Seismic Gap

written and illustrated by Iron Eater

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/263393.html)

Riaag had a complicated relationship with the stupid horse. He hated everything about it, from the way its eyes rolled (which was horrifying) to the way it smelled (which was delicious), but the worst part was how Sarouth kept insisting he learn how to ride the damn thing. Horsemanship was not something in Riaag’s blood: he spent most of his practice sessions clinging helplessly to the saddle, and while the horse had been trained to tolerate the scent of orcs, he could still feel it fighting the urge to throw him every time he urged it around a barrel. It was going to be a long time before either of them was fit to charge into battle, assuming the beast didn’t get tired of having seven feet of fat, angry man sit on its back and just kick him to death one morning.

The worst part was how he couldn’t just sneak it into the kitchen when Sarouth wasn’t looking. For one thing, it was an entirely different breed than the horses they bought for food, and since he’d been present for the haggling he knew just how expensive a trade it’d been; cooking it would be like making a soup with a brick of pure saffron. Most importantly, however, the damned animal had been a present. Sarouth had looked so hopeful when he’d told Riaag about his plans, and as much as Riaag hated the idea of trying to ride, he hated the thought of upsetting Sarouth more. At least seeing Sarouth happy was worth the sore muscles and stiff back.

It had been an ordinary day, for the most part: he’d washed clothes, worked in the forge, and spent time amiably terrorizing some of the stronghold’s children in between teaching them songs. He’d also practiced riding the stupid horse, of course, which was why everything south of his neck ached. Riaag had decided halfway through his hour-long ordeal of getting tangled up in the reins like an asshole that the rest of his afternoon was best spent on personal time, and so the day found him soaking in one of Naar Rhoan’s many bathing lakes, happily holed up in a secluded corner where he didn’t have to talk to anyone.

While he had every intention of not leaving the water until every part of him looked like a prune, Riaag’s ears perked up when he heard the crunch of feet on pebbles behind him. Most people left him alone when he was obviously lost in thought. His visitor had been quiet, ruling out a messenger, and given the sound of rustling fabric that followed the footsteps it could only be one person. At least said person was allowed to bother him during his private time.

“Hi, Faaroug,” he said, not bothering to open his eyes.

“You know you don’t have to call me that,” said Sarouth’s voice from the bank, followed by the sloshing of lake water as he waded out a ways. Riaag shivered a little as Sarouth brushed against him. He’d shadowed Sarouth for years, keeping his hair neat and his chin shorn and his person as free from injury as possible, and Riaag knew for a fact people had assumed they were sleeping together long before it was even half of an option, but actually being close to Sarouth these days was different, somehow. Every time Sarouth leaned on him or ruffled his hair he felt his stomach clench up for reasons he had yet to entirely figure out.

“How’d your riding go?” continued Sarouth. He splashed past Riaag a bit and started talking again before Riaag could answer. “Mine went well enough. I think I’ve gotten the hang of Karsta’s canter, so I can halfway move my body in time with the hoofbeats.” Karsta was the name of Sarouth’s horse, because of course he’d named his. He’d probably name a butter churn if he stayed around it long enough.

Riaag cracked open his eyes and grunted. “Didn’t fall off. I’m fucken sore again, though.” It was an understatement.

Sarouth laughed. He laughed a lot, in the honest, easy manner of someone who found something to be happy about behind every tree, but that didn’t make it any less nice to hear. “Not falling off is far better than getting dragged along for a few laps!” he said, his tusks flashing in one of his typical dazzling smiles. “I think you would’ve challenged Karsta to a duel if I hadn’t intervened once I got myself untangled. Demanding an animal fight for its honor is probably not the most productive thing a man can do, you know.”

“Yeah, well, I still got my eye on that thing,” muttered Riaag. Sarouth’s horse wasn’t the kind made for eating, either, but Riaag had thought long and hard about making an exception as he’d tended Sarouth’s countless scrapes after the unexpected unification with the ground. Riaag took being a bodyguard very seriously.

“I still say we should just eat the fucken things and be done with it,” he said, after a bit more thought.

“Why’s that?”

Riaag fidgeted. There had to be a way to make his case without hurting Sarouth’s feelings, no matter how bad the idea itself was. “It’s unnatural, that’s why. It’s food. You don’t play silly fuckers with your food, you just take care of it until it’s time to make dinner. Next thing you know you’re gonna have me trying to saddle a cow.”

“I’d do no such thing,” said Sarouth.

Riaag made a questioning noise though his nose. This was leading up to something, that much he was certain, but he wasn’t entirely sure what.

Sarouth nodded sagely. “It’s true. A man your size, we’d have to use at least a bull.”

Riaag groaned in mock irritation. He submerged himself up to his nose, took in a mouthful of water, and rose up to squirt it at Sarouth through the gap in his front teeth. Sarouth sidestepped, yelped, and splashed back; this quickly escalated into a water fight, which itself ended with Sarouth in an affectionate headlock and both of them wetter than fish in a thunderstorm. The chant had a great deal to say about how to treat a god-speaker of Agritakh, and even more about the divine nature of the Faaroug, but Riaag took solace in the fact that it never said he couldn’t duck their chosen messiah underwater and muss up his hair. They had to make up for lost time somehow.

The sun had already begun its descent towards the mountains by the time they’d had enough of shoving each other into the lake. Still aching from shins to shoulders, which had not been helped much by the post-horsemanship horseplay, Riaag wrung out his hair and shrugged back into his miraculously still dry clothes; seven feet of broad, fat warrior-poet could displace rather a lot of water without really trying, and the pebbly bank would probably be slick for hours. His stomach grumbled. Sarouth gave him an amused look and cocked his head in the direction of the stronghold’s meeting plaza, where smoke already curled towards the sky.

“Want to let someone else make dinner tonight?” Sarouth asked.

Riaag shrugged. “I ain’t too tired to do something with rice,” he said, mentally cataloging the various meats and vegetables they had in their personal stores. There was probably enough for a thick soup, especially if he filled it out with marrow and some of the small game he’d jarred a few weeks back, though he’d need to go easy on the roux until harvest time…

“Oh, I don’t doubt that,” said Sarouth as he walked a little closer to Riaag’s side than. He brushed his claws and fingertips against Riaag’s shaggy jaw. “I was just thinking we could find a better use for what wind you’ve got left in your sails. I’ve already finished my divinations for the day, and purified the barrows, and blessed Yana Cold-Iron’s new baby. That gives us the whole evening for, you know, personal things.” He grinned and waggled his eyebrows as though he thought he was being too subtle.

Riaag swallowed hard. The chant definitely didn’t say anything about being flirted with by the Faaroug, or whether it was blasphemy to think he was being too ridiculous for his own good. Still, they’d scarcely had time for each other lately given how busy the settlement had gotten, and he had more than a passing interest in getting a better look at the intricate red tattoos that peeked out from beneath Sarouth’s robes. He nodded. “Yeah, okay.”

Sarouth beamed and thumped Riaag on the shoulder hard enough to make him grunt. “Let’s get going, then! You can find us seats and I’ll get our food.” Not having to talk to people was a reward in and of itself for Riaag, and he dutifully fell in step behind Sarouth as they began to walk.

The smells of countless cooking suppers filled the late summer air as they headed back towards the more populated parts of Naar Rhoan. It was finally getting large enough to properly bustle: it was good to hear the craftsmen and field workers babbling to each other as the day’s labors ended, and Riaag figured that somewhere guards and caretakers were swapping some great stories, but he liked the sound of children at play the best. The closest group was a bunch of hunters’ kids who tussled with their dogs while boasting to each other about whose mother would bring home the biggest deer. They were far too old to be native-born Rhoanish, but he guessed a few might have been brought in on their parents’ backs. He wondered how many would stay in the stronghold when they grew older, and whether they’d have better luck than he did when learning to balance on a moving animal. At least they’d take the songs and chant with them if they left.

The meeting field was packed, as Riaag had expected, though Sarouth was able to part the crowd like a ship’s bow just by being himself. Some of the people already gathered there whispered to one another as Sarouth and Riaag passed; Riaag suspected there was far more talk about how Sarouth had publicly pardoned an untouchable than whatever he and said untouchable got up to in the privacy of a tent, but he missed being able to meander through life invisibly. Now he wasn’t just Riaag Bough-Breaker—singer of songs, breaker of faces, cooker of many dinners—but the man who’d been cleansed with the blessing of the Hill God in all His wrath. That was the sort of reputation one couldn’t just slink away from. He took comfort in the fact that Sarouth—rather, Sarouth White-Hair, slayer of heretics, builder of walls, buyer of stupid horses—cast a shadow far greater than he ever would, and shadows were perfect for hiding in.

A child who still had her baby tusks in peeked around someone’s legs at them. She waved at Riaag, who remembered her from having to break up a fight between her and her sisters a few days previous, then darted out, brushed the skirt of Sarouth’s robes with her hand, and rushed back into the throng with a happy shriek. Sarouth glanced over his shoulder at Riaag with a look of amusement. Ever since he’d dueled for Riaag’s honor there’d been a noted upswing in local kids daring one another to creep up and touch Sarouth’s clothing or blurt out some phrase that was part of the challenge. Sarouth always waved it off as children finding a way to handle fear of the unknown in a way they could control and understand. After all, didn’t servants of Agritakh seem strange to everyone else? Better for little ones to learn that there was no danger from an Agritakh-ruhd by proving it through dares rather than simply taking someone’s word for it.

Riaag sometimes wondered how much of that explanation was for his sake and how much was for Sarouth himself.

They parted as they drew nearer to the food tents, Riaag making a beeline for an empty bench under one of the vine-heavy pergolas as soon as it didn’t feel rude to hustle out of the way. His back remembered every bump and jostle from riding as soon as he sat down. Riaag closed his eyes wearily and let the sounds of other people’s conversations wash over him while he waited for Sarouth to come back.

Most of what he heard was the same smattering of gossip, stories, and dirty jokes as before, though he started noticing a common trend: the missing hunting party. A man whose wife was one of the hunters confided in a friend that he’d been having troubling dreams about her, two small boys whose father had joined the search effort loudly asked their mother why their papa wasn’t home as usual, and a pair of passing rookery workers anxiously commented on the lack of messenger ravens in the past day. A dark feeling started stirring in Riaag’s gut. The hunters had left on what had sounded like a routine trip over a week and a half ago, keen on heading south, and even if pickings had been slim they would have at least returned to restock their supplies by now. What made things worse was how the search party kept sending back birds whose messages said nothing more than “nothing yet.” Naar Rhoan didn’t have any formal enemies, but it didn’t have any friends, either. Riaag didn’t like the implications.

He was rescued from himself by Sarouth arriving with a tray of steaming food. Sarouth sat just far enough away from him to put the tray on the bench between them, and since it had only been a few weeks since things had gotten very interesting between them, Riaag didn’t touch any of it; someone he used to be had picked up the habit of waiting for everyone else to finish before pocketing some scraps for himself. Old habits died hard. If someone had found him as a child and told him that ten years from then he’d be splitting a meal with an Agritakh-ruhd, he’d have been hard-pressed which to believe less: that a god-speaker would be talking to him or that he’d have anything to eat at all.

Sarouth picked up a bowl of pilaf and handed it to Riaag with a nod. “Eat up,” he said, his smile kind. “I doubt it’s as good as your cooking, but it still smells pretty good, right?” The broth was hot and smelled chickeny, and Riaag noted with satisfaction that the peas mingled with the rice still had plenty of color. He plucked a cube of spiced chicken off the top and popped it in his mouth. It was, indeed, rather nice. Sarouth was also giving him a look that Riaag had learned meant I’m not eating until you do, so he did his best to push away the lingering ghosts of the past to tuck into his meal.

People buzzed around them, dipping in and out like dragonflies. Being the de facto leader of the stronghold, Sarouth’s opinion was in constant demand; he could scarcely go a few bites without someone new popping up to ask for a moment of his time. The other Rhoanish had learned that his more-than-occasional breaks from tradition were an acceptable tradeoff for keeping their families safe and their bellies full, and lately there had been an upswing in the number of new converts who were willing to give agriculture a chance. Riaag wasn’t quite certain if the trend would last, but at least it was proof that the stronghold’s people were more concerned with a strong community than cleaving to the letter and word of the chant. Who had time to complain about tending fields when there were scavengers to reform?

They were most of the way through their meal—Sarouth on his second dish, Riaag on his fifth—when a worried commotion sprang up at the edge of the field. Riaag’s hand unconsciously spun his eating knife into a more offensive grip. No alarm bells sounded and nobody was shouting, which was some small comfort, but Riaag still had to repeat a few personal chants to himself to help center his mind as the source of the fuss drew nearer. Her clothes proclaimed her to be a lookout and slinger from the south gate, and she had something propped in the crook of her arm against her roughspun tunic. She genuflected to Sarouth without disturbing whatever it was she was holding.

“Holy one,” she said, and to her credit she wasn’t even out of breath despite having presumably run all the way there, “we found something just outside the walls.”

“Bring it here,” said Sarouth, and the runner placed it gently in his hands.

It was a raven, large and fat and very badly injured; the metal band around its leg marked it as a messenger bird. How it had been able to fly with such awful wounds was a mystery. It croaked in pain as Sarouth gently unwound the strand of beads affixed to its leg band. He whispered to it and stroked its blood-caked feathers until the raven closed its eyes in sleep.

“Clean it up and make sure it has food,” Sarouth said, handing it back to the runner. He sighed. “I don’t know any healing charms that work on animals. If it’s going to die, at least we can make its last hours comfortable.” The runner bowed her head respectfully before leaving for the rookery, the raven cradled in her arms.

Sarouth clucked his tongue thoughtfully as he studied the beads. He ran them across his knuckles like he was practicing a parlor trick, and Riaag found himself leaning in instinctively as Sarouth’s expression grew increasingly darker and more puzzled.

“Something wrong?” asked Riaag, his hand still toying with his knife. It was difficult to relax when Sarouth was upset about something not immediately obvious.

“I’m having trouble reading this. The beads are messed up. Some are in the wrong order, some are missing… I’ve got maybe half an idea here.” Sarouth held the strand taut between his fingers as he translated the strand of coded shapes and colors. “Remains found, trouble, forest has shapes, river, danger.” He fell silent, pursing his lips

Riaag grunted. “And?”

“And that’s all. Like I said, it’s not a finished message. There isn’t even a day or time. Something’s very wrong here.” He looked up at Riaag. “Did you notice anything strange about that bird?”

Riaag’s brow furrowed in thought. He had noticed a few things. “It don’t smell right. They’re supposed to reek of hawk oil before they fly out, yeah? Like have it on every feather?” Sarouth nodded. Hawk oil stank of rot; it didn’t bother ravens or orcs, but larger birds kept their distance from anything doused in it. Riaag cocked his thumb in the direction of the rookery. “Not that one. It has maybe a little splash on there, like someone was in a real fucken hurry to send it off.”

Sarouth frowned, his forehead knitting in concern. “Anything else?”

“Yeah,” said Riaag. “You saw how torn up it was? Animals don’t leave wounds like that. Metal does. Someone wanted that bird dead.”

Sarouth swore under his breath. “I thought we’d cleaned up or converted any bandits in this region,” he said, his fingers tapping against the side of his leg. “If the search party ran into them, that’d explain why they aren’t back yet.” He stood up and started pacing. “Moving with injured people, especially if they’re with the hunters, would be pretty slow going, and if there were any extended fights with bandits, that’d consume more time, so…”

Riaag let Sarouth mutter to himself; he’d long since gotten used to it, and Sarouth tended to get irritable if he couldn’t walk and talk while thinking through a problem. Granted, he usually did so in the privacy of his tent and not in the middle of a public supper, but they weren’t getting any more odd looks than usual. It wasn’t like he was the only Agritakh-ruhd who talked to the empty air, after all. The only real problem was how instead of meandering towards a solution, the way this sort of thing normally went, it sounded like Sarouth was actually becoming more frustrated than he was when he began.

After finishing the last of his share of dinner, Riaag pushed himself off the bench and rested a hand on Sarouth’s shoulder. “At least they ain’t out there fucken around on horseback, right?” he said. Hopefully a reminder of how hilarious their respective attempts were would lighten the mood.

It didn’t seem to have the desired effect. “This is exactly the sort of thing I was talking about!” exclaimed Sarouth, throwing up his hands for emphasis. “We’re hamstrung by our lack of riders! If we had mounted scouts, they could’ve covered twice the land in half the time, and they would’ve been able to carry wounded with them on horseback! To say nothing of how they could trample attackers with furious efficiency!” It was a nice sentiment, but not something Riaag saw happening anytime soon; in his opinion, any brigand who could be overrun by a horseman going at a trot with their eyes shut probably didn’t have any business being a brigand in the first place. Sarouth’s ranting began to slide back towards issues like self-sufficiency and sustainability the longer he went on, which Riaag took as his cue to start tuning him out.

A young man that Riaag usually saw herding sheep sidled up to them, his face pinched. He tried getting Sarouth’s attention; once this proved to be very much in vain, the youth looked pleadingly at Riaag. Riaag, his hand still on Sarouth’s shoulder, tried to point him roughly in the same direction as their supplicant visitor.

“Holy One?” asked the shepherd, wringing his hands. “We’ve heard nothing about the hunters and now more people are missing. We’re starting to worry. What should we do?” He had brown flecks in his left eye and short, stubby tusks: a twin to the leader of the search party. It came as no surprise to Riaag that a family member be one of the first to approach them about the matter.

Sarouth was still too embroiled in one of his unending internal logic puzzles to answer, his expression the same far-off look he adopted whenever he talked about the long-term future of Naar Rhoan as a whole, so Riaag improvised.

“Y’all are gonna organize another group to go into the woods,” he said, raising himself up to his full height and using his herald’s voice. For some reason people listened to him when he did that. “Something weird’s going on, so make sure everyone who volunteers has armor that covers their junk and knows which end of a fucken spear goes in the enemy. I’m going with. We leave tomorrow morning after breakfast, and we’re gonna bring them missing folks back, yeah?”

The shepherd nodded and bowed to both of them as he backed away. Riaag eyed the rest of the crowd. “That goes for the rest of you lot!” he barked. “Something’s fucken weird and we’re the only ones who can fix it! I expect to see people at the south gate tomorrow afore I have to start volunteering your asses myself!” Heads nodded. Leadership was not something he’d ever been comfortable with, but it wasn’t so bad so long as he thought of it as just amplifying Sarouth’s will very loudly.

Sarouth himself took a while to come back from wherever his mind had gone, and by that time his hand was covered with marks from the beads where he’d pulled them against his skin too roughly. He swayed dizzily; Riaag caught him before he collapsed and helped him back to the bench. They were thankfully left alone as Sarouth recuperated. Riaag kept to his usual routine: he brought water, mentioned what all had happened while Sarouth was away, and hoped his concern wasn’t too obvious as Sarouth’s modest appetite returned. Any god-speaker’s aide knew the value of making sure their charges were in control at all times.

As good as it was seeing his charge keep food down, Riaag was relieved when Sarouth handed off their dishes and gestured back towards the sacred hill. Holy ground was always good for getting a little privacy—said privacy was in fact one reason he kept his tent there, though far from the only one—and Riaag didn’t feel like talking to people after having to give stronghold-wide orders on very short notice. He walked slowly and closely to Sarouth, ready to catch him in case the divine vertigo came back.

Sarouth fidgeted with the message beads the entire way to the hill. He stopped at the cave entrance that led into the earth, his hand resting against one of the designs they’d painstakingly carved into the rock when first investigating the place; their tents were only a little ways further, but he didn’t look like he was going to be retiring any time soon. The strange fumes that wafted from underground eddied around his sandals, brushing against his feet like eager puppies. Sarouth gave Riaag a slightly embarrassed smile.

“I’m sorry, Riaag,” he said, and it really was nice hearing someone say that and mean it, “but I really should pray about this. We’re going to have to do those ‘personal things’ we’d planned another day. Is that, you know, okay?”

Riaag grunted an affirmative. Why the Faaroug cared so much about his opinion when there was soothsaying to be done was still a mystery to him, but he’d resigned himself to the fact that Sarouth had a dire case of giving a shit, which had every sign of being a lifelong malady. He leaned in to place a chaste kiss on Sarouth’s forehead—another weird-but-nice thing he was acclimating to—and stepped back a ways.

“I got some clothes to mend anyway,” said Riaag. “Have a good talk with the Hill God, Holy One.”

He didn’t realize he’d been holding his breath until Sarouth’s silhouette had disappeared entirely in the smoky darkness.

illustrated by Iron Eater

There were, indeed, a few clothes that needed time with a needle and thread, but those were folded neatly in Sarouth’s—correction, their—tent, and Riaag had a personal project of his own that he’d been neglecting as of late; sure, it was disappointing that he wouldn’t be able to fool around with his best friend, but Sarouth being out of commission for a few hours had its perks. Riaag unlaced the flaps of his private tent and stepped into his own personal space.

His cot was still there, as were a few of his older gear racks, though he’d moved the vast majority of his armor to his new quarters already. More important was the chest he kept of personal things, which he started rummaging through busily; here was an interesting feather he’d found, there was the too-small bracelet he’d traded for when Sarouth was first teaching him how to barter, here was a pair of very worn gloves with the fingers cut and rolled down to fit his hands, there was a shabby waterskin that was a hair’s breadth from falling apart. It probably looked like junk to the average observer, which suited Riaag fine, as people were more inclined to leaving junk alone. Digging deeper, he pulled out what he’d been hiding there for who knew how many months: a set of dark gray robes lined with amber fabric, the embroidery along the edges as yet incomplete. Riaag sat himself on his cot, laid out his sewing kit, and began carefully stitching patterns into being.

Making pictures with colored thread was not a task he’d expected to be any good at when he first tried it, but there was something soothing about the repetitive motions that made it easier for him to piece songs together in his head. Most of his first pieces had been on little scraps of fabric as he memorized different clans’ colors; each swatch helped him visualize the people they met just a little better, and he was confident that he could place the approximate allegiances of anyone within a hundred miles so long as they were dressed traditionally. Once he’d run out of clans to learn he’d turned to decorating sashes with whatever came to mind, and after much coaxing from Sarouth—who’d gone on at length about how well the sashes worked as trade goods, among other things—Riaag had even embroidered some of his own clothes. Sarouth had gushed about the results. Riaag had taken the hint.

He worked on the texture of a bird’s wing as he thought of fresh verses. The business with the injured raven definitely needed to be set to record once they’d found out what happened, since it was far too interesting to leave alone, but it was hard to nail down the tone with so much missing information. If everyone came home safe then it could be framed as the main subject, but if anyone was hurt, or worse, dead…

The hours dribbled away like water in a cracked bowl, and before Riaag knew it the half moon was high and bright. He admired his work: vultures wheeled above a long-horned ibex prancing in a field of flowers, most of which had actually been filled in by then. The colors were bold and bright, and he could already picture how well they’d compliment Sarouth’s pine green skin. Riaag carefully put everything back where it belonged before he extinguished the lights, closed up the tent behind him, and slipped next door to prepare for the evening.

Aside from simply being bigger, complete with a hanging partition so there were definite public and private halves, and aside from having Sarouth in it more often than not, which could make a haywain look inviting, Riaag liked the shared tent because it looked worthy of an Agritakh-ruhd. The armor was his, of course, as anyone with eyes could see that the wolf-pelt helm and metal-scaled coat were sized for the kind of man who took his meals with another meal on the side, but they were simply one thing amid the display of interesting knick-knacks and gifts Sarouth had picked up over the years. Even the rugs on the ground had stories behind them. Behind the partition were additional wonders, like the collection of potions Riaag still didn’t know the origins of or the lantern that could make different colors dance across the tent roof, but since these weren’t the sort of thing other people were expected to see he didn’t think as much about them; to him it felt a bit like getting excited about a chamberpot. He sat on the edge of the bed, winced as the day’s aches gave him a final parting blow, and began shrugging out of his clothes.

They’d had to have a larger bed built. Sarouth’s old one had been large enough for one person, but trying to fit another man on it—especially one as big as Riaag—was a losing proposition. Eventually Riaag had opted to just sleep on a bedroll instead of spending all night trying not to tumble off the side. He would’ve been happy enough just sleeping that close, but Sarouth was determined, and it was very difficult getting Sarouth to sway from a goal once he’d gotten his mind set on it. One day the old bed was gone, an enormous one was in its place, and Sarouth had gently encouraged him not to sleep on the floor.

Of course, while sleeping on a mattress was a delightful luxury, years of spending the night on what amounted to a glorified dinner tray had left their mark: with just Riaag in it, it felt like a wool-stuffed ocean. He had to keep close to the side to keep from getting lost in it. There was plenty to think about to keep his mind from fixating on his new surroundings, at least, since there was soon going to be an entire second search party to yell orders at. He checked to make sure his axe and boots were close enough to grab in an emergency and pulled the light summer blankets up around his chin. Search parties made him think of messengers, which made him think of messenger birds, which made him think of the poor creature probably croaking its last in the rookery.

It was enough to capture his attention from the already nerve-wracking thought of having to organize other people. Riaag mentally reviewed every sort of wound he’d seen (some of which he’d been directly responsible for) and compared them to what he’d seen on the raven. Nothing really matched up. An axe or sword would’ve cut the bird in half, a spear wouldn’t’ve left it in any state to fly, a sling bullet couldn’t leave the gouges he’d seen…

The tent flap rustled. He felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up as he heard someone step inside; the footsteps sounded like sandals, and based on how slowly they were moving and the light smell of oracular smoke in the air it was probably just Sarouth lacing up the tent before getting in bed, but Riaag’s hand began creeping towards his axe anyway. He’d only lived as long as he had by distrusting everything he heard at night.

“It’s me,” said Sarouth’s voice in the darkness. Something clinked, which might have been the agate-fronted circlet Sarouth wore as a symbol of authority but might have been something else. Riaag felt a familiar warmth slip behind him, followed shortly by a pair of comforting nips: one on his ear, one at the nape of his neck. He let himself relax. This was okay. Sarouth made everything okay. He rumbled an acknowledgment and tried to make a little more room on the mattress, regardless of how little he was taking up himself.

“Can’t sleep?” asked Sarouth. He cuddled up against Riaag, tucking his chin over Riaag’s shoulder. The weather was finally cool enough that they could actually stand to sleep spooning against each other. “I was down there for so long I thought you would’ve been out by now. Do you want to talk about something?”

“I keep thinking about that bird.”

Sarouth made a thoughtful noise. “Poor thing’s hopefully not hurting any more. We can make an offering for it when you get back from searching.”

“That ain’t what I meant,” said Riaag. “It’s just…I don’t like not knowing what fucked it up so bad. What if it means something bad is gonna happen? I keep thinking, is this the way the end starts? Is this gonna be my last day happy?”

Sarouth kissed him on the ear. “You worry too much, brave warrior,” he said, and Riaag could hear the smile in his words. “I sat in there divining until my ass fell asleep. Every portent I got said this would end well for us. We’ll have countless eyes combing the woods. I’m sure we’ll find out what happened soon and everything’s going to work out fine. It’ll be good practice for the guards to be on alert for a bit, right?”

Riaag half-shrugged, catching himself before he clocked Sarouth in the jaw with his shoulder. “Maybe. Still gonna dwell on it a bit, though.”

“Would you like something to distract you? I’m not that tired.” Sarouth snuggled up closer to him, one hand resting against Riaag’s stomach. That alone was enough to distract him; it was hard for him to worry too much when his thoughts kept drifting back to how warm Sarouth was and how little fabric there was between them. Everything would be all right, or at least it would be until sunrise. Until then, he was sharing a bed with a man as toned and lean as a hunting hound who was interested in mutual orgasms. It wasn’t a difficult decision.

“Yeah. That sounds pretty nice.”

There was a brief bit of awkwardness as Riaag struggled to roll over without squashing anything important on anyone important, but the pair persevered; soon Riaag lay chest to chest with Sarouth and pulled him close in an embrace that, much like spooning, was a lot more pleasant now that the air had started to cool at night. He found Sarouth’s mouth in the dark and kissed him shyly. Keeping their tusks from locking was still a bit of a challenge, especially since theirs pointed in different directions, but Riaag was willing to try anyway. It still felt like he was getting away with something.

The heavy felted wool of the tent blocked out the moonlight and the firepit’s coals had long since grown cold, so Riaag had to let his imagination paint in the details: Sarouth’s gentle yellow eyes, the red of the tattoos that swirled across his arms and shoulders, his namesake white hair falling like silk in front of the left side of his face. He could’ve spent ages just being as close as they were, but things were helped along when Sarouth started kissing back a lot more fiercely. If Riaag hadn’t been certain of Sarouth’s intent before, the erection nudging him from beneath Sarouth’s sleeping skirts clarified it. Riaag had to break the kiss and rest his forehead against Sarouth’s to catch his breath. His sore back was now the absolute last thing on his mind.

Sarouth chuckled and scratched Riaag under the chin. “Want me to touch you?” he whispered. Riaag nodded. He relaxed his hug, allowing Sarouth to roll away just enough to rest his hands against his scarred, hairy chest. Sarouth’s claws were barely sharp enough to dig, much less break skin, but Riaag shivered happily as those fingers made their feather-light way across his body and got themselves acquainted with various parts of his anatomy. It was as though Sarouth was remembering him an inch at a time. And that was the thing, really: Sarouth always seemed genuinely happy to touch and explore. Whenever they actually found time for sex he didn’t ask for Riaag’s mouth—or anything else—but gladly took anything he was offered, and he never came off as anything less than thrilled whenever Riaag so much as brushed his cock. For now, though, Sarouth was the one guiding things, and this was comforting to Riaag in a way he couldn’t easily explain.

With a wriggle Sarouth freed himself completely from Riaag’s arms. He sat up and pulled the blankets away with him, rearing back like a snake; when they had enough light to see by this was where he’d take his time and just look at Riaag, as for some reason Sarouth thought this was worth doing, but this time he went straight for stripping Riaag of his trousers. He was rather good at it, too, knowing when to gently nudge and when to just yank on the cloth, and he also had the maddening habit of getting just friendly enough in the process to make sure Riaag was fully erect by the time he was properly nude. The whole affair took a matter of seconds. Riaag already longed for winter weather and the extra layers it would bring.

He could feel the mattress shift as Sarouth shed his own clothing to sit between Riaag’s legs. Claws prickled at the fat on his thighs, and Riaag yelped and squirmed obligingly when Sarouth gave him a playful tweak; even when they were fucking—making love, Riaag corrected himself, because the distinction was important—Sarouth treated everything like a game. There was movement in the dark and he felt a kiss next to his navel, then things shifted and he felt the pleasant, raspy tingle of tongue against his nipple. It was hard to guess what sensation would visit him next, or where. Somewhere Sarouth was giggling to himself. Riaag had already been worked up from being disrobed and teased, to say nothing of the slow burn he’d been managing since that afternoon by the lake, but hearing how happy he was making Sarouth could’ve flipped him from dormant to full arousal all on its own. Even if being able to sexually satisfy the Faaroug wasn’t something the chant called for in a disciple, the knowledge that he could was a small and private source of pride.

They came together to kiss again, Sarouth’s weight pressing down on him with both hands cupping Riaag’s face, and Riaag must have whined a little when they parted because the next thing he knew they were lying flush against each other, Sarouth between his legs. By the feel of things Sarouth was not just amused but equally aroused, so Riaag tried to angle his hips to make the best of the situation. Sarouth’s shaft ground into his, which was very nice, and then Sarouth’s hand pressed their cocks against each other, which was even nicer. His palm was soft in spite of the labor he did in the fields; Riaag noticed it every time, but never got around to asking if it was an Agritakh-ruhd thing or not. There were more important things to be worrying about, after all, like the long strokes Sarouth used, or the thing he did with his thumb right underneath Riaag’s glans.

The first time they’d ever made love Riaag had shared a song he’d written, which had delighted Sarouth to no end, but this time he simply let his throat make whatever noises it wanted to. Whines, gasps, and a jumble of ecstatic vowel sounds punctuated Sarouth’s attentions. As Riaag felt himself getting closer he unclenched one hand from its death grip on the mattress and fumbled for Sarouth’s shoulder, pulling him near; it was kind of fun being in complete blackness, but some things weren’t obvious enough that way. Riaag whispered in the clipped, desperate tones of a man fifteen seconds away from orgasm, and when he heard Sarouth whisper back he sagged with relief.

He tilted his head up, exposing his throat, and Sarouth accepted his submission with a soft but meaningful bite as he coaxed Riaag into coming. It was wonderful.

Riaag basked in the afterglow like a lizard in the sun, his head cottony and his belly sticky, and he didn’t even wriggle too much as Sarouth tidied him up with a wet cloth. There was probably a mark on his neck now, but between his beard and the high collar on his armor it was doubtful anyone would see; he’d cherish it all the same while out in the field the next day. He could’ve fallen asleep right there and then. Riaag wasn’t so drowsy that he was going to be rude, however; he reached for Sarouth and lay a hand on one well-formed hip, his fingers resting next to Sarouth’s balls.

“Can I?” he asked, wetting his lips nervously. He knew the answer already, but it still thrilled Riaag to be able to ask someone as important as Sarouth if he could touch him.

Sarouth’s voice belied his smile: “Only if you want to.”

“Yeah, and I wanna.

“By all means, then,” Sarouth replied, guiding Riaag’s hand to cup him with greater enthusiasm.

Thanks to his height it was much easier for Riaag to touch Sarouth’s cock while kissing him, which was a very important detail. Riaag had a good half-dozen verses in his head dedicated solely to how good Sarouth’s mouth tasted; he could’ve spent hours doing nothing but, and only broke the kiss when it came time to focus on actually helping Sarouth finish. It wasn’t a very involved process: he mimicked Sarouth’s earlier motions, both the leisurely stroking and the thumb thing—which he suspected he wasn’t doing quite right, but that was okay—and gradually increased his speed until Sarouth hissed his name between gritted teeth and came into his hand.

After Riaag licked his palm clean they shared another, briefer, kiss. Sarouth ruffled Riaag’s hair when they pulled apart. “So, was that distracting enough?”

“Yeah,” Riaag replied. He rolled over onto his side with a snortle. “You got a real knack for taking my mind off things.”

Sarouth chuckled to himself as he snuggled back up against Riaag, his fingers laced just below Riaag’s sternum and one of his ankles twined around Riaag’s own. There were barnacles that clung with less force than Sarouth at bedtime. He’d probably start snoring soon, but that was also okay, since it was an easy way for Riaag to tell he was asleep and well. After all, if the Faaroug couldn’t be forgiven a bit of loud sleeping, who could?

Safe and cozy, Riaag let himself drift away.

And then someone rapped furiously on one of the tent poles.

They both sat bolt upright. Midnight awakenings had only happened twice before in Naar Rhoan’s brief history, and both times it had accompanied dire news. Riaag busied himself with getting a lamp lit before they both busied themselves with pulling on discarded clothes. Neither spoke to the other. Riaag kept his axe at his side as he opened up the tent; a panoply of circumstances swirled in his head, the most pleasant of which involved a bandit sighting. He tried very hard not to think about how much he already missed the moment he’d shared with Sarouth.

A watchman with a rushlight in one hand stood outside. He looked like he’d sprinted all the way from the wall given how out of breath he was; some of his hair was already stuck to his forehead and his breath came in gasps. Unlike runners, watchmen were chosen more for keen eyes than swift feet. He made a game attempt at bowing without falling over as Riaag ushered him in.

“Report,” said Sarouth, his previous mellow demeanor melting as quickly as snow in a soup pot.

“One of the search party finally got back, Faaroug,” said the watchman, wheezing. “He’s bleeding out. We’ve bound him up, but I don’t know if there’s enough left to save.”

Spitting a curse, Sarouth grabbed his potion box and hustled to the infirmary, Riaag loping along after him. No alarm had sounded so most of the settlement was still dark, but the knot of burning torches surrounding the medical tent said enough. The healers inside looked guardedly hopeful when Sarouth made his entrance. There were few patients spending the night there, and most of those were still asleep thanks to the poppy teas the healers brewed, but those who hadn’t been drugged looked rattled by the night’s excitement. Riaag made a mental note to come sing for them once things had resolved themselves.

The wounded man lay on one of the triage tables, his bandages already soaked through. Someone’s rolled-up shirt was serving as a pillow. A small dish with some broken sticks in it lay on a tray to one side, sharing space with various tools of the trade. Riaag recognized a few of them—the mortar and pestle left in mid-grind looked like it was preparing a salve, while the saw and bucket of pitch were thankfully not necessary at the time—but he’d never seen the sticks before.

Sarouth pulled out a slender glass vial and tapped the side with a claw. “Can he swallow?” he asked one of the infirmary workers tending to the fallen man’s wounds. She shook her head.

“We tried getting some tea in him when they brought him in,” she said, “but he kept spitting it up. I think he ripped up his guts when he crawled back here.”

“Crawled?”

“They didn’t tell you? He was pulling himself along on his elbows when they found him.”

Sarouth looked like he’d been struck. “Is that enough bravery for you?” he hissed through his teeth, so quiet that Riaag almost didn’t hear him. The chant didn’t say anything about what to do when an Agritakh-ruhd spoke harshly to the Hill God Himself. Whatever Agritakh’s response was, Sarouth apparently accepted it; he placed his hands over the man’s chest and closed his eyes.

It didn’t look like anything was happening, but divine healing never looked very impressive at first. The only sign that anything was working was how the man’s breathing came a little easier, how his skin looked a healthier shade of green, and how the muscles in his face relaxed ever so slightly. Sarouth waited at his side. Sarouth had waited at a lot of people’s sides over the years, Riaag mused, and it was therefore unsurprising when Sarouth stayed put until the tracker whimpered and cracked open his unbandaged eye.

The man’s voice was cracked and torn when he spoke. “Holy One?” he managed. Sarouth nodded and gestured to the woman who’d been cleaning the tracker’s wounds; she brought a bowl of tea, which the man drank awkwardly. He coughed a few times but kept it down.

“Found the hunters,” he said, a little less raspily. “Dead. Cut up like animals.” He took a few rattling breaths before continuing. “Way southeast. We found them way southeast.”

“Where’s the rest of your group?” asked Sarouth.

“They found us. The others got taken. I ran but they hurt me bad.” His eye started unfocusing, though it looked more like the work of the poppy extract than death tightening its grasp. “I’m tired, Holy One.”

Sarouth sighed. “I’m going to give you the only healing draught I have. It’s going to taste strange, but it should make sure you wake up again.” He carefully raised the tracker’s head and tipped the contents of the vial into the man’s mouth. “Who did this?” he asked, and Riaag couldn’t help but notice the twinge of desperation in his words.

“Shadows,” said the man as his muscles loosened further. “All we saw were shadows in the forest…” Sleep took him, then, and Sarouth eased him back down onto the table.

The healer began preparing fresh dressings for the tracker again as Sarouth stared off into the distance, his hands already fidgeting with the empty vial. Riaag left him alone to think; Sarouth would approach the problem in his own way, and when he came up for air, Riaag would be waiting with fresh details. Of course, said details had to be learned in the first place. He watched as the healer cut away the old linens, cleaned the wounds with water, swabbed them with ointment, and began bracing the tracker’s body to be wrapped again. Before she could finish, however, something caught Riaag’s eye.

“How’d this guy look when they brought him here?” he asked, eying the bandages that looked next in line.

The healer shrugged. “Like you see him now, but worse, and bloodier. He had those weird wooden quills stuck in him, too,” she added, indicating the sticks on the nearby tray. “The tips are barbed. We had to break them to get them out without hurting him worse.”

Riaag sucked on his teeth. “Can I see one?” The healer nodded and handed him the tray.

They looked like little spears, though the metal heads were far larger in proportion to the shafts than they should’ve been. There was a notch in the butt end, with feathers slid into grooves in the wood surrounding it. When the pieces were held together they looked to be about as long as the distance between his elbow and the tip of his middle claw. It looked too delicate to parry a blow, however, and while it was longer than a dagger it was balanced all wrong for slashing. There was also the matter of the barbed head: what kind of maniac would carry a weapon designed for tearing flesh with such a twig-like handle? Surely the shaft would break after the first few stabs. And why the feathers? Attached loosely near the head they’d be a fine source of distraction, certainly, but these couldn’t flutter about and were stuck on the wrong end, besides. It looked like a bad idea waiting to happen, yet here was at-this-moment-still-living proof that whatever the quills were, they were extremely dangerous in the hands of whomever had made them.

It was even more concerning when he held the head of the quill next to one of the many clay lamps lighting the triage area: it was shiny and gray, like a typical piece of worked metal, but had a sheen to it that didn’t look quite right. It didn’t appear to be iron, steel, or even silver, and tin didn’t keep the edge it had. Riaag tested its strength with his fingers and was surprised when it didn’t bend. He hurriedly washed his hands when he felt his fingertips tingling, and looking at the quill-tip again it was obvious he’d rubbed off some sort of toxin. Riaag hurriedly ran the metal through the lamp-flame to burn away the remaining residue. Who knew what the stuff did? He certainly had greater appreciation for the injured man to have crawled as far as he did with poison racing through his veins.

The healer, having left Riaag to his investigations, cut open another bandage with practiced ease. Something about the shape of the revealed injury caught Riaag’s eye, but he couldn’t be sure if he let the healer cover it up too soon. He gestured for her to wait a moment. Kneeling down with the lamp in one hand, he took a good, long look at the freshly-unwrapped flesh. It confirmed his suspicions.

“These look like some of the wounds that bird had,” said Riaag. The healer made a curious sound; he straightened up a bit to explain. “There was a messenger raven brought in earlier that was all fucked up. You know how when you wing a boar with a spear it gets this furrow on it? And how that becomes just this fucken hole through it if you get a good hit in?” She nodded. “These look just like that. Just…tiny.”

The healer nodded again, more thoughtfully this time. “So this was no accident,” she said. Her hands worked nimbly to clean and re-dress the wound Riaag had studied. If the tracker passed in the night it would certainly not be for lack of skill on her part. She beckoned to an apprentice, who brought her a bucket of fresh water to rinse off her hands. “Do you—” and the subtle inflection in her voice marked that as a very plural you, “—have any plans yet?”

Riaag wavered a hand. “I’ll be taking the next group out in the morning—”

“We are leaving tonight,” said Sarouth, jumping to his feet and looking up at Riaag. His eyes were furious and his voice was dead. “Just you and me. Nobody else is going to die for this. I need…I need half an hour. For a ritual. Get your things together.” His fists were clenched so tightly that his claws cut into the meat of his hand. Riaag wasn’t sure if Sarouth even noticed.

Riaag scarcely had the time to thank the healers for their work; Sarouth had already packed up his kit and was storming back towards sacred ground. He didn’t bother taking a light with him. Riaag, not being guided by the tremors of the earth or whatever it was that kept Sarouth from bumping into things in the dark, pulled a firebrand from one of the pits outside and hurried afterwards. Given how fast Sarouth could move when he wanted to, it was a mystery why he was so intent on learning to ride one of the damned horses. The thought of keeping such a pace when he’d yet to have full night’s sleep on top of his aching muscles made Riaag’s stomach sink. Hopefully Sarouth wouldn’t insist they run anywhere until after they’d both had a few hours to recover.

Save for a brief moment when Sarouth was putting his potions away, Riaag didn’t see much of him during the tense half-hour before they left. Rituals were generally something best left between a god-speaker and Agritakh alone. He sometimes heard shouting from deep inside the hill, but he tried his best not to listen; he hadn’t traveled with Sarouth for the better part of seven years without learning when it was a bad idea to know exactly what words were being exchanged.

It was a straightforward process for him to gather his things. They wouldn’t have the luxury of storage so there was no point in bringing spare clothes, they had plenty of rations more or less already prepared to go, and Riaag’s bulkiest items—namely, his armor, shield, and axe—were things he’d have at the ready anyway. Had it been a longer trip he might’ve tucked away some embroidery, but this was a rescue mission: they had to move fast and efficiently. Once everything was packed and his armor was all secured in place, he did his best to tidy things up and convince the feeling of creeping dread he’d been trying to ignore that of course it mattered if the bed was made, wouldn’t it be nice coming home after the mission to a made bed? Because both of them would be coming back. Of course.

After he emerged from the hill Sarouth didn’t have much to say, instead simply changing into fresh robes, scooping some gear into a satchel, and lifting his mace from its stand to hang heavily from the baldric on his belt. He only seemed aware of how fiercely he’d been balling his fists then, and even then all he did was wipe the lingering blood smear across the blackened metal head of his weapon, making it briefly shimmer as though it was hidden by a heat haze. Riaag winced. Sarouth usually didn’t feed the thing until just before a fight; the ritual must not have gone very well at all.

They didn’t bother saddling the horses, as even at his most boundlessly optimistic Sarouth would agree that neither of them were skilled enough to be rescuing anyone while mounted, instead opting for their most durable footwear. The years they’d spent wandering the hills before Naar Rhoan was built had never truly left them: their way might be lit by a fancy brass lantern instead of a torch, and they might be working out of a full-blown stronghold instead of a few tents in a clearing by a cave, but Sarouth’s staff of rank still doubled neatly as a walking stick, and the weight of Riaag’s shield was comforting against his arm. If he didn’t think about it too intently, Riaag could almost pretend he was back hunting heretics in the highlands instead of leaving to search for whoever murdered people he’d started thinking of as his own.

The lowlands spread out before them beyond the open gates as they neared. Sarouth stopped for a moment as they passed the watch station and rested his fingertips against the earthwork foundation. “Safety and rest for anyone inside these walls,” he said to nobody in particular. He looked up at the gates themselves, adorned with bright flags and the crow-picked remains of Naar Rhoan’s enemies, and Riaag followed his gaze to one of the corpses hanging there. Even in the darkness Riaag knew who it was: Heiwog Lost-Gather, collector of bastards, taker of strays, the only man bold enough to threaten Sarouth in his home, and the man indirectly responsible for having Riaag’s untouchable status—and subsequent cleansing—made public. He’d challenged Sarouth to an honor duel and lost gorily. Riaag still had to come out at times to assure himself Heiwog was actually dead.

They stood in silence, staring up at the torchlit corpse. After a while Riaag placed a gloved hand on Sarouth’s shoulder. “We oughtta go,” he said.

“Ought we?” replied Sarouth. “I’m not sure if this is the right thing. I don’t even know if I’m living up to the promise of the gate.”

Riaag gave him a squeeze he hoped didn’t seem too nervous. He decided not to mention the questionable wisdom of two men heading off alone into the night with a day’s worth of muscle aches and zero sleep. “You’re doing it,” he said instead. “Any day of the week, look around, you see mamas crushing up bones for their babies, you see kids running around, you see people who ain’t scared. Them walls go deeper’n the stone and wood that makes ’em.” It didn’t have any obvious effect at first, but after a while Sarouth sighed, took up his staff, and began walking away from the stronghold.

The lowlands were safe enough, having long since been cleared for the fields of grain that now bobbed lazily in the starlight, but Riaag still kept scanning the darkness for phantoms as they walked. Much as he hated to do it he had to keep his helmet off; it was too bulky and blocked too much of his peripheral vision to wear this time of night. The top of his head felt naked. In the past when he’d gone helmless Sarouth would cheer him up a bit with a little joke about how his hair was too nice for a bandit to want to get blood on, but this time Sarouth’s handsome face wasn’t smiling and his attention was fixated on something Riaag couldn’t, and could never, see. Riaag missed that easy laugh already.

Plains became hills, which then dipped down into valleys, and after a few hours the valleys rose again and they could see the forest spreading out towards the distant river. Sarouth, his stride unbroken by the stones and ditches Riaag’s feet kept finding, guided them towards a small cave beneath an outcropping. They didn’t bother making a fire. Riaag prepared his bedroll, taking care to leave room next to him, but Sarouth pointedly sat cross-legged at the cave’s entrance with his face towards the trees. He might have been meditating or he might have been doing something else; either way, Riaag went to sleep alone and awoke to find Sarouth in the same position, silhouetted against the pinkening sky.

Riaag kept a respectful distance away as he repacked his things. “You, uh, need to lie down a little?” he asked. Sarouth didn’t reply, so he opted for a slightly different approach. “I could make us some soup or something while you rest up. Hot food.”

“I’m not hungry,” said Sarouth, which felt like a punch in the gut. When they used to travel he’d raved about how Riaag could make even boiled roots taste delicious. It wasn’t the right time of year for him to fast, either. “I can’t sleep until we reach our destination,” he continued. “We have so much to do. I can’t waste any time.”

“You gotta keep your strength up, though. How about a little carrion?” Riaag had already started breaking the seal on a jar of well-aged meat as he spoke. Sarouth might be willing to miss breakfast, but Riaag was his own man, with his own appetite. “Come on, even god-speakers gotta eat.”

Sarouth didn’t answer that, either. Riaag sighed and helped himself to a helping of fermented pork with half a loaf of bread; dealing with an Agritakh-ruhd in a mood was not one of the more glamorous parts of his station. He ate as quickly as he could. It was a small breakfast, especially with no fruit to go with it, but it helped him shake off some of his morning grogginess. He said a small prayer to the Hill God that most of his soreness had vanished overnight.

Save for a sip from a skin full of small beer Sarouth didn’t eat anything at all, but as soon as Riaag had put away the carrion jar Sarouth had stood up and began pacing anxiously. He practically strained to leave the cave. Riaag checked their camp for any tells that could lead a tracker right to them, nodded, and pulled his helm on over his head; dawn was enough light to see by even with its heavily-reinforced sockets, and when there wasn’t diplomacy to be done it was his turn to walk in front. He did his best to focus on the task at hand and worry about apologies later. Time spent arguing over hurt feelings could cost lives.

It was only a short descent to the treeline, which started off as little more than spindly saplings before spreading out into a proper forest of slim-needled pine trees and savin shrubs. The odd patch of ginkgos broke up the curtains of green; Riaag found himself veering away from them by instinct, heedless of the fact that in full armor he had no better chance of blending in with their fan-shaped leaves than he did the pine boughs. He could only imagine what it was like for the Old People, eschewing gods and fire and good, honest steel to live like animals in the wild places. A twig snapped in the distance and he found himself very glad indeed to have more than his ancestors’ whispers to keep him safe.

Once the initial adrenaline wore off, their hike was more boring than anything else: Sarouth wasn’t very talkative, Riaag wasn’t about to sing on a rescue mission, and save for a pheasant that flew from a bush a little ways from them some time around noon absolutely, nothing interesting happened. Riaag found himself daydreaming as his boots crunched through the curly ferns. Daydreaming! His adopted kinfolk had been captured, quite possibly being tortured or worse, and here he was trying to think of how many words rhymed with “sling.” It was just as well he’d been sold by his birth family or they would’ve had reason to disown him on the spot.

After lunch on the second day—which Riaag ate and Sarouth, once again, did not—they found a little creek, which Riaag used to refill their water stores before they began following it. It weaved roughly southwest, and whatever method Sarouth was using to home in on the battle site synched up nicely with it. Keeping his feet dry was just enough mental activity to keep Riaag’s mind from wandering again, a detail for which he was grateful. They’d only been walking along it for a quarter-hour or so when Riaag heard the sound of branches shaking and heavy breathing; he pulled Sarouth into a hiding place among some junipers and craned his neck to pinpoint the source of the noise.

A figure snuffled around in the clearing ahead of them, bright green against the yellow leaves. She was one of the Old People. Her hair was wild, her skin was streaked with dirt, and her claws were ragged; like most Old People, she was also entirely naked. She had also found something fascinating on the ground and was digging at it with her hands. The greens carpeting the ground were trampled and there was still the odd splash of blood marring the scenery, and while they were still a ways away the sight of more of the metal-tipped quills stuck in tree trunks proved that this was, if not the scene, then one very much like it. It was also being upturned by a wild orc who would’ve been more likely to eat evidence than share it. That problem, at least, was easily solved.

illustrated by Iron Eater

Riaag lunged from the junipers with a bellow, clashing his axe against his shield and letting his size and volume do the bulk of the work for him. It worked: she screeched like a wounded boar and dashed off into the trees. Her smell—as high and acrid as any of her kind—lingered in the clearing behind her, but Riaag noticed something strangely familiar underneath it. After checking for signs of other Old People, and feeling a brief pang of remorse when it looked like she’d been foraging without a pack of her own, he signaled an all-clear to Sarouth, returned his axe to its carrying loops, and went to investigate what all had been worth spooking an innocent woman over. He kept to the edges of the clearing just in case there were any nasty surprises waiting for nosy people playing bloodhound.

Shards of a clay vial, its stopper still clutched by a crescent of pottery, lay scattered along the ground where she had been digging. Based on how they’d fallen, the vial had probably been either thrown or knocked from someone’s hand with great force; a few had been disturbed by the Old One’s efforts, but for the most part the pieces looked to have been untouched since their fall. The air stank of rotting corpses.

“Guess we found what happened to the rest of the hawk oil,” he said as Sarouth appeared at his side.

Sarouth nodded. “I guess so.” It was the first thing he’d said since they left the cave. Riaag did his best not to sag in relief; for Sarouth, two whole days of stoicism might as well have been a lifetime of silence. He poked at a potsherd with the butt of his staff. “Well, we’ve found where someone was ambushed. Any ideas?”

While he was still putting hypotheses together, Riaag opted to start with the most obvious. “I don’t think it was Old People what did this. They don’t understand shit fancier’n rocks and sticks.”

Sarouth nodded again. “Makes sense to me. And there’s more of those feathery things here, too.”

“Yeah,” said Riaag. “You don’t think it was a manticore or something, do you? Those are supposed to have quills.”

“Those don’t live this far north, and are probably a myth anyway,” said Sarouth, tapping one of the embedded spear-shafts with his knuckle. “Besides, between the beads and the tracker who came back to us, I think they would’ve mentioned a man-faced lion at some point.” This was a good enough reason as any for Riaag, who turned his attention back to hunting for more clues.

They combed the ambush site intently, studying everything from the bloodied ground to the angle of stray blows on the trees. It was tedious work, but experience had shown them in the past that the smallest detail could hold great meaning; with no bodies, however, they were left fumbling blind for anything that looked like a lead. They could only find two major sets of prints that didn’t belong to orcish feet: some had the distinctive paw-shape of wolf tracks, while the others were so small and light that they looked like little children had left them. Whoever had left them had also done a damned good job at concealing their trail outside of the clearing, since there were no trails actually leading from the clearing. It was as if the attackers had appeared out of nowhere, done the deed, then vanished. The lack of remains was also concerning. Bandits would strip corpses of valuables and leave the rest behind, and heretics often desecrated the bodies of the fallen to make a point, but here there was nothing but the echoes of a fight.

Riaag had been measuring the distance from the tree where they found the hawk oil vial to the one on the opposite side of the clearing when he felt a firm hand tugging on the sleeve of his scale coat.

“Riaag,” whispered Sarouth just behind his left shoulder. “Don’t move and don’t say anything.”

Riaag froze in his tracks. He hadn’t seen or heard anything out of the ordinary, and all he could smell was the usual deep-forest mix of leaves and damp soil. He risked a reply in the softest voice he could manage. “Why?”

Sarouth stared past Riaag into the trees. “They haven’t all left.”

Right on cue, a huge timber wolf erupted from the brush, teeth bared and jaws slavering. Its hackles bristled as it circled them slowly. The wolf might not have been the meanest Riaag had ever seen, but it was certainly the biggest; more interestingly, it had a woven charm around one leg, tied in place with a knot that was blatantly impossible with paws. Given how clean its gray and cream coat was, Riaag figured it as either a companion animal or a skinchanger, and either way it was far more dangerous than a wild animal. He matched its circling and strove to keep himself between the wolf and Sarouth at all times.

If it wasn’t a man in wolf’s skin, it was very well trained: it didn’t go for sloppy bites against his plated boots nor attempt to trip him in his current stance, instead keeping both orcs in place like a shepherd’s dog rounding up sheep. It also had the maddening ability to remain out of reach of Riaag’s axe while still being close enough to threaten Sarouth’s very unarmored shins. Riaag didn’t doubt he could kill the thing if he had to, nor would he have issues keeping its teeth at bay, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that the wolf was trying to drive them towards something. It was even bold enough to snap at Sarouth’s sandals! No beast he’d ever seen could compare with a good iron shield, but this one was certainly trying.

He was so focused on the wolf that he almost didn’t see the second figure slip in after it. It was more person-shaped, though whether that meant it was the wolf’s owner or the wolf’s man-shadow he couldn’t tell, but what Riaag did know was that someone was getting far too close to the man he loved. He reacted in the way he knew best.

“Not so fast, shitbird!”

While the shadowy figure dodged the worst of the blow, Riaag still clipped it with the edge of his shield, sending it staggering backwards. It said something in a language he didn’t understand but didn’t need to; he knew profanity when he heard it. The wolf retreated to the figure’s heels and hunkered down as though it was preparing to leap, though its attention was now fully on Riaag instead of Sarouth. They found themselves at something of a standoff.

Now that the figure was fully in the light it was possible to get a better look at them. They were smallish, like a youth yet to grow into their teeth, and certainly appeared to match the child-sized tracks they’d found before, but there was something slightly off about how they stood, as if their muscles attached in different places than they ought. More unnerving was how they weren’t dressed in any colors Riaag could recognize, and he had long since memorized even the smallest family differences that currently walked the hills. The close-fitting garb beneath the figure’s cloak was completely devoid of patterns or beads, save for a slight mottling that broke up their silhouette like a snow leopard’s spits. Even jackals at their most base would display their clan colors. Who was this person?

The question didn’t have to wait long, as the figure unwrapped some of the scarf that had previously concealed their features to cough in pain. They were unlike anyone Riaag had ever seen, even among the strange people who sometimes accompanied the foreign caravans: the figure’s face was all angles and sharp edges, their skin was only a few shades darker than the pink on a dog’s belly, their ears were so long their tips poked out past the headdress they wore, and in spite of being shorter and lighter than both orcs they carried themselves with the same confident ferocity as a mad fox. They definitely weren’t an orc. Riaag wasn’t entirely sure if he was looking at a man or a woman, or if those terms could even apply to whatever they were. Aside from a knife tucked in one oddly-cobbled boot and what appeared to be a walking stick, Riaag didn’t see any weapons on their person. Had they somehow used magic to slaughter people? Was this what wizards looked like?

Between coughing fits the figure spoke more words in the same strange language as before. The syllables lilted and bent like reeds in the wind, which Riaag might have thought sounded rather nice had he not been standing in the middle of a previously haunted killing floor. The voice sounded masculine, but he still hesitated to assign a gender to the speaker; he’d heard stories about wandering spirits that took great offense when not addressed in the way they pleased, and there was still no evidence that the figure with the wolf wasn’t a fleshy shell being puppeted by some greater power. Riaag strained to pick out recognizable words in the figure’s speech but found himself unable.

Sarouth was thankfully a bit more prepared for the occasion. “Do you understand me?” he asked, first in their tongue and then in an increasingly esoteric collection of others. Most people knew several dialects even if they never left the same cave, and with all the traveling Sarouth and Riaag had done they’d both picked up bits and pieces of what felt like dozens more. None of them seemed to get a reaction, however, and soon the figure began rattling off their own set of unintelligible questions. It was impressive just how much both parties knew without finding any common ground at all. The wonder wore off quickly, however, leaving Riaag exasperated.

“You tried Trader Cant?” he asked, forcing his mouth around the unfamiliar words. Not even merchants used Trader Cant half the time.

The figure’s slitted eyes lit up. “I speak that, some,” they said. “This is good. We talk.”

It was a guarded conversation with a limited vocabulary, but it was better than nothing. The figure—whose name Riaag could more or less make out as Etxeloi, and who was, indeed, male—claimed he lived as an outsider in that part of the forest, and that he had been hunting for strangers in the forest on orders from someone he did not name. There’d been rumors of bandits coming through as of late, which was unusual given how most bandits didn’t head that far south from the mountains, and Etxeloi had been looking for signs of them, as well. He conspicuously neglected to say where said bandits might be going, simply where they came from; Riaag suspected that this was to keep himself and Sarouth from sussing out the location of Etxeloi’s (or perhaps his clanfolk’s) home. Things were going calmly until Sarouth asked about what happened to the most recent raiding party.

“They came in with spears and stones and heavy swords,” said Etxeloi. “There was so much food, so much fresh meat and berries and tree-nuts, that they must have been planning for a long fight. My anloixa—” which was a word he didn’t bother translating, but which Riaag assumed from context was the equivalent of a band or clan, “—saw this, and knew what we had been told, and they came down like a storm. It is good they did this, because soon after more came, these with trained birds—”

“They were a search party!” roared Sarouth, and Etxeloi’s wolf snarled and snapped at the sound. “You killed our people and then you killed the search party! Your anloixa spilled innocent blood!” He was so furious that red showed all the way around the iris of his visible eye.

Etxeloi scoffed, and had the safety of the missing trackers not been at stake Riaag would have tried to behead him right where he stood. He pointed at the quills embedded in the trees. “You see this? This is the result of a fight, a fight for one’s life. This is what we do if we are attacked by warriors, or by fierce animals. They would not rain down like this if they were trying to kill farmers.”

“But that is what they did!” Sarouth took a moment to compose himself before asking, “Are there any survivors?”

It was maddening how casually Etxeloi shrugged. “Possibly. They were taken away. Why should I tell you where? You will kill me and try to go to them, and that would bring death to the hearth.” Riaag hated to admit that this strange man with the green cat’s eyes knew them both better than some people they’d known for years. Then again, he didn’t know them entirely.

“I will go as a hostage, then,” said Sarouth. Riaag gawked a bit, but recovered as quickly as he could; there was almost certainly a good reason for such a bad idea. He hoped so, anyway. How long had it been since Sarouth had slept? “Take my weapon, take my staff. Tie my hands. I swear I will do nothing but defend myself until I am freed.”

“You are sure?”

“Yes.”

“What of the big one?” Etxeloi asked, cocking his thumb at Riaag.

Sarouth sighed. “He will—”

“I will go with,” said Riaag, cutting him off. He lowered his axe and shield. “I will give up my things. I swear I will be good, too.” Trader Cant made him sound even duller than his typical drawl did at the best of times, and now that he was under pressure he found himself limited to the words of a child on her mother’s hip. At least most anyone else who spoke it had similar woes: Trader Cant was nobody’s native tongue.

Once Etxeloi had warily accepted their surrender, Riaag knocked together a simple sledge of evergreen boughs—for some reason Etxeloi was unwilling to handle iron goods directly—and they laid their things atop it; Riaag even took the time to find all the knives he had hidden on his person as a show of good will. Sarouth bound everything in place with a length of knotted rope he always traveled with, then handed a second coil of rope to Etxeloi and crossed his wrists behind his back. Riaag did the same. They were tied together with a skill that surprised Riaag, the knots pressed tight against his gloves but not so much that they threatened to cut off blood to his fingers, and once they were properly hobbled Etxeloi began to lead them into the trees once more. The wolf followed along behind them, pulling the sledge with its teeth.

It was a quiet walk. Riaag was too busy listening for ambushes to make conversation, Sarouth was off in his thoughts again, and Etxeloi seemed to be a man of few words most of the time, so between the three of them the one most likely to talk was the wolf, which as far as Riaag could tell was just an ordinary (albeit large and well-trained) animal. A few hours of following the river bore fruit when it opened up into a much wider channel, the banks now broad and muddy and the trees thinner than before. A little ways downriver Riaag could see what looked like marshy farmland. He clucked his tongue at himself in irritation; this looked like an established community, but none of their scouts had even known it was there. He glanced up at Sarouth to see if he’d had a similar reaction. Save for the back of Sarouth’s head and the band of his ornamental circlet, it didn’t tell Riaag all that much.

They walked past the fields, some of which lay untended and some of which were worked by the same dainty, fox-faced people as Etxeloi, but none of the crops looked very healthy. Given how close they were to the river they should have had plenty of water and fish to nourish their crops, but a pall of desperation hung over every patch of tilled land they passed. Riaag wondered how many were close to going fallow. He was hardly a farmer himself, save for the times he’d helped clear land or unstick a plow from where it’d wedged itself between some rocks, but living in Naar Rhoan had exposed him to plenty of ideas of what a thriving field was supposed to look like, and these were not it. There was a good chance of things rotting before the harvest if they kept up at their current pace. Had the water gone bad? It certainly smelled clean, but then again, not all toxins had a scent.

The sight of two orcs being led by a whatever-Etxeloi-was did not go unnoticed. Some of the farmers watched them as they walked, while roving flocks of children followed in their wake, chattering at each other in their own language as they kept their distance from both orcs in general and Riaag in particular. Fishermen stared at them from reed boats anchored against the river’s current. Soon a settlement of sorts appeared, and with that settlement a brazier-flanked gate; a vaguely feminine figure in quilted armor and armed with what looked like an enormous bow drill met them there and spoke in hushed tones with Etxeloi. The fringed black cloak she wore across her shoulders was not lost on Riaag; with the hood up and in the confusion of a fight, she probably looked like a shadow. More bouncy-voweled words were exchanged before the guard waved them through, her silver snake’s eyes scowling from behind her mask.

Past the gates were buildings as alien as the rest of the place, each one raised up on long stilts with stairs or ladders leading to the main floor, as well as more river-moored boats that looked big enough to be houses themselves. There were neither tents nor earthworked buildings to be seen. There were, however, plenty more cloaked guards, who quickly cleared the muddy streets as Etxeloi led them further in; most had the same oversized firemaking tools as the gate guard, but some also carried spears or slender, curving swords at their sides. Riaag was unsurprised to see that the metal was the same lustrous stuff as the heads on the quills they’d first seen in the healers’ tent. Many were also accompanied by wolves of their own, or balanced on the backs of scythe-horned deer as easily as they might’ve sat in a chair. The mounted guards were quite imposing in spite of their petite builds. Maybe there was something to Sarouth’s obsession with the stupid horses after all.

There was something about the route they were taking that made Riaag suspicious; it felt like they were being kept away from something in particular, though it wasn’t until he spied a knocked-together pen hidden behind some storage buildings that everything clicked for him. There were people milling around inside the pen, most injured, and all of them save one were dressed in Rhoanish clothing. The Old One he’d scared off what felt like a lifetime ago was curled up in one corner—and how they’d caught her so quickly he’d never know—and someone in a green cloak was trying to examine her. He couldn’t be sure from the distance, and Etxeloi hurried them past before he could count how many survivors there were in total, but Riaag would bet one of his best knives that if he saw the cloaked figure’s face that she’d have brown flecks in her left eye and short, stubby tusks.

After winding their way through the village and picking up quite an entourage of masked guards, they finally found themselves at the foot of a brightly-colored stairwell with a brass bell hanging to one side. Etxeloi rang it sharply and craned his neck upwards, the orcs following suit, while his wolf dropped the sledge at his feet. The stairs rose up towards a finely-ornamented building covered in carvings of birds, water, and fish, perhaps a palace of some sort, and two more of Etxeloi’s kind stepped from behind its curtained threshold at the sound of the bell. They were just as ostentatious as the palace from which they came.

The one on the left had a short beard and wore long robes like a merchant. Given how his hat was the fanciest and his clothes had the most cloth-of-gold worked into them, Riaag pegged him as either the leader of the village or something very close to it. The other was a solemn woman with her hair pulled back in a soldier’s dreadlocks, wearing both a quilted hauberk like the guards and a shirt of shimmering mail made from the now-familiar not-quite-silver metal. She had an armlet around her left bicep made from tusks strung on a piece of cord; Riaag’s stomach sank when he realized that they weren’t taken from a boar. At least now he knew who the fiercest warrior in the village was.

Etxeloi announced himself to the pair, then gestured at Sarouth and Riaag as he presumably described their offer. Much ado was made about the sledge with their gear on it. After a long and boring stretch of listening to other people talk about him in a language he didn’t understand, Riaag was snapped back to alertness by Etxeloi switching back to Trader Cant.

“This is Zigornne, shepherd of us,” he said, pointing first at the man and then at the woman, “and Bixenta, defender of us. They are our leaders. Explain to them why you are here.”

Riaag and Sarouth exchanged glances before Sarouth stepped forward.

“I am Sarouth White-Hair, of Naar Rhoan,” he said, and even in Trader Cant he was able to project authority. “With me is Riaag Bough-Breaker, also of Naar Rhoan. We come seeking fallen friends. We were told they might be in this place. To show we mean peace, we tied our hands.”

The bearded man—Zigornne, Riaag corrected himself—rubbed his chin, his expression dark but his features still too unfamiliar for Riaag to read well. The woman—Bixenta—remained stone-faced. After a long minute of silence it was Zigornne who spoke first.

“You speak well for monsters,” he said, his voice soft and light. “We still have no reason to trust you. Your kind come, they kill and kill, then they go. This time we were given warnings in the movements of the water. This time we killed first. You want to trick us into letting the others go so you can come back another day?”

A detail from before that had been chewing on the back of Riaag’s mind came to light again. He cleared his throat and Sarouth nodded at him to speak. “Hill bandits do not come south much, yes?” he said, struggling to sound as eloquent as possible. The leaders nodded. Taking a deep breath, Riaag continued. “Why think they would be hill bandits, then?”

Zigornne shook his head. “Maybe not hill bandits, then. But we still see green folk who come for blood. Some have swords and some are naked like wild beasts, but they hurt us. We cannot afford to be hurt if we can prevent it.” He gestured at the thin faces of the assembled guards and the crowd milling around behind them. “I have brothers, sisters, and sons here. They and theirs are my duty here, not outsiders. Would you tell me I should do it another way? Can I tell them I invited suffering to our door when I could have tuned it away? Can I tell them their kin lie bleeding because we did not dare raise our hands against them?” Riaag had never heard someone speak so purply in Trader Cant before. It was like listening to apprentice skalds who’d just learned what metaphors were.

The memory of the wretched Old One cowering in the corner was still fresh in Riaag’s thoughts. “What about the ones you locked up?” he asked. He didn’t realize he’d spoken until he saw the puzzled look on Sarouth’s face.

“What about them?” snapped Zigornne. Riaag was already not terribly fond of the man, but the arrogance oozing from his voice did him no favors. “They would be bait, or sacrifices, or maybe we would ransom them. Some we send to the river already. You will challenge us for this?”

“What is done is done,” said Sarouth. He managed to look quite dignified despite being unarmed and hobbled with rope. “I won’t demand a blood-price for those who fell. I only ask that those who still remain be let go, so I can take them home, and I ask that we be allowed to bury what is left of the others. That is why I am here.” It sounded as genuine as a cry for water in the desert. Riaag felt his skin prickle in fascination in spite of the language barrier. He wondered how long Sarouth had been preparing those words, or if the Hill God Himself had left them on his tongue instead. Perhaps this was the sort of thing Sarouth heard in the smoke beneath the earth.

The war-leader made a questioning noise in the back of her throat. She eyed Riaag and Sarouth in turn, sizing them up as though they were bolts of silk in a bazaar. “You are not here for revenge, then?” she asked, her words much harsher than Zigornne’s. It was the voice of a woman who didn’t talk more than she absolutely had to.

“If we wanted revenge, would there not be more of us?” said Sarouth. It was a fair point: there hadn’t even been a call to arms sounded and the two orcs were outnumbered fifteen to one already. Those sorts of odds were fine in sagas but not so much in real life.

Bixenta’s fingers tapped against the flat of her scabbard. “So why come here alone?”

Sarouth grinned like a cornered lynx. “Simple. If I send my people to you, I am a murderer who solves nothing. But if I go to you and disappear, my people will follow, and if they find me dead, then they will fall upon you until both you and they are dust. It will not come to that, will it?”

“A martyr with a death wish,” said Bixenta, her voice cool.

He laughed bitterly. “I do not want to die. But if I must, I would rather make my death a weapon.”

The leaders spoke to each other in their own language then, Zigornne’s movements animated and Bixenta’s as still as an owl in a tree. Riaag still had no idea what they were saying, but based on the tones of voice used he suspected Bixenta was far more sympathetic to their cause than her companion. He tried not to think about how fresh the tusks on her armlet were. After a while Bixenta barked an order to one of the guards, who fetched the sledge and brought it up the stairs; metal clattered against metal as the guard upended it. Both leaders inspected the assortment of weapons (plus shield) before them with curiosity. Watching how much effort Bixenta expended in keeping Zigornne from actually handling Sarouth’s mace, Riaag wondered just how often she had to keep her fellow leader from carelessly injuring himself. It was easier if he pretended he was dealing with another matching set of speaker and guardian, perhaps even another pair of lovers; even if it was a lie, the faux common ground was preferable to the reality of being miles from home and at the mercy of two unknowable river people and their cohort of armed guards.

It took another few minutes of debate before the leaders reached a decision. Zigornne spoke briefly to the assembled crowd before switching back to Trader Cant.

“We do not trust you,” he said, “but your story has touched Bixenta. Because of this we are willing to hear you plead your case further. You will be held in a safe-house until the time of your trial. Until then, you will be unarmed. If you cause trouble we will consider this to be proof of your guilt, and you and the others we have captured will be killed. Do you accept?”

Sarouth bowed as best as he was able around the ropes. “Thank you. We accept your offer.”

Zigornne snapped his fingers and a retainer materialized at his side. They marked on a piece of paper with an inked feather as Zigornne talked. Riaag couldn’t see the marks themselves from so far away, but he suspected they might have been some form of runes. Perhaps they would ask their own gods for a divination? It gave him something to think about while Zigornne dictated. After far too long Zigornne waved his retainer away; they disappeared as swiftly and silently as they’d arrived.

“You are ready to be put away?” he asked Sarouth.

Before Sarouth could even take a breath to reply, he was interrupted by shouting from the north side of the village. Whatever it was sounded bad, as Bixenta gave some quick orders to the guards before leaping from the top of the platform onto the roof of a nearby house; she drew her sword as she ran from rooftop to rooftop in pursuit of the commotion. Most of the guards bolted after her on the ground, but a few lowered their spears at the captured orcs and made worrying-sounding noises at their wolves, who began to circle. Zigornne was nowhere to be seen, though the swishing curtain leading into the palace marked his retreat. There was a great deal of chaos stirred up in a very short amount of time. Sarouth and Riaag exchanged puzzled glances. It definitely didn’t sound like a Rhoanish warband at the gates, but the voices were most certainly orcish.

Something pulled harshly on Riaag’s hair and hit him soundly in the back of the knee. He staggered backwards in pain, and when he shook off the fog of agony he found Etxeloi’s knife pressed against his throat beneath the collar of his coat. It felt very, very sharp.

“Your plan all this time?” growled Etxeloi into his ear. Someone so slight shouldn’t have had such a strong grip, yet here he was, bent until the smaller man’s face was even with him. Riaag shook his head, careful not to shred himself on the knife edge. “No?” said Etxeloi. “You distract us. You pull most people here. Your friends break the gate, they kill more because we are not ready.” Riaag shook his head again. He could feel blood beading against his skin right over the little mark Sarouth had left him days ago, ruining it. If Sarouth wouldn’t have been at risk for it Riaag would have throttled Etxeloi for the insult; instead he fought the nightmares bubbling up from somewhere he’d closed up a long time ago. It was hard to prepare ahead of time for someone holding him in place like that.

Sarouth stepped in just in time. “Let us fight with you. We will prove we meant what we said.” He smiled and turned his back to Etxeloi. The ropes were still firmly tied around his wrists, which he wiggled demonstratively. “We cannot help much like this, though,” he added. He sounded so calm he might as well have been talking about the weather.

Etxeloi stared at Sarouth, looking from him to Riaag and back again, then released his hold on Riaag. He sawed through Sarouth’s bonds. “You are too bold to be lying,” he said as Sarouth shook out his hands. “But if for some reason you are, I will finish what I started here.” He ghosted away after that, leaving Sarouth to deal with his hobbled ankles and the ropes still keeping Riaag trussed up. A few guards remained with their spears at the ready, but most bolted off after Bixenta. Sarouth cut the last few coils of rope away with the knife Etxeloi had left him. He pressed his palm against Riaag’s chest and rocked up on his tiptoes to soothe him.

“You going to be okay?” Sarouth whispered in more familiar words. Riaag swallowed hard. He mentally ticked off details to center himself: he was a fierce warrior of Naar Rhoan, there was a battle somewhere that needed him, their weapons were still ten feet up in the air, and Sarouth was with him. Everything was going to be okay. Armed with that knowledge, Riaag allowed himself a nod. Sarouth smiled, his eyes sparkling, and kissed the tip of Riaag’s nose. “Good. Let’s go pick a fight.”

With another wildcat grin Sarouth bounded up the stairs two at a time; he tossed Riaag’s axe and shield down to him before descending three stairs in a stride. It was like something had clicked inside him that pushed all of his exhaustion and frustration into a furnace of manic energy. Riaag could do little more than follow in Sarouth’s wake, but at that point there was nowhere he’d rather be.

They followed the sound of the melee through the village, vaulting over chickens and crashing through more barrels than anyone could possibly need, and as they wove their way through another forest of long-legged houses they finally caught sight of the attackers. It was orcs, all right, though they wore tattered remains of old clan colors and most of their clothing patterns were from minor families that were a generation or two from dying out entirely. They poured in through the shattered northern gate in a blind charge. They didn’t fight nearly as well as the river people, and quite a few already lay dead and bristling with wooden quills, but it wouldn’t matter for long; each orc could hold their own against three soldiers, and if the village was as bad off as it sounded the soldiers’ strength was likely already flagging. Even the advantage the trained war-wolves gave couldn’t last forever, since it took multiple animals to pull down a single invader, leaving their unarmored flanks open to axes or cleavers as they tore open bandit throats.

There was, however, a way to even the odds.

Scrambling atop someone’s porch, Sarouth brought down the butt of his staff with a loud crack that threatened to splinter the wood beneath it. He looked far beyond caring. “Repent!” he cried at the top of his lungs. His hand curled up like an eagle’s talon as he motioned dramatically at the raiders. Their attention was his: some slowed their charge, while others stumbled to a full stop. It wasn’t all of them, as some were far too busy clashing with guards to hear, but it was enough. Sarouth took a deep breath and began a variation on a speech Riaag had heard many times before but had yet to tire of. “Wayward children of Agritakh, hear my voice! I bring to you a new way…”

This was usually the point where any heretic priests in the bands they fought would make themselves known; Riaag was actually taken aback when Sarouth’s promises weren’t met by curses and spellfire this time. What was a band so large doing without a god-speaker? One clever bandit had crept past the worst of the fighting and made to club Sarouth in the back of the head. Ignoring the large man with the axe watching over the sermonizing Agritakh-ruhd was the last mistake he ever made, as immediately thereafter his neck parted company with his shoulders. Riaag hefted his axe in satisfaction. This he could do.

Some bandits had already succumbed to their awe by then, but there were still too many harrying the river people forces to consider it a success. Sarouth made another sweeping gesture. He made another grand statement, likely something about nourishing the Hill God with rivers of blood—Riaag had always liked that one—but there was more than one clever bandit to be taken care of; Riaag had his hands full defending the platform where Sarouth stood and didn’t have the luxury of enjoying Sarouth’s oration this time around. It felt good having an enemy with a face for a change, one he could knee in the chest or bash with his shield instead of impotently worry over in the dark. He was protecting the Faaroug, and all was as it should be.

Everything blended together for a bit, leaving Riaag to float along in a haze of violence and satisfaction in a job well done. It was comfortably familiar: not a siege, not some elaborate tactical affair, just a big, messy skirmish. Skirmishes never lasted longer than they had to. People died around him on both sides, but that was how this sort of thing went. You fought hard, and well, and you either died gloriously or lived to sing another day. It was a welcome relief from being talked down to by a weird-faced man in a funny hat.

Riaag found himself in an unexpected patch of calm amid the chaos. He shook off his axe and scanned the battlefield, marveling at how little of the village was on fire. It was then that he realized that the orc nearest to him wasn’t trying to kill him or Sarouth, but was instead leaning against a nearby wall, her mouth hanging half-open as she listened to Sarouth’s words with tears of wonder in her eyes. He knew that look well. He’d worn it himself the better part of a decade ago.

The thing about fresh converts, Riaag had learned over the years, was that it didn’t matter so much how well they did in a fight so long as they were no longer actually on the opposing side, since every invader on their knees was an invader not trying to actively murder someone. The bandits’ advance faltered as more and more of their numbers succumbed to Sarouth’s voice, losing progressively more ground until they finally routed; some even escaped despite the flying quills and harrying wolves. It didn’t matter. Losing a fight with that great an advantage wasn’t something the average raider’s morale recovered from easily.

His work done, Sarouth finished off his speech with a simple blessing of good fortune. He staggered down the stairs to lean on Riaag and steal a drink from Riaag’s waterskin. Riaag would later notice certain similarities between how Sarouth looked after converting heretics and how Sarouth looked after sex; at the time, however, he simply readied himself to catch Sarouth in case he had one of his post-miracle fainting spells again.

Bixenta hopped down from a veranda and landed gracefully in front of them. Her sword was still in her hand, though while she kept it between herself and them her stance was ever so slightly relaxed. “This does not make sense,” she said through gritted teeth. “Nothing here happened as we were told. I do not understand what our god tells us.”

“Oh, you too?” said Sarouth.

She gave him a puzzled look and continued. “These ones left, they bow to you. We put them with the others. They will wait for your trial, also, yes?”

He nodded. “Yes. I have not forgotten.”

“Good.” Bixenta wiped off her sword before she slid it back into its sheath with deliberate slowness. “This is a strange day. I am kind because it is strange. Do not make me regret it.”

Sarouth waited until Bixenta was occupied with debriefing one of her snipers before he tugged on Riaag’s sleeve. “There’s something weird going on with these people,” he whispered. “You saw how some of the soldiers are quick to do as that woman says, while some of them waited for the man with the stupid hat before they actually did anything? I think there’s a schism trying to happen here.”

“So a bunch of swimmy idiots are having a slap-fight when we ain’t looking. What’s that mean for us?”

“It means we’re probably in this pretty deep,” said Sarouth. “Someone is using us. I don’t know who, or for what purpose, but I don’t think they planned on trouble-finders like you and me showing up in the middle of this.” He peered over Riaag’s shoulder. “The guard-leader is coming back. Best behavior!”

They oversaw the collection of the ex-bandits at Sarouth’s insistence; the captives had repented in good faith, he argued through the language barrier, and therefore were his charges now, which meant it was his responsibility to make sure no one’s hand slipped and “accidentally” cut anyone’s throat. The river people were less than pleased to do so—more than just wolves and soldiers had died in the attack, after all—but Bixenta stood behind his request. Her marble features looked slightly off every time she had to explain herself to another grieving family. Given how passionate her voice got at times, Riaag suspected it was more than just confusing divinations that troubled her.

Each bandit was restrained with bits of rope or rags before being ushered towards the holding pen. They muttered to one another uneasily as they hobbled through the streets, as god-speaker or no god-speaker it was hard to ignore the venomous glares peering down from each stilt-legged house.

Riaag and Sarouth didn’t accompany the captives the entire way; Riaag couldn’t blame them, really, since the whole of the village had just seen how much sway Sarouth had over his own people. Instead, the pair was guided towards a gaily-painted bridge connecting the shore to a river island covered with willow trees. The wood creaked painfully as Riaag made his way across, and for one nauseating second he thought he felt it start to give beneath him, but the bridge stood firm for both him and his lighter-footed companions.

The island itself was big enough to house a building that looked much like a smaller version of the palace, concealed tidily by the willows’ drooping branches. A path of mossy river stones connected the bridge to the building’s front porch. It wasn’t raised quite as high as the houses built on the mainland, and the closer they got the more Riaag could pick out water damage or old paint hidden behind stands of reeds, but the building’s age seemed to give the place character instead of make it look shabby. There were certainly worse places to wait out a trial.

Zigornne waited for them at the door; much to Riaag’s astonishment he didn’t immediately begin talking at them, opting instead to point out their rooms and pantomime which of the decorative clay vessels in the corner was for making water into. After this most cursory of walkthroughs, he strode to the threshold and turned around to give them a calculatedly neutral expression.

“You are a guest of the island’s now. Do not leave it until you are called.” His voice was flatter than it had sounded before. Was no one in the village thinking of less than a thousand things at once? “You may keep your weapons. The island will know if you try to use them badly.” With that, he and the guards crossed back over the bridge, leaving them alone again.

Sarouth had vanished somewhere between Zigornne’s warning and his final step off the bridge. Riaag forced himself not to worry. Sarouth was likely just tired, or perhaps in need of a private place to commune with Agritakh, so why disrupt that? There was also the matter of the building itself, which deserved being explored in more depth. Riaag shed his armor in the room that he was fairly certain was supposed to be his, kicked off his boots, and began to retrace the steps they’d taken before.

Even discounting the separate bedrooms—entire rooms meant for sleeping in, each larger than a family tent—the island palace had its share of wonders: its kitchen was stocked with a few raw ingredients Riaag began planning recipes around the moment he saw them, another chamber was filled to the brim with tapestries, and it even had an entire room dedicated to bathing. It was like something out of one of his nicer dreams. Riaag could scarcely imagine why the lantern-hung halls weren’t filled with river people and their tiny, tiny children. Someone must have been murdered there, he figured, or maybe there was a curse on the foundation, because there was no other way such a luxurious, functional place could go disused.

Being away from prying eyes made it easy for Riaag to focus on things again. He was so involved with preparing one of the fish their hosts had left, in fact, that he didn’t hear Sarouth pad into the kitchen behind him, and it was but for the grace of the Hill God that he didn’t attempt to brain Sarouth with a ladle upon being embraced from behind. Riaag only exhaled after Sarouth let him go.

“What’s for supper? It smells interesting,” said Sarouth as he peered into the fat ceramic pot bubbling away on the hearth.

Riaag grunted. “Soup. Probably. I still gotta figure out what some of this bullshit is.” He squinted disapprovingly at a pungent leaf he’d never seen before. Was it a spice? Was it sour? Was it just something they’d picked up off the ground for a laugh at his expense? How could he be sure nothing was poisonous? There wasn’t any point in Sarouth getting his appetite back if he was going to be fed toxic sludge for his first meal in days. Riaag sighed. “You might wanna nap until I’m done here.”

“That sounds like a very good idea.” Sarouth squeezed Riaag’s arm and wandered off dreamily.

Taking a nap was apparently such a good idea that Sarouth hadn’t gotten any further than Riaag’s assigned room, where Riaag found him sprawled out on the still-folded pile of bed linens. His snoring sounded peaceful. Had it been any other time Riaag would have left him be, but standing trial for dozens of lives on an empty stomach sounded like the worst possible decision they could make. Riaag knelt next to him, put down the tray he’d brought from the kitchen, and shook Sarouth’s shoulder until he stirred fitfully and cracked open one eye.

“Hrnnn?” he said. Truly this was a man who could talk down an opposing army.

Riaag picked up a wide, shallow bowl from the tray and held it out to him. The soup steamed merrily. “It tastes fucken weird, Holy One, but it’s what we got.”

Sarouth sat up to accept the bowl. He took a sip of its contents and wrinkled his nose. “Weird is right,” he said, then drank another mouthful. “Not bad, though. It probably goes well with the fish. Speaking of, is one of these for me?”

They ate and chatted about nothing much between bites. The soup was definitely an acquired taste, but it did go well with the roasted fish on the side; it had a sort of salty-savory aftertaste that kept the sad-looking vegetables bobbing in the broth from being lumps of boiled nothing. In the middle of talking about how exactly he’d seasoned the fish heads for the stock, Riaag was struck by how normal their conversation seemed, and said as much.

“We’ve been fucken around with Old People and scavengers and whatever these people call ’emselves so long I’m starting to miss falling off that stupid horse. Now we’re sitting here in the middle of all this weird shit talking about frying up fish skins and it just feels…nice.”

“I’ll bet,” said Sarouth. He licked his bowl clean. He’d always done that with Riaag’s cooking, ever since Riaag had taken on that task out of culinary self-defense. “I was meaning to ask,” he continued, “you looked pretty rattled when that hermit had you pinned down. You said you were fine when I asked. That still true?”

Riaag nodded. “Just took me to a bad place is all. You know how I get when people spook me like that.” He didn’t go into detail; Sarouth already knew everything that could be said, anyway. Riaag had reasons he hated people touching his hair. That Sarouth knew all this and still wanted anything to do with him was no less a miracle than the earth rising up to meet them. “I’m okay, though. I reminded myself I’m not there anymore.”

Sarouth smiled gently. “You know yourself best. Remember that you can talk to me if you ever have trouble reminding yourself of things, yes?” He ran his thumb along the inside of his empty bowl and licked it. “This soup is reminding me of something, too. And I mean it’s reminding me I fasted for the better part of three days. Is there any more of this?”

The answer turned out to be yes, with just enough remaining that each of them had a full second bowl. It wasn’t carrion, but it would do.

After supper they left their shoes behind and walked along the riverbank as the sun painted the river with molten gold. Riaag’s toes dug furrows in the sandy mud as they strolled; the river water was cool where it washed against his feet and filled in the tracks he left. Across the bridge the villagers lit fires against the dark, lights flickering across the bright colors painted on everything, and on their side of the river firefly tails danced. Even with the guards on the opposite shore shooting them dirty looks it was a lovely sight. There was at least one song’s worth of verse there as they watched the stars come out through the willows. Once Sarouth’s hand found his own, Riaag figured he could probably think up a few more.

Nice as it was, though, they couldn’t stargaze forever: both of them were still slightly grimy from battle, and who knew how early they’d be summoned the next day? They grudgingly went back inside, their claws clicking against the floorboards as they made their way to the baths. Once he got the water heated Riaag was all business, shaving Sarouth’s chin of downy stubble and washing other people’s blood from Sarouth’s hair; if they’d had time he would have put serious thought into laundering their clothes, too. Riaag sated himself with scrubbing them both with a jar of the sweet-scented powdery soap that someone had left with the towels. The island palace was definitely the nicest place he’d ever been held prisoner.

Riaag made them each a pot of tea before retiring to his room, though he found himself much less alone than expected. Sarouth, still drying out from the bath, lay sprawled on the linens again, his loose outer robe doing a poor job of preserving his modesty. He accepted the tea with a grin. Riaag sat down beside him with guarded enthusiasm; after all, he had been meaning to get a better look at those tattoos of Sarouth’s.

One thing was bothering him, though. “They, uh. They said you were supposed to sleep next door.”

Sarouth laughed. “Honest mistake,” he said, waving it off. “They didn’t give us a chance to say we sleep together. Unless you’d be more comfortable alone?”

“Nah. I’m happy like this.” It was certainly one way to put it. Back before they’d become lovers Riaag had spent his share of private time imagining Sarouth’s robes falling off one shoulder the way they were doing now. Said imaginings usually hadn’t included Sarouth resting his hand against Riaag’s leg, and they definitely hadn’t involved light conversation over fresh-brewed tea, but the changes were welcome ones.

The way things usually went, Sarouth would touch him gently to see if he was interested, then (assuming this was the case) move in for more intimate contact. Riaag had come to expect certain things if he felt fingers brushing against his skin a particular way. It had been a long, strange trip, though, and the man was running on half an hour of rest, so Riaag decided to be absolutely certain. “Are you tryin’a get into my pants, Faaroug?”

Sarouth cocked his head to the side. “Oh, am I not being clear?” he asked. He slid his palm higher up Riaag’s thigh and squeezed. “Yes. Yes I am.”

“Oh. That’s good.” He scooted the teapots as far away as his arm could stretch. “So, you wanna make out, then?”

This time there was no room for confusion.

The fall of Sarouth’s robes hadn’t covered much when he’d been reclining on his side, and they covered quite a bit less once he pushed himself into Riaag’s lap. He kissed as though he hadn’t seen another soul in months. This time their tusks did lock, and half-hearing, half-feeling Sarouth laugh as they untangled themselves was wonderful.

Riaag let Sarouth push his back against the wall; strange as it was not being in a tent for this, solid walls had their uses. Sarouth’s clever little fingers wasted no time in untying Riaag’s sash. Being half-clothed was the order of the day, it seemed, since Sarouth skipped relieving Riaag of his trousers in favor of pulling them down just far enough to expose his cock. Each heartbeat nudged him that much more erect. Sarouth paused then, his weight braced against the wall with his hands, and growled happily. “Let me get a good look at you,” he breathed. It wasn’t the sort of request Riaag was about to deny.

While Sarouth was a perfect specimen of an orc, Riaag felt he was anything but: he was scarred and hairy where Sarouth was smooth, broad where Sarouth was compact, and even adjusting for muscle mass he weighed about as much as two and a half Sarouths put together. The Faaroug could do a lot better than a fat, ugly man with bad teeth. For whatever reason Sarouth wanted him, though, and Riaag had to admit it was getting easier to believe what Sarouth murmured to him when they were alone. He shivered as Sarouth’s eyes wandered across his face and along the various curves of his body. From anyone else this level of scrutiny would have made him feel grotesque. From Sarouth? It was like sharing a secret, one where maybe, every now and again, he might be worth looking at. Lantern light was a lot more conductive to this sort of thing than the blackness of a woolen tent.

Teeth stung at Riaag’s earlobe as Sarouth leaned in to kiss at his neck. “Who knows what tomorrow will bring, brave warrior?” whispered Sarouth. Riaag was surprised, though not unpleasantly so, when he recognized the patter in Sarouth’s voice as the one he used when speaking before a battle. “We know we have tonight, and that is enough. Tell me what you want from me. What I want is for you to be satisfied.”

It was a harder question than he expected. There was a backlog of years’ worth of fantasies he wanted to explore at some point—like the one where he knelt at Sarouth’s feet to suck him dry, or the many variations on letting Sarouth spread him open and tease him until Sarouth got bored of it—but the thought of trying any of them now made his blood run cold, no matter how much he wanted to. How could anyone expect him to be ready for that kind of thing? They’d scarcely had enough time to learn how to sleep together without his night terrors waking them both up! Riaag couldn’t help but whine in frustration; nothing he could think of would make this properly special. Just when he thought things were hopeless, though, the the answer came to him in one perfect, horrible moment. Actually gathering the courage to ask for it was going to be the hard part.

“You always clean up after I come,” he said. He felt like he was going to die from embarrassment. At least Sarouth was occupied with nuzzling his shoulder so he didn’t have to worry about making eye contact. “This time, before you do, would you, uh. See how I taste first?” There. The deed was done, and there was no way to un-say what had been spoken. Riaag couldn’t help a small, worried smile as he added, “I kinda like the way you do, so…”

“For you, Riaag? Anything.” Sarouth nipped his ear again before he leaned back to focus on the task at hand (to say nothing of the shaft in hand).

It wasn’t a position they’d tried very much, this business with Sarouth sitting astride him while touching him in all manner of interesting ways, and that was a shame, since with Sarouth so much closer Riaag could appreciate all the little faces he made when he was concentrating on what to do with his hands. They weren’t close enough to kiss, but that could always come later. Riaag made a mental note to try and make a joke along those lines next time he had the chance.

Goofy faces or no, Sarouth knew what Riaag liked. Riaag writhed with delight as each deft motion nudged him closer and closer to the edge. Soon he was just a little ways from coming, chewing his lip and curling his toes and everything, and then Sarouth slowed down before taking his hand away entirely. What was this? His confusion was replaced by anticipation as Sarouth touched him once more. Again he built up to a climax and again Sarouth stopped before Riaag could get anywhere, and then it struck him: this was a game. Here he was, Riaag Bough-Breaker, strong enough to throttle a saber-toothed cat to death with his bare hands, letting a man a fraction of his size keep him pinned down and mercilessly teased. Because it was Sarouth doing it he knew he’d be allowed to come at some point, so each time things rose there was always the chance that this time Sarouth would keep touching him, but because it was Sarouth doing it who knew when that would be. Riaag threw himself into his part: he writhed (though not too much) and begged (though not too pitifully), and every time he came close he thanked Agritakh for letting him keep the company of such a wonderful, maddening man as Sarouth.

At long last the time came and Riaag was seen through to the finish. It was the strongest orgasm he’d ever had in his life. He felt boneless, and weightless, and probably other-things-less too, but he was pleased with himself for managing to get a few spots himself on the chin. Sarouth waited for him to shake off the worst of his post-coital delirium before shifting his weight a little in Riaag’s lap. He dragged his finger through the spots of come that were threatening to get in Riaag’s beard and studied it like a piece of jewelry at a bazaar. Looking up from his finger he held Riaag’s gaze with his own, slowly ran his tongue from the meat of his palm to the tip of his claw, and swallowed theatrically.

It wasn’t as natural-looking as Riaag might have liked, and the way Sarouth licked his lips like a lizard struck him as just a little silly, but he didn’t care; he could’ve come a second time right then and there. Sarouth, however, wasn’t finished. He shuffled backwards on his hands and knees with mischief in his eyes that Riaag immediately both mistrusted and thrilled to see. Sarouth’s moistened lips left little kiss-prints down Riaag’s chest, slowly moving towards that little smeared streak he’d tasted, but he veered to one side just before he would have planted a kiss there. Riaag whined. Sarouth chuckled to himself and kept moving down, his mouth coming tantalizingly close to each patch time and time again before changing direction. He only stopped when he reached Riaag’s inner thigh.

“Want me to leave something here?” he purred. There was only one answer as far as Riaag was concerned; he nodded furiously, though he had to squeeze his eyes shut to do so. He felt hot breath against his skin where his trousers had been pulled away, then a kiss against his leg fat, then a little dab of tongue against his flesh, then…nothing. He had almost untensed when the bite came, fierce and sharp and wonderful, and he cried out with such joy he startled himself. Once it set this would be a mark he could see any time he wanted, and by the feel of things it would be a magnificently ghastly bruise that would look like he’d been on the wrong end of a warhammer. It wasn’t until the pain numbed a little that he realized Sarouth was still down there.

They’d talked before about how far Riaag could go before getting upset, and things he wanted to accomplish first before Sarouth did them for him, and what things were welcome and what were not. Sarouth had accepted that Riaag wasn’t comfortable with a lot of things, and each time Riaag figured out something new they were quick to discuss it. It was a relief being with someone who understood that there were going to be a few more barriers to entry than usual before he could so much as accept a blowjob. Sarouth liked experimenting, though, so it probably shouldn’t have surprised Riaag when he felt a hand covering up his half-hard shaft and the rasp of a tongue where his come had been cooling on his stomach.

The chant definitely didn’t say anything about being licked clean by a major religious figure.

It didn’t entirely work—there was some business involving his navel that was too ticklish to be very sexy—but when it did, it really, really did. Sarouth had tasted him and not recoiled in disgust, which was astounding. Better still was how this felt good. He could see himself doing this, his beard dark against Sarouth’s white thatch, and he could imagine Sarouth praising him as he lapped up every errant drop. Maybe he could bring in one of those clever little ideas of his and do it on his knees. Riaag shuddered. That settled things: he was ready to go again.

Sarouth sucked on one of his fingers and pulled it out with a pop. “I see that had an effect,” he said, grinning. He sat himself in Riaag’s lap again with his robe spread out behind him like a peacock’s train. Riaag hadn’t expected being kissed on the mouth after that, but that was okay; Sarouth probably hadn’t expected to have his ass grabbed through a layer of dyed cotton, either, but he seemed to like it.

“Want me to finish you off with me?” said Sarouth with a shimmy of his hips. Riaag gasped out an affirmative as his head fell back against the wall. Sarouth took them both in his hand and began to stroke with short, fast movements; save for the way they frotted against each other every time he thrust forward it was not a terribly fancy technique, bereft of subtle wrist movements or the mysterious thumb thing. Not that it mattered. Riaag came first, moaning, and he felt more than saw the way Sarouth tensed up a few seconds later to make his own contribution to the come once more streaked across Riaag’s front. This time there were no complains when Sarouth brought out the damp cloth. Riaag, once clean, slid down the wall to drape around Sarouth like a fainting ingenue, getting a pat on the head for his efforts. They panted like dogs in the sun.

“This was how I wanted today to end, you know,” said Sarouth once he caught his breath.

Riaag, who had honestly wanted the day to end with him somehow back home with his embroidery and a jug of whiskey, rose to the bait. “Yeah?”

“As soon as I saw this place, I thought, ‘Mood permitting, I have got to bang Riaag in there.’ It’s too pretty not to.” He ruffled Riaag’s hair. “We’re lucky, aren’t we? Not everyone can say they’ve gotten laid in a palace.”

True as that was, it left out an important detail. “Ain’t we kinda…hostages, though?”

Sarouth laughed. “That’s a political thing. We’ve got a trial tomorrow, sure, but it’s down to nothing but talking. Talking I can do.” Riaag couldn’t argue with that. It was getting Sarouth to stop that would be the hard part. “Come on, let’s appreciate the scenery while we can.”

There was no one else around so they didn’t bother to tidy themselves up. There were more important things to do, after all, like look out the window for a while and drink the last of the nearly-forgotten tea. The stars looked different with the trees in the way. Sarouth had his arm around Riaag’s shoulder; even though he couldn’t reach all the way without stretching a little, it felt nice. Given how picturesque the place was without even trying, Riaag guessed the river people who had first abandoned the island must have loathed doing so. Maybe

Soon the lanterns in the village went dark until nothing but stars and glowing bug tails remained, and one by one even the little tails went out. Riaag remembered something he’d heard as a child but had never thought to try. He pointed out the final yellow-green dot twirling in the reeds.

“Last firefly of the night over there,” he said. “You gonna make a wish?”

“Sure,” said Sarouth. He settled himself into a cross-legged position as though preparing to meditate. He closed his eyes, made some exaggerated thinking sounds, then opened them again with a smile. He kissed Riaag’s cheek. “I wish one of these days you can be as happy with yourself as I am with you.”

Riaag wasn’t sure how to take that. “So you’re saying don’t change?” he grumbled. Living stuck with a reflection he hated just because Sarouth liked it didn’t sound very satisfying. Sure, there was something to be said for giving himself up that much—and oh, my, but that was a lot more fascinating than he’d expected—but he’d only gotten this far by making changes. He’d probably feel naked if he ever shore off his beard, and the less said about not feeling his hair brush against his shoulders the better.

Sarouth headbutted him like a cat. “I’m saying I love you, Riaag, and I wish you felt comfortable in your own bones. If you change, make it be in a way you want. That’s all.” He hugged Riaag tightly and gave him a playful growl. “And if it makes any difference, I’d rather spend the night curled up with someone big and soft and battle-hardened than someone who could be my double. I’m all sinewy. It’d be awful.”

Damn that man for knowing how to coax a smile out of Riaag when he was in the middle of a sulk. There was just one thing left that had been bothering him, though.

“Sarouth?”

“Yeah?”

“Did you really mean that thing you told the leader folks? ‘Bout using your own death as a weapon?”

“Oh, that? I was bullshitting. You think I’m about to tell a hostile party that I got too angry to think straight and barreled off into the woods without so much as a cage of ravens?” He chuckled to himself. “Not my best moment.”

“You sure? You sounded real convincing.”

Sarouth sat up with his hands propped against Riaag’s shoulders and looked him in the eye. “I came out here because nobody should have to die for this. Not even for a good cause. Nobody! It sets a bad precedent. If I throw some runes and they tell me things are going to be fine, they better damned well be fine, because I can tell you now the families of those people who aren’t coming back won’t think so. And if I lost you…” His voice wavered. Sarouth took a deep breath and continued. “I’m not going to accept half-answers from He Who Sleeps Beneath the Earth. I may be His agent in the world of the waking, but I am not going to invite Him to jerk me around.”

Riaag furrowed his brow. “So you’re also pissed off at Agritakh?” Was the Faaroug even allowed to do that?

At least Sarouth had the decency to look a little awkward upon hearing it phrased that way. “A little. But I think He took the hint.” Sarouth’s intense stare softened and his familiar smile crept back onto his face. “It’s late, though. We’re going to be walking corpses in the morning if we don’t get some sleep. We can talk more tomorrow.”

They made up a proper little sleeping place on the floor before bedding down properly, arranging the reed mats and linens until there was a slightly less hard part of the floor big enough for them to sleep on. It was no fancy Rhoanish mattress, but it wasn’t too bad, actually, and they had just enough of a blanket left over to keep away the pleasingly cool river breeze. Sarouth was out like a candle as soon as his head touched the pillow. Riaag took one final look out at the water before getting in bed, his thoughts buzzing with ideas. It still felt strange that he hadn’t recited a single verse this whole time. That would have to be fixed tomorrow.

As soon as Riaag pulled the blankets over his shoulders Sarouth shuffled over in his sleep and clung to him, never once breaking his rattling snore. It set a pleasant mood that, combined with Riaag’s already fertile mind, made it easy to paint a little picture to help him sleep: it would be cold, but not too cold, and there’d be snow on the hills and cider in jars and hot, greasy pheasants to eat by the fire, and there would be plenty of time to explore the concept of layered clothing behind tent walls with no stronghold emergencies to interrupt them. Riaag’s weary cock plumped a bit at the idea. If they didn’t have things to do in the morning—important things, well-being-of-all-of-Naar-Rhoan things—he might have tried seeing if he could coax himself into coming again, perhaps even waking Sarouth up to watch, but this was not the time. Instead he simply basked in the thought of revealing red-inked skin an inch at a time and let himself drift away.

He’d just fully settled into the dream of a warm, happy winter with a warm, happy friend when there was a loud noise from Sarouth’s (currently empty) room.

It was a sound like tearing fabric and smashing pottery all at once, with a sort of deep, groaning echo underneath it like a drowning man trapped under ice. Riaag was up in a half-crouch within moments. “Fuck’s sake, is this kinda shit gonna happen every time now?” he snarled, fumbling for anything he could use as a weapon. Having an unexpectedly romantic evening ruined for the second time in half a week had left Riaag in a bit of a mood. He side-eyed Sarouth, who was still tangled up in the sheets. “If there’s gonna be a disaster every time you touch my dick, I’m gonna go back to being fucken celibate. No offense, Holy One.”

“None taken,” said Sarouth as he tied up his robes with Riaag’s discarded sash. Modesty preserved once more, he paused. “I left my mace in there,” he whispered.

Riaag hefted a squat-legged chair in one hand and an eating knife in another. Not as good as real weapons, but they’d do. He grinned. “Let’s go get it back.”

There wasn’t too much point in trying to be stealthy—even if whatever made the noise wasn’t aware of them now, the hallway floor creaked too much to hide them for long—so Riaag adopted his boldest stance before pushing aside the curtain leading into the other room.

It was a mess inside. One wall had erupted inwards, spraying wood and tile everywhere, and splatters of dried mud clung to surfaces that had been spotless a few hours ago. The room smelled like stagnant water as though a marsh had sprung up amid the willows. In the middle of it all was Zigornne and the same soldiers that had escorted them to the island palace earlier. Zigornne had seemed a little off before, but now something was officially very wrong with him as he dug through the rubble with his bare hands, his face pulled back in a ghastly rictus. One of the guards with him nudged him with her boot when the orcs stepped inside and he jumped as though he’d been burned. When he looked up at them his pupils were so dilated they were almost round.

You!” he hissed, pointing at Sarouth with a slender hand. “You were supposed to be here! I showed you here and said it was where you would sleep! Why were you gone?” He was so worked up that his Trader Cant was borderline impossible to understand.

Sarouth shrugged and cocked his thumb at Riaag. “I sleep with him. Is there something wrong?”

Zigornne screamed with what might have been anger. “Everything! I read the waters and they said if you were here it would solve so much! But it is all wrong!” Riaag could see straight through the hole in the wall, and he could already spy a few lights drawing closer on the other side of the bridge. At least there would be more witnesses to whatever was going on. The masked guards who had come with Zigornne seemed to know this, too, and they shifted uneasily in their armor. They could already hear approaching hoofbeats in the distance. As for Zigornne himself, he seemed lost in his words the way only a god-speaker could get, and Riaag felt a twinge of guilt for how angry he was at a man who was probably half arguing with the River God or whatever they had here.

Being monologued at was not something Riaag took well unless it was Sarouth doing the talking, even with his newfound points of sympathy, so he almost didn’t catch the snippets of Zigornne’s fragmenting Trader Cant. There were words like “sacrifice” involved, and phrases like “only way” and “had to be like this.” It would’ve been poignant if his hands hadn’t then started to smoke with mist and dribble murky water onto the ground. Riaag bristled; he’d seen enough heretic priests in his lifetime to spot an invocation tell from a mile away. At least they knew what had ruined the wall now.

There was also the matter of their gear, which Zigornne had finally unearthed from beneath a beam carved with stylized water lilies. The strange black iron shaft of the mace protruded from what was left of Sarouth’s carryall, still glinting red and hungry.

“Do not to touch that with your bare skin,” said Sarouth as Zigornne’s hand neared it.

“No?” he replied. His curled lip shared the same angle as one of the feathers in his hat.

Sarouth shrugged. “A gift from Agritakh, our god. It is much like a tooth from His maw. I would not risk it if it does not call you its master.” He shifted his weight, nonchalantly edging a little more behind Riaag. “It eats pain. Yours, mine, someone else’s, it does not matter. I do not think your god would be happy about that.”

How dare you!” cried Zigornne. Or rather, that was what Riaag guessed he’d meant to say, as all that came out was a long stream of river people speak that sounded angry enough to shit on the floor at a funeral. Zigornne grabbed at the mace, which was exactly as bad an idea as Sarouth had made it sound: the vapor leaking from his fingers disappeared as soon as his flesh touched the metal, the droplets of sacred water started to eat into the rubble at his feet, and he vomited from the sudden pain. He dropped the weapon immediately. The tell returned to its normal misty state once he was no longer handling the mace. Upon striking the ground the mace itself just so happened to roll along a broken shelf and along a dip in the floor to gently bump against Sarouth’s toes. Riaag was getting used to this sort of coincidence when it came to Sarouth’s more important things.

The livid god-speaker began waving his hands again, summoning up a breeze that smelled of salt water, but Sarouth’s stalling had bought them just enough time. Bixenta, mounted on a riding deer with a pair of small brass lanterns hanging from its horns, guided her steed through the willows, then dropped from the saddle, rolled, and leapt through the hole in the wall. Her blade was in her hand the moment she landed. Riaag snortled. River people seemed compelled to do everything flashily.

“Zigornne!” she said, followed by a lot of other syllables. It was certainly a dramatic confrontation, but the effect was ruined by not understanding a word of the language. Bixenta pointed, Zigornne flailed, and the soldiers gasped at the exchange, while Sarouth waited out the affair on the sidelines with his shoulder propped against Riaag’s arm.

“Looks like my guess was right,” he said, keeping his voice quiet enough to not interrupt the scene before them. “I think the one with the sword has had enough of the one with the hat.”

“You don’t say,” replied Riaag.

Perhaps fate was tired of their flippancy, because Zigornne chose that moment to try to take Sarouth’s head off with a gout of scalding water from the ether. Riaag spoiled his aim by throwing the chair at him before he pulled Sarouth to the ground just in time. The light spray that caught him across the back was agonizing. He bared his teeth; they’d come all this way and done everything asked of them and more, only to be betrayed this lazily? Was he never going home again just because this madman was challenging him to the deadliest of splash-fights?

Ignoring Bixenta in favor of trying to boil Sarouth alive was the wrong decision. She cracked him on the head with the butt of her sword; he swung around, struggling to create another spell, but the moment he raised his hands against her she jabbed her blade through his throat. The guards did nothing to stop her. She gave another brief speech in her language before placing her foot on Zigornne’s chest and pushing him off her sword onto the ground. His hat fell next to him, the cheery color of its plumes at odds with the grisly scene. Riaag figured Bixenta to be a better soul than he since she didn’t take the opportunity to crush it with her boot. He would have. It was just too perfect not to.

A mist had begun to rise off the water during the standoff, which Riaag had taken to be another of Zigornne’s doings. It flowed in through the hole in the wall and flowed around Zigornne’s corpse, then left again as strangely as it came. The dead man looked no different, and the river people didn’t seem too bothered by the goings-on, but Riaag whispered a prayer to Agritakh under his breath just in case.

After standing up and re-tying his sash Sarouth inclined his head respectfully to Bixenta. “Thank you,” he said. “What just happened?”

“Zigornne wanted you dead. I think he did not want you to have your trial.”

“But why?”

Bixenta sighed. Riaag knew that sigh: it was the same one he made when he didn’t feel like speaking to anyone but was going to have to anyway. “He spoke to the River God. He saw warnings. He knew some of us followed him and some of us followed me, and he could not stand it. He wanted everyone to follow him. So he told us what he saw, but in a way that would send us into danger. He told us to attack many people. We did this. We angered those who survived. I think we angered the River God, as well. Zigornne had trouble hearing Her words. He kept telling us more and more things to do. He hated that you could speak the way he used to. He said the River God had shown him death following green-skinned men. He put you here to be holy food. He said if you lived things would change forever.” She allowed herself the barest hint of a smirk. “It seems it was so.”

The strain of so much talking looked to be wearing Bixenta out, but there was one last question that needed asking. Sarouth glanced around the ruined room. “So what happens now? Do you choose a new Zigornne?”

Bixenta shrugged. “There is no reason to. The river is cruel. The crops are bad. Everything smells of famine. Zigornne would not listen to the River God’s warnings, so we are punished. Now we slowly die.” Her features were grim as ever. It was amazing how good she was at keeping her composure.

Sarouth rubbed his chin like he was doing a tricky sum in his head. “Why?” he asked, tilting his head.

“It is what happens if our food runs out. If not this year, then the next, or the next. We have angered any who could bring aid. Who will help us when our god is silent and we are alone?”

He steepled his fingers and quirked his eyebrows. “Tell me, Bixenta,” he said, pleased as a frog in mire, “have your people ever thought of making allies…?”

In the end a deal was struck: Naar Rhoan would align itself with the river people’s village—called Usoa, Riaag later learned, though it took him quite a while to actually puzzle out the name—and they would send supplies throughout the winter in exchange for Usoa’s aid in any future fights and support in the foreign world of politics. This oath of loyalty was to last for one year for each hunter Bixenta and her soldiers had slain, though Sarouth cheerily noted that their agreement’s terms could be negotiated again once the limit was up. Any other grievances between them would be, at least for now, forgotten. They were close enough to one another to easily trade, as well, which Riaag was thankful for; they simply didn’t have the provisions to take the hunters, the search party, and the converts back at the same time, so all but a handful agreed to remain behind and help rebuild the village until enough food arrived to get them back home.

The thought of the stronghold smelling of marsh deer and peculiar seasonings was an odd one, indeed, but Riaag was tentatively excited for things all the same. Even Sarouth, heavy under the weight of all the delicate talking he’d have to do to keep the people back at the stronghold from trying to retaliate, seemed chipper, and he let the stub-tusked woman who’d led the search party do the bulk of the task of deciding who would go home and who would wait for the next food shipment. The only real surprise they encountered as they prepared for the journey back was when the Old One slipped through the open pen door and ran away, keening. Nobody pursued her. The Old People were wild at heart, and sad as it was to see her alone, she would at least have a chance on her own instead of slowly dying behind walls and doors. At least it was one more loose end tied off.

At long last they were ready to follow the morning sun back home. Six hunters, two trackers, an Agritakh-ruhd, and a poet were more than enough to travel safely through the woods, and now that they knew they’d not be ambushed by river people their sleep promised to be deep and restful.

Etxeloi met them at the gate he’d first led them through, his face shadowed and his wolf at his side. He raised a hand in greeting. “I hear things are changing,” he said, eying the others with Riaag and Sarouth. “We are allies now?”

“That is so, yes,” said Sarouth.

Etxeloi nodded. “You are lucky. They say people who are bad for Usoa are taken by the water if they go there.”

“So that is why it is not used as a palace anymore?” asked Sarouth. Riaag nudged him in the arm with a knuckle; it was a bit too soon to be making jokes.

“Trade between our villages will be good,” said Etxeloi, ignoring the question. He popped his lips. “We trade goods, not people, yes?”

“Food, clothes, tools…all good trade things. No river people will have to take Rhoanish dowries. What is the point? It would be like pairing cats and dogs. You get no children that way.” Sarouth grinned. “Besides, you little things would break if you tried it.”

Etxeloi laughed, the first time they’d seen him do so. “That insult is bad. You should try it in my tongue instead. We can teach the ones who stay here, they can teach you when they go back. Maybe you visit again to see if you know any good swears?”

Riaag looked back at the river with its layer of bobbing boats, then followed the line of buildings on stilts towards the distant shape of the willows that shrouded the island palace. He could already picture how Usoa might look all lit up for a harvest festival. He thought of how the water had glowed as the sun set over it and the feeling of Sarouth’s fingers entwined with his own as the stars came out, and how at least until the wall exploded the river’s sloshing had lulled him to sleep. The place was alive: chickens cackled and dogs—or maybe wolf pups—barked, fishermen sang and farmers argued. It was still a culture he didn’t understand practiced by people he still didn’t know what to call, and he knew it would be many seasons before Naar Rhoan and Usoa were as friendly with one another as they claimed to be, but this time he didn’t feel quite so alienated by everything. He didn’t even mind the pointy-faced children (who had a ways to go before they could hide as well as their parents) watching them go.

“Maybe we will,” he said.

They went into the forest proper, then, leaving the village behind. It would be a long trip back, especially over rough ground with a large group, but now they had the answers—and even most of the people—they’d come looking for. There was half-finished embroidery waiting for them through the trees, and sheep-herding brothers, and fields of rice and barley, and stupid horses. It didn’t matter how long it took, this time. Somewhere on the other side was home.

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One thought on “Seismic Gap

  1. I’m in the midst of reading all these stories again, and thought I should comment. When I read the first one, I wasn’t sure I’d like a story with no human characters. Well, I fell in love with these characters, and the only complaint I could ever have about them is that I want to read more! Sarouth is delightful, and I have teared up more than once for (and with) Riaag. I think you’re brilliant.

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