by Domashita Romero (地下ロメロ)
illustrated by quaedam and pseudonymeter
The first thing Fran saw when he rode into the keep was not the river, or the bridge, but the dogs. There were dozens of them, thick-coated white and grey beasts that could almost be wolves if not for the way so many of them stayed matched with the men in the yard, staying in pace just behind their heels. They roamed free, too; Fran passed a cluster of them tussling on the summer snow and biting at each other’s ruffs like pups. One approached him when he dismounted his horse, coming close to sniff and pace beside him. Fran’s father kept hounds for hunting, so he was familiar enough with what they wanted. He extended a hand for the dog to smell.
“Already looking to lose a hand so soon?” came a voice from beside him, just as the dog began to bare its teeth. Fran pulled his hand away and took a step back. A man approached him then, tall, with a thick red beard, wearing a heavy white furred cloak. “Kljova likes to greet our guests.” He made a quick, sharp noise and gestured at the dog, and it dipped its head and turned to lope away. “But you aren’t a guest. You’re the Garašanin boy.”
“I am,” Fran said. “My name is Franjo.” He offered up a small smile. “Fran.” The man did not smile back.
“I am Vasa, the head of the Brotherhood. Your lord father sent word you were coming.” Vasa smiled then, though it was more of a smirk. “You know we don’t get many volunteers here. At least, not ones of such a blessed background.”
If Fran’s background truly were that blessed, he wouldn’t be here at all. “I can serve just as any other man.”
“Yes, we’ll see about that.” Vasa took the reins of Fran’s horse, then turned his head to shout across the yard. “Kašin!” A man rose from where he was surrounded by dogs. “Give this one the welcome.” Vasa turned back to Fran. “You’ll find your horse at the stables over there, should you decide you need it.”
As he left with Fran’s horse, the other man — Kašin — approached. He was tall, taller than Fran by almost a head, and both the top of his head and his face were covered in dark blond hair. He looked down at Fran with eyes that at first looked tired, lids hooded down at a weary slope, but beyond that they were sharp as steel and grey as the sky. Fran would not quail, though.
He held out his arm to be grasped. “Fran,” he said, tilting his own hairless chin up.
Kašin did not take it, only looked down the line of Fran’s arm and up to his face. “Kašin,” he said, and then turned. “Come with me.” He walked off at long strides, white cloak spreading behind him. Fran did his best to keep up.
Fran passed many more dogs, and almost as many men in white cloaks. The dogs paid him almost no mind, but the men lifted their heads as he passed, some of them grinning, some of them outright laughing. He kept his head forward and his eyes fixed on Kašin’s back. He’d had some romantic notions of what life was like at the river, noble men serving together for a common cause, brothers in arms. Perhaps he shouldn’t have paid so much mind to children’s stories.
Kašin lead him out of the keep’s rear gate and Fran caught his first glimpse of the bridge, massive and strange, but Kašin did not slow to let him gawk. There would be all the time in the world to look at it later, he supposed. The two of them walked down to the edge of the water, where Kašin stopped and turned back to him.
“Come here. To the edge,” he said, and Fran did as he asked. The first thing he noticed was the smell. He’d grown up near a river, spent much of his childhood swimming and bathing in it, and he knew the scent of river water well, clean and rushing. There was no clean smell here, though, just the scent of something old, not rotten or fermented or decayed, but simply old. It rankled in his nose but he still took deep breaths of it. Kašin grabbed him hard by the back of his collar, holding him like a pup.
“Look into it. Look deep.” Fran dropped his eyes down to the rushing river. The water was black. Of course the Black River was black, but Fran had never seen anything like it. It was dark and shining like a gleam on a raven’s eye. “This is the River,” Kašin said, leaning in close to speak into Fran’s ear. “You will never swim in it. You will never drink from it. You will not cross it until you’ve proven yourself. And should you fall in, no man here will pull you from it. It will take you to the bottom and we will forget your name.”
Kašin’s words seemed to be fading out, like they were coming from a distance filled with wind. Fran just stared into the water, the way it shifted and undulated like silk. There was snow on the ground around them, but he wondered if the water would be warm. As his eyes began to water from not blinking, he took a step forward, his foot coming off the edge of the riverbank.
Kašin yanked him back hard by his collar, and for a moment, Fran fought against him, wanting nothing more in the world than to walk off that edge and let the River close over his head. Sense came to him in a bolt, flame burning through his frozen brain, and he staggered back a few feet from the riverbank, blinking and breathing hard. Kašin let go of his collar.
“Good lad. Welcome,” he said, and then let out a small chuckle. “We lose a fair number of new recruits that way.” Fran rubbed a hand over his face and couldn’t speak. Kašin clapped him on the shoulder and turned him back towards the keep. “Come on, then. We’ll put you to work.”
As Fran walked back into the keep, he became aware of the rushing sound of the River. It was all he could hear.
Vasa met him with a satisfied smile when he saw how pale Fran’s face had gone, but soon saw him outfitted in a white cloak of his own. Fran thought first to keep his own sword and bow, finding them more trustworthy than untested weapons from the Brotherhood’s armory, but at the curl of lip he got from the armsmaster, he recanted. He wouldn’t have himself seen as some lord’s son too good for the Brotherhood’s own arms. The bow was sturdier than his own, in any case, and in truth he was not enough of a swordsman to tell the difference between the two blades.
When Fran was finished, he joined up with a group of three other men before Vasa. Two of them looked his age and perhaps as new as he was, but the third was older. “You might have noticed it’s cold here, so you’ll be getting firewood,” Vasa said to the assembled group. “Fortunately, as you might have also noticed, we’re surrounded by forest. Isaija will take you out so you pups don’t get lost out there.” The older man nodded, and soon the four of them were off out of the keep with axes, a cart, and a few dogs following their footprints in the snow.
Fran did not think himself much of a pampered noble, but he hadn’t spent much of his life chopping wood. He was sweating underneath his clothes before long, hot in his core while the cold air made his breath frost. He did his best to keep up with the others, but after loading another cord onto the cart, he had to stop and catch his breath. He took a handful of snow from the ground and put it to the back of his neck, cooling him where the fur of his mantle had gotten damp with sweat. It felt good, so he let some of it fall underneath his clothes.
One of the other men — Pavao, he’d said his name was — started to laugh. “Well, I can tell we’ve got a southern boy here,” he said, grinning. “Don’t do that, fool, you’ll kill yourself that way.”
The snow was melting down the run of Fran’s spine, and he felt less overheated already. “I will?”
“It’ll freeze the sweat to you, ice you up where you stand. If you’re hot, just eat the damned stuff.”
“Just watch that the dogs haven’t been there first,” Isaija said, and the other men laughed. Fran wasn’t sure if he was being teased, but he supposed a show of faith was better than one of suspicion. He bent down for another handful of snow and swallowed it; it melted to water in his throat and cooled him from the inside.
“Thank you,” he said, and Pavao laughed and shook his head a little. He felt better, at least. He picked up his axe again and went back to work.
The working silence between the four of them had been broken, though. The other man, Jovan, spoke up. “So how did you all end up here?”
“Got caught stealing a baron’s purse,” Pavao said. “They said I could lose my hands or I could come here.” He held up his gloved hands. “I like my hands.”
“You’ll be using those a lot up here,” Jovan said, and Pavao barked a laugh. “I was in the army. Deserted my post.”
“You know what becomes of deserters here, I hope,” Isaija said.
“Oh, that’s been made very clear to me,” Jovan said, grinning. “If I run, I’ll run over the bridge.”
Isaija snorted. “Good luck to you, then.” There was quiet for a while, broken only by the fall of axes before he took his cue. “There was a fire. Burned my house, took my wife, took my children. What greater sign could I need that the gods did not want to give me a southern life?”
Fran opened his mouth to offer condolences, but Jovan spoke again instead. “And you?”
Fran took a breath of the cold air and wished he had a grander reason. “I’m a fifth son,” he said, simply.
“So?” said Jovan. “So am I.”
“The fifth son of Lazar Garašanin,” he clarified, and felt the air change. He had been an unexpected child, born ten years after his nearest brother. By the time he was of age, his brothers had all been well-wedded and the inheritance had been decided, leaving him with nothing, and no wife to be wasted on him. He could have joined the priesthood, or gone to sea, but his father had said he’d never last at the River, so he rode to the River.
“Well, welcome to the Brotherhood, my lord,” Pavao said, a smile on his lips but his voice sour.
“I’m no lord,” Fran said, and lifted his axe.
“That axe must be making your hands rough,” Jovan laughed. “No maids here to rub them smooth again, but if you ask nicely, one of the dogs might lick them for you.”
Pavao and Jovan laughed, but Isaija cut them off. “That’s enough. What we were before doesn’t matter now. We are brothers above all, and if you can’t learn that, you’re best off crossing the bridge of your own accord before you end up in the River.”
That brought an uneasy silence on the four of them as they went back to work with their axes on the trees. Fran would forget his family name here if they would let him. He worked until his muscles ached in ways he’d never felt. The sun was up long past when he knew night would have already fallen in the south, and their cart was nearing full. He let his axe rest on the ground for a moment as he stretched his back, and then he caught sight of something moving just beyond the line of trees, a moving shadow on the white of the snow. He may have been a noble, but he’d always been fond of the hunt.
He drew his bow and fixed the line of his arrow on the deer as it darted through the trees. Pavao had only managed to work out a “What are you–” when he let fly. He heard the animal bellow and then watched as it staggered a few more steps before falling to bleed out on the snow.
The other men stared between him and the fallen deer as though he’d performed some act of wizardry. His breath shook a little when he drew it in, but he was calm when he spoke. “It is my honor and duty to help provide my Brothers with a good supper,” he said. He looked each man in the eyes without flinching, one by one. Pavao was the first to break a grin.
“The young lord has his uses! Maybe he won’t freeze to death his first night, after all.” He gave Fran a firm clap on the shoulder, and then the other men followed suit. Fran hid his smile as they put the animal on the cart with the wood and hauled it back to the keep.
Fran wasn’t allowed to rest when they returned; he was put right to work skinning the deer, a job he managed to not mangle too terribly. He kept blood off his cloak, at least. Another man took over for the butchering, thankfully, and Fran could finally sit near a fire to let the ache in his muscles spread out and the chilled sweat under his clothes warm up. Other men joined him, Pavao and Jovan and others he didn’t yet know, and he listened while they laughed and told stories. He had none of his own to tell, none that they’d want to hear.
The venison was cooked simply with boiled potatoes, nothing like the noble fare Fran was used to, but it was one of the most satisfying meals he’d ever had. He was hungry, he was tired, and best of all he’d killed it himself. Word of it must have spread, as he received nods of recognition from the other men as they ate. He would have to thank the gods of the woods for giving him their blessing on his first visit; he could not hope to be so lucky every day.
He was bone-weary by the time the sun finally set, ready to fall into a bed and sleep like the dead. He found no beds in the men’s quarters, though. The room was large, with fires burning in more than one corner, and spread out on the floor was a mass of straw covered in furs and hides and blankets. Men were already sleeping there together, buried under furs and close to each other for warmth. In one corner of the room were the dogs, a large enough cluster of white and grey fur that Fran could not tell how many animals were actually there. He could see, though, a blond head at the center of the mass that he recognized as Kašin’s.
He was still gawking at the scene when he felt a hand between his shoulderblades. It was Isaija. “We take shifts on the watch. You’ll always find men sleeping here. Simply find a space and settle in.” Fran nodded, removed his cloak and boots and placed them on the space for it on the wall, and found a spot on the sea of furs to lie down.
It was no feather bed, but it was more comfortable than he would have thought. Part of it had to be just how tired he was; he might have fallen asleep on a bench in the mess if he hadn’t been careful. The furs smelled like sweat and skin, unquestionably a host to many men over the nights. He wondered if the hide of the deer he’d killed today would end up here. He wrapped his arms around him for warmth and closed his eyes.
A weight settled behind him. “Are you cold?” asked Isaija.
Fran had been cold all day, but it was only really settling into his bones now that he was still. “A little,” he said quietly. Isaija moved away from him, and when he returned it was to drape a fur over them both.
“Better?” Isaija asked.
With the fur atop him and Isaija so close behind him, he felt nicely warm indeed. “Yes, it is, thank you.”
His mind was slowing down, drifting into sleep, and then he felt Isaija’s hand settle on his hip. “Because if you were still cold, we have other ways of warming up here.”
Fran was awake, then, mind quickly bright and spinning. He turned his head back lightly to look at Isaija, and saw him smiling gently in the firelight. “Oh?”
Isaija’s hand slid from his hip to beneath his shirt, warm fingers resting on his stomach for a moment before they dipped down beneath the waist of his trousers. “If you want to.” Fran gasped.
He’d heard many things about the Northern Brotherhood, but never this. He caught his breath as his heart began to race and his prick began to swell. Being a fifth son hadn’t been the only reason he’d been unwanted in his father’s house. He’d never done more than kiss one of the stewards in secret, a boy his age with the most handsome broad shoulders, but secrets traveled fast. They’d never waste a wife on him, his father had said, and his mother had told him she wished he’d been a daughter. But now he was at the River, and a man with strong arms and a fine northern beard was making such unbelievable promises with the touch of his fingers.
“Yes,” Fran breathed, and Isaija smiled as he turned his head back further to kiss him. He thought only then to worry about the other men in the room, how he was doing this where all of his new brothers could see, but Isaija was a veteran and knew the ways of this place. Fran had seen motion under the furs before; perhaps all the men here did this. His head swam with it.
Isaija kissed the back of Fran’s neck as he pushed Fran’s trousers down to his thighs. He stroked rough fingers over Fran’s belly and along his flanks before coming in to fist around his prick. Fran made a little choked noise; it was not so different from the touch of his own hand, but somehow so much better, every callus strange and every move unpredictable. Isaija laughed warmly in his ear.
“My thank you for the meal,” he said, and it made Fran laugh breathlessly. He’d received so many strange welcomes today. As Isaija stroked him he tucked in close and Fran could feel the heat of his cock prodding against his rear. He grunted a little and bit Fran’s neck before letting go of him for a moment to undo his own trousers. Fran covered his mouth with his hand to keep from making noise when he felt the hot, hard head of his prick pushing between his thighs.
“Squeeze them tight, now, you skinny thing,” Isaija breathed into his ear, and Fran nodded, tightening his legs around Isaija’s cock. He could feel it nudge the back of his balls with each thrust of Isaija’s hips, and he shivered. Isaija wrapped his other arm around Fran’s shoulder to put a hand flat to his chest and hold him tight, pulling him back against his own chest as he thrust between his thighs and stroked him with a tight fist.
Yes, Fran was warm now, warmer than he’d ever been. He was sweating again, but a different sweat this time, and now that he could smell it on himself he understood the scents that permeated the furs beneath him. He whimpered and gasped into his own palm as Isaija licked the skin beneath his ear, and he came with a jolt when he felt the nip of Isaija’s teeth. Isaija groaned and rolled him, then, pushing him down on his stomach with his face in the furs as he fucked Fran’s thighs. He bit the back of Fran’s neck like a rutting animal when he came, spattering hot and wet on Fran’s skin.
He stayed heavy on top of Fran for a while, and Fran could have fallen asleep like that, his weight pressing down top of him, but he soon rolled over, taking a deep breath. Isaija kissed the spot on Fran’s neck where he’d bitten him, and drew his hand between Fran’s thighs to gather up the mess and wipe it on the furs. He tugged up both of their trousers and settled in warm against Fran’s back.
“Welcome to the Brotherhood,” he said, and Fran fell into a deep sleep.
Fran woke to the sound of boots in the morning, with no one warming his back any longer. He roused himself quickly and ate a breakfast of eggs, dried venison, and hot water. He tried to keep the warmth inside him as he went out into the cold again. It was still yet early summer; he hoped he’d be accustomed to the chill by the time the long nights came.
He found Isaija outside, and the only acknowledgement of what had happened the night before was a second’s worth of smile that showed only in his eyes. He clapped Fran on the shoulder. “You’ll head to the kennels today. Time for you to know the dogs.”
He could hear the kennels before he reached them, a chorus of yaps and howls and growls, and then he could smell them after that, the thick animal scent. It wasn’t much different from the smell that permeated the furs the men slept on at night. Within them he found Kašin, a tall marker amidst the white streaks that darted around his legs.
“Good morning,” Fran said, and Kašin inclined his head to him. “Are you the keeper of the dogs here?”
“All the men here keep the dogs,” he said, voice low thunder in the crisp air. “And the dogs keep the men.” His mouth turned up just a hairsbreadth at the corner. “But I am with the dogs more than most, yes.”
“There are so many,” Fran said, looking past Kašin to where the dogs chased and piled upon each other.
“Two dogs for every man here,” Kašin said, and stretched out his palm to brush over the back of one dog as it passed him. “That’s how it’s been since the bridge was built.”
“It was what I always heard when I heard stories of the Brotherhood as a child,” Fran said. “The men in their white cloaks, with their white hounds, against the white wilds beyond the Black River.”
“We don’t hear those songs up here,” Kašin said, and the little smile that had been on Fran’s face went still again as he raised one of his thick eyebrows. “Not many keep that sort of romance in their hearts after seeing the River.”
“No, I…” Fran looked down. If he focused, he could smell the River from here, heavy and old, even over the smell of the animals. “It is simply remarkable. To see them at last.”
Kašin’s other brow raised for a moment, and then he nodded his head. When he spoke again it was in the steady tone of a teacher. “We use the dogs for many things. Some are fighters. Some are guards. Some are seekers. Some are hunters — not all of us can be so lucky with a bow as you.” Fran dipped his head. He had not seen Kašin in the mess last night, but he supposed it wouldn’t take much for word to travel fast in the keep. “Some are messengers, both southward and at our posts along the river. But they are all our brothers, just as much as any man.”
“My father kept hounds,” Fran said. “I know how to treat them.”
Kašin let out a little huff of a laugh, the breath of it curling white in the air. “I have heard stories of the southern hounds. Lean, light things. Much like you.”
Fran swallowed hard. “Still fine hunters, though.”
“Oh, I have no doubt.” A dog came up behind Kašin, lingering just behind his knees. It was smaller than the others that Fran had seen, all white fluff but for a darker grey saddle-shaped marking on its back. “Would you trust one with your life? To find you in the blinding snow, bring you warmth and bring you home?”
“No,” Fran said, and now he held his chin up. “But I am ready to trust in these, and to treat them as I would my brother.”
Kašin smiled just a little and nodded. “Good. Your experience will be useful, I have no doubt, and — ah?” The smaller dog that lingered behind Kašin’s legs came forward, across the space between them, and up to stand in front of Fran. It placed one paw on top of Fran’s boot and looked up at him, eyes bright and mouth open. “Well,” Kašin said, sounding gently surprised.
Despite the warning he’d recieved from Vasa the day before, he held out his hand to this dog to smell, but this time with his palm up and flat, so it could not so easily snap off a finger or two. The dog sniffed at his palm, and then began to lick it. Fran laughed lightly. “Well, you’re a friendly one.”
“She usually isn’t,” Kašin said. “She usually only comes close to me.”
The dog had licked her fill of Fran’s hand and had happily consented to being stroked in return. “She’s a small one. Runt of the litter?”
“She was.” He watched Fran pet the dog with a strange look on his face, clouds over his weary eyes. “One of the men mistreated her because of it. Kicked her, struck her, took her food.” Fran looked at Kašin in dismay, and he looked at him, heavy and dark. “When I found out, I took the man to the River.”
“And?” Fran said, his hand stilling on the back of the dog’s neck.
“I took him to the River,” Kašin repeated. Fran couldn’t quite keep his eyes from widening when the meaning of his words settled in. “So that is why you must always treat the dogs well.”
“I will. Of course,” Fran said, and the dog was dismayed that he’d stopped stroking her, and put her head beneath his hand. “She does seem to like me.”
“So she does,” Kašin said. “Her name is Paperje. She’s a runner. One of our fastest.” He brought his hand to the opposite shoulder, a thud of skin to leather. “Paperje, here,” he said, low and sharp, and Paperje turned as if pulled, forgetting Fran completely to go stand by Kašin’s side, staring up at him.
“She heeds you well,” Fran said.
“And that is what you are here to learn,” Kašin said. “Not all of them will care for you as she does, but they all must heed you.”
“I am ready,” Fran said, and that tiniest of smiles turned up Kašin’s mouth again. He reached into his shirt and pulled out a small packet, tossing it to Fran. Fran looked inside, finding small bits of dried meat. When he looked up to Kašin questioningly, the big man laughed. “They are our brothers, yes, but they are still animals. And with animals, the road to respect must often begin with bribery. Come,” he said, and for a moment, Fran did not know if he was speaking to him, or the dog. They followed together, Paperje falling back to trek by his heels.
They worked throughout the day, Kašin teaching him the commands that the dogs would respond to. They were accustomed to men in white cloaks and responded best to them, but that was not enough to gain their trust. Any man could wear a white cloak; only the Brotherhood knew the words and gestures that commanded them. An upward hand to make the dog hold, a hand to the shoulder to make it come, one extended to make it go forth. A straw-man was in the kennels; Fran watched as with one wordless gesture, Kašin sent one of the larger dogs forward to latch on to the leg of the straw-man, biting and tearing until Kašin spoke to call it back. Fran would get to that, he supposed; he was still working on making the dogs come to him at all.
They stopped for a while, and Kašin shared bread with him. Paperje sat between their feet, her chin resting on Fran’s boot while her tail twitched restlessly against Kašin’s ankles. The bread was black and hearty, and Fran tore a piece of it to give to her. She licked crumbs from his fingers and Kašin shook his head.
“She’ll not let any of the other men touch her,” he said. “At least, no more than long enough to burden her with a message or other goods.”
“I must have a good smell,” Fran said, and rubbed behind one of Paperje’s ears as he let out a short laugh. “Some lingering noble stink. Like perhaps I’ll give her the best scraps.”
Kašin thumped his hand on his knee and Paperje turned, coming to rest her snout against his leg to let him stroke his large hand over her head. “That will be forgotten soon enough,” he said. “I’ve seen other high-born boys come to the River. I could not tell you which they are now. Those that last are just like any other of us.”
“You’ve been here long?”
“Half my life,” Kašin said as he scratched under Paperje’s ruff. Fran wondered if he should ask the reason, but waited to see if Kašin would provide, as Isaija did. He did not.
“No wonder the dogs heed you so well,” Fran said.
“Not always,” Kašin said, and tugged back his sleeve to show an old scar, a line of faded white toothmarks on his forearm. “I was your age, perhaps. Sometimes one of the bitches will go into the forest and acquaint herself with one of the wolves. The pups that come from that are wilder and harder to train. The one that gave me this did not agree with our system of rewards.”
“Men who mistreat the dogs meet the River,” Fran said. “Does the same go for dogs who mistreat the men?”
Kašin frowned and shook his head. “You cannot punish an animal for having an animal’s nature. It’s when a man has one that you must act.” Paperje bit a little at the edge of his sleeve, and he smiled as he tugged it back against her. “The dogs who are too wild are let back into the forest to join their fathers. But most of them stay. It strengthens the stock.”
“Is there a way to tell which ones are part wolf?”
“Oh, yes,” Kašin said. “They have white coats, and are very furry.” He met Fran’s eyes then, that thick brow slightly raised once more.
“Ah,” Fran said, and ate the last of his bread. “Shall we continue?”
“Of course,” Kašin said, and gave Paperje one last stroke between the ears before standing up. “You do seem to have a way with them. Perhaps you’ll avoid having a scar of your own.”
“Perhaps,” Fran said. “But there is no shame if I do.”
Kašin smiled, just enough, and they returned to the dogs.
Fran passed the days in a similar fashion, sometimes working with the dogs, sometimes gathering wood, and other tasks as well, such as tending the kitchens and watching the walls. Within a few weeks he had seen perhaps every job there was to do at the River, and learned the feel of the cold within his bones deep enough that he no longer felt it.
Of course, he was not left to be very cold at night. Bedding down with a brother was common enough among the men; he’d see a pair or two entangled almost every time he went to sleep. Isaija kept him warm his first few nights, once biting his shoulder so hard as he came that he left a mark that lingered until morning. Fran wondered if Kašin had any marks like that to go with his scar, but he stayed asleep on his own with the dogs, away from any of the men’s rutting. Fran had other companions though: skinny Luka with his long fingers, Obrad with his ticklish beard, Uroš with his heavy thighs, and others. In all the stories he’d heard about the River, none had ever suggested he could find such satisfaction here, buried in the furs.
He had not gone over the bridge yet, but he had shown himself use enough that he was set to watch over it, his eyes pointed north across the River. He stayed back from its shores, holding a position just over the bridge, where the rails of it could keep him from the beckoning of the water, but not far enough to evade its ancient smell, the whisper of its flow.
The bridge itself was an unnerving thing. It had been built long ago, at the heed of a king now only remembered for this act, as a first step to spreading the kingdom’s boundaries to the north. But the lands past the River were not lands to be settled, and when that king’s men returned, they tore the bridge down so no one would try north again, and so nothing north would pass south. But where man’s wood and stone were removed, the River itself repaired, knitting the gaps with branch and ice, healing any wound that was given it. They brought axes, they brought fire, but the bridge would always return, until it was thicker and stronger than the king’s men had ever built it. And so the Brotherhood was formed, to watch over it and hold back whatever might come to cross it.
Fran could feel the cold of the bridge beneath him through the soles of his boots, up to his knees. He could rest his hand on the rails, the strange twist of branch and vine that was more beautiful than any craftsman could have made, and have it chill his fingers, up his arm to perhaps still his heart. He rested his fingertips just on the wood and ice as he looked north into the white wastes, a test of his strength. The men who had crossed the bridge did not speak much of what they found there. If he could prove himself, he would find out on his own.
Something drew his attention down the River’s edge, a ripple of fabric and a scuff of boot on dry grass. A man, at the bank of the River. He squinted and could make out from his shape that it was Kašin, head downturned as he stared into the waters. They had spent much time together in the past few weeks. The dogs had a natural fondness for Fran, it seemed, and a new season’s crop of pups meant Kašin could use an added hand in the kennels. He stood unmoving, watching the River. No man would be pulled from the River, he had told him, but he had also held him by his scruff to keep him from going in. It was surely Fran’s duty to do the same for him. He left the bridge to walk the line of the River.
“Kašin!” he called when he got close. He held a few paces back from the bank itself. He’d grown accustomed to the River somewhat, but he knew no man ever became truly immune. Kašin did not lift his head. “Kašin, are you well?”
Kašin shook his head. “The River is rising,” he said.
“What?” Fran said.
Kašin pointed his hand out along the line of the waters. “The waters have surged. It’s higher than it was when you came.”
Fran stepped closer, peering into the black water. It was rushing faster than he had seen it before, though he could not speak for its levels. “It is summer,” he said. “Perhaps it is snow melt.”
Kašin shook his head again. “No. Rain and snow do not make the River surge.” He closed his eyes, and Fran stepped forward to put a hand on his back, where he could grab hold of his belt if need be. He wasn’t sure if he was strong enough to hold back a man as large as Kašin, but it was his duty to try. “This does not bode well.”
“Has this happened before?” Fran asked.
“Once, in the time I’ve been here. Older men have spoken of times when it rose nearly enough to claim the bridge.”
“What happened the last time?”
“Ill things.” Kašin turned his head away. “It took… I…” Fran blinked; he had not yet seen Kašin lost for words, or so thick with emotion. “I lost someone.” Fran raised his eyebrows in surprise. Kašin had not shown much preference for having closer companions than the dogs. “Perica,” he said, the name a soft ache. “The River called him, and I did not hold him back.” He was silent for a moment, and when he spoke again his voice was a steady line once more. “We lost other men, as well, to both the waters and things that came across the bridge.” He opened his eyes and looked at the River. “It is an omen of bad things to come.”
Fran’s hand brushed down Kašin’s back, and he took hold of him by the belt. “I promise I will hold you back,” he said. Kašin turned his head to look at him, a soft look in his eyes.
“Do you have the strength?”
“I will find it,” he said, and Kašin smiled as he stepped back from the River’s edge.
“Return to your post,” he said, some color returning to his face as he moved away from the water. “I must tell Vasa of what is happening. Keep close watch on the north.”
“I shall,” Fran said, and as he stood on the bridge he looked at the line of the water, to see if it would rise even as he watched.
They’d gotten a summer snow the night before, sudden and thick enough to white out the skies. In the morning it was piled thick on the roofs and the ground, higher than Fran had seen even during winter in the south. The dogs’ prints made circles in the snow, restless and weaving.
He was in the kennels that morning, helping Kašin to feed the dogs. The larger dogs held back until Kašin’s command, pacing and yelping until he let them at meat and bone. Fran watched him, learning the way he held his body, the way he moved his hand that kept all the animals at bay. He did not quite have such dominance yet; all he did was feed the pups. They tussled and tumbled over their food, awkward shadows of their parents. Fran always held a little back for the runts, the littlest of the litters, all the fifths.
Fran had just finished feeding the smallest of the lot when he heard the sounds, the shouts of the men and a thick heavy sound, like a sail cutting through the wind. Kašin was out of the kennels before Fran could even stand, muttering a curse under his breath. Fran saw it then, huge and dark against the light sky.
Stories of the River had always included the orao, but Fran had never seen anything more than crude drawings. It came from the north, its huge golden wings cutting across the sky, each beat of them sounding like a roll of thunder. As it came closer, over the River, Fran could see its sharp tusks, thicker and longer than any of the boars his father had ever hunted. It bellowed as it neared the keep, the sound like a man’s scream, but deep, stretched out, with an echo even the snow couldn’t dampen.
“Stay back,” Kašin said, putting a hand across Fran’s chest. “It may take you.” This was no cowardice, he could see; other men hung back in the shadows of the rooftops, out of view of the sky. A few, though, had drawn their bows and fired at the orao, but no shots landed.
Fran held his breath as they circled. Kašin could surely feel the pounding of his heart underneath his hand. It screamed again, a foul and harsh in his ears, and continued its flight south. “Hell,” Kašin growled.
“Where is it going?” Fran asked.
“I haven’t seen any south of the bridge for a long while,” he said. “It is no doubt going to Konačna to hunt.” Fran had passed through that town on his way to the keep, the last spot on the map before the bridge marked the end of the world. There were scarcely any people at all, but they were much less armed and armored than the Brotherhood. Men were gathering and gearing up to follow the orao into the woods, but Fran knew they would have no clear shots through the trees.
“They won’t catch up,” Fran said, and pushed Kašin’s hand away.
“They must,” Kašin said. Fran came away from where Kašin held him back and ran from the kennel to the armory. The arrows the men used for a regular hunt were good for deer, but the orao were huge. Fran had wondered what those thick, long bolts were for when he first saw them amongst the weapon stores, and now he knew. The men who had headed south had taken most of them, but there were a few left, and Fran took those, readied his bow, and went to the courtyard of the keep, with its clear open sky, to wait.
An hour passed as Fran waited, his eyes trained on the sky and his ears tuned to hear the low pulse of those wingbeats again. The other men watched the skies as well, all activity at the keep stilled until either man or beast returned. The dogs, though, would not be calmed; they paced and circled and yelped at the air. Paperje brushed around Fran’s legs, but he did not attend to her.
He heard it before he saw anything, the thick cut of wing through air. The wind blew the sound strange, and he couldn’t quite locate it, not until he could see the dark dot in the sky coming closer. He narrowed his eyes against the glare of sun on snow and saw the orao had success in its hunt; it carried a man in its sharp talons. Fran drew his bow back, and prayed that he might survive the fall.
Fran let loose his bow. The orao screamed and dropped from the sky. He let out the breath that he felt he’d been holding for an hour. He startled a little when Kašin came close and put a hand between his shoulders. “You’re impressive with that bow,” he said, a warmth in his voice.
“I… thank you.” Now that Fran’s determination had passed, he felt a little stunned. He stared at the sky, waiting for the orao to take wing again and come back to snatch him up from the ground in revenge. His hand moved up to be a line of warmth on the back of Fran’s neck.
“Come, let’s find it,” he said. “Go get a cart.”
“For the man?” Fran asked. Kašin shook his head.
“Not very likely.”
“For his body?”
“If it’s in any shape,” Kašin said. “But mostly for the beast itself.”
“We’re bringing it back here?” Fran said. “What for?” He wondered if there were perhaps rituals to be done; perhaps the orao’s body would be dumped across the bridge, or put into the River.
Kašin gave him a smile, wide and toothy. “Orao make for very good eating.”
“Oh,” Fran said, and went to find a cart. The two of them took it out through the woods, led by Paperje and a trail of broken branches. The orao had not gone easily, it seemed, and soon Paperje had a scent of blood to follow. Kašin rested a hand on his blade as they followed her; it was possible the beast could be only wounded, and they’d have to finish the job.
They found it in what had not been a small clearing before it had come crashing through the trees. It laid in the snow, one wing spread out beneath it like the fan of a cloak. This close, Fran could see it in all its magnificent ugliness. Its mouth hung open, thick saliva congealed on its long, yellowed tusks, its black tongue lolling from its mouth. The bristled brown hair of the orao’s head mixed down into the amber of its feathers, and there, right where the one became the other, was the thick bolt of Fran’s arrow, buried in its throat.
“Ah,” Kašin said as he looked up at one of the nearby trees. Fran couldn’t take his eyes off the orao. “Poor bastard.”
“What?” Fran said. Kašin had an affinity with animals; perhaps he felt sympathy for even a monster such as this. But Kašin pointed up to one of the trees. There was the orao’s unfortunate victim, his broken body caught up in the high branches. The angle of his neck was just one indicator that he had not survived his ordeal. “Ah. Can we get him down?”
“You’re a skilled bowman. Can you also climb trees as well?” Fran shook his head, and Kašin bowed his a little. “The birds will bury him, and his bones will join the tree. It is as much of a way as any of joining the gods.” Fran supposed it was better than meeting the creators in an orao’s stomach.
“Shall we take this thing back, then?” he said, circling the orao, scouting out where he could get a good hold on it to haul it into the cart. Birds were not heavy; perhaps it was light, too.
“Wait, before we do,” Kašin said, and took a step forward, close to the orao. He dropped down to his knee and took out his knife. He spread apart the orao’s feathers and cut into its breast, diving into its flesh with hands and blade as blood spread out onto the snow. Did he intend to butcher it here?
With a grunt, Kašin pulled his hands out of the beast’s body. He had in his hands the thing’s heart, dark and heavy. Kašin was smiling at him as he held it out. “It’s best fresh. You brought it down, you deserve it.”
Fran took the heart in his hands. It was still warm. He’d had heart before, many times, but always cooked, and never from an animal he’d killed himself. He looked at Kašin’s smiling face and smiled himself before biting into it. It was warm and rich, like the best parts of a game bird, thick with the tang of blood. He tore at it with his teeth and the rush of what he had done came over him, proud and singing. To think of how his father thought he’d falter here!
Kašin was watching him with a warmth in his heavy eyes. Fran smiled at him, his lips bloody, and proffered the heart to him. “Here, you should have some.”
Kašin shook his head. “No, it’s yours.” He rested a hand on Fran’s forearm. “You are an honored brother.”
“As are you,” Fran said, and Kašin closed his eyes for a moment, smiling. He grasped both of Fran’s forearms with his strong, bloodied hands and leaned down to press his mouth to his. Fran’s surprise only took a moment to pass before he kissed back, tasting Kašin’s dark mouth beyond the taste of blood that lingered in his own. Kašin held his arms tight, holding him close as the heart in his hands grew cool between them. His lips were red when he drew away, and he licked them clean. He’d had a taste of the heart after all.
“Finish what you will and then let’s take the thing back,” he said, and Fran ate his fill. He was warm in the belly from the heart, and warm elsewhere from Kašin’s lips. They loaded the orao onto the cart and brought it back to the keep, where the men met him with acclaim. He enjoyed none of it so much, though, as that small fire he saw behind Kašin’s eyes.
The men ate well, but there was unease throughout them. Many had never seen an orao in the flesh before, and they wondered if there were more to come. There were no words of reassurance from the veterans, only reminders to eat well while they could, and to keep warm.
That night when Fran went to sleep, he passed by the usual furs. He’d no doubt find eager companionship there tonight, but he sought another first. He went to where Kašin lay, in his corner, on a few hides and furs of his own, amidst the dogs. Kašin’s favorites, he recognized them as now, those that followed him like a wolf pack’s leader. Kašin opened his eyes and looked up at him, but said nothing.
“May I sleep here tonight?” Fran asked. Kašin looked at him for a while, his eyes trailing slowly down his body. They both still had some touches of blood on their hands from earlier, brown and dried in the valleys of their fingers.
“Yes,” Kašin said, and nudged one of the dogs away to make room. Fran let out a breath and lay down beside him, close but not yet touching. Kašin brought the fur on top of him over both of them, and Fran took that as invitation enough, surging forward to kiss him, teeth crashing against his as he pressed their mouths together.
Kašin put an arm around his waist, bringing his slimmer frame nearer, and kissed him with a slowness that most of the men did not care for. He held Fran’s face with his broad hand and pulled at his mouth with teeth and tongue steadily. He was still kissing by the time less patient men would have had their pricks out already, and Fran shivered from it, eager for more but deep in the sway of Kašin’s measured pace.
Then, though, Kašin kissed him once more and drew back, with a small sigh. He brushed his thumb over Fran’s lips, his fingers back through his hair, and put some small amount of space between their bodies. “Rest now,” he said, even as the hand that stroked Fran’s back made him want to do anything but. “Tomorrow may bring greater threats.”
The threat of what tomorrow could bring seemed the greatest reason of all for them to do anything but rest, but Kašin had already closed his eyes and moved onto his back. Kašin kept his arm around him, and Fran curled against him to try to rest, to try to calm the racing of his heart-fueled heart.
No more orao came forth in the next week, but Fran with his sharp eyes and steady bow was put on watch on the north wall more often than not. He saw only shadows across the river, and did not have to draw his bow. He did, though, see in the span of that one week two men go into the River. One he did not see go over; he only heard the splash and then the silence, and saw the line of boot prints in the snow leading to the water’s edge. The other was Pavao, put on watch over the bridge, who walked to the center of it and climbed upon the rail. Fran tried to shout for help, but it was too late, he had cast himself into it. From high on the keep’s walls he could see how the waters rose, and he could feel them, their cold flowing into his blood.
He valued his time with the dogs more, after such duties, coming to help with their feeding once during the day, either in the morning or at night, depending on how long he’d been on watch. He saw Kašin then, and while there was warmth in his eyes to be found for Fran, he was ill at ease. Fran saw him once walking the river’s edge again, and he almost ran down from his high post just in case. He lingered for only a few minutes, though, and returned to the keep safely.
When they slept at the same time they slept together, but Kašin still would only kiss him, a long, sweet suffocation, but he would do no more. He pulled away when Fran would be edging towards desperation, and leave him to overheat beneath the furs. Perhaps, Fran wondered, he had suffered some injury that left him unable, but that seemed unlikely, as he still had two fine hands in working order. Fran kept bedding beside him, regardless; he slept better with his warmth, and with the dogs around them.
The days were growing shorter and the nights were becoming colder. One of the older men said that in a few months, the hens’ eggs would freeze almost as soon as they left the birds’ bodies. Fran drank hot water like he’d once drank summer wine and believed it. He was determined, though, to see the spring.
One night, just after an early sunset, he watched over the dogs with Kašin as they finished their meal. They’d grown thicker coats as winter grew closer and pulled at each other’s fur as they fought over the last scraps. One of the little runts that Fran had cared for had gotten big enough to hold his own against some of the adults. Fran laughed as he watched the pup wrest a bone away from a larger dog. Kašin put a hand between his shoulders and smiled at him.
“That one reminds me of you,” he said.
Fran snorted. “A runt of the litter?”
Kašin laughed a little himself. “Perhaps. A fifth who grows to show his fangs.”
Fran laughed and thought about baring his teeth to Kašin, but then something changed in the air. The dogs in the yard went still, heads lifted and turned to the north. One of the dogs began to howl. Then another, and another, until every beast in the keep was crying out in unison. Kašin drew his sword.
“Not good,” he said, and stalked out towards the north gate. Fran followed with his bow, eyes on the sky, but he saw nothing but the pinpricks of stars on the darkening sky.
Other men were coming forward, and he saw Vasa, also armed, yelling towards the gate, up to the men on the wall. “What comes?”
“Jelen!” one of the watchmen shouted. “A whole pack!”
Vasa cursed. “Close the damned gate!” The men who had stood watch on the bridge itself came running in from outside the keep and began to roll the gate down. Beyond the sound of gears turning, beyond the howls of the dogs, Fran could hear a thundering, a nearing pounding that he slowly understood to be hoofbeats.
“Back!” Kašin said, and pushed him towards the wall. “Go somewhere high.”
Height would give him the advantage with his arrows. He turned to head for the stairs to the watch towers, but he stopped when he heard the first scream, and turned to see the jelen stampeding through the half-closed gate. He had heard stories about them, too. Shaped like deer, but twice over the size, thick with black fur and topped with sharp-pointed bone-white antlers. They groaned and bellowed as they trampled into the yard, mouths wide with teeth as long as a man’s hand. Fran watched as one dipped its head to gore open the back of one of the men who’d come in from the bridge, and then dip it further to tear at him with its teeth when he fell.
No time to run. He brought an arrow to his bow and fired at the nearest one. It seemed to strike, but held only for a moment before falling away from the jelen’s thick, hairy hide. He swore and drew another arrow, then another, and while each struck it did not stay. He did not have any more of the arrows he’d use to fell the orao; if he ran he could perhaps make it to the armory. He had set one foot in that direction when he stopped, stopped and shouted, “No!”
A jelen was bearing down on Kašin, charging into him to tangle its antlers with his blade. It twisted its head and tossed the sword, a disarming that any good swordsman would envy, sending it to fall with a soft sound in the snow. The jelen snarled at Kašin, its fangs dripping, and reared up on its hind legs to knock him in the chest, sending him onto his back.
Fran didn’t remember running, and didn’t remember picking up the sword, cold in his hands from the snow. The jelen pawed at Kašin’s chest, tearing his clothes with pointed hooves, and then dropped its head, teeth bared to strike at Kašin’s exposed skin. Fran felt his throat burn as he yelled and brought the sword down on the thing’s neck. The first blow was enough to make it stagger, enough for black blood to spill down over Kašin, but not enough to end it, so Fran raised the blade and hacked again and again, until the jelen’s neck was cut through. Its head fell next to Kašin’s, and it staggered on its legs, bleeding out over him for a few seconds until it toppled over.
Fran gulped two raw breaths and held out his hand to pull Kašin to his feet. He seemed unharmed, but it was hard to tell with the jelen’s thick dark blood covering him. He met Kašin’s eyes, and that was enough. He handed him his sword. Kašin gripped his forearm for a moment after taking it, and then turned to face the jelen that remained. Fran made for the armory.
The thick bolts were enough to pierce the jelen, and between them, the other men’s swords, and the jaws of the dogs it was enough to take them all down in a blur of sweat and fur and blood, but not without the cost of a half dozen men and just as many dogs. They burned the bodies of the jelen then and there, the thick foul smoke curling up to blacken out the moon. The men and the dogs would be dealt with tomorrow, given proper respects in the light of day.
Fran found Kašin after, watching the flames. His shirt was torn and his face and chest were still covered in the jelen’s blood, dark and tarry. “You can’t stay like that,” Fran said.
Kašin looked down at himself. “I suppose I cannot.”
Fran led him, found water and heated it, took him indoors and had him remove his clothes. Bathing was not a priority at the River, but sometimes necessity required. Fran scrubbed Kašin with water and cloth, washing the blood from his face and chest. He was remarkable to see undressed, heavy and muscled, some old scars knit across his body. A bruise was rising where the jelen had struck him down, but he had come out mostly unharmed.
Kašin stayed silent as Fran tended to him, raising his arms when needed as he cleaned the parts of him that hadn’t even been stained with blood. Fran had had a servant to do this kind of thing for him before, when he had been a lord’s son; now he could scarcely believe he had ever been that man at all.
He washed Kašin’s prick, too, working the wet cloth where it hung thick between his thighs. He felt it stir as he touched it, but he did not carry on longer than cleanliness demanded. When he was finished, he gave Kašin his clothing back, complete with an undamaged shirt.
“We should sleep now,” Kašin said, and Fran nodded, following him to his space in the furs. Dogs followed and settled around them as they lay together, Kašin pulling a fur over them and pulled Fran into his arms.
“Thank you,” he said, close enough to Fran’s ear that he could feel the roughness of his cheek.
“You are my brother,” Fran said into his neck.
“And you are mine,” Kašin said as he brought a hand down Fran’s back. “I have taken no one close to me since Perica died. Losing a brother is a great loss, but losing one who is more than that is so far greater.”
“Then you know what I feared tonight,” Fran said, and Kašin let out a heavy breath before turning in to kiss him. His kiss was stronger than it had been on previous nights, no longer a gentle delay, but something with intent. He pushed his strong fingers back through Fran’s hair and leaned into him, pushing him back into the furs. He kissed Fran’s neck for the first time and Fran gasped, grabbing at his clothes.
“Will you?” Fran asked.
“Yes,” Kašin replied, and kissed him again. His hands were large but clever, pulling at Fran’s clothes until his body was exposed. The cold air chilled his skin for only a few moments before Kašin was in close, heating him through to his bones. The other men had not touched him like this, had not taken the time to stroke him, gentling him like an animal while making him all the more excited.
Kašin kissed his chest and Fran pressed his lips into the curls of his hair, breathing in the smell of skin and sweat. He darted his tongue out, drawing strands of it across his lips, catching it in his teeth as Kašin’s mouth at the hollow his throat made him hiss. He fit his hands under Kašin’s clothes, feeling his skin for a second time now, without wash or water. He felt the heat of his heart, he felt scars in his skin, and he felt Kašin rumble, a moan that barely made it past his lips.
Fran made a noise when Kašin bit at his throat, and Kašin kissed him again to still any more as he stroked the bitten skin with his fingers. Fran bit at his lips and pushed into him, all of his long patience over the weeks growing quickly thinner with each touch. He rubbed his cock into Kašin’s hip, rough and ugly, and Kašin kissed him harder, tasting him deep. He caught Fran’s groan in his mouth when he reached down to pull his prick free and wrap his hand around it, but then he drew back. He watched Fran’s face as he stroked him, heavy eyes intent on him as he reacted. Fran had never thought of what he might look like when entangled like this, but now Kašin saw it all in the faint firelight, each tremble of lip and clenching of brow.
Fran grabbed at Kašin, grabbed at his clothes and pulled his prick out. It was hard now, full and broad as the rest of Kašin. Kašin closed his eyes and grunted softly as Fran stroked him, but he opened them when Fran put his fingers against his lips. He met Fran’s eyes and saw what he wanted there. He wrapped his arm tight around Fran’s waist and brought them together, hot and steaming in the furs with their cocks together. They joined their hands, Kašin’s thick fingers weaving through Fran’s slender ones, and stroked themselves together, skin on skin on skin. Fran came like that, breathing in Kašin’s neck and clutching at his back. He kept stroking Kašin until he met his finish, too, shuddering out a breath into Fran’s mouth.
They stayed tangled together like that, and Fran thought perhaps he would fall asleep. He might wake later to pull his clothes in order, to wipe his hand, but just then it seemed well enough to stay just like this. Kašin stroked his back lightly, and pressed his lips to his hair.
“I spoke to Vasa after the attack,” he said, a low murmur against Fran’s forehead. “I’m going to ride north tomorrow.” Fran went tense in his arms. “Something is causing all of this. The River is rising for a reason. I intend to find out.”
“I’m coming with you,” Fran said. There was simply no question to it.
“We might not return,” Kašin said.
“All the more reason for me to go.”
Kašin let out a sigh and held him closer. “All the runts will miss you.”
“A runt must learn to stand on his own sometime.”
“So it must,” Kašin said, and kissed him.
They rode out at the brightest part of the day on the next day, Paperje and three other dogs at their heels. When Fran passed the middle point of the bridge, when he passed more northward than he had ever been before, he felt the call of the River, felt it singing to him, felt the north begging him to lose himself there.
He looked to Kašin, tall and strong beside him, and knew he would have no fear of that.