Pyroclastic Flow

written and illustrated by Iron Eater

See this piece’s entry on the Shousetsu Bang*Bang wiki.

The too-smooth spire of the tower sliced against the midmorning sky like the snapped-off trunk of a sapling, and even after all this time Riaag never liked fully turning his back to it. He hated that fucking thing. Sagas loved talking about the bravery of heroes past as they routed villains in their dreadful lairs; what sagas tended to skimp on was what anyone was expected to do with such a lair once its master was no more than a red smear on the flagstones, especially when said master’s departure left several dozen of the recently enthralled to fend for themselves in some tremendously shitty weather. Theirs was a practical people, however, being pious adherents of Agritakh, the First Scavenger, and so they did what any carrion-eaters would do in the same position: they scaled its sometimes endless stairwell and began stripping it for parts from the top down.

It was in this context that Riaag found himself freezing his nuts off while dealing with the most recent batch of merchants to pass through.

“Look here how it’s so fine, like alabaster,” he said, rapping his knuckles on a chunk of the tower that had been brought all the way down its winding stairwell that morning. “So light, but so hard. It even keeps weather outside like no other thing. We use it for shelters, you see?” He gestured at some of the little buildings dotting the settlement’s makeshift streets, their pieces fitted together as neat and tidy as workers who barely understood architecture could manage. They looked something like the shells of enormous tortoises. Ramshackle as they were, they were a far sight better than the filthy shacks that had been there when Riaag first arrived months ago. It had taken a lot of work to turn that miserable mess into something even approaching a goat pen; to their credit, once they had full control of their faculties again, it hadn’t been too difficult to organize the residents into a proper cleanup effort.

Yun Azrha, they called the place, after the snow knocked loose by an avalanche, and like that same snow no one could say for sure how long it would stay around afterwards; its people were mostly nomads and hunters, strangers to a stationary life, but unfamiliar territory in the dead of winter was a perilous place to be without proper supplies. The lingering Azrhics (as some of them called themselves, at least for now) had agreed to shelter together until the ground thawed and it was safe to roam again in search of the bands they’d left behind. Until that day came it was Riaag’s duty to make sure there was enough food to go around. In this manner were his nuts imperiled. He really needed to sew himself some thicker breeches.

“And you say it’s from the tower?” asked an unimpressed merchant from beneath their layered hoods. Merchants didn’t like the cold any more than orcs did. “What if it’s still got curses on it?”

This was a reasonable question, one which Riaag had thankfully anticipated. “Our god-speaker blesses our workers and our tools, and when the pieces come down he casts out any wickedness in them,” he said. “Perhaps something is still inside, but if it is, it means no harm.”

By some miracle nobody asked where that god-speaker of theirs was at this time of day; Sarouth White-Hair, resident demigod, was busy resting off having overextended his damn fool self again, and would likely be unavailable for parley until at least lunchtime, but visitors didn’t need that information unless they explicitly asked. He’d been running himself dry since the day they’d liberated the place, since if there weren’t things to bless there were messenger ravens to get in the air, and when he wasn’t stringing beads together into ciphers there were mouths to feed, and when that was more or less handled there were still all the services expected of a cleric by his people. Riaag was happy to handle any caravans arriving while Sarouth was taking a badly-needed nap. In Riaag’s experience, complete strangers were often more willing to deal with him than Sarouth, anyway. Riaag was simply very big, very loud, and (potentially) very well-armed. Sarouth was weird.

“How does one work it?” asked another merchant, wrapped up in clothes similar to their companion’s but in different cuts and colors. They ran a gloved finger along the side of the material. “What if we don’t want to make little egg-houses with it? What good is it then?”

Riaag had also anticipated this question. He motioned to a teenager who’d been watching the proceedings with interest from a few steps away; she hustled into place and spread out a cloth that revealed piece after piece of worked tower-stuff as it unrolled. “It touches fire and does not singe or melt, it touches water and does not wash away,” he said. “It can carve like ivory one moment, and be hard like steel the next. We have many treasures made from it already, as you can see. Every day we learn more of its wonders.”

He reached to the cloth and picked up one of the knives—some merchants were very particular about whether or not you’d risk touching something in front of them, which he supposed was reasonable when it came to watching for spirits and things—to balance across both his palms. It was the kind of knife whose sheath met flush with its hilt, making for a single piece of cream-colored material when closed, its surface adorned with brown-tinted images of bounding ibex and rolling hills. While the tassel hung from it was colored with simple dyes it was still impressively woven. He placed his thumb against the knife’s hilt and pulled the sheath away. The blade within was one they’d taken from an armory found during one of their many sweeps of the tower, having scrapped its old handle and burned away any lingering evils clinging to it; with its new fittings he thought it one of the finest smaller goods they had to trade that day. With luck, the merchants would agree.

“I touch it and go untroubled,” he said as he turned the knife this way and that so the merchants could see for themselves. He then flipped it to hold its metal between his thumb and forefinger, the handle now pointed towards his audience. “Will you hold it? It balances well, and grips easily.” He smiled as a gloved and cautious hand took the proffered hilt and gave it a few experimental swishes. It wasn’t quite the same as bartering away something he’d made himself, but given that his home forge was miles upon miles away it still felt good finding a new home for honest steel.

What would a trader know about balancing a weapon?” muttered one of the merchant guards in a language they probably didn’t expect him to know. Riaag busied himself with showing off more of Yun Azrha’s custom but kept one ear to their exchange.

This your first time this far across the mountains?” asked the guard they’d addressed. “Look at the skulls on his belt. Look at how big he is, too! That’s one of the paired leaders of Naar Rhoan, the stronghold that brings the house its best porcelain.

I thought that place was on the other side of the northern river. What’s he doing out here?

It was too noisy for Riaag to pick out the creak of armor over the sounds of the settlement on a trading day, though he could imagine a shrug in the pause that followed. “Apparently he and the other one are why the tower’s getting picked for carrion now. Good fucking riddance. Maybe now we can travel through here without having to worry about patchwork monsters in the woods.

“How much for it?” asked one of the merchants in the more formal bartering tongue they and Riaag had been using previously. Riaag snapped back to the discussion at hand without missing a beat.

“What do you have to trade? It has been winter for too long, and we must care for so many, so we always need more food and warm fabric.”

The two merchants doing the actual bartering exchanged glances. “Your people still don’t believe in eamila, do they?” said the one who hadn’t tested the knife.

Riaag got some variation on this question a lot when dealing with outsiders new to the Rhoanish ways (and Azrhic ways, he reminded himself; he couldn’t go assuming people were Rhoanish just because he’d lived near them for a while). He used his stock reply: “We believe in the land and the sky, in joy and in pain, and we believe you bring us good things of good worth. We will give you that which is useful and that which is pretty, and we take those things in return, no more and no less.” He’d tried asking about the concept before by whatever name the current batch of traders called it. He’d received a different explanation every time. At the end of the day it just sounded like all the trouble of keeping score in a fussy token-betting game without the fun of being able to stuff all the pieces back in the bag and start over. Riaag preferred playing Fox and Geese, anyway.

“So it’s subjective worth for everything, then?” asked the merchant without the knife. They huffed in irritation that couldn’t quite cover up their fascination with the carved tower-stuff their fellow held. “You valley-dwellers never make things easy.”

“It is as you say,” said Riaag, and he allowed himself a grin.

In the end Yun Azrha found itself the proud new owner of not only quite a lot of rice but also a lot of materials for making clothes, some livestock, some cooking staples they couldn’t easily replace, and a cache of desperately-needed medical supplies. Riaag had tried not to make it too obvious from his haggling how badly he’d wanted that last set. Back home he regularly spent time helping wash bandages or carrying water for the healers, to say nothing of his duties as assistant midwife; he’d learned firsthand just how poorly everything could go without the right tools for the job, and Yun Azrha had fallen into his hands bereft of tools. Sarouth’s miracles could only do so much. No, if Riaag ever had the chance to see home again, it would only be after leaving this place as strong as he could make it, whatever that ended up looking like.

After making a little polite post-haggling conversation Riaag delegated the delivery of the materials, opting to handle the precious cargo of poppy draughts and fever-breakers himself. Once that was done (and he’d performed a few useful odd jobs around the healers’ compound, as if he didn’t sing the Chant to the sick and injured, who would?) he walked the perimeter of the settlement. Back home he didn’t do this, but back home was a stronghold, a place built by divine decree, not the remnants of years of life in the tower’s long shadow. Back home they had walls. Back home those walls had corpses piked up on them, all silent reminders that while Naar Rhoan was a place of peace and friendship, it would defend those who sheltered there to the death. The Rhoanish fields drank from more than just rainfall.

Yun Azrha didn’t have walls and it didn’t have fields, but what it did have were guards. Not as many guards as it’d boasted in the tower days, of course—some days it felt like it didn’t have as many of anything as it’d had during the tower days, most especially not fuckhead tower masters or their ghoulish menageries—but a gaggle of guards of reasonably firm conviction were better than no defenses at all. Riaag waved to them as he passed and they usually waved back. So far he hadn’t had much trouble getting them to agree with his suggestions for how to best protect the settlement. It was easy to make people want to work with you if one of the first things you did in a position of authority was make sure they had gear that wasn’t falling apart. That their captain was absolutely terrified of Riaag probably didn’t hurt.

The walk was a calm one. Beasts and bandits mostly left the settlement alone, and the axe at Riaag’s hip saw more time chopping wood than rending flesh, which suited him just fine. Walking the perimeter gave the people there a chance to see him out and about; back home this was tacit permission for his fellow Rhoanish to ask things of him they might have felt inappropriate to voice while he stood at Sarouth’s side, and every new patrol he made saw him hoping that someone here might make that same assumption. If there were children in Yun Azrha things would be different. He still kept a little bag of bone shards on him just in case that ever changed, but so far even the youngest Azrhic was old enough to have sired a few children of their own. Riaag’s heart twinged at the thought. He hoped the little ones back home were doing well enough without having a friendly disciple around to give them treats.

When someone did finally catch up to him it was as he rounded the little pond where people sometimes risked the weather to bathe, and he must have been slightly lost in his own thoughts because Lakvo Blossom-Heart was slightly out of breath by the time she both caught up to him and caught his attention.

“Bough-Breaker!” she said as she took a few deep lungfuls. Her breath fogged across the brass cap fitted over her broken right tusk. “I was looking for you.”

“So you was, ‘n so you’s found me, standin’ ter receive yer words,” said Riaag, politely. Sometimes the formality of talking to merchants stuck to his tongue a little longer than it needed to, even when speaking a wholly different language. The flow of his usual dialect would take a little time to thaw out; just as well it was in front of Lakvo instead of a less understanding set of ears. He straightened up and rested his hand against the blade of his axe. “What’s needed ‘a me terday, Blossom-Heart?”

Lakvo made a gesture with her hand: easy, calm, no trouble. “Nothing serious, don’t worry,” she said. “Mostly I’m here to give a report on how things have been going. Bat-Scarer’s been less of a shithead to work with since you spoke to him last week, too, and I wanted to say thank you.”

Riaag nodded in acknowledgment. “I’s glad ter hear such. Just ’cause you’s both workin’ off a shared debt don’t mean he gets ter be a little asshole ’bout it.” Kedda Bat-Scarer, like Lakvo, had worked for the old master of the tower, and the two of them had been set to repent such compliance by serving their people until Yun Azrha saw the spring. The two of them no longer fought like cats in a bag when left alone, for which Riaag was endlessly grateful; he’d had to break up his share of brawls between them during the first days, and it hadn’t always been Kedda who’d thrown the first punch, either. Making sure they gave each other plenty of space when not working towards the good of the settlement had gone a long way towards smoothing over that rocky start. Taking the time to establish that Riaag had no patience for grown adults acting like bratty little toddlers had neatly shored up the rest.

“The trading went pretty good, I heard?”

“T’were pretty fucken decent, yeah,” said Riaag. “They had pickled veggies in droves, so we’s all got us some leafy greens ter share fer a bit. Also got us some goats ‘n camels fer milk, plus chickens fer eggs, ‘n they knows we’s in the market fer piggies so long as they brings feed fer ’em.” Riaag still felt a little awkward whenever he needed to negotiate for live pork with strangers. Back when he’d first started trading with merchants for more than a few trinkets at a time, some of them had made tasteless jokes about the relation between orcs and boars. Sarouth had been very keen to nip that one in the bud. It was amazing how agreeable people could learn to be if you withheld an entire stronghold’s worth of spices and fine clay until they shaped up, and Sarouth actually had the firebrand personality required to see such action bear prosperous fruit instead of finding himself quietly stricken from the trade routes. You didn’t get to insult the Rhoanish if you wanted them to share. Riaag sometimes wondered how many of those admonished few still made those jokes in the privacy of their own heads anyway.

They chatted a bit, he favoring what plans he and Sarouth had made which had guided the trading, she detailing all the little work projects going on at once throughout the settlement. Yun Azrha no longer smelled like neglect and disease; proper cleanliness had been Riaag’s first priority once he was sure the Azrhics’ more basic needs were being met, and it would not have happened as swiftly as it had were it not for Kedda and Lakvo keeping the gears turning whenever Riaag had to step away to see to one of his countless other responsibilities. It had felt like an eternity of water-hauling and trash-burning at the time. The work had paid off, as these days the only rotten things a visitor would find among the packed mud streets would be fermenting carrion. The Hill God surely smiled on them for tending to their kin as dutifully as they tended the land. What better proof to visitors (and to each other) that they were a civilized people?

After a heated discussion about the proper way to dig a drainage ditch, Lakvo meandered back towards a topic he’d later suspect she’d been meaning to bring up all day. “We really couldn’t do this without your and White-Hair’s help, you know. Even if his maj…if the lord of the tower had disappeared all on his own, even if everyone had stayed, you saw how we were. We weren’t made for that.”

He nodded solemnly. They were all still feeling the aftershocks from the tower. He didn’t like to dwell on what might have happened if certain persons (himself included) hadn’t refused to mind their own business, if he and Sarouth kept hearing nothing about the place but vague ideas of harmonious friendship. He still had nightmares about things the master of the tower had described, and even after his amulet burned those dreams away for him it was hard to unsee the terrible images of monsters cobbled together from people he loved. How bad would it have been for someone who’d lived that way for years instead of the paltry month Riaag had endured? How frightened would they have felt, how sad and helpless? How many would never return to their families? How—

A subtle warmth bloomed against his bicep where his amulet touched his skin and he returned himself to the here and now. Riaag took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Ain’t nobody made fer such, nor should they be. Settlin’ down ain’t somethin’ what should be done lightly, yeah? If it ain’t a choice, well, that’s why y’all was out here fer years ‘n only recently has we got proper amenities in place fer folks what ain’t curled up in that wizard fucknut’s lap.”

Wizard?” repeated Lakvo, turning the syllables over in her mouth like she was tasting them. “Is that what the Rhoanish call him?”

Had he not used that word in front of her before? It made enough sense, as he generally tried to avoid speaking about the lord of the tower whenever possible, just in case it could somehow bring back the dead. The presence of one impossibility suddenly made it that much harder to discount the chance of others. “We don’t precisely got a word fer his ass since we didn’t know his kin nor kind afore this mess,” said Riaag. “We’s got allies with more experience in such matters, so we’s borrowed what they say, given as we’s inclined ter follow they lead in some affairs.” The Usoan language had a remarkably broad coverage of unpleasant and/or supernatural events for a tongue mostly contained to a single waterside village. Maybe that was tied into why, in his experience, the River People of Usoa tended to be so cranky all the time. If he had to go to sleep every night knowing some of his neighbors were waiting for an excuse to tie ghosts to themselves and fight until torn to pieces, Riaag suspected he wouldn’t maintain the sunniest of moods, himself.

“It’s always allies, allies, allies with you. It’s strange to hear how many friends the Rhoanish make, given how easily some might claim you’ve left tradition behind.”

Riaag clicked his tongue in disapproval. Was Lakvo part of that nebulous some or was she just repeating what she’d heard? Well, whatever, he’d heard far worse, and it wasn’t like it was unreasonable for anyone in Yun Azrha to give pause when told to drop everything in favor of what, to some ears, might sound like blasphemy. “We’s explorin’ a new way ter live right by He Who Sleeps,” he said, “not turnin’ our backs on bein’ people. So says the Faaroug of Agritakh, right beloved in His sight, ‘n as his herald ‘n long-time witness ter his many variegated philanthropies, I’s prone ter agree.”

“Where is White-Hair, anyway? I haven’t seen him since, hrm….”

“Since he blessed the most recent chunks pulled outta the tower?”

Lakvo nodded. “That sounds right. Sometimes it feels like I can’t take three steps without tripping over that man—no offense to your oathbound intended, of course—and then he just vanishes.” She frowned. “Is he…well?”

Questions like that were so much harder to answer than they should’ve been. Riaag shrugged. “He works too fucken hard. Back home we’s got a system, we built it all up little bits atta time, ‘n by the time it got proper big t’were a gradual thing we’d eased inter, kinda like dippin’ yer hand in hot water all slow so it don’t burn. This place, it all got dumped out at once. We’s had ter improvise. The Holy One tends ter improvise more’n he ought.”

“Ah,” said Lakvo. “Then, will you give him a message for me?”

“Let’s hear it.”

“Tell him I’m thinking that, once the fate of Yun Azrha is known, whether it sticks around or unravels back into thread, I’d like to see your stronghold for myself, maybe learn how things are done there.” She ran her thumb along the edge of the flower-shaped amulet she wore, hers fashioned as a more outwardly decorative pendant in comparison to the one Riaag kept under his clothes. “I’ve been thinking about how I felt when I first stopped roaming. And how I felt when White-Hair told me I’d need to stay here until spring. I don’t know if it’s right for me yet, but I think maybe I’d want to give it a try. The worst thing that happens is I decide I don’t like it and fall in with a new band to walk out the way I came in, right? It doesn’t mean I’ll stop being me?”

“Yeah. That’s pretty much it.” Riaag tried not to get his hopes up over the thought of a future new Rhoanish face. If she stayed, she stayed, and if she left, it would be her choice. It was important she have more than she’d been given when she’d come to live beneath the shadow of the tower.

Communities, strongholds or otherwise, were tricky things. You couldn’t just tell people whose hearts went roving beneath the open sky that they had to settle down in one place and expect them to go along with it immediately. That had been one of the biggest obstacles to Naar Rhoan’s growth, back when they’d first started out, since who in their right mind would turn from generations of tradition to stay put in a place where raiders could prey on them, a place where they couldn’t guarantee the herds wouldn’t move on without them? Most strongholds were built up around locations that couldn’t move, like mines, or shouldn’t move, like mountain passes, but Naar Rhoan hunkered down in the lowlands where damn near anybody could get some buddies together and try to plunder it. A lot of the time people would arrive, set up camp, make plenty of friends, then be out come next season, their hearts unable to handle a sedentary life. As much as Riaag loved living inside the walls he’d helped raise, one man’s shelter was another one’s prison. He tried not to take it personally.

Lakvo herself kept the same thoughtful expression, though she seemed pleased with Riaag’s answer. “I’ll remember that, Bough-Breaker,” she said. “Tell the god-speaker I think about the duty he gave me every day, and why it’s mine to bear. It’s been interesting in ways I didn’t expect.”

“Shit he says tends ter be so,” agreed Riaag. He glanced up at the sky to measure the placement of the sun. “You got anythin’ else ter report, Blossom-Heart? Prayer time’s comin’ up ‘n I gotta whip by the kitchens first.”

She shrugged. “If something comes up, I’ll just find you again.”

Riaag nodded. “Good luck with yer soul-searchin’, then. I’s a walk ter finish ‘n an Agritakh-ruhd ter go see ter. Keep up the good work with not punchin’ Bat-Scarer in the dick overly much.”

“May the stars always light your path,” said Lakvo, a saying that matched her just-different-enough accent, and so they parted ways. Riaag sighed as he fell back into completing the rest of his circuit. The stars lit his path just fine. It was the paths of everyone else that made him worry.

The last of the troublemakers fled yelping into the trees, the wandering band they’d attempted to waylay left in a huddle in the middle of the clearing. 

“Anybody hurt?” asked Riaag as he scanned the trees for stragglers. A drop of blood ran along the edge of his axe before dribbling from the tip into the summer grass. He’d need to get the corpses properly seen to sooner than later, but that task (while quite a serious one) could wait a little bit longer. If you didn’t stop to care for the living it didn’t much matter what you did for the dead.

“You fight like a demon, warrior,” said one of the older-looking bandmates, their voice awed and slightly fearful. “There were so many of them….”

“Looked worse’n it truly were,” said Riaag. He thumped his axe-wielding fist against his chest; the coat of metal scale he wore clinked in response. “Good armor goes a long fucken way towards helpin’ chase off folks what make bad decisions.” It was hardly the first time in his career that he’d waded into a gang of ne’er-do-wells with only himself to rely on, and it certainly wouldn’t be the last; years of experience of being the only thing between a god-speaker and the highly violent end of said god-speaker had honed him into a one-man wrecking crew. It hadn’t hurt that he’d happened to be nearby, and already dressed in full kit for a spot of arms practice, when he’d heard the first cries for help. He liked to think of it as little bits of divine serendipity rubbing off on him now that his own good luck was more or less sorted.

After a brief headcount and some polite introductions, Riaag was pleased to find that the band of one Yiineth Maple-Fall were all accounted for (albeit still rattled from the experience). He looked over their numbers thoughtfully: mostly walking adults, but it was easy to pick out a few children and infirm mixed in, along with some weary-looking animals. “Y’all doin’ well? If they’s need ter rest or restore, a stronghold’s not too far out from here.”

“You mean the one named for the evening star?” asked Yiineth. When Riaag nodded—that was where they’d gotten Naar Rhoan’s name, after all—she continued more hesitantly. “We’ve heard of it, but people say they’re a little…strange.” Her eyes darted in the direction the attackers had fled. “You don’t think they were from there, do you?”

How courteous of her not to make assumptions about his dialect. “I can say with great certainty they ain’t from said place, as I’d know they faces otherwise,” said Riaag.

Yiineth looked uneasy. “You’ve been there before, then?”

“I lives there. Raised the first parts ‘a the walls with my own two hands, even. One might say it’s a great ‘n grand part ‘a my life.” He placed his shield on the ground and leaned against its top. Brandishing it and a bloodied weapon at the same time didn’t seem like the right trappings for convincing people his intentions were peaceful ones. “T’ain’t wrong ter call it strange, mind you, but that don’t make it any less fine a place ter get fresh water ‘n sleep a night or two away from the hungry teeth ‘a jackals.”

“I hear they eat grass there! Stolen grass!” said a man Yiineth had introduced as the sire of her two children.

This was going to be one of those talks, wasn’t it. “Sure as rice ain’t troublesome ter the Chant ’cause it grows in water, so too ain’t that what we grows in our fields. No wild beast ‘a the land is e’er gonna push the plow, nor is they gonna farm that turned-o’er soil, ‘n so it ain’t a grass what they’d e’er have without hands workin’ at His decree.” He wasn’t as good as Sarouth at intoning the pronouns of the divine, but Riaag still put in the effort to make sure they rang with meaning. “You don’t care fer that logic, well, you don’t gotta eat it. We’s plenty ter share besides bread.”

“You do this by the Hill God’s command?” asked Yiineth.

“Yup.”

“As in, an actual god-speaker oversees it?”

Calling Sarouth an actual god-speaker was like calling the sun an actual light. It was fine, Riaag told himself, as people who barely knew of the stronghold would have even less reason to know of the wonderful man who’d made it all possible, so it fell to his followers (like Riaag) to speak kindly on his behalf, even if (like Riaag) they really wanted to let himself get upset over the possibly-accidental slight. “It’s truth yer speakin’. That’d be the task ‘a Sarouth White-Hair, called the Faaroug, him ter whom I’s oathbound. T’were him who first heard the orders ter make Naar Rhoan so. He sees that the rites still go proper observed ‘n blessings is available fer any what requests it. When you’s buildin’ a garden ‘a new ideas you still gotta leave room fer tradition ter flourish.”

Yiineth chewed her lip and looked from Riaag to her children’s sire to the still-cooling bandits. “I don’t know if that’s the right place for us, Bough-Breaker,” she said. “This bread you speak of doesn’t sit right with me. We, the older parts of my band? We’ve been burned by a false Faaroug before.”

It was hard to fault that, wasn’t it? Sarouth was the real thing, sure as Riaag had witnessed over the whole of his grown life, and the thing to remember was how many people hadn’t borne witness to that same abundance of evidence. It was too easy for an Agritakh-ruhd to go rogue and make claims that weren’t theirs to declare, or for people who weren’t god-speakers at all to find stranger, more woeful sources of power with which they could sway hearts and minds alike. Hell, it was too easy for even a genuine faithful priest of Agritakh to get a bug up and decide that it was they who had been deemed the next incarnation of His. Aside from Riaag’s unwavering love, which got him in enough trouble as it was, one of the main reasons he felt so strongly about Sarouth’s claim to the title of Faaroug—that holiest of prophets, that bringer of great change, they who would not be swallowed by the water, they who would purify that which couldn’t wash clean—was how hard Sarouth had fought against it in the first place. A grudging claim to power felt far truer than any alternative he’d seen.

He wanted to grasp Yiineth’s shoulders and sing-shout that her family deserved the chance Naar Rhoan could give them, that the Rhoanish knew no end of sacrifice purely so wanderers like herself could come and partake of its wonders without giving up their itinerant hearts. Summer meant good weather and plenty of grazing, but summer couldn’t last forever, and the life of a nomad meant spending the slivers of good fortune one found preparing for a whole tapestry of bad. Riaag knew the terror that came from eating the last bit of food in the stores, or tipping up a canteen to find it empty, or waking up to find a once-clear cave entrance snowed in. Only a few short years ago that had been his life, too. He could’ve shared so many poems about the peace brought to him by the stronghold. He could’ve told them how freeing it was to let Sarouth touch their hair and declare them beloved of He Who Sleeps Beneath the Earth, a truth every god-speaker reaffirmed in their sleep.

What he said was no such thing. Instead, he said, “That’s fair,” even though it wasn’t.

Yiineth’s posture relaxed. “If you still want to help us, we’ll take whatever aid you’ll give,” she said. “I’m not one to turn away a man who saved us from whatever those bastards had planned for us, even if I can’t trust the place he says is home.”

“Reckon I can getcha ter where the land opens up, then, ‘n from there yer fate is as you wishes it. We ain’t too far. I can get back here afore long ‘n see ter this lot proper-like.” He accented this lot by nudging a corpse with his boot. One didn’t spend the better part of a decade as a god-speaker’s guardian without picking up a few tricks of their own.

“That’d be wonderful. Thank you, Bough-Breaker.”

“Just doin’ as a Chosen ‘a Wolf ought, Maple-Fall,” said Riaag.

The escort was as calm as a journey of many people could be, with Riaag mostly staying at the head of the formation with his shield held high and his axe (which he’d taken the time to clean before they set out) carried in a more relaxed grip. The only thing they met approaching a second ambush was the scuffling of a large, fat tree lizard descending a trunk, and another of Yiineth’s band was quick to scoop it up to go in that night’s stew pot. Riaag held back talk of recipes and flavors, much as it pained him; if knowing he ate bread was enough to scare them away from a warm welcome within the walls, why would they have any reason to trust his culinary skill? Instead he focused on keeping these willful strangers safe. That, at least, they accepted.

He stood at the edge of the trees and watched them wade out into the prairie grass. It would’ve been so easy to guide them towards the stronghold, just in case someone had a change of heart, or maybe one of them fell ill, or they needed to trade for blankets before colder weather ate into how many spares could go around, but Yiineth had told him no, and so he’d have to respect her wishes. He’d just have to wait to see if the coming months would someday bring familiar faces through the gates. Naar Rhoan would endure long after Riaag was so much dust in the wind. Naar Rhoan could wait forever if it had to.

Once he could convince himself the whole of the band was safely on their way, he began the solitary return trip to where he’d left the remains. Later on he’d bring Sarouth out here to bless the work he did, sanctifying the bandits’ resting places to ensure they slept soundly in the arms of their ancestors, and maybe later on he’d cry on Sarouth’s shoulder over what could have been if only Yiineth’s people hadn’t been so deeply hurt in the past. That’d all have to come later. Alone or not, he would not abandon his duty to the dead.

When Riaag finally returned to the tent—always the tent, not their tent, because their tent was much nicer and pitched miles away on ground decidedly holier than this—he didn’t even bother knocking on a support pole before slipping inside. The thick felted wool kept out the wind and much of the light; he left the tray he’d brought with him on a table before seeing to kindling some firepots, as aside from the dark it was too cold inside for his liking. Soon the interior was lit by the steady glow of several handfuls of freshly-made charcoal. By this action was Sarouth White-Hair, the most recent mortal incarnation of the Hill God Himself and hero to his people, revealed.

Were it not for the bits of dark green flesh sticking out from beneath his hood and robes he might’ve been mistaken for a pile of somebody’s laundry. Sarouth lay facedown on the floor of the tent, his hands and feet having burrowed beneath the carpets to clutch at the ground and his left cheek pressed against another patch of exposed earth. He clung in place like he was afraid of being swept away by a great wind; his claws had left deep furrows in the dirt where he’d first grasped for purchase. Every day Riaag would fill in those grooves and every day there would be new ones. It was honestly a wonder Sarouth hadn’t drawn blood in his sleep. He was sleeping, probably, though his breathing was shallow and there was no sign of the thunderous snores that usually came out of his mouth while he rested. Riaag knelt next to him, moved the tray from the table to the ground next to Sarouth’s head, and touched his shoulder gently.

“Brung you somethin’ ter eat, Holy One.”

Sarouth stirred and groaned but didn’t rise. “Not hungry,” he said.

“Yes you fucken is,” said Riaag, with great patience. “You’s been asleep fer a while. Your head’s still fucked up from fastin’ too much ‘n you keep fergettin’ what bein’ hungry feels like. We have this conversation near ter every few days.” He took the lid off the bowl on the tray and waved some of the steam in Sarouth’s direction. “Here, give it a sniff. It’s got barley ‘n potherb in it. Don’t that smell good?”

This did not have the desired result of making Sarouth sit up, or at least turn his head, so it was time for drastic measures. Riaag settled down cross-legged with his hands folded in his lap. “I brung some fer myself, too, but I ain’t havin’ so much as a drop afore you does. If’n I’s gotta go hungry durin’ prayers, so fucken be it.”

“That’s cheating,” said Sarouth, and a weary smile crossed his lips even as he remained prone.

“Sucks bein’ on the other side ‘a that sum, don’t it?” Riaag fanned the bowl lid at Sarouth again. “T’were for my own good ‘n we both know it, so now it’s fer yer own good ‘n we both know it. Saucer fer the goose cooks fine on the gander.”

Is there goose?”

“Not yet. We reckoned we’d save them beasties fer Even Night, what’s right ’round the corner by this point, ‘n since they eat barley just fine they ought ter keep fat ’til then. Until then they’s gonna hiss ‘n bedevil all what draws near, as a goose ought.”

Sarouth rose reluctantly to a sitting position and rubbed at his eyes. He somehow didn’t smear the holy symbol he’d drawn all around the left one, which he kept closed. “You said there was barley in this, too, didn’t you? Does that make me a goose?”

It might have just been a front, but Sarouth being willing to make little jokes put Riaag at ease. It felt harder to read his moods ever since they’d come down from the tower. “Great big asshole with white plumage ‘n a tendency ter bite? I’d say it adds up.” He pushed the bowl a little closer. “C’mon, you know you was plannin’ on leadin’ yet another rite later terday. Cain’t well preach on a dry throat. Cain’t well dance if’n you’s too dizzy ter walk straight.”

“I’ll have you know that’s not dizziness, that’s gyromancy,” said Sarouth, who was now at least holding his bowl in both hands, even if he wasn’t having any yet.

“Pretty sure if there ain’t some little squigglies ter reference with yer twistin’ divinations that’s just plain-ass fallin’ down.”

“Divine falling down. Very sacred.”

“All the more reason you gotta be well-fed fer it.”

They likely could have gone around in circles as long as Sarouth could dance in one, so Riaag said a quiet word of thanks when his stomach gurgled so plaintively (more bombast than anything, as Riaag had eaten quite a pleasant breakfast that morning to keep from negotiating on an empty stomach) that it forced Sarouth’s stubborn spirit to falter.

“Riaag, my love, you’re breaking my heart with such woeful sounds! You know I can’t stand the thought of you going hungry….”

It had been a long time since their lean years and still Sarouth worried, bless him. “Good thing fer us that’s an easy fix terday, ain’t it?” he said. He reached out to brush a few flecks of dirt from Sarouth’s cheek. “Let’s us both have some lunch, then pray, then I can do yer hair up nice afore you gotta dress fer the rite.”

“If I must,” said Sarouth, and with great resignation he pushed back his hood to eat.

Their visit to the tower had taken different things from them, and Sarouth’s namesake hair was still growing back from the ordeal. What should have fallen well past his shoulders was now barely more than a finger-length; it grew fairly fast (as one of Riaag’s duties was keeping it cut and groomed, he was intensely aware of this), so it wasn’t as miserable to see as it first had been, but there were many months to go before he could use it to properly cover the sacred side of his face. These days he favored a veil. From time to time Riaag still caught Sarouth reaching for the ponytail that had been shorn from him or trying to toss a forelock that wasn’t there. It was as though he didn’t know what to do with the new lightness that settled on his scalp.

Potherb and barley soup made for a modest enough meal. Riaag had been sure to add a pinch of the salt he’d secured for the settlement before leaving the kitchens, but even that was only just barely enough. He missed the variety of ingredients they had back home. Within the walls of Naar Rhoan he usually had plentiful access to dried fish, or jarred fruits, or pickled vegetables, or smoked herbs, or anything else that either wasn’t available in Yun Azrha—or which was so precious it needed to be saved for a slightly more important event than an everyday lunch. Responsibility to the settlement as a whole, as always, came first. If it didn’t, just how different would that make them from the would-be despot they’d so freshly deposed?

A hot meal was usually one of the key pillars in improving Sarouth’s mood. The tension around his neck and eyes never seemed to fade for long those days; that it could fade at all was a triumph on its own terms, Riaag told himself, and sure enough soon Sarouth was seeming more like his usual playful self. A few spoonfuls later he was willing to meet Riaag’s gaze with some level of intensity. Perhaps it was too much to hope that the weariness behind his eyes would’ve left all the way by then.

“You were right,” Sarouth said once he drained the last dregs of soup, and the way he spoke each syllable made it sound like an admission of great hardship even as he wore the beginnings of a smirk.

Riaag was willing to play along. “Since when does you object ter when I’s right?”

“Since I get to sulk about it.”

“Well then, sounds like a mighty dreadful fate ter which I’s been resigned.”

“The most dreadful.” He licked his bowl clean. “Was all of this made with what we had on hand before you did any dealing with the caravan? My compliments to whomever cooked it. It tastes like your work but a body can never be sure.” It was right for him not to assume it was Riaag’s food in his bowl that day. The kitchens needed many hands to feed many mouths; Riaag had spent much of the settlement’s first autonomous days frantically teaching people how to cook with minimal options, so it wasn’t much surprise that more than a few other people’s dishes tasted a bit like his, especially when it came to cooking things that were alien to much of the region’s palate.

“T’were mostly my doin’, yeah. They had stock goin’ from earlier or it woulda taken me longer. Nobody gave me shit ’bout that barley, neither, so I think we’s actually on the road ter getting’ folks ter eat some fucken bread one ‘a these days.”

Sarouth rolled his eyes. “Guess I’ll spend some time in tonight’s rite talking about how that part of the First Scavenger’s decree isn’t quite as literal as people keep taking it,” he said. “This would be so much easier if we could just turn them towards the western gate and point.”

“Just as well the land here’s shit fer growin’. I don’t like the idea ‘a what might grow out if’n we tilled this fucked-up soil.” They both knew the terrors that crazed the earth like cracks on a turnip. Some things uncovered during cleanup were best left unmentioned.

“Ew. Fair point.” Sarouth stretched and snatched up a carrion jar when his hand passed close enough. He broke the seal with his thumb-claw. Was a bit more of his appetite returning? It was hard to tell from the dainty way he picked at it, but at least he was getting a little more food in him. A few bites later he circled back around to the business of the day. “So what all did you secure for us this time, my wolf?”

Riaag straightened up where he sat. “A right decent haul. I saw ter gettin’ the goods where they’s meant ter be myself. Them merchants is gonna be around fer a while longer so’s people can make smaller deals, ‘n I figured you’d want ter have a bit ovva chat in person ter thank ’em fer comin’ out all this way in such conditions. Didn’t make no promises, though. I know how bright you’s been burnin’ yerself lately.”

“Good, excellent. I really do want to see them myself, but you know how it is right now.”

“Yeah.”

The toes of Sarouth’s left foot curled absently into the dirt again. “Suppose we should say our prayers before we get wrapped up in anything else. It’d be a shame to neglect them.” He took Riaag’s hand in his and kissed a knuckle. “Shall we?”

It was barely a question, of course, and so Riaag answered by curling up into the proper posture with his forehead against one of the carpets. Sarouth, being Sarouth, was likely peeling them back so he could put himself in greater contact with bare earth; Riaag wasn’t about to break his own devotions to check, and why shouldn’t an Agritakh-ruhd commune with Him a little more intensely than others? They’d already planned to get him cleaned up in time for the rite. It was fine. Even if it wasn’t fine, it would just have to be for now.

Fretting over Sarouth could happen later. Riaag busied himself with showing his face to Agritakh, his head and heart abuzz as he mouthed bits of Chant around more personal verse. As a rule he didn’t ask for things when he prayed; this was a time for gratitude and thankfulness, as well as a time to be vulnerable by admitting what things worried him. Riaag’s new life—which crept ever-closer to running a decade strong with each passing day, as his ninth year of having a birthday loomed on the horizon—had been the greatest of gifts, so requesting anything else felt a bit lacking in gratitude. If his cries to Him expressed open worry about others’ well-being, well, that was just Riaag being honest with himself and his god, wasn’t it? Agritakh would do whatever He felt like from within His endless dreams until the end of days, the same as always, and Riaag would offer song and sacrifice until the end of his days, also the same as always. It was hard to find a source of stability greater than He who supported the very ground itself.

Since it wasn’t a holiday their prayer session only needed to last for so long, especially since it wasn’t like this would be the last one for the day, and extra especially since (if one went by Sarouth’s take on the matter, which Riaag was prone to do) Agritakh understood that His children were very busy people who needed time to live as He bade them. With a kiss upon the ground Riaag rose back to a kneeling position. Sarouth righted himself shortly after, though with more reluctance. This, too, had become a regular sight to Riaag.

“You ready fer gettin’ all nice?”

“If I must,” said Sarouth, which wasn’t a great answer to hear a second time, though at least this time it sounded like he was only playing at hesitance. He perched himself on a stool and let Riaag get to work.

The fires Riaag had coaxed into burning brighter had left the tent much warmer than when he’d first arrived, which meant it was perfect for brief, partial nudity. Easing Sarouth out of one set of robes into another was usually something Riaag enjoyed, whether because he was facilitating others seeing a god-speaker with the majesty one deserved or because Sarouth was a very fetching individual and it was fun to be so close with him, and in spite of everything there were still a few crumbs of both motivations to be found in the act. He threw himself into the task as best he could.

Before all else, the flesh needed to be clean, lest anything laid atop it look lacking in care. Riaag gently cleaned away the bits of dirt that clung to Sarouth’s skin and beneath his filed-down claws. There was a difference between a filthy god-speaker who’d been thrashing in the dust during an ecstatic fit and a filthy god-speaker who had simply neglected their appearance; Agritakh’s chosen people had been tasked with tending to the green places, and that meant orcs themselves in addition to field and forest. Riaag had tried to explain this to an Usoan friend, once, as it had come up in a conversation on what unclean meant to Rhoanish sensibilities, but Usoans were beholden to their River God, and flowing water coursed through their veins, washing away the concept before it could begin to take hold. Cramming an idea as large as sin repelling the hands of others into an idea that could make sense to ears used to a language with different priorities was even harder in practice than it sounded. He couldn’t help but envy a people who had no room in their culture for finding others untouchable.

The skin Riaag exposed little bits at a time was dark green, like the needles on highland conifers, and too-bright lines of red twirled across it in a maze of crimson. Any Agritakh-ruhd who’d begun their trek through the Labyrinth learned to mark themselves so (guided to their sacred pigments by servants of Vulture, or so it was said), and upon reaching the center for the first time the lines would set and no longer require being made anew each day. Most god-speakers of renown bore tattoos from the right wrist up to the elbow, and those who ventured deeply bore them all the way to the shoulder. Sarouth’s own set spanned both arms, covering his back and looping about his neck in the process, and like any map of the Labyrinth they would shift with each journey into those dream-darkened halls. Who could question the holiness they promised?

Each swipe of the cloth brought Sarouth just a little bit back towards godliness. When the last speck of dirt was gone, Riaag took up a small bottle of ritual oils (the actual kind, not the ones they used for intimate matters) and gently pressed the anointed cloth into the proper spots. One of these was at the nape of Sarouth’s neck, just beneath the ragged fringe that was all that remained of his namesake. Riaag tried not to linger on how small Sarouth’s head looked without its usual mass of signature snow-colored hair. He thought it a little bit unfair that the rest of Sarouth hadn’t come back with his skin as he recovered from his tribulations each night in the tower. Looking at the man you’d never know he’d been subject to the thief part of a skin-thief, and more than just the once; there wasn’t a single scar on him, and Riaag had had ample chance to go looking for any. That was the thing about finding solace in the Labyrinth: wounds faded, bones mended, but hair and nails only came back the hard way. When dealing in the realm of divine intervention one had to be prepared for things to be arbitrary.

If they’d been back home perhaps they would’ve taken the time to dally a bit before Sarouth finished changing. Despite lacking Sarouth’s experience in such things, Riaag’s hands had still learned where to settle, and with time he’d practiced how to keep his claws gentle during a caress or the best angle at which to touch a fabric-shrouded side. If he made a mistake it didn’t matter, since he could learn from it and try something new. Back home it was so easy to find ways to make Sarouth happy. Yun Azrha wasn’t home. Riaag pushed such thoughts from his mind to focus on his current task. Distractions could wait until they were done.

“Standard ritual stuff terday, right?”

“Right.” Sarouth didn’t even try to make a horrible pun on the similarity between right and rite? If ever one needed proof that he really had been spreading himself too thin, that omission alone seemed more than sufficiently damning. Riaag vowed to be extra-careful during their preparations.

A standard ritual (especially as frequently as Sarouth had been holding them) didn’t require much in the way of special trappings other than making sure Sarouth didn’t look a fright, so Riaag picked out a freshly-laundered base robe to pair with some suitably colorful overlayers for the outfit of the hour. Sarouth wasn’t so far gone he wouldn’t dress himself, nor was he putting things on inside out or backwards, which was a good sign; it wasn’t like he’d never been prone to preoccupation before. Even in the best of times he could find himself so distracted by portents or the very voice of Him Below that he’d risk absentmindedly wandering right into harm’s way. That he could muster enough self-awareness to look more presentable than when he’d first shambled out to oversee the tower salvage was a point in the soup’s favor. More promising still was how Sarouth needed no prompting to begin going through the modest assortment of jewelry he’d brought on the trip in search of the right combination to wear.

Proper jewelry was important for a god-speaker. It didn’t matter their material wealth, whether they had flocks numbering in the scores or high stacks of smelted iron or barely more than the clothes on their back, and it didn’t matter the materials, so long as the make was good, but for an Agritakh-ruhd to truly look the part they needed to bear evidence of His treasures. Riaag had seen some god-speakers wear heavy ropes of carved jade while others sported little more than bands of woven twine hung with carved antler, and both ends of that spectrum struck him as worthy instruments of His will. None of them could compare with Sarouth. Even with such a limited supply (as who in their right mind would ride into enemy territory with the whole of their collection? no, he’d exercised great restraint, and arrived with fewer rings than he had fingers) he was dazzling in each piece of gold or copper. Quartz and bits of colored glass practically glowed against his skin. This was the Faaroug, this exalted figure, no matter how shaggy his profile, and had he the luxury of time Riaag could have marveled at that sight for hours.

Time was something they did not have, not if they wanted to keep to the schedule demanded by the settlement, and so instead of leaning back to admire Sarouth’s glory Riaag took up brush and comb to do what he could for Sarouth’s mistreated mane. The length meant it took no time at all to brush it out and style it as best Riaag could. It was…not great, no, but he’d had some luck with putting in some ornaments they’d dug out of the wizard‘s quarters that had gone unclaimed, so obvious effort was invested, which was what counted. There was, however, the same problem as always.

“The ends ‘a this is real fucken ragged. If’n you wanted, I could do just a li’l bit ‘a snip work, then—”

“No.”

“You sure? T’wouldn’t make it look shorter near at all.”

Sarouth pulled his head in and his shoulders up like a retreating turtle. “I’m positive.”

“As you say, Holy One. We’s almost done, then. Imma stay put while you get yer circlet on.”

And what a circlet it was! The band of bright gold was eye-catching enough on its own, and yet it paled in comparison to the thin slice of banded purple agate set at the circlet’s front. It was hard to cut anything so perfectly, much less stone; that agate piece had required a great deal of bartering to get shaped properly, and more effort still to have set as something fancier than a pendant hung in a web of cord. It was as much a symbol of Sarouth’s authority as the tattoos he bore or the staff he carried. Riaag carefully shaped the hair around it to work with the jewelry that now pinned it in place. Just because it was unlikely Sarouth’s whole head would be seen by anyone but themselves didn’t mean he wasn’t about to take pride in his work.

Sarouth stood and checked himself over, adding garments as he went. A thick cloak and a mantle of deer fur settled upon his shoulders, a sash bearing the pattern of his clan encircled his waist. He reluctantly tied a pair of half-length gaiters just above his ankles; save for his sandals it was near impossible to get him to wear much more on his feet unless the weather was so bitter he risked getting the bite all across his toes. Then came the veil, which protected mortal flesh from the ravages of the shred of godhood housed in his left eye, and after that came the hood, which lessened the sting of Sarouth’s shearing while he walked among his temporary flock. To the untrained eye he was every inch the perfect priest. That had to be worth something.

Upon taking up his staff and tucking his knife into his sash, Sarouth turned to face Riaag. His visible eye glinted as sunlight-yellow as his jewelry. “I think I’m ready, my love, but are you?” he asked with a twitch of his chin that made a few soft strands of hair flutter around his face.

“I’s always in the mood fer such. Even if I weren’t, Yun Azrha can use all the guidance ‘n protection it can get whilst we’s sittin’ on our asses waitin’ fer spring ter have sprung. We can bring it ter ’em, ‘n His blessings besides, so why shouldn’t we?”

“Duty to our people above all else,” agreed Sarouth, “even if they won’t be our people forever.” He leaned forward to pull Riaag into a half-embrace that came at such a surprise Riaag nearly forgot to return it. “When I say ‘people’ that includes you, too, y’know. You need to remember to be good to yourself.”

“Yeah, I know,” said Riaag. He kissed Sarouth’s forehead right next to where the agate disc rested against it. “Goes the same fer you.”

“Pshaw. God-speakers aren’t the same thing as people.”

“Too bad. I chooses ter disagree.”

“I’ll try not to hold it against you,” said Sarouth with a hint of his old smile. I’ll just have to hold myself against you instead, finished his voice in Riaag’s mind’s ear, but the real Sarouth said no such thing. Missing his shitty jokes would’ve felt weird if they weren’t such a key part of what made him orcish. With great effort (and a reminder that they still had a ceremony to officiate) Riaag forced himself not to get upset.

They released one another and went about the few remaining chores needing their attention before they could leave: Sarouth put away anything that had been left out and stacked up the cushions again, Riaag covered up the firepots just enough to keep them from going out entirely. These things done done, with a final check made of one another’s outfits, they stepped out of the tent and back into the wind’s bite. It was a necessary discomfort. Rite and ritual were one of the key things that separated them from animals, and a ritual, after all, wasn’t about to run itself.

Cooking had not always come comfortably to Riaag. His first months as a god-speaker’s herald had seen him without much in the way of ingredients to work with, much less the chance to practice putting them together in anything but the most rudimentary way, so he’d made do; his time before that had been terrible in a way even his gift with words struggled to encapsulate, and as it hadn’t given him much of a chance to practice the craft, either, it was better not talking about it. Months passed and fortunes changed. Through a lot of determination, and more than a little studying at the foot of somebody else’s cooking pot, he began producing meals that were not just edible but nice, and it was one such dish he now ladled into bowls for the leader of the band whose encampment had welcomed them.

Riaag was grateful for his gloves, as their presence meant even if his palms were sweaty from nerves he’d be able to keep a steady grip on each bowl he served. He’d mostly gotten over his awkwardness around his patron god-speaker—not that Sarouth White-Hair didn’t cut any less majestic a figure than before, and was arguably getting grander with time, but Riaag had managed to acclimate—which meant he only had the opinions of literally everyone else in the world to worry about. One such person was Diaaw Thistle-Weave, their host, another god-speaker who concealed his sacred eye beneath a sash wrapped across his face. The ends of said sash draped across his shoulder to end in thistle-purple tufts of fluffy fibers. Riaag made sure not to get the bowl too close to them as he laid it on the woven mat placed in front of Diaaw’s crossed legs.

“Well would you look at this!” said Diaaw. He had a loud, cheery voice that carried a lowland twang. “I’ll be tanned if this isn’t the nicest rice and chicken porridge I’ve seen in a dog’s year. Look, he made a little swirl on top with the herbs.”

“Riaag has always had quite the eye for details,” said Sarouth, his own voice smooth and formal and pitched only slightly lower than Diaaw’s. The dialect he used always sounded so regal to Riaag’s ears. It had come as no surprise to learn Sarouth had been from a large family with equally large flocks of sheep. “Be sure to savor the scent of it before you have a bite. He does such fine, subtle things with aromatics that get drowned out by the flavors of the meal itself.”

Perhaps to demonstrate, Sarouth took a deep sniff of his bowl before scooping up so much porridge it risked falling back out and downing the whole thing in one bite. Riaag tried not to be mortified on his behalf. They’d been eating simply most days, that was so, and Diaaw’s camp was filled with all sorts of fresh food Riaag felt confident in preparing, that was also so, and perhaps Riaag had made something a little fancier than usual because for once it wasn’t their own humble stores from which he pulled each ingredient, and he really had gone all out in preparing the garnish, and there was the novelty factor of being able to focus solely on cooking without keeping an ear out for approaching dangers with every stir, and of course it tasted good or he wouldn’t have served it in the first place, but. But. Manners mattered, god-speaker or no.

If Diaaw was offended by Sarouth opening his mouth as wide as a snake’s for each bite he had the decency to keep it hidden. Instead he ate with gusto of his own; soon Riaag had the chance to beam with pride when such a clearly well-off man praised the flavors of his work and asked for another serving.

“It’s really quite remarkable,” said Diaaw to Sarouth. “I’d have expected the horseradish to overpower everything, but instead it went down smooth as carrion. Your cook really knows what he’s doing with spice roots.”

“You should see what he can do if he’s allowed a little pepper,” said Sarouth with a waggle of his eyebrows. Riaag had been privy to cooking with pepper exactly once, and also when they were allowed the run of another camp’s supplies, but Sarouth had talked about the soup and kebabs for days. A lesser man might have gotten tired of hearing it. A lesser man probably would’ve had the sense not to be hopelessly in love with one of his betters, though, so it balanced out in the end.

Diaaw chuckled and reached for his refilled bowl as Riaag returned with it. “You hear that, Bough-Breaker? Your bandmate says I should find some pepper for you. We’re close enough to a stronghold, you know, so I could always send someone out with a satchel full of trading goodies to see if anyone’s got some they want to swap.”

“T’would be most kind, Holy One,” said Riaag, careful to keep his eyes low so he wouldn’t look too full of himself while addressing a priest. “If’n you desires ter do so, I’d be most happy ter prepare it proper, but you ain’t gotta go outta yer way on my behalf.” Accepting favors people as important as god-speakers offered him was difficult. Hopefully Sarouth had noticed how Riaag had actually agreed to the proposal, even while clarifying that he expected nothing so generous to be done on his behalf. They’d been practicing that one a lot.

“Oh! Well! So that’s what you sound like,” said Diaaw as he blinked in surprise. “Sarouth has spoken a lot about your singing voice, not just your cooking, and it’d left me wondering.”

Sarouth swallowed his latest mouthful and nodded. “Riaag’s a full-fledged poet, you know. He always knows exactly which words to use.”

“He’s been quiet all evening.”

“Precisely. Not just which words, but where and when they shall leave the most meaningful impact. That’s why he’s my herald.”

A faint flush crept into Riaag’s cheeks. He knew how he spoke, of course, since even with its ugly genesis his dialect was as inextricably a part of him as his own spine, and he couldn’t bear to cast it aside. Usually people heard it and knew he was unclean (not that Sarouth hadn’t performed a cleansing the very day they met, but it didn’t count because Sarouth didn’t understand), keeping their distance or at least tempering their expectations, and he’d be left to his chores, or no longer pressed to join a dance, or otherwise allowed to exist without getting in the way of normal-people things. The gloves were for their protection as much as his. The thing was, for some reason Sarouth heard the same words everyone else did and had the gall to think they sounded nice. If it had just been the singing Riaag could’ve understood, since who sang the same way they talked? But no, Sarouth liked all of it, stem to petals, and was quick to make this opinion known, and didn’t seem to care how strange it was he thought so. Over his ever-multiplying years of service Riaag had come to suspect Sarouth didn’t care about a lot of things he probably should’ve.

“Well, who am I to doubt a fellow Agritakh-ruhd’s judgment?” said Diaaw, doing an admirable job of smoothing over his earlier reaction. “If you’d care to share your voice with us, I’d love to hear it, Bough-Breaker. After we’ve all had our fill of this excellent supper, of course.”

“I’d be pleased ter do so.”

He meant it, too. Singing was something Riaag could do for others that didn’t carry even the slightest risk of sullying them with an ill-timed touch, and given how his heart tended to be full to bursting with the need to make other (better) people’s lives nicer, it was a duty he eagerly fulfilled with nothing but the slightest of prompting. Now that he wasn’t with his old band he could sing whenever he liked. That very meal had been sung over, in fact, though he’d kept it whisper-quiet since he wasn’t sure if he’d be interrupting anyone else’s prayers. With Riaag to lead the hymns with the bombastic tiger’s roar of a baritone such Chant deserved deserved nobody even noticed how Sarouth never sang at rites.

Riaag spent the rest of the meal keeping out of the way, always quick to refill bowls and drinks until gestured their owners wanted no more, and he glowed at how well Sarouth and Diaaw seemed to be getting on. It made its own sort of sense; Sarouth seemed to never get tired of saying Riaag’s name, and Diaaw’s was very similar when the vowels were concerned, so clearly another collection of sounds Sarouth liked would leave him in a fine mood if he got to repeat them enough. Maybe if they liked each other enough, Sarouth would finally decide he’d found a good place to stay. These people had thick tents and heavy blankets so he’d stay nice and warm, their stores were broad and varied so he’d always have good food to eat, and if he and Diaaw really liked one another, he’d even have a fire to share. That sounded like the best result of all.

Truth be told, Riaag worried about Sarouth more than he cared to admit. Someone of such blatant majesty should’ve had an entourage a dozen strong. Many dozens, even! In a sensible world Sarouth would’ve had so many attendants he’d be tripping over them. Instead he just had Riaag. It was tempting to think that Riaag’s presence was what scared other potential devotees away, but no, the personal histories he’d teased out of Sarouth over the months had revealed that Sarouth had always been like this. What was it like not having a band at your back? Horrible as Riaag’s had been (and Sarouth, in his mercy, never asked for details beyond what Riaag offered freely) he’d at least had one. Maybe it was different for people with little bits of Agritakh forever stirring in their heads. It stood to reason that the Star-Eater, in His restless dreams, might spot something as lovely and shining as a bond between two people and mistake it for His ancient prey.

Once dinner ended Riaag was careful to keep his plates separate from the others’ as he washed them and set them on a rack to dry. He returned to the main tent to find two eager faces waiting for him, Sarouth’s enthused and Diaaw’s curious. He looked down just in the nick of time. “I’s at yer disposal, Holy Ones,” he said with the appropriate hand movements.

“Does he always make gestures of supplication when he performs?”

“I told you he was mannerly. He cares very deeply about the faith.”

Diaaw made a little hum of thought. “So I see. Well then, Bough-Breaker, your Sarouth’s got me clacking my teeth in excitement to hear you perform, so why don’t you choose something you like. Anything at all! You have my full attention.”

“So it’ll be done, Yer Grace.”

Asking Riaag to pick out a single song from the thousands of hours of music and poetry he carried in his head—like any herald, he was a thorough creature—was a little like asking him to pluck his favorite blade of grass from a field, so he opted to start with something that had the right blend of simplicity and grace. Said combination wasn’t exactly in short supply, either, which required a bit of logical thinking to further narrow things down. Diaaw’s people had a lot of wood-wise members among them, didn’t they? A nice ode to trees of the highlands would probably go over well. Riaag himself was fond of several such trees, even the deciduous ones. It wasn’t like it was the trees’ fault that orcish instincts preferred hiding in a clutch of evergreens to strolling beneath the fan-shaped golden fall of a ginkgo’s branches.

He kept his voice high and clear to mimic the mountain trees themselves. The sound of the wind through the leaves, the glow of sun across the ground, the way plants of all sorts ate of the ground to reach towards the sky in memory of the Star-Eater’s first days, all these things he tried to weave into his singing. He kept stock-still as he performed; Riaag had never been much of a dancer, but Sarouth was, and given that Sarouth moved like liquid metal when the spirit entered him Riaag had gotten accustomed to letting motion happen around him while he sang or orated. Skalds needed to be able to tell the histories clearly and without error. By that point Riaag probably could have told the histories in the middle of a fearsome brawl and not mangled so much as a word, but it was the principle of the thing that mattered, and so every part of his posture that didn’t need to be spent on wasteful action went into projecting his lungs into the firmament.

When the song finished it didn’t feel like he’d been going for long enough, so with a quick glance to see if Sarouth looked bored (he didn’t) Riaag launched into another one describing one of many Chosen of the Animals (in this case, Beetle) and how his Beetle-touched beauty had relit the sun, and after that it felt like an appropriate time to sing praises of Agritakh Himself, and before Riaag knew it it was due time to fetch more fuel for the fire before it burned itself so low it couldn’t be swiftly restored to crackling. He hadn’t even noticed how dry his throat had gotten.

“Wonderful!” said Diaaw, who sounded a touch overwhelmed.

“I told you,” said Sarouth. 

“From your lips to His ears, no mistake.” Diaaw chuckled. “How about you go get yourself a drink, Bough-Breaker? There’s a pitcher of wine on the other side of the tent. Drain as much as you like, even if that means leaving it empty. You’ve earned it.”

Wine was quite a treat when one’s travels didn’t frequently pass through places that grew grapes! It was so much of a treat that Riaag forgot to claim his unworthiness of such a gift, instead bowing in thanks to Diaaw and Sarouth in turn before slipping behind the embroidered curtain that split the tent into sections. The pitcher was more than half full, which meant he’d have a regular bounty to enjoy, and there were clean cups to be had, which meant he could wash and purify whichever one he used without fear of someone accidentally handling something that had touched his mouth. Most important was the pile of cut wood in a neat little hopper by the wall. His reward could wait until the fires were safely stoked. Tending to that first would even give him more time to do a little cleaning in this other room so it’d be all the more suited for Agritakh-ruhds to inhabit. Yes, this evening was going quite well.

One armful of cut timber and some careful stacking later, the fires inside were bright enough to throw deep shadows against the walls with their combined light. After a final round of questions over whether the god-speakers needed anything—Sarouth assured him all was well while Diaaw seemed surprised Riaag hadn’t had so much as a single swallow of the wine before throwing himself into more chores—Riaag excused himself once more. He’d been invited to have a drink, he reminded himself, and a drink he must have. Getting too wrapped up in cleaning before accepting the hospitality extended to him might reflect poorly on Sarouth’s choice in attendants, and that wouldn’t do at all. His own throat would thank him for it were he called to sign again later that night! Pouring himself a cup was just the right thing to do all around.

He settled down on a cushion not so close to the divider that he looked to be eavesdropping but not so far that he couldn’t react quickly should Sarouth need him. The space he was in didn’t need as many fires as the other so it took a bit of thought to position himself so the others could clearly see him if they looked. Availability was an important part of being a bodyguard. With his cup cradled in his claws he finally let himself unwind a little.

Even if Riaag hadn’t known the shape of Sarouth’s silhouette better than he knew his own it would’ve been trivial to tell them apart: Diaaw’s tusks were visible in profile where Sarouth’s were far smaller, almost more fang than tusk. Their body language was different, too, with Sarouth preferring a languid air (Riaag was not brave enough to think of it as sultry) while Diaaw sat with a crisper bend to his knees. The conversation on the opposite side of the curtain meandered to and fro with abandon until Riaag realized they were talking about him again. He snapped to attention even through the light haze the wine had dragged over his senses.

“Quite a way of speaking he has, isn’t it?” asked Diaaw. “Where’s it come from?”

“Exactly where you think it does,” said Sarouth.

“Really! One of that sorrowful lot clawed his way back towards redemption? And he’s part of your entourage now! Will wonders never cease.”

Sarouth nodded. “Riaag’s really quite remarkable. He’s a fine reminder that few sins are so terrible they can’t be washed away by His benevolent hand. There’s no room for sin to blossom in a soul as well-gardened as his.”

Diaaw nudged Sarouth with a friendly elbow. “I don’t know, he sounds a little sinful to me.”

“Don’t joke about that,” said Sarouth, his once-relaxed posture suddenly stiff. “He’s very dedicated to his prayers, and does his best to not only sing the Chant but live it. Few among us, lay-kind or priest, can say we understand devotion the way he does.”

“Whoa now, all I said—”

“All you said was that my disciple sounded like someone who’d hide his face from the Hill God, Thistle-Weave.” Ice crept into his usual honeyed sweetness as his body language turned further aggressive.

Diaaw’s silhouette put up its hands in surrender. “I deeply apologize for what I’ve said. None would see your Bough-Breaker and think him anything but the most devout of men, and I’m ashamed I implied as much, even in jest. Would all Agritakh’s own could be so strident in their adoration of His works. Regardless of the words they use to do it.”

Sarouth relaxed at this, though Riaag had known him long enough to spot the tension lingering there. “He’d make excuses for you until sunrise, so I’ll accept your apology on his behalf,” he said. “Be we orcs or gods or admixtures of both, we must remember to always respect the dignity in one another’s blood.”

“Of course. No person is less deserving of that than another. It was a joke in bad taste. I assure you, I really do, I meant no insult.”

“A shame it didn’t winnow out that way, isn’t it?”

The silence that followed was an awkward thing which encouraged Riaag to make a little more noise than usual (which was to say, practically any) so it wouldn’t sound as much like he was listening in on them. If a clash came between them, what was he expected to do? The answer had to be anything other than nothing, and so he kept himself busy, trying to play the part of the good servant even as the nearby quiet spread like tar across the camp night.

In time, that silence broke. “You have to defend him often, do you?”

“You have no idea, Diaaw.”

Alert as his shadow sat, Sarouth was using Diaaw’s given name again, so between that and the way their chat gradually picked back up again it was enough of a sign for Riaag to let out the breath he’d unconsciously been holding; now he was free to stop worrying about whether he’d need to throw himself bodily between two different clergy and instead focus a little more on what he was supposed to be doing. He refilled his cup from the pitcher and ignored how its firelit surface held hints of his reflection. The crisis had been averted, even as it reminded him of the lingering debts that mounted ever-higher each time a blow—be it a word or a fist—failed to land when and where it was supposed to. It felt wrong letting someone else take the blame he rightfully accrued! One of these days he’d figure out how he could stop getting Sarouth in so much trouble just by existing. On that day Riaag would be a very happy man.

The rite went off without a hitch, which was unsurprising given how it was one of the fairly calm sort with no need for sacrifices or burnt offerings or on-request public shriving. It was well-attended, as they tended to be, and Riaag didn’t begrudge those who didn’t attend; the Azrhics gathered out of necessity, not out of choice, and even back home you never saw everyone at a rite at once. It didn’t matter if you were tower-proofing people’s very souls, after all, because no matter how potent the practice you’d never be able to get everyone at once. Someone always had to stand watch. Someone always had to tend to the wounded. Enough of Yun Azrha met Sarouth on ritual ground to prove that they as a people still recognized the Hill God as their own, and on such a winter’s day as this it those numbers were more than enough.

Riaag stood at Sarouth’s side once the final note was sung and the crowd began to dissolve back into individuals. He liked to think it made it that much simpler for people to know where to look if they wanted to share a few words with an Agritakh-ruhd face to face. Sarouth would’ve been easy to spot among the throng even without a massive oathbound at his side, of course; a god-speaker’s staff of office was designed so it could be recognized from far away, a necessary signal for those who spent so much of their lives a-roaming even if no two looked quite the same. After long enough in the wilderness one got a feel for what was a legitimate marker of a priest on the move and what was so much fancy sparkly stuff tied to a stick. It had never surprised Riaag that Sarouth’s own staves (for god-speakers were always remaking them and rarely kept the same look for more than a year or two) strained the boundaries of both.

One of the bits of polished crystal hanging from his staff held the attention of Sarouth’s most recent visitor. Riaag couldn’t blame her gaze for drifting back to it, as the quartzes were pink as mountain salt and polished until they shone in all but the deepest of darkness. Her yellow-white eyes reflected the burnished facets in the light of the torch Riaag held high. It had been slow going regaining enough of the trust of these people to dress in finery again, lest Sarouth be mistaken for just another wizard of just another color, and you still sometimes caught people entranced like this from time to time. All they could do was be patient.

“What can I do for you, beloved in His sight?” asked Sarouth once they’d formally introduced themselves to one another. He shifted his weight and the hanging charms swayed with it. The worshiper—one Dzedekh Clay-Spinner, a woman of their people and one of the few potters the settlement had to its name—subtly followed their movements with her chin like a cat studying a bird. Riaag hoped she wasn’t reliving bad memories of something that had happened in the tower. That there had been so many people hurt while living in that damn thing’s shadow hadn’t been the surprise; what had come as a shock to Riaag was how many still lived despite all that had been done to them. He’d lost count of how many times he’d had to guide a lost-faced Azrhic back to the safety of a fire and a blanket and some hot water to drink until their minds and bodies aligned themselves once more. Riaag was the last person to forget how long wounds of the heart could take to heal. Sometimes the only thing you could do for people was be patiently present.

If something painful echoed in Dzedekh’s thoughts she managed not to show it. “I’ve a question for you, Holy One,” she said, and she was able to pull away from the hanging crystal long enough to address Sarouth directly.

“And I hope I have answers!” he said with a smile. “Ask away.”

“Before I begin, I should say that I mean no blasphemy by asking it, nor—”

Sarouth cut her off with a raised hand. “If you have a challenge for the Chant or even the Hill God Himself, I’ll hear you out fairly, and I’m not going to fall apart just because you weren’t happy with repeating everything I just preached to you. I’m not made of dried leaves. We’d never get anywhere as a people if we didn’t question that which the Animals brought us, anyway.”

Now this was Sarouth all the way down. Riaag was so used to it by now that he kept forgetting how the man he loved was a radical of the highest order, Faaroug or not, and Sarouth was never happier than when he held the very Chant itself on the anvil to temper it with philosophical debate. Some of Yun Azrha’s own had found excuses to leave upon learning Sarouth was so willing to question the divine while others had slipped away into the whims of winter upon learning he still clung so fiercely to his creed despite his delight in calling for reform. Some people just weren’t satisfied with anything. That enough strangers had been willing to give this spitfire god-speaker a chance had to be a small miracle on its own. Sarouth never seemed to be short on those.

“You spoke on sin today,” Dzedekh said, and the way she chose her words spoke of experiences past. “You’re one of the first god-speakers I’ve heard who seems to think it’s more complicated than whether or not someone is wicked. Yet you don’t cast it away entirely, as I’ve also heard some do. Why?”

“Why do I think that way?”

She nodded. “It’s something I’ve been thinking about.”

“Well, the short version is that I’ve met enough people to know that being shackled down with sin isn’t mutually exclusive with being full of love for Agritakh and His gifts.” He shot Riaag a smile that was no less warmly radiant for being half-shrouded by his hood. Riaag smiled back. A man didn’t wear clothes with blank clan patterns on them if he was going to be shy about his history; painful as it was, it also meant Riaag could be a silent example in discussions like these, and if even one person who’d had their heritage similarly gutted could see him as proof that they could thrive, it was worth it. It also made a perverse sort of sense that of course Sarouth was oathbound to a clanless man, because Sarouth was the sort of person who kept racking up outrageous little details like that. Why shouldn’t he swear an oath to someone who, culturally speaking, was oath-proofed down to the bone? Surely it would score the winning token in someone’s blackout game by now.

The smile had lasted only a short moment in spite of all Riaag’s thoughts about it. Sarouth continued onward. “It’s something deeper than a brush we can use to smear across those we think should no longer count as people,” he said. “Tell me, what is sin to you?”

“It’s…an unclean thing? It comes from going against His word. It’s not part of the natural order, so I guess in that sense it’s something like the pain you feel when you eat poison, or the way your hand aches if you cut it with a knife.” Dzedekh pursed her lips in thought. “So I guess that makes it a warning, but the kind of warning that can get mistaken for the problem in the first place. Like you think only about the way your arm is hurting and not how your arm is trying to say it’s getting torn apart from being pushed too hard. And because He Who Sleeps loves us, He doesn’t want us to tear ourselves apart. That’s right, isn’t it?”

“Exactly. There’s a little something extra that you’re overlooking, too,” added Sarouth. “Think about it. Why do we call those of us who prey on each other ‘jackals,’ despite Jackal being one of the Scavenger Kings, without whom we’d be lost? Why would we call them something that has such joyful meaning to us?”

Dzedekh was so lost in trying to form an answer for Sarouth that she’d stopped watching the swaying crystal in favor of scrunching up her face in thought. It made the skin around her tusks crease a little. Eventually she managed a shrug and said, “Sorry, Holy One. I think you’ve lost me.”

“Don’t worry about it. If you aren’t used to debating with god-speakers it’s not likely to have come up before. Riaag, my wolf, might you have an answer of your own for us?”

Usually Riaag thought of himself as part of the scenery when Sarouth was receiving people, perhaps a useful prop from time to time but not necessarily part of the conversation. His job was to observe, to remember, to recount, and to punch people very soundly in the motherfucking face if they tried anything fishy. If Sarouth had asked him a question that had more than a word or three in its answer, though, he definitely expected something genuine. Riaag’s heavy brows creased his eyes as he thought. There was more than mere wordplay here—not that Sarouth never bent over backwards to fold bad wordplay into even the most serious of sermons—and so it would require thinking about the shapes of things both more and less literally than usual.

He’d never really thought about it before. Jackals were called jackals because an actual jackal, the four-leggity kind, was a bit of an opportunistic little dickhead that ran around in groups, wasn’t it? Therefore, it stood to reason that a jackal of the two-leggity variety would be an opportunistic little dickhead that ran around in groups. It was the sort of thing that made sense without ever being explained. Then again, jackals weren’t called saber-tooths, and the children of Saber-Tooth were where you got the real assholes among the creatures of the land. You couldn’t discount an entire third of the Scavenger Kings because the symbolism wasn’t a perfect fit at first brush. Jackal Jackalself had taught the first orcs the value of working in groups, after all, of tending to one another for reasons beyond Beetle’s simple exuberance of blood and fecundity, and Jackal had laid the groundwork for Vulture to arrive later bearing the mysteries of fire. Maybe he had to look at the problem sideways? Jackal was the embodiment of family, which Riaag supposed could encompass any old band of marauders, but Jackal was also…aha.

“It’s ’cause they’s embraced the pursuit ‘a sin, mindfully or no, ‘n sin’s a fucked-up form ‘a Jackal’s own steel, ain’t it?”

Sarouth couldn’t hide his grin. “How so?”

“Because it’s somethin’ what only exists if’n we works the raw materials with our own hands. A goat on a bramble-hill, it ain’t never gonna sin ’cause it’s a fucken goat, right? It cain’t take the world ‘n shape it thusly any more’n it could weave silk on a loom. Ter get a finished bolt you gotta be willful enough ter get that loom tergether, ‘n fetch up them cocoon threads, ‘n sit on yer ass a spell with one foot on the treadle until the last fiber’s all woven in. It ain’t generally gonna happen by accident.”

“So it’s because we have the wisdom to make things outside the scope of nature that we can sin at all,” said Dzedekh with a slow nod. It was quite impressive watching her keep pace with Sarouth, difficult as it clearly was. “I guess that makes sense. How’s it relate back to the unclean, though? As is it sounds like we’re just stubborn little shits that have to be kept in line. Given how you’ve been speaking today that can’t be all there is to it.”

“Right!” said Sarouth, still grinning. “We’re creatures so willful we instinctively rage against our own deaths even after we die. Something that stubborn has to be kept in line or it thrashes wildly, hurting everyone around it and ultimately itself. That’s no way for any beast to be, much less a person! It’s part of the eternal dichotomy that is being an orc, in that we can all too swiftly tear ourselves apart without counsel, but if we feel too pinned in by it, we’ll batter ourselves to pieces on the walls of the pen we’ve built without realizing the gate stands open.

“The problem isn’t the concept of sin, O child of the hills and stars. Laws of the hearth protect us from one another, and one another from us, and ourselves from ourselves, since even with the guidance of the Scavenger Kings we are still in our hearts so close to the Old People’s wildness. By living the law we do right by our neighbors just as we bring joy to Agritakh’s ever-dreaming face. The problem,” he continued, with no small amount of passion, “is when we use these things meant to keep us safe and to show love to our god, and we twist them into daggers to gouge out our own hearts, because we forget a sin is something that can be redeemed.”

Dzedekh blinked. “So you believe as you do less because you think the wronged don’t deserve justice, but because you view sin as a wound that can heal over time?”

This earned a scoff and an eye-roll from Sarouth. “When did I ever say I don’t believe in justice?” he asked. “I believe that we must understand that there are consequences for our actions, and that our deeds be tempered by thoughts of how their shadows will fall across the future. We can choose to learn from our mistakes and grow into better people, or we can choose to wallow in self-delusion and stagnancy, forever straying from the joys He has sown for us. Thing is, we still have that choice. To strip it away entirely is a sin of its own.” He tilted his head at Dzedekh. “Or do you think just because one was born with the weight of another’s sins, whether great or small, they’re damned to being forever struck from joining Him in His peaceful sleep?”

Sarouth was definitely in a mood if he wasn’t giving out easy answers to people who clearly just expected a snippet or two of the Chant on which to meditate. He didn’t not do this sort of thing, of course, especially if he had the chance to lock horns with other god-speakers on the matter, but it still felt strange hearing him ask one awkward question after another while most of the ritual crowd had already dissolved back into individuals. As near as Riaag could reason, it had something to do with Sarouth going easy during his usual speechifying; in Naar Rhoan he could get away with working shit like this right into everyone’s words of guidance and it was understood it was part of the Rhoanish experience, but Yun Azrha had no such understanding. There had been no godly call to free this place from its shackles. Yun Azrha was the result of taking care of problems before they became uniquely Rhoanish ones, and so Sarouth didn’t preach with quite the same zeal, since nobody had asked for it in the first place.

This was definitely not Riaag’s favorite part of talking dogma with other people. It wasn’t personal, he reminded himself, and it was something Agritakh’s people needed to understand to be as healthy and clean as they could be in His sight. You didn’t devote your life to handling the uglier chores without building up an understanding for when they were necessary. He took a deep breath and let it out again. Sarouth was here, so everything would be fine, even if it wasn’t.

As for Dzedekh, she tried to hide how her eyes instantly went to Riaag’s coat at Sarouth’s words, which was polite of her. He hadn’t planned for his presence to make this debate that much more confrontational; that it had turned out that way was the latest in the string of happy accidents that had followed Riaag ever since a certain god-speaker had pulled him out of the dust and declared him clean. Most people weren’t sinners, when it came down to pure numbers, at least not in the way the unclean were, so perhaps the thought of someone like himself as just another person who wanted a hot dinner and somewhere to sleep out of the rain was a new concept. 

“I…see that I need to think on this more,” Dzedekh said. “I don’t know if I think what I do for the reasons I thought I did.”

“No shame in that. Ideas are like jerky, you know. It’s a good idea to chew on them a while.”

Her eyes returned to the hanging quartz. “White-Hair, another question?” she asked.

“Of course.”

Riaag had expected her to ask for the charm, but Dzedekh had a different quandary in mind. “If sin only comes about because of choices we make, why give us that choice at all?”

“Isn’t it obvious?” asked Sarouth, and his smile was a little sad. “He wants us to have what He did not.”

“Oh…,” she said. It was barely more than a breath with a vowel tucked into it. “Oh, yes, of course. I’m sorry, White-Hair. Thank you for your time.” She made to back away when a fine-fingered hand caught the edge of her sleeve. It was a gentle gesture, but she might as well have fallen afoul of a snare for as efficiently as it stopped her.

“Don’t go just yet, you,” said Sarouth. “I’ve noticed how part of my staff has commanded your attention.” He braced his staff against the snow, untied the crystal in question, and held it out to her in his open palm, not unlike how he fed apples to his horse. “If it’s called to you so much, it’s clearly meant to be yours.”

Dzedekh glanced down, uncertain. “A cast line doesn’t expect to catch every fish it sees,” she said.

“That’s so, but consider it a gift. A prosperous leader who hoards their wealth is the most wretched of all.”

Her hand stopped just before her fingers closed about the bit of gleaming rock. “Won’t this leave a wound on your staff?” It was as she said: the spot where the crystal had once hung was conspicuously bare among the tangle of other ornaments. There would be no denying a piece of his kit was gone.

The scoff Sarouth made startled her. “Don’t worry about it,” he said. “I’ll find something new to replace it, whether it be something I make myself or a gift from His halls of endless treasures. That’s how it always works.” He shrugged, hand still outstretched. “It is a gift, though. If you don’t want it I won’t force it into your care. In all my years of speaking Agritakh’s word I’ve had to learn the importance of accepting the occasional no.”

“Then…thank you, Your Grace. I’ll keep it close.” It was a shame Dzedekh probably had plans of her own once spring came, as otherwise she seemed like she’d make for a good Rhoanish.

“Wear it proudly,” said Sarouth. “What else can I do for you today?”

Sarouth was a chatty sort and Dzedekh wasn’t quite sure how to care for a charm of uncertain mystical properties, so it took them some time to finally finish talking with one another. The quartz really did suit her once she fastened it into one of the braids that framed her face. More often than not things tended to end up where they were supposed to be if they spent enough time around Sarouth. That alone seemed fitting for the avatar of the Hill God, greatest of all who picked the bones, as wasn’t the entire point of scavenging being to make the best of everything you had? If that meant finding a new home for an object, or a person, or whatever, that wasn’t really that different from cleansing the land through consumption.

Other people came and went with issues of their own. None could rival Dzedekh’s in scope, which was something of a relief, as it meant Sarouth was able to dispense advice fairly quickly without too much of a queue forming. To be alive was to wonder, as he was fond of saying, and so the least he could do for Yun Azrha was to bring advice to its people, be it practical or more esoteric in nature. Each time he gave an answer it was like one less scrap of uncertainty existed in the world, No wonder the Azrhics hungered for his words!

They weren’t the only ones. An uncomfortable question of Riaag’s own, heavy as lead, had found its way into his guts without his noticing, and now that he’d acknowledged it he knew he’d need to purge the thing quickly before he can wrap it up in enough excuses to keep hidden. It probably wasn’t sacrilege if he was asking something out of a genuine need to know, even if one could easily ask it on (for lack of a better term) bad faith. The Hill God would understand, wouldn’t He? Hadn’t they just finished talking about how Agritakh was best served by deeds of steel, and sometimes it took daring acts to smelt a bright new truth in His service?

There was only one way to find out for sure. “Hey, Sarouth?” It felt weird using Sarouth’s given name like this in public, but it was crucial the leaden question be asked in as close and trusting a context as possible.

“Hrm?”

“As you was sayin’, strippin’ away choice can be a sin itself in some contexts, yeah? Like, not so much stoppin’ a body from choosin’ ter go stave somebody’s skull in without due provocation, but someone choosin’ ter live, choosin’ to thrive, choosin’ ter sleep soundly with they back against His soil. Sins ‘a denial.”

“That’s right.”

“What’s that make it when a god-speaker turns?”

Sarouth didn’t miss a beat. “A grim necessity,” he said, sounding so much older than a man of not even three decades should. He patted Riaag’s cheek, the leather of his glove nearly as soft as the palm it covered. “That doesn’t mean I have to be happy about it.”

He probably should’ve expected that answer; Riaag had taken part in enough god-speaker business, and even overseen a fiercely private rite that few outside the clergy ever attended, to know the terrible truth of Agritakh-ruhds, in that the divinity within them made them part of Agritakh Himself, and that meant sharing in His suffering. Tears and wild howling shared in the company of their own were one way they coped. It was a choice made in misery, but what other way was there? Those first followers of Vulture who came to the Hill God’s side had been destroyed by His very presence, so placing Himself in the luckiest (or unluckiest) of His children was the only way to make a sustainable link between the mortal world and Him Below. What else were they expected to do, not revere Him? Riaag would accept that answer at about the same time as he could reach behind one ear and pull forth a live aurochs.

What all it had been like for Sarouth when he’d turned was an answer of which Riaag suspected he’d never know the full extent, instead piecing it together like someone rebuilding an eggshell after the creature within had hatched. He knew it hard been a hard one, as Sarouth had still been well within the years of boyhood that night when he bedded down a child and woke up a cleric, with his family (or rather, the people who’d been his family back then, their names long since renounced save a scarce few) left confused and frightened by what he’d become. Agritakh-ruhds heard and saw things other people didn’t. Agritakh-ruhds were subject to strange urges, their very marrow swirled through with prophecy they strained to understand. Riaag had witnessed his share of weird god-speaker shit over their time together (the speaking in tongues part was almost relaxing by that point, and sometimes he tried to pick out flecks of meaning from the torrent of sounds to transform into poetry later), but Riaag had lived his own life of troubles before becoming Sarouth’s rough right hand. He could only imagine what it would be like to see that sort of thing erupt from what had once been a laughing little boy.

From Riaag’s modest attempts at understanding foreign beliefs, it seemed that many religious sorts found their piety taxed by the potentially abstract perceivability of their patrons. Not all the gods who’d come down to make the world their own had been as straightforward as They who’d called to the Star-Eater in those early days! Doubting Agritakh’s existence was like doubting the very ground itself, of course; where faith entered the picture for the Rhoanish was seeing all the ways His influence could leave wounds and still assuming He had nothing but love for His children. Had Riaag not come into his own Hill-God-given good fortune himself he might well have found reason to question His motives upon seeing the trials that awaited His most loyal and steadfast god-speakers.

“I think I’m going to go wander around the commons a while,” said Sarouth as he cocked his finger towards the big central field they used for meetings. It would’ve been a fine place to hold a ceremony or two if it hadn’t been right at the foot of the ever-shrinking tower. “Want to meet up again for dinner? I know you’re busy as of late, what with everything that needs to be kept flowing at once, and you’ve already cut out so much time for me today.”

Riaag could scarcely imagine being so busy he wasn’t ready to wait hand and foot on Sarouth, but he could also spot when someone needed to be alone among other people for a while. He nodded. “Ain’t a problem at all, Holy One. Plenty ‘a shit needs doin’. You have yerself a nice amble, yeah?”

“I’ll do my best.” He leaned up to leave a small kiss on Riaag’s mouth, withdrawing before Riaag could do much in the way of returning it. It was like being brushed by the wing of a passing moth. “You are loved, Riaag Bough-Breaker, and no one can claim it isn’t so.”

“I’s doin’ a pretty good job ‘a rememberin’ such these days. You just remember ter do the same, you hear me?”

He’d hoped for a cheerful response, or at least a playfully annoyed one. The sight of the puzzled smile he received instead stayed with him for too long afterwards.

He was too little to have a deed name, and everybody knew he’d never be worthy of one even if he got old enough for it, and even then most of the time nobody called him his given name, anyway. In spite of all this Riaag still sometimes thought about what he might be if he woke up one day and found himself in a better world. Tale-Teller, they might call him, since he figured he’d be good at that. Or Good-Minder, if they let him take care of the babies for real and not just the way he’d sneak in to sing to them or keep them clean. Whatever it was, people wouldn’t give him a second thought if he introduced himself that way. It was one of his favorite fantasies.

Water-Carry, you’re so helpful! said someone in his thoughts as he tried out another deed name. Keeping that deed name in place kept everything safely in the realm of make-believe, so he wouldn’t make the mistake of thinking it might ever be a thing that’d happen to him. Riaag Water-Carry would be sturdy and strong, unlike the real version, and he’d never get in trouble for being too scrawny to do chores right. The person in his thoughts probably never imagined it could ever been the case. Now everyone has something to drink, and all the washing’s all done, continued the imaginary voice. The whole camp is clean! We’re so lucky to have someone like you around.

It was nothing, said Riaag Water-Carry. Thinking up dream people who talked the way he did made his heart hurt in a funny way, so he tended not to do it. The stream isn’t too far away, and I got done so fast I even had time to cook. Let’s all have some tea and soup to celebrate!

His reverie was interrupted by the sound of Kadig—another one too little for more than a single name—tumbling into the tent where Riaag had been keeping his head down (literally) and licking his wounds (not so literally). Riaag sat up quickly and brushed some pine needles off of his cheeks where they’d stuck to his paint. They looked at each other without saying anything; questions like what happened? had answers that weren’t nice to hear. It’s not like asking would help. At least Kadig didn’t have any new bruises. That was always good.

“You wanna lie down where I was?” Riaag asked. He thumped the still-warm pallet with his little fingers.

“No,” said Kadig. He wiped at his eyes, leaving long smears where you could almost see the color of his skin here and there. “Got yelled at fer bein’ noisy.”

Riaag could understand that. No matter how quiet he tried to be it felt like the man who watched over them (who had a name, but you weren’t supposed to use it or you’d get in trouble) was always saying he was too loud, too in the way. He’d long since stopped trying to understand what he was supposed to do to stop making people so angry with him. Sometimes he could use that noisiness to keep other people from getting in trouble, which was definitely the right thing to do if you cared about others, so even if he’d hurt for days afterward, it felt good to be useful.

“We’s gonna keep quiet tergether, then,” said Riaag.

Kadig scowled and squatted on the ground by Riaag’s pallet. Getting caught too close to somebody else was another good way to get in trouble. “I don’t wanna keep quiet. My head’s too busy.”

This, too, was something Riaag could understand. When his thoughts were all tangled up like twine around a stick he’d found he could think about music and stories until things calmed down again, but over time he’d come to realize this didn’t come so easily to other people. Maybe he could be useful this way, too.

He let Kadig finish a long, sorrowful snort before answering: “Okay. Wanna hear a story?”

“What kinda story?” asked Kadig, suspiciously.

“It’s one I heard a god-speaker tellin’ last time we had one come through.” Not that they’d been telling it to him, since Riaag’s secret shame meant that the minder had to keep him hidden away so passing god-speakers wouldn’t notice the untouchable stink on him (which, as everybody knew, was that much worse than simply being unclean), though Riaag had managed to sneak close enough that he could hear and digest everything. He’d gotten pretty good at listening over the course of his short life. Getting the chance to actually show someone how well he’d memorized their holy tradition was exciting!

“Okay, but what kinda god-speaker story?”

Riaag pondered. He sorted all the different Agritakh-ruhd stories he knew together in his head, since they were all different parts of the Chant, or at least could help someone understand the Chant a little better if the usual parts of it didn’t quite stick right in their head. He knew the thing from beginning to end, and he knew what it all meant, so he went for what felt like a good approximation. “It’s all about the old days, and how the Hill God made things so good.”

“So it’s got a happy end?”

“I thinks ‘a it like that.”

“You’s always talkin’ too fancy. I wanna hear anyway, though,” said Kadig as he settled into a more relaxed sitting position, still facing Riaag. Now it really did feel like Riaag was telling a story properly.

If he’d had the choice he would have started with a nice song, or maybe one of the calls to history he heard the skalds do when there were enough people around to learn about things that had happened long ago (or sometimes not so long ago, though Riaag’s minder tended to keep the band away from places that were that busy). Maybe there’d even be a little prayer. If Kadig had gotten yelled at for noise it probably was a bad idea to make more sounds, though, so Riaag opted for a nice, simple start at the beginning of things.

“One time long ago, long before ever’body were born, there weren’t no such thing as ground.”

Kadig scoffed “No!”

“It’s true, honest. Ever’thing were all black ‘n empty. If there’d been any people they’d’a called it the Void, but they didn’t have no people back then. They had stars, though, ‘n that was why the Star-Eater came ter live there, since stars was His fav’rite things. He loved ’em so much fer more’n just eatin’, too. That’s why He took care ‘a them when he weren’t chasin’ ’em down or gobblin’ up the dead ones.” All the words were coming out in the right order, which had been something Riaag worried about since so much of his practice was kept inside his head. This was almost as good as the times when he’d sneak into where they kept the babies to soothe them if they were fussy. Maybe he’d pretend to be Riaag Tale-Weaver next time.

“Fer a long time t’were just stars ‘n the Star-Eater ‘n nothin’ much else. Then some gods came along.”

“Ain’t the Star-Eater a god?”

That was a good question. How did the other gods see the Star-Eater back in those days before days? He’d wanted to ask the last Agritakh-ruhd they’d seen questions like that. He’d known what would’ve happened if he’d tried, though, so he’d kept that kind of talk to himself. It was time to make an educated guess, and if the ground didn’t split open to swallow him up afterwards he’d know it probably wasn’t too wrong. “Yeah, but He weren’t one ‘a Them, so’s it’s proper ter say They was different gods ‘n He were, right?”

“I guess.” If Kadig disapproved of this answer, it wasn’t enough to have him ask Riaag to stop, so that seemed good enough for now.

“So these other gods, They’s gotten tergether ter say, ‘Oh oh oh, We want a place to be gods, and this place that exists now isn’t enough for it.'” He was glad they were in private; making a deity speak like one of the unclean was unthinkable, so it was important he risk being corrected by having Them talk using good, normal words. “They swirled all ’round the place, ‘n They decided ter make somewhere ter put Theyselves.”

“That’s where the ground came from, right?”

Riaag wavered a hand. He’d seen other people doing that when they weren’t sure of something so it seemed like the right thing to do. “T’were supposed ter be, but gods is real big ideas, ‘n so when They all got in the same place the ground They made up just went all o’er ever’where. Gods ain’t so easy on things ’cause things is simple ‘n small ‘n gods just ain’t. So They tried again, ‘n it all busted up again, ‘n no matter what They did it always fell apart. That’s why things fall apart, y’know. Fallin’ apart is somethin’ so big only a god can ignore it, ‘n sometimes not even then.

“So them gods all got tergether ‘n said, ‘We have to try something new, or there won’t be anywhere We can be gods, and then what good are We to anything?’ So They all got tergether ‘n dreamed ‘n dreamed. They dreamed ‘a this place They wanted ter see, ‘n in They dreams They knew t’were right ‘n good ‘n just what They wanted. Then They woke up ter find nothin’ but them stars.

“They realized that t’were gonna be needful ter dream things inter bein’ real. None ‘a Them felt like They was right fer it, though, since They all had ideas fer what ter do, ‘n dreamin’ things real ain’t somethin’ one can do alongside other things so easy.” He was pretty sure he’d used alongside right. Sometimes words felt different in his head than when they actually came between his teeth. “That’s when they remembered the Star-Eater, ‘n how He weren’t havin’ nothin’ ter do with Them ’cause He had things ‘a His own ter do, ‘n even though He were different He were still a kinda god in His own way.

“So them first gods came up ter Him what were the Star-Eater, ‘n they said, ‘Oh oh oh, Star-Eater, you have to help us. We’re trying to make a world with ground to stand on, but We can’t have it be real at the same time We are or it all crumbles up. Will You help Us? Will You dream so We can go down and mix up a proper creation?’

“Now, the Star-Eater, He were a wild thing, ’cause the First Scavenger had ter be, but just ’cause He were wild don’t mean He were foolish. It’s like how Old People is wild, ‘n don’t know how ter make fire ’cause they don’t know Vulture’s secrets, but they ain’t foolish, neither, yeah? He could think on things He saw even as he chased down dyin’ stars ter chomp up in His teeth.

“So the Star-Eater, He done heard this thing He were called ter do ‘n asked, ‘What will happen to my stars if I leave them?’ Because He loved them stars so much, you know? He weren’t about ter leave ’em alone, ’cause without no one ter tend ’em when they was strong or pull ’em down when they was weak, they might go all bad. Like if somebody plants a garden box but don’t weed it, right?” Not that their band had time for gardening, of course; Riaag had taken great pains to listen in on adults’ conversations to figure out what ideas like that meant in the first place. It came dangerously close to making him feel clever.

Kadig leaned forward, his tears mostly dried and his expression enraptured. “What did happen?”

Didn’t he know? This was the super easy Chant stuff even kids smaller than Riaag could tell you. Riaag tried to take it as a sign he was just that good at telling the stories of the people who’d birthed him (whether or not they were his people, strictly speaking, he still couldn’t reliably say). “Well, the Star-Eater asked His question, ‘n the gods answered. ‘They’ll still shine and twinkle,’ They said, ‘and if there is a world below them, they’ll get to look down and see it, and the people of the world can look up and see them back.’

“This sounded all right ter the Star-Eater. He weren’t greedy! Sharin’ all them stars sounded like a good thing fer ever’body, since what good’s a star if ain’t nobody gonna see it? ‘If they still get to shine down, and they won’t get forgotten, then I’ll do it,’ He said, and the gods was so happy.

“So the Star-Eater put Hisself ter sleep, ‘n the ground rose up all ’round Him, ‘n ’cause He was dreamin’ it inter shape it didn’t fall all apart when the gods put They feet on it, ‘n so plants rose up, ‘n animals after, ‘n while He ain’t never gonna wake up again you can look up ‘n see His stars shinin’ so pretty. That’s how the Star-Eater turned inter Agritakh. That’s why we can stand on the ground ‘n not fall through inter nothin’ at all. That’s the end ‘a that story, ‘n we’s ter live the rest.”

Riaag sat back with a satisfied smile. He’d remembered the whole thing from front to back without forgetting a single bit of it, and while older people could probably tell it using fancier poet’s words, he felt he’d done a good job for being just a little kid who didn’t talk right. If he wasn’t so afraid of what would happen if a god-speaker ever saw him he would’ve tried to retell it to the next one who passed through the band’s campsite.

His high opinion of his performance was decidedly not shared by Kadig. “I think it’s a real bad story,” he said. “I didn’t like it none.”

Riaag frowned around his tusks and asked, “Why not?”

“I wanted a happy story,” growled Kadig. “You said I was gonna get a happy end but I didn’t! Your story ain’t happy at all!” He huffed in frustration. “I bet that’s why yer teeth is all bad. It’s ’cause you tell stories real bad, too, ‘n it messes ’em up when the words come out.”

Someone walked by outside and they both froze, the pair of them angled towards the unlaced tent flap. You didn’t lace up a tent if you were unclean unless somebody told you to, otherwise there’d be trouble. If you had any smarts in your head at all you soon learned to keep out of as much trouble as you could, since that meant it wouldn’t be so bad when you had to deal with the trouble you couldn’t avoid. The footsteps passed and made no sign of coming back to check on the tent, so once the coast was clear the two of them returned to their argument in whispers.

“It don’t seem sad ter me,” said Riaag. “It’s where the Hill God came from, ‘n He loves us so much even if we’s been born bad.”

“Why we gotta hurt if He got so much love in Him, then?”

That was a harder question to answer than the others. Riaag didn’t like to think about that sort of thing very much since it made him feel like crying, and he was already so much of a crybaby the others picked on him all the time for it, so it was dangerous to go back to thoughts that would just make things worse. He tried to think of hymns he’d overhead and sermons he’d snuck into, desperate for a god-speaker’s guidance. There was no kind-faced priest here to give an answer that wouldn’t make his guts all twisted up inside; all Riaag had was himself and his selfish little prayers (only ever the one, to be exact, but he sure did pray it all the time). He’d have to guess again.

“Well, He’s asleep, ain’t He? You cain’t do much when you’s asleep, ‘specially if you’s busy keepin’ ever’thing from fallin’ ter pieces ’cause they’s gods all up in it. So He’s dreamin’ so hard, ‘n so much, ‘n He can keep ever’thing from rollin’ out like a big yarn ball, but He cain’t do too much ter upset that or it might all go badly, ‘n He thinks we’s so worth ‘a havin’ a place ter be that He’ll keep Hisself sleepin’ always. He ain’t got no stars ter eat no more, neither, so that’s why we’s givin’ Him presents ter eat all the time, ‘n we keep Him from feelin’ too lonely by showin’ Him our faces durin’ prayer time.”

“No we don’t. We got paint on ter hide us ’cause we’s nasty. He don’t see us so He don’t love us none.”

Riaag looked about warily. They’d kept their voices low, but admitting something as big as the secret he kept felt like it could only be shared in the most stealthy of ways. “It’s okay, though,” he said, each word no louder than a cricket’s sigh. “If’n you rub off a li’l bit ‘a the paint, you can pray ter Him okay, so long as you remember ter put it back once you’s done.” What a reveal! He felt so much lighter now that somebody else knew some of what happened where nobody else could see.

Once again, Kadig didn’t take this the way he’d hoped. “You take yer paint off on purpose?” he gasped. “That ain’t allowed! Only bad kids do that! Only really bad ‘n dirty kids!” He huffed with dismay; Riaag had been around a lot of tears in his short lifetime, and he could tell that the ones beading in Kadig’s eyes were the kind born from pure frustration. He stood up and backed away from Riaag like the latter was going to jump out at him at any moment. “I’m telling!

“Why? It’s just prayin’,” said Riaag, though he couldn’t manage anything more than the meekest of arguments. His heart was never all that into speaking up for himself. Kadig was going to tell somebody and Riaag would be punished, maybe really badly, and that would help him learn not to be such a stupid, worthless piece of shit in the future. It was probably supposed to be this way. It was a small price to pay for telling someone as big as the Hill God how much everything meant to even a useless nothing like himself.

“I shoulda known you was full up ‘a bad ideas when you said that story was a good ‘un,” said Kadig. He sniffled around more angry tears. “If I goes ter tell now they’s just gonna make me get punished again. But I ain’t gonna forget how bad that was, Riaag, ‘n next time you tells me a story it better be a happy one that’s really a happy one, or you’re gonna get it.” With that he left the tent in search of a different place to hide.

Riaag didn’t say anything as he watched Kadig go. He just didn’t understand it. It was a wonderful story if you thought about it for even a little bit: the Star-Eater had given up everything, but because He’d done that, everyone in the world got to exist. Everyone and everything! The stars still shone and now there were people around to see them, not just gods, whose divine thoughts went places stars didn’t go. Wasn’t that the happiest ending of all?

Sarouth was back at the tent in time for pre-dinner prayers. He didn’t clutch at the ground so pathetically this time around, which had to be a sign of something or another, and he was willing to make small talk after they were done, which was clearly also a sign. The way he spoke, the way he moved, the way he walked, the way he sat…everything was surely proof that he was on the mend, at least a little bit, because the alternative was not one worth consideration. Riaag found himself so occupied with looking for signs in Sarouth’s every action he began to wonder if this was what it was like for oracles every day.

Dinner was the same sort of stews they’d been eating for a while now, this one something packed thickly with rice and the echoes of carrot and onion. It could’ve used something, in Riaag’s opinion, be it jarred meat or chunks of marrow or just an egg cracked over the top; how cruel it was that he could think of all sorts of things Naar Rhoan stockpiled through the winter that Yun Azrha simply couldn’t manage! Even ground bonemeal or some Usoan-style fish heads would’ve helped. If Sarouth was bothered by the lack of fruit rind to brighten up the broth he didn’t show it, so Riaag chose not to say anything in favor of rasping his tongue along his spoon in the vain hope that he might unearth some wonderful hidden taste tucked among the wood grain. The cooks worked hard with what little they had. Being ungrateful in public was the kind of petty bullshit you trained yourself not to do when you found yourself in charge of so much of that public, anyway.

If they were eating in Naar Rhoan’s communal kitchens it was understood that Sarouth’s attention was free game; he’d usually develop a halo of curious visitors over the course of a meal, be they eager to pick his brains or just curious to hear what he said to others. Here in Yun Azrha they were more likely to eat in peace. It made sense, Riaag told himself, since even when it wasn’t snowing the weather was vicious, and people would naturally want to eat up some hot food as quickly as they could so they could take its inner warmth back to their tents and pale shelters. The public grounds kept fires going all day and night, which made trips outside somewhat less bad, but why huddle around a brazier with people you barely knew if you could shelter with those you did? Riaag still went into the woods every day to harvest fresh firewood—it turned out that the tower, evil as it was, made for an excellent place to store timber if you needed it to dry out a little, so its ground-level rooms were stacked high with the stuff—just in case that ever changed. It was important that people could gather even if they didn’t. It was all about choice, even if everyone kept picking the same option time after time.

Of course, the choice over whether the Azrhics wished to freeze their asses off wasn’t the only such decision weighing on Riaag’s mind. He trailed behind Sarouth silently until they were back at the tent, Sarouth having observed the sunset with a critical eye and performed a quick tally of the stars before he was willing to retire for the night. They didn’t have any games with them and Riaag had promised himself to take a break from projects to celebrate a caravan well-utilized, so he soon found he had no way to occupy himself other than edging towards some fairly heavy topics. He checked the fires, laced up the tent flap, and sat himself down on the carpets opposite where Sarouth rested, hood still pulled over his head. Sarouth regarded him with a dreamy expression.

“Been thinkin’ ’bout that talk you had with Clay-Spinner earlier, Holy One.”

That seemed enough to bring Sarouth back from wherever his mind had wandered. His look was curious and pleasant once his eyes (or at least the visible one) once more focused on reality and Riaag, in that order. “Yeah?”

“Just a whole buncha ideas what I never put tergether in such an order, nor all at once. Got me turnin’ ’em over further. You know me, I’s always thinkin’.”

“That you are, you clever thing,” said Sarouth, leaning forward to tap his finger against the tip of Riaag’s nose. “Do you want to talk about something in particular? I can always find time to offer guidance to His chosen, especially if I’m oathbound to them.”

Riaag smiled in spite of himself. He didn’t have any trouble seeing respect from others these days, or awe, or fear, but Sarouth alone had the knack for making him feel charming. That was also a sign, probably. Maybe he needed to stop focusing on looking for signs so much.

“So we was talkin’ ’bout how sin is steel, yeah?”

“That we were.”

There was so much more to ask about than just that, but all things had to start somewhere. It couldn’t hurt to make sure his thoughts were as organized as he presumed. “Sin is steel, since steel defies the ability ‘a humbler creatures ter make. By that logic, songs is a kinda steel too, ain’t they? T’would be why He likes hymns so much, right? Ain’t like creatures don’t make noise. Birds is always singin’ as the wolves they do howl. Ain’t like that don’t bring Him joy. But you get a buncha beasties tergether ‘n they’s more likely ter go dissonant ter tell one another they’s got great numbers than ter harmonize in any such way. When we shapes our voices ter build one another up in glorious unity, that’s steel, too. It’s a gift we can give Him what no other thing can.”

Sarouth settled into a more relaxed half-recline against a few cushions. “I like how you put that,” he said. “I didn’t want to get too into it with Dzedekh, but just because sin is a type of steel we shouldn’t assume that all steel is sinful…or, now that I think about it, that all sin is as useful as steel, either. You get where I’m coming from?”

“I does, yeah.” He chased after the promise of a debate Sarouth had nestled into his answer. It wasn’t like he didn’t want to know! “What other shit didja choose ter excise from that li’l talk in the int’rest ‘a clarity? Now you got me all quizzical.”

“I’m so glad you asked,” said Sarouth, blatantly self-satisfied. “We’ve established that sin is something we make ourselves. We live by blood, steel, and fire, and today we’ve spent a decent chunk of time determining that sin is a form of that second one.” He brushed at his veil with the backs of his fingers the way he used to flip his forelock. “Now, if only thinking creatures can make steel in the first place, does this potential mean we’re all born sinners?”

“We’s born as clean ‘n pure as the animals, as the Animals taught us,” said Riaag. He’d spent many an evening practicing the subtle intonations required to designate one of those greatest of creatures from simple beasts. It didn’t come as easily to people who didn’t carry a divine scrap inside them. Much like with Agritakh’s own verbiage, he’d had to practice. “So…no, just because we can don’t mean we gotta. Right?”

“And what of those of us born outside that state?”

This was different. Usually Sarouth either talked around the details of Riaag’s bastard birth or couched it in terms implying that he was both born untouchable and favored by the Hill God; he tended not to ask Riaag what he thought about the entire notion of being born into a legacy they didn’t deserve. Riaag had previously assumed this was because his answer was obvious: it was shitty, but probably necessary, but that didn’t make it any less shitty. Was there something more to it? He really did not need to be having a dogmatic crisis right now, so hopefully they’d be able to cut through whatever brambles the Chant might sprout between them before he lost his shit and needed to go lie down with one hand on his amulet.

“Ain’t somethin’ I’s prone ter givin’ consideration, Holy One,” Riaag answered, honestly.

“That’s fine, my love. I know this is, er, not the most pleasant topic for you, in general. I promise I wouldn’t be leading us down this road if there weren’t a reason for it.” He gestured at the little carved figure of Scorpion Riaag wore at his belt by his trophy skulls. “You’ve got plenty of midwife training, so you could surely tell me how if a dam eats the wrong things while heavy then the child growing inside gets sick. Logically, if the dam does the wrong things, it’s like eating poison all over again. Same for the sire, of course, but that doesn’t make the metaphor as good.

“So, I’ll rephrase my earlier question. Why would these sins then nestle in the child, if the child did nothing wrong?”

Pieces clicked together in Riaag’s head like tokens on a pegboard. He was on to something, he was sure of it, and if the words happened to come out wrong while he was trying to figure out what that something was, well, the Faaroug himself would understand and forgive any unfortunate implications. “Well, it’s ’cause that shit’s gotta go somewhere, right? It’s kinda like water.”

Sarouth propped his chin up in his hands. “Indeed? But Agritakh is unconcerned with the movement of rain or river. I hear there’s a River God for some of that instead.”

“I’s meanin’ how it moves from place ter place. Put a li’l hole in the bottom ovva jug ‘n all that water comes out. Fix that hole up ‘n it won’t go nowhere, but if’n you’s ter leave it out so it freezes, maybe it’ll break that jug, maybe it’ll just stay that shape if’n you smashes that jug off yerself. Keep that jug warm ‘n it won’t get all cracked up that way, but if’n you leaves a bit ‘a cloth touchin’ that water, that water’s gonna scoot on up the cloth ‘n get it all wet. That itty bitty baby curled up in they dam’s belly ter grow? They dam’s the jug, ‘n they’s the cloth, ‘cept this cloth can get mighty jugwise if it’s left ter be as it is.”

“So there’s nothing that can be done? Sin begets sin, and that’s the way it goes?” Whether or not those were intended to be answered was made obvious by how Sarouth didn’t seem interested in pausing to hear Riaag’s response this time around. “That can’t be right, though, or you wouldn’t be here, as you are. Your hair is long and your face is clean. Your very clothes tell a story that your oath makes more complex.”

Riaag stroked his beard. “He wouldn’t’a permitted one ‘a His ter be with me in such a binding way if there weren’t no chance ‘a fixin’ things,” he said. The words came slowly and firmly to his lips, heavy with the weight of what he felt might just be new history. “Like I was sayin’, let’s talk like an orcish being is a jug made outta clay, with a touch ‘a star-stuff mixed in fer accuracy. You can bust a hole in that jug, or freeze it, or dip things in ter wick that water out, or just pour it on the ground. All these ways don’t get rid ‘a that water, just moves it ’round some. Even if it’s on the ground that’s still there. Reckon you can see where I’s goin’ with this. If not, well, too fucken bad, I guess?” Having come across such an engrossing thread, Riaag was determined to pull on it until he’d unraveled the idea to his satisfaction.

“So we got this shit sloshin’ all about, ‘n sometimes who knows how it gets in there, maybe someone weren’t prepared fer a deluge ‘n got soaked, maybe they was lazy ‘n didn’t seal up they tent proper when pitchin’ it, either way it’s here now. If’n you don’t dry it out right, like you don’t sit it by a fire or let it out in the sunshine or at least just get outta the fucken rain a while, well, even if you’s the best ‘a intentions you’s still gonna be wet.

“What we can do is learn ter tell the diff’rence ‘twixt a body what got dunked in a river ‘n needs ter be dried off ‘n maybe given somethin’ warm ter drink,” he continued, “‘n a fucken fish. Last I checked I don’t got gills, neither literal nor metaphorical, so’s it stands ter reckon I ain’t supposed ter be livin’ in that half-drowned state, seein’ as I ain’t designed fer such.” He thought again of the River People and their god, and of how the River God used Her own waters to consume the gifts given to Her. Maybe sin worked differently in Usoa, but water was water wherever he’d been, and it claimed people the same as it always did. Hopefully the river itself wouldn’t take offense at what he said tonight when it finally came time to cross back into the valley.

A good poet knew when to drop one metaphor too many, and so he left thoughts of the River God and Her domain by the wayside. “Once you done hauled my ass outta that water, t’were you what did that dryin’ ‘n drink-givin’, but t’were my own duty ter watch fer ways I might succumb in the future. Not ’cause I’s driven ter sin or some shit, that’s the sorta thing what you hear incompetent beastmasters say ter explain away not bein’ able ter train a dog right, but ’cause I’s fallible, ‘n the nature ‘a things is ter fall apart ’cause that’s what fucken happens when you asks the Void ter do things fer you. So long as we keep pickin’ usselves back up whene’er we does crumble, we’s doin’ alright, yeah?

“The Chant commands us ter tend ter the green places, ‘n the Chant commands us ter take up that what’s discarded, ‘n a body what’s been cut loose from kin ‘n kind sure sounds a fucken lot like both ter me.” He glanced askance. “Least, that’s how I sees it at this time.”

Those doubts lingering in Riaag’s mind melted away in the warmth of Sarouth’s smile. “You’re so smart, Riaag, you know that?”

“Aw,” said Riaag, and just like they’d practiced, he kept his mouth shut instead of instantly claiming the praise didn’t have any business in his hands. If someone was going to be proud of him he’d just have to live with that.

Sarouth leaned in. “I’ve one more question for you, my love,” he said. “It’s…also personal, I’d say, though in a different way than the last ones. You don’t have to answer it if it feels wrong to. I promise I’ll understand.”

“Might as well ask it. I knows you ‘n I knows you ain’t never gonna say somethin’ hurtful just fer shiggles.”

“Is there still a place for it at all? The paint. The shame. Refusing to touch people, or claiming they’re excluded from prayer.” Sarouth grimaced. “I keep thinking about whether I’m supporting something horrible just by not saying anything about it, because it’s tradition, and I’m supposed to be a keeper of tradition. I know how it wounded you.” He placed his hands against Riaag’s sleeves where they covered up some of his oldest scars. Riaag and puberty had not seen eye to eye for quite some time after it first afflicted him; the one saving grace it had brought him was the thick layer of hair that had sprouted on his forearms. It was getting easier to pretend there weren’t any bad memories under that at all.

Did past Faarougs ask their disciples this sort of thing? Was it a question delivered by proxy from Agritakh Himself, either doubting His own dreams or testing the mettle of His children? Once again, the only option that made any sense at all was the truth. “No fucken idea.”

This got a sharp bark of laughter out of Sarouth, who rested his forehead against Riaag’s chest. When he spoke again he sounded tired. “Here I am thinking there’d be an easy way out.”

“We don’t do this shit ’cause it’s easy,” said Riaag. “We do it ’cause it makes us remember who we is, ‘n why we’s doin’ it. Why else we gonna be bustin’ our asses each day prayin’ so fucken much? They’s faiths out there what barely does it once.”

“Sure, sure, but I was hoping I’d catch a break, just this once.”

Riaag chuckled. “Well, best I got fer you now is this: In theory, we’s all worthy ‘a second chances ‘n the opportunity ter become better’n we was when we first made our mistakes, given how none ‘a us is perfect in spite ‘a how we tries.” He knocked on his trophy skulls. Their previous owners had certainly made some mistakes way back when. “In reality, sometimes a motherfucker’s just a motherfucker. Gotta draw a line somewhere.”

“Can’t argue with that.” Sarouth looked back up to meet Riaag’s eyes. “The real problem’s where that line gets drawn, isn’t it?”

“Reckon that’s the hardest part ’bout most any tenet ‘a modern civilization.”

“Reckon you’re right, my wolf.”

Both of them wound down for bed earlier than usual, it being a cold and tiring day and neither of them possessing enough zeal to fool around. That same zeal felt like it was as thin on the ground as the snow was thick, those days, and Riaag couldn’t blame Sarouth for needing so much more sleep given how often he beseeched He Who Sleeps for His aid in casting out foul spirits. Mortal orcs just weren’t made for miracles and even the half-transcendent ones didn’t fare that much better. Riaag, being earthly all the way through, had to admit to himself he was also pretty tired after spending so much of himself engaged in trade; there were things to make and chores to do, but there’d always be more of those no matter what he did.

Their overlapping pallets (not their bed, because their bed was back home) felt blissfully soft after a day spent so engaged. Sarouth’s arms looped around Riaag from behind the instant Riaag was satisfied enough with the state of the tent to lie down. Breath fell against his clothed shoulder as Sarouth snuggled up into his normal sleeping spot, the possessive cling relaxing to a softer grip as he finally succumbed to slumber. Soon a rhythmic pattern of rattling snores split the night as they usually did. All was as it should be.

Riaag lay in the chilly dark and waited for sleep to take him, too. Neither of them had been consumed by the very ground beneath their feet, so if Agritakh minded what they were saying, maybe He was going to try giving them one of those second chances they’d been talking about. The idea brought a smile to Riaag’s face. How someone couldn’t love a god like that, he’d never know.

Barely a week into Yun Azrha becoming a thing, they’d managed to do something about the worst of the shitty scrap-wood sheds that had passed for housing under the master of the tower’s governance. Busting up derelict structures hadn’t been the problem; what had turned out to be the bigger issue was the lack of anything with which those shacks could easily be replaced. The people who’d answered the tower’s call hadn’t been left with much, and sturdy tents were in conspicuously short supply. Scavenging for replacements had seemed like the only answer. The materials on hand were peculiar ones, granted, but sure as their ancestors had risen to greatness on the things others left behind, it was decided that the Azrhics (and company) would work something out.

The problem with trying to get people to build houses with peculiar materials was that they had to know how to build in the first place, and while Riaag was a man of many skills and talents, constructing anything homier than a shed was somewhat beyond them. Where was a friendly foreign architect when you needed one? He did what he could with what he could remember from maintaining other people’s work. The resulting structures weren’t very pretty (not counting the actual tower-stuff itself, which was maybe too pretty), but as he stood inside of the most recent finished one to make sure smoke could get out without rain or snow getting in, he could see how someone could live in there. It helped if you thought of them like little caves. Weird little caves with smooth walls and soft floors, granted, but caves nonetheless. That common point of reference had come in very handy.

It had taken a bit of experimentation to figure out the best way to handle an entrance. If the weather was warmer a gate might have worked, since your typical nomad probably understood the concept of a gate or could pick it up fairly quickly; gates weren’t great for insulation, however, and since he’d long since given up predicting the direction of the wind he needed to make sure these things wouldn’t get gusty indoors no matter from whence a storm decided to blow. As it was he needed to make these things familiar as possible. This meant pretending the charms hung up across the threshold were just a normal thing you did for houses, not the structural equivalent of hanging up one of his amulets to keep out as much of the tower’s lingering influence as Sarouth’s blessings could manage. Riaag’s time in Naar Rhoan had trained him in the value of treating the objectively fucking bizarre as routine. People would go along with all sorts of strange things so long as they were convinced there wasn’t anything to worry about.

“This bit’s like a tent flap, ties ‘n all, see?” he said to the band who’d soon be occupying the house as he demonstrated. “It’s fixed in place, but you can do up the ties just like you’s used ter, ‘n they’s room fer pushin’ a screen in front ‘a that ter keep out drafts.”

“But is it safe?” asked Dzedekh Clay-Spinner, who’d introduced herself as the band’s leader.

Riaag shrugged. “Ain’t no more perilous ‘n a yurt. The walls is sunk in a ways ‘n braced ‘gainst one another, so’s they ain’t inclined ter fall over, neither.” What he didn’t know about housing he definitely could make up for in siege-proofing something. His shoulder was still a little tender from where he’d been testing the thing’s integrity percussively. “We strung up ropes ‘cross the walls ‘n top so as ter letcha hang up some tapestries, maybe hang a lamp or two if’n you so desires. Get some carpets down ‘n it’ll be right cozy.”

The wind chose that time to pick up, meaning suddenly Dzedekh’s band was more inclined than ever to see what the house looked like from the inside. Sounds of grudging appreciation followed soon after. Yun Azrha was all about making the best of a bad situation by whatever means necessary, and bit by bit the Azrhics themselves began to agree with those means.

“And this is just…ours, now?” asked Dzedekh. She clung fiercely to her carryall. The lord of the tower hadn’t put too much stock into letting his thralls hold on to personal property and it had been nine and a half headaches trying to redistribute his plundered stores to everyone after his passing, which meant people would probably stay twitchy like this until they managed to convince themselves nobody was coming for their clothes and blankets in the middle of the night.

“Long as you wants it, yeah. All we ask is that if’n you ‘n yers chooses ter pack up ‘n leave, let folks know this one’s open again so’s it ain’t standin’ empty durin’ an hour ‘a need.”

Dzedekh cautiously unrolled a threadbare rug that had been tucked under her arm until just then. It wasn’t enough to cover the whole floor—what carpet was?—but the bit of color it brought to the too-pale interior already made it feel less sterile. She settled down in the center of it and nodded. “Then here is where we’ll be, at least until spring comes,” she said. Her band followed their lead.

“Great. You’s a potter, right? We’s short on fucken ever’thing so if’n you so chooses ter assist the kilns is a straight shot from here. Firewood’s piled up next ter the door so you’ll wanna bring it inside afore it gets too damp. May this hearth warm yer blood.”

“And may its fire light your way,” answered Dzedekh, which was as good a cue as any for Riaag to leave the band to their business.

A few other houses had been completed around nearly the same time which saw Riaag making sure people had moved into those, as well; it felt wasteful to leave them empty any more than a day or two to ensure they wouldn’t collapse in on their occupants. Some bands needed more convincing than others to relocate. Some needed so much convincing they insisted on keeping to their tents and scrap shelters, and a rare handful ended up being happier to take up residence in the abandoned prison cells that still clustered the big building at the base of the tower in favor of anywhere else. He wouldn’t pretend he understood that set.

The thought of how much coaxing some people needed (or refused) stayed with him until after dinner that night. He lay on his back and looked up at the ceiling of the tent. The tent frame creaked as the wind pushed on the wool from outside. With a glance over at Sarouth, who was busy mending another of the seemingly endless number of bits of clothing that had piled up during their earlier sweeps of the tower, he decided to float the question.

“You think it ever sends the wrong message that we’s still in a normal-ass tent instead ‘a tryin’ out one ‘a them little shell-houses?”

Sarouth didn’t even look up from his sewing. “Not hardly. We’re keeping to the resources we already had on hand and letting the people who’ve been here longer take the first crack at those newer, more weather-proofed structures. It’s common courtesy.” With a shudder, he added, “Also I’d like to not sleep inside any part of the tower for a while, for reasons which are probably obvious.” He tied off a thread, set the garment aside, and shuffled around in place to face Riaag more directly. “Something been bothering you, my love?”

Was bothering even the right word for it? Riaag had been running on momentum and gut instinct for so long maybe he was just reacting to all that skipped thinking catching up to him. “Eh, dunno. I’s still tryin’ ter figure out how ter lead people what didn’t come ter me ‘a they own accord.”

“You’re doing a wonderful job of it. Trust me.”

Riaag shrugged. His current angle made his coat ruck up weirdly around his shoulders as he did so. “I’s sure it’s fine, but….”

“But your mind loves to go in circles whenever it finds a comfy new groove for itself?”

That was putting it lightly. “Yeah.”

His coat felt a little off again, but this time around it was probably because Sarouth was toying with some of the toggles running down the front. “Are you in the mood for a distraction?” asked Sarouth. The way he wet his lips could’ve simply been the result of them being a little dry from how hot they had to keep the tents firepots. By that logic, the way Riaag’s trousers were taking a shot at fitting him a little more snugly than before might’ve just been a muscle twinge. What a coincidence that was.

“Might be so inclined.”

“I was hoping you’d say that,” said Sarouth with a sly look. “I could use a break from fix-it work, anyway. You just keep lying on your back like that and we’ll see what I can do.”

Doing as he was told came easily to Riaag, especially when Sarouth was involved, and so he offered no resistance when that hand toying with his toggles began to unfasten them, nor when a familiar weight straddled his hips. He lay still and obedient as Sarouth exposed each new layer to the light. Being left half-clad like this could be fun; more importantly, it let him hold on to some of the trapped heat he’d built up during the day, and over the past two years he’d learned a great deal about the value of sometimes not being all the way naked when Sarouth felt like getting friendly. The goosebumps that raced across Riaag’s skin were testament to that.

Beneath his clothes were a number of bruises, all on their way to healing but clearly once quite fierce given their size and color. Sarouth licked his lips again and let his tongue linger against one of his tusks. This time there was no mistaking the gesture for something else.

“Oh no, look at that,” he said with a purr. He stroked Riaag’s exposed shoulder, his fingers lingering over each healing-over wound, though he never pressed hard enough to cause more than the faintest ache. Riaag hissed happily when Sarouth tended to the fiercer ones. “It’s been far too long since I gave you a new one. That’s a real shame, isn’t it? A fearsome warrior like yourself should be simply covered in badges of honor.”

“Sounds mighty reasonable,” said Riaag.

“How ’bout I help fix that? You said yourself it’s a reasonable idea, and you’re a reasonable man….”

Riaag nodded. Of course he wanted Sarouth to do so (they’d been so busy as of late that there just hadn’t been enough time in a day to fool around with the frequency they preferred), but the ask-and-answer part of things was just as important as the way Sarouth nibbled at his ear. It helped keep him centered. It was important to keep centered during encounters like this.

He found himself holding his breath as Sarouth trailed kisses from that nibbled-upon ear down the side of his neck. His entire body prickled from the attention. However long he waited for this next part he never quite guessed right, so when Sarouth’s teeth—so dainty when compared to most orcs’, so intense when actually closing around flesh—sank into a patch of as yet unbruised skin, it knocked that held breath from Riaag’s lungs in the form of a whimpering gasp. A jolt of need traveled straight to Riaag’s cock. The extra weight bearing down on him made it all the sweeter.

If that had been where Sarouth chose to stop then Riaag would have been satisfied. Well, satisfied enough. To his great delight, Sarouth had other plans. Riaag permitted his belt be loosened, which meant an entirely different part of himself was soon on display. A blunt claw trailed up the underside of his shaft from base to tip. The knuckle of the finger to which that claw belonged teased at him as Sarouth reversed the gesture, not quite feather-soft but still infuriatingly light. It was all Riaag could to to choke back another whine.

“My, my,” said Sarouth. “Look what we have here, my wolf.”

“Reckon that’s a boner.”

“Reckon so.”

“Reckon I’d be most obliged were you ter, y’know…maybe help me out a touch.”

In his great mercy Sarouth didn’t seize upon that chance to make a truly horrible joke about just what sort of touching help Riaag had in mind. Instead he leaned in for a kiss. It was quite a sweet one, gentle and with just a hint of tongue, so of course just as Riaag began to kiss back in earnest Sarouth chose to take him firmly by the base in a loop made by thumb and forefinger. That grasp became a tug halfway between fierce and delicate, and Riaag gasped into Sarouth’s mouth at the sensation. This promised to be exactly the kind of help Riaag had in mind.

Those hands of Sarouth’s were soft, warm, and dexterous. He didn’t stay with a mere two fingers for long, either, adding one at a time until Riaag’s cock was fully pressed against the meat of Sarouth’s palm. Each stroke had strength and purpose. Sometimes when they had sex like this Sarouth would drag it out halfway to forever, as he was the sort of personality that took great joy from bringing Riaag right up to the edge of orgasm before dragging him back again and again, like a wave that never quite crashed, and Riaag would have to beg for mercy before finding any relief from that wonderful cruelty. Tonight he was kinder; this time when Riaag’s teeth caught his lip Sarouth didn’t back away, instead moving with their familiar grace until Riaag had no choice but to come.

He’d been so dazed he hadn’t even thought about where he’d finished until he realized Sarouth was busy running his tongue along his own palm. Worried, Riaag glanced down to see what laundry awaited him now; save for his softening cock and the patches of green Sarouth had exposed to the air he found nothing out of the ordinary. Riaag supposed he shouldn’t be surprised. Sarouth was a man of great appetites, and if they only had so much in the way of food, small wonder he was quick to turn to his other needs. Ever since the start of what they had they’d found pleasure in keeping one another clean.

As for Sarouth himself, he was still perched daintily across Riaag’s legs. Riaag knew exactly how to tell when Sarouth’s robes sat oddly because of sitting down wrong and how to spot an erection in need of his services. Knowing he had that kind of effect on a living, breathing god-speaker was the greatest of honors.

“That the kind of help you were hoping for?”

Riaag needed a moment to find his breath again. “Yeah,” he said, and once he felt like he had any control of his faculties whatsoever he added, “What can I do fer you, then?” A hopeful, gap-toothed smile crossed his face. “I’s in the mood ter be accomodatin’.”

Sarouth chuckled and licked the last of Riaag from his fingers. “Oh, don’t you go troubling yourself on my account, my love. I’ll be fine just looking at you like this.”

“You sure?”

“Positive,” he replied, grinning.

Well, that was fine. They’d had one-sided encounters plenty of times before, and that hadn’t exactly been a harbinger of dire times ahead. Sometimes people had different moods! Running what felt like daily settlement-wide rites no doubt influenced said moods, too; not even the Hill-God-loving Rhoanish saw so many outside of holidays. Moodiness or no, it’d been a pretty damned decent orgasm, so Riaag was happy to leave it at that for now. Those quiet sounds of his own that Sarouth had made were hard to mistake for anything else, after all, and true to his word Sarouth admired Riaag’s spent form for a while before helping him tidy up and fasten up those parts of his outfit that wouldn’t be too awkward to lie in for several hours. Feeling loved and fuzzy-headed, Riaag settled himself in for a night of hopefully restful sleep.

It was such a shame, though, or at least so he thought as he let himself drift away. After recovering all that skin from his ordeals in the tower, Sarouth really deserved to have it touched, too.

Kedda Bat-Scarer was, in Riaag’s most sincere of opinions, an asshole, and even without witchcraft twisting his brains up into mush he always had been and likely always would be an asshole. As Sarouth was always sure to remind people (usually Riaag), being an asshole was far from a sin, and so Riaag braced himself to endure yet another complaint he shouldn’t have had to field. One reason they’d assigned Kedda and Lakvo to each other was because if they were busy fighting like cats it kept them out of trouble elsewhere (especially, but not exclusively, in Kedda’s case). Even with a makeshift chaperon there was no escaping his braying voice or repellent personality, especially if he’d gotten restless and looked for an excuse to start something with someone who may very well not even known his name. He usually turned up whenever Riaag didn’t feel like dealing with him as reliably as a crow at a carcass. Today, with him stood in a stiff-backed salute just out of Riaag’s default grabbing reach, was turning out to already be more of the same.

“Got somethin’ ter say ter me, Bat-Scarer?” asked Riaag. He put the piece of tower-stuff he’d been carving on the work cloth next to him. Dealing with Kedda felt like a bad time to be holding a sharp object.

Kedda nodded. He looked nervous, though since he didn’t outright stink of fear—not an uncommon event when Riaag confronted him—there was presumably something on his mind a bit more serious than two people fighting over the same pike or whatever other baby slapfight bullshit he kept trying to make someone else handle. Maybe he felt more secure because Riaag had yet to rise from the chair where he sat. “Two of mine saw a group of someones out in the trees. They don’t look armed but they haven’t sent anyone out to greet us yet. Mine saw at least one fire but no tents. No dogs or other animals, either. We thought you and His Holiness should know.”

An actual concern that was worthy of broader attention? Would wonders never cease. Riaag nodded and checked the heft of his axe where it hung at his belt. It probably wasn’t bandits, but he’d been looking out for other people long enough to know never to count on probably when he could help it. Even if it turned out to be brigands all along, what could they hope to do against him? He’d fought off whole packs of jackals on his own before, and while wearing his armor for a social call might’ve risked sending the wrong message, he’d never be without his own mass and agility. He could handle this without disturbing Sarouth’s most recent nap. “Reckon I’ll go pay ’em a visit, then.”

“You gonna want an escort?”

“Nah. Maybe make sure they’s a patrol near that border ‘a the place, keep some folks within’ a shout’s distance, but for all we know these is just some curious travelers what don’t know how safe it is ter approach just yet. Gonna be a while afore news can travel proper in these parts.” He stroked his beard. “How many’d they see?”

“A few. Maybe a family, probably not a warband. Like I said, they didn’t see weapons.”

“If they got fire we know it ain’t Old People, at least not anymore. Any clear leaders? Patriarchs, matriarchs, someone with a real big stick?” He wished it wasn’t so subtle explaining how all one could spot a heretic at a distance, but a lot of the time you really couldn’t know that sort of thing until you saw it, and Riaag was not about to sic an over-eager squad on what might’ve been people just trying to pass through between storms.

Kedda shrugged. “From what I was told they mostly just milled around. If they’ve a god-speaker with them I wasn’t told about it.”

“A’ight.” He brushed off his coat, rolled his work cloth up around its contents, and stood. “I’ll bring ’em some firewood, too. Been so fucken wet out this past week they could probably use s’more dry fuel. A li’l present ought ter ease any ruffled feathers a twinge.”

“As you say, Bough-Breaker.”

Once he’d put together a proper armload of fuel and verified that some guards would just so happen to be lingering on the settlement border closest to where Kedda had claimed the camp was, Riaag found his mood improving. Perhaps this would be a chance to make new friends! They didn’t have to be his friends so long as they’d be the Azrhics’ friends, and that assumed they didn’t feel like joining up themselves. Yun Azrha was peopled by a bunch of mixed clanfolk from all across the valley. What were a few more foreign faces to an already patchwork populace?

The wind teased at the lighter strands of his hair as he tried to triangulate things based on the guards’ testimony. Kedda had gotten the general direction right and nothing more; it had taken some thoughtful talk to learn that the camp was supposedly across the creek and a little ways away from the big hollow log that looked like the yawning, snarling mouth of a wolf. Riaag had caught fish in that creek and just that week had found a beaver sheltering in that very log. He’d taken great pains to cook the tail. It hadn’t always been so easy to find game in the forest, even for those who were better hunters than he, so seeing life slowly returning to the places from whence the tower had chased it was heartening. Sometimes, when the night was just still enough, he even thought he heard birds or insects out in the trees. Perhaps the land would never fully recover. He took solace that, after everything that had been done to the place, it had been able to heal at all.

A sad and guttural dialect drifted by on a passing current. Riaag’s ears instinctively pricked; this was a tongue he knew the way he knew his own blood, his own bones, because it was his speech, those words he’d been taught because the unclean deserved no better, those sounds he’d been permitted because allowing the untouchable to sully proper language was seen as a sin. He still thought he spoke that way. Upon hearing it again, unshaped by years of song and poetry, he could no longer be so sure.

He set his shoulders against the weather and headed in the direction of the voices. If these people were who he thought they were, they’d need much more from him than a few chunks dry wood.

By the time he was close enough to pick out flashes of tent-fabric and the occasional complete sentence, Riaag caught sight of a figure wrapped up in coats and robes struggling to chop down an iced-over sapling. The axe in their hands looked dull. Riaag placed the clan pattern adorning their clothes as belonging to a people that usually kept to the eastern mountains. That was a long way from here even on horseback; by foot it was even longer. What were they doing out here, and in the company of people who spoke in such a particular way? A few ideas came to the surface and Riaag wasn’t sure if he liked any of them.

He swung the firewood under one arm and pointed with his now-free hand. “You.”

The woodcutter froze in place. With great slowness they lowered their axe and turned to face Riaag properly. Their expression was the sort Riaag associated with a frightened person trying their hardest to project an air of collected calm. He’d long since gotten the hang of seeing himself in others.

“Is there trouble, warrior?” they asked, using one of the politer ways local custom provided for addressing someone significantly bigger than they were. Their tone implied inevitability more than curiosity. That alone could prove they had experience with watching over the unclean; when you failed to carry the grace of Agritakh in your heart it was amazing how convenient a scapegoat you could be.

“Name’s Riaag Bough-Breaker, a man ‘a our people. You the one who minds that band o’er yonder?” he asked. He cocked his thumb towards the sound of the voices.

“Ye-es…?” The woodcutter fumbled for their manners. “I greet you as Oakeht Iron-Finder, a man of our people. Is something the matter with my charges, Bough-Breaker?”

“I’s inclined ter speak with ’em. T’would be a fine day fer ministry, doncha agree?”

Oakeht looked Riaag up and down, his masked fear easing into confusion. “Forgive me, Bough-Breaker, but you’re the first god-speaker I’ve met that shows both eyes to the world.”

Ah, right, someone from as far out in the boonies as Oakeht’s clan probably looked for different attendant’s tells than the ones Riaag wore, and without the context of Sarouth hanging out nearby Riaag probably just looked like a very big man in a very big coat. “Ain’t one myself, but I’s in the entourage of the one mindin’ the settlement a stone’s throw out from here. I does courtesy work in his name.” He patted the firewood he still held and tried not to drop any. “Today’s courtesy is keepin’ warm. Reckon y’all could use it if such a tree as that’n is right bedevilin’ yer efforts.”

“I’m humbled by your offer. I’d be happy to accept it, from one of the Hill God’s children to another.”

Riaag adjusted how he carried the wood to keep his hold on it firm as he angled his body away from Oakeht’s outstretched hands. “Then I’ll go drop this off myself, with yer oversight if’n you desires such, ‘n do a spot ‘a sermonizin’ once them fires is fed up proper.”

“You don’t need to do that, warrior,” said Oakeht, hurriedly. “It’s just a bunch of the unclean. They’re fine, I care for them.”

“Yeah, I’ll bet you fucken do,” said Riaag. Surely there were some minders in the world who were legitimately good of heart; however many their number, those kind souls had yet to cross Riaag’s path in a meaningful manner. He rested his free hand atop the central trophy skull on his belt and let his fingers frame the symbol of Agritakh carved there. Wearing ghostless bone made a statement far beyond his skill as a head-taker. “I’s a disciple ‘a the Faaroug hissown-most-holy-self, an’ seein’ as he’s well ‘n truly indisposed this very second on accounta seven colors ‘a bullshit we’s been handlin’ since the start ‘a the year, it falls ter me ter see through the tasks set upon him by He Who Sleeps Beneath the Earth, both holy ‘n lowly.” He leaned forward and added, “Ain’t it right fer all ‘a His flock ter hear ‘a His splendors?”

“All our peoples, new and old, are His own,” said Oakeht, meekly finishing the snippet of Chant. He held out his open palms in submission. “I meant no insult, warrior, it’s just that….” The words trailed away like so much smoke in the breeze.

Riaag waited a few beats before asking, “Just that what?”

“They’re unclean, warrior. It’s seen as an excuse. People hurt them, blame them for things. I have to keep them safe because so many refuse to.”

Something about Oakeht’s words didn’t sit right. “So what trespass is you workin’ off, ter herd such goats as they?”

Oakeht winced and Riaag felt a small spark of shame for the delight he took in seeing it. “You are a disciple of a god-speaker, the greatest of god-speakers, so I’ll tell you honestly,” said Oakeht. “When I was younger, not so young I was a boy but still only barely a man, I fell into a fight with my sister. Words turned to blows, and I struck her with the iron kettle our band kept, and she died.” His shoulders slumped. “I want to say it was an accident, warrior, but I knew what would happen when I took the iron in my hand, and I…warrior, I didn’t care.”

“Washin’ clean yer kinslayin’ by way of doin’ right by others what don’t got the same chance. Makes enough sense ter me.” Riaag hadn’t stood at Sarouth’s side for so many years without learning to spot the tells of a penitent who’d begged a god-speaker for guidance. He wondered if he’d met whoever had set Oakeht upon his task. He wondered if it had been an easy shriving or if Oakeht had been dragged towards absolution, fighting tooth and nail. You never could tell at first blush.

He turned to go when he felt a questioning hand at his sleeve. “Please, warrior,” said Oakeht, who still managed to meet his eyes. “Be kind to them. They suffer so much.”

It was a struggle not to spit back something pithy, but Riaag managed. Instead, he said, “I won’t say nothin’ but words ‘a dignity. They knows what happened afore we met. I’s here ter discuss what comes after. I ain’t offended if you’s still bearin’ concern. I said you was welcome ter oversee it, ‘n this offer’s still true, should you be feelin’ it.”

This earned him a nod. “Thank you, Bough-Breaker. Go as you wish.”

“I does true wish it, Iron-Finder,” he said, and that deed name certainly rang differently for him now.

The muffled sounds of unclean speech drifted out from the rude little camp in ebbs and swells; the closer Riaag came, the more distinct words he could understand, and the more he understood, the more it felt like every step he took brought him back to a past Sarouth kept trying to lay to rest. He knew how he would say those words now—which to bend, which to break, which to discard, which to leave—but his throat still remembered the oldest way he knew. You’re gonna sound like shit so everybody knows you’re shit, boy, and if you ever forget that, I’ll make you remember, growled a dead man’s voice. He ignored it and kept walking, Oakeht in tow.

He heard their voices stop as he neared the edge of the camp. It didn’t surprise him, given how he wasn’t trying to hide the sound of his footsteps, and even half-obscured by trees Riaag was a very big man. There was a lot to notice. He cleared his throat and called out in his best herald’s voice.

“Hail ter the camp! A traveler’s approachin’!” There wasn’t really a proper protocol for greeting a camp when one was technically away from home but still something of a host, so it felt like the closest correct option.

A few confused murmurs buzzed from huddled shape to huddled shape before someone called back, “The fuck you want?”

“I got some spare fucken fire-fuel here, ‘n figured I’d offer it ter the needy, that’s the fuck I want! Don’t go sayin’ you’d rather all yer dipshit asses freeze solid instead ‘a takin’ charity! Now is you gonna accept me drawin’ closer or is you gonna keep pissin’ about in the middle ‘a the wintry woods fer funsies?”

“Yeah, well…a’ight,” said the voice, now mollified. Profanity was truly the great unifier of all Agritakh’s children.

The camp was not the kind of camp he remembered—no children, namely, and much cleaner in general—though enough things looked the same that his tread back in time felt realer than ever. Between the short hair everyone wore (the better to keep nits out of it) and the pale masks painted on their faces (the better to conceal their sins from the First Scavenger) it was like looking in a mirror that could peel back an entire decade’s worth of years to see what had come before. His eyes unconsciously darted between patches of exposed skin; he saw no injuries, but with the weather as it was and everyone bundled as they were, that might not have meant anything at all. They definitely could’ve stood to be dressed warmer, and what clothes they had were dirty. At least that could be fixed without too much fuss.

He made his way to the central fire, his bulk parting the crowd of outcasts like an Usoan fishing craft through river reeds, and busied himself with building up its sorry sputter into a proper blaze. The tinderbox in his belt pouch did far more work than the embers still lingering within the circle of stones. Once this was done, he stacked up the remaining firewood off to one side, stood back up to his full height, brushed the snow and wood chips from his coat, and addressed the crowd, whose numbers had swelled the longer he’d worked (and the warmer the fire had become).

“I greets you as Riaag Bough-Breaker, a man ‘a our people, oathbound ter Sarouth White-Hair, himself speaker ‘a the Chant ‘a He Who Sleeps Beneath the Earth, ‘n tergether we’s the assholes prime responsible fer keepin’ the settlement up a ways from fallin’ all ter bits until the ground’s soft ‘n green again. I’s here ter discuss matters theological, tyin’ ’em in with yer culture ‘n mine on a most intrinsic level ‘a identity ‘n decency,” said Riaag. When met with blank looks, he rephrased. “I’s here ter talk some religion shit.”

“Did Iron-Finder send fer you?”

“Nah. Came ‘a my own accord. He said I was ter be kind, if it helps.” He gestured to where Oakeht, axe still in hand, watched him with trepidation. “You can ask his skinny ass ter verify, if’n you likes it. He’s gonna be wringin’ his hands from the camp-corners so long as I’s here. Suppose I ought ter mind my fucken manners, yeah?”

More of the camp were willing to approach him after that, whether eased by his words or just wanting to thaw their cold hands by the fire, which made it possible to do a quick headcount. It was a good thing they’d arrived while there were still merchants about; Riaag was willing to do a little bonus haggling to walk away with some extra food for the unexpected guests. He doubted he’d be that much worse for wear if he had to spend a few late nights making extra trade goods to cover the difference. Blankets would be easier, same for socks and gloves, and if they could get a tent hot enough to keep someone from shivering half to death while disrobed then some laundry and general mending could happen. All in all it felt like something he could handle with only a little outside help. Struggling under the burden of cultural scorn was no excuse to deny someone clean underwear.

He waited for them to warm a little more before he began to speak in earnest. “Y’all finds yerselves on the outskirts ovva settlement what is called Yun Azrha, raised in haste ‘n with great sincerity. As I said, I’s one ‘a the folks what’s keepin’ it goin’ until the seasons change, ‘n I welcomes all y’all ter these lands. So long as you comes ter us with kindness, know we’s willin’ ter share what little bounties we got.”

“Why should we believe you?” asked someone who was not the first someone who’d spoken to Riaag.

“Brung you some dry wood, didn’t I?”

“Wood’s wood. What else you brung us, settle-man? More talkin’?”

Riaag shrugged. “Like I said, I reckoned it couldn’t hurt ter bring the Hill God’s word in ter those what might not get ter hear it much. Unclean don’t mean one don’t ache ter hear ‘a Him, nor that you’s all the way done with His Chant, nor that you cain’t never walk in His grace once more.”

“Who’s you ter say?” barked a third voice, a cloud of breath swirling from between their tusks. “What’s some soppy fucken oathed man know ’bout livin’ as we does?”

Oh, what a question to ask, and yet it wasn’t like they knew the dark places Riaag had been during his old life. Instead of snarling in fury (which would’ve felt good at first, though he knew that was but a fleeting relief), he chose something more demonstrative: Riaag’s gloves smoothed down the lapels of his coat meaningfully, letting his fingers draw against the fabric as though reminding himself it was there. Just like always, there wasn’t the slightest hint of embroidery or layered cloth-work. Anyone who lived around the valley could tell the difference between a garment that simply had no decorations and one that was made to show patterns, yet bore nothing; the soft clamor that came from the camp-dwellers (and the bands upon their own clothing, however filthy) proved they were no strangers to the custom. Even jackals in stolen colors had more tie to kin and kind than Riaag did. This was why he wore the blanks, he reminded himself. They would see his clean face and his long hair and his fine, well-kept things and know that even a man without ancestors could have such wonders. Even a man doomed to an unquiet death could still know serenity in life. If he could do it, then anyone who saw him would know that maybe they could, too.

Just to make sure there was no confusion, he gestured at the spaces where his heritage was not added, “You’s lookin’ at it.”

“You’s…that way, too?” asked that first speaker in wonder.

“Used ter be, yeah. Born not just unclean but whole-ass untouchable,” he said, his voice forced steady. He had to be strong for them even as old wounds threatened to ache again. “Thrown out, kept alive solely ’cause ain’t nobody needs another fucken ghost cryin’ in the night. Sins done piled up ‘pon my back whether I did ’em or they was done ter me. All my years I wore the paint, I was treated like the livin’ shit I were.”

Riaag stroked his beard. He’d started growing it out as soon as he’d been able, partially for the sheer novelty of choice and partially because nobody could hide that from Agritakh so easily. It was yet another promise to those who needed to know their future wasn’t set in sacred stone. “Thing is, the one good thing ’bout paint? It washes off, if’n you lets it.”

It was a good, dramatic statement, in his opinion, and it set the stage for him to share a few songs and stories—basic ones, to start with, since he couldn’t be sure how distant these people were from the culture into which they’d been born and it felt rude to make them swim the sea if they could barely dog-paddle—under Oakeht’s nervous eye. Orating next to a big, hot fire ensured him an audience no matter how pious the camp itself skewed. The camp-dwellers didn’t ever seem to know what to make of this clean-faced man who spoke the Chant in a bastard’s argot. That was fine, he reminded himself. If he’d come across his first band as it was with the Riaag he was now, he probably wouldn’t have known what to make of such a sight, either.

He knew he was no hero for doing this, no more than one was a hero for pouring water over ashes when abandoning a fire, or for sewing up a stray rip in a garment before it could open up into a bigger tear: they were just things you did because it was the sensible choice to do, a gift offered to tomorrow. He told himself this over and over. It was hard to believe otherwise when he kept seeing himself in the eyes of so many who might not have known the grace of altruism for many a year (Oakeht didn’t count). He’d gotten out. If he didn’t lower a rope to the next poor soul trapped in the crevasse he’d once feared would be where he’d live out the last of his days, what good was that freedom to anyone?

Without someone to oversee anything more binding Riaag kept his impromptu service simple, ending with a prayer he tried not to be upset only some of them joined him in offering. Why do it if you couldn’t be sure Agritakh would hear you? He’d done so anyway back in the day, but these people weren’t him, no matter how familiar the camp felt. What they did all seem to appreciate was the promise of more firewood in the coming days. Sometimes if you couldn’t depend on the ethereal, the hope of the physical would have to do. He decided that was probably worth a little extra stew if he could manage it.

Once the bulk of the socialization was over he asked one of them—who shared her nature but not her name, which he supposed was fair enough—to show him around the campgrounds, which let him further crystallize his supply plans. Yun Azrha had scrap wood and rope that could be made into buckets (which could be for washing, or cooking, or just hauling night soil safely out of camp), he was sure they could find some leather to patch those tents, that one person with a cough could stand to drink some of the spare throat-easing tea, a whetstone would see fresh edges put on those tools, there seemed to be enough able-bodied among the unclean that they could safely pull some more fuel-laden sledges once they were back on the move….

The camp was only so big and there were only so many hours in a day, so he soon found himself thinking of everything that needed to be done back at the settlement. The scant few flakes twirling through the air had begun to pick up, too, which gave him all the more reason to return. He bid his farewells to the camp-dwellers in turn; their minder, however, was harder to find. It was only after a deliberate search that Riaag found him leaning up against a tree, the dulled axe still at his side, and he seemed to be muttering to himself. He startled when Riaag’s shadow fell across him.

“Oh! I d-didn’t hear you, warrior. Forgive me.”

Biting back a wry retort about Sarouth being the one in charge of forgiveness in their neck of the woods, Riaag clapped a hand on Oakeht’s shoulder and gripped just hard enough to prove he wasn’t using the whole of his strength. “Iron-Finder. A word, if you please.”

“Yes, of course,” said Oakeht, who clearly wanted nothing more than to be rid of the giant man with giant plans who kept disrupting everything with talk about salvation. Riaag was so far happy to continue being that disruption until the end of his days.

“I expects ter see you in Yun Azrha proper all bright ‘n early termorrow so’s we can see ter gettin’ yer charges what they’s needin’. I’ll round up some extra means ter help transport, even if it means hitchin’ my shithead horse ter a cart terr haul it all out myself. Cain’t promise the Faaroug hisself can come out, seein’ as he’s a candle burned at both ends ‘n up through the middle besides, but these people is deservin’ ‘a kindness in they pursuit ‘a self-betterment, ‘n so we is gonna provide.”

Oakeht quailed. Maybe Riaag was laying it on a bit much, but he’d never be able to live with himself if more of his unhappy kin suffered simply because he’d given a wicked-hearted minder the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps a repentant kinslayer needed to have the fear of the Hill God put back into them to help guide them towards some bright new horizon. Perhaps Riaag was simply being frightful towards someone whose only sin (aside from murdering his sister, which certainly wasn’t something to ignore) was reminding him of the reason he needed an amulet to keep his night terrors at bay. He supposed he could always pray for guidance about that little flaw later.

“So long as we’s our understandin’, yer camp is welcome in these parts, as is all what it contains,” continued Riaag. He focused on making his tone less aggressive. “This don’t gotta be ferever, if’n a body cares ter change. First step ‘a that’d be askin’ fer it. But you knows that’n already, don’t you, Iron-Finder?”

“I’ll be there as soon as our sunrise duties are done, I promise,” said Oakeht. “Do you…need me to swear on it further?”

That Oakeht was willing to risk the weight of an oath was a point in his favor no matter how much Riaag didn’t trust him. “Nah. Fer now I’s satisfied with yer word. Prove me otherwise ‘n there’ll be otherwise, ‘n I does suggest you don’t try ter prove any theories you might have ’bout such unless you’s certain you’s gonna be doin’ right by them aggrieved ‘n woeful sorts, as they’s surely better uses ‘a yer time then gettin’ yer damn fool head added on my belt.” He snorted, the fog of his breath coming so suddenly it forced Oakeht to blink away the steam. “Until then? Be seein’ you after sunrise.”

“Be seeing you,” said Oakeht, and while Riaag didn’t look back to check, he suspected that nervous mumbling of Oakeht’s resumed the moment the trees closed in around Riaag’s frame once more.

When Riaag first heard hints of raised voices from the main camp he thought nothing of it, since his time among them earlier that day had proved them to be a boisterous bunch, prone to tussles above and beyond the usual orcish need to burn off aggression in a mostly-friendly way. Some bands were just like that. As his and Sarouth’s tent was pitched a ways away (as it usually was, since that was worked best for his nerves) he paid it no mind. He swept the carpets, mended clothes, and tended the fires with one ear listening for sounds of rising conflict; all throughout his chores it sounded like nothing so much as a typical dust-up, so that was fine. Riaag had heard on good authority that brawling was pretty fun. Sarouth was no doubt in the thick of it, and whether he was trying to cool down fiery tempers or simply hooting with laughter at someone getting a really good punch in the junk, it was well and good that he be among the people. They weren’t just the people, after all, but his people. Riaag’s people, not so much, but that little detail never bothered Riaag as much as Sarouth often implied it should.

He’d just finished drying the last of that night’s dishes when Sarouth sauntered back to their campsite and took a seat on one of the new cloth-and-wood folding chairs they’d recently picked up. The firelight bathed his face in streaks of orange. While Sarouth was careful to always paint a symbol of Agritakh around his left eye, his right eye he left uncovered and unadorned, which was why Riaag could spot the puffy bruising swelling up all around its socket the instant Sarouth sat himself down.

“Holy One, what happened?

“Picked a fight,” said Sarouth with a grin. He spat a little blood into the dirt. “Don’t worry, I won.”

Riaag cringed. “Again…?”

“Usually it doesn’t come to blows! These are some hot-blooded children of the land they get out here, I tell you what.” His grin softened from cheeky to reassuring. “I’ll be fine when I wake up, you know that, and I’d let you know if it was ever something serious. Do we have any tea? I’m parched.”

They did, in fact, have tea, since Riaag had gotten in the habit of preparing a fresh pot every time Sarouth spent time talking to other people. Ministry was thirsty work! He side-eyed Sarouth as he poured them each a cup. If he was able to keep suitably distanced (like when he performed his barber’s duties every morning) Riaag guessed he could probably get a rag soaked in cold water on that black eye, which might ease the swelling a little bit, though that assumed Sarouth would let him in the first place. God-speakers had a strange relationship with personal injury. Riaag had yet to get used to the carefree way Sarouth shrugged off every speck of trouble Riaag couldn’t keep him out of. That he really did bounce back after nothing more than a few hours of sleep didn’t necessarily help.

“So what were it this time?” Riaag asked as he presented Sarouth with the steaming tea, the cup carefully balanced between his claws.

Sarouth plucked up the cup and took a long sip. “Hrm?”

“What set you off so? You was havin’ such a nice time when I retired back here. Seemed like you was makin’ friends easy as could be, ‘n now I’s havin’ ter come ter terms with you gettin’ inna most ferocious scrap.” Riaag frowned. “T’weren’t fought o’er uncovered heresy, were it? Holy One, you knows you gotta call me near if shit’s gettin’ dangerous—”

“Nothing of the sort, brave warrior! It was simply a matter of semantics.”

Years of listening to Sarouth talk had taught Riaag to spot when he was avoiding a question. “Semantically speakin’, what were so fucken important it had ter come ter such?” Had anyone else been present Riaag would have fainted dead away at the thought of someone hearing him speak so frankly; in private, where he knew he wouldn’t accidentally bring shame on anyone for tolerating a too-sharp tongue, he was more willing to speak his mind, at least when it came to Sarouth’s well-being.

Sarouth himself was suddenly a lot more interested in the trees. “They…might have insulted a certain someone in my presence. I, being responsible for the dignity of all the Hill God’s favored, chose to express a counterpoint. I think we all let our voices be heard in the end.”

Oh no, this again? “You cain’t just get up in somebody’s face like that,” said Riaag. He tried, and failed, to keep his frown from becoming a scowl, and he could imagine how much worse an already brutish expression looked like when framing his snaggle teeth. “Just ’cause the truth ain’t what you wanna hear don’t mean you can fix it by lockin’ horns ever’ time you gets reminded. I knows I ain’t a proper fit fer proper society. So long as they ain’t really startin’ shit, ‘n they’s leavin’ you alone, why not leave ’em be, Holy One? Scabs don’t heal if you pick ’em.”

“And weeping lesions don’t go away if they’re left to fester.” Sarouth brushed a little crud off his robes. “Like I said, I won, and people were willing to see reason. It’s fine! We’ve all come to an agreement and the both of us are still welcome in the camp.”

“Why’s you back here if they didn’t kick you out?” The instant the words left his lips Riaag regretted them. That sort of language implied Sarouth was the sort of person who’d get kicked out of places—even if that was exactly what happened at times—or that Riaag was unhappy to see him—which was patently untrue, just monstrously false—or a handful more unfortunate ideas. It wasn’t even all that fair in the first place: they shared campsites with other people all the time without this sort of thing happening. If Sarouth started taking a swing at someone else once out of every twenty times they spent time around other people, that was still nineteen whole times where nothing went wrong, right? Riaag was surely lingering on the bad times solely because that was his duty as a bodyguard. It had nothing to do with how embarrassed he was by a decorated god-speaker constantly coming to his defense in public, nothing at all.

If Sarouth was offended he sure didn’t show it, anyway. “Because you’re over here, silly,” he said. “You look after me, so in exchange I get to look after you. You are my bandmate, after all. That’s just how it works.”

Riaag wasn’t so sure about that, even if that doubt meant not trusting a god-speaker’s word as law. An Agritakh-ruhd’s duty was to their people, that was so, but he was pretty sure a cleric’s duties had nothing to do with throwing punches at people they felt had insulted the attendants who did their laundry. How could he be expected to keep Sarouth safe if he kept flying into a rage any time someone rightfully treated Riaag the way he deserved to be? Worse, how was Riaag expected to protect them? He drank his tea in surly silence. Riaag knew a lot about getting into trouble to get other people out of it and from his vantage Sarouth’s form could use some work.

“People will never change if they don’t know they’re doing wrong,” said Sarouth. He held out his empty cup for a refill and Riaag obliged. “Thing is, if you tell them they’re doing so with the fire it deserves, they tend not to take it very well. It’s too easy to make yourself forget uncomfortable truths if you don’t have to look at them every day.” He adjusted the way he crossed his legs and continued. “I see a problem, I go to see if I can help fix it. It’s a necessary part of being clergy. Doing things this way means I can help them remember my words a little extra potently after the fact. After all, He Who Sleeps has commanded me to make the world better, and who am I to doubt Him?”

He raised his free hand to show his knuckles, which were still split and bloodied. Thank goodness they’d already eaten or Riaag would have fretted himself to death over a stray drip befouling the food. Kin-feasting was not the sort of sin that one could brush off with a few apologies and a proper sacrifice! “These will fade,” said Sarouth. “So will the pain. It’s nice when things don’t shake out this way, it really is, but when people won’t listen to reason I have to leave an impression that lasts even after the bruises heal.”

“Ain’t like they don’t got enough ter worry about,” grumbled Riaag.

Sarouth blew a juicy raspberry. “Oh, we all have plenty, of that you can be certain, but that doesn’t make it a valid excuse. It’s simply my nature to adhere to that greatest proverb of the Chant.” The purposeful pause he left at the end of that sentence was so vast and cavernous it echoed.

Riaag sighed and took the bait. “Which one might that be?”

“Talk shit, get hit.”

When he first realized he’d be serving not just an upstanding member of society but an actual god-speaker, Riaag had been so overawed it had sometimes been difficult to speak, or even look Sarouth anywhere near face level, as to even think of him as anything other than a nigh unto perfect being felt like heresy. The shine had sure come off that apple. “How the fuck did I ever think I were a bad influence on you, Holy One?”

“Honestly, brave warrior, your guess is as good as mine. If anything I’d worry about the inverse.”

In spite of constant complaints about how it really wasn’t that necessary, Sarouth let his injuries be rinsed and wrapped once he was done enough with his tea. He kept poking at his black eye and wincing. “You know I dream these more than I actually get them?” he asked as Riaag handed him a rag soaked in clean, icy water. “I think some of the details are different in the Labyrinth. It’s weird. Maybe I should talk to Him about that next time I reach the center.”

“Holy One, that what you dreams ain’t nobody’s business but yers ‘n His, but as yer long-sufferin’ guardian I’s got ter most respectfully request you don’t go pickin’ extra fights in the name ‘a research. My fat ol’ heart couldn’t take it.” Out loud it was a silly request, as the only sorts of folks who went around getting beat up on purpose tended to be the sport-fighter type. One reasonably assumed the average person wanted to avoid injury at all costs. Sarouth White-Hair kept finding excuses to defy reason at every turn, and so here they found themselves. Did other entourages put up with this shit? Maybe every god-speaker really was like this when only their aides was looking, and the whole of the clergy got by because they surrounded themselves with enough people loyal to them to ensure someone was always ready to pull them from the fire each time their asses got too close.

Riaag allowed himself a good sulk while he tidied up Sarouth’s combat-ruffled garb. The Chant had a lot to say about the sacred need for orcs to bountifully clash with one another—the more he dealt with those rare merchant bands who came over the mountains the more he realized just how fierce he and his were without ever noticing it, and conversely how weird merchants thought it was when they got challenged to a spot of arm wrestling to celebrate a deal—so it wasn’t like he could justify anything that way. There were entire hymns about the importance of sparring in His name. How was a layman like himself expected to know where to draw the line between normal sport and Sarouth spitting sparks around dry tinder?

A really good sulk could be its own form of rebellion for someone whose approaches to conflict were either running at it with axe held high or avoiding it entirely. Riaag wallowed in it. Didn’t Sarouth get it? Didn’t he understand how important it was? Didn’t he know that saying about the merits of catching flies with honey in place of vinegar? It didn’t matter that Sarouth’s voice was like sweetest smoke even before he swished with ash-water in the morning, Riaag thought to himself as he carefully centered another piece of jewelry left askew, since relying entirely on good looks and charisma could only get you so far when you—

Then, their faces barely a hand’s breath apart since proper grooming required attention to all the smallest details, Sarouth smiled at him.

A really good sulk could be a lot of things, but none of them stood a chance in the face of such brilliance. Riaag grudgingly allowed his frustration to cool. Sarouth (even a beat-up, ruffled Sarouth whose lack of missing teeth never failed to amaze) was unfairly handsome, and perhaps he even knew it, so there was nothing for Riaag to do but melt whenever that golden yellow gaze fell upon him in merriment.

“I can tell it bothers you, Riaag. If it means so much, I suppose I could try to be a bit more…focused, when it comes to my temper.”

“It means a whole fucken lot, Holy One, you got no idea,” said Riaag. He swallowed. If he didn’t have a steel trap of a memory he might’ve forgotten why he’d been upset in the first place.

“Well, then.” He smoothed out the layered skirts of his robe and cleared his throat. “I, Sarouth White-Hair, do solemnly swear to think twice before popping some fool in the mouth, even in service of education, and to only escalate if no other recourse presents itself, even if I’d really like to. Is this declaration witnessed by Riaag Bough-Breaker knowingly and with understanding?”

“So I does witness it,” replied Riaag. He still wasn’t all the way used to publicly swearing witness to things, even as a seasoned herald, and he’d never been able to convince himself he was enough of a purpose to make that witnessing count if it ever came down to a trial by oracle. At least it wasn’t an oath. You didn’t mess with those things unless you were ready for the consequences, and Riaag knew all to well what happened when those consequences came a-calling.

“Great! Now then, two questions: is there any more of that tea, and do you forgive me enough to sing a little while I spin?” His non-teacup-holding hand already stretched for the basket of raw fibers he kept on hand for quiet moments.

Riaag mumbled a pair of affirmatives and went to fetch the pot from its stand again. Sarouth had promised he would try to do better in the future, and Sarouth would almost certainly be right as rain in the morning. He’d put his trust in both of those. He’d try to be a good enough bodyguard (and barber, and cook, and laundry-washer, and…) of his own in the mean time, because when it came down to it, he could count on Sarouth, even at his worst, to always come out of things okay.

The snow had eased from the biting gale from the day before to merely falling in thick drifts, which meant it was good enough weather for Riaag to justify a fresh perimeter walk. The heavy snowfall had encouraged Sarouth to stay in and rest—proper rest, the kind where he could curl up with some hand weaving or something instead of trying to grab the very expanse of the land—since the Azrhics would certainly be sheltering out of the worst of the blizzard, and a sheltering people were generally not ones to come ask an Agritakh-ruhd questions about the meaning of reality unless the storm had been going for a very long time. Riaag had made sure the fires were hot and Sarouth had plenty of tea and blankets before leaving. Knowing god-speakers, this didn’t guarantee Riaag wouldn’t come back to Sarouth doing a one-armed handstand in the nude or something equally weird, but this way it felt like no one could say the Faaroug had gone neglected.

Riaag tilted his helm against the wind. Thank goodness he’d brought it with him! The Avatar of Wolf had been blessed with a nice, thick pelt that, combined with the mass of Riaag’s hair, helped keep his head warm; a scarf one of the Azrhics had knitted him did the same for his lips and nose. All the extra layering he wore gave his gait a hint of a waddle. As the alternative was becoming a very tall, fat icicle, he would accept looking like one of Goose’s biggest offspring until he got back to his full winter wardrobe.

Guards huddled together around their flickering brands, some waving or calling greetings to him as he passed and others saving their breath. Did they have the supplies to build guard shelters? For that matter, would having guards stationed in set places every day defeat the purpose of patrols? How much room did you need to properly throw a javelin or fire a sling while taking shelter, anyway? Was that even a question worth addressing, since it opened up the possibility of besiegement if some unfriendly party dug in to one of them? Was that just being a worrywart, since one could make the same argument of any permanent structure? As a stronghold leader he had the walls to fall back on for a lot of these questions. Open-bordered settlements were difficult that way.

The unclean camp was still in place, he found, and while few people were outside he could spot smoke rising from their tents. If the snow kept up he’d need to remember to make a fuel run for them sooner than usual. He didn’t see any other camps during his walk, nor anything resembling a traveler to greet or an animal to evaluate making into soup, nor repairs in need of immediate attention. No one came up to greet him as he made his rounds, either. Perimeter walks were weird in that you always hoped nothing would be out of the ordinary, and yet a perverse little part of oneself longed for something interesting to happen. Riaag tried to convince himself that watching how pretty the snow was as it fell counted as sufficiently interesting.

As if something was listening to his thoughts, on Riaag’s second trip around the settlement he spotted shadows moving out in the trees. No, not shadows; they weren’t trying to hide, and it was still fairly bright out even though the snow (which had continued to ease up throughout, bless it) obscured so much of his distance vision. The shapes kept together in a single unit and walked upright, which meant it wasn’t a herd of passing deer, and while a bear could rear up on its hind legs to resemble a person they didn’t gather in groups like that. He kept his stance open. They didn’t move like raiders, so he wouldn’t treat them like raiders, and if they proved that assumption wrong, he’d do what needed to be done to keep others safe.

It hadn’t been immediately clear at first due to how the sun struck the snow, but now that the group was closer he could spot the torches in some of their hands and the slack ropes that draped between the figures. Ah, this was something he knew: bands that made a habit of living in or passing through territory where vision could be limited would carry lights in the daytime, and should those lights fail then tying themselves to one another (however loosely) helped keep bandmates from vanishing into the far corners of a swamp or something. That definitely wasn’t bandit behavior. If it actually was, well, Riaag’s tactical mind was already thinking of ways to use those cords to his advantage, too.

“Hey, something’s there!” cried someone from their nebulous number, the language they used thankfully more or less Rhoanish. The visitors turned to face Riaag as one. Some of them were guided closer to the center of the mass of people than others.

“Ay, ay! Who goes?” shouted someone else. “Hee-yah! Hee-yah! We’re busy passing through!” A different set of hands began to ring some pieces of metal together, making quite the racket. To Riaag’s great amusement he realized they might have thought he was a bear. Sarouth would probably get a kick out of that later.

He held his ground and crossed his arms over his chest in a devotional gesture. It was admittedly a weird thing to do in the middle of the woods if one wasn’t preparing to consecrate something or another, but more importantly it wasn’t something animals did on their own. Clear silhouettes could be a matter of life and death while roaming! He tilted his head up so his beard showed from beneath his helmet and the long strips of weighted leather that framed his face were easier to see. He’d never seen a beast-headed helm that didn’t have those; Rhoanish eyes knew them as a way to tell creatures from people simply wearing parts of creatures, and hopefully the eyes of these people (whoever they were) were similarly learned.

“Wait, I know that pelt,” said a heavily-bundled figure whose voice tugged at a distant memory of Riaag’s. They waved at him with a hand wrapped in at least two layers of mittens. “You there, you’re Chosen of Wolf, aren’t you? What are you doing so far away from your Naar Rhoan?”

Riaag brightened. Now he remembered the source of that voice. “Yiineth Maple-Fall! I knows you, ‘n gotta say I’s glad ter see you ‘n yers as well as y’all is.” He knocked some snow from his armor and added, “Trust me when I says it’s a long fucken story as ter how I’s in parts local.”

Yiineth stepped out from the crowd and drew a little closer, still keeping a wary distance but now all that much easier to see and hear. “How long a story are we talking?”

“You pass near enough ter know anything ’bout the tower?”

She nodded. “We’ve never been this far south, ourselves, but we’ve heard things.”

Did everyone know about this place before he did? Riaag was starting to wonder if it had been one of those open secrets that nobody talked about, like someone returning from doing the necessary with dried moss clinging to their coat. “Well, now its master’s dead ‘n we’s scrappin’ it fer parts. That’s how long a tale I’s meanin’.”

“Holy shit.”

“Right? It’s been a busy fucken winter.” He stole another glance at Yiineth’s band. They numbered pretty much the same as the last time he’d seen them, with a few new babies strapped to caretakers’ backs and a little more height on the children. Actual children! How long had it been since he’d last seen a child of any age? There were no little ones in Yun Azrha, as those unlucky souls who had first been drawn to the place brought none with them, and no new lives were kindled in the tower’s shadow while its master still lived. If there were any expectant dams among the Azrhics they had yet to show it. Eternally praise the Walker in the Void that they’d managed to cut down the wizard before anyone small had risked getting close.

He couldn’t spend all his time thinking about how much he missed babysitting when there were people right here in front of him who could stand to see a friendly face or two. “Got any troubles amongst yerselves? I’s far from home, but I ain’t far from hospitality.”

Yiineth drew closer still. After looking back at her band and surreptitiously scanning the trees, she said, “Something’s been trailing us.” She shuddered a little. “There’s rumors of a god-speaker staying around here, these days, and…well, we don’t know if what’s following our band is strictly alive.”

“A ghost?” asked Riaag. The way his blood turned cold had nothing to do with the weather. Ghosts and the unclean (or, he’d always presumed, those born in such a state) were not a combination that was good for anybody.

She shrugged, though by the way she stood it came off as an actual helpless gesture instead of a too-glib one. “I don’t really know. Nobody’s been able to get a good look at it. It’s yet to hurt anyone, but we keep seeing things, or losing things, and it has many of us a bit worried, or worse than a bit. I’m not too proud to say I number among that many.”

“We does indeed got us a god-speaker, one Sarouth White-Hair, ‘n I’s the one what answers ter him directly. I’s most familiar with how ter look fer things what might require clerical intervention.” That he was willing to hit them very hard with his axe went unsaid; if people in an Agritakh-ruhd’s entourage weren’t bold enough of heart to throw themselves into danger, they wouldn’t be found watching for trouble in full armor. “Where’d you last see this thing? I can go do some lookin’ around ‘n report back ter him afore he drags hisself away from the other five hunnert fucken things he’s doin’ at once. I says this respectfully, ‘course.”

“Of course.”

They spoke of the unknown entity’s habits and Riaag pieced together that it followed them like a camp dog, moving quietly in the dark to help itself to scraps or things that caught its fancy. Sometimes there were strange noises in the night. They told the children it was probably birds, which had backfired since now the ones young enough to mimic sounds as they liked kept trying to imitate the screams or crying that drifted past. The band had been on edge for weeks. Nobody wanted to find out what would happen if they simply left it alone, but neither did they want to kick the hornets’ nest of finding out just how nasty a ghoulie it actually was. Well, that was fine. Riaag had built his entire reputation on helping clean up messes.

“Reckon I’ll go see what’s what,” he said once he’d learned all he could from Yiineth. “We’ve warm fires ‘n clean water o’er yonder, should you wants a spot ter recuperate afore gettin’ back on yer way. No walls.”

“Well, now we’ll have to stay, won’t we?” she said, and while her mouth was covered by a thick scarf her smile went all the way up to her eyes. “Thank you, Bough-Breaker. We may not be here long, but we’re grateful to have the choice.”

He saw them off safely—Yiineth politely refused his offer to guide them back himself, speaking of her and her siblings’ skill in snow-walking as she showed off the lodestone she carried at her belt—before following the advice he’d been given. The mystery thing followed them closely, they said, but never close enough to see well, so he compared how quickly they’d left to how fast one would have to go to keep pace. The air was clear save for the finest of flurries, so he didn’t have to worry too much about losing his way if he stayed out too long. If he just kept doing the sums in his head he’d find a useful reference number, and once he had that number he’d know where to start looking in earnest, and once he started looking in earnest he was likely to find—

Ah, that worked perfectly.

A shape huddled close to the ground as it followed the trails left by Yiineth’s band. They were short and scrawny, clad in layers of dirty clothes that fit better than most scavenged cast-offs tended to, and between their height and their proportions Riaag was pretty sure this was a child. What a child, though: their long, black hair was a tangled mess that obscured all but their snarling mouth, their exposed skin was striped with scratches, and they kept jerking to and fro as though constantly being surprised by invisible things. They moved more like an animal than a person of any age. Riaag was not about to make assumptions without getting to know them better first, but he suspected if they didn’t already carry an amulet or two it might be something he’d suggest Sarouth make happen.

More importantly, the poor thing looked half-frozen. If they were a ghost he had some suspicions as to how they’d died. A growl met him as he came closer. Well, that answered whether or not they could perceive him.

Riaag stopped a little ways away from the snarling child; he needed to be close, so he could actually study who this strange person was, but he didn’t want to get so close he risked frightening them (or worse). He tossed out a bone chip, which the kid snatched up greedily. This bought him enough of an opportunity to sink down into a heels-down squat to put him closer to their approximate eye level. No sense in being scarier than he needed to! “Hi,” he said in the neutrally pleasant tone he tended to pull out for matters of diplomacy. “I’s called Riaag Bough-Breaker, a man ‘a our people, Chosen ‘a Wolf ‘n digger ‘a latrines. Pleased ter make yer acquaintance.”

“You shouldn’t talk to me,” rasped the child. It sounded like equal parts intentional hiss and the same rattle you heard in someone’s voice if they hadn’t spoken in a long while. If they hadn’t been wearing fabric and leather clothing Riaag could’ve taken them for one of the Old People’s feral get. As the Old People weren’t known for their conversational skills, especially in tongues Riaag actually knew, he suspected the kid was from a distinctly newer breed.

Old-blooded or not, children were children, and Riaag had experience with all manner of them. Simple, respectful questions could go a long way. “Yeah? Why’s that?”

“I’m a demon.”

That wasn’t the answer he’d expected to hear. He couldn’t feel any of the tells he’d learned to associate with the evil eye or any other such curses; he rested a hand against the sleeve that hid his own amulet just in case. “You’s pretty small fer a demon,” said Riaag. “Ones I seen, they was always a bit taller’n you. Then again, I ain’t seen every demon in the world, neither.”

“You’ve seen other demons?” said the kid, their mask slipping a moment.

Riaag nodded. “Not many, but a few. Follow a god-speaker long enough ‘n you see all manner ‘a weird shit even if all you wants ter do is keep they hair brushed out. Had ter wrestle one, once, on account ‘a it takin’ up residence in someone what hadn’t agreed ter that arrangement.” He scratched his chin. “Got a pretty good record with bein’ real fucken big ‘n real fucken fierce in the presence ‘a that what must not be.”

“…you aren’t gonna do that to me, are you?”

“Hadn’t planned on such. Why? You gonna give me a reason ter change my mind?” It was tempting fate, he knew. At least his amulet’s stillness was proof there was nothing malevolently supernatural at work here.

As for the demon child, they didn’t have an answer for him. Riaag took this as answer enough and found a different question to ask. “So. Does demon got names?”

“Maybe.”

He nodded. “A’ight. If they does, does they share ’em?”

“Dunno.”

“That’s fair.” Riaag looked the child up and down. This was not someone whose trust he was going to earn in a day. He wasn’t about to leave them out here on their own; in lieu of asking if they wanted an escort, he went for what felt like the best way to come at the problem sideways. After all, some people would resist anything if it was coming for them straight on.

“Listen, li’l demon. You creep where you’s gonna creep, but in these parts? We expects our guests, no matter what they is, ter mind they manners, ‘n in exchange we got some crackly warm fires ‘n clean blankets ‘n hot food served up in the evenings ter all what wants a bowl. Maybe some demons don’t need ter eat, Iunno. But if’n you meets the sort what does, you tell ’em ter go towards yonder tower ‘n look down.” He pointed in the direction of the aforementioned awful thing. Even in the snow and fog it made itself seen from miles around, its jagged top scraping against the sky whether anyone liked it or not. The horizon would be a happier place once they finished the job. “That’s all I’s got ter say. Safe creepin’ ter you.”

His missive given, Riaag turned down the snout of his helm and made to return to his normal perimeter patrol. If he saw a child-sized shape reluctantly slinking towards that distant tower out of the corner of his eye, well, who could say he should believe it? After all, demons were tricky things.

The Leopard’s Breath Company, despite not being orcs, was something like a little band all its own. They traveled together, fought together, ate together, and mourned together; that latter one hung heavy over their number in the days after towerfall. Not even a band of merchant mercenaries of such eclectic skills as they had been able to leave that dreadful place unscathed. One of them (Orjun was their name, or so Riaag had gathered over much time spent not asking directly) had been wracked with terror and spasms ever since rejoining their fellows. They’d taken to drugging themselves to sleep, or at least into a number state, by whatever means they could find, and Riaag was not going to ask what happened. He’d already buried enough people who hadn’t been as lucky as Orjun.

“I’m so sorry I sent you here,” said Sarouth in their tongue. “If I’d have known the truth of what was out here, I never would have allowed it. At the very least I would have ridden out with you myself.”

A warrior of their lot—Hafez? if not Hafez then something very much like it—shook his head with a sigh. “Better you didn’t. We were taken all at once, and you saw how much we were able to do after that. I think your horses would have eaten ours, anyway.” He toasted the air with a dish of the seasoned milk the company favored over wine or liquor. “I once never saw myself as indebted to orcs, but in my humility I’ll accept this chance to learn what that means.”

Sarouth blew a raspberry, and thankfully it was one more noise than spray. “Means you owe someone green a favor, no more and no less.” His joke told, the wry smirk he wore drooped into nothing; his little tusks, their downwards angle usually coaxing his lips into a slight smile, now framed a much less jolly look. “Still, I keep thinking how if I’d just somehow known then we might have spared some misery for your dear company-kin, your Orjun and Ayyisha—”

“Sarouth White-Hair, I suspect you have been raked across enough coals by now, perhaps in a very real fashion,” said the woman to whom he referred. “There’s no need to pile more upon yourself out of misplaced guilt.”

Ayyisha, the company’s seer, had been diminished by her time spent clapped in irons, and while clean clothes and sunlight had helped restore some of her past glory, she had yet to return to the regal air she’d carried the first time they’d met all those months ago. How long had it been since then, six months? Maybe seven, or even eight? The weeks Riaag had lost were still fouling up his usually good sense of time. Frail as she was, she could place enough command in her voice to give even Sarouth pause. Whether that was a testament to the strength of her spirit or the recent weakness of Sarouth’s, who could say? That had been pretty hard for Riaag to gauge lately, too.

She kept a large glass ball in her lap on a cushion. Her hands passed over it as though she was petting a cat, save that instead of actually touching its surface she let them pass over it in an ever-moving pattern. Her nails were growing out again from where the broken parts had been cut down to keep from splitting further. It would likely be a while yet before she could paint them in the beetle-bright hues with which she’d first met them. Hopefully the glass understood. If there was anything to be seen beneath its reflection only she could see it; she spoke of things she hadn’t seen and knew of agonies she’d never been told, so Riaag was inclined to believe her scrying was as real as any Agritakh-ruhd’s.

That her chiding got a scoff out of Sarouth instead of a toss of his head or another raspberry was a miracle. “I am so used to having to fix everything, I don’t what to do when I cannot,” he said. “Allow me the treat of feeling sorry for myself.”


“Never. Your charming,” —here was yet another word describing a concept Riaag couldn’t map to one he already understood, though he took it to mean something like an oathbound, which sounded very nice for merchants to notice, actually— “has hinted you do that enough already, too.”

Sarouth cackled. “Riaag! You betray me!” he cried, still using the merchant language.

“Holy One, not once have I ever spoken against your nature.”

“Indeed, he has said no such thing,” said Ayyisha. “Remember, I am a seer. I see that which lies beneath. Also I caught him rolling his eyes the last time you attempted to scourge yourself in our presence. Don’t look so horrified, templar,” she said, this time to Riaag. “I was raised from girlhood to serve denizens of the caliph’s own courts. Had I even a hair less cunning an eye I never would have noticed.”

“Duly noted.”

Ayyisha continued weaving her fingers around the sphere. “Said caliph surely misses us, and with the tower shattered, our task is done. We plan to leave come the end of the week.”

“Are you sure you won’t be staying longer?” asked Sarouth. “You all need more rest, even your strongest.”

“If we waited until we were well again I fear we’d never leave,” she replied. “Even if that weren’t so, we should return the transfigured one someplace warmer as soon as we can. He suffers in the cold. He’s about as friendly as a rabid dog, that one, but we can’t just leave him here.”

Sarouth stroked his chin thoughtfully. The matter of what to do about that man had been one neither he nor Riaag had been able to answer, since Naar Rhoan was too dry and the Usoans would probably eat him once nobody was looking. “Has he shared his name yet? I feel disgusting using the name the wizard put upon him.”

“He seems keen to share some very interesting profanity whenever we ask. While I wouldn’t mind introducing him to the caliph as His Eminence Piss-Gargling Fuckhead, I suspect that would be less than well-received.” Her eyes sparkled with a hint of their old fire. “Between all the raving he does of how important his family is, I imagine someone will recognize that an heir of theirs has gone missing, if not necessarily what he’s become.”

She meant it most literally. The transfigured one (whose proper name Riaag had consigned himself to never truly knowing) had once been a merchant himself, that much everyone had verified, and presumably had helped with whatever vile experiments took place in those passages branching off the nigh-infinite stair, but at some point the lord of the tower had decided to turn those same wicked arts on the man, and what remained was very different. Riaag had spent enough time cleaning the weeping sores that covered the man’s legless new body to understand why easing as much suffering as possible appealed to the good-hearted people of the Leopard’s Breath. He’d endured enough of the transfigured man’s barbed words to know why they’d want to take their leave of him as soon as possible, too.

“Is there any way to…help that?” asked Sarouth. He gestured at Ayyisha’s sphere. “I’d ask your seeing-crystal, but I think it’d rather you be the only one who works with it for a while. I haven’t found any gifts from He Who Sleeps Beneath the Earth that are the kind that ease wounds, either, or Orjun would have them already.”

“Who can say? There are others like me where we come from. Perhaps many heads nodded together can build a single dream.” Riaag liked that turn of phrase. Merchant languages used sounds differently than his, but hot damn could they make poetry. The next time he represented Naar Rhoan before an audience of potential allies, he was going to be so much better prepared.

They finished their simple dinner over lighter talk. Riaag had taken great pains to make it suitable for gentle merchant stomachs (nothing too rotten, nothing too sour, nothing too astringent, nothing too raw), though since the wizard‘s plundered luxuries had mostly been set aside for trading there weren’t as many flavors as he’d hoped from the broth and vegetables. One by one the Leopard’s Breath retired to the rooms they’d claimed as their own. Sarouth excused himself in time, too, claiming he had stars to count. Only Riaag and Ayyisha remained. So did an opportunity.

“Master of the Orb, may I ask something?” Just because he knew her given name hardly made them friends. Riaag only barely understood most of the merchant cultures he’d encountered; he was fairly certain they reacted well towards being shown respect through titles. Whatever hers actually was, he hadn’t the foggiest, but you didn’t practice doing the herald thing for as long as he had without making even the most meaningless and unfamiliar words ring with regal bombast.

Proper or not, this seemed like an accurate enough form of address, or at least as far as Ayyisha was concerned. She gave him a polite nod. “I cannot promise an answer, templar, but I’ll hear you gladly.”

He nodded back. “White-Hair asked about the changed one, but that is not the only one whose wounds ache and drip. If you can find a way to….” He paused, searching for the right word in her language. Nothing felt like it had the right nuance. Basic terminology would have to suffice. “If either of them can be helped, in any way, especially your Orjun, will you somehow send us news of it? It is good to know that there is less suffering in the world.”

“Of course. Why so much concern for Orjun? The only other time you saw him you told him to stop pointing his bow at you. He loved to tell that story when we met with others from our lands, back before winter fell,” she added, with a small, wistful smile.

Riaag committed that phrase to memory. Perhaps Ayyisha’s merchant-kind didn’t speak openly of death when it involved those yet living? Either way it would be a useful key to further understanding her people’s poetry the next time he could practice with one of their skalds. “I hope he can tell it again,” he said. “I ask because someone who…hrm.” How was he to describe an Usoan whose name he didn’t even know? “Because someone close to a friend of Naar Rhoan went into the tower, and then the wizard sent them back as a message. Now they are made of fear and pain. If we can find some way to give them back their heart, I know many in the valley who would be grateful.”

She nodded. “You know it’s unlikely, yes?”

“I know.”

“You’re a kind man to worry for someone so far removed from you and yours. What I know of your people is that you don’t,” —and here she used some strange verb he didn’t know, though past context told him it might’ve been something like painting speech, however the fuck that one worked out— “so if this happy thing comes to pass, I’ll ask my tools how to best bring you tidings. You’re far from your home, templar, but the company is even further, and I fear sending a runner would take too long no matter how fast their horse.”

He sighed through his nose, clasped his hands in front of his chest, and gave her a short, shallow bow. “I thank you for your kindness,” he said. Lowering his voice, he added, “Is it wrong to feel so tired, while being in service to a good thing?”

Ayyisha’s look was knowing. “I think it is only natural, templar. Why shouldn’t you be? That you and your priest have done the impossible, and strive to keep doing more instead of resting on your glories and your called-down star, is sign enough for me that your hearts are pure, even if your ways are indissolubly foreign to my own. This valley is a good place to have men like you in it.”

“I worry,” said Riaag. “I worry I can never be enough.”

“None of us are enough alone,” she said. “We are at our greatest together, with the strong lifting up the weak. Remember, too, that even the strongest iron can form a flaw, and a flaw’s solution is to mend it in place of pretending you never saw the buckling.”

“And how do I do this?”

She shrugged, which was impressive to see with her hands in motion. “Sing your songs. Tell your tales. Watch the sun set. Ride your horses.” The way she said horses implied she did not entirely consider them so, and given how the two beasts from Naar Rhoan were bigger and had more toes than a usual horse, Riaag couldn’t blame her. Merchants’ senses of smell were too dull to pick on important things like shared scents, anyway. “Find sweet things in life even as it turns bitter. If you turn bitter yourself, allow it, and find a way to mellow your souls once the need for that bitterness has passed.”

“So to do good, we must strive to be good, both in our deeds and to ourselves? And part of this goodness is knowing it is the sum of many things, not a perfect whole chipped away by our failures?” A thought came to him. “Without that chipping, we would have no statues,” he said. Some of the hoard of objects d’art they planned to swap for bedding clustered around the edges of the room as a handy nearby reference. Who knew jade could look so delicate or marble so soft? Perhaps this was a knack of the Hill God’s, too, since by embracing the Void one could see what something could become if it would only allow itself to become less. Perhaps He saw each of His children as wonders in the making, delighting in their lifetimes of carving as they made the final pass between His teeth to join the rest of their ancestors.

While she couldn’t have had the same cultural context, Ayyisha seemed to agree. “Why, templar, you’ve put it beautifully.”

“Not bad for an ogre, yes?”

“I hear the proper word is orc,” she said, and their shared joke was enough to lift Riaag’s spirits all the way back to the tent.

The next few days were quiet. The merchants’ caravan moved on after the skies promised to be clear long enough for them to safely reach the nearest road (because of course Yun Azrha wasn’t close to any roads, as that would be too convenient), Riaag having used those extra days to trade for every possible thing he could think of to accommodate the settlement’s ever-changing needs. Yiineth’s band had made it in safely and now camped up against the lee of the big boxy prison building at the tower’s base. The demon child he’d yet to see much of; the kitchens reported there being slightly less food each day than there should have been—enough to feed a small but durable stomach, perhaps—and people other than Yiineth were hearing strange whimpering at odd hours, so he suspected they were close even if they hadn’t bothered to introduce themselves to anyone yet. Sarouth had performed a basic exorcism on the grounds just in case. Given all the horrible things buried there, it was probably a good idea even if the child was wholly mortal. 

As for Sarouth himself, his mood had continued being off. That was the only way Riaag could really describe it, off. Sarouth could usually wear a smile when in public, and he’d still been able to provide guidance for anyone who’d approached him, and he’d yet to neglect any of his cleric’s duties. He cast out the foul things from the land and placed safeguards against that rot upon the people. He was still every inch a leader. It was the things he did between leadership things, the little moments alone, where it really showed, and that made it all the more heartbreaking. Did he think he didn’t deserve to feel comfortable on his own anymore? Worse, did he not feel comfortable in his own skin? Given all that had happened maybe that wasn’t the most thoughtful way to put things. Riaag had seen Sarouth bounce back from things that should have left him bedridden for weeks, had first been with Sarouth when the latter had taken a blow that should have sundered a kidney. Agritakh had healed Sarouth’s flesh but left the pain, Riaag had been told. Was He doing that again? If so, why?

These questions and more shadowed him like vultures, and unlike the ones who visited the first people in the first days they didn’t come bearing bones of wisdom in their beaks. Breakfast had been mediocre after what he’d thought was a recovered false start. He split three different pieces of purified tower-stuff on his carving knife before giving up on whittling for the day. Even Sarouth noticed, and Sarouth had spent most of that morning staring at the ground and only answering questions after being touched. “You seem troubled, my love. Something on your mind?”

“Yeah.”

“Would you like to brush out my hair while you puzzle through it?”

Riaag, forever honest, nodded. “Yeah, think I’d like that.”

The motions were the same as they always were, with Sarouth in his lap facing away him as the comb ran through his locks. Riaag found his center in the familiar act. Sarouth didn’t need this, technically, as his hood and veil had kept his hair in more or less the same state it had been in when Riaag had first styled them earlier in the day, and knowing that he knew it, too? It was a sorely-needed reminder that they were in this together. That’s what you did in a band. Maybe not to the extent they did, granted, but Riaag was happy with sacrificing quantity for quality, and if he’d put his very sense of self on the line when he swore his oath he was damn well going to go all in on the details. He allowed himself to just be a pair of skilled hands with a messy head for a little bit. Somewhere in all that mess he even found what he was looking for.

Once Riaag finished he let Sarouth lean against him a while longer. Cold weather made sharing a cuddle that much nicer, as did Sarouth’s fleeting cheer, but neither of those were the grandest reasons for it; no, the most important reason Riaag let his arms drape about Sarouth’s lithe shoulders was because it was proof to them both that they were still around, still here. If Sarouth was going to vanish deeper into the Labyrinth than usual then Riaag would be the one to fish him back out time after time until the need for such had passed. On the other hand, if Riaag was going to be falling apart with worry, nobody could put him back together again like Sarouth.

The intimacy was wonderful, but it couldn’t last if they stayed as they were; Riaag would have to either break it by asking one of his endless questions, or let it limp along to die from his inaction. What sort of oathbound would he be if he settled for the latter? If he had to risk making things worse, then it was going to be by his own hand, and hopefully Sarouth would learn to forgive him.

“I needs you ter be honest with me, Sarouth,” he said as he held Sarouth close. The next words tried to catch in his throat, stuck in his rising fear like flies in oozing pine resin. He reached for the strength to continue and found it. “You ain’t doin’ as okay as you keep claimin’, is you.”

Sarouth tensed up like he’d been burned. “I thought I was,” he said, his voice soft and miserable. “I was so sure that once I had my feet on the ground again, everything would be fine. And, for a little bit? It really was.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Isn’t it obvious?” Sarouth ran his fingers through his hair, and once again he overcorrected for how much force he needed. “I’m an Agritakh-ruhd, the Faaroug himself, and these people…they need that. They need the blessings I can lay upon them. They need to know somebody’s looking out for them that’s bigger than this. They need to know I didn’t let that fucker break me. I have to be okay. If I’m not, it’s all going to fall apart, and it’ll be all my fault. Shouldn’t I be used to this by now?”

The worst part of his words was how they made a terrible sort of sense. A god-speaker’s lot in life was to walk the Labyrinth each night as it built itself in the place where their dreams used to be, and while this was ostensibly a journey towards where Agritakh Himself slept within the Great Geode at the center of it all, usually it ended with a priest dreaming their own death. Those who’d carried the weight of their divinity for more than a year or two stopped viewing physical injuries the same way someone who was all the way mortal did, and Sarouth had been hearing His voice since the age of seven. Sometimes he was halfway whimsical about how many times he’d experienced his end. Riaag hated those stories—Sarouth, in his great kindness, tried not to share them while Riaag himself was present—and yet he knew Sarouth could bounce back from injuries that should’ve killed a man twice as hale as he. They’d taken his hair, not his eye, and the skin flayed from him returned after each trip to the Labyrinth, all fresh and new, the tattoos unbroken by so much as a hint of scar tissue. So long as they weren’t actually fatal no physical wound could stall him for long.

Yes, god-speakers might have been graced with restoration of the body, but Riaag knew firsthand about how badly different kinds of wounds could ache. “I’s o’erheard some ‘a how you’s met yer end in the Labyrinth afore, on accident. You can laugh off the damnedest shit, Holy One, but t’were always while in that sacred space, weren’t it? You knew He were all around you no matter what happened.” He met Sarouth’s open eye as kindly as he could. “How long you ever had ter go without Him afore the tower?”

“Never,” breathed Sarouth, and he began to shake with tears Riaag wasn’t sure he knew he was shedding. “Almost twenty years in His service, through hell and high water, and never once had the chain broken. It’s not supposed to, ever. We’re meant to know His presence until we die.” He began to smile even as he trembled and wept. “Trust me to find out an exciting new way to fuck that up, huh?”

“Don’t talk like that!” Riaag’s voice was so sharp and sudden it made Sarouth startle, and Riaag took the opportunity to cup Sarouth’s face in his hands. “You cain’t talk like that ‘n expect me ter sit by idle-like. T’weren’t your fault. None of it. None! Don’t matter if you kipped right back up from most bits ‘a what happened, they still hurt you real bad ‘n you went ‘n kept it hidden so they couldn’t twist that knife in more. Things don’t gotta be done with wicked intent fer them ter pain you so.” How many times had Riaag been on the other side of this conversation? How many years had it taken for anything Sarouth had told him to ring anything but hollow? At least he had plenty of experience with how to wrangle a pearl of truth from such a shitty, shitty oyster.

Sarouth scoffed. “It was still my decision to refuse food, my decision to talk back. I didn’t have to deface the room where they held me. They probably would’ve gone easier if I hadn’t been so…me.”

“If you hadn’t been you you wouldn’t’ve been able ter plead fer one ‘a His first flock ter remember the love ‘a His teeth, ‘n that motherfucker wouldn’t’ve had it crack him right in the fucken head, ‘n we’d probably both long since been dismantled fer monster parts by now. But you’s Sarouth White-Hair, god-speaker, ‘n because you’s too fucken stubborn ter quit you still managed ter put him in the fucken ground.”

“You say that, Riaag,” said Sarouth as he glanced askance. “What kind of god-speaker loses his god?”

“Not the one I’s talkin’ ter, that’s fer certain. T’weren’t like you forsook Him. I dare say He loves you too much ter do things the other way ’round, either.” Riaag stroked Sarouth’s right cheek with his thumb, since that was where he was most likely to touch when things were normal. “Grab a courier, take away they ravens, shove ’em in a hole somewhere, ‘n they’s still gonna get a message through once somebody’s able ter help ’em get back out. Strife don’t gotta unmake ’em. That’s all this were, a patch ‘a strife ‘a proportions most woeful.”

The white arcs of Sarouth’s brows furrowed further. “A broken pot still leaks, my love.”

It really was impressive just how long Sarouth had played this role for Riaag back in the day. Riaag himself suspected he lacked that same quality of endless patience, but he was still willing to try. “Bullshit. I seen you lay fresh blessings, I seen you make new amulets, fer me ‘n houses alike. I seen how the stickiest mud cain’t hope ter make you sink down when you crosses it. He’s in you. He is you. He dreams, ‘n you walks ‘pon His surface ter do His will. Fuck’s sake, Sarouth, I cain’t even getcha ter wear socks in cold weather half the time ’cause ‘a the distance they place between yerself ‘n Him, why is you so surprised you ain’t feelin’ right after bein’ stuck so long so far removed from Him you might as well’ve been on a cloud? A fella don’t work his claws ter bleedin’ by scratchin’ Labyrinth marks all o’er his cell just fer funsies.” He pressed his forehead against Sarouth’s and closed his eyes. “You think I don’t know why you’s always grabblin’ at the dirt ever’ mornin’? You cain’t bear the thought of bein’ taken away from Him again.”

“How could I?” sobbed Sarouth. “Before I met you, He was the only thing I ever had that stayed.”

What could one say to that? How did it feel when the sole constant in one’s life, one that had remained when family had shied away, one literally the size and presumed stability of the whole world, vanished? What was it like when both of the things one loved got cut out at once? Riaag could feel himself crying (because of course he was, he told himself, his favorite person was stuck in a dark place, and given who he was it’d be more surprising if he wasn’t weeping in sympathy) and chose to simply hold Sarouth in silence. It didn’t matter how many times it had been Riaag who’d unknowingly left Sarouth to his fate during that missing month; he could be here, now, and he could be the rock Sarouth needed to weather his heart’s current storm. They’d worry about picking up the pieces later. It wasn’t the perfect, cure-all solution he wanted, but Riaag had been alive long enough to know that nothing ever was.

“Tell us a story, tale-teller!”

Riaag cringed in place where he was busy cleaning up after the cooking, careful as always to keep anything his mouth had touched separate from the others. Those words should have been something he’d be glad to hear, the sort of call to purpose that brightened his heart and gave him pride in his voice, but there was something off about the way the speaker was asking it. He couldn’t just ignore them, though. What kind of skald was he if he denied such a request?

“Allow me ter finish my chores ‘n I’d be happy ter,” he said, keeping his eyes low.

“You hear that? He says he’d be happy to,” said the voice. The clipped way they corrected his dialect (what was there to correct, exactly? Sarouth always said the answer was nothing, but the problem was never with Sarouth, now was it) made it clear they weren’t interested in appreciating his voice for its own sake. Riaag would live with that the way he always did. He scrubbed at a bit of grease on a platter as he planned what sort of story might be nicest to share on such a day. Churlish or no, he would come to a potential audience with respect, and ensure every word that left his throat would inspire, or delight, or at least leave the listener moved. Concentrating on something creative helped keep his thoughts from getting in such a tangle it’d set off his amulet, anyway.

“What will you sing for us, poet?” said a different voice. This one sounded a little more sincere. Was that a relief to hear or sign of a more subtle danger?

He shrugged and kept scrubbing. “Reckon I could tell a spot ‘a history, or maybe somethin’ devotional. Y’all got any fav’rite kinds ter hear?”

 

The first voice snickered. “How about a ghost story?”

They knew. He didn’t know how they knew, but they knew. The untouchable were so far removed from Agritakh’s love that they were simply delectable to ghosts, which was a fact as clear as could be, and the reason why even as part of a god-speaker’s entourage Riaag couldn’t stand to hear tale of them, much less tell one himself. He spoke with a wretched dialect, this was so, but most people assumed that stopped at simply being raised unclean. Maybe this was what he deserved for saying anything at dinner. He should’ve been happy with being a cook and nothing else. He should’ve known his place.

“You think he knows any?”

“He said he’s a skald, so he’d better!”

“I heard tell he’s a disciple.”

“No!”

“Do disciples know good stories?”

“I don’t know, you ask him.”

“Hey! Hey, Bough-Breaker, are you gonna share a good one?”

“We’ll tell your god-speaker you were spreading lies if you don’t!” Now that just didn’t make any sense. Sarouth knew vague strokes of Riaag’s whole grisly history—including the ghost thing, which was why Riaag’s amulets always came double-blessed—and he knew Riaag wouldn’t agree to something he simply could not do. Did they have so little rapport with other god-speakers they didn’t realize someone might be so open with one? What a lonely life that would be. Even as he blinked back tears, Riaag couldn’t help but feel a little bad for them.

A wave of something—the idea of an idea, the echo of something silent, a splinter cut from the vast emptiness of the black between the stars—rippled out from a point unseen. “Oh, have you asked Riaag to perform?” asked Sarouth’s voice in its wake. This earned him a few awed whispers. “Ask him for a hymn, he’s great at those. I could simply never be able to get through a rite these days without his voice taking the song places mine never could.”

“Holy One,” breathed one of the voices. All the venom they’d had before had drained away like a snake’s fang pressed through a cloth.

“Holy One,” said another.

“Holy One.”

“Holy One.”

“Is he busy with the washing, still? Well, how about you lot clear out and let him work, and if he’s the will for it once he’s finished with his chores for your camp and mine, we shall see if he can’t bring some music to you. Now, get along, all of you. I have questions for my herald.”

Sarouth sauntered up to just inside Riaag’s field of vision. He waited until the hurried footsteps faded away before asking, “I take it they were trying to get a rise out of you, Riaag?”

“Guess they was.” The old Riaag, the one who still felt paint on his cheeks no matter how much he washed his face, might’ve still found a way to take the blame for that. It was still tempting to, sometimes, since a lifetime of being convinced he was responsible for every possible ill in the world wasn’t exactly a mindset a man could discard like a too-big coat. Instead he tried to let the worst of it fade away, little by little, sure as a creek wearing away a chunk of winter ice. Sometimes it even felt like that was working. “You didn’t gotta scare ’em, though.”

“They needed a taste of their own cooking,” said Sarouth with a scoff. “They do not get the option of doubting whom I’ve taken as my disciples and why. They certainly have no business mocking how you speak. I have no time for cruelty like that on my watch, and neither should you.”

“Okay.” That was easier said than done, but what was Riaag going to do, deny him? He might as well have denied the sun. He dried off the platter, set it aside, and moved to rinse out a teapot. “You said you had questions fer me, Holy One?”

This got a chuckle out of Sarouth. “Well, I was going to ask you what you did to the pilaf, since it came out quite nice. Given how gloomy you are I suspect I should ask some different ones, though.”

Riaag nodded. “Ask ‘n I’ll try ter speak truly, Holy One,” he said. Questions from strangers could all too easily sting and burn like insect tails, while questions from Sarouth? Well, sometimes they could sting a bit, too, but it was never because Sarouth actually wanted Riaag to suffer. Learning the difference was taking time.

The drying rack creaked as Sarouth propped himself up on it with his elbow. “Do you love Agritakh with all your heart?”

“Yeah!” said Riaag, proudly. Of the many questions he’d been asked in his life that one had always been easy.

“And is it not so that you see to the needs of me, a known god-speaker of His?”

This answer came a little less quickly, though the question seemed straightforward once he thought about it a little bit. The motions of washing dishes helped him keep focused on exactly what he’d been asked. “Yeah, reckon that’s so.”

“And do we not discuss matters of the Chant, from its grace to the nuances of interpretation?”

“I…I guess…?”

“Then you agree you do everything one would expect of a proper disciple of an Agritakh-ruhd,” said Sarouth as he settled back on his haunches with a smug expression. “I simply name you as you are, Riaag Bough-Breaker. And what you are is more than just my cook.” He paused. “Not that your cooking isn’t delightful, of course. The world is lucky to be able to try so much as a nibble of it. What I mean is that there’s room enough inside you to contain multitudes.”

“There is?”

“Well, why else would you be so tall?” He laughed and reached up to ruffle Riaag’s hair (which was fine, the hair was the cleanest part of a person, Riaag wasn’t at risk of defiling a god-speaker by letting him do so, he had to remember this and maybe one day he’d believe it) before swanning about other parts of the prep tent as he gathered up the last remnants of dinner.

They worked in silence for a while. The pilaf had really been quite good, and an unfortunate side effect of that was the awful mess it had made of the cookpot. Riaag really had to get his shoulder into rasping the inside before it so much as flaked away. This would be a lot easier if he had better soap; the shit they’d picked up three stronghold stays ago had practically taken his skin off when he tried to bathe with it, but maybe it would’ve been just right for this given job. Now there was a metaphor for you: what was terrible in one place was beloved in another. Maybe Sarouth wanted him to think of himself a little bit like that soap, too? God-speakers worked in mysterious ways, chief of all how the absolute fuck they had stacked these dirty dishes because for the land’s sake you just couldn’t leave things like that and expect them not to fall over….

In time everything was done and Riaag once again had his gloves to thank for keeping him safe from a case of scullion’s hands. “Thank you fer yer aid, Holy One,” he said, as Sarouth had yet to leave.

“Just trying to keep myself useful,” said Sarouth. “You seem to be feeling a little better. I hope my words have brought you some peace.”

Sarouth’s words could bring Riaag a lot more than piece if Riaag let them, which was why it was important to focus on his strictly platonic appreciation of Sarouth’s consul. “They did, yeah. How can I repay you fer yer guidance?”

“How about you tell me a story?” Riaag opened his mouth to voice a suitably humble answer but Sarouth cut him off with a wave. “No, wait, I can’t just voice it like that. Riaag Bough-Breaker, as my herald and acolyte, I insist that you share something that espouses the Hill God’s grandeur, and the wonders we simple folk can know in service to Him. I shall keep helping with cleaning while you do it so you won’t have to worry about losing time to your art.”

“Shitfire, Holy One, if’n you’s askin’ like that, how’m I supposed ter say no?”

“I knew you’d see things my way,” said Sarouth, still all smiles.

Maybe someday, Riaag mused as he began to intone the introduction drone of a really good song about the Star-Eater’s sacrifice, he’d even be able to see things like that all the time.

Riaag’s horse was one of the most evil-minded creatures upon His earth, so he was sure to keep his hand flat and still while feeding it lumps of boiled sweetbeet. Stupid Horse (Riaag put great stock into the honesty of names) stamped its hooves as it finished its snack. The damned thing was restless. Of course it was restless, it’d been stuck in a ramshackle paddock for weeks with barely any time to roam elsewhere. He wasn’t about to take it on patrol, as that promised to swap one problem for another very quickly, but Riaag knew the right thing to do was to let the thing stretch its legs, and that meant putting its tack on, mounting up, and hoping for the best. He wasn’t looking forward to it.

His eye spotted the shape of Sarouth’s hood in another part of the improvised stable. “Glad ter see you’s about, Holy One,” he said as he weighed the odds on checking Stupid Horse’s hooves for ground-in crud. “Was thinkin’ we’d have usselves a little animal time terday.”

“Were you, now?” asked Sarouth. The horses grunted at him. They’d been bred to tolerate the smell of orcs, the trader had said, which apparently meant they were prone to making all sorts of sounds a smaller, fatter eating-horse didn’t. So long as they tolerated having two of Agritakh’s favored sitting on them for extended periods Riaag could accept a little variety. “Here I thought I was just coming to see what you were getting up to.” The bucket of feed in his hands implied otherwise, but Riaag let that slide.

“You said yerself these critters ain’t gettin’ the exercise they ought, Holy One, ‘n you’s always lookin’ fer an excuse ter get me in the fucken saddle fer a ride-along. Do it fer Karsta if you cain’t do it fer you or me, a’ight?”

Karsta, Sarouth’s similarly vicious but somehow less ignoble steed, whickered out an explosive cloud of breath. Even if it had been missing its saddle (a study leather one all emblazoned with symbols of the Hill God that could hold a god-speaker’s staff of office at banner-height, its seat positioned so the rider could keep both legs on the same side) the baubles woven all into its tail and roached mane would’ve easily identified it as his own. Not even his horse would go bereft of jewelry on Sarouth’s watch! Stupid Horse’s own barding was merely adorned with a few dozen skulls of varying blood-kinds. It just wasn’t the same without the garlands of flowers Riaag would risk life, limb, and fingers by adding.

“You speak horse, now?”

“Y’are what y’eat, ain’tcha?” He made his own horse-noise to demonstrate, which got the two beasts to snort in surprise. Many a horse had been tricked by the Old People who’d learned such calls. There was plenty of precedent for his claim, too, as oh, how he missed the taste of horsemeat fresh from the pan! Eggplant jerky and venison could only do so much. The first thing he’d do once they got home, after treating himself to a very long bath and a very long nap and maybe a moderately leisurely jerkoff session, would be to make a recklessly large serving of mare chops and eat himself sick.

“Well, if Karsta insists,” said Sarouth. “I’m trusting my life to you, herald of mine.”

Riaag chortled. “And I’s trustin’ my junk’s endurin’ non-flatness ter this wild-ass whim ‘a yers, Kin-Shadow ‘a the Void, so unless they invents one ‘a them side-saddles what lets me steer it proper and still cut down a motherfucker whilst I’s on the move, I does not care ter hear it.”

They checked the beasts’ tack twice over before taking up their respective bridles and leading the horses out into the open air. Some builders who’d been digging the foundations for a new shell-house suddenly found somewhere else they needed to be the moment they saw what walked out of the stable. Given how Stupid Horse was, at heart, a stupid warhorse, it came as little surprise that people cleared out when they saw it coming, especially since if Sarouth hadn’t been on hand to pray for healing there would probably still be Azrhics languishing in the healers’ shelter from when they’d first had to recapture the horses after a month left to fend for themselves. The only reason Riaag didn’t worry they’d gone feral was because he’d yet to be convinced they were domesticated in the first place.

A large, fat man had his own challenges while maneuvering to and from horseback. Riaag could swing his leg up and over like an Usoan cavalryman, but it worked out better for everyone if he made the right set of sounds in his mouth to make Stupid Horse kneel down first. Asking those camel-riding merchants from the west how they so effortlessly climbed between their mounts’ humps had been one of the best ideas he’d ever had. Sarouth, ever-casual, simply put his foot in a stirrup and scooted his butt right up into his own saddle as easy as sitting in a chair. It was enough to make a body jealous.

They rode slowly through town so people had time to give them a wide berth. Riaag’s muscles began remembering how to actually work with the whole horse situation again, and even as he felt Stupid Horse strain to bolt into the foggy distance it still deigned to obey his commands, so that was all right. The trails they left in the snow were sure to come in handy for the next people who needed to use those paths! By the time they reached the edge of the settlement he was pretty sure he wouldn’t fall off if they went at any speed beyond the pokiest, so he nudged Stupid Horse’s sides with his heels and braced himself as they took up the blistering pace of a trot.

It was a cold day, which was nothing new, but even with the mist that curled between the tree trunks it was also bright and clear, and that was much more of a novelty. They circled Yun Azrha together; Riaag felt vindicated for staying on foot during his rounds once he realized how much of his energy went towards trying not to fall out of the saddle. He was a tall man, well over seven feet in height in just his bare feet, and so the height he gained on horseback made him an imposing figure. Who’d feel at ease approaching that? No, better to ride when it was time for riding and walk when it was time to actually be among the people. Far less risk of someone getting stomped on that way, too.

They rode past the unclean camp before veering deeper into the woods, out where the hunters and foragers went. Sarouth had seemed in about as good a mood as he could manage those days, which was nice. He rode Karsta up next to Stupid Horse and kept pace, his heels crossed neatly against his horse’s blanket-covered flank as he sized up Riaag with a thoughtful look.

“So, what’s the real reason you got me out here?” asked Sarouth.

Riaag shrugged. “We’s stretchin’ the horses’ leggies. But since we’s both here, anyway….”

“I knew it. You and your plans to look after my well-being.”

“Fucken oathbound, always bein’ loyal ‘n true ‘n shit,” agreed Riaag. “Figured you might want ter talk s’more in private, but with a kinda distance still between us, too. I knows I gets a bit much, sometimes.”

Sarouth laughed, then sighed. “This is about earlier, isn’t it?”

“Li’l bit. Wanted ter ask ’bout how Sarouth White-Hair is feelin’ terday.”

Sarouth pressed a hand against the back of his neck and popped his lips a few times. “Good question. Sometimes it feels like I’m almost back to normal, like everything’s going fine, then I hold my head differently or just check my jewelry in a mirror and it all comes crashing back again. I’ve been through a lot of shit, Riaag, and I’ve shrugged off a lot of that shit as easy as I’d get over a skinned elbow or bruised knee. I’m not used to despair that just…lingers.”

“You’s still fucked up ’bout gettin’ shorn, ain’tcha.”

“These assholes didn’t know what it meant when they did it, so therefore it has no power over me,” growled Sarouth. “Except I guess it does, doesn’t it?” He sighed again. “What was it like when it happened to you? If you don’t want to answer, I understand.”

It was pretty clear that Sarouth wasn’t asking about how Riaag’s own harrowing tower stay. Had they ever talked about this before, other than the basics of it having happened? Riaag felt grateful for his helmet, then. It kept everything pressed down and safe.

“So, once I weren’t too little ter even hold a knife, I was most often made ter do it m’self,” he said. He was grateful he didn’t have to look at anyone while recounting this. “Weren’t always the case, since sometimes they decides you fucked up the job, or you got yerself dirty ‘n it’d take too long ter wash out, or they just wants ter make an example ‘a you.”

“And from what I’ve gathered over the years, you’ve always been exemplary.”

That brought a shuddering chuckle to Riaag. “Good way ter put it, I guess.” They rode for a little while as he gathered his thoughts, and soon enough he started again. “They always made sure there was a li’l bit left. All diff’rent lengths, too. Had ter be shaggy ‘n shitty, lest it look like I was just bald, ’cause who gives a shit if you’s bald? They made sure I looked bad so ever’one would know I weren’t worth the time it took ter look at me. They also needed ter make sure there were enough ter hold me still fer measures disciplinarian.” He gritted his teeth. “Like you said, I’s always been exemplary.”

Sarouth didn’t need more detail to look horrified, and thank goodness for that. “Oh. Oh. We can talk about something else, if you want.”

“S’alright. I’s almost done recountin’.” It wasn’t like being an example was always bad, he reminded himself. The Riaag Bough-Breaker of the modern day was a hero to his people, someone whose words and deeds could inspire great things in the hearts of others, and so he’d be a hero to Sarouth, even if it meant being about as subtle as a thunderstorm. “Thing is, you looks at me now, ‘n you don’t see none ‘a that. You sees a man what’s near ter sittin’ on his hair even when braided. You see how clean it is, ‘n how nice it’s kept. I got all this,” he continued, taking one hand off the reins long enough to lift up the wolf pelt on his helm to reveal the expanse of wavy black tied up beneath it, “even though that other shit happened. Took a long-ass time ‘n we both remember how much fuss it were at first, but you cain’t argue with the results, yeah?”

“Look at you, trying to be inspiring,” said Sarouth as he guided Karsta around a log.

“Is it workin’?”

“I’ll get back to you on that.” He eased his horse back to match Riaag’s pace again. “I’ve been thinking about things since the last time you forced me to confront myself like this, and I think part of me still can’t get past when the wizard brought you in to clean my cell that first time.” He shuddered. “You didn’t recognize me. You wouldn’t even sing. I didn’t expect it to hurt so much, or that it’d keep hurting the way it has. And the worst part? The worst fucking part? I don’t even think he knew.”

Riaag reached over to lay a hand on Sarouth’s shoulder. This was easier said than done given how much space Stupid Horse’s barding took up. “He didn’t know a lotta things, Holy One,” he said. “You’ll recall soon as I managed ter buck his fell influence I showed up right in time fer a darin’ rescue. What failed, granted, but it gave you the time you needed ter bring about his end. Teamwork, right?”

“I’m going to need to spend a bit more time feeling bad before I can take comfort in that, brave warrior, but I’ll probably appreciate you saying so once I’m not so up my own ass about everything.” He smiled ruefully and nuzzled against Riaag’s hand. “This would go so much more smoothly if you’d ever stop treating me like a major religious figure or something.”

Riaag gave the shoulder he was touching a few friendly thumps. “Too bad. I’s still gonna bear witness ter yer sacrosanctity. Loudly, if’n I gotta.”

“My herald insists on doing his job. My life is so hard, Riaag.” 

“Sharp as crystal, hard as stone,” agreed Riaag. “You wanna hear an inspirational speech I’s been workin’ on fer you?”

Karsta ignored the happy-frustrated noise Sarouth made at this. “Inspirational speeches! In the middle of nowhere, he composes them! I’m doomed!” 

“So is you interested or not?”

He slumped in his saddle like a bag of stiff yogurt. “If you must.”

“Okay, listen up: Things fall apart. That’s what happens when you gets a god what’s made ter see things cleaned away ‘n force Him ter help with creation. Sure as He commands it, though, we take them busted, frayin’ things ‘n find purpose in ’em. They get fixed. Or made inter somethin’ new. Or et up. Or mixed up ter feed the land. Sometimes they get busted up all the way so they ain’t in a state ‘a misery no more. He’s the First Scavenger, ‘n pickin’ through the litter fer bones ‘n gold is what He’s taught us ter do best of all.” He leaned over as far as he dared to kiss the top of Sarouth’s hood. “You picked me up that first time, ‘n each time after that. Now you’s gotta deal with gettin’ picked up yerself. I’ll do it one-handed if I must.”

Sarouth didn’t answer, so Riaag continued. “I’ll pray fer you. I’ll also work my ass off through more physical means ter be the best oathbound I can be ‘n help you through this with all the blood, sweat, ‘n tears it takes. Between the both ‘a those I reckon one of ’em oughtta take. If not? Shit, least I tried.”

The horses clomped through the snow with the aimless purpose of animals moving for the sake of moving. Flecks of white clung to their coats; as both were mostly brown, this made them look a bit like extremely large and murderous fawns, which Riaag found quite cute. He’d bring that up later. For now he’d focus the whole of his attention entirely on Sarouth (with the exception of the bit of his attention dedicated to not falling off, which felt like a reasonable sacrifice). It felt good to say something that he’d put so much thought into; while not as artistically satisfying as a song or poem, a proper speech had value all its own. Even if it didn’t take, at least the horses were getting out-of-doors again. All four of them—orcs and horses alike—had probably spent too long in Yun Azrha to put it off much longer.

After a while, Sarouth said, “You know what pisses me off sometimes?”

“Yeah?”

“You keep making me want to be better than I am, even when I’ve been busy doing nothing of the sort. Absolutely maddening. I’d complain to the Hill God but I think He’d just be smug about it.”

Riaag thought of Oakeht Iron-Finder and the sludgy, mean-spirited joy there had been in terrorizing him. “Maybe I ain’t always been my best self, neither, lately.”

“A chink! There’s a chink in his armor! I’m saved!” cried Sarouth as he poked Riaag between two of the metal scales on his coat. “Give me time, my love, and I’m sure everything you’ve told me today will have fully digested into wisdom. I should be ready to help you adjust your own course by then. Deal?”

Was this too easy? Riaag wasn’t sure, but he allowed himself to believe it for now. “Deal.”

They bumped their gloved knuckles, and what would have been a wonderful moment was immediately spoiled by the horses catching scent of a passing rabbit and tearing off after it with Sarouth and Riaag clinging to their saddles for dear life, both shouting the entire way. Which felt like the way things tended to go for them, if Riaag was being honest, so that was all right.

The smell of bonfires drifted through the early autumn air, that scent a herald of the coming chill now that people had reveled through the longest days of the year. Also drifting through the air was the sound of harp music. Riaag followed this sound across holy ground all the way up to the foot of the sacred hill, where he looked up; sure enough, seated atop the hill and facing in the same direction as the cave leading into its depths was Sarouth, his playing alternating between claws and fingertips across the strings as the tune demanded. It was hardly a complicated song, Sarouth having only owned the harp for a year at most, but his fingers moved with confidence, and given how often Riaag had heard this song practiced he could pick out a spot or two where Sarouth had embellished the original composition. It was a pretty decent effort. Given all the trouble Sarouth had with actually singing, a pretty decent effort meant a lot more for him than it might have someone else.

Soon the last note rang out over the land and the strings drew still. Sarouth, who’d been playing with his eyes closed, only just now seemed to notice Riaag as he looked down from his perch. He smiled. “Well hello down there.”

“Hi,” said Riaag. “Was wonderin’ ter where all you’d gotten, ‘n here you was. Decided I’d sit ‘n listen a bit afore interruptin’.”

Sarouth placed his harp in his lap and leaned back on his palms. The angle of the sun caught the anklets he wore where his robes had rucked up enough to show them off. “That was thoughtful of you, my wolf. Need me for something?”

Riaag shrugged. “Just wanted ter know where you was, Holy One. T’weren’t fer nothin’ in particular.” Old habits died hard; they’d been living in the stronghold they’d built together for years, one big enough to hold countless people and animals that you could only see across if you stood on one of the walls themselves, and he still had to deal with the lingering worry that a Sarouth out of sight was a Sarouth potentially getting himself into trouble. Spending enough of their formative early years chasing after him while he roamed about in a beatific daze had left Riaag with a wont he’d yet to reshape into something more wanted.

“Oh, so you’re free, then?” asked Sarouth. He grinned. “That’s convenient for me, then.” He took his harp under his arm and skidded down the side of the hill, where he caught himself just before toppling over. He straightened up with grace and confidence that refused to acknowledge how close he’d come to eating shit at the end of his descent. This landed him right in front of Riaag in what had to have been a calculated move. “Hey.”

“Hey yerself,” said Riaag.

“It’s a good thing you’re here,” said Sarouth as he leaned further into Riaag’s personal space. “I’ve been practicing a little inside the cave lately, the acoustics being excellent and all, and I was thinking it might be that more productive if I tried it as half of a duet.” He tilted his head so his forelock parted just enough to reveal the eye behind it, which carried a very familiar look in its yellow depths. Quite a few good memories had all started with Riaag staring down that same look. Most people didn’t go from neutral to salacious in the space of noticing someone had walked up nearby, but most people weren’t Sarouth White-Hair, either. The ravenous nature of the Star-Eater streaked through His priests in different ways; when the spirit moved him, Sarouth was a creature of near-bottomless appetite and near-infinite horny. Riaag had gladly slipped into the role of trying to sate both.

“A duet, huh?”

“Mm-hmm.” Sarouth rested his palm against Riaag’s stomach. “Think you’d want to help with that?”

“Reckon so,” said Riaag with a grin of his own.

The hand on his stomach vanished as soon as it had alighted. “Great! Would you grab a brand from the stack by the entrance? If we’re going to be down in the cave for a little I don’t want you tripping on anything.”

Down in the…? Oh. Well, that made sense, since Sarouth was quick to heap praises upon the acoustics you found in the depths of the sacred hill; even in the spaces before it opened up into the room where he’d commune with Agritakh through a haze of oracular smoke, sound would bounce around and amplify itself like wind through a flute. The number of times Riaag had sung down there could be counted on the fingers of one hand, so it would be a nice treat to do so again in the company of the man he considered his dearest friend. That he’d have to suffer through somewhere between one-third and one-half of a boner in the process was just something he’d have to live with.

He scraped sparks from his tinderbox to catch the brand aflame and followed Sarouth down into the winding darkness. The torch cast a steady yellow-orange light across the cave walls. It was a fairly old one, part of perhaps the third set he’d needed to make for the cave; when he had reason to descend he usually brought his own lamp with him, and while Sarouth was down here all the time, Sarouth (like any Agritakh-ruhd) didn’t need light to move through places chthonic. They didn’t stop in the chamber just inside the cave mouth, nor did they head all the way to the room with the fissured floor where Sarouth did his most intense divining, instead veering off into a little side-chamber somewhere between the two extremes. Riaag had been here before, but never for long; it didn’t have much of a purpose beyond making it easier for people not to bonk into each other during a visit. 

They tested different places to sit or stand in the room until they found ones that suited them best. Riaag left the torch in a wall sconce he vaguely recalled installing years ago when they’d first explored down here, though he didn’t recall ever using it before, and it was unlikely anyone else had, either. He and Sarouth were usually the only people who ever came down here. Perhaps that was why he’d gone along with this in the first place: if he didn’t sing down here, who would?

After a bit of tuning on Sarouth’s part and throat exercises on Riaag’s, it was time for them to begin that duet Sarouth had mentioned. Riaag tried to be enthusiastic in spite of his disappointment. He poured as much of his heart into his singing as he could, as the cave really did make the music sound like nothing else (as befitting of hymns to His glory), but when their third song reached its end he couldn’t help but sigh. This, too, sounded richer than ever here in the bowels of the sacred earth. It was also much, much louder than he’d meant it to be.

Sarouth cocked his head. “Is something wrong, Riaag? You seemed happy to help me practice down here. Did I misunderstand your answer?”

No sense in not being honest. “Honestly, when I replied suchly I was assumin’ you was bein’ metaphorical ’bout wantin’ ter getcher rocks off, ‘n was invitin’ me ter assist.”

“Oh, that too,” said Sarouth, “but I wanted to mess with you a bit first.”

One of these days Riaag would remember that Sarouth was like this, but today was not that day. “Sarouth.”

“That’s my name, as echoed through the Labyrinth,” Sarouth replied, cheerfully. He placed his harp in a shallow basket that had definitely not been there the last time Riaag had visited. “Of course, if you’d like us to change focus…?”

Some people might have had reservations about getting frisky in a holy place. Some people might have considered it bad form to lay down with a cleric so close to a place where he would sit for hours in search of whatever mysteries his god might share. Some people clearly weren’t oathbound to avatars of said mysterious gods, nor did they pitch their tents on sacred ground as a matter of course, nor did they have to account for divine visions interrupting sex even when roughing it out in the woods well away from any caves (sacred or otherwise), so Riaag was happy to take his own lived experience as proof that this was not only a good idea but a great one. Aside from the instinct-deep comfort he felt from being underground in the first place, it was soothing being in a place so close to the Hill God’s dreams without risking tumbling into them. He loved His children and wanted them to be happy, and so happy Riaag would be.

“I’d like ter lay with you a while, Holy One, if’n I may.”

“You absolutely, positively may.”

The suspicious basket from before happened to contain a thick blanket, for which Riaag was grateful; it was comfortable enough in the cave, temperature-wise, but he was less than thrilled with the idea of scraping himself to ribbons on the unpolished stone floor. He rolled it out until it made for a nice, thick pallet big enough for them both to rest on side by side. After kicking off his boots and placing his belt to the side—its trophy skulls’ sockets turned towards the wall out of courtesy—he settled himself cross-legged on the blanket. From this point on, Sarouth would be the one in control of his fate. That suited Riaag just fine.

Sarouth settled himself in Riaag’s lap. He’d already stripped down to nothing but his jewelry in what felt like no time at all; even with Riaag still mostly dressed and far more physically imposing, there was no doubt as to which of them basked in the authority of the other. At least now it was clear Riaag wasn’t the only one who was ready and eager to enjoy one another’s company.

“My pretty one,” purred Sarouth as he ran a claw up Riaag’s throat and along the underside of his broad lower jaw. “You’re so fortunate kin-feasting is a sin, because you look good enough to eat. I could do it in two bites. Snap, snap, just like that.”

“Oh no,” said Riaag with deadpan horror.

“Oh yes. Just the sweetest little morsel, all for me.” His claws teased at Riaag’s beard. “If I were to reach down and feel your cock, would you be hard for me yet?”

This had been true since they’d been topside. Strict truth wasn’t the focus of the game, though, at least not this stage of it. “Maybe.”

“Maybe, maybe. I want a maybe, my love. I’m interested in a man who knows exactly what. He. Wants.” Sarouth punctuated each of those words with a tap on the broad tip of Riaag’s nose.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. So if you want something, you’re going to have to tell me.”

What did Riaag want? More of Sarouth touching him, that much was certain, and a kiss or two would be nice, and he’d love plenty of kind words in the process, even if (maybe especially if) they were wrapped up in growls and sharp smiles that veered a little too close to predatory. He wanted to come, of course, though that one generally didn’t have any problem happening when they both had the time and desire. His shoulders were still a little bit sore from the night before so he didn’t need more than a few nibbles to remind him whose he was. What he wanted most of all was to see his oathbound happy, however that ended up looking. What was the best way to say he wanted to feel useful without Sarouth getting on his case about how he didn’t have to be useful all the time? Ah, yes.

“I wants ter be delightful.”

Sarouth laughed. “Good news, then! You already are.” He nipped the tips of Riaag’s ears in turn. “But I can think of a few suggestions if you’d like to be more delightful still.” At Riaag’s eager nod, he placed his hands against Riaag’s lapels and lightly drummed his fingers against the fabric. “How about you get out of all this? I want to see you.”

“A’ight.”

He shed his remaining layers with little ceremony; plenty of times he was in the mood for a long, drawn out process of teasing reveals, and none of those times were now. His clothes joined Sarouth’s in a hastily-folded pile up against the wall. This left him wearing nothing but his scars, his amulet, and the silken flower in his hair. Riaag tucked up his knees just so, ensuring that the curve of his ample stomach hid the fact that his maybe-boner was a multiple-yeses-boner just from the attention, then slid his bulk artfully to one side. Here he was, a fierce warrior of his people, broad and fat and built for the battlefield, now curled up prettily for the appreciation of an audience of one (or arguably more than one, if you counted the presence of the divine, which Riaag didn’t for the sake of his nerves). He tucked a strand of hair behind his ear and shot Sarouth his best faux-demure look.

“This good enough?”

More than good enough. Oh, look at you…,” said Sarouth, his voice soft, fond, and reverent. He reached out to brush his fingers along the bite mark that scarred Riaag’s shoulder—not the little bruises left by his own teeth, though there were plenty of those, but the one left by the avatar of Wolf, the same one whose skull and fur he now wore proudly into the thick of combat. “Taker of heads and ruiner of sieges, tell me, who called you down here?”

So Sarouth was in the mood for fancy talk, was he? Riaag could work with that. “T’were Sarouth White-Hair, Faaroug of Agritakh, him what leaves no prints ‘pon softest ground nor fears the churnin’ earth. Don’t tell nobody, but I thinks he’s a real looker.”

“Flatterer. I’m a terrible influence on you. That’s just the way I like it, so I fear you’re doomed. Let’s see how that cock of yours is doing now, hm?”

Riaag unfolded himself enough to display himself, and before he could put on any more of a show he found Sarouth in his lap again, this time straddling Riaag’s pelvis with their shafts pressing warmly against one another. A draft from the distant topside chilled Riaag’s skin in ways that highly appreciated having another person so close and personal. Riaag himself was content to let things happen. Gasping when Sarouth took them both in the same hand and pressed them together was certainly a thing that could happen. Whimpering when a second hand toyed with his glans was another such thing. As for letting out a little moan when Sarouth rolled his hips just so, placing that much more of his weight on Riaag in the best possible way? Well, that was the most natural thing to happen of all.

He needed to figure out what to do with his hands. Simply resting his weight on them wouldn’t do, but if he wanted to admire Sarouth (and with a body like that, who wouldn’t?) he’d have to lean back far enough that he’d risk losing his balance. Sure, they could always pull the blanket far enough over to let him lean against the wall, but that would mean moving Sarouth from his perch, and that was simply unacceptable. When dealing with puzzles it was always wise to consider the plainest solutions first, and so Riaag first went down on his forearms, then flat on his back, his hands coming to rest on Sarouth’s well-sculpted hips.

“You look comfortable,” said Sarouth with a roll of those hips of his. All Riaag could manage in response was a vowel sound, not really a word but carrying meaning all the same. Sarouth chuckled deep in his throat. He placed his hands over Riaag’s own and wiggled in place. “Got me where you want me, do you?”

“Yeah,” Riaag whispered. He rolled his own hips back at Sarouth. He preferred to follow a lead, to be acted upon instead of the inspiring actor, but what was the point in lying there like a slug if Sarouth couldn’t tell he was enjoying himself? Sarouth’s mask slipped just a touch on the upswing of that motion, during the part where it almost lifted his knees off the ground. Knowing he could still pleasantly surprise someone as experienced as Sarouth White-Hair himself never failed to give Riaag a warm glow of pride. He concentrated through the blissed-out fog that settled in his brain at times like this and put some words in the right order. “What was you thinkin’? Maybe jerk off on me some, make me look sweet?”

“Hush, you, you’re always sweet,” said Sarouth, even as he gathered up their cocks again to give a few thoughtful tugs. He released them again and Riaag whined in dismay. Clamping down harder on Sarouth’s hips—gently with the claws, firmly with everything else—earned him another happy sound of surprise. “Yes, let’s have you do that for a bit. A shame I don’t have any oil with me, otherwise I think slicking you up and putting you between my thighs would be quite the treat.” Going by experience it was quite the treat, too. Sarouth had some pretty weird ideas about what people were supposed to do with someone who was wholly (and gladly) subservient to them, though Riaag supposed if one’s entire life was filtered through being the current mortal incarnation of an ever-thirsting blood god that probably made everything they did that much more dominating by default. At the end of the day Riaag still got bitten, come on, and told he was pretty, so he was willing to give Sarouth a little slack on this.

They rubbed against each other carefully; without oil you had to rely on whatever your own cock was willing to give you to keep from getting a friction burn, but that did mean Sarouth fell into a slow cadence with which he was happy to vocalize in time. Each little ah! and mmh! was enough to make Riaag forgive him for not holding them together again. The equally rhythmic sway of Sarouth’s ponytail against his chest was mesmerizing. It wasn’t the sort of thing that could make Riaag come all on its own, he knew that much, but if Sarouth was planning on keeping him balanced on a knife’s-edge of pleasure for some infuriating amount of time, well, this was a good way to do it. Riaag had gotten so lost in the idea of being pinned down by a demigod for an hour or so that he yelped in surprise when he felt a hand around his cock—but only his—again.

“Need to borrow this for a minute,” said Sarouth right before he began jerking Riaag off within an inch of his life, all while keeping their balls nestled together and the underside of his shaft right up against his knuckles. Like many things when it came to Sarouth, it would’ve been unfair if it hadn’t felt so blessedly good.

Riaag came with a jolt. There wasn’t as much as he’d expected, and even then it felt like it promptly tried to get everywhere. At least he didn’t have to worry about spots getting on their nice blanket: Sarouth was on him as soon as the last drop had been coaxed from his slit, and while Sarouth would draw the line at actually putting his mouth on Riaag’s shaft (like everything else even halfway related to sex, Sarouth was very patient with Riaag’s limits) he’d try to get damn near everywhere else. Sarouth approached lapping up come with gusto and he didn’t seem to have a preference if it was his own, Riaag’s, or a mix of the two. Some days he’d spend so much time rasping his tongue against Riaag’s skin it was a wonder there was any hair at all left down there. It was hot enough that Riaag could forgive the weird little noises Sarouth liked making during the act that he usually saved for very fancy food.

The instant Riaag was clean Sarouth was back astride him again, still hard at a rock and slick with shared excitement. He smelled incredible. Hopefully he’d packed some mint in with the blanket or it would be screechingly obvious to anyone (well, anyone with an orcish nose for detail, anyway) what they’d been up to down here.

Sarouth admired him from his perch, turning his head this way and that to appreciate Riaag’s panting wreck of a self from different angles. Sometimes his eyes would linger somewhere, and there was always variety in where they’d pause—a scar, a nipple, a roll of fat, a drop of sweat, the curve of a tusk. For a while it was as though Riaag was his own scrying tool from which he needed to pull forth a new truth. Once satisfied, he then cupped his hands around Riaag’s face and leaned down to kiss him with equal parts sweetness and hunger. I want you, it said as he really put his jaw into it. There were a lot of ways one could interpret that simple phrase. Riaag had come to learn Sarouth usually meant all of them at once.

“I’ve seen you, my pretty one,” he said once they finally parted, “and now I think I’d like to concentrate on feeling you for now.” He nodded towards the torch in its sconce. “How about you douse the light and see what happens.”

It wouldn’t be hard to do—Riaag’s reach was long and he carried a dousing cloth in his daily kit—but putting it out wasn’t what concerned him. “What if it won’t catch again later?”

“Then I’ll lead you by the hand until we’re once again beneath the open sky. No matter how far down we go, I will always lead you home.”

Riaag frowned. “Ain’t we home already?”

A few flecks of spittle from Sarouth’s raspberry landed on Riaag’s cheek. “Oh, boo, go and ruin a perfectly meaningful sentiment for me, why don’t you? I thought you were supposed to be the poet.” He dabbed at the spit-drops with his thumb, now wearing a more sober expression. “It’s not something that’d be bad for you, is it? I know you like being able to see me….”

That Riaag didn’t know. He’d been with Sarouth in the near-dark before plenty of times, be it an evening in their tent with few lamps to light them or a tryst beneath the star-dappled sky on their way home from somewhere or another. Some of those times had even been in other caves, though none so holy as this. But complete blackness? Never.

The plainest solutions needed to be considered first. He’d be on his back, or his side, or whatever, on a nice, cozy blanket, and the only other person here would be Sarouth, and everything would smell familiar and feel good. If they had to stop they would. More important than that was if Riaag asked to stop, Sarouth would. That’s how it had worked ever since they’d sworn their oath. That’s how he’d been able to get here, this joyfully close to someone, at all. All he had to do was be brave. Surely he remembered how that one worked.

He pressed Sarouth’s hands between his own and looked up into his eyes. “Only one way ter know fer sure. Promise you’ll fish me out if we gets stuck down here?”

“I swear on my heart, and my teeth, and on the godliness within me, Riaag, if that stupid torch won’t light again I’ll help you find your pants and get back out without so much as a stubbed toe. May the Star-Eater Himself claim the dust that makes me if I speak in vain.”

“Well shit, that’s gotta be good enough fer anybody, huh?”

He stretched out and plucked the torch from where it hung, dug out his quenching cloth, and put out the light. His eyes tried to adjust, but aside from the swiftly-fading embers there was nothing for them to actually find in the pitch-thick darkness, not even a reflection of a reflection off one of Sarouth’s many bangles. It was so quiet his ears rang. This deep in the cave you no longer heard noises from the surface unless there was a catastrophe going on up there, and hints of the oracular fumes from below eddied past his nose in faint, chemical-smelling bursts of strangeness. For a moment he was alone.

A moment, but only a moment. He knew the warmth that pressed against him in the shape of a man and knew the scent that came with it, one tinged with sweat, incense, and bold arousal. Hands he’d touched thousands of times guided him back onto the blanket as lips he’d traced with skin and tongue brushed against his own. Lean muscle pressed against fat. A familiar cock hunted for places to nestle, and when he pressed his thighs together around that questing shaft he knew the voice that whispered his name with all the reverence of a prayer. If this was what it meant to truly come together in the darkness then he would let himself drift in the sensation. He could be safe here, if he wanted to be. There were no interruptions from approaching footsteps, no knocks upon the tent pole to ruin the moment. There was him, and there was Sarouth, and there was this fragment of His Void around them, and for just a little while that was all there was and all there needed to be.

The more Riaag helped build those weird little shell-shaped houses, the more comfortable he got with how deep to dig the seating trenches for each section and how to ensure each piece was arranged just so before coming in with fixtures and mortar. He felt grateful (and slightly guilty) for the excuse to get out; he loved Sarouth dearly, but right now it felt like they needed a bit of space to figure out the next best steps to take towards recovery. With how tense Sarouth had been lately it was probably for the best, too, since Riaag knew there was still something going on behind that veil that would benefit from some time alone to think. Catharsis could only do so much for a man if he still had bones to pick with himself.

He wasn’t surprised that someone came up to him with an issue to be addressed. He was a public figure and one of the designated leaders of the settlement, after all, and generally assumed to be the less weird of the available options, so that’s what was expected. What surprised him was that the person was Dzedekh Clay-Spinner. People who got into intense philosophical discussions were allowed to have more mundane problems, he reminded himself, and so he made sure none of the rest of the construction team was likely to murder themselves in the time it took to discuss a backed-up latrine or pile of soaked firewood or whatever was going on. Being convinced that nobody was likely to get too mangled during the mortar-mixing stage, he turned to Dzedekh and greeted her with a nod of his head.

“Hello, Clay-Spinner,” he said. “How’s that crystal you got from White-Hair doin’?”

“That’s why I’m here, Bough-Breaker,” said Dzedekh. “I can’t find it anywhere. I’ve been so careful with it, and I only wear it when I know I won’t risk losing it to work. I can’t just leave it in the mud somewhere, right? It chose me.” She looked at the half-built house Riaag was overseeing. “Is this…too small of a request to make at this time? I thought since you and White-Hair are so close, you might know where a gift of his might get to if it’s not where I last left it.”

Riaag was more used to weird little goodies letting Sarouth find them than hiding themselves away, but Dzedekh’s logic made enough sense to him. Given that he spent so much time sifting through the settlement’s resources it only seemed natural to assume he had a broader knowledge of where anything shiny within its borders would be at any given time.

“A’ight,” he said as he dusted off his hands. “Let’s us just narrow things down a bit, first. You last saw it in yer tent, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Notice anything weird ‘twixt now ‘n then?”

Dzedekh hummed in thought. “I did see someone wearing paint passing near my tent a few days ago. They were with a minder, but….”

That sounded about right. Riaag regularly worked with Oakeht to ensure the unclean could help transport their own supplies while under proper supervision—more to keep them safe than anyone else, if he was being honest with himself—and the most recent trip had seen Oakeht take in the guide-woman from before (she still hadn’t shared her name) with some sledges to take back more fuel and food. He didn’t know where Dzedekh’s tent was, but given just how much of the settlement one had to cross to get from the unclean camp to a storehouse and back again, it didn’t surprise him to hear anyone had seen someone wearing the paint in town.

Still, he didn’t like the way her comment trailed away. “But what?”

“But you can’t really trust anyone who’s gone against His command, can you? You don’t have any proof they won’t cheat to get what they want. They’re probably all greedy for His love, so it just makes sense that’s who took it.”

“Fucken excuse you,” said Riaag, and he didn’t bother to keep the growl from his voice. He didn’t care if the other builders overheard. “I’ll ask after it when I next check in with them, but if you’s gonna keep up that kinda shitty attitude maybe it up ‘n left you of its own accord.”

Dzedekh looked genuinely taken aback. “I beg your forgiveness, Bough-Breaker. What’s upset you, though? It’s just a common sinner—”

“Didja ferget the entire fucken discussion ’bout how that state ain’t necessarily permanent?” snapped Riaag. “Or didja just happen ter feel like takin’ a swipe at me while I’s right in fucken front ‘a you ‘n offerin’ my aid?”

He could watch her thoughts change in real time as she went from startled fear, to confusion, and then dawning anguish as her eyes dipped down to his blank coat again. “…maybe it knew I had more learning to do, Bough-Breaker, and that is why it’s left me,” she said, each word spoken carefully. “That was the last place I saw it, though, and if it becomes known to me again, I’ll tell you so. I’m sorry for what I said.”

“Yeah, well, maybe think on why you thought t’were acceptable ter say in the first place. I won’t have you shittin’ on Iron-Finder’s lot just ’cause they ain’t so big ‘n snaggledy.”

“Iron-Finder?”

“Fella what minds the unclean down in the camp. They does got names, y’know, even if they hain’t found reason ter share ’em. Or didja think that bit got thrown out soon as they took the paint, too?”

He probably could’ve gone easier on Dzedekh as part of better being that best self that he’d been neglecting, but if Sarouth needed time and a few missteps to get his head on straight, it stood to reason Riaag was probably due for a few of his own. He’d be sure to pray about it.

Dzedekh sighed and gave him a polite nod. “I’ve got even more to think about than I realized,” she said. “I really am sorry for it.”

“I ain’t the one what needs an apology, Clay-Spinner. Go talk ter Oakeht Iron-Finder what looks after ’em if you truly want ter repent yer shitty opinions. Only true deeds can undo what careless words up ‘n done.” Having lived his whole life in pursuit of sweet words, both others’ and his own, Riaag knew just how much they could do, and how little they meant if they were laid over a rotten base. Was this what it was like for an Agritakh-ruhd to hand down judgment? Probably not, but knowing he was promoting Sarouth’s goals even without his oathbound around to coach him on the right way to do things felt good in spite of his lingering ire.

She nodded again. “I’ll do that, Bough-Breaker. Thank you.”

He returned to work once Dzedekh left (in the direction of the unclean camp, he noted with mild approval) and let his thoughts sort themselves out while his hands stayed busy. While he liked the idea of the crystal going missing in response to her not having as kind a heart as previously assumed, it didn’t line up with what he knew about god-speakers’ accoutrements. He’d looted identical wonders off of heretics before, and those were the sort of people with ideological problems far greater than a failure of compassion. He’d even encountered the unquiet remains of an Agritakh-ruhd who’d rejected their gift outright, and those had kept their jewelry, too. Potions and rings appeared in strange places when god-speakers were concerned, and both of those stuck around until they were used up or given away, so that was unlikely. Maybe he’d go back later today and count how many crystals still hung from Sarouth’s staff. That was bound to spark a whole new conversation in and of itself.

A raspy ululation rang out over the settlement. Riaag was heading towards it in an instant, his recent argument already pushed to the side, though it took him a moment to realize what all he was hearing, that being a sound similar to the scream of a wild horse but slightly different in tone and timbre. There was only one place that should’ve come from, and sure enough, his feet were taking him towards the stable where Karsta and Stupid Horse waited out the days until spring. If those vicious things were upset then it was his job to keep whoever had upset the horses safe from their whirling hooves! Much like his axe or the black metal mace Sarouth carried at his hip, if he were going to keep something as dangerous as a warhorse where other people could get at it, it stood to reason it fell on his shoulders to make sure it didn’t hurt anyone he didn’t already want the creature to fuck up.

There were a few other horse-screams by the time he arrived, interspersed with grunts and snorts and similar sounds he associated with the beasts being well and fully pissed off. Riaag didn’t bother with heading in through the stable doors; he vaulted the paddock fence and came in from the opposite angle, his back and shoulders already tensed in anticipation of needing to grapple with a few tons of angry horseflesh. Inside was a surprise: Stupid Horse was standing calmly enough in its stall, save for the infrequent alarm chuffs it kept making, while Karsta (usually the more serene of the pair) was livid.

The thing you had to remember about horses was that they were used to the whole world wanting to eat them, and any horse that had yet to drop dead from the sheer panic of being alive was probably willing to do whatever it took to stay alive. Karsta apparently felt this meant rearing up against its ties—the Hill God’s grace smiled upon them all given that Riaag and Sarouth got in the habit of tethering the horses after bringing them in each day—and threatening to ruin something just out of range. That something was a small black ball in one corner of the stable, pinned in place by the horse’s bulk but far enough away to keep from getting kicked. It trembled. When Riaag got close enough to the stall to ease Karsta with a touch, he was also close enough to see how one of the quartz ornaments tied into its mane was coming undone, and how the shivering ball of blackness happened to be clutching a tuft of horsehair in a little green hand.

“A’ight, you li’l turd,” said Riaag, “lemme quiet this asshole down ‘n we’ll getcha outta there. I’s heard on good authority that demons ain’t horseproofed.”

The ball uncurled just enough to reveal the feral kid from before. “Damn thing wouldn’t stay still,” they hissed. “Stupid, nasty thing.”

“This one’s Karsta, actually. That one’s Stupid Horse,” said Riaag as he cocked his thumb over his shoulder. He wasn’t used to working with Karsta all that much beyond basic care and feeding, so he had to hope what worked for Stupid Horse would carry over to its equally dreadful sibling. He grabbed for one of the leads tied to its bridle and held it firm; once Karsta stopped pulling against it so much he then slowly pulled the lead downwards, taking Karsta’s head with it. The horse still foamed and snarled with its head low, but its fury began to bleed away the longer Riaag held it like that. He went in for some pets once he was sure (or as sure as he could be around the horses) that he wouldn’t get bitten. When he released the lead again Karsta kept its head down, so Riaag rewarded it with a feed bag. If nothing else at least the thing was muzzled now.

He leaned down and scooped up the feral child as they bolted past in a frenzied escape attempt. “Oh no you don’t,” said Riaag. He held them up by the scruff of the neck. “Let’s see that sparkly bit you got.”

“It’s still on the nasty horse,” said the kid from behind their curtain of tangles.

“Not that one, I mean the other’n. T’were a gift ter another, I’ll have you know, ‘n she’s got all manner ‘a poor guesses ter its whereabouts.”

The kid hung limply. “They’re important,” they said.

“Them crystals is?”

“They shouldn’t be left alone,” insisted the kid with a listless wiggle.

“Yeah, I’s likely ter agree, which is why they ain’t. Them on the horse is set in place by the Faaroug hisself, ‘n that other’n, which I has yet ter be convinced you didn’t filch? T’were on his staff until recent, where’pon he did give it ter one ‘a the many good people here, even if she’s currently in possession ‘a opinions most questionable.” He sighed. “You coulda just asked, y’know. We’s probably got another quartz ‘r two hangin ’round that could use a new caretaker.”

Karsta’s feedbagged snout followed the kid as Riaag took them from the stable, though once he’d gotten them out of sight it seemed content to return to its feast of mixed barley and bonemeal. There was a real art to restraining somebody, Riaag had found, since you needed to hold on to them firmly enough to keep them from actually getting away, but not so much you risked hurting them or giving them the leverage they needed to escape. He’d done enough babysitting (and broken up enough children’s fights) to know all about how to keep a small person off the ground and out of trouble. The kid didn’t seem to appreciate this skill as much as he did.

“Are you banishing me?” they asked as he hauled them along.

He shook his head. “Nope. We’s takin’ you ter see the Faaroug, ‘n that’ll be that.”

“Stop lying. The Faaroug wouldn’t be out here.”

“Well he sure as fuck didn’t want ter be, but he’s here, ‘n you’s about ter see him,” said Riaag. “Be glad he’s a kind-hearted sort what sees thievin’ as symptom ‘a somethin’ greater, squirt. Maybe you’ll feel like tellin’ him more ’bout how important them shiny rocks is, too.”

“No. I’m a demon. We don’t talk to god-speakers.” They then folded their arms across their chest and pouted between their tusks. Save for a little twitchy trembling that didn’t smell like it was fearful, the kid did and said nothing else for the entire rest of the way back to the tent.

“Attend, O lords of verdigris!” sang the merchants’ skald to the assembled orcish contingent, to which Riaag’s initial reaction was to fight as hard as he could to keep his eyes from rolling out of their sockets and under somebody’s divan. The wizard had kept a surprising amount of nice furniture, so anything which hadn’t been destroyed or bled on too much had been dragged down into the main room of the decommissioned prison to make a sort of meeting hall. It wouldn’t do much for actual trade (the front doors, while large, just weren’t made to admit wagons of such size as the caravan’s), and they’d have to figure out something a little less desperate-looking for the next time someone visited, but once they’d taken care of the gratuitous spikes on everything the chamber was surprisingly homey.

The skald continued in the way that skalds tended to do if left to their own devices. Riaag glanced over the crowd and was less than surprised to see how many of the Azrhics who’d volunteered to help receive their guests looked utterly lost. There was a world of difference between being able to hold a halting conversation in a tongue you only used a few times a year and being able to absorb the brunt of a song that went hard on flowery language and very, very weird metaphors. So long as everyone was willing to listen, understanding or not, and later on could tell if they were being asked questions, that was all they needed to do.

He sipped his hot water and let his thoughts drift to the tune of the chord progression. Hot water was something Yun Azrha had in abundance because Yun Azrha had firewood in abundance, and by making sure both were prominently offered as gifts they’d hopefully keep from looking in as much need of help as they actually were. Who wouldn’t want a warm soak after a long trip escorting dozens of wagons, animals, and support staff? There would be hospitality here for any who came in from the cold. So long as nobody got too picky about the details, that hospitality would be forever genuine.

One song ended and another began, and this one called his kind “lords of verdigris” too. The Leopard’s Breath Company were good people, good people with good connections that had sent caravans through the area months ahead of the usual schedule, which unfortunately had nothing to do with whether or not their traditions were insufferable. Riaag would make himself sit through a whole year of awkward singing if it meant he could improve the Azrhics’ lives with a little honest trade. He kept reminding himself of this as he shut out the increasingly awful lyrics to think about how this sort of merchant music worked. There was always something to learn from someone else’s art, even if that something was yet another entry on the long list of how not to do it. 

When the poetry started he found it a lot easier to pay attention to, since it was some sort of historical piece, and histories were a great way to learn about what people thought was remembering, which made it that much more productive if you needed to be diplomatic in their general direction. He was still figuring out how their personal names worked—merchants, or at least this flavor of merchant, seemed to use their names to track lineage and origin, and if they didn’t move around all that much Riaag supposed that information made enough sense to yoke to something as vital as one’s name—when someone in the audience signaled to the skald and their current epic stopped in what felt in the middle. Well, shit. Now he was going to get the history blue-balls until he found the time to ask somebody what came next. A herald’s work was never done.

“Great ones of this foreign land, we bid you rise, that we might greet you as equals,” they said.

Basic introductions had come long before, as Riaag had discovered people would give a broad-shouldered orc with a gap-toothed snarl a lot more leeway once they learned he was one of the key obstacles between themselves and something absurdly precious where they came from; with everyone gathered together it made sense that there be a ceremonial show of goodwill where there was enough of an audience to see it, so he clambered to his feet and offered Sarouth a hand up. As a rule, Riaag stood behind Sarouth in situations like this, as aside from being able to see over the top of Sarouth’s hood without having to go up on his toes he’d learned he looked less scary if he functioned as something of a backdrop for whatever cheerful bullshit Sarouth was getting ready to enact. That this position made it that much easier for him to grab Sarouth out of harm’s way (which had happened a few times before) only further emboldened him. Even in a peaceful meeting he would ensure the Faaroug would come to no harm he didn’t orchestrate his own sacred self.

Magnificent fabrics and shimmering jewels gleamed beneath the visitors’ heavy coats as they gathered in formation. It was like watching a flock of birds that never took to the air. Their leader, a woman with glinting brass beads woven all through her long hair, stepped from the throng and greeted Sarouth with a flourishing bow. “May the earth rise to meet you, Sarouth White-Hair.”

“Yes, it does that,” said Sarouth. “A pleasure to greet you, as well, Rafiqa Shukriyyah al-Qashari bint Zainab.”

“Ah, you’ve heard of me!” said Rafiqa.

“Your name, at least. I hope the time I spent practicing it properly did not embarrass either of us. Our languages use different sounds, and I don’t yet know all the best swears in yours.” He grinned. “I’m sure that last one will fix itself soon enough.”

A pause fell upon the crowd and Riaag suspected all eyes were on Rafiqa. She scoffed, a smile of her own rising to her eyes. “Only if you’re willing to trade orc-swears for it, priest of your blood,” she said. The tension broke as soon as it had crested and light laughter flickered through the room. Sarouth had entirely too much of a knack for pulling off risky moves like that.

The first hints of dealing followed soon after; more formal trade would occur after the next sunrise, built on the seeds sown tonight. It was not lost on Riaag that they weren’t as aggressive as they usually were when haggling with visitors. Why would they be? Naar Rhoan had stockpiles and contingency plans, to say nothing of a lively few years of history establishing itself as a place to enjoy fine goods and people, while Yun Azrha had popped up like a mushroom in the middle of the worst season for travel with a decidedly mixed bag of offerings. They couldn’t afford to lose a single bag of rice or fleck of iron because someone’s ego had gotten in the way of a resupply. A less-than-perfect offer in someone else’s here and there would earn thrice its weight in goodwill. If they kept things casually confident they wouldn’t look desperate, and if they didn’t look desperate they kept themselves safe. At least the hints of future wonders, their nature kept intentionally vague, would help keep the rumor mill churning in the Azrhics’ favor.

They lingered indoors long after most of the guests retired. Sarouth had been talking the ear off anyone who got too close to him for the past hour, which was fine, since inside it was actually warm. Riaag went over his mental tally of the things from the wizard‘s hoard that they’d deemed suitable to trade away. The nature of the goods had been described with polite terms, things collected and discovered and acquired. He’d yet to meet merchants of the Leopard’s Breath’s sort that treated clan colors the same way the Rhoanish (and people who weren’t Rhoanish but kept similar customs) did, which hopefully would keep anything unfortunate happening should someone recognize the batik adorning this drape or that shawl as belonging to a beloved dead relative. There was a definite line between being a scavenger and just being ghoulish.

It had taken days to sort through everything. When he’d plucked the last of Sarouth’s missing rings from the mess it had felt like a great weight had fallen from Riaag’s shoulders. Between all the fancy goods stuffed into the suites at the top of the tower they’d probably have enough to get by, but right up until then he’d kept having stress dreams about flinging Sarouth’s beloved bracelets into the sea, unable to explain himself through any words other than vague claims that fish were attracted to gold and the catch would come to them any day now. His amulet had banished those after a while, but since it was trained more to spot actual night terrors it wasn’t so quick on the draw when discomfort and dread were the order of the day over sheer panic.

Even after there was no one left with whom to speak Sarouth continued wandering around. Was he unwilling to head back to the tent? Riaag didn’t blame him, since staying out of the wind all night had been lovely. It felt weird to be treading water like this. Well, if something was bothering him, he’d surely say something, and until then Riaag would continue with his duties of keeping everything straightened out in his head.

“We’s gonna hafta figure out what all we can make delightful come the next group,” he said to Sarouth, in proper Rhoanish, once they were finally far enough away from the sleeping merchants to not risk somebody getting the wrong idea. “Looks like it’ll be a good-ass haul this time, but this time we’s got the whole ‘a the place ter offer, ‘n that’s gonna get sore depleted real fucken quick.” He grumbled. “Shame we cain’t just hand off the fucken tower itself. This fucken place gives me the creeps.”

Sarouth cocked his head as though he’d heard a distant sound. A slow smile spread across his face. “You know what, Riaag? Maybe we should try doing exactly that.” He spun in place, setting his robes to whirling. “Let’s pull down every last rotten hunk of it and make it into something useful.”

“Like what?” Riaag racked his brains for what all he’d do with chunks of malevolent masonry if he was tasked to find new uses for them. “A wall ain’t gonna work, I don’t think.”

“We’ll absolutely make walls, Riaag. Just very small ones.”

It was hard not to look incredulous, though Riaag tried. “They don’t care fer the concept much, here. How’s we gonna win ’em over if’n we give ’em somethin’ too small behind which ter shelter?”

Houses, my love. Or we start with sheds, at least, since we can’t keep everyone’s fires burning and have enough building materials left to make proper ones at the rate we’re going. We’ve scrapped as much of the shitty old ones as we can afford to. Sheds made out of tower chunks mean more wood for everyone, and if those prove to be solid and true, we can see if anyone wants to try living in a bigger one. I’ll pin up charms to help things keep spiritually clean. These people have done wonderful things with the scraps the lord of the tower left to them, they really have, and they deserve better than the rotten foundations they’ve been given. Even if only a few bands move in, it means we can have proof for the next traders to come through that you can build with it, and with luck they’ll be interested in taking some of this thoroughly rare and exotic material way the fuck away from here for their own no doubt very noble purposes.”

Riaag smiled as he sighed. “I ain’t gonna convince you otherwise on this’n, is I.”

“Nope,” said Sarouth. “So I was thinking we’d start with prying open the mechanisms that make the tower top open up, since that’ll be a good starting place for metal, and that’ll supplement the tools we’ll be getting from our guests most nicely….”

There was no reasoning with Sarouth when he was on a tear like this. Whether it was the urgings of the Hill God that guided him or entirely his own idea, he was going to charge towards his goal headfirst, and no matter how many times he got knocked down he’d get up again, more determined than before. Riaag was going to go along with it, of course. He was Sarouth’s right hand, now, his guardian and enforcer, oathbound for life, the one who shared his fire and the one who cooked his breakfast. He would follow whatever whims the Faaroug himself had and he would throw himself in harm’s way as often as it took to see those whims through. Besides, if he didn’t keep up, he’d never know how things ended to orate for future generations, and where was the fun in that?

“I have good news and bad news about our little rat,” said Sarouth with a nod towards the tent where the feral child still sat. They’d been in there for hours. Riaag had known this to be true since he’d actually needed to make a meal run for Sarouth and company part ways through, and that wasn’t even counting the times he’d needed to freshen up the kettle. At least it was warm and out of the snow.

Riaag wrung his hands. “Guess I’ll hear the good news first, since it’ll probably get told swifter.”

“I managed to get a name. We’re dealing with one called Valin, who’s informed me she’s a girl.”

“That’s good, then,” said Riaag. “Anything else?”

Sarouth began ticking things off on his fingers. “Well, just as you said, she’s going to need an amulet. She’s troubled by visions and sounds, and feelings she can’t make sense of. Phantoms that feel real but aren’t, right? I do know how to make something to help with that, and if she can learn to tell what’s an illusion her head’s brewing up and what’s actually real, I think she’ll be able to live a good and decent life. As good and decent as any of us can hope for, anyway.”

When he didn’t continue, Riaag knew what he had to ask next. “So, the bad news…?”

“Not all those visions of hers are due to a case of head-sickness.”

The covered face. The scratched arms. The insistence that the crystals (themselves known scrying tools, after all, and useful in near any ritual kit) were important somehow, even if she hadn’t been able to explain for what. The fact that she had no band to call her own, because if she hadn’t driven them away she might not have been able to bear being around them any longer. It all made sense and it was all horrible in a way Riaag didn’t know how to process. “Y’mean she’s…?”

Sarouth nodded. “A bite-sized god-speaker. If she hasn’t fully turned yet, she’s going to.” He sighed. “At least she seems a little older than I was when it happened to me, so that’s good. Ish. I hate it when they’re young.”

“So what does we do?”

“I have absolutely no idea! We can’t just leave her here, that’s cruel. I’m pretty sure I’m the only god-speaker for miles, too, so we can’t drop her off with someone who can train her the way she needs to be. Where does that leave us, though?” He smile-grimaced. “Do I strike you as the kind of man who knows what to do with an apprentice?”

There were two ways to interpret that question. One was based off of Sarouth’s past deeds, which were what felt like an endless series of him trying things nobody thought he could do (assuming they’d be able to imagine the concept in the first place) and succeeding more often than not. Had he ever seemed like the kind of man who knew how to build a stronghold, or kill a wizard, or broker prosperity in distant lands, or carry an oath? How could you tell if someone was fit for that sort of thing at first blush, anyway? It being something he’d never done before should’ve made him even more suited to the task than ever. Sarouth was Sarouth, and that meant he did things no one else would. That’s just how he was, and Riaag loved him dearly for it.

The second interpretation was less of a charitable one. Accepting Sarouth White-Hair had meant having to push past an endless series of self-sabotage, days upon weeks upon months upon fucking years where he’d flare out his relationships as fierce and hot as possible so he’d have reason to leave before getting hurt. Riaag had been the sole exception, and that was more because Riaag had refused to accept any of the dozens of outs Sarouth had given him over the years to find somewhere he’d be happier. Riaag had stayed partially out of devotion (because he’d had it bad for Sarouth even before he knew what those feelings meant) and partially out of fear for what might happen to Sarouth without someone to look out for him.

He had to approach this rationally, because neither of them was likely to if left to their own devices. Sarouth could provide clear and thoughtful advice to anyone who asked it of him, and Sarouth could demonstrate things with enough care that even a layman like Riaag felt confident overseeing liturgical matters. Sarouth was also in the relative good graces of nearly every god-speaker within a raven’s flight of Naar Rhoan, which was a lot, and one of their number was even watching the stronghold for them while they were out. Was it such a bad idea if he gave being a mentor a try? Nothing had to last forever, after all.

“We both know this isn’t just about me teaching someone, too,” said Sarouth, and Riaag winced, because it wasn’t, was it. “I keep telling myself I should go along with this, and I hate that I’m just so fucking reluctant, because it’d be giving you what you’ve wanted near as long as I’ve known you, maybe longer.”

Riaag didn’t want to ask, but he had to: “How so?”

“You want to be a father so much. You’d be good at it. But you won’t do it because of me, will you?”

“T’wouldn’t be fair ter nobody.” It wasn’t like it was comparable to letting Sarouth love him and Agritakh with the same (but subtly different) ferocity, after all. The Hill God was everywhere, His influence broad and glorious anywhere there was ground to tread, and Riaag was nothing if not a pious man. A child, though? He’d have to spend so much time away from Sarouth to raise them with all the love they deserved, and Sarouth…well, adults could handle being confronted with the nature of a god-speaker, but the younger someone was the more terrifying it was to be near a scrap of His terrible majesty. The closest Sarouth could get to a child was a sleeping infant in need of blessings. Riaag just couldn’t do that to him. He’d sate himself with babysitting and midwifing and all the other ways he could pretend he was happy without someone of his own to raise into a strong, happy orc who could be whatever they wanted. He had a lot of experience with sating and settling.

“You know, since she’s a god-speaker herself, she…,” began Sarouth, but he trailed off into tired, awkward silence. She wouldn’t be afraid of me, finished Riaag in his head.

“Don’t talk like that, Holy One. It ain’t gonna go nowhere good.”

“You’re right. You usually are, too.” He pressed his hand against the back of his hood at about neck-height and popped his lips. “No, we’re going to start at the beginning, here, and tell Valin what all is going on with her. She needs to know what she has to learn to understand how to control the things she can. We’ll get her cleaned up and taught how to cover up her divine eye. We’ll get her an amulet for her phantoms, too, and try to get that as reliable as possible before you and I ride back home. Also she has got to promise to stop filching shit off of people. Karsta really could’ve done a number on her.”

Riaag digested this. “You’s sayin’ you’s gonna give that apprentice thing a try?”

This got a chuckle out of Sarouth, who said, “I can’t think of any better options. Does it bother you, though?”

He wouldn’t get his hopes up because that was just setting himself up for disappointment. This was teaching a trade, not setting a family, and it wasn’t his choice to make whether or not he’d end up with a daughter out of the deal. “I don’t expect nothin’ ter last,” he said. “I dunno if she even wants ter be taught right now. But I think this is the best way ter go forward, ‘n if’n she does so request a barber, you know a guy what can handle a pair ‘a shears.”

“Thank you. That means a lot.”

“So how you thinkin’ of startin’ out this mentor experiment ‘a yers?”

Sarouth tugged at his sleeve to rub at the tattoos swirling around his forearm. “I’ll show her how to make a map of the Labyrinth, one that stays. I owe her that much. We’ve got bandages for it. I’ll offer to teach her whatever else she wants to know, but she needs a map.” He shivered. “If I could still dream I think I might have nightmares about the times I could still get lost in there.”

“Reckon that’ll mean more ter her ‘n either ‘a you’ll imagine,” said Riaag. “Will it, uh. Hurt her? Mappin’, I mean.”

With a flourish, Sarouth drew his ritual knife from his sash and held it up to the dying light. “I keep this thing sharp. It’ll be kinder than her using her claws. The sooner she can start to head towards the center, the sooner she’ll be able to stop charting out a new path every morning. I’ll pray that I might find some rust stone tonight, too. It helps.”

Simple logic would dictate there was no way for Sarouth’s tattoos to be as bold and bright a shade of red as they were given how dark his skin was. Rust stone could cause a mere mortal to become very sick if they handled it improperly. For god-speakers, though? It could yield a pigment like no other when it came to marking a safe route through the Labyrinth, and they’d actively seek out the stuff by following one of Vulture’s own lammergeiers. Observing how those birds colored their flaming feathers had been one of the last secrets needed to seek out Agritakh Himself after who knew how long without knowing His presence. It was a shame that each new god-speaker had to reenact that dismal time themselves.

“Guess I’ll get more water heatin’, then,” said Riaag. “Let her know Riaag Bough-Breaker is watchin’ out fer her, since he figures some demons need more help ‘n others.”

“I’ll do that,” said Sarouth with a hint of his usual smile.

“And Sarouth?”

He turned, one foot halted mid-stride back towards the tent. “Yeah?”

“Tell her…tell her I wish there were any other way.”

“You and me both, my love. You and me both.”

The days were getting colder and Harvest drew ever-closer, which meant, as usual, Riaag had plenty of work to do around the stronghold. This was great for his omnipresent need to be helpful; when it came to hauling trash, fixing fences, repairing ironworks, or simply keeping other people’s children from murdering one another for a few minutes, no matter what problem arose, he was confident he’d be able to make things just a little bit better for other people in some way or another. Lots of time spent working with his hands meant he also had plenty of time to think without being too self-conscious about not doing more with himself.

Today’s thoughts had to do with the increasing number of River People that lived in the stronghold. Most of them were simply transplants from Usoa, builders and architects whose presence was all part of the peace treaty between themselves and Naar Rhoan, but some of them…some of them definitely were mingling with the locals more. Some Usoans slept in Rhoanish camps. He’d spotted a few even wearing clan patterns, though whether that was a genuine acceptance of heritage or just borrowing someone’s spare coat for the day was unclear. Riaag thought it was nice having them around—they certainly weren’t the first non-orc people to visit the stronghold, though merchants never lingered longer than their trade routes permitted—even if, unlike some of his peers, he just didn’t get the appeal behind those leaf-shaped ears or little teeth or the way their eyes were slit down the iris like a snake’s. More hands made the whole that much stronger. You did have to remember to keep iron things away from them and to mention if what you were serving had aged meat in it, granted, but where was the harm in being a thoughtful host?

His biggest questions had nothing to do with whether there was a place for them behind the walls (there was) or if there was a problem with having those who weren’t explicitly Agritakh’s own taking residence in a place sanctified in His name (there wasn’t). No, that day Riaag had seen a confused but happy-looking River Person holding the newborn of a recent dam whose fire they shared, and it got him to thinking how, should the Usoan later claim that baby as a parent, that would even work.

Did ancestry count if your ancestors didn’t wait to greet their descendants in His belly? Did you count as pure of sin or exquisitely sinful or something else if you hadn’t grown up with His Chant? Would the River God handle things posthumously once Her prodigal chosen had breathed their last breath? Could a River Person even show their face to Agritakh? What would it mean to the First Scavenger if He was met with new adherents who couldn’t clean the land as He had tasked His children because carrion made them sick? He’d heard that orcs and merchants couldn’t make offspring the sexual way, so it stood to reason you wouldn’t get children out of orcs and River People, either, but if they somehow managed, would that be a fucked-up looking baby or what?

He wasn’t worried about the scant few Usoans he’d managed to befriend, as they seemed to be doing all right for themselves without anyone else’s help and they were presumably about as right with their River God as they were ever going to be. If some Rhoanish converted to Her worship that was a little weird but also probably inevitable; orcs were strong-willed creatures and had a habit of thinking what they wanted to, and if some of those who were living in the village to help revitalize the fields wanted to revere the rise and fall of the Mother of the Waters as She flooded the paddies and brought fish into nets, that was their prerogative. The problem was when you got an Usoan who decided they were ready to become full-on Rhoanish. It seemed like a solution to figure out sooner than later for the good of everyone involved.

As he’d yet to think of a good answer for himself by the time dinner rolled around, he took the obvious next step. “Hey, Holy One? Got a bit ovva stumper fer you.”

“Oh?” asked Sarouth around a spoonful of dumpling soup. There were suspiciously fewer dumplings left in the pot than when Riaag had turned away to check on the rice he was steaming not a minute ago. Well, that was why he’d made a double batch in the first place, wasn’t it?

“Okay, so, firstly, I’s meanin’ this in a sense ‘a genuine curiosity, so’s I must rely ‘pon yer guidance ter tell me if it fucken sucks ter ask.”

“Oh, so it’s one of these questions,” said Sarouth. He sounded amused, thankfully; they hadn’t spent years bouncing debates off of each other for him to get bent out of shape over something stated with honest intent, no matter how imperfect its phrasing. “Let’s hear it, my love.”

Riaag clapped the lid on the dumpling pot just in time to rescue it from Sarouth’s questing spoon. “So say some fella from Usoa has come over ter the stronghold ‘n he’s taken in by a nice li’l band,” he said. “He ends up stickin’ ’round, ‘n after a touch he decides he wants ter stay in Naar Rhoan fer good. That alone makes him Rhoanish, right?”

“That’s right. Same as anyone else who’s come to us from afar.”

“So what happens when this Rhoanish River Person decides he wants ter start followin’ He Who Sleeps? Like, I knows what the Chant says, ‘n it’s mighty clear that it assumes one’s an orc when speakin’ ‘a His favored children. What happens ter somebody who, y’know, ain’t?”

Sarouth popped his lips a few times. “Well, I suppose he could convert,” he said. “If he’s that devoted to Agritakh then he shouldn’t have a problem with being reborn as an orc.”

“How would that…work?” asked Riaag.

“Same as a boy becomes a man, or a man becomes a woman: they say it is so, and so it is.”

“But they gotta have they clan recognize such.”

This got a loud, sputtering scoff out of Sarouth, followed by a short laugh. “Oh, pshaw, no they don’t. Clans are useful, just like bands are useful, and families, and friends, and things that don’t fit so neatly into little boxes. But you can survive without a clan, and you can grow up without one. All you have to do is know the truth and declare it where Agritakh can hear.” He looked Riaag right in the eye, that contact challenging but still comforting in his own way. “Worked for you, didn’t it?”

It had, actually, and while it’d been a while before he’d believed it himself there was no question his god knew who and what he was, as surely as He Who Sleeps knew the heartbeat of each of His priests. It had been Sarouth who’d asked his name and taken him for an adult, as wretched as Riaag had been with a zit-pocked face and hair still ragged from the most recent time he’d been forced to cut it, and it had been Sarouth who’d informed him that if he lacked a deed name, the easiest way to fix that was to just pick one and figure out how well it fit from there. This metamorphosis had felt nothing short of miraculous at the time (and maybe it was, a little bit, since Riaag’s wounds had been the only ones Sarouth had managed to staunch all the way, and Riaag’s eyes were the only pair among his fallen bandmates that ever opened again). There was just one problem. “Won’t that make ‘im get sick if’n he gives carrion a nibble, though?”

“I’m sure he’d figure something out, if he wanted to follow the Hill God badly enough. Maybe he’d discover an elixir that would toughen up his guts against His sacred food, maybe he’d learn to build up a tolerance if he only had tiny bits at a time. Maybe he just wouldn’t eat it at all. Some people don’t! They’re still orcs, last time I checked.”

Riaag chewed on the idea as he chewed on one of the dumplings he’d claimed as his own. It did make sense: Agritakh called for His children to look upon the world with wonder, but He didn’t get too pissy if someone was blind, and while He asked for song and good music, He wasn’t going to ignore those who lacked the gift of speech. If you didn’t stop being an orc if you lost your tusks, you presumably weren’t prevented from being an orc in the first place just because you lacked them. It likely wasn’t as nice and simple as Sarouth made it sound—this didn’t exactly effect him, after all, since being an avatar of a deity gave you a very particular form of self-assuredness—but it felt like a good piece of base material for Riaag to carry around. He’d just think about it and pick at the idea little by little over time, same as he always did. Who knew what kind of sculpture he’d find himself holding at the end?

“So! Did that answer your question?”

He nodded. “Sure did, Holy One. Thanks.” He ladled some hot broth over his rice and topped it with the vegetable fry-up he’d been practicing of late; with luck this time there would be something closer to the right amount of broccoli. “I does got another’n in me, though.”

“I’m all ears, disciple of mine.”

Riaag brandished the serving tongs and gestured between Sarouth and the now even emptier pot. “How in the fuck didja manage ter snake more ‘a them things when I were lookin’ right atcha?”

“The Void touches us all in the most mysterious of ways,” said Sarouth, and no matter how menacingly Riaag clacked the tongs at him he just wouldn’t stop laughing.

Riaag had been sweeping the tent of dinnertime crumbs when he came across the fallen star again. They’d cleaned it of any evidence it had once brought down celestial justice at the behest of the very ground itself; now it was so much raw, twisted metal in a velvet bag, and he put down his broom in favor of holding the star for a while. He marveled at it. Riaag had worked with meteoric steel before, but to hold something so pure and potent in his own hands filled him with a sense of potential he imagined graced Ayyisha and her lot whenever they took up their glass scrying orbs. It wasn’t much to look at now, but it had done great things, and in time (and with a lot of effort) it would no doubt become something astonishing.

As if in response to a patch of potent symbolism, Sarouth chose that moment to wake up from his most recent nap. He groaned wearily. “Hello, brave warrior,” he croaked in a sleep-roughened voice. “Find something nice while you were tidying up?”

“Yeah, I’s lookin’ right at ‘im,” said Riaag. He smiled. Sarouth didn’t return it. That was bound to still happen now and again, so Riaag continued with his civilities. “Feelin’ any better after a rest? You ain’t needed ter go down fer so often, nor fer so long, so at least on the outside that seems good.”

“I’m good enough, I suppose,” he said. “I’m just worried about Valin.”

“Where is she, anyway? Last I saw she were, y’know, mapped out, ‘n I wrapped it up fer her.” 

Sarouth stretched. “She’s around. I told her to meet up with me in the commons tomorrow to see some god-speaker duties up close and personal, but she’s still a bit wild at heart. She’s going to acclimate best if she’s still able to roam a little. It’ll do for now.”

“So why worry? Sounds like she’s doin’ okay.”

“I worry because adjusting to being an Agritakh-ruhd sucks, and just because I can help make things less bad for her doesn’t mean they’re actually good.” He finally sat up, though he kept his blankets wrapped close around himself. “Right now all I can do is let her exist on her own terms and wait for tomorrow. It’s the waiting that kills me.”

That was a feeling Riaag knew all too well. He wrapped up the star and put it away before sitting down on a nearby cushion. “That new amulet ‘a hers took, right? She’s gonna need time alone ter see how well it works, anyway, ‘n how well she can get by without hearin’ more voices in her head than she ought,” he said.

“I guess so,” said Sarouth.

“Well, there you go. It’s like pottery in a kiln, ain’t it? You just gotta set things up the best you can ‘n then leave it the fuck alone fer a while, ’cause peekin’ in is likely ter ruin it all no matter how good it was goin’ afore.”

Sarouth cracked a smile. “I should’ve known I was in for trouble when I fell in with a skald,” he said.

“All manner ‘a ructions most pernicious,” agreed Riaag. “So go ahead ‘n rest up, why not. You deserve some time ter yerself, too.”

“Ugh. I’m done sleeping for now. It feels like that’s all I do these days and I’m sick of it.”

“A’ight, then.” Riaag opened his arms and beckoned to Sarouth. “C’mere.”

This earned him some raised eyebrows. “For what?”

“You’s gonna get loved on is what.”

Sarouth slouched himself against Riaag, still trailing blankets. “If you insist,” he said, his voice playful but still so weary.

“Yeah, I does insist,” said Riaag. “You ain’t been yerself. I’s the last person what’s gonna say you cain’t feel suchly, but you gotta know I still wanna be with you even if you ain’t in the right place ter be the Sarouth we both know. I’s still here, ain’t I?” He eased Sarouth’s hood down, touched the tips of his claws against the underside of Sarouth’s chin, and guided their eyes to one another’s. “I’s seen you lowly afore. I’s known you so long, how couldn’t I? Maybe it’s not as bad as it looks ter me. Maybe it’s the worst it’s ever been. No matter what’s true, no matter what ain’t, cain’t say I fucken care ter the specificity ‘a said woes, save that I knows you’s hurtin’, ‘n I’s inclined ter ease that hurt.”

“Riaag, my darling, you’re so sweet I can barely stand it,” said Sarouth with another tired laugh. He exhaled a long, shuddering breath through his nose. “I still say I feel like I’m doing a bad job of being the Faaroug you deserve.”

Riaag nuzzled the side of Sarouth’s neck, careful to keep his beard soft where it touched against skin. Sarouth shivered. “You don’t gotta feel like the same man what got dragged inter the tower. You’s just gotta be you. Bein’ Sarouth White-Hair is way more fucken important than tryin’ ter act like some puffed-up idea ‘a what you think he gotta be.”

A filed-down claw tapped against the bridge of his nose. “How’d you get so smart?”

“Learned it by sittin’ at the feet ‘a the Faaroug hisself, I reckon.”

“Wow, what an asshole. Tell him to stop filling your head with wisdom or I’m going to start feeling overshadowed.” Sarouth laughed at his own joke, which was the best sign Riaag had seen out of him in days. “Never ceases to amaze me how we’ve ended up where we are today. You’re everything I could ever want and more. Sometimes I still can’t imagine how I ended up the same for you.”

“Yeah,” said Riaag. Why someone wouldn’t assume anyone would leap at the chance to have a man so handsome and kind for themselves he’d never know, though perhaps years of being bad at being with people had colored Sarouth’s opinions of himself, more’s the pity. He held Sarouth close. There was still so much tension coiling under those robes of his that Riaag was dying to ease, and he suspected he knew the perfect way to do so. “You know what I’s wantin’, right this instant?” he asked.

“Hm?”

“Right now, I wanna be with you. Don’t care how. Don’t gotta be involved, neither, if’n you’s mostly feelin’ somethin’ all gentle ‘n easy, I just wanna make you feel good, ‘n help you remember somebody—somebody name ‘a Riaag Bough-Breaker, just in case you fergot—loves you no matter what.” 

Sarouth chuckled. “Well, if you insist,” he said, and undid the top fastener of his robes.

The room was still toasty warm—Riaag had topped up the firepots earlier in his chore routine—so there was only the slightest discomfort as they shed their clothes to curl up with one another under the blankets. It was a little bit like cuddling inside a very big cocoon. Sarouth, his sacred eye tucked safely behind a bit of spare bandaging, sprawled against Riaag like a lizard on a rock. How long had it been since he’d looked this comfortable? How long since that knot between his shoulders had started to pull itself loose again? Too long in both cases, definitely.

Riaag nosed Sarouth’s head up and went in for another bewhiskered nuzzle. Sarouth wriggled. He was probably still mentally spent, no matter his current mood, so it was therefore Riaag’s duty to make sure good things happened to Sarouth as frequently as possible for the rest of the near future. He held Sarouth in place just so, ensuring that it would be difficult to get up to anything sexy without either Riaag easing up on the pressure or Sarouth instigating a proper grapple, either of which would set the mood for the rest of their time together that evening. When Sarouth made a grab for Riaag’s cock (which was having a fine night out so far in spite of its limited attention) Riaag held him close and still.

“You remember how this game works, doncha?” he asked. “You’s able ter get whatever you like when we’s tergether like this.” He lowered his voice to a gentle rumble, itself an echo of a certain smoky purr he’d never get tired of hearing. “All you gotta do is ask me fer it.”

“It’s not fair,” said Sarouth, still pinned, though he sounded happy about this particular injustice. The context made it pretty clear what all he’d found cause for complaint.

As always, Riaag played along. He breathed, warm and teasing, against the spot of flesh his beard had primed. “What ain’t?”

“You’re too good at that. Do you know how dangerous someone as delightful as you can be with even a little confidence behind them? I’ve created a monster.”

“Uh-huh. That’s me, a terror most maleficent.” Riaag nipped at the tip of Sarouth’s ear. “Somebody’s gotta keep your fool ass in line, after all.”

“How dare you do the ear thing while I can’t easily reciprocate.”

Riaag chuckled. “What ear thing? Y’mean this…?” He ran his tongue along the outside curve of Sarouth’s ear, gently rasping it from lobe to nibbled tip. The pleased groan this inspired went directly to Riaag’s crotch with pinpoint accuracy. How upon the earth itself did Sarouth manage guiding things so effortlessly without getting so horny he passed out? Maybe it was the sort of thing that came with practice.

What would Sarouth usually do next? Ah, right, gently nudge Riaag towards making a choice for himself. “How ’bout it, then? Whatever you want” —within reason, he mentally amended, as saying that out loud might disrupt the mood— “so long as you gives word ter it.”

Sarouth closed his eyes and leaned into Riaag. “Touch me,” he said. “Take me in your hand and kiss me until I’m satisfied.”

“Knowin’ yer appetites, I reckon that might be whole eons away,” said Riaag.

“Only one way to find out, hm?”

The nice thing about Sarouth having such small, oddly-facing tusks (aside from the fact that they looked quite charming on him) was that they fit nicely into the space between Riaag’s own, which made kissing quite an experience provided they didn’t lose themselves in the moment to such an extent they locked against one another. They took their time before so much as slipping a bit of tongue in either direction. When had they last had the chance to kiss so leisurely? It couldn’t have been as long ago as towerfall, surely, but perhaps they’d both had so much to do the time had gotten away with them. There were still so many tasks to do and people to help, even now, so small wonder it’d been so easy for Sarouth to retreat inside himself until he lost the way back out.

As Sarouth had requested more than just kissing, Riaag placed one hand against the small of Sarouth’s back and used the other to cup his balls. They were big hands, well-suited to hard labor and warfare, but their fingers were skilled enough to thread his own embroidery floss, their touch soft just as easily as it could be iron. Sarouth’s skin was so delicate here, so full of subtle little wrinkles. In calmer times Riaag had once spent an entire afternoon just getting to know what part of Sarouth’s anatomy and how best to touch him there. He squeezed, gently, and Sarouth sighed into his mouth. A clever cook knew when to first season the pot.

He slid his hand up to take Sarouth by the base. This part was even warmer than his balls had been; if Riaag concentrated, he could feel a heartbeat thudding faintly against his fingertips. Riaag pressed the crook of his thumb up against the underside of Sarouth’s shaft and leisurely pulled upwards until he reached the glans, whereupon with a flick of his wrist he pulled all the way back down to the root again. It was the sort of stroke usually reserved for the end of things, when he needed to be sure Sarouth had been milked completely dry, and Sarouth noticed this as well given how firmly his tongue entered Riaag’s mouth in response. 

Riaag insisted on keeping to the lazy, backwards pace as Sarouth tried to urge him on with ever-fiercer kisses. Sometimes an impatient growl slipped up Sarouth’s throat and out through his nose. It wasn’t long before each upwards stroke found a little spot of precome beading up like masculine dew at the tip of Sarouth’s cock; Riaag swiped his thumb over this to make his hand a little slicker but otherwise pretended to pay it no mind. Even with the odd buck of Sarouth’s hips into his hand, Riaag knew neither of them were likely to go anywhere without the go-ahead to speed up. Without that? The stimulation would surely melt away so much of that stress just by giving it somewhere more productive to go. He could keep this up as long as Sarouth needed it. Forever, if need be.

It turned out forever was not going to be necessary that day. Sarouth took Riaag’s face in his hands and kissed so hard it was almost painful before he pulled away. “More,” he said, though it came out as half a snarl. Were Riaag in the same place he would have begged, pleading for mercy from a capricious being who’d toy with him endlessly if the mood struck, his tongue straining to string words together in a coherent enough order to ask for the gift of release. Sarouth was not Riaag: he didn’t beg, he demanded. Riaag had not expected to find this as hot as he did. This was the kind of order that made a man want to bear his throat (and everything else) in hopes of having the privilege of being claimed. It burned with a hunger that could not be slaked, save perhaps by someone willing to submit to every one its bottomless carnal needs, such as certain oathbound heralds who apparently weren’t jerking off certain avatars fast enough. Little was more true to Sarouth’s nature than his ability to be utterly in control even if he’d passed the torch to someone else.

That said, there was still decorum to uphold. “Well, since you’s askin’ so nice ‘n all….”

He pressed them together, length to length, and stroked them both at once, his wrist moving faster and faster until Sarouth’s blunted claws pressed into the flesh of Riaag’s chest and there was nowhere left to go but a glorious finish.

They did not come together—while possible, it required far more care and timing than he had a mind to invest right now—but it was close enough, with Sarouth spilling first in time with a whisper of Riaag’s name, and Riaag, inspired by that sound and by the warmth of the come spattered against his skin, following soon after. It was not earth-shattering, nor mind-blowing. It had not redefined paradigms the way their best sex could. What it was was comfortable, and casual, and easy as taking one another by the hand, an act as cozy as the blankets beneath which they still huddled. Riaag didn’t even mind not being able to immediately tend to his sticky front. For what all they’d been through and where all they were now? To him, it may as well have been perfect.

In time his breath returned. “Wanna go again?”

Sarouth kissed his cheek, the elemental hunger in him having faded once more into sweetness and smiles. “I do indeed. First, though, I think I’d like to rest in your arms a while. Don’t want to trip on the first step on the long road to recovery, now do I?”

“T’would be most unfortunate indeed,” agreed Riaag, and as they settled down to see where the night took them there was nothing else that needed to be said.

The horse’s eyes tracked Riaag as he drew closer to where it was tied. They were a lighter brown than most horse eyes he’d encountered, and the pupils were rounder, not the bar-shaped ones he was used to. Maybe that was what you got in the mix when you bred a beast to tolerate an orc on its back? Breeding aside, what was he even expected to do with this thing? Merchants rode on horseback all the time (when they weren’t riding on camels, or donkeys, or whatever else let them clamber on up), so in theory it was doable, and yet all the theory in the world couldn’t breach the gap between the part where Riaag was on the ground and the part where Riaag was seated in the strange-looking leather seat the horse had strapped about its midsection. What was the word, again? Saddle? Whatever it was, Riaag wasn’t sure how to get himself into it, and that was going to be a problem.

He stayed well away from the horse’s hooves as he circled it. Looking at a problem from multiple angles usually bore fruit for him, even if so far the only knew information he’d found was the shape of the horse’s ass; just being near it was hopefully enough for it to learn he meant it no harm (or rather, that he was supposed to want it no harm, since it still smelled too delicious for its own good), which he hoped would be progress in its own way.

Riaag had some familiarity with feeding livestock just because of how many chores he did around the stronghold, which meant he’d arrived with some purple lengths of raw carrot to make his case. He held one out to the horse by the greens. In response to this the horse showed its teeth to him. Was that good? He kept a firm hand on the carrot as the horse crunched its way closer and closer to his fingers; he let go once it drew perilously near to his glove. Animals were supposed to learn to associate you with food and security, so the beastmasters said, but Riaag only had ten fingers to his name, and he had plans for all ten of them. It probably wouldn’t do to teach it to associate him with food in that way, either.

A glance over at Sarouth revealed him to be giving the same carrot trick a try. He let the horse’s lips brush up against his hand before letting go of the greens. Trust a god-speaker to be reckless, Riaag supposed, and then Sarouth proved him even more right by giving the horse a rub on its whiskered nose. By some miracle he didn’t get mauled. He made to touch the side of its snout and it shied away, still crunching. Sarouth made soothing sounds in his throat and tried to touch it again. They repeated this back-and-forth until he gave in and offered it another carrot. He looked elated. Riaag tried, and failed, to be annoyed with this.

“Look! Steady progress works!” said Sarouth, even as his horse pulled away again.

The loud, raspy rumble Riaag’s own horse made made him flinch. It knew his intentions and was therefore plotting his death. There was no other explanation. “You sure ’bout that?”

Sarouth brandished a fistful of something leafy and green in his horse’s direction. “They’re not going to do what we want just because we ask nicely, you know. You have to get these things to trust you.”

“I’s trustin’ it’d taste mighty fine with turnips ‘n garlic,” grumbled Riaag.

“No eating. These special horses were a terror to get out here, you know.” He chuckled. “I figure if we spend a few days feeding them they’ll let us lead them around by their bridles soon enough.”

Riaag frowned. “Why’s we got all this shit strapped ter ’em if we ain’t plannin’ ter actually ride terday?” It was hardly the strongest of complaints, since the longer he could delay having to actually saddle up the happier he’d be. He’d practiced his rider’s posture on a raised log and the results had been less than delightful.

“They have to get used to it too, right? They’ve never lived among orcs like this before. If we can make as many things feel comfortable to them as we can, it’ll be an easier time for everybody.” Sarouth reached in for another pet, which his horse avoided. “Soon we’ll be best of friends. Imagine what we’ll be capable of then!”

The possibilities were not exactly endless: either they’d eventually end up on horseback or they wouldn’t. Were they expecting to impress people? Riaag had never been all that interested in impressing merchants on any terms other than his own, which had worked out all right, and aside from just being taller than everyone else (which he tended to manage with both feet on the ground, thank you very much) he was at a loss to how it’d help on the battlefield. Wouldn’t they be bigger targets that way? Could they trust these twice-damned animals not to trample friend and foe alike in an orgy of violence? How did they expect reins to work if you had an axe in one hand and a shield in the other, anyway? This was going to be one long case of learning everything the hard way.

He made a face and held out his last carrot. Some people were brittle and skittish until you earned their trust; he had absolutely no proof that animals worked by the same logic, but Sarouth would be upset if he didn’t at least try. No, not upset, disheartened. Disappointment would’ve implied Sarouth had found his opinion of Riaag dimmed, while disheartened? That would just be him being a little sad that someone else hadn’t been able to enjoy something nice. The stupid horse was a vile creature that Riaag was prepared to hate with every ounce of marrow in his bones and with Agritakh as his witness he would learn to ride the thing, because the alternative would be making the world just a little less delightful for Sarouth, which was inexcusable.

The horrible horse finished its snack and stared at Riaag expectantly. Its eyes were angled more towards the front of its face than a normal horse’s were, which hopefully meant it wouldn’t get startled like a wild horse would if someone got too close to it without coming in from the side first. That sounded pretty useful, actually. Riaag tried to reach out to pet it the way he’d seen Sarouth manage, which resulted in the thing moving away from him again. He sighed. Teaching it to let him take it by the bridle was going to take a lot of work. Did the stronghold even have enough vegetables stored up to change the thing’s mind? These things had no idea how lucky they had it due to the bumper crop the stronghold’s gardens had given forth that year. At least Riaag could meditate on the wonders of His soil and the green things growing within it instead of how pissed off he was getting at this wicked sack of meat and horsehair that just would not let him touch it.

“What kind of name are you thinking of for yours?” asked Sarouth as Riaag made another fruitless grab for the bridle’s dangling lead.

“We’s namin’ them?” Names were for pets. The beastmasters Riaag had known could stretch the definition of pet as fine as candied honey, which he’d previously assumed only got as strange as moths, crickets, or toads. Who on the earth kept a horse as a pet? He and Sarouth now did, apparently.

Sarouth scoffed. “Of course we’re naming them! That’s a thing you do with horses. We’re going to have to figure out how to make a riding tradition for our people from scratch, so we should start with what we know works for other people and figure out how we can tweak things from there.”

Tweaking ideas for their own uses had yielded a thriving walled stronghold, there was no denying that, but nobody expected him to put a saddle on that wall after they’d finished building it. “You can call yers whatever you want, Holy One, but I’s good as I is.”

“Tch, I’m sure you’ll come around,” said Sarouth as his horse began to chew at the end of his ponytail. “If something’s important enough, a good name for it will turn up sooner than later. Maybe you two will even be bosom buddies by then! Won’t that be nice?”

“Yeah, yeah….”

Riaag took another swipe at the lead, and this time his glove brushed against it for the briefest of instants before the horse moved out of reach again. At this rate it would be sundown by the time he could make a complete fist around the rope and make to point the creature anywhere. Sundown was better than never, though, and the work he did today made for an easier path in the future. If standing in a paddock trying to touch a horse’s snout for a few days was what would unlock greater prestige for the Rhoanish people, then so he’d stand, forever pursuing a terrible animal that kept slowly walking away from him. At least it made Sarouth happy.

Maybe someday he’d learn if there was any value to this riding nonsense after all.

The sun was bright and the snow had actually thinned in places, so when Yiineth and a few of her band came to the public meeting place at the base of the tower they were met with a bustling crowd. Riaag, who was busy overseeing some people awkwardly trying to drive the new flock of geese from one pen to another, waved to her when he spotted her. She waved back and headed towards him.

“Good morning, Bough-Breaker,” she said once they were within speaking range. “We received the runner you sent to us, though they didn’t say much of why you wanted me here.”

“Mornin’ ter you, Maple-Fall. We’s had luck with dealin’ with that little wisp what were troublin’ you.”

She nodded. “Nobody in the band has noticed anything strange since you said you’d take care of it. Do you know what it was?”

“Seems y’all had yerselves a li’l tag-along. Here they come,” he added, having spotted Sarouth’s hood approaching them through the crowd.

When Sarouth arrived he was not alone, as at his side was a now significantly tidier Valin. Only half of her face was shrouded beneath her hair, itself now trimmed and somewhat tamed, and her clothes more or less fit. The hints of a bandage poked out beneath her right sleeve. Even after all the cleaning and Agritakh-ruhd initiations she’d sat through she still carried herself with a partly feral air. She held onto one of the trailing ends of Sarouth’s sash like she was expecting to be pulled away with great, sudden force.

“T’were somethin’ quite the opposite ‘a ghosts, turns out,” said Riaag. He gestured from Yiineth to Valin. “Behold, the newest ‘a His god-speakers.”

“I’m honored, Holy One,” said Yiineth with a bow.

Valin pressed her lips together and glanced up at Sarouth with uncertainty on her fierce little face. “Is this normal?”

“For our kind? More or less,” said Sarouth. “Now tell her thank you, and that you’re sorry for nicking things from her band.”

Valin sighed. She pulled herself up to her full height of still shorter than everyone else and said, to nobody in particular, “Thanks. Sorry.”

Sarouth nudged her with his elbow. “You’re going to have to do better than that, squirt.”

Ugh,” said Valin. “Fine. Sorry I stole things from you,” she said, now addressing Yiineth directly. “I’m gonna work with White-Hair to make sure you get the food back. Or something. I’m still learning how this works.”

“Of course, Holy One,” said Yiineth with another bow. If she took issue with needing to address an actual child so formally, she certainly didn’t show it. “We’ll be staying here for a while longer so we’ll have plenty of opportunity to replenish what was lost. Thank you, ah…what did you say I should call you, again?”

Riaag waited until he was sure Valin didn’t know how to respond to that before he cut in. “You’s in the presence ‘a one Valin, priest ‘a His Chant, a girl ‘a our people,” he said in his herald’s voice. “She’s got the whole ‘a her lifetime ter find her own deeds in His service.” You didn’t always need to be so prim and proper when introducing someone without a deed name, especially to an adult, and Riaag had only ever been introduced to young god-speakers who’d already taken one, but Valin was having enough of a time adjusting to her new role (and her new amulet, which Sarouth had been tweaking for her since they determined she needed one) that he figured she could do with the boost.

“Thank you, Valin who is holy. May you learn His wisdom that you might someday teach it to us.” Yiineth turned to Riaag. “Was that all you needed from us, Bough-Breaker?”

“More ‘r less. Also wanted ter make sure y’all had plenty ‘a medicine afore you head out once more, I know some ‘a them babies is still right itsy-bitsy ‘n cain’t always shrug off the same ills older folks can, ‘specially on the move.”

“Oh! Yes, if there’s any to spare, we’ll be happy to take some….”

He chatted with her and her band a little, all the while keeping one eye on Sarouth and Valin as they walked across the grounds. Riaag went to catch up with them once he’d bid Yiineth a fine day; even if Sarouth hadn’t had his staff with him, it would’ve been easy to spot the patch of black and red in amongst the mingling Azrhics, A few strides was all it took to close the distance, though this ended him up in the middle of a conversation he wasn’t sure if he should’ve been hearing.

“But what if they’re untouchable?” asked Valin in response to something he hadn’t caught.

“Fear of each other means fear of ourselves,” said Sarouth, firmly. “What do you see when you come across someone who wears the paint? Do you see someone who’s done wrong, or struggles under the weight of others’ sins, and who must stay there forever? Or do you see someone who can be whole again?”

“Uh…I don’t know…?”

Sarouth eased off a little. “Better to admit it to yourself and others than to labor in ignorance,” he said. When he saw Riaag he brightened. “Speaking of becoming whole again, here’s Riaag. Hello again, you.”

Riaag took Sarouth’s hands in his own and gave him a peck on the lips. “Hi, Holy One. You two havin’ a debate?”

“He says he’s gonna purify the dirty ones down in the side camp,” said Valin. She sounded like she couldn’t decide if she was tattling on a playmate or sharing a dreadful secret. He wasn’t sure how he felt about her using the wrong term for the unclean, but given that she’d presumably been living the last few months (or more than months) of her life trapped in her own head without a band to help, he was willing to cut her a break when it came to social graces.

“T’would be a thing he does, yeah. Ain’t like I’s the only one he’s cleansed in such a manner.”

She goggled at him. “You were unclean?”

“You think I speaks in such a manner ’cause a whim bit me one day?” replied Riaag, If Valin didn’t know what the blank patches on his clothes meant, maybe she’d been left on her own for longer than anyone realized. Maybe they were lucky she could even talk at all. “I were saved from a life ‘a great despair by his doin’, ‘n His, ‘n so I’s keen ter spend my days seein’ others get that same chance, should they be truly wantin’ ter become more’n they was afore the paint. Speakin’ ‘a which, looks like Iron-Finder’s comin’ yer way, Holy One, ‘n he’s a bundle ‘a folks with him. Reckon we’ll soon see us a cleansin’ right here beneath the day.”

It was as Riaag said: Oakeht headed towards them at a calm but steady pace, several paint-bearing unclean following in his stead. They were given a wide berth. It looked as though Sarouth was gearing up to welcome them with open arms for a spontaneous ceremony when one of them—the woman who’d shown him around, Riaag noted—ended up accosted by yet another familiar face before the patchwork group could reach their destination.

“You!” shouted Dzedekh. Riaag noted that she only dared to come so close to the unclean woman. “You had your eye on my crystal, didn’t you? What did you do with it?”

Riaag placed a hand on Dzedekh’s shoulder and pulled her back from the cringing unclean. “Thought we done talked this o’er, Clay-Spinner,” he said. This didn’t seem like the same Dzedekh that he’d met before. What could have gotten into her? Worse, was this what she was actually like when not trying to impress a god-speaker?

She pulled out of his grasp. “Don’t touch me,” she growled. She pointed an accusing finger at the unclean woman, who had yet to say anything in her defense. “This outcast took something of mine, and I expect to see it returned to me! Or is this whole place so addled it doesn’t understand justice anymore?”

This definitely didn’t sound like Dzedekh, given how when they last parted it was in the wake of newfound compassion for those who wore the paint. Were Valin’s phantoms contagious? That couldn’t be it, but it was the only thing that might’ve accounted for such an outburst. “How ’bout you take a moment ter cool down some, so’s we can explain what’s actually gone on,” said Riaag, having placed himself bodily between Dzedekh and the target of her ire. “Seems like you’s got some fire in yer head. Might be worth discussin’ what might spark such a powerful flame outta nowhere. It’s such a nice mornin’, too….”

She was livid in her reply. “Nice has nothing to do with it! Tell this wretch to give me what’s mine or I’ll cut it out of her hide!” Others wearing her same colors began to draw near, their expressions as dark as her own. Riaag’s eyes spotted at least two weapon-ready tools in their hands and who knew how many hidden knives or bludgeons. This promised to get very ugly very quickly. “And if you keep protecting her,” continued Dzedekh, “I’ll take apart every brick in Yun Azrha until you see reason! I’ll burn the tents! I’ll tear down the walls! I’ll—”

“You’ll do no such thing,” said Sarouth, and he let the vastness of his demigodhood make itself known.

Riaag was used to it, of course, but the typical person usually wasn’t prepared to be overawed by a god-speaker’s unveiled sense of self, and he had it on good authority that it hit like a bucket of cold water to the face and a punch in the gut at the same time. A gift from Agritakh, it was a mirror of the true nature of His priests; the Chant spoke of how it made fierce warlords lay down their arms to hear His word, and Riaag had certainly seen his share of jackals fall to their knees in supplication once they recognized Sarouth for what he was. It felt like bad form to do this sort of thing in the middle of a busy commons, though, and Riaag was grateful Yiineth had already cleared out. As terrifying as a god-speaker could be to a typical person, it was so much worse for children.

Valin squinted. “Weird,” she said, refusing to let go of Sarouth’s sash. There were worse ways to describe how everyone within a set radius of Sarouth (god-speakers and Riaag excluded) was now either on their knees or fully prostrate, their lips moving in prayers of fear and love.

“Sorry ’bout this, folks,” said Riaag to those parts of the crowd that hadn’t been overawed into submission. “We’s just handlin’ a bit ovva situation. Things’ll be back ter normal in just a bit. Got the Faaroug right here ter take care of it ‘n ever’thing.” This seemed enough to ease the rest of the commons back to cautious life. Riaag relaxed slightly. Handling Agritakh-ruhd runoff was so much easier when people were willing to listen to his claims. Thank goodness he’d spent so long establishing his character as a trustworthy one!

“As for you, Valin,” said Sarouth, “I think you have something of Clay-Spinner’s.”

“What? But she’s mean!”

The flick of Sarouth’s head twitched his veil much the same the way his forelock used to toss. “I gave her that quartz from my staff as a gift, to reflect on how she can change and grow. She clearly needs to do plenty more of both. Hand it over.”

Scowling, Valin rummaged in her carryall, pulled out the sparkling crystal, and thrust her hand at Dzedekh where she lay in the snow. “Guess this isn’t mine,” she grumbled.

Dzedekh accepted the prize meekly. Sarouth looked down at her with a disapproving quirk of his lips. He nudged her hand with the butt of his staff and studied the clumps of dirt and clay there; she’d clearly been digging recently, but given how thoughtfully he studied the mess it apparently was different from any other time a potter would go look for raw materials. “I think a leftover part of the tower got into you, Clay-Spinner,” he said. “That’s my fault for not seeing this place made as safe as it must, but you and I are going to need to have a talk later about the shit you pulled today, and whether that’s inadvertently planted some seeds in anyone else’s heart. I also expect you to show me where you were working so I can purify whatever it is you unearthed. Keep your quartz, since it is yours. You’re going to make reparations in other ways.”

He stepped back and pulled his hand across the top of his hood, then exhaled with a buzz of his lips. He looked about at the Azrhics and unclean still groveling in the snow. “So,” he said, his hand on his hip. “Does anyone else feel like trying to be a little turd today, or can I go about doing what I was planning on getting done?”

Valin peeked out from behind him at the stricken crowd. “What’d you do?

“Oh, that? Think of it like pulling the curtain away from the truth of yourself to let people get a good look at what lies beneath,” said Sarouth. “It’s not something to do lightly. Evoking your godhood has a strong effect on people. They’re either going to worship the ground you walk on or they’re going to try to kick your ass, and there’s not really space for anything between those two.”

“Bough-Breaker didn’t kneel when you did it.”

“That’s because he’s already devoted to His mysteries with every inch of his being,” said Sarouth with a smile. Riaag chose not to mention that he’d lived through worse, anyway.

Little by little people returned to their feet and brushed off their clothes. Many excused themselves. Some, like Dzedekh, lingered, though they kept a respectful distance from Sarouth. Soon the only ones left there who still had unfinished business were Oakeht and the unclean ones he minded. The latter kept their eyes downcast. Riaag counted half a dozen. He knew for a fact the camp had been a lot bigger than just six and one minder.

“I’ve brought my charges as you asked, White-Hair,” said Oakeht. “Some stayed behind, said they weren’t done repenting. Is that…something you permit, Holy One?” He wrung his hands.

“I can’t force this on those who aren’t yet ready for it,” said Sarouth. “They’ve made their choices. The least I can do is honor them.” He thumped his staff against the ground, making its charms click against one another. “Right!” he said. “Who feels like getting some salvation today?”

The woman who’d first shown Riaag around the camp was the first to raise her hand. Sarouth beckoned and she came within arm’s reach of him, her eyes still looking anywhere but at him. 

“Who stands before me now?” asked Sarouth.

“Gatte does, she who’s one ‘a the unclean,” she said. “Just Gatte. That’s all.”

“And what have you done to be marked so?”

“I…stole somethin’. Lied about it. Did right terrible things ter cover up that lie, ’til I couldn’t  bear the dreadful weight ‘a such a thing no longer.”

Sarouth tucked his staff in the crook of his arm, poured a little oil into his hand from a clay bottle on his belt, then swiped his wetted thumb across Gatte’s cheek to reveal a faint patch of the natural green that lay beneath. “You’re still as green as any of us, and worthy of leaving your sins behind,” he said. “Do you want to walk in His grace again?”

“Yes,” she said, her voice quiet.

He took her by the chin and studied her, his lips moving soundlessly as he did so. For a moment Riaag remembered being on the receiving end of this, of how Agritakh had looked upon the whole of his life at once and made it known to Sarouth, and how harrowing it had been. “Then know that He has seen you, and known your actions, and deemed you one of His own, for he has seen your face though it be hidden,” said Sarouth. “Now then, let’s get you cleaned up and see to your friends. Maybe start picking out some deed names if you haven’t already. I’m sure this is going to be a very big day for the lot of you….”

It proved to be a long and emotional morning that led into an equally long, equally emotional afternoon, and as Riaag watched each face come out of hiding into the loving presence of His avatar, he knew he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Your hair looks great today! Want me to braid it for you?”

Barely a few days into his oath and it felt like there would be no end to unexpected questions like these. Years of reflexes had Riaag primed to refuse, politely but firmly. Years of reflexes were making this whole oathbound business a very frustrating adaptation process, really, and if he was going to get anywhere as someone purified from nose to toes he was going to have to charge into those troublesome instincts headfirst. Sarouth had long since established that there was no such thing as a foolish question or a nonsensical need. Riaag could be brave on the battlefield, and so he’d try to be brave here, too.

“Might look nice, I guess,” he said. “Please don’t pull none if you can help it, okay?” He didn’t have to explain why. That was the nice thing about being with someone he’d known for so long: they’d already had some of the worst conversations, and Sarouth had wanted this anyway. It was like wearing a pair of really well-broken-in boots. Maybe some people didn’t like that kind of customariness, which was their right, he supposed, but Riaag had enough surprises in his life (both past and present) that something stable and familiar provided a badly-needed counterbalance.

Sarouth’s smile grew less broad but lost none of its warmth. “I’ll be as gentle as can be,” he said. “But first, just so you can practice….”

His hand shot out and ruffled the top of Riaag’s head, his fingers teasing out the part in the front that swooped forward and the part in the back that curled up into a cowlick and all the bits between. Riaag couldn’t see himself but he suspected he had quite the bird’s nest now. It was the sort of thing you’d do to a bandmate to make them ask you to groom them back into presentability, the sort of thing Sarouth did all the time before their oath only to be met with Riaag…not really acknowledging it, save to excuse himself soon after to fix his hair himself. Well, they’d just have to make up for lost time. Now all Riaag had to do was figure out how to ask like a normal person. Or at least the closest thing to that he could be.

Deep breaths. Calm heart. People did this every single day, normal and otherwise, so it was something he could learn to do, too. Sarouth wouldn’t have done what he did if he didn’t want to give Riaag that chance. This was just another way to open up and be safely vulnerable, and this time nobody even needed their dick out. “Sarouth,” he began, still unused to speaking so intimately to the most important person in his life, “could I trouble you ter fix up the mess you done made so’s it don’t look like I ain’t got nobody ter look after me?”

“I’d love to,” said Sarouth, and no matter what came next, seeing him able to make a face like that would make it all worth it.

Grooming was supposed to be a social thing. You could do it for anybody, in theory, so long as both parties agreed, and it could be anything from friendly to flirty and a dozen places to either side, and so long as everyone was tidier at the end than they were at the beginning there was no wrong way to do it. The Hill God had told them to tend to the green places, after all. Most unclean, despite having their personhood painted away, at least understood the general idea of the process; Riaag, having been born into sin that he was still reeling from shedding, was going to have to learn how to sit for someone else the hard way. He was probably going to fuck this up. He couldn’t think of any better company to fuck up with, though, so he let himself sit back and feel what it was like to actually be a person to somebody else.

When Sarouth’s hand brushed the nape of his neck it made Riaag startle. This was fine, he reminded himself. This man had touched his dick before and done nothing untoward—and there was nothing untoward about getting jerked off when everyone thought it was a good idea, he was quick to note to his past self—so Sarouth would no doubt show that same care wherever else his fingers went. The seashell comb he held was one Riaag used every day and its teeth bore a familiar pull. Sarouth started at the ends and began to gradually work the comb upwards through the ebon mass a little bit at a time.

The whole oathbound-to-the-Faaroug thing notwithstanding, this was the sort of thing that felt the most unbelievable about his life thus far. He’d been saved from his fate as crow food and his face had been washed clean, both fantastic bounties in and of themselves, but to think that from such lowly origins he’d find purpose, satisfaction, and even love? Preposterous! And yet here he sat with his hands in his lap as an actual, factual cleric hunted for dust and snarls as casually as a child might tidy up a younger sibling before the next call to prayer. This was normal bandmate shit. A band of two was still a band! There was a lot of bad in the world, and a lot of wrong, and a lot of fear, anger, and pain, but it was still possible to share moments like this with another person, and that had to count for something.

The comb hit a snag and Riaag hissed as his whole body tensed up, then went limp. Sarouth stopped immediately. “Ah, fuck, I’m so sorry, Riaag. Are you okay? Should we take a break here?”

“Just…gotta catch my breath…,” said Riaag. He hoped his whisper of a voice was loud enough to be heard over his hammering heartbeat. He gulped for air, then gulped for water when a cup of it pushed against the back of his clenched fist. Just a little tangle. Just a little tug. Nobody was holding him still this time. The only thing happening was someone else wanting to help him look nice. He wiped at his eyes and breathed in time with some counting until the world felt a little bit under control again.

“I don’t know if there’s another knot waiting for me in here,” said Sarouth. “If this doesn’t feel like the right time…?”

“Nah. Just gotta get used ter it. You’s okay if that takes a while, right?”

“Always, my wolf. Always.”

Sure enough, Riaag eventually found the peace of mind needed to nod for Sarouth to continue. He had plenty of time to let his mind wander, given just how much Sarouth was going to need to comb. There had been times during his new life that Riaag’s hair had seen shears, and those were few and far between; as a result it was practically a cloak down his back, and only got worse when wet. He kept meaning to cut it when he could sit on it. That day of future ass-warming grew ever-closer and he kept getting loose hairs wrapped around his cock at the worst of times, but it wasn’t too bad for him to stand, not yet. Maybe he’d ask Sarouth to do the first snip when the time came. It’d certainly be appropriate.

“It’ll be a bit intense at first as I set the weave,” said Sarouth once the initial combing and brush-out were done, “but everything after that part will be easier. You can always change your mind about things if you want. What’s the point of me doing something nice for you if you just feel worse after the fact?”

Riaag gave him a play-grimace. “Holy One, I’s formally askin’ you ter stop faffin’ about ‘n actually do the job you said you was gonna.”

“Well! Got to give my oathbound what he wants, now don’t I?”

“So says the Chant. Prob’ly.”

Riaag got through the intense initial bit by gritting his teeth and squeezing his fists as tightly as he could without cutting himself on his own claws, and just when he thought he was going to need to tap out again the pulling eased up and everything was bearable again. He sighed with relief. Now that the worst of it was over he could think about the way the still-loose parts of each strand felt when they swished against the back of his coat or the way Sarouth’s weaver’s fingers knew exactly how to bundle things together in a fetching pattern. There was always a little bit of pressure on his head, since otherwise the braid would set too sloppy and fall apart in minutes, and Riaag concentrated on learning the way it felt so he could teach himself that this wasn’t anything other than someone paying the good kind of attention to him. Each pass of the pieces was like a note in a song or a scale on an armored coat: one little thing that added up into something bigger. If he just kept his thoughts on those little bits of the pull he’d be fine. Funnily enough, he actually was.

In time that quiet pressure stilled and the weight of his hair moved to fall down across one shoulder. Sarouth passed him a hand mirror. “So? What do you think?” he asked, excitedly.

What Riaag saw in his reflection was a long, thick plait with a few of Sarouth’s hair ornament collection seated into the joins of the strands; if the braid was a person’s back, then the little jewels would mark the bumps of the vertebrae. It wasn’t suitable for hard labor (or rather, the basic weave was, but the jewelry absolutely was not), though it wouldn’t look out of place were he receiving guests or entertaining somewhere that had welcomed him. The part at the front that stuck up was still doing that. He hadn’t realized how the usual way he wore his hair affected the look of his beard; the latter was still as full as ever and still sprung out from his jaw like a brush, but now that the side pieces that framed it had been mostly worked into the plait it looked more…well, he wasn’t sure how it looked. Regal, maybe. Different, absolutely. Not a style for every day, but the more he turned the little bit of polished metal to admire himself, the more he liked what he saw. That this feeling was bound to become more than a passing novelty left a warm, cozy glow in his chest that rivaled basking by the toastiest fire.

This wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t been willing to trust Sarouth, he reminded himself, but it also wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t been willing to become more than what he’d been told he’d ever be. He’d asked for this. Not just the braid (though it was lovely), but this, this thing where he refused to pretend anymore that there would never be anything between them, where he could touch Sarouth’s face with an ungloved hand and wonder at the softness of that sacred cheek without fear he was spoiling everything with his innate foulness. He’d witnessed. He’d wanted. He’d asked. Against all odds and in the face of what should’ve been a really bad idea, he’d received. Praise be upon He Who Sleeps Beneath the Earth, indeed, that such things could find even the lowliest of His faithful.

An old memory stirred in the back of his head, one of Sarouth joking about why Riaag was so tall. Big enough to contain multitudes, huh? After so many years lost to being nothing, maybe it was about time he give being everything a try.

“Well?” asked Sarouth, who was now practically shimmying in place with anticipation.

Riaag grinned into the mirror. “Reckon it’ll do.”

In another week’s time, the thaw came.

Ravens bearing messages had been soaring away from Yun Azrha since practically the moment the first snowmelt dribbled on bare ground, so once Even Night had passed and the weather had taken a definite turn for the warmer Sarouth was already full of news and plans for what he’d do once they returned home. He’d blessed what felt like every inch of the place thrice over. When he wasn’t preparing to hand Yun Azrha over to the next people in line—having long since chosen Lakvo and Kedda to jointly bear that burden, said responsibility being part of why both had stayed in the settlement for so long in the first place—Sarouth had been teaching Valin as much god-speaker business as she’d let him stuff between her ears. She clung to him like a burr during daylight hours and vanished after sundown. Riaag had yet to figure out where she went, but as she seemed to be eating well and never showed up too unkempt he supposed she was making do.

Everything was packed to go and the horses were loaded for bear. Normally on a long trip like this they’d have left as close to sunrise as they could manage to make the most of the short days; in Yun Azrha’s case, the longer they stayed the more they’d find that needed doing, and at the end of the day this was not their home. Between the stockpiles of supplies and the promise of another group of traders or two over the coming weeks the remaining Azrhics were set. There was still too much of the tower left (and Riaag still hated to turn his back on it), but that was a job for many more months, if not entire years. Things were in about as good a state as they’d ever be. It was finally time to pull free the poultice and go.

Of course, just because they were ready to return to Naar Rhoan didn’t mean they’d be returning in the same state in which they’d left.

“Ain’t you worried the new look’ll sit off with folks?” asked Riaag as he triple-checked all the buckles on Stupid Horse’s tack.

“I’ve chosen not to worry about it. It’s not like I can reach back through the hours and get that fucknut not to nearly shave my head,” said Sarouth. He rested his staff across his shoulders and shrugged. “It’ll take us time to ride back, anyway, and my hair does grow fast. Who knows how long it’ll be by the time we’re back home again? Maybe I’ll even let you even up the ends.”

Riaag nodded. “Reckon it makes enough sense. Thinkin’ you’ll keep that hood you’s wearin’ as ‘a late?”

“I might. People like hoods on priests, after all. Makes us look more mystical.” Sarouth laughed, soft and a little rueful. “And I think it’ll be a fine way to bear a scar without unmaking who I am at my core. I can live with parts of my namesake having to settle for simply fluffing out around my face instead of properly draping it.”

“Cain’t be easy, havin’ yer fucken deed name compromised in such a fashion.”

Earlier in their stay those words might have gutted Sarouth, or at least encouraged him to withdraw into himself and escape into the Labyrinth in a desperate attempt to find a self he knew again. Now? Well, he clearly wasn’t happy to be reminded, but he brushed it off as effortlessly as one might a fleck of dust on a new coat or a stray hair come loose from its styling. “This is who I am. This is a skin I will live in again. There’s no shame in showing I had to break and renew myself in the name of something greater.”

Would Riaag still go by Bough-Breaker were he to fall so ill he could no longer hold an axe, much less split a log? Would that name fit if he lived long enough to no longer have the strength of arms to wrench apart a tree with his hands alone? He couldn’t be sure until he was living in those very moments himself, but it didn’t feel wrong to wrap himself in past glories during his twilight years. If Sarouth wanted to give his name the same weight now as he had when his tresses spilled past his shoulders, then that sounded right, too.

A dark splotch separated from a shady spot up against the paddock fence and unfolded into Valin, who’d yet to try her luck around the horses again after her experience with Karsta. She kept her distance even as she drew closer to them. Riaag waved to her, but Valin only had eyes for Sarouth.

“You’re really going?” she asked.

Sarouth nodded to her. “We’re not meant to stay here forever,” he replied. “Agritakh has set us—that’s me and Riaag, together, not one or the other—to nurture Naar Rhoan and see it grow strong in His name. This was something of a side-trek for us. Think of it like a favor to a friend.” There were probably less charitable ways to describe charging off into the unknown at the behest of an inanimate object that longed for its captured master, but Riaag was happy to frame the whole mess in polite words like favor.

Valin fidgeted with her clothes over where she wore her amulet. “Nobody here can teach me god-speaker stuff,” she said.

“Probably not, no.”

“I don’t want to go,” she said, firmly, glancing from Sarouth to Riaag and back again as though daring them to disagree. She dug her heels into the mud to emphasize this point. “You can’t make me, not even if you really want to.” They’d talked about this possibility, Sarouth and Riaag had, and discussed the pros and cons of leaving a god-speaker at the mercy of whatever fate she could weave for herself. The amulets went a long way, but they hadn’t made her not sick; like Riaag, she’d always have to be on watch for the part of her head that was all too eager to spread lies across her thoughts like a man sowing weeds in a field of rye. In the end, it boiled down to them both wanting to give her what they, and their god, had never really had: a choice.

“Don’t matter much what I’s wantin’,” said Riaag. “I cain’t force nothin’ on nobody.”

She squinted at him. They’d yet to figure out what to make of each other; Valin didn’t seem to trust anyone other than Sarouth most of the time, and while she tolerated Riaag’s presence since he and his oathbound were so commonly a matched set, she had yet to lose that jittery edge he’d seen when they first met. At least she was still willing to accept gifts of bone chips. “I’m not nobody,” she said.

“He’s right, you know,” said Sarouth. She looked up at him in surprise. “If you decide your place is here in Yun Azrha, then this is where you’re meant to be. You took care of yourself for so long in the middle of winter. You did this all without knowing what was going on inside your head! Imagine what you’ll do now that you know how to make maps and amulets for yourself, eh?”

“Oh.”

“Look at it this way: this far out, you’ll have plenty of room to make a reputation for yourself! Just imagine how impressed people will be once they start knowing you by your deed name.”

The horses snorted and Valin took this as an excuse to relocate just a bit closer to Riaag and his bottomless bag of treats. “How old do you have to be for a one of those, anyway?”

“Old enough fer it ter feel right,” said Riaag. “Comes diff’rent ter ever’body. T’weren’t until I were in my late teens afore I found mine. I’s heard on good authority it don’t require nobody’s say but yer own.”

“Huh.” She continued to toy with her amulet. Riaag understood the urge; it had taken him a little while to stop feeling he was wearing his own. “What if I don’t pick a good one?”

“You’ll pick a good one,” said Sarouth. “And if a different one fits you better later on down the road, that’s when you change it. The sagas are full of things like that. You think Orogaan Scar-Jaw was born with that name?”

Valin considered this. “And it can be anything I want, so long as it fits me? Even if it’s something ugly?”

Riaag nodded. “We’s a people what’s always been proud ter take strength from the damnedest shit,” he said. “That’s the nice thing about ’em, really. You gets ter decide what works best.”

She puffed up with all the dignity she could muster. “Then I say I’m called Valin Mad-Eyes,” she said, and while her fingers still fidgeted awkwardly with her amulet she seemed almost proud to wear it, now. Even if by some impossible feat her phantoms faded she was still very much angry enough to bear that name honestly.

“A pleasure ter meetcha proper, Holy One,” replied Riaag with a formal bow.

“May those eyes of yours forever perceive His glory,” agreed Sarouth. “Perhaps they’ll fall upon Naar Rhoan someday, if you ever decide it’s worthy of your time.”

“Maybe. Thank you for teaching me, Sarouth White-Hair.” Before either of them could say anything more, she was gone, her piercing stare vanishing as suddenly as it’d appeared in their lives. Riaag tried to convince himself it was for the best.

They said what goodbyes needed to be said as they walked their horses to the edge of the settlement, whereupon they turned to give the remains of the tower one final rude gesture for the road. Sarouth kindly didn’t say anything as Riaag insisted on walking sideways with one hand on the satchel that held the fallen star until the worst of that awful silhouette was covered up by the trees. Even after weeks of salvage it was still a hateful gash against the sky. Being in a fully-loaded saddle for the first time in months was the only way it was finally able to sink in that they were headed home.

“If I never sees this fucken place again it’ll be too fucken soon,” said Riaag once they were safely out of range of accidentally insulting someone.

“You and me both!” said Sarouth. He had his mace out, though instead of carrying it in a battle-ready stance he was trying to balance it upright against his palm. This had mixed results. “I miss our bed. I miss our friends. I miss being able to walk out on a clear night to see the corpses on the walls, knowing each one will serve as a perfect warning until Agritakh calls for them to be properly laid to rest. I miss not having to bless every little bury-burrow in case someone’s dug up something nasty again. I miss all my shit. It’s been months since I’ve practiced my harp playing! I’ve probably forgotten it all by now, y’know?”

Riaag grinned. “Guess you’s just gotta relearn it, huh? Ain’t like you know nobody what’s always up ter join you in a duet or nothin’.”

“Terrible and tragic, as we both know I’m damned to forever be a solitary beast.” He chuckled. “Guess I’ll just have to be easy on myself, in that case, even if I have trouble with what used to be easy.”

“Only way it works,” agreed Riaag.

They let their conversation ebb as they dismounted to lead the horses across a snow-bloated stream; after saddling up again it was only a short while before Sarouth thought of a way to kindle it again.

“So what do you think you’ll eat first when we get home? That’s one thing I miss most of all about Naar Rhoan, the food. You did a lovely job with what you had, but for a long time what we had was not that great in the first place.”

Riaag pondered. For the past season he’d tried not to think too much about luxuries that were miles away, but now that they were finally on their way back to his kind of civilization it didn’t feel quite so cruel to tempt himself with wistful notions again. “Pickled piggy paws. I ain’t hardly seen a drop ‘a vinegar fer months what weren’t hidin’ in my own spit, ‘n I bet the ones what got set up this past Harvest is real fucken good by now. I wants some pork I can enjoy without worryin’ if eatin’ it now is meanin’ somebody’s gonna go starvin’ later, ‘n I wants it served with a cup ‘a wine what ain’t the cat piss we’s been endurin’ fer lack ‘a proper grapes.”

“Oh, what a good answer,” said Sarouth. “Me, I’m probably going to ask you to cook me up a whole mess of eggs and barbecue and sauce-fried vegetable and put it all on a big, thick hunk of buttered bread, and once I’ve gobbled up the last crumb I’m going to help myself to a whole jar of carrion that’s had more than a mere two fucking months to ferment.” He licked his lips. “How about your second course? Thought that far ahead yet?”

It was going to be quite a shock coming home and experiencing just how many options they had again. For a man who’d been working in terms of goose eggs and bartered barley for weeks, he was having trouble imagining anything in that hoard of plenty that tempted his tongue as much as a jar of pig’s feet. He’d nearly forgotten that fresh horse would be an option again; given that he was seated atop one, which smelled as tasty as ever, that had to be proof he’d need time to adjust. “Iunno. Maybe a honeyed locust or somethin’. Figs ‘r dates ‘r any such delightful treat.”

“Really? Isn’t that all on the sweet side?”

He shrugged. “Ah, well, y’are whatcha eat, ain’tcha?”

“Hell of a thing to say to someone who’s eaten out your entire asshole on occasion, my darling.”

“But is it wrong?” asked Riaag with a look of fake innocence.

“I am being murdered right out in the open,” wailed Sarouth. “My own oathbound, he does this! Hear me, O Hill God! Witness me, Scavenger Kings! I’m getting roasted and I can’t do anything about it! Surely the Chant will ring with the injustice of it all…!”

The further away they rode into the wilderness the better Riaag felt, and the more sure he became that they really could make it home again without the tower’s insidious pull calling them back. His axe and shield felt good in his hands. It was just the two of them again for the next foreseeable future, just like old times, where the only ones they could rely on were themselves and the only responsibilities they had were to each other, and once that was over with again they’d be back where they belonged in the middle of the biggest, riskiest cultural experiment ever concocted. They’d even have time for dice games again! That alone would do more for Riaag’s feelings of normalcy than if Sarouth’s hair grew back twice as long and thrice as lustrous overnight.

They talked to one another with renewed ease as the horses trotted ever onward. Soon they’d be back in the place they were meant to be, where there’d undoubtedly be met with plenty of people dealing with whatever stupid shit that had come up over the winter which he and Sarouth’d need to set right, but it would be their people, their stupid shit. Naar Rhoan was big enough for everyone, but most especially it was big enough for them. Riaag couldn’t wait. For now he’d try not to destroy his own balls by riding, and during breaks he’d carry water and cut wood, and if he just so happened to make sure to leave little caches of jerky behind for the child-sized shadow that skulked after them, well, who could blame him? There were worse things in life than minor demons.

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4 thoughts on “Pyroclastic Flow

  1. So happy to see Riaag and Sarouth again! I liked the contrasting of Riaag’s past with his present, and how that tied in with Sarouth’s wounds from the tower, emphasising the role reversal. And I hope Valin finds her way as a god-speaker, and also to Naar Rhoan.

    Also, your art is even more gorgeous than ever!

  2. LET RIAAG BE A DOTING DAD!!!!

    okay i’m okay. there are real concerns preventing this. but also: this man needs to adopt some babies and that’s just my opinion

    i really loved how much banter we got between sarouth and riaag this time, even if most of it was memories of when sarouth was feeling better. i also loved riaag being well enough to take care of sarouth this time, and the implication that just because it’s the first major instance in the stories, it’s not the first instance in their relationship. i LOVED getting to see other unclean and see riaag interact with them AND SAROUTH CLEANSING OTHER PEOPLE!!! and i loved the admission that riaag is somewhat more than just sarouth’s attendant, or oathbound, and spends a lot of his own time thinking about agritakh and the chant and hypothetical future non-orcish rhoanish. sometimes that brain that doesn’t shut up chasing around what-ifs is focusing on more interesting things than “what if everyone actually hates me” and that was really nice to see!!!

    also OBVIOUSLY i love the feral crazy god-speaker child valin holy shit. YES she is god-touched YES she is still fucking nuts. as someone who has had to try to explain the difference between me being fucking nuts and also me very sincerely believing in supernatural things, i appreciate the struggle of “vision or hallucination? sign or my brain being bad?”.

    i have had a hell of a winter, and knowing i had this coming in the december issue, and then waiting for me when i finally had enough brain to digest it properly and not just consume it to keep my brain distracted from itself, was very nice. it’s a weird part of a story to be at, but it didn’t feel dissatisfying! i really appreciate dealing with how traumatic the last story was and what that actually means, both practically for things like “getting through the winter”, and emotionally for both riaag and sarouth dealing with brainwashing and torture.

    anyway now i have to go re-do my math about how many stories can go in each bound volume of rhoanish works for a pleasing division, and i just have to hope i actually get this project done before next december when presumably you give us yet another delightful installment of my favorite carrion-eating queers!

  3. It took me wayyy too long to get around to reading this but I’m so glad that I did! Gay orcs and found family/communities are two of my absolute favourite concepts so I adore how you’ve used them both here. The worldbuilding was excellent, and I especially liked the way Riaag and Sarouth constantly show their love for one another in ways both big and small (even during the toughest times) – I think you really captured the essence of a long-term loving relationship in this

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