written and illustrated by Iron Eater
The problem with bandits, Riaag mused to himself as he stirred the pot, was that they were just too damn stupid to know when to quit. Someone who stole to feed a hungry mouth could be converted, and someone who fought because they were scared could be soothed, but someone who made trouble simply because they had a sliver of opportunity was a particular species of dickhead that they didn’t truck with much in Naar Rhoan. The most recent crop of bandits had been a gaggle of stragglers from the northern mountains—dressed in colors almost certainly stolen—who’d tried to ambush some traveling merchants. Said merchants had luckily been within earshot of a patrol band. Those who threatened the safety of the basin were dealt with harshly by the Rhoanish; it wasn’t like they’d stopped being orcs the minute they sat down to till fields.
A skull bobbed to the top of the boiling water and stared at him with empty sockets. “Shoulda fucked off back when we done warned you the first two times, asshole,” said Riaag to the skull before he thwacked it with his ladle. It went back under the surface with a bloop.
“What’s that for?” asked one of the small children that had gathered around him, as children tended to do when he did something interesting in public.
“Is it soup?” asked another.
Riaag grunted. “Ain’t soup the way you know it,” he said. “This one don’t got carrots or mushrooms or nothin’ in it ’cause it’s made outta bad guys. We’re gonna feed ’em ter the land when it’s done.”
This got a chorus of happy squeals. He smiled at that; Rhoanish kids were nothing if not gleefully bloodthirsty. It was rarer for him to not be knee-deep in children when out in public, which was actually rather nice as far as he was concerned, and it helped him feel useful when he could keep an eye on them. They made for a lively audience no matter how gruesome the stories he told were, gasping whenever he sang the introduction of a villain and shrilling with delight whenever said villain was finally cut down. Sometimes they’d even stick around for the less violent verse, too.
“When are they gonna be cooked right?” said someone else.
“Did you chop them up with your axe?”
“What’d your war cry sound like?”
“Are those trophies in there? My da says it’s okay to take trophies if you do it proper.”
“How mean were they?”
The questions started overlapping each other a bit too much to tell them apart. He gestured for silence and, wonder of wonders, actually got it; dozens of bright little eyes looked up at him expectantly.
Riaag hung the ladle on one of the cauldron handles, stepped to the side of the pot, and hunkered down conspiratorially, which made quite a difference thanks to his height. “Them questions is the kind best answered by the baddies theyselves,” he said. He then made a great deal of looking left and right before cupping his hand to his mouth and leaning in to mock-whisper loud enough for the children in the back to hear. “You wanna talk ter one?”
People of any size can make a lot of noise when they want to, and the kids were no different; while he might not have been able to pick even a handful of distinct words out of the ensuing babble, it was clear as crystal that yes, they would very much like to talk to one of the aforementioned bad guys currently being rendered into orc bouillon, thank you. He pressed his finger to his lips for silence and they quieted almost immediately.
He straightened up and looked into the cauldron, where as luck would have it the same skull as before had come to the surface again. There was just enough of it above the surface of the boiling water for him to hook his claws into an obliging crevice and flip the steaming bone into his opposite hand, his double-layered work gloves keeping the worst of the heat off his skin. A good rub on the edge of his coat took care of the remaining droplets clinging to it. The jawbone miraculously stayed attached the entire time. If it’d been an animal’s skull it would’ve been easier, since he could have simply threaded his fingers through the eye sockets and hinged the jaw with his thumb, but people’s heads were full of nooks and crannies and fiddly bone pieces that he really didn’t want to knock out of place, so he opted to have one hand grasp the back of the skull while his other held the jawbone by the chin.
Puppetry was not something he’d ever given much thought to until the traders from Usoa had started coming by with their wagons full of treasures, and the way they’d sometimes tell their own folk stories through props, be they strung-together wood or scrap fabric glued to bone or bits of painted cloth held between a lantern and a screen, had filled his head with countless new ideas. It was time to try out one of them.
He twitched his hands and flexed his fingers just so, hoping things would move the way he thought they would; it worked well enough to make the teeth snap dramatically and earn him a few more happy squeals.
Now that their attention was focused on the ex-bandit, he let himself get into character. “Who’s that asking questions?” he sneered in a nasal, reedy voice, clacking the skull in time with his words. “Is that children I smell? Yecch! I can’t stand little children!” This inspired plenty of jeering and booing. It was bad form to blatantly manipulate an audience so soon into a performance, even if most of them were so young they didn’t have second names yet, but it had been a long day and Riaag wasn’t feeling up to his usual standards of storytelling integrity. It never failed, anyway; you could still have half the meat left on there and you’d do nothing but delight your audience so long as the voice you used was funny enough.
The owner of one of the small voices from before elbowed their way through the sea of faces to stand nose-to-nasal-cavity with the skull. Riaag made it tilt quizzically this way and that like a bird; something he’d noticed about all the Usoan puppeteers was how they always made things move, keeping the audience always focused on the puppets and never on the people moving them around. He didn’t have the years of practice they did, but it seemed to be doing the trick anyway.
“Why were you so bad?” asked the kid. They were a newer addition to the stronghold and Riaag hadn’t caught their name enough times to remember it just yet—it was Mazha or Dazha or Razhag or something, there was a good throaty consonant in there somewhere—but he could already read the look of hurt betrayal on their face. Living in Naar Rhoan had that effect on people.
He rattled the skull’s teeth together and growled. “Why shouldn’t I be?” he had the skull say. “I was bigger and tougher! That means I could do whatever I want! Being strong means I didn’t have to listen to the rules! People just say that’s bad because they wish they could be like me!”
It did his weary heart proud to hear the scandalized gasps and whispered cries of “nooo!” from the crowd. He laughed as loudly as he could without slipping into his usual speaking register; forcing his voice up a half-octave or so was harder than it sounded. It was important to keep the ex-bandit just silly enough without letting them forget he had once been a very real threat to the stronghold. The children could wait a few more years before having to deal with the reality that not all villains were cackling, bombastic caricatures.
Another child, this one the daughter of one of the raven-tenders, flapped her sleeves like wings as she stepped up to confront the skull. “That’s not right!” she said with a stamp of her foot. “If you’re strong you have to be nice, because it means you’re that way so you can help people! That’s why we’re good to animals!”
“Bah! Animals? I’m better than anything that walks or swims or flies! Why should I be nice to food?” Riaag poked his fingers through the jaw so it looked as though the skull was waggling a long, claw-tipped tongue. “I don’t have time to say ‘please’ to every fruit I eat!”
“Well you should,” said the raven-tender’s daughter.
The skull sneered theatrically. “You’re just trying to hide how weak and feeble you are,” it said. “If you were powerful like me you wouldn’t even care.” Even when playing a role Riaag wasn’t terribly comfortable saying something so caustic to someone maybe a third his age, but she brushed it off like so much mist in the wind. It was good to see such ferocity in one so young.
The raven-tender’s daughter set her jaw and stared down the skull’s eyeless sockets; she already had the piercing gaze of the eaglet she was raising to hunt with. “The animals are our friends, and friends help each other,” she said. “We’re friends with the ground where ground-food grows, too, so we give offerings to the Hill God who’s down in there, and that’s why you’re soup. Isn’t it?” she added, looking at Riaag this time. He nodded. She beamed, then made a face at the bandit’s remains. “Now we boil away the bad stuff and all that’s left is good stuff, and that’s what the land gets to eat for harvest time!” she said to the other children, who seemed satisfied with that explanation. It left out details like what you had to do to a corpse to be left with nothing but a skull and a more-or-less pourable liquid, but it got the point across. The kids already had a pretty good grasp of what happened to someone who ended up on the wall, anyway.
It wasn’t the end of the questions, because given the chance to address a talking skull the average child had plenty of things to ask about—and it was fun thinking up suitably silly answers to what a bandit’s favorite food had been, as well as teasing the skull about how nice it and its brothers would look on Riaag’s belt—but he was relieved when the little show ended and the bone went back into the bubbling pot. There was still a ways to go before he had some proper trophies and he’d need to be rested and alert in time to oversee the lizard roundup later that day.
Boiling bones into trophies was nice, mindless work. It was a little different from rendering fat since there wasn’t anything that needed skimming, so all he really had to do was stir, make sure the fire stayed hot, and occasionally brush his hair out of his eyes or shake stray water droplets from his beard. The minutes sloughed away as he worked until the next thing he knew the sun was high in the sky. At least there was still plenty of time to tend to his responsibilities.
One such responsibility was heading towards him from the approximate direction of the sacred hill. Riaag hunkered down a bit; he wasn’t hiding, he told himself, just trying to not take up more space than he needed to, since a man of his size could take up quite a lot of space, indeed. Just because things were awkward didn’t mean something was wrong, it just meant they were awkward. Awkward was just its own unpleasant thing. None of these thoughts made his stomach sink any less when he saw that Sarouth White-Hair, god-speaker of Agritakh and one of the stronghold’s founders, wasn’t conveniently stopped by anyone on his way over.
Sarouth stopped on the opposite side of the cauldron with his hands clasped behind his back. The fall of hair that concealed half his face was held in place by a few Al-Qashari ornaments they’d traded for a few months ago, back in those already distant days from before things had become interesting between him and Riaag and well before the recent situation. His smile was bright. Then again, his smile was always bright, so that might not have anything to do with anything, but at least it went all the way up to his visible eye. “Hi.”
“Hi.” Maybe it was just something about one of the many harvest celebrations going on and not the awkward business Riaag really didn’t want to talk about.
“I heard from some of our guests you helped take care of some problems yesterday,” said Sarouth, who was at least staying where he was. “That’s who’s cooking, right?”
Riaag nodded. On a normal day he would’ve taken that as a cue to go into detail, maybe with informative hand gestures, but today was not a normal day.
Sarouth leaned in to peer into the cauldron; Riaag had to stop himself from instinctively shooing him away, since you didn’t cook for someone for years without getting used to their bad habits. “Excellent work on that. It really does make a difference to traders, since they go by word of mouth so much. We’re getting a reputation for being one of the safest places to visit in the whole region!” His smile broadened. “I imagine your shiny new trophies won’t hurt the Usoans’ opinion of us, either, eh?”
“Guess not,” said Riaag as he stared into the pot. He didn’t need this right now, not with so much to do. The children would know if he showed up for the roundup upset.
The moment stretched out long and awkwardly. Sarouth broke the silence when he popped his lips the way he did when he was thinking, then said, “Are you doing, you know, okay?” Riaag shrugged. “Okay” could mean a lot of things, some of which almost certainly applied to him, so it fit well enough.
It wasn’t enough to dissuade Sarouth, though. “Would you like privacy again this evening?” he asked, his head tilted a little to the side. “It’s fine if you do, of course, I just want to know if I should lace up the tent behind me when I get ready for bed. I’d hate to shut you out by accident!” Riaag shrugged again. He’d slept alone for the past few days and it hadn’t really helped much of anything save for making him feel guilty about keeping to himself. Maybe there would be enough distance for them to actually try to talk about things later, but that would have to be later.
“I gotta finish this,” he said.
Sarouth nodded. “I’ll maybe see you later, then? You’ve got to help with the lizards and all.”
Riaag shrugged again. “Yeah. Later.”
“Would you, ah, like a hug?”
“Ain’t really feeling it.” Of course Sarouth’s face fell for the briefest of moments before he snapped back to his normal cheery expression, and of course Riaag wanted to curl up in a hole somewhere for the crime of worrying someone he loved. Usually Sarouth gave the best hugs, the kind that could make everything okay for a little bit no matter how bad Riaag’d slept or how dire his mood was, but he didn’t feel like he could handle one at the moment. It was bad enough that he felt guilty for neglecting Sarouth for so long—maybe nobody noticed that the stronghold’s leader looked a bit less impeccably-groomed than usual, but maybe they did, and maybe if they did they were just too polite to say anything to Riaag about it—but touching someone else in his current state would mean risking the bad memories coming back, and even the slightest risk of that was too much. He couldn’t have an episode in front of so many people, not when they needed him to be reliable.
“Well, that’s, that’s okay. I know how it can be for you sometimes,” said Sarouth. His voice sounded like it was all smiles again, so at least that was something. “Have fun helping the kids!”
By the time Riaag looked up from the cauldron again, Sarouth was gone.
It wasn’t that there weren’t chores that needed doing while they were living as transients, and it wasn’t as though he didn’t throw himself into any task suggested to him with desperate gusto, but each time Riaag handed the strange young god-speaker the first bowl of a meal he had found himself waiting for the other shoe to drop. Maybe the soup would be too cold, or maybe the laundry would still have dirty spots around the hems, or maybe he wouldn’t give Sarouth a close enough shave one morning, but however it would’ve happened he could feel it was just a matter of time before he was rejected (again) and abandoned (again) for fucking up (forever). People like Sarouth White-Hair could do so much better than him.
For some reason the end of every nice thing he’d ever known hadn’t shown up for a week, and it had continued to drag ass and refuse to ruin his life for a month, and then not for a season, and then one day he had to accept that half a year had passed and Sarouth not only didn’t seem interested in getting rid of him but actually enjoyed his company. Sometimes they went for days without seeing any other orcs, so it was easy to take Sarouth’s cheeriness as a sort of courtesy by necessity, but other times they’d make camp with other travelers and Sarouth would still wade through the sea of clean, smiling faces to ask if he wanted to play dice or if he’d thought of any new songs lately.
The idea that he could have a friend had been a very alien concept to Riaag.
He’d gradually allowed himself to believe that Sarouth wasn’t keeping him around solely out of some sense of responsibility. That was almost certainly part of it, of course, since you didn’t pick up a castoff from where he’d been busily exsanguinating in the dust without accruing a little bit of a blood debt, and you definitely didn’t cleanse someone’s caked-on sin without expecting a little bit of gratitude, but Sarouth always said “please” and “thank you” and asked him what he was thinking, so there had to be a little bit of basic-orcish-decency strangeness going on.
Then there had been the part where he’d witnessed Sarouth’s divinity—the kind that was above and beyond your typical Agritakh-ruhd’s, since a god-speaker just wasn’t a god-speaker without a mote of the Hill God resting inside them—and Sarouth had been a tremendous pain in the ass about it. One would think Agritakh’s most precious worldly vessel would be happier about being recognized, but no, Sarouth had instead gone off on the unreliability of prophecies above a certain age and how with enough wishing nearly any result could fit a promise. It had taken a lot of rejections and more than a few tears before Sarouth had grudgingly accepted the mantle of Faaroug on even the most minor level. Riaag had met his share of priests and pilgrims, both faithful and heretical, and never in his life had he ever met a god-speaker so stubborn. This said more about Sarouth’s hardheadedness than the easygoing nature of anyone else.
But accept it he had, eventually, and while he usually replied to the title with claims that nobody had to call him that, he still turned his head when someone addressed him as such. The first time they met a wandering band who knew who Sarouth was without having met him before, Riaag’s heart lept. It also meant they started running into a lot more angry dissidents looking to pick a fight once word got around; it was an Agritakh-ruhd’s duty to bring enlightenment to the Hill God’s people, whether through word or through wound, and at the end of the day it meant the job was getting done more efficiently, so Riaag didn’t mind the uptick too much. Sarouth preached and Riaag kept people from murdering him in the process. It worked out.
So Sarouth had led and Riaag had followed, and then Sarouth had beheld a vision that sent them down into the lowlands to start dicking around with agriculture, and somehow that had worked out. People had come to hear about his new way. People had stayed to work the fields or tend the herds or watch over the previous two groups. Naar Rhoan had started appearing on trade routes. After entirely too many years of not saying anything Riaag had even confessed his love to Sarouth, which had more or less gone the same way as his witnessing had, which was to say Sarouth had stubbornly refused it for some reason before everything clicked into place. It was everything Riaag had prayed for back when he was still a small, scared child eating garbage to survive.
And then, of course, things had gotten all fucked up.
He strolled to stand opposite the little gate someone had built just for the event. Some of the lower-hanging flags brushed the top of his head, but given that the roundup was a children’s thing, and it generally took between two and three kids standing on each other’s shoulders to match his height, it probably wouldn’t be an issue.
He cleared his throat and began to pace in front of the gate. Riaag was a hard man to ignore, especially when wearing his nice new festival coat, and soon he had the attention of the next generation of animal wranglers.
“This’s the children’s harvest roundup!” he said, and his voice cut through the low buzz of conversation like shears through fine cloth. “Some of you was here last year, and remember all the rules, but a lot of you’s new, so listen the fuck up!” He cast a stern eye at someone who’d been making a lot of fuss about some kind of roast tuber on a stick. They took the hint.
“We got a few rules and regulations ter go over afore we get going,” he continued. “Firstly, you all better be good ter them lizards, because the animals is our friends and we don’t act like fucken assholes ter friends. Secondly, be good ter each other, I don’t want no fights while the roundup is going on and I don’t want any stories about people stealing lizards from each other. Thirdly, don’t go out no farther than the trees with flags tied ter them. We got people walking the woods ter make sure wolves or similar don’t cause problems, but you kiddos don’t want ter get lost on such a big day, right?” Some of the more agreeable children murmured in agreement. That was something, but Riaag hadn’t been a skald for years without learning a little about working a crowd.
“What’s that?” he said, cupping his ear. “You kids ready ter be nice and have a good time?” That caused a ripple of excitement, but not as big as he’d have liked. “Oh? Did the wind blow a leaf on by? I guess we’ll have ter cancel things if nobody came this year.” The children rose to the challenge shrilly and admirably.
“Well, good! I think we’s finally ready, then,” he said, glancing at the master shepherd, who nodded. Riaag stepped to the side. He took a deep breath, raised his hands over his head, and bellowed, “Go get ’em!”
The kids thundered through the gate towards the trees, whooping with enthusiasm as they swarmed past Riaag. Some waved goading sticks and lassos in imitation of fully-grown herders as they passed. The actual herders who had come to watch the paddocks cheered them on before taking their places on benches or around food carts to wait until the time came to move the lizards behind the stronghold walls. It would involve a lot of fussy business Riaag didn’t have the knack for in the slightest, but the chance to cook with fresh meat and innards throughout the winter was well worth it as far as he was concerned.
In the small window of time between the children filing out and him needing to go on watch, Riaag let himself relax just a little bit. Things were going well, fucked up or not, and they just had to go well long enough for him to cook dinner—because he would cook for himself, since it felt wrong to go so many days of eating from community kitchens—and get in bed without causing a scene. Sarouth was worried, but Riaag reminded himself that that was fine, since worried was far better—and to be perfectly honest infinitely more likely—than angry, and maybe they’d talk about things and maybe they wouldn’t, and either way sleeping next to a friend sounded better than the alternative.
Some of the younger children had started fidgeting before he’d finished his short speech, which for something that was meant to be all about them was less than ideal. One day he’d sit down and figure out a better way to start things off, maybe something involving another puppet, but today was definitely not that day.
He kept his palm against the head of his axe as he watched some of the first kids return, the fat bark-brown lizards scurrying ahead of them as fast as their stumpy legs could carry them. There were watchers in the forest, and the older children looked out for the younger one to some degree, but he still hated the thought of anyone getting hurt on his watch. Both bandits and wild animals had a bad habit of coming back no matter how many times you put them down.
A hooded figure dressed in mottled gray and black waited by the treeline under a purple ghost maple, arms crossed over their chest and a huge timber wolf at their side; the children had ignored them entirely during the mad dash to and from the woods. The figure was shorter and slighter than most orcs and their only distinguishing feature was a pair of long tan ears peeking out from beneath their many layers. They hadn’t so much appeared as simply stopped trying to go unnoticed, though no one still paid them or their wolf any mind. Riaag waved them over.
“Etxeloi,” he said with a nod, greeting the figure by name.
“Riaag Bough-Breaker,” replied the figure from behind his scarf. His Rhoanish had a thick accent, but Riaag was used to how Usoans handled vowels by now. It was like listening to someone speak directly through their nose. “I saw some of your people putting flags out. It is a game?”
“Nah. It’s roundup season.”
Etxeloi’s serpent-slitted eyes narrowed in puzzlement. “It is what?”
“Roundup season. You know, when you go out and get animals and bring ’em back.”
Judging by what of Etxeloi’s expression was visible, Riaag wasn’t making his point as clearly as he could have. He gestured broadly at the southern forest. “There’s eatin’ lizards all out in them trees, climbing around and making more little lizards and generally being fat and happy ’cause the kids go out and check on ’em regular. Feed ’em, make sure they’s healthy, that kinda thing.”
Etxeloi didn’t say anything, which Riaag took as a sign to continue.
“Now that they’s had the warmer months ter do lizardy business, the kids is gonna go bring ’em back in fer the winter. Once the master shepherd tells me we got enough, I’ll call it, and we all gather back up and go home happy, yeah? Come springtime they all get driven back into the forest again until next harvest and we have ourselves another roundup.” He glanced at Etxeloi’s wolf, which yawned wide enough for Riaag to count its teeth. “We could probably find a snack fer the beastie, if’n you’re so inclined,” he offered.
Etxeloi continued not saying anything. Riaag had had rather a lot of dealings with the people of Usoa, so he knew for himself that their culture understood rites of hospitality, but seeing as Etxeloi was distant and difficult even for one of the river people more blunt tactics would have to do.
“What brings you up from the river?”
“Eh, maybe it is nothing,” said Etxeloi with a half-shrug, which Riaag was learning usually meant it was very much something. “I hear from striders in the far places, they whisper on the wind to me. A bottled ghost rattled and broke its cage, but one of your blood was nearby, and he smelled it out, and the ghost was put away again. Eaten up, they whisper to me. The one of your blood, he covered half his face, and his arms were marked, red on green, both these things sounding much like White-Hair. There were others with him, also. Servants?”
“Sounds like a god-speaker and entourage did an exorcism,” he said. “Ain’t nothing too peculiar ’bout that. It’s a thing they do. Why you telling me this?”
Etxeloi cocked his head at him like a bird. “We are friends-not-friends, yes? They are coming this way is why I tell you. If they are hungry for more ghosts, why look here? Do they come to rest in your home?” He cocked his head to the other side; Riaag could have sworn Etxeloi’s ears rotated forwards in the process. “Or is there ghost-food for them to find?”
Riaag groaned. “Is this a portent? I am so fucken tired of portents.” He closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead. “Fine, fine,” he said, “I’ll talk ter Sarouth about it. If they’s just coming down fer harvest then we’ll want ter be sure there’s enough clear room on a travelers’ field fer them.”
He opened his eyes and wasn’t entirely surprised to see that both Etxeloi and his wolf were already gone.
Being someone’s bodyguard, much less an important someone’s, much much less a dearly beloved someone’s, was not a path Riaag had seen for himself. A childhood of being small and wretched hadn’t done him any favors, and back when Sarouth had first joked about it Riaag had been so scrawny his ribs showed. He’d have been hard-pressed to defend a dish rag. They’d barely known each other for three days, then, and most of those he’d spent keeping as respectful a distance as he could manage, and to be perfectly honest it had probably just been talk for the sake of talking when Sarouth said it.
What Sarouth couldn’t have expected was the red fire his words lit in Riaag’s heart. It didn’t matter if he hadn’t meant it and it didn’t matter if Riaag had lost more fights than he’d won when his old band had forced him into them; he’d felt his claws itch and his lips pull back from his teeth at the thought of anyone raising a hand against Sarouth. He’d felt it before when someone had threatened the babies his old band didn’t let him take care of. He’d been helpless then, but maybe this time he could actually do something. Maybe someday he could pay Sarouth back for binding his wounds and giving him water.
He swore his loyalty gladly. Sarouth had been surprised but hadn’t turned him away, pathetic as he’d been, and that day had marked the first of a lifetime of throwing himself wholly into the act of servitude. It wasn’t exactly difficult to be loyal to someone who was, in addition to pious and friendly, quite handsome.
Actually proving that loyalty hadn’t come until later.
They’d camped out in a little natural alcove near a stream, and the trees had been so numerous Riaag hadn’t needed to go far to find one suitable for firewood. By then he’d filled out enough to swing an axe without making himself sick from exertion, and while the wind wasn’t yet so cold they needed one he’d made plans for that evening’s meal that required a proper cooking flame, so he’d excused himself to go gather fuel once they’d set up their separate shelters. It took him a bit—he still needed frequent breaks and he still felt his arms burn far too quickly for his liking—but he managed to collect an entire armful of wood well before sundown. It had been a nice little personal milestone.
Sarouth had been busy fussing with his bag of runes ever since they’d made camp; when Riaag returned, Sarouth had cast them around quite liberally and had been wrapped up in studying their ineffable pattern. He’d paid Riaag no mind all throughout most of dinner preparation. Somewhere between the pan going on the fire and the jugged meat going in the pan with some onions Sarouth had picked up his runes and gone wandering in the nearby trees. He’d never gone quite out of sight, so Riaag wasn’t too worried, and even that early in their working relationship Riaag had learned Sarouth was, to put it lightly, kind of weird. He fully expected to find little symbols of Agritakh carved on the trees or woven into their branches come the following morning. You had to let a god-speaker roam around and process the mysteries in their heads or they got cranky.
The onions had started turning clear and brown when he heard a voice in the woods. It’d sounded like Sarouth’s, and it’d sounded upset, but Riaag had also learned that Sarouth had a lot of one-sided conversations, sometimes with the Hill God listening and sometimes—at least as far as Riaag could tell—not. He stirred in a few ground spice leaves. Between the pan-fried carrion, some late-ripened plums, and a few leftover bones, it promised to be a fine meal. Sarouth would probably be hungry once he finished quarreling with the empty air. He usually didn’t snap at Riaag after a half-argument unless he was very tired, which was an unexpected kindness, but hot food nearly always improved Sarouth’s mood, so Riaag was eager to finish.
Then there had been a second voice, and it wasn’t very happy, either.
Panic burned down Riaag’s skin. They’d only met friendly groups during their travels up until then, and Sarouth had greeted those with a loud and enthusiastic salutation. This didn’t sound like a hunter who’d just been surprised by another person. Riaag had been shouted at enough to know a genuinely angry voice a mile away, and it was someone shouting at Sarouth, and he couldn’t see what was going on, and—
The axe was meant for chopping firewood. It had a simple head with a sharp-enough edge and a handle sturdy enough not to split when swung, but it was more an overgrown hatchet than anything. Riaag didn’t care; it was close, and it fit his hand, and it wasn’t like he owned any real weapons. He kept the cast-iron skillet in his off-hand, as even while fearing for Sarouth’s life he couldn’t justify leaving supper behind to burn. You didn’t waste food, ever.
He’d charged into the trees towards the flash of blue that was Sarouth’s robe. The voices were more intelligible by then—the stranger wanted Sarouth’s valuables, and Sarouth very vocally would rather have broken the stranger’s nose instead—and for an instant Riaag had hoped he’d overreacted, that it was just a stupid argument and tempers had flared and everything was fine. Then he’d seen the knife in the stranger’s hand, and some of the scars on Riaag’s forearms had been the cost of recognizing what a stance like the stranger’s meant. Someone was trying to hurt Sarouth. They were alone, with no one else to help. It was a problem with a straightforward solution.
The axe was meant for chopping firewood. It’d turned out to work on a lot of things.
When everything was over he’d been so high on adrenaline the only thing he could really focus on was what a shame it’d been that he’d spilled their dinner during the fray. The pan had come in handy as a makeshift shield, and the few times he’d been able to connect with the hot metal had not been very pleasant for his foe; it wasn’t until he’d noticed Sarouth examining over him with an unfamiliar look on his face that Riaag had realized some of the blood on him was his. He slumped in embarrassment. Real bodyguards paid better attention to their charges.
“I fucked up dinner, Holy One,” he said, gesturing at the few sad smears of his cooking that the stranger hadn’t been rude enough to die on top of. “I’m real sorry.”
He hadn’t been exaggerating at all: dinner was, indeed, very much fucked up. The bits of meat that hadn’t been ground beneath their boots now glittered with beads of gore, and not even the hungriest jackal would stoop to kin-feasting no matter how nice the onions had smelled. He sniffled. They’d planned to set snares before sleeping since the carrion he’d cooked was the last of their stores; it wasn’t like they had the supplies to easily replace anything. Maybe he could make a simple plum soup, assuming Sarouth wasn’t too angry. Riaag wouldn’t blame him if he was. God-speakers were owed certain standards of living, and an entourage of one barely even kept Sarouth groomed and fed on calm days. Now they’d both go hungry. Whatever came next Riaag knew he deserved.
Riaag cringed when Sarouth stepped forward. He closed his eyes and braced for an impact that never came; instead, careful hands fussed with where his shirt stuck to him. It stung a bit.
“Let me lay this asshole’s spirit to rest and we’ll take a look at those cuts,” said Sarouth in a voice that wasn’t angry at all.
“—wouldn’t be an issue if I was stabbed in the kidneys and left for dead, now would it? You did a good job, Riaag. My hair isn’t even mussed.” This wasn’t entirely true, as Riaag hadn’t had a chance to redo Sarouth’s hair since it’d been brushed out that morning and Sarouth’s ponytail was in need of a touch-up, but Riaag had started to suspect by then that he paid a lot more attention to Sarouth’s coiffure than Sarouth did. Sarouth further proved this by giving Riaag’s hair a friendly ruffle. Riaag wasn’t about to ask him to stop, since it was nice being that close with someone, but you didn’t go around doing that unless you just didn’t think about how long it’d take to comb everything back into place.
“I’ll…I’ll go heat up some water,” said Riaag. He wasn’t sure what it would do, exactly, but medicine folk always liked having hot water around. His eyes fell on the ruined food again and he felt his eyes brim with tears. Sarouth was safe, yes, but who knew when they’d have enough to make such a fancy dish again? A fresh apology started on his tongue.
Sarouth beat him to it. “You go ahead and have whatever’s left back at camp,” he said. “I’ll fast today. Don’t worry about it.”
“Yes, Holy One. Thank you, Holy One.” He pressed his fist over his heart and bowed, axe still in hand. It felt right despite the awkward angle.
“I couldn’t ask for a finer bodyguard,” added Sarouth with a smile that brought out the brilliance of his tusks and the sparkle in his yellow eyes. Riaag felt weak at the knees. For the first time of many he admitted to himself it probably wasn’t due to the blood loss.
Simply going through the motions of preparing food settled Riaag’s nerves. He could control the herbs he ground up into a rub and he could control how long meat stayed on the fire, and even if there were other uncertainties in life he could still make a sausage turn out the way he wanted. He hadn’t cooked for anyone, himself or otherwise, for far too many meals, and making a simple stew base for the leftovers—since it was hard to go wrong with a stew when you had plenty of bones and organ meat to use up—filled a space he hadn’t realized had been left empty.
Someone rapped on one of the tent poles, and since the kitchen was built on holy ground there was only one person it was likely to be. “Yeah, come in,” said Riaag. He flicked the crisping skins in his cooking skillet with his claw. A few more seconds and they would be perfect.
A familiar face poked his head into the kitchen. “Hi again,” said Sarouth. “Those kids have a good time out there?” His eyes drifted towards the skillet. Riaag instinctively put himself between Sarouth and the fire and turned the kebabs again.
At least the thought of talking wasn’t as horrible as it had been earlier. “Yeah, it went pretty good. They had fun, nobody got lost or hurt, and we only had a few quick fights this year. That’s some kinda record. All them creatures herded back in came home very fat.” He poured off the oil from the skillet into the stew pot before flipping the skins into the air with a flick of his wrist. He caught them in a shallow basket. “Cooking up one of the first culls right now. You want some, Holy One?”
Usually Sarouth would be pressed up against Riaag and making grabby hands for the basket by now; it was a testament to his self-restraint that he merely bounced in place with an eager expression. He was careful not to touch Riaag’s hands when he was passed the basket. It was a lot like things had been in the days before they’d started sleeping together. That had only been happining since that past summer, but a few months already felt like a lifetime ago. A few days off wasn’t really that much in the grand scheme of things, was it?
The fried skin bits didn’t stand a chance in the face of Agritakh’s chosen messiah, and in the time it took for Riaag to add more crushed garlic to the stew and give it a good stir Sarouth crunched his way through most of the basket. He licked his fingers and sheepishly offered the remnants to Riaag. No matter how awkward things were between them, at least Riaag could always count on Sarouth to devour anything cooked for him.
Riaag helped himself to a single crisp but ceded the rest to Sarouth. He probably could have added more salt or paprika or something to the oil, or maybe mixed in some pork fat, but it was hardly unpleasant. Sarouth presumably agreed, given how he polished off the rest in record time and licked the bit of cloth lining the basket clean of crumbs. It felt good to watch him enjoy himself so much. Riaag centered his thoughts and steeled himself for the next step.
“So you said you wanted ter talk about…stuff, right?” he asked as he turned the kebabs.
Sarouth paused mid-chew. “I did, yes,” he said around a mouthful of crispy skin. His voice was cautiously interested.
“I think maybe after dinner I might feel up ter doing that. Talking, I mean.” Riaag fussed with one of his cooking knives, then added,”You’re welcome ter eat at my table, if’n you’re so inclined.”
Sarouth glowed. “I’d love to.”
While he wasn’t yet up for fancy plating, Riaag still took a great sense of satisfaction in the spread he laid out on the kitchen’s low dining table with its steaming kebabs and brightly-colored radish salad, and he tried not to feel too lazy for padding out so much of it with bread and chicken rice. The stew he took off the heat and stuck a lid on; it would require a few more hours to really make any progress, and there were things more important than stew he needed to see to first. Actually eating what he’d made, for instance.
They blessed their food with a quick mutual prayer and tucked in. Sarouth was chatty all through dinner, because of course he was, and he kept to light, pleasant topics like how big the winning entry of the turnip-growing contest had been. Riaag let him talk. Sarouth tended to get twitchy if he didn’t have anyone to converse with, and even when there were plenty of other people around he still typically wasn’t at the top of his game if he couldn’t talk to whomever he considered his best friend at the time; Riaag had occupied that position for the past seven years and he doubted things had changed in the past few days. It was all part of being the herald of the messiah, and besides, it was nice to see the tension slowly fade from Sarouth’s face.
It was by some miracle of He Who Sleeps Beneath the Earth that no one interrupted their dinner with an emergency.
They’d picked the skewers clean and Sarouth was on what felt like the third description of how difficult it was getting his hair ornaments to behave the way he wanted when Riaag stood up from where he’d knelt and brushed a few crumbs from his coat. Sarouth stopped mid-sentence and looked up at him with interest.
“So, uh,” said Riaag as he collected their empty platters, “I think I’d like ter do that talking thing now. Not here, but still.” He felt like he was flushing all over, first hot, then cold, but at least his panicky nerves had had the decency to leave him alone until after dinner. Riaag swallowed hard. “That gonna be okay?”
“Of course,” said Sarouth, gently.
It didn’t take long to clean up with both of them washing dishes. While Sarouth’s side of the table was dotted with a few stray crumbs and shreds of cabbage, Riaag was an exceedingly tidy eater, so it only took a single pass with a rag to leave things as nice as they’d been before they sat down to break bread. They didn’t work in silence—mostly since Sarouth started talking about how well his horseback riding was going the moment they put cloth to water—but Riaag let the conversation remain more or less one-sided. Just the sound of Sarouth’s voice helped him center himself.
Once they were done they didn’t return to their tent immediately, instead walking side by side around the sacred hill. Even without climbing the hill they had a clear view of the whole of the stronghold all the way to the walls, and at some points they could even see the fields on the other side. The piked corpses along the wall-walks were black against the sunset.
“I saw Etxeloi today,” said Riaag after a while. It was probably more important to mention the fucking portent than it was to talk about his feelings, even if it didn’t feel that way, since portents had a nasty habit of affecting other people.
“Oh? What did he want?”
“He said he got word from his friends in the north. They told him they seen another Agritakh-ruhd coming this way, and that ain’t too strange, but he says they put down a ghost out there. Et it all up. Etxeloi told me I should ask you if we got more ghosts fer a god-speaker ter eat out here, then he did that spooky fucken thing where he just ain’t where you’re looking after a while.” It had been troubling but ignorable in daylight, but now that the sun dipped ablaze and bloody in the west Riaag didn’t feel as bold as he had before. “We don’t got any here, do we?”
Sarouth frowned. “No, no we don’t. I bless the barrows regularly, and I checked on the wards the day before harvest started. I make sure to bind anyone we put on the wall. I didn’t notice anything weird in my most recent soothsaying, either.” He gave Riaag a worried look. “Would you like me to put together a little charm for you, just in case? I know ghosts bother you.”
Saying they bothered him didn’t even begin to cover Riaag’s relationship with ghosts, but then again Sarouth liked using quiet words to make things seem a little less hopeless. Riaag ran his fingers thought his hair. “Yeah. Think I’d like that. Thanks.”
“First thing tomorrow I’ll start work on it, brave warrior,” said Sarouth.
He leaned in to embrace Riaag but stopped himself as soon as Riaag flinched. Sarouth’s little frown returned, and even though it was a worried kind of frown and not a disappointed kind of frown, Riaag had had enough of it.
He set his jaw and curled his gloved pinky finger around Sarouth’s until their hands were close without quite touching. It wasn’t perfect, but it would have to do for now. “Let’s go home. We got more talking ter do.”
He took great pride in growing his hair out—far longer than he’d ever been allowed to with his old band, and with permission to keep it shiny and neat—having cultivated a magnificent beard by the time he reached his twenties. The teeth he’d lost in the fights he’d lost came back in, which was a relief, even if he quietly despaired at how the gap between his front two refused to close itself. He reveled in the chance to keep his claws sharp and spent a few minutes with a rope-wrapped piece of wood each morning and evening, scratching at it to pull the old bits away. He could even bathe whenever he wanted. His new life was so far away from his sad, sickly history that some nights he worried things would get too nice and he’d somehow wrap around back to misery again.
It was around that time that Sarouth had started finding excuses to stop and chat whenever Riaag chopped wood or worked in the forge. His interest was was obvious in hindsight, of course, though Sarouth had been rather skilled at keeping his glances furtive and strove to keep his eyes pointed above the shoulders when they went swimming; even if Riaag had noticed, he suspected he wouldn’t have said anything, being convinced of the idea that he existed as a sexless creature unfit for the hands of others. Oblivious to the attention or not, he’d appreciated the extra chances to talk with the man he was timidly starting to think of as his friend.
The downside of all the attention was that it was harder for him to hide his problems. They weren’t anything worth troubling a god-speaker with, so Riaag hadn’t thought to mentioned them, and it wasn’t until the night Sarouth woke him up in the middle of the night that Riaag had realized other people could tell in the first place.
“You were, ah, making a lot of noise,” said Sarouth. He chewed on his lip awkwardly. “In your sleep, I mean. Nightmares?”
Riaag couldn’t remember exactly what it’d been about, but he could still feel the presence of the terrible shadow that visited him in dreams. It spoke in a familiar voice and struck him with a familiar hand. Sometimes—usually—other things happened. Sarouth didn’t need to know.
“Yeah,” he said. “Bad ones.” It wasn’t a lie.
Sarouth sat cross-legged a little ways from Riaag’s bedroll. Usually they slept on opposite sides of the fire; this was a much more intimate distance, and having someone close enough to smell them helped calm his nerves. What Riaag wanted was a hug, but that wasn’t an option, so instead he sat up from where he’d been sleeping with his back to the roof of his lean-to. Talking sounded better than sleeping, anyway.
“I don’t much care fer dreams,” said Riaag.
“Not even the nice ones?”
“Fuck the nice ones,” he snarled. “They set you up ter think everything’s fine, everything’s okay, and then you wake up, and it ain’t.” He didn’t talk about the ones he’d had when he was with his old band, the ones where he’d had family he could care for and children of his own he could sing to and a reflection that had never been painted up for being unclean; that wasn’t a life he’d ever get, so why even bring it up? Sarouth couldn’t clap his hands and make the past not happen. Longing for something like that would make him sound ungrateful, anyway.
Sarouth rubbed at the back of his neck and chewed his lip again. “You know, I don’t know how well it’d work, but I could try and make a charm for you to try and make them less bad. I, ah, I’ve asked how before. Agritakh knows a lot about dreams, you know? That’s kind of His thing. One of His, anyway.”
Riaag wasn’t sure what to say to that. Sarouth liked to share things and never asked for anything in return, which, while a lot different from what Riaag was used to, was something he’d grown to accept, but this was head and shoulders above splitting a ripe deer carcass. It felt like a waste to spend divine favor on a nobody. Maybe it was a test to see if he was a worthy follower, but if that was the case was it a test of his humility (refusing a too-valuable gift) or his loyalty (placing his trust in a holy man)? The longer he waited the greater his chances of failing Sarouth’s little trial became. Riaag flailed for an answer.
“If’n you want,” he said. That sounded neutral enough to be safe.
Sarouth nodded and upended one of the bags he always kept on his belt. It was full of what looked like unsorted crap to Riaag, but Sarouth drew some lines in the dirt with his finger and started to lay out different pieces in what looked like a very precise order. Unsorted mystical crap, then. Whatever meaning there was in the placement of the beads and shards of bone was lost on Riaag, but it had to be important; he kept quiet to let Sarouth concentrate.
Sarouth had other ideas. “Have you always hated yours?” he asked. His eyes stayed focus on the matrix of geegaws spread before him. As nothing had the decency to glow with mysterious energies, Riaag had no idea if it was working or not.
“Yeah. Probably. I dunno.” He scratched at his beard. It looked great but he hadn’t quite gotten used to the way it tickled his face. “What about you, Holy One? You ever get any good ones?”
“I don’t dream like other people do,” said Sarouth. He kept his hands busy and didn’t look at Riaag.
“What, like, not at all?”
“Yes and no.” More lines in the dirt, more bits of stuff shuffled around. “What do you know about how a god-speaker talks to He Who Sleeps Beneath the Earth?”
What Riaag knew was that it apparently involved talking to yourself a lot, but he wasn’t a god-speaker; who knew how much was too subtle for him to sense. Maybe that was the test. Sarouth had been very understanding of Riaag’s piecemeal knowledge of the Chant, though, so maybe a real answer was safe enough to give. “Not fucken much.”
The corner of Sarouth’s mouth quirked. “Not surprising. It’s no secret, but it’s not something we really talk about much.” A stone chip and what looked like a little blob of red glass swapped places. “He sleeps, always, and when we’re awake we’re like dreams to Him. Little memories that skitter away like…like…well, like little skittery things.” Riaag would’ve invoked water bugs on a pond, maybe, or how beetles fled if you turned a rock over, or even how light wavered ethereally when it shone through water, but he wasn’t the one explaining, so he kept quiet. “So sometimes the messages He has for us get kind of weird when there’s that much distance between us and Him. But when we sleep, then we’re able to touch His realm.”
“I thought the earth itself were His realm.”
“Well, yes, that’s true, but this one is extra His. It’s basically a little piece of one of His dreams, and if we’re lucky we can traverse it to meet with Him. We call it the Labyrinth.”
Riaag could distinctly hear the proper-nouning in “Labyrinth.” You listened extra carefully to a god-speaker when they brought out the proper nouns. This was interesting enough to help distract him from his night terrors, even if his pulse was still booming in his ears.
“It’s a maze, a big maze, right? It’s all underground, not really underground, you’d never got there if you tried digging, but it’s all tangled up in the very idea of being deep down below. There’s light to see by, sort of, so you don’t even have to keep a lamp with you. Every time we sleep we’re given a chance to explore it. That’s the first task of any Agritakh-ruhd, you know? Once we turn, we have to try to learn our way to the Great Geode in the heart of the Labyrinth, and there we are brought into His presence. It’s the most wonderful thing. Makes the hard parts worth it.”
“So do you dream with somebody and learn the way?”
Sarouth shook his head. “We go in alone. It’s different every time, too, so you can’t just memorize things. You have to get a feel for the place or you end up lost. Time’s weird in there, so it can feel like you’re lost forever.”
“How d’you get un-lost?”
“Well, dying works.” He erased one of the lines and moved the trinkets on it to another part of the diagram. “It’s not a safe place, the Labyrinth. It’s made out of the dream of a god, you know? The halls are full up of all kinds of things.” An animal tooth made its way onto the pattern. “The idea is that you learn how to get past the bad things and make clever use of the good things. Those change around, too. It teaches us how to help people when we’re awake and to never get too set in one way of thinking.”
Riaag shuddered. “It sounds fucken horrible,” he said. “And that’s just…how it is fer you?”
“Like I said, if you make it to the center, it’s all worthwhile. You just have to keep trying. It’s something we all learn how to do one way or another.” Sarouth seemed happy with the placement of each bit and bob and started stringing them together on a length of cord. “I managed my first encounter with His glory when I was seven. I’ve heard some people do it even younger. It’s all a matter of perseverance.”
Seven years old. Riaag tried to think of what he’d accomplished when he was seven, then remembered why he didn’t do that and stopped himself.
“Almost done!” said Sarouth as he tied another knot in the cord.
Something Sarouth had touched on bothered Riaag. “You said you can end up lost in the Labyrinth,” he said. “You said it changes every time. How d’you even find anything in there?”
“Easy.” Sarouth pulled up the sleeve of his robe and tapped the bright red lines that curled around his skin. “You just bring your own map with you,” he said.
It felt wrong to ask how you could map something that was never the same way twice. Riaag accepted that answer and didn’t risk staring too long at Sarouth’s tattoos to see if they were different from how he remembered them. Sarouth put the finished charm around Riaag’s neck and wished him goodnight, then returned to his side of the fire. Soon he was snoring. Riaag counted twenty snores before he allowed himself to settle in and try to get back to sleep.
He didn’t dream of anything else that night.
He debated whether or not he should shrug out of his coat; ultimately the idea of not roasting once they kindled the firepot for the night won out over the risk of getting Sarouth’s hopes up, and the touch of cool evening air against the back of his shirt sent goosebumps rising all along his skin. His gloves joined it shortly after, their cuffs tucked neatly inside of one another so they wouldn’t end up in two different places. He stretched out on the quilt. The mattress was still hilariously outsized for just one man, even one of Riaag’s size, but he couldn’t deny the simple pleasure of sprawling without any limbs hanging off the side.
Knuckles rapped on one of the tent poles that held up the divider. “Am I good to come in?” said Sarouth from somewhere behind it. Usually he simply announced himself when he did so, but this was hardly a usual day.
“Yeah,” said Riaag.
Sarouth’s robes swished with the curtain as he passed through it. His eyes fell on Riaag’s sprawled form and he smiled hopefully. “Would you like some company over there?” he asked, bouncing in place on the balls of his feet.
Riaag had to think about that for a bit. He could say no, no matter how much Sarouth was bobbling at the time, and if he said so then he’d be safe from someone else’s hands on him for another day. The problem was how he was so tired of hiding.
After a few long seconds of reflection Riaag made up his mind. “I ain’t feeling too cuddly, but little touches should be okay.”
Sarouth wriggled out of his sandals and left them by Riaag’s boots. He poked at the firepot, which as expected made it a good deal warmer in their half of the tent, then sat himself down on the edge of the bed not occupied by Riaag. His hand snaked out and seized Riaag by the thumb-toe. “Got you now,” he said. He looked immensely proud of himself. Riaag humored him by wiggling his foot a little, but his heart wasn’t in it.
“So you wanted ter talk, Holy One,” said Riaag.
“I did, yes,” said Sarouth. He released Riaag’s toe and crossed his ankles, the playful mood having evaporated instantly. “It’s about the other day.” Of course it was about the other day, because the other day was why everything had gotten tense between them, but at least it took the ambiguity out of things. When Riaag didn’t answer, Sarouth sighed and continued. “I just want to know what I did wrong.”
That was a tougher question to answer than it sounded. “You didn’t do nothin’. I just…got upset. At the wrong fucken time. That’s all.”
Sarouth sighed through his nose. It wasn’t his I-am-displeased-with-you sigh—Riaag was fortunate enough to rarely ever get those—but it wasn’t his at-least-that’s-all-over-with sigh, either. He sounded tired. “Upset I can understand,” he said. “I’ve known you this long, right? I know it happens, and it’s something we’ve learned to deal with, and usually you’re fine after you can center yourself and maybe spend some time alone. What worries me is how this one’s lasted a while.”
“Yeah. It has.”
“It doesn’t bother you?”
“‘course it fucken bothers me!” snapped Riaag as he propped himself up with his hands. Sarouth didn’t flinch, since Sarouth had stared down things far worse than an upset oathbond without so much as blinking, but that didn’t stop Riaag’s stomach from knotting with guilt as soon as the words were out of his mouth. He slid back down to the mattress again. “I just don’t know how ter fix it, and if you knew how we’d be busy solving the problem already. I feel like shit and I miss you and I don’t know if’n I can be with you like a normal person right now. I’m gonna need more time than I thought afore I got anything worth saying, Holy One.” He felt the bed shift. “Don’t go,” he pleaded.
“I won’t,” said Sarouth, and he didn’t.
Riaag stared at the ceiling and listened to the fire crackle. It wasn’t soothing the way a kind word and a gentle touch could be soothing, but it was something he could focus on that wasn’t another person who was worried sick about him, which counted for a lot.
He wasn’t sure when he worked up the nerve to touch his finger to Sarouth’s again, since it felt like hours but couldn’t have been more than a few minutes, but Sarouth’s skin was soft and smooth against his own, and it felt like an anchor keeping him from floating away into an empty void.
The gesture was grounding enough that when Sarouth asked, “Maybe if you describe how things went, we can both understand?” it didn’t sound like an impossible request.
He gingerly let his mind return to when it happened. It had been an afternoon like any other, just early enough that they could have plenty of time to themselves without anyone needing either of them for anything, and they’d taken the chance to get each other naked to fool around. When he was feeling more like himself Riaag loved to trace Sarouth’s brilliant red tattoos where they wrapped around his arms, neck, and back, so that was what he’d been doing; Sarouth had been laughing, because it would be a cold day on a lava flow when he wasn’t blissed out of his mind to have Riaag alone to himself for a few minutes, and they had been kissing and touching noses and just reveling in being with one another. Riaag stopped himself there. He had to focus on what had happened, not how it made him feel, since otherwise he’d end up right back where he’d started.
“We was together, yeah? Really being together, nice and close, same as we done it a hundred times before.” It wasn’t easy for him to directly talk about sex, and he never, ever used the word “fucking” for it despite foul language coming to him as easily as breathing, but Sarouth was very patient with the lengths he’d go to in order to use euphamisms. It all came down to quiet words again.
“You was looking at me the way you do, the nice way that don’t care about my fucked-up face or fucked-up anything else. I remember how your skin felt when I was touching on you, all smooth and warm, and how it was just starting ter glimmer with the promise of sweat. You told me you loved me. It was good. It was real good.” Parts of the memory were still sweet enough that he felt himself plump a little as he spoke about them. If that had been where it ended it would’ve been a nice thought to return to on cool nights, but that wasn’t the end of things. He forced himself to keep talking.
“Then I remembered the wrong fucken thing at the wrong fucken time, and it stopped bein’ any kind of good at all.”
“Was it something I’d said before?” asked Sarouth.
It was nothing Sarouth didn’t know about, but it was still so hard to say. “It weren’t you I was remembering,” said Riaag. “It weren’t words I thought of.” He was very glad to have a roof to stare at instead of having to see whatever devastating expression was on Sarouth’s face. The situation wasn’t helped by how his cock didn’t seem to care how much poking at unhealed wounds hurt. Riaag bent his legs at the knee so he could hide himself under his shirt tail. Whoever claimed that bodies didn’t lie deserved to be hurled headfirst into a very cold stream.
“I’m sorry, Riaag,” said Sarouth. “I’m so sorry. If I’d known, I wouldn’t have asked all those things of you, I wouldn’t have asked anything at all—” He moved to take his hand away but Riaag caught it before Sarouth was able. It was the most they’d touched since things had gone wrong. Riaag sat up and cupped his other hand around both of theirs, Sarouth’s held firmly in place between them.
Riaag took a deep breath and let it out again. Talking about it was bad, but it could’ve been a lot worse. He focused on the way Sarouth’s palm felt pressed against his own. He had someone with him who knew the ugliness of his past, though maybe not in as many words, and yet instead of using that knowledge to push him away Sarouth had seen it as another wound to heal; he couldn’t be the old Riaag anymore because here he had someone who cared for him, soothed him. Sometimes it was weird stepping back and realizing he lived with a man who wanted him to not just endure but thrive. He knew his life could be worse because he’d already lived it that way.
He sighed. “Sorry I’m being so fucken gloomy during harvest.”
Sarouth leaned in and gave Riaag a gentle kiss on the knuckle. “Don’t be,” he said. “You’re doing what you can. I just wish I could help.” He pressed his cheek against where he’d kissed. “I love you so much, Riaag. You deserve better than this.”
“Guess so.” Riaag wasn’t entirely convinced, himself, but if Sarouth said so he’d at least try to believe it. It was the least he could do. “Regardless of what my fucken boner says, I think I just wanna try and sleep. I’d like it if you’d be next ter me when I wake up.”
“I can do that.”
Riaag let Sarouth hold his hand for a bit longer before he pulled away to wrap himself in blankets. His mind was racing with a thousand different thoughts, some hopeful but others still sad and fearful. At least he knew one way to help with that.
“Sarouth? Would you recite some Chant fer me? Just until I drift off, it don’t gotta be long.”
Sarouth tucked the quilt up under Riaag’s chin and stroked his hair. “I can do that, too,” he said. “Would you like to hear a certain part?”
“Don’t matter. Just so long as it’s you saying it.”
He heard a slight clatter behind him as Sarouth stood to pour himself some water. The bed dipped where Sarouth sat again, this time close enough for Riaag to hear his breathing but falling just short of touching each other. Sarouth pressed his hands together—not that Riaag actually saw this, though he’d heard the Chant enough times to know all Sarouth’s little tics when speaking the word—and began to recite.
“I am Agritakh, I am the Hill God, I am He Who Sleeps Beneath the Earth, and you are My beloved people,” he said. His voice purred in Riaag’s ears, honey-sweet and comforting. “I am forever with you, watching from within My dreams. You who were beasts cast away your simplicity to rise up wise and strong, and in doing this you have forever earned My favor. Those who heed My words shall break and be broken; hear and obey Me, o children of the open sky, and know that I bring joy and meaning to the formless struggle of life.
“The earth is My flesh,” continued Sarouth, “and you walk upon it. Know that I thirst, but ask not for water….”
He might have said the entirety of the Chant or simply ended after the first few litanies, but Riaag was in no position to care: he was already fast asleep.
“Holy One?” he said, hopefully not loud enough to catch the other god-speaker’s ear.
Sarouth looked up from the robe he’d been mending. “Hm?”
“People coming up the way. I think they seen our fire.” It was a reasonable assumption, since he hadn’t tried building it to burn smokelessly; it flickered like a jewel beneath the overcast sky. Riaag’s hand rested on the handle of his axe. He didn’t like being outnumbered, but if they were a threat to Sarouth’s well-being he wasn’t about to run.
Sarouth tucked away his needle and thread. “Oh? Let me take a look.” He stood up and followed Riaag’s pointing finger to the approaching group. After a moment of squinting he clapped his hands with excitement and began to hurriedly dust himself off.
“We’re very lucky!” he chirped. “You don’t usually see other Agritakh-ruhds out here. Looks like they’ve got a pretty good-sized entourage, too. Maybe you can make some new friends!”
That sounded like a terrible idea, but Riaag opted not to say as much; it wasn’t Sarouth’s fault that Riaag would rather roll naked in a briar patch than talk to people he didn’t know. He eyed their modest pot of tea and the mostly-eaten goral they’d found that morning. Hopefully they wouldn’t demand visitor’s courtesy unless they were in the mood for disappointment.
Riaag wasn’t sure what was expected of him—his old band had sometimes come across god-speakers, but back then he’d been kept hidden away so he wouldn’t offend them with his uncleanliness—so he began going through the motions of making more tea so he’d at least look busy. Sarouth seemed confident enough, anyway: he waved his arms and shouted cheerfully until the other god-speaker waved back, then picked his way down the rocky slope leading away from their camp until they were face-to-face. One conversation Riaag couldn’t hear later, the strangers were setting up their tents around where Riaag had built his and Sarouth’s lean-tos for the day, and based on the smell of their cooking fires they could do better than a dead goat with all the best organs already crow-picked.
The god-speaker, whose name was Yuris Jade-Tongue, assuming Riaag hadn’t misheard, was a big man who covered the top half of his face with a porcelain mask inlaid with silver. He wore a lot of silver, actually, with bangles on his wrists and glinting discs hanging from his belt’s weave, and the end of his long brown braid had a silver bell tied to it. His clothes were finely-made and kept in excellent repair. He couldn’t have been more than a year or two older than Riaag but he carried himself with such confidence that Riaag would’ve believed he’d been serving the will of the Hill God for decades. Riaag had a hard time being around him without being overawed, so when Sarouth kept his attention focused wholly on Jade-Tongue for the rest of the day it came as a relief.
Not waiting on Sarouth also meant Riaag had the freedom to meet with Jade-Tongue’s entourage, at least as much as he was capable of meeting with anybody. Out of the dozen-odd attendants there were maybe three around Riaag’s age. Of those three, one was a raven-tender who was busy feeding his birds from a bowl of jellied meats, one was swearing very loudly at a length of rope she was repairing, and the third was doing something with broth and chicken over a cooking fire that was much bigger than the one Riaag had built; out of those choices, he suspected he’d have the most to talk about with the cook, so he shyly sat himself down a respectful distance from her and watched her work.
He waited until she put the lid over the pot before saying anything. “Do you always do the cooking fer folks?”
“Huh?” She brushed her hair out of her eyes and squinted at him. “Oh, you’re with with the other one, aren’t you?” He nodded. While he might have used a more eloquent term than “the other one” for another Agritakh-ruhd, himself, as far as he knew it wasn’t blasphemous to be casual. She waved her hand in the direction of some of her fellow travelers, none of whom paid her any mind. “Sometimes I get help from the others, but it’s mostly me, yeah. I don’t get complaints, so I must do my job good enough.”
Riaag tried not to wring his hands anxiously as he wracked his brain for what to say next. How did people do this? “What do you like ter make?” he asked. “If you got a choice, I mean.” Was that a bad question? What if she hated her job? What if they only ate the same thing every day? What if she kept her recipes secret to keep people from stealing them and trying to poison her god-speaker with food that smelled like hers? Making small talk was exhausting.
At least the cook didn’t seem to mind. “I like to mix things up a bit, supplies permitting, so I try to make things with a lot of different tastes so meals don’t get too boring. This is going to be a pilaf once it’s done. You ever make one?”
He hadn’t, since the amount of rice it’d take to properly cook such a dish would take more tradestuffs to acquire than they’d likely ever get their hands on in a lifetime, and that was assuming he got it right the first time and didn’t need to practice, but she didn’t need to know that; Riaag kept his mouth shut and shook his head.
“Well,” she said, and the way she straightened up in her seat reminded him of Sarouth preparing to preach, “I like to start by toasting the rice….”
Aside from the constant fearful undercurrent that he was bothering her and she was just too polite to say anything about it, Riaag enjoyed learning a recipe he’d likely never actually make. He mostly had to be quiet and listen, which was something he was pretty good at already, and watching how she prepared the rest of the meal helped him organize a few of his own techniques in his head. Paying attention was something he’d had to get good at.
The cook’s little lecture was interrupted twice by other members of Jade-Tongue’s entourage, neither of whom paid Riaag any mind. He didn’t want to eavesdrop, but it was hard not to when people were talking in front of him as though he were invisible; one was simply asking when dinner was going to be, but the other had something to say about “the new blood”—based on context this had to mean Sarouth—and wondered aloud how well Jade-Tongue was getting on with him. Riaag’s ears pricked up in spite of himself. God-speakers didn’t fight like tomcats if you got two of them in the same place, did they? He’d never thought to ask how that worked.
He’d had to pretend to be engrossed with the simple embroidery he’d done on his gloves to keep from looking too interested in what they had to say, but it seemed to work. He picked up details about how the group as a whole was headed for Caiz Gratag in the west (which didn’t sound too strange, since the richest stronghold in the highlands seemed like a good place for such a well-heeled god-speaker to be) and how there were rumors of bandits getting worst down in the valleys (which was a lot more concerning). They also gossiped a bit about how Jade-Tongue had had some sort of falling out with yet another god-speaker and how she’d left in a rage, half of their presumably shared entourage going with her. Was that a thing? Could one Agritakh-ruhd take another’s followers away? Not that he’d mind if Sarouth had more people to serve him, or at least he probably wouldn’t, but someone else claiming Riaag and leaving Sarouth with no one to talk to or keep his clothes neat sounded like a nightmare.
At least it sounded as though Jade-Tongue’s people liked Sarouth. That was the important thing, and while it was hard to imagine anyone not liking Sarouth, it was good to know that there wouldn’t be much trouble from that angle if they ended up camping together for a while. There were plenty of different people which meant plenty of odd jobs, and plenty of odd jobs meant plenty of ways for Riaag to make himself useful while more important people handled more important tasks. What kind of band would refuse a willing drudge? So long as he could still sometimes see Sarouth and maybe go fishing once or twice a month, he’d be a happy man.
He’d gotten into such a groove of planning out how he’d keep himself out of the way that it took him a minute to realize the cook had asked him something.
“I asked what you’re called,” she repeated. At least she didn’t sound too annoyed with him. “I’m Miid Catch-Fire, myself.”
“Oh. I’m, uh, Riaag. Riaag Bough-Breaker.” It felt strange using his name with another person who hadn’t been directly responsible for keeping him from dying. This must be how normal people talked to each other all the time.
“Charmed, Riaag. So you cook for White-Hair, right? What were you putting together before our pack of trouble showed up?”
“Tea,” he said. It was an obvious dodge, but the longer he’d watched Miid cook her pilaf, the more self-conscious he’d felt about trying to pass off raw, dry carrion as a proper meal. He hadn’t even tried to make a sauce for it.
Miid saw right through it, of course. “It had to be more than just tea,” she said with a wave of her cooking spoon. “I thought I saw bits of a goral by your fire. Were you going to smoke some goat jerky or something?”
“Maybe,” said Riaag as he turtled his neck until his chin rested against his chest.
Miid sighed. “Sweetie, you can’t just pick things up off the ground like that, otherwise you’re eating like Old People do.”
Riaag deflated like a crushed puffball mushroom. She was right, after all: if he wasn’t going to put the effort into heating or seasoning things, he really wasn’t much different from those wild orcs that didn’t even understand how to use words, much less clothes or soap. Maybe Miid didn’t know about his secrets—she couldn’t have, since if she’d known he’d been born untouchable she wouldn’t have let him so close to the pot, would she?—but she could obviously tell he was a degenerate creature after barely a few hours of knowing him. The rest of the camp probably could, too, and that’s why none of them had gotten close to him or tried to strike up a conversation. Why did he think he was worthy of following Sarouth in the first place?
“Oh shit, I didn’t mean to make you upset!” said Miid, which only made Riaag feel worse. She’d been giving him an honest opinion based on very reasonable evidence, she didn’t have to pretend she was wrong just because he’d started crying. The fact that he was crying in the first place barely even registered to him.
“Holy One!” she said to someone a little ways behind Riaag. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I said something wrong and he just started…doing the thing he’s doing, I really didn’t mean—”
“It happens sometimes,” said Sarouth’s voice. “He’s lived a harder life than either of us can imagine. Sometimes his old wounds ache when he isn’t expecting it.” While his eyes were blurry with tears, Riaag could make out a familiar robe worn by someone who was a familiar shade of dark green with familiar snow-colored hair, and said familiar person was squatting down next to him. “Riaag? I’m here, Riaag, you’re going to be all right. Do you need to go back somewhere quiet?”
Riaag nodded. He stood on shaky legs and let himself be guided back to his lean-to, where he curled up into a ball on his bedroll. He could still hear the bustle from the other camp; at least people were able to carry on with their lives in spite of him getting upset like a fussy child. Their own fire had died down by then, the shameful carcass still in the dust next to it and the no doubt vile-tasting tea long since gone cold. At least there was something he could eat without taking it away from more worthy mouths. Had he honestly been so stupid as to think he’d put together a worthy meal for someone as important as a god-speaker? He remembered the love and fresh chicken Miid had put into the pilaf and felt his cheeks go wet again.
Sarouth waited outside Riaag’s shelter until Riaag’s snuffling quieted. It must have taken a while since Riaag noted a lot of little doodles drawn in the dirt nearby; since only some of them were symbols of Agritakh, they probably weren’t meant to be any sort of charm or invocation.
“Sorry you had ter leave the other camp ’causea me,” said Riaag.
“It’s fine. How are you feeling?”
He felt shitty, but that kind of answer would just make Sarouth worry and keep him away from spending time with other people. People like Jade-Tongue. He grunted noncommitally instead. That wasn’t lying, even if it wasn’t the whole truth, so it was fine. Agritakh wouldn’t be upset with him if he just wanted one of His clerics to thrive and be happy, right?
A little bowl of something clacked down near Riaag’s hand. It smelled warm and savory, its contents still hot enough to give off curls of steam. Sarouth pushed it against his hand encouragingly.
“Miid the cook brought this by a little while ago. She wanted to make sure you got some. She’s very sorry she hurt your feelings. Will you eat a little?” He gave Riaag a half-smile and showed him the second bowl nestled in his lap. “Here, I’ve got some, too. I’ll go first.”
First they said a blessing over the meal, of course, because as much as Riaag had thought it about himself for a bit neither of them were animals, and once Sarouth coaxed him into having a bite of food Riaag’s appetite demanded he finish the whole bowl. He ate every grain of rice and licked the lingering patina of broth from the bottom. It was much better than dry meat.
Sarouth took his bowl once he’d finished. “Feeling any better?”
“Still want to sleep out here?”
Sarouth nodded. He doodled another few glyphs on the ground in front of Riaag’s shelter, these looking more like a proper ward than the first set. “I’m probably going to be spending the night with our visitors,” he said. “Are you going to be okay if I do?”
By “visitors” he probably meant “Jade-Tongue,” since the two had been getting along well and from what talks they’d had Riaag knew Sarouth was keen on sleeping with other men. They’d been out in the wilderness for who knew how long without any company, so it made sense. Who knew when they’d next cross paths with a friendly face with an empty bed? It wasn’t like there was anyone else who traveled with them that Sarouth would want to be with that way, not with just the two of them alone. There wasn’t any reason to be jealous. Sarouth was a thing of warmth and life and laughter, and Riaag had no place in any of that.
“I’ll be okay. Just don’t leave me behind if’n you break camp early, yeah?”
“I promise,” said Sarouth, and his grin was so open and genuine not even Riaag’s heart at its grimmest could doubt it.
In the morning Jade-Tongue had two brilliant bite-marks on the side of his neck and Sarouth had a spring in his step he took no pains at all to hide. Jade-Tongue’s people approved, assuming the snatches of conversation Riaag caught while carrying water or hauling night-soil were to be believed, and hearing them listen to Sarouth’s rambling stories or greet him pleasantly when he walked by was deeply comforting. Jade-Tongue himself seemed to respect Sarouth on a level Riaag hadn’t seen before; they’d often vanish for hours at a time for what had to be weird god-speaker things in addition to whatever sex happened inside a laced tent. As for Miid, she was awkward around Riaag at first, but she still let him watch her cook and even let him help prepare a meal once. He didn’t make a big show of it, but he still took pleasure in watching people clean their plates and request extra helpings. It was the most contented he could remember being in a while.
Their camps stayed together for two more days until the others had to continue on their way to Caiz Gratag. Riaag was surprised that he and Sarouth were headed north, instead, and mentioned it as much to him when they next had a moment alone.
“Agritakh has plans for all His servants,” said Sarouth with a shrug. “Ours simply lie on different paths. He’s been seeing visions of fat horses and broken chains.”
Riaag’s stomach growled at the mention of horses. “Them’s pretty decent things ter see.”
“They are, yes. My Labyrinth’s not his, though. I’ve been seeing different things.”
“I don’t know yet. But they’re ideas so big I think I’m going to have to see them from a lot of angles before I can really grasp what it is I’m being shown.” Sarouth watched Jade-Tongue’s entourage head off down a trail that would eventually take them to a road leading to their destined stronghold. The sun sometimes caught Jade-Tongue’s silver, making him gleam like a constellation among the rocks. “It was nice to have company while it lasted, but I’ve got work to do, and it’s the kind I’ll never get done if I’m too busy blowing kisses at every comely face I see.” He shouldered his pack and took up his staff, then flashed Riaag another perfect smile.
“C’mon, Riaag. Let’s go see what He’s got in store for us today.”
Riaag, now confident that he was safe from being distractingly handsome and therefore not a risk to the Hill God’s grand design, fell in step behind Sarouth, their own path leading ever-deeper into the barren no-man’s highlands.
Riaag stretched without putting much effort in escaping Sarouth’s hug. He took a quick mental tally of things: none of his parts hurt, nothing smelled unfamiliar, no one was rapping at the tent poles to warn them of yet another ironically-timed emergency, and judging by the pitch of Sarouth’s horrible nose-noises he was hale and healthy. So far, so good. There was still plenty to do during harvest even without any more competitions to oversee, but it’d been a trying few days, and it was nice feeling a constant comforting presence against his back. If anyone had a problem with him spending a few extra minutes in bed snuggling with the Hill God’s favored son they could save it until after breakfast.
He’d only just started planning said breakfast in his head when Sarouth woke up with a snort. Riaag touched his hand to Sarouth’s; their fingers laced as neatly as a carpenter’s join after only a little fumbling.
“Good morning, brave warrior,” said Sarouth. He left a soft kiss on Riaag’s ear.
Riaag smiled. It was nice being together like this, nobody expecting anything but warmth and closeness. “Mornin’, Faaroug.”
“How’d you sleep?”
“Not like shit. That’s pretty fucken good considering the last few days.” Riaag yawned. He felt like he needed a week’s worth of nights like that to fully balance out his sleep debt, but it was a start. “Figured I’d make us something ter eat, then go fer a swim, then do a walk-around ter make sure ever’thing is ready fer the rite. After that I wanna start fixing food fer the feast. I wanna have something special done up fer them folks what Etxeloi’s people said was coming this way. Whatever they want from us, they cain’t say we left ’em hungry, right?”
Sarouth hummed in approval. “Sounds good to me. I’d never get anything done if I didn’t have you around.” He nuzzled at the join of Riaag’s neck and shoulder. The few extra days’ worth of whiskers tickled when he did so, but Sarouth had been managing without a barber for this long, so taking care of those could wait until after Riaag was more awake. Not that he needed to be at peak alertness to handle a shaving razor—he’d been handling Sarouth’s personal grooming for so long he could probably have done it blindfolded by then—but working on an empty stomach while he was still dealing with an emotional hangover sounded like a fool’s errand.
Given that it was harvest, it couldn’t hurt to be clear, though. “Once I’m washed up and fed I can take care of that raggedy jaw you got going on, Holy One. Maybe see if I can work with them hair thingies what was giving you trouble the other day.”
“Yeah? That’d be great.”
They lay together for a while longer before Sarouth disentangled himself and they excused themselves to their respective errands. Riaag threw together a quick breakfast from leftovers in their larder—nothing much, just a hot rice-and-bone porridge with kishmish, cheese, and a bit of small beer—and took stock of their supplies. He’d have to get into the community stores for the larger ingredients, but the little wax-sealed jars of spice he curated would be criminal not to use for such important visitors. It’d probably be best not to make too much food using Usoan fish sauce or bread in it, unfortunately, since one was an acquired taste and the other was viewed with contempt by people who saw tending fields as borderline heresy. It wasn’t Riaag’s job to convince people otherwise, so he’d keep dinner from getting political and serve a lot of meat and vegetables instead. At least nobody pulled a face if you brought them fresh rice so long as it had something mixed into it.
Riaag toasted a roll, buttered it, and ate it defiantly in front of an empty kitchen. That’d show generations of misguided food law a thing or two.
The bathing ponds were lightly populated at that hour of the morning, and the water was cold enough he put serious thought into turning right back around and having a tub bath back at the tent, but once Riaag had a proper swim and scrubbed his hair clean he felt like a whole new man. The rest of his morning routine went off without a hitch, leaving him with neatly-combed hair, tidy claws, and the lingering taste of mint and ash-water on his breath. He dressed himself a little more lavishly than usual, as well, since even if the strange Agritakh-ruhd didn’t show up for days it was still fun to look nice for the festival. Any excuse to dress well was a good one.
Sarouth was still busy with something or another once Riaag finished most of his chores, so he decided to check on his trophy skulls. The varnish he’d put on them the previous day had dried overnight, leaving just the final touches to go before he could wear them on his belt proudly; he painted symbols of the Hill God on each skull’s gleaming forehead with red lacquer and chose the biggest one with the fiercest tusks to receive bleeding-tear markings that weept from either socket. The wiring he’d done to their jaws to keep them attached held firm when he lightly tugged on it. He admired his work with pride. Any barbarian could throw a bone on a length of rope and call it a day, but it took an artist to assemble a set of proper belt loops on the back of a skull to hold it at the perfect angle when worn. Some people might think three was a bit much. On Riaag’s build, though, he had confidence three would look no less than perfect.
One load of laundry and two pairs of darned socks later, Sarouth staggered out of the cave beneath the sacred hill with a glazed expression. Riaag sighed to himself. It was good of Sarouth to get his divinations over with before his daily grooming, since from Riaag’s experience that could sometimes work up a good deal of thrashing and shouting, but if he’d known Sarouth had planned to do so he would have at least gotten some fresh stock on the boil while he waited. At least Riaag could wave a pomander at him or something to help air out the oracular fumes that always clung to his robes after spending time down in the half-divine dark.
Actually making Sarouth presentable was trickier than Riaag had expected thanks to him somehow managing to hide what felt like a thousand knots all throughout his hair over the course of attempting to put things in it. The ornaments had looked rather nice save for their precarious positioning the day before, so Riaag took great pains to arrange them once he’d conquered the nest of tangles; the combs and pins each one used were at such odd angles he couldn’t blame Sarouth for having trouble keeping them from falling out. Once things were back to normal—Sarouth’s ponytail neatly tied, the left side of his face concealed by a fall of his namesake white locks—the rest of their routine got back on track. In no time at all Sarouth’s face was smooth and youthful once more.
“Any luck getting that ghostproof charm put together, Faaroug?” asked Riaag as he toweled away the last few flecks of shaving soap.
“I’ve got a quartz in a dish of blessed mare’s milk sitting at the foot of the offering stone,” Sarouth replied. He tilted his chin up and from side to side to let Riaag get any remaining nooks and crannies. “It should be good to go by midday. I lit some incense around it just to be extra sure, and there’s plenty of feathers laid down on top of it to keep the ward from souring. Do you want me to write anything on it in beads when I start stringing it together?”
Riaag didn’t know how to read bead code very well, but it sounded like a good idea. “How about ‘ghosts fuck off’? Would that work?”
“I can probably manage something along those lines,” said Sarouth with a grin.
“Thanks, Holy One.”
“Ah?” He raised his eyebrows and steepled his fingers. Riaag rolled his eyes in mock irritation. It wasn’t an unreasonable request, but it was still hard to remember at times after all these years.
“You’re most welcome.”
Riaag left a kiss on Sarouth’s forehead that was calculated to be gentle enough not to muss up his hair again. It was comforting how easy it was to fall right back into their normal patterns, or at least as normal as things could be during harvest; Riaag wasn’t sure how intimate he’d want to be later in the day, but knowing he could sleep next to his favorite person again and ease back into his duties as a valet without ending up a sick, anxious mess was a very good sign, indeed.
A welcoming feast wasn’t about to cook itself, so he excused himself and headed down to the stronghold’s communal stores to look into how many sheep he could claim to make a whole mess of beshbarmak. Just because he had to prepare a dish around things he couldn’t guarantee their guests would eat didn’t mean he couldn’t be fancy about it. It’d be hard for anyone to doubt Naar Rhoan’s prosperity if they had an entire sheep’s head laid out in front of them. Besides, he and Sarouth were usually so thrifty when it came to taking rations from the shared larder no one would object to him taking their due share for a little harvest cheer, would they?
His walk took him down by the south gate, where he waved to the slingers and runners patrolling the walls. Carrion birds croaked at him from where they perched on the many corpses the Rhoanish left piked up as warnings; even the most craven bands of jackals knew what it meant when a body was kept from touching the ground after death, and those outlanders who didn’t tweak to the gravity of being refused union with Agritakh’s sacred earth still had a lot of evidence that Naar Rhoan was very capable of protecting itself. Riaag stopped just inside the gate itself and craned his neck back. It’d been a while since he’d taken part in this particular ritual, so he didn’t notice something was wrong until he scanned the remains and found a problem with their numbers.
The corpse he was looking for wasn’t there.
At first he chalked it up to being a trick of the light, since there were plenty of dead bandits to look through; even accounting for how many had later been interred or taken down to be processed into offerings, there were easily twice the number up there now as there had been last year. It would’ve been easy to lose a single figure among the forest of decaying orcs. Would have, that is, if Riaag hadn’t made a habit of going out to check on it to remind himself the figure up there was still dead. Some nights when he couldn’t sleep and Sarouth had already gone to bed he would come out to stare at the remains; even from so far away he could see the pulped skull and snapped-off tusk silhouetted against the sky as grisly reminders that Sarouth didn’t take threats to his authority lightly. It had been an ugly duel with an uglier man and Sarouth had very nearly died, but the death of Heiwog Lost-Gather had ultimately set Riaag free.
Or at least it had until that day. Try as he might, Riaag couldn’t bring himself to believe any reasonable explanations for why Heiwog had gone missing.
If they are hungry for more ghosts, why look here? said his memory of Etxeloi.
You nasty little shit, I’ll give you something ter really cry about! slurred his memory of Heiwog.
He hunched his shoulders and walked faster than he’d meant to to the storehouse, quietly grateful that at least he was facing this new problem after a good night’s sleep and a hot meal. Maybe an eagle had made off with the remains of the monster who’d hurt him since he was a child, or maybe the weather had gotten better of the old man’s ruined carcass, but whatever the reason it wasn’t there anymore Sarouth couldn’t finish that charm fast enough.
The visions themselves could be anything. One time it’d been a warning of an ambush that would spring three days in the future, while another time it’d been, at least as far as Riaag had been able to figure out, asking whether or not apricots were in season yet. The Hill God gave no indication of what would be revealed ahead of time. Sarouth didn’t seem to mind, which was the important part, but it had taken Riaag some time before he was comfortable letting him out of his sight for longer than the odd pause behind some bushes, and even that had required some negotiation.
Navigating the whims of the divine meant a lot of time wandering out in the ass-end of nowhere, and wandering out in the ass-end of nowhere meant a curious mind had plenty of time to roam. By the time Riaag had gotten a proper axe to replace the little hatchet he’d originally used for murdering the shit out of bandits he’d also worked up the courage to ask questions more important than what Sarouth wanted for dinner.
“So, Holy One, I was wondering….” he said one day as they took turns skipping rocks across a frozen lake.
“What was it like? When you first found out He was up in your head with ever’thing else, I mean.” Riaag chewed on his lip before adding, “You don’t gotta answer if that’s, uh, too overly personal or nothin’. I don’t mean no disrespect.”
Sarouth picked up another stone, hefted it, and sent it skittering over the surface of the ice with a staccato tweetweetweetwee. “It’s not too personal,” he said. “Things were a bit intense at first, I suppose, but once the fear went away and my arms started healing I didn’t have much issue adjusting.”
Riaag’s eyes glanced down at Sarouth’s tattoos. “They hurt going on, huh? They’s so nice.”
“Well, when I first had to map the Labyrinth all I had was motivation and a knife. That went as well as you’d expect. It got better later, though, once I met other Agritakh-ruhds who’d been doing the thing for longer and knew what I was going through. We try and help each other that way. I know if I ever found someone turning I’d offer to get them through it, since that way I could try and show my gratitude for everything done for me way back when, you know?”
Assuming he’d been telling the truth—and Riaag saw no reason why Sarouth wouldn’t be—he’d’ve been seven when he’d first started…doing the thing, as he’d put it. Riaag couldn’t imagine how terrifying it must have been, and Riaag was very good at imagining. He didn’t really want to know. He also didn’t want to ask why Sarouth’s ink was so impossibly bright against his skin or why the lines were all straight and crisp, nothing like the fumblings of a child at all. Instead of asking any of those things he picked up a rock of his own and threw it so hard it cracked loudly against the opposite bank when it stopped skipping. The chirps of stone on ice weren’t as good from that angle, but at least it was something to think about other than feeling guilty for being unable to protect Sarouth before they’d ever met.
They skipped stones and dug up ice-frogs instead of talking about awkward things, which was fun, though Riaag’s thoughts returned to darker places as he roasted the frogs for lunch. He thought of the other children in his old band. Had any of them shown signs of being dragged into a cleric’s life? If they had, could he have done anything about it? He’d protected the others as best he could the only way he knew how, which had been ugly but necessary, but now that he’d left the band who was taking care of them now? Were they fending for themselves? His mouth tasted like bile at the thought. An untouchable bastard like himself didn’t have anywhere to fall, but the others had been orphans or runaways or just kids who found themselves in an unlucky place. They didn’t deserve that.
He must’ve been thinking about it more intensely than he’d thought, because when he took the frog kebabs off the fire Sarouth was giving him a worried look again. Sarouth gave him a lot of worried looks.
“Are you feeling all right? You seem a bit off.” Sarouth was also very tactful when asking about why Riaag was teary-eyed, which was another thing that happened a lot.
Riaag snorted and blinked his eyes clear. “Just thinking about people I used ter know, back from the time afore we met,” he said. “I worry a lot.”
“They left you for dead.”
“Don’t mean I cain’t fucken worry about ’em!” Riaag snapped. He wiped his nose on the back of his glove, which was filthy, but he felt filthy. “I mean, it don’t matter that they’d laugh at me or kick me around or nothin’. We was all bad off. When you’d bad off it’s easy fer the nice parts of a person ter get all ground down ter nubbies. I still didn’t want ter see ’em hurt, ‘specially not how…I didn’t want ter see ’em hurt.” He sighed. “Now I ain’t there. Who’s gonna be a distraction now?”
Sarouth frowned. “What do you mean, distraction?”
“If shit got bad and it looked like they was gonna get punished, I’d do something ter fuck up real loud and obvious. That way I’d be the new target, and they’d be ignored, and they’d be able ter get away, or go ter sleep, or whatever.” He huffed. It was hard trying to talk when every part of his face was trying to cry again. “I ain’t there no more. I ain’t been there in over a year. I don’t wanna think about what’s gone down without me.”
Sarouth didn’t have anything to say about that.
They picked the skewers clean and Riaag rinsed them off with a little snowmelt; it wasn’t very hard to whittle a new spit out of something, but they couldn’t always guarantee there’d be trees where they made camp, so he did his best to be resourceful. He didn’t like the way opening his old wounds had left a heavy conversational stench in the air, though, with Sarouth pointedly keeping quiet. Sometimes the quiet was nice because it meant he didn’t have to keep bringing up things that hurt, but times like this weren’t like that. He mentally fumbled for something to say.
Well, there was something he’d been wondering. “So did you have any clue you was gonna be who you is now afore it happened? Like, did you dream about bein’ Agritakh’s own when you was tiny?”
His breath puffed in the air in great white clouds before the wind coaxed it into hiding again. Their feet crunched the sticks underfoot—and how Sarouth could wear sandals in that kind of weather Riaag could scarcely even guess—while geese called from somewhere over the next rise, and Riaag had thought for a moment that the noisiness of the forest had drowned out his question.
“Not really,” said Sarouth, and while his words were casual the time he’d taken to reply was proof enough he’d had to think about it. “Aside from people starting to act a little weird around me I didn’t really see anything, or dream anything, until it actually happened. One day normal-ish, the next day, poof! Visions and mazes and voices in my head. It was a hell of a surprise, let me tell you.”
“But what about your hair?” Normally Riaag wouldn’t have mentioned a physical oddity like that, but Sarouth used it as his surname, so it wasn’t exactly a mammoth in the paddock. “Ain’t it, ah, a sign from He Who Sleeps or something, all promising the greatness ter come?”
Sarouth grinned and shrugged. “Nah, it’s just one of those things. I asked.”
Riaag wasn’t sure if one was allowed to have a feature that striking without it being some kind of Hill-God-given symbol, since it seemed to him the equivalent of having a skull-shaped birthmark that just meant you’d picked at a rash too much one time, but if Sarouth had asked about it, Sarouth had asked about it. Riaag was willing to take some things at face value.
He was about to ask something else, ideally something harmless like what Sarouth’s favorite song had been as a child, when Sarouth stopped stock-still and pointed at something in the far distance; he’d grabbed Riaag’s coat-sleeve to do it, but (as always) was careful not to touch Riaag’s arm itself. What he was pointing at looked at first like nothing more than a faint shimmer in the clouds, but then the sun hit it at just the right angle and that patch of sky glowed with color. A lightning bolt cracked the sky just beyond the rainbow. Riaag’s breath caught in his throat. Not even the growl of thunder, and the promise of rain it brought, could ruin the moment for him.
“It’s a winter stormbow!” said Sarouth, who sounded just short of vibrating across the ground with enthusiasm. “That’s very good luck to see, you know! Where I grew up, people sometimes wished on them.”
Riaag raised his eyebrows. “Yeah? That the kinda wishing you can do and tell people about after, Holy One?”
Sarouth nodded and released Riaag’s sleeve to rub his chin. “I think…hmmm. I think I’ll wish for us to find a dry, comfortable place to be for when the worst of that storm hits.” He rested his staff across his shoulders, still shifting from foot to foot like he was waiting for a birthday present. “So what do you wish for?” he asked.
Riaag stammered, but he couldn’t find the words. No, that wasn’t quite right; he could find plenty of words, but they weren’t ones that could ever be said out loud, not when it meant admitting that he—a dirty nothing of a man, barely even grown into his skin, barely even an orc at all—wanted little more than to be with Sarouth—an infinitely more perfect being, blessed by Agritakh, with bright eyes and a brighter future—and maybe have permission to love him from somewhere other than afar. That was something he couldn’t even tell himself much of the time.
He chose to pare his wish down to its basest elements. “I just wanna…wanna be somebody’s.”
Riaag shrugged. “Don’t matter. Anything, so long as I’m somebody’s. That’s all.”
Sarouth beamed. “Well, you’re in luck, since you just so happen to be working for me, eh? Bodyguard, herald, barber, and cook. That’s four! Pretty good, right?”
It was more than he’d ever thought possible. Why couldn’t it be enough? “Yeah, ‘s pretty good.”
If Sarouth had anything more to say, Riaag never heard it, as that was the cue for the clouds to open up in sheets of freezing sleet that threatened to drown them both in slush. They sped up their pace in an attempt to keep out of the wet. While they were soaked to the bone by the time they found it, they both agreed the cave they found that faced away from the wind was well worth the wish.
Years later, when he’d long since memorized the sound of Sarouth’s heardbeat and Sarouth’s hand didn’t have to stop at the fabric of his sleeve, he’d think back to the way the colors in the sky had danced so beautifully, rejoicing in existing despite the torrent on the way. He couldn’t help but wonder if that was what divinations felt like every day.
Etxeloi’s sources had been both right and wrong about their visitors: right in that they correctly identified an Agritakh-ruhd and entourage heading for Naar Rhoan, but wrong in that it wasn’t one god-speaker but two of them. Each had their own staff and each obscured their face in their own way, one with very a familiar silver and porcelain mask. Riaag nudged Sarouth with his elbow and nodded in the direction of the approaching visitors.
“That who it looks like, Holy One?”
Sarouth shaded his eyes and looked for himself. “Well I’ll be flayed, that’s Yuris Jade-Tongue in the flesh. It’s been, what, five years since we crossed paths? Maybe longer.” He smirked. “Wonder if he ever found those fat horses he saw in his divinations?”
“Well he ain’t gonna eat my stupid horse. That’s my job.” Riaag’s horse had endured him braiding its mane and weaving flowers into each plait so it’d look festive for harvest and probably wanted to stomp him to death for it, and their mutual hatred burned so fiercely that he was certain it’d be a terror on the battlefield once he could manage to jump over a hurdle without falling off. One day he’d make it into a perfect plate of chops; until then he’d teach it to crush bandit skulls and make sure its saddle blankets were the prettiest.
The other god-speaker wore an eyepatch with the symbol of Agritakh embroidered on the front. Of all the clerics Riaag had met he could count on one hand the number who concealed their eyes with their own hair, which seemed odd to him; hair was always there so you never had to worry about losing it, so why risk relying on something that could get misplaced? Then again, Agritakh-ruhds were creatures of ritual and symbol, so maybe it was all part of assembling a distinctive costume, like how Sarouth took such good care of his circlet with the slice of agate set in the front.
The travelers had originally stopped a little ways away from the northern gate to make camp. They sent no runners, and while Sarouth checked with the raven-tenders every half hour no one could find any messages sent by bird, either; after a few hours of nothing, he and Riaag had decided to saddle up to go investigate things for themselves. The idea was that two mounted orcs would be a clear, inarguable sign of Naar Rhoan’s rapidly-changing ways. Nobody needed to know that neither of them weren’t actually any good at riding yet; according to Sarouth, the sheer novelty of seeing people mounted like traders from the west would be cause for amazement. It’d be a bit of a shock if any of their guests were traditionally-minded, but Sarouth was convinced such a shock would prepare their visitors for the many other strange things the Rhoanish considered everyday. Riaag certainly felt more imposing on horseback. Playing the part of Sarouth’s bigger, scarier-looking shadow was as natural as breathing these days.
Riaag had seen a lot of entourages over the course of his probably-twenty-four years, but save for his own—containing exactly one attendant and one god-speaker, which Sarouth seemed to have no interest in expanding—this was the smallest he’d ever encountered. When he and Sarouth rode up he’d at first thought people had left to get water or scout, but no, there really were only five others in the group. Where were the rest of them?
The god-speaker in the eyepatch had been discussing something with Jade-Tongue when they approached, and she looked both surprised and irritated by their arrival. Straightening up, she rapped the butt of her staff on the ground—something Riaag had only seen when Sarouth was trying to get people’s attention before converting them, but maybe there was another meaning he wasn’t aware of—and threw her cloak over one shoulder with a flourish to reveal her own set of tattoos crawling up her right arm. She stared at the two of them, unimpressed.
“Which of you is Sarouth White-Hair?” she said. Her voice was stern and cut through the low buzz of harvest festivities that drifted out from the stronghold.
Riaag exchanged amused glances with Sarouth. “Care ter hazard a guess?”
Maybe he shouldn’t have been flippant with another of the Hill God’s chosen, but the lack of any sort of greeting or declaration of intent had frayed his nerves a bit. She narrowed her eye at him before turning her full attention to Sarouth.
“Welcome to Naar Rhoan,” said Sarouth, unflappable as a lead flag. “Our hospitality is yours for the asking. What brings you to our home, o sister in service?”
The god-speaker rattled her staff again. “We are following signs, White-Hair,” she said. “An owl flew into my tent and fell dead at my feet, and when I cut out its heart I found teeth instead of blood. I cast them on the ground and beheld a map in their patterns. They have led me this way.” She tapped a clay jar tied to her belt with a knotted red cord, its sides scratched with wards Riaag couldn’t recognize. It certainly looked like the sort of thing one would store an owl’s blood-teeth in.
“So fucken tired of portents,” muttered Riaag. Sarouth shushed him.
“Would this have something to do with an exorcism we heard about the other day?” Sarouth asked, this time in a louder voice.
“That…was far away,” she said, her brow furrowing. “Yes, I found a ghost and we both rent it asunder. It was a terrible fight. I am surprised you know of it. We had been alone save for our own company for many days when we finally cornered the thing and brought it to judgement, as any who bears His nature would be obliged to. I would like to hear how you came by that information.”
Sarouth grinned. “A little forest friend told me. If you keep your ears open you can hear all sorts of things from those shadows in the branches.”
They continued their back-and-forth for a while, Sarouth cheerfully glib and the cleric in the eyepatch stoically distant, but what caught Riaag’s attention was how Jade-Tongue seemed barely aware of the conversation despite being so close. A lot could happen in five years, but the Jade-Tongue he’d met was a jolly young man who liked wine and dancing and, presumably, enthusiastic sex with Sarouth, while this one was so reserved he might have been a straw doll. When they’d parted ways so long ago Sarouth had said something about how Jade-Tongue’s Labyrinth had shown him visions of horses and broken chains. Riaag was riding a horse as fat and well-muscled as he was, but what kind of chains would Jade-Tongue have broken to end up how he was now?
The battle of wits between Sarouth and the other god-speaker—one Ruzhu Kind-Knife, assuming he’d heard it correctly—probably would have continued past sundown if they hadn’t been interrupted by an outside party.
“Holy One?” asked a quiet voice. All three god-speakers turned their heads at once. Riaag did his best to stifle a snortle; one title split among multiple people promised to get very awkward very fast.
The voice belonged to another familiar face: while clearly older, more richly dressed, and wearing a lot more scars than the last time he’d seen her, Riaag had no trouble recognizing Miid Catch-Fire. If the cleaver-sword at her belt was any clue, he hadn’t been the only cook to take up cracking skulls in the interim.
“Miid,” said Kind-Knife in response. “What news do you bring me?” Her tone was not exactly gentle, but Riaag was relieved to pick up a feeling of familiarity in her words. That he could understand. Sarouth was playing a role of his own, after all, so it wasn’t too unbelievable to imagine her doing the same, and who knew what those owl teeth had said? At least Miid probably wasn’t working with someone who was nasty to her.
“Loun’s stomach is still hurting him terribly,” said Miid. Her lips were pressed together into a thin line broken only by her tusks. “He’s not going to be able to walk like this. If he can’t walk, I don’t walk, at least not unless we find a cart big enough to carry him in. Is it safe to ask these people if they have any medicine?”
“Do they look safe to you?”
It sounded like a rhetorical question, but Miid craned her neck back to look up at them anyway. She didn’t seem to recognize Riaag—and why would she, given all that had happened between when they’d first met and now—but her mask of dispassion turned hopeful when she turned from him to Sarouth. “I’ve met that one,” she said as she pointed at Sarouth. “He’s decent blood. Liked my cooking. Jade-Tongue might remember him, too.” Jade-Tongue nodded dreamily.
Kind-Knife scowled. “Tch, fine. We ask hospitality for one of our own, but know this, White-Hair: I do not trust you.”
“The feeling’s mutual, sister by His hand. Come on in.”
It was a nice little system: Sarouth would talk with people and do god-speaker things for them while Riaag helped out around the camp. The thing about orcs living together was that tasks that were easy or ignorable when there was just one person to worry about became exponentially harder to manage the more people were involved, so a stranger coming in from the mountains who was willing to do the housework was nearly as much of a godsend as a stranger actually sent by the Hill God. The washboard he’d traded for a few months back had already earned its weight in spice.
One morning after helping cook breakfast Riaag hauled a sledge loaded with dusty carpets down to the riverside. He was tall enough—and had good enough posture, which was more important—to easily nail up a line to drape the carpets over, and while he didn’t have enough room in his travel bags to store a dedicated rugbeater, a broom applied with enough force was better than nothing. An uptick in their encounters with bandits that wished him and Sarouth ill meant Riaag was getting a lot better at applying force.
The shepherds’ usual drudge joined him halfway through cleaning the third carpet. He was a reedy young man who, like the others in his band, dressed mostly in undyed homespun with a sheepskin thrown across his shoulders, though the gray and brown dog that followed him around in camp was nowhere to be seen, which was a pity. Riaag hadn’t yet found the courage to try and make friends despite their similar responsibilities.
They worked without talking to each other for the better part of an hour. The carpets took most of that time, but once those were done there was still an entire basket of other people’s clothes to clean; the other worker kept himself busy with washing newly-harvested fleeces. Riaag had wondered why anyone would shear an animal in the winter until he remembered the thick mutton stew the camp ate the night before. Why waste the wool if you were going to be eating the sheep that grew it anyway? He bet they’d have bones and viscera grindings for days if the amount of fleece was any clue.
It wasn’t until it was nearly time for the midday meal that the other young man spoke up. “You wear gloves a lot,” he said. That was an understatement: Riaag only took them off to bathe, and sometimes not even then.
“Keeps things clean,” replied Riaag. Because that way I don’t touch anything, was the part he didn’t say. Strangers didn’t need to know his history.
The youth wrung out the last of the wool and fished some dried teasel stems from his carryall. He kept talking as he carded the freshly-washed mass. “That something the Agritakh-ruhd has you do?”
Riaag ignored the air of disapproval in how he pronounced Sarouth’s title. “Nah. It’s my own thing.”
“I was just asking. Is talking weird ‘your own thing,’ too?”
“Yeah.” And explaining that was not something that was going to happen, because in addition to talking about years he wanted desperately to forget it meant admitting the other thing, so he’d keep drawling his syllables and mangling his grammar the way he’d been taught, all to make people pin him down as an other and not waste their time on him. The snag in his plan was how Sarouth seemed to like the way he spoke; over time Sarouth’s very formal speech had started picking up more casual, low-dialect aspects, and poisoning the way a servant of He Who Sleeps Beneath the Earth spoke was surely some sort of dire cultural sin, but a shepherd whose name he didn’t know and who Riaag would probably never even see again was not the proper audience for a discussion on linguistics.
“Just asking,” repeated the drudge. “We don’t usually have one of his kind out here. I don’t know if I like the idea of someone saying they represent a god and everyone just assuming they’re right. Sounds like an easy way for him to get away with being a shit.”
“He’s nice ter me,” said Riaag. There was more to it than that, of course, since “nice” barely covered what it meant to have someone so important (and handsome) treat him like a person, and he hoped he wasn’t blushing too much. He threw himself into scrubbing at a troublesome stain on someone’s tunic to keep from having to look at anyone.
The other man wasn’t impressed. “You’re all he has. Of course he’s nice to you.”
There was something about the way he said that that Riaag didn’t like. Heard one way it could simply be him saying how Sarouth clearly respected someone who had been with him through lean times and even leaner times, but Riaag had picked up on something else. As if there was something desperate about a god-speaker traveling with an entourage of one. He bristled but didn’t say anything. They were guests of the entire band, pissant kids who couldn’t recognize the greater scope of Sarouth’s pilgrimage included, and there was no need to make trouble when they’d be leaving as soon as the snow he could smell in the air had come and gone.
Over mealtime Riaag couldn’t help but study the band of shepherds. There were plenty of them, easily a dozen or so not counting the pair of newborn twins that Sarouth had blessed and Riaag knew better than to ask to hold, and they all had little jobs and their own little connections to each other, and they seemed happy enough. They definitely had plenty of sheep. Surely none of these people had welcomed them because there was no other choice, and it wasn’t like they were taking advantage of the band’s hospitality; even if Sarouth wasn’t busy leading the Chant or saying blessings for good fortune over the herds he could always sit down at a loom or something and help make fabric, which would fill a not insignificant need if the clothes Riaag had washed were any indication.
Sarouth was friendly and helpful and honest. If he wanted to he could probably convince a few of the band to join up with him as simple as that. He could probably have done that a lot of times. If he was traveling with just one other person it had to be a choice, because there was no other way someone as delightful as Sarouth would be alone. If Riaag was the only person in Sarouth’s entourage, the only explanation was that Sarouth wanted it this way, since after all he considered Riaag to be man worthy of serving him wherever the voice of Agritakh might lead them. There was nothing desperate about it.
That had to be all there was to it. Sarouth considered him a friend, after all. Didn’t he?
“Should be, yes,” said Sarouth. He was either less worried or better at hiding it. “Do you want to go back to the tent for it? I can put it on for you.”
Riaag nodded. It’d mean having his shirt off, which meant there could be distractions, but risking getting side-tracked and ending up with a ghost-repelling charm was a lot better than keeping focused but leaving himself open to the whims of whatever ill-mannered spectres felt like wailing through. Maybe a distraction would be nice if he was able to keep himself together as well as he had been, since he could already accept small kisses without flinching away. The memory of Sarouth cuddled up against him had lingered in the back of his thoughts since that morning.
Sarouth clapped his hands and rubbed them together. “Meet you there in a few, then? I need to make sure everything’s ready for today’s ritual.” Riaag nodded again. His walkthroughs of the paddocks and the bit of sacred ground most people actually visited had been uneventful, but the more eyes looking over the proceedings, the better. Sarouth vanished into the crowd like smoke in the wind.
Riaag could never be sure what Sarouth meant by “a few,” so he busied himself with sharpening his axe; once that was finished he meticulously tested the edges on all his knives, eating and otherwise. Dull tools were almost as bad as no tools at all. Once he ran out of blades to whet he counted all his sling bullets and checked them for cracks, then after that he made sure the lacing along the tent’s entrance flap was still in good condition, then after that he laid out his scale coat on the bed and studied each metal segment’s joins.
He had finished one sleeve and started on the second when he heard the flap rustle behind him and caught the muted scent of incense in the air. It wasn’t dark and he could smell who it was, but he still appreciated hearing the rap of Sarouth’s knuckles on one of the tent poles. The bundle tucked under his arm could only be one thing, but Riaag still held his breath as Sarouth placed it on the table and neatly unwound the prayer-cloth from its contents.
The quartz hung from a leather cord strung with beads arranged in a deliberate pattern. Whether or not it actually said “ghosts fuck off” in code didn’t matter; Riaag couldn’t have read it even if it did, so he was happy to give it the benefit of the doubt. It looked powerful in the way that things like rocks and trees and wards were powerful, with everything important tucked away somewhere until it was needed. For only having a few hours to cure there was still something about it that tickled the back of his brain in a soothing way. You didn’t spend your adult life needing their help now and again without getting a feel for when an amulet was a good one.
He shrugged out of his coat and shirt and folded them neatly on the table. Even in his half-dressed state with everything south of his navel covered by fabric or his boots he still felt naked. Sarouth was all business for now, though, and the reprieve from flirting was welcome. Flirting could wait until nobody was at risk for calling down the wrath of some nasty undead thing with a taste for those born untouchable.
Riaag extended his arm and Sarouth tied the amulet in place around his bicep. He stretched a few times to make sure the damn thing wouldn’t pop off the next time he lifted something heavy; there was just enough give to the leather to keep it from cutting off the blood to his arm even when he gave it his most exaggerated flex. Like every other amulet Riaag had worn it didn’t feel like anything special, at least if compared to a normal piece of jewelry, but also like every other amulet Riaag had worn it wasn’t the point of an amulet to glow or hum or otherwise call attention to itself. He touched the polished central stone and sighed with relief.
“How long I got on this one?” he asked.
Sarouth placed his hands on Riaag’s upper arm and placed one thumb on either side of the quartz. He muttered to himself, eyes closed, then met Riaag’s gaze with a smile. “A month or two, easy, and that’s assuming you don’t get it reconsecrated,” he said. “Plenty of time to get through the current weirdness, right? I made it as strong as I could on such short notice.”
Riaag kissed him on the forehead. “You done a real good job, I bet. Thank you.”
“You’re most welcome! I hope that helps ease your mind a bit.”
It did, but not the whole way. Riaag was safe from whatever might be skulking around in the unquiet dark, which had been his first priority, but now that he didn’t have quite so much to worry about his thoughts turned to Miid. She hadn’t looked unwell when he’d last seen her helping pitch tents in the travelers’ field; you didn’t sling a cauldron around that effortlessly if your bones were being chewed on from the inside, and what little contact he’d had with her painted her as harried but content with her lot in life, which probably ruled out possession. Miid seemed, for lack of a more precise term, fine. That did nothing to make his gut feeling go away.
He scratched at his beard with a claw. “Got a little bit left I’m worried about, if I’m gonna be honest, Holy One.”
Sarouth settled backwards into a chair by the side of the bed and crossed his arms over its back. “Yeah? What might that be?”
“Well…it’s about Miid Catch-Fire,” said Riaag. “I got this little nugget of worry all wrapped up around whether or not some dead thing is gonna try and fuck her up somehow, and I know she ain’t been in an entourage fer this fucken long without knowing how ter do her job, but things is so weird right now I’m just all kindsa perturbed.” Sarouth nodded but didn’t say anything, so Riaag continued on.
“It’s kinda the same way I worry ’bout you when you go off and get up ter your neck in trouble. I know you ain’t some little glass flower that’s gonna break if someone farts too loud, I mean what you can do with that mace is pretty fucken brutal and I seen you smush up a berserker with nothin’ but a call ter Agritakh and some well-aimed rocks, but I still don’t like the thought of you bein’ hurt or upset, and that’s how I’m feeling. Like it’s my responsibility as host ter this person I ain’t seen in suns and moons aplenty. Like I’m gonna be a bad friend if I don’t check in and make sure it’s all okay.”
He leaned back on the bed next to his armor. “What should I do?”
The chair creaked as Sarouth shifted his weight. He rubbed the back of his neck and popped his lips. “She’s old enough and aware enough to take care of herself, I’d say. If she asks for your help then you can give it gladly, but otherwise let her be. You can’t be everyone’s bodyguard at every hour of the day, you know?”
Riaag sighed and rolled on his side. “I know. It’s just when I got any kinda connection ter somebody I gotta fret over ’em just a little bit or it builds up most furious.”
Sarouth ruffled his hair. “You have a big heart, Riaag.”
He scoffed. “I got a big ever’thing.”
“Do you ever,” said Sarouth with a friendly leer. “And if you’d like some help taking your mind off things, I wouldn’t mind seeing the rest.”
Riaag squirmed. He still hadn’t managed to shake off all of his low opinion of how he looked, since the transition from a gangly child to a hulking young man hadn’t brought him anywhere near what his crueler dreams could show him, but it was hard to completely loathe himself with so many constant reminders that it was possible for someone—maybe not Riaag himself, but someone—to take in his craggy face and heavy gut and the hair that was everywhere he’d rather it not be and still see something desirable.
Desirable wasn’t the same thing as capable, though. As nice as Sarouth’s attention was it made Riaag start to worry about whether or not he’d freak out again in the middle of something, which promptly inspired him to panic over the idea of panicking. Wonderful.
“I dunno,” he said. He leaned back against the table and ran his fingertips along the amulet’s beads.
“No? Not even if I take care of all the work?”
He sighed. “I just don’t think I got it in me fer that kinda thing. Not right now.”
“How about telling me one of those stories you tell yourself, instead? I can keep my hands to myself and you can keep yours wherever you want to.”
“I…hrm.” That didn’t sound too bad, actually. He’d probably start touching himself part of the way through out of habit, but that was fine, since at least he wasn’t afraid of his own hands most of the time; it’d been a while since Sarouth had watched him go at things solo, too, and that was something he’d found was its own kind of fun. He let himself smile. “I might be able ter do that one. No complaining if it’s boring, though, ’cause it’s a story I tell ter me, not ter anyone else, a’ight?”
Sarouth placed his fist over his heart and held up his opposite hand like he’d been asked to testify. “I swear on my oath and on the divine within me that I won’t say your sexy jerkoff story is boring.”
Riaag laughed in spite of himself. “Sometimes you can be such an asshole, Faaroug.”
“Oh, come on, are you really going to call me that the entire time?”
“Nah. Figure you just need ter be called an asshole the once.” Sarouth raspberried and flung up his hands in defeat. Riaag grinned. “But I can try and use your name while I’m tale-tellin’,” he continued, “so long as you don’t make a fuss if I slip up now and again. Deal?”
Riaag stripped down the rest of the way, put his armor back on the rack, and gathered up a few extra cushions to lounge on. The light was good and just filtered enough through the tent’s felted wool to make their sleeping quarters comfortably dim and he had plenty of room to sprawl out in full view of Sarouth’s seat. There was even a pitcher of water to keep his throat wet. If there ever was a place to narrate his private stories, this was it.
He made himself comfortable and shifted into his skald’s voice. Sarouth might enjoy his low-born drawl when they were talking to each other, but this was a story, and stories had to be told the right way, otherwise why bother telling them at all? “The teeth of winter have dulled on the hide of spring, and while both still fight fiercely for ownership of the hours, it’s but a matter of time before the inevitable season of green and blossoms tears out the cold months’ throat….”
The wind touseled his hair as it whistled around the peaks, and then Sarouth touseled his hair as he slid up behind him to drape his arms around Riaag’s neck. He smelled like foreign spices, though not so much it wiped away his natural pleasing scent; in this case it was more of a badge of prosperity and the lingering memories of meals past. They joked about the good weather and Riaag’s newest poem. Sarouth’s chest was warm against Riaag’s back and his breath caressed Riaag’s ear even as his hand caressed Riaag’s cheek with gentle, knowing intimacy, a feather-soft touch that quickened the pulse and heated the blood. Riaag turned his head towards Sarouth and their tusks brushed against one another. A heartbeat later they joined in a kiss that not even the frigid air could chill.
Perhaps one of them suggested going inside and perhaps it was the other. It didn’t really matter; both agreed it was a fine idea, and the only thing that delayed them was another string of kisses as Riaag clambered to his feet.
Their home—because it was their home, of course, built up from nothing into a refuge against the elements’ wrath—was cozy as a wolf’s den indoors thanks to a hearth that burned in the main room. Tapestries woven with figures from the Chant adorned the walls, interspersed with furs, curtains, and silks; shelves laden with trophies covered what the wall hangings didn’t. Each room was kept neat and uncluttered despite the many stories that filled them.
While none would have blamed them if they retired to their bedchamber immediately, they instead opted to lounge by the fire first, their fingers intertwined. A bit of longing sometimes made the act sweeter, after all. Sarouth broke into a jar of finest carrion, its contents having aged to the perfect mixture of texture and pungence, then plucked up a morsel and held it a little ways from Riaag’s lips; when Riaag leaned in to nip it from his fingers, Sarouth moved it just out of reach, and no matter how Riaag adjusted or how fast he lunged he never quite managed to catch it in time, both of them laughing at their little game. There was a solution to be found, however: Riaag shifted his weight suddenly enough to catch Sarouth off guard and pin him to the long-fringed carpet beneath them. He defiantly claimed the bit of meat and chewed it with gusto, but not before running his tongue suggestively along the pad of Sarouth’s thumb.
Sarouth looked up at him through his lashes and play-begged for mercy. Riaag promised to release him if he swore off his food-teasing ways, and after some playful banter based around whether or not it was worth being let up Sarouth relented. They split the rest of the jar between them. More than a few more fingers were suckled in the process.
They shared another kiss that lingered long enough for their breath to mingle before Sarouth suggested they sample some wine they’d been saving since the last harvest, the grapes grown on their own land and pressed beneath their own feet, which Riaag agreed to eagerly; each cup he’d had from that vintage carried the bitter chill of the alpine wind with the deep, dark richness of the secret places within the earth, and it struck him as an excellent wine to further set the mood between them.
It was not as though there was no joy between them, of course: Riaag, emboldened by their privacy, took no steps to conceal his desire for Sarouth, while Sarouth himself took pleasure in letting his gaze linger here or there when he knew Riaag was watching. His robes were tied loosely enough that when he reached out to take the bottle from the rack they fell off one shoulder, their embroidery a mirror of the ink that traced his dark green skin. The fire caught his jewelry and coaxed the gold to shine while each transparent stone danced with its own flame. Riaag had seen that one sight a thousand times before and it only got more enticing with time.
The wine was good and the company was better—
“Right, right, but what are you wearing?”
“Are you seriously fucken interruptin’ me?”
“I said I wouldn’t say it was boring. I said nothing about asking for more detail.”
Riaag spread out the tail of his quilted, fur-trimmed coat like a fan as he made himself more comfortable, his gloved hands resting against the maroon wool of his trousers while he waited for Sarouth to finish pouring. The skulls at his belt caught the light nearly as fetchingly as Sarouth’s jewelry. His tunic was a hair too heavy for the heat of the fire, especially with the fur mantle he wore, and he caught Sarouth’s eye as he undid the brooch holding his collar closed; Sarouth rested his claws against the window of Riaag’s chest this revealed and purred his approval of the cut and fabric because Sarouth paid an inordinate amount of attention to such things and needed to talk about every single detail about them, apparently.
They drank sparingly, as plans such as the ones that went unspoken between them were best pursued with a clearer head than not. Each mouthful sweetened Riaag’s mood further. They had only just settled in but a thought had been brewing in his eager brain; he beckoned to Sarouth and whispered in his ear his idea, one that involved fewer clothes and more time spent soaking in the hot springs that steamed away merrily in the fenced-in yard behind their house. Sarouth grinned wickedly in response. They fell upon each other with great enthusiasm, hands stripping away one another’s layers in careless swathes, though as soon as the last scrap of fur fell away from newly-exposed flesh Riaag gathered Sarouth up in his arms and carried him out the back door, where he lowered him ever so gently in the piping hot natural bath.
Only the smallest amount of time was spent on scrubbing themselves before Sarouth pushed Riaag’s back against the stones and straddled his lap so that their cocks nestled against one another. Sarouth pinned Riaag in place not with his size but with his gaze alone, his voice speaking in murmurs of all the many-faceted delights he could bring if he was but only granted permission—
“That really does sound like something I would do. You’ve got a knack for this.”
—and Riaag, while briefly distracted, almost as though a familiar voice kept echoing from somewhere on the wind, let his arms hang free as he leaned back to expose his throat in loving, trusting submission. Sarouth’s teeth stung with a pain that was liberating. A mark would blossom there, bruised purple against green, and some days in the future when he was tired from working iron or chopping wood he had naught to do but reach up and brush the little patch of soreness to remind himself of how treasured he was and how any labor, no matter how exhausting, was worth it in the end. He was so wholly, desperately hard that he would have had to take matters into his own hands had Sarouth not been there to ease his need, and even as they were if Sarouth didn’t do something soon he feared he might go out of his mind from how badly he needed to be touched.
Sarouth never made things easy, neither then nor ever, and in spite of his own erection he seemed happy to merely tweak Riaag’s flesh, or run his fingers through Riaag’s hair, or massage the muscle that lay beneath Riaag’s ample fat, and even when Riaag whined or begged Sarouth did little but gyrate his hips in the smallest, most frustrating motions that still managed to send lightning coursing through both their veins.
“Would it be okay if you spread your legs a little more while you’re doing that, please? I want to see.”
“Reckon I can do so, since you asked so nice and all. Better?”
Perhaps Sarouth had been more tired than previously thought or perhaps he was feeling generous that day, but he silenced Riaag’s final plaintive moan with a kiss; his hands weren’t still, however, and clever hands that could toss runestones so accurately their readings seemed to make the world itself warp to fit what they said could work wonders on a man’s sensitive places. Sarouth stroked them, sometimes alone and sometimes together, sometimes rubbing his palm along the shaft alone and sometimes manipulating the head, sometimes dipping down to play with Riaag’s balls, sometimes finding other exciting crevices to explore. The steam rolled around his body as though he were some whimsical pleasure-spirit made tangible. Riaag would have believed it in a heartbeat.
The act had progressed to the point where it was merely repetitive action, yet what repetitions they were: soft hands on hard cocks, sharp claws that scrabbled against the stone to leave new grooves above the ones they had left there before, the movement of Sarouth’s body above Riaag’s own, the light, hot splashing of the water as they disturbed the once-pristine surface of the spring—
“Yes, keep going….”
—and while it was too much to expect people of their respective shapes to kiss when having the sex they chose, Sarouth would still sometimes lean in to nuzzle at Riaag’s bearded face or fix him once more with his piercing golden eye in a way that both demanded and reveled in Riaag’s joyful surrender—
“Just a little more…!”
—and it was that same eye that had stared into his soul countless times before and never turned away, that same eye that had watched him from afar for longer than he ever knew, and that same eye that had seen the unspeakable face of a god and still found worth in a simple man with a simple heart. That very same eye, its majestic yellow on a field of purest bloody crimson, now had the satisfaction of seeing Riaag come with a sigh so grateful he sounded as though he’d been freed from some terrible geas with that final flutter of Sarouth’s hand—
“Ah! Ah, Riaag, that’s good! Oh, I love you, I love you so much….”
—and it was very, very good, indeed.
People had already started to gather before the ritual dais by the time they left their tent; Sarouth made light conversation with some of them as he and Riaag made their way to their proper places. More worshippers arrived the further the sun fell from its zenith, sometimes alone and sometimes a whole band at once, and Riaag noted with approval that no one looked to have forgotten their bowl of blood from the morning’s livestock slaughter. There’d be separate ceremonies for those who couldn’t rightly leave their posts during ritual time—guards, mostly, but also those who were sick or caring for the sick—but there was a difference between being bound by duty and just being a forgetful jackass.
Jade-Tongue and Kind-Knife stood at the back of the crowd and a little ways away. Riaag kept his eye on them, but neither made any trouble: they’d make gestures of devotion at people who passed them and looked to be more or less behaving with distant courtesy, but he still felt uneasy at their presence. Still, even if one or both had dire motives, a rite honoring Agritakh, especially one overseen by Sarouth White-Hair himself, especially one being attended by most of the inhabitants of the stronghold, would be a terrible place to reveal themselves. Even as Riaag reassured himself he touched the amulet where it lay beneath his clothes.
Once as many people had gathered that they could expect, Sarouth raised his staff and his free hand above his head for silence. The attendees’ chattering dulled until only a few whispers remained. With a nod he handed the staff off to Riaag and stepped forward with his arms open wide, as though he sought to embrace the entire crowd; when he spoke his voice was like thunder.
“We come to pay tribute to Agritakh through blood and steel and fire,” said Sarouth. “This threefold method is one of the grandest gifts we might offer to He Who Sleeps Beneath the Earth. Blood is the bond between the orcish and the divine: it is that which nourishes us, that which slakes His terrible thirst. We pour out blood upon His flesh to repay Him for the bounties He has given us. The blood of the beasts we raise in kindness fills His cup to overflowing, yet it is not without a sacrifice of our own that we soothe His longing and praise His glorious sacrifice.
“Steel is the promise of the future writ in the tools of the now. We take His bones of iron and purify them, melding gifts of the earth with the sweat of the forge, and in this way we create wonders in His image greater than any wild-found thing. We hold the steel as proof we are always searching for new secrets He might have hidden for us. Steel is no accident. It exists only because we choose to create it. By purifying the iron He gives us we create something more, just as by purifying our hearts we make ourselves better vessels for His love.
“Fire is the destroyer of things, the changer of things, the heart of things. It is no more His than the water, the moon, or the sky, yet it is still His agent. Fire is neither our friend nor enemy: the same hearth that prepares meals for the hungry can rise up to devour those who tend it, and yet the same blaze that razes a forest makes possible the growth of new life in its wake. Fire is chaos and uncertainty. We commit ourselves to the fire to prove to Him that we are willing to risk our comfort in His name, that we will abandon the familiar to better serve His will.
“Blood and steel and fire! Through this method, Agritakh is pleased!”
The crowd roared. Some raised fists clutching charms marked with the symbol of the Hill God, others clapped and danced as much as they could without spilling their offerings. Riaag had assisted with three harvests and had lived in Naar Rhoan since the stronghold was named, but he still couldn’t help but be awed at the sight of so many orcs—happy orcs, well-fed orcs—all gathered in one place. He stole a glance at Sarouth; Sarouth could lead a ritual like a fish could swim, and the sheer force of personality he exuded made Riaag shiver. This man was truly the Faaroug incarnate. He couldn’t imagine anyone saying otherwise unless they were wholly without a soul.
Sarouth gestured for silence again and once more the crowd went still. He drew the knife from his belt and held it high. Hundreds of steel blades mirrored his pose, some belonging to children who hadn’t even taken a surname yet. Riaag’s heart swelled at their devotion.
The tip of Sarouth’s knife ran along the outside of his left hand, and as he kept it very sharp for rituals it had no trouble opening up a little beaded line of blood. He held it before the basin until a drop fell from the cut to mingle with the ewe’s blood within it. “I give of myself, that Agritakh knows my face,” he said.
“We give of ourselves, that Agritakh knows our faces,” repeated the crowd. Some pricked their fingers while others mirrored Sarouth, and a few of the younger children needed help from their parents, but one by one each person there bled a little into their own offerings; each person, that was, save for the other two god-speakers, who remained still as standing stones. Riaag narrowed his eyes at that but kept focused on his part of the rite, as since he was allowed to share the same offering basin as Sarouth he couldn’t afford to be messy about it. He tucked his left glove into his belt to wait until his cut scabbed up.
Sarouth picked up the basin with both hands and presented it to the stronghold. “An offering of blood, to bring succor to His tongue during His ever-dreaming sleep,” he said, then poured it into a grooved trough at the base of the dais. “Who will come and nourish Him?”
“We will!” said the crowd. They were thankfully not so infused with the joy of the earth that they couldn’t make an orderly line, and the trough was wide enough for them to empty their bowls two at a time. Some of the healers had thought far enough ahead to offer bandages to anyone who’d been too enthusiastic; Riaag thought he saw Miid having her hand swabbed with medicated moss, but the press of bodies was too dense for him to see much without leaving his post.
As each bowl emptied the blood in the trough drained away through the channels in the rock Riaag didn’t quite understand but knew to be very meaningful; when they were first consecrating the ground around the sacred hill, Sarouth had been quite particular about the angle, width, and shape of each channel, sometimes terraforming and reverting a single one a dozen times before he was satisfied. They probably made a glorious pattern, but thanks to them being entirely underground Riaag hadn’t a clue what it looked like when it was actually flowing with red. It delivered offerings to Agritakh in a timely manner, though, at least as near as a layman like Riaag could tell, and that was the important part.
The crowd reformed itself without too much fuss. Once the last bowl had been emptied and the last few wounds were treated, Sarouth flourished his knife once more.
“I give of our steel, that Agritakh knows our efforts,” he said as he turned the knife from side to side, the light gleaming off its edge.
“We give of our steel, that Agritakh knows our efforts,” came the reply. The reflections off the sea of metal glimmered like sunshine through clear water.
He serenely unwrapped the leather binding keeping the knife together and removed the handle, then placed handle and steel side by side before tying them together again. The knife was no longer useful despite being composed of the same pieces as before, yet those pieces could always be remade into something new; Riaag had learned to find the message there quite elegant, at least once he stopped viewing himself as a broken knife. The crowd did the same to their own blades. The knives dismantled by the younger children had bigger handles and simpler bindings, but surely Agritakh understood the limits of little hands.
“An offering of steel, to prove we will never stop seeking ways to better ourselves, that we might better reflect His wisdom,” said Sarouth. He lightly tossed the bundle into a pile of stacked, pitch-smeared wood that stood behind the dais, where it bounced a few times before settling into a nook. “Who will come and honor Him?”
The lines moved a little faster this time, since adding a bundle to the pile didn’t require nearly the care that not spilling a bowl full of sanguine god-food did and no one needed to have anything bound up afterwards. Riaag waited until the crowd had reformed once more before he hucked his knife into the pile overhand. It made a satisfying thunk when it embedded itself in the topmost board.
Reaching into one of the braziers, Sarouth pulled out a brand that flickered in the light wind and made his eye glint gold even in the afternoon sun. He held his free hand near the burning end as if to cradle it.
“I give of the uncaring flame, that Agritakh knows my desire.”
“We give of the uncaring flame, that Agritakh knows our desire,” said the stronghold in one voice. Those who didn’t have torches of their own had them passed to them by their neighbors or by the children patrolling the edges of the crowd with baskets of rushlights. Fire blossomed in every hand until Sarouth stood before a cloud of stars. Just as Sarouth’s had, the crowd’s eyes glowed like cats’ as they caught the light.
Now came the part that the others weren’t expected to repeat: Sarouth pulled a pinch of powdered something from a pouch at his belt and tossed it on his brand, which flared up with greasy green and yellow sparks even as the core of the fire remained a fierce orange. He swung it around himself like a censer. The brand blazed with strange colors as he tossed it from one hand to another, and it spat sparks like a hammer striking hot metal when he rapped the butt of it with his cut palm. Sarouth danced with the fire; Riaag’s stomach clenched every time the brand passed close to Sarouth’s hair or robes, but each time he remained unscathed. Maybe the fire knew better than to try.
If the ecstasy of an Agritakh-ruhd was the truest sign of a ritual, Sarouth could cancel decades’ worth of falsehood. He spun and twirled like a dust devil. There was no music save that in his head—and it was there, as Riaag had discovered once when he asked why they never had musicians play for this sort of rite, which Sarouth had met with a puzzled claim that it’d drown out the other song—but no one dared break the silence, not even the babies on their parents’ backs. Half a minute passed, then a whole, then two, and it was at the precise moment the third minute ended that Sarouth stopped, balanced on one sandaled foot.
“An offering of fire,” he said, and even though he was panting his voice was still pure and clear, “to remake ourselves and place our lives in His hands, be we destroyed or tempered ever-stronger.” He tossed the branc backwards over his shoulder, where it landed at the top of the pile of wood and knives. A few flames curled across the pitched timber. It was hardly enough to set the whole thing alight. “Who will come and burn for Him?”
Hundreds of torches raised in unison. “We will!”
The wood grew closer to a proper bonfire with each torch placed upon it until the whole thing burned so fiercely it was like a living thing. This time the crowd didn’t return to where they’d stood in view of the dais, instead joining hands to make several concentric rings around the fire. Once again Riaag was the last to make his offering, and once again he was able to get it to land right at the top on the first try. He looked to Sarouth, who gave him an awkward grin.
“Would you mind handling the tricky part?” Sarouth asked.
What Sarouth considered “tricky” was the bit nearly any asshole with a voice could do, in Riaag’s opinion, but leading a hymn required one to have some small amount of singing ability; as Sarouth sounded like an animal being tortured whenever he tried, they’d come to an agreement that Riaag would cover the musical parts of a ritual so long as Sarouth still did everything else. It was an honor, really. “I’d be happy ter, Faaroug.”
He sang the opening on his own, as he always did, the words almost as perfect as an actual god-speaker’s and ringing with sincerity. Even in the depths of his youthful self-hatred he’d always been able to find beauty in his singing voice, so what better way to pay the Hill God back for such a gift than to use it to praise Him? It wasn’t until he finished the last lines of the first verse—Like the wolf greets its pack-mother/ I will lay down at Your feet—that the others joined in with the chorus and Sarouth hummed along as best he could. The sound rolled over him in waves. How people decided which of the many harmonies they wished to sing he’d never been able to figure out, but Riaag didn’t care: what mattered was their song, which surely Agritakh could hear even in the midst of His deepest dreams. It felt holy on the most primal of levels.
The song rose and died with the bonfire, which burned itself out with unnatural swiftness. When the last refrain ended so too did the reverent air, children breaking from the rings to chase each other across holy ground and older folk gathering in groups to chat. Sarouth slumped heavily against Riaag’s side as the strain of invocation finally hit, but he was smiling and talkative with the handful of worshippers who came up to speak with him afterwards; any rite that he could walk away from was a good one, in Riaag’s opinion. Not that the ones where Sarouth passed out at the end were poor, of course, but it was so much easier to advise people or check on whether or not a sacrifice had been received well when Sarouth was actually able to say so.
It had been a good ritual, too. The offerings of blood that sluiced through the channels underfoot were no doubt already dribbling their way into Agritakh’s terrible maw while the offerings of fire had had the decency to not spread to the grass or make nasty smells during the hymn. The bits of fire-cleansed steel would be too hot to collect for a few hours yet, however; Riaag had already planned to spend the next few weeks in the forge, melting down each bit of metal and reforging it into new tools or weapon heads or ritual knives, so he wasn’t exactly yearning to end up elbow-deep in Naar Rhoan’s collective offerings of steel until after harvest was done with.
Kind-Knife and Jade-Tongue waited by the dais as Riaag helped Sarouth sit with his legs hanging over the side. Jade-Tongue remained stoically distant, but Kind-Knife had a pensive look to her eyes that even her eyepatch couldn’t entirely conceal.
“So that is how you do things,” she said.
Sarouth shrugged. “More or less, yeah.”
“I have never led so many, not in all my years,” she continued, looking to the clumps of people still loitering nearby. “You are the only god-speaker here, and yet they give thanks and sing as though each knew you personally.” She raised an eyebrow. “Do they?”
“Not quite,” said Sarouth. “I try to be present for important things, you know? Blessing babies, saying prayers over the dead and dying, you know the kind. I do my best to remember that each person here is a unique life, as precious and worthy of Agritakh’s love as my own. It works out okay aside from not being able to keep everyone’s birthdays straight in my head.”
Kind-Knife sucked on her teeth. “And they would die for you?”
Sarouth shrugged again. “I don’t know. I’ve never asked. He would, though,” he said, cocking his thumb at Riaag, who nodded and snorted.
They stared each other down for a moment that unspooled like an apple peel. Riaag felt the hairs rise on the back of his neck despite not being sure why; Sarouth and Kind-Knife had clashed before, certainly, but a god-speaker of He Who Sleeps was a pious servant no matter how you sliced it, and he’d met enough heretics to learn how to spot the signs from a mile off. Kind-Knife looked as pure as the first snow on the mountains. He still kept his eyes on the sword at her hip, just in case.
“I am still not entirely sure of…this,” said Kind-Knife, her hand sweeping across the stronghold and lingering on the stacks of grain fresh in from the fields, “but what I have seen is proof enough these people are living rightly. They are well-served having a leader such as yourself, White-Hair.” She dipped her head with respect. “I would be honored if you would have me at your feast.”
“We’d be honored to have you, Kind-Knife,” said Sarouth, who was all smiles again. “Just one question, though.”
She turned from where she had already begun to whisper with Jade-Tongue again. “Yes?”
“Do you prefer mead or wine?”
“Pour me both and I’ll tell you later,” Kind-Knife replied, and for the first time since Riaag had met her she allowed herself a smile.
The rest of his band might have loved them, but Riaag had always hated ghost stories. It wasn’t so much the fact that they existed (though that wasn’t fun to think about) or how scary they sounded (though they sounded very scary, indeed), but just what they implied about his future. Everyone knew if you weren’t properly laid to rest you risked coming back fleshless and hungry, and everyone knew the unliving were especially drawn to the unclean; like called to like. Everyone also knew that ghosts who’d come back from a bad death, such as the sort caused by having the shit murdered out of you by another ghost, were pulled towards that which they’d most cared for in life like iron to a lodestone.
That part was the worst for him because Riaag, even at his most feeble-hearted, had so much love for so many things. He loved the other children in his band even though they made fun of him and stole his food. He loved the way the birds flew through the air in a way that was prettier and more graceful than he’d ever be but secretly hoped he could manage anyway. He loved Agritakh, as strange and distant as the Hill God could be and however much his face might be hidden from His sight, because hearing His Chant made Riaag hope that maybe he’d be lucky enough to be alive when the Faaroug came and made even the untouchable clean again. He especially loved the babies, though: their wiggly little fingers and teeny-tiny claws, the way they cooed when they were happy, their bright eyes set in wrinkled little monkey-faces. He wasn’t let near them so he loved them from afar, and sometimes he risked being beaten until his face went numb so he could sneak out and sing to them.
Loving the babies meant that they were first on the list when he returned.
He had no doubt it’d happen, too, no matter how far he ran away or how peacefully he passed, and even if he somehow lost their scent and went to haunt a lonely cave somewhere it was just a matter of time before someone came by in search of shelter and met an ugly end. Some days that had been the only thing keeping him from succumbing to the great black sea in his head; there were so many opportunities for a young orc to wander into misadventure he probably could’ve managed it if he tried. His imagination betrayed him constantly, and he’d often wake up in the middle of the night, crying from dreams so vivid he had trouble telling if he’d actually died or not.
The man who hurt him—it was easier not to name him because then it wasn’t so personal, like how an avalanche or a pouncing saber-tooth wasn’t personal—mocked him for it. Sometimes Riaag wondered if he could make himself love that man just so he’d have a chance to pay him back.
Later on, when he was living a different life, he’d found comfort in his fate wherever he could. When he first felt himself dying as his band abandoned him he’d hoped that maybe if he was at peace with the situation he could cheat fate and simply slide away into oblivion; when he failed to die thanks to aid from a certain meddling god-speaker, he tried to focus on how his face had been washed clean so Agritakh could actually recognize him, and even if that didn’t work out so well it was a god-speaker’s job to put down ghosts when they rose. Maybe he’d get a reprive if he died in service to a holy man.
As the years passed he shook off the worst of the fear, even after he’d met actual ghosts. He became less of a geyser waiting to blow and more just a man who’d come from circumstances, and from there he was more able to embrace his job as singer of songs and teller of tales. Riaag remade himself into the image of a responsible adult: tidy, courteous, imposing. Parents let him watch their children now. Since Sarouth had declared him cleansed in front of the whole stronghold he’d even found the courage to ask to help the midwives with their duties, and there was something that felt very right in welcoming new lives into a world that still had so much good left in it.
He still didn’t care for ghost stories.
Riaag could tell the hour was close because the smell of food had managed to overpower the lingering scent of the ritual fire. It was an exciting kind of chaos. The harvest feast was so grand in scale most dishes had been prepared long in advance, but there were enough foodstuffs that had to be roasted, boiled, baked, or otherwise freshened up that every cook’s hands (some still bandaged from the ritual) stayed busy, with more than a few band-mates and children roped into prep duty. Only on feast day could you see the master-of-arms holding her baby in one arm and stirring a soup the baby’s sire had put together with her free hand. Riaag waved to her and she saluted back. The stronghold’s warriors were probably going to be pushed twice as hard after harvest to make up for lost time; Riaag hoped they could appreciate the respite from getting bellowed at on the training field before it was too late.
He spotted another unusual face in the kitchens, but this one wasn’t anybody he’d sparred with before: Miid was helping somebody’s grandmother chop vegetables. The amulet at Riaag’s arm was cool and comforting against his skin, so he pushed himself to go greet her. His own dishes were ready to serve by then, so it wasn’t as though he was using his time badly if he felt like being friendly. If he was lucky she might be willing to share her pilaf recipe with him again. If he was really lucky she’d even want to eat something he’d thought up on his own.
She dipped her head politely to him as he approached. “Oh, hello,” she said. She scraped another cubed root into a bowl full of greens and took a fresh one from a nearby basket. “You’re the god-speaker’s attendant, aren’t you?”
He nodded. She must not have recognized him, but he couldn’t blame her. Some days Riaag couldn’t even recognize himself.
“I’ve met White-Hair before, but it was a long time ago,” she continued. “At the time he just had one follower in his entourage, a little reedy thing with a lovely voice and a gentle heart, and that boy looked like he’d rather die than let so much as a feather fall on White-Hair’s head. We cooked together a bit. Do you know what happened to him?”
Riaag grinned, taking care to show the gap in his front teeth. “Hi.”
Miid tilted her head. “Hm? Oh! Oh, oh my goodness, sweetie, I didn’t even recognize you. My, how you’ve grown.” She looked him over thoughtfully. “I see you’ve been taking better care of yourself lately. No more picking through vulture scraps for dinner, eh?”
It’d been a taxing few days, but Riaag had to admit that he’d been a lot worse off when he and Miid had first met. Trying to make decent food out of dry-scavenged nothing felt like it’d happened a lifetime ago. “I’m doing a lot better’n I was. I think the Faaroug is, too, but don’t tell him I said that.”
She looked surprised to hear him use Sarouth’s proper title—and it was the proper one, whether or not Sarouth actually agreed—but didn’t deny it. More and more people seemed willing to take it as fact these days.
Their encounter that morning returned to Riaag. The other god-speakers were off somewhere else, so it was a perfect chance to gather a little information that Sarouth wouldn’t be able to. “You still with Jade-Tongue, yeah?” he asked. Miid hummed in agreement. “He been acting, I dunno, weird ter you? Maybe I ain’t remembering him as he really is, but when he and the Faaroug was together I coulda swore he laughed more.”
Miid’s blitheness withered. “He used to, yeah.”
“Did something happen?”
She glanced over her shoulder, then took a pinch of salt from a pouch hanging by the soup pot and tossed it over herself. “It was ever since he and Kind-Knife devoured that ghost a while back,” she whispered. “He did the final deed and the haunting stopped, but it made him…I don’t know, sick. As sick as god-speakers can get, anyway. I caught a pure white salmon in the river the next day so I had Kind-Knife read its entrails, and it said there was going to be trouble here, but going at it head on was the only way we could make him better.”
Riaag furrowed his brow. So far everything matched up with Etxeloi’s story, though if he’d had to choose between Miid and someone who’d once held him at knifepoint he’d have had to think about it for a while. There was still so much he didn’t know about what was going on.
“I talk with the Faaroug on the regular,” he said. “I cain’t promise he can fix it up perfect, but it’s a safe bet he can at least help.”
Miid hummed thoughtfully. She gathered up the last few bits of diced root and wiped off her knife, then looked Riaag in the eye. “You’re handling this a lot better than I’d’ve expected,” she told him. “The Riaag I knew bruised so easily, but here you are, taking a bad situation in your teeth and not letting go. I still feel bad for making you cry that one time, though.”
“I done a bit of growing up since then.”
“Did you ever.” Miid’s eyes wandered across him again, this time lingering in places. “You know, I should let you know that there’s room by my fire this evening. I wouldn’t mind some company.” She smiled at him. Her right eye had a large scar over it, turning the iris milky, and the scar continued down the side of her face until it cut a notch into her lip just next to her tusk. She was easily the loveliest woman who’d ever talked to him on slightly-more-than-casual terms, much less flirt with him, much less offer him a visit to her bed. He felt his cheeks flush.
At least he had a polite excuse at the ready. “Thank you kindly fer the compliment, but I oughtta tell you that I’m an oathbound man these days, and I ain’t keen on expanding just who all I done sworn myself ter. Sorry,” he added. He gulped nervously. He wasn’t sure how you were supposed to turn someone down in a situation like this. Someone like Sarouth must have to do it all the time.
Miid snapped her fingers but didn’t look fazed at all by the rejection. “Well, damn. Figures White-Hair would have the nicest-looking man out here all to himself. Tell him he’s very lucky!” She leaned on the counter with her arms across her chest. “So do you still do any of the cooking around here…?”
They talked for a long time, stopping only when Riaag’s duties called him away for a few minutes here and there. There was plenty to catch up on: Miid spoke of her time walking the spike-towered streets of Caiz Gratag while he recalled the first immigrants to Naar Rhoan, she talked fondly of Jade-Tongue’s wisdom while Riaag shared Sarouth’s worst jokes. They argued over the nature of grain and agreed on how best to season boiled turnip mash. It was nice having someone else he could chat with so naturally, especially since for once it wasn’t Sarouth or one of the stronghold’s many children.
Miid was particularly fascinated by the idea of their arrangement with Usoa and its people. “So Naar Rhoan has allies who aren’t orcs? That’s interesting. Do you know if you’ve traded any fate-crossed lovers yet?”
That was a good question. He knew the river people had smooth tongues like cows or dogs did; how they managed to clean meat from bones or get the stubborn last bits of flesh off a fruit pit was a mystery. He couldn’t think about kissing someone like that without grossing himself out. Then again, put two groups of people in close proximity and they’d either fight or have sex with each other, and there were treaties in place preventing the first. “I don’t know any,” he said after a bit of thought, “but that don’t mean there ain’t nobody what sneaks out inter the trees fer a quick fuck when nobody’s looking. Least they don’t gotta worry about who raises the kids, right?”
“That’s a good way to put it. You’re going to have to tell me what they look like again, though. Who knows, maybe I’ll think they’re almost as cute as you.”
Sundown came sooner than he’d have liked. He excused himself as the sky first started to turn pink and hurried to his own kitchen, where everything was ready to go save for the plating. It took two huge platters to hold it all and even Riaag had a bit of trouble keeping them balanced on the way to where Sarouth’s table was. He was late enough that he’d missed the initial blessing and speech, which was unfortunate, but not so late that Sarouth—or anyone else—was getting impatient. Riaag tried to ignore the conversation Sarouth was having with Jade-Tongue as he laid out the two steaming platters of beshbarmak.
“Still bearing a torch for your torch-bearer?” asked Jade-Tongue, who was either incredibly rude or, like Miid, didn’t recognize Riaag thanks to all that had changed between then and now. His voice sounded more or less as Riaag remembered, which was something, but there was still the muted feeling that there was something very wrong with him, and he coughed too much to simply blame a too-smokey torch. Riaag touched reflexively at his amulet when nobody was looking.
“Absolutely! We’re oathbound now, as a matter of fact.” Sarouth cleared his throat and glanced askance. “I…might have fought a duel in his honor.”
Jade-Tongue clucked his tongue. “So how’d that work out?”
“Well, I won, obviously, thanks be unto He Who Sleeps for fixing up the gash I got in the side during the fight, and afterwards Riaag asked me if I’d have him, and then he managed to drill it into my damn stubborn head that it was something he really wanted, and now here we are.” He accepted the plate Riaag passed him with a smile. “In fact, he’s made us a special treat just for harvest, haven’t you, Riaag?”
Kind-Knife, who’d been quiet until then, tapped her eating knife against her goblet in thanks, but Jade-Tongue was left briefly speechless as realization dawned on him. Riaag couldn’t deny he liked it when people did that.
He served each visiting god-speaker their own cooked sheep’s head on a bed of fresh greens. Normally you just cooked one sheep and gave the head to whomever was most respected at the table, but two visiting clergy at the same time made things tricky, so Riaag had gone for what felt like the safest option. He divvied up other bits of meat among the rest of their entourage before serving his own plate and taking his seat at Sarouth’s side. Sarouth gave his hair a ruffle before launching into a long shaggy-dog story about a deer with three antlers. Yes, this was a harvest feast, all right.
There was food and drink aplenty, enough for days if they’d wanted it. Musicians filled the air with song while a troupe of mummers that was much better than last year’s danced between the knots of diners, their masks and costumes telling tales all their own even as the performers acted out well-known stories. Jade-Tongue sounded tired no matter how little he spoke, which was unsurprising; Kind-Knife, however, had a wit as sharp as her name when it came to riddles and word games, and it was awe-inspiring to watch her dismantle even the most cunning puzzle. The rest of their attendants ate and spoke as well, but save for bits of gossip it was harder to get a bead on them without paying close attention to their mannerisms. Sarouth would surely understand the need for a break from eternal vigilance now and again.
Riaag munched happily on a leg bone while he pondered what to have for his seventh helping. He’d nearly forgotten his talk with Miid until he looked up at just the right time to see the moon rising over the wall, the dead put on display there dark against its bright face. Somewhere near the south gate he remembered an empty space where there shouldn’t have been. Riaag put the half-eaten bone on his plate and leaned over to whisper in Sarouth’s ear.
“A word in confidence, Holy One?”
Sarouth nodded and excused himself, Riaag close behind him. They walked until they were well away from the festivities; after Sarouth scanned their surroundings for eavesdroppers he turned to Riaag and cocked his head to the side.
“What is it you wanted to tell me, Riaag?”
“I saw something earlier that I meant ter talk ter you about, but with ever’thing going on it slipped my mind.” He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “Heiwog Lost-Gather ain’t up on the wall.”
“Hm? Well, that’s strange. I don’t think anyone’s claimed his remains and he didn’t lose our duel that long ago. Would’ve thought he’d stay on his pike longer.”
Riaag shuffled in place nervously. “Miid said Jade-Tongue’s been all fucked up since they done that exorcism up north. She says he and Kind-Knife is here ’cause some fish guts told ’em ter come, and how trouble’s brewing in these parts. Ghost trouble. If he….” He couldn’t bear to say Heiwog’s name again because it’d already hurt too much to shape his mouth around it the first time, but hopefully Sarouth understood what he meant. “If he’s the ghost, it’s extra bad.”
Sarouth scoffed. “I killed him once and I’ll kill him again if I have to. What’s the problem?”
The problem was that Riaag had told Sarouth what had happened—in his own way, anyway, which meant dancing around the details and stretching out the whole story over many separate conversations—but not who had done it or what it had meant when Heiwog had crowed about how unclean Riaag was before Sarouth crushed his skull. The problem was what little closure he’d thought he had was unraveling fast. The problem was that if it had happened once it could happen again, and maybe next time it’d be to someone who wouldn’t be given the chance to try and put themselves back together later. The problem was that he was still small and scared and trying to attract a monster’s attention anyway, because it was the only way other people wouldn’t get hurt.
“It’s ’cause he…he were….” Sarouth needed to know this. Sarouth couldn’t face a ghost without knowing every possible thing about it. Sarouth loved him, Sarouth was his closest friend, Sarouth looked out for him, Sarouth only wanted to help. “He were the one who…broke me.” It burned like vomit on his tongue. Thank the Hill God that Sarouth understood quiet words.
Riaag had been looking away the other night when he’d told Sarouth what had made him so upset, but he didn’t have that luxury this time. Every single bit of happiness in Sarouth’s face fled, replaced by sadness and horror and something else Riaag couldn’t place. It was like watching a star be snuffed out. Riaag wanted to somehow unsay the words so he could fix it and take Sarouth’s sorrow away, but that wasn’t even something that happened in fairy tales.
“I didn’t know,” Sarouth whispered. His arms fell limp at his sides. This wasn’t something a hug could fix. “Oh, Riaag, I didn’t know.”
The old Riaag wanted to burst into tears and hide somewhere far away from anyone who so much as knew his name, and he could already feel those tears stinging his eyes as they welled up, but the old Riaag didn’t really exist anymore. The Riaag that remained still cried. He still got upset, he still felt afraid, he still fucked up, he still sometimes pushed people away when he should’ve drawn them close and let some of his pain bleed out safely. He’d never be a perfect person. The difference between then and now was that the Riaag that was left did all of that but still tried to get better even when he didn’t think he was worth it.
He promised himself he’d sob into Sarouth’s shoulder later.
“We don’t have fucken time fer this,” he said, his voice so thick with anger it made Sarouth jump. “Something bad’s out there and it ain’t gonna wait. We act tonight or things get worse.”
Sarouth looked at him for a long time without saying anything. There was passion behind his eye, though, the kind that flared up when he dared to rush headlong into enemy territory or scream at a god; Riaag remembered that same passion from when Sarouth had challenged the very concept of the untouchable in front of the entire stronghold. It happened most severely whenever people Sarouth cared for were threatened. The Chant never mentioned a weaponized bad temper when it spoke of the Faaroug’s many virtues, but Riaag had come to accept that the Chant had been as surprised by Sarouth as he was.
“Right,” said Sarouth. He reached up and wiped Riaag’s eyes dry with the hem of his sleeve. “I’ve received a message. I know what we need to do.”
They returned to the feast, which was still bright and full of delightful smells, where Sarouth gestured to Kind-Knife and Jade-Tongue. He’d clamped down on his rage by then but there was still something a bit too sharp in his voice when he spoke.
“Honored guests, your attention? I need you both to see something. We’re going to need to head outside the walls. Riaag, please fetch your snakebite cure from the tent and join us, would you?”
The hairs on the back of Riaag’s neck rose. “Snakebite cure” wasn’t something the healers used to treat a run-in with an adder—though they had curatives enough for that—but a coded way Sarouth referred to Riaag’s axe and shield, named for the time he’d prevented Sarouth from being bitten by slamming his shield down on an attacking pit viper’s body to pin it in place, then beheading the snake with a single furious chop. Whatever Sarouth was planning, it promised to get bloody.
Sarouth sprinted for so long that Riaag had to stop to rest a few times, his eyes always fixed upon the white-haired figure trying its best to vanish into the distance. It was weird, but it was almost certainly another god-speaker thing. Riaag was used to most god-speaker things.
A lammergeier flew high over Sarouth, the lighter-colored feathers on its chest and belly stained red with rock dust as though it had sacred tattoos of its own. Its whistling call echoed across the cloudless sky. That had to be a sign, since having one of the only birds with eyes like a person fly so far out from the mountains was too perfect to be a coincidence. At first Riaag had thought Sarouth was following it, but the vulture was too high up for him to have seen it; while even years later he’d never be sure of the fact, Riaag suspected it had been sent there for him to keep from losing his charge out in the wastes.
When Sarouth stopped it was on a dry, scraggly-grassed patch of ground that looked much the same as every other patch of dry, scraggly-grassed ground, but his every movement was determined. He fell to his knees and began to furiously dig. He didn’t use a shovel or even the end of his staff; instead he dug with his bare hands, either unaware of or unable to care about how unsuited his small, elegant claws were for the job. Riaag closed the distance between them and moved to help but Sarouth snarled at him when he tried. That was enough encouragement for Riaag to let Sarouth finish things on his own.
The minutes stretched out long and awful as Sarouth raked his fingers through the dirt. It was hot and he’d worked himself into a lather not long after beginning his furious task; his hair stuck to his face and his robes soon turned dark with sweat, and then dirt stuck to both in pale brown patches. He refused water as viciously as he’d refused aid. When Sarouth’s hands started bleeding Riaag couldn’t watch any longer.
Riaag sat down and looked away from the ghastly sight. He recited the Chant in his head until Sarouth’s raspy breaths—which were made all the worse because he wasn’t allowed to do anything to help ease them—kept pulling him out of the familiar words and prayers. You didn’t serve an Agritakh-ruhd without expecting their holy duties to get ugly sometimes, and if a normal god-speaker sometimes had to wade through ecstatic injuries to serve His purpose it made sense for the Faaroug himself to suffer all the same; Riaag told himself this over and over, but it didn’t help very much at all. Even the lammergeier had flown away. The symbolism wasn’t fun to think about.
He didn’t look back until the awful noises stopped. He forced himself to turn slowly, because who knew what Sarouth had been digging for or why; Sarouth was too young to be ordered to dig his own grave, surely?
Riaag found Sarouth very much alive, still on his knees. His robes were filthy with dirt, sweat, and blood; red-brown smears covered his hands all the way up until they vanished within his sleeves. He cradled a mace against his chest that Riaag knew he hadn’t had at the beginning of the day. Sarouth stood shakily to his feet. He looked at and through Riaag, then presented the mace with all the joy of a new parent.
Sarouth had found gifts from Agritakh before: Riaag was used to him finding little potion vials tucked away in strange places, and sometimes the vials had instead been full of soothsaying tools or glittering stones Sarouth made into jewelry, but those had been small, simple treasures. Nothing like this.
The mace was made from some sort of black iron, its shaft and flanged head made from a single piece of metal that was as lustrous as lava glass; it had no leather or other padding wrapped around the grip, though that was a problem easily fixed when they next met people to trade with. There was something about the way it caught the light that made it glint red in a way metal wasn’t really supposed to. It was jagged and cruel-looking, and going by the way Sarouth held it it was heavier than a normal weapon of its size would be. It practically sang with the savage might of Agritakh. Sarouth gave it a glazed smile.
“I am…hardly worthy of this,” he breathed.
“What is it, Holy One?”
Sarouth swung it through the air one-handed. Riaag was well aware that metal couldn’t thrum or sigh, but every second around the mace made him doubt that more and more. The bloodstains on Sarouth’s robes were lighter than before. Riaag eyed the mace uneasily. Did it…eat?
“I know it and it knows me,” said Sarouth. He caressed the weapon’s head with claws still cracked and bloody. When he took his hand away the dirt remained on his fingers but the blood was completely gone. “A friend from the Labyrinth. I’ve slain many dreams with this over the months, painting wounds with it for He Who Sleeps more times than I can count. I never would have imagined I’d be found worthy of carrying such a treasure in the waking world.” Sarouth giggled to himself. “Wow. An actual divine artifact. And it chose me.”
It was the weirdest conversation they’d had in a while. Riaag wet a cloth and gingerly reached for Sarouth’s forehead with it; when he wasn’t growled at this time, he did what he could to try and clean Sarouth’s face. They’d need a day with a pond and some soap to get things all the way back to normal, but at least this way Riaag felt useful. The longer Sarouth talked the more like himself he sounded. It was a little beacon of familiarity in the vast sea of strangeness.
“This proves that He has a plan for me. I haven’t put together all the pieces yet, but I know it’s important. I wouldn’t be trusted with such a gift if I wasn’t going to need it.” He smiled at Riaag, at once hopeful and vulnerable. Riaag wasn’t used to seeing the latter on him. “Whatever trials may come…will you help me?”
“Always, Holy One,” said Riaag. It would never stop being true.
Sarouth beckoned to Riaag, who took his usual place behind Sarouth and just to his left, his shield tilted forward just enough that it covered part of Sarouth’s side in addition to his own. He kept his axe in its baldric; if Sarouth was going to be speaking in code then openly brandishing a weapon might ruin whatever it was he had planned. Riaag hoped showing up in his helm and armor hadn’t already jeopardized things.
“I know that you both have come here in search of a wayward spirit,” said Sarouth. He kept his voice soft and even in the way Riaag had learned meant he was a hair’s breadth away from snapping. Maybe Riaag’s job that night was going to be protecting their guests from him instead of vice versa? “Such an evil near my people is obviously cause for great concern. When my oathbound called me away to discuss a personal matter, I felt my head ache as though it was too full of thoughts to contain them. The spirit of Agritakh ascended and I felt my heart burst, yet when the most terrible instant of wrath left me I found an answer I did not yet know I sought.”
“What might that be?” asked Kind-Knife, guardedly.
“I know where the ghost has gone.”
If he hadn’t gained their attention before, Sarouth unquestionably had it now. He began to pace slowly, sometimes lingering in front of Kind-Knife and sometimes pausing near Jade-Tongue. Riaag found it harder than it should’ve been to keep up with him.
“It seems to have torn itself in half, somehow,” Sarouth continued. “The fragment you exorcised is gone, but it carved a door in its wake, and it’s that same door the remnant has used to hide itself. This thing is the sort that knows what it’s doing. It hunts those who can hurt it. This was…I’m not sure how to describe it, but it wouldn’t have succeeded if you hadn’t done everything right. It needed you to be competent. Both of you. I think we only caught it by luck, but it’s smart, and it’s angry, and it’s already figuring out how to be rid of us so it can do…something.”
Riaag could have thought of all sorts of more descriptive terms for it, but he was glad that Sarouth had kept with something so vague.
Sarouth palmed something from one of his belt pouches. Riaag tensed up; if Sarouth had meant for everyone to see whatever it was he would’ve held it openly, but it was impossible to tell what it was from Riaag’s angle.
“We’re at risk speaking even this openly. I can feel it nearby. It might have already heard us.” Sarouth pointed at both of the other god-speakers in turn. “I need you both to help me take this fucker down.”
“How do you propose we do that?” asked Jade-Tongue.
Sarouth bolted forward without answering. Miid moved to stop him but Riaag was swift enough to block her with his shield, and she roared in dismay as Sarouth forced Jade-Tongue to his knees, wrenched his head back by the hair, and stuffed a white object in Jade-Tongue’s mouth. The air keened, Riaag’s stomach churned, and everything went black.
He blinked, then blinked again, and on the third time he cleared the shadows from his eyes, though what he saw wasn’t the usual rocks and trees of the Rhoanish countryside: this was a place of mist and strange reflections, lit from all directions and none by a dim luminesence that felt as though it came from the air itself. He could smell rotting meat, which was nice, and a sharp chemical tang, which was less so. It was deathly cold. It also didn’t look anything like the endless halls of the Labyrinth that Sarouth had told him about. Wherever he was, it didn’t have the decency to match a description from stories he knew, and if he hadn’t been potentially lost forever in a supernatural dreamscape he would’ve been annoyed.
Riaag took stock of himself. All his parts felt like they were in the right places, which was a start. His shield was heavy in his hand and the familiar weight of his axe tugged at his belt. Save for the cold he wasn’t in any pain. At first it looked as though he was left alone, and for a profoundly horrible few seconds he was convinced this was so; common sense kicked in after his initial panic and he thought to try looking down. Three god-speakers and one aide lay flat as pancakes on whatever this place’s closest equivalent to the ground was. It was easy to forget other people tended to be a few hundred pounds lighter.
Jade-Tongue rose to his knees and coughed until he’d gotten whatever it was Sarouth had forced upon him out. He cradled it in his hand: it looked like some kind of blossom with milk-white petals and a black stem. Some of the petals had gotten crushed in the process and others were speckled with flecks of blood and sputum, but its original shape had apparently been somewhere between a bulb of garlic and a calla bloom. Going by Jade-Tongue’s expression it didn’t taste very nice.
“What is this?” he asked.
“It’s a moly flower,” said Kind-Knife. “Very rare, used to counter magical things like curses. They don’t grow in this part of the world so you have to trade for them.”
Jade-Tongue rubbed his hand against his tongue and made a face. “Bleah. Mind telling me why you tried to choke me with exotic herbs, Sarouth?”
“You know how I said that ghost tore itself in half?” asked Sarouth. Jade-Tongue nodded. “The part you destroyed opened the way for the part you didn’t. I don’t know why it was able to possess you, since I’ve never heard of a god-speaker having enough room left inside for anything else, but that’s what happened. I forced it to leave with that flower you’ve got there—don’t throw that away, you might need it later—but it looks like it turned things inside out in the process. That leaves us in a bit of a jam.” Sarouth was awfully calm for having found himself pulled bodily into another realm of existence, but who knew how strange an Agritakh-ruhd’s dreams could get?
“How did you figure this out?” asked Kind-Knife.
Sarouth shrugged. “I didn’t do any of the hard work. I’d been having a private conversation with my oathbound and was so engrossed with something else the solution just slid right in. I imagine maybe any of us might’ve stumbled across it if we were in the right place at the right time…well, maybe not you, Yuris. No offense.”
Miid had to help Jade-Tongue to his feet, but once he was there he was able to stand on his own. The roughness to his voice from all the coughing he’d been doing was gone and his eyes looked brighter behind his mask than they had that entire day. He tucked the slightly damp moly flower in his sash. Miid herself had the rattled-but-determined air common to anyone who served as an aide to someone who ended up in weird situations more often than not; Riaag was pretty certain that if anyone tried looking under his helmet he’d be wearing the exact same face.
“I assume you have a plan to get us out of here, Holy One?” asked Miid. All three god-speakers reacted to the title again, but it was actually a pretty clever way to get around favoring one over the other in an already tense situation.
Sarouth nodded. “I do,” he said. “We’re going to pick a fight, win that fight, then go home.” He studied the un-scenery thoughtfully. “This is going to require the unobstructed gaze of Agritakh from all three of us to work, I think. We’re basically going to exorcise this whole wherever-we-are. If my intuition isn’t steering me wrong we’ll want to focus everything right…here.” He tapped a part of the not-quite-ground that looked like every other part of the not-quite-ground with his sandal. “That’ll make a good-sized rip in the theoretical foundation of this place. Catch-Fire and Bough-Breaker, you both will do the usual: keep us from getting wrecked by whatever comes out.”
“Right,” said Riaag and Miid in unison. They held out their weapons and touched them together with a clank, then shared a mutual nod: it was a lot faster than dramatic speechifying and got the same point across.
The god-speakers stood in a circle around the spot Sarouth had marked. They hadn’t discussed the rest of their plan, but maybe that was the point: they couldn’t risk the thing that had been riding along inside Jade-Tongue’s head from knowing what was coming. As one they uncovered their faces and joined hands. Riaag did his best to avert his eyes; it felt wrong to see a god-speaker’s entire face, even Sarouth’s, and even a child knew it was unwise to risk Agritakh’s displeasure by looking upon Him without Him first desiring it.
Sarouth began invoking first, then Kind-Knife, then Jade-Tongue, and had they actually been somewhere normal the ground would have rumbled with the tells of their miracle-working. They had no holy earth to throw or singing stones to lull the ghost to sleep: this was a wilder, fiercer call, one that demanded they stop walking the razor’s edge between the everyday and the exalted to give themselves over wholly to Agritakh’s chthonic majesty. The three god-speakers looked the same but filled the endless emptiness with their presence. The Chant had many verses about the joy of making oneself a vessel for He Who Sleeps Beneath the Earth’s love, but it conveniently neglected to say anything about how terrifying it was to actually see it happen. It was almost insulting that the force of it wasn’t so much as jingling the bell in Jade-Tongue’s hair.
A low groan sounded, followed by the appearance of a vertical rip in the air between the three. A clear, pus-like fluid dribbled from it. The nothingness bulged outwards like some foul organ preparing to rupture, even though logically there shouldn’t’ve been anything there to distend. Something was there and Riaag forced himself to look despite every bone in his body screaming to run. Oh, how he wanted to run. He had a job to do, though, and whatever was being pulled out was going to have to get through him—and Miid, of course, he couldn’t forget he actually had some backup this time around—to so much as lay a finger on Sarouth.
The air ripped further, then cracked, then shattered with such force it knocked the god-speakers over and sent their guardians staggering. A figure—person-sized, though clearly no longer a person, if it had ever been one in the first place—lay slick and pestilent on the ground, curled up in a mockery of a child nestled against a parent. Riaag raised his shield against the thing. He couldn’t risk charging into a trap no matter how dearly he wanted to, but the instant he was told to he was ready to cleave it in two. Miid met his eyes from the opposite side of the lying figure; they nodded to one another again. It felt good having someone ready to flank an unliving horror instead of doing everything by himself for a change.
Then the ghost unfolded.
It was still no larger than a person, but as it pulled away the thick film that clung to it its presence expanded until it threatened the magnitude of the now-disrupted triple invocation. The flesh on its bones was skinless and fetid, in equal parts as tough as dry leather and as soft and spongy as well-aged carrion, but the way it leered and contorted made a mockery of the idea of food. A pair of lidless eyes rolled in its sockets. The thing’s claws were too long and jagged, its teeth and tusks a saw-edged nightmare; lines of smaller, flatter teeth erupted from its arms and legs in whorls. It opened its rotten mouth and a long, fleshy tongue rolled out, first hanging limp and then lashing the air with grotesque limberness.
“Precious children,” it cooed in a high, childish voice. “Couldn’t you have waited for me?”
“Begone,” said Kind-Knife with the practiced authority of a long-time exorcist.
“Oh, no, I can’t do that,” gurgled the ghost. It licked its eye like a lizard. “I was going to make some new friends. So many new friends to play such fun games with everyone. We could all play together if you wanted. Wouldn’t you like that?”
It took a step towards her. The air pulled apart further and more corpses tumbled out from whatever lay on the other side of the tear, though these were all still dead, at least for now. “Look, look, here they are. It was so good of you to bring me to a garden with so many flowers to pick, sweet Yuris. I might’ve been waiting years to complete my collection if you hadn’t walked down the trail I showed you!”
Riaag put himself between Sarouth and the thing, but that only attracted its attention.
“This one’s bloated with shame and anger. Oooh, delicious.” It reached down and lifted one of the corpses where he could see it and meet the dead man’s eyes. Riaag bit back the rising bile in his throat. At least he knew what had become of Heiwog now. “Would you like me to bring this one back first, sweet baby?” it said with a titter. “I’m sure you’d have so much to catch up on. I bet you miss him so very much.” No. No, no, no. He felt drunk. It was like hot tar was oozing into every orifice, filling him up with the foulness he’d been so sure he’d carried for so many years but this time so literal it was almost laughable. This wasn’t happening, this wasn’t real, any moment now he’d wake up exhausted and sick but in his own bed and it would all be over—
His amulet burned cold against his arm, colder than even the bitter air. It hurt but it cleared his head: this was as real as things could be in such an unreal place, and while the ghost was a problem the…other thing it held was just so much dead meat that had fallen off the wall. It couldn’t hurt him again so long as he did the job he came here to do. He could cry when they were home again.
“How about fuck you,” he said, calmly, then threw his entire weight into a single powerful shield bash.
Despite feeling bone smash against the thick slab of iron, Riaag wasn’t so naive as to assume he’d killed it, or banished it, or exorcised it, or…well, whatever it was you did to ghosts, he knew it wasn’t done yet. The thing about working towards a common goal was that you didn’t have to do everything yourself, though: Miid caught the thing from behind and pulled it to the ground, where she pressed the flat of her sword across its shoulders, pinning it, while Jade-Tongue followed closely behind and hooked his fingers into its broken mouth to keep it forced open. Kind-Knife grabbed its terrible tongue and sawed it off with a blade so serrated and vicious-looking it might have been the one that inspired her name. Riaag secured its legs. The ghost howled and thrashed, but a pack of determined orcs could hold a lot of things at bay.
Jade-Tongue pulled the moly flower from his belt and shoved it into the ghost’s bleezing mouth. Miid kneed it in the chest, forcing its unbreathing lungs to gasp from whatever memories of life still clung to them, and the white petals lodged themselves in its throat; one little bloom couldn’t solve everything, but it could at least buy them a chance. She glanced up at Sarouth, who was still chanting furiously.
“Do it now, White-Hair!” she shouted above the ghost’s screams.
Whatever Riaag had been expecting it wasn’t what actually happened: Sarouth knelt next to the thrashing undead thing and placed his fingertips on its oozing cheekbones. “It’s time for you to go,” he said, then drove his thumbs into its eyes with swift, brutal efficiency.
One minute they were trapped somewhere out of time, the next they were all in an undignified heap out in the trees surrounded by dead bodies that had managed to stay that way throughout the excitement. The ghost was gone entirely; not even the effluvium that had coated it or the lashing tongue Kind-Knife had severed were left. Riaag resolved that if he ever recounted the events of the day in song he’d have to do something about how anticlimactic the ending felt.
The other god-speakers concealed their faces once more as Riaag coaxed Sarouth’s hair back into its usual state. They laughed among themselves; Riaag himself felt slightly numb, but it felt good to talk like a normal person again. Barely any time had passed since they’d first been pulled into the other place, and judging by the sounds of merry-making the feast wasn’t about to stop any time soon.
“I don’t know about you folk,” said Jade-Tongue, “but ever since Sarouth pulled a ghost out of my stomach I’ve had the most outrageous appetite. How about you, Ruzhu?”
Kind-Knife grinned. “I could probably find the space for some of that ‘bread’ stuff I keep hearing about. Just don’t expect me to eat much of those Usoan dishes until I can build up a taste for whatever it is they use to flavor them.”
Jade-Tongue patted Miid on the shoulder. “Good hustle back there,” he said. She beamed. “Let’s take a vote,” he continued. “All in favor of going back to where it’s warm and we’re not up to our ankles in cadavers, hands?” Everyone’s hands went up, save for Sarouth’s, who waved them off.
“You all go on ahead, yeah? I need to take care of some things.”
Riaag stayed behind, of course, since a bodyguard’s job was never done, and he’d feel like the world’s biggest shitheel if he’d kept Sarouth alive all throughout an encounter of mythical proportions just to have him gutted by a cutpurse because nobody was around to warn him. At first he thought Sarouth simply had to make water after such an ordeal, but it wasn’t until the other three had vanished back towards the stronghold that Sarouth’s motives became clear: he pulled his mace free from where it hung, took it in both hands, and smashed the already-ruined skull of what had once been Heiwog. He raised the mace high and brought it down hard again, then again, and then a fourth time, disfiguring the corpse beyond all recognition. He might have kept going if Riaag hadn’t caught him by one wrist.
“It’s not fair,” Sarouth said, his voice close to breaking. “After everything he did it’s not fair.” He tried to take another swing at Heiwog’s remains but Riaag held him fast.
“That ain’t gonna make me any less broken,” he said, as gently as he could. “I need you here, Faaroug, not lost in a rage at some fucker what’s been dead fer months.” Riaag released Sarouth’s arm; to his relief, Sarouth didn’t immediately try to go for the corpse again. “Come on. We can clean this shit up in the morning. Tonight we got a festival ter get back ter.” He offered his hand. Sarouth stood and panted for a long time before he finally took it and allowed Riaag to guide him back to the feast.
It wasn’t the kind of closure Riaag wanted, but it was the closure he got, and that was going to have to do.
They walked through the most basic parts of the Chant and a few basic prayers, since when dealing with isolated bands who were only a few steps up from the Old People you couldn’t assume anything about what they did and didn’t know about their loving, slumbering god. When they finished the last verse—it was the Creed of the Rock today—Sarouth stepped back to let Riaag lead a song. Once he’d been convinced he was allowed to play such an important part Riaag had started looking forward to these little sessions. It felt good being able to share Agritakh’s love.
After the song came one of Sarouth’s sermons. Riaag liked those, too, even if he couldn’t always pay the most attention to them because he had to keep an eye on the congregation. This time everyone behaved, which meant they’d soon be at the part where Sarouth gave out the food he and Riaag had collected over the past week. Even if some people couldn’t care less about what a god-speaker had to say it was hard to argue with the opportunity to take the edge off one’s hunger. Sarouth’s voice began to follow its usual winding-down pattern and Riaag snapped back to attention in case he was called upon to do something.
“The dreams of the flesh are powerful, and the dreams of a god are unstoppable,” said Sarouth. It wasn’t a benediction Riaag recognized. It wasn’t that he’d never heard the concept before, as even Riaag had managed to pick up the gist of how the Hill God raised mountains with the strength of His dreaming, but why Sarouth was ending on that note he wasn’t sure. “Through dreams we are given strength and through that strength we persevere, forever chasing a distant hope, and perhaps we will spend our whole lives seeking without finding. Who can say if this, too, is a mirror of His nature? Throughout all of life’s many struggles we may take solace in this: the things we do matter, whether small or grand, and whether it’s a smile of kindness or a single drop of blood any gift we offer to Him is cherished, even if He may never wake again to thank us. May we all dream of better days and fight for better lives. The Chant is spoken, the Chant is done.”
“Go bravely into the world,” recited the others. The service completed, Riaag took his place next to Sarouth and busied himself with passing out roasted tubers and dollops of jarred meat.
He wouldn’t think about the ordering of Sarouth’s words until later. The Hill God had made the earth from bits of stardust and held everything together with His dreams, so that much made sense, but it was the part where Sarouth compared the nighttime whimsies of any given orc to His endless sleep that stuck in Riaag’s craw. No one could be that important. Well, maybe Sarouth was, but Sarouth was special—the Faaroug himself, even if he denied it!—and special people worked on different rules.
Years would pass and he would hear that same out-of-place blessing many times before he was able to accept that the point of the whole thing: anything could be special, even if only on a small scale, and it was that small scale that mattered, just as digging up root vegetables for hours meant nothing to the world at large but everything to the nomads whose herds were failing and who cherished anything that helped stretch their meager reserves. It was all a matter of perspective.
There was no one point he could look back to and say that was when he’d stopped merely existing and started healing, however slow and awkward the pace might have been, but any time he thought about how far he’d come, Riaag would always remember that first time he’d realized even someone as lowly as he could do some good.
Once the last body had been committed to the pyre Riaag actually went looking for Sarouth again. They’d already had breakfast and it wasn’t time for lunch, so he wouldn’t have been in any of the kitchens, and they’d decided to leave the offering of steel out for a week and a day before harvesting it, so he wouldn’t be roaming sacred ground. If he was down in the cave communing with Agritakh he would’ve said something first. Riaag checked their tent and the other god-speakers’ camp with no luck, and it wasn’t until he thought to look in front of the south gate that he found Sarouth looking up at a certain conspicuously empty spot on the wall. Riaag stood next to him and looked in the same direction, but he decided he was watching the clouds in the autumn sky, not musing over a space that used to hold something ugly.
“We got the trash cleaned up already,” he said after a little while.
“Ah? That’s good,” said Sarouth. He rubbed the back of his neck pensively. “How’d it look out there in the sunlight? I was preoccupied when I was setting wards this morning.”
Riaag shrugged. “Rocks. Trees. A few dead-ass orcs. I didn’t see anything that looked outta place aside from the expected.”
Sarouth nodded. He didn’t say anything else, so Riaag let his hearing unfocus to take in the general sounds of the stronghold and the twittering birds perched on the empty lizard paddocks. The closest thing to otherworldly despair he could sense was the sound of somebody’s baby who, judging by the volume and pitch of their wails, needed a burp and a change, in that order. Save for a lingering emotional hangover things were back to normal again. If he could handle malevolent ghosts that thought his pain was funny, he could handle Sarouth being a little moody after a day of nasty revelations.
Whether or not Sarouth could handle himself being a little moody was a bit less clear. Riaag nudged him with his elbow.
“You thinking about last night?”
Riaag grunted. “Look, I know he was shitty,” he said, and even without naming Heiwog it was clear who he meant. “He was a fuck-awful piece of…of….” Well, this was difficult, he’d already used a variation on the word “shit” in the previous breath. He started over. “He’s gone now. Nothin’ you coulda done can change that, or undo what he done, or make any of this just magic itself away. What’s actually gonna help me is what you been doing already. You treat me like a grown-ass man and even if you fuck that up sometimes you still love me and try ter keep me going. Even when I’m a total mess you try. What I want is ter be able ter live a little, and you’ve helped me get my shit back together enough so sometimes I can do that. A’ight?”
Sarouth sighed, then took his hand and kissed him on the glove over his knuckle. “I’ll try to remember that, brave warrior.” He smiled at something. “Don’t look now, but I think we have an audience.”
A small boy and a pair of twin girls peeked around the side of the gate at them. They hid when they realized they’d been spotted, but curiosity got the better of them and one by one they poked their heads back out. Riaag waved to them, which sent them into hiding again; just like before, they slowly reappeared like little snails emerging from their shells.
One of the girls looked at her friends and then up at Riaag. “Are you and the leader man kissing?”
Riaag grinned and put his arm around Sarouth. “Yeah,” he said. “Don’t look, we’re gonna do it again.” They shared the chastest of pecks (once Sarouth popped up on tiptoe, anyway) to the tune of a trio of enthusiastic shrieks. Riaag grilled the children on whether or not they’d been keeping up with their chores and prayers, and when they answered to his satisfaction he gave them bone chips to chew on. They scampered off to scandalize their friends and brag about their prizes. Riaag kept his arm across Sarouth’s shoulders long after they were gone.
It felt good being able to be this close to Sarouth in public and not have to worry about what other people would think. It felt good being this close to Sarouth, period. He pulled Sarouth in for a proper embrace that was just modest enough for two men standing just in front of a populated area. This time he didn’t need any encouraging for his thoughts to skew immodestly.
Sarouth hummed happily. “This is nice.”
“Yeah. Yesterday was nice, too. Been thinking about that a little bit, even after ever’thing what went down.” He’d been too tired after they finished their second round of feasting to act on it, but the memory of how Sarouth squeezed his eyes shut and called his name had kept him company as he drifted off to sleep.
“Oh, you too?
Riaag tapped his finger against Sarouth’s lips. “I want ter try again.”
“You told me a story already, Riaag, and it was a pretty fantastic one with all the right kinds of detail. You don’t have to—”
“No, you don’t understand. I want ter try again. You know. With you.” He smiled shyly. “And afore you ask your next question, I can tell you the answer’s gonna be ‘yes, really.'”
“Well. Huh.” Sarouth glanced at the length of the shadows. “Seems I don’t have much planned for the rest of the week after the harvest feast, and there’s still half a day left I have to fill. Funny how that worked out.” He gave Riaag his most smouldering gaze and lowered his voice to a soft, sultry growl. “Meet me back home and I’ll be willing to try as much as your little heart desires.”
They’d talked more during their first year together than Riaag guessed he had across every year of his old life combined; once he figured out how to properly do it he found himself looking forward to their regular chats. He had a purpose now, a real one, and if that purpose happened to include suffering through Sarouth’s terrible jokes or trying to remember whether or not wasps knew how to make honey, so much the better. Being friendly with someone was nice. Fun, even.
So it came as a surprise when Sarouth sat him down, looked him in the eye, and asked, “Is this something you want?”
“Is what what?”
“Following me. Putting your life on the line. Do you actually want this?”
Riaag shrugged. “Sometimes it’s a little shitty when the weather’s too cold and my stomach’s too empty, but the other parts are pretty good. I grew up in a lot worse.”
“You grew up throwing yourself in harm’s way for the sake of other people.”
He’d mentioned that, hadn’t he? Their working relationship did sound kind of bad when put in those words. “Yeah, which means I had time to get pretty fucken good at it,” said Riaag, who meant every syllable.
“True as that may be, I didn’t give you much of a choice,” said Sarouth. He twisted the hem of his robe between his fingers.
“‘course you did! You asked me. I coulda always said no.”
Sarouth sighed. “Could you really?” He pulled up his sleeve and traced his tattoos like they’d lead him to whatever answer it was he wanted. “I’m a god-speaker. I live and breathe borrowed authority. Even if I somehow hid that away somehow, that still puts me on a different level from normal people. If I make a request it’s not just me asking, it’s Agritakh Himself, or at least the rank He’s bestowed upon me, and how can I expect anyone to be honest when they’re staring at a mouthpiece of the divine?” The wind touseled his hair; for the briefest of moments it exposed his other eye, the one where he kept his godhood, and the thick-lined symbol painted around it. “I pulled you from the brink of death with my own hands. You were grateful, as anyone would’ve been in that situation, but there’s reasons they tell healers in training not to make demands of their patients, you know?”
That made sense to Riaag, but making sense and being something he agreed with were two different beasts. He rubbed at his beard. “Maybe it’s kinda fucked you asked what you did when you did, sure,” he said. “Maybe I don’t got much experience saying no ter people. Maybe I did swear loyalty ’cause I got so overwhelmed by someone being halfway fucken nice ter me I couldn’t think of any other answer. Maybe that’s how I like it, though.”
“No fucken buts, Holy One. You mighta forced my hand a little when I got into this shit, and I ain’t saying you did and I ain’t saying you didn’t, but if that’s the case I’m gonna make my own decision ter stick around.” He snortled. “If it’s really something you think is so necessary that you order me ter leave, I’ll do it, ’cause following orders is something I can do. Otherwise? Too fucken bad, I’m staying.” He wasn’t sure where he got the courage to say that. Sarouth was a god-speaker! You didn’t mouth off to god-speakers and you certainly didn’t argue with them—
“You know what, Riaag? I think I’m okay with that.”
—but maybe it was worth it every now and then.
Sarouth pulled Riaag into the private side of the tent by the trophy-belt, a catlike grin never once leaving his face. He ran his tongue along one of his tusks. Riaag leaned down for another kiss and found himself lying on the bed on his side, Sarouth’s limbs woven into his; he still got the kiss he wanted, so this turn of events was just fine.
It was funny how libidos worked. Riaag wouldn’t say encountering ghosts of the past (both literal and metaphorical) was a turn-on for him, but surviving the ordeal and feeling that much more open with Sarouth had given him some very nice dreams that he’d tried unsuccessfully to push away during the cleanup that morning. Now those dreams could come out to play. He felt like the version of himself from the story he’d told: powerful, wanted, loved. Even if the first one still needed work at times he was as sure of the other two as a fish was sure of its home stream.
Riaag was usually the more passive of the two, and happily so, but today he wanted to see Sarouth naked sooner than Sarouth was actually getting there and it didn’t look like this would change in his favor; this was thankfully a not insurmountable problem. The trick was getting Sarouth’s sash off, really, since after that was gone most everything else was robes. The jewelry didn’t count—Riaag left all of Sarouth’s in place, and that was going to be something he’d want to bring up later for important, sexy reasons—and a breechcloth could be removed with your teeth if you were motivated enough, which Riaag certainly was. He was very proud of himself for not so much as straining a stitch in the fabric in the process.
Sarouth took his time getting Riaag to a similar state, as Faaroug or not he could still be such an asshole. He was extra slow with the laces in Riaag’s clothes, found reason to be amazed by Riaag’s belt buckle, looked each skull in the eye, and even Riaag’s boots—which lacked straps or laces of any sort and were essentially steel-toed mittens for his feet—took an absurdly long time to remove. At least it was worth his while: the instant Sarouth lay hands on Riaag’s bare flesh it made Riaag gasp, and the more Sarouth touched him the more Riaag remembered how much he liked doing this with him.
Then a different kind of memory came flooding back.
It was the same feeling as a few days ago, the one that had put him off physical contact entirely and forced him to sleep on his own at night. He clenched his teeth and tried to power through it to no avail; the hot chills of panic had gotten their teeth in too deep. Sarouth trailed kisses along his neck in what should’ve been a romantic gesture. His smile should have been comforting, his laugh should have been encouraging. Instead all Riaag could understand was that he was being held down.
Riaag thrashed desperately. He had to—had to—get away! This wasn’t fun, it wasn’t any good at all, and he feared that if he didn’t do something he might act out badly. Sarouth wasn’t a small man but Riaag was still so much bigger, and it’d be too easy for the wrong person to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, even with Riaag trying so hard to hold back.
“Stop,” he said, more a rasp than a word. It was hard to even say that much, but Sarouth stopped and backed away, hands up and away where Riaag could see them.
So this was how it was going to be now: he’d had a few months to be with Sarouth—which, of course, he’d wasted on being too fucking timid to try anything he’d wanted to do for many, many lonely years, so there went that chance—and now that his time was up he was going to feel disgusting any time he did anything more exciting than jerking off while Sarouth was watching him. He was back to living solely through fantasies again, save that this time instead of being unable to let Sarouth know how he felt he was unable to let Sarouth close to explore said feelings. Great. Wonderful. He’d talked a fine line of bullshit about being happy and getting better, but those words hadn’t had to be said while he felt like he was going to to throw up. Jade-Tongue had had it easy: all his problems went away with an exorcism, while Riaag’s weren’t the fault of a ghost or a curse or anything other than a shitty childhood. And now he’d trapped Sarouth (kind, caring, constantly horny Sarouth) in a sexless oath, and Sarouth wouldn’t even have the decency to be mad about it because instead he’d be too busy feeling sorry and guilty and other things he didn’t have to. The entire point of being someone’s guardian was keeping them from getting hurt. What a good job Riaag was doing of that.
He owed Sarouth an explanation. “I’m, I’m getting upset again,” he sobbed. “I’m sorry….”
“That’s okay,” said Sarouth. “You’re going to be okay. It feels bad now, but you’ve been here before and you survived, right? You won’t be like this forever. I’ll be right here with you.” He sat up on his knees with his palms flat on the bed beside him. “Can you breathe deep for me?” Riaag felt like he was drowning but managed a few shaky breaths. Sarouth nodded. “Good, that’s good. Tell me what I can do to help. We can stop or slow down or whatever you need.”
It was enough to help Riaag center himself again. That was true, wasn’t it? He’d survived days like this before. The last time he’d been like this it hadn’t pushed Sarouth away, and then yesterday they’d been able to have sex again, and it didn’t matter if it wasn’t the same kind of sex he daydreamed about sometimes because it’d still been good, and good on its own terms. You didn’t learn to make a stew without ruining a few dinners and you didn’t learn how to have an intimate relationship with someone without similar risks. Sarouth loved his cooking even after all those early days of overseasoned roasts and singed eyebrows. Maybe this could be just like that.
“I really need a fucken hug.”
“Done,” said Sarouth. He gathered Riaag in his arms, Riaag’s head on his shoulder. Riaag sighed and forced some of the tension from his body until he could properly melt in his usual place against Sarouth’s chest. Sometimes Riaag overheard other Rhoanish guessing what they got up to together, which was the sort of harmless gossip anyone visible accrued after a while, and one common thread through most of those guesses assumed Riaag was the bigger of two matching spoons when he and Sarouth slept. He still had no idea where people got that one from.
They cuddled quietly. For such a chatterbox Sarouth had a knack for knowing when not to say anything; Riaag shivered and snuffled without having to think about any sounds but the wind outside and the quiet thunder of Sarouth’s heart.
Words came later. “I want this so much, Sarouth, I really do,” he said. He blew his nose on a spare cloth; he was willing to take liberties with the Chant when need be, but snotting on the messiah wasn’t one of them.
Sarouth stroked his hair. “We can wait as long as you need, brave warrior.”
“Even if I’m stuck this way fer good?”
Really, him being the Faaroug was the only explanation. People simply didn’t come that perfect.
Being on holy ground, their tent wasn’t close enough to the rest of the stronghold to really hear much of the buzz of life around them, but the midday commotion of warriors and laborers coming together for lunch still made it to Riaag’s ears, and he let his mind drift as he listened to the sound rise and fall. The panic did fade. Sarouth’s hands were gentle against his hair and where they held him close, and that was something he could tolerate. The pattern on the tent roof meant the sun was starting to return to its burrow beneath the horizon; that it’d been this long and he’d managed to hold himself together this well came as a welcome surprise to Riaag. What was less of a surprise was how his cock had decided this was a good time to wake up again, because the damn thing had no clue when it was welcome and when it wasn’t. That was the third surprise of the afternoon: he halfway didn’t mind its presence.
He took Sarouth’s hand lightly by the wrist. Sarouth tilted his head and made a questioning sound.
“I meant it when I said I wanted ter try again,” said Riaag. He swallowed hard. “Is it okay if I kinda…do things myself fer a bit, just with your hand instead of mine?” It sounded a lot weirder when he tried putting words to it, and what artless words they were. He gave himself permission to be off his game given how hard things had been.
Awkward or not, Sarouth seemed to get the gist of what Riaag meant. He wiggled his fingers. “Be my guest.”
Riaag rolled on his back and propped himself up on a pillow. He guided Sarouth’s hand along the side of his face and down his neck, then raised one small-clawed finger to his lips and sucked on it. Sarouth let out a soft gasp; Riaag had a long way to go before he was as good as the story version of himself, which meant he was merely good with his mouth as opposed to excellent.
He used Sarouth to trace the contours of fat and muscle that filled out his heavy frame. His skin dimpled wherever he put Sarouth’s hand and it was nice to see the way the thick black hair that was simply everywhere south of his neck retained a hint of the path of those familiar fingers. This was good, this was fine. Sarouth would spend all day touching him like this if he could, because somehow Riaag had ended up at the epicenter of a startling number of Sarouth’s sexual preferences without even trying; maybe they’d try that all-day touching idea one day during the winter when neither of them had to be anywhere and they could keep each other warm with body heat. Planning for the future was a good sign, wasn’t it?
Riaag steeled himself and had Sarouth touch him in more personal places: a thumb against a nipple here, a palm against the balls there. He had to concentrate to keep from backsliding into the bad way of thinking, but he managed. Slow steps were still steps.
He released Sarouth’s hand. “I think I’m ready fer you ter take over now.”
Sarouth cupped Riaag’s cheek and kissed him, then walked his fingers down the curve of Riaag’s furred stomach. Riaag’s breath caught as Sarouth neared his cock; Sarouth stopped then, alert as a deer, but Riaag lifted his hips and brushed his shaft against Sarouth’s palm. He stayed focused on Sarouth. Here he could see who was touching him, and how, and if he needed to stop or slow down he only had to ask for it. This was going to work out. This was going to be okay.
It felt like Sarouth was everywhere at once, despite him having the same number of hands as usual. Riaag panted. This was something only Sarouth would do for him because only Sarouth knew him this well, only Sarouth would be so patient with a broken-hearted poet as to guide him through the tangle in his own mind like this, only Sarouth would offer to bleed for him in return, only Sarouth who did that thing with his thumb that made it hard for Riaag to mentally compose laudations in his head. By blood and steel and fire, that last one was really making itself known. He pulled Sarouth down on top of him, another callback to the story they’d shared.
Sarouth kept his weight on his knees. He looked Riaag in the eye. “Would you like me here?” As if that was even a question anymore.
There were no games this time. Sarouth pressed himself down against Riaag’s cock, wrapped his hand around their shafts, and thrust until they were close; Riaag added his hand at the last second and, for the first time he’d ever experienced, coaxed Sarouth into coming with the same stroke that pushed him over. Once his head cleared again he licked Sarouth’s fingers clean. Maybe it was all the oracular fumes he spent time around, but Sarouth had a slightly darker taste that Riaag found comforting in its own carnal manner. He was so relieved he’d managed to get this far that he didn’t even mind how their mutual orgasms had robbed him of the chance to enjoy Sarouth’s reaction.
He was a big man who drank plenty of water, so he likely could’ve tried to come again after that, but the idea didn’t appeal to Riaag; instead he pulled Sarouth down to lie atop him, sticky stomachs and all, which seemed like a good place to spend another hour or two in cozy silence. Maybe later they would kiss again, but later was later, and Riaag was content just to bask in the closeness as long as he could. It was like a great weight had fallen from his shoulders: he could feel himself no longer burdened by so many things, but he’d still need time before he was ready to take advantage of that newfound freedom.
Sarouth scooted forward—further smearing their bellies into a messy snail-trail—and hooked his chin over Riaag’s shoulder in a reversal of how they usually slept. His lashes brushed lightly against Riaag’s cheek. “I love you, brave warrior,” he whispered, his voice so soft Riaag could barely hear it. “I always will.”
“I’m yours as long as you’ll have me,” said Riaag. He didn’t see Sarouth smile at that, but he felt it.
It would take a lot of time for him to really get better, he knew, and there’d probably always be a foul spectre hiding in the far reaches of his mind, but that was something he could learn to live with. Sarouth had once told him of a foreign land where they saved pottery that exploded in the kiln and sealed it back up with fillings of precious metals; the damage had been done and couldn’t be forgotten, but there was a chance for a smashed vase that wore its scars on the outside to still be beautiful and useful. Riaag hadn’t grasped the significance of the story then. Now, though, he felt as if maybe a few of his own pieces were waiting to be sealed together with gold.
Tell him he’s very lucky! said Miid in Riaag’s head. Lying cradled in Sarouth’s arms, still a little fucked up but at least now swimming towards a distant light in his heart’s once-endless sea, Riaag knew their good fortune was mutual.