written and illustrated by Iron Eater
Year’s End was just around the corner, which of course meant as many things that could be a pain in Riaag’s ass as possible were choosing to do so. The current focus of his ire was an issue with one of the new grain-storage buildings they’d built just before that year’s Harvest. Said building now lay in scorched pieces on the ground; through swift action and good fortune they’d kept the other buildings from joining the conflagration, but a single lost store meant that much less to trade with and that much less of a buffer if the winter turned bad. Riaag still wasn’t sure what to make of it. When the Hill God had ordered His children to work the fields of Naar Rhoan, He hadn’t said anything about said fields blowing up afterwards.
“So you’s sayin’ it just fucken exploded?” Riaag said, staring down a very nervous Usoan engineer. She was wrapped up in multiple oversized coats the way her people tended to when away from their village, and judging by the redness to her nose and ears the layers were only doing so much against the cold. For being as close to the stronghold as it was Usoa had wildly different weather. Riaag suspected it was one reason the River People hated coming deeper into the valley.
The engineer gulped but held her ground. “We didn’t build it to do that.”
“I ain’t sayin’ y’all did, what I’s askin’ is if that’s what the fuck we had happen here.”
They both surveyed the scene. The roar of detonation had brought people running despite how early in the morning it had been; now that it was halfway to midday, it was easier to see how far the debris had gone. Parts of the stone foundation were still intact, but the roof had been blasted off with great force, and the majority of the wood had either splintered, burned, or both. The ground was dappled with patches of black. Farmers and millers had already combed the scene to scavenge what they could, so what was left was the mystery of how it happened in the first place.
“I drew the plans for this thing myself,” she said. “I helped make sure it was put together right by your builders. It is like ones I did before in Usoa, but there is no river here, so I didn’t make it to survive a flood.” She puffed up in defiance, slicking her long ears back as she did so. “Things I design don’t do this, not ever. Something else happened.”
Riaag was willing to believe her. Her kin and kind, in his experience, were prone to sour attitudes, snap judgments, and putting contact poison on everything they could, but he’d yet to meet any Usoans who were outright liars. Even their old god-speaker, one of an increasingly long litany of people who’d tried to blast a hole through Riaag’s person with ill-gotten miracles, had had the decency to believe he was doing the right thing for his people all the way to the end.
“S’pose we oughtta go down a list ‘a shit ter start rulin’ it out,” he said. He suspected his face had settled into the usual grim, sharp-tusked visage that he wore when dealing with strangers, so he took a moment to soften his features into something hopefully less distressing for someone whose village used to get raids from orcs shaped very much like himself. “In yer experience, when somethin’ like this fucks up, what usually causes it? Not the part where it did all this,” he added, waving a hand at the wreckage as he did so, “but just in general. You’s knowin’ far more ’bout this shit than I does, so’s I’d request yer thoughts on the matter.”
The engineer rubbed her pointy chin. “If a building fails in Usoa? Hm.” She tilted her head up to stare at the clouds as she rattled off a few reasons for architectural error. “If the river rises, and a thing isn’t raised up, or made to float up, then the water ruins it. If a thing is old, and the wood in it fails or the land beneath it rots out, then it might fall apart. Maybe a storm comes through and takes the roof away, or smashes the shutters of a window. That’s how a building fails.” Her attention returned to Riaag, though she still had to keep her head tilted to meet his gaze. “If fire comes to a thing, it’s because someone brought a fire there.”
“Does such fires thusly go fucken kaboom?”
“They go xasu-xasu like any fire does. Not ‘kaboom.'”
Despite Riaag’s unfamiliarity with most Usoan onomatopoeia he was able to figure things out from context. “So it burns up normal-like. Huh.” He glanced at the nearby shelters, both glad they didn’t have people in them and wondering which one would try to go up next. It was time for a new approach. “What does Usoans keep in shit like this? Maybe we’s goin’ at this from the wrong direction.”
The engineer furrowed her brow in thought. “This type of thing? We mostly keep rice. Maybe some fruit to dry, or sauces, or fish to smoke or make sour.” Once he realized what she meant Riaag chose not to tell her how to pronounce pickling. “Maybe if we hunt well we’ll fill our buildings with meat and skins. None of these things do what this did. A crocodile isn’t made of fire.”
“Pretty sure all we keeps in these is grain,” said Riaag with growing uncertainty.
“I think we should look and see with our own eyes.”
Riaag saw no reason not to, so he led her to one of the nearby buildings. On the outside it looked in good condition, clearly built on Usoan plans but using Rhoanish materials and artistry, with an interlocking floral pattern painted all around the door and symbols of the Hill God cut high into the walls for ventilation. Inside was unremarkable: rows of harvested rice, wheat, and barley all wound up into bales, some bags of milled flour marked by type, some drying bones neatly arranged by size, and a few spare jars painted with glyphs saying they contained curing carrion. Save for its larger-than-average scale it was the same as any other Rhoanish larder. There was a decided lack of fiery things.
There was also a decided lack of light. “Fucken dark in here,” said Riaag as he squinted into the gloom.
“Is it?” asked the engineer, her pupils already dilated from slits to lozenges. River People were alarmingly well-suited to moving freely in the shadows.
“Looks like I weren’t the only one holdin’ such an opinion,” Riaag added. He gestured towards a goat-shaped candle holder someone had left on an empty stretch of shelf, its candles having melted down to little more than a few blobs of cloudy beeswax. “Reckon t’were somebody doin’ some late work. After sundown it’s gotta be pitch fucken black if’n one’s without a lamp.”
The engineer made a quiet noise through her nose as she studied the candles. Suddenly she went still, her back straight as a plumb line. She then picked up a handful of loose flour from the closest open sack, beckoned for Riaag to follow with her free hand, and went back outside.
“Got an idea?” he asked as he trailed behind her.
She took a brand from a nearby brazier and held it facing away from the storage building, then tossed the flour at it. The flour went up with a dramatic woompf so quickly it might as well have been a thunderbolt; it threatened to singe Riaag’s beard even from as far back as he stood. The engineer’s brow creased with disapproval.
“Those merchants who taught you the way of the land, did they say this would happen?” she asked.
“I can say with great certainty ‘n authority that they most certainly fucken didn’t.”
Riaag had been present for every single meeting the stronghold’s leadership had made with visiting traders, in no small part because it was his duty as a herald to listen and remember the goings-on for future reference, and also because like it or not he was half of said leadership. He remembered how Sarouth White-Hair had wheedled his way into the merchants’ good graces with offerings of textiles and pottery, and how those good graces had ultimately brought with them seeds and tools and knowledge. Just because the Rhoanish had been given a divine task didn’t mean they had any idea how to actually do it, so befriending as many merchants as possible—and tactfully neglecting to mention just how little the stronghold had to offer back in those early days—had been crucial. Riaag remembered hearing how to store things against pests and decay, and how to till the earth to make it welcome new growth, and how to harvest the crops once they were done. Not a single scrap of his memory contained mention of grain being catastrophically flammable.
“You understand what I’m saying, though?” she asked. “What I think happened?”
“Yeah.” Riaag sighed. “Someone came in with a light ’cause it’s fucken dark in there, then done fergot it or dropped it or somesuch, ‘n the fire found isself some lovely new friends what introduced it ter exitin’ most dramatically out the top ‘a the storage building. Ain’t that a fucken thing.” He removed his cap, slicked back his hair, and replaced it with a grumble. “Looks like we gotta have usselves as a stronghold a talk ’bout bein’ safe ’round things what’s ablaze. Again.”
“So you agree it was not Usoan deeds that caused this.”
“Yeah, t’weren’t your doin’, nor any other builders we’s had in. I owes you an apology fer implyin’ such, ‘n I’s truly sorry fer impugnin’ yer village’s reputation generally ‘n yer skill with yer chosen trade personally, but I’s behooved ter exercise due diligence.” The engineer’s blank look belied that she’d gotten lost in his dialect again. Riaag backed up and tried again. “T’were our own fucken fault ‘n I’s sorry fer thinkin’ even fer a moment t’weren’t so.”
“Ah. Then I accept that, Riaag Bough-Breaker.” It was weird hearing Usoans use his formal name, in no small part because they pronounced the vowels strangely, but Riaag appreciated the effort all the same.
That was not where the conversation ended but it was where most of what needed to be said was made clear, so even as he continued speaking to the engineer Riaag’s thoughts drifted to where he’d need to go from there. A stronghold-wide meeting would need to be called, maybe in conjunction with a rite to ensure people would show up for it. He’d need to meet with people in person to discuss better ways to handle fire around flour. He’d have to keep an eye on the next trade caravan to see if there would be any wonders from foreign parts that’d help with the situation. He’d need to organize building a replacement outbuilding. He’d also need to report in to Sarouth about all this, but at least that was the easy part.
Eventually the talk wrapped itself up and Riaag retired to a kitchen tent to prepare some lunch. Once he had a tray put together he stayed a bit extra to help wash dishes before taking the tray and a lamp with him to the mouth of the sacred hill.
With every day the night grew longer and the cold grew ever deeper, but the cave within the hill had an unnatural sort of warmth to it that got into his bones and left his body tingly whenever he stepped back out into the weather. Nowhere else in the stronghold could do that. It was a holy place, one closest to Agritakh in some regards, and even if it had been the hall of the Great Geode itself it still would’ve given him the willies. His trepidation was, in no small part, due to the peculiar haze that filled the cave’s lower reaches, and of the sense of something bigger and older than he could imagine watching him any time he stepped beyond the threshold. Riaag was a very devout man who never forgot his prayers unless he was physically too ill to wake up to say them. This place was for a different sort of devotion.
It took his eyes a moment to adjust to the dim light. All the talk of explosions that day had left him leery of bringing a torch like he usually did, which meant he was now at the mercy of the far smaller glow of a more domesticated flame. He placed his steps evenly and carefully. There was no sense in rushing; his destination in the heart of the hill wasn’t going anywhere. Rushing might risk tripping on some stray stone and cracking his head on the wall. Worse than that, he might drop the lunch tray. Carelessness was inexcusable in this sort of situation.
The strange smell in the air grew stronger the deeper he went until, at long last, he reached the center. The floor of the central chamber was gashed open like a wound; it was from this fissure that the oracular smoke issued in plumes and wisps that almost looked like patterns if Riaag only looked at them from the corner of his eye. Seated cross-legged before the gash was Sarouth White-Hair, god-speaker of Agritakh and called the Faaroug himself, his hands in his lap and his visible eye focused on some point a thousand miles away in the far corners of the fumes.
Sarouth was handsome in a heartbreaking way, even in situations such as these, his long, narrow features and dainty tusks looking all the more ethereal among curls of smoke. His namesake pale hair draped over half his face, the remainder gathered at the base of his neck into a simple tail. The lamplight tinted away the usual blue tinge from his dark green skin. His many-layered winter robes concealed most of his tattoos, save for the bands around his neck, while the claws of his sandal-clad feet—always with the sandals, it was a struggle to get him to put socks on in cold weather, much less actual closed-toe shoes—drummed a slow and constant rhythm against his leather soles. He didn’t seem to have noticed Riaag come in.
Riaag placed the tray atop a low, flat rock and set his lamp beside it. Sarouth had only brought a single lamp of his own, which Riaag knew had been a courtesy in and of itself; usually the cave within the sacred hill shared the same blackness as the dark between the stars. God-speakers didn’t need to concern themselves with such frivolities as the physical world when it came time to commune with He Who Sleeps Beneath the Earth. Riaag, however, was as mortal as could be, and so Sarouth had tried to light the way for him. The thought was what counted.
Having arranged the lunch tray for both of them, Riaag settled down on his knees opposite from Sarouth and waited.
And, eventually, cleared his throat. “Brung you somethin’ ter eat, Holy One.”
To Sarouth’s credit he didn’t startle to alertness, instead slowly surfacing from whatever vision he was having like a diver from a deep pool of honey. His exposed eye lost its muddled look, its golden yellow iris turning once more clear and bright, and a small smile played across his lips.
“Thank you, my love. I’ve been…busy.” Sarouth stretched. The lamps’ glow sparkled from his jewelry. “I’m probably due to eat something, aren’t I?”
For all the years Riaag had known Sarouth, the latter’s occasional rapid oscillation between bottomless hunger and forgetting to actually feed himself had been a constant. He nodded towards the lunch he’d brought. “Should still be a li’l bit hot, even, assumin’ I’s guessin’ correctly.” A little curl of steam rose from the soup tureen when he uncovered it. Riaag unclenched a bit at the sight; it might not be fresh-from-the-cauldron scorching, but at least he wasn’t bringing his favorite person in the world cold soup. Keeping the Hill God’s own avatar pleasantly, properly fed was not the sort of task on which he’d permit himself to perform a half-assed job. He served them both a bowl and some sliced chunks of bread, poured them both a little spiced kumiss to keep the chill outside at bay, and tucked in.
They ate together in relative quiet, save for the infrequent happy sounds Sarouth made whenever he had a bite or spoonful he particularly enjoyed. Sarouth made those sounds a lot when he had Riaag’s cooking. It had yet to get old.
Once they had both cleaned their plates and licked their bowls, Riaag returned to the matter at hand.
“Did some investigatin’ ‘n were able ter puzzle out that there fireball we had in the early hours,” he said. “One ‘a the builders from Usoa tweaked ter it ‘n showed me. Didja know flour can get right fucken flammable? ‘Cause I sure didn’t.”
Sarouth hummed around his cup. “I’ll need to hold an assembly, I take it?”
“Yeah. I’s got some ideas. Reckon they can wait theyselves a little while if’n you ain’t got the time ter call somethin’ just yet.” He craned his neck to get a better look at the wad of spare blankets resting heavily in Sarouth’s lap. “You figured out why the fuck that thing’s here yet?”
“Not yet,” said Sarouth with a sigh. “I’m still trying to puzzle it out. He Who Sleeps has yet to give me anything to go on aside from asking it questions directly.”
It and that thing both referred to a huge, smooth orb of clear and flawless glass bundled in the blankets. Glass in and of itself was a rarity in the valley, save for little trinkets or bits of jewelry, and even the most cunningly-colored material was prone to the occasional bubble or whorl marring its surface; the craftsmanship that went into the ball must have been incredible. They had found it right outside their tent flap that morning. Save for their own, there were no tracks around it; for all intents and purposes it had simply appeared out of the sky to alight at their threshold. Sarouth had chosen to hold it close and ask for advice for lack of any better options.
Aside from its enigmatic arrival, what was troubling about the ball was how the last time either of them had seen it was in the hands of someone who should have been far away from the stronghold by then.
Sarouth gently held the glass ball in both hands, his eyes staring into its unseen depths. “I don’t really understand what it’s trying to tell me,” he said, “but I think it misses its master.”
“From them Leopard’s Breath Company folks what tripped o’er us a while back, weren’t it?” asked Riaag. He could still remember the merchant woman who had carried it last and how reverently she’d treated it, even though she was still halfway casual in its presence. She’d used it as a focus of sorts for scrying. He hadn’t gotten the impression back then that the ball was the sort of thing that had feelings, but then again, the same could be said for the strange black mace Sarouth wore at his hip, and Riaag knew for a fact that the thing had something that could reasonably be described as a mind of its own. He wondered if it and the ball would get along if left next to each other.
“Yeah. They were headed south, I think,” said Sarouth. He frowned. “Something about hunting down some great evil or another.”
“South as in across the river?”
“Maybe. I could only get so much information out of them at the time. Surprisingly, a gaggle of mercenaries who come from lands where orcs are killed on sight weren’t too comfortable talking to me.” His words were light but Riaag could spot the tension in Sarouth’s tone. It was an unfortunate cruelty of the world. The valley was safe enough—adjusting for things like bandits, heretics, wild animals, and ghosts, which any reasonable person would—and the lands around the stronghold were safer still, but Riaag sometimes found himself wondering just how long he’d survive if he ever found need to cross over the highlands and out into the rest of the world. He’d only managed it once before. Would the search for the ball’s owner send him out on a second venture?
“I do have some plans, though,” Sarouth continued. “We’re going to need to prepare to go find whatever happened to the Leopard’s Breath. It’s not just hospitality, either; if they’ve kicked a hornet’s nest then we have to act before we risk getting stung ourselves. For all I know whatever they found let the ball escape, and now it might know where we are.”
Riaag gritted his teeth. He did not need this on top of everything with the fire earlier. “So what the fuck is we gonna do with this situation?”
“Don’t worry, I have a plan. I spent this morning stringing codes calling together those Agritakh-ruhds I know in anticipation. Some are because I want more eyes on this orb, in case they know something I don’t. Some are to offer a friendly place to spend Year’s End to them and theirs. Both seemed like good ideas at the time.”
“Lemme guess: Ruzhu Kind-Knife’s gonna be asked ter mind the baby again while we’s out doin’ fucken who knows what?”
Sarouth chuckled. “Absolutely. I made sure the message I tied to her raven promised plenty of compensation in the form of hot pies. It’s a good thing we’re friends or she’d probably have strangled me for calling on her so often by now.” His mouth slowly settled back to a more pensive shape. “She’s an excellent soothsayer. If she can’t figure out what the orb wants, no one can.”
Something didn’t quite add up. “If all you really need is another set or two ‘a eyes on this thing, why’s you expectin’ so many god-speakers?”
“Simple.” Sarouth took a deep breath and let it out for a ten-count before he looked up at Riaag with a tired smile. “It’s high time I hosted a Feast of Stars.”
Riaag wanted to ask him if he was serious, if this was a test, if there was some definition of the Feast that Riaag did not know, if Sarouth remembered everything he’d said in the past, if it was even a good idea in the first place. He asked none of these things.
“A’ight,” he said, instead. “You tell me what you needs me ter do, ‘n it’ll get done.” He knew he would someday die with that litany on his lips. No matter how bad things got Riaag always found himself circling back to that; where some might have worried about being taken advantage of, he had long since learned that it was his nature to provide the manpower to see others’ plans to completion. It just felt right.
Sarouth pulled one hand away from the ball—with reluctance, Riaag noted—to touch Riaag’s arm. “Thank you, my love. I…do not think I’d be the man I am today without you, and it would not be for the better. Everything I do is built upon your back.”
That was a lot more fatalistic than usual for Sarouth, which meant things were no doubt preparing to get very difficult for them both sooner than later. Riaag covered Sarouth’s hand with his own. “You, uh, you gonna be okay down here all by y’self?”
This earned Riaag a shrug. “I should be. If nothing else, He is with me, here more than anywhere else in the stronghold.” Sarouth leaned back and inhaled deeply again, disturbing the wisps of smoke that still curled from the hill’s hidden heart. “I have questions to ask. A lot. But if I’m not up in a few hours to eat, would you please come get me? I don’t like forgetting there’s an outside world.”
Riaag nodded. “I’ll get s’more soup goin’, then.” Soup was always a safe choice, since if Sarouth surfaced ravenous they could pair it with bread and dried fruit again, and if he barely had any appetite at least he could sip on some broth before bed. They’d learned the hard way that it wasn’t worth betting against whether or not he’d be compelled to fast again after a long day of petitioning the Hill God for answers he might not want to hear.
Everything had felt tense since the ball had appeared, but Riaag had long since acclimated to his life being an ebb and flow of nerve-wracking uncertainty; he had learned to swim with the changing tides. Learning how to handle this sort of thing didn’t make it any less pleasant. What he could do was endure—he was very good at enduring—and prepare himself for whatever messes life would inevitably throw at him again. He had made it this far, so it was reasonable to assume that he would make it further. If he would not succumb to bandits, ghosts, rogue god-speakers, or beasts, then he would not be laid low by whatever it was that had inspired holding a Feast.
It was with this mindset that Riaag turned and left Sarouth to his divinations, taking both little brass lamps with him. Sarouth wouldn’t need them down there, anyway.
The new beard itched.
There wasn’t really enough of it to call a beard, not if you were being precise about things, but having kept his chin shorn raw ever since he was old enough for whiskers to come in meant Riaag was very aware of what he had, and what he had itched. He hoped it would grow out, or at least fill in; he hadn’t anticipated how naked his face would feel without the paint that used to mark him as unclean. When people looked at him they saw him now. To think some people spent their whole lives like this and never gave it another thought.
Sarouth—what a name, Sarouth White-Hair! how wonderful to think it!—had seemed puzzled when Riaag begged him for the chance to try a beard at first. They had been traveling together for about a week and scraps by then, and Riaag had thought he’d made it clear he knew his place, but Sarouth and his achingly formal tongue still addressed him with the sort of familiarity one used for friends. It felt weird. Riaag was careful to state that he wouldn’t be neglecting his duties as a barber, he would still keep Sarouth well-groomed and impeccable, he just wanted to try something a little different for himself, and would that be permitted? Sarouth had laughed like it was all a big game before saying that yes, of course Riaag could do so. Even if he was being mocked for it, Riaag gratefully accepted the boon of attempting to look as he pleased.
As a rule he didn’t like looking in the little hand mirror Sarouth kept in his shaving kit, but when they were so far out in the highlands that there was scarcely any water to be found he had to make certain sacrifices to ensure he stayed presentable. The silver felt so tiny in his gloved hand. He kept his lips pressed together so he wouldn’t be reminded of his bad teeth—his tusks were fine, it was the teeth that were a problem—and willed himself not to let his eyes linger on the spots of acne that were only just now beginning to clear, instead focusing on the patchy black fringe clinging to his chin. Riaag trimmed it as even as he could. If he was to be in a god-speaker’s entourage he had to look the part.
The hair was a trickier matter. It hadn’t had to grow in from nothing, though it might as well have; as shaggy as it was Riaag couldn’t bear to cut a single strand. He did his best with a brush. Maybe when there was more of it to go around he could do something more with it; as it stood, he needed as much space between himself and what had come before as he could scavenge, and if that meant a dozen different lengths springing from his scalp, so be it. At least it was having the decency to come in thick and dark.
“Making yourself nice, are we?” asked Sarouth from somewhere Riaag couldn’t see, and Riaag froze. He kept looking straight ahead. If he didn’t make eye contact he wouldn’t get in trouble. Or at least not the kind of trouble you deserved when you met someone’s gaze without their permission.
“Sorry,” he said. It was barely more than a whimper. “Didn’t mean ter be puttin’ on no airs, Holy One.” If he concentrated on keeping his hands steady he wouldn’t drop or break the mirror, so Sarouth wouldn’t be even more displeased with him. It was reasonable, after all. Why wouldn’t an Agritakh-ruhd, a priest of the Hill God in His splendor, want an ugly untouchable nothing like Riaag curdling such a nice mirror with his own reflection? There had been good reason for him to be kept in facepaint back with his old band, after all. Riaag steeled himself for the correction to come. He would hurt and he would learn and it would make him better so he was a little less likely to fuck up again in the future. That’s how it went.
The correction he expected never landed; instead Sarouth circled around so Riaag could see him. He looked concerned for some reason. “Did I startle you?”
What kind of question was that? “Sorry. Sorry. I’ll stop. Sorry.” Usually if he apologized enough whatever new problems that befell him turned into the sort of thing he knew how to endure. His back and forearms were a litany of endurance. For some reason it wasn’t working this time around.
“You did nothing wrong,” said Sarouth. “Why are you so upset?”
“Riaag, please, you do not have to be sorry for anything.” Sarouth attempted a cheery smile. It looked fake. “You may borrow my kit whenever you like. It will never upset me. I want you to…to feel nice.” His smile turned more awkward the longer he held it.
A hot, fat tear beaded in the tuft that Riaag called a beard and fell to the muddied dust at his feet. Apparently it was not the first to fall, merely the first he’d noticed. He wiped at his snotty nose with the back of his glove. “I’s done with it fer now, Holy One, promise. I’ll pack it all up. Sorry fer makin’ such a fuss outta fucken nothin’ again.” Sarouth made as though he wanted to say something else, but remained silent. Riaag took it as an opportunity to tidy up the mess he’d made and then go see to cutting more wood for the night’s fire.
He avoided the mirror for some time after that.
The steady sound of metal against wood always helped Riaag think. He moved with his axe as though he had no other purpose, slowly breaking down the larger chunks into smaller, more portable ones. It didn’t matter what time of the year it was; people always needed firewood for something. Knowing he was being objectively useful never failed to provide a balm for his weary soul. Between the grain fire and the news of something kicking up trouble to the south he needed more of that balm than usual.
Thunk. First priority would be the midwives, then the healers, then those bands who contained the very young or very old, then the kitchens, then the kilns, then the forges, then everyone else. He didn’t provide all the wood for the stronghold, not by a wide margin, but Riaag liked hand-delivering cut fuel to remind people they were being cared for. That was the Rhoanish way.
Thunk. He could probably split the entire log he was working on without breaking a sweat, so one more wasn’t likely to tire him out. Maybe he’d even go for three if he was feeling it. The end of the year meant the nights got terribly cold terribly fast. Even with Sarouth needing to speak in earnest about the importance of keeping fires away from the flour stocks, the stronghold needed to keep itself burning in defiance of the weather.
Thunk. If there was any wood left over he could send some home with any surprise guests, such as the enormous wolf with the beaded cuff around its front leg currently ambling towards him through the trees.
“Mornin’ ter you, Etxeloi,” said Riaag without breaking his rhythm. He split the final few chunks of wood before leaning back for a breather. “You want some tea? Got a nice warm pot ‘a stuff o’er on yonder stump.”
The wolf padded up to him and nosed his trouser leg. Riaag fished in a belt pouch for one of the bone shards he usually handed out to children and tossed it to the wolf, who caught it and began to crunch away happily. It ignored the teapot and cups set up off to one side of Riaag’s workspace.
A shadow melted from the canopy and dropped to the leaf-strewn ground with barely a rustle. It unfolded itself into a person-shaped figure dressed in a cloak of mottled, muted colors, a scarf wrapped around their face and a pair of long, sharp ears sticking out from their fur hat. The top of their head barely came up to Riaag’s sternum.
“You assume I would want a gift, Riaag Bough-Breaker,” said Etxeloi of the River People. His Rhoanish would probably never lose the accent.
Riaag grinned. For as sour a lot as the people of Usoa could be, Etxeloi was downright friendly. “Yeah, well, I was listenin’ ter the night wind t’other evenin’, ‘n it seemed like it had isself a bit ovva raw throat. So I thinks ter myself, let’s us mix up some honey ‘n such, mingled with oil ‘a mint ‘n a pinch ‘a willow powder fer good measure, ‘n see if’n that fixes that there breeze’s shit up a touch.”
Etxeloi made a noncommittal sound before he poured some tea into an empty cup and sipped at it. He kept his scarf mostly in place, instead making a little slit between two of the layers so he could drink. Riaag was fairly certain he’d never actually seen Etxeloi’s face beyond the strip of tawny skin around his large, snake-slitted eyes.
“You are doing chores this day?” asked Etxeloi eventually, the rasp in his voice now starting to ebb a little.
“I’s doin’ chores every day. This one I’s fond ‘a when I gotta sort up my thoughts, though, ‘n they’s in need ‘a sortin’.” Riaag leaned his axe against his shoulder. “One such sortment ter be made: Does the night wind got isself any breezes what gust south ‘a the river?”
The large wolf, which had not stopped its crunching since Riaag had given it a treat, looked up at Etxeloi with a flick of its ears. Etxeloi made a hand gesture and it returned to the bone shard with earnest.
“You Rhoanish don’t mince words.”
“Sometimes we don’t, no,” said Riaag. He sipped at a teacup of his own. The set was sized for an orc’s hands, but he still had to balance the cup with his claw-tips. “I’s askin’ ’cause we’s had some fell winds of our own blowin’ through from down southwards, ‘n I was hopin’ fer a second opinion.”
Etxeloi made another grunt-hum through his nose. “There is bad luck down that way. I hear it is often unwise to guess the weather.”
It was Riaag’s turn to grunt. “Well, yeah, seems ter be pretty fucken bad news, that much I know. What I’s wantin’ is some reconnaissance.” Etxeloi looked blank at the word, so Riaag fished for terms with which he might be more familiar. “We needs ter know the lay ‘a the land, ‘n what nasties is there, be they beast or blood-kind. This ain’t a matter ‘a whether if we’s goin’ or not, ’cause we sure fucken is, but whether we’s gonna be run through the gauntlet half blind ‘n twice as helpless. Afore you says anythin’ ter that, yeah, we know it’s a pretty fucken bad idea, but when decent people’s goin’ missin’, they ain’t never gonna say the Rhoanish kept they asses home.”
“You are serious, then,” said Etxeloi after a long pause punctuated by sips of tea.
“People who cross the river often do not come back.”
Riaag shrugged. “Same could be said ‘a fellas what came out Usoa way, once upon a time. I still remember what happened ter our first search party.” He palmed a bone chip for himself and crunched on it to give himself an excuse not to stare down his guest. He didn’t like bringing up the bad days that had started everything between their two settlements—it felt rude—but there was no denying the truce they now shared had been forged in blood. It had simply been one of a long series of preposterously dangerous situations into which he and Sarouth had marched and, ultimately, from which they had emerged with some definition of success. He hated to admit that his life as a disciple would make for a pretty interesting saga some distant day.
“It is not the doing of River People this time. I do not know the words in your language, Riaag Bough-Breaker of Naar Rhoan. To us they are sorginen mugimenduak, the miracles of god-speakers in the hands of those who are not.”
“Like those merchants from outside the valley who don’t visit ter trade?” asked Riaag. He remembered the glass ball now hidden in the sacred hill. Its owner had seemed like a pleasant enough person even if she wielded strange abilities he was pretty sure most of her blood-kind lacked.
“No. Not like your merchants at all.”
Normally the act of teasing information out of Etxeloi was a sort of pleasant puzzle box affair where Riaag had to poke and prod to figure out what he needed to ask to get what he wanted to know. He was in no mood for such games today. “You gonna give me as straight an answer as you’s capable or is we just gonna go in fucken circles fer hours? I got shit ter do.”
Etxeloi narrowed his eyes. “And I do not?”
“Ain’t sayin’ that. What I’s sayin’ is that we’s goin’ south usselves in the real near future, ‘n I ain’t overly fond ‘a headin’ out there unawares, ‘n thusly I’s reachin’ out ter all ‘n sundry what might prepare us fer them things we’s gonna see even if just a little bitty bit. If’n you got secrets ter tell me then I’s all ears. If you don’t, well, then you’s still welcome ter as much tea as you pleases, ’cause I considers you a fella worthy ‘a courtesy, ‘specially when things is promisin’ ter get shitty out-‘a-doors.”
This did not get an initial reaction out of Etxeloi, who instead opted to refill his cup twice more. When he finally turned his cup upside down and returned it to the stump by the teapot he did not meet Riaag’s eyes again.
“It is bad, south of the river,” he reiterated. “When I say people do not come back, I do not mean just travelers, strangers. I have lost some of my own who have gone there in search of new knowledge.”
“Figured as much,” said Riaag. “I’s right sorrowful ter hear it.” He kept his tone even and meant what he said; if Etxeloi was this distraught over losing those who worked for him, they might well have been the same as children to him. Did Etxeloi even have a family of his own? Riaag still wasn’t clear on how family structures worked in Usoa, since they didn’t move in bands and didn’t wear the colors of their clans and otherwise behaved ineffably among themselves. He was willing to accept that a spymaster might sometimes double as a father figure among their curious kind.
“We heard rumors, once. Orcs living alongside…what is the word you use? Merchants. Perhaps it would be a threat, or perhaps an ally, so I sent shadows there to investigate. Many disappeared. One returned.”
Riaag nodded. For being a man of usually so few words Etxeloi was downright eloquent today; Riaag hadn’t been a skald and songsmith as long as he had without learning to spot when a storyteller was building to a climax.
“She told me that we should not go back that way. There is nothing for Usoa there, no secrets to learn. Only death.” He closed his eyes, as though remembering. “She made it to a great tower, surrounded by strangeness she could not describe to me. She saw the master of that tower. She saw what he did to her fellow shadows, and the only reason he did not do the same to her was because it brought him joy to send her back bent double with fear. I do not send her into the forest anymore. Her body walked back to us but we can all see that her heart has been ripped out.”
“Well, shit. Guess that’s the natural progression ‘a things now, ain’t it?” When he was a young man it felt like the worst things Riaag had to deal with were wild animals and the occasional bandit. Then it was heretics, then it was god-speaker-haunting ghosts, then it was a rampaging warband, then it was an entire mine stuffed with the unquiet dead. Of course he was going to have to climb up a tower on fire to headbutt whatever asshole squatted at the top. If it was going to be easy it would’ve happened to somebody else instead.
He brushed some wood chips from his coat and leaned on his axe. Even as he felt dread bubbling up in his gut he had a role to play and one final question to ask. “So what name d’we call this doom ‘a my people ‘n yer own, all flauntin’ that sorginen mugimenduak shit hither ‘n yon?”
“I do not know the word in your tongue,” said Etxeloi.
“What’s it in yers, then?”
Etxeloi took a deep breath and let it out. He fiddled with the golden headdress he wore under his hood and hat, which Riaag had gathered was a thing people of Usoa used to keep evil at bay. It was not unlike someone reaching to a pendant of Agritakh or clutching at a blessed hagstone when afraid.
“The word we use,” he said, “is wizard.“
“Riaag?” said Sarouth’s voice, murmur-quiet, from the darkness just outside Riaag’s lean-to. Riaag stirred and cracked open one eye to discover Sarouth hunkered down right at the threshold of Riaag’s personal space, his comely features pensive. There was no sign of any of the other bands with which they’d made camp. There was no sign of the other god-speaker, either, and there hadn’t been since she’d pulled Sarouth aside while Riaag was busy preparing Sarouth’s shelter a little ways off from his own.
What would have been proper was to greet Sarouth by deed or title, as befit a man of his grandeur, but all Riaag could manage was a drowsy, “Whuh?”
“We are going to need to leave soon. Things….” Sarouth trailed off and pulled a face. “Things have soured,” he continued. He glanced over his shoulder as though he expected someone to be there, then turned back to Riaag again with an apologetic grimace. “I think it would be best for us if we found somewhere else to be. I regret having to tell this to you now, but it will be easiest for everyone if we leave while most are still in their beds.”
It was hardly the first time they’d needed to make an exit in the dark of the night. Riaag sat up and rubbed the sleep from his eyes. He went through the list of everything he’d need to pack up and how long it’d take to do so, which gave him pause. “We don’t gotta dump half our shit behind again, does we?” he whispered. If Sarouth said they were leaving, then leave they would, but Riaag still mourned the loss of blankets past. That time it had been that or choosing between his axe and his skillet, and if he found himself without either of those what kind of god-speaker’s assistant would he be? Shivering in the rain had been miserable but at least he’d been able to do his job.
Sarouth popped his lips and sucked on his teeth. “We travel light these days, do we not? We should have the time. I shall help. We can be out just past midnight if we hurry.”
Moving without making noise was a skill Riaag had honed during his youth—and they never talked about why he’d felt the need to do so, an omission for which he was unceasingly grateful—so he was able to roll up tarps and pack away clothing with no more clamor than a child turning over in their sleep. He thanked his past self for having thought to wash their meager mess kit as soon as they’d finished their supper instead of leaving it for the morning chores. One less pair of helping hands wouldn’t have quite the sting if there were two less bodies to care for, he told himself. He sighed. He hoped no one had been counting on him to carry water or fetch firewood come daybreak.
He shouldered their gear (or at least all of it he was permitted to carry, as Sarouth was adamant that he have a carryall of his own, no matter how much Riaag insisted he could manage it all himself) and checked their torches. There was just enough moon hanging in the sky that they’d be able to put some distance between themselves and whatever had gone wrong at the camp before needing to light anything. It would be a perfect getaway.
Or it would have been if Daziin Cats-Cradle hadn’t been waiting for them out past the trees.
“You’re out late, White-Hair,” she said. She was sitting cross-legged on a rock that jutted up from the ground like a person’s tusk. The starlight threw a blue cast across her skin, tinting it away from its usual warm green, and the way she held herself further draped her in shadow. Riaag could only just barely make out the bandages she wore across her left eye, had to squint to spot the carved bone comb that crowned her hair. It was uncanny how well she blended into the background.
“I need to not be here anymore,” said Sarouth, looking past her. He didn’t stride on by as he often did when refusing someone’s company; Riaag was unsure whether this was out of respect or if, as a more seasoned god-speaker of Agritakh, there was some great majesty knit into her blood that even one as stubborn as Sarouth had to acknowledge. He suspected it might be a little of both.
Daziin sighed but did not move from her perch. “You’re being a child about this, you know. It doesn’t have to be this way. You could stay. We could talk.”
Riaag couldn’t see Sarouth’s face from where he stood but picked up on the faint twitch of Sarouth’s hand clenching tightly around his staff. “I could do such things, but I refuse to. There is nothing for me here. I am better off out in the hills, alone.”
“And what does your disciple think?”
It never failed to surprise Riaag when people suddenly acknowledged him as a person instead of a piece of furniture, or perhaps a trained guard dog. He averted his eyes. “I’s followin’ him ’cause that’s what I does, Holy One. Ain’t never a question.” He didn’t like having to pull up roots and scuttle away like a lake crab come low tide, but if Riaag didn’t follow Sarouth that meant Sarouth wouldn’t have anyone, not to cook his meals or wash his clothes or keep danger at bay or laugh at his broad collection of increasingly awful jokes, and that was unacceptable. The Hill God in His wisdom had given Riaag this task and Riaag would either do His will or die trying.
“Oh, you dear thing…,” said Daziin. She shifted her weight. “I remember the words you spoke to me, White-Hair, but do you? Would keeping them close break what you’ve made?”
“Do not talk to me,” said Sarouth through bared teeth.
Daziin ignored him. “You do not have to attend the Feast of Stars, White-Hair, but you must still think on what it means and how you will pick up your own pieces. Refusing to come to terms with what’s happened is only going to leave you miserable. We are all wounded, but you refuse to so much as staunch the bleeding.”
“I said do not talk to me,” said Sarouth, a growl rumbling beneath his words. Riaag felt the color drain from his cheeks. If a god-speaker fought a god-speaker, and neither was a heretic, on whose side was he expected to fall? Sarouth was hotheaded enough to challenge a charging bull; there was no doubt in Riaag’s mind that if push came to shove, Sarouth could and would turn against one of his own.
They were a ways out from the lingering fires of the camp and Daziin’s perch made her into more of a shape than a person, but Riaag could have sworn she looked very sad.
“Then do as you will, little beetle,” said Daziin. She was only a few years their senior but sounded so much older just then. “I won’t stop you from leaving. None of mine will. Perhaps someday you will feel it is time, and from there you will understand what needs to be done. I simply pray that it will not be too late.” Her fingers laced together and she rested them in her lap, quietly signaling the end to her speech.
“Is that all, then?” snapped Sarouth.
“Hrm.” Daziin rummaged in a pouch at her hip and brought forth a little handful of dust, which she studied intently. She tossed it to the ground in an arc. Before their eyes the dirt underfoot swirled and shaped itself until it made a faint little trail leading away from the camp, the occasional glyph or curlicue branching off from it the only signs it hadn’t been made by passing animals. “A parting gift, White-Hair. This route leads to good fortune for you and yours. So I have asked, and so says He Who Sleeps Beneath the Earth. Farewell to you both.”
With that, she slid off the rock and walked calmly into the forest gloom. She carried no light with her.
Sarouth stood stock-still with his claws digging anxiously into the wood of his staff. After a count of twenty he adjusted the strap on his carryall, defaced the trail in the dust with a few angry sweeps of his sandal, and pointedly headed off in a different direction entirely. Riaag spared a look down at the ground—which was already settling back to its original, unmarred state, as though no one had even been there at all—before hurrying off in pursuit.
He waited until they had set a comfortable pace and gotten half a league away before saying anything. “Holy One?” he asked, his voice as calm and even as he could manage. He didn’t want to think about the implications of them ignoring a miracle as brazenly as they had.
“What’s a Feast ‘a Stars?”
A shadow of a mood flickered across Sarouth’s face. “Nothing important,” he said in the voice of a man who knew how important it truly was.
Sarouth kept quiet for a while before speaking up again, this time less harshly. “Let us keep going a ways longer before we bed down. As a treat for ourselves, we can sleep in tomorrow. That would be nice, right?”
Riaag nodded. Of course it’d be nice. For him sleeping in meant waking up after sunrise instead of before it, and while he couldn’t be sure he’d actually be able to manage such a feat he didn’t want Sarouth to think he was being ungrateful. He could always just lie in bed for a while if he got up too early and it’d probably count. Who knew what plans the Hill God had laid for them? If Sarouth was willing to delay those with a late morning, Riaag wasn’t about to argue.
The torch’s light only carried so far and in time the moon went down, so Riaag walked a little closer to Sarouth than he usually did. When they finally made camp several hours later it was in a shallow cave with barely enough room for them to sleep on either side of it; he had to contort himself to fit into his half, as his frame had been filling out lately in ways he was as yet unused to. He hoped he wouldn’t get in trouble for such perceived familiarity. Sarouth was patient and Sarouth was kind, but Riaag did not want to test the limits of either.
When they awoke the next morning Sarouth said nothing about whatever the Feast was, so Riaag didn’t ask, and for the time being that was that.
“I’m not sure what to think about all this,” said Sarouth later in the day, Riaag having conveyed everything Etxeloi had told him and a few things he’d inferred from what hadn’t been explicitly said. They lounged on cushions next to a half-set-up game board. Neither of them could find the inspiration to do more than push tokens around; there was something about the nature of the news Etxeloi had brought that didn’t leave room for much else.
Riaag swapped the places of a round black piece and an oblong white one. “How d’ya mean?”
“It’s not like we can just ignore what’s going on and hope the trouble to the south doesn’t cross the river. Naar Rhoan is big enough to get attention from people who remember us from the last Concordance. If they already hear about our steel and spices outside the valley, then they’re going to hear about other things, too. Might as well head down on our own terms and meet our problems head on.”
“Etxeloi seemed worried ’bout us when I said we was likely goin’ that way soon.”
Sarouth tossed his forelock. “Of course he’d be. Usoans have an entire word for the kind of boogity spookum that lives out that way. Even if all it turns out to be is a weird old man who rubs mushrooms on visitors to give them fear-visions, there’s a sense of cultural weight behind him now.” He drummed his fingers on the low table between them. “If children of Usoa died out there, we should definitely make time to try to recover the remains. What little I know of their funerary rites is that they prefer for their people to come home, no matter how dead they are at the time. I can respect that.”
“So we’s still goin’ out there after Year’s End?”
“That’s the plan.”
He scowled. “Ugh. Shit. I don’t like this much at all, Holy One.”
“Is it as bad as the time with the haunted mine?”
Riaag had hated every minute of the mine incident, but that at least had had the decency to be in the valley. You knew you were in the Hill God’s own country there. In theory Agritakh was everywhere, being the foundation of the very earth beneath their boots, but what if they crossed the river and found that by some chance or malady He wasn’t? Riaag’s eyes felt hot and moist. “Different kinda shitty. Still real fucken shitty, though.”
A comforting hand reached across the board to rest against the back of Riaag’s glove. “You don’t have to go with me on this mission if you don’t want to, brave warrior,” said Sarouth. “Naar Rhoan will always need you.”
Naar Rhoan would always have babies whose diaper-clothes needed changing, and food that needed cooking, and wood that needed chopping, and ditches that needed digging. Someone had to sing the Chant when people needed it, and sing tales of glory and wisdom to honor those had come before. Preparing the fields to receive visiting traders didn’t just happen on its own. There was always a place for him there, whether as a drudge, a poet, or a leader. But if none of those duties were performed at Sarouth’s side, what was the point? Worse, what if staying home to see to safer obligations meant Sarouth would get hurt—or worse—by whatever it was a wizard was? The thought turned his stomach. His stomach had been rotating pretty much since the fire and it had just gotten worse with time.
He wiped his now tear-streaked face on the sleeve of his free hand and sniffled. “I cain’t just leave you alone out there. I’s yer fucken bodyguard, alongside all other things. T’ain’t right.”
Sarouth’s hand squeezed his own reassuringly. “Then if you want to be at my side, I’ll be all the safer for it. Your axe and shield have never failed me.”
“What if they cain’t do nothin’ ‘gainst what we find?”
“Oh, my loyal wolf,” said Sarouth. He walked on his knees along the carpeted ground to sit at Riaag’s side. “Are you afraid you wouldn’t be able to protect me?”
“Yes,” Riaag wailed. He took advantage of Sarouth’s proximity to bury his face in the fur stole Sarouth wore with his robes that day. If he had a cooler head he might have explained how important it was that someone as important as Sarouth remain hale and safe at all hours, or how the task of being a living shield between Sarouth and the uncaring far reaches of the world still meant as much to Riaag then as it did when it first kindled the fires of purpose in his heart so many years ago. A man in better control of himself might have explained how Riaag was just a mortal man, and with so many threats from sources supernatural rising from the woodwork in recent times he worried how long he had before his service was rendered obsolete. Someone whose heart wasn’t so fragile that the sight of a baby in their dam’s arms was enough to set him weeping might have had something to say about the fear of the unknown, and how terrified he was of the thought of trying to live a life without Sarouth White-Hair in it.
Riaag was none of these things, so all he could do was cry.
He clung to Sarouth as he sobbed. Sarouth said nothing, instead holding Riaag close and stroking his back. Sarouth had always been there to help Riaag ride things out when they got bad, even back when Riaag shied away from so much as having someone tug on his sleeve; he never judged, or even made a big deal about it, simply stayed close until Riaag could stand being alone again. It was slightly easier nowadays since Riaag could ask for a hug without a second thought. He didn’t know how long he was going to stay this way—maybe forever, since it wasn’t like he could remember life without the burden of sorrow on his back—but at least he could live this way. He hadn’t always held that opinion.
“Sorry,” said Riaag once the worst of the feeling passed.
Sarouth nibbled on the tip of his ear comfortingly. “Don’t be. You needed me to know how you felt, and then you needed to get those leftovers out.” He dabbed at Riaag’s eyes with the hem of his outer sleeve. “Think you’re any better now?”
He wasn’t going to be able to offer an accurate diagnosis until the worst of the emotional hangover faded, so Riaag gave himself a quick evaluation. Something did feel a little off. “I-I think my amulet might need isself a lookin’ at.”
“Of course. Let’s see how it’s doing.”
While no two of them ever looked exactly the same, the amulets Riaag wore all shared three key features: firstly, they were all strung on cords long enough to fit around his bicep even when he flexed it; secondly, they were all assembled and blessed by Sarouth himself, and had been since they’d both been much younger men; and thirdly, some days they were the only thing keeping Riaag’s brain from collapsing in on itself like a bonfire of rotten wood. Whether working, bathing, or enjoying more intimate company, they never came off. Ever since he started wearing them his night terrors had dwindled down to practically nil. The fact that they kept evil presences at bay was a helpful side-effect.
Checking on an amulet was a bit of a pain when the weather was cold. Riaag was a harsh taskmaster to the talismans he wore, which meant he tended to exhaust their curative properties in a matter of weeks; the one currently nestled against his upper left arm was relatively new, so he’d hoped for at least a few more days of use before having to half-struggle out of his many layers of sleeves to let Sarouth look at it. The rest of himself he kept bundled up. He’d need to be back out in the wind and cold for evening chores, so keeping as much heat trapped as he could seemed resourceful.
Sarouth placed his hands on either side of the central device of the amulet—made from a weasel’s skull, some beads, and some bits of carved wood this time around—and closed his eyes. “Hm. It’s not depleted all the way, so that’s good,” he said. He ran his fingers along the leather cord that made up the bulk of the talisman’s mass. “It’s affixed comfortably, right? Not too tight, not too loose?”
Riaag tensed the muscles in his arm, then relaxed them. He bent himself at odd angles to test whether it refused to seat itself against his skin; nothing seemed out of the ordinary with how it moved with him. “Feels like it oughtta,” he said after a final few motions.
“So it’s not that, then,” said Sarouth. He popped his lips in thought. “Any trouble sleeping lately? Or eating? Any part of your usual routine that feels off?”
“Ain’t noticed such.” Save for the anxious sorrow buzzing around his skull like so many bees Riaag was hard-pressed to say anything felt different about himself at all. He’d kept up with everything from prayers to chores to watching other people’s children when they needed a respite from their needle-clawed spawn. Neither weapons practice nor time in the kitchens had struck him as different from any other day. He’d even been sure to have regular mugs of warm water just in case the weather tried to creep into his bones. The lack of a distinct source arguably made his tenuous mental state all the more frustrating.
He hadn’t realized he’d been gritting his teeth until he felt Sarouth stroking his jaw soothingly. He forced himself to release some of the tension there; a person who was too hard on their teeth opened themselves up to a world of problems, and as Riaag wasn’t due for a new set to grow in for another few years he needed to take good care of his own up until they wore out naturally. Regardless of how off-set his current smile was he didn’t fancy looking like a little old man before he was in his thirties.
“Looks like there’s no real answer today, huh?” asked Sarouth. He leaned in to kiss Riaag’s nose. “That’s fine. Don’t worry about it, okay? I have some parts already fixed up to be put into a fresh amulet, so if you’d like me to prep you a new one I can do so.”
Sometimes the easiest solution to a problem was to just throw out the old parts and bring in another batch. “Yes, please.”
“Coming right up.”
Riaag shrugged back into his layers as Sarouth worked. He’d have to peel out of them again for the new amulet to go on, of course, but having a whole limb out for an extended period of time during bitter weather wasn’t the sort of experience he wanted to extend. Warmer months had their own challenges but at least they made it a lot easier to loaf around while half, or more than just half, naked.
The construction of an amulet, much like the exact pattern of Sarouth’s tattoos, was a little bit different every time Riaag saw it. This time around Sarouth arranged a set of five bear claws into a little whirlwind pattern upon a piece of scrap fabric, humming tunelessly to himself all the while, then poured some sand from a jar into the hole left in the middle of the pattern. He placed some hollowed-out discs of antler—still glistening with sacred oil—all around the claws. Everything had its own place in the weave of the ritual. Riaag had watched enough rites to know when he was witnessing one or not, but he knew for a fact if he hadn’t spent so much time around Sarouth he’d never have known if he was seeing something sacred or just watching a man fart around with craft supplies for a few minutes.
Sarouth unspooled a length of cord from one of the bundles he kept tucked around the tent. He measured it in the usual way of winding it around his thumb and elbow before snipping it to length with his shears; once satisfied with the leather, he put the cord aside, took up an awl, and neatly drilled holes through each amulet component until the cord could pass through them without losing shreds of itself. Save for the exact way the pieces were arranged it was nothing Riaag hadn’t seen before. What was unusual was the way Sarouth plucked a single pale hair from his forelock and wove it into the bulk of the amulet itself.
“That’s new, Holy One.”
“Mmm-hmm. I figured a tiny bit of oomph might be helpful if you’re having a bad patch.” It wasn’t a symbolic gesture by any means; Sarouth’s forelock fell across his left eye, the one where he (as with all god-speakers of Agritakh) kept his shreds of divinity, and his particular hairstyle no doubt absorbed all manner of mystical emanations by dint of proximity to such a potent part of Sarouth’s person. No one saw both of an Agritakh-ruhd’s eyes at once for a reason. Not even Riaag had done so.
The last knot pulled snugly into place against the chunks of claw and antler, rendering the strand of hair effectively invisible. “Sure as sunshine, my wolf. I don’t plan to make a habit of this, but we’ve got so much to do, right? If you need a little extra help I want you to have it.” Sarouth patted Riaag’s coat sleeve over his current amulet. “Let’s peel you out of this one last time and get you feeling better.”
Riaag reluctantly bared his arm once more. Having a new talisman put in place was about as involved as putting on a new piece of jewelry (as, on some level, that was exactly what was happening) so he had no reason to feel nervous, yet he still felt his pulse quicken a bit as Sarouth took the old one away. A warm, wet cloth briskly cleaned the skin where the amulet would rest before Sarouth wrapped it around Riaag’s bicep and fastened it. They both made sure he could move his arm properly before he sat still just long enough to receive a blessing; the moment the final words of benediction left Sarouth’s lips Riaag was already on the way to being fully dressed again.
He didn’t expect an immediate reaction because that wasn’t how amulets worked. It wasn’t like a shot of liquor or a slug of poppy draught, he reminded himself, and he’d probably never be able to consciously tell when exactly it kicked in, though it was hard not to be disappointed that his worries didn’t immediately evaporate. Riaag sighed. Experience proved that the best way to let a new amulet work was to find something else to focus on, so that’s what he would do.
“You let me know if that one has troubles of its own, yeah?” said Sarouth. “I think I can safely say you have my attention until I oversee the evening sacrifice. I know you prefer having new-amulet company sometimes.” He had found his way into Riaag’s lap at some point, which was nice. It was a shame Riaag wasn’t feeling frisky or he might’ve had an idea or two that could make use of their current configuration.
“We been sittin’ by this fucken mess ovva board fer ages,” Riaag said with a nod to the conglomeration of misplaced pieces still strewn across it. “Was thinkin’ we could set it up right, have us one ‘a them cooperative solitaire games. See if’n we can beat the luck ‘a the draw.”
Sarouth did not see fit to move from his perch. “What a good idea,” he said, instead. He did have the decency to count up the pieces and start putting them into their proper places. The very purposeful hip-shimmies he kept performing each time he leaned back from reaching across the board were decidedly less decent. Riaag was still convinced he wasn’t feeling in the mood for much of anything on the sexy side; if he didn’t know any better he could have sworn that Sarouth both knew this and was determined to change his mind. Then again, it very well could have just been Sarouth being Sarouth; water was wet, the sky was blue, and Sarouth was nearly always horny. At least he was consistent.
The act of two people playing a game meant for one was a bit precarious even in the best of circumstances, and the placement of Sarouth—currently taking up the entirety of Riaag’s lap with an emphasis on the left side—did not make things any easier. Seeing the pieces wasn’t a problem, nor was being able to move them accurately; Sarouth was of sufficiently compact dimensions that Riaag had no trouble picking up a piece from over a shoulder or around Sarouth’s waist. It wasn’t even that Sarouth was being a poor player, as he was more or less holding his own when it came to suggesting strategies. The problem was that it was hard to plan multiple moves ahead and keep an eye out for potential failure states when his very friendly co-player kept getting friendlier. Even the chastest neck-nuzzle was distracting! How upon the earth had he managed to win games like this before?
Two red pieces threatened to set up a future catastrophic chain reaction, so Riaag carefully sent some white and black tokens their way, his actions prolonging the game but hopefully preventing a loss. Even when his only opponent was pure chance he felt it wisest to cover his bets; more aggressive play was best saved for when he could rely on it rattling the person on the other side of the table, since people could usually be manipulated with metaphorical war cries so long as you were metaphorically loud enough and could at least pretend to back it up. When there wasn’t a thinking mind behind the way turns progressed it was safer to keep on a proactive sort of defensive. It was a lot like taking care of the stronghold through storm season, just on a far smaller scale.
As the game went on and more pieces vanished from their formations, a problem arose. Riaag scowled. His usual approach felt more like delaying the inevitable than a slow march of progression. That piece, there, would end up capturing a whole slew of white pieces if he didn’t do something about it, yet to get at that piece he’d need to do something about the other three, which in turn were backed up by half a dozen potential traps just waiting for him to stumble into them. Some solitaire games were quick and simple, but this one was fighting them the entire way there. He sat back to think. Casualties were unacceptable, so how was he supposed to deal with what looked like a guaranteed loss?
“Well, shit,” he said. “I think we’s arrived at one fucker ovvan impasse, here.”
Sarouth studied the board, and for once he didn’t seem like his main goal was set on distracting Riaag. He was quiet for a while. His expression was the one of distant contemplation he wore when struggling to divine knowledge from nowhere while within the sacred hill. Some people said god-speakers could scent the future out of nearly anything, from tea leaves and yarrow stalks all the way up to more traditional methods like entrails. Maybe the half-finished game had secrets to share, too.
Eventually Riaag felt he needed to say something. “You got any ideas?”
“I think what we need to do,” said Sarouth as he pointed out two different pieces, “is to capture this marker, then that one, then see if you can move black across the board. That’s going to make everything fall into place. Nearly guaranteed victory for us that way, if I had to guess.”
Running the strategy through his head Riaag could see multiple ways it could go wrong. “You sure?”
If there was one thing Riaag could do it was trust Sarouth in all things. He took a deep breath, focused himself, and captured the first of the designated tokens.
When the last target piece slid across the board into its final destination it came with the same primal satisfaction as scratching an incessant itch in a rude location. Riaag sighed with relief. It had been close in places, but risky as it was Sarouth’s strategy had worked perfectly. Save for a trio of tokens they’d lost early on from sloppy moves it had been a nearly perfect game.
He wasn’t the only one pleased with the results. “We won!” crowed Sarouth. “Told you that move was a good idea.”
“No soothsayin’ at the game table,” said Riaag with what he hoped was a playful grin.
Sarouth harrumphed. “I did nothing of the sort. I’m just very good at this game, and also very lucky.” He rubbed his hands together eagerly. “This calls for celebration, I think.”
Riaag knew exactly what sort of celebration Sarouth had in mind. He sighed. “Yeah, s’fair, but it’s so cold ‘n I ain’t in the mood fer strippin’ down.”
“Don’t you worry,” said Sarouth in one of his sultriest voices. “I’ll keep you warm.”
The only thing worse than how hokey Sarouth’s flirting could be was just how well said hokiness worked on Riaag. Lines that should have fallen flat instead socketed themselves right into all the sensitive parts of Riaag’s mind, each one taking advantage of his abundant imagination to fill in the many details Sarouth neglected to provide. It didn’t hurt that Sarouth could have recited a list of sums and Riaag would have melted at the sound. Agritakh-ruhds carried the authority of the Hill God with them, so it made sense that he’d be inclined to go along with Sarouth’s suggestions; when Agritakh in His grace had first gifted Sarouth thusly, He probably hadn’t accounted for what that gift could do to someone already happy to do as he was told.
A familiar, friendly hand rested against the half-turgid rise in Riaag’s trousers. “You won’t need to take off your coat again, brave warrior,” said Sarouth. “I think I’d like to see you exactly as you are now, only with your cock on display for me. How’s that sound?”
“Sounds…pretty good.” Riaag was rewarded an extended, pulsing squeeze for his answer. Now there was nothing half about how hard he was. “What does I gotta do?”
“Just sit there and look pretty. I won’t keep you too long, my love. I know you have things to do.” He ran his tongue over his teeth. “Then again, so do I.”
Despite the blazing firepot and the efficiency with which Sarouth moved, Riaag still hissed with discomfort when the cold air hit his newly-exposed skin. A soft hand wrapped around his shaft to banish the worst of it. That was nice, though it brought with it a pressing question of its own.
“Thought you wanted ter see me?”
Sarouth, now seated perpendicular to Riaag on one of his thighs, chuckled. “I always do,” he said. He placed a kiss on Riaag’s cheek. “Right now I think I want to see what faces you make when I do this.”
This was a particular motion that involved a quick flick of the wrist while pulling upwards, and Sarouth had the experience required to keep it from being unpleasant. Riaag gasped. Under any other circumstances it would be quite alarming to have someone’s face hovering mere inches from his own, blocking out most of his field of vision on his left side. This being Sarouth, however, Riaag was more inclined to get lost in his visible eye. Sarouth liked eye contact. Riaag had to admit it made it a lot easier to remember where he was when he had a familiar white-browed gaze to hold his own.
Something involving a thumb happened and Riaag must have worn a suitably good expression based on how pleased Sarouth looked. It felt good to make him happy. Riaag resented the winter for keeping him so bundled up most of the time; it wasn’t that he felt he’d die if he ever shrugged out of his cold-weather gear—they managed to have sex with each other reasonably often, even when it was so vicious outside that his beard was hard and brittle whenever he ducked back inside a tent—more that things he did so naturally when it was balmier now required an investment of effort and temperature adjustment. He wanted to bare his throat so Sarouth could review the love-bites left there, perhaps leaving a new one in the process. He wanted to pull off his shirt so Sarouth could drag his fingers through the dark pelt that lay heavy across his chest. He especially wanted the luxury of not caring where he came instead of making sure it didn’t get anywhere that would be irritating to get out without breaking out the washtub. These were not feasible if he planned to get anything else done that day, and so he instead he tried to be satisfied with receiving a very good handjob from his favorite demigod. That Sarouth liked doing this for him would never fail to be a source of flattered wonder.
The touch of skin against skin continued until Sarouth set a rhythm and kept it; in no time at all Riaag bit down on his lower lip and came into Sarouth’s hand.
He had nearly forgotten about why he’d needed distraction in the first place when Sarouth patted him firmly on the sleeve. “Think you’ve acclimated to this little friend by now?” Sarouth asked between licks of his white-spattered palm, having used his cleaner hand to thump on Riaag’s amulet. As gross as Sarouth’s whims could skew at least he wasn’t rude about expressing them.
Riaag sat passively while Sarouth tucked him back into his trousers and fixed his clothes. “I ain’t noticin’ it ‘less I focuses, so I reckon it’s goin’ pretty good. I ain’t inclined ter complain when you want ter touch me.” He circled an arm around Sarouth’s slender waist. “You, uh, got some plans fer what you’d like in reciprocation?”
“Oh, maybe later,” said Sarouth. “I don’t fancy getting my legs bare just yet. It’ll give you something to look forward to tonight, won’t it?” He nuzzled the side of Riaag’s neck and slipped free from their embrace. “I think it’d be nice if you spent the next few hours thinking of nice things you’d like to do for me when we bed down for the night. I’d love to hear them then.” He licked his teeth again. “You’re such a good storyteller, you know.”
There wasn’t much Riaag could say to that. He accepted the mint leaf that Sarouth passed him and chewed it to banish the lingering traces of sex-smell; Riaag had heard that merchants and River People didn’t have noses nearly as sharp as orcs’, and the thought of living life with what amounted to an endless head cold made him sad in a way he couldn’t easily express. Being a little extra thoughtful with the aromatics to make sure you weren’t emitting olfactory screams about what you’d just gotten up to seemed a reasonable price to pay for being able to enjoy the simple, soothing pleasure of a loved one’s scent.
“Gonna be overseein’ the construction a’ the new storage shed,” he said around a cheekful of fragrant greenery. “After that they’s asked me ter sing fer the healers’ tent. After that I’s gonna get a meal goin’. You want me ter have somethin’ ready afterwards?”
“That’d be lovely. I’d love to hear your thoughts over a nice hot dinner.” Sarouth washed his hands in the side basin after finishing his own leaf. People expected him to lay on hands, not lay on jizz, so he had always been a stickler for washing up for as long as Riaag had known him. “Tell those nice people from Usoa we greatly respect their guidance and appreciate all the time and effort they’ve invested in teaching us how to better make permanent structures, would you? They’ll probably give the stink-eye about it but they deserve to be complimented on their work.”
“Understood, Holy One.”
Sarouth blew an extra-juicy raspberry at that. “Not five minutes out from me jerking you off and you’re back on the honorifics. You really don’t have to call me ‘Holy One’ as often as you do. You never did.”
“Duly noted, most gracious and divine Faaroug,” said Riaag with a toothy grin.
“You! Out! See you at dinner! I love you!”
“Never ferget that you’s His beloved agent in the wakin’ world ‘n ferever deservin’ ‘a great praise, Sarouth.”
How he managed to get back outside without getting beaned by a flying cushion Riaag would never know.
“Do you mind if I ask you a question?” asked Sarouth one day while they were out gathering pheasants’ eggs for their next meal.
Riaag, who had previously been expending most of his mental energy on making sure the aggressively ovivorous Sarouth didn’t eat any of their future supplies, was caught off-guard by this query. Was that the question in question or was there something else Sarouth wanted to ask him? A few years of travel implied Sarouth wasn’t one for mind games—at least not when Riaag was concerned, anyway—so that probably meant he had a more meaningful conversation in mind. “Go fer it, Holy One.”
“Do you ever feel like I, ah….” Sarouth rubbed the back of his neck. Whatever it was he was trying to say clearly had him thinking. Riaag was pretty sure that didn’t mean he was in trouble, but he felt his neck tense up a bit out of habit. “Do you ever feel like you have to do things? Because of me, I mean?”
“Uh. I mean I’s yer guard ‘n barber ‘n cook ‘n such. They’s important duties what needs doin’ ‘n I’s glad ter be responsible fer seein’ ’em through ter satisfaction. Is that whatcha meant?”
“Not quite,” said Sarouth. “I mean, the way you look, the way you dress, every part of how you present yourself. That’s you, isn’t it?”
What a weird question. “‘Course it’s me, Holy One. Pretty sure it ain’t nobody else.” A thought crossed his mind that he didn’t like at all, even worse than the thought of possibly being in trouble. “We ain’t got problems with skinwalkers poppin’ up in these parts, does we?”
Riaag hated—hated—ghost stories, and as a rule avoided talk of them whenever such tales came up around a drudges’ fire; this did not mean he didn’t know the ins and outs of the frightful things that lurked among the dark places in the hills. Skinwalkers could look like things other than themselves, and while some stories said they could shape their own faces like so much clay, the ones Riaag held close to his heart were filled with gruesome details of people being flayed alive so their skins could be worn like mummers’ masks. He had never met one and hoped to keep it that way. It was hard to be brave in the face of such creatures because, unlike dragons or fairies or so many other nighttime nasties, Sarouth had never promised him they weren’t real.
“What? No! Goodness me, no. That wasn’t what I meant to ask. I’ve neither heard nor divined any sign of those anywhere near us, so don’t you worry, okay?” said Sarouth. He puffed out his cheeks and blew; it was a lot like the raspberries he was fond of making when annoyed, just not as juicy and definitely not as flippant. “I am not asking you if you are a skinwalker and I don’t think you are one, either.”
“Then what is you sayin’?” This time last year Riaag probably would have crumpled up and died at the thought of speaking so frankly to an Agritakh-ruhd. Now it felt natural, at least where Sarouth was involved. Over the months Riaag had noticed Sarouth’s dialect had slowly begun to change from the achingly formal tone he’d used at first; Riaag wasn’t sure what one would call it now, but he suspected that continued exposure his own purposefully mangled dialect was somehow responsible.
Sarouth grimaced. “What I am trying to ask is, ah. Do you feel like you have to look the way you do? Like if you changed you’d make me unhappy?”
That was one devil of a loaded question. He was fairly certain that if he went back to chopping his hair down to nearly nothing, painting his face to keep from offending the Hill God, or shaving his chin so he didn’t look so old, it would definitely upset Sarouth. Then again, he also wore clothes with no clan patterns on them at all (he wasn’t quite brave enough to wear blank ones, but maybe someday, if he was still clanless, and thought he could get away with it….) and that seemed to make Sarouth a little moody at times, too. He assembled a neutral answer in his head. “I ain’t never felt obliged ter dress in any manner other’n what I keeps clean each laundry day. I’s invested in lookin’ the part ovva proper herald ’cause it’s parta my fucken job, ‘n it pleases me ter do so. Save fer givin’ me permission ter do as I desires you ain’t never told me ter do nothin’ ‘a the sort.” He did not say that dressing nicely and taking care of himself meant he felt a little thrill whenever Sarouth looked his way; that might give the wrong impression. The Faaroug of Agritakh could do better, anyway.
“And it’s your choice, right? From start to finish?”
“I ain’t got much in the way ‘a options, but I’s makin’ do with what I can get my hands on.”
“But it’s still your choice?”
That was the weird vibe Riaag had been getting: the unmistakable stink of someone else’s baggage getting slung on a different camel. “You been talkin’ ter someone with some real fucken bullshit in they mouth, Holy One?” he asked, though he suspected he knew the answer.
Sarouth made the kind of maybe-yes-maybe-no noise that signaled that Riaag had scored a direct hit. “Back when we made camp with Movven Wise-Wound, we…talked about certain things,” he said. He busied himself with digging through a ground nest that Riaag had already picked over.
“Way you’s talkin’ I suspect they ain’t the nicest ‘a subjects.”
“You remember that time you asked me what kind of men I like? It was something like that. It just went…badly.”
Riaag was going to have go drag Sarouth kicking and screaming towards a plain answer, wasn’t he. “Badly how?” he asked.
“He suggested I was…eh. Trying to make you something you weren’t. For my own selfish reasons.”
Never had something so ridiculous wafted past Riaag’s ears, and he’d been present for his share of amateur poetry compositions. Sarouth had always kept a respectful distance from Riaag, never getting any closer than he needed to for the sake of Riaag’s nerves, and the thought of him actually expressing interest in that way (lovely as it was, as a forbidden little voice in his heart insisted) was enough to make Riaag scoff. “And how the fuck’d you manage that’n, if you don’t mind me so askin’?”
“He implied that I’ve been…feeding you.”
Riaag scowled in confusion. There had been so many pauses in Sarouth’s speech he’d been expecting something more grandiose in scope, like slipping strange potions into Riaag’s water or chanting mysterious curses over him while he slept. This was just petty and weird by comparison. “The fuck? God-speakers ain’t supposed ter be starvin’ they attendants, is they?”
“Not feeding as in providing for. Feeding as in…as in making sure you always have more than you need. So you’ll change. It’s not like I keep my own interests a secret.” He didn’t, either, since all it took was the smallest of suggestions for Sarouth to go off on a lengthy discussion of whatever currently caught his fancy.
His scowl deepened. “So he implied you was plumpin’ me up like a fucken roastin’ goose?” asked Riaag. “Like I’s just some clueless fucken critter what cain’t possibly be sized as I is fer reasons unrelated ter yer, beggin’ yer pardon, Holy One, yer sacred boner?“
“In not as many words, yes.”
It was a good thing Riaag hadn’t been present for the original conversation, since he couldn’t be sure whether he’d have been furious or simply broken down in horrified tears. At least now he knew for sure he was irritated. “We eats the same food. Food what I cooks. Maybe sometimes I has a slightly bigger portion ‘n yers but that’s ’cause I’s doin’ hard fucken labor all the live-lovely day, the likes ‘a such what is prone ter buildin’ up a man’s appetite somethin’ fierce.” He slapped his stomach for emphasis. It stung a little, which he ignored. “A lamp ain’t gonna burn fer shit if it ain’t got no room fer oil.”
Sarouth laughed, clearly surprised. “That’s certainly one way to put it,” he said. “It’s not unreasonable that I share mine, sometimes, right? I, I, I just don’t like the thought of you being so hungry. Again.”
There had been days when they’d had nothing for their meals but thin tea to drink and tree bark to chew, and the memory of those lean times still haunted Riaag when their larder grew more barren. They were, nonetheless, long gone. He’d sworn a promise to himself that he would do better than the times they’d resorted to eating picked-over carcasses off the ground like animals, and he had made good on that promise. Now if they came across some delicious-smelling dead thing he was sure to prepare and plate it into a meal fit for people before they tucked in for a supper of natural carrion. The pheasants’ eggs alone he’d already planned out extensively, and if they paired some of the fruit he’d saved with them—and Sarouth didn’t get his sticky fingers into the stores—they’d eat so well one would never suspect it was just the two of them on their own.
Whatever the fate of their foraging, he felt it important to ease Sarouth’s worries in the here and now. “It’s right appreciated, Holy One. I ain’t never gonna complain ’bout such generosity.” He grinned. “Even if you’s motives ulterior, I think I wouldn’t mind it overly much. Cain’t say I misses havin’ my ribs show.”
“Oh, my poor heart! Don’t remind me!” said Sarouth with a cry that was only half mirthful. “You deserved so much better than what you had.”
Riaag nodded. “I got that now,” he said. A few latent feelings stirred, and he chose to let them be known; it seemed like Sarouth would really benefit from hearing them if he’d been so upset over such a silly, mean-spirited accusation. “Yer altruism don’t stop at the feastin’ table, Holy One, ‘n I’s ferever in yer debt fer such. A life in service ter the Hill God’s own is more’n I ever dreamed of. I’s actually livin’ my days insteada just existin’, ‘n I’s doin’ such with a face cleaned ‘a paint. Thank you, Faaroug, fer alla this.”
Sarouth scoffed. “It’s no more than what any decent person would do,” he said, though he didn’t sound like he believed all of what he said.
“Does a decent person sneak away with raw eggs when we’s tryin’ ter put tergether the parts fer a recipe?”
“All the time, I’d imagine,” said Sarouth, innocently. Riaag held out his basket and Sarouth placed a few eggs in it which Riaag hadn’t noticed him palm in the first place. God-speakers were full of unexpected tricks. “We should probably get back to camp,” Sarouth continued. “While you cook, I can start some more thread so we’ll have something to trade when we get to the next stronghold. Next time we plan to be in the same place for a while I can even look into getting some dyes. Does that sound good?”
“Sounds great, Holy One.”
A god-speaker shouldn’t have to work as hard as Sarouth did just to make sure there was rice in their bowl, but work Sarouth did, and never once had Riaag heard him complain about the long hours he spent carding wool or spinning flax. When Riaag worked, so did Sarouth. If there had ever been a better Faaroug in the history of the Hill God’s chosen, Riaag certainly couldn’t think of them. He hoped Agritakh thought so, too.
The night sky glittered overhead like lights shining through a tin lantern. Sarouth sat atop the sacred hill with his abacus in his lap, his claws clicking the beads along their dowels as he silently counted; Riaag waited at his side. There had been promise of stargazing once Sarouth’s task was done. It was certainly a good night for it.
One final bead slid home before Sarouth put his abacus aside with a sigh of relief. “Everything is in its proper place,” he said. “For now, He is appeased.” He shuffled closer to Riaag and leaned against him. “So, seen any good constellations lately?”
Riaag put his arm around Sarouth’s shoulders. “Heard you might be the one ter ask ’bout such.”
“You just might have heard right.” Sarouth snuggled into Riaag’s outer coat and played with the fur lining where it fluffed out into a proper trim. He gestured at a nondescript patch of sky. “That one over there is called Man Adoring His Oathbound. Always been a favorite of mine.”
“I’s inclined ter agree.”
The wind pulled at Riaag’s hair where it hadn’t been pinned down by his hat. He let it flutter. Chilly ears were an ephemeral inconvenience; quality time with Sarouth was what mattered, and if that meant he needed a few more mugs of hot water to thaw back out then so be it.
From where they sat the stronghold was almost like a mirror to the sky above. Dozens of campfires blazed in defiance of the cold, interspersed with free-standing braziers or the smaller lights of carried torches, and even at so dark an hour the stronghold teemed with life as other Rhoanish went about their business in the dark spaces between the patches of glow. Naar Rhoan was as alive and ever-changing as the stars were static. Still, just as the stars found time to wheel across the firmament, so too did the stronghold find time for stability, and the gates remained closed and secure while most people prepared for a good night’s sleep. Thanks to the noted dearth of animals, ghosts, or roving bandits inside the walls, Riaag was confident that more than a few new Rhoanish were due to have the best rest of their lives.
There was no place like Naar Rhoan in the whole of the valley, maybe not in the entire world. It was incredible what a few years of nigh-heretical thinking could do when you really put your back into it.
“How in the absolute fuck did we make this work?” Riaag asked. He hadn’t meant to say it out loud.
Sarouth scoff-laughed. “Your guess is as good as mine, my love. We still did it, though, as did every single soul who’s followed our lead.” His smile faded. “That’s why it’s so important I host the Feast of Stars, and host it here. If we don’t come back from across the river….” Riaag felt Sarouth cling a hair more tightly to his side than before. “If anything happens, at any time and for any reason, I need them to know. I need them to see that Naar Rhoan can flourish. I need it to outlive us both.”
Riaag rested his cheek against the top of Sarouth’s head. It was easier for him if he thought about their upcoming trip in terms of what needed to be done before they left and who would be doing what while they were gone. He didn’t know if he could protect Sarouth from whatever awaited them in the strange lands to the south, but he was damn well confident that no matter what happened, he would die before letting the Faaroug himself come to harm. They had sworn their oath by blood and steel and fire. Riaag was prepared to expend as much of all three as it took to make sure the Hill God’s avatar would make it home.
There was also the issue of scheduling the Feast itself. “You got ravens in with replies recently, right? When’s the first visitors due ter arrive?”
“Half a week from now, give or take a bit. Some of their entourages have very young children so they have to go slowly when the snows are deep. I’m hoping they accept my offer of staying until after Year’s End, at the very least. You’d know which midwives and nannies to talk to to help make their time easier, right?”
“Yeah, s’right.” What went unsaid was how Riaag would gladly care for every child in the stronghold at once if given the chance, meaning he would no doubt find plenty of excuses to place himself among the visitor’s fields with offers of aid for weary parents. If he happened to overhear useful tidbits of information while he was busy burping babies or tending to skinned knees, well, it wasn’t like he was being stealthy about it, was he? People could share the most interesting things when they forgot that drudges were people, too. “I can ensure they got proper food ‘n blankets all the way up ter the Feast, ‘n they’s gonna be in a decent state ter fend fer theyselves afterwards. If they god-speakers choose ter stay longer, we’s gonna be in good shape ter keep ’em all decent up through springtime.”
“I hope it goes well. The Feast, I mean. I know this is a big fucken deal fer you after so long a’ denyin’ you needed it.”
Sarouth tilted his head slightly to look at Riaag from the corner of his eye. “Will you be there? To witness?”
That had been a duty Riaag had taken up without realizing: witnessing the deeds of the Faaroug that they might be remembered in song. Deeds were one thing, but a great sea separated recording history from being present at one of the holiest rites god-speakers could host. He felt his stomach twist. “I dunno if it’s my place ter be at such a gatherin’. You’s all such devoted servants a’ His word, with needs all yer own via methods ineffable, ‘n I’s just…me.”
“I’m sure no one will mind,” said Sarouth in a tone of voice suggesting that if they did mind he’d be keen to express his passions on the matter.
“Sarouth, I knows what goes on at these things. You know well as I does that I ain’t got that same kinda nature ter honor.” He did not and he never would, because he was not a god-speaker. It was just as well. Too often had Riaag heard Sarouth say in confidence that he’d never wish the priesthood upon anyone.
“I think that makes it even more important that you come,” said Sarouth. He sighed. “When you’re an Agritakh-ruhd, it’s easy to let yourself drift. You let yourself become nothing more than His vessel. It’s fine that we do this to some extent, because how could the Hill God speak to those He loves without us to serve as proxies? But we all too often forget that despite our visions and miracles, despite our sacred blood, at the end of the day? We’re simply people, like any other orc. Just because we’re half-divine doesn’t mean we can neglect that other half. We need to remember why we do this. We need to remember that there is more to life than the Labyrinth. And if in the midst of the Feast we can hear the story of someone who was freed from a life of wretchedness by the intervention of His grace, we will be all the stronger for it.”
Riaag had trouble arguing with that. When god-speakers dealt with religious affairs as easily as a cormorant dove for prey, perhaps their crises of faith were related to everyday people. Knowing they could make a difference, that their service in His name wasn’t for nothing, that Agritakh could enrich the lives of mortal folk who hadn’t given up their dreams for endless walks through endless hallways in search of the truths at the world’s own center; yes, that seemed like a good thing, indeed. Riaag still couldn’t say that his place was there among the clerics, but he could say that he belonged at Sarouth’s side. It was almost as good.
A cloud drifted across the high-drifting chunk of moon. Its shadow fell across the stronghold, dimming the light from the heavens but failing to obscure the campfires. Once the cloud passed, Naar Rhoan looked just as brilliant as before. Riaag was no oracle but a poet knew a metaphor when he saw one.
“So…will you?” asked Sarouth.
“Will I what?”
“Be there. With me.”
He hadn’t actually answered that question, had he? “Yeah. I will bear witness ter yer words ‘n deeds, ‘n it shall be my duty ter sing what happens afore we go. We’s gonna leave one fucker ovva mark on history whether it likes it or not.”
Sarouth smiled, his face weary. “We sure are, Riaag. We sure are.”
They sat and watched even as the air grew ever colder. Soon it would be time to head back inside behind layers of felt and leather, but not yet. Right now, when everything was good, Riaag knew he needed to commit it all to memory. No matter what came next he would remember the weight of Sarouth against him, the brush of robes against his clothes, and the way the dim moonlight caught Sarouth’s hair, making him look like he, too, was made of stars.
“There you are, Riaag! I was looking all over for you.”
Riaag curled up into a tighter ball and cursed how visible he still was. He didn’t fit into hiding spots as well as he had when he was younger; it felt like every passing day saw him a little taller and a little broader, which meant every passing day he was a little less able to keep out of sight. Grown men weren’t supposed to hide and cry from things all the time, but if you’d never really had a childhood how did you know if you were a man or not? Maybe if he made himself small enough Sarouth wouldn’t be upset with him for not being inconspicuous enough.
“Are you okay? You disappeared after dinner. I asked some of Tevvit’s entourage if they knew where you had gone but nobody knew anything they felt like telling me.”
Tevvit Forest-Boar was a god-speaker just like Sarouth, but unlike Sarouth he had a lot of different people following him and seeing to his various needs. Sarouth just had Riaag. Sarouth deserved better. Why Sarouth hadn’t gotten rid of him yet, given that it was painfully obvious it was Riaag’s fault they didn’t have anyone else with whom to travel, was a mystery.
He did his best to fake sounding like he was fine. As long as he didn’t have to look at Sarouth he’d be fine, it was nothing he hadn’t done before. “Just heard some things, Holy One. I got a little upset, so I’s ensurin’ nobody else gotta deal with it but me.” He pressed his eyes against his sleeve and willed them, unsuccessfully, to stop pouring tears. “Sorry I weren’t on hand ter do chores.”
“No need to apologize. You finished everything up midday.” Riaag heard Sarouth’s robes rustle as he sat down next to the hollow where Riaag had tried to fit himself. “I wanted to ask if you had tried any of the honey tea that Tevvit’s herb-wise aide brewed. I’m sure she will warm some up for us again if we ask.” A pause followed, and Riaag could imagine the way Sarouth tilted his head with curiosity-laced concern. “Is there something you want to talk about, though? Were these ‘things’ you heard that got you ‘a little upset’ from any of Tevvit’s attendants?”
What was he to do? If he said no that would be a lie, and while Riaag might be the get of oathbreakers he was not a liar. Telling the truth was just as fraught, though, because that would be admitting someone else made him cry, and he knew what Sarouth’s temper was like when something got him good and riled. Every fiber of his body screamed that he had to keep people safe no matter how poorly they’d treated him. It had been that way with his old band, so why not now? He wished things were simpler. If someone else had been in the javelin’s path he could have diverted attention from them and eaten the punishment. When he was the one in the fire he didn’t know of any solutions that didn’t involve going limp and waiting for things to be over.
No matter how quiet Riaag tried to be, Sarouth remained insistent. “Were they cruel to you, Riaag?”
“T’weren’t nothin’ that ain’t true.” Sure, they had called him names, and said he was worthless, but those were facts anyone could see for themselves. Anyone with ears in their head could tell he talked a garbage dialect for garbage people, so them reminding him of it was only reasonable, since otherwise he might forget his place. It was nothing he hadn’t heard before.
“Riaag, please. What did they say?”
He stammered. “It’s fine, it ain’t a problem, it’s nothin’!” Maybe if he started to dig he could tunnel away from the conversation. A few drifting instincts in his bones still knew how to move earth with his claws. He could collapse the burrow after himself so Sarouth wouldn’t follow him, his panicking mind assured him, and if he suffocated under all that dirt, well, at least he’d already be buried. He’d be easier to exorcise that way. Cleaner than the alternative, too.
Something grabbed hold of the wildcat skull on his belt and pulled, taking him with it. He couldn’t find it in himself to struggle as Sarouth hauled him from his hidey-hole. “I don’t like seeing you this way, Riaag,” said Sarouth, releasing the skull as soon as Riaag was out in the open once more. Riaag fretted. Of course he knew Sarouth hated seeing him like this, why did he think Riaag had been hiding in the first place? Sarouth was relentless: “Something happened that really struck you to the quick, didn’t it?”
“I’s gonna be fine!”
“You were hiding in a hole. That is not something people do when they feel all is well. Look, you’ve gotten yourself all dirty, let me help….” He tried to brush some clods from Riaag’s hair but Riaag reared back like a scared animal.
“Stop!” Riaag half-begged, half-howled. “Please stop! Why cain’t you just leave me be, Holy One?”
“Why won’t you talk to me?”
Unable to be held back any longer, the words flowed out of Riaag’s mouth in a furious torrent. “Because if’n I tells you you’s gonna get mad ‘n you’s gonna be mean ter them, so mean they might die from it, ‘n it’ll be all my fucken fault!”
Sarouth rocked back on his heels. He looked stunned. “Is that what I’m like…?”
He could not unsay a word once it had been spoken, no matter how badly he wished otherwise, so Riaag resigned himself to his fate. He had gone so far past fear he found himself in an unfamiliar bubble of calm. It would be a clean break, his dismissal, and Sarouth was near another god-speaker so he wouldn’t be alone once he sent Riaag away, and maybe some of Tevvit’s people would want to follow Sarouth instead after a while. Sarouth would be properly taken care of and surrounded by others who respected his divinity. That was what was important. Maybe there was still time for Riaag to dig that personal barrow he’d been thinking about earlier so he’d make sure he wasn’t a bother in the mean time.
The fiery outburst he’d been expecting never burned. Confused, Riaag straightened himself up enough to be properly seated instead of hunched around himself like a bean-filled bun. Sarouth was busy staring into the middle distance, his lips sometimes mouthing words Riaag couldn’t quite understand. That explained some of it, then: the Hill God had requested an audience.
At least, that’s what Riaag thought at first, before Sarouth’s attention snapped back to him. “Is this what traveling with me is doing to you?” Sarouth asked, a hint of horror coloring his voice.
“T’ain’t you, Holy One, t’ain’t never,” Riaag said. This was more familiar ground to him. Making other people more comfortable through personal sacrifice was something he actually knew how to do. “I know I’s difficult, ‘n prone ter inspirin’ provocation on my behalf, ‘n I understand if this’s when we parts ways. I’s makin’ plans already, don’t worry.”
“I don’t think I like the sound of those plans.” Sarouth took a deep breath and hissed it out through his nose. “I am neither slaver nor war-chief. If you want to go, then….” He seemed to be having trouble finishing his sentence.
“I don’t, Holy One. But if’n you think it’s come time fer me, then I’s yer servant ter command.”
Sarouth wrung his hands. “You really don’t mind doing as I ask?”
Riaag somehow found it in himself to chuckle, muddy cheeks and all. “Shitfire, Holy One, I ain’t never.”
He hadn’t expected the intensity in Sarouth’s eyes. “Then…then what if I told you I’d rather travel together with you than any of those, those assholes back with Tevvit?” Sarouth asked, his voice wavering but his words certain. “And if this place is bad for you then I can damn well find somewhere else for us to be? And, and, and I asked if you would continue doing everything you do, because you do a good job of it, no matter what anyone else says?”
“Reckon I’d do that, then,” said Riaag. “No question.”
“Then that’s what we’re going to do,” said Sarouth. He set his jaw. “I think it might be time for us to break camp before I do something I regret. We can leave once everyone’s asleep.”
“Sorry ter—” Riaag began, but Sarouth cut him off with a curt gesture.
“There is nothing here that requires an apology. Not from you, anyway. You are my friend, not just my bodyguard, and if they are going to be shitty to a friend of mine then they do not get to enjoy the pleasure of my company. This is entirely on them. Do you understand?”
No, he didn’t, not really; Riaag knew what every word out of Sarouth’s mouth meant but couldn’t make them line up in a way that made sense. He tried to think of anything to say that wasn’t an apology. “Won’t Forest-Boar worry ’bout you, Holy One?”
“Let him.” Sarouth stood up and brushed the dust from his robes. “Maybe he’ll think to put the pieces together and maybe he will not. You are my guardian either way. It’s only fair I look after you, too.”
That made even less sense, but as Riaag surreptitiously gathered their things he couldn’t stop thinking about what Sarouth had said.
You are my guardian either way.
He’d been that since he first picked up an axe in terrified anger—technically ever since Sarouth had first jokingly asked if his barber was interested in protecting the rest of the package, not just his neck—but he’d never known if Sarouth really believed it, himself. Here was undeniable proof: Sarouth could look at him as he was at his lowest, cowering and weeping in a hiding place he couldn’t really use, and still see someone who would keep him safe. To Sarouth, even a shivering nothing had value. To Sarouth, there was a reason to keep a sickly thing who could barely function among his peers. Maybe Sarouth saw things as the Hill God did, because Agritakh cared for all His children who would show Him their faces. Riaag had only ever asked a single thing of Agritakh, and each passing day proved that he had truly been deemed worthy of such a gift.
His evening prayers were particularly jubilant that night.
A runner brought the news a few days later: The first of their guests had arrived, said guest being Yuris Jade-Tongue, his entourage as big and jolly as he was. Riaag tailed after Sarouth as they both went out to greet him and take stock of whose tents went where; there was plenty of room on the visitor’s field so far, but who knew how many more would be coming with the next guests to arrive? It would be important to make sure everyone had space to spare inside the stronghold walls over the next several days.
In the middle of the swarm of shelters, goats, and children stood Yuris himself, his eyes hidden behind a porcelain half-mask, a heavy disc of carved quartz suspended from the end of the braid he wore thrown over one shoulder. His laugh carried quite a ways across the field. It was a comfort to hear; the last time he’d visited Naar Rhoan he’d been uncharacteristically unwell, and Riaag had admittedly fretted a little over him and his well-being for days afterward.
“Yuris! You made it!” said Sarouth, his arms open for a hug.
Yuris crowed with delight and took Sarouth up on his offer, which resulted in a brief contest to see who could try to pick the other up first. “Why look at this! The Faaroug himself, in the flesh and dazzling as ever,” he said once they parted from their embrace.
“I try,” said Sarouth. He tossed his hair for emphasis.
“And here’s Bough-Breaker, too!” said Yuris, beaming at Riaag. “You look great. Those trophies on your belt are new to me, I think? They really suit you,” he added, giving a nod to the trio of bandit skulls Riaag wore on his hip. Yuris kept his distance, for which Riaag was grateful; save when dealing with close friends, Sarouth, or children, Riaag preferred operating at arm’s length from most other people. He was touched that Yuris remembered.
“Mighty courteous ‘a you ter mention, Holy One. Pleased ter see you ‘n yers well.” He nodded to where Yuris’s entourage was setting up camp. “Any ‘a yer people need assistance, ‘specially with they little ones, y’all is welcome ter request my aid. We’s inclined ter treat our guests nicely in these parts.”
Yuris nodded. “Oh yes, I remember how well you fed us the last time I visited. Some of mine were quite pleased to hear we’d be returning this way sooner than later.” He turned back to Sarouth, still smiling broadly. “Your oathbound has always had the sweetest manners, Sarouth. You’d think some would’ve rubbed off on you by now.”
“I’ll tell you what, it’s not for lack of trying,” said Sarouth with a waggle of his eyebrows, and he and Yuris laughed and elbowed one another. Sarouth so frequently kept himself apart from other people—not physically, the way that Riaag did, nor in a standoffish manner, rather that there was always a profound sense of how sacred his every breath was and how far away from mortal he truly was, no matter how casual he tried to be—that it was always a bit of a surprise watching him interact with those he considered friends. It was heartwarming, even with his fondness for bad jokes thrown in the mix.
They chatted a while (or rather Sarouth and Yuris chatted while Riaag stood nearby and listened) until a runner brought news of another Agritakh-ruhd’s arrival, at which point they parted ways; this same scenario repeated itself a few more times over the course of the afternoon thanks to some truly fortuitous timing. Some god-speakers were warm towards Sarouth and others were cooler, but Riaag was fairly certain Sarouth was on even ground with the lot of them as they continued to trickle in. He tried to relax. It was true that Sarouth had one hell of a knack for making enemies, but Riaag liked to think that recent years had seen him more inclined to find new allies, instead, at least for the sake of the stronghold. They owed it to everyone who had followed their lead.
By Riaag’s reckoning, somewhere between a third and half of their expected visitors had shown up by the time the kitchens sounded the call for the day’s communal meal. He gently guided confused newcomers to the tents and explained the way things worked—no Rhoanish, nor their guests, were required to eat, but the stronghold ensured that no matter what there would be at least one large, hot meal in the latter half of the day with cold leftovers available in the morning—while keeping one eye out for more runners. A stronghold as big as Naar Rhoan couldn’t really be seen from end to end without standing atop the walls; without runners and raven-keepers he suspected they’d never get anything done.
He was lucky enough to be passing the north gate with Sarouth when a final group of travelers approached. As Sarouth was busy talking to one of the guards, Riaag took the initiative.
“Naar Rhoan welcomes all y’all ter its threshold!” he called out in his best orator’s voice, though perhaps not his most formal tone. He saw a few heads turn towards him from where they had once been focused on one another, their animals, and the occasional supply cart or scurrying child. Most of them wore hoods. Ah, this must have been a highland band. “Come ‘n stay yerselves a while! Pitch yer tents within our walls. Our barricades is yers so long’s you care ter remain our guests.”
“Who greets us?” called back someone from among the throng. Riaag didn’t recognize them, but they weren’t wearing an Agritakh-ruhd’s regalia nor carrying a staff of office, so he assumed they spoke as the group’s proxy. Proxies he was more than happy to address.
“I’s known ter be Riaag Bough-Breaker, a man a’ our people, Chosen a’ Wolf ‘n oathbound ter Sarouth White-Hair, hisself god-speaker a’ Agritakh ‘n founder a’ this here stronghold.” Perhaps a few years down the road Riaag would tire of introducing himself as oathbound while wearing blank-patterned clothes and speaking with the unclean’s usual mangling of the regional tongue, but it would not be that day. It was a shame he’d left his wolf-skull helmet back home in favor of a winter cap; few could deny his blessing by one of the great and powerful Animals when he wore the remains of a beast whose head was the size of a horse’s.
He basked in the surprised murmurs and waved the travelers in. They flowed around him like water, some giving him curious or awed looks as they passed, and he pointed them towards the closest open spot on the fields. A few eyes subtly paused on his outer coat in wonder. Some days those eyes would open old wounds, leaving Riaag to bleed as he had so many times before, forever reminded he was marked for a very particular death. Some days he would be tempted to retreat to the safety of his tent where he could grieve for the family he never had and who would not—could not—sing him home when his time finally came. Those days were not today. Today he stood strong and proud as a man of Naar Rhoan, both clanless and blessed, a glorious oxymoron, and he would welcome strangers into a home half-wrought by the weight of his oath years before he ever actually swore it.
One figure remained behind. They were not the one who had called out to Riaag, and they kept their cloak heavily drawn against the wind, though he recognized the clan colors they wore; he was right about them being a mostly highland group. The group’s god-speaker had yet to make themselves known, so Riaag assumed that whoever it was who now stood before him presumably played that role, even if they had neither staff nor jewelry to proclaim their title. He dipped his head politely. If they wished to speak with him, then they would.
Sarouth, his previous conversation finished, sauntered over to investigate. “Who do we have here, Riaag?”
The figure regarded them both coolly, then adjusted the fall of their cloak so they were no longer hidden in fabric and shadow. A familiar face, half-bound with bandages, looked out from beneath the hood. Riaag’s stomach sank as he recognized its owner.
“Sarouth White-Hair,” said Daziin Cats-Cradle. “I believe we need to talk.”
“Are you hungry, Riaag?” asked Sarouth.
The answer was yes—it was always yes, barring the scant few times hunting had been in their favor or they’d found a magnificent fresh carcass with plenty of well-aged meat still on it—but saying so felt ungrateful. Riaag shrugged instead. He hoped if he didn’t think about it very much he could get back to his embroidery in peace; they’d never be ready for the blizzard everyone could smell in the air if he couldn’t get some serviceable trade goods ready in time.
“Well good news, then! I found something that should take the edge right off!” Sarouth plopped a bowl of fruit into Riaag’s lap, his fingers conspicuously mottled with dried juice.
Every single fruit was the brilliant color of poison. Riaag stared at them helplessly. “Is this…testin’ my loyalty, Holy One?” If Sarouth told him to eat something toxic then Riaag would do it, even if it meant securing himself a future where he shit himself to death, yet something about the situation seemed off. He hated questioning a god-speaker, but what else was he supposed to do? Maybe this was it. Maybe this was the excuse Sarouth had been looking for to get rid of him, and they’d go through their own respective roles until Riaag was properly cast out from Sarouth’s service, and then he’d just find a hole somewhere or something and die in it. He hoped against hope that he’d be easy to exorcise when he came back.
Sarouth blew a raspberry and grinned. “Oh, perish the thought, they’re all for you! You were so busy, I figured I’d take the time to see what around here was still ripe. Don’t they look delicious?”
They looked like poison-nut fruits. Riaag tentatively nudged one with his claw. He remembered hearing herbalists from passing bands talking about befouling meat with pastes or powders made from the things in the interest of killing dangerous animals. Did orcs count as dangerous animals? Riaag wasn’t inclined to find out for himself. If he died in the middle of camp then Sarouth would have to clean up the body, and that was assuming he didn’t make a mess before he passed. That wouldn’t do.
“I oughtn’t eat such,” he said, miserably.
He looked down into the bowl with its orange-hulled fruits. If he concentrated, Riaag could imagine the nasty-smelling flowers that bloomed from the same trees, or the shapes of the leaves. These were definitely fruits of poison-nut tree. He gritted his teeth. It was time to tell the truth and be a disappointment.
“These is bad fer me, Holy One,” he said. Riaag wasn’t sure how much god-speakers needed to worry about poisonous things so he chose his words with care. “I eats these, good chance I’s gonna shiver ‘n shake ’til I just stop breathin’, ‘n then I wouldn’t be useful ter nobody.”
“But…they’re just snow apples, right?”
Riaag picked up one of the fruits for a better look. It was round, orange, and had a little divot on the top where it had connected to the tree, but that was where the similarities ended. It was decidedly not a snow apple. “Holy One, I’s afraid that ain’t so.”
Sarouth wiped at his hands with a cloth, which failed to do anything about the juice stains. He bit his lip. Riaag was used to seeing Sarouth cocky, confident, and aggressive; now he was none of these things. It felt wrong. Sarouth was a god-speaker, a mortal agent of the divine will of the Hill God. God-speakers weren’t supposed to get upset like this. What was going on?
An animal chattered in the distance but the conversation remained stalled. This was not quite the reaction Riaag was used to getting for pointing out someone else’s flaw. What was the most likely reason for this series of events? He chose one that felt right: “Was you…testin’ me, Holy One?”
“Yes…,” said Sarouth, as though tasting the word. When he continued he sounded much more comfortable with whatever flavor the phrases carried. “Yes, of course! You’re so perceptive, Riaag, you figured it out right away.”
“Well, if you serve as my bodyguard, you need to be able to identify dangers coming from many directions, right? And that means faces that look friendly. But you, being so clever, saw through the ruse right away, and bravely told me that no, I was not giving you something nice to eat at all. Even though you probably wanted a treat! That’s…that’s just smart thinking.” His smile was bright and brittle.
The bowl of poison was whisked from Riaag’s hands, spirited away into one of Sarouth’s outer sleeves. Sarouth then promptly changed the subject to birds he’d seen on his trip to prepare his devious little test, which Riaag (still reeling from not being yelled at) was only too happy to indulge. There was a lot to like about birds. They sang so sweetly, and looked so nice, and nobody ever got mad at them for being stupid idiot fuckups who couldn’t learn shit. Birds were the best.
Much later, when Riaag was busy hauling gray water from the day’s chores, he happened upon the fruits again. They were strewn around like they’d been thrown, and a few were smashed as though stepped on or crushed by a stone. He nodded to himself. Clearly Sarouth had saw fit to destroy them once Riaag had proved his cunning, so it wasn’t surprising to see them so. Now there was no risk of Riaag coming to harm should he wake up in the dark of night with thoughts of snow apples on the mind.
It was still strange that Sarouth had seen fit to do so himself, and without Riaag’s knowledge, for that matter. All he’d had to do was ask.
“Daziin Cats-Cradle,” said Sarouth with a graceful, sweeping bow. “I welcome you to the stronghold of Naar Rhoan, seat of my influence, and home to all who might wander in search of it. Our food and fires are your own. I hope your travels were peaceful ones?”
“They were, thank you.” Daziin’s exposed eye flicked around the sights of the stronghold. Riaag couldn’t quite read her expression but she seemed modestly impressed. “It seems you’ve done well for yourself, White-Hair. The Sarouth I knew seemed content to scrabble in the dust for scraps, squalling any time he was advised to find another way. Whoever has made this place is no longer him.” Whoever she considered the Sarouth she had once known, it was hard to ignore how she used his deed-name instead of his given one now. Was it because she no longer wanted to be close or because she felt she hadn’t earned the right?
“I’d like to think I’m not, no,” said Sarouth, unfazed by the widening social gap. “Will your entourage be fine without you for a while?”
Daziin shrugged. “I did not originally plan to separate so early, but if you’d rather discuss this in private, then that’s what we’ll do,” she said. She stuck her fingers in her mouth next to her tusks and whistled, the sound summoning a youth with a bandaged right forearm and a similarly bandaged eye from the departing crowd. Riaag had long since learned how to spot a neophyte Agritakh-ruhd in the wild; he said a quiet prayer that the young cleric’s dreams would lead them to His presence sooner than later. Once their tattoos set instead of healing over to nothing every night things would get easier. As easy as things ever were for their sacred lot, anyway.
“Matik,” said Daziin, “please tell the others I’ll be joining them later, and they should make camp without me. The Faaroug and I have some catching up to do.”
Matik gave a sharp nod—and permitted themselves a brief, curious look at Sarouth and Riaag in turn—before they hustled back to the rest of the entourage with news in tow.
Sarouth watched Matik go. “I hate it when they’re young,” he said. “How long has it been?”
“She was old enough to a deed name before she turned: Dog-Friend. She was hoping to be a beastmaster, ideally so she could raise creatures to chase deer and watch her family’s sheep. I found her soon after it happened so she wasn’t alone for long.”
The relief in Sarouth’s voice was palpable, even if he hadn’t shaken off his sorrow. “Good. That’s good. Maybe, if she’s lucky, she can still care for animals if she finds the time.”
“Maybe,” said Daziin. “She insisted she come to the Feast, so here she is. I hope it doesn’t delay her attempts at finding the center.”
Sarouth shrugged. “If it does, it does. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. What’s important is that she’s come of her own free will, and she understands the gravity of what we do. If she’s here then her heart is ready to carry the burden. I couldn’t always say the same for myself.” He grimaced. “I wronged a lot of people before coming to my senses, and I know you were one of them. I have some apologies to make.”
Daziin coughed out a short, surprised laugh. “You have changed,” she said. “Let’s find a better place to say what we need to than the middle of a road, hm?”
The three of them made their way to holy ground where Riaag opened up the tent to receive company. He thanked his past self for having the presence of mind to put away all the laundry he’d been washing the day before; the front of the tent was tidy as a result of his labors, with mounds of seating cushions spread across the many carpets. He busied himself with lighting lamps and coaxing the embers of the firepots back to life. Depending on how long things went he considered brewing some tea for later; god-speakers being god-speakers, the talk might be finished in a handful of sentences or it might stretch out over the course of hours. He mentally prepared himself for a long night.
“I see you’ve kept with your weaving,” said Daziin as she admired Sarouth’s standing loom.
“I try,” said Sarouth. “It helps me think.” He gestured at a small pile of folded blankets, their simple dyes matching the one still strung on the loom. “I’m not as fast or as plentiful as some of the dedicated spinners we have here, but nobody minds an extra set of hands to make bedding for new converts.”
“Practical,” she said. “It’s a theme I’m noticing, White-Hair. You continue to have my interest.”
Sarouth sat himself down on a stool and motioned for Daziin to join him at the low table by which it stood. He and Riaag exchanged a glance; Riaag took this as a sign to calmly lace up the flap of the tent, signaling to those outside that they were no longer freely accepting visitors. Brewing up a pot of tea sounded like a better idea with every passing moment.
Daziin sat opposite Sarouth and lowered her hood fully. She looked much the same as she had years ago, with perhaps a little extra weariness on her face and a general subtle ebbing of her past youth; god-speakers, as a rule, aged gracefully so long as they properly cultivated their divine spark. She laced her fingers and placed them in her lap. “I was surprised when a raven arrived with a message for me,” she said. “More surprised when I decoded the beads it brought and found who sent them. I’ll be honest with you, White-Hair: I originally answered your summons out of sheer curiosity.”
“That’s fair,” said Sarouth. “We parted on bad terms. I don’t know if I was in the right place to attend a Feast back then, but I was terribly shitty to you any way you sliced it, even when you went out of your way to try to help. You probably knew what I needed more than I did.”
“Probably. Though to be fair on my side, I also thought you were dragging your companion into a life that would ruin him, one he didn’t want and couldn’t endure.” She sized up Riaag, who attempted to keep his eyes on the kettle. “I think we can all agree that things have turned out differently.”
Sarouth shot Riaag a warm smile. “Riaag has been my dearest friend and close confidant for nearly a decade now. He has reinvented himself into a sterling example of how all of us can become embettered by our love for Agritakh, and in turn by accepting His love for us. Also I’ve lost count of how many times he’s kept my foolish ass from wandering off the side of some crevasse or another. I can safely say I would not be the man I am today without him, likely because I’d be so much red mess drying on somebody’s sword. The oath we swore was just formalizing certain things that had been true for a while.”
She raised her eyebrow at this. “Bough-Breaker said as much when he met us at the gates. Never took you for an oathbound man, White-Hair. Forgive me for saying it, but you previously struck me as too flighty to give your word to any kind or cause that wasn’t His own.” There was a subtle inflection in the way Agritakh-ruhds talked about the Hill God that made His every pronoun resonate. Riaag had never quite been able to mimic it himself; he comforted himself with the knowledge that he could at least come as close as a mortal could, and he could speak powerfully enough on his own that there wouldn’t be any risk of skimping on expressing His majesty.
The hiss of breath between teeth heralded Sarouth’s cringe. “You wound me, Cats-Cradle, but I can’t say you’re wrong,” he said. “I wasn’t very good at the concept of humility. Or stability. Or asking for help. Or thinking myself capable of swearing something so binding, never you mind actually upholding the tenets tied to it.”
“So what happened?”
Sarouth’s moody look turned fond. “Riaag did.”
Daziin wasn’t as moved by this statement as Riaag might have liked. Her one-eyed gaze was as sharp as honed steel. “I remember you as well, Bough-Breaker, though your change is a more outwardly obvious one,” she said to him. “You strike me as more confident. I imagine the transfiguration was neither a brief nor an easy process.”
“He’s worked very hard to become who he is today!” said Sarouth.
She kept her eyes on Riaag and said, “For being his oathbound you certainly let him talk around you a lot.”
Riaag cleared his throat. “T’would be ’cause I’s oft more inclined ter stay quiet, Holy One,” he said. “I’s fine watchin’ from whatever vantage I’s been afforded. The Faaroug speaks ‘n others listen, which is his duty, ‘n I observes ‘n remembers fer discussin’ at a future time, which’d be my own.” He half-smiled. He suspected it was not in the friendliest of ways. “Seems I often hears the most interestin’ things when folks ferget I ain’t just some brutish motherfucker what can’t barely find he own ass ter scream at.” The kettle began to whistle, which gave him a perfect excuse to return to listening in the background. “Now if’n you’ll excuse me, tea’s almost done.”
“Riaag Bough-Breaker, Chosen of Wolf, did you just come dangerously close to back-sassing a god-speaker?”
He hadn’t thought of it that way until Daziin had voiced it as such, but he couldn’t deny it. “Reckon I did, Holy One,” he said. He desperately hoped he hadn’t just ruined the entire gathering in a brief burst of contrariness.
Daziin laughed. “Then White-Hair has been a good influence on you, as well.”
Just like that, the tension in the room abated. Riaag selected a blend of leaves and spices from their collection of jars and set to preparing something with a nice, medium-strong scent for the three of them while Sarouth and Daziin sized one another up with new eyes. A hint of their old friendship drifted in the air amongst the tea steam.
“I suppose I should ease away from being so…well, you saw it,” said Daziin. “It’s been a strange journey for me knowing that the angry young man I used to know, the one who refused boons and couldn’t stand to confront who and what he was, has been reborn as the Faaroug himself. I admit I sometimes wondered if it was a joke in extremely poor taste.” She paused. “That probably was a bit harsher than I meant to sound.”
Sarouth toasted her with the teacup Riaag presented to him. “Oh, trust me, I didn’t believe it myself for the longest time.” He took a sip and licked his lips. “Riaag knew, of course, but that’s because he’s much better at paying attention than I am.”
“Knowing you, you fought against the title the entire time.”
“I fought Riaag against the title, if that tells you anything.”
Daziin cringed. “Yes, it does.”
Riaag kept his eyes on the leaves drifting through the teapot and did his best not to say anything, though keeping his silence pained him. He wanted to talk about how Sarouth’s divinity had been obvious, and how joyous the day had been when Sarouth had said those fateful words: I can be Faaroug for you. Perhaps he’d been trying to downplay his nature at the time, with “for you” pretending he would not be as important as he was to everyone who prayed to Agritakh, and it didn’t matter if that had been a polite half-lie at the time. He Who Sleeps Within the Earth had chosen their generation to walk among His people. It was all Riaag could do to keep from breaking into impassioned song right then and there.
“If I’m going to be His Faaroug,” continued Sarouth, “I figured I owed it to myself, and everyone else, to host something like this. I can’t keep pushing this part of myself away just because it makes me uncomfortable. That’s a disservice to anyone who’s attended one before, and to those who have yet to kneel before the platter.” Matik Dog-Friend’s name was not mentioned; her presence was still in the room with them, unnamed or no, and Riaag once more found his thoughts returning to her well-being. It would never be fair when they turned when they were young.
“So why now?”
Sarouth rubbed his thumb along the lip of his cup. “I’ve taken a lot of risks to build this stronghold and make it what it is,” he said. “I’ve had to reevaluate huge swathes of the Chant, and even then I’m still having to guess half the time what it is He’s trying to goad me into doing. I’ve made a lot of friends and killed a lot of enemies. But everything has been about Naar Rhoan, its people, the Rhoanish ideal. None of it’s been about me.”
“A stronghold is a different scale than a single person, White-Hair.”
He rolled his eyes. “I know that. I’m going somewhere with this, I promise.”
Daziin laced her fingers under her chin and propped her elbows up on her knees. “Then I will listen.”
“Thank you.” Sarouth held out his teacup, which Riaag refilled. He took a long sip before he continued. “Some people we know—acquaintances, really, I’d hesitate to call them friends—have gone missing, and an envoy of theirs came to me for help.” Riaag wasn’t sure he’d ever refer to the glass ball as an envoy if left to his own devices, but Sarouth always had a reason for his turns of phrase. “We will be traveling across the river to look for the others. And while I have danced between the teeth of many an opponent, we barely know anything about what happens there, save that most of those who go to investigate either return destroyed or never come back at all.” Sarouth gave her a resigned smile. “I decided that there was something I needed to do before I ran out of chances to do anything at all.”
“And so you called a Feast.”
Her body language eased, becoming less flippant, and she reached across the table for his hand. “When I first accepted your request to teach you more of how to be a god-speaker, you could barely decide if you were thrilled to serve as His hand or if you had nothing but contempt for what His gift had done to you. Half the time you only learned from me grudgingly. It didn’t surprise me when you refused the Feast of Stars when I offered it.” Daziin sighed. “It did surprise me how violently you rejected it. I didn’t expect you to leave, especially with Bough-Breaker in tow, and especially not paired with ignoring the final gift I gave you. I’m sorry for the hardships you suffered.”
Sarouth placed his thumb over hers and squeezed them gently together. “You don’t have to be sorry for my mistakes. I was terrible at listening to you. To anyone, really. But especially you.”
“That doesn’t mean you deserved what happened.”
“I know,” he said, then paused. “No, that’s a lie. I still believe it, I think, after everything Riaag has had to endure because of me and my bad fucking temper. I’m sure he’d disagree because that’s the sort of person he is,” he added, shooting Riaag a tired grin before Riaag could object. “Either way it doesn’t excuse me being a terrible little shit.”
Daziin tilted her head and said, “Are you hoping you can absolve yourself completely in the space of a single Feast of Stars?”
This got a genuine laugh out of Sarouth. “Not by any means! But I have to start somewhere, don’t I?”
“As did we all,” said Daziin, smiling.
From there they dipped back towards easier topics, like how often the Rhoanish had to deal with raiders and how regularly they put new corpses up on the walls as a warning. Riaag kept one ear on the conversation while occasionally dipping in to freshen up tea and the simple platter of dried fruits and carrion he’d prepared for them to pick at between phrases. He thought about the upcoming Feast, and what would be required of him; a Feast of Stars might share its name with a festival meal, but you couldn’t just serve some beshbarmak and hope for the best when it wasn’t earthly food that would be consumed. His mind whirled. Would a soup be appropriate? Would fish? Would the visiting god-speakers accept gifts of Rhoanish bread if the grain was grown at His behest, or would the long-standing taboo against stealing food from beasts rear its unwanted head in the middle of a ceremony? Everything was that much more complicated when there were conflicting traditions in play.
It was difficult to tell just where Sarouth and Daziin were in regards to one another, at least from where Riaag stood. He wanted to hope for the best; while Sarouth had scarcely said two words about her since they had walked away from her gift of divination, it was clear to see he missed his old mentor. Before things had gone sour she had always seemed like she knew what to say to him whenever he came to her for guidance, even if they were only a handful of years apart in age. Sarouth had found teachers before Daziin, and he’d even had a handful since, and while Riaag was sure there were plenty of fond memories between the other god-speakers in his life there had only ever been one of her.
Maybe he was being too sentimental. Maybe there was a lot going on he’d never had the presence of mind to notice back in the day. Maybe Riaag was letting himself indulge in fantasies with no bearing on reality, ones where people who had been wronged were willing to forgive and people who’d behaved badly could prove they had changed. His love of poetic endings would be the death of him someday.
Their talk walked its way back towards the topic of the Feast, with them both discussing times and names. Riaag had refilled their cups thrice more by then. He still couldn’t quite tell whether they were enjoying one another’s company or merely tolerating being close.
“I would like to stay longer and enjoy more of this really quite excellently-cured meat,” said Daziin as she popped a last morsel of carrion into her mouth, “but I should return to my entourage, and to Matik, before it gets much later. We have a lot to do in not a lot of time.” She stood and extended her hand. “I’ll see you at the Feast, Sarouth.”
Sarouth’s face lit up like a ritual fire at the sound of his given name. “I’ll be there, Daziin.”
They didn’t go for a full embrace, much as Riaag would have liked to see it, but they clasped their hands to one another’s forearms and rested their foreheads together as they wished each other a safe passing, which was nearly as good.
Once Daziin left Sarouth slumped against Riaag’s side like a melting wax taper and would have slid down to land facedown on the carpets if Riaag hadn’t caught him. He nuzzled at Riaag’s shoulder wearily.
“So that went well,” he said. He sounded like he’d been awake for days.
Riaag propped him a little more upright. “You don’t sound so good.”
“That’s what happens when you have to admit you’ve fucked up, my love.”
As someone with a long and storied history of fucking up—or at least the impression that he had, which might as well have been the same as reality as far as he was concerned—Riaag couldn’t relate. Then again, he wasn’t the sort of person who was so fiercely headstrong that he would scream himself hoarse at a god whose own nature he housed within himself; he was willing to accept that things were a little different for Sarouth.
“I want to sleep for a week,” said Sarouth. “I’ve got less than a day, and there’s still things to do before we bed down. I’ll manage.” He rubbed his eyes. “Would you mind if you held me until I drift off tonight? I think I’m going to need it.”
Riaag guided Sarouth to rest against his front, one arm wrapped around his waist to mimic how he imagined they’d lie together later that evening. He spent so often being the smaller of two nesting bowls it sometimes took him a little to remember other useful configurations. If Sarouth needed this, however, then he would provide. “Yeah. ‘Course I will.”
Sarouth pressed his nose against the front of Riaag’s shirt. “Thank you.”
There was so much left on their plates before either of them could rest, with more god-speakers to meet and more entourages’ camps to outfit. There were fortifications to check and guards to debrief. There were walls to walk and water to carry and so much firewood to hand out to so many different hearths. Naar Rhoan was a stronghold and there was no part of an organization of its size that didn’t have to be constantly bulwarked against the ever-crashing tides of time.
Riaag pulled Sarouth a little closer and rested his chin on the top of Sarouth’s head. It could all wait a little bit longer.
“So what do you like?” asked Sarouth one evening while Riaag boiled some vegetables they’d dug up for supper.
The question was so sudden Riaag worried he’d missed some context somewhere. Surely he wasn’t forgetting something from earlier? At least he knew he had permission to ask questions of his own. “Like, Holy One?”
Sarouth chuckled. “You know. When sharing a fire with someone. Who do you like to see there, and what do you like to do together?”
Riaag had spent the last few months of his life not having to think about sharing fires in any context other than warmth. He drifted after Sarouth like a cinder, and as a result he’d had more than a few evenings where he’d slept on his own in their little camp because Sarouth had taken a shine to somebody or another in a passing band, and that was it, really. The idea of being close to someone turned his stomach. Even if he hadn’t been an untouchable monster—cleansed or not, Riaag knew he was filthy beyond compare—he couldn’t so much as entertain the idea without breaking out into a cold sweat and shaking until his amulet went off again. He’d been going through a lot of those lately. Every night’s prayers were sure to include his gratitude for Sarouth being so willing to replace those little talismans each time Riaag’s terrified heart exhausted another one.
“I keeps ter myself, really,” he said. Desperate to distance himself from the subject with great celerity, he added, “Whatcha like on yer side ‘a things, Holy One?”
“Oh, what a good question,” said Sarouth, sounding pleased. Riaag relaxed a bit. This had clearly been one of those queries where the asker had been more eager to answer it themselves than to hear what the recipient had to say; Sarouth wasn’t as prone to those as some people Riaag had known, but he still knew how to recognize some of the signs. He was legitimately interested in learning more about what made the Faaroug tick, anyway, so it wasn’t like it would be wasted time. It wasn’t like he was planning on going anywhere until the vegetables were done.
Sarouth adjusted his seat on his cushion the way he sometimes did when preparing to workshop a new sermon. “I like a nice young man with a good personality, someone about my age. I like to think I’m not too picky of a person, since there is so much to like about so many people, but if I had my pick of the litter? Definitely bigger, definitely with nice tusks, definitely with a good pelt on his skin. I see a smooth, trim man every time I catch sight of my own reflection, and I look great, but I want to spend time with someone different from me.” He made a cupping motion in the air with his hands and flexed his claws like he was squeezing something. “Soft and furred is a really good kind of different.”
Riaag casually pulled his sleeves a little further down over the cuffs of his gloves. He’d gone hairy while still well within the range of boyhood, and it wouldn’t do for Sarouth to catch sight of that now and become disgusted by something he liked to see on other people.
“What kinda personality’s a good one?”
“You’re asking all the hard ones tonight!” said Sarouth with a laugh. Riaag winced and focused his attention on doling out what few seasonings he had left in his stocks to their ever-more-tender meal in a bid to keep it from tasting like boiled nothing, even if that was more or less exactly what it was.
“A good one, a good one…. Ah! Someone who’s very kind. It can be fun having a fling with a real bastard now and again” —Riaag was pretty sure Sarouth meant bastard in the metaphorical sense, not the real kind like Riaag was, but he didn’t feel up for asking for clarification— “but someone who’s always mean and contrary gets old being around after a while. I want a man who can laugh, and makes me laugh, the kind of person that’s like a ray of sunshine given a body. I don’t mind if he’s bullheaded, or even prone to talking back a little, so long as he’s doing so for the right reasons and not just to be a pest. It doesn’t hurt if he knows when to listen to what he’s told when the time is right, either,” he added with a wink. At least, Riaag assumed it was a wink. Sometimes it was hard to tell thanks to the forelock Sarouth wore to conceal his divine eye.
“That sounds pretty good, yeah.”
“What do you think makes for a good personality, Riaag?”
Once again back in a hunter’s sights, Riaag scrambled for the simplest, most honest answer he could imagine. “Somebody what don’t yell at me, I guess.”
Sarouth laughed and reached up to ruffle Riaag’s hair. “Now who would ever be mean to a sweet thing like you?”
More people than not, thought Riaag. He opted not to say that, since it tended to just make Sarouth a certain type of angry-sad; given that Sarouth had found him while he was busy bleeding out from a skirmish, it wasn’t as though there had never been any proof that Riaag’s life had been far from a charmed one before they met. He ignored how his cowlick felt like it was standing straight up from Sarouth’s playful interference. “I just think it’d be nice, is all.”
“Of course it would be,” said Sarouth. He tilted his head back and sniffed the air dramatically. “That boil-up is starting to smell very good! How much longer do you think there is left to go on it?”
Riaag nudged a bit of stalk against the side of the pot with a spoon to test the texture. “Reckon we can eat whenever we pleases, Holy One.”
“I would love that! All this talk about people we like has given me quite the appetite.”
The evening’s conversation went elsewhere after that, punctuated by the sound of spoons on bowls, and it never truly meandered its way back to where it had begun. Riaag was thankful for that. The less he said, the less likely he’d just make one or both of them upset.
That night, as the moon rose and night creatures called to each other in the distance, he was sure to mention in his prayers how nice it would be if Sarouth could find somebody who could be just as good as he wanted. Riaag did not ask for anything for himself. After the great gift he had received in being permitted to serve such a kind and wonderful god-speaker, what was the point in wanting anything else?
The Feast of Stars drew ever-closer, which meant Riaag soon found himself scurrying after Sarouth as he went from camp to camp with the peculiar glass ball in tow. The more people looked at it the more mystified they collectively became; it would offer vague visions in response to Sarouth’s goading, if unreliably, but anyone else who handled it, no matter how skilled a soothsayer, might as well have been holding a stone. How was it with over a dozen god-speakers in one place they didn’t have any more answers than when they’d only had the one? Their last hope was Ruzhu Kind-Knife, seer extraordinaire, whose entourage had arrived while Yuris was unsuccessfully trying to jiggle an answer out of the glass. The trouble would be convincing her to look at it in the first place.
“The Feast draws near and I’ve barely had a chance to rest,” said Ruzhu, her black clothes flowing around her like a pair of great, shadowy wings. Her hand rested on the pommel of her namesake blade where it was tucked into the front of her belt. “Do you think I’m really going to be of much help to you like this, Sarouth?”
“Please, Ruzhu,” said Sarouth. He held out the blanket-filled basket in which they moved the ball, its top tilted towards her so she could see inside. “People’s lives might be at stake.”
Ruzhu snorted. “Not Rhoanish ones, though? Or even orcish, if I heard you correctly. Who even are these people?”
“They called themselves the Leopard’s Breath Company. They’re wandering do-gooders or something, a little like a band, but different.”
“Odd name for a band.”
Sarouth shrugged around the basket. “I did think to ask about that when we spoke. Apparently where they come from, the leopard is said to have sweet breath that can put even a great beast to sleep if it inhales the vapors. Even dragons are at its mercy. The idea is that they want to be a similarly potent force in the world.”
“They really believe in dragons where they come from?” asked Ruzhu with a quirk of her eyebrow.
“I’m not about to tell them to stop believing in flying snakes so long as they don’t cause problems for Naar Rhoan in the process. Their hearts seemed in the right place, even if they did use a weird term for Riaag when they first met him.” Riaag remembered that; he didn’t appreciate being called an ogre by strangers. It didn’t sound like a compliment.
“So these fairy-tale fanatics roamed in the wrong direction one day. Why do you care?”
“When they came upon us, lost and confused, I set them back on a path that felt like it would lead them to their destination. Whatever’s happening to them is very likely due in part to my interference. I have to take responsibility. If I don’t, who will?” He sounded sad, not angry, which was a surprise to Riaag. Usually pointless deaths set him seething. Perhaps the conversation with Daziin had struck him deeper than it had looked at first glance.
“Odd of you to be so tender-hearted. I thought the stronghold came first.”
Sarouth tossed his head like a contrary horse, his hands still occupied with the basket. “It does, always. I think whatever took this ball’s master is gearing up to be a threat to us, too. If whatever’s out there can take down a group of mercenaries as skilled as they are then it is absolutely my problem.”
That Riaag had not known. A flash of fine sweat broke out across his skin, leaving him uncomfortably chilly until it dried. He was fine heading into danger and grabbing death between his own hands and teeth; he did it gladly so other people didn’t have to. The knowledge that this unknowable danger, this wizard, might come for Naar Rhoan sooner than later filled him with a dread the likes of which he hadn’t known for a very long time. What if they bedeviled the stronghold’s people, all of them willing to bet their lives and purity on the greatest experiment the valley had ever seen? What if the fields were turned to poison? What if they hurt the babies?
Riaag centered himself. He was the Chosen of Wolf, marked without question by the scar on his shoulder, and he would respect that honor by defending his pack—which just so happened to compose of every single person in the stronghold, age notwithstanding—until his dying breath. They would find a solution and then they would take care of the problem, because that was how he and Sarouth did things. He would accept no other outcome.
As for Ruzhu, she still didn’t look too impressed. With a great sigh she peered into the basket Sarouth still held out to her. Her expression went from too-tired to gobsmacked in the blink of an eye.
“I’ve never seen anything like it before,” she said.
“That’s not very comforting,” said Sarouth.
She waved him off. “That’s not what I meant. This is incredible. It’s like one of my scrying quartzes but bigger and purer than anything I’ve ever used. And it just appeared overnight, you said?”
He shrugged. “More or less. The merchant who owned it seemed to use it as a focus for impossible things. All I really know is that I have no idea how it’s supposed to work.”
“Fascinating,” she whispered. She reached for the embroidered patch concealing her left eye and Riaag averted his gaze in the nick of time. He could hear the rustling of the blankets as she rummaged around in the basket. “It’s heavy. Heavier than it should be. I can feel hints of mysteries buried inside this thing but it’s going to take time to figure any of them out. Is there a particular answer you’re looking for?” As hesitant as she’d been before, now she sounded downright excited.
“If you can get it to say exactly where it came from, and what it needs me to do, that’d be lovely.”
“How long do I have?”
“How long do you want to stay?”
Ruzhu chuckled. “You keep trying to get me to run this place, don’t you? I’m fine waiting out the worst of the winter here. My attendants could use some rest, and they like it when we come to visit. They say they think it’s a nice change of pace, while I think half of them have a Rhoanish sweetheart or two they miss when we’re out on the road. It’s nice to have happy things in our lives.”
Their talk drifted from topic to topic from there, and somewhere along the line Ruzhu replaced her eyepatch. Sometimes she addressed Riaag but mostly she did not. This was fine. What was less fine was the way Sarouth froze up when she asked him a potent question:
“This is your first Feast of Stars, isn’t it?”
He cringed. “Yeah. I’m not looking forward to it.”
Ruzhu placed her hand on his shoulder. It was remarkable how much younger she looked when she needed to wear a caring face instead of her usual mask of grim, steely reserve. “You don’t have to be afraid. We’re all here with you.”
“Maybe that’s what I’m afraid of,” said Sarouth, but he did not shy away from her touch.
“Go and rest. Have some supper. Gather your strength. Think about sweeter days, if you like, or simply meditate upon the Void. He Who Sleeps understands we all have our own ways to prepare.” She looked up at Riaag. “Make sure he doesn’t forget he’s as much mortal as he is divine, Bough-Breaker,” she said. “Once the Feast has run its course, our Faaroug is yours alone to comfort.” She might have winked at him then. It was hard to tell around the eyepatch.
“You’ve my word, Holy One.”
They left the glass ball in Ruzhu’s care since she made no secret of wanting to study it further; Riaag appeased himself with the knowledge that if something nasty came out of the damn thing and wrapped itself around her heart, he at least had prior experience in how to get nasty things out of god-speakers. The little plot of sacred moly flowers they grew near the hill would see to that. Had it only been a year ago that a ghost had snuck into the stronghold in the shadow of a friend? Time was funny when it refused to slow itself down.
He had food to cook. He had a rite to attend. He probably had a lot of chores he’d forgotten about simply because he’d been too busy with all the other chores. A single man could be but a single place at once, however, and right now his place was at Sarouth’s side, ideally presenting him with a dish of something hot and delicious. Hopefully Sarouth would see things the same way.
“So what do you like?” asked Sarouth the second night of their oathbond.
“Like?” asked Riaag. The question felt vaguely familiar but he couldn’t quite place how.
“When fu—” He stopped himself and started over. “When having sex with someone. To do. To have done to you. Either of those, or even both, y’know?” Sarouth smiled. “I want to learn how best to make you feel good.”
Riaag shrugged. Approximately seven years of self-imposed celibacy had left him with a broad and colorful fantasy life, though the bits that actually featured him in them had always been paired with a dream-sculpted Sarouth. That he’d sworn an oath to the person he loved above all else, and had adored for years from a safe and sterile distance, had been quite a relief in more than a few ways, as he’d spent so long with the idealized company of his favorite person he wasn’t sure if there was any way he could’ve made his heart jump from its deep wheel ruts to properly appreciate anyone else. At least thinking about Sarouth in that way had been nice in a way Riaag usually didn’t get to enjoy.
What Riaag liked thinking about and what he could do were very different beasts, so he simply said, “I ain’t too terr’bly complicated, Holy One. If’n I’s gettin’ my dick touched on at the end ‘a the day that’s all I really need. Don’t matter if it’s my own hand, neither.”
“And that’s great, but what I want to know is whether you have any special favorites! Our time together isn’t just all about me, you know.”
Sarouth was wrong, there, because as far as Riaag was concerned everything was about him. This was what Riaag had wanted, of course, and the past few days had seen him sometimes needing to pause and sit for a moment to reflect on how deliriously happy he was over various recent events, but what he wanted was secondary. Riaag might have walked the rest of his days in Sarouth’s shadow without so much as a touch on the arm if that’s what Sarouth had deemed was best. Now he was a clean man, a blessed man, a man whose place in society had been secured with blood—some of which Riaag had yet to wash out of the carpets in the front half of the tent—and that was all wonderful, but as a result he owed Sarouth more than ever before. That was fine. He was used to living in debt to other people.
“So long as you’s happy, it’s good.”
“Brave warrior, you’re going to be the death of me,” said Sarouth in mock exasperation. “Let me put it this way, then: I am going to be happiest if I know what you enjoy. If you think of it like that, do you have any more luck when you rack those clever brains of yours?” He tapped on his temple for emphasis.
This was not how Riaag had envisioned this conversation going. “Uh. Not really.”
“Nothing at all?”
“Reckon t’wouldn’t be a lie if’n I were ter say I dunno shit ’bout such. Ain’t really my area ‘a expertise.”
A filed-down claw traced the curvature of Riaag’s cheek, causing goosebumps to bloom all down the back of his neck. “Guess we’ll just have to find out together, won’t we?” purred Sarouth.
Before Riaag could complain he found a hand on either shoulder and Sarouth’s face so close to his their noses were pressed together. Sarouth leaned in and Riaag went with him, each bit of pressure pushing him further out of a seated position and more onto his back. When his head hit the pillow Sarouth reared up again to straddle his hips, still fully clothed but, if the firm pressure against Riaag’s trousers was any indication, no less fully erect. In theory Riaag could have shrugged him off with ease; Sarouth didn’t weigh that much, and while he had the strength of the earth running through his veins Riaag had several hundred pounds of fat and muscle to his advantage. In practice? Riaag was helplessly pinned.
Their first night together they’d been able to discuss his sexual limits—and there were many—with what felt like a decent mix of respect and curiosity. This technically had not been covered by any of those. Riaag’s thoughts felt like they were on fire. He hadn’t asked for any of this but Sarouth had seen fit to give it to him anyway, and what was more, Riaag wanted it with a passion he hadn’t expected from himself. It felt natural to lie supine with his throat and belly exposed to the Faaroug of Agritakh. Wasn’t this the true end-goal of any faithful disciple?
Sarouth loomed over him, one corner of his mouth quirked up around a tusk into a perfectly smug smirk. “You went over easier than I expected,” he said. He sounded pleased. “Seems you like being on your back, huh?”
“I ain’t opposed…,” said Riaag.
The hands on Riaag’s shoulders pushed him a little more firmly into the mattress. It wasn’t meant for two people, and definitely not for someone Riaag-sized, and in the hot summer air he knew he was going to sweat through the sheets in no time. Sarouth probably knew that, too. Riaag stayed put. If they broke the bed, well, he knew where to find trees with stronger wood. For now it was important he not be anywhere Sarouth hadn’t put him.
“Now why might that be, brave warrior?”
Riaag was not five minutes into figuring out he liked this sort of thing in the first place and now he was being asked to evaluate it? That wasn’t fair. “Dunno,” he said, because he didn’t yet.
He was rewarded with another grinding swivel of Sarouth’s hips. “Is it because you can see me well this way?”
They only had a single lamp lit thanks to the warm weather, and the late hour meant that there was no sunlight to filter through the felted roof of the tent; it was just a few steps away from stygian inside. Sarouth was a dark shape defined by smaller, brighter ones, hardly the sort of thing Riaag would say he could see well. Then again, he could see the pale fall of Sarouth’s hair and the way his grin caught what little light there was, and Riaag could mistake him for no one else. He nodded. It was important he know who was there, after all.
Sarouth ran a hand down Riaag’s front, his palm following the empty space between the lapels of Riaag’s caftan until it rested against the uppermost swell of Riaag’s stomach. “You want to watch me take some of this off for you?”
“Might be nice….”
“I think so, too.”
Riaag’s belt was a simple affair, since the greatest trophy he owned he’d long since made into a helmet, and nothing else had felt like it had quite the same weight as the skull of an avatar of Wolf. Sarouth freed the buckle and eased it flat before tugging at the mid-wrap around Riaag’s waist, which itself was followed by him hiking up Riaag’s shirt and painstakingly untying the lacing of Riaag’s trousers. It was like he was peeling an onion one layer of skin at a time. When Riaag’s flesh was finally exposed to the light he couldn’t help but shiver despite the heat. This was a lot different from stripping down to go swimming.
“This is nice, I like this,” said Sarouth as he stroked the soft, hairy expanse next to Riaag’s navel. He kneaded at it like a cat bedding down on a blanket. Riaag wiggled in discomfort.
“Not so hard, Holy One.”
“Just ‘Sarouth’ is fine when we’re alone, remember,” said Sarouth, though he eased off all the same. “I want to see more of you. Do I get to today?” He batted his eyelashes. “Pretty please?”
It was tempting to say no just to see what would happen; in the end, however, Riaag’s need to be touched won out over his puckish curiosity. “Okay. But, uh. You gotta say what you’s gonna do, first. Okay?” Hopefully Sarouth would see that request as sexy instead of an attempt for Riaag to keep himself together in unfamiliar territory.
“More than okay.” Sarouth slithered out of his outer robe and dropped it on the floor with little ceremony. His inner robes were generally less decorated than his outer layers, though in exchange they hugged his figure in a rather flattering way. It was a hell of a thing how much more exposed he looked despite still being, by some definitions, fully clothed.
“I want to see every inch of you, from nose to toes. I want to see you on your back with your long hair streaming across the pillows, showing me every part you keep hidden, and I want to see how badly you want me. I’m going to get you naked and I suspect you’re going to like it. We’ll see where things go from there, I think, but I want to see you come before the night is through.” He rolled his hips again. “How’s that sound?”
Riaag hadn’t realized how nice it could be hearing someone else set the mental stage for a change. The best he could manage was a shaky, “Neat.”
The hardest part for him was letting Sarouth pull off his gloves. They were nothing special, just worked leather with slits for his claws at the tips, but for years they and other pairs like them had been the only barrier between himself and the rest of the world. They kept him from making other things dirty. They kept things safe. He needed them. Except that wasn’t the case anymore, nor had it been for years; Sarouth had been shown a man unclean and untouchable and blessed him with nary a second thought, and he had touched Riaag’s chest with his own bare hand in front of the entire stronghold when that purity was challenged. Riaag still watched with wonder as Sarouth tugged each glove free and laced his fingers with Riaag’s own.
“Don’t worry, Riaag. I’ve got you,” murmured Sarouth. “By blood and steel and fire.”
Bastard son of oathbreakers had been branded on Riaag’s soul since the moment he was born, the sins of his sire and dam befouling him before he’d drawn his first mewling breath, and he’d long assumed that the best a man with neither clan nor kin to his name could hope for was to die in obscurity where his wrathful shade couldn’t hurt anyone. His honor wasn’t worth a mound of horseshit. Now, though, he bore an oath with pride where his forebears had faltered. Not just any oath, either; Sarouth had sworn by the three tenets of the Chant, those most sacred emanations of the Scavenger Kings, and Agritakh in His infinite mercy had seen fit to permit a union between His avatar and…whatever it was Riaag was now. It was enough to make one’s head spin.
“Blood ‘n steel ‘n fire,” he repeated. The words were sweet as wine against his tongue.
“That’s right,” said Sarouth. His smile was gentle, though not wholly without the fierce-eyed hunger he’d shown before. “My brave warrior. My closest friend. I want to touch us together, now, so I can feel your warmth against me when you come. Would you like that, too?”
If things were any warmer then Riaag was going to melt like so much heated butter. This did not prove to be a deterrent. “I want it.”
Sarouth squeezed Riaag’s hands in his own. “Do you…want to say please, first?”
Now what sort of sense did that make? Sarouth was going to get his way one way or the other, wasn’t he? Riaag’s brow knitted. “Uh…please?”
Was this how sex with Sarouth was all the time? It was a good thing Riaag loved him more than life itself or it might risk getting on his nerves. “Wouldja please touch on me some?” he asked, and that one simple phrase, spoken half in exasperated confusion, marked the first loosening of a bolt in the back of Riaag’s head which would someday be thrown open. He felt a little weird, though in a good way. Maybe this sort of thing wasn’t going to be as annoying as he expected.
Sarouth glowed like a winter sunrise upon being asked for a favor. “Of course I will.” He pressed their cocks together, curve against curve, and gripped them both in one well-practiced hand. Riaag gasped. This was a new one to him. He was still held in place by Sarouth’s weight and still flat on his back—which was a more than appropriate place for him to be, as far as he was concerned—but there was no sense of urgency for him to brace himself, or put his mouth to work, or anything. Sarouth had said he wanted to touch them both together and he clearly meant so in an achingly literal way.
It was a shame the light was so bad. Sarouth really did look good when Riaag could see him, the bold red god-speaker’s tattoos that covered his back and both his arms now tantalizingly out of focus after long years of Riaag politely averting his eyes while they bathed. It was nice to trace them with his fingertips so long as he didn’t think too much about how they seemed to settle into new configurations of lines and whorls whenever he stopped looking at them directly. There was very little about an Agritakh-ruhd that wasn’t weird in some way, shape, or form. He suspected he’d get used to it, much like he got used to everything else about Sarouth.
What was still fresh and new was the feeling of someone else’s palm against his shaft. He’d never thought about how Sarouth might have a different texture there than he did; Riaag was not about to say his hands were scratchy, but they were definitely worn into sturdy leather that felt nothing like what Sarouth had to offer. Sarouth’s touch was gentle, careful not to put too much friction on sensitive places, yet firm, with the right amount of force and pressure to actually get somewhere. The added presence of Sarouth’s cock was an unexpected extra angle that made each stroke that much more exciting. Did this sort of thing always require hands to help it along? He’d have to ask about that later.
Between the weight of Sarouth above him and the constant strokes of a true and steady hand, it wasn’t long before Riaag finished. He felt a warm spatter against his stomach as Sarouth milked him dry; that extra attending hand withdrew just before it became unbearable. Riaag waited with his hands against the mattress, unsure if he was supposed to do anything while Sarouth tended to himself with gusto. He hoped the mess wasn’t too objectionable.
“Oh, but you look incredible,” said Sarouth between panting breaths. That answered that question.
“Almost there,” he added. His forehead was slick with sweat that didn’t seem to be solely from the summer swelter. His words turned shaky, coming out in handfuls of staccato syllables: “When I’m done. I want to finish. On you. Do you want that?”
As the first word that came to mind when Riaag considered this was that he’d be anointed, he was confident that yes, he wanted that very much. He nodded.
“Oh, good…,” Sarouth hissed, and in the space of a heartbeat he came right where Riaag first had. It felt just as holy as Riaag had hoped.
He had meant to fumble for a rag from one of the nearby clothing chests, but Riaag was too floppy to resist when Sarouth refused to let him up. “No, not yet,” said Sarouth. “I want to see what we did.”
Riaag closed his eyes and steeled himself. He could already imagine half a dozen ways things went wrong, and why Sarouth would need to appraise the damage. At least Riaag had that one lovely moment of blessing to keep close to his heart in the days to follow. “Sorry if it got gross.”
Sarouth made an amused sound in the back of his throat. “You’ve never been gross, brave warrior.” Riaag felt a hand ruffle his hair before Sarouth returned to what Riaag supposed was admiring him. “Wow, just look at this. We did this together, just you and me. Was it nice? I want to do even better for you next time.”
While it was hard not to worry about eventually dribbling on the sheets, Riaag had the presence of mind to say, “T’were nice, yeah.” He kept his eyes closed and hunted for something more productive to say; if Sarouth was willing to offer sincere feedback on Riaag’s cooking, the least he could do was try to be helpful in return. “I likes the way you’s up on top. Feels good.”
“That’s great news,” said Sarouth. “I like being up here, too. How about I get you tidied up and we can talk about it more?”
That sounded reasonable. Riaag nodded. “A’ight. Gimme a sec ter fetch a basin ‘n I—”
Something rough and damp scraped across Riaag’s belly. It took him a moment to put two and two together, but when he did he nearly knocked Sarouth off the bed in his hurry to bolt upright. This wasn’t the sort of thing he’d ever imagined a god-speaker doing, even if it was getting his stomach cleaner more efficiently than mere fabric and water. It was far too close to demeaning for Riaag’s liking.
“You don’t gotta do that, honest!”
Sarouth chuckled and wiped his mouth on the back of his hand. “Of course I don’t. But I want to.” He licked his lips. “Strictly speaking, you’re more of a savory. But I still think you’re very sweet.”
Riaag groaned. Even here, in their most private of spaces, he would never be free of Sarouth and his terrible sense of humor.
While Sarouth complained playfully about Riaag’s insistence on using methods other than his tongue to tidy up, he did at least go along with Riaag’s wishes. He chattered the entire time. It was comfortable having him so close, his mouth running a mile a minute, while Riaag could rest and sort out how he felt and try to brush away some of the self-doubt that he’d been allowing to creep into his heart when he wasn’t paying attention. He felt relaxed and a little sleepy, the sort of sleepy that could be easily fixed up by a light nap next to his best friend. Was this what having sex was like for normal people? Riaag was starting to get a better handle on the appeal. His fantasies were due to get much more involved where the little details were concerned.
He hadn’t realized he had tuned out the world until he found Sarouth leaning over him with a look both eager and curious. Had he been asked a question? He blinked himself back to alertness and focused on Sarouth again.
“So I can’t help but notice, Riaag,” said Sarouth, possibly repeating himself. “You’ve been like that the whole time, whether I’m on you or off, and you don’t seem inclined to hide yourself. Are you just lying on your back, or are you baring me your throat?”
Was there a difference? “Uh. Both, I guess?”
Sarouth was pressed against his side in a flash. Even in the darkness his teeth were long and bright when he grinned. “So you’re, you know. Offering?”
A lifetime of not having so much as someone to nip his ears had left Riaag unprepared for the thought of having his neck bitten. “Iunno. Never done such afore.” A little bite was probably fine. He could be brave just a little while longer. “You can try it, maybe, if you’s real gentle.”
“Thank you, Riaag, you don’t know what this means for me.”
Riaag had expected an icy knife of pain or the dull thud of impact, both things he’d grown familiar with as a warrior. What he got was a dainty little nibble that was barely more than a kiss itself. It was rather disappointing. He’d seen some of Sarouth’s old paramours the day after a tryst and they might as well have been catching stones with their shoulders from all the discolored patches they bore. This? He was pretty sure he’d caused himself more lasting damage just by putting some of his armor on in the morning.
“Well? What’d you think?” asked Sarouth, bubbling with eagerness.
He spoke before his mind could catch up with his words. “Was that it?”
Sarouth blew a raspberry and gave Riaag a friendly shove. “You’re the one who wanted it ‘real gentle,’ I’ll remind you,” he said with mirth still lacing his voice. “I can chomp down harder, but only if you want me to. I don’t want to hurt you, my wolf, just give you a good time.”
A thought bloomed in the back of his mind, one where he would be performing his everyday chores around the stronghold like any other day, save that this time he’d have a brilliant stain of a love bite on the side of his neck. Strangers could look at him and might not know a single thing about who he was or what he’d done for Naar Rhoan in the past, but they would see that mark and know he belonged to someone. Maybe someone would ask him about it, and he could proudly say it was put there by Sarouth White-Hair, god-speaker of Agritakh, to whose service he was joyfully sworn. It was a little scary thinking of wearing a mark that was proof he’d been up to something. Then he thought of how the next night he could lay himself out for Sarouth to see and that same bruise would be there like a little piece of jewelry. They’d both know how it got there. That’d probably make Sarouth very happy, indeed.
He wasn’t asked if he was certain, or if he really, truly wanted this, or any of the other hesitant little questions Sarouth had been walking behind all night. Instead Sarouth struck like a snake and Riaag cried out in agonized joy as he felt teeth clench around the soft meat of his neck. He’d been hurt by people before, but never this way, where the goal wasn’t to make him suffer but to boil his blood and singe his nerves until the pain rolled over into something else. He felt his cock jump. This was what his heart cried out for when he felt he had an itch he couldn’t scratch. Riaag didn’t need new scars. What he needed were bruises, and fierce ones.
“Haha, I got you good, huh? I can’t wait to see that in the sunlight tomorrow,” said Sarouth. He sounded as pleased as a potter pulling a fresh-glazed vase from a kiln. The meat of his thumb pressed into the new love bite. It ached exquisitely.
“Ah,” said Riaag. Where were all his words when he needed them? Even unsorted vowels were tricky to string together at the moment.
“What’s that, my wolf?” asked Sarouth with a tilt of his head. He pulled his hand away from where he’d been teasing at the blooming bruise, which wouldn’t do at all.
Riaag tried again. “Wan’ another’n.”
“You do, now,” said Sarouth. A lazy grin, like a well-fed cat’s, spread across his face like poured sap. He ground his knuckle into the bruise again, causing Riaag to gasp and whine with joy. “I think I might be able to arrange something like that.”
They did not get to sleep until very late that night, and as groggy as Riaag was the next morning, given a chance to do everything over again he wouldn’t have changed a thing.
“It’s weird, you know?” said Sarouth between spoonfuls of the pilaf that Riaag had prepared for their supper. He’d seemed uninterested in the meal—even with the addition of some cheery green peas Riaag had saved through the winter and painstakingly soaked back to life—until Riaag had cracked some eggs into the hot rice and stirred them until they cooked themselves. It might have been cheating, but it was important to make sure he had his strength for the coming ceremony.
Riaag finished chewing and wiped his mouth before asking, “What is?”
Sarouth startled at his question; presumably he hadn’t meant to voice his own aloud. He waved his spoon as he gestured aimlessly. “Oh, how you’re encouraged to eat before a Feast of Stars. You’d think it’d be the last thing you’d want to go, given the name.”
“Ter be fair, I think they’s mostly bein’ metaphorical in this here sense.”
“I know, I know…,” said Sarouth after another half-hearted bite of pilaf. “It’s still a little weird.”
“You focus on cleanin’ yer bowl out afore you get too tangled up in yer own thoughts.” Riaag placed a gloved hand on Sarouth’s knee. “Don’t try sayin’ you ain’t gonna, neither, I knows how you get.”
Sarouth made a guilty noise around his spoon. He didn’t say anything else, so Riaag kept talking.
“We’s gonna go, we’s gonna do this thing, maybe it’s gonna be messy or awkward or some shit, who cares, ain’t like this kinda thing is meant ter be tidy, ‘n no matter what we’s comin’ out t’other side.” He patted the knee where his hand lay. “Reckon the fact that you’s tryin’ ter do this at all means more’n you can imagine ter some guests. They wants ter share this with you. It’s finally time.”
The scrape of wood on ceramics was the only reply Riaag got. It meant Sarouth was eating, so it would have to do.
Once the leftovers were put away and the dishes were all washed it was time to dress for the Feast. Riaag had never attended one before, so he had to keep asking for Sarouth’s input on whether a coat was too festive or an accessory too ostentatious. He ended up wearing mostly the same clothes; the sole exception was swapping his tunic for the ash-gray one he wore to funerals. There would be no ribbons in his hair, no jewelry, and the only treasures he carried were the trophy skulls at his hip. It was an honest way to depict himself. He felt he owed the others that much honesty.
Sarouth was different. His inner robes were the usual layers of undyed wool under simple black, a band of clan patterns running just above the lower hem of his skirt, yet his usual gem-bright outer garments had been left to the side; tonight he wore a robe of gray fabric similar in hue to Riaag’s own, its borders emblazoned with a profusion of embroidery in yellow-gold threads that brought out the color of Sarouth’s eyes. Riaag knew that robe. He had, over the course of many months and in patches of great secrecy, embroidered it all himself.
“Is that worthy ter be worn ter such a grand event?” he asked.
“This is who I am,” said Sarouth as he ran a hand down the front of the robe. “If it’s good enough to charm my way through a horde of bloodthirsty diplomats, it’s good enough for tonight. A Year’s End gift seems particularly meaningful.” He threaded his forelock through his circlet before he placed it atop his head and adjusted its angle so the disc of polished purple agate at the circlet’s front sat flush against his forehead. After checking on his bracelets and his ritual dagger he gave Riaag a nod. “Let’s do the rest of our waiting outside. If I stay in here too long I’m never going to want to leave.”
It was a fair statement, so Riaag made sure to close up the tent just securely enough to make it a pain in the ass to get back inside on a whim. Sarouth’s staff of office remained thrust into the ground nearby; he wouldn’t need it where they were going. They walked side by side towards the cave in the hill and stopped once they reached the entrance.
“I’m doing this for You,” said Sarouth to the cave’s mouth. “If I had my way I’d never attend a Feast in my entire life, much less host one. But I know You need this, and that means so do I. I hope it helps.”
No answer came from the darkness. Sarouth waited a while, his head cocked to the side like a dog hearing a shepherd’s whistle, then turned to Riaag and nodded. They wordlessly ascended the hill and watched the stars come out one by one.
“Not long now,” said Sarouth once the evening star—Naar Rhoan, for whom they’d named the stronghold—acquired a ring of dimmer attendants.
“When does we start?”
“Once the moon rests in the coils of the Great Serpent,” said Sarouth. He gestured to a patch of sky where the aforementioned constellation would appear once the night grew deeper. “Are you still, y’know, okay with this?”
Riaag nodded. “I’s prepared ter bleed like I ain’t never done,” he said. “I’s gonna witness, ‘n remember, ‘n afore we heads south they’s gonna know a song ter remember alla this. We’s gonna leave a mark on this world no matter what. This I does so promise ter you, Sarouth White-Hair.”
“Thank you. This means the world to me.”
They stood atop the sacred hill to watch the moon slowly make its way over the horizon and into the field of stars overhead. Soon it was time. Hand in hand, they made their way to the small knot of torches that flickered from the ritual grounds below.
He wasn’t used to feeling this way after a fight.
The leopard had surprised them both while they were occupied with extracting a rabbit from a snare, and Riaag had thrown himself bodily between the cat and Sarouth without a second thought. Its claws were sharper than his best cooking knife—not that this was saying much—and he’d been slashed to ribbons before he was able to get it by the throat and snap its neck. The sun was hot on his bloodied skin and he was sure he stank of fear and copper. Sarouth was safe, though, and that was what mattered. Riaag was prepared to wash himself up, let himself scab over, and take solace that if these scars were obvious ones then at least they’d distract people from the sets he didn’t like talking about. That was how this sort of thing was supposed to go.
What he did not expect was, once he’d finished catching his breath and willing his heart rate to slow down to less of a fever pitch, to find Sarouth kneeling over him with a concerned expression.
“Oh, dear, it really got you quite badly,” he said. He offered Riaag a soaking wet piece of woven wool that looked suspiciously like one of the trading pieces he’d been working on recently. “Here, you can clean yourself up with this. The spring we found is still close by if you need more water.”
Riaag took the rag with trepidation. He wiped at his face and the fabric came away red; it had been a yellowish off-white before. He froze. Had he just ruined a valuable item? Was he in trouble?
“There was something wrong with the weave of that scrap,” said Sarouth, as though he could read Riaag’s mind. Maybe he could? Agritakh-ruhds were a mystery even to people who lived among them on the regular, and Riaag had barely known this one for a few weeks. “You don’t need to worry yourself about giving it back, so use it as long as you need to. You may even throw it away after, if you like. I will be back at the fire once you’ve finished.”
“Thank you, Holy One.” He could think of nothing else to say.
Once Sarouth left, Riaag hurried to the spring, stripped to the waist, and busied himself with sopping up the worst of the blood, which he dutifully wrung out onto the ground as an offering before each time he returned the rag to the water. Everyone knew the Hill God needed sacrifices. He wasn’t about to open a vein in adoration, but Riaag was not about to let good blood go to waste, even some as filthy as his. The Hill God had granted his unworthy prayers, and was therefore deserving of a lifetime of gifts and servitude. Riaag would never let himself forget that.
Each scratch stung like a lance from a hornet’s tail. It hadn’t even been that big of a leopard; the ones you saw further up in the mountains were easily twice the size, and twice as mean, and Riaag shuddered at the thought of what might have happened if one of them had come calling instead. He mollified himself with the knowledge that Sarouth hadn’t been touched at all. Maybe he’d be passable at being a bodyguard after all.
He cleaned himself as best he could, made sure his wounds’ oozing had slowed, and returned to their makeshift campsite. Did leopard taste any good? They were going to find out.
“All tidied up?” asked Sarouth with a smile as Riaag picked his way down the hillside to the clearing where they’d built their fire. Riaag glanced down at his bloodstained clothes and shrugged. They only had so much soap remaining; he’d need to wait until they passed the next group of traders before he could rely on having more, and it felt like the only person they’d seen in the past few days was a bandit, who had ultimately retired with a serious case of axe-to-skull. He could mend the rips himself if nothing else.
“Good!” said Sarouth. He stood up and beckoned to Riaag. “Now, come here, I can fix you the rest of the way.”
Were Riaag a more outspoken young man he might have quipped that there was a lot more of him to fix than just a few cat claws; being meek, he remained silent instead. He obediently sat on the rock Sarouth pointed out to him.
“I have witnessed your bravery, and through me, so has the Hill God,” said Sarouth. He cracked his knuckles. “Courage to fight against the slow unwinding of the world pleases Him. In honor of your deeds, He offers healing. Do you accept it?”
Riaag knew from experience that Sarouth knew which way to wind a bandage around an injured limb; it would be nice having actual dressings on parts that hurt instead of splashing the worse-looking ones with stolen liquor and hoping nothing festered. He nodded his consent.
“Then behold,” said Sarouth. “A miracle of Agritakh.”
His hands didn’t glow, nor was there an ancestral choir singing the praises of Him below; for a miracle it wasn’t very flashy at all. The dust at his feet stirred and the pebbles clattered, though, and there was a sense of vastness and pressure that had not been in the clearing mere moments before. He touched the tips of his claws to Riaag’s clothing, nothing more, and something happened.
Riaag couldn’t move. How could he, in the face of something wondrous? A cold, icy numbness spread through his body, completely overshadowing the pain in favor of a tingly nothingness. It itched a little. The scratches didn’t heal over completely, but thick, protective scabs rose up from the raw parts of his skin to seal away the flesh beneath them. It was like a garden of little red flowers bloomed across his body. He liked the thought of being a place where flowers, even metaphorical ones, might grow.
“A real fucken miracle,” he said in wonder. He began to tremble.
“Knowing you, I doubt it will be the last you see,” chirped Sarouth. As formal as his dialect was he still sounded as casual as a friend sharing breakfast; to hear him one would never have known he had just unstitched the fight from the tapestry of time. “How do you feel? Any better?”
“Is it real, Holy One?”
Sarouth tilted his head. “Is what real?”
Keeping the tears from his voice was a losing proposition, so Riaag didn’t bother. “Is I gonna wake up ter find I’s still just bleedin’ out in the dust, waitin’ fer Vulture’s babies ter eat me up?” It wasn’t about the leopard anymore. He could still see the remnants of his old band leaving him behind with the rest of the dying. He could still hear their voices fading as they abandoned him and everyone else. He could feel the heat of the sun and the dryness of his throat. A shadow fell across his face; this time, just like the last, it was cast by Sarouth.
“Of course you won’t, Riaag. Once given, He does not rescind His gifts. He wanted you to have this.”
A friendly hand mussed his hair. Riaag let it happen. He wanted to believe Sarouth, but it was hard to imagine such a thing being true. Why would he still be given anything after the greatest treasure of all had been bequeathed to him? It didn’t make sense. He was faultless with his daily prayers and gave sacrifices whenever he could, but you didn’t do those things if you wanted something, at least not in Riaag’s opinion. It was tempting to think he’d been healed because he couldn’t do his job, but Sarouth was hale and hearty, and there was no confusing the well-being of one of His own. He was going to have to figure out how he felt about being given things someone else thought he deserved.
Then there was the matter of his new profession. “I’s s’pposed ter keep you safe, Holy One. What if’n I gets fucked up again? Is Agritakh gonna get mad I wasted His time?”
Sarouth knelt at Riaag’s side so they could hold one another’s eyes. “Riaag Bough-Breaker, listen to me. Nothing He gives us can last forever, so our duty is to cherish it while we can before the cycle turns and the time comes for it to fall into dust. If you are hurt again, I will petition Him to heal you again, over and over, as long as it takes. You are not a waste of anything. You are not useless. You are a brave warrior in His sight, and I shall keep calling you such until you believe it yourself.”
The cold numbness lingered. Riaag felt clear-headed in a way he wasn’t used to. It made sense, after a fashion: Agritakh needed to keep His mortal vessel safe, and Riaag was a willing source of said safety, so why not be efficient and keep him in fighting shape as long as possible? This meant Sarouth would live longer and happier, which was a gift in and of itself. There were so many things to be thankful for it was a shame his wounds had already been seen to or he might have tried to make another offering right then and there. Instead he would prepare their unexpected kill and compose yet another hymn while minding the cookpot.
Leopard meat, it turned out, tasted a lot better than eating nothing at all. That was a boon all its own.
Riaag was not the only one at the Feast of Stars who was not a god-speaker, that honor being shared with a swaddled infant in one priest’s arms and a child who looked like they had just started walking who clung to a second, separate god-speaker’s robes. Perhaps both were too young to really understand what would happen, or perhaps one or both would have some greater connection to the rite if they had half-divine blood in their veins; either way, Riaag was grateful for their presence, though no less determined to play the role Sarouth had asked of him.
None of the assembled god-speakers had brought their staves; some carried burning brands in their place while others were empty-handed. They welcomed Sarouth—and Riaag, though in a more distant fashion—and flowed around him as he strode through the crowd. The ground on which they stood was meant for hundreds of people at a time to come sing and sacrifice in the Hill God’s name, the season leaving it an expanse of white dotted with stones leading up to the grand altar. Hidden from the naked eye just beneath the surface were carefully-dug channels running through the earth in their own portentous patterns, though with Harvest long since passed and the planting season still months away there was no blood to sluice through their passages. Perhaps there were places built in Agritakh’s name that surpassed it in scale, but Riaag had yet to visit any. As is its vast emptiness threatened to swallow them whole.
Sarouth made his way to the altar and placed his hands atop its snow-capped surface to mutter a quiet prayer. Once finished, he hopped atop it and raised his hands to the crowd and sky alike. The night had been quiet before; now, though, not even the distant sounds of late-running errands or the whistle of wind disturbed the silence. All eyes turned to him. He took a deep breath and began to speak.
“We gather here for this Feast of Stars,” said Sarouth. His voice was clear and smooth and cut through the cold air like a bell. “We all come together to remember what was lost, and to mourn those who are no longer among us. Let it be known that all those who stand here are here by their own accord, that we do this thing freely, and that just as each of us houses our own mote of Agritakh, so too does He contain a sliver of ourselves.”
“So it is,” said the others.
“Our numbers are many tonight. I have resisted the need to Feast for years, and in doing so I have caused great wrongs to many people in many ways. Holding one here, in this stronghold called Naar Rhoan, whose existence and nature was shaped by His own hand in ways that would be unthinkable without His urging, I seek to begin a path to redemption, and in doing so help others. Let it be known that what we do here tonight will be witnessed by Riaag Bough-Breaker, Chosen of Wolf, my oathbound, disciple, and friend.” He spread his arms and looked up at the moon where it hung in the sky. “We will not be forgotten.”
No scandalized whispers issued from the crowd and there were no complaints. Sarouth had been very clear about this leading up to the rite; only one of the people he contacted refused outright upon learning Sarouth was set upon committing the night to record, and those who had been uneasy had been swayed, or at least convinced enough not to complain, between then and now. Riaag stood with his back straight and his ears open. Now more than ever was time to pay attention.
“Who will stand among us first and say what brings them here?” said Sarouth. The god-speakers looked among themselves with uncertainty. Riaag’s knowledge of Feasts was secondhand at best, but he knew for a fact that they were usually far smaller affairs, and even then the host was meant to go last. If someone didn’t volunteer he was going to resort to children’s counting rhymes to pick a speaker if that’s what it took to keep the rite from dying in its bed.
Fortunately for Riaag it didn’t come to that. Yuris approached the altar and exchanged nods, then places, with Sarouth. The altar made a fine stage for him. Yuris was dressed in fine furs with silk and embroidered wool flourishes throughout, and polished pieces of his namesake jade gleamed from his jewelry in tacit expressions of faith and prosperity. His clan patterns were conspicuously concealed.
“I come to mourn the trapper’s son,” he said.
“Tell us, tell us,” said the others.
“He was born to hunters who chased rabbits and deer, and his first blankets were hides, which taught him the scent of game and the tang of tannins. He was quiet as a falling leaf when learning the art of snares, but oh, he was quite the chirping cricket back at camp. His kin would joke that he could catch a wolf just by talking it to death. His band strayed towards cold places when the winter cold was at its zenith in search of beasts with the thickest coats, and come warm weather they would head down to the lowlands to find the fattest catches in places where the green grew so thick it tangled together into a wall. He had planned to trade furs until the end of his days, and then one night he ceased to dream. He was sixteen.”
“Too soon, too soon,” said the others, gently.
“I will remember him fondly,” said Yuris, “and I am grateful that I may set a place for him at the Feast. Something with this many guests will honor him well. What a wake it will be.”
Murmurs in agreement rippled through the crowd and Yuris stepped down. It seemed like a reasonable eulogy to Riaag; maybe it could have been longer, but there were a lot of priests to hear that night. Quicker was probably better.
Matik, the young one in Daziin’s care, was quick to volunteer herself next. She hurried up to the altar with awkward purpose. Presumably Yuris had set a good example.
“I come to mourn the beastmaster’s daughter,” she said once she steadied herself atop the snowy stone.
“Tell us, tell us,” came the reply.
Her confidence faltered under the gaze of many eyes, half of them covered. “What am I supposed to say now?” she whispered to Sarouth.
“Whatever feels right,” he whispered back. “Who was she? We want to know.”
Matik’s breath fogged in the cold as she gathered her thoughts. It took her a while to start talking again. “She…she was going to be good with animals. She loved hounds the best, and herders, and they often loved her back. She was going to raise litters of puppies to be strong and clever. Those puppies won’t be whelped anymore. I’m sad about that.” She had nothing to say after that. Something was missing.
“How old was she?” prompted Sarouth.
“Twelve,” said Matik. She looked like she was going to cry. If Riaag had to guess, she probably wasn’t more than a year out from when it had happened.
The other god-speakers replied the only way they could: “Too soon, too soon.”
“I’m here to set her place at the Feast so I can remember her,” she said. This time she truly had no more to say; for a moment, she looked like a lost child instead of the god-speaker she was. Sarouth helped her down from the altar and offered her a hug until she recovered her composure. Most people around her age were still prone to freezing when an Agritakh-ruhd drew near, as the majesty of the Hill God inspired fear in those who had not acclimated to its presence, so it wasn’t often Riaag saw Sarouth able to interact so freely with someone so young. Riaag had yet to claim any children of his own because he couldn’t bear to expose them to the dreadful awe of his own oathbound; simply raising one away from Sarouth was out of the question entirely. He willed himself not to think about it further.
They slowly worked through the ranks: Ruzhu came to remember the daughter of a drum-player, Daziin the daughter of an herbalist, a long litany of sons and daughters and children in general. Eventually the number of those who had not spoken dwindled until only Sarouth was left. He placed his hand on Riaag’s shoulder and squeezed—clearly more for his own comfort than anything else—then returned to the now footprint-covered altar. The others waited for him, as he had waited for them. It was time for him to say words he’d spent half a lifetime avoiding.
“I come to mourn the weaver’s son,” said Sarouth.
“Tell us, tell us,” echoed the other god-speakers.
Sarouth took a deep breath that hissed between his gritted teeth. He took a moment to gather himself before he began to speak. “He was born in the highlands, among a family who raised sheep. Through some cruel fate he was born with no throat for song, and so he sought always to find other ways to be close to people. He was…playful, a joker, always looking to make his cousins laugh, because in that way he could delight them, even if his tongue was still when the whole band joined in harmony. He was still learning to spin thread to make into cloth when his fate turned crueler. One night his dreams were consumed, and what awoke in his place was far greater than when he bedded down. He was seven.”
“Too soon, too soon,” said the others, their voices a chorus of woe. Every life remembered had clearly worn on them like the crash of waves against the shore, and there had been many old lives pulled from the ashes that night. How many were too many? How much was too much? Sarouth had made it sound straightforward when they talked about it before; now Riaag wasn’t so sure. When it came time to play his own role in the Feast he would have to be ready to shoulder the great burden it brought, lest the whole ritual collapse. Perhaps that was just the Rhoanish way nowadays.
“I’ve spent so long pretending I didn’t need to remember him. I kept telling myself I was done with him, that I didn’t need to open old wounds, and then my life changed so much, and in such irrevocable ways, I knew I had to set things right before it was too late. Tonight I come to set a place for him so he can finally have the wake he’s deserved among people who will think of him kindly.”
The crowd murmured but he did not step down again. It was time for the Feast to reach its climax; Riaag steeled himself for what was to come.
“Let us mourn the final name,” said Sarouth, and his throat was raw from emotion. “We come, all of us, to remember the Star-Eater.”
The others were silent. This part of the ritual was no time for call-and-response.
“When there was nothing but the Void, and the stars strung within it, the Star-Eater thrived. The First Scavenger, we call Him, for He would collect the dead and harry the dying, tending lovingly to His flocks of bright points, and He was a simple being with no desires but to wait for the proper time to clean away the old in preparation of the glorious new. Then the gods that did not busy themselves with simple cycles of nature came to Him with great plans, and in His kindness, He listened. For this we are eternally grateful, even as our hearts cry out in dreadful anticipation.
“A world cannot survive the touch of a god, not alone, not unguarded. The dreams of a god are the only thing stronger than a god alone. The Star-Eater was offered this choice, but it was no choice at all, for He knew already what wonderful things would tread the earth in eons to come, and He was shattered by the knowledge of what must be done for them to come to pass. He tore out the throat of one final star before He stepped away from the Void and willed Himself to be the Star-Eater no longer.
“And so He fell into eternal slumber, forever hidden from His beloved stars, and so He built His Labyrinth, and so too do we mirror His sacrifice when we walk its halls as we sleep. We are transfigured from what we once were because we could not be part of Him without it. How could we house His essence without walking along His path? How could we hold the slightest ember of His glory without knowing what was lost to kindle it? We cannot understand Him without knowing the same sense of loss, and so our past selves are thrown into the fire, to burn away until nothing remains but something divine.
“We remember the Star-Eater, who became Agritakh, the Hill God, He Who Sleeps Beneath the Earth, the First Scavenger still even as He dreams in solitude. He thirsts but not for water. He hungers but not for food. To Him we were led by the Scavenger Kings, and to Him we shall return when we draw our last breaths. His Chant guides us, His Chant redeems us. By blood and steel and fire, we will remember Him, and we will never stop mourning.”
The dam broke, then, and every god-speaker assembled, Sarouth included, lost themselves in sorrow.
It will be hard, and it will be ugly, Sarouth had said when he first told Riaag what would happen there. You have to let this happen. We carry grief the way a bone carries marrow. We do this to ease His incredible pain and to remind Him that He is loved, as well. For one night we can rage against what has happened to us all in the company of others who have turned, and no one will judge us no matter what we say or do.
Now that Riaag could see it for himself, he understood why this was not meant for most others’ eyes. An Agritakh-ruhd had to be a pillar of strength, their words bringing the truth of the Chant to their people and their every action unquestionable, and while there was room for normal orcish emotion in that role there was no place for anguish. It had to be hard for people who hadn’t started life off being told everything terrible in the world was their fault. Some leaned on each other or embraced, some stood by themselves, and all the while Sarouth stayed atop the altar, each god-speaker expunging themselves of however much had built up since the last time they’d been able to lance that metaphorical boil. Matik’s misery was fresh and Sarouth’s had festered; between the two of them there was no doubt a grand gamut of experiences, all united by their journeys through the Labyrinth’s ever-changing halls.
Riaag kept statue-still even as Sarouth sank into a shivering wreck on the altar. He couldn’t do anything to help until Sarouth signaled him, this he knew, and knowing that he had to let someone hurt without being allowed to try to help them went against every fiber of his being. Like a forest in want of a fire, some lives demanded devastation to move on to the next step. All he could do was remember. He was determined to make sure the ensuing song was one those who heard it would not forget.
In spite of how things seemed at first they couldn’t weep forever. Sarouth uncurled and wiped his cheeks, then rose to one knee, then stood once more at his full height atop the still-snowy altar. He beckoned to Riaag, who stood next to him, albeit with his boots on the ground. Riaag was tall enough that he didn’t need the few feet of height it would provide him; even if he did, there was no way he was going to be tracking who knew what onto the Hill God’s dinner table.
He waited until he felt he had the attention of the crowd. This was unfamiliar ground, which meant he needed to let things happen when they happened instead of falling into one of his usual skald’s routines. He bowed his head in respect to the crowd and spoke with what his gut told him.
“Let this be a wake by methods proper, with gnashin’ ‘a teeth ‘n tearin’ ‘a hair, but let this be the whole ‘a one. We’s purged, leavin’ a space yawnin’ in our hearts. Let it become full up with recognition ‘a all what is done in His name, knowin’ that the ache is worth it when the last coal grows cold.” It felt right speaking this in a dialect that once brought him shame, that he had once clung to because he feared polluting fairer words with his grotesque, honorless mouth. The speech of the wretched had over time become his own perfect tongue, and with it he would see this rite to the end.
“Who tells us this?” asked someone. “What can we learn from a soul who still dreams at night?”
Riaag grimaced inwardly; he was hoping he’d be able to keep things more general. Then again, that went against the entire point of the Feast, didn’t it? To do it justice he really would have to show his most vulnerable parts to someone who wasn’t Sarouth. You don’t need details, Sarouth had said, but you have to be clear that you know what you know and you lived what you lived. It’s what we need to hear. He guided his speech towards things he had hidden from the world for years.
“I comes ter you a man transformed in His sight. Born unclean, born untouchable, with neither clan nor kin ter my name, I labored fer years convinced I weren’t worthy ‘a shit. I would be wounded ‘n accept it. I would be defiled ‘n take comfort in the fact that I was sparin’ another thusly. T’were a life spent broken. Lowly ‘n foul, I still felt love fer Him when I learned ‘a His deeds ‘n His sacrifice, ‘n though it oft would sore enstrifen me never did I cease my adorations. A bastard child, oathbreakers’ get, had no business doin’ such, yet how could I not in the face ‘a such grand love? Even with my face covered by paint that He might not see it ‘n be offended, I had ter try. I knew I’d burst otherwise.
“I’d but a single prayer in those days: make it stop. T’were all I could bear ter ask.
“Didn’t fucken matter that t’were voiced from a shattered mouth nor from a wretched life, He still did answer me, ‘n so I stands here afore you, ferever in His debt, ferever praisin’ His glorious name in gratitude. With no god-speakers ter bridge the gap atween myself ‘n Him, I would remain nothin’.”
“And who did this?” said the same person as before.
He couldn’t have asked for a better prompt. “Agritakh, the Hill God, He Who Sleeps Beneath the Earth, were the proper source ‘a this grand gift, but t’were the intervention ‘a His envoy, Sarouth White-Hair, known by some as the Faaroug, what made it so. At his side ‘n by His decree does I toil, so’s that the gift what I were granted be shared with any who’d come ter claim it.” Riaag gestured broadly; usually he tried not to make distracting motions while orating, but this felt like it deserved more dramatic trappings. “I ain’t sayin’ there is no sufferin’ here, nor is I sayin’ it’s wrong ter spill tears fer yerselves ‘n Him. What I’s here ter give voice is that this thing you do, you Agritakh-ruhds, has meanin’, ‘n purpose, ‘n there is sweeter fruit what grows from this field ‘a pain. You is remembered. All His children is indebted fer it. I is Riaag Bough-Breaker, beautiful in His sight, ‘n I is here ter witness this.”
Riaag liked to think that maybe, in the places beyond the Labyrinth, there was somewhere that the people who died when god-speakers were born would gather and make merry. It was a nice place where people could weave cloth and raise puppies as much as they liked; they could rest and sing there, lost in sweet dreams, and never worry about carrying the weight of a god with them. Maybe the Riaag that had died that summer day in the dust could meet them, somehow, and bring them good news of the incredible things they helped make happen.
Maybe, in that same distant dream, the Star-Eater could be there too, crooning sweetly to His galactic flocks, forever roaming the glittering night sky.
While he knew what Year’s End was meant to celebrate—how could he not? it was right there in the name—Riaag had never given it much thought before. When he traveled with his old band he barely had the clothes on his back, and even those were subject to being taken from him at a moment’s notice, so the thought of closing out the year with anything other than prayer in borrowed solitude was laughable. One year died and the new one ate its carcass. Neither of them had ever seemed to need his help.
Sarouth, on the other hand, was downright enervated by the coming of the solstice. He practically pranced whenever someone broached the subject of where they’d spend the longest night of the year. As far as Riaag could tell the answer was going to be wherever they happened to be at the time, and sure enough when the fateful day arrived they found themselves in matching lean-tos set up on a traveler’s field of the Caiz Gratag stronghold. There were lights here, and throngs of jolly people; the former was nice, the latter not so much. It took a lot more effort than usual to keep the crowds from accidentally touching him. At least there were plenty of bonfires to take the edge off when the wind cut through the thin fabric of his caftan.
“What sort of traditions do you like for Year’s End?” asked Sarouth as they huddled around a pot of rapidly-cooling rice he had bartered a set of knit mittens to fill.
Riaag shrugged. “Iunno, Holy One. Gettin’ the fuck outta the old year’s always somethin’, I suppose.” Going into more detail would sour the festive mood, which meant it was time for his usual tactic in these sorts of situations. “What sorta things is yer favorites?”
“Oh, where to begin?” Sarouth popped his lips a few times. “The first year after I left my family to train as a cleric, I remember my mentor had a fascinating device. It was like a large bronze dish filled with water, but with a compartment in the bottom for heating coals, and you could either pour drops of scented oils into the water or float herbs in it to release their aromas. I remember it made it much easier to stay up until sunrise when we could all gather around that thing and enjoy the smells it created. One of these days I will own one of those for myself, I think. Does that sound like something you would enjoy, too?”
Why Sarouth was asking him for his opinion Riaag would never know. God-speakers could do whatever they wanted so long as they served His needs, so there was nothing stopping Sarouth for plunging into the stronghold and returning with seven of the things if he so chose. “Seems right pleasant, Holy One,” he said.
“I knew you’d agree!”
They wolfed down the last sticky gobbets of rice before the last warmth trickled out of the pot. Sarouth talked about the scent bowl the entire time; he was quick to say he had little gift with the skald’s art, but by the time the conversation drifted elsewhere Riaag had quite the mental landscape of the many different aromas Sarouth had experienced in the bowl’s presence. Caiz Gratag smelled much friendlier than the wilderness did, so maybe there would be something similar to keep their attention during the long walk towards dawn. Maybe the feasting and singing throughout the stronghold didn’t have to involve them so long as they could pass by merry-makers in hope a little of that revelry could leach off to enrich others.
God-speakers in their finery roamed the streets, entourages in tow, and handed out blessings to any who would ask them. Sarouth did the same; Riaag was not overly surprised when there were few takers, as while Sarouth’s hair was immaculate (Riaag would not accept anything short of immaculate when it came to his barber’s duties) he lacked the gleaming jewelry and majestic vestments of the others. Every time they passed another crowd led by someone with a staff of office in hand and a half of their face hidden, Sarouth was careful to pay his respects. At least they recognized him as one of their own in turn.
Someone finished roasting a brace of quails as the pair passed by a kitchen, which meant they interrupted their dispensing of modest grace in favor of some badly-needed protein. The meat warmed Riaag’s belly and the cooked guts thawed his brains. He licked the grease from his gloves as he watched another Agritakh-ruhd’s procession pass by. A thought came to him. “Does god-speakers got ter spend the whole night givin’ benedictions, Holy One?”
“Oh, no, not the whole night,” said Sarouth around a mouthful of delicate bones. “Not unless we find ourselves tasked to it. After an hour or so I can guarantee most of the fine parades we see out tonight will retire to their tents and fortifications to await the morn.”
“Is you gonna join ’em?”
Sarouth shrugged and picked at a shred of quail stuck between his teeth. “If I happen upon someone who might enjoy my company, perhaps I might. But I had planned on spending a few hours with you, too!” He rummaged in the pouch at his hip and produced a set of little carved cubes, one held between each of his fingers. “See? I got us some dice. If we find some rocks we can have a proper little game.” Before Riaag could protest that he didn’t know any games, Sarouth charged forward with a chipper, “I know some rules from another part of the valley that I would be happy to teach you.”
“Reckon I’ll learn me some fucken games, then,” said Riaag, resigning himself to his fate.
What he thought would be miserable turned out to be a pleasant diversion, and as the night wore on and he understood more of how moves and maneuvers fit together he came dangerously close to enjoying himself. He hadn’t expected Sarouth to be so happy at losing a match. Losing matches of his own didn’t earn Riaag any derision, either, simply talk of how Sarouth had won and ways to counter his strategies. He listened, warily, to the advice he was offered. It was hard learning how to function where his every action wasn’t being closely scrutinized for weakness.
He assumed they were finished when he won his second game. This was not so, as instead Sarouth began eagerly teaching him how to play a different game with dice and pieces. The moment Riaag seemed to have an upper hand in that one, yet more rules came out. Before he knew it it was well past the middle of the night and Riaag suddenly had half a dozen ways he could play rounds against himself while he was in need of ways to distract himself. He got the feeling Sarouth could have gone all night had a youthful god-speaker they had spoken to earlier not casually swung by their shelters, a twinkle in his eye.
“It seems I have somewhere to be,” said Sarouth, pointing with his chin at the young man at the edge of their camp. “Do you think you will find someone to kiss at sunrise on your own? A charming young singer like yourself is sure to find plenty of takers.” He winked, probably.
If accidentally touching someone else was enough to send Riaag bolting for the security of a private shelter, kissing someone was absolutely out of the question. Nobody deserved that! He felt himself flush and sweat despite the cold and he had to struggle to find words. “I’d prefer not ter.”
Sarouth’s grin faltered, though he recovered quickly. “Plenty of time to perfect some of those one-player games on your own, then!” he said. He and the other god-speaker exchanged looks. Sarouth leaned in close to speak in a voice so low Riaag himself could barely hear it. “If you need something, look for the camp of Rakkar Seven-Doves. I plan to be there until sunrise, and I promise I will come back for you before I fall asleep for First Dawn.” He paused and chewed his lip before asking, “Will you be fine on your own?”
Surrounded by people who barely noticed he existed, secreted away in a lean-to which kept more than half of the cold out, and armed with some brand new solitaire pastimes, Riaag was prepared to be the most fine on his own he’d been in a long time. He’d even had a full bowl of food that day! It was shaping up to be a fine new verse in the dirge of his life. “I’s gonna be fine, Holy One. Happy Year’s End ter you ‘n yers. May the next sunrise be the start ‘a naught but good things.”
“Happy Year’s End, Riaag,” said Sarouth. He beamed. “Here’s to many, many more.” The way he looked, with snowflakes dappling his robes and the wind in his hair, all framing a smile that was warmer than the biggest festival bonfire, was the sort that promised to return to Riaag during his quieter moments. Agritakh clearly knew what He was doing when He chose His envoys to the world.
The unfamiliar god-speaker—Rakkar, maybe—took Sarouth’s elbow and let himself be guided away into the crowd. Riaag waited until he was certain Sarouth wouldn’t change his mind and ask for anything at the last minute, then took up the dice and started setting up a new game.
He felt hungover from the rite for hours afterwards, so Riaag could only imagine what it had been like for the actual god-speakers in attendance. Vague memories of kind words and expressions of thanks floated around in his head, implying it’d probably gone as well as a Feast of Stars could; when they returned back to their tent later that night he’d been so occupied with getting Sarouth to bed he hadn’t had the chance to properly process anything.
The following dawn, and the next few after, brought a slightly warmer take on the situation; now all he had to do was compress every single detail he’d hewn into his memory into a single lump and hammer it on the anvil of his mind until a proper poem appeared. While easier said than done, it was nowhere near the amount of effort required to stand in front of a bunch of hurt and grieving people and tell them that they hadn’t been suffering for nothing, all while hoping he didn’t sound like his mouth was full of empty platitudes. He could do this. It might not be ready to go until right before he and Sarouth headed south, but it would be ready. There were plenty of chores to keep his hands busy ’til then.
The morning of Year’s End found him preparing a nice pot of rice porridge for breakfast when someone rapped their knuckles on one of the front struts. Riaag had already unlaced the flap for the day, though he couldn’t help but worry he was keeping their visitor waiting as he maneuvered things to and from the standing heat.
“Who might I ask is callin’?” he said as he opened the tent up to the outside world again.
Ruzhu Kind-Knife was there, in a different but no less ebon ensemble than she’d worn to the Feast. The basket they’d used to bring her the glass ball was tucked under one arm. “Good morning, Bough-Breaker. Is Sarouth awake?”
“He can be, Holy One. ‘Scuse me a moment.”
It wasn’t fair to say that Sarouth slept later than Riaag did, in no small part because Sarouth’s sleeping schedule was forever at the mercy of a god who could demand his attention at any given time; Riaag woke early because there were chores, Sarouth (usually) slept a little more because he had the Labyrinth to travel every night, and neither approach was more correct than the other.
The way that Sarouth sometimes contorted himself into a snoring tangle with his ass in the air and his pillow sopping with drool was maybe slightly less correct than normal, though.
Riaag knelt at Sarouth’s side of the bed and placed one hand on his shoulder. There was only a hanging curtain between the front and the back of their tent so he kept his voice low. “Kind-Knife’s here ter see you, Sarouth, ‘n I think she’s got that merchant geegaw with her. I got some porridge cookin’, too. Whaddaya want me ter tell her?”
“Whrgh?” Sarouth peered at Riaag through his hair. He rolled over and sat up properly to rub at his eyes. “Let her know I’ll be out in a bit, and that I’d nearly made my third lap ’round the center when I was woken up.”
The first part of this Riaag conveyed while the second he left out. If Sarouth wanted to get competitive about how far he could delve into the dreams of the Hill God, that was his business, not Riaag’s. Ruzhu waited patiently and made light conversation while they waited. She hadn’t brought any of her entourage with her, which made the latter difficult; Riaag knew a great deal about how to talk to people’s attendants and assistants, sometimes for the sake of camaraderie and sometimes for the sake of harvesting information, but actually important people were a mystery. He aimed for lighter topics, like the current state of his horrible asshole of a horse (which was, as usual, “a horrible asshole”) or what seasonal treats promised to be served during the night’s watch (this year promised to see a lot of pickled vegetables and pit barbecue, also as usual) to keep from salting the conversational fields before Sarouth could sow anything there.
“Good morning, Ruzhu,” said Sarouth when he slumped in from the back half a little while later. He was still messy from sleep but wearing proper clothes; Riaag served him a bowl of porridge before fetching a brush and comb from the back and getting to work on making Sarouth presentable for the day. “Riaag tells me you brought that glass whatsit with you. Have you learned anything?”
She nodded. “I’ve still got a ways to go, but I’ve seen two things that give me pause. Firstly, the owner was a merchant woman, yes? Older, with longer hair?”
“That sounds right.”
“Then if I’m understanding it properly, she still lives. I can’t say for how long, or if any others are with her, but as of this morning she drew breath of her own accord. The orb worries for her but knows it might still be reunited.”
“Interesting,” said Sarouth after another mouthful of gloopy rice slurry. He held still to let Riaag work at a rather foul tangle behind one of his ears. “And the second thing?”
“I’m still trying to puzzle everything out, but I know that the merchant woman is to the south, the same place as this wizard you mentioned to me is.” Riaag raised his eyebrows at this, as he didn’t recall ever hearing Sarouth say as much to her. Had it happened while he was somewhere else or did Ruzhu employ curious little ears of her own? “I can also tell that whatever is going on down there is a real shitshow. Falling stars and everything. Did you know when I tried using a few scrying stones to get a second opinion they outright broke? And the chicken whose entrails I read got up and flew away?”
“That sounds bad.”
“Extremely bad. Usually they don’t wiggle around once the guts have been out that long. I had one of mine catch it and throw it on the fire once we all agreed that had actually happened, don’t worry about there being more work for your oathbound.”
Catching a runaway dead chicken was probably not the strangest thing Riaag would ever have done, but he was grateful he didn’t have to do it regardless. He checked Sarouth’s hair one last time for rough patches before arranging it into its usual style. The daily shave would wait until after they ate.
“I will do what I can, but I needed you to know this. You don’t have to follow the ball’s trail. There’s still time to change your mind.”
“You say that, but we both know whatever’s going on down there will find its way to Naar Rhoan eventually if we leave it,” said Sarouth. “I don’t know if it’s big enough to threaten us, or Usoa, or anywhere else in the valley, but I’d rather not find out the hard way and put hundreds of lives at stake. We’re going to cross the river, find some merchants, and then kick a wizard‘s ass, in no particular order. I’m afraid I can’t be convinced otherwise.”
She shrugged. “I figured you’d say that. Let no one say I didn’t try, as either a god-speaker or a friend.”
Sarouth rubbed his chin. “So, as either a god-speaker or a friend, do you have any other advice for me?”
“I know you’ve been getting your affairs in order,” said Ruzhu with a nod. “I advise you to keep doing so, and to enjoy the ending of the year while you can.” She stood up, the basket in hand once more. “Glad tidings upon this longest night, Sarouth. I hope to see you at the revelries later. The same to you, Bough-Breaker.”
“May dark hours bring brighter ones,” said Sarouth. “Here’s to the death of the old year and the start of something new.”
“Glad tidings, Holy One,” said Riaag after her. He closed up the flap again when she left.
Sarouth looked thoughtful all through what remained of breakfast, but when Riaag asked him about it he simply waved it off. That curious expression followed him around the entire day, always distracting and always unanswered. It wasn’t until they were warming themselves after dinner in preparation for an evening of wandering benedictions that he bothered sharing what was on his mind.
“Riaag, my love, I’ve a question for you.”
He’d guessed as much, but it was nice that Sarouth was finally getting around to asking it. “Yeah?”
“So you were wanting to know if I had any plans for whiling away the dark hours while waiting for First Dawn to break, right? You know, once we’ve finished handing out blessings and good will for the night?”
“Well, I mulled it over for a bit, and now I have to ask you: Have you ever given thought to having your ass eaten?”
He might as well have asked if Riaag had ever eaten the moon. “Has I what?”
Sarouth explained. There was a great deal of detail involved. Riaag had thought he was slowly becoming acclimated to Sarouth’s odd moods, but he hadn’t prepared himself for this one; he tried to give himself credit for simply being taken aback by the request instead of being rendered a useless, panicking wreck. Becoming more comfortable with facilitating someone else’s desires was a far weirder journey than he’d expected. The context of waiting out Year’s End while trying something new helped a bit.
“And that’s basically it!” chirped Sarouth once he finished his description. He paused, looking thoughtful. “At least, that’s how I do it. I’m sure people’s technique varies depending on who you ask.” He snapped back to one of his typical bright smiles. “So! Does that answer your question?”
There were many lingering questions, in fact, so Riaag started with the most obvious. “Beggin’ yer pardon, but from whence the flyin’ fuck did this partic’lar whim come?”
“Oh, it’s been there a while,” said Sarouth. “I know you’ve never so much as mentioned this sort of thing, so I’d kept mum until now. I know it’s easier for you when you ask me for things first. But this? I know you. I know you’d never ask. So I figured, why not let me be the one requesting this time? It is for Year’s End, after all, and Ruzhu did suggest I get all my affairs in order.” He shifted his weight so that his robes fell a little further down his shoulder than usual, baring a slightly greater swath of tattooed red patterns that rarely saw the light of day during colder months. It was a ruthless tactic. It was also a very effective one. “What do you say to that?”
A year and a half they’d been oathbound, and they’d been as close as kin for years before that, and yet Riaag still found himself easily flustered whenever Sarouth employed the slightest amount of charm in his approximate direction. He couldn’t think of any answers that sounded right. If the scion of the Void his very self said he wanted to put his tongue in parts unmentionable it was probably not a religiously sensitive matter. Riaag wasn’t as horrified as he felt he should have been. He wondered what it would feel like, and if it’d be nice. There were so many questions to ask and so many subtle thoughts to untangle regarding who he was expected to be when it was just the two of them alone. It would’ve been impossible to voice them all to his satisfaction.
“You’s sure?” he asked. It was the best he could do on short notice.
“More than sure,” said Sarouth, his smile pleasant and confident. “You could say it’s been on my mind its fair share of times.” Any attempt to interpret that sentence as a (relatively) chaste one went out with the kitchen slop-water once Sarouth started waggling his eyebrows. For a man so dedicated to all things occluded he was profoundly blatant when he wanted to be.
“But, uh. Well.” There was no sense in dancing around the issue anymore. “Why the fuck would someone even care ter do such?”
Sarouth laughed. “I can safely say liking assholes has a lot to do with it. They’re great. Yours most especially.”
Riaag was surprisingly limber for a man of his build, but even he had his limits; he would have to take Sarouth’s word for it when it came to the relative greatness of his anus. He’d certainly never put much thought into the state of Sarouth’s. Outright saying as much might come off as rude, so he instead opted for a simple, “Yeah?”
“Yeah. There’s a lot to like, you know.” Sarouth began ticking things off on his fingers, all the while doing nothing to correct his ever-more-revealing robes as they slid a little further down his shoulder. They still had places to be but he showed no sign of caring how much skin he had showing. “You’ve got the look, for starters. It’s cute. A nice divot in a big field of green with a pink pucker tucked away inside, just begging to be befriended? Don’t mind if I do! It’s nice to admire, and I dare say I could have myself a pretty good time just tending to myself and looking. Be proud! I don’t say this to just anybody, brave warrior.
“Then there’s the way it feels. You already know how much I love to touch you there, and it’s nice being so close while doing so. I like brushing my lips across the whole assholular region just so I can appreciate all the little texture differences going on.
“Assholes mean asses, and I like asses. Again, yours most especially. If we didn’t have other responsibilities I could probably while away an entire afternoon just getting myself a handful of what you’ve got there.” He made a very demonstrative gesture with both hands, paired with the sort of lazy, saw-tusked grin that signaled he was starting to get distracted by his own horny thoughts again. “It’s the perfect blend of soft and firm,” he continued, “good to press against the hand and hips alike. Those times when we agree on me sliding my cock along the cleft between your cheeks are simply divine. You can safely assume I’d want to rest my head there, too.
“I could go on,” he said with a toss of his hair, “but I think I’ve made my case. All save for one thing.”
Riaag could spot a conversation prompt from a hundred paces away. “Yeah? What’d you leave out?”
A hint of claws teased against Riaag’s jaw as Sarouth ran slender fingers through his beard. The pitch of Sarouth’s voice turned smokier as he leaned forward, now threatening in his intimacy. “I forgot to mention: I especially like the way I can make a man squirm,” he purred.
Oh. So Riaag would be helpless before Sarouth’s attentions, then? That was much more familiar territory. Letting Sarouth use him as a vessel for pleasure was something Riaag could do; if he thought of this as yet another of the private games they played it made much more sense. It was just a matter of a change in perspective. He had to admit that Sarouth had certainly made a strong case in favor of things up until he started cheating by pouring on the flirts, and the flirting had only cemented the thought in his mind. Maybe it’d even be fun.
“We-hell…,” he said with exaggerated grudging, “I s’pose it ain’t gonna hurt nobody ter try. But, uh. Y’ might gotta be sweet ter me first. Get me in a proper mood ter lie on my belly a while afore I does so, right?”
“Absolutely!” Quick as a wink, Sarouth fixed his robes and popped upright. He didn’t even have the decency to have a smaller tent pitched below his sashes. “So, you hold on to those thoughts a bit while we go wish everyone the kindest tidings, hmm? Think about them nice and long, if you would. Once we retire until sunrise it’d be nice if you were already a little…agreeable.”
Riaag whined. “Why you gotta be like this?”
“Because you like it,” said Sarouth, beaming. “Now let’s damn well go make us some merry.”
With a put-upon groan, Riaag shrugged into a heavier coat and tried to think of anything other than how much he was looking forward to whatever it was Sarouth planned on as foreplay. He didn’t even have the luxury of jerking off before they left, since Sarouth was practically out the front flap already and it wouldn’t do having him milling around without a decorative herald on hand; people might think one or both of them didn’t view giving out blessings on a holiday with the proper respect. Riaag sighed. Sometimes being oathbound was so hard.
“Okay, okay, I have another one. What is…your favorite animal?”
A universal truth of traveling was that it took a long time to get anywhere even at the best of times. There weren’t many roads in the highlands—or in the lowlands either, to be perfectly honest—and between weather, terrain, and the ever-needful pursuit of food and potable water, every journey was a hair’s breadth away from delay from the first step to the last. This meant a lot of time spent on foot. This meat a lot of guessing games, nearly all of them started by Sarouth. It had been this way for years now and he still, somehow, hadn’t gotten tired of it, no matter how many answers Riaag recycled.
“Uh,” said Riaag. What was a respectable answer to that that wouldn’t sound like he was trying to tell a little joke? The vicious bite on his shoulder still ached, so he took it as a sign. “Reckon a wolf is nice.”
Sarouth blew a raspberry. “Nice is as nice does, sure, but are wolves your favorites? Or are you just saying that because you’re Chosen now?”
“Ah, shit, Holy One, you caught me.” He ducked his head and grimaced. Sarouth probably wasn’t mad, since Sarouth got mad at other people but not Riaag; it still felt awkward being caught in a lie.
“So what’s your real answer? A thoughtful person like you has surely pondered it a time or two.”
He knew what he wanted to say but wasn’t sure if he should. Why couldn’t this have been an easier question, like his favorite color? Pink was easy to talk about, since it was the best hue out there and all, and nobody got up your ass if you talked about how much you liked it since it contrasted with green so well, and everyone was green. Or there was the subject of his favorite food! Horsemeat was delicious almost any way you cooked it, and while he might only have a properly-seasoned horse chop once in a blue moon he could still imagine the taste and smell like he’d just swallowed a morsel. He wasn’t sure if he liked horse as much as Sarouth liked eggs, but he was pretty sure it was just about even with how much Sarouth liked eyeballs, and it was a rare instance that they’d catch something for dinner that wouldn’t have empty sockets by the end of the day.
Maybe he could suggest some riddles instead, since Sarouth liked solving those as long as Riaag could think of new ones. Being a warrior-poet meant you started to think about words from other directions than the usual head-on, which meant you could fit them together in unexpected ways, which meant you could construct a real head-scratcher of a thing that still made perfect sense if your opponent surrendered. Riddles sounded good. He had one he was working on that he—
“Riaag, I think you might have gotten stuck in your own head again.”
He blinked like an owl in the sun. “Sorry, Holy One. You know how I’s prone ter excessive fucken introspection.”
“It’s okay. I just like learning more about you.”
Sarouth really did, too, at least as far as Riaag could tell without somehow reading his mind directly. Years after being given a chance to start again and Riaag still wasn’t used to the idea of having a friend. It was nice.
“You gotta promise you won’t laugh if I shares, then.”
“Oh, never,” said Sarouth, and he sounded like he meant it.
“I likes little songbirdies besta all.”
This got a small, approving sound out of Sarouth. “That makes a lot of sense. You love to sing, after all, and you’re so good at it. Why not enjoy an animal that does the same?”
It was part of it, sure. It wasn’t that it was a shared interest, though; Riaag liked that sometimes, if he closed his eyes and pretended as hard as he could, he could imagine birds liking his songs so much they sang them back to him. When he was younger he sometimes wished he could be a bird himself so he could fly away and never come back. Those urges were fainter, now, since he was responsible for keeping Sarouth safe, fed, and clean, and how could a bird (even a big one!) do that? He didn’t fit the part, anyway. It was harder to feel like a nightingale when you were over seven feet tall.
“Oh, that gives me an idea for another question!” said Sarouth, his voice yanking Riaag from the midst of another burrowing root of thoughts.
“What do you think a bird would sound like if they sang the Chant? I think it might go like this….”
Orcs were made to be mimics, having been so ever since their ancestors had learned the value of calling out to potential game or imitating the sounds of bears to scare off harrying predators. The Old People up in the wild places still howled to each other to communicate. Over time yowls and birdsong became words and hymns, but they never lost their knack for weaving sounds out of other sounds on the loom of their tusks. He’d never suspected that some folk didn’t pick up new languages in a matter of months until he met other blood-kinds of people. If Agritakh loved the sound of music it was no wonder He picked His children as He did; with the right throats He would never want for song.
Sarouth, however, was cacophonous.
“Holy One, you gotta fucken stop, my heart cain’t handle ter hear the Chant expressed suchly.”
“So how would you do it, instead?”
Later that day Riaag would suspect Sarouth might have had other reasons to hear him sing the holy word of Agritakh, but for that moment in time all that mattered was letting his heart soar on the thermals of his own voice.
Warm pies in his stomach and warm wine lingering on his tongue, Riaag had to say he was having one of the better Year’s Ends he’d had in a while. Last year had been lovely, of course, since he’d been able to give Sarouth the robe he’d been making for him over the course of several months, and once the yearly well-wishing was done they’d spent their wait for the dawn having as much sex as orcishly possible before both were too tender to continue. He’d tried not to think about that while they were out delivering blessings; it was bad enough he’d had to do sums in his head to ensure he wasn’t wandering around a festival with a hard-on in the first place, so why give himself a second situation to worry about?
He had found plenty of songs to join while they walked between knots of revelers. Sometimes Sarouth would be pulled away to bless someone’s baby or talk to another god-speaker or two; when this happened Riaag would end up swarmed with children all eager to tell him to have a happy night (and to demand something from his usual bag of treats, which he doled out accordingly). On one or two occasions he and Sarouth even let themselves be sucked in to join a dance. It was loud and colorful in defiance of the dark. Harvest was wonderful fun when it came around simply because of how much food everyone had on hand, but Year’s End needed to spit in entropy’s eye.
It was after Sarouth had returned from fixing someone a talisman against a lingering toothache—just a simple stone with a hole in the middle, through which a cord was passed, since it didn’t need to be up to the challenge of one of Riaag’s amulets—that Riaag felt a hand tug on his sleeve.
“Hey,” said Sarouth.
That was a very specific kind of hey. “Hey yerself, Holy One.”
“How ’bout we get out of here?”
Riaag had known Sarouth long enough that there was no mistaking what his goals were. Playing the fool sounded more fun than just going along with things so easily, though, even if internally he’d already perked up. “Oh yeah? You need ter lie down or somethin’ afore sunrise?”
Sarouth walked his fingers up Riaag’s front to boop him on the nose. “Or something.”
“Reckon I oughtta walk you back if you’s in such a state.”
“Reckon you oughtta,” said Sarouth. He offered his elbow, which Riaag took, and together they cut through the festival crowds to make their meandering way back to their tent.
Lacing up a tent flap didn’t take long at all once you practiced it a little, so the only excuse Riaag had for taking his time with the loops and knots was purely to make Sarouth wait a bit. This same excuse fueled him dilly-dallying as he made sure just enough lamps were lit and plenty of firepots were started; sure, it might soon be sweltering for a fully-dressed man inside the tent if he had three pots burning at once, but if he was going to be naked for an extended period of time he might as well be comfortable.
They kept with the illusion of not intending to bang each other silly until sunrise as Sarouth settled down on a stool in the back of the tent. He watched with mild curiosity as Riaag stoked the flames of one of the pots. “Are you cold, brave warrior?”
“Nah. Figgered if you was intendin’ on makin’ good yer promise ter be sweet ter me I oughtta heat this fucken place up proper.”
“And why might that be?”
Riaag shrugged innocently. “Honey flows best when it’s warm, don’t it?”
“How sensible,” said Sarouth with a broad and shameless grin. He tucked his legs up to one side of the stool to give himself more of a proper lap, which he patted. “Will you rest your head a while as we talk? I might know a honeyed thing or two to say to you.”
Riaag settled down on the carpet and propped himself up on some of the pillows before resting his head against the clan patterns adorning Sarouth’s robes. His stomach was a jumble of butterflies; his request to be guided towards the weird new thing Sarouth wanted to try hadn’t been all for show, after all. Too many parts of him were clenched despite having spent the rest of the evening relaxed. It was time to let himself be soothed.
“I love you, Riaag. Did you know that? I love you very much.” Riaag knew. He’d maybe known it on some level before Sarouth had first told him so, but not a day passed that he didn’t bask in the radiance of Sarouth’s love, itself the only thing that could match the crushing joy of the Hill God Himself. Perhaps that was what had kept him going when the weather was bad and the foraging was worse. Riaag was sure that Sarouth’s love could have rent the ground in twain if pressed. He was pretty sure he’d seen exactly that on a few occasions, even if it would be months—years, maybe—until he could look back and recognize it for what it was.
Sarouth’s fingertips stroked the outer edge of Riaag’s ear and along the pointed tip. “I love you. And I know you love me, too. That makes me very happy.” It hadn’t always been so easy: Riaag loved him back in the steadfast way that only a loyal attendant could, but his proofs of affection were wrapped up in gifts and deeds and reliability more than simple phrases. There had been problems, misunderstandings. That the meat of it had happened in the middle of a major diplomatic function miles away from home certainly hadn’t made things easier, even if they’d ultimately found common ground once again.
Thinking back on that difficult time left a bad taste in Riaag’s mouth. “I really does, too,” he said in an attempt to clear the air.
“I…I loves you nearly more’n I can bear, sometimes. But I’s always felt so blessed ’cause you still wants ter keep me around.” The words sounded so graceless when phrased that way, but Sarouth was a man half-woven from the Chant. He needed words the way a fish needed water. If Riaag couldn’t see to that one basic need, if he couldn’t put three certain words in order even a fraction of the time, then he had no right to call himself a skald.
The smile on Sarouth’s lips was softer than the saucy grin he’d sported mere minutes ago. “Of course I want you around, my love. I couldn’t have done any of this without you.” He didn’t so much as gesture to indicate what this was, but they were both so intertwined with the well-being of the stronghold that the walls might well have been a second set of bones. Just because their tent was pitched on holy ground didn’t mean they didn’t feel the ebb and flow of the healthy settlement around them. Sarouth pushed in on the end of Riaag’s nose playfully. “Don’t forget that I don’t just love you, I like you, too. Nobody else actually puts up a fight when playing Fox and Geese, either.”
Since they’d started keeping count who knew how long ago, Sarouth and Riaag had remained more or less evenly matched when it came to the games of skill and chance they’d use to fill rainy days or sleepless nights. Whenever one started getting too far ahead the other would catch up quickly, only to be ultimately overtaken in turn. Riaag couldn’t imagine someone going up against as interesting an opponent as Sarouth and simply…throwing the game. That seemed disingenuous on multiple fronts.
Sarouth kept petting his hair. It was nice. “You do so much for me I can scarcely imagine my life without you in it. All of this—all of it!—has been worth it if it means one more good night’s rest for you. You look so peaceful when you sleep these days. That wasn’t always the case.” Sarouth’s hand strayed towards where Riaag kept his amulet and pressed against the sleeve. “I’m so glad I can make this be something real for you.”
“Me, too,” said Riaag. He shifted his weight as he grew ever more comfortable (and ever warmer) in Sarouth’s care. “You gonna say more nice things ’bout me?”
“I might. But first we need to acknowledge how hot it’s getting in here,” said Sarouth as he fanned himself with his loose outer sleeve. “I’m getting out of some of these robes before I cook.” He grinned again, halfway between a charming glow and a many-toothed threat. Riaag’s pulse thrummed a little faster at the sight. “You must be broiling, too, in all those heavy layers, my love. Why don’t you take a few off for me? I want you to be comfortable.”
I want you to be comfortable was one of those things Sarouth said that had a double meaning; in this case it usually meant he wanted to see Riaag’s cock. Riaag was fine with this. Just like with the tent flap he took his time with unthreading his belt and folding his coats, and save for the initial burst of chill when he finally peeled off his final layer the temperature was just right. He settled back into his spot with his head in Sarouth’s lap and the carpets no doubt pressing an amusing imprint into the fat of his side. Sarouth himself had shed everything but his black inner robe; the dress-like garment fit him in a very flattering way. In any other situation he would have looked halfway undressed; with Riaag wearing nothing but an amulet and a smile, Sarouth might as well have been clad head to toe in armor.
“Is this good?” Riaag asked. He knew the answer, and he also knew his role to play.
Sarouth ran his eyes down Riaag’s body the way he ran his fingers through Riaag’s beard: leisurely. “Very good. Are you cozy?”
“Yeah.” He snuggled up against Sarouth’s leg. “Was you gonna say more nice things ter me?”
“You’re so many things to me, how could I even begin?” he said. “But for you I can try, my brave warrior. My wolf.” He hooded his eyes. “My little bird.”
That one was new, and it was perfect in all the right ways. It took a quick hand clapped over his mouth for Riaag to keep from squeaking with delight. Sarouth had never actually been outright told the incredible importance of birds in Riaag’s life short of a general state of approval. How had he known? “What kinda little birdie is I?” he asked, eager for details.
Hands that never callused no matter how much they labored stroked Riaag’s hair as though he were a treasured pet. “A very, very pretty one.”
Riaag ducked his head, embarrassed but still unable to hide his grin. “Y’mean it?”
“Want me to tell you what I see?”
This was a rare treasure: Sarouth often bemoaned how he lacked Riaag’s gift of words, as where Sarouth spoke with the voice of the Hill God in His grand and terrible majesty, Riaag (when deeming it the right time to do so) could speak with the heart of a poet, sometimes thinning his dialect to do so and sometimes not. They both understood that there was a wide crevasse between orating on behalf of another entity and being able to bring song and story alike to life. If Sarouth was offering to be descriptive then he’d probably been planning it for a while. More to the point, Riaag was in the mood for compliments. “Yes, please.”
“Let me tell you about a songbird I’m pleased to know,” said Sarouth. “It’s hard to know where to begin. So much of him is lovely! Such soulful eyes, so clear and bright, their color rich as fire. Black plumage as thick, dark, and glossy as fresh pitch, yet always kept so clean. A sweet smile, brimming with kindness, the sort that lights up the whole room when he chooses to show it. When he sings it’s as though the whole world stops to listen. As well they should! He’s a splendid singer. But there’s more than that there, too.”
His hand rested atop the scar on Riaag’s shoulder. “He wears so many marks of battles won, of suffering endured, of the pain I know he still carries, but he doesn’t allow this to snuff out the love he has for so many. He’s a good little bird who always thinks of others. It’s why so many people love him back, and if my words ever fail I know they’ll still follow his song.” Sarouth’s hand traveled up the side of Riaag’s neck to rest against his bearded cheek. “You ask me if I mean it when I said you’re pretty, Riaag, but really, how could I say anything but?”
Old thoughts would say that no, Riaag was big, he was built to fight and to frighten and there was no room for anything else. Old thoughts would point how how he was too ugly, too hairy, possessing none of the delicate nature he associated with prettiness. He was still learning to ignore those cruel leftover notions so he could make room for newer, nicer ones—Sarouth was always so patient with him, even when he failed—so hearing kind words from somewhere outside his own head made them a little bit more real. He leaned into Sarouth’s touch. If the living avatar of Agritakh said he was pretty, then it damn well had to be true. There were worse fates in life than looking nice and having his head petted.
“There’s that smile!” said Sarouth. He ruffled Riaag’s hair playfully. “Was that the sort of thing you wanted to hear?”
“Uh-huh,” said Riaag. He unconsciously reached up to try to finger-comb his coiffure back into place; the bit at the front sprang back as it always did, but the rest felt like quite the mess. Sometimes having all that volume was a burden.
This didn’t escape Sarouth’s attention. “Did I mess that up a bit?” he asked in the impish voice of a man who both knew the answer and felt no remorse.
Riaag nodded. “Yeah.”
“Want me to fix it back?”
Now they were talking. Riaag nodded again, then shuffled himself around until he was seated at a convenient height for the still stool-bound Sarouth to get to.
Traditionally speaking the cleanest part of a person’s body was their hair, and the Chant commanded it be kept presentable as part of their covenant with He Who Sleeps; bandmates would primp one another to reinforce the bonds between them, with similar tableaus taking place between parent and child, or kin and kind, or even strangers simply hoping to connect with another person. Not only did it respect the wishes of the Hill God, it was a way to show the world one had other people in one’s life who would care and be cared for. A Rhoanish might wear their hair long or short, plain or adorned, but they would generally have little trouble finding someone willing to help tidy up a day’s worth of scraggliness so long as they asked politely.
Up until he swore his oath, Riaag had never thought to ask a single soul.
In his defense there were many reasons he’d distanced himself from potential questions like that, and he and Sarouth had been teasing at said reasons in little ways over time. He still held his breath whenever a comb snagged or a brush pulled through his hair with more force than he expected. He still needed a moment now and again if a hand settled against his scalp wrong. Some days he couldn’t handle anyone’s touch but his own when wringing things out next to the fire. His old life had left a foundation on which the rest of himself still stood; deep as it went, he was adapting. Sarouth always did such a nice job with weaving in flowers or ribbons it was well worth the discomfort. No one could look at a mane as glorious as Riaag’s and say he had no kin who’d miss him.
He’d watched Sarouth card wool with teasel stems plenty of times when they were both younger. Sarouth was gentler with Riaag than he was with the wool, but the results were no less soft and smooth once he finished. Bits of dust and pockets of trapped snowmelt vanished like morning mist before the brush. Riaag used to wonder what it was like having someone else do this for him, his thoughts conjuring up faceless people who wouldn’t be tainted by his presence; sometimes, during his most self-indulgent days, it was the Faaroug himself cleaning him up and telling him he was doing a good job. Back when daydreams were all he had he learned to cherish those. Said cherished thoughts had generally not involved Sarouth also pressing up against his back with a potent erection nudging against Riaag’s flesh, however. In the face of new information Riaag was willing to take some liberties with the concept.
“Think yer gettin’ a mite distracted, Holy One,” he said. He leaned backwards a bit to better illustrate that he wasn’t complaining.
Sarouth cuddled up closer. There was no mistaking how hard he was now, not that he was trying to hide himself in the first place. “What makes you say that?”
“Li’l birdie told me.”
“Did they, now. And what did they say to you?”
“They told me you got a real good hard-on goin’ ‘n that you’s prob’ly fit ter see if’n I’s acquired similar o’er the course ‘a this here conversation.”
“What a clever bird you heard. Do you agree with them?”
He’d never quite managed to shake his tendency to blush in situations like this. “Yeah.”
“Me, too. Now do what the nice little bird suggested and show me, Riaag. Let me see how badly you want this.” He held his face so close to Riaag’s ear that he could speak in the softest of whispers without getting lost in the pop and crackle of the fire. “I want to see how pretty you are all over.”
“But, Sarouth, I ain’t got a stitch on…?”
Sarouth smiled like a falcon sighting a mouse. “Lie down on your belly and I’ll show you what I mean.”
They’d talked about this sort of thing at length before. No matter what amulets he wore, or how many, Riaag needed to be able to see what was going on during sex, and to feel like he could somehow get away from what was happening—no matter how badly he wanted it at the moment—was vital to keep his brain from sputtering out like a badly-made lamp. Up until this point that had meant he’d spent a lot of time on his back. He liked being on his back, since it meant he could see how happy he was making Sarouth and he could thrill at the friendly weight of a god-speaker on top of him. Between his size and the undeniable truths of geometry, however, there were certain things that just didn’t work as well if he stayed that way. He was brave enough to consider storming the home territory of some heretical thing that was disappearing people left and right across the river, so he could try something different just this once, couldn’t he? He owed it to Sarouth. More than that, he owed it to himself.
Riaag arranged some pillows to better support the various fatter or broader parts of himself, laid out a spare length of cloth (because damned if he was going to deal with doing laundry on First Dawn), and settled onto the spot he’d made for himself, his knees now resting on a cushion of their own at the side of the bed. He was in a brightly-lit room that was comfortable and smelled clean and familiar. He’d be fine. As he heard fabric rustle and saw a familiar black robe get placed atop the pile of half-folded clerical vestments on the side table, he allowed himself the thought it might even be fun.
“I’m going to go nice and easy,” said Sarouth in his ear. “No more than you can handle. All you have to do is let me know if you need me to stop. You ready?”
He nodded. He felt a hand cup his flesh and then slowly spread him open, and the delighted sound Sarouth made was as much a reminder that Riaag wanted this as anything else.
Sarouth nuzzled at the flesh of Riaag’s ass cheek before placing a little kiss there. The skin of his face felt as smooth as his hands, which themselves cupped and squeezed with calm but focused enthusiasm. Riaag shivered. He did his best to focus on the softness of the pillows against his head and the warmth of the fire, overlaid with the quiet, approving sounds Sarouth made as he explored. It was nice. He could do this. After all, he liked it when Sarouth fingered him, and this would be nowhere near as intense as that was, right?
That thought was put to the test when he felt the first cool, rough lap of a tongue against his skin. He startled away from Sarouth at first; it took some doing to make himself unclench and ease back into where he’d settled. Sarouth nibbled at his buttock to test the waters, and when Riaag didn’t bolt again he left another little kiss where he’d nipped. His tongue was still cooler than expected when it returned. The average person’s tongue was made for rasping meat and the occasional bit of friendly exfoliation, so the fact that Sarouth’s was as gentle as could be was testament to what had to be quite a lot of practice over the years. To think he expected so little in return for such a trained skill! Riaag was flattered.
Until relatively recently Riaag had tried not to think much about that part of his anatomy more than he absolutely had to. After some coaxing he’d learned to enjoy the way Sarouth kept his claws filed down short and the way Sarouth always knew when to keep his fingers straight and when to cross or crook them in exciting ways. Sarouth’s tongue wasn’t even remotely close to the length of a finger—despite sharing coloration with some of them he was hardly a lizard—so it seemed appropriate that he was focusing more on covering surface area than trying to get as deep inside of Riaag as he could. Since Sarouth had both hands free this go-around he was using them to great effect in regards to keeping Riaag spread open; his tongue turned warm where the air in their tent was cool, the little patches of saliva he left in his wake turning downright chilly if left exposed for too long. There was noticeable overlap with some of his more enthusiastic kissing techniques. That made enough sense to Riaag. Only a fool wouldn’t think to apply their skillset to new situations.
He wasn’t sure when, exactly, things flipped from feeling interesting to feeling good, but it inevitably came to pass, and the moment his head realized it enjoyed what was going on at his opposite end he made a small, wavering yelp. In an instant Sarouth backed away again. A comforting hand rested on Riaag’s lower back.
“Too much?” asked Sarouth.
Riaag shook his head weakly. He wasn’t in much condition to talk, his head already starting to get that wrapped-in-fleece feeling he liked more than he was sure if he should, but he tried for what words he could manage. “S’nice. Just. A lot.”
“Need a little break?”
He shook his head again. “Kinda…wanna see.”
“Want to see what happens next?”
The sound of Sarouth’s satisfied chuckle was a thrill all its own. “Then let’s find out together, my pretty little bird.”
He felt himself being spread open before a now-familiar tongue brushed his skin. It didn’t stop where he expected, however, instead dipping down towards the sensitive skin just behind his balls, and before his thoughts fogged back up again Riaag was struck by how effortless it seemed for Sarouth to go from gentle licks to more forceful, abrasive ones as he moved to thicker parts of Riaag’s skin. They teased but never stung. Never more than you can handle, he’d promised, and so it seemed it would be.
It was at about this time that Riaag, half-aware as he was, came to realize he was also so hard it was a wonder he wasn’t propping his hips up in the air with the strength of his cock alone. As is, it was pressing firmly into the mattress, and even with most of his weight braced by either the bed or his knees he was profoundly aware that he was a very large man putting a great deal of pressure on a single localized portion of his anatomy that was not normally meant to get mashed against a slab of batting. Was he expected to do something? Sarouth hadn’t said anything, and Sarouth was the one with the experience; Sarouth’s mouth was also more than a little busy.
He pulled one hand out from where he’d crossed them under the pillow on which he rested his head. Maybe this was the sort of thing Sarouth liked, since it was clear proof Riaag was having a fine time of things and he’d probably cause some interesting muscle movements as he jerked himself off. He was definitely warming up to the idea of doing this more often, even if it had first come about under the circumstances it did. The fabric he’d put down was going to earn its feed very quickly.
A gentle hand caught his wrist with just enough force to keep him from attending to himself. He knew better than to assume that grip wouldn’t turn to iron if he tried to resist. “Think you can keep your hands off a little longer?” said Sarouth, still quietly. “I’ll make it worth your while. Promise.”
Riaag whined in irritation but crossed his arms under the cushion again. He’d be more upset if he hadn’t been on the receiving end of one of Sarouth’s private promises before; the thought of disappointing Sarouth was also right at the top of his litany of unacceptable actions, so being on his best behavior took priority.
He wondered how well he would do if their situations were reversed. Sarouth’s tusks were more suited to this, being nice and dainty and pointing downwards instead of up like most people’s did, and Riaag’s broad jaw might make the sort of precision work Sarouth was managing more difficult. What if his beard tickled? What if Sarouth wanted it to tickle? What if—
It was like Sarouth had a knack for knowing when Riaag was starting to drift off because that was when Sarouth snaked an arm between Riaag’s thighs and wrapped his hand around Riaag’s shaft to give it a possessive squeeze. Yes, of course. It was good to remember what was important when they were together, and what was important was that Riaag was his, irrevocably, bound by love, and oath, and at the moment the hand holding Riaag’s cock hostage.
At some point Sarouth must have pulled away from licking him to focus on jerking him off. At some point Riaag must have rolled over to permit him better access. At some point Riaag must have come, because he vaguely remembered he had. At some point he also remembered a hand wiping across his stomach before being brought against his lips, where he licked it clean. His own pleasure was real and present, it was just that everything felt a bit much up until it wasn’t. The fog cleared to find him resting on his back, still naked, and with his cock softening peacefully against the side of his leg.
Where was Sarouth? The answer was sitting on the stool next to the bed again, giving Riaag a fond look. He was still erect so it must be time for Riaag to help take care of that. When Riaag tried to stand he found himself pushed back down. He whined in irritation.
Sarouth tapped him on the nose. “You just lie there looking cute. I think I’m going to finish myself off, today.”
Riaag whined again. Why wasn’t Sarouth letting him do his job? Had he done something wrong during that fuzzy-thoughts time?
“Oh, don’t give me that sad look, brave warrior. Won’t it be nice to get to see me while I enjoy the sight of your delightful self? I know I like looking at you. Who wouldn’t? Your cheeks are still flushed, your lovely eyes are slightly glazed, and your stomach has the slightest hints of stickiness here and there.” He licked his teeth. “We need to stay up a few more hours. I need to pace myself. Doesn’t mean I’m not thinking of pushing those thighs of yours together and slipping myself between them, though….” He cradled himself in his hand and began to stroke himself with a firm, steady grip.
Riaag posed as demurely as he was able. This required not a small amount of effort. He was built for hauling rocks up steep hills, not fluttering his eyelashes, but near as he could tell that was part of why Sarouth liked it when he posed this way, so he wasn’t about to stop.
He was quickly rewarded with Sarouth hissing his name through his teeth and coming in a thin trail up his own stomach. That trim, well-defined core of his really was nice to see with a little bit of jism on it; Riaag admired it a bit before leaning in to clean Sarouth off with his mouth. This part had never stopped feeling holy to him.
They rested together, Riaag once more laying his head in Sarouth’s lap where he could be petted back to clarity. In the moment everything had been on fire and the greatest idea in the world all at once; he’d need time to decide how he actually felt. For the time being he was pretty sure he liked it. If he liked it enough to enjoy giving Sarouth the gift of…well, it was hard to politely phrase what all Sarouth had been up to, but if he liked it enough to let Sarouth have himself a time then that was all that mattered in the end. The Faaroug deserved to enjoy life’s pleasures given everything he’d given up in the interim. Said pleasures frequently involving fat men’s asses was the sort of detail that didn’t matter to the greater bulk of history.
The familiar smell of mint leaves teased Riaag’s nose. He glanced awkwardly over his shoulder at where Sarouth was digging around in one of their storage jars. “Fuck, t’weren’t that bad, were it?”
Sarouth chewed vigorously on an entire strongly-scented sprig. “Riaag, my love, my oathbound, my wolf and my bird and for all I know my crocodile, I love you with every drop of blood in my body, but I did just spend quite a while sticking my tongue up your asshole. I am going to kiss you at sunrise. Allow me some mint.”
“Crocodile, huh?” said Riaag. He grinned. A birthright of fucked-up teeth meant his smile would always be uneven, and that sounded perfect for one of the demons of the river. “Better not go swimmin’ terday, then, or I might getcha.”
“Oh yeah? What would happen?” asked Sarouth around his cheekful of mint. He casually closed the jar and put it back where he’d found it.
“Well, you know. I’d getcha.”
“And whatever should I worry about if a crocodile were to get me?”
“Iunno. Maybe…somethin’ like this!” He lunged upwards and caught Sarouth in a headlock that nearly threatened to knock down one of the tent poles as they thrashed in an attempt to pin one another. They would worry about more formal cleanup later.
Somehow they made it to dawn without falling asleep, thanks in no small part to large quantities of tea and board games once their energy for wrestling waned. The sky brightened, and as the first hint of the sun’s brilliance came up over the mountains they kissed one another.
“For luck,” said Sarouth as he smiled up at Riaag.
“Yeah, fer luck,” said Riaag. “I’s gonna go have me a nap so I ain’t useless the whole ‘a the first ‘a the year. Plenty ‘a shit ter do the day after a festival. T’would be a shame not ter help out some, yeah?”
Sarouth yawned like a dog. “I think I’m going to join you for that nap,” he said.
“You ain’t gonna try ‘n keep me up later, is you?”
He laughed. “Maybe next time. For now, I need to go fall over. Happy First Dawn, Riaag.”
“Happy First Dawn, Sarouth.”
At least for a few hours, the chores could wait.
“Beggin’ yer pardon, Holy One, but I’s sore in need ‘a answers what I cain’t acquire on my lonesome.”
Sarouth looked up from his spinning with a quizzical look. “Of course, Riaag. What’s on your mind?”
It was time to see just how far you can ask me anything could go. “You’s talkin’ diff’rent ‘n you used ter,” said Riaag. “I’s noticed o’er the months ‘n years ‘n such. You used ter talk so fancy-like. It ain’t, uh. I ain’t bein’ a fell influence, is I?”
“Oh, is that all?” said Sarouth. He rolled his eyes with a dismissive laugh. “I would say you’re an influence, but hardly a fell one, brave warrior. The way you talk is very honest. Listening to you has forced me to think about the way I choose my own words, and why. Long story short, I’d rather sound like you than…where I came from.”
“But, Holy One….” Riaag held out his gloved palms helplessly. “You knows this ain’t a proper way fer a god-speaker ter talk, doncha?”
“By whose authority?”
That wasn’t the answer he was supposed to give. “Well, Agritakh’s, ain’t it?”
“Is it?” asked Sarouth. “Didn’t we find words ourselves, in the days of the Old People, and only suit them to serve Him later?”
“And doesn’t the Chant welcome any singer who’d praise Him, for there are as many voices as there are stars in the sky, and we are not unlike the stars in His never-opening eyes?”
“We have decided that some of us are unworthy of His love, and maybe for some people that’s true,” continued Sarouth, relentlessly, “but it is our doing that we view some speech as lower, it is we who codified the tongue of the unclean. I would rather force someone to hear your voice echoing in mine and know I carry the Hill God’s own gift than for a second, for a single slice of a moment, let them think you are no less precious in His sight. I’ve changed how I talk because it pleases me to do so, and because some people can’t handle the sound of it. And, honestly? Fuck ’em. I don’t need the cold perfection you used to hear to serve His will, anyway.”
There was fire in what he said of the sort that only came up when a single subject was broached. Riaag had to know.
“How many times’s you had this argument when I weren’t about?”
Sarouth smiled and let his shoulders slump wearily. “More than I can count, brave warrior. And I’ll win it as many times as I have to.”
“Because if I don’t, who else will?”
Riaag felt he needed to push back harder; this was too much to ask of any god-speaker, much less the Faaroug. “It ain’t your problem, though.”
Sarouth snorted. “If it affects you, it affects me. That’s all there is to it.” With that, he returned to his pile of flax.
What was it like to walk through life so ironclad? What was it like to put your own sacred blood on the line when the weight of tradition was bearing down on you with the terrible certainty of a landslide? It was hard not to love someone who could do that. He might still carry the lingering guilt of having polluted Sarouth’s once-pristine dialect with his own, but Riaag could live with knowing that Sarouth himself welcomed the change.
They waited two whole days after First Dawn before making the news public that they would be leaving on yet another mission steeped in portent and danger, to which the stronghold was becoming accustomed. Ruzhu gracefully accepted the offered role of Naar Rhoan’s keeper (to which the stronghold was also becoming accustomed) and, as suspected, had more to tell them about her time with the scrying glass when they came to say their goodbyes.
“You’re going to be taking it with you, right?” she asked Sarouth over rounds of a peg-swapping game in her tent. Riaag knelt by Sarouth’s side; he had been promised a match with the majority winner. Their horses waited outside, sometimes menacing Ruzhu’s entourage if any of them got too close, and it was only a matter of time before it was time to saddle up and head out the southern gate. Time with friends would be time well-spent no matter how much it delayed their ride.
“That’s right,” said Sarouth. “Sorry I can’t leave it with you, but if the entire point is to return it to the person it loves it would defeat the point. We can’t guarantee a raven sent with news would make it to us in time to do anything with that knowledge, anyway.”
She mulled over a pair of pieces before she settled on swapping the red one with the white one. “Too true. Let me tell you what I’ve seen.”
“I’m in your debt, Ruzhu.”
“You always are,” she said with a wry smile. “But I saw visions of the rind of a fruit being peeled and placed atop a locust, itself newly-husked of its old shell. Were someone to pick up this fruit in their hand the locust would burst forth, screaming, and grow great jaws to sever the veins of that grasping palm. There would be no way to stop it.” They kept moving pegs across the board all the while.
“So lies and distractions that are fatal if believed,” said Sarouth. “That’s remarkably straightforward.”
She nodded. “It’s weird, right? I’m used to a few more layers of metaphor.”
“I guess merchants from her neck of the woods like things less ambiguous.”
“I suppose so. You still have more experience with talking to…oh, you utter asshole!” she said, laughing. The pieces were now arranged in such a way that if she moved anything she would open herself up to a cascading defeat at the hands of Sarouth’s pegs. There was nothing left for her to do but forfeit. “You waited until I was distracted from sharing my divinations to set that up, didn’t you?”
He grinned and tossed his hair. “Just practicing some diversions of my own.”
There were other things Ruzhu had seen in the glass—doom, destruction, the usual business of oracles—but it was the peeled hide of mistruths that stuck with Riaag even as he sat down for a challenge or two of his own. That could mean liars in their future midst, or it could mean disguises. It could also mean skinwalkers. If there was anywhere he was likely to find a skinwalker, surely it would be at the beck and call of a figure who stole the miracles of the gods Themselves for their own nefarious desires. Would the animals they passed be monsters in disguise? Would the trees? The Hill God would watch over them from below, which meant the rocks and dust were probably fine, so that meant all he had to worry about was everything between the earth and the sky. As that was the usual sphere of things Riaag worried about, it would be fine. He had to believe that much.
Games could only last so long. He helped pack away the board and pieces as Sarouth and Ruzhu said their goodbyes, half in the form of hot-blooded demands for one another not to do anything foolish and half in the form of soft voices during a shared embrace. Sarouth had always been a wanton hugger; something about the Feast had thrown him into a frenzy of affection for any god-speakers who’d stayed afterwards, even young Matik, who had yet to make her way to the Labyrinth’s center. He’d even been sure to stop by Daziin’s camp one last time to bid them farewell before she and hers had left the day before. Riaag supposed Sarouth was doing it while he knew he could. You didn’t just ignore portents of danger even if you were used to them.
Sarouth and Ruzhu had already bumped knuckles in farewell just outside the gates when a runner appeared at Sarouth’s side, panting.
“They want you at the healers’, Holy One,” said the runner. “The guard with the broken leg and the snakebite has turned delirious. The lead healer says she’ll be fine, but she’s foaming and confused and keeps refusing healing teas. They’re hoping you might soothe her long enough so they can get something down her neck so she can start getting better.”
“Well, shit,” said Sarouth. He patted his horse’s flank. “Riaag, if you’d watch Karsta and Stupid Horse for a minute? I need to go see to this or they’re never going to get any peace over there.”
“I can wait as long as I gotta, Holy One.”
The runner left with Sarouth in tow. Riaag waited on horseback; he did not like riding any more than he absolutely had to, and he still would rather have eaten Stupid Horse than get on its back and try not to fall off, so if he had made the effort to struggle into the saddle he was determined to not repeat the process any time soon. When he stopped thinking about how much his balls hurt after too long in the saddle he sometimes actually felt powerful while there. Barding covered in the skulls of the stronghold’s enemies had that kind of effect on a person.
He pulled his cloak around himself a little more tightly. They were going somewhere dangerous, which meant he was riding in his armor, and for once the layers of padding he wore beneath his coat of scale were being useful instead of just making him sweaty. Wearing layers meant to cushion the weight of dozens of pounds of leather and scale meant he had to go easy on the warmer ones, unfortunately. At least between his long hair—currently draped fetchingly around the collars of his coats, themselves concealing the newest crop of bruises on his neck and shoulders—and the pelt of the Avatar of Wolf he’d worked into his signature helm he didn’t have to worry about his ears getting cold. He wondered how the River People in the stronghold were doing, and if anyone had suggested knitting their ears little socks for the nastier parts of the year.
The horses chuffed at the scent of a wolf, then, which turned out to belong to a massive beast sitting off the side of the road, its front leg adorned with a beaded cuff. Riaag’s eyes followed the trunk of the tree next to the wolf until they settled on a shadow lurking conspicuously in its boughs. He knew of only one person who would go to so much trouble to hide themselves only to ensure they were visible at the last moment. It was alarmingly apt timing.
“Riaag Bough-Breaker,” said the shadow in familiarly-accented Rhoanish. “I am here to tell you you are riding into the serpent’s mouth.”
He nodded up at the tree. “Hi, Etxeloi. Figg’red t’were the case. We’s aware we ain’t even fully aware ‘a all the dangers what lie in wait fer us, ‘n we’s doin’ it anyway. That’s the Rhoanish way.”
“You will not reconsider?”
“Nah. Ruzhu Kind-Knife, another god-speaker, is keepin’ the fires warm fer us ’til we’s back. Which we’s ever’ intention ‘a doin’, afore you asks, ‘n you’d be best reminded we’s a history ‘a returnin’ from dumbass reckless things inter which we charges headlong.” He knew he sounded more confident than he felt. Maybe the more people he said it to, the more he’d believe it. Fake it ’til you make it was sometimes the best advice of all.
The Etxeloi-shaped shadow stared down at them from his perch. “I see. You and White-Hair are both going, then?”
“Yeah, just like always.”
“Then tell your White-Hair that whispers on the wind tell me that when the sun last rose, there were no bandits on the trail, nor foul beasts, and that there is safe passage across the river. That is as far as it can guarantee things.”
Riaag raised his eyebrows. “Yeah? Where’d the wind get that kinda infermation?”
The silvery head of a blade appeared in Etxeloi’s hand, and even from his vantage Riaag could see the peculiar sheen left from the poisons River People liked to daub on everything. “Sometimes a storm blows of its own accord,” said Etxeloi, and Riaag would have to ask where he’d heard enough Rhoanish poetry to start quoting some of it back.
“We got cleanup work ter do, then?”
“Anythin’ else you feels like sharin’ about this wizard fucker what we’s preparin’ ter evaluate?”
Etxeloi made a thoughtful sound up in his sinuses. Riaag had not been aware it was possible to hear someone’s accent in such a tic; it had to be something about how Usoa handled its many tonal subtleties.
“Your iron is honest. Your stone is honest. A wizard lives in a den of lies, so know where your honesty goes if it is taken. Remember that you will be told what is real and what is not and what you are told may not be what can be found with your own hands.” The shine off his eyes flickered a moment. “Your White-Hair is returning. Tell him that if there is safety to be found on your journey, I wish it to you. If this is the last time you are heard from, know that Naar Rhoan has done good things for Usoa. We will not forget them.”
How was it that the most genuine person in all of that village was a spooky ghost of a man who stole secrets and slit throats for a living? Riaag half-bowed in his saddle. When he righted himself both Etxeloi and his wolf were gone.
Sarouth hustled back down the path and popped himself up on his horse, sitting side-saddle as he preferred to. “Sorry about that. Last-minute emergencies can smell when you have somewhere to be, I swear.”
“S’alright,” said Riaag. He regarded the now-empty patch of darkness in the branches of the tree. “We’s gonna have a smooth trip ter the river, anyway. Mighta heard someone done cleared the way fer us, set us up a place ter cross all safe-like.”
“Did you, now. How many corpses will we need to bury along the way?”
“Knowin’ the nature ‘a the right mysterious wind, probably a real fuckload.”
This got him a laugh and a sigh in the same breath. “That sounds about right. Did he have anything to say about our even more mysterious friend on the other side of the water?”
Riaag forced his throat in an attempt to mimic Etxeloi’s range. “Your iron is honest. Your stone is honest. A wizard lives in a den of lies, so know where your honesty goes if it is taken,” he said, in what he hoped was a decent impression. He hadn’t actually tried to imitate many River People before. Maybe that would be something to do on the trip.
“Some shit ’bout how every fucken thing down there is gonna be a lie made outta stolen miracles, so’s we best prepare fer mind games. Nasty ones what defies logic ‘n reality ‘n similar such. Given how Kind-Knife told us much the same I ain’t lookin’ forward ter it.” He exhaled a great cloud of vaporous breath that eddied around both his tusks and the fangs of his helmet. “Fucken wizards, is I right?”
Sarouth nodded in agreement. “Fucking wizards.”
They turned from the stronghold as one, then, and rode together, side by side, down the road towards the unknown south.