgiveness and the blessings of a god he’d hoped against hope might love him back.

Sarouth gently pulled his hands away from the kneeling figures and produced a small vial of sacred oil from the pouch at his waist. He dabbed some on his fingertips and traced the tear-streaks coursing down the cheeks of one figure and then the other, murmuring benedictions all the while, then rested his hands against the tops of their heads. As the Hill God’s own avatar accepted them, so too did He from within the ever-dreaming depths of His slumber. One of the pair broke down into sobs forceful enough to cut through the distant din of people. Sarouth petted their hair comfortingly as they wept. Riaag shivered. He remembered this part, too.

After a moment longer Sarouth stepped back and beckoned both to stand. Riaag took this as permission to approach and within a few strides was promptly at Sarouth’s side, tray in hand; as soon as Riaag stopped moving Sarouth got an arm around his neck and popped up on tiptoe to kiss his cheek.

“You’re just in time,” said Sarouth, his tusks framed by one of his usual charming smiles. “Allow me to introduce two of the newest Rhoanish, now cleansed in His eyes. This is Riaag Bough-Breaker, Chosen of Wolf, a man of our people, my oathbound and dearest friend,” he added, turning back to the pair who were busy cleaning dust from their knees and snot from their noses. “Will you introduce yourselves?”

The taller one bit their lip and glanced at the shorter one. “I’m Daasz Iron-Back, a woman of our people,” said the shorter of the two, her voice still hoarse with emotion. She nudged her taller companion. “Go on, you have to get used to it sooner or later.”

“Itwagh,” said the taller one. They paused for a moment, then continued. “Itwagh…Tallow-Burn, no longer Head-Taker. A man of our people. I, um. I ambushed you once.” Now that Riaag could get a better look at him he could see that Itwagh had some bracing still wrapped around one leg and parts of his exposed skin were smeared with some of the salve the healers used to keep a wound from going septic. Between that and the clan patterns both wore Riaag was now certain these were part of the most recent highwayman problem he and Sarouth had taken care of. At the rate things were going over half the stronghold was going to have a history of getting the ever-loving shit beaten out of them by one founder or the other. In Riaag’s defense, it did work.

“Pleased ter make yer acquaintance,” he said. He awkwardly offered the tray in their direction. “Y’all want some tea?”

They sipped their cups and chatted politely as the new Rhoanish came down from the ritual high that tended to follow whenever Sarouth helped unload someone else’s cultural baggage. Daasz had some skill with logging and was hoping to join the engineering teams already experimenting with how best to build storage for the stronghold’s crops; Itwagh, on the other hand, was still fumbling for a trade that didn’t involve murdering people and taking their things, though he’d expressed a tentative interest in helping cure soap. Riaag resolved to ask Kala Cold-Iron—Naar Rhoan’s master-of-arms—if she needed any extra hands just in case things didn’t work out with the chandling.

Eventually the tea ran out. The cups were collected and the two freshly-cleansed Rhoanish made their way down into the currents of people below, leaving Sarouth and Riaag alone again in the shadow of the sacred hill. Sarouth leaned heavily against Riaag’s side and nuzzled him like a cat.

“I wasn’t expecting something to drink, but I think I needed one,” said Sarouth. His exposed eye sparkled in the glow of the fire. “Thank you for staying to talk with them. It means a lot when new converts can chat with someone a little more, hm. More normal. Like it’s proof others will see them as actual people.” He rested his head on one of Riaag’s ox-broad shoulders. “I think they’ll be okay.”

“You say that ’bout ever’one,” said Riaag with a half-smile.

Sarouth blew a raspberry. “I try to think it about everyone, too. Otherwise I’d be a pretty shitty Faaroug, right?”

“Cain’t argue with that.” He pulled Sarouth close with the hand not occupied with the tray and cups for a brief cuddle. Letting the mortal flesh of Agritakh do His worldly bidding was important, but so was making sure said mortal flesh didn’t waste away to nothing because it forgot to have its daily bread. “Dinner oughtta be done by now, assumin’ I ain’t misjudged the oven’s temper’ture none.”

You walked away from a lit oven?” Sarouth couldn’t so much as boil water without something going terribly wrong, but he was keenly aware of all the ways fire could get out of hand. Given how he so often danced with the stuff Riaag supposed it made sense.

Riaag shrugged. “Miid was helpin’ me so it weren’t like I left it ter make charcoal in the middle o’ somebody’s empty tent. She says hi.” He cocked a thumb in the direction of the distant kitchens. If he focused his nose just sharply enough he could make out hints of the rice and camel stew they’d been working on since that afternoon. “We oughtta get back afore the food gets too cold, though.”

“Where would I be without you?”

Walking a few steps behind Sarouth was Riaag’s default state of being, since people would—consciously or not—flow around Sarouth like water parting before the prow of a ship, and it was a good deal easier for a man of Riaag’s size and breadth to follow along in that wake than to risk accidentally shoving someone. Walking in front was for unfamiliar territory and hunting for bandits. Naar Rhoan was home and the only bandits within its walls had willingly changed their stripes, so it made sense to hang back and let people come up to Sarouth without feeling like they had to go through another barrier. They made their way back to the kitchens with little fanfare. Nobody had needed either of their attention this time, but as Riaag plated up meals for them both he found himself surprised that had been the case. Right about now was usually when things started getting complicated.

Dinner was good (not just nourishing but flavorful, which was the best kind of dinner) and once they both were sated Riaag was careful to jar up plenty of it for the coming trip. He washed a few dozen plates but regretfully kept himself from staying longer; they had plenty of packing still to do, and much as it pained him not to help out with a bigger task until it was finished he accepted his hands were needed elsewhere.

Cleaning still kept Riaag busy until a little while after sundown, and by the time he was back at the tent he and Sarouth shared the floor was thoroughly covered in an orderly explosion of clothes. Sarouth sat in the middle of it, happily folding robes and sorting them by color. He hadn’t put this much effort into packing even when they’d sailed downriver to the big diplomatic meeting-of-many-nations thing they’d secured Naar Rhoan’s admittance to a few months back. At the rate he was going they could’ve just loaded up their storage trunks on their horses as-is and been done with it.

Sarouth wiggled his fingers cheerfully as Riaag laced the tent flap up behind him. “I figured it’d be a good idea to get a head start on things,” he said.

“I can see that,” said Riaag. He stacked up the jars of leftovers among their personal stores. “You, uh, you sure is throwin’ yerself right inter this, huh?”

“Yes! It’s, hrm, words, words…it’s going to be a time just for us, right? No warbands invading, no summits to attend, no hostile god-speakers trying to blast our heads off. Just you, and me, and technically the horses.”

He tried to fight it but Riaag couldn’t keep his face from scrunching up reflexively. “We seriously gotta take them fucken things? Mine still bites.” Riaag’s horse would do a lot more than bite if given the chance, though he and it had reached enough of a cease-fire that it would deign to let him style its mane or brush its coat without trying to trample him midway through. He rewarded its cooperation by avoiding its presence whenever possible.

“A little bit of riding will get us to and from our destination faster,” said Sarouth. “That means more time to relax and we can get home nice and quick if something goes horribly wrong.” Neither of them needed to add because it probably will. “Also, I know you pride yourself on that strong back of yours, but it’s just easier to carry things if they’re strapped to an animal. You don’t want to sleep on the cold, cold ground when we could unroll some nice soft carpets, right?”

Riaag was prepared to sleep curled up in the dirt like a ferret so long as he could relax a little in the process, but Sarouth had a point. There was also the fact that if Riaag had the choice he’d much rather have his back pressed against a thick layer of woven wool than whatever crap had accumulated on the forest floor. He was forming a lot of opinions on the ideal way to lie supine these days. “Yeah, s’pose that’s so. I weren’t thinkin’ right.”

Sarouth stood up, shedding a lapful of folded sashes in the process, and sauntered over to give Riaag a hug. “I’m sure you would’ve thought of it yourself,” he said. His cheek was cool against the exposed flesh peeking out above the collar of Riaag’s shirt. “It just slipped your mind for a moment. It’s been a busy day for you, after all.”

It was tempting to try and argue that it hadn’t been that tough of a day, not really, especially since he wasn’t sore anywhere nor run up to the brink of exhaustion, and if you wanted to get technical he hadn’t even had to pick a fight for at least the better part of a week; that urge trickled away as he felt Sarouth’s fingers knead soothingly at his sides and took in the hints of incense clinging to Sarouth’s hair. Instead, Riaag said, “Yeah, s’pose it was.” If Sarouth thought he deserved a break, maybe he could try and believe it.

Sarouth leaned up and kissed him, this time more deeply than the little peck on the cheek they’d shared by the bonfire. It was remarkable how forceful he could be with that skinny swan’s neck of his. His lips were soft, his tongue clever, and his mouth tasted of strawberries and cinnamon.

Riaag pulled away from Sarouth’s kiss and furrowed his brow. “Them was fer company,” he said, only now spying the opened jar of spiced fruits Sarouth had tucked next to the chest he used to store his weaving.

“I got a bit peckish,” said Sarouth, guiltily.

“We just ate, and we got jars ‘n jars fulla nice, fresh carrion you coulda busted inter,” Riaag continued. “Bread, too, ‘n ripe fruit if you just had ter get at the sweets. Now I gotta make up another batch next time we’s back home.” He let his expression soften. Sarouth got hungry in weird ways, and Riaag had a lot of experience with what it was like to be stuck alone with one’s own crying stomach for company. Back in the old days they’d all too often only had enough food to go around for one of them, which would prompt Sarouth to remember he had some prayer or another to be fasting for, which even then Riaag had seen through as the kindest sort of lie. “Guess we better finish ’em up tergether, huh?”

When it came to treats Riaag had originally prepared for guests Sarouth had picked a good one: the fruit was still sweet and moist beneath its shell of spiced honey, and the jar itself was fairly small, so between the two of them they finished it off in a manner of minutes. Sarouth’s insistence on stealing kisses between bites was equal parts distracting and fun. It’d take too much time to wash the jar out properly before they left so Riaag tossed it in the crush pile for later; if it was going to get discarded either way, why mix it in with the good ceramics?

Actually packing, in spite of the mess Sarouth had made, was a straightforward affair of rolling up carpets and sorting clothes into travel packs. Riaag made sure Sarouth’s harp made the final cut, since a little music together sounded like a great way to spend an evening or two, and was sure that Sarouth’s spindle and distaff were tucked in next to a big wad of unspun fibers, since if anything came up that made Sarouth nervous or that he needed to really think over it helped if he had something to do with his hands.

Food stores were fairly simple, too, since they could split the difference between loose and bagged foodstuffs thanks to Riaag’s culinary experience. He expected to forage or hunt for fresher ingredients while they were out; it never hurt to refresh his familiarity with more outdoorsy skills now and again, and most importantly this left plenty of space for gifts. In spite of Riaag’s earlier grumbling they had more than enough to choose from. A trading post like Vaz Tarukh lived and died by the reliability of its commerce, which meant with a ghost disrupting things the least they could do was share a bit of the stronghold’s bounty in the form of rice and cured cheese.

Then came the matter of the potion collection.

“I’m amazed you can keep all of these straight,” said Sarouth as he stood back to let Riaag sort through the dozens of little vials. “There’s so many colors and so many purposes, I’ve met other actual god-speakers who can’t even tell all of them apart.”

Riaag shrugged as he stacked up another vial of painkiller. They’d be taking the whole box, of course, but it was important to keep a regular inventory of what was and wasn’t in there. The potion box was where Sarouth kept his fancy liquors, too, and that was an inventory with much more entertaining prospects. “I seen you use ’em, or hear you say what they do, ‘n you’s always talkin’ ter other folks, ain’t you? They’s always the same color, so I dunno what’s so hard.” There were lots of colors in lots of viscosities, but it was just a matter of being observant and keeping the details straight.

“The same color for me, anyway. I took a peek into Ruzhu Kind-Knife’s collection once and I was just completely lost. Her healing draughts are black.

“No shit? Weird.” Black in Sarouth’s collection meant good for an upset stomach or scorpion stings; while useful, there was a far cry between clearing up a case of grumpy guts and actually stitching them closed. At least that explained why in all his years as a bodyguard Riaag had never seen any Agritakh-ruhds swapping any of those clever little vials with each other, even though they were always finding them behind rocks, nestled among tree roots, or (in one memorable case) inside a whole barbecued hog. That last one had turned out to be something perfect for clearing panic-muddled heads even with its lingering pork aftertaste. He Who Sleeps Beneath the Earth could have a weird sense of humor when it came to bestowing His divine gifts upon His god-speakers.

Soon the packing was as done as it could be without actually loading up the horses and Riaag had wrangled everything else back into its proper place. It didn’t take all that much time until he was left alone with the washbasin. He had every intention of performing his usual grooming and prayers before climbing into bed for an early night of things right up until he felt a familiar hug from behind. “Think we have a little time to ourselves before we retire?” said Sarouth’s voice in his ear. The responsible Riaag would have noted that the more sleep they got the fresher they’d be at sunrise, but the responsible Riaag was the same Riaag who’d been dealing with a low-grade case of arousal since midday and wasn’t going to argue too much if given the chance to do anything with it.

“Got somethin’ in mind?”

“Nothing too fancy,” purred Sarouth, and Riaag could feel an awkward shift of robes and limbs at his back before a friendly nip stung his ear. This sort of thing worked much better when they were both lying down. “Just a little good luck charm before our trip.”

“It’s fer luck, huh? S’pose we oughtta, then, so’s we ain’t startin’ out on the wrong foot.” He turned slowly—making sure he wasn’t at risk of accidentally throwing Sarouth with the force of his movement—to look down into Sarouth’s grinning face. “Is it good luck if I carry you back with me?”

Very good,” said Sarouth, who was already beckoning to be lifted.

Riaag wasn’t entirely sure why he’d developed such a fixation in picking Sarouth up, since it wasn’t like he didn’t do it in public every so often if there were a lot of puddles out or Sarouth’s leg had fallen asleep during meditation again. It wasn’t like it was something he’d ever seen Sarouth ask others to do for him before he and Riaag had sworn their mutual oath, either, but he couldn’t deny how sometimes it was nice to feel appreciated for being extremely large. Sarouth liked being carried, too, which was the important part. The instant Riaag set him atop the quilt he undulated into a sultry pose with one bare shoulder poking through the neck of his robes and a practiced come-hither look in his yellow eyes. They’d once seen a merchant hawking a trick gizmo that, no matter how much you deformed it, would spring back to its original shape when dropped with sufficient force; Sarouth was very much the orcish version of one of those, except hornier.

“I was thinking we shouldn’t tire ourselves out with so many days of travel ahead of us,” he said, arching his back; all of a sudden Riaag found he was having a lot of trouble swallowing. Sarouth ran his tongue over his teeth and added, “Doesn’t mean I don’t want to see you come, though.”

The mattress dipped as Riaag sat on the side of the bed. He dipped his head to let Sarouth more easily stroke his cheek. “Where d’you want me?” he asked.

“Ideally? Any which way I can get. Tonight, though, how about you just pull yourself out of those nice new pants and I’ll touch us both….”

In the privacy of their own quarters Riaag could do many things that might cause him pause in the outside world, and what he liked to do best was what he was told. He held Sarouth in his lap, forehead to forehead, his pants tugged down where Sarouth’s robes were hiked up, the deep green of Sarouth’s cock pressed up against Riaag’s grass-colored flesh as though they belonged nowhere else. Sarouth’s hands were soft even after years of helping till the stronghold’s fields, and the slightest touch of his palm was enough to cause Riaag’s breath to catch and his heart to leap; it was even better when they sat so closely, though, Sarouth’s weight a comfortable, easy burden and his lips leaving traces of kisses even as Riaag felt himself starting to grimace with pleasure. It was easy to remember he was with someone who loved him this way.

The sensations of hand and shaft together soon left him a happily panting wreck, a favor which he eagerly returned. They kissed afterwards. Riaag always liked that part.

They spent a little bit just resting together, forehead against forehead, before turning their attentions to cleaning up the mild mess they’d both made of each other. The loud pop noises Sarouth insisted on making each time he pulled a finger out of his mouth were wholly unnecessary, but being oathbound to the Faaroug himself involved an awful lot of coming to terms just how ridiculous and obnoxious he could be as a person. Riaag personally found it endearing.

Cuddly grooming flowed neatly into the usual bedtime rituals: Sarouth put their clothes up on pegs to air out while Riaag spent some time with a brush, Riaag checked the tent’s lacing while Sarouth re-made the bed and fluffed up the pillows, they both went through ensuring lights and firepots were dimmed or slaked as necessary, and they checked one another’s teeth after the usual scrubbing and ash-water swishing. It just felt good to be with someone who’d embraced all of Riaag’s fussily domestic tendencies with gusto.

His nesting instincts were not the only thing Riaag felt like having embraced that evening; his cock felt like it still had another round or so left in it. This was a problem with a simple solution. He slid up behind Sarouth—Riaag had always been alarmingly soft on his feet, even after an assortment of growth spurts—and nuzzled at Sarouth’s neck, careful to keep to Sarouth’s right so it was easier for him to see. “Still kinda up fer somethin’,” he said. He angled his beard to brush against Sarouth’s skin and was rewarded with a sigh and a shudder. “How’s about just one more go afore we bed us down?”

Sarouth pulled away reluctantly and continued with his wind-down routine as he talked. “I’d like nothing better, my love, but we both know how long ‘just one more go’ lasts when we’re in the right mood. We’ll need all the sleep we can get for tomorrow.”

“Aw, you’s no fun terday.”

“The least fun. Don’t worry, I plan to make it up to you,” said Sarouth from the direction of the cloth and bucket they kept in one corner of the tent. There was quick, friendly cleanup and then there was going to bed with spit on your hands, and while perhaps not at Riaag’s level of it Sarouth had always been fastidious.

Riaag brightened. “Promise?”

“Once we aren’t trying to zip up to a haunted trading post as fast as we can, you bet I’ll make it up to you and then some. I am bringing my potion collection along, after all.” There were all sorts of things in Sarouth’s assortment of vials and flasks, and personal lubricant was one of them.

They might have retired for the night at the same time for a change had Riaag not felt nature’s call as he was pulling on his sleeping clothes. He sighed. Reluctantly, he went through the whole rigamarole of going outside and doing the necessary before lacing the tent back up for the second, and hopefully final, time, trying to keep from muttering under his breath all the while. At least it hadn’t interrupted his prayers. Riaag was not interested in learning which was stronger, his bladder or his piety.

Sarouth was already snoring by the time Riaag slipped beneath the blankets, and as soon as he settled in place Sarouth pressed himself up against Riaag’s back, dreamily stroking his side like he was soothing a steer. The snoring Riaag had long ago acclimated to. It would have been the perfect way to drift off to sleep had he not been struck by the sudden, intense reminder that they were going up for an exorcism, and an exorcism meant ghosts (probably, anyway).

If there really were ghosts bedeviling Vaz Tarukh, would they find a way to take him if he went there? He was cleansed and whole in the eyes of Agritakh, but what if ghosts didn’t care and smelled his past on him anyway? He couldn’t just abandon Sarouth to go alone because the highlands—and, to be honest, the lowlands, too—were full to the brim with people who didn’t have time for any of Sarouth’s bullshit and would try to change his mind at the tip of a spear. If Riaag went he could be dragged away to the places between the stones where the unquiet dead watched for unclean prey, but if he stayed then Sarouth might be hurt. Hurt or worse. Why hadn’t he thought of this earlier? Why hadn’t he taken any precautions ahead of time? Why had he thought it would ever be possible for them to do something nice for themselves for a change? His breaths were coming fast and shallow and his veins burned with ice. Was it something else waiting for him to think about ghosts? Had a heretic snuck in past the guards and wards and the corpses piked up on the walls and crept all the way to holy ground and was preparing to take him out before they went for Sarouth and how fucking dare they but Riaag was helpless when miracles were involved and he was so stupid to have let this happen and worthless as a bodyguard and would Sarouth be okay and—

He reached for the amulet tied neatly around his left bicep, pressed into the mattress as it usually was while he slept. It didn’t burn like an icy brand, which ruled out ghosts or witchcraft, nor was it doing anything else weird, which ruled out other things. As his ears and nose alike strained to catch wind of any trespassers he let his fingertips rub over the parts of the charm to focus himself the way they’d found could help.

His amulets were a little bit different each time Sarouth replaced them for him; this one was made from beads, tanned snakeskin, and shards of glazed clay left over from casualties in the kilns, all done up in some of his favorite colors. He’d only had it a week so it couldn’t have run dry already. It was no doubt ready and waiting to do its primary job of keeping his nightmares under control, so Riaag took several deep breaths, started counting backwards, and attempted to let it perform its secondary duties of keeping his brains from setting themselves on fire again.

It would be…maybe not fine, because there was almost certainly going to be something or another, but good enough, and there was a lot of room in good enough to go around. If there were lurking heretics he’d have his shield, and if there were bandits he’d have his axe, and either way Sarouth would be at his back, safe and supportive. Evil spirits didn’t stand a chance against an Agritakh-ruhd in all his majesty. Riaag had seen that much for himself; sometimes when the night grew cold he’d remember glimpses of the fell spirit that had come calling that past Harvest, and then his amulet would go off again and he’d be able to remember how irrevocably Sarouth had destroyed it. It still didn’t sit all the way well with him so he returned his attention to doing sums in his head.

“Something on your mind, brave warrior?” said a drowsy voice somewhere in the vicinity of his shoulder.

Riaag startled a bit; once Sarouth bedded down for the night he usually stayed down. Him getting up before morning tended not to bode well. “Thought you was dreamin’ already.”

He felt Sarouth shrug. “I was. It didn’t go so great. I’ll give it another shot in a little.” Sarouth snuggled up closer. “If you’re having a bad time of things I’m glad I woke up. Can you tell me about it?”

“I….” It was tempting to say everything was fine and urge Sarouth to go back to sleep, but they’d had long talks about how he needed to be honest about feeling like shit when it happened. “I had ter remember I was wearin’ my amulet again. I got all fucked up over thinkin’ ’bout…things. Spooky things. Ghosts ‘n shit.”

“Them being up at the post?”

“Them takin’ me away.”

This earned him a kiss on the shoulder. “Don’t you worry, now, I’ll tell them first thing to keep their dead-ass hands off you. I’m sure they’ll listen to the very reasonable argument I’ll make.”

“What if’n they don’t?”

“I’ll just have to make some very unreasonable arguments, then.”

Something else surfaced, unwanted, from the mire of Riaag’s mind. “What if I them people think I’s too fucken scared ter do my job?”

“Oh, Riaag, my pretty bird….” Sarouth adjusted his arm where it had snaked under Riaag’s and clutched him in as tight a hug as he could, all the while nuzzling the back of Riaag’s neck. “You know I got you, right?”

A hard life and a gentle soul had left Riaag naturally lacrimose, so of course this simple act of kindness set him off like a deluge. Sarouth’s grip didn’t loosen a bit as Riaag wept. They stayed that way, Sarouth holding him tight and Riaag purging the latest round of sickness that had fermented in his head, and he would later recall not hearing that familiar snoring again the entire time up until he fell asleep.

-x-x-x-

The crack of dawn saw both their horses already loaded and the pair making their way to Naar Rhoan’s northern gate. Fingers of sunshine crept between the impaled corpses bristling from the walls and cast a warm glow over each suspended body’s clothing, while a light breeze came in from the east and sent any loose-worn hair if could find to ruffling. Riaag smiled. It was shaping up to be a beautiful day.

Stupid Horse (Riaag refused to give the thing a more dignified name) whickered and snorted as Riaag held its lead, but aside from being the hateful creature that it was it otherwise was willing to cooperate. The baked apples he’d fed it that morning had worked wonders for convincing it to go along with getting all the necessary tack and luggage loaded where it needed to be. Karsta, Sarouth’s horse, hadn’t needed nearly as much bribery to agree to things, and while its mane was worn long today Riaag imagined at least half of those locks would find their way into braids come sundown. Whether or not they’d match the elaborate braid Riaag himself wore that day would probably depend on just how bored Sarouth got while on the road.

A few early-riser children were playing a game in the shadow of the wall. To Riaag’s trained eye it was a more or less accurate reenactment of the warband attack from the previous winter; to the untrained eye it was a melee of running and screaming and arguing who got to be the Usoan cavalry this time. The girl playing Sarouth and the girl playing Tokkav Blood-Drunk had escalated a typical childhood scuffle into a full-blown brawl, and at the rate they were going they risked sucking some of their companions into the fray as well. There was no sign of caretakers hurrying to break things up, so Riaag took a step towards the playing field and barked discouragement at a reasonably powerful volume. Two dozen little eyes locked on him. What felt like a mere heartbeat later he was swarmed with eager, dirty, and in some cases slightly bloody kids tugging at his hauberk. Children had incredibly long memories when people who tended to carry free snacks on their person were involved.

He’d expected to tell them more about the subtleties of the battle—or “the big fight,” as they chose to call it—and the value of approaching even the fiercest conflict with peace in mind, but it was hard to negotiate around the bloodlust of youth when one’s audience was fresh out of punching each other in the face. None of them had the patience for rousing poetry that day. He shot a glance over at Sarouth, who’d stayed back with the horses; Sarouth hid a smile behind his hand and shrugged theatrically. Riaag sighed. So much for appealing to their better natures.

Where children wouldn’t listen to reason they would absolutely listen to treats. One bone chip per head bought a temporary armistice, and the promise of three chips for everyone (assuming he heard stories of good behavior upon returning home) seemed like it would help that tentative truce last a few days longer, or at least until the next time someone forgot it was bad form to use your teeth and claws when picking friendly fights with your cousins. He left them to crunch their prizes in what passed for peace when kids were involved.

Sarouth gave Riaag a half-hug once Riaag returned to his side. “You’re a natural with the small fry,” he said with a smile.

“Gotta set a good example,” said Riaag. It’d taken a few years but he was warming up to the thought that he might be a role model for people no matter how much of a mess he was some days.

“That you do.” Sarouth chuckled as he stole a look back at the whirling mass of children, who looked to have decided a game of chase was suitably less violent. Running around like spooked pheasants was a decided improvement over trying to murder one another. “Did you see the one dressed up as you?” he asked.

“With the scrub brush tied ’round his chin? Yeah, t’were fucken adorable.”

“Reminds me of someone….” That didn’t make very much sense, all things considered, but Riaag grinned and ducked his head bashfully all the same. He was warming up to getting compliments, too.

The northern gates were huge, big enough to permit an entire caravan, and they already stood both open and modestly guarded. Scouts and slingers patrolled the wall-walks overhead. Each of Naar Rhoan’s gates had its own purpose and value—west for cropland, south for the forests and Usoa, east for mourners—but it was the north gate that connected to the road system reaching all the way to the mountains around the valley and beyond. North was the way by which most traders came to the stronghold (it was no accident that it was as wide as it was), and north was the direction they sent patrols to keep the highways safe. North was also, ultimately, the way to Vaz Tarukh; the plan was to follow the road for half a day before veering east, since even a slight detour on a well-patrolled highway would save them time in the long run.

First, though, they had to pass Ruzhu Kind-Knife.

She stood in the middle of the road, her feet planted and arms crossed. Her namesake blade caught the light of the still-rising sun from where it was tucked into her sash. The morning crowds flowed around her like a stream around a stone. If death were a woman, it would look much like she did, all dark robes and high ponytail and stern expression behind her god-speaker’s eyepatch; her clan patterns were some of the only color on her person that morning. Ruzhu radiated imposing authority. Riaag was pretty sure it wasn’t just due to the generic creepy vibes you got around Agritakh-ruhds, either.

She raised her hand to them and Sarouth raised his back. He and Riaag stopped in front of her and convinced their horses to do the same. Riaag inclined his head politely; just because she didn’t happen to be an avatar herself didn’t mean she was any less of a cleric than Sarouth, and Riaag had opinions about those who disrespected god-speakers.

“You two heading out now?” she asked.

“That we are,” said Sarouth. “Thank you again for watching the place for us.”

She shrugged. “It tends to watch itself, I’ve found, but the food’s good and it gives my entourage something to do with themselves. I’m glad to do it again.”

Sarouth patted the cage of messenger birds strapped among his saddlebags. “We’ll try and keep in touch by raven as things go. If you don’t hear from us at first, assume everything’s fine. If you don’t hear from us in half a month, eh, see if that spooky Usoan who sniffs around the woods has heard anything. He goes by Etxeloi. You can leave some dumpling soup out in the trees and before you know it he’ll show up with that big wolf of his, hopefully with news. If you still don’t hear from us, well, glad you like the place because it’ll be yours then.”

“A lifetime doomed to hot chicken pies and honeyed yams? I don’t know, Sarouth, it sounds like a terrible fate.” They laughed, bumped knuckles, and embraced. “By blood and steel and fire, I will keep Naar Rhoan from despair,” said Ruzhu when they parted, her hands still resting on Sarouth’s shoulders. “Your people I guard, your duties I don. Let His will continue to be known in your absence, as I shall enact it by my own hand. I swear this by my eye and on the divine inside me.”

“I see and I hear, your oath is now mine,” answered Sarouth in the familiar patter of law-speaking. “Want me to get you any souvenirs?”

Ruzhu hummed thoughtfully. “Vaz Tarukh has mines, doesn’t it? Bring me back a good chunk of quartz or something, all my best scrying stones keep turning into snakes and teeth and fairy lights. I’m starting to run low.”

They spent another minute or two trading a few parting words before Ruzhu turned to give a stern look to Riaag. “I’d be obliged if you took good care of Sarouth out there, Bough-Breaker. He’s the best thing this fucker of a world has.”

“I’s ever’ intention ter do precisely such, Holy One,” he replied, politely.

She palmed something from her carryall and slipped it into his palm. “You’re a good man, Bough-Breaker. I’m glad he has you. Happy trails to you both.”

Compliments from Sarouth were enough of a challenge to swallow at times, so kind words from a god-speaker he wasn’t even actively serving caught Riaag completely off guard. He was so lost in thought that even after they’d started their trek it took Sarouth patting him on the sleeve to get his attention back.

“So what did she give you?” asked Sarouth.

“Huh? Oh, t’were, uh….” He opened his hand, which had reflexively clutched whatever it was Ruzhu had passed him as snugly as an oyster around a pearl and hadn’t bothered to relax since. A small vial of glass—real glass!—rested there, sealed at one end with cork and a liberal application of dried wax. It was full of something black and sludgy. “T’were clearly somethin’.” He held it up for Sarouth to see. “Is this what her healin’ goop looks like?”

Sarouth squinted, then laughed. “I have absolutely no idea,” he said. “It must be important, though, so you should probably hold on to it.”

“Yeah. T’would be real fucken rude not ter.”

The mystery of the vial stayed with Riaag just long enough for him to forget that some of their tight travel schedule assumed they’d be actually riding their horses, at least right up until he saw Sarouth swung himself up onto Karsta’s back to sit sidesaddle with the black-iron mace he favored resting in his lap.

“Come on, brave warrior, we’ve got quite a ways to go today,” said Sarouth.

Riaag groaned. “Cain’t I just hustle along on foot? Ridin’ makes me sore all over.” He meant it, too, though while practice had seen the aches ease up in his back, legs, and shoulders he had yet to figure out how to remain in the saddle without crushing his nuts at the worst possible times. Visitors from other clans and other steppes claimed that in foreign lands you could find entire nations people who rode horses all the time. They even did it for fun, or so rumor had it! How they kept managing to sire new generations of horse-liking folk was a mystery.

“We can walk on the way back after the work is done, I promise,” said Sarouth. “But first we have to get there. They’re waiting on our help, after all!”

“I guess.”

Stupid Horse was a vile creature with a worse attitude that didn’t even have the decency not to smell delicious, so Riaag once more found himself dreaming of horse chops, gravy, and platters heaped with fried offal; even clinging to its bridle for dear life when it once again decided jumping was an acceptable thing to do couldn’t quite banish his thoughts of just how badly he wanted to make it into a pie. Riaag had long ago promised Sarouth that he’d take good care of his horse, and he was determined to do right by it. That promise did find itself tested whenever he went to give it some oats or put flowers in its mane and it lunged forward with that horrible face of its. He shivered. Sometimes he wondered if he wanted to eat it so badly simply so it couldn’t eat him first.

Questionable horsemanship aside it really was a nice day. It was that perfect time of year when it was neither too hot nor too cold, with grass still on the ground and a hint of crispness in the air that promised perfect cuddling weather for the evening to come. Riaag sat up as straight as he could in the saddle to really take in the view. That was something riding had for it, at least: so long as he kept Stupid Horse on the road he could turn his attention to other things. How long had it been since he’d been able to enjoy the scenery on a trip? It felt like they’d scarcely left the stronghold for anything other than a patrol, diplomatic reasons, or stewardship for years, so they were definitely due. Sure, they had the Vaz Tarukh thing to take care of, but if Riaag was being honest with himself that was more of an excuse to go out than anything else.

The wind tugged at Riaag’s hair and the feathers of the messenger ravens in their cages. Riaag adjusted the fabric keeping the worst of the elements off of the birds and checked that they had plenty of water. He wasn’t so good at bead code himself, being far better at deciphering it than actually putting phrases together, which meant Sarouth would be the one actually stringing colors together and sending them off wrapped around one ebon talon or another; codesmith or not, Riaag was still happy to take care of the ravens during their trips. It felt like the least he could do for them being their lifeline to everyone waiting back home.

A few years ago Riaag would have been amazed he even had somewhere he thought of as home, to say nothing of the respect of its people and the oath of its god-speaker. Now that he had a warm bed to return to he found it easier to appreciate the lushness of the trees and the way the clouds spread like whipped cream above the distant horizon. He didn’t miss the uncertainty and the constant fear of running out of supplies in the middle of nowhere, not for a single minute, and he didn’t have so rosy a view of the past that he had forgotten just how much of it they’d spent hungry and cold in the freezing rain. What Riaag did miss was the way the world opened up before them like the wings of a beetle as they strode across Agritakh’s vast and many-biomed back. What a wonderful thing to take in the Hill God’s glory again! They’d definitely have to take time for hiking once they set up their vacation camp.

The forest north of the stronghold soon thinned into isolated stands of trees on either side of the road. A flock of tiny birds surged out from a huge hollow stump as they passed, squeaking and chittering. Sarouth clapped his hands with delight at this and gestured excitedly to Riaag. “Oh, do you see that? Bats in the daytime! That’s very good luck.”

Riaag squinted. Sure enough, they were bats, and while he couldn’t make out too many details as they fluttered and twirled their way back into the trees they smelled healthy and flew with purpose. That did seem pretty lucky. “Sure enough, yeah. You think it’ll last long?”

“Sure would be lucky if it did, don’t you think?” He adjusted his seat. “Let’s go a little bit faster, I think we can get to the next forest by sundown if we keep up this steady pace.”

Whether the bats had helped or not, Sarouth and Riaag had a mostly uneventful ride up until they found a sizable cave in the woods only a little more than a reserved day’s travel out from the stronghold. Riaag ventured inside with a torch to look for signs of anyone—or anything—living in it, but he was able to reach the back of the cave and circle it twice without finding so much as a stray tuft of fur. It didn’t even smell used. They agreed it would be a perfect place to spend time together later, being close enough to Naar Rhoan to ride back in a hurry but far enough out that they’d still have plenty of privacy. A fancy setup would come later, when they had the luxury of taking hours to unload everything and later on pack it all back up; this did not stop Riaag from planning where he’d place the carpets even as he arranged their bedrolls and started dinner.

Their meal was simple and so were the kisses they shared afterwards, since neither of them were in the mood for much else. Riaag fed pinches of carrion to the messenger ravens as Sarouth carefully composed a message detailing the cave’s location in the event runners had to be sent out later. The chosen bird soon croaked its way off into the night, loaded down with its missive, and Sarouth leaned back on his hands to study the rough stone of the ceiling.

“I think I need to go count the stars once it’s a little darker,” he said. “Don’t bother waiting up for me unless it feels like I’ve wandered off somewhere.”

Riaag nodded. Stargazing was something they sometimes did together; star counting was a woeful duty of Sarouth’s alone. At least he had that nice abacus of his to help with it these days.

This did mean Riaag would have to find something to do with himself until he was ready to sleep, though. Unpacking his embroidery would require unpacking everything on top of it first, so that was out, and with all the people and animals in their group already fed he couldn’t well do any cooking. Chores were right out since they’d not have time for laundry to dry, he’d already cut more than enough firewood for a single night, and they hadn’t been in one place long enough to make any messes in need of cleaning. That didn’t mean he couldn’t clean himself, however, and just like that Riaag knew how he planned to spend the rest of his evening. “Saw a falls not too far off with a little pool all up ’round it. Was thinkin’ I’d have myself a nice waterfall wash afore it gets too overly cold fer such.”

“Yeah? That sounds nice. Make sure you’ve got plenty of wood on the pile so you can dry off nice and warm.” If Sarouth couldn’t even muster a waggle of brows at the concept of Riaag swanning around in the nude he was definitely wandering deep inside his own mind already. Riaag had thankfully learned not to take this sort of thing personally. He kissed Sarouth on the cheek, gathered up some scrap fabric and a cake of soap in a bucket, and headed out into the blue of the evening with torch in hand.

The waterfall pool, it turned out, reached just above his navel when he was actually standing under the falls, which suited him just fine. His clothes, armor, and spare fabric had been left neatly folded on one of the rocks surrounding the water’s edge, the torch jammed butt-first into the dirt next to them; the bucket was fashioned in such a way that it was watertight, so it (and, as a result, the soap) he left to float nearby. The water itself was clear and chilly. He reluctantly undid his braid and stood under the flow for a while, letting it wash away hours of travel dust and muscle soreness. If the pool had been big enough for some proper swimming it would have been perfect.

He lathered up his beard and gently pulled his claws through its thick black mass. Oiling it would have to wait until they got to the trading post, as it wasn’t like anyone would be expecting to appreciate the glossy suppleness of his facial hair while they were out traveling, so he did the next best thing and scrubbed it as clean as he could. Once he was satisfied with the state of his beard and mustache he turned to his hair.

Riaag had a lot of hair. After an entire childhood of not having the option he’d jumped at the chance to grow it out, which meant he now was crowned with a magnificent wavy mane the color of fresh pitch. It was easy to forget just how long it was until he got it wet, at which point he had to invest more than a small amount of effort in keeping it from getting lodged in his ass crack. He considered this a fair price to pay in exchange for the perfect coiffure.

The soap cake made perfect suds as he ran it along his wet hair and agitated the strands against one another. He let them rest for a full count of fifty in his head before rinsing them clean, making sure to get all around the nape of his neck and behind his ears. Beard care might be a slight casualty of the journey but he was not going anywhere he was expected to represent Sarouth White-Hair himself with nasty hair. Combing would have to wait until he got back to the cave since he knew it was too long and too thick to dry out without the help of a proper fire.

There was just enough soap left to clean his more crucial areas before the sliver finally dissolved away into nothing. For years he had been self-conscious about the thick hair that insisted on growing everywhere he didn’t want it, yet even at his lowest he’d always appreciated how the fur on his chest and belly would essentially lather itself if he tried. Sarouth seemed to like it, too, which made it a little easier to appreciate the stuff. It covered up some of the childhood scars on his forearms, for instance, and the patch on his chest certainly gave him an air of virility he’d grown into. The hair on the backs of his hands wasn’t even an issue since he wore gloves whenever possible outside of private company or before the uncritical eye of a public bathing lake. He wouldn’t say he’d been cured of his body shyness, not by a long shot, and he preferred to avoid Sarouth’s mirror unless he needed to be sure his beard was tidy or his teeth were clean, but these days he found it increasingly easier to look down at himself and feel at peace with what he saw. Maybe there was something to all that positive reinforcement Sarouth loved to shower on him.

Something rustled in the darkness. Riaag turned with a smile, expecting to see Sarouth sneaking up to take a peek; he was instead met with the sight of a wildcat scurrying back into the bushes. He sighed. Sure, Sarouth had said he was going to be busy, and if he said there were stars to count he probably had been ignoring the call to do so for a while, but Riaag had still held out hope he might change his mind part ways through and wander down to admire the scenery. He wasn’t sure to feel about how disheartened he was about not being lovingly creeped on.

Riaag rinsed a final time, wrung out his hair, collected the bucket, and returned to shore. He dried himself and dressed by torchlight. The walk back was a quiet one; once he returned to the cave he spied the silhouette of Sarouth seated on the rise into which the cave burrowed, his head tilted back and his abacus in hand. Sarouth’s fingers moved dreamily over the beads. After taking count of how much had already been tallied Riaag deemed it best to check on the horses and then slip back inside as quietly as he could manage.

He dried out by the fire before swinging right into his nightly rituals. No sooner had his last prayer left his lips and his head had touched the pillow did he suddenly find himself completely awake. Riaag growled to himself. If it was going to be a long night for one of them, it didn’t have to be that way for both of them, yet here he was, thrashing in the dark like a sturgeon and completely unable to get comfortable. Since when had he had trouble bedding down in caves? They did so regularly any time they went out to visit Usoa, and that one was far less comfortable than this place. When they’d first found it it had felt perfect, in fact, and even those without ancestors such as himself could find comfort in a place like this that echoed through the zig-zagging chain of bloodlines connecting them to the Old People. Even back then orcs had felt the subtle pull of the Hill God’s influence. Safe, safe, happy, sang his instincts. Still can’t fucken sleep, he thought back at them, crossly.

This might have lasted for hours had Sarouth not walked in through the cave’s mouth, making just enough noise to make it clear who and where he was without being so loud he risked waking up any potential sleepers. Riaag rolled back onto his side gratefully. Maybe he’d been left a little rawer than he thought by having the falls all to himself. At least if Sarouth was tucked up against his back like a nesting bowl he wouldn’t have to worry about whether or not he’d left a major religious figure to be carried away by giant birds or any other anxious fancy his brain felt like cooking up when he couldn’t be sure Sarouth was okay.

“Didja count a bunch?” he asked once he felt Sarouth slide into the bedroll next to him and scoot over into his usual spot.

“I’m not sure,” said Sarouth. “The numbers felt right, and He seemed fine with it, so I’m guessing so. It’s hard for me to remember it for very long.” He rustled around a bit, then asked, “Got a lot on your mind?”

“Kinda. Most of it ain’t worth talkin’ ’bout, but….” He let his eyes unfocus on the glow of the dying fire. “It’s a right bastard ovva thing, yeah? The way we still get them little twinges o’ forgotten ways what boil up at times, like we’s all just a few generations away from scurryin’ around with no fucken pants on.”

Sarouth chuckled. Things couldn’t be that bad if he still felt himself enough to chuckle, so that small gesture was enough to ease Riaag’s concerns a little. “We’re fortunate the Scavenger Kings let us learn from them or we might well still be there,” he said. “Imagine how badly off we’d be without Jackal’s secrets of steel, or Beetle’s covenant of blood.”

“Yeah, ’bout that,” said Riaag. It was the perfect lead-in to a question he’d been meaning to ask. “Once we was introduced tere Beetle ‘n Jackal we figured out how ter do the whole business o’ families, right? Carin’ fer our own, trackin’ ancestors ‘n such?”

“That’s right.”

“What’s it like?” He heard Sarouth make a questioning sound in his throat and added, hastily, “Havin’ a family, I mean.”

“You’re asking the wrong person about this.”

“But you still had one, didn’t you?”

Sarouth was quiet for a long while that felt like it kept getting longer. Eventually he said, “I think we should have this conversation later.”

“I…yeah, okay. We can do it later.” Now that he thought about it, Riaag could recall Sarouth talking about his old band and their sheep, and he could talk a blue streak all about what they’d done for this holiday or that malady, but he never really mentioned the people. Sarouth had left his home band early because he’d turned early, so he said, and walking the Labyrinth in his sleep meant even though he was physically close to them his heart was already a thousand miles away, and even that had taken a few years between his first dream of the Hill God’s domain and leaving to train with another god-speaker. Maybe those blood relations had curdled in that time, or maybe it was something else. Either way, Riaag didn’t ask any more questions that night.

-x-x-x-

They were a day and a half out from the trading post by Sarouth’s reckoning when Riaag caught a deer.

He hadn’t been expecting it, since he’d simply taken advantage of their most recent riding break to stretch his legs and maybe look for interesting mushrooms without so much as setting a single snare, so when a big shaggy-necked buck burst from the underbrush with its antlers aiming right at his friendliest parts Riaag reacted on instinct. He pivoted on one foot as it charged past—he was a big, fat man but this did not mean he was a slow fat man—then looped one arm around its neck, used his free hand to catch an antler right up where it joined the stag’s head, and used their mutual momentum to twirl the deer around before slamming it to the ground with a thud. They struggled against one another for a moment before Riaag was able to get his arms around the thing’s midsection and, evading its flailing hooves, wrenched it over his head to smash into the dirt once again. Its neck snapped on impact.

“So, ah, we’s havin’ venison fer dinner, if’n it pleases you,” he said once he got back to their camp, the deer slung over his shoulders. It was so big he’d actually had to use both hands to steady it.

Sarouth blinked at him owlishly. “Goodness. So I see, there. Isn’t this a nice surprise!” He scooted over to make room for Riaag to drop the buck in the clearing they’d claimed for themselves. “I feel there’s a story here.”

Riaag shrugged. “I was just mindin’ my own business when this fucker done rushed at me, so I caught it. Made a sound like a cow’s own nightmare when it came out. Can you believe some folk think deer is s’posed ter be quiet critters?”

“Fancy that,” said Sarouth with a wry smile. “Look at this thing, though. It’s so big I’m amazed it doesn’t have five legs on there.” He grinned and bit his tongue. “Dibs on the fifth if it does.”

Riaag pursed his lips. “Well there’s no need ter be all crude ’bout it.”

There was no sense in wasting such a windfall and they’d been making great time, so they decided to make camp early. Riaag dressed the carcass in a matter of minutes; he was done right as the water he’d put on the fire started boiling. Even if he didn’t have a full larder full of ingredients he was determined to make a few days’ worth of travel rations, with more scraps for the ravens and some rib bones for the horses to chew on thrown in for good measure. Juggling getting the travel tent pitched with making dinner and taking care of various other necessities was the kind of workload Riaag was used to. In no time at all they had shelter from the wind (complete with bedrolls and pillows arranged fetchingly inside) and a bubbling stew pot surrounded by drying strips of meat. Somewhere in the midst of things one of the stag’s eyeballs had gone missing; sure enough, he spotted Sarouth chewing on something and looking very pleased, so that was less of a mystery and more of an inevitability. He’d have been more worried if Sarouth didn’t snack on the eyes first thing.

Early camp or not it had been a very long day. “Think I’s gonna lay me down fer a spell,” said Riaag once he’d gotten the stag pelt properly scraped. It wasn’t going to earn him a handful of jewels at the post or anything but it felt wrong to let good fur go to waste. “You wanna come with? Nothin’ special ’cause I gotta watch the pot, but I’d be happy fer yer company.”

Sarouth popped his lips a few times as he studied the sky. “You know what, sure, I could use a break. I got some wards put up and the horses are already hitched so we should be fine.”

Riaag held the tent’s flap open and gestured inside with a bow. “After you, Faaroug,” he said in a nasal voice and the most insufferably stuffy dialect he knew.

“Don’t mind if I do, Chosen of Wolf,” said Sarouth, matching his obnoxious tone, and they laughed together as they stretched out within the tent’s thick-felted walls.

They’d been relaxing and chatting and swapping jokes of varying quality for about three-quarters of an hour when Riaag thought he heard something. He sat up midway through a story about a very badly-behaving chicken and strained his ears. There was the crackle of the file and the burble of the stew he’d occasionally gone out to stir, there were the snorts of the horses and the occasional buzzing croak of the ravens, there was the wind, there were the trees…and there it was, the sound of someone moving quietly through the underbrush. If it was just a lone traveler on their own they probably weren’t intending to cause any harm; then again, the first time he’d truly earned his status as bodyguard was against a lone traveler, as well. He owed it to a potentially friendly face to approach first with kindness, and if that as of yet unseen face wished them ill, well, they’d be leaving the grove in pieces. You could never be too careful when out in the wild places.

Riaag reached for his axe and slid out of the tent as casually as he could. He performed a quick scan of his surroundings and didn’t spot any signs of immediate danger, which was enough for him to slip the axe between his belt and the band of decorative padding he wore with it, then made his way back to the stew pot. He stirred it up and released an assortment of savory smells. They were certainly pleasant enough; it was possible that whoever it was had caught scent of dinner and was simply following that. Even merchants and River People could track cooking food a surprisingly fair distance, at least in his experience.

There was no use hiding when they had an entire camp set up, so Riaag decided it would be a fine time to start singing while adding in a few treats he’d collected while first clearing the area. “Strike the steel to make a spark/ Split the wood and gather stones,” he sang while chopping up some mushrooms. “Pile the charcoal/ Pile the branches/ The best of meals are born in fire!” Hopefully whoever it was out there would get the idea. More importantly, this way Sarouth would know he was fine and was handling the situation without risking coming out into the open to check. Clear communication was important.

Crack the bone to get the marrow/ Melt the fat to get the grease/ Rinse the guts and grind the innards/ Place it all within a pot/ Supper’s cooking, supper’s cooking!” It was the sort of tune that worked better when you actually started it with starting the fire, and he hoped the poor timing wouldn’t be too obvious. He angled his head in the direction he’d last heard the mystery visitor moving and was rewarded with the sound of nearing footsteps.

Let us sing our praise to Vulture/ Vulture, King of sky and fire/ Let us stoke the forges/ Let us stack high the fuel/ Let us strike a mighty spark,” he continued.

Supper’s cooking, supper’s cooking!” sang back an unfamiliar voice, and Riaag smiled to himself. That made things easier. He turned, hands still holding the bowl of herbs and berries he’d been adding to the mix bits at a time, and finally got a good look at whoever had been skulking around out there.

They were dark of skin, like the needles on a pine tree, with pale yellow eyes and dark hair worn pulled back into a braid shot through with beads. A sheepskin was wrapped around their narrow shoulders. Their clothing looked luxurious beneath the layered forest crud stuck to it, not because it was made of rare materials but because it was made of plain wool worked with extreme skill. He also couldn’t help but notice their clan pattern since it bore the same series of shapes and colors as Sarouth’s. Riaag was suddenly quite glad he’d gotten their attention first; if things went bad and worst came to worst he’d be able to keep Sarouth safe from the sin of kinslaying in addition to keeping him from bodily harm.

That was, of course, assuming either of them needed to do any killing in the first place. Riaag smiled and waved to the stranger and gestured at the stew pot. “Hi, stranger. Food’s got a ways ter go but there’s plenty o’ supper ter go around once it’s done,” he said.

The person hesitated. “I thank you for your hospitality,” they replied, using a very formal dialect—similar, but not identical, to the ones they had affected earlier—which Riaag hadn’t heard in its natural state in quite some time. “May I ask where the others in your band might be? I only see but a single tent.”

“We’s a band o’ two, me ‘n the Agritakh-ruhd,” said Riaag as he tipped a few juniper berries into the stew. He inclined his head towards the tent inside which Sarouth still waited. “The Holy One is reclinin’ after a long day o’ travel, so’s ter be refreshed fer his comin’ duties. You got my sincerest o’ apologies should he be overexerted ‘n not inclined ter conversation.”

“I…see,” said the person. They craned their neck to peek into the pot with an expression Riaag knew all to well himself: they were hungry. “I am Trozhag Wool-Spinner, a man of my people but apart from my band. And you would be…?” He was a bit too insistent with the my instead of our, Riaag noted, but who knew how dependent Trozhag was on his own band; people who were scared and alone were prone to making bad decisions.

Still, manners were manners, and Riaag was not going to let his slip. “Riaag Bough-Breaker, a man o’ our people, herald ‘n problem-solver by trade, currently travelin’ outta Naar Rhoan fer business o’ cultural significance,” he said in as warm a voice as he could manage. “Rest yerself a while at our fire, we’s got plenty o’ extra ter go around terday.” He added another pinch of ginger root to the stew and tasted it again before rinsing off the ladle in the slop-water bucket. “I’ll go see if the Holy One is receivin’ at the moment.”

“Thank you,” said Trozhag, who seated himself warily. Riaag gave him a final glance-over before turning his back and poking his head back in the tent.

“So there’s this fucken guy out here,” he whispered. Sarouth, who had been lounging in a position Riaag recognized as half sprawl and half sprinter’s stance, nodded. “I offered him somethin’ ter eat since he looks like he’s gonna just pass the fuck out if’n he don’t get a little bit ‘twixt his teeth. He’s got yer clan business on ‘n while he’s real jittery I don’t think he’s dangerous. Says his name’s Trozhag Wool-Spinner, if that’s—?”

Sarouth’s expression was difficult to read. “Yes, we’ve met,” he said. He ran a hand through his hair and straightened his jewelry. “I’ll come say hello, though don’t be surprised if this gets weird.”

Riaag stepped aside and cleared his throat, switching to his herald’s voice. “Let it be known that this here is Sarouth White-Hair, Agritakh-ruhd, servant of our god ‘n our people.” He gestured towards the flap, from which Sarouth practically flowed. The usual small smile of Sarouth’s was present as always, though this time there was a slight coldness to it Riaag didn’t see when Sarouth usually greeted strangers. He reclaimed his staff of office from where he’d planted it next to the tent and approached the fire. Riaag could spot a slight resemblance between Trozhag and Sarouth, mostly their frame and their hue, but were he to guess their relation they couldn’t be much closer than some flavor of cousin. Even at such a distance Riaag couldn’t recall actually meeting anyone else from Sarouth’s old life, neither when they roamed the highlands nor after Naar Rhoan’s walls rose. It was nice to see proof he’d come from somewhere before the Labyrinth took him.

Trozhag himself looked gobsmacked. “Goodness me, it is you, Holy One,” he said. There was the slightest hitch in his voice, as though he wasn’t used to using that title.

“Hello, Trozhag Wool-Spinner.”

“I am quite glad to see you are well after all this time. How many years has it been since last we spoke, ten? Fifteen?”

“Long enough,” said Sarouth. He tossed his forelock just long enough to reveal the painted symbol all around his left eye, which itself he kept closed until his hair settled back into place. God-speakers did what they could to be responsible with their gaze. “I assume you’ve already been invited to eat with us, but let me repeat the invitation. Our fire and food are yours.” He craned his neck to peer into the pot before seating himself on a folding stool. “I imagine it’ll be only a few more minutes until it’s ready to serve. There’s plenty to go around and Riaag’s an excellent cook, so it would be a waste not to stay unless you’re in a hurry.”

Trozhag made a thoughtful sound. “You speak of your herald fondly. You are both close, then?”

“Yes, we’re oathbound.”

“Oathbound! Really! I am so very happy for you.” His words were stilted but sincere. Riaag knew that tone of voice: it was the sort of thing he heard between bandmates when one had far outstripped the expectations of the other after a long, awkward dry spell. Even if Sarouth and Trozhag had looked nothing at all alike that one detail would be enough for Riaag to believe they had some mutual history.

Riaag served everyone—they had plenty of spare bowls because he refused to leave the stronghold without preparing to help others in need, in no small part because it happened all the time these days—and once the meal had been properly blessed he settled himself down at Sarouth’s side to eat. Trozhag ate with the strained dignity of a starving man trying not to upset his hosts. It brought back bad memories so Riaag found somewhere else to look.

Thankfully, Sarouth was able to keep the conversation going. “What brings you so far out on your own?”

“There was a storm,” said Trozhag. “I was helping gather up the sheep with the little ones when I slipped and fell into the riverbed. Something upstream broke and a great wall of water rushed towards me. I tumbled a great while until the water’s fury was spent, leaving me lost. I have been trying to follow the stars back before the flock must move again. Save for a band of strangers I hid from, I have been alone this whole time.” He scraped the inside of his bowl clean with his spoon and Riaag promptly ladled him some more stew. This time around Trozhag didn’t look quite so desperate to finish.

“And were you the only one washed away?”

“Yes, I believe that is so. Why?”

Sarouth slurped noisily at his broth before saying, “That’s good, then. Means I won’t have to pick apart the countryside to make sure everyone was properly laid out. We’ve stopped for the day, but we do have a schedule to keep to if we’re going to make it up to Vaz Tarukh and back with any degree of expediency. Do you know if your band might look for you there?”

“I, I could not possibly request such. Bough-Breaker himself stated that yours is a mission of importance.”

“Well, he’s not wrong. But we’re going to the post anyway, and unless you’ve picked up some new tricks over the years you’re better with a loom than with directions. It’s a matter of courtesy now.”

Trozhag wrung his hands. “Are you certain?”

“T’won’t be a problem,” said Riaag. “So long as you’s fine enough ter hustle along at a good pace we don’t expect nothin’ else, Wool-Spinner. Good neighbors don’t leave folks all discombobulated ‘n alone in the middle o’ fucken nowhere, and we’s inclined ter be good neighbors.”

“I accept, then. Thank you. May I have another bowl, please?”

Sarouth didn’t seem too interested in getting much more information out of Trozhag, so Riaag opted to follow his lead and instead focus on keeping the camp tidy. There was a brook only a few minutes away that he’d used to draw water for the stew, and it turned out to be perfect for washing dishes; he took a clean bucketful back with him so there’d be something fresh to drink if anyone wanted some. Topping things off for the rest of their trip looked like it would be a snap. The others were having a conversation about different types of wool when he returned. Riaag loved Sarouth dearly but found most talk of textiles boring, which meant he spent the rest of the evening finding things for himself to do—storing leftovers, making up a spare sleeping pallet, checking the animals again, doing a perimeter walk—until Sarouth led them all in prayer before retiring for the night.

The tent was a nice, windproof thing with thick woolen walls and an oily treatment on the outside that kept the rain from getting in in bad weather, but even in the dark of night Riaag didn’t feel up to more than a little of letting Sarouth snuggle up against him so long as there was someone else so close by. There was also the matter of that very familiar clan pattern. Something about their guest was bothering Sarouth but Riaag couldn’t quite figure out why; Sarouth was certainly being polite enough, just distant, as though he was thinking of something else entirely any time he answered a question or made small talk about their trip. If something was wrong it was Riaag’s duty to try and fix it. He waited until he heard Trozhag’s breathing even out into slumber before broaching the subject.

“So you ‘n Fella Whatsis-Bucket out there is kin, yeah?”

This got a noncommittal noise out of Sarouth. “More or less. Last I saw him he was a distant uncle. We were never very close, even when I was still a normal kid.”

“‘n if I’s recallin’ correctly, he ain’t much ovva solitary type, right?”

“That’s right.”

“Continuin’ on this tangent, if he’s so shy he’s hidin’ from strangers but still has nice clothes ‘n comes ter see what’s up when sung at, that implies he’s at least halfway socialized, yeah?”

“Correct.”

Riaag shifted his weight a little. It felt like Sarouth was gripping him a little more tightly than usual. “Does that mean you’s got more relations out here?”

“Ugh. Maybe. They go where the sheep need to go, so it wouldn’t surprise me if the herds liked the grass in this part of the valley. I’m hoping we can get him to a nice safe place to wait for them, do our job, then get out before we have to find out for certain.”

That kind of answer just raised more questions. Riaag frowned with concern. “This parta that one conversation you wanted ter have later on?”

“Yeah. Sorry.”

“S’alright. We got shit ter do. I ain’t gonna ferget about it, though.”

He felt Sarouth leave a kiss on his shoulder. “Didn’t think you would, brave warrior. I just…wanna do it in the right place and…time….” The words became a yawn, which became a sort of soft mucusy grumbling noise, which in turn became the usual hellish chorus of snores. It took a while longer before his vice grip eased up some. Even in his sleep Sarouth could be intense, apparently.

From then until Riaag fell asleep he tried not to think why that might be.

-x-x-x-

They reached Vaz Tarukh after a mere five and a half days of travel, all told, and Riaag suspected they could make even better time on the return trip assuming they could find an appropriate place for Trozhag to wait for his missing band. Trozhag himself thankfully excused himself before they had to broach the awkward subject of figuring out what to do with him; thanks to Sarouth’s lingering weird disposition (to say nothing of the distraught faces on the officials that rushed towards them once they rode within sight of the post) it would have been difficult finding a diplomatic way of telling him he would probably be dead weight in regards to the meat of their mission. That was a talk nobody wanted to have, time and place be damned. They could worry more about whether he was successfully reunited, and who exactly it was he’d gone out of his way to avoid, once the dead rested again and trade had resumed.

Save for introducing Sarouth and keeping an eye on the officials detailing the plight of the trading post Riaag checked out of the conversation early. What people wanted when they called for a god-speaker was a god-speaker, not any of their entourage; the only thing he expected out of them was that they might tell him where he could pitch the tent or water their horses. Even the surplus food he and Sarouth had packed didn’t seem to interest them, at least not yet. Riaag took the opportunity to get a better look at Vaz Tarukh until his services were needed again.

He had never personally visited the place, so he had no frame of reference for how it was supposed to be, but the sad shell of a stronghold Riaag saw couldn’t possibly have been a trading hub for nomads all throughout the highlands. There were few animals and fewer children. He spotted a few healers busy at work in a tent, their movements exhausted and supplies low, and even their weary lot was more energetic than the other clumps of stronghold folk and nomads camping inside the walls. What had happened here?

Once their business was finished with Sarouth one of the officials led them to where they could make their own camp inside the walls, so Riaag busied himself with doing exactly that. Just like their night in the cave they did their best to not unpack too much, and he was careful not to make their supply stores too obvious. A too-lavish camp might send the wrong impression. The first rule of helping others was making sure they didn’t resent you in the process.

Something was nibbling at the back of Riaag’s mind as he arranged their bedding. “So why’d they call fer you, when you’s so far out?” he asked, his hands busily fluffing a spare cushion. “I don’t mean ter imply you ain’t the best man fer the job, it’s just, er. Ain’t there nobody closer?”

This pulled Sarouth out of his latest dreamy reverie, one he’d been in since the leaders had left them to their camp and he’d sent off another raven. His brow furrowed in thought. “That is an excellent question, Riaag, and I intend to find out. First things first, though, I’m going to strike hard and fast at whatever’s in there so I can gauge what it is, then we gather information about what people say it is. It works better this way since half the time people have no idea what the fuck they’re talking about when spirits get involved.”

“Gotcha,” said Riaag. “‘n when the time comes I…I’s goin’ with you. Ter help.”

Sarouth touched his cheek, the warmth of his hand one of the few things that truly felt alive in that husk of a place. “You don’t have to do this if you aren’t comfortable, brave warrior,” he said, quietly. “I can handle this on my own, I promise.”

It was a downright delicious offer that Riaag wished he could accept. He shook his head firmly. “No. No, I cain’t letcha do that. You’s been actin’ a little squirrely on ‘n off, ‘n if’n you get inter somethin’ nasty when yer head ain’t on all the way front-facin’ it could go real bad. Least I can do is grab yer collar afore you accidentally dream-walk inter an open mine shaft or somethin’.” Riaag thumped the sleeve over his amulet firmly. “I got this, don’t I? It’ll take care o’ the worst o’ it fer me.”

Sarouth opened his mouth to protest and then shut it again. “I suppose I can’t argue with that,” he said, allowing himself half a smile.

They took enough of a rest to let the vile-tasting willow bark chews Sarouth had packed take the edge off their riding soreness. Some water and a handful of mixed nuts later saw them standing in the mouth of the mine near an empty ore-washing trough. The torches Riaag favored were too risky to take underground where they could easily be dropped or go out; while Sarouth might be able to find his way around in the dark, Riaag sure couldn’t, so he had opted to bring the fancy brass lantern they’d received as a gift from Concordance. It was far safer than an open flame and the thin mica sheets it used for panels helped give its light a gentler, friendlier glow, which was something Riaag sorely needed in a tunnel system he knew for a fact was haunted. Why they’d gotten a lantern for attending a diplomatic function he could never truly answer. At least the embroidered bag that came with it was nice.

Sweeping the main room didn’t take long. It was lit only by a pair of dim braziers by the entrance, cool, and didn’t smell particularly weird, which Riaag wasn’t sure put him at ease or not. Nothing looked out of the ordinary. That was the kind of environment that was perfect for an ambush.

“Listen,” said Sarouth with a raise of his hand. He cocked an ear like a dog. “Do you hear that?”

Riaag mirrored the head-tilt. He could pick out nothing particular in the chamber but the sound of his own breathing. “Hear what?”

“Exactly.” Sarouth frowned. “Not a single scrape of a pick or note of a song. They haven’t just been stalled out, they’ve damn near abandoned this place. If we don’t get the ghosts out soon then the mine goes under, and if the mine goes under the post is dead. Too many people rely on this place to resupply or reconnect or see a healer, so if the post is dead, so are they. Letting that happen is inexcusable.” He sighed and pulled his hand down his face like he was trying to wipe away his expression. “I’m really gonna have my work cut out for me, here….”

Riaag adjusted his grip on his shield. His axe’s weight hung snugly in its baldric; in an emergency he could hold the lantern in his teeth and draw his weapon without too much trouble, so it would do for now. “I’s gonna be with you no matter what,” he said, trying to muster courage he didn’t know if he had. “We gotta help them people.”

“That we do.”

The mine proper was a series of tunnels worn smooth from generations of workers, each tunnel braced with thick wooden supports, and those that didn’t terminate in dead ends connected to other tunnels via central chambers stuffed full with planters of the weird mosses and fungi that thrived in the dark places. It was a miracle that such wonders could thrive in this sunless place. Most mines that went below a certain depth had dozens of the things; if you skimped on tending to a supply of growing things, you tended to start getting stale air sooner than not. Whatever lights had been set when the place was still staffed had long since run out of fuel. The whole place was dark and cold to a degree you didn’t get on the surface. It felt entirely too much like poking around in a barrow.

A few tools had been dropped here and there, and in some places Riaag could spot abandoned meals that had to be at least a month old by that point. Had they fled for their lives or had it been a calmer, if hurried, evacuation? Did they start by clearing the deeper tunnels and moving to shallower veins or had everyone left at once? Losing an entire month’s worth of digging could prove disastrous; not for the first time Riaag worried whether or not they’d arrived too late to stem the tides of entropy rippling out from a single event. Could Naar Rhoan afford to take everyone in? Could the miners even make the journey south? Could they even convince anyone to leave in the first place?

The weight of the earth around them pressed in like the waters of a lake. In cheerier times Riaag might have found it comforting, the call of the rocks a soothing sort of overwhelming that dulled the senses and blunted anxiety until there was little left but serenity. Now, though, it felt like he was being smothered in a leaden blanket. The air was sweet, the lantern was steady, and somewhere down in the depths of everything lurked the unquiet dead. What Riaag wouldn’t give for a problem he could solve by punching it in the face.

Soon they started to pass tunnels that had caved in. Some were simply painted with bright warning colors, the torch sconces nearby no doubt illuminating them for all to see when they actually had pitch left to burn, the uneven rock stacked up neatly and left as a reflection on the strength of the earth. Then there were the other ones. These had shrine stones erected near them, surrounded by little offerings: dried flowers, burned-down candles, bits of jewelry, locks of hair. Orcs were a digging people and it was the nature of the earth to fill in its empty spaces; memorials like these had been part of life ever since they had started digging deeper than they could easily dig back out. Sarouth and Riaag paused at each one to offer prayers to ease the sleep of those who had perished in the Hill God’s own embrace.

Eventually they reached the bottom. There was sign of new work, and the same signs of workers leaving in a relative hurry, but no signs of anything supernatural. Every tunnel was the same: be it bare stone or exposed ore, they ended entirely normally. Sarouth growled to himself and whirled on his heel, this time tapping at each cave-in with the butt of his staff and listening for echoes. It felt like it took hours, minutes melting into each other until nothing was left but a lantern-lit glob of time that didn’t necessarily adhere to the position of the sun and stars. If once they left the mine they came out in an entirely different part of the world Riaag wouldn’t have batted an eye.

After what seemed like forever Sarouth found a cave-in that sounded different from the others. It was painted like one of the retired tunnels, yet none of those had quite the same timbre, with whatever echoes Riaag could hear no doubt enhanced tenfold to Sarouth’s divinely-keen senses. He tapped his staff at different rocks before gesturing for Riaag to step back; Sarouth laid his palm flat against the rocks and concentrated, and in the space of a heartbeat they fell away as easily as though they’d been mortared with slippery oil. The pebbles and dust that had orbited around his feet as he invoked the miracle fell back to the stone floor the instant the last displaced rock stopped moving. He gestured again and Riaag shone his light down the newly exposed tunnel. Nothing but darkness was inside.

They plunged into the depths with Sarouth in the lead. The charms hung from his staff of office clattered and clacked against each other as he struck it sharply against the ground. Their light cast curious shadows down the corridor that didn’t reveal anything out of the ordinary, just another tunnel full of wooden beams and dug-out minerals, and as there were no bodies, abandoned tools, or signs of escape attempts it was unlikely anyone had been trapped inside while still alive. It was as though the tunnel had simply been sealed off one day for some arbitrary reason, but if Sarouth had picked up the trail of something weird that couldn’t be all that had happened.

Sarouth popped his lips a few times as he walked but said nothing. Riaag kept the lantern high and his mouth shut, with the occasional suspicious glance at the ceiling. It was unlikely that even a raging landslide could hurt one as magnificent as the Faaroug, as the earth itself would turn away upon recognizing the flesh of its own, but down here he wasn’t so sure. If the roof came down it was up to Riaag and his shield to cushion the savior of their people from getting squished like a bug.

They soon reached another branching chamber. It looked like any other, save that the planters were completely empty; upon closer inspection, they were filled with old ash. Someone had burned every single filter-gilled fungus in the branch. A figure lay curled up next to one, a pillow under their head and an empty bottle next to them, and whoever it was had apparently either died in their sleep or helped themselves walk down that quiet path. They looked to have been dead for far longer than the month Vaz Tarukh had first complained of ghosts. Then again, some spirits were like wine, only appearing to bedevil the living after they had sufficient time to brew. Perhaps the same could be said of whoever the sleeper had been.

Sarouth knelt and prayed over the body, his chanting wishing them serenity and that whatever pains they might have suffered in life be eased by the hereafter. He rummaged in his belt pouch for anointing oil. Riaag adjusted the position of the lantern so Sarouth could better place his hands for the rite, but when Sarouth rolled the corpse onto its back they both gasped in horror.

The body’s left eye had been violently gouged out.

Sarouth’s head snapped to and fro like a bird’s. Riaag couldn’t perceive anything unusual—based on how Sarouth was reacting they should have been surrounded by whirling shadows or cackling voices or something—so he opted to simply stay close, his shield raised, though he knew the instant he felt his amulet go off he was going to be in a world of trouble. He wanted to ask Sarouth what was happening but couldn’t find the words. Thankfully some of his questions were answered when Sarouth struck the ground with his staff again and cried out in a forceful voice.

“Woeful spirit! Wounded heart! I cast you out of this place where you have knotted your guts to the world! Agritakh compels you! I, His Faaroug and avatar, Sarouth White-Hair, compel you! Be gone or stand before me, you unquiet thing! Either tell your story or return to the arms of your ancestors!”

It hurts, hissed a voice at the edge of Riaag’s hearing, though instead of his ears it felt like it slid into his head through his sinuses. It was like having a conversation with a migraine.

“It doesn’t have to,” said Sarouth, his tone instantly more soothing. “Tell me what’s wrong and I’ll do my damnedest to right it. Let me send you home.”

It hurts so much, but I could help them, said the voice. They were in pain so I took it away.

“Who was hurting? Why?”

Everyone. Everyone. I could feel them dying all around me, ever since I awakened. I refused to walk deeper because the voice would be there, making me hurt, too. Even when I took the voice away the feeling didn’t stop, the dreams didn’t stop!

Riaag looked down at the body. What he’d first taken for a miner’s outfit bore the tell-tale signs of a god-speaker’s raiment among its humble fabrics. It was now very important for him to know where it was at all times.

The voice continued, rising and falling like the wind over a hole in a cliffside. This place is like my dreams. I never hurt for long when I’m there, even though I hate them, so I made sure everyone could go there, too. Then they stopped coming to me to be healed. Why did they stop?

“You weren’t enriching people’s lives. You were killing them, the mine, and the whole trading post. This isn’t the right way.”

It can be, though! You came! You listened! The others, they’d get close enough to hear but then run from me, even when I tried to be so still and quiet, but you! You touched me! You woke me up! Won’t you help me help them?

The lantern’s glow had always been reflected in Sarouth’s jewelry, but now Riaag couldn’t shake the feeling that something was subtly different about the light. It felt thicker, warmer, as though it was coagulating in the air like drying wax. “We help people by showing them how to thrive,” he said, curtly. “I’m here to help you move on, not help you get whatever the fuck this was going again. You don’t get to doom an entire stronghold because of a misunderstanding.”

But you’re like I am! You should know how it feels! If you could just be brave enough to walk away from His voice we could work together, we could spread the Void that’s in me just the way it’s in you—

Sarouth sloshed sacred oil in front of him in an arc and the voice whimpered. “Do not even start to compare yourself to me, you nihilistic piece of shit.”

As soon as the voice had started Riaag had stopped thinking in terms of if the corpse would move and more in terms of when, so when it lurched to its feet he was ready for it. “Get down!” he shouted, and the instant Sarouth dropped to his hands and knees Riaag slammed his shield as hard as he could into the one-eyed corpse. The thing hit the wall so hard it bounced. Riaag paused long enough to hand off the lantern before he charged it with a war cry.

It was, once the dust settled, a rather unimpressive fight, as it was composed mostly of Riaag sitting on the thing and bashing its head in until it stopped moving long enough for Sarouth to banish whatever spiritual residue clung to it. Riaag stuffed its mouth with garlic and sage, let Sarouth trace a symbol of Agritakh around its ruined socket with some ocher, then wrapped the remains in some burlap for proper disposal later. At least that was one thing dealt with.

“So, ah, I take it wossface there weren’t the only one down here, huh,” said Riaag as he tied the last of the twine in place.

“Afraid not, brave warrior,” said Sarouth. “I mean, clearly our dead-ass heretic friend was the cause of most of the trouble, but we haven’t done anything about the people they collapsed the tunnels on down here that probably started the worst of it in the first place. That’s going to be the real problem. They’re all….” He gestured as though he were holding an invisible ball. “They’re kinda glommed together. I’m going to have to break it up in chunks like a wasp’s nest.”

“Gross.”

Sarouth nodded. “Extremely gross. If you’re up for it, though, I could really use your help.”

Riaag had to think about that one. He was now two for two when it came to using his size to make something surly and not quite alive stop being such an asshole, which were decidedly good odds, but those were both creatures with corporeal forms. Actual spirits he was less familiar with. The part of him that had been gibbering in terror for the past while was no help, though since he had his duties to focus on it wasn’t as bad as it could have been, and yet he couldn’t quite blame it. He collected his thoughts (and the lantern) before asking questions.

“Is it gonna be dangerous fer you if I’s so close by? Ghosts can, y’know. Smell it on me.” Sometimes referring to his complete and utter lack of clan or ancestors—that pesky little quality that made him irresistible to them, and no matter what Sarouth said destined Riaag to eventually become one, too—was easier to talk about if he boiled the whole thing down to it. Compartmentalizing things in such a fashion meant that he could go entire days, maybe even a week without dwelling on it. That still didn’t make it any less of a problem.

“I promise it won’t be, but, hrm. Let me make sure.” He rummaged around in his carryall and frowned. “I’m out of oil, so we’re going to have to make do. Tilt your head down and your helmet up a little, please?”

When Riaag called to mind thoughts of anointment he went right to the usual suspects: oil, water, blood, mud, maybe ritually-prepared tallow for certain holidays. What he did not picture was Sarouth muttering invocations before wetting his mouth and licking a weird, moist stripe up Riaag’s nose and forehead. It was like being blessed with a hunk of pumice.

“Holy One, I is always most respectin’ o’ yer knowledge o’ the Chant ‘n methods more occluded ter keep folks safe, ‘specially when said folks includes myself, but I ask you, with all humility ‘n respect deservin’ o’ yer station: what in the fuck was that?”

“Temporary,” said Sarouth. “I don’t think blessing spit works very well, but it’s better than nothing at all, and now that we’ve busted the place open like a party surprise jar we can’t well leave it until we’re done here.” He placed a hand on Riaag’s forearm. “Are you ready, my love?”

“Ter do what, exactly?”

“Sing for them.”

Sweat broke out across his forehead, mingling with the saliva already cooling there. “Oh. Oh, shit. Uh. How many songs that gonna take?”

Sarouth knelt to rest his hands on the ground and took several deep breaths. “If you can start with a long mining song, then end with a mourning song, I think two should do it. If I knew we’d have this many to deal with I would have brought my harp. I need music and I need you to follow my lead if anything unexpected happens. Can you do this?”

Riaag put down his lantern and shield, removed his helmet, then answered with a low, droning hum, letting the sound test the acoustics of the chamber. The tone was clear and pure; had they visited in better circumstances he would have been delighted at the results. He couldn’t compare with a proper funeral ensemble but he had to try. “Yeah,” he said. “Just tell me when.”

Upon plucking more little jars from his belt, Sarouth scattered sand on the ground and drizzled it all around him in very particular shapes and orders. He stood with his head down and his hand at his sides in the middle of the pattern. The sand began to swirl around his sandaled feet, then paused, slowly returning to its original place; a few little pebbles that had gotten caught up in the fray remained, once more forming a halo around the hem of his robes. His head snapped upright like the clack of the first rock of a landslide. Folding his arms across his chest, his hands cupping the space above his heart, Sarouth slowly sank to his knees.

“It’s time, Riaag.”

This was not Riaag’s first roundup nor his first ritual duo. He took a deep breath, opened his throat, and began to sing.

Pick and shovel, torch and knife/ Mattocks high!/ Strike the earth!/ Hill God’s treasures down below/ Wait for us within His bones/ Sing of glories in His flesh/ Mattocks high!/ Strike the earth!

Thanks to his many years of service Riaag had experienced a great many things outside the scope of a typical bodyguard. The sex angle was certainly one of them, but he had, in the past couple of years alone, thrown himself in the path of spellfire, traveled downriver and back again to broker trade in a place where orcs were often killed on sight, assisted in overwhelming a powerful spirit by tackling it to the ground, and learned what in the living fuck one was expected to do with Usoan ingredients. This was the first time he’d been so actively involved in an exorcism—barring the spirit-tackling thing, which was technically different since the thing came to them instead of the other way around—and he hoped he was doing it right. Miners liked working songs, right?

Dig we deep and dig we cautious/ Mattocks high!/ Strike the earth!/ Stone surrounds us as a veil/ Burrow towards the ores so hidden/ Tunnel, tunnel, brace, and sing/ Mattocks high!/ Strike the earth!

The wind picked up. There was no wind in a mine of this depth.

Sarouth stretched his hands out and tilted his head, eyes closed. “I am Sarouth White-Hair, god-speaker of Agritakh. I am here for you all. You are forgiven.”

Riaag did not want to think about what was happening. He felt a sort of aching sensation in his chest, like he’d somehow sprained a muscle in his soul, then a tingle from both his amulet and the anointing spit banished it. Nothing was touching him, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that something oily (like greasy fabric, maybe, or the thin tissue you got when cleaning tripe) had pulled back from him in pain. Whatever it was had tried to get at him. It took years of singing no matter what—when scared, when threatened with pain, when healing a broken jaw, when waiting to die—to keep from faltering. That was a mistake neither of them could afford.

He sang as many verses as he could think of, even making up a few that sounded good enough for a mining cadence, and all the while Sarouth moved in a slow and purposeful dance within the circle of sand. Something changed the longer he went. It was the same feeling he got when standing at the head of a ritual, leading hymns and guiding offerings; instead of friends and fellow Rhoanish looking up at him, though, this was some unknown legion who considered him fair game. The sleepers had awakened and now they knew what and where he was. A single mistake was all it would take to be overwhelmed by oblivion. He thought back to the quick missive they’d sent off before delving into the mine in the first place, of Sarouth’s words at Naar Rhoan’s gate. Hopefully Ruzhu would be a good leader.

“Be laid to rest, you who hear me,” said Sarouth. “You can all go home. This place is your tomb, nothing more. Hear the voices of your ancestors and know you can join them in the longest of all dreams.”

You didn’t serve as the Faaroug’s own singing voice without being able to recognize a cue, so Riaag finished his final refrain before launching into a dirge. Just one more song. One more song and they could go back up again.

Vulture wheels overhead/ Face stained black with sorrow/ The lamp bleeds its oil/ The candle burns down.

He put as much emphasis as he could on things coming to an end, of something being finished. Being trapped both asleep and awake in the liminal space after death had to be a miserable existence. He sang of sorrow, but on how that grief could pass through the body with time. He sang of pain, and how it was for the living. He sang of rest, and how their mortal flesh had long ago been joyfully consumed by the Hill God, leaving nothing in the way of uniting with His dreams. Above all he sang of time, and how the hour had come, and how just as living orcs cleaned the land of rotten things, so too would they become said carrion themselves, allowing the cycle to continue ever onward, a small and constant thing in a world of uncertainty. Sarouth could open the way and pull them in; it was Riaag’s duty to make them want to go in the first place.

My eyes burn and my throat is raw/ But it is not I who have died/ I must send them on their way/ I must live until it is my time/ We are all seasoned by life/ And must endure until we are savory.

He held the final note as long and as purely as he could. When he was finished the place felt much emptier, the invisible eyes now closed and headed off to their final destination. Riaag smiled and turned to Sarouth to congratulate him on a job well done, but stopped himself before he said a single word.

Sarouth was contorted like he was trying to hold up an entire dam against the tide.

“One’s staying,” said Sarouth, his teeth gritted as he strained. “He won’t listen to me.”

If talking wasn’t going to interrupt the proceedings then it couldn’t hurt to ask. “D’you know why?”

Riaag saw Sarouth’s nerve falter for the briefest of moments before continuing. “We knew each other. We used to be close. It…it ended badly. He doesn’t have reason to trust me anymore. I don’t blame him, either.”

Riaag’s hand instinctively went for his amulet again. “Which one was it?”

“Matuz. Matuz Steel-Claw.”

“Oh, shit.” Riaag remembered Matuz. Matuz and Sarouth had followed the pattern Riaag had ended up growing accustomed to during his time in service: first everything was casual, then everything was intense, then Riaag assumed that his and Sarouth’s band would be permanently expanding by one, then there was an Incident, then either the third party would leave or Sarouth would encourage Riaag to pack up so they could be on their way without making more of a mess than had already happened. There was just something about Sarouth that made anything longer than a dalliance of a few days go up in sparks and fire. Anything longer than his and Riaag’s thing, anyway, which even with its occasional argument or misunderstanding felt like something inevitable.

This particular reflection gave Riaag even more to worry about so he focused on the terrifying matter at hand instead. There was a time and a place for that conversation, and neither of them were locked in spiritual combat with the fate of an entire trading post (and oathbound) at stake.

Fear could have all manner of effects on Riaag’s panic-addled brain, be it bursting into tears or shutting down or, before he’d internalized that he was a lot bigger than most people he met nowadays, even running away; this time, though, it gave him a perfect moment of clarity, which itself revealed a solution so straightforward it was no wonder Sarouth hadn’t thought of it first. “You gotta tell him that you’s sorry!”

“What?”

“Fer fucken up! You know you both ain’t happy ’bout how that went down!”

Sarouth made a face like he was preparing to disagree, then grimaced. He said something under his breath which lasted several minutes; Riaag did his best not to listen in. This was a private matter between a demigod and the vengeful shade of one of his exes.

Eventually Sarouth untensed and the howling indoor wind was gone, replaced by a silence that felt far more natural than the quiet they’d dealt with for most of their inspection. The final feeling of someone else’s presence left with the wind. He opened up all his sand jars, the ring of sand separating into its individual colors once again before flowing back into their proper places, and blessed them before tucking them back into his bag. He next checked on the bagged-up heretic—who had thankfully not returned for an encore performance—and walked from cave-in to cave-in, sealing the rocks with prayers and smears of paint. Once that was done he released his invocation, allowing his tell of orbiting pebbles to click against the floor where they fell. He flopped on his back with a grunt. “This mine is clean,” he said. He sounded exhausted.

“Want me ter carry you back up?”

“I’ll be fine, just give me a minute.” Sarouth took a long, weary gulp of air. It already smelled a little less stale down there in the depths. “Before you ask, I’d rather talk about what I said to Matuz later. We still have work to do up there.”

“Yeah, a’ight.”

It was just starting to get dark when they came back out but that didn’t stop a small crowd of people from greeting them when they finally surfaced. Riaag recognized all of the officials they’d met with before, plus a few scruffier faces he suspected belonged to miners or other stronghold laborer types.

“Did you find the problem, Holy One? Can we dig again soon?” asked a woman with a snapped tusk and a peg leg. Riaag placed her somewhere reasonably high up the chain of the command, if not the foreman herself.

“Yeah,” said Sarouth. “There were…a lot of ghosts. I was expecting plenty but that outstripped my expectations like a wax ball thrown in a forge. I’ve taken care of it, so aside from getting some new air-gills down there and maybe checking supports on the deeper tunnels there shouldn’t be anything stopping work.” He leaned heavily on his staff and looked sharply at the person Riaag remembered speaking the most about the layout of the place. “So when was anyone feeling like telling me you had a bit of a suicide cult problem down there?”

The aforementioned leader glanced askance. “We wanted to, Holy One, but you were our last chance. No one else would come to Vaz Tarukh upon hearing a heretic had set up camp down below. This is our home. We couldn’t let it die. We didn’t know any other way to tell you.”

Sarouth ratcheted up the intimidation a bit, which was to say he relaxed the restraint he usually kept on the aura of awe that all Agritakh-ruhds bore. The crowd clearly felt it; some shuffled closer to one another, others stepped back, and the official themselves fell to their knees in shock. “If I hadn’t been prepared, or if my oathbound hadn’t chosen to come with me, I’d be dead, not just your trading post,” he snarled. “Do you know how many people you lost down there before whoever it was had the bright idea to wall up the tunnel to keep more from filtering in? I can tell you! Fifty-seven. Fifty-seven dead miners, workers, assorted family members, all of whom let a renegade god-speaker bring the rock down around them because they thought he could help them. They told me they wanted it! They told me he said he’d help them! That is some powerful overawe we’re dealing with! And you chucklefucks didn’t feel like mentioning there might have been someone else who could make the earth dance down there! Riaag, show them the bag.”

Riaag showed them the bag.

This is what’s left of him, and we had to chop him up into pieces and shove holy herbs up his hoo-hah to make sure he wouldn’t start wiggling again. Again, if I hadn’t had my oathbound with me I very well might have ended up some revenant’s supper. One heretic and fifty-seven good people dead and you have the fucking gall to say you didn’t know how to tell me.”

Sarouth took another step forward and the crowd gasped in fear. More of them fell, kneeling or kowtowing, which he ignored. “If you criminally irresponsible assholes are going to be doing any trading with Naar Rhoan, we are going to have to have a talk about cutting out the bullshit! Do I make myself clear!?” He stopped, took a deep breath, fixed his hair, and withdraw his nature until it was easier to mistake him for a mortal man again. “Now that that’s out of my system I feel much better. If you’ll follow me to my camp I can start distributing emergency aid, and once that’s done with we can begin some negotiations involving supplying Naar Rhoan with regular metal stores in exchange for things I’m sure the nomads who live around here would like. One that’s done I have some questions to ask about where you people keep your crystal chunks and what you want to trade for them….”

Riaag swelled with pride at the efficiency. To think Sarouth sometimes thought he wasn’t much of a people person, indeed! He followed along at Sarouth’s side, juggling the lantern, his shield, and the bag of nasties, and as Sarouth launched into the first of many discussions on interpreting what the Chant said about growing grain other than rice Riaag was sure it was going to be a very productive evening.

-x-x-x-

“I am. So tired,” said Sarouth much later that evening, lying flat on his back with his head in Riaag’s lap. An evening spent delivering food and supplies, and explaining how neither were going to curse anyone’s lineage into paste if used, would have been exhausting on its own even without hours of running around in mine tunnels first. Riaag felt like a particularly wobbly piece of dough, himself.

“We did good, though,” said Riaag.

“Yeah, we really did,” said Sarouth. “Thank you so much for helping. It’s always easier talking trade when I have some backup.”

“You seemed like you was havin’ a real nice time as you gave ’em a close look at them textiles.”

Sarouth chuckled. “It’s true, I like showing off the stronghold’s treasures.” He adjusted his head to look up at Riaag fondly. “That’s why I keep you so close.”

Riaag made a show of grumbly protests while trying not to preen too much. Treasure was much different from valued assistant, and while he might not personally agree with the former all the time it sure was nice being told how precious and special he was in the privacy of a laced-up tent. He suspected he was blushing again. This time around he didn’t care.

“No, it’s true! Also you being able to haul sacks around has saved my weary self even more agony.” Sarouth rubbed at his face. “I swear, it’s like my bones hurt. I cannot wait until this willow does its job. We don’t have any poppy tea and even if we did I don’t want to be asleep yet.”

Riaag petted Sarouth’s hair, careful not to dislodge the gold-and-agate circlet he wore. “Thinkin’ o’ stargazin’ any?”

“Hrm? Oh, probably not tonight. But there’s going to be at least another band or two rolling up to the post come midday tomorrow, so we have the luxury of sleeping in some while we wait on them. I don’t want to lose that extra sliver of time we have together.”

“Aw, that’s real sweet o’ you ter say.”

“Is it any less sweet if I say some of it’s because I haven’t gotten off since we left home and I think I’m going to go cross-eyed if we don’t do anything about it?”

Riaag flashed him a gap-toothed grin. Now that the heretic’s remains had been properly disposed of he found he had much more of an interest in helping Sarouth with that little problem of his. “Nah.”

“Good. Great. Perfect. Let’s make plans for how we’re going to spend the rest of our trip once we’re done here, then dedicate a little time to making each other come. Sound good?”

“Yeah, real good,” said Riaag. “So there was that one nice cave we was in….”

It was easy to make plans in the name of killing time. The idea was that they’d return to the cave, kit it out luxuriously, and use the remaining time before they needed to return home enjoying the relative solitude, which was a fancy way of saying they expected to be having a truly ridiculous amount of sex. Sarouth also promised to dip into those conversations he kept avoiding, which sounded interesting, while Riaag had plans of his own he opted not to get into at the moment; he needed to be sure he still had the nerve when they actually got to the cave, and putting excess pressure on himself by getting anyone’s hopes up was a sure-fire way to end up a nervous wreck. They could leave for their destination the next day after meeting with the nomads coming in and performing a final checkup on Trozhag. A new raven was already winging its way back to the stronghold and the hard part of their journey was officially over.

When Sarouth’s painkillers finally kicked in it was easy to tell because he sat up, scooted himself backwards so he was pressed up against Riaag’s broad stomach, and draped one arm around Riaag’s neck while his free hand toyed with Riaag’s beard. “You up for a little fun?” he purred. He ground his hips against Riaag’s trousers in a very effective way. Multiple layers of fabric were no match for Sarouth’s finely-honed skill.

“Uh-huh.”

“The kind of fun where you do as I tell you, maybe?”

“Uh-huh.”

Sarouth licked Riaag’s cheek. This was not the weird thing from earlier where he’d blessed his own saliva to keep spirits at bay; this one took its time and was very clearly possessive, the roughness of his tongue pressing just hard enough to scrape a little without leaving any lasting abrasions, and anyone leaning in close would clearly smell his breath and mouth lingering on Riaag. Riaag’s skin bloomed with goosebumps. He’d never considered that this could set off the same warm feelings of being wanted that Sarouth’s fondness for leaving love bites always did. That was something he’d have to remember for later.

“I was hoping you’d say something like that, my pretty little bird,” said Sarouth, his voice even smokier than before. Riaag swallowed hard, saying nothing. His thoughts were starting to get pleasantly foggy the way they sometimes did when Sarouth was really playing up his stature and god-granted authority. Going along with whatever the Faaroug himself wanted suddenly sounded like the best idea Riaag had ever had.

A familiar small-clawed hand slipped its way under Riaag’s band of belted sashes and right into his trousers. The questing fingers pressed against the swell of his belly and the soft fat part right above the root of his dick, then darted to the side to touch at the creases made where his legs joined his body, stroking the meat of his inner thigh and tracing the curve of his hip. Riaag kept himself as relaxed as possible as Sarouth explored every nook and cranny but the actually erogenous ones. It was incredibly frustrating, because that was the point, really: Sarouth could just ram his hand down there, jerk Riaag off, and then be on his merry way, but since they had the time and inclination for something else that evening, well, of course it was going to be a prolonged process.

Being explored like this was something he’d had to warm up to at first, letting old scars heal and his nervous heart be soothed long enough to start enjoying the act. He’d managed to frame it to himself as a form of tactile intimacy, in that this was himself being touched, himself being memorized, so as there’d be no mistaking who was getting their dick touched by whom. There was also the whole thing where Sarouth liked how big Riaag was—as in, really, really liked it, and not just the part regarding his abundance of height—and if Sarouth thought kneading the thick padding Riaag wore over years of labor-trained muscle was his idea of a good time, who was Riaag to judge? He’d certainly spent his share of evenings tracing the red ink that danced impossibly brightly across Sarouth’s dark skin, no matter how often Sarouth tried to play them off as just one of those god-speaker things. This was fine. This was especially fine whenever Sarouth’s claws (always filed down so neatly) caught him just a little bit in a sensitive spot, eliciting a gasp or hiss of pleasure at all the right times.

Sarouth’s hand pulled away and Riaag whined in spite of himself. This earned him a chuckle that was almost as good as the touches had been. Sarouth placed his fingertips against the underside of Riaag’s chin and gently tilted his head upwards until even the little fold up around his beard had smoothed out. Riaag let himself be turned left and right as Sarouth examined his throat, now exposed with neither coat collars nor his own long hair to conceal it. Those same dulled claws brushed the side of his neck and dimpled the fat there. Riaag shivered. He knew what was coming next; the question was how long Sarouth would take actually getting there.

“Your neck,” said Sarouth, “is entirely too plain. Someone might get a look at you and get the most unfortunate impression you don’t have anyone back at your fire to treat you properly, and we can’t be having that, can we?”

Riaag shook his head slightly. Words seemed inappropriate. Words were also increasingly tricky to put in the right order, which was a pretty good trick for a warrior-poet with a habit of composing in his head while mopping up a fresh crop of highwaymen.

“I’m thinking, hmm. Nothing too fancy, as we do have several whole days ahead of us I could use to mark you however I please. It’d be a shame to use up all my canvas too soon! But maybe I could put one right here?” He ran his thumb along the curve of Riaag’s throat. “A nice little somethin’-somethin’ so people know you trust me, and that you’re mine. Does that sound nice?”

The movement of Riaag’s beard was the only hint that he’d nodded.

“Ah, you think so, too? I’m so glad we see things similarly. Now don’t move.

Had Riaag been facing down the whole legion of ghosts a second time, madder and hungrier than ever, he still wouldn’t have been able to ignore an order like that. He leaned back further against the pile of cushions he’d been resting on, letting his limbs go slack even as Sarouth adjusted himself to loom impossibly large against the backdrop of the tent’s ceiling. The next part would be the best part but he couldn’t be tense. The next part would be the best part but he had to let it happen on its own. The best part would be the next part but he couldn’t rush things. The next part—

Quick as a viper, Sarouth lunged forward and sank his teeth into Riaag’s exposed throat, and Riaag groaned like he was already coming. His eyes slid closed as the wonderful pain flared and dulled into a familiar stinging ache; there was no question whether it would bruise or not because of course it would, that was the whole point. People would see it and look to Sarouth, perhaps giving pause as to what could make a man so great that one as clearly seasoned as Riaag would roll over and offer his neck. Each flex of Sarouth’s jaw meant Riaag’s wound would be just a little bit darker. He couldn’t wait to wear it tomorrow.

He felt Sarouth leave a little kiss on the sore spot before shifting his weight as he leaned back to examine his work. “Hm hm hm, yes, that’ll do nicely.” Sarouth sounded pleased. Riaag’s lingering worries had smoothed over the whole time Sarouth was touching and biting him; now he thought of little more than how he might ensure Sarouth sounded like that all the time. He waited eagerly for the next request, keeping his hands to himself and the rest of his anatomy freely available for whatever clever idea Sarouth had next.

“You look so warm, my love. Let me help you out of those hot, heavy things so you can cool off in this pleasant night air.” Riaag hadn’t parsed the tent as being anything other than mildly temperate, earlier, but if Sarouth said he looked hot he clearly had to be sweltering, because Sarouth had said so, and Sarouth was always right. Everything was fine, and of course he wouldn’t mind shedding a few layers, especially since that sounded so much nicer than having to do something drastic like not have Sarouth (himself wearing at least two different robes, and underwear, and maybe a shift for good measure) sit in his lap and touch him in all the right ways. That sort of thinking just wouldn’t do.

Riaag let himself be slowly peeled of everything but his amulet until he lay in a floppy, naked heap under Sarouth, who was seated straddling his broad torso. He didn’t have to look to know Sarouth would still be fully clad in his ritual finest, jewelry glowing in the firelight and his little smile just the right amount of smugly self-satisfied. The robes might end up somewhere else by the end of the night, but the jewelry? That would no doubt remain in place until it was time for them to sleep. Riaag had long since made his opinion known about how important it was that it do so. That a dazzling creature like Sarouth in all his splendor would deign to touch a glorified drudge with bad teeth and worse scars made it possible for Riaag to think maybe there was something to this whole self-worth thing he’d been pursuing.

The night air really was pleasant. Were he not in the process of getting sensually mauled Riaag could see himself falling asleep where he was, fingers laced across his hairy chest; Sarouth was still very present and very handsy, however, so there was no chance of dozing off any time soon. The rustling of robes preceded a nice little breeze across Riaag’s exposed skin as Sarouth reached down to cup one of Riaag’s half-soft, half-toned pecs, manhandling him affectionately only to release him to toy with a cold-perked nipple. Light touches traded off with harder ones, which in turn gave way to caresses once more. Riaag winced and writhed happily all the while. By this point he was so wound up that it didn’t matter if his cock actually got touched at all. There were worse ways to spend an evening than pinned under one’s attentively fiendish oathbound.

Unconcerned with his own genitalia or not, when Riaag felt a palm brush against his shaft he whimpered and thrust his hips into it. This resulted in the hand disappearing entirely. He whined and snapped his teeth in dismay, which earned him a finger against his lips paired with a gentle shushing. Had he been feeling more puckish he would have tried to go for the quieting finger, maybe to nip in challenge or to get his mouth on it more suggestively; by that point, however, Riaag was so far gone that he could only put up the same approximate resistance as a dollop of yogurt, and so he obediently went silent and waited for his next cue, eyes still shut.

He could feel Sarouth still sitting on him, legs splayed out the way he refused to ride a horse, which presented the question of how the angles worked with regards to how someone facing forward could get at a cock behind them without some impressive feats of agility. The thought sank back into the cottony depths of his consciousness as swiftly as it had arrived; going under meant he had the luxury of not having to entertain every possible motherfucking distraction that crossed his mind, and if it didn’t take the fiercely-honed awareness and survival instincts so important to his duties with it Riaag would have had to put serious consideration into just not coming up again that often. Here in their private space, though, he didn’t have to be a bodyguard or warrior or anything at all. He could be a luxury to be enjoyed by Sarouth and Sarouth alone and that would always be more than enough.

The hand returned and Riaag relaxed further. Maybe this was the game where Sarouth would tease him right up until he reached the threshold of an orgasm, then back away just before Riaag came? That was a pretty good one. It didn’t have to be that, though, since Riaag was quite happy to be touched in more straightforward ways. Would Sarouth’s hands stay smooth and dry, or would he rummage in his vials for something to liven the mood? There were so many options, or at least it felt that way, since it was hard to remember if he’d already counted something in his current state. It didn’t matter. Riaag coasted blissfully on whatever stimuli Sarouth chose to throw his way all the way until the hand was gone again and he felt himself being pressed into the cushions by a weight against both his shoulders.

“Eyes open, my wolf,” said a friendly-aggressive voice in his ear, prompting Riaag to force his lids up to find Sarouth looming so close it was almost overwhelming. Their noses nearly touched. He could make out the yellow of Sarouth’s concealed eye through his forelock, complete with the paint around it, and at this distance it was impossible to pretend Sarouth was looking anywhere but Riaag’s own face, thinking of anyone in that moment but him. “I see you,” said Sarouth, his words still a mix of honey and venom that Riaag’s cock was liking very much, thank you, “but do you see me?”

“I see you, Sarouth,” Riaag said, barely louder than a sigh. It was hard to talk like this, harder still to use Sarouth’s name instead of what his tongue wanted to say—Holy One, Faaroug, prophet, avatar, messiah—but just as it was important for Riaag to be at the mercy of a god-speaker’s teeth, so too did Sarouth need to hear his own name spoken when they were close like this. “Only you,” he added. Only was such an inelegant way to say he saw Sarouth as everything he ever was, from the absentminded soothsayer who had to be kept from wandering into creek beds to the font of divine power whose very presence could shake the earth, and yet it felt like the only word that was good enough when he had to succinctly convey he knew who was touching him.

It was apparently good enough for other people, too, as Sarouth closed his eyes with a smile and sighed through his nose as though he’d slipped into a hot spring on a cold day. When they opened again there was nothing there but satisfied fondness. “Then that will do, indeed,” he said, and it was impossible to imagine any finer words.

He released his hold on Riaag’s shoulders and slid back, still fully robed and bejeweled, until he sat on the tent carpet next to Riaag’s waist. This led to a brief bit of touching with claws and fingertips, but Sarouth’s priorities were clear as fresh ice: as soon as he’d made a perfunctory effort of teasing, he launched into stroking Riaag with a firm and practiced hand. Riaag held eye contact as long as he was able before biting into his lip and coming hard across his stomach, unashamedly undone.

Slowly plodding his way back from wherever it was he went when he got into an obedient mood tended to take a while; Sarouth, thankfully, was a very patient man, and carefully reheated some leftover tea for Riaag to sip on as he got his thoughts back together. Riaag let himself be cleaned by a cool cloth as he waited for his limbs to do what he wanted them to. This, in turn, was accompanied by a litany of praise from Sarouth about what a good job Riaag had done, which helped shut the nervous fear he’d somehow made a mistake right the fuck up. Between the tea, the compliments, Sarouth gently brushing his sex-mussed hair, and the night air (which had continued to remain rather nice), Riaag felt like he had a leg up on putting himself back together.

“Was that nice for you?” asked Sarouth once Riaag had demonstrated he could handle making up a fresh pot for them both once the original ran out.

“Yeah. Feels kinda like I got a real good crunch outta my neck, ‘cept all over, ‘n I got off in the process.” It was absolutely true: Sarouth had developed a real knack for knowing just how Riaag wanted to be touched.

“Is it a good time for me to finish myself off, then?”

Riaag made a great show of faux-uncertainty, complete with much rolling of eyes and pursing of lips as he sipped at his tea. “Hrm, hrm. Maybe. I mean, we does both gotta get goin’ termorrow once them nomads get they asses inter town….” He could only play the part for so long before he broke out into a grin. “Does I get ter watch?”

“Of course you get to watch.” Sarouth doffed his outer layer dramatically, shooting Riaag what had to be a wink because a blink made no sense in context. “Besides, if we’re waiting on shepherds to move their herds all the way in, I think we can afford to sleep a little late if we happen to stay up just a hair longer than usual.” He unfastened another part of his robe and let it hang loosely on his trim frame, the curve of his cloth-clad cock making a significant dent in the front. “How about we give ourselves a good reason to?”

“Think I might be inclined ter agree,” said Riaag, his eyes having torn themselves away from the luster of polished crystal by lamplight to linger on Sarouth’s half-hidden bulge. Sarouth gyrated his hips lewdly before he doffed his remaining layers, shot Riaag one of his trademark dazzling smile, and began tending to himself with such intensity that the cabochon on one of his rings sent flecks of reflected light dancing all across the tent like a riot of randy fireflies.

Despite their best attempts at time management they ended up staying up more than just a hair past their usual hour, but in the end neither found much reason to complain.

-x-x-x-

They made good on their plans to sleep in, which meant the sun was actually a little ways above the horizon by the time they stepped out into the crisp morning air. Riaag started cooking breakfast while Sarouth went on his way to make some quick early rounds; it would take a little time for the good news about the mine to trickle through to everyone it affected, Sarouth had explained, so there would no doubt be a crop of smaller tasks in need of a god-speaker popping up as people calmed down and remembered less pressing matters.

Eggs, both boiled and fried, seemed like a natural choice for a victory breakfast, since the day Sarouth didn’t devour an egg with the speed of a starving snake was the day a skinchanger had taken his face, and since they had the ingredients with them Riaag felt like it was a good time to try experimenting with frying bread to pair with some of the figs and sweet cream they’d brought up from the stronghold. The air around his cooking fire smelled pleasantly heavy. After leaning towards breezier recipes all through the summer it felt good to really get back into dense, hearty territory again.

He’d just set some of the leftover venison by the fire to warm it up when he caught sight of three pairs of little eyes peeking at him from around a barrel. They darted back when they realized he saw them, then slowly emerged once more as the scent of hot food grew stronger. Riaag smiled to himself. So there were a few children left in Vaz Tarukh.

“Y’all kids hungry?” he called, keeping his eyes on his work all the while. This inspired some muffled whispers barrelwards. He took hold of the skillet’s handle and flicked his wrist, flipping the slabs of frying bread in it into the air before catching them again, this time their uncooked sides touching the hot iron. He’d had to endure a few rounds of accidentally sending bread flying into the bushes before getting the hang of that trick. “I’s known as Riaag Bough-Breaker, a man o’ our people, ‘n I’s known ter share with folks what uses they manners.”

A few more muffled whispers later one of the kids emerged, skittish as a rabbit but clearly fascinated by what he was doing. They couldn’t have been older than six or seven. “I’m Kaava,” they said. They paused a moment, added, “I’m a boy,” then pointed at the bread with one stubby finger. “What is that?

“This here’s bread,” said Riaag. “We make it down in Naar Rhoan since the Hill God told us He’d be obliged if’n we did such. It’s like makin’ rice but different.” He gave the skillet a jiggle. “You don’t gotta fry it ter eat it up, but I thought that might be nice fer the Agritakh-ruhd ‘n me ter have as our breakfast.”

The other two children hid back behind the barrel while Kaava cringed in place. “Is he here?”

Riaag was, unfortunately, familiar with that sort of reaction. He tried not to let his secondhand discomfort show.”Nah, the Holy One’s off seein’ if folks got anythin’ fer him ter take care of ‘fore he has a bite ter eat.”

Kaava relaxed a little. “Oh, okay,” he said. His little forehead creased in thought. “Why d’you talk like a bad man if you’re the god-speaker’s friend?”

Refreshed as he was at Kaava’s bluntness, Riaag had to think a moment how best to answer that question without either evading the truth or saying too much. Kids were often smarter than people gave them credit for. “I were born untouchable, so they taught me ter talk like this,” he said once he arranged the right words in his head. “Then the Holy One found me ‘n cleaned me up right ‘n proper in the Hill God’s eyes. Now I’s just like anyone else. I talk thusly ’cause I’s inclined ter remember where I came from, ‘n where I now is, ‘n who I is thanks ter Agritakh’s kindness. Also ’cause it feels wrong not ter, ‘n the Holy One thinks it’s nice.”

“Oh. Why’d you get born that way?”

This was a much more delicate question, but it thankfully had an equally delicate answer. “My sire ‘n dam was oathbreakers,” said Riaag.

“Is that why you don’t have a clan on there?” Kaava (who was turning out to be a very pointing-prone child) pointed at the blank bands of fabric on Riaag’s caftan. They were simple swathes of gold-bordered red, smooth and unadorned against the rest of the camel-colored wool; none of them had so much as a single stitch of embroidery. Riaag had never worn a clan pattern of his own. These days it was almost a mark of pride.

“Yeah.”

Kaava blinked like an owl. “Oh.” The other two children had crept out of hiding and were now standing close to him; all three had different patterns on their clothes but looked pretty similar, so Riaag guessed they were cousins, maybe siblings if they had a wandering parent. Bands and families split along different lines so it was hardly out of the ordinary.

The scrawnier of the two unnamed children whispered in Kaava’s ear. He rolled his eyes and said, “Voor says she’s hungry and wants to know if we can have some meat before the god-speaker gets back.” Voor nodded repeatedly. Riaag chuckled and moved the finished elements of the future meal to the plates he’d been preparing for himself and Sarouth before pulling skewers from the heat. Young people with full-grown appetites were much more comfortable territory than having to explain himself to strangers of any age.

Kaava, Voor, and their nameless third party devoured the hot venison the instant Riaag served them some, the third one eating so fast they ended up with hiccups. Riaag would have offered them bread but he wasn’t sure what their guardians would make of such a thing; he was already on unsteady ground just by feeding strange children after telling them he’d spent years being untouchable, so avoiding having to explain why he wasn’t disrespecting the Chant by giving them grain of the ground—traditionally the food of beasts, whose stomachs Agritakh’s people were forbidden to let go willfully empty through waste or malice—sounded like the smartest idea. Instead he dispensed more bone chips from his handy pouch of snacks. While not as popular as the meat, the children still crunched them gladly. Hopefully it would help make up for whatever they’d been going without as the trading post ailed.

Now that he thought of it, this seemed like a good time to get a little more information in his own way. “You kids been missin’ much since the mine closed up?”

The one whose name Riaag still didn’t know spat out a little cloud of bone dust as they answered. “My ma stopped bringing home new socks since she said she didn’t have any ore to swap for them. Now that the ghosts are gone that means she can go down and dig again, right?”

“That’s right.”

“That’s good. I don’t want ma’s feet to get cold. Or mine, either.” Said feet were currently wrapped up with scrap cloth the way most Rhoanish and their neighbors did for their children (children’s claws, and kids in general, grew so fast it was hard keeping up with either at times) but between the way the weather had been going and the divinations Sarouth had done for the coming season it promised to be a long, cold few months. Riaag was relieved that whoever this stranger’s child was they’d hopefully have some proper insulation for their winter shoes. He’d experienced the alternative enough himself.

“Anythin’ else y’all been goin’ without?”

Toys,” whispered Voor.

“Toys,” said Kaava with a nod.

“Lots of toys,” said the nameless child. “Do you have any?”

Riaag laughed. “‘fraid I don’t, but I’ll make sure that folks back home know there is a great ‘n powerful need fer such. What kinda toys might be best liked ’round these parts?”

It turned out that this was a topic that inspired very strong opinions; Riaag was fairly certain that most of their requests would be forgotten in a few days’ time, but nevertheless he’d suggest to some of the crafty sorts back at the stronghold that certain reliable sources told him the trading post could use more dolls, things that stacked up, and various takes on the concept of a little wooden whatsit with wheels. The older miners would probably appreciate some game boards and tokens, now that he thought about it. If the mine had been haunted as long as he thought it had, and taken as many lives as he knew it had, Vaz Tarukh was in dire need of some leisure time once the ore started flowing again. Children’s perspectives really were useful in situations like these.

He was just about to look for a spare jar of carrion to give them (assuming they promised to share, anyway) when all three looked at something behind him, shrieked like they’d been stabbed, and scurried away to hide. Riaag sighed and returned to his cooking. “Hi, Faaroug,” he said, hoping he didn’t sound too disappointed.

“Ooh, hot breakfast!” said Sarouth. His voice was chipper, so his rounds must have gone well. “This looks divine, Riaag. I say that as something of an expert on the subject.” He laughed at his own joke, which was charming enough to shake off some of Riaag’s funk and get him to join in.

“Thank you,” said Riaag. He finished assembling all the separate bits and pieces of their meal, poured two cups of doogh, and arranged the cups and trays on a piece of scrap wood he’d put over a barrel with folding stools on either side. Sarouth sat and admired his serving with wanton culinary desire. A look like that had to be the eggs’ doing.

Borderline carnally invested or not, Sarouth still waited for Riaag to take a seat and lead them in saying grace before he immediately put an entire boiled egg in his mouth. He rolled his eyes and wiggled his shoulders as he chewed. Riaag allowed himself a proud little smile. Over the past few years he had learned to accept that even if he didn’t think something he’d cooked was that good, it absolutely was to Sarouth, so he did his best not to downtalk what he’d made and just enjoy the fact someone else was enjoying it. In this case Sarouth was enjoying it so much he’d bolted half his plate before Riaag had finished a single slice of fried bread with carrion and a sprinkling of goat cheese. Warming up the previous day’s leftovers was proving to be a very wise move.

Cleanup was a snap, same with feeding and mucking the animals. Even with such a lazy pace Riaag had their camp packed up and ready to go in less than an hour. By the time he was done the nomads still hadn’t shown up, which meant Sarouth and Riaag started hunting for odd jobs to do to kill time. Sarouth had minimal luck, having already handled more or less everything that needed a god-speaker’s attention for the time being; Riaag, however, was delighted to find that there were a few miserable tasks nobody wanted to do but had to get done, which meant he spent a while with a shovel digging the central shaft of a nice new latrine.

A true drudge’s heart took great satisfaction in making the lives of other people a little more convenient. He didn’t have the entire day to work, which meant he could only go a few feet down, but breaking ground was the hardest part, and by the time he stopped for a midday rest he had neatly laid out exactly what needed to go where as far as supports were concerned. The supports’ placement was very important. Riaag had shared some strong (and loud) opinions with the poor soul who had claimed proper engineering didn’t matter when it came to a shit-pit.

Midday break meant mopping up sweat, brushing dirt from his beard, switching into cleaner clothes, and dealing with Sarouth orbiting him at an extremely friendly distance because Sarouth had some weird, horny ideas about the appeal of a man who’d started the day tidy and then spent several hours doing hard labor. Given how often Sarouth helped out in the fields, which were full of nothing but tired, sweaty people halfway through morning, it was a wonder he could concentrate enough to get anything done. Riaag didn’t get it. He supposed that so long as it made Sarouth happy and didn’t get in the way of his own grooming regimen, he didn’t really have to.

By the time he’d pulled on a new shirt and gotten his hair back under control there was, at last, word of nomads coming in from the lowlands with animals in tow. Riaag rejoined Sarouth—who had reluctantly peeled himself away from Riaag’s side when the call first went up—and, to his mild surprise, Trozhag. Both men and a handful of others from Vaz Tarukh waited by the stronghold gates for the distant band and their great multitudes of sheep to approach. Riaag shaded his eyes with his hand. He could make out a few blurry hints of clan patterns, but it wasn’t until they were a little closer that he identified them as wearing a very familiar design.

“I am saved!” cried Trozhag with delight.

“Well, shit,” said Sarouth with decidedly less delight.

Sure enough, the shepherds resembled Trozhag, and because they looked like him they looked like Sarouth, too: dark green of skin, most on the tall and lanky side, their features fine with a tendency towards narrow faces and downwards-pointing tusks. They shared Trozhag’s finely-made clothing. Riaag took them for weavers even before he spied the tell-tale signs of dismantled looms on some of their backs. He’d bet a whole roast pheasant that Sarouth shared blood with most of them.

Trozhag ran out to meet them once they were close enough to see each other’s faces. He was embraced with joy and declarations of both worry and relief; Riaag could make out snippets of conversation about the flash flood that had washed him away and the odd little band of two that had escorted him back to civilization. Sarouth stood stock-still, his staff clenched firmly at his side, as Trozhag gestured at him and Riaag with obvious excitement.

“They’s your family?” asked Riaag.

Sarouth sighed. “More’s the pity. We didn’t part on very good terms.”

“You said t’were years ago when last you saw ’em, though. Ain’t this a right proper time ter try again? Look, Wool-Spinner’s so fucken pleased he’s gonna up ‘n widdle hisself at this rate. That looks like pretty good terms ter me!” The thought of meeting so many of Sarouth’s kin sounded wonderful; even the mere idea of meeting cousins (or siblings, or perhaps even a parent or two) was exciting, given how little Sarouth spoke of them. Through this chance meeting Riaag could finally see some of how Sarouth had grown up before turning! He wondered how many of them cooked. Surely Sarouth’s dismal skill in the kitchen wasn’t inherited.

“I envy your optimism,” said Sarouth. He pressed his palm against the side of Riaag’s sleeve, right across one of the patternless bands. “You know I love you, right?”

“Yeah, ‘course I does. Why d’you bring it up?”

“My bloodline is…proud. I worry they might use that pride against you. I don’t like the thought of you being hurt.” It wasn’t an idle comment: Sarouth had fought honor duels in Riaag’s name because he felt Riaag had been hurt, had uprooted from comfortable living situations because Riaag had been hurt, had ripped heretics apart because Riaag had been hurt, had desecrated corpses all because of the lingering knowledge of hurt. He was protective the way a fire kept a campsite safe from the dark, with every ounce of chaotic wrath that such an analogy implied just waiting to be pointed at a target.

Riaag snorted. “Ain’t gonna be no worse’n I can manage. I’s gotten real used ter weatherin’ bullshit.”

“I’d rather you didn’t have to,” said Sarouth.

That was a little troubling, but Riaag put it out of his mind as they were approached by a decorated shepherd whose clothes looked like those of a lesser clan official. They looked alarmingly like Sarouth, at least if you ignored the lack of tattoos and the dark hair, and Riaag wondered if the two were related more closely than Sarouth and Trozhag’s shared lineage. He stood up straight with his hands clasped behind his back formally. Regardless of whether or not Sarouth was being weird about something trivial again it was Riaag’s utmost priority to ensure he made the best possible impression on strangers, especially ones he probably wasn’t going to have to behead in the next two minutes.

“Sarouth White-Hair! So it is you in the flesh,” said the shepherd in a surprisingly young voice. They even sounded a lot like Sarouth did. It was uncanny.

“Yelke Fine-Fleece,” said Sarouth. His tone was pointedly neutral. “I am glad to see Trozhag Wool-Spinner has found your ranks once more.”

“We are grateful for his return. We had taken him for lost, and though we would wait until the spring to mourn him, our hearts had already begun to break.” They extended their hands in gratitude, palms up and thumbs out. “Beetle has truly called blood to blood this day.”

Sarouth made a sign of good fortune but didn’t actually return the other half of the gesture. Something had clearly crawled up his ass if he was already being so impersonal at a mere two score of words. “I see you have taken the mantle of leadership,” he said, instead. “It suits you. Your ascension was a kind one, I hope.” He’d slipped back into a dialect more like Trozhag’s—and Yelke’s, now that Riaag had a chance to hear it—seemingly without thinking.

Yelke’s hands lowered and returned, awkwardly, to their sides. “Uvvet Sheep-Eye chose me as her successor four years back. She passed in her sleep this past spring. I have done my best to live up to her legacy.”

“Oh yes? I have been running a stronghold.”

Riaag risked breaking the illusion of being an impassive stone and elbowed Sarouth in the side for his rudeness. Sarouth grunted, shot him a glance, and brushed a speck of imaginary dust from his robes. “My oathbound reminds me I have neglected my manners,” he said. “May I introduce Riaag Bough-Breaker, a man of our people, Chosen of Wolf and my boon companion for the better part of a decade. He is my herald, guardian, and dearest love. It is only with his help that the foundations of Naar Rhoan were set.”

Formal introductions were not quite the same thing as not being quite so fucking rude to someone just trying to thank them, but Riaag would take what he could get. He saluted. “Pleased ter make yer acquaintance, Fine-Fleece. We’s cleansed this place o’ fell presences but good so’s it oughtta be in real good shape fer a winter stay, if such is yer choosin’. The Hill God’s bounty is grand ‘n belongs ter all His beloved.”

Yelke looked blank for a moment before completing the phrase. “So let us reap the blessings abundant in this world He has hewn, yes.” They cleared their throat. “As a woman of our people I am pleased to meet you, Bough-Breaker.”

“Charmed, I’s sure.”

This earned him an even longer blank look before Yelke returned to addressing Sarouth again. “It has been entirely too long, Holy One. I am so glad to see you well, and in such good company. All we could do back then was pray that you found good fortune of your own, and so we all you have, through the providence of Agritakh Himself.”

Sarouth nodded. “I am fortunate that His guidance has been with me always,” he said.

“You have grown fine and purely, Holy One. Just the other day some among our number were wondering how you were doing. Is it true, then, that you have been embraced as the Faaroug…?” This was getting into territory that Riaag couldn’t really comment on unless prompted, so he let his mind wander to other matters.

Sheep meandered outside the gates like curds in whey as Sarouth and Yelke caught up. Riaag counted a few young beastmasters scurrying through the flock, mingling with older hands at times before zipping right back out to round up wayward animals. Others went from tent to tent in the shepherds’ camp, arms loaded down with dyed felt and thread, and from what he remembered of what Sarouth had told him those tents probably housed looms already being assembled in hopes of weaving new bolts of fabric while they stayed at the post. It was easy to imagine Sarouth doing the same when he was small. Had they already traded away all the Rhoanish wool they’d brought with them? Comparing the weaves might be fun to do before they left, and perhaps let Sarouth’s family know he still carried their ways in his heart. That seemed like the kind of thing people with shared ancestors would appreciate, anyway.

His attention returned to Yelke, who’d been sharing details of how the band had been doing under her leadership. Save for the flooding incident that had swept Trozhag away it sounded like she had seen an easy, fruitful term; the shepherds looked clean and well-fed with large, healthy herds, so as far as Riaag could tell the band had been doing well enough by her guidance. That was good to hear; while the Rhoanish had made their share of allies in trying circumstances, in his experience nomads had an easier time adjusting to the many quirks of the stronghold when they weren’t trying to fend off starvation or sickness at the same time. If the band wintered in Vaz Tarukh they could swing south after shearing season, maybe, and deliver things just in time for the mid-year merchant caravans to take out of the valley….

Riaag’s ears perked at mention of the stronghold and he returned his attention to the conversation at hand.

“We have heard tell of…Naar Rhoan, it is called? It is fitting it be named for a star,” said Yelke. “We have heard some of your stronghold, but only bits and pieces. A place of wonders, a place of strangeness. Some believed it did not exist at all. What a surprise to hear it not only real but the doing of my own second cousin, himself not just thriving but a founder! I am sure it is a garden of many flowers if you are its guardian.”

“In spite of my earlier words it is not my doing alone. My oathbound” —Riaag couldn’t help but notice how often Sarouth kept bringing that up, which was getting a little weird— “has been my rock and my anchor, and both our people and our allies work tirelessly to make a better life for us all.”

“This I see! I am simply saddened that the rumors our family shared neglected to say it was you who sparked this miracle.”

“Well, I can’t say I’m surprised,” said Sarouth, snapping back to his usual dialect so abruptly it was like he’d shouted. “Your lot have a knack for neglecting things.”

Riaag stifled a cringe and Yelke crumpled where she stood. She looked genuinely upset. “I am so, so sorry for what happened, Sarouth White-Hair, I was just a child—”

“So was I.”

Many of the other shepherds had trickled into the trading post proper already, and many others had stayed back with their flock or tents, but enough remained within earshot that Riaag couldn’t escape the reality that Sarouth was making a scene in front of what might as well been everyone in the world. He saw stares, he saw whispers. It would have been so much easier if people were screaming about heresies; that was a problem Riaag knew how to fix in an efficient, permanent fashion. Maybe if nobody was noticing he could slip away and hide in the mine until things blew over.

The look on Yelke’s face was confused and wounded, as though she’d looked down to find a knife in her stomach. Her hands fluttered impotently. “We were the same age when it happened. We didn’t even have deed names yet. What do you expect of someone who cannot fathom what she sees?”

“Not shunning me from the first day I turned might’ve been nice!”

Yelke took a step back, though as soon as she shifted her weight she paused. She rocked forward again and took a deep breath before making her case. “You are an Agritakh-ruhd, Holy One. Your flesh is His own. You cannot possibly understand the fear it strikes into a young one’s heart when that terrible majesty is presented to her in the body of someone she once knew. Sometimes you would try to hug me when you were still bleeding, or speaking in tongues. How could I have responded? You were not the boy I knew.”

“I’m sorry, I can’t seem to hear you over the sound of how I was left a pariah among my own family.”

“We tried to match you with the first learned god-speaker we could find—”

“It took you two years to do it.” He held up two fingers and thrust them forward in time with the two years part. “All the while you and yours liked to remind me I was destined for greatness before treating me like a plague-bearer.”

She threw up her hands in frustration. It nearly tossed her sheepskin from her shoulders. “What else could we do, Holy One? If we chose not to follow the herds we would all be unmade. We asked every time we met a new band or stopped to trade our wares. We tried so hard to love you in spite of it all.”

Sarouth scoffed. “Maybe you just didn’t try hard enough.”

There were times when it was best to let Sarouth’s anger run its course, and then there were times like these. Riaag had finally had enough. A herald had to have a clear, fine voice that could cut through the din of other speakers like an eagle’s talon, and when need be he could be a very good herald, indeed. “Holy One, we need ter return ter our camp ‘n let these fine folk attend ter the post a ways,” he said. “You’n Fine-Fleece clearly ain’t at a good place ter discuss this matter further, so’s it’s ter both our benefit that we end this here, ‘least fer now. Our time’s better spent conversin’ on matters o’ personal import away from the gates o’ the post isself.”

Sarouth tossed his hair with a flick of his head. “Yes, that’s probably for the best,” he said. “I’ll see myself back.” He flounced away, staff in hand and still radiating anger. Riaag watched him go with a knot of worry in his stomach.

He turned to Yelke with what he hoped wasn’t as bad a look as he felt. She was staring at the ground with one hand over her small-tusked mouth, not close to tears yet clearly struck deeply by Sarouth’s barbs. None of her band had come to comfort her. Riaag stepped closer and cleared his throat.

Yelke looked up at him with a start. “Ah, Bough-Breaker,” she said. He caught her eyes glancing from the skulls on his belt to the little silk fascinator he’d tucked behind his ear that morning, and from there to the spaces his clan patterns weren’t. She quickly returned his gaze. Her eyes were the same color as Sarouth’s. “I…do not know what to say to you, save that what you have heard has its own fell truth to it. It wounds me to admit as much.”

“As his first ‘n most endurin’ disciple, guardian o’ his person ‘n core witness ter his divinity, allow me ter apologize fer him bein’ a real dickhead ovva godhead back there.”

She barked a surprised laugh. “You do have a way with words.”

“I’s a poet, after all. Comes right natural.”

Yelke’s levity faded. “I wish I knew how I could make this right. So many pieces fail to come together. He was but nine when he left us, yet I fear not enough time can ever pass to heal the lingering pain. He did not even blink when I said that Uvvet Sheep-Eye no longer drew breath.”

“Beggin’ yer pardon, but who might that be? I ain’t familiar with neither name nor deed.”

“He never said?” asked Yelke. She sighed. “She was our grandmother.”

Riaag wasn’t sure what to make of that. “You was close ter her, then?”

Yelke hummed, neither agreeing nor disagreeing. “It is difficult to say clearly if you were not among us. She was a tyrant, but she kept our flocks large and our stomachs filled. It was she who declared he not be cast away for the Scavenger Kings alone to guide. It was she, too, who had another tent for him made, as those of us he once slept near could no longer bear the terror of his majesty.” She shivered. “I am older, now, and it does not strike me as it once did, but I still remember the fear all we young ones felt, and how Uvvet Sheep-Eye would not abandon him in spite of it. We could not doubt His plans for him, she told us, even as we wept and begged for him to be sent away from the band.”

If Uvvet had been even a fraction as stubborn and willful as Sarouth was it was no wonder she’d kept dozens of shepherds in line single-handedly. Riaag could scarcely imagine the fortitude it took to care for a child turned strange and sacred overnight; he imagined it drew from the same well that could inspire a man to scream in defiance at the god whose own fragment he housed. Had she been a kind woman? Had she been cruel? He’d never know for sure, now.

He didn’t feel it was his place to ask more than that without Sarouth present, so Riaag asked the only other question he could think of. “If shit broke so bad between you two, why be so chummy ter him now? You don’t know who he is no more. Maybe you ain’t never, not really.”

Yelke popped her lips thoughtfully a few times before she answered. “We used to be such friends. I had honestly hoped this might be a chance rekindle such a joyful thing between us. I miss who he was.” She laughed ruefully. “When I saw him, and knew him to be the same Sarouth I once played with, now returned to us with dear Trozhag Wool-Spinner in tow? I must admit I had begun to dream, in all my hope and foolishness, of inviting him to share songs with us when our camp’s fire blazed up for the night.”

“Just as well you didn’t, he still cain’t sing fer shit. Sometimes he’s kinda sore ’bout it.”

A shocked hand found its way to Yelke’s mouth again. “Oh! Oh, I am so, so sorry.” The sorrow in her voice reached her eyes genuinely enough. “I knew it had once been so, but I had thought it might change for the better when manhood came to him.”

Riaag shrugged. “It’s just the way things is. I handle the hymns fer him come ritual time. I does my best ter be the best voice fer a demigod.”

“If the Hill God is well and truly pleased with your deeds, as you say, then I can see no finer one of our people for that duty, Bough-Breaker,” said Yelke. Bullshit, thought Riaag, who had been silently tallying each time she’d clearly stumbled over how he spoke, but to her credit she hadn’t dropped even a single hint that she was struggling; he was fine with giving her the benefit of the doubt for now. Aside from the way she kept fixating on his clanless clothes she hadn’t said word one about how he held himself. That meant quite a lot from someone who lived so far out in the sticks.

“Yeah. I better go make sure he ain’t in need o’ my assistance, really. Even ground ‘n fine grazin’ ter you ‘n yers, Yelke Fine-Fleece.”

“Even ground, Riaag Bough-Breaker. May your garden’s blossoms be uncounted.”

Riaag walked away slowly until he saw her engage a wine-maker in conversation, at which point he hustled back to camp as quickly as he could without actually breaking into a run.

Things looked fine when he returned: the animals looked well, the space was neatly in order, and it looked as though someone had done some light packing since Riaag last left it. Sarouth was not the sort to make a mess when in a bad mood, but Riaag couldn’t be sure that still applied when estranged family were brought into the mix. He approached the tent and knocked on the pole with his knuckle. “It’s me,” he said.

“Come on in, if you want,” answered Sarouth.

Inside was even tidier than outside, at least in a few very specific ways, and Riaag hadn’t lived with his own demons this long without being able to pick up the signs of stress-cleaning. He supposed it was better than returning to a tornado of disorganization. Sarouth himself sat on some cushions facing away from the tent flap, embroiled in the midst of a truly ferocious sulk. He kept spinning and unraveling the same fistful of flax; it was well past ruined so there probably wasn’t any point in stopping him now.

“Hey,” said Riaag.

“Hey,” said Sarouth.

Riaag settled down on the carpet by the flap and laced it up behind him. “So…I’s gonna assume some o’ whatever the fuck that hot mess was is gonna be somethin’ we’s gonna talk about much later on,” he said. “Lemme make that clear: we is gonna talk ’bout it. Just maybe not now.”

“Okay.” He shuffled around on his bottom to face Riaag. “So what did she tell you? I know you probably talked. You’re always left cleaning up the wreckage I leave behind.”

Commenting on that last part probably wasn’t a good idea. Instead, Riaag said, “Just bits ‘n pieces. You two’s kin, I know that now. She was hopin’ ter maybe be buddies with you again. She says she knows that ain’t too terribly likely after all this time.”

Sarouth put down his spindle to rub at the back of his neck. “We used to play together all the time. Then I turned, and we didn’t anymore. Nobody did. At least the experience got me used to things falling apart nice and early in life.”

That we is most def’nitely talkin’ ’bout later on, too. For now, though, I just wanna know if you’s gonna be okay.”

“You’re not going to ask me why I—?”

“I’s askin’ how you’s doin’ right now is what.” He pressed Sarouth’s distaff-clutching hand between his own gloved palms. “You ain’t the only one here what cares ’bout they oathbound’s overall well-bein’, y’know.”

He could feel Sarouth’s fingers tense and relax as he held them. “Not great, admittedly,” Sarouth said. He sounded a lot more tired than he’d been less than half an hour ago.

Riaag squeezed Sarouth’s hand comfortingly. “You want a hug?”

“No, I don’t think so,” said Sarouth. His shoulders slumped. “Maybe later. Right now I just feel like a ball of nails and thorns, and I don’t want you getting hurt just because you want to get close when I’m still wound up and vindictive.”

“A’ight. I’s just gonna be nearby, then.” It ached to not be able to hold him close until the mood passed, but too many times it’d been Riaag feeling low and hating the thought of anything more than the most delicate comfort; complaining now would be insulting all those years Sarouth had managed to walk him back out of countless dark places, all while keeping safely at a distance. Instead he stroked the side of Sarouth’s hand with his thumb. It wasn’t quite the same as bringing hot food and kind words to a young man who’d gotten tangled up in his own thoughts, but maybe it didn’t need to be.

They sat in silence. Riaag held Sarouth’s hand between his own until Sarouth pulled away to fuss with his forelock, and it wasn’t until Sarouth pulled out his collection of vials and started going through them again that Riaag bothered checking how things were outside again. The sun was still high in the afternoon sky. It promised to be a good half-day for travel so long as they kept a steady pace, and with the bulk of the supplies they’d brought out already distributed to the people of the post it’d be easier than ever to make decent time by nightfall. Even if—and Riaag was reluctant to admit that if—it meant being on the horses.

Sarouth finished separating out all the painkillers, restorative draughts, and illness-killers from his stores before asking, “Do we have anything left expected of us?”

A list of all their expected duties ran through Riaag’s head. Most of them, thankfully, were handled. “We still got them final threads ter tie up with them survivors afore we’s fully done here, but thanks ter us gettin’ Wool-Spinner back ter his own that’s the only thing remainin’. If’n he saw somethin’ weird I’s sure we’s gonna stumble ‘cross ’em usselves afore we get back home, no need ter grill him fer details he don’t rightly know. I can get the rest o’ our shit packed up while you’s handin’ out goodies ter folks.”

Sarouth clicked some of the vials between his fingers. He was surprisingly deft at it; they flicked like insects across his palm. “Would it be so bad if we snuck out without anyone knowing the wiser?”

“We cain’t just leave without you sayin’ proper benedictions o’er them nomads or nothin’.”

“Can’t we?” asked Sarouth, still mid-sulk, but it was the sort of toothless grumpiness he affected when he couldn’t quite admit his better nature was winning. He sighed, then blew a particularly juicy raspberry. “Yes, that’d be the kind thing to do. Agritakh Himself has witnessed that they don’t necessarily deserve it, but it’s our job to be above our simpler emotions.” He slipped the vials into his belt pouch and rose to his knees. “Guess I’d better go contribute to society or something. Would you mind if we packed first, so you could walk with me on the way to wherever they keep their healers here? Non-judging company feels like the right thing for me right now.”

“I’d be happy ter do so, Sarouth.”

They emptied their tent back into their luggage, save for the things like the carpets that had to be rolled up and stored on their own, and even with all of Riaag’s cooking equipment to deal with it wasn’t long before he could strike the tent itself, fold it properly, and seat it in its place among Stupid Horse’s saddlebags. Sarouth tended to the animals while Riaag took care of the final, unglamorous parts of cleaning duty. As long as living creatures ate there’d be reason to come by with a mucking broom every so often.

Once properly packed up with hands washed and clothes adjusted, the pair made their way through the post towards what proved to be a rather nice, if understocked, medical tent. Riaag immediately found some heavy things to lift and some buckets to clean out while Sarouth discussed the purpose of each of the vials: this one would work as potently as poppy tea with none of the drowsiness or need, that one could break a high fever or cleanse the body of scorpion stings, all down to the most precious one of them all that, if applied quickly, could restore even the most gruesome mangling. He urged them to make use of things as soon as they could. Whether a gift of a potion would last long without staying at a god-speaker’s side wasn’t something Riaag knew off the top of his head, but it made sense to assume as much. It’d help ensure nobody went without treatment just in case supplies were needed later, anyway.

Most of the patients were miners or hunters recovering from the sorts of injuries their professions invited. It was a shame there weren’t any new dams with babies for Riaag to coo over, but then again he couldn’t blame anyone for not wanting to care for an infant in a place where ghosts had up until recently been busy bubbling out of the ground like sulfur water. Clean bandages and cleaner water were important for everyone, not just newborns, so right up until Sarouth said his goodbyes Riaag kept busy. He could feel eyes on him and on his clothing as he toiled. Once again he was thankful for his habit of wearing gloves whenever possible. Nobody could rightfully complain a clanless man had gotten his grimy paws on things if there was never any skin-to-surface contact in the first place.

News traveled fast and by the time they were done at the healers’ Vaz Tarukh was starting to look the way a trading post was supposed to, with the newest crop of nomads already bartering with the local merchants. A few miner-shaped people had started filtering in the direction of the mines, overseen by the very harried foreman, though it’d probably be a few more days before they could start actively digging again thanks to who knew how much structural neglect that’d need mending. It was like watching green shoots slowly peek through the ashes of a forest fire. It would no doubt take a while to get back to where it was, especially with winter on the way, but Vaz Tarukh was finally on the road to recovery. Their work here was almost done.

A small group of people in Sarouth’s clan pattern passed them by as Sarouth and Riaag were returning to their campsite for what was hopefully the last time that day. Riaag would have paid them no mind—there were lots of people dressed that way at the moment—had they not raised their voices just loud enough to be heard over the background din.

“Did you hear? White-Hair is oathbound now. I can scarcely believe it.”

“To some sort of unclean thing, no less. Have you heard him talk? It is an utter disgrace of language, as though he does not care how lowborn he sounds. All this and he toils away at the filthiest tasks without question. White-Hair has strange taste.”

“Of course he would be oathbound to a drudge, is it not obvious? Their lot are used to doing jobs nobody else wants.” They laughed. It wasn’t very nice laughter.

“I beg your fucking pardon?” asked Sarouth, his words oozing venom, but the shepherds had already dissolved back into the overall current of people all needing to be in the same place at once. He bristled and began scanning the crowd with one hand resting on the butt of his mace. The heavy black weapon didn’t yet shimmer with the heat-haze effect that meant it was ready to feast on fresh-spilled blood, but at the rate things were going it was only a matter of time. One didn’t carry around a god-granted artifact with the intent of using it as a loom weight.

The situation needed deescalation and fast. Riaag placed his hand on Sarouth’s shoulder. “Ain’t worth it, Holy One,” he murmured.

“I don’t care!” snapped Sarouth. “Nobody insults you in my presence, blood or not!”

Riaag’s grip tightened and his arm flexed as he kept Sarouth from pulling away. Demigod or not, he was still the stronger of the pair when brute strength was concerned. “Kinslayin’s a sin,” he said, firmly.

Sarouth was growling all the while Riaag held him in place. It wasn’t the happy, sensual sound he sometimes made when they were together, no, this was a primal thing that bubbled up from the same depths of instinct that the Old People lived their entire lives by. Riaag had rarely seen him so angry. Those rare few times tended to end in bloodshed. That was not something they could afford to have happen, not after such a crucial exorcism, not when Naar Rhoan needed its founders to represent its wonders to an incredulous world. It was a shame the shepherds had left so quickly; Riaag had a sudden burning need to make sure they were very aware of the purpling bruise on his throat, and how honored he was to wear it.

He hauled on Sarouth until they were close enough for Riaag to whisper in his ear. “I ain’t havin’ you go wicked on my account. We’s all packed up ter go. Let’s just say our goodbyes ‘n drop some blessings where they’s needed ‘n be outta here afore misfortune befalls somebody it oughtn’t. You is the Faaroug ‘n the avatar o’ He Who Sleeps Beneath the Earth His-very-self, this I’s witnessed truly, but that don’t mean I won’t toss you over my shoulder ‘n drag yer fool ass all the way back home if’n it’ll keep you from doin’ somethin’ you’s gonna regret.”

Fine. I will bless Yelke Fine-Fleece and place a charm over her flocks and children, but that’s the last favor I’m doing for any of these worthless motherfuckers, Riaag. We are then leaving.”

“Sounds good ter me,” said Riaag, still keeping his grip firm. “You ‘n me is gonna go get them horses, ‘n we’s gonna stay tergether so there ain’t any unhappy little accidents along the way.”

“Whatever gets us out of here sooner.”

People gave them a wide berth as they walked, and Riaag suspected it wasn’t solely because of the purpose in Sarouth’s gait. Thankfully they weren’t expected to actually be diplomatic around anyone before they bid the trading post its final farewell. Riaag was especially glad they’d picked up Ruzhu’s present the day before; forgetting it would be one thing, but just grabbing whatever half-sparkly rock showed up first would somehow be even worse. There was no point in doing someone a favor if you were just going to half-ass it. He’d wrapped it in batting and tucked it away himself, though, so while there was still plenty to fret about the fate of another god-speaker’s gift wasn’t part of it.

Sarouth strung together a terse update and sent a raven on its way back home. Riaag performed a final check-through of their luggage as Sarouth worked; the way he kept muttering to himself was concerning, yet he was gentle with the animals and (at least to Riaag’s only marginally trained eye) thorough with the beads and their coding. He even had the presence of mind not to pull too sharply on Karsta’s reins when he encouraged it to follow him towards the crowds and away from the fencing they’d used as a hitching post. The tension he carried was obvious to anyone who’d known him as long as Riaag had. It seemed like a good idea never to get more than a quick lunge’s distance away from him just in case something set him off again.

They found the main group of shepherds milling around near the post’s central square, Yelke seated among them on a little folding stool and surrounded by children who shared her band’s general dark, skinny appearance. She greeted them with a smile and beckoned for them to come closer. One of the horses snorted and she nearly jumped off her seat, though it didn’t seem to spoil her attempt at good cheer. Said cheer faltered in the face of Sarouth’s clench-jawed expression. Her grace under pressure was admirable.

“Sarouth White-Hair, your presence honors us,” she said. Riaag suspected she was using a different definition of us than most people did given the whispers and cool looks many of the other shepherds shot them. “What can this band do for an Agritakh-ruhd?”

“I’m here to give a blessing,” he said. He didn’t bother with mimicking her dialect this time. “It’s time for us to be leaving. I’d be remiss in my duties if I didn’t leave a bit of His grace before I go.”

Yelke smiled again. “You are most gracious, Holy One. We truly do not deserve it.”

Riaag suspected it took an incredible amount of effort for Sarouth not to say anything pointed in return.

Sarouth moved his hands through a familiar pattern as he invoked the Hill God. It wasn’t a particularly complicated blessing but it was an effective one all the same, at least in Riaag’s experience, and to be perfectly honest Sarouth could probably still lay down a functioning benediction if blindfolded and stuffed in a bag. “I seek to lay a boon upon this band of my people,” he said. “I call upon my nature as a proxy between the Hill God’s descended majesty and we who walk above Him. I call upon Agritakh to hear my plea and answer, so that His favored be granted succor. I say this to you, Yelke Fine-Fleece: may your flocks grow fat and your children live proudly. Let kindness follow kindness. Let all sleep be sweet and gentle. This is my blessing. Go with His love.” The dust around his feet churned for the briefest of moments, then reversed direction, then fell still. It was done.

“With that, we have places to be,” said Sarouth. He hooked his sandal into a stirrup and swung himself up into the saddle, a height from which he dwarfed even Riaag. He looked down at the shepherds surrounding Yelke; Riaag couldn’t tell if the ones who’d insulted them both were among their number, but he suspected it didn’t really matter. This sort of thing was all about making a statement.

Riding full tilt (or even half tilt) through a crowded place was the sort of asshole thing that even Sarouth wouldn’t sink to, so Riaag was able to stay on foot as they stopped by official after official to inform them that there would no longer be a god-speaker on the premises and that they really should consider looking into courting a full-time replacement given how easy it was for people to go into mines and never come back out. It was important to tie every seam and knot every thread before leaving; Sarouth’s reputation could survive being branded a radical, even being called a heretic depending on who said it, but he had made it abundantly clear to Riaag that he would not and could not stand to be thought of as a sloppy civil servant.

Once the last trademaster was spoken to Riaag saddled up. It was tempting to keep walking until they left Vaz Tarukh for good, since that wouldn’t be as hard on his legs and back while forcing Sarouth to keep whatever tumultuous emotions he had simmering in check just a little while longer, but Riaag had to admit he was getting a little tired of the place itself. For being a place with only the basest fortifications it was starting to feel like a prison.

It wasn’t that they were mucking about in a foreign settlement, exactly, as he’d spent his share of nights in unfamiliar beds and eating unfamiliar food as part of the whole peace-brokering business, but that it was recognizable in just enough ways to remind him of how far from home they really were when they left Rhoanish soil. He could still feel eyes on his lack of clan patterns beneath his armor, could still tell how uncomfortable people were around these strange men with strange customs who rode food animals and ate animal food. Even voices that didn’t strain beneath the weight of Yelke’s band’s formalities sounded off, lacking the casual musicality of the Rhoanish way with words. If the shepherds had been anyone else maybe he would’ve been willing to stay a bit longer. Now, though? It was time to head homewards. He couldn’t wait to get back under that waterfall near the cave they’d scouted and scrub all the gross feelings away.

Yelke, alone this time, waved them down just as they reached the gates. They stopped to let her approach, and while she clearly still wasn’t sure what to make of the horses she was willing to get close enough to offer her hand in farewell. “I remembered something important, Holy One,” she said. “I saw a snake curled around a stone when I was walking this morning. I hope its fortune may be yours.”

Sarouth narrowed his eyes. “A brown one or a green one?”

“It was a green snake that I saw.”

He relaxed; apparently green was an acceptable color for such an animal. “Ah. Thank you, then. I’ll do what I can with whatever luck it brings me.” He reached down and clasped her forearm against his own. She returned the gesture with gusto, her smile pained.

“I hate to see you go so soon, Holy One. If you are ever out this way again, I would be honored and gladdened to host you among our own.”

Sarouth scoffed. “I wouldn’t hold your breath, Yelke Fine-Fleece.” He straightened up and adjusted his hair and circlet. “But if you ever end up down around Naar Rhoan, our gates are always open.”

“Exceptin’ when they’s barricaded on account o’ raiders again,” said Riaag. When dealing with nomads who only saw strongholds maybe once a season it couldn’t hurt to be clear. Some people just didn’t get walls.

“Raiders?” asked Yelke.

Sarouth shrugged. “It happens. We get by. Maybe you’ll see it for yourself someday.”

“Perhaps, Sarouth White-Hair, perhaps. Faretheewell to you and yours.”

“The same.” He glanced over his shoulder at Riaag. “C’mon, brave warrior, let’s see if we can’t get somewhere before sundown.”

Shepherds and hunters watched them go as they passed over the trading post’s threshold. Someone leading a horse—a proper eating horse, not the riding kind, which meant it was round and jolly-looking so long as you didn’t look into its eyes that closely—pulled it off the road to let them pass. Their own horses stared at it balefully as they rode by. It truly was amazing to Riaag what all a bit of selective breeding could do. It also reminded him of just how long it’d been since he’d prepared a proper meal of sizzling horse chops dressed in seasoned gravy. He’d have to remedy that sooner than later.

The road to the lowlands took them past a few smaller bands who were making their way towards Vaz Tarukh. None of the unfamiliar nomads wanted to get close to the horses, but they all genuflected respectfully to Sarouth as he rode by, and Riaag overheard a few whispers of awed delight along the lines of being able to see a triumphant exorcist in the flesh. Some of them admired the skulls hanging from Stupid Horse’s barding, others hid behind their family’s skirts. It seemed like everyone had heard a little bit of Sarouth White-Hair in the mere hours it’d been since he’d cleared the mine. None of them mentioned Naar Rhoan.

The highlands were what many orcs of the valley considered to be their one true home, and even after years of cozy lowland living Riaag was inclined to agree, but no matter how strongly his blood sang out to live on a hill that went more or less straight up he had to admit actually traveling through them could be pretty miserable. He was bad enough at riding without having to worry about sudden terrain shifts. They’d been lucky enough to avoid seeing any jackals, whether the bestial kind or the far less pleasant people variety, and hopefully things would remain that way; Riaag still checked the seating of his axe at his hip every so often just in case things changed. A lot of things could hide among the swells of angled land.

What the day lacked in cheery feelings it certainly had in good weather, the warm sun pairing with the cool autumn wind to make it a perfect time to be outside. Even the labor of horseback riding in heavy woolen clothes (and a full scale coat, in Riaag’s case, though he’d left off the plated bits to ride) was halfway pleasant in that sort of situation. He hoped the weather held. Bathing in a nice cool pond before stretching out in the sun sounded like an excellent use of their time together.

They were a few hours out from the post when Riaag decided there had been enough downtime to have a chance at a proper conversation again. He matched Stupid Horse’s pace with Karsta’s. Sarouth had been lost in the landscape ever since they passed the last gaggle of nomads, possibly divining strange wisdoms and possibly just looking for something to do with his eyes, so he didn’t immediately notice Riaag’s approach. Up until now Riaag had been fine with that, since Sarouth had always been the dreamy one back when it was just the two of them on their own; now it felt like an obstacle of its own. This conversation was going to require some proactive measures to get started.

“Sarouth?”

Sarouth turned to Riaag from the clouds he’d been studying and smiled. “Yes, my love?”

“I been thinkin’.”

“Oh? What about?”

He thought of how he’d stood strong in the face of monsters before, of how he’d tackled a warlord to the ground for daring to threaten his home. He tried to summon that same flavor of courage. “I think we oughtta have one o’ them difficult conversations we’s been puttin’ off.” He could hear Sarouth preparing to object and hurriedly made his case. “Don’t gotta be alla them, don’t gotta even get all the way through it. I ain’t expectin’ that. But we gotta start sooner or later, right?” He shifted in the saddle. “Might as well get some of it over with afore we get back ter somewhere we’d rather be spendin’ our time most int’mately.”

“Ugh,” said Sarouth. He leaned on its staff, which had a socket of its own built directly into Karsta’s saddle; back when they first got the horses he’d insisted he be able to keep both hands on the reins without sacrificing the ability to announce his status to passing bands. Riaag had made sure to double-reinforce said socket to ensure it could endure even the heaviest slump. “You’re right, of course. You usually are.”

They rode in silence for a bit before Riaag said, “So.”

“So,” repeated Sarouth.

Riaag rolled his eyes. It was going to take a little more nudging to get Sarouth out of this particular mental paddock. “You can pick what we start with. It don’t gotta be anything in partic’lar. You’s gotta do the choosin’ otherwise we’s gonna get inter the worst fucken kinda back ‘n forth ’bout what subject feels right ter broach, ‘n neither o’ us got the time fer that shit.”

“Hill God save the man with the wise oathbound,” said Sarouth, though he’d managed to crack a rueful little smile as he said it. “We might as well get them out of the way, then.”

“Them bein’ yer family?”

“The same. If you can even call them that.”

“Fer the purposes o’ this here conversation, yeah, we is. Least by blood. I can tell you ain’t got much fondness remainin’ fer them as is, nor vice versa. I don’t expect that ter change with any degree o’ swiftness. Would be nice ter know what the fuck half o’ that were all about, though.”

Sarouth leaned back against the carpet roll tucked behind his saddle. Riaag was worried he was trying to zone out again, but before he found a good chance to snap Sarouth back out of it Sarouth started talking on his own again.

“So, you know some of this, and maybe all of it, but I want it all in one place so there’s no chance of confusion. Okay?” Riaag grunted in affirmation and Sarouth continued. “I was born to a certain band of shepherds that include this part of the highlands as their territory. Children in our band were given lots of different chores at first to see what they clicked with best. There were enough of us that nobody had to be pressed into a certain profession unless someone irreplaceable got very sick, right? So we tended to find places we fit in, be it keeping the sheep, or weaving cloth, or making clothing, or trading our wool or meat or milk for things, any place in the band that’d suit our natures would do. I took to the loom pretty well. That was going to be my life, and I was ready for it: I’d take whatever we had on hand, spin it into fibers, weave those fibers into cloth, then be charming at whoever we crossed paths with so we could turn that cloth into whatever we needed. It felt satisfying to to. I have a feeling I’d be pretty good at it if I invested a proper profession’s worth of study into things.

“Then I turned. And that was the end of that.”

He fell silent again, though this was the sort of silence Riaag recognized as the kind that happened when Sarouth had to line words up in the right order. Riaag was the last man walking the earth who’d get pissed off just because someone had trouble talking about their own past. Once things actually got started they had to happen at their own pace. It wasn’t like they had anywhere else to be besides on their horses and pointed in more or less the right direction.

“Have I ever told you what it was like when it happened?” asked Sarouth. Riaag shook his head, which prompted a long, exhausted hiss of breath from Sarouth’s nose. “I don’t have your poet’s tongue, more’s the pity, but I’ll try to explain as best I can,” he said.

“One night, when I was seven years old, I went to sleep just like any other night. In our band, the children around a certain age all sleep together for warmth and safety, so for me that meant cuddling with cousins in our cozy little tent-warren full up of cushions and blankets. Sometimes that meant getting shoved on my side for snoring during the night, but I didn’t mind. It’s just a thing that happens when you have a dozen little bodies all lumped together. It’s like how goats stay in a pile when it’s cold. Not that we’d move around during the night the way goats do, but you get the idea. It was a good way of doing things.

“I went to sleep and I didn’t dream. I went somewhere else.

“When I woke up nobody was around. I thought maybe I’d slept in at first, that everyone was already out working and they just hadn’t woken me up for some reason, but then I heard someone crying. It sounded like the sort of crying you do when you’re trying to keep quiet but you can’t quite manage it. I looked over towards the sound and there everyone was, pushed up against the wall of the tent, and every single one of them was frightened out of their minds. I tried to ask what happened and they wouldn’t look at me, and when I stood up to try and comfort them they pulled back like they’d been threatened with a brand.

“That was when I realized what they were afraid of was me.”

He ran his claws through his forelock and arranged it more neatly across the sacred side of his face. “I learned some things on my own, like how I didn’t dream anymore and how I had to keep my eye covered up. Making His symbol soothed things, sometimes. I also knew that when I slept I had to get to the center of where I was, even though I didn’t know it as the Labyrinth until much later. I figured out pretty quickly that it was never the same place twice. Have you ever dreamed about dying? It’s like that, in a way, but you know it’s just a little bit true even though you wake up at the end.”

“Does you always gotta, y’know?”

“Pass through my own death and out the other side? Not always. Sometimes if you figure out how to turn yourself around right at the start just right you can wake up. If you reach the center you can always wake up. All I knew about for years was reaching the center. It’s hard when you can’t remember the way.”

Sarouth stared off into the distance while Riaag did some math in his head. If the usual way one left the Labyrinth was…that…and if it had been going on once a night every night since eighteen-odd years ago, that made for entirely way too fucking many not-quite-deaths. To think that this was the more humane way of doing it. To think before the Scavenger Kings taught their ancestors things were even worse. Riaag was so upset by the idea he had to fish out his handkerchief.

Once he’d attended to his leaking eyes and nose he found another question on his lips. “When did you figure out how ter take a map in with you? Did somebody show you?” He had hopes of Sarouth coming across some knowledgeable soul with wisdom to share, someone who’d be kind about it. He knew it probably wasn’t true.

“I prayed for guidance. What else could I do? We so rarely saw god-speakers in those parts even when we stopped at strongholds to trade. By then I had a tent of my own since Uvvet Sheep-Eye refused to let the others cast me out entirely, so nobody cared if I stayed up half the night begging for anything that could help me. I felt the Labyrinth change but I couldn’t read it. It was, what’s that phrase you’ve used before? ‘Like a fish tryin’ ter read the wind.’ I felt like that.

“One day when I was trying to do chores I saw a lammergeier flying overhead. Once I heard its cry I knew it had come for me, and that I had to follow it. I went deep into the hills, then up into the mountains. I was so tired I was getting delirious but I couldn’t stop, either. Just when I thought I couldn’t go any further, the child of Vulture dropped down a hunk of bone, and I found enough energy left in me to run to where it shattered. There was this brilliant red earth there. I knew what it was for.”

“Did it mix up inter paint or somethin’?”

“No. But I had my knife with me. And I was so tired of losing my way.”

The brilliant red lines that twirled across Sarouth’s (and any other god-speaker’s) skin like veins of ore had to get there somehow, but Riaag’s handkerchief got a workout once he finished putting the pieces together. It combined all the worst parts of a child in distress with his favorite person in pain. “That’s awful,” he said between gulps of air.

“I know, right?” Sarouth laughed bitterly. “I had to keep refreshing them since sometimes they’d try to heal over in the wrong shape. Thankfully you don’t have to see your map for it to be useful, because I sure did go through a lot of bandages.”

“Is that what Yelke meant by that business ’bout you bein’ raw ‘n bleedin’?”

“Hm? Probably. You get used to it after a while, even when the blood’s coming out of unexpected places you don’t remember mapping. Eventually I made it to the center, so eventually it took, and I didn’t have to do that part anymore.”

Stupid Horse was veering dangerously close to a no doubt delicious-looking shrub so Riaag needed to take a moment to haul on the awful thing’s reins until it deigned to change its mind. His thoughts whirled all the while; there had to be a good way to keep the conversation from stalling out in its current unfortunate locale, if only he could think of one. Maybe a return to more familiar ground would help.

“So what’s the difference after that part?”

This earned him a puzzled blink. “I’m not sure I understand what you’re asking.”

“What’s the difference between turnin’ ‘n actually makin’ it ter the center?”

“Ah,” said Sarouth. His left hand went from where it had been resting to touch his forearm, then slide up until his hand was cupping his right shoulder right over where his tattoo of the Great Geode was. He looked wistful. “You know the first day you wake up after suffering through a long illness and you realize you actually feel like yourself again?” he asked, dreamily. “It’s like that, though I wasn’t waking up from being sick, I was waking up from being all the way mortal.”

He’d described it various ways over the years—Riaag had been his faithful shadow since the age of probably-seventeen, and given that both of them were now in their mid-twenties there had been a lot of opportunities to ask between then and now—but each time it came out a little differently. This was keeping that streak going. It felt like it was a much less painful train of thought for Sarouth, at least, so Riaag let him continue.

“Before you make it there you know there’s something inside you that can do incredible things if you only learn how to ask it. Sometimes you get there halfway and you make pebbles trail after you for a little bit or you wake up and the dust around you has made a pretty pattern, but you’re never really going to make it work when you want or the way you want it. You get glimmers of important things that you can’t understand or figure out why they’re important. You get little flashes of insight that don’t make any sense. Sometimes you remember things that haven’t happened yet. And then you make it to the center, and stand in His presence within the Great Geode, and things are…better. So much better. You’re still who and what you are, but you finally know what was missing because it isn’t missing anymore. You wake up and your map is smooth and perfect, even if it’d scarred up between attempts, and any other scars you might’ve had? Gone. From that day forward you know you’re in the right skin.”

“That sounds pretty nice,” said Riaag.

“It is. It really is.”

The wind ruffled Sarouth’s hair. He closed his eyes and tilted his chin into it, once more wearing his usual small smile. Riaag could still spot a few subtle tells of hidden tension, such as the setting of Sarouth’s jaw or the way he held himself, but the impossible weight that had been pulling down on him since shortly after they’d left the stronghold seemed to have lifted ever so slightly. It was like working a comb through a nasty snarl of hair and pulling the first untangled strands free. All they had to do was keep at it and he’d be fine, Riaag was sure of it. He’d have to be fine. Sarouth was always fine in the end, wasn’t he? That was part of what made him Sarouth.

A nye of pheasants chose that moment to flutter from their hiding place and the horrible horses gave chase, requiring some effort to rein them back in. Sarouth laughed—a proper laugh, sweet and earthy, not the sharp, painful things he’d been spitting up over the past day—even as he had to cling to Karsta’s neck to keep from being thrown. Even when he nearly slid off the side he sounded like he was having a good time. Riaag coaxed Stupid Horse close enough to lift Sarouth up by the back of his robes and get him seated properly again; he was rewarded with a peck on the cheek for his trouble. He moved to return the favor but Sarouth goaded Karsta ahead with another laugh. Riaag grinned and knocked his stirrups into Stupid Horse’s belly, accelerating to the blistering speed of a mild canter.

They raced each other inexpertly towards their distant goal of the forest, trading laughter as they traded places while their horses just barely tolerated their commands. It was almost like they were just having another of their little misadventures. There was even a hint of kissing involved! If Riaag thought about it in just the right way he could almost pretend everything was okay.

Pretending could only go so far when there was still something he knew needed fixing, though. Once they were caught up to one another Riaag pulled Stupid Horse back to a courteous distance before picking up his line of questioning again.

“So’s that what made things difficult ‘tween you ‘n yer kin?”

“Beg pardon?”

“That greatness what burbled up inside, that evidence o’ the Hill God’s int’mate presence. You just spooked ’em so bad they couldn’t think straight no more, ‘n you was busy tryin’ ter figure out what in the flyin’ fuck was goin’ on so you weren’t much help?”

“Oh.” That lovely little smile melted away. “No, Riaag, it’s not that easy.”

“You’s gonna hafta tell me the hard part, then. You got a blister in you that’s too fucken big ter let go away on its own. You gotta lance it now or you ain’t never gonna heal up again, ‘n if you don’t you’s just gonna be stuck with a gut fulla pus.”

“That is an extremely gross metaphor and it’s all the worse because of how accurate it is.” He exhaled slowly through his nose. Once they finally came out the other side of all this mess Riaag would owe him so many shoulder rubs, of this Riaag was certain. He’d refuse to let things shake out any other way.

“When the Hill God becomes part of you,” Sarouth said, “you have to remember that it’s more like burying a seed in the ground than pouring water onto a plant. There’s not enough room for Him, even a tiny little piece, in a normal person, so things have to be cut away. Sure as He was the First Scavenger He knows ways to do that.” He popped his lips a few times, his exposed eye distant. “He is of the Void, of the spaces between the stars, and so that same Void awakens within you to let His essence take root. It expands over time, gnawing at you, and it’s easiest for it to consume any bonds you might try to forge so that He has room to exist. Closeness becomes difficult. Attempts at friendship, at least with those who aren’t god-speakers themselves? They’re strained at best if you want to be anything more than just a face and a name and maybe a handful of interests. Don’t get me started on intimacy. Where we walk we leave ashes. Just because I’ve gotten used to falling away from so many people throughout my lifetime doesn’t mean I like it very much.”

“I think some of that ash business’s just due ter you bein’ kinda on the asshole side ter people sometimes.” The words slipped out as carelessly as a sneeze, but instead of being horrified with himself Riaag found he still, surprisingly, agreed. Ever since he’d been very young he’d had a knack for observing things. He’d observed a lot over the years.

Sarouth stared. “Do what now?”

“You heard me,” said Riaag. His eyes were watering again, but it was nothing he couldn’t handle. Thank goodness Stupid Horse was behaving for the time being. “I seen it plenty o’ times afore we got tergether. Same song ever’ time: somebody’d get close ‘n you’d be over the moon fer a bit, then you’d have ter actually stick around some, then maybe outta nowhere you’d just happen ter find a reason fer them ter hate you ‘n send you packin’. ‘s like you have this need ter have folks abandon you just so you can keep feelin’ sorry fer yerself, ‘n that ain’t right.”

“I…,” said Sarouth. He raised his hand to his mouth fretfully. It was uncanny how much he and Yelke resembled each other at times. “I didn’t drive you away, though…?”

Riaag snorted. “Yeah, ’cause I was too fucken stubborn ter letcha. You sure did try at first, least afore you learned I was stuck on you like a burr-barb. You wanted so bad fer me ter fuck on off elsewhere so’s you could be alone ‘n miserable again. ‘s like the thought o’ responsibility paired with someone what’d tolerate yer bullshit, no questions asked, scared you shitless. Not that I knew as much at the time, mind you, this’s the sorta thing what’s only apparent ‘pon many a night o’ quiet thought ‘n reflection after many years o’ personal self-betterin’ on my own part.”

“I admit I was wondering how long it’d take for you to get tired of all that.”

“Well, I didn’t ‘xactly have a reg’lar pleth’ra o’ options at my disposal, so t’ain’t like I was gonna just up ‘n wander off first time things got real difficult. The occasional spot o’ frustration’s a pretty fucken big improvement on where I was afore you pulled me outta the dust like it weren’t no thing.”

Sarouth glanced askance. “I don’t deserve you, or your patience, Riaag. I suppose it’s only natural that you get tired of shouldering the whole burden of dealing with me yourself, so—”

“You’s doin’ it again!” said Riaag in a voice so loud and sudden it actually made the horses’ ears swivel towards him. “Sarouth White-Hair, you listen ter me, ‘n you listen yerself good: I love you sure’s the sun’s gonna rise in the mornin’, but sometimes you really does piss me right the fuck off.” He took a deep breath and let it out again, pausing long enough to keep his horse from going after something small and fast-moving in the distance, then continued.

“I ain’t sayin’ it’s all on you. I don’t doubt fer a single heartbeat that His influence is a real motherfucker when it comes ter normally interactin’ with other folks. I get that. I get you’s also still carryin’ a grudge the size ovva mountain regardin’ yer kin’s attempts ter cope with a li’l baby god-speaker in they midst, ‘n that’s most reasonable, ’cause it sounds like it fucked you up pretty bad. I ain’t even sayin’ that ever’ time you got with somebody ‘n it went all pear-shaped it’s yer whole fault! Thing is, though, when after a while the only thing what’s consistent with all yer relationships is you, well…I ain’t no soothsayer, but I think I can suss out where some’a the problem’s gonna be found.”

He rode close enough to be able to place his glove against Sarouth’s shoulder if he stretched at just the right angle. Sarouth winced away at first, then leaned into his touch like a tired cat. “I ain’t sayin’ this ter be hurtful, Sarouth,” continued Riaag. “I gotta make sure you know that. I’s sayin’ such things ’cause I’s yer bodyguard, not just yer friend or oathbound, ‘n my job’s ter keep you safe from what might harm you. Bein’ all tore up inside’s a different kinda harm than some fucknut with a sword ‘n a bad attitude, but it still ain’t good fer you ter let it go ignored.” Riaag offered a hopeful smile. “You’s spent so long helpin’ me get my head put on right way ’round, ‘n now you gotta deal with the fact I wanna pay you back fer that best I can.”

Sarouth smiled awkwardly and offered Riaag a fond, surprisingly vulnerable look. “You’d think,” he said, “after all these years, I’d be able to remember just what a genuinely kind person you are.”

Real fucken kind,” said Riaag, brightly. “I meant that oath when I done swore it. I’s here fer the long haul, no matter what, so long as you’ll have me.” He sat up straight in the saddle and scanned the treeline. There were no signs of large animals and definitely no people, which meant the next leg of their trip would probably be in peace. “Think it’d be best if we came back ter this sorta thing a little later on, once we’s both had time ter think on shit fer a spell,” he said as he craned his neck. “Wanna lighten the mood with another race afore we bed down fer the night?”

“I suppose I can do that,” said Sarouth. “There’s just one thing you’ll have to accept about us before we do so, though.”

“Yeah? What’s that?”

“That you’re going to have to eat my dust. Heeyah, Karsta!” His horse leapt forward like a pouncing beast and he nearly fell out of the saddle again; just like that he was barreling off into the trees, clinging to Karsta for dear life and laughing like a maniac all the while. Somewhere under that veneer of good cheer was that tangle of pain and confusion, Riaag knew, but just because they’d acknowledged it was there didn’t mean they had to wallow in it. It felt good to see Sarouth happy no matter how far down it went.

Riaag took a moment to watch him go, savoring the sound of Sarouth’s laughter, before grudgingly spurring his own mount forward in an attempt to keep up. His balls were going to be killing him in the morning, he just knew it.

-x-x-x-

That night they didn’t return to the topic at hand, nor was Riaag much in the mood for anything more than a little cuddling once they’d set up camp, so it was a quiet evening of eating leftover venison, cleaning the ravens’ cage, and a brief sing-along of sorts once Sarouth dug out his harp and plinked his way through a few folk songs he’d been practicing. They slept the night without anything particularly weird happening. Morning was similarly calm, with no interruptions during breakfast and a blissfully calm ride out. The weather remained good and brigands remained absent. It was halfway disappointing.

A day and a half out from their chosen vacation cave—less than that if they hustled, which Riaag was still waffling over whether he was up for or not—they finally ran into the sort of unexpected circumstances Riaag had come to expect from lengthier missions. This particular anomaly came in the form of a huge wolf with beaded cuffs tied neatly around both its forelegs. Such wolves weren’t an uncommon sight around Usoa, since River People had never gotten around to actually breeding dogs out of their companion animals; it was one thing to know their spies could pop up almost anywhere in the valley and another to actually encounter evidence of said. What was concerning was that the wolf was whining with dismay while scratching all around the base of a tree. Usoan wolves were rarely far from their handlers, and you generally never saw them unless said handlers were about to make their presence known, so where was this one’s?

Riaag dismounted and gestured for Sarouth to stay back. He pulled his helm further over his face, letting its integrated wolf pelt—or Wolf pelt if you wanted to be pedantic about it—conceal as much of his natural green as possible. Usoan wolves weren’t foolish enough to mistake a hat for another animal, but they seemed to respect the authority of their progenitor when presented with it. Then again, he’d only really encountered said clever wolves when they were working with a partner. Keeping one hand on his axe seemed like a very good idea for now.

“Where is your person?” he asked in his clearest Usoan. The wolf bristled and snarled at him but didn’t lunge to bite. Once it took in that he wasn’t going to hurt it it returned to whining at the tree. Riaag studied the trunk but couldn’t find any traces of a blade cut into its bark, and the tree’s canopy was a dark mess of leaves with the sun as high overhead as it was. He squinted. No, there was something else up there, and when something warm and wet dribbled on his cheek from above he knew what had become of the wolf’s companion.

“We got a situation here, Sarouth!” he called back in his own tongue. “I think somethin’ fucked up an Usoan real bad ‘n now they’s stuck up in them branches. Can you heal River People?”

Sarouth dismounted and approached, careful to keep Riaag between the wolf and himself. “I don’t know how much I can do. I’ve never tried it before. I can ease pain in animals, and those are different enough from orcs that you’d think I can do something for an injured Usoan. Do you know what happened?”

“No clue. Dunno how we’s gonna get ’em down ter treat ’em, neither. They’s bleedin’ enough ter drip on me,” —this was demonstrated as he had to quickly sidestep another sanguine spatter, which upset the wolf again— “which means things gotta be pretty fucken bad. I ain’t heard ’em say nothin’ ter me. They might be dead already.”

“If they’ve passed then the least we can do is return their remains to their village.” Sarouth popped his lips as he peered towards the leaf-obscured source of the dripping blood. “I’m going to get some bandages and climb up. What we do next depends on whether or not they’re breathing.”

A common misconception Riaag had encountered during his time as Sarouth’s disciple was that people were quick to assume that Sarouth was physically feeble since he looked so much smaller than Riaag when they stood side by side. This was about as far from the truth as one could be: Sarouth was slender and compact, but just about all of him was wiry muscle, which he demonstrated by kicking off his sandals and scaling the tree with his claws as nimbly as a lizard. Soon only the lower hems of his robes were visible among the sea of leaves.

“How bad is it?” asked Riaag.

“Pretty bad!” said Sarouth. “Not dead yet, and it looks like some general battle injuries, but if I’m reading these wounds right one of those either had poison on it or was made by their own blade. I thought River People were immune to most of the toxins they used?”

“Not as many as they like ter pretend, but def’nitely some of ’em! Can you drop ’em down safe?”

“I’ll try and make some carrying loops with the bandages, hold on. Would you pass me my staff, please? I can’t think of any easier way to get them down gently….”

When the skalds sang of daring rescues they probably wouldn’t bother with the awkward setup Sarouth and Riaag managed that day, but between bracing the convulsing Usoan in several places with bandages, tying said bandages to Sarouth’s staff, and passing the makeshift hammock down to Riaag while Sarouth braced one end of it, they managed to untree the mystery victim. The wolf whined and nosed at the Usoan’s masked face once the pair lowered them to the ground. It was a wonder it let them handle its person at all.

Sarouth set the forest floor to whirling as he invoked desperately, muttering prayers and waving his hands like he was trying to catch a bug. He gritted his teeth. Riaag had seen that face too many times: whatever aid Sarouth had been able to bargain for, it wasn’t enough.

“Do we have any healin’ draughts left?”

“I dropped off all of them with the healers. Shit! I don’t know enough about how this sort of person works, it’s just different enough and it’s been too long since the wounds were made and I can’t sing honest tales of courage to inspire His heart….” He dug through his belt pouch. “Shit. Fuck. Fuck! Why didn’t I keep any potions for an emergency? Why did this have to be the one time I thought we’d be okay sharing everything we could? I don’t even have any antidotes! I cannot believe we came all this way for one of our own to die on us because I don’t have the right supplies!”

A flash of brilliance went off in Riaag’s brain. “You don’t, but I does.”

“How? You’ve never found potions before.” He looked worried. “You aren’t starting to, are you?”

“No, but I been given ’em.” He produced the little vial Ruzhu had given him and held it up for Sarouth to see. “Ruzhu Kind-Knife’s fixy-uppy shit is black, ain’t it?”

“It is! You’re a genius,” said Sarouth, half-laughing with relief. He carefully pulled down the Usoan’s saliva-soaked face wrapping and tilted their head so their foam could run safely down one tawny cheek. “Give it here, I know how to pour it down their throat without choking them….”

Potions were strange things. They could work all kinds of miracles, provided you drank the right one, and unlike most medicines they often had effects you could see immediately, so when some of the wounds on the Usoan began to heal over before Riaag’s eyes he felt he should’ve taken it in stride. It was hard to take anything in stride when it involved meat sealing itself up, scabbing over, and then having said scabs crumble away without leaving so much as a slightly different color of skin (or even a bit of bruising) where they had been. The Usoan’s uncontrollable shuddering slowed and vanished; Riaag wiped some of the bloodied foam from their face once he was sure they wouldn’t suddenly sink their teeth into his glove or spasm right into his fist. The mask he wrung out, rinsed with water from his canteen, wrung out again, and draped back over their nose and mouth once he was sure it wouldn’t smother them. They probably needed a change of more than just that but Riaag was not about to get into that level of caretaking just yet. Given the warning growls he got every time he had to move them enough to elicit a gasp he suspected their companion wolf wouldn’t let him, anyway.

It took a while longer for them to actually come back around again. Their eyes were so dilated they looked black, the thin band of red-brown around the pupil the only sign there was any color there at all. They didn’t seem surprised to wake up with a pair of orcs looming over them, which was a plus, and once they looked down at their hands to wiggle their fingers Riaag finally relaxed a bit. If Ruzhu’s potions were anything like Sarouth’s it meant that there was probably a lot of numbness and itching going on wherever the draught found something that needed cleaning up. He’d experienced it many, many times himself over the years. No matter how many potions he’d drank none of them had ever thought to fix up his damn teeth.

“White-Hair of Naar Rhoan?” the River Person asked, blearily. Their speech was just slurred enough it took some concentrating to make out the different tones of the Usoan words.

Sarouth nodded. “You are safe now. So is your wolf.” Said wolf nuzzled them worriedly.

“I didn’t think I’d see the headman of your fortress so far out this way,” they said as they struggled to sit up. Riaag would have used different words than headman and fortress but he wasn’t about to correct someone on quibbles of linguistics when they were still getting over being poisoned near to death. “I didn’t know you left that place, save to come to Usoa.”

“Then you are not one of Etxeloi’s,” said Riaag. “He has eyes all over the valley, and they know we are traveling.” He sat back down from the squat he’d been holding. “Who are you, stranger?”

“Mintxo, a traveler,” they said. It was hard enough getting formalities out of Usoans in the first place, so a name was good enough for now. Usoans didn’t name their wolves so that was one less thing to worry about, too.

“Why did we find a traveler dying in a tree?” asked Sarouth. “We only knew you were there because your wolf showed us. You are lucky we even noticed that. You hid very well.”

“I climbed up there to heal,” Mintxo said, their blown-out eyes not meeting Sarouth’s. “If you’re so familiar with my people you’d know we never bleed on the open ground.” Riaag, who had personally beheaded an Usoan berserker on extremely open ground and fought by dozens of others in defense of their respective homes, knew this to be a lie. He squinted. Something was off about the situation and he’d have to chew on the details in his head until he could spit out a bone of an idea. Was there already another dissenting party in the village? Hadn’t they learned their lesson from what happened to the xenophobic old turd who’d been running the village for years before? Riaag had friends among the new leader’s entourage and he didn’t like how he couldn’t remember the last time he’d spoken with any of them.

“What hurt you is what I am asking,” said Sarouth in his most patient of tones. When he wasn’t eager to separate someone’s heart from their chest he was so much better at the diplomacy thing than Riaag was. Somebody had to be.

“Ah,” said Mintxo. “I saw some foreign txortalari poking around, so I went to tail them. I was too careless! I barely had time to steal something from them before I was discovered, so I ran. Then there was an accident.” Riaag, an aficionado of cusses in more languages than merely his own, recognized the colorful sound of Usoan swearing. He narrowed his eyes beneath his helmet. That sort of language, in this context, was symptomatic of the mindset that got Usoa in trouble all the damned time. If people other than Etxeloi’s shadow network were creeping out into the valley and making nuisances of themselves, Naar Rhoan would have to act sooner than later. It was difficult being allies with a village full of firebrands.

Sarouth wasn’t about to let the matter lie, either. “It was these people who poisoned you?”

“No, I escaped with only a few scrapes. They wouldn’t know what to do with a toxin if you showed them twice, I’ll bet.” Mintxo puffed out their chest with barely a wince, proof that the potion had definitely done its job. “I’m the smartest man in the village, just ask anybody. No way they’d use my own tricks against me.”

“Then how did this happen? We saw you before you healed. You were very hurt.” Sarouth leaned in closer. “I want to know why we had to use a gift from our god to help you.”

Mintxo still couldn’t look Sarouth straight in the eye. He busied himself with scratching the ears of his still-distraught wolf instead of answering. Riaag didn’t like to be violent with people unless they brought such unkindness upon his person first, especially when it came to strangers, especially when said strangers weren’t even orcs; this conviction still couldn’t keep him from wanting to give him a little rap on the forehead to properly get his attention. There was something about the situation that just wasn’t adding up, but what was it?

The sour purse of Sarouth’s lips showed that he, too, was less than impressed with Mintxo’s lack of response. “Well?”

“…I got some poison on my hand without realizing, then touched my food.” The pommel of Mintxo’s scimitar was suddenly all he seemed to care about in the world, even including his wolf’s ears.

Both orcs stared in disbelief. It was then that Riaag tweaked to the truth of the matter: Mintxo was just a kid. River People tended to develop until they reached a certain age and then stayed that way for decades, so one unlined brow could belong to a callow youth while another, identical face belonged to their own parent, and Riaag still had no idea how anyone was supposed to tell how old any given Usoan was without being immersed in their ways since birth. Once he knew what to look for the signs were obvious. None of the village scouts would wear a cloak that blended so badly with their environs, that wasn’t the right way to buckle the straps on that armor, that wasn’t even the kind of armor you were expected to wear on reconnaissance missions anyway, there was no sign of the embroidered gear satchel your typical spy carried with them, the list went on and on. Mintxo had been brought low by a rookie mistake because he was still a rookie, himself.

Riaag started laughing. He couldn’t help it, not after the emotional turmoil he’d endured over the last few days, since even with the progress they’d made the conversations they still needed to have hung over him and Sarouth like a fog. To think he’d been worried about intrigue and treachery when what had happened was some goofy youth had put on their big kid clothes and wielded their big kid venoms and then forgotten to wash their hands just in time to make a big kid mistake. It was such a simple solution he couldn’t think of any other way to reply.

“Is the big one okay?” asked Mintxo. His long ears twitched downwards in discomfort.

“He will be fine,” said Sarouth. He patted Riaag on the back with a clank of metal scale. “We were worried there were villains here. He is very glad to hear there are not any.”

Riaag was able to walk things back to a mere case of the giggles, then caught his breath and wiped his eyes. “Sorry,” he said. “I will have to tell Etxeloi of this. I think he will like the story.”

“You can’t!” said Mintxo, who neatly dispelled the notion that all River People were uncannily graceful by getting wrapped up in his own cloak. It was like watching a cat get stuck in a roll of burlap. He looked at them helplessly from his prison of his own making. With as self-conscious a look as he could manage with just his eyes visible, he said, “I’m not supposed to be out this far.”

“You wanted to impress him, yes?” asked Riaag.

“No!” said Mintxo, who then slumped and corrected himself. “Maybe.”

Sarouth stood and dusted himself off. “What we will do is this,” he said. “We will let you go back to Usoa. You can say what you want, and do what you want, when you get there. But when we return we will be talking to people. If you have not been honest, I do not know if it will be good for you.” He shrugged. “Naar Rhoan does not question Usoan custom among Usoans.”

“Maybe you can tell Etxeloi of the people you saw,” said Riaag. “He can hear how much you saw and place it next to what others saw. He will want to know. We talk a lot. Be sure you say true things so he is not surprised when he talks to me again.” He tilted the snout of his helm up enough so Mintxo could get a good look at his eyes. Not being very fluent in a language meant trying to use facial cues a whole lot more than usual. “Be kind to your wolf. It is a good friend to you.”

“It is,” said Mintxo. He untangled himself with as much dignity as he could scrape together. Standing upright with his beast at his side it was easier to mistake him for an adult. He reached down to scratch behind its ears and it wagged its tail like a puppy. “Naar Rhoan is a good friend to Usoa, too, if its people do this much for strangers. I will remember to say your name, God-Speaker White-Hair.”

They watched Mintxo go as he turned and slipped away into the trees, wolf in tow. Neophyte or not he was surprisingly quiet, and had his outer layers bore the mottled patterns Usoan scouts favored it would’ve been like he simply vanished. The best decision the kid could make, Riaag figured, was to either double down on learning how to be a proper forest ghost, or to give up sneaking around in the woods and take up fishing or something. So long as he picked something and stuck with it, and remembered to wash his hands before eating, he’d probably be fine. Everyone had to start somewhere.

Once they were sure he was gone Riaag went back to check on the horses. They’d stayed put the entire time, their utter meanness protecting them from any fear their ancestors might have had of wolves; save for having to keep Stupid Horse from nipping berries from a nearby juniper tree they had no trouble saddling back up for another leg of their journey. What Mintxo had said wasn’t terribly concerning in and of itself—travelers came from outside the valley more and more these days given how aggressively the Rhoanish courted foreign trade with spices and porcelain—but whoever he’d run afoul of couldn’t be too far away if he’d been spotted, poisoned himself, and failed to die all within a few hours of seeing them. It would be good to be alert. Sarouth’s alarm charms would be particularly welcomed by Riaag’s nervous heart in the coming nights.

Something about the encounter had been wiggling around in the back of Riaag’s mind for a bit and he finally had to bring it up. “So, tell me somethin’, Sarouth.”

“Mmhm?”

“You said t’weren’t our nature ter question Usoan custom, implyin’ they’s likely ter be right upset if untruths come ter light a ways after first debriefin’ folks. Ain’t it also Usoan custom ter stab people in the back ‘n leave ’em bleedin’ out by the side o’ the road, too? We kinda questioned folks a lot fer that one time.”

Sarouth shrugged and grinned. “That’s true, but I didn’t want to confuse the issue. Besides, if he can keep seeing proof of Rhoanish as being merciful, maybe he or his kin won’t turn out all bad.”

“T’would be an improvement o’er certain folk I could name….”

“Agreed. Land’s sake but I’m glad we won’t have to deal with those people until around Harvest.”

Night finally fell once they’d been going for a while, and even though they continued to ride by the light of the waxing gibbous moon they eventually agreed that there was no way they could get back to their chosen destination cave without running themselves and their horses ragged. By the time everything was set up and Riaag had a proper fire going the moon had almost set again, leaving the sky as velvety black as one of the messenger ravens’ tails. The birds themselves slept soundly after being fed. Only a few of them were left, enough to announce making camp once they hit the cave and maybe an extra update or two if their stay stretched out longer than expected, with one final raven to announce the trip home. It had felt like they’d been on the road barely any time at all, yet it also felt like they hadn’t been back to their own bed in ages. Travel was funny like that.

Their campfire was bright against the dark, casting shadows across their faces and filling the clearing with a warm and buttery light. They didn’t face each other, nor were they on opposite sides of the crackling blaze, but a gap of a few feet remained between them as they ate more leftovers; it was close enough to talk but not so close each other’s presence risked being overwhelming should things get difficult. Riaag had chosen where to sit for dinner very carefully. With the cave less than a day away it was probably best they take care of the remaining difficult talks sooner than later.

“Been thinkin’ ’bout what you told me,” said Riaag once they’d both finished eating and he’d gotten the dishes washed and packed up. “I think I figured out some of yer trouble.”

“Yeah?”

“You try ‘n be a fergivin’ kinda fella, which as the Faaroug himself is right ‘n proper, but you don’t feel the same way fer ever’body. Let’s us both go down a list, here, ‘n see what wee find, yeah? A good recent example is how you done fergave Daasz Iron-Back ‘n Itwagh Tallow-Burn no problem.”

Sarouth tilted his head, his expression slightly worried. “They were aching and in need. Anyone with a heart would’ve done the same.”

“Plenty o’ folks with hearts out there what still turn people away if they’s got a history o’ brigandry,” said Riaag. “You didn’t just say they was absolved ‘n go about yer business, neither, you up ‘n gave ’em a way ter start over entirely.” He tried to say it casually but he still felt goosebumps bloom all down his neck and arms at the thought. If the typical Rhoanish who’d sought a chance to begin again felt even a crumb as much awed gratitude towards Sarouth as he had himself it was a small wonder they’d follow him to the ends of the earth. Riaag’s past could haunt him all it liked but it could never be the present again. Not so long as he kept up on refreshing his amulets.

His words earned him a raspberry from Sarouth. “That’s just the whole Naar Rhoan thing,” he said with a flip of his hand. “We’re all doing something new, so we really ought to let people be made new, too. I’m sure they’ll keep doing it long after the both of us are so much dust in the depths.”

“Yeah, okay, but you does it, yeah? Which is good. Real good. So let’s go on to the second bit: I’s pretty fucken sure you fergave that dopey li’l Usoan turd what we spent way the fuck too much time ‘n resources on, bless his heart.”

Sarouth shrugged and said, “He’s barely out of childhood. He’s learning, and since we didn’t leave him stuck halfway up a cypress he’ll have a chance to learn again. Nobody learns without fucking up a little bit somewhere down the line.”

Riaag nodded. “That’s His own truth, right there, no foolin’,” he said. He held up three gloved fingers. “Let’s go fer number three: even after they killed seven o’ our own flesh ‘n blood, ‘n greatly distressin’ many more’n that even when discountin’ those numberin’ among the families o’ the deceased, Naar Rhoan fergives Usoa ’cause you fergive ’em.”

“It’s just politics,” said Sarouth.

“Bullshit it’s just politics, you was jumpin’ right all over the chance ter help soon as the smoke cleared ‘n the blood clotted. Were it just politics we wouldn’t be sendin’ so many people over ter till they fields, nor would we be so keenly invested in long-term enrichment o’ them ‘n theys beyond the mere scope o’ our initial treaty. They’s a buncha long-eared, snake-eyed, blunt-toothed, smooth-tongued assholes ‘n now we is the best o’ friends in nearly no time at all ’cause we do so much ter aid ’em anyway.” He didn’t like describing River People so guilelessly, especially since he knew for a fact that there were more of them in the world than just the ones in Usoa. He’d have to do something nice for his village-dwelling friends as penance.

“Okay, then, so…you’ve got me there, I guess?” asked Sarouth. He rubbed at the back of his neck that sat just underneath the tie that kept his hair in its usual tail. “I don’t see where you’re going with this.”

It was time to stack up the final stone and see if the tower would hold. “What I’s sayin’ is that you’s real fucken good at findin’ ways fer other people ter get a second try at things,” said Riaag, “but only if the person in question is someone else.” The next part was so hard to say, but he had to. He couldn’t let it fester any longer than it already had. “If you’s so set on givin’ ever’body ‘n they dog a second chance, why cain’t you fergive yer own blessed self fer turnin’?”

He could see the way Sarouth froze in place, hear the stifled gasp that Sarouth couldn’t quite conceal. It had been a direct hit. Riaag hoped Sarouth would still be feeling in the mood for reparations when all was said and done; he hadn’t spent the ride back from Vaz Tarukh not thinking of just how much those words could hurt the man he loved above all else.

“…I thought you were going to suggest I need to forgive my family,” said Sarouth.

Riaag grunted and spat into the fire in disgust. “Nah, fuck ’em. Good ones like yer cousin Fine-Fleece will shake out okay in the end, the rest can huff sheep farts ’til the sun goes out fer all I care. You’s talkin’ ter the last man walkin’ the good earth who’d ever suggest puttin’ up with hurtful shit from folks what is s’posed ter be yer kin. I’s glad you ain’t dealin’ with that no more. Just ’cause I didn’t let you do a big whoppin’ heap o’ sins back there don’t mean I don’t never wanna get some o’ them ’round the neck ‘n shake all the nasty fucken meanness out.” It went unsaid that Riaag suspected his arm would get tired before he was able to fully empty any given one of them. Sarouth was, after all, the one who’d grown up with those people. He already knew.

Sarouth sighed and stared into, and past, the fire. “That’s because you’re a good man, Riaag,” he said, quietly.

“Does that mean you think you ain’t?” Riaag hoped the horror wasn’t as obvious in his voice as it was in his head. It took every ounce of his self-control not to grab Sarouth and hug him until a blood vessel burst somewhere.

“It’d explain a lot, wouldn’t it?”

He could feel his face getting hot beneath his beard. “No, it’d be a shitty fucken excuse! You keep fergettin’ I’s been witness ter all yer glories ‘n failures fer longer ‘n probably anyone else alive, barrin’ He Who Sleeps His-divine-self, ‘n I is well acquainted with the fact that while you is one flawed fucken orcish bein’, that sure as shit don’t mean you ain’t a good man, or demigod, or whatever the fuck else!” Ah, here were the tears; he’d been expecting them earlier, actually, so it was almost a relief when he realized his cheeks were wet.

“Maybe it’s fer the best I was yer constant companion fer so long without so much as an inklin’ o’ romance atween us, ’cause I seen you do so much good. You kept me on when I was next ter nothin’ even when we lost days o’ travel ’cause I just got too sad ter move. You helped me, time ‘n time again, not ’cause I asked nor ’cause there were some big reason fer it, save that I was there ‘n in need o’ kindness.

“You’s always pushin’ folks away ’cause you’s too scared fer them ter see you fail, like that ain’t somethin’ ever’body does! How many times did you have ter console me when I burned dinner back when I was first learnin’? How many times have I fished your fool ass outta the brambles or taken a hit fer you that you was too distracted ter see comin’? Yet here we is, you lovin’ me ‘n me lovin’ you right back, flaws ‘n all, even though you still keep unconsciously tryin’ ter find reasons fer me ter just give up on us.

“Cain’t you ever accept that maybe you don’t gotta force people away so’s they can up ‘n leave you insteada you riskin’ hurtin’ them by decidin’ it’s time ter go? Cain’t you get it through that thick fucken skull that it don’t matter who you love more each day, Him or me, ‘n that I ain’t never gonna make you choose? Fuck’s sake, Sarouth, cain’t you give yerself permission ter be happy with someone you want?”

Sarouth’s words kept stumbling over each other as he replied. “When have I ever implied that I’d…that you…that I was worried you’d get jealous of my relationship with Agritakh?”

“Since Matuz Steel-Claw is when. You think I’d fergotten all that? I seem ter recall such an issue bein’ the cause o’ no less ‘n four nasty-ass fights, which I remember in great clarity ’cause I was sore afraid I’d have ter step in ‘n keep somethin’ unfortunate from happenin’.” Riaag tried his best to deflate; he felt as puffed up as a strutting grouse, even ignoring his tears. He couldn’t just intimidate Sarouth into being a happier man. “You two was so cute tergether. I really thought you was gonna make it, least fer a little while. Then somethin’ happened, ‘n a teensy li’l crack got in the iron, ‘n insteada poppin’ that blade back in the fire or easin’ off the strain or somethin’? You just had ter poke at it like a wiggly tooth. T’were one o’ the first times I heard you acceptin’ you was His avatar, ‘n t’weren’t in jubilation.” He let his tone go gentler still. “I’s glad you was able ter say you was sorry fer it all, even if t’were in situations posthumous.”

“I….” Sarouth hid his eyes behind his hand the way he sometimes did when he had a headache. “When we were in the mine, right before I cleansed the place? He told me he just needed to hear me say I was wrong. Then he said he was wrong, too. Then he was gone.” He kneaded at his face like he was trying to rub both his temples one-handed. “Was I really that bad…?”

“Dunno. I ain’t him, nor’ll I ever be. But if a spooky fucken ghost what’s spent who knows how long ragin’ in the woeful dark can accept yer apology, maybe you oughtta think ’bout tryin’ it yerself.”

“You make it sound so easy, brave warrior.”

Riaag laughed in astonishment. “Once again you’s fergettin’ ter whom you is talkin’! You think I don’t never feel eyes on my clothes ‘n ears ‘gainst my speech ‘n wonder if maybe I ain’t doin’ the right thing, that maybe I’s actually disrespectin’ those what suffered before me? I’s only gettin’ better ’cause I’s got the will ter try, ‘n I only got that will ’cause o’ you. Now I’s who I is now. Who knows who I’ll be termorrow?” He offered his hand to Sarouth, palm up. Just in case the invitation wasn’t clear enough, he added, “I know what kinda clay you got under that there glaze. You ain’t gonna do it all overnight. But if’n you’ll let me, I’ll be there with you, so long as that journey takes. I swear this truly by blood, ‘n steel, ‘n fire.”

A proper ballad would have had Sarouth take Riaag’s hand to be pulled into a hug, maybe sealed with a kiss, and it would have been extraordinarily romantic, in Riaag’s opinion. Sarouth, once again proving to possess all the romance Agritakh gave a blob of pounded rice, did not do any of these. He did at least look down at Riaag’s glove, but his own hands remained in his lap. The campfire’s flickering glow made him look very ethereal just then. Riaag was going to have to remember the details for a poem later.

“From anyone else, I’d doubt those words,” said Sarouth. He cracked a sad little smile. “From you, though, I can believe them.” His claws clicked against Riaag’s, making the dry sound of rattling knucklebones. “You treat me differently than other people do, my love.”

It was too easy to come back with a retort about how most people didn’t cook for Sarouth, jerk him off, and then fling themselves into battle for the sake of defending his name, so instead Riaag said, “Yeah? How’s that?”

Fingertips brushed against his palm and along the side of his hand. Two years ago he couldn’t have dreamed of this much contact, would’ve worried sick he was polluting a god-speaker with his innate foulness. Now, though, he could spot a stalling tactic when he saw one. He set his jaw and waited it out. Annoying or not this was not something that could be rushed.

After a while Sarouth fully laced his fingers with Riaag’s and twisted their hands around so they were right side up. “I have to be so many things to so many people. I am the rock on which their lives are balanced, and I can’t falter in my duty to them, not ever. Even when I’m not representing a god or a nation I can feel the weight of people needing things they feel only I can provide.” He tucked a stray strand of hair back behind his right ear. “Sometimes it feels like you’re the only person who doesn’t see me as means to an end. You just want to be here, with me. That means a lot.” He sighed. “I don’t deserve you, Riaag.”

Not this again. “Yes you fucken does, ‘n you’s just gonna have ter accept it,” said Riaag with a scoff. “I ain’t never known you any other way than you is now, ‘n I ain’t interested in anythin’ but what you got ter give me as you is.” He stretched out his free hand into an invitation for an embrace, the sort of thing Sarouth loved to leap into during cheerier times. “Now get yer ass over here so’s I can give you a proper hug.”

Once again Sarouth failed to do something romantic. This time he released Riaag’s hand and stood up to pace around in front of the fire, sometimes popping his lips or muttering to himself. That usually meant he was thinking intently about something. Hopefully that was a good sign.

Riaag stood and waited a little ways off from where Sarouth trod. He wasn’t going to get closer until Sarouth had worked his way through the Labyrinth of his own thoughts, so he took the opportunity to admire Sarouth from afar. Oh, how his jewelry shone in the light! Sometimes when Sarouth turned on his heel it was with such force that the twirling of his robes caused sparks to dance up from the fire like little fairies. It was amazing how even when he was being difficult he could still be a beautiful, wonderful creature, handsome as anything despite being a tremendous pain in the ass. It had to be a demigod thing. Or maybe true love. Riaag kept forgetting he was completely besotted by that second one.

“Do you know why I love you, Riaag?” asked Sarouth, still pacing.

This had to be a trick question. “Uh. ’cause I’s yer favorite person?”

Sarouth chuckled. “That’s true, but it’s not the only reason.”

“Is it ’cause I’s a fuckoff huge fat guy what can free-lift an anvil ‘n that’s what gives you a boner in a most guaranteed fashion?”

Also true, extremely true, truer than my own name is true, but still not what I mean.”

“Uhm.” Riaag scrunched up his face in thought. He’d figured this was going to be that kind of question, but if there was a cipher to this riddle lying around he just couldn’t see it. “Reckon you’s gonna have ter tell me the secret reason or we’s gonna be at this all night.”

“It’s because you’re real. Sometimes it feels like you’re the only thing that is.”

“I’s pretty sure we ain’t been havin’ conversations with simulacra o’ people these past many years, Sarouth, but you’s borderin’ on matters metaphysical ‘n philosophical, ‘n you know you’s way better’n I is at such abstraction.”

Sarouth laughed again, sounding less tired this time. “That’s what I mean, that right there. You’re so…genuine. Genuine enough that when the world fades away to fog I can still see you clearly. Sometimes when I’ve been down in the bowels of the sacred hill too long and I’m just high out of my mind on the vapors I focus on you, and that brings me back. Sometimes I wake up from delving the Labyrinth and I can’t be sure what exists and what doesn’t, and when I was younger I could spend hours in this awful twilight uncertainty, but since I met you…? You always exist. You’re always waiting. You’re always here. Even when I’m not always here, you are. I’m explaining this badly and I hate that. I wish I knew the words to make you understand.”

Ideas slid into place in Riaag’s head. “What you’s tellin’ me is that so long as I’s around, you got an anchor ter reality that you was sorely missin’ on yer lonesome, helpin’ ter bridge the gap ‘twixt the mortal ‘n divine perceptions you’s constantly jugglin’?”

“Yes! Yes, yes, yes, that’s a good way to put it. And I love you for it. So much. Any other man I think might buckle under that weight. Shit, I don’t think that, I know it, I’ve seen it happen to so many people I cared about. When my heart is alive it loves with the fury of a storm that leaves devastation in its wake.” He turned to face Riaag again, his hair having parted across his left eye in just such a way that Riaag could see the fierce gleam in it. “I don’t have to worry about it hurting you, though. You’re strong enough to weather it.”

“Thought you said this were ’bout somethin’ other’n my respectable physical prowess?”

Sarouth shook his head. “I mean how everything I’ve accomplished in my life, every grand deed I’ve done? It’s because you’ve been there as my foundation. Of course you were my first witness. Of course you’re my first and most loyal disciple. What I build I build upon your back.”

Riaag nodded. “I’s yer rock, sure enough,” he said. It was a sentiment he could certainly get behind. He wasn’t the kind of warrior who carried a big shield because he was afraid of getting in the way of anything nasty, after all, and much as he hated to admit it, Sarouth’s rampant insecurities definitely counted as a nasty.

His pacing now stilled, Sarouth looked out into the darkness that made its den in the depths of the woods. The tension around his neck smoothed away. Riaag chose not to check whether the dirt underfoot had shaped itself into anything portentous; if it had, well, that just wasn’t any of his business right now. What was his business was being as supportive as he could to his oathbound until Sarouth had finished deep-diving into his own misery and was ready to come up for air.

Brushing his forelock back into its proper shape and place as he spoke, Sarouth said, “I’m so lucky to have you.”

It had been a very disappointing night for Riaag’s sense of the theatrical, so this tiny scrap of potential was like an entire feast. When he stepped closer Sarouth didn’t lean away, and when he took his place behind Sarouth—his eyes just high up enough to peer over Sarouth’s pale coiffure—there was no resistance. A hand on Sarouth’s shoulder went untouched, as did its twin on the other shoulder, and when Riaag lowered them both to cross his hands across Sarouth’s chest he could feel the slight shift of weight as Sarouth leaned into him just a little bit. That was all the validation he needed. He stretched himself out a bit so he could rest his chin against the top of Sarouth’s head; given their differing heights it didn’t take too much effort to do. He pulled Sarouth close. The only way he could be hugging more would require getting legs involved; given the dimensions of his stomach that sort of thing was only really possible while lying down. What they had was more than good enough for his purposes.

“You know I got you, too, yeah?”

He felt Sarouth shudder, and then keep shuddering, and it took Riaag a moment to realize that it was because Sarouth was crying silently. This was not the way this sort of thing usually worked. Riaag racked his brains for the sorts of things that worked best for him when he needed soothing. Being left to cry it all out was one, so he didn’t try to shush or discourage, and when he didn’t feel like other people’s company was agony it was nice having Sarouth close and in certain moods even touching him, so he kept doing that part, too. Sometimes he tightened his embrace, sometimes he loosened it. Sometimes he untucked his chin to nuzzle at the back of Sarouth’s head before he propped himself up again, a silent watchman in a time of need. He let Sarouth bury his face in his hand without breaking the hug. It didn’t matter how late it was, or how far they had to go, or how dead-ass tired they’d be in the morning if they didn’t get some sleep soon: however long it took for Sarouth to feel better would be as long as Riaag was going to stay out there with him.

With his ears pricked for requests that might be made of him, Riaag let his mind go in thoughtful circles of its own. Was being wanted the way he wanted another person really enough to set Sarouth off like this? Enough wasn’t the right word, since Riaag could sometimes be reduced to tears just by seeing a child hugging a puppy. Maybe it was like how they said it only took a single snowflake to trigger an avalanche: Sarouth could weather every single trial thrown at him but the last one. How many times had he loved and lost? During the time Riaag had known him the answer was far too many, and that wasn’t getting into the mess that was Sarouth’s own kin keeping him around, all the while being openly, mortally afraid of what he’d become. No one deserved to become part of a god; all things considered, Riaag felt Sarouth was doing a pretty fucking good job of it, even if his methods tended to skew wildly unorthodox. Agritakh surely couldn’t ask for a better avatar.

That had been a problem in some of the dalliances Riaag remembered. Save for quick little things like Sarouth’s brief, happy time with Yuris Jade-Tongue, which had lasted all of three days before Yuris’s divinations had sent him one way while Sarouth’s sent him another, they tended to boil down into two categories, those being the ones involving normal men (who couldn’t handle Sarouth’s general spookiness, or couldn’t understand that a god-speaker had many duties to attend to in addition to being a warm body by the fire, or got pushed out because Sarouth was allergic to his own happiness) and the ones involving other god-speakers (who couldn’t handle how much of a mess Sarouth was despite his station, or resented his unparalleled intimacy with the Hill God, or got pushed out because Sarouth was, again, allergic to his own happiness). For as incredible he was at being a priest, in the arena of love he was an absolute disaster.

When people walked away because he dared to fail at something while still calling himself an Agritakh-ruhd, no wonder he was twitchy about perfection when it came to pleasing others. Mix in how he needed to be loved very intensely by someone he could love back just as hard and it was just as well Sarouth was such a handsome man, otherwise he’d likely have had a lot more lonely nights leading up to their current arrangement than he’d already slept through. He needed to be needed and he needed to have someone be unquestioningly reliable. If not for Riaag, who else could do such a thing?

There was also the fact that Sarouth probably was doing a lot better being with Riaag because he was no longer silently pining for Riaag in the process, but that kind of thinking was upsetting, so Riaag didn’t linger on it.

He felt something stir against his neck and pulled back, loosening his grip enough for Sarouth to turn around and look up at him. It was not the worst Riaag had ever seen him, but he still looked like a wreck. As soon as he had permission Riaag was determined to fish out a spare handkerchief and wipe some of those tears away so Sarouth could end the day as sweet and clean as always. Waking up with salt-crusted eyes was fun for nobody.

When he finally spoke Sarouth’s voice was as raw as if he’d been sobbing for hours. “I’m so tired, Riaag. I don’t want to be awake anymore. If I close my eyes, will you still be here when I open them again?”

“Yeah, ‘course I will,” said Riaag. He affected something he hoped looked more like a smile than a grimace. “I’s here ’til you get tired o’ me, after all.”

“Thank you….” The small smile returned to the corners of Sarouth’s mouth as he rested his head against Riaag’s chest. It felt like a victory.

Riaag closed down the camp for the night with Sarouth orbiting him just far enough away to let Riaag handle the various parts of said task. Their evening prayers were simple and weary. With the tent laced up and neither campfire nor lamp to light the interior it was like they’d fallen into a giant blob of pitch. Riaag preferred to sleep on his left side, mainly since Sarouth slept on his left side and they liked to fit together in a bed like a little pair of nested teacups, and the only days he didn’t tended to be ones where he needed to sleep alone in his private tent for one reason or another. Tonight was not a night for personal preferences; instead he rested on his right side and let Sarouth cuddle up nice and close with his cheek against Riaag’s sternum. It more or less worked.

Sleeping face-to-face wasn’t as comfortable as their usual method—Riaag was eagerly awaiting the return to normalcy in that regard—but as he held Sarouth close and safe and felt him finally ease into restful, ground-rattlingly loud snores, Riaag figured a little extra discomfort was a fair price to pay to remind his beloved that things would be okay. He would endure no end of hardship if it meant Sarouth would, at the end of the day, feel a little better.

The irony was not lost on him.

-x-x-x-

It wasn’t until they’d rolled out the last carpet and hung up the last chime that Riaag felt like they were really, truly, finally on a trip just for themselves. The cave felt like it was perfectly in the middle of nowhere despite being so little travel time out from the stronghold. It was their own little world. He rolled on his back and watched the lamplight dance across the ceiling; it was only a hair past noon but the thing about caves was that they tended to be dark even in the best of times. He felt Sarouth lie down next to him. Neither of them spoke as they rested off the light exertion of setting up a camp that far outstripped the one they’d had at the trading post, which itself had been no slouch when compared to the utilitarian things they opted for when on the move. They had time to rest. They had time for a lot of things. What a luxury it was to just sit still for a little while and enjoy one another’s presence!

Sarouth had seemed awkwardly lighter since he woke up, moving with the sort of drained relief Riaag associated with someone having suffered through the worst and grossest parts of being sick and now slowly staggering their way towards wellness. Riaag had awoken first, as usual; while this normally meant he’d launch right into washing up, saying his prayers, and starting on the morning chores, today he’d determinedly stayed put so Sarouth could start the day in a warm embrace that neither of them had managed to roll out of overnight. The look on his face had been worth it, eye crud and all.

The angle of the shadows around the mouth of the cave belied the high, fierce sun outside. It would be perfect weather for taking a long, proper bath in the pool by the waterfall, since quality time with a cloth and bucket could only do so much for one’s personal hygiene and things only got worse when you added armor to the equation, and maybe this time Riaag would have company for it…which was a thought that went down a different road than he’d planned at first. He grinned. What a very good vacation this could be.

“Something on your mind, brave warrior?” asked Sarouth, who had propped himself up on one elbow.

Riaag’s grin broadened. “Well, see, I was thinkin’ ’bout how they’s a nice big waterfall near here, ‘n it’d be real nice ter wash up proper so’s I don’t marinate in my own boots. Might be nice ter have some company fer such. I could scrub yer back, if’n you like?”

“Yeah? That might not be bad at all, especially in this great weather. We can give the laundry a good wash while we’re down there.”

“Oh, yeah, don’t worry, I’ll get them clothes cleaned up no problem,” said Riaag. It had looked to be an excellent laundry pool back when they first came by, if memory served, so reducing how many dirty clothes they had to travel with would be easy as slicing an apple. “What I meant was how I’s a mite exhausted from workin’ so hard gettin’ them horses hitched up ‘n such, so I’s concerned I might be so faint as ter require assistance strippin’ down proper. If, ah, y’know what I mean….”

A sly twinkle found its way into Sarouth’s eye as he said, “Are you, now. Well then. I couldn’t possibly ignore my own oathbound in need, now could I?” He ran a hand along the curl of Riaag’s beard. “You’d better lead us there lickety-split, lest you become so weary you end up overcome by it all and keel over before we even get there.” The tip of Riaag’s ear stung where Sarouth planted a nip on it. “It’d be such a shame, wouldn’t it?”

“Yuh-huh. The biggest shame.”

Buckets in hand and excuses to denude each other firmly in place, they made their way towards the pool. It was hard to keep up their little play-act in transit but they tried anyway; this mostly involved the occasional bout of “dizziness” or making a great show of needing to lean against a tree for a bit, as there was only so much one could do when loaded down with bathtime supplies and still extremely clothed. Despite having completed a perimeter patrol only half an hour before Riaag brought his axe along just in case. He knew his own fate was damned to be an interesting one. The best he could do was be interesting twice as hard back at it.

The pool itself was only a quick walk away and was quite pretty in the daytime. The sunlight gleamed off the water invitingly. Riaag found the spot he used before and sat himself down, his legs stretched off to the side and one gloved hand resting on the ground. It’d be much easier to get back to their game now.

“I’s just got this powerful condition o’ mine,” he said, raising his other hand to his forehead in a patently fake fashion. “Seems ter me the only cure is fer some kindly oathbound soul ter take pity on me….”

“Hello there, I’m a kindly oathbound,” said Sarouth, popping up like a mushroom.

Riaag tossed his hair over one shoulder. “I does so want ter go swimmin’, but all this wool’s gonna weigh me down like a fucken rock if I goes in as I is. Why, I could drown in it.”

“Goodness me, that won’t do,” said Sarouth, who politely neglected to mention that the pool was the wrong size for either of them to swim very much in it if they planned on more than treading water or dog-paddling. It might have been able to drown Riaag if he fell in there and was somehow unable to rise to his knees, though it’d take some work on his part for that to come to pass; this, too, went uncommented.

“Oh, won’t you help me get these off? I’s weak as a kitten ‘n cain’t manage ter tidy up on my lonesome, ‘n I’s ever so warm.”

Sarouth blew a raspberry and rolled his eyes. “Now you’re pouring it on way too thick.”

“Aw. Less talkin’, more swoonin’, then?”

“The idea of talking’s fine, just maybe, eh….” He twirled his hand in the air. “Rein it in a bit? I’d like to remember it’s you I’m pampering. I like seeing you in your own skin. It’s kind of like how you really, really like me in my jewelry.” Sarouth was still wearing quite a bit of his usual shiny ensemble, complete with bits of quartz and agate that glittered most fetchingly against his dark skin, and Riaag could take a hint.

“That’s fair. A’ight, a’ight, gimme a sec ter find my next line.” Riaag hemmed and hawed before settling on something suitable. “I could use assistance with these, ’cause I’s a bit dizzy, ‘n ain’t interested in crackin’ my fucken head open on them stones. Wouldja mind helpin’ me keep my balance?”

Much better. And I’d be happy to, my love.”

Getting Riaag naked was rarely ever very difficult, even with all the layers that were involved, and today was no different; what was different was that he placed a hand against Sarouth’s chest to make him pause once the last scrap of clothing had found its way poolside. Sarouth made a curious sound and left his hands where they were, which in this case was resting against the lightly-furred swell of Riaag’s thighs. The position was an extremely interesting one worth returning to later once they weren’t in the middle of something else.

Riaag tugged at the corner of Sarouth’s outermost robes, exposing the black wool beneath them, and Sarouth soon figured out what he was trying to say. Said robes found there way to the ground next to Riaag’s, maybe not folded quite as neatly but still halfway put up. Sarouth tapped a neatly-filed claw against his circlet, wordlessly asking; after some deliberation Riaag nudged the metal band out of place with his knuckle. Shortly thereafter a shining pile of bracelets and necklaces lay atop the cloth. It wasn’t like he needed Sarouth to be properly bejeweled to have a good time, Riaag reminded himself, and besides, it’d be a shame to lose something nice (and, quite possibly, irreplaceable) because he got carried away and dunked Agritakh’s own avatar underwater with a bit too much gusto.

Sarouth stroked Riaag’s cheek with a ring-stripped finger. He looked so delicate without the gold that it was easy to forget he’d once snapped off a man’s tusk with a right hook from one of those same soft, lovely hands. That they could be so gentle in spite of being fueled by such ferocity might’ve simply added to the appeal. The two of them weren’t as different from each as they looked. He moved to help Riaag slip into the water and was once again stopped by a hand against his chest. This time Riaag could feel the distant rumble of Sarouth’s heart through his skin. If he hadn’t already been halfway hard from their little undressing game that alone would have made him so. How could a single person be so perfectly alluring just by doing what came naturally? If it had been anyone but Sarouth it might’ve seemed unfair.

“I’s been ridin’ ‘n workin’ all day, ‘n I’s still dealin’ with the natural side-effects o’ such, ‘n I thought, well, I know you’s got yer own little things you like, ‘n the water’s right there, so’s, uh, so’s I reckon it might not be too terr’bly awful if’n you wanted ter, uh, have a moment afore we got in.” The way Sarouth felt about a man’s scent after working up a sweat was weird. It was very weird. But it wasn’t so weird that Riaag felt gross thinking about it—wasn’t it nice to smell someone nearby after a long day of being apart, or wake up in the dark and have your nose let you know you weren’t alone? wasn’t this just that but moreso and a little sideways?—and since the water was, after all, right there, removing the stress of not being able to clean up the way he liked in a timely fashion, he could let Sarouth have this. It was a fitting way to repay all that Sarouth did for him.

He was expecting Sarouth to say something pithy. Barring pithiness, he would’ve accepted a terrible joke. Barring that, something sultry wouldn’t have been out of the question. What he got was Sarouth making an excited squeak somewhere in the back of his throat before going facedown in the middle of Riaag’s uncombed chest hair and huffing at him like there were divinations hidden in his nipples. The ecstatic, trembling sigh Sarouth made as he exhaled was the sort of thing that usually required an ejaculation to coax out of him. He snuggled up against Riaag’s softer, fatter parts like a lizard going for a heated rock. It was so intense it was adjacent to alarming. Riaag was torn as to whether this meant he should indulge Sarouth in this sort of thing more or less.

“Would you mind if I…,” began Sarouth, his voice husky. He wet his lips. “This is really good for me, you have no idea, but it’s not…it doesn’t really fit the game we had going, so….”

Riaag kissed Sarouth’s forehead. “You wanna rub one out, go ‘head. I kinda figured you would. We can get back ter that other’n later on once you’s done.”

Thank you.”

The thing about sex was that unless you were just grinding on someone and not planning to go anywhere with it, sooner or later you had to worry about fluids. Riaag was okay with the concept of said for about thirty seconds after the parties involved had finished, and if they were all properly contained (such as by pressing sticky stomachs together) he could be fine with that, too, but if he wasn’t being actively admired or cleaned up outside of either of those situations he was prone to getting anxious about the laundry. A poolside tryst helped ease his mind; it didn’t matter if he didn’t wash up immediately since there was plenty of water close at hand, and if something spilled it would probably end up on either rocks or the grass (instead of, say, linens he’d just washed, or cushions that needed to stay nice for company) and not be much of a problem either way. Nobody was around for most likely miles, so even if there was mess he’d have the luxury of taking his time to get everything neat and clean again. All these factors coalesced into a pleasantly calm state of mind that stayed firmly in place even as Sarouth cried his name and left a long white streak up Riaag’s front.

A very floppy Sarouth draped himself across Riaag, smearing his come in places, and Riaag pulled him closer into a half-hug. The waterfall looked even more inviting than before. They had the entire rest of the day to cuddle, and Sarouth didn’t seem in a hurry to lick him clean, so Riaag shifted his weight around a little and looked down at him with a smile.

“So, does I got any sacred mysteries hidden ‘tween my titties, or was you just havin’ yerself a time?”

Sarouth laughed wearily. “The second one,” he said. “Thank you again. Thank you so much. You smell so good, like all the time, sometimes I can barely stand it.”

“I does it gladly,” said Riaag. He straightened up where he sat. “I also weren’t kiddin’ ’bout how I wanna have a good soak while the sun’s nice ‘n bright fer baskin’, so if you’ll ‘scuse me….”

“Mind if I watch you from the shore a bit?”

“Sarouth White-Hair, if’n you wasn’t considerin’ creepin’ on me from afar I’d have you pinned ‘gainst that there tree ‘n accusin’ you o’ bein’ a skin-thief.”

The water was cool enough to send Riaag’s dick curling back up inside itself once he got more than just a thumb-toe into the pool. He shivered, closed his eyes, held his nose, and submerged himself; it was a pretty intense shock to the system but it definitely woke him up, and once he stood back up again the water’s chill didn’t seem quite so bad. He waded his way over to the waterfall with soap and bucket in hand. Knowing Sarouth was watching him even as he went through an otherwise mundane routine sent a little thrill up his spine. How fortunate he was to get a do-over of that first uneventful visit!

His midsection’s mess was no match for the waterfall’s constant cascade. Days of sweat and travel dust fell away from his skin in a matter of moments. As much as Sarouth got off on him carrying labor’s own perfume with him, in Riaag’s case it was the feeling of being scrubbed clean that hit him right in his heart of hearts and his libido of libidos. It was like he could reset anything bad that had happened to him, leaving nothing behind but the parts that were good and worthy of facilitating the Faaroug’s pleasure. A scouring brush couldn’t take away the scars but it could exfoliate quite a treat. He toyed with his hair to make sure it got evenly wet, taking care to involve a lot of carefully-aimed stretches. If he lathered himself up a little more slowly than usual, well, wasn’t he just trying to be thorough? Clearly he had no ulterior motive, excluding the green one sitting cross-legged on the shore with a cheerful leer and a boner already making its return for an encore performance.

Bit by bit Riaag made himself a blank slate. The mark on his throat barely even ached when he pressed on it, which meant his neck was probably almost identical to how it’d looked when they first left Naar Rhoan, and that was perfect. The thought of Sarouth pinning him against the carpets (which they’d rolled out extra-thick before putting down their cushions and sleeping pallet) and biting him until he looked like a snow leopard was enough to convince his cock that maybe the cold wasn’t so bad. Maybe it was technically inefficient to have sex immediately after a bath, but Riaag didn’t care. The instant they got back to the cave he suspected he’d be flat on his back and begging for Sarouth to use him however he saw fit, and if that wasn’t a good way to spend one’s precious little private time with one’s oathbound, then what was?

Riaag glanced back at the shore just in time to catch Sarouth calmly working his shaft again, his chin propped up in his other hand and one foot dangling halfway in the water. He was taking his time. Riaag had seen Sarouth take his time to such ludicrous degrees that he’d kept himself on edge for an entire night before finally deigning to come, so it seemed appropriate to take the initiative.

“Thought you said you wanted me ter scrub yer back?” he called over his shoulder, putting far more wiggle in his hips than was necessary.

“Hmmm…I did, didn’t I?” said Sarouth. He stopped touching himself and dipped his other foot in the pool. “Suppose I ought to let you do that, provided you let me do one thing.”

“Yeah? What’s that?”

Sarouth narrowed his eyes and smiled darkly. “You’ll have to let me scrub yours first.”

“Deal,” said Riaag, once again overcome by how unfairly handsome Sarouth could be when he was trying to be sexually menacing. It was enough to make a warrior weak in the knees.

Riaag turned away from the bank and returned to the matter of getting leftover mine gunk out of his hair. He’d rinsed it back at Vaz Tarukh, but a little indoor rinse was no match for a proper lake to duck one’s head in, and a lake couldn’t compare to the power of an actual, factual waterfall. Maybe he’d ask Sarouth to get his claws in there and give him a scalp massage, just to be sure there wasn’t any grit left. Then again, he could always just ask for that sort of thing because he wanted it. They didn’t always need a cutesy excuse to do things for each other.

The sound of quiet sloshing drew closer and Riaag tried not to tense up when he felt hands press against his lower back. Something hard and familiar-shaped pressed up against the cleft of his cheeks; Sarouth was definitely standing on tiptoe for that. Riaag couldn’t see him from that angle, but so long as he stayed within a few crucial boundaries they’d discussed prior it would be okay. Riaag just had to keep in mind that it was Sarouth doing this, and nobody else, and he’d be fine. The way the underside of Sarouth’s shaft rubbed against the tender skin down there felt rather nice, actually. So long as he stayed comfortable, and there was plenty of light, and they could stop whenever he needed to, Riaag could see himself enjoying the idea of lying on his stomach and letting Sarouth hump against him like this.

He felt a hand sweep the waterlogged mass of his hair to one side, followed by Sarouth’s tongue rasping along the scars that covered his back like the banding on a snake. The hands against his love handles changed from pressing against him to actually gripping, complete with the prickle of claws. Riaag gulped. He wanted to give Sarouth time to do whatever it was he had planned, but this was already more than he’d bargained for. His cock twitched as Sarouth nipped at the loose skin over one of his shoulder blades. For being a part of his anatomy Riaag usually only associated with either taking naps on or needing to keep protected at all times he sure was finding a lot to like about the current situation.

The taut, lean muscle of Sarouth’s front pushed flush against Riaag’s back. It was almost like the way they usually slept, sans the arm normally thrown over Riaag’s side to hold him close, yet it was different in all sorts of interesting ways; chief among these was how Sarouth had to brace against him to keep his balance while up on his toes, which meant in turn there was the active presence of his weight against Riaag’s. It would take a lot more than a…a…what was the word Miid had used? Svelte, that was it. A man of Sarouth’s svelte build wasn’t about to knock Riaag over any time soon under everyday circumstances, but the sheer insistence of that weight was having quite an effect on Riaag’s disposition. It was reminding him of how long it’d been since he’d been properly underneath Sarouth.

Something shifted behind him. Riaag couldn’t hear Sarouth’s growling purr over the sound of the water, but he could feel Sarouth’s cheek smooshed up against his back fat and feel the vibrations made by that wonderful sound. His breath shuddered as Sarouth’s hips kept gliding forcefully against him. Each thrust teased maddeningly at Riaag’s increasingly sensitive asshole. His previous notion was wrong: this wasn’t more than Riaag had bargained for, this was risking becoming a whole caravan of its own.

Words were very hard to string together, especially a volume that could be heard over the falls. “Sarouth, c-can I….”

“Can you what?”

“I wanna, please, I wanna….” Wasn’t it obvious? Couldn’t he tell?

“Want to what?” asked Sarouth, puckishly, and that answered Riaag’s questions neatly: of course Sarouth knew, but he wasn’t going to do anything until Riaag asked. The treachery! The fiendishness! The sheer malevolence of drawing things out even a soupcon! It sent Riaag’s teeth sawing into his lip in horny anticipation.

He swallowed hard. He could find his center on the battlefield, so he could find his center here, too. The words all fell out at once. “Will you let me come?”

“Touch yourself for me,” said Sarouth. It was not a request.

Riaag whined. With one hand he hand his hair out of his eyes and with the other he masturbated furiously. He didn’t go for finesse or fancy tricks, just a plain, reliable grip (firm, but not too tight) and as much speed as he could manage. A few seconds was all it took before he was spent. He’d managed to stand just enough outside the water’s flow to get a good two and a half feet of distance on it, even with all the differing angles involved. He wasn’t sure if he should be proud. A second gasp behind him informed him that Sarouth had approved of things. Riaag knelt down to rest and felt Sarouth flop against him, planting a kiss on the top of his head for his trouble. The nice thing about sex while bathing was that wherever the jizz went, it was somebody else’s problem now.

One of their buckets floated by, having drifted away during the excitement, and Sarouth fished the soap out of it to begin sudsing up Riaag’s hair. Riaag stood still and let him work. Relaxing was something he had to work at, sometimes, so he let his thoughts drift towards what responsibilities he had. He didn’t need to cut things short to tend to chores because he’d done those already, and the only people he needed to tend to for the next several days were Sarouth and himself (and, technically, the animals, but they were simple enough to care for). No doubt he’d start climbing the walls later in the week if he couldn’t find something to do with his copious free time; for now he’d simply let himself be gloriously inefficient.

Somewhere down the line he actually got that scalp massage he’d been wanting, and once it was over he jolted alert with a start once he realized how close he’d gotten to nodding off without returning to shore first. He stood and stretched. Sarouth had been rinsing out his own hair, which fell well past his shoulders when unbound, so Riaag chose to make good on that promise of helping him get at those hard-to-reach spots. He did his best not to think about how the tattoos that spread all the way down Sarouth’s back had gotten there.

“Once we’s dried off ‘n back ter camp ‘n had usselves some dinner,” Riaag said, “remind me how I wanted you ter chomp the ever-lovin’ shit outta my neck. I’s all nice ‘n pristine fer you now, so’s it’d be a shame ter waste the opportunity.”

“Oh? And what happens if I muss you up too much putting my mark on you?”

“Easy, we just come back here ‘n clean up.”

Sarouth scoffed in amusement. “I dare say if we keep this sort of pace up we’re going to spend our entire here just bouncing back and forth between the cave and this lovely little waterfall.”

“You’s sayin’ that like it’s bad.”

“Well, so long as we remember to eat, I suppose there’s worse fates….”

Being clotheslined and dragged underwater was no doubt one such fate, which is why Riaag decided to do so to Sarouth as a playful reminder. Sarouth swept his arm through the water to kick up a rooster tail that would’ve left Riaag soaked had he not already been drenched from his time beneath the waterfall. They splashed and tussled and made quite the ruckus together; Riaag was bigger and had much greater reach, but Sarouth was evasive and had a much lower center of gravity, so more often than not it was Riaag who ending up floundering after a particularly good counterattack, at least before he opted to cheat and just pick Sarouth up and throw him into the deeper part of the pool. A big, stupid play-fight was the perfect capstone to their poolside rendezvous.

When they eventually tired and returned to shore, their clothes had miraculously stayed dry. They both agreed that this was some of the best luck they’d had all trip.

-x-x-x-

A full day passed without anything terrible happening, which was especially welcome given how much of a workout they’d given each other during their first night in the cave. The waterfall had proven to be an excellent place to stretch out in the sun and air out everything that usually never saw more than the inside of a tent or the occasional trip to the stronghold’s bathing lake. Riaag, having already soaked, bathed, and fooled around as much as he cared to for the time being, had decided to indulge in a little bit of fancy cooking; he prided himself on his ability to make damn near anything edible, or at least less bad than the sum of its base ingredients, but days of trail food were starting to grate on his full-kitchen-acclimated sensibilities. Now he had the chance to do something about that. Sarouth poked around long enough to sneak some carrion out of the ingredients before leaving Riaag to his work. The gentle harp music that eddied out from the cave in his wake proved to be a splendid backdrop, anyway.

The end result of Riaag’s first foray back into the world of civilized meal preparation was a nice, straightforward serving of budaatai khuurga, he decided, and that meant lots of aromatics. He threw together some rice and water in a pot to cook up while he separated out all the vegetables he’d need. Cabbage came first, since you always needed way the fuck more cabbage than you expected, followed by onions and garlic, then strips of carrot root for some lovely added purple, then strips of the weird sweet carrots the merchants brought for a little extra pizzazz in Sarouth’s favorite color, then ginger root, then radish, then horseradish, then peppercorns, then assorted other seasonings, then salt, then more of the bastard-ass cabbage again. A mix of fresh and aged meat would do for the protein, since until he had more time to shake the rust off he wasn’t feeling up to wrangling a skillet. When it all fried up together it smelled simply magical. He’d managed to time things just right that the rice was ready the instant he’d finished sauteing the vegetables. Everything mixed together as though it’d been made solely for that purpose. Riaag glowed. Yes, this was food worthy of feeding a god-speaker.

He plated up a serving for Sarouth and another for himself, poured them both a side of kumiss, and studied their travel larder for his next plan. Planting his ass in place for a while meant he had the luxury of proper slow cooking for the first time since they’d left home. The obvious choice was khorkhog, since meat and veggies cooked together until you could cut them with a spoon was a wonderful treat any day of the year, but he also suspected that if he didn’t find an excuse to use star anise in something he would shrivel up and die like a yearling beetle in winter. Well, they still had plenty of cabbage, and if you didn’t do something to a turnip it could potentially taste like a big ball of boiled nothing, and he really didn’t want to blow through all their best vegetables in a single day, so anise-flavored khorkhog it was! It would take a while for the stones he’d put on the fire to heat until they were suitable for cooking, but he had just put together a nice lunch waiting to be shared. The order of operations involved was pretty straightforward.

Riaag jangled one of the chimes hanging next to the cave mouth. The harp music stilled and Sarouth appeared a second or two later, nose in the air like a hunting dog. He clapped his hands together in delight at the sight of the meal, which Riaag had augmented with a little bowl of nuts and dried fruit for each of them, and the kumiss he’d brightened up with a grating of Usoan sweet-spices since his test sip hadn’t yielded much of a flavor profile beyond boozy, sour, and cold. After being too tired for much beyond warming some carrion jars last night and an (in his honest opinion) underwhelming breakfast of eggs and bone-cakes that morning, he was determined to prove that he hadn’t lost his spark somewhere along the way. The greedy look on Sarouth’s face told him everything he needed to know.

Thankfully for everyone, the food tasted as good as it looked. Sarouth had bolted his as soon as he sat down, it seemed like, though he took his time savoring his second serving; Riaag found room for improvement here and there as he munched his way through his own bowl but still considered the results resoundingly passable. They chatted about nothing of importance as they slowly depleted the fruits of Riaag’s labors and snacked on the fruits of his trail mix. Once the food was gone, their cups were empty, and everything had been washed and put away, it only took a few more minutes of waiting before Riaag could load the now suitably blisteringly hot stones into the cooking vessel, tucking them between layers of meat and vegetables with his trusty set of tongs. He poured water on top of everything before closing it up and leaving it atop the campfire. In a few hours dinner would be served; until then relaxing in the cozy dark of the cave sounded like a pretty good idea.

Relaxing, in this case, meant digging up one of the games they’d brought with them, double-checking they had all the pieces, and setting up the board for a few rounds. It felt like it’d been ages since they’d properly played against one another. Sarouth was a cunning opponent who’d been honing his skills since well before he’d turned and Riaag was simply used to thinking multiple moves ahead at all times; they were more or less evenly matched. When Riaag played against children—because of course he did, they had to learn the rules somehow and it kept their attention while he was babysitting—he would be careful to limit the amount of strategies and maneuvers he’d allow himself, not quite rolling over and letting them win but not going right for the hamstrings, either. Playing against Sarouth meant he had no such hobbles to impose upon himself, which meant breaking out the dirtiest possible tricks that were still technically legal moves. It would’ve been a miserable bloodbath if they didn’t have so much fun in the process.

They were tied for wins and neck-and-neck in a new game when Sarouth sat up straight, the dice still cupped loosely in his palm. “Wait. Someone’s nearby,” he whispered. When presented with Riaag’s puzzled expression he said, “One of my charms just went off.”

Riaag glanced towards the cave mouth, his axe already in hand, but saw nothing. The horses were quiet. He couldn’t rely on the ravens to croak a warning since they’d moved the remaining birds inside to a foldable perching rack to let them stretch their poor cramped wings. He looked back at Sarouth, who was busy pouring sand through his fingers and studying how the grains fell. Sarouth pointed outside, made a hand signal for uncertain danger, then pressed a finger to his lips and cocked his head to listen. Riaag mimicked him. He could make out something in the distance that sounded like a person speaking; concentrating harder, he could make out more than just the one voice. They were getting closer, from what felt like a slightly different direction each time, and with horror he realized that they were practically on top of the camp already. Who were these people? What strange trick was making their words sound so distorted? And how had they avoided most of the assorted alarms that he and Sarouth had so carefully set up shortly after their arrival?

With cat-quiet steps Riaag crept closer to the entrance. They’d wisely thought to hang up some curtains a little ways inside to keep the wind out, which meant he wasn’t immediately exposed the moment he drew near, but he couldn’t be sure how much he’d be backlit by the lamps and firepot they had burning inside. He stuck his axe in his belt at a non-threatening angle. For all he knew this was yet another Usoan trick he didn’t know about and a group of them had come looking for Mintxo. Usoans, in his experience, reacted best when you didn’t pop out of hiding with a weapon in hand.

He counted four distinct silhouettes leaning in around the steam cooker and its bounty of khorkhog, goggling like they’d never seen a campfire pot roast before. When one of them brushed the ward Sarouth insisted on putting right by the fire for some reason the weird muffled effect on their voices was dispelled.

“—don’t recognize it,” said one of them in one of the merchant people’s many languages.

“What does your ball tell you, Ayyisha?” said another.

“Strange allies woven into a tapestry,” said a third voice, who sounded very old. “The tapestry points the way to doom, and from it, and then that doom is torn asunder. Chains are broken as the earth itself quakes for the sky.”

“Well that doesn’t tell us very much,” said a fourth.

Riaag frowned and tried to puzzle out the old voice’s words. He silently wished Ruzhu was there, if only for a few minutes; she was as sharp as her own knife when it came to riddles.

“Are you sure it’s safe here?” called yet another voice, this one sounding like it was over by the horses. Riaag couldn’t see the shape it belonged to. “One of these…things…has a lot of skulls on its barding. Most of them are just monsters but some of these look like people to me.” That was worth another frown, since Riaag’s skull collection was mostly taken from bandits and heretics with the occasional sabertooth thrown in. It would take either a foreigner or an asshole to look at the small number of River People and merchant skulls he’d acquired (all by the most legitimate of methods, which he would gladly recount for anyone who asked) and think those were the only ones who counted. He was starting to suspect whoever was out there was very far from home.

He looked over at Sarouth, who had stayed back by the game board to consult his sand. They shared a nod of understanding. Based on how damn nosy the voices outside sounded it was only a matter of time before they tried getting inside. There was only one good solution for that nonsense.

Riaag popped his head out of the curtains, keeping them draped loosely around him so the strangers didn’t risk spotting Sarouth until Riaag had a better bead on their intentions. “Hello, can I help you?” he asked in their tongue. His accent was a bit rusty, since it wasn’t one of the languages he usually spoke when dealing with traders in Naar Rhoan, though he was pretty sure he got the key sounds right.

“An ogre!” cried a figure with long gray hair. They sounded like the third voice from before.

“Orc,” corrected Riaag, politely, and he was not about to ask what on the earth an ogre was. “Do you want any food? We will have some to share in a while.”

A sparkle of metal caught his eye and he turned towards an indistinct shadow in the trees. “Oi, you with your…your….” What was the merchant word for what the River People called those weird little spear-throwers again? It couldn’t be a bow, that’s what you used to start a fire when you didn’t have a flint and steel…. “You with the thing, please do not point it at me. It is rude.”

The merchants, as they were all indeed merchants (or at least members of the same blood-kind, which was close enough), looked at each other with expressions running the gamut from confused to awkward. They had horses of their own with them, albeit of the weedier breed that merchants liked. Riaag had never known merchants to come in bands before but there had to be a first time for everything. He cleared his throat. “I am Riaag Bough-Breaker, herald of Sarouth White-Hair and Chosen of Wolf, a man of Naar Rhoan. This is our camp. You are welcome here if you bring no harm.”

One of the merchants, who if not a warrior was at least wearing some very fancy armor, stepped forward to look Riaag right in the eye, which was respectfully assertive even if they did have to tilt their head back quite a ways to do it. “If we hitch our horses here and rest, will they be safe? We have stories about orcs back where we come from.”

Riaag nodded. “Oh yes. They may have a very good scent, but I have manners.”

“Ah, horses. Those notoriously good-smelling animals,” muttered another one under their breath. Riaag silently agreed with them even if they hadn’t phrased it as a matter of truth. As tasty as Karsta and Stupid Horse’s scents were, the merchants’ horses were downright incredible, even accounting for how lean their meat would no doubt be. It was all he could do to not start thinking up all the different sauces he could make that would pair well with them.

He fussed over the guests, chatting as best he could and fetching them refreshments until he was certain they all had water and a place to sit down—and that they probably wouldn’t cause Sarouth any problems—before stepping past the curtains once more to see how Sarouth himself was doing.

The familiar hiss of sacred sand slithering back from whence it came greeted him as his eyes adjusted to the cozy lamplight. Sarouth peered up at him intently. Riaag knelt at his side and switched back to Rhoanish to make his report; he kept his voice quiet just in case any of the merchants outside knew more than he thought they did.

“I counted six out there,” he said. “Four I could see easy, one what stayed back ter see the horses, one more out in the trees Usoan-style. One of ’em might be a god-speaker, might be somethin’ else, but either way they’s got this ball made outta glass or somethin’ what tells ’em secrets. You might wanna talk ter that one direct.”

Sarouth nodded. “Did they say what they want?”

“Assumin’ I’s been told true, they’s searchin’ fer some far-off stronghold what they clan leader sent ’em ter investigate. Some kinda tower? They came down from Caiz Gratag ’cause they thought Naar Rhoan had the tower they want in it, I shit you not, ‘n they’s been doin’ circles in the woods fer a while ’cause they cain’t figure out which way Riv Kuth is from here. It’s kinda adorable. They’s come across us terday ’cause we both just happened ter be in the right place at the right time. I gave ’em water ‘n a bit o’ the okay-but-not-so-great wine ‘n some jerky ter tide ’em over while I came in ter let you know what’s up. They says they ain’t interested in stickin’ around fer dinner.”

“How does anyone get lost on the way to Riv Kuth? There’s a road that goes, like, right there.”

Riaag shrugged. He’d wondered the same thing himself. “Ain’t got the slightest inklin’, but my guess is that somethin’s bedevilin’ ’em a bit. Maybe you can go out ‘n see if they’s got a hex on they wayfindin’ or somesuch.”

“I didn’t find anything of immediate concern in my soothsaying, so I suppose it couldn’t hurt. Let me check my teeth and I’ll come out and see what we can do for them. Bet you a bone chip they’re the ones who spooked Trozhag Wool-Spinner however long ago it was.”

When Riaag stepped back outside the merchants were just as he’d left them, even the one who looked like he—they’d turned out to be a he—really wanted to be back in the trees with various sharp things pointed at people. Riaag cleared his throat and they looked up at him as one.

“I introduce to you Sarouth White-Hair, founder of Naar Rhoan and god-speaker of Agritakh, He Who Sleeps Beneath the Earth. He is happy to see you.”

Sarouth had a knack for making an entrance. This time around he swept through the curtains which Riaag had held aside, his robes swishing and his hair perfect, to stand with his staff in hand before the assembled merchants. He was resplendent in his authority. “Hi,” he said, tossing his forelock. “My companion says you got lost?”

When Sarouth was in full chatty diplomacy mode Riaag found it best to just fade into the background, one ear keeping track of what was said in case he’d need to recite it later and one eye scanning the little crowd of guests. They were a mix of men and women, and even their eldest, Ayyisha, looked fit for long periods of travel. He didn’t recognize their exact outfits but remembered seeing similar cuts and fabrics on people at the grand meeting of minds known simply as Concordance; said event had only been a few months ago but still felt half a lifetime away at times. It was unreal just how well a scrappy little settlement like Naar Rhoan had done for itself, and in lands where most orcs were killed on sight, no less! Riaag sure didn’t miss the hot, stifling face wraps they’d worn until everyone in Sarouth’s entourage had been guaranteed sanctuary. Tusks just did not get along with that sort of thing.

The gist of things, at least from what he gathered while Sarouth handled the talking, was that the little band of merchants—they called themselves the Leopard’s Breath Company, which was hardly the worst name Riaag had heard for this sort of thing—had been tasked by some sort of official—whatever a caliph was, they were working for one—to go find a tower somewhere around the valley and deal with an offending party who lived there. Said tower was not described very well; off the top of his head Riaag would’ve suggested Caiz Gratag first, which they’d done, but after that he would’ve considered whoever it was across the river who was supposedly contemplating the mysteries of the universe while seeking a harmonious way for many different blood-kinds to live together. Naar Rhoan had yet to make contact with whoever it was down south so Riaag had yet to hear more than vague details. Even if the hermit’s tower turned out to be a bum lead he would’ve gone for three or four other places before settling on Riv Kuth, but then again, Riaag was not a man who’d been tasked by his liege to go find whoever it was being a dickhead. Maybe there was context he was missing.

Ayyisha’s orb turned out to be some sort of artifact of its own. It could serve as a scrying crystal for her, and apparently she could invoke it to befuddle those who would follow them. Who knew what other tricks it held? She didn’t explain the extent of its wonders, nor name what god had granted it to her, which Riaag could respect; if she was tied to a mystery religion she probably wasn’t going to tell two unfamiliar souls in the middle of even more unfamiliar territory her every secret. Sarouth was enraptured. He gushed over the thing like it was made of the finest rare spices, asking Ayyisha increasingly specific questions about how it worked. By the time he was done Riaag was certain the damn thing could’ve been used as bait to get Sarouth to blunder into a trap as confidently as a moth soaring into a lit candle.

What Riaag hadn’t expected was for Ayyisha to let Sarouth actually take a shot at scrying in the thing; then again, her band might have been miles away from home in territory they assumed was populated primarily by monsters, but Sarouth was Sarouth, and he could probably make friends with fallen leaves and sticks he found in someone’s garden if he wanted to. Sarouth cradled the ball gently as the pebbles around him skittered into orbit around his ankles. The glass (or possibly crystal) remained clear and bright as he ran his hands across its surface like he was trying to polish the mystery out of it. Nothing obvious happened. Miracles were weird in that they always felt like they were both more and less flashy than Riaag expected.

Obvious or not, Sarouth clearly saw something in the depths of the ball. “A storm of stars,” he said, distantly, in Rhoanish. “A tempest in the swell of a wave, which starts gently and then pulls back away, only to crash down with great fury that smashes a foundation to pieces. Woe comes, and liberation, but I can see no more than the crying of the land.” Riaag translated as best he could.

“So you see the same as I did,” said Ayyisha. Sarouth nodded and handed the orb back to her. Her gnarled hands with their long, brightly-painted nails caressed it like a beloved pet. “I suppose I should be comforted that whatever I see is bigger than a mere personal worry,” she said. “I hope we’ll be able to help whosoever else is caught in the path of this prophecy.”

“If you truly bring no harm to the valley or its people, then Naar Rhoan will welcome your Leopard’s Breath within its walls while you try to help,” said Sarouth. “I am sure whatever it is will work itself out.”

“You are very calm for a man who has seen doom between his own two hands.”

He shrugged. “If I let myself be upset every time I received an alarming prophecy I would never make it past breakfast. One builds up a callus to it. I will worry about it more when it is not a personal holiday for me.” Riaag agreed with the sentiment. Naar Rhoan being so big and important meant problems flocked to it like fleas on a deer, so if there wasn’t a new crop of bandits to go murder the shit out of then there was surely trouble at a trading post, and if there weren’t misbehaving Usoans to rein in then there would be yet another colicky baby that Riaag would need to watch so the baby’s family could get some badly-needed sleep. It was like looking after a tent in a storm; it was important to be aware of and fix as many leaks as you found as soon as you possibly could, but worrying about every single raindrop was a good way to be so overwhelmed you couldn’t handle so much as a single solitary patch job.

The merchants milled around on their own as Ayyisha and Sarouth spoke. What Riaag couldn’t help but notice was how, while she still didn’t strike him as the band’s leader, she was far more personable than the armored man had been, at least where Sarouth was concerned. Perhaps like called to like. She didn’t strike Riaag as a god-speaker or heretic but seemed to wield miracles all the same. How had she learned to do that? Was the ball more than just another soothsaying tool? It was certainly interesting. He’d need to think about that later.

Also of interest was how these people (whom Riaag was now certain had been the ones Trozhag had hidden from, they were far too interesting to be anyone else) were apparently the foreigners Mintxo had been tailing, except none of them seemed to know he’d been doing so in the first place. The one that liked staying in the trees remembered an animal getting into their food stores and firing off a few shots from his weird not-quite-throwing-weapon thing, and another person dressed in what Riaag took to be liturgical garb recalled losing a hairbrush around the same time, but none of them remembered seeing any wolves, much less cloaked River People. Maybe Mintxo wasn’t as bad at tailing people as he’d originally seemed. It would be worth mentioning that once they figured out how to let Etxeloi know what was going on without sounding like they were tattling on their neighbors’ children.

Eventually the issue of how the lot had gotten lost reared its head. The vaguely cleric-shaped one produced an odd little device that looked sort of like an arrow set on a swivel. It was, she assured Sarouth, designed to point them to their next destination, but at some point the blessing set within it had gone a little strange, resulting in them helplessly consulting their other navigation tools to no avail and, as previously established, completely unable to find Riv Kuth. She moved it around, demonstrating how the little arrow spun before placing it in Sarouth’s outstretched hand. With her permission he invoked a miracle of his own; Riaag had never seen him pull this one off before, but Sarouth explained (as best he could in a foreign tongue, anyway) that he’d aligned the widget with the nature of the world’s lodestone, which in turn he’d asked to help guide them right and true, and once he’d shaken it like a bag of kefir curds he handed it back with a proud smile. The arrow was certainly pointing towards Riv Kuth now. It was a lot better than nothing.

The merchants got increasingly fidgety the longer they stayed in place. None of them accepted the offer of staying around for dinner, for which Riaag was secretly thankful; he’d made enough food to feed himself and Sarouth like the Scavenger Kings themselves, but eight people was a good order of magnitude more than two. Riaag could also see how some of the merchants’ hands kept easing towards their weapons and back again. He knew the feeling. It was a relief for everyone involved when the man that was possibly their leader declared they needed to be off before they lost too much more daylight, as even with guidance their destination was still a good ways away; the others agreed, and as quickly as they’d descended they were back on their horses with a new befuddling charm in place. Sarouth and Riaag waved cheerfully as they watched them go.

“What the fuck was that all about?” asked Riaag once their unexpected guests were out of earshot.

“Oh, it’s just one of those things,” said Sarouth. “Sometimes the encounters one has in the wilderness don’t feel like they’re much connected to anything else. I’m sure it felt very important to them, though.”

Riaag scratched his beard thoughtfully. “Suppose that’s so,” he said. The sight of Sarouth cooing over Ayyisha’s ball had stuck with him; it wasn’t every day he saw that level of delight on Sarouth’s face. “We gotta get you one o’ them orbs, though, that looks like it’s got yer colors painted all o’er it.”

Sarouth rubbed his hands together gleefully. “I know, right? I have to tell Ruzhu about it. I have no doubt she’ll love the crystal I got her but she’s going to love one of those even more, as soon as we figure out where to get them. Maybe I can find one for next Year’s End….”

Now there was a thought. If the merchants came from a place that could cut stones that cleanly (or better yet, actually make glass that clear and perfect) then Naar Rhoan would definitely be interested in making new trading friends. Hopefully the odd little band made it safely to Riv Kuth and back so they could actually let somebody in charge of a caravan or two know as much. They seemed like they knew what they were doing, directional issues aside, and if their homeland was a place that thought orcs were monsters (the absolute nerve!) it’d do everyone good to give them some alternate points of view. Maybe they’d meet up the next time he and Sarouth headed out for the next Concordance. It certainly felt like everyone else they met at the stronghold ended up there at one point or another. Maybe that was why they held it at the mouth of a river.

Strange allies woven into a tapestry kept repeating over and over in Riaag’s head. He wondered if he and Sarouth were any of the threads involved, or if that bit about the earth quaking for the sky would be a god-speaker’s doing or somebody else’s. With any luck he wouldn’t have to find out either of those answers until they were back home and ready to be part of society again. So long as they could finish their vacation he’d be willing to take on anything. He didn’t think it was too much to ask.

-x-x-x-

Dinner had turned out to be scrumptious, to use Sarouth’s exact word, and Riaag had eagerly divvied up the remaining food into empty jars so they’d have easy, tasty lunches in the days to come. The dishes were especially easy that day since Sarouth had insisted on licking his bowl clean again. They’d enjoyed a nice walk as the sun went down, returning to camp once the red sky started shading to black; Sarouth had opted to spend the rest of the evening at his loom, which he’d gotten set up the day before, leaving Riaag to his embroidery once everything was washed and put away. There would probably be some sex later on that night, since even with them both pacing themselves they’d been making good use of all their free time and privacy, but until then? Being close to each other while working on their own individual projects sounded just fine.

He was resting his hands after finishing the detailing on a flower when Riaag remembered something he’d neglected to ask earlier. It finally seemed like the right time for it.

“Hey, Sarouth?”

“What’s up?” said Sarouth, not looking away from his work. He continued clacking away at the treadles with a consistent rhythm. The piece he was weaving looked like it would be a nice wall hanging once he was done with it, the sort of thing that’d make for a good gift for a new Rhoanish band, or maybe a decoration for their own healers’ workspaces. He might not have possessed the pure focus that a dedicated weaver had but Sarouth still knew his way around some wool.

“I’s been thinkin’ some, ‘n a questionin’ thought occurred ter me what I reckon you could answer best.”

“Sure, go for it.”

“What makes me different fer you? I mean, I know I clearly is, I just is curious what all them details might precisely be.”

Sarouth’s trained claws never missed a beat as he fussed with a potential snarl in the weave. “You mean why do we work so well together when I have such a habit of burning out so badly with everyone else?”

Riaag shuffled in place in his seat. “T’weren’t my intention ter put it thusly.”

“It’s fine,” said Sarouth. “It’s actually something I’ve had to give a bit of thought to myself. Part of that whole self-forgiveness kick you’ve encouraged me to go on, right?”

“Reckon so.” He couldn’t wait until the candle clock next to him finished burning to its next notch; taking good care of himself could be such a pain when he badly wanted to do something with himself. He settled for stretching his fingers, since it kept his hands occupied enough to not drift back over to his needle and floss.

“So a thing I am…well, just awful at, in relationships, is pacing myself. When I find something I like I’m prone to gorging on it. Food, drink, people, whatever. I know myself enough to say I’m always something of a boldly-blazing torch, and when it feels like it’s been a while since last I had something, or until the next time I’ll have it again? It’s like a starving dog given a haunch of meat, just trying to have everything at once before it goes away again. I’ve gotten better about it with age, I’d like to think, but as a younger man I know I was pretty difficult to be with for very long if I wasn’t being constantly waited on hand and foot.”

This got a chuckle out of Riaag. “So it’s ’cause I’s so good at anticipatin’ yer needs?” he asked.

Sarouth eased a new color of spun wool onto the loom. “Sort of? I’m not going to lie, the way you love me and the things you do for me are satisfying in a way I can’t easily phrase. You give, unconditionally, because you want me, and ‘me’ to you is both a normal man with normal problems and the Faaroug himself, whose troubles are demigod-sized. You’re patient enough, and loyal, and loving, to handle me at my bumpiest, but in a way that invites me to be better, not just blind acceptance. You make me feel needed while seeing to my own needs. You do it all at once! It’s incredible.

“Thing is, that voraciousness of mine? I can keep it in check with you. I know what your limits are because you make them abundantly clear, and if they change you tell me then, too, and because I know what I can and cannot do with you I can pace myself a little better. I’m always going to be skin-hungry because that’s who I am, and a little bit of that is probably the Void within me, but like you’ve said, I’ve got to accept that carrying around a shard of the divine doesn’t give me a free pass to be a shitheel to people close to me, even if it’s really, really tempting some days. It’s like…it’s like when someone’s got too much anger inside them, and they can’t always control it, so it has to be a collaboration between them taking responsibility for what that anger does and the people around them being willing to work with someone who’s sick in a certain way.

“Agritakh’s presence is something I have to live with, but I don’t have to make it worse for people on top of that. And I don’t have to worry about it around you. That is such a load off my mind, you have no idea. You’re probably the only person I’ve ever met who’s seen me at my absolute lowest and still found something you wanted to protect in there. I don’t know how you do it but you do.

“You’re smart, and sweet, and you make me laugh, and your singing voice is the most wonderful thing, and you’re quite handsome, and you make the most wonderful food, and you make the best possible first impressions when announcing my presence, and you’ve always been my dearest of friends, but the most important part? The bit that really helps tie off all our loose ends?” He paused for a beat so fraught with meaning that Riaag probably could’ve seen that grin of his through a rock wall. “We’ve been sharing a fire for long enough for you and me to both know that even with limits in place we are extraordinarily good together in the sack.” If his grin was brilliant, the waggling of his eyebrows was bright as a trio of suns.

“So,” said Sarouth as he scooted around on his stool to face Riaag, “does that answer your question?”

Riaag couldn’t think of much to say to that beyond nodding and scratching at his cheek.

Well, there was one thing. He was okay if it led to another thing. “I really is nice ter, ah, be with?”

Sarouth threw up his hands like he was trying to tell someone across the room he needed ten of something. “Extraordinarily! Is there more I’d like to do with you someday, yes, of course, but the time we spend together is never wasted. You feel incredible. You look incredible. Knowing you’re you, and knowing you know I’m me, is so…it’s honest, is what it is. You have a genuine interest in my needs without neglecting your own. Also it’s really cute the way you bite your lip when you’re close.” He smiled slyly. “Why might you ask, my love?”

“I, um. Might be in the mood fer you ter get me all pretty. ‘n possibly attend ter some o’ them needs o’ yers you mentioned. If’n you’s so inclined, that is.”

“You’re always pretty,” said Sarouth, ghosting across the carpets to stroke Riaag’s hair. “But I’d be happy to help you feel even moreso.”

Riaag let himself be petted. It was nice. It was so nice that he had to force himself to dig around in his belt pouch for something before he ended up being soothed to sleep or something equally inconvenient. “I was thinkin’ I might be in the mood ter wear this fer a bit,” he said as he pulled his target free.

In his hand—ungloved, since embroidery went best if you maximized your dexterity—he held a loop of silken ribbon. It had originally had dainty little seed pearls hung on its fringe, which looked nice in theory but were a bit of a pain in practice; they had since been shorn away, though a little bag in Riaag’s treasure box back home kept every single one of them safe. It was emblazoned with Sarouth’s clan pattern all down its length in bold reds, oranges, and golds, the symbols incorporated directly into the weave. He’d had it for a few months now, but for various reasons he’d only worn it once; Sarouth had tied it around his neck back then as a gift, and then they’d had to have another Conversation, and then it had gone into his personal effects for a while, pulled out only to be cleaned or pulled between his fingers or looked at thoughtfully before once more going back into the pouch. It took a lot of soul-searching to know whether one could wear another man’s pattern.

“Are you sure?” asked Sarouth, his hand already reaching for Riaag’s.

He nodded. “Yeah. I’s kinda in the mood ter, ah. Be yers fer a while. Only a little moreso ‘n usual.”

“Then yes, yes, absolutely. Just hold still and we’ll get this on you properly.”

The silk was slick and smooth against his throat, a band of color that concealed a few of the many love bites there. He could feel the loops of the fancy bow in which Sarouth had tied it. The fringe on the bow’s tails tickled at the scar on his shoulder. He felt like a favored pet. It felt good to feel that way. He could relax and not worry about having to do anything he wasn’t told to, and Sarouth would in turn tell him exactly what was going to happen, and everything was going to be fine. One time he’d asked if Sarouth ever got bored of having to do all the hard work, to which Sarouth had just given him the same look Riaag would expect if he’d asked if ants were baby lobsters. Maybe it was an Agritakh-ruhd thing.

They stripped with little fanfare, Riaag careful not to disturb the ribbon, and stretched out next to each other on the part of the carpeting where they’d layered it the thickest.

The tip of Sarouth’s claw dimpled Riaag’s side as Sarouth traced the many curves and crevices of his body. “So. Mine, huh?”

“Yeah,” said Riaag, “I’s all yers.”

“For whatever I might want to do?”

“Yuh-huh.” His cheeks flushed a little as he added, “Though I does got some suggestions, if’n you’s so inclined fer such input.”

Sarouth smirked and raised his eyebrows. “You sure are putting a lot of thought into things tonight! Care to share any of those plans germinating in that clever little brain of yours, then?”

Asking was always the hard part, which was no doubt part of the reason Sarouth made him do so, sadist that he was. Riaag couldn’t look directly at him as he voiced what he’d spent the better part of a few days figuring out. “I was kinda wantin’ ter see what it’d be like with you, uhm. Touchin’ me. Like this. Not the usual way, I mean. I mean. I mean….” He knew he was going to be beet red with bashfulness at this rate. “If you was, uh. Touchin’ me up in me. That.”

“You know I never mind if you ask for my hand, my love,” said Sarouth, who was already going through his potion collection for the ones that Riaag still had trouble believing were gifts straight from He Who Sleeps.

“Not just that, though.”

“Oh?”

“The thing you done back at the falls. When you was, uhm. Against me. I. I really liked it. Can you, while you…?”

Sarouth sat back on his haunches and clicked the vials he was holding against each other. “Well, hrm. That’s going to take some thinking about angles, brave warrior. I’m flexible but I’m not exactly a contortionist.” He rubbed his chin with his free hand. “I do have an idea for something along those lines, though, if you’re willing to let me try.”

The idea worked like this: Riaag lay on his back, heavily cushioned by carpet and pillows, with his legs folded and knees together like he was going to be mule-kicking a fallen log off of someone. Sarouth knelt in front of him, the pillowing propping Riaag up lining them up neatly, and his unguent-anointed fingers could easily slide inside of Riaag with only a little bit of bending at the elbow; Sarouth’s cock, on the other hand, could nudge its way through the cleft between Riaag’s thighs, and while it wasn’t the same sensation Riaag had been expecting it was certainly a nice one. The question of whether or not it was working for Sarouth was answered by the soft gasps and moans he made as he thrusted. Knowing it probably wouldn’t be too difficult asking for this position again, even with all the pillows it needed, was a quiet relief. Not having to get all his enjoyment value out of a single rare go of things—not that this had ever been an issue, but Riaag’s mind still loved to play tricks—meant he could continue to lie back and enjoy lingering just on the right side of overstimulation as Sarouth’s carefully-blunted manicure proceeded to earn its keep.

No matter where they put Riaag’s legs it seemed like Sarouth had to deal with them somehow. The most comfortable option was him keeping them both together and throwing them over one of Sarouth’s narrow shoulders; he could keep them together that way, ensuring he continued gripping Sarouth’s cock with the proper amount of firmness, and most of the time he could see Sarouth’s face, which was the most important part. How did he manage two separate rhythms like that? Riaag could rub his stomach and pat his head at the same time but neither of those involved touching his, or anyone else’s, junk. No sooner had Riaag started to wonder about that than Sarouth added another finger and a little twist of his wrist before tilting Riaag in just the right way to apply a little more friction to his cock. Suddenly he didn’t feel like thinking about very much at all.

Riaag came first, his breath growing raspy and then catching as he showed his teeth in ecstasy. Once he’d finished he felt Sarouth pull his hand out and away; said hand, now wrapped up in a rag Sarouth kept in his kit for exactly this purpose, then clung to Riaag’s thighs as Sarouth gyrated furiously against him. Sarouth gasped and a warm, familiar sensation spattered between Riaag’s legs, a few drops even landing on his lower stomach to join the smears he’d already left there himself. The rag, now kissed with scented water, wiped him clean.

“Well?” asked Sarouth once they were both no longer at risk of making spots on the carpet. He nibbled at Riaag’s earlobe. “Did it turn out the way you wanted?”

Way better,” said Riaag. “Might wanna give it another shot, even, least once I ain’t so tender.”

“Do you, now! How very interesting. I might want to consider the very same approach in the very same timeframe.”

“Got a secret ter tell you first, though.” Riaag smiled, still a little slack-jawed from the happy alchemical soup swirling around in his head. He leaned in and stage-whispered, “I love you, Sarouth.”

“Yeah?” Sarouth was trying to keep up the playful act, but Riaag could tell he was distracted. Did he really say it so rarely that it caught Sarouth off guard every time? What a damn shame that was. He’d have to fix things, eventually.

Numbers could wait until later. For now, Riaag nodded. “Sure as my name ‘n sure as my oath, I do,” he said. “Can I get a li’l cuddle fer bein’ such a sweetheart?”

“Oh, you’ll get more than that,” said Sarouth with a happy growl, and for someone so much smaller than Riaag he had a real motherfucker of a hug.

A hug became a grope, and a grope became other things, and it was just as well they both stayed as hydrated as they did during their daily routines or they might’ve been in quite a state when they finally rolled apart for the last time; they both still had to guzzle water like dogs in the desert when all was said and done. Riaag’s bow had stayed in place the entire time. The carpets would need cleaning come sunup, alas, but until then some spotting with Sarouth’s trusty cloth would keep any unwanted traces at bay. It was a small price to pay for a whole lot of fun.

Somewhere after his final orgasm Riaag had nodded off. He didn’t know how long he’d rested before he felt a smooth hand against his cheek, the smell of soap still clinging to it. “Riaag?” asked Sarouth.

“Yeah?”

“Will you come watch the stars with me? I want to show you something.”

“Sure.” He struggled into the closest available clothes. Nudity was best reserved for warm, private spaces, not when he risked freezing his nuts off on night-chilled stone. There was something in Sarouth’s tone that told him this wasn’t going to be something playful, anyway.

They headed out to where the cave’s rise first emerged from the ground and walked up the resulting incline, where they then sat themselves down right above its mouth. Riaag felt like a well-used dishtowel—to be fair, he felt well-used in general, and it was honestly pretty nice given the circumstances—so he was grateful that all he had to do was sit and be present. Sarouth didn’t have his abacus with him, which meant this wasn’t something he was doing out of duty to the god in his head. It was just the two of them together beneath the nighttime sky. That would do.

He sat in silence as Sarouth lifted a hand against the stars and mapped constellations between his claws. Riaag didn’t have a chance to ask whether Sarouth was looking for new patterns or missing ones when Sarouth spoke, his voice calm and quiet.

“That group of stars, right there, is called Jackal’s Shadow,” he said. Riaag nodded. He knew his share of the sky, but he didn’t yet know where Sarouth was going with this; staying quiet seemed like the right move. “They say that when the Old People first learned Jackal’s ways, of the secret of steel, some of them were confused. They had learned from Beetle that to thrive they must leave children to follow their path, but Beetle’s ways are distant, being wholly concerned with the continuation of the blood and not its nourishment. Jackal showed them that staying together to care for their pack, what became our modern bands, was stronger. The Old People saw this and couldn’t understand. Why keep to their own? Why not follow Jackal directly? It made no sense to them, and they lamented.

“Those who were brave among the heartsick ran to Jackal, seeking family, and Jackal turned them away. Again they rose and again they left, feeling the teeth of Jackal’s children tear their flesh. But why, but why, they cried, only wanting Jackal’s love. And why wouldn’t they? They did not know of Agritakh, and even Vulture’s mysteries had yet to be revealed to them, so their knowledge was limited to only the first two of the Scavenger Kings. The world was cold and lonely in the first days. Jackal’s pack seemed the only chance against it when everything else could fail.

“Jackal did not speak to the Old People, for no Animal will truly tell an orc their nature, and Jackal’s distance caused them pain. Were they not learning Jackal’s ways? They were so caught up in their sorrows that they couldn’t see how others among the Old People had found meaning. Some were approached and welcomed into a band, others found one another and banded together out of necessity, but too many either refused the offers they were made or were never found. These last sort perished in misery. It was a terrible way to go. In seeking that which they could not have they abandoned the chance to strengthen what they might find.

“Distant does not mean uncaring, and Jackal wept to see what had become of the Old People who could not cleave to one another. Jackal’s children were sent forth to gather the woeful spirits of the lost, for Jackal is a Scavenger King, and to leave the land unclean is not in the nature of any scavenger worth the name. Soon the deed was done.

“Jackal looked down on the troubled souls. They could not be Jackal’s own as they were, nor could they ever be; Jackal is kin to jackals, not to us, and where we can change like water to suit where our lives take us, the Animals are eternal. To soothe them, Jackal bade Agritakh set them in the sky as bright stars so they would know the peace of never being forgotten, and Agritakh agreed, for we have always been His dearest no matter how intimately we knew Him. They are there still. We look to them and remember that, in the end, the bands and clans we make for ourselves are like steel, in that they are only as strong as we make them.”

Sarouth laced his fingers together, tucked up his knees, and rested his chin on both. “I’ve been thinking a lot about that story lately.”

“Yeah?” asked Riaag. He couldn’t think of anything better to say.

“I’ve been wondering if I’ve been following Jackal’s Shadow for too long. Not that I think I’ve been wrong in my anger, but…eh. I’ve started to think I’ve been so wrapped up in people I never see anymore that I keep hammering on the wrong iron in hopes that maybe this next blow will be the one that does it. People come close that want to take me in and I tend to just push them away because they don’t match this ideal I’ve got in my head that can’t be met. And, like, at the same time? I push them away because I feel like I can’t meet those standards, and I can’t really accept that maybe not everyone thinks the same way. Both of them are two paths to the same destination. I can’t be longing for Jackal anymore, not if I want to actually be a better person.”

He leaned backwards. “I’m not turning my back on my clan, or my ancestors. I’m not throwing away my patterns. These are who I am and who I always will be. But when I look back at where I came from? They might’ve birthed me, and they might’ve raised me, but I think I can finally admit to myself that they’re not my family anymore, Riaag.” He paused, then smiled sadly. “Well, maybe Yelke Fine-Fleece is. But she’s the exception, not the rule.”

Riaag wasn’t sure how he was expected to respond. Cutting out the diseased flesh was the way to make a wound heal, but he couldn’t stop a small and jealous part of himself for wishing he’d ever had the chance to make that choice instead of having it made for him. Sarouth could turn his back on the people who’d hurt him and still have a connection of blood to the past. Riaag had nothing. He hated that he couldn’t be happier about what had to have been a painful decision on Sarouth’s part.

“You asked me once what having a family is like,” said Sarouth. “I can tell you this: it’s like being loved just for waking up. I’ve known it before. I’m so lucky I’ve found it again.”

That was more good news, and just like the previous good news Riaag felt his heart ache with rapacity to hear it. “Yeah, the stronghold’s pretty fucken great,” he said. It gave him the closest chance he have at being somebody’s father, for starters, and he hated himself for wanting something so badly when it’d only hurt everyone involved: the kid for being around Sarouth, Sarouth for terrifying a child of Riaag’s own, and himself for upsetting both of them. Watching others’ brood for them was much healthier for everyone, even if it wasn’t what he really wanted. Jackal’s Shadow, he reminded himself. He couldn’t live his life chasing Jackal’s Shadow.

Sarouth laughed. It had that sad tinge to it he got sometimes whenever Riaag said something apparently outrageous about himself. Riaag wasn’t sure why he’d laugh that way just now. “Naar Rhoan is incredible,” said Sarouth. “I’m so proud of everything it’s become and everything it’s going to be. We’re really changing lives! We’ve given so many people a new beginning they never would’ve known before! But that’s not who I’m talking about.”

Riaag frowned and creased his brow. Had the other god-speakers who came by sometimes agreed to make a little band of their own? They were certainly all good friends and loyal to the stronghold and its people, but he didn’t know if it counted if you only saw somebody once every few weeks. “I don’t get it. Who’s you talkin’ ’bout, then?”

“I thought it was obvious,” said Sarouth. He booped Riaag on the nose. “You are.” He smiled radiantly and snuggled up against Riaag’s side. “You’re all I’ll ever need.”

Oaths usually didn’t work that way, did they? “We’s a band o’ two, sure, but—”

“No buts, you.” Sarouth rose to his knees and took Riaag’s face in his hands. “A man can choose a brother, if both know the bond is true. A child can find parents without a drop of blood between them. Give me one good reason why we can’t have this thing together, Riaag, or tell me honestly why you don’t want it. I’ll try to understand.”

I don’t have a clan to give you wouldn’t work, because Sarouth had mentioned he wasn’t leaving his own. I’m an untouchable thing, we don’t have families was also untrue, since Sarouth had washed that away the first day they’d met even if Riaag hadn’t accepted it years later. I can’t give you what you want had been proven time and time again to be a falsehood; if you made a circle in the dirt and drew pictures of what Sarouth wanted inside, you’d have to make sure there was enough room for a picture of Riaag in there. It’s important I not have one didn’t make any sense, since he was only publicly and politically attached to his clanlessness, not the state of being without people to care for or care for him in return. I can’t replace those people was all wrong because Riaag had apparently done a nice job of exactly that, showering Sarouth in love and support ever since he’d rammed himself into Sarouth’s entourage way back when. I don’t want this on its own was absolutely a lie, because he did want it, he’d had dreams about it, he couldn’t imagine a happier fate for himself.

There was only one answer honest enough. Riaag looked away even though Sarouth held his head in place. “You shouldn’t have ter settle fer me ’cause I’s all you think you got.”

“I did not settle for anything about you,” said Sarouth with a growl, his eyes as hard as the rock they sat on. “Where’s the brave warrior I knew, singing his love for me, saying for all my flaws he would be by my side no matter how bleak the skies? Where’s the man who said I should love myself with the same vigor as he loves me and I love him back? Where’s my oathbound?”

“Still here, I guess, but….”

“But what?”

“It’s not the same,” he said, meekly. Even he was starting to lose patience with himself. “I told you already I cain’t take yer clan as my own. Just ain’t right fer me. Just ’cause I done said I’s yours forever don’t mean you gotta, y’know. This.”

“Riaag Bough-Breaker, Chosen of Wolf, you are my first and greatest disciple, you are a hero of our people, you are the man I love above all else, and I am calling you on your bullshit.

So this was what it was like to be on the receiving end of this sort of thing; when put so bluntly of course he could see how silly and stubborn he’d been, just like how he’d been able to cut to the quick and demand someone else be able to forgive themselves. Sarouth had learned well from watching him. Riaag couldn’t stop smiling. “Okay. Okay! It’s real fucken bullshit, you got me.” He laughed wearily. “I just…look, you know this’s a big thing fer me. I gotta wrap my head ’round it all the way, figure out how it feels, get used ter the concept of it bein’ somethin’ that’s actually mine. I been in a band before, I know all ’bout how that bit feels. I just ain’t never been in nothin’ else.”

Sarouth released him and sat back a little. “Yes, of course. I just want a straight answer.”

“Y’know how when you get new shoes, ‘n at first they pinch yer feet all ter shit so’s you probably ain’t gonna wear ’em nowhere important yet? But give ’em time ‘n they’s gonna be the best fucken things you ever did pit on?” Both of them ignored how Sarouth wore open-toed sandals unless begged to put something warmer on to keep his feet from freezing. “I think that’s how I gotta be. I’s sayin’ this ter you truly: if’n it’s what you want, then family is what we is. But I gotta break it in some afore I can wear that idea myself without getting’ all sore in spots. Deal?”

“That’s all I could ever ask for, my love,” said Sarouth, who leaned in and kissed his forehead. “Let it be seen before the eyes of Agritakh, let it be remembered by His wandering stars. I’ll let you decide when we tell people. Just remember this.” He hugged Riaag around the neck and whispered. “I’ve got you, and you’ve got me, and even if the depths of what we have stay a secret until the end of time it still means the world to me.”

Riaag let his eyes close. They still had plenty of time to themselves for him to work things out, and if that wasn’t enough he could stew it over in his head while running up towards the upcoming Harvest celebrations or waiting for whatever that weird-ass prophecy was talking about. Family wasn’t just the closeness of a band. Family meant kin. Did that mean Sarouth wanted more, since he’d up and shed a bunch of bad ones? Did that mean anything at all? He’d have to find out what it meant for himself before asking Sarouth anything concrete, but maybe that was fine. He clearly gave as much as he got, whatever the hell it was he was getting. He could live with that.

“Pretty one?” whispered Sarouth in his ear. Riaag shivered. It was good to know that was still the same.

One orange eye cracked open to look into Sarouth’s own. “Hmm?”

“Being up here with you is wonderful, but I’m getting cold and these rocks are the worst kind of lumpy. If you want to continue this later we can come back out with some cushions. For now, though, I’d like to go back inside and sit my ass down next to a nice warm firepot. Care to come with?”

“Sure,” said Riaag. He glanced down at where Sarouth was still folded in on himself, his robes tucked up against his legs. “Need me ter carry you back?”

Sarouth popped his lips and wiggled in place experimentally. “Not this time. But I wouldn’t mind if you cuddled me back to peak condition once we’re in there.”

A smile came to Riaag’s lips. “Anything fer family.” He laughed at Sarouth’s faux exasperation, said laugh both feeling and sounding much more genuine this time around, and followed Sarouth back down into the safety of the cave.

Read this piece’s entry on the Shousetsu Bang*Bang wiki.

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9 thoughts on “Aventurescence

  1. My stubborn ass wanted to make sure to read this all the way through, and it may have taken the entire day of wrangling my ADHD to sit down and stay still, but it was worth it. It’s so easy to get lost in the world of Naar Rhoan and everything around it, and your prose is absolutely gorgeous in a way that I want to savor it like a finely-crafted meal. The tenderness you use to describe Riaag and Sarouth’s relationship and trust in each other, and how they’ve grown and are still growing, is so palpable it drips off the page and it’s intoxicating.

    Bless these beautiful boys.

  2. *cries* Awww, these two make me so happy! I’m glad to see them again.

    I feel like the Leopard’s Breath is a reference to something that I’m missing. I wonder if we’ll see more of them. *crosses fingers*

  3. Great story. I have to go back and reread the first one now.

    I think the length really suited this story. All the talking about relationships would not have worked so well without the rest of the events filling it out.

  4. I love this series so much and I keep waiting for the “whoops, Riaag finds a baby orc/baby god speaker’ and we get to add to their family unit that way because I love the way Riaag is around children and I adore the fact that this fic showcases his growth so much because I rememebr before he didn’t feel like he was good enough to be around children/care for children and now I don’t see those doubts and it’s clear that they love him.

    I also really enjoyed learning about Sarouth’s past. Since we’ve seen him from Riaag’s eyes for so long its easy to just see teh good bits and not really think about what his childhood was like and this was an interesting glimpse and the way it highligths his contradictions just makes him even more human to me.

    Love this story and the way threads are intertwining even if I don’t necessarily understand the meaning behind them yet, lol.

  5. Obviously you know already that I enjoyed this BUT It’s great to see Sarouth & Riaag really dig into why their relationship works and what they need from each other. they open up a bit more every time we see one of these big conversations and it’s been a great progression to watch in each year’s story.
    Also I love that Sarouth calls Riaag pretty so much!!!

  6. I’m so happy to read more about these two! Getting more of Sarouth’s background was welcome, and it’s great to see them continuing to grow together.

  7. i’m screaming, this is perfect. I love these two more and more with every story. i love all the details like Raaig’s fat, and Sarouth’s family history, but RAAIG’s big old fat body being loving detailed in the writing. God it’s just so good.

    ALL OF THIS IS JUST REAL GOOD.

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