The Heart’s Own Cementation

by Iron Eater

By the time the golden light of the newest spring sunrise fell across Riaag’s broad back he’d been up for quite a while; waking up before dawn was no great feat during the dark half of the year, especially not for a man as busy as he was, but prepping the stronghold’s fields for the upcoming planting season? That would take some doing. Now that the snow had melted they looked like complete shit. It felt like only yesterday that he’d been overseeing the last garnerings of Harvest, the flames from the ritual burn licking against the night sky as the whole of Naar Rhoan celebrated with song, dance, and great feasting. To look at the sad stretches of dirt before him, you’d never know that they once had been thick with millet and oats, how a mere few months ago they’d been bursting with buckwheat. That was the point of it, he supposed. You didn’t follow the guidance of gods like his if you weren’t willing to work with the cycles of the world.

He turned from the empty cropland to the gaggle of farmers (and would-be farmers) gathered nearby. A good number of people had shown up; given how little time he’d had to start spreading the news of when field work would begin that year, he was quietly grateful for how many people he recognized from past seasons, and how friendly they were being with the new blood. To think some parts of the world would see this many orcs in one place and assume they were prepping a raiding party! The Rhoanish were too busy for that shit. Every year brought with it the challenge of teaching yet more untrained hands to give to the land in the hopes that it would give back, and if it wasn’t teaching people farming it was teaching them what to do with things you farmed, and if it wasn’t that then it was something else. Civilization was work! The stronghold could protect itself—the corpses they kept piked up on the walls were proof enough of that—but how anyone could see all they had on their plates and expect them to have time to go marauding had some pretty funny ideas about time management.

Resting his hands on his belt, Riaag took a deep, head-clearing breath before shouting with a voice like a tiger’s roar: “A’ight, you lot, listen up!” Familiar faces turned towards him attentively; the unfamiliar faces whirled in alarm, some instinctively taking a defensive half-crouch from the sheer volume Riaag could pound into a few syllables. This didn’t bother him. Sometimes you needed to scare people a little to make sure they were paying attention. Given how many of the new eyes kept darting from his face to the blessed trophy skulls he wore on his belt he could safely say his audience was ready to listen.

“These here,” he continued with a sweep of his hand, “is Naar Rhoan’s great pride, where we is doin’ as the Hill God does decree it ‘n takin’ ‘a His land ter nurture greater bounties fer alla His chosen what wishes it. Praise be ter He Who Sleeps Beneath the Earth fer givin’ us this gift most glorious.” He paused to let his words sink in. Most people who lived on the steppe still considered eating grain to be heretical, much less cultivating the stuff, so it was important to establish early on that yes, everything was being done by divine decree, and yes, you could eat Rhoanish bread without the ground swallowing you up for your insolence. Usually those who’d progressed all the way to the learning-to-farm stage had properly digested that idea, but it never hurt to be careful. Reminding people that they were doing the Hill God’s work was important given how much work lay ahead for everyone.

“Are they…supposed to look like that?” asked someone in the middle of the group. Riaag knew their face but not their name; they and their band had visited the stronghold a few times the previous year, only settling in for good some time after the First Dawn celebrations. Riaag was having to learn a lot of new people who’d shown up in the months since First Dawn.

Not that he blamed the speaker for doubting. The empty farmland was barely more than a patchwork of cleared ground, only a hint of last year’s plow-furrows remaining. The winter snow, and subsequent spring thaw, had left plentiful debris in its wake: rocks, sticks from the southern forest, less identifiable things. A few opportunistic weeds already poked their verdant stems through the soot-swirled dirt. Compared to the gardens people kept inside the walls or the looping vines of beans and grapes that climbed across the stronghold’s many pergolas, it was hard to imagine this mess yielding crops aplenty, especially if you hadn’t seen exactly that with your own eyes. Riaag had personally dug the stronghold’s very foundations way back when and even he sometimes had trouble visualizing it.

He grinned. Between his fucked-up teeth and big tusks, Riaag was quite the distinctive grinner. “Seems a right fucken fright, don’t it?”

“It seems it,” said the speaker, hesitantly. They didn’t seem to know what to make of how Riaag spoke. He was used to that; most new converts didn’t, really, at least not at first.

“What you’s seein’ afore you is the woeful state in which they starts out each ‘n ever’ year,” he said. “T’ain’t how they’s gonna be fer long, though. That’s why we’s out here this fine ‘n lovely mornin’: it’s time ter do some proper fucken farmin’. Afore that, though, we gotta get this place cleaned up so it can be consecrated. The Faaroug will finish what we start.” Riaag stroked his beard as he let those words sink in a bit. Good speechifying was all about the ebb and flow of what you had to say, and reminding people that the Hill God’s current earthly avatar walked among them was a hell of a thing to say. Naar Rhoan was making history by all sorts of interesting means.

Riaag looked from face to face in the crowd, his fire-orange gaze making brief, clear contact with anyone who would meet it, and resumed. “Some ‘a you is returnin’ hands, ‘n fer yer dedication I’s sore indebted. Ain’t nothin’ I got ter say what’s not been told ter you prior. You new blood, though, y’all let yerselves be shown how we does things ’round here. Get a feel fer the ground beneath yer feet ‘n the soil as it falls between yer fingers. This here is the good earth, His earth. It wants you ter love it.” He could see the rising worry on some of the would-be farmers and let his voice turn gentler. “Know that time ‘n effort is all it’s gonna take ter do it right. The Hill God understands, ‘n He is patient as can be so long as we’s always strivin’ ter do right by Him. Fuck up if’n you gotta. You think anybody’s born knowin’ this shit? We was all where you is, once.”

It felt good to say such comforting, sacred words in the argot of the unclean. In an ideal situation people would pair that with the conspicuous lack of clan patterns on his clothes, and then pair that with the many blessings he openly bore in spite of everything, and have themselves a proper flash of insight that’d hopefully carry forward to the next befouled soul they met. If not, he’d settle for pissing people off. Blank clan patterns were really good at that.

“What do we need to do first?” asked another new face. That was a good sign. People who asked questions were people who were thinking. People who were thinking were the kind the stronghold needed most.

“I hope y’all’s ready ter sweat, ’cause first things first we’s gonna be clearin’ out all that trash what’s accumulated since Harvest. Pile the stones ‘n wood separate ‘n don’t be afraid ter give me a shout should somethin’ odd turn up. If I cain’t handle it, our god-speaker can.”

The second new face looked surprised. “Sarouth White-Hair will be joining us?” They must have been new if they’d yet to see proof that Sarouth—god-speaker of Agritakh, walker of His Labyrinth, savior and prophet, tremendous pain in the ass—was no stranger to getting his hands dirty. Well, better late than never.

“So he shall. Reckon it’ll be in an hour or so, seein’ as he had rounds ter make this mornin’ upon completion ‘a certain visions oracular.” Riaag had awoken to Sarouth sitting up cross-legged next to him, Sarouth’s lips moving slowly as he communed with the unfathomable divine that simmered in his veins and swirled through his mortal flesh. Some people probably would’ve found it a little creepy. Riaag had simply taken it as a sign to boil an extra egg for the breakfast he’d ended up not actually eating any of himself. If it turned out Sarouth was going to be spontaneously fasting again, well, there were worse things for lunch than lukewarm eggs. “Best we have somethin’ done by then, yeah? Let’s get ter work.”

Field cleanup was never the most fun part of agriculture—that honor went to actually eating something prepared from whatever you’d just spent months tending—but it was blessedly straightforward. Even the wildest-hearted hermit could wrap their head around picking up a rock and putting it down somewhere else. Once the fields were clear they’d be able to start turning the soil to make proper rows, and when you got right down to the meat of things, all that was was guided digging. If there was one thing it was easy to get orcs to do, it was dig. Their forebears’ hands had yearned for it. Every farmer had to start somewhere, especially those who needed constant reassurance that they weren’t carving blasphemy into the ground with their own claws (and each year there were always a few), so finding simple little tasks that exercised plenty of soothing instincts had turned out to be the best way to coax willing-but-skittish people into learning a new skill. The Rhoanish had built a surprising amount of their agrarian tradition on the back of slowly moving rocks from place to place.

Riaag busied himself with helping haul the bigger branches that had blown in from the southern forest whenever he wasn’t watching after the neophyte farmers as their more learned companions showed them the ropes. The weight of his axe against his shoulder was an old, familiar friend, and when it cut through each new overgrown stick it felt like an extension of his own arm; it was a certain kind of satisfying being able to show others that he’d come by his deed name of Bough-Breaker honestly. Once he chopped the wandering wood down to size it’d make for pretty good kindling for whoever needed some. Waste not, want not: the Chant made it pretty clear what was expected of those who followed it when the days were lean. The First Scavenger would no doubt be pleased to see how His children remembered to be frugal even in times of relative plenty.

The sun rose steadily higher as the field workers toiled. In time a black-robed figure, face mostly concealed by a deep hood, emerged from the gates and paused just outside the walls to watch them work. Even if Riaag hadn’t made those clothes himself he would’ve known the patterns emblazoned onto them as intimately as he knew the sound of his own breath. He smiled and waved. “Holy One! Over here!”

Sarouth, as he was indeed the man beneath the hood, waved back and trotted towards Riaag; those who stood in his path instinctively parted like fish swimming around a boat-rider’s drifting hand. They probably would’ve moved even if they had meant to stay put, as even the most stubborn of sorts found their willpower tested when a god-speaker came through. Demigods had a habit of getting where they wanted to. This one in particular was holding a lidded breakfast basket.

“You, my love,” said Sarouth as he poked the middle of Riaag’s chest with a ring-adorned hand, “left without eating this morning. Don’t think I didn’t notice! If I wasn’t occupied at the time I would’ve said something about it.”

Riaag grumbled. He knew he should’ve suspected something like this. “Yeah, yeah. Sorry ’bout that, Holy One. Cain’t say it ain’t a big day. I meant ter have a bite, honest, there was just too fucken much ter do ‘n only one ‘a me ter go around.”

“Uh-huh. Well, lucky for you there’s only one of me to go around or I would’ve come pestering you earlier.” He took the top off the breakfast basket and hefted it up for Riaag to see inside. “Pick yourself something nice. A mysterious stranger prepared a meal for me today and I can’t possibly eat all of it myself.” This was an outright lie, as Riaag had witnessed Sarouth eat almost an entire sheep’s head by himself before and then go scrounging for seconds, but facts were always a little bit flexible when it came time to needle one’s oathbound, and one could safely say Sarouth was one of the most intently oath-swearing men alive. It was a good thing Riaag loved him with the same steadfast strength by which a lodestone hied to iron or it might’ve been annoying.

The basket contained an assortment of bread slices, dried fruit, cheese, rice balls, and jerky, a plump wineskin full of something or another tucked in with the lot. Some of the food Riaag recognized from the spread he’d left behind that morning while some had most certainly been added after the fact; Sarouth was useless as a cook and would probably find a way to burn water if he tried, but if you gave him access to things that were already prepared—and he had the desire to do so in his heart, which was not always a guarantee—he could manage to put something nice together. He’d clearly had such a desire that morning, if the feast he’d brought with him was any indication.

What said feast did not contain was the dish Riaag had bothered taking special care to prepare for any hypothetical hungry god-speakers who’d emerge later in the day. “There was boiled eggs with this afore, weren’t there?”

“Who can say?” said Sarouth around a mouthful of something. He didn’t even bother hiding the shards of brown shell still clinging to his hands. Swallowing, he added, “I never said I didn’t intend to share a bit of the bounty. If you didn’t want me to eat all of them you should’ve said something before leaving them unattended.”

Riaag snortled. “You’s impossible.”

“I try.”

After a bit more play-complaining Riaag took a seat on a pile of rocks and fished a rice ball from the basket. The outside of the ball had a pleasant briny taste that complimented its tender carrion center, which (paired with a few swigs of the skin, which turned out to have very mild beer in it) did a lot to improve Riaag’s already medium-pleasant disposition that morning. It certainly took the edge off the stomach grumbles he’d been ignoring since his third chopped-up branch.

“How’s the cleanup going this year?” asked Sarouth, who’d claimed a rice-and-carrion ball of his own before taking a seat on a different pile of stones. The little white morsel was bright against his dark green skin.

“Pretty good. No fights. Well, not real fights, anyway, ‘n I don’t count little squabbles what I don’t even have ter step inter as such.”

“You’ve done enough babysitting to know the difference,” said Sarouth with a nod. It was so: Riaag loved children, and not having any of his own made him a perfect caretaker candidate for parents with not enough bandmates to help watch their brood. Kids had yet to learn how to keep their baser aspects in check, the fierce little creatures that they were, and so Riaag had spent his fair share of times dragging two or more whirling balls of claws and teeth apart before they drew too much blood. So long as nobody got anyone else in the eye and none of the wounds were too deep to scab over in a few minutes, it was all a part of growing up. He’d missed out on that part, himself. In spite of the skulls on his belt Riaag had always been a gentle-hearted sort, so it was likely for the best he was only experiencing the ferocity of childhood by proxy.

As if to prove Riaag’s point, a few frustrated voices began to rise from one of the closer fields, and before he or Sarouth had to so much as stand up from their shared breakfast, a different set of cooler heads had already separated the angry parties and were busy doing what they could to find somewhere else for said parties to be. Riaag nodded in approval. “Ever’one’s bein’ a proper grown-up. Makes my job easier, tell you fucken what.”

Sarouth nodded again. “You’re telling me. Any day I don’t have to calm people down the hard way is a better day than the alternative.”

“No argument here, Holy One.”

Calling Sarouth’s more extreme methods the hard way was an understatement. He was perfectly capable of charismatic leadership (as one didn’t keep an entire stronghold running without knowing how to talk to people) and was fully versed in diplomacy (as one didn’t keep an entire stronghold prosperous without knowing how to make allies, make trading partners, and hold fast to both of those), but sometimes sweet words weren’t enough. The mace he kept back in the tabernacle they shared had cracked plenty of heads when communication broke down while the dagger at his belt had cut its share of troublesome throats, neither of which was all that out of the ordinary. Anyone could carry a club. Anyone could choose violence, and some days that was a very easy choice to make. No, it was Sarouth’s nature as a god-speaker that was brought out as a near-ultimate argument.

In Riaag’s experience, god-speakers came in two different flavors: you had the ones who led rites and oversaw prayers and did various other clerical things, serving as persons of import (if not always influence) in their communities, and then you had the ones who did all of that but had more than just faith backing them. He’d yet to meet one of Agritakh’s own clergy that wasn’t in that second category. When an Agritakh-ruhd wanted to make a point, when they needed to not just speak of their god but as Him, they willingly stripped away all the layers of personhood in which they usually wrapped their inherent sacred natures, and it was the terrifying awe of that divinity that made others either fall to their knees in worship or (in the event things went badly in the worst possible way) take up arms to rid the world of what their defiant hearts told them was a stain upon His earth. Instances like the latter were a big reason why Sarouth never traveled unarmed. Of course, nowadays he never traveled alone, either. Having a living wall like Riaag at his back came in pretty handy for evening up unfavorable odds.

Even if Sarouth hadn’t been the most recent earthly vessel of the very Hill God whose fields were slowly getting cleared of months’ worth of accumulated crap, there would’ve been a lot to like about him, at least in Riaag’s opinion. Beneath his deep hood—a necessity as of late, as Sarouth’s namesake tresses were still growing out after the mess he and Riaag had gotten into during their trek south of the river—he was spectacularly handsome, with bright yellow eyes and tusks that pointed downwards in a charming overbite, his natural beauty accented by the jewelry he wore as a sign of his station. He was lithe where Riaag was fat, clean-shaven where Riaag boasted a well-oiled beard, and unlike Riaag’s own claws Sarouth kept his short and blunted, which made the hands that bore them look that much more elegant. His divinity would’ve been there whether or not Riaag’s heart leapt at the slightest quirk of those soft, full lips, of course, but Agritakh certainly hadn’t made things any harder on Himself by choosing an avatar who had grown to be really, really hot.

The two of them finished breakfast at a comfortable pace. They were occasionally interrupted, as was normal for when they relaxed in a public space, and between Sarouth’s gentle guidance and Riaag’s practical, more profanity-laden input there was no question that went unaddressed. Clearing the land was the sort of meditative affair that invited deeper thought while one’s hands stayed busy, so even when it came time to return to work Riaag was grateful for the opportunity. Making useful things from garbage would never stop feeling right. If he happened to put a little more oomph into his swings because Sarouth was looking, well, so long as the work got done, where was the harm in it?

Just because Sarouth enjoyed a good show didn’t mean he didn’t have duties of his own, however. “I need to start walking the fields to prepare for the next rite,” he said. This was so; Naar Rhoan’s yearly fertility rituals were a little more involved than twirling ribbons around a flagpole or whatever it was people in foreign parts did during the spring. “Will you be able to slip away for a midday meal?”

“Eh, Iunno,” said Riaag. “T’would be rude ter vanish on folks on the first day. Tomorrow they’s gonna be on they own fer alla the duration, so I figures I owes it ter the new ones ter be about. Principle ‘a the thing, right?”

“Now who said anything about vanishing? It’s just a little lunch.”

“You says that, Holy One, but I ain’t been mindin’ yer fool ass fer nigh unter nine years now without knowin’ how you is, most partic’larly given how nearly two years ‘a that has seen me bearin’ yer oath besides. I knows how you is.”

Sarouth fluttered his lashes. “What might that have to do with anything?” he purred.

“Means you’s horny as fuck any day you ain’t fallen low with a godly swoon,” Riaag said, fondly, “so ‘a little lunch’ would stretch inter more’n that, ‘n knowin my temperament on this lovely mornin’ I’d all too easily be convinced ter keep you company, ‘n we cain’t be havin’ that this early on. I cain’t change you fer nothin’, but at least I can choose what’s responsible fer me.”

“How dare you foil my plans,” said Sarouth. He sighed dramatically and placed the back of his hand against his half-concealed forehead. “Now I’ll just have to make up for lost time around dinner. Laying down field blessings always takes a lot out of me, and even if they didn’t I’m sure there’d be plenty of people I’d need to talk to, so I’m prone to being extremely weary and in need of plenty of attention to feel my best again. Surely without the ministrations of my oathbound I’ll waste away to nothing. Nothing, you hear me?”

Riaag put his fingertips to his cheek and said, in his flattest voice, “Oh no. How awful.”

“So will I be seeing you then?”

He hadn’t forgotten anything important, had he? Riaag quickly ran through everything he knew was scheduled on or around that day, but nothing seemed like it would take the place of cooking dinner. He tended to cook their shared meals based on when they wouldn’t be busy with overseeing rites, taking part in hard labor, offering proper hospitality to guests, or any of the dozens of other things that could really fuck up a regular dinnertime. “Why wouldn’t you, Holy One?”

This earned Riaag a juicy raspberry from Sarouth. “You tell me, my wolf,” he said, his tone light. “Feels like half the day my head isn’t put on quite right, lately, so I figure it can’t hurt to double-check things, especially when we’re both so busy. I can’t go expecting you won’t offer your time to someone in need if they ask you for it before I do. After all, it’s your nature to be helpful.”

“So it is,” said Riaag. “Ain’t it also yers, too?”

Sarouth scoffed. “Not really,” he said. “Agritakh-ruhds are beings of strange, sacred mysticism, the divine made tangible. We stand as emissaries between the distant will of the First Scavenger and the love of His adoring flock, being made from the stuff of both. We are godly. We are mortal. We are a conundrum that can only be answered with another question. The concept of ‘helpful’ can’t possibly begin to encompass the truth of what we are.”

“Which means?” Riaag asked, even though he could see where this was going.

“It means I am fabulous, and don’t you forget it.”

“You’s incorrigible is what you is.”

“Guilty, guilty,” agreed Sarouth as he reached up to muss Riaag’s hair. It made the neckline of his robes shift just enough to show off more of the red ink that danced across his skin, a badge of honor all full-fledged clerics of the Hill God bore. Given the subtle angles involved and how only someone of Riaag’s exact size and sitting in Riaag’s exact position, would have seen, that could not have been an accident. “You still haven’t answered my question, you. Am I going to have to start dispensing blessings with my curiosity unsated?”

The weather was gradually warming up. A few good arguments could be made for peeling Sarouth out of his clothes and getting a closer look at those tattoos, chief among them being that Riaag knew Sarouth loved to be looked at, with an honorable mention going to how it was going to take Riaag a lot of effort to not drift off into the cozy memory of evenings (and mornings, and noontides, and pretty much whenever else) past. He dipped his head to let Sarouth start finger-combing the mess he’d made back into something more presentable. “Yeah, you’ll see me once the sun starts its settin’. I’ll try not ter volunteer fer any obligations what might delay me overly much. Would be a shame ter fuck up our dinner plans.”

“That it would. Now hold still, this part in the front is trying to stick out sideways, I swear….”

For a man claiming to have sanctifications to get around to Sarouth sure did take his time actually walking away from breakfast. Not that Riaag minded, of course; putting aside all the parts where he was Sarouth’s bodyguard, acolyte, herald, fire-sharer, cook, and whatever else, he considered Sarouth a friend, and as far as Riaag was concerned that title belonged to people he actually liked being around and vice versa. Having been introduced to the concept much later in life, he was trying to make the most of it. A little dawdling in the face of work left undone was a small price to pay for such luxuries. 

Once Riaag’s hair was groomed back into submission and they’d negotiated what would become of the basket (namely that Riaag would worry about getting it back to the tent on his own time, assuming nobody looked like they needed to use it between now and then), Sarouth brushed a few crumbs from his robes, gave Riaag a kiss, and left in the direction of the clearest-looking field. Riaag would’ve watched him go had he not heard a clamor of distant voices, and these sounded a bit too sharp to leave them to work things out on their own. He sighed. It was probably for the best that something was going wrong. Too smooth of a ride would make him worry far more than a few scuffles ever could, and Riaag was a champion worrier.

With his axe in his hand and a meal in his stomach, Riaag set his jaw and began to purposefully make his way towards the rising argument, ready and willing to teach them how to hug things out by any means necessary.

By the time afternoon had started to slide towards evening the fields were clear enough for Sarouth’s purposes. Nothing happened in Naar Rhoan without sacrifice, be it sweat, or blood, or merely time, each offering a memory of how the First Scavenger Himself had sacrificed back in the eons before eons, but you couldn’t just stick a knife in a goat and call it a day if you wanted your efforts to mean anything. No, something as big as growing food for countless people required great care if you wanted it to happen. That generally meant a lot of steps: not only would the Rhoanish clean the fields, they would nourish them, and dig great furrows in the ground to house the precious seeds they preserved from the year before, all layered with gifts of ashes, compost, blood, and prayer.

Some steps were more literal than others, and that was why Sarouth had walked out to greet the farmers that crisp spring morning. Fire and song would come later. First, before all things, there was the dance.

Like most ceremonial dances—not the same thing as a dance that was merely part of a ceremony, not by a league—there was no music played to accompany it, not even someone reciting a bit of the Chant. They said that whatever it was that god-speakers heard as they twirled would bubble up from the Labyrinth itself, that the bold red lines that wrapped up their arms made each Agritakh-ruhd into a living harp that the Hill God played even as they honored Him. Riaag wasn’t so sure about that part, as between his long years of helping with rites and two all-too-short ones of getting up close and personal with said ink they’d yet to yield any noises that hadn’t come out of Sarouth’s mouth, and Sarouth was probably the only orc alive who couldn’t sing at all, so if there was any truth to such a saying then there had to be something less literal going on there. Whatever the reason and whatever the way, when Sarouth slipped out of his sandals and stepped out onto the empty ground, it was to the kind of silence that you only heard when a large group of people were all trying to remain still at once.

For most ritual matters Sarouth would cooperate with Riaag, the pair of them trading off as their strengths determined so as to best serve the assembled worshipers, but the dance was not a task for teamwork. Sarouth hadn’t looked to Riaag to see if they were both ready to start, hadn’t offered a reassuring smile to ease any nerves between them. He had simply acted, the same way a sinkhole or a thunderbolt acted: inevitable, powerful, perhaps arbitrary. This was something he had to do alone. Riaag had practiced wearing a brave face for times such as these, but his heart still ached every time he thought for too long about the way it put distance between them. All he could do now was wait and watch, and maybe intercept anybody who got the bright idea of trying to interrupt the Faaroug himself in the middle of something important.

All eyes remained on the twirling figure in black as he slowly crossed each field. And why wouldn’t they? Even in a crowd he was impossible to ignore. Sarouth made a habit of being easy to pick out of a crowd no matter how he dressed, of course, and it went far beyond the luxurious make of his robes and ornaments. He radiated authority. All god-speakers radiated authority, if you were going to be technical about it, but in Riaag’s experience Sarouth especially did so, and not just because he was the love of Riaag’s life. It had to be an avatar thing. Having met exactly one avatar (that he’d recognized as such) during his nearly three decades alive, Riaag wasn’t about to claim to be an authority on avatar things, but it made sense that scrunching up a little scrap of unfiltered divinity, no matter how tiny a mote, was prone to making the mortal shells they inhabited feel larger than life no matter what they were doing. It’d be more of a problem if that sense of awe wasn’t there at all.

The jewelry that dripped from Sarouth’s body was bright in the spring sunshine, the facets of the quartzes glittering with every move, and the layers of pattern-edged ebon wool he wore did nothing but emphasize their sparkle. The agate-set circlet upon his brow was as boldly colorful as the sky before a storm. Each little point of light reflecting from Sarouth’s raiment flickered across the ground as though he were calling down the stars themselves to rest in the soil. Given just how much had happened over the winter Riaag wouldn’t put it past him; one such fallen star lay back in their tent, wrapped up in blessed materials until they could figure out what to do with it, and for all Riaag knew it still bore lingering traces of the evil it had felled wherever they hadn’t burned up from the great heat of the thing’s terrible impact. That had all happened over the winter, though, and winter was ending. There were no nightmare men here in need of smiting. Any summoned stars would swoop down from their perches for only the sweetest of reasons this time around.

Sarouth birled and gyrated artfully, his bare feet stamping the dirt like he was trying to press life into them using only his toes. In a way that was exactly what he was doing, Riaag supposed, though that was far too simple a phrasing for what was both a tangible event and a complex metaphor in one. For all that they were keen on teaching new hands to perform old tasks, some things only an Agritakh-ruhd could do if you wanted them done right. Spinning in circles with your shoes off and doing a few cartwheels wasn’t going to cut it. Shit like this required more than just believing things would happen and finding proof in the final results, though ironclad faith in oneself did have its place; you just had to actually be capable of invoking the powers of a god or all the willpower in the land would just be so many happy thoughts. If all you had to do to bring about change was want something hard enough, the world would be a very, very different place.

A particularly deep bend caught Riaag’s attention, as it wouldn’t do to have Sarouth pass out in the middle of something important, but no, he sprang right back up like a river reed before he lost his balance entirely. It was easy to forget how much he’d throw himself into things in the months between field blessings. Was there a pattern to his movements? Would a passing rain reveal furrows tracing sacred symbols where Sarouth had passed? Riaag squinted but couldn’t spot anything in particular. He hadn’t been trained to interpret portents while most god-speakers had trouble not doing so; spend enough time serving an Agritakh-ruhd and you picked up all sorts of tricks to make their lives easier, like straining out tea leaves before serving them a fresh cup or cleaning up dropped yarrow stalks before your chosen cleric spotted them and felt compelled to stop and study the strange geometries traced by the spill. You had to protect them from themselves almost as much as you had to keep the hazards of the world at bay. Riaag had picked up plenty of experience with both.

To their credit, the newer farmers remained as still and reverent as everyone else. Some years Riaag had needed to run interference, but not this time; this time people were happy to let Sarouth dance in a silence broken only by the distant sounds of the stronghold and whatever was going on inside his own head. It was important that anyone could come and see, and just as important that no one disturbed him. For all Riaag knew Sarouth was busy walking the Labyrinth that very moment and his body had been left behind to move by divine will. Then again, maybe he was focusing as hard as he could on what he was doing, and none of it was the result of letting a greater power puppet him? Either way it was crucial nobody got in the way; breaking a god-speaker’s concentration was unfortunate at best and disastrous at worst, since things were different in the Labyrinth. You heard stories about god-speakers being jostled in the middle of a vision and thinking they were still facing the things that walked those unseen corridors. Riaag had cut Sarouth’s visions short plenty of times over the years, the worst that had happened being Sarouth complaining that Riaag had ruined a particularly good streak, but none of those had been so intensely physical as the annual dance for the sowing to come. Better to be safe than sorry. The world had enough sorrow to go around as it was.

At long last Sarouth reached the end of his dance and collapsed. It was a normal kind of fall, the kind that meant he’d wrung himself dry in the service of that which he both loved and was, and while he was sweaty, panting, and lying in an undignified heap, it was hard to miss the huge grin on his face. Riaag, upon seeing this, let himself unclench. This was how things were supposed to go. Some days he got himself so wound up preparing for the worst (and sometimes even worse than that) that he could forget it was possible for things to actually go right. He needed to work on that; caution had its place, forever and always, but he couldn’t live like that all the time or he’d core himself out watching for threats that didn’t exist. The amulet he wore against his arm helped with the worst of it. Recognizing when he was falling back into bad old habits helped keep him from burning through those faster than he needed to. For now, all he had to do was handle removing an Agritakh-ruhd from the field so everyone else could get back to work. That he could do.

Sarouth smiled when Riaag’s shadow fell across him and reached out his hands plaintively. “Carry me back?”

“You just wants an excuse ter be picked up,” said Riaag with a chuckle as he knelt down.

“Always,” said Sarouth. “But seriously, I’m pretty sure if I tried to walk I’d just fall right on my ass again, so if you wouldn’t mind helping me out a little here I’d appreciate it.”

“Well, if you’s insistin’….” Riaag gently threaded his arms under Sarouth’s knees and behind his back. From there it was just a matter of time until they were back home and Sarouth didn’t have to struggle to keep awake anymore.

Carrying Sarouth was easy. Well, not as easy as some things, as he was hardly a small man and much of his wiry build was pure muscle, but Riaag had blossomed into adulthood under the weight of a full suit of metal scale with extra plating for good measure, and pairing that with the load of his entire tent and field kit plus whatever other shit they’d needed to haul had yielded some truly ferocious training back during their wandering days. Riaag had learned the hard way that he could pick up a fully-fattened horse if he needed to. Compared to that, Sarouth was practically nothing. A horse ready for the butcher block tended not to be willing to loop its arms (or was it legs? what were you supposed to call those when an imaginary animal was behaving like a person?) around his neck to better distribute its weight, and the exhausted god-speaker he knew best was far less likely to flail and kick while he was moving them. That kind of difference added up over time.

No, picking up a fully grown adult and hauling him somewhere else was one of the simpler parts of standing watch at rituals. The hard part about overseeing this sort of thing was how much Riaag ended up feeling like an observer to his own life while waiting for each solo rite to reach their end. He did plenty of things during a normal day, ranging from simple drudge work to helping in the public kitchens to patrolling the open spaces outside the stronghold’s walls, and he didn’t bear a scar from an avatar of Wolf—that lauded member of the great Animals, second only to the Scavenger Kings in majesty—just for sitting on his ass. He’d fought demons and ghosts alike in his time, his axe and shield forever in the service of keeping Sarouth alive another day, and the tusked skulls at his belt hadn’t gotten there by accident. He was a warrior-poet that didn’t skimp on either part of the phrase. He’d built this place, or at least the first shell of it before anyone else had moved in. Naar Rhoan on the whole loved him and flourished when he was around to look after things. So why did he feel so useless sometimes?

No, maybe useless was the wrong word. Riaag was a very useful person, as anyone (including himself) would agree. The stronghold was a cleaner, safer, and overall calmer place because of his deeds. The problem was that he was passive. Things happened to him, or around him, and he’d react. Stimulus, response. Stimulus, response. So it’d been since he’d been picked up off the blood-muddied ground and given a new life, and if Riaag was being honest with himself, hadn’t his old life among the unclean been strung over that same basic frame? He’d always been the one to make a distraction when things got bad, but what had he done to prevent having to do so in the first place? Thinking about the past never went anywhere good—and he was allowed not to think about it, Sarouth had washed that all away in the Hill God’s eyes upon their very first meeting, making it as dead and irrelevant as the ancestors he didn’t have in the first place—so Riaag forced himself to drop the subject and move on to something else.

Perhaps he was looking at things from the wrong angle. He’d been the one to shape his own oath, hadn’t he? Sarouth never would have asked, in part because Sarouth knew how delicate Riaag could be and in part because (in spite of having pined for Riaag for an embarrassingly long time, which was not helped by Riaag meeting just about all of Sarouth’s preferences in a man from personality on down, even with his fucked-up teeth) Sarouth was determined not to poison the well of friendship they’d dug together. They would’ve lived at arm’s length for the rest of their lives had Riaag not taken matters into his own hands. He had known exactly how shitty Sarouth was with relationships and had wanted to make things work between them anyway. He’d gone where no god-speaker dared to tread! More importantly, it had even gone well! That had to count for something.

Wherever you go, I’ll follow. Whatever words he’d used to say it, that was the reply Riaag had always given every time Sarouth had offered him an excuse to walk out on his duties, and he’d meant it every time. Who could choose differently? The alternative was unthinkable, even before they’d grown close enough for Sarouth to cuddle limply against Riaag’s caftan while being carried back to their shared tent. Even at his lowest, Riaag had clung to that goal, as even if he hadn’t accepted Sarouth’s initial gift of purity into his own heart at the time, he could sense how much more purpose his life would have in the service of the strange, pale-haired youth who’d told him Agritakh loved him just as Riaag loved Him back. He’d learned to live instead of just exist. In the shadow of a traveling god-speaker he’d grown from a meek, pathetic thing to a man of great bravery, from a sad creature who couldn’t stand to look someone in the eye to a…well, he was still prone to bouts of great sorrow, but he felt other things, too.

One such other thing was how gross Sarouth’s robes were now threatening to become. How much sweat could one man make? It wasn’t even that hot outside! By then they were back at the tent and the felted wool walls helped Riaag remember where he was so he could focus on the task at hand, his mind once more pulled back from wandering. He left Sarouth on some cushions to close up the tent flap behind them. “Let’s get you outta them things ‘n rinse you up so’s you ain’t gonna wake up smelly.”

“I’ll wake up however I like,” said Sarouth, though he offered no resistance once some bathwater was on the fire to heat and Riaag had time to strip him down. That he didn’t make more than a few cursory attempts at flirting throughout was the most telling evidence of just how tired he was.

Just because he was nigh unto dead on his feet didn’t mean he was oblivious to the world, though. “Something on your mind, brave warrior?” he asked after Riaag had finished taking a wet cloth to his skin and dressed him again in a fresher, simpler outfit. “You’ve seemed halfway elsewhere ever since my dancing.”

Riaag half-shrugged as he continued tucking the blankets up around Sarouth’s chin. “Just been thinkin’ a bit. A fella’s done right by takin’ a step back ter evaluate his life choices now ‘n again.”

“So are we all,” said Sarouth with a weary nod. “But is it something you want to talk about…?”

The answer was closer to a yes than Riaag had expected, but one look at Sarouth’s face was proof that he was clinging to consciousness by the skin of his teeth. Things could wait. “Nah. Maybe later. You rest up, now, y’hear? Cain’t be havin’ you too sleepy ter eat yer supper.”

“Oh, if I must….”

They shared a short kiss—which involved a lot more tongue than one would expect from a man who looked tired from breath to bones, but that was Sarouth White-Hair for you—before Riaag stood back up. Based on how his eye had drifted closed nearly the moment they broke their kiss Sarouth was likely to be down for hours. That would be another few hours Naar Rhoan would exist without the direct guidance of a cleric, and unlike the blind spots that happened every night when Sarouth slept, these would be smack dab in the middle of the day. Riaag could handle a few hours on his own. Maybe this would be the kind of opportunity he needed to push himself out of that comfortably passive rut of his and bring about change in the stronghold without always following somebody else’s lead? Well, there was only one way to find out.

After running a brush through his hair and making a quick check of some foodstuffs he was aging for later in the week, Riaag laced up the flap behind him and returned to the stronghold at large, once more in the service of his people.

Being more active in his own life would mean going looking for potential problems instead of letting them happen to him first, so Riaag decided his first order of business as a more proactive person would be to patrol the traveler’s fields to check in on the current swath of visitors.

Traveler’s fields were nothing new—he and Sarouth had made camp in their share of other strongholds’ over the years, themselves, since it was the best way to spend the time around a holiday—so most nomads had some inkling of what to do there, but once their tents were pitched and their animals were seen to, people sometimes had trouble figuring out what all they were expected to do next. People got the wildest-ass ideas when they heard they’d be begging protection from a bunch of oddballs who ate grain and kept sticking their noses into goings-on well outside the valley. No wonder you’d get shepherds kicking their heels and worrying over whether they were expected to hand over the fattest of their flocks in exchange for shelter, or leave a beloved bandmate behind to fatten the Rhoanish ranks, or whatever new dumbass idea had lodged itself in their heads; Naar Rhoan could be a source of no small culture shock! Riaag had found that being big and important-looking was often all the sovereignty someone needed in such a situation, and so he made sure to look as salient as possible as he strode along the border of the cleared grounds on the northern side of the stronghold.

He kept his ears pricked during his patrol. One thing you had to be careful of when letting new people in was making sure they didn’t try to bring any bad behavior with them, as that was all part of keeping a community healthy, so whenever he heard children crying or voices raised in anger it was Riaag’s duty to see why such noises came to be. Most of the time the causes were more or less benign; there were no laws in the stronghold that said everyone had to agree with everyone else all the time, after all, and sometimes kids could be very loud if they were hungry, tired, or struck with the colic. Usually there was nothing that needed to be done outside of a little outside mediation and maybe changing a diaper cloth or two. On the very rare occasions that intervention was required, it would be handled as swiftly and responsibly as possible, because that was just what the Rhoanish did for one another. Riaag had always been a responsible soul.

That afternoon proved to be a calm one. Some people greeted Riaag as he passed, a few local children swarmed him and demanded treats (Riaag’s ever-present bag of bone chips being a known factor, while the little ones were at that age where no amount of milk or chalk could sate them), and on one instance he’d needed to chase after a retreating chicken, but none of that was out of the ordinary. He told curious visitors where to find food, water, supplies, latrines. He pointed a bright-eyed young woman who’d yet to lose the childhood urge for picking fights towards Kala Cold-Iron, the stronghold’s master-at-arms, since learning what Naar Rhoan expected of its guards would hopefully give that fire of hers something more productive to do than leaving a trail of black eyes across the commons. He carried a washtub from one camp to another. He sang to someone’s baby. Nobody needed more than a question or two’s worth of information out of him for the whole of his meandering walk.

That was, nobody did up until a jolly, lanky fellow Riaag recognized as one Osmo Wild-Tooth, traveling herbalist, waved to him.

“Riaag Bough-Breaker!” said Osmo as he jogged up to meet him. “It’s good to see you well. What’s become of the Holy One? Usually the two of you are as close as nesting vultures whenever our band comes to visit.” The twisted extra tusk that gave him his name also gave Osmo a bit of a lisp, but he’d never once seemed too troubled by or ashamed of it. As a fellow owner of atypical dentition Riaag had always liked that about him.

“He’s danced hisself ter bits again, so he’s recuperatin’ back in bed fer a spell. Good news is that we’s right on track ter do all the rest ‘a things exactly on time. Probably just gonna be one, maybe two more days afore the blood offering, then we plow, then we plant, then it’s all up ter the grace ‘a His earth.” He straightened. “You need him fer somethin’? I can go try ter wake him if’n it’s important.”

“Oh, no no no, don’t worry yourself! We’re still making camp, ourselves.” Osmo clapped his hands together and rubbed them. He grinned eagerly as he continued. “I’m so glad we’re in time for the offering. We’ve been tending our own plants for generations, and we’ve taken advantage of Rhoanish generosity enough that many of us were hoping to be able to give back more than just what our gardens can offer.”

Riaag waved him off. “Our gates is open ter any what accepts our offer ‘a welcome, don’t matter what they got in they satchels,” he said. It was the same speech he made most any time visitors asked what was expected of them in exchange for shelter. That Naar Rhoan didn’t need to ask things of people remained one of the greatest miracles of all. “Should you care ter join us we’s happy ter have you, but don’t go thinkin’ it’s an obligation or nothin’. All we ask is fer folks within our walls ter be good neighbors.”

Osmo laughed. “And bad neighbors go on the wall, right?”

“Fucken precisely,” said Riaag with a grin of his own.

It wasn’t like it was hard to understand: those who didn’t find peace during their time in the stronghold were welcome to leave at any point, and those who came to it with trouble in their hearts could seek out forgiveness to be remade, wonderful and whole, and those who sought to bring harm to Naar Rhoan or its people would have their remains piked up on the palisades for the ravens to pick. Simple and elegant. Those who went on the wall even found the dignity of proper funeral rites once the Hill God beckoned them to return to His earth! Not every camp or stronghold that displayed corpses were so generous. Riaag tried to reflect the promise of the wall in his own actions, as befit a properly pious individual; even the most wicked or craven orc was still an orc, his own blood-kind, and at the end of the day Agritakh would still call them home if they had any room for Him remaining in their rotted-out hearts. If they first had to be made into crow food to keep from doing ill by their fellow children before that happy calling came to pass, well, that was just part of life’s great wheel of seasons, now wasn’t it?

Something Osmo had said piqued Riaag’s interest. “So, you said y’all brung yer gardens with you this time?” Most of the Rhoanish’s neighbors didn’t have any desire to stay in one place for too long, but that hardly meant they relied solely on foraging things where they grew for any needful flora; those nomads whose thumbs were greener than most kept carts full up of soil and whatever plants they chose to tend. Not surprisingly, their number tended to be easier to convince about the whole bread thing than those who didn’t get their hands in the leaves as often.

Osmo kept his grin. “Same as always!”

“Superb. Next time you’s among yer band start tallyin’ up what all you’s needin’ or wantin’, since I know we got some plant-minded folks what is dyin’ fer new seeds ‘n things, ter say nothin’ ‘a how I myself is nearly outta silverweed root, which is gonna fuck up my meal plans most dreadful if’n I cain’t find a surplus.”

“Roots, shoots, and silverweed,” said Osmo, ticking things off on his fingers. “I think we can manage something, and of course we’ve got plenty more seeds and seasonings of our own we’d be happy to trade. Always happy to aid our fellow leafmasters.”

The verdict was still out on how Riaag felt about the word leafmaster. It made enough sense on its own; the Rhoanish and their nomadic kin alike understood beastmasters, since you couldn’t last long on the steppe (or among the trees, or in the highlands, or…) without knowing how to work alongside animals, and save for a few lean-living bands that kept no creatures at all in favor of hunting everything they ate, it was unusual to see people who didn’t travel with some combination of dogs, sheep, or messenger ravens. To handle animals you needed to have mastery of them, the same way a healer needed a mastery of wounds to properly cure the hurt and sick, so no matter whether you herded geese or trained war dogs you would earn the title of beastmaster if you proved you deserved it. Plants, on the other hand, were a lot quieter, didn’t move around very much without outside assistance, and could be said to do the opposite of shitting up the place if you felt like getting particular about things, but you certainly had to know what you were doing or they would die on you, maybe poisoning you quite badly in the process if you were especially careless. Given how hard Riaag knew the farmers worked every year, why not let them claim a mastery of their own? He suspected he just didn’t like how twee the word sounded to his ears. Maybe it’d grow on him.

As Osmo didn’t need his opinion either way, Riaag instead just nodded in response. “We’s got the usual group meal comin’ up later terday if yer band hain’t the time ter prepare nothin’ yet. Anythin’ else I oughtta know about? You’s been here afore, you know what all services we’s glad ter offer guests.”

“There was one thing,” said Osmo. Riaag could hear a twinge of hesitance in his voice.

“Yeah?”

“Some of ours are in need of a healer’s care. The first thing we did upon claiming a spot in the traveler’s field was to go looking to see how busy yours were, but when we went to where their tent had been the last time we visited, there was a…a thing.”

Riaag raised his eyebrows. “A thing, you says?” Nothing had seemed out of the ordinary when he’d passed by that way earlier in the day, but most problems didn’t have the courtesy to announce themselves ahead of time. If there was something strange going on, it was going to fall to Riaag to handle things until Sarouth was up for walking again, and in the absolute worst case scenario he knew where sacred moly flowers grew. The last thing they needed was demons or something bothering people already busy with trying to get well.

“It was, hrm. Something like a little stronghold? But with a top on it? I didn’t see it myself, but my daughter came back very confused, and kept talking about something like a big yurt. Nobody else seemed concerned, but I wanted to ask about it.”

Ah, right. Nomads often went years of their lives not seeing any structures more permanent than those they could dismantle and carry along with them. Even Riaag, who was a lot more traveled than most denizens of the valley, was more used to seeing permanent buildings in places that weren’t the stronghold, especially when it came to anything fancier than rabbit hutches or grain storage. “You tell her she were in the right place. We calls that thing a pavilion fer now, ‘n it’s where we has our healers do they work without near so much trouble from the wind ‘n weather. We had it built up big so as ter have plenty ‘a room in case ‘a great tragedy. Don’t be surprised if’n you finds the floor ter be made up ‘a wood ‘neath any tarps unrolled ‘cross it, as that’s ter keep the whole thing stable, ‘n less likely ter get all muddy when it rains.” What else would a visitor need to know about the healers’ pavilion? Ah, yes. “You see any River People loiterin’ ’round there, they’s likely the ones what did much ‘a the plannin’, as their ornery lot has agreed ter aid us in such endeavors.”

Osmo’s expression was one Riaag was used to finding on people when explaining some weird-ass Rhoanish thing or another to visitors. Riaag had seen it many, many times over the years. Such was the price of innovation. “River People?”

“Them skinny little shorties with the big ears ‘n eyes all up ‘n down like a snake’s. If they don’t answer when you greets ’em, try ter let it slide. Not all of ’em speak much other’n they own tongue.”

“Really! We’ve seen them during the few trips we’ve made out here over the last year or so, yes. I always thought they were a new kind of merchant.”

“Nah. Diff’rent blood-kind completely,” said Riaag, though he could see how someone might make that mistake. River People were very different from merchants if you had one of each standing side to side, but from a distance? The lack of tusks, claws, and any hint of verdance to their pigmentation made them look more like each other than either resembled orcs. If Osmo didn’t know how to identify one on sight yet, it also felt appropriate to share another trait of Naar Rhoan’s cranky little allies: “They cain’t abide the touch ‘a neither iron nor steel, so take care ter put such away if’n you’s tryin’ ter kindle a conversation. It’s just proper mannerly.”

A pair of River People, both bundled up against the springtime chill and wearing belts hung heavily with architect’s tools, walked past, murmuring to each other in their soft, tonal language while fluttering their fingers like they were spinning invisible thread. While he wasn’t about to eavesdrop without good reason to, Riaag was able to pick up bits and pieces of their conversation. It seemed the project, the big project—everyone knew which one—was coming along nicely, they both missed how cozy their River God kept the weather back home in their village, and they had strong opinions about which varieties of Rhoanish food went best with the pungent fish sauce their fellows brewed by the bucketful. They shot Riaag and Osmo a sour glance as they passed, saying nothing and making no gestures in greeting, and immediately returned to their animated exchange upon moving on. Both men watched them go in silence.

“Charming bunch,” said Osmo once the two were out of long, pointy earshot.

Riaag shrugged. “They’s like that, yeah. Near as I can tell it’s natural fer them ter be a little bit shitty ter outsiders most ‘a the time, even when it’s them what’s on the outside ‘a things. They don’t mean nothin’ by it.”

“I’m surprised none of them are up on the wall yet.”

“If all it took ter end up on a pike was makin’ a stinky face, this place’d be clear unter empty in under a week,” said Riaag. “They’s helpin’ us, we’s likewise helpin’ them, ‘n aside from our cultural diff’rences we’s gettin’ by pretty alright.” He opted not to say anything about the terms of Naar Rhoan’s pact with the River People’s home village of Usoa. He also chose not to mention those Rhoanish bands that had acquired sharp-chinned faces to sit at their fires, or how many of the stilt-legged Usoan homes overlooking the distant river hosted greener houseguests; most people could figure that part out on their own. Riaag didn’t see it, himself, but there was clearly something both blood-kinds could find to savor in one another, no matter how many withering glares had to be exchanged before the clothes came off.

Osmo seemed happy with this answer. “The Faaroug is truly a man of great diplomacy if he can find friends among such thorns,” he said.

“We’s blessed fer the bounty ‘a his guidance,” agreed Riaag. And he’s blessed I’m around to keep his fool ass out of the hornets’ nests he keeps kicking like his life depends on it, he thought to himself, which wasn’t blasphemy, since Sarouth himself had cheerfully admitted as much in the past. Theirs was an honest relationship. Said honesty had only grown once they’d stopped lying to themselves about what they could have together. Sadly, it hadn’t done a damned thing about Sarouth’s foolhardiness.

“Another thing, Bough-Breaker? On our way in, another of my children said he saw a little shape in the woods following us. Once we got close enough to see the gates it disappeared. It didn’t threaten us or do anything alarming, otherwise we would’ve told the guards once we crossed the wall.”

Riaag frowned in thought. Shape could mean a few different things he could think of and who knew how many things he couldn’t. “What kinda shape were it?”

“Like a person, almost, though he didn’t get a very good look at it.”

“How tall was it? Long hair ‘r short? Any other oddness ’bout the head ‘r build? Also, was they any wolves about when he saw such?”

“No wolves, at least not that any of us could tell,” said Osmo. He rubbed his chin. “Long hair, I’m pretty sure, and about the size of a child who’s old enough to start thinking about a name. My son said it could’ve almost been his own shadow.”

While that narrowed things down quite a bit, Riaag was determined to be duly diligent. “Didn’t have long ears like the River People got, did it?”

Osmo shrugged. “If it looked like anything other than an orc, my son couldn’t tell.”

“Then yeah, I can formally say we’s aware ‘a such a little shadow, Wild-Tooth, ‘n is keepin’ an eye on it. It should letcha alone fer the most part. Just make sure not ter leave food unattended outside the walls lest you’s willin’ ter let little hands in the forest help theyselves ter a treat.” The last thing Riaag needed was for visitors to be antagonized, be they coming or going, during what was meant to be a festival season, so he was grateful he had someone on which he could rely to make sure those little forest hands weren’t getting into even more mischief. He’d need to pay that certain someone a visit later. For now, he’d try not to let it bother him.

“That’s good to know. Just one more thing to get used to during our visit, I suppose!”

A little tickle in Riaag’s head demanded his attention: if he was going to be less of a passive observer in his own life, he’d need to start by not waiting for questions to be asked of him all the time! “Them unwell bandmates ‘a yers, they gonna need any aid gettin’ ter the pavilion? I’s available ter assist if’n such assistance is welcome.”

“Well, that’s terribly kind of you!” said Osmo. “I’m sure our maligned ones can manage on our own, as they do know where to go and nobody’s actively leaking guts, but if you insist—”

“I does.”

“—then I’m sure they’ll be grateful for another shoulder to lean on. And if they refuse, we can at least take the chance to trade some news with one another. Please, let me lead you to our camp to meet its members, Bough-Breaker.”

“I’d be delighted ter do such, Wild-Tooth,” said Riaag, and his new, more take-charge self was happy to fall in line to see where Osmo might lead him.

The southern gates of Naar Rhoan opened onto a woodland that cradled the valley lowlands, a simple road leading from said gates being the only concession anything made towards being convenient for caravan travel, and it was this spreading forest that provided some of the stronghold’s food supplies and most of its firewood. Riaag frequently found reason to head out into the trees by himself. Usually this was so he could make good on his deed name and break some more boughs for whoever might need more kindling; today, however, he’d decided to give Sarouth a little more time alone to rest, and the best way Riaag had found to keep himself out of somebody else’s way was to work on some chores he’d set for himself. Doing so in the company of the canopy was optional, but so long as the weather held up, why not enjoy it?

His task of choice was currently sewing up holes in other people’s socks. There was so much shit that still needed fixing from over the winter. Riaag hated to admit it, but he and Sarouth were probably two such things in need of repair. Naar Rhoan was home to warm beds, hot food, and absolutely nothing that could break reality by thinking hard about it, but even now, months after enduring the worst of what winter had brought, he still sometimes found himself worrying he’d wake up and find himself smack dab in the middle of all that mess again. He knew it was just a wormy little fear-delusion, that he was back among friends and loved ones and he was, more or less, safe, and knowing this did help a bit. Knowing a truth and accepting it were very different beasts, however, and Sarouth had long since given him permission to struggle on the journey from one to the other. It had been an exhausting few months for everyone. Riaag had resigned himself to needing time to return to what passed for normal. Mending tangible things (like other people’s socks) felt like a good way to remind himself that the intangible could be healed, too, and this mantra kept his mind calm enough to keep from burning out his amulets too early.

By focusing on his sewing he could better ignore the little shitty thoughts that kept trying to freak him out or make him cry when he wasn’t expecting them—and it was fine he was having those more often now that he was home, Sarouth had said, since a wound often hurt its worst only after you actually pulled the knife out and got it properly bandaged up—in favor of letting his hands perform actions they knew by touch. He could think about the way things were going well for the stronghold. He could think about Sarouth’s dance across the fields, and the smiles of children as they grew up safe inside the wall, and how he was still pretty pleased with breakfast. He could think about how happy people would be to have mended socks again. Part of being a less passive person involved recognizing problems in his life and doing something about them, and that included determining which things were worthy of his time (socks) and which deserved his neglect, instead (wormy thoughts). It was amazing how active you could be just by figuring out what you needed to ignore.

He was not, however, going to ignore the large wolf that appeared from the underbrush as subtly and quietly as mist in the morning. Wolves appearing from nowhere could mean a few things, as one such encounter had given Riaag the scar he wore on his shoulder; when his eyes spied the little decorative cuff around one of the wolf’s front legs and made out the familiar markings of its fur, he relaxed some. This one, he knew.

“Hey, furball,” he said, pleasantly. “You comin’ ter say hi?” He rested his sewing to the side long enough to pull out one of the bone chips he kept on him and tossed it to the wolf. Just like always, the creature caught the chip in midair and settled down to loudly crunch on it. Riaag hadn’t expected otherwise. Wolves weren’t really known for being good conversationalists.

A quiet voice spoke from somewhere above the shadow-dappled trees, its Rhoanish accented in a manner the nomads never used. “You are a strange man, Riaag Bough-Breaker. You see a beast of such a nature and think nothing to greet it, despite its strength and size.”

Riaag shrugged. “I’s seen bigger.” It was so; the avatar of Wolf who’d marked him had been tremendous, easily the size of a horse, and any who doubted Riaag’s claims were given pause when shown the helmet he’d made from the divine servant’s remains. That it could fit over Riaag’s massive head in the first place was testament enough to the mass of the thing. More normal-sized wolves were still worth respecting, especially if there were a lot of them, but when there was just one animal involved Riaag had always considered his odds more favorable than anything that didn’t have thumbs, or smarts, or tools made of metal. Not even a saber-tooth could compare.

He checked the seams on the sock he’d just finished mending, nodded to himself, and pulled a fresh garment from the basket to repair. When he spoke it was once more directed to the empty air. “What brings you out this way, Etxeloi? Just sayin’ hello, yerself? Or was you lookin’ ter hear some stronghold gossip what don’t always make it all the way out ter the treeline?”

With scarcely a sound, something dropped from the branches to the ground to stand at the wolf’s side. It unfolded itself into a figure clad in many subtle shades, the long ears of one of the River People poking out from beneath its mask and hood, and regarded Riaag with the eerie fox-eyes such people bore; even with Riaag remaining seated, the masked figure was decidedly shorter than him. A cuff of beads that matched the one the wolf wore encircled one slender, glove-covered wrist. “It has been some time, Riaag Bough-Breaker,” said Etxeloi, thusly revealed. “I have only spoken with you twice since you returned from the other side of the river.”

“Yeah, yeah. Sorry ’bout that. I’s had my hands right overloaded half the fucken time. Hope you ain’t had too hard a time spyin’ on us without me.” Riaag grinned, just in case his friendly intent wasn’t clear enough from his words. It wasn’t like he was wrong, either; the people of Usoa were closely followed by the shadows of Usoa, and it was no secret that Etxeloi, the leader of those forest-running shadows, kept close to the stronghold to better report his findings to the village’s leaders. Riaag had come to assume anything he said around Etxeloi was never strictly in confidence unless explicitly stated. As he also considered Etxeloi a friend, albeit a slightly creepy one, he didn’t mind too much.

“Your Naar Rhoan abides,” said Etxeloi, and wasn’t he a clever thing for picking up a word like that on his own? “We watched it endure after you and your White-Hair left. The woman you set to mind it, she watched it well. It did not falter even when the snow was heavy.”

“Yeah, Ruzhu Kind-Knife knows her shit,” said Riaag. “She ain’t got it in her heart ter stay in one place fer long, least not yet, which is why she minded the baby real good but was off like a fucken thunderbolt once the stronghold changed hands again. Ain’t heard nothin’ bad ’bout her time in charge, unless that’s why you’s come ter see me terday, in which case I’s gonna be askin’ why I ain’t heard ‘a such trouble sooner.”

Etxeloi shook his head. “I have no complaint with your Kind-Knife, no,” he said. “I had thought at first she might come to speak with me, as you do, but she did not. It was a quiet winter.”

“Quiet’s good. Mean’s nothin’s on fire. We’s gonna be blessin’ the fields comin’ up soon, ‘n that ain’t likely ter be quiet, what with singin’ ‘n dancin’ ‘n great carryin’-on, so you’s best tell yer little soot puffs out in them trees not ter worry if things get mighty jubilant. It’s just a party fer the Hill God. The blood’s a normal part ‘a such.”

“There will be sacrifices?”

“Among other things. We’s still kinda figurin’ out what kinda fertility rites feel proper Rhoanish. You wanna show up fer any ‘a that?”

“Perhaps,” said Etxeloi in a tone Riaag recognized as one he used to use a lot himself, the one where he was desperately uncomfortable but trying not to offend a host. That wouldn’t do.

“I ain’t offerin’ nothin’ but an invitation. Won’t be no expectations on yer part nor anythin’ what might upset yer Mother ‘a the Waters, just a nice little shindig.”

This didn’t seem to comfort Etxeloi any. “For now, I think I prefer to observe Naar Rhoan from afar.”

“Yeah? You is allowed ter just, fucken, hang out some other day, all calm ‘n casual-like, y’know,” said Riaag, still busy reattaching a toe-cap where it had frayed away from the rest of the sock. “You know we’s a friendly bunch. We’s got plenty ‘a food ‘n fires, ‘n if that ain’t ticklin’ yer fancy, it’s gettin’ warm enough ter bathe in the big lake without yer dick turnin’ inter an icicle. Just ’cause you ain’t Rhoanish don’t mean you cain’t enjoy some Rhoanish hospitality.”

“I am not the only one who walks these woods who has yet to step inside your Naar Rhoan’s gates,” said Etxeloi, once more all business. “The shadow that followed you back across the river has yet to settle in place, Riaag Bough-Breaker.”

This technically could have meant many people, as Etxeloi’s spy network was bigger than just him and his wolf, even this far out from Usoa, but Riaag knew who he meant. Not everything he’d discovered during his trip down south had chosen to stay there. “Yeah, she’s bein’ difficult,” he said. “Last I heard she’s bein’ creepy at visitors but otherwise keepin’ quiet. She ain’t givin’ y’all trouble, is she?”

“You ask this every time you see me now, and every time it is the same. She is no more trouble than any other creature in the forest.” Etxeloi clicked his tongue. “You are lucky we do not lay traps in Rhoanish woods or she would likely have set off most of them by now.”

“Hey, c’mon, she’s just a kid, kids don’t know nothin’ they ain’t been raised with yet. Don’t try claimin’ some shit like how yer blood-kind is right graceful ‘n erudite from the day they’s born, neither. I’s been ter yer village. I know River People brood is just as goony as little orcs in they own special ways.” The slight rustle of cloth against cloth this got in return was the kind of noise Etxeloi made when he was trying not to show he was amused. That was a good sign; he wasn’t the kind of man with time for merriment if more important business was afoot.

“Know that each day she eats,” said Etxeloi, “and when she eats it is nothing that would sicken her, and while we have yet to see her walk inside the walls, when she sleeps she does so close to your Naar Rhoan.”

“That’s somethin’. I fucken swear, Valin Mad-Eyes is gonna be the death ‘a me.”

Valin—as the previously unnamed she was properly called—was ten pounds of hellion in a five-pound bag, spending her days refusing most help offered her but still shyly slinking around the stronghold like an underfed cat. It was like the very notion of socializing with people was anathema to her. Sometimes she’d stare at people from the bushes. Sarouth had given her a proper talking-to back around when they’d first found her south of the river, so at least she wasn’t stealing other people’s shit anymore, but her attitude was awful and she didn’t seem interested in dealing with anybody who wasn’t him, Riaag included. No matter how many caches of food he’d left for her on the way back she still rarely regarded him with anything other than anger or distrust, and that was assuming he saw her long enough to attempt a conversation in the first place, which he usually did not. He hated the thought of a child—because she truly was a child, probably eight or nine at most—being left to wander on her own, but what could he do when she refused all but the most basic of aid?

Riaag wasn’t sure how he felt about Valin. On the surface he should’ve been able to see her and love her immediately, the same as how he approached most any little one, and being a god-speaker herself meant she wasn’t repelled by Sarouth’s divine nature, which was—as Riaag had long since admitted to himself—probably the only way he’d ever be able to raise any sort of actual family that wouldn’t be vying for his attention against the other parts of itself. The logical solution would be to confer with Sarouth about whether or not he wanted this strange, half-feral child as a daughter (which was likely, as Sarouth didn’t dislike children even if normal ones were terrified of him), then ask Valin whether she wanted the two of them as fathers (also fairly likely, as she seemed to respect Sarouth’s mentorship as a fellow Agritakh-ruhd), and then that would be that. Everyone would have what they wanted: Riaag would be a father, Sarouth would have a possible successor, Valin would have people in her life who cared whether she slept in the cold, and it would all end up tied with a nice bow on top like the most syrupy of poems.

The problem was that, as near as Riaag could tell, Valin didn’t like him very much. He still had no idea why. So long as that barrier remained, the logical solution was an impossible one, and he struggled to make peace with that. Valin Mad-Eyes was keen to remain a solitary creature. She didn’t want to be helped. She didn’t want to be loved. She barely wanted to say her prayers. That she was a god-speaker herself only made things that much more complicated.

As long as she remained safe enough, Riaag supposed he couldn’t force her to do anything she didn’t want. You couldn’t force a god-speaker’s hand much at all unless you were one yourself, and that was by no means a guarantee; whether she was more stubborn than Sarouth was a question Riaag was woefully underequipped to answer, but so far the two of them had been in a stalemate ever since she’d first been caught trying to steal baubles off their horses. She’d refused any aid Sarouth would offer that wasn’t directly tied to learning Agritakh-ruhd things, and sometimes not even then. Maybe someday she’d change her mind. Until that day came, Riaag would have to sate himself with the knowledge that she was close by, she was healthy, and someone (more likely several someones) was keeping one slit-pupiled eye on her on the regular.

Usually Riaag was happy to let Etxeloi feed him information at his own pace, as while Etxeloi was kind of weird—weird for an Usoan, even, which was saying something—he was about as friendly as his kind came and he’d yet to steer the stronghold wrong, which was a pretty good outcome for somebody Riaag had originally met at knifepoint. They’d built up a rapport of trusting one another to share anything particularly interesting. Entire conversations could take place with only the subtlest of details passing between them, which was fine, as Riaag truly did appreciate talking to this most unlikely of diplomats. He wasn’t sure if that counted as being too passive, though, and given his decided-upon personal initiative, the more passivity in himself he could sidestep, the better.

Well, there was only one way to address that. Riaag relaxed his throat and switched to speaking Usoan; if he was going to be dealing with visiting architects on the regular he’d need to practice his vocabulary. They’d never get anywhere with anything if they could only communicate on a toddler’s level. “What news do you bring of your own?” he asked.

“Interesting of you to bring it up,” said Etxeloi. Much like Riaag, his word choice was far more natural when speaking his native tongue. “They say that many of Usoa’s best builders keep heading east, through the trees instead of along the river, and their destination is somewhere in the lowlands. They don’t bring any building supplies with them, only tools. It’s been happening for months now. Word on the wind is that they’ve befriended some orcs, which are known to live in the area.”

Riaag rolled his eyes. “And what do I not know?”

“Little that matters to your stronghold. Our village’s affairs remain mostly its own, though the farmers you send to us continue to thrive, and kept themselves busy during the cold months. Planting season is almost here again. I’m sure more than a few hosts will miss having their guests around to help during the day.”

“Are they going somewhere?” Riaag asked, suddenly worried. Had the terms of the pact changed when he wasn’t looking? Was something unseemly happening back at the village?

Etxeloi rustled his many layers of clothing in another show of muffled mirth. “More that they’re going back to work. You Rhoanish are a friendly lot, and it seems more of my kin than I thought find it charming instead of cause for suspicion. I suppose they’ll find a way to make up for it once the day’s labors are done. I won’t be surprised if there’s a brief resurgence of that ‘plague’ that befell us last year in the commotion.”

“Ah, shit, that may be so.” The so-called plague had made things very tense back during the first year of the alliance. Usoans were well-learned in all things toxic, from the stuff they smeared on their weapons to the way they treated outsiders, but apparently this hadn’t prepared them for the reality of how strong the acid in an orc’s saliva could be; the result had been sores nobody had thought to connect to kisses left by their guests. River People’s skin was so very sensitive, especially if nobody had been doing enough rinsing of their mouths with ash-water to take the sting out of their spit. Riaag was still very mildly annoyed by how close they’d come to war over what amounted to a few too many hickeys. “I am sure to tell our farmers to leave their iron at home when they head out for Usoa’s paddies. It should keep the stomach-sickness away, if not the stray kiss marks.”

“Yes, that’s good,” said Etxeloi. “It prevents more accidents from happening that way.”

As harmless as the plague of sweethearts had turned out to be, iron had never not had anything but horrifying results on River Person flesh when Riaag had had cause to defend himself against a few rogue parties who’d disagreed with their chieftain’s stance on the Rhoanish. The smell was the worst part. While nobody had taken the time to sit down and figure out just which tools were hazardous and which were safe to use around Usoans, they definitely got sick if you harvested their crops with iron-headed sickles or prepared their food with a steel-edged knife. Maybe that was one reason such metals rusted when left in water: the River God was simply trying to protect Her own.

Etxeloi looked thoughtful, or at least as thoughtful as a disembodied pair of eyes could manage, and flicked his ears. “That does remind me, though,” he said. He then switched back to Rhoanish, much to Riaag’s surprise. “I know what your White-Hair did south of the river. I know what it took to bring our dead back to us.”

“Yeah…?” Moving people’s bones around didn’t sit right with Riaag, at least not when said bones hadn’t been marinated with seven layers of blessings, but they’d agreed to bring Etxeloi’s fallen comrades home if they found anything to bring home, and so they had. It turned out one thing Riaag liked less than horseback riding was horseback riding with saddlebags stuffed full of bones. Naar Rhoan was far from the only place that had been through a harrowing winter.

“Words whisper on the wind. No one was there to see, but the wind still knows: A star fell. Where it landed, a great evil was snuffed out. It is poison to us, but your blood can touch it, and so you have taken it into your home.” He paused for a moment, as though waiting for Riaag to correct him, then continued on. “What do you plan to do with the remnants?”

“Good fucken question.” Riaag had meant to discuss that with Sarouth, and presumably Sarouth had meant to do the same with him, but there was so much shit to do now that they were home. The days simply melted away beneath it all. When free time came around he kept finding his thoughts anywhere other than puzzling out what to do with the star they’d brought back with them. It was a star, after all, or at least the metallic husk of one, and as it was the nature of stars to hang around for years uncountable by most anyone who walked beneath them, it wasn’t like they were racing the hours to find an answer. Riaag had smelted star-steel once before and knew how careful you had to be while working it. Everything needed to be planned as far in advance as possible, though paradoxically you also had to be ready to change every step of your carefully-plotted scheme at a moment’s notice if you felt the metal yearn for a different fate, and you couldn’t be sure of anything until you’d finally quenched the finished work and set it out to cool. Riaag could still remember the way the metal had fought his hammer like a frenzied serpent. The whole process had been unbelievably tense, especially from how much of it he spent not knowing what would have to change. It made sense that the favored food of a god could be just as mysterious as He was.

Not that Etxeloi needed an extended lecture on metallurgy. “We’s gonna make it inter somethin’, though what that somethin’s gonna be I ain’t able ter say at this juncture. This kinda thing takes proper time ‘n plannin’ ter do right.”

“No grand weapon for your White-Hair?”

“Nah, he’s good. I mean, shit, he’s already got the one, he don’t need another’n weighin’ him down.” Whether or not divine gifts could get jealous of other parts of their bearer’s kit was not a question Riaag could answer, so when Sarouth had been quick to say he was fine with the mace he already carried, there’d been no reason to question him. Not having to compete with the craftsmanship of something that had probably been dreamed into existence within the Labyrinth itself was one less thing to worry about.

The big wolf at Etxeloi’s side crunched down the last bite of its bone and looked up at Riaag expectantly. He stared back over the top of the current sock-sewing, unflinching. A big part of always having a treat for any child (or spymaster’s assistant) that came asking was being adamant against handing out seconds if it was anything other than a festival day. That didn’t count the bone shards he sometimes left outside the gates if he thought Valin was about, but Valin was a special case. She never bothered to beg for snacks.

If Etxeloi minded Riaag either feeding or denying his wolf anything, he said nothing of it. Instead he stroked his chin like he was working his way through a challenging riddle. “So no new arms for the holy man,” he murmured, and to Riaag’s surprise this was still in Rhoanish, “and perhaps none for his guardian, either. Strange, strange. What else do you make from a star?”

“T’won’t be things fer farmin’, of this I’s most certain,” said Riaag. “We use iron tools in our own fields ‘n visitin’ River People don’t seem ter get sick from that what we harvest it, least so long’s it’s had time ter sit ‘n calm itself in a granary fer a bit ter ferget the slice ‘a the blade, but I ain’t eager ter see whether star-steel is so gentle. Better ter avoid the problem entirely.”

“I will try to take some comfort from that.”

Another question presented itself as Riaag flipped the sock right side out and folded it with its mate. “Hey, Etxeloi?”

“Hm?”

“Why’s you askin’ this in my language?”

Etxeloi glanced askance. “My people need to know such a dangerous thing exists, Riaag Bough-Breaker. It is their right. But it is my right to choose when to tell them it lives in Naar Rhoan, and when I do, I want them to know the true shape of this thing. Otherwise there will be nothing but doubt and fear.” Having said this, his eyes met Riaag’s once more. “If these things are said in your tongue, and are overheard by ears that should not, then I can say, ah, we cannot be sure of the words if they are said so strangely, let me find the truth of them. If they are clearer, then it is harder.”

“Huh. Fair ’nuff.” Riaag continued ignoring the wolf’s silent pleas for another piece of bone as he ran some fresh thread through his needle in preparation of yet another sock’s worth of repairs. “Soon as I know one way or t’other, I’ll see whether one ‘a them little windy breezes might catch word.” No, that might not work, especially if he was worried about information making its way back home in any color other than what he wanted it to be. “Or should I call you up all direct-like?”

There was just the smallest of changes in Etxeloi’s stance, changing him from a thoughtful wood-walker to a viper ready to strike. “You would call me up from nowhere, Riaag Bough-Breaker?”

Riaag shrugged. He’d seen the scholar-to-snake act before; if you kept talking to enough Usoans, you got used to it eventually. “I mean, were I lookin’ ter speak with you face ter face, I’d probably do the thing where I lays out some tea ‘n fish on a tree stump ‘n see what falls outta the branches, same as usual. Seems ter work pretty okay as is.”

Etxeloi’s demeanor relaxed back to what it had been before. Perhaps he hadn’t even realized he’d changed it in the first place. “We will see what we will see,” he replied. That was close enough an answer as any.

Their talk was winding down, and Riaag racked his brains for any final pieces he might need to move across the metaphorical board. Here he had the attention of an honest-to-salt spymaster. What would a proactive person do with a spymaster? He’d already mentioned the upcoming revelry, they’d discussed the star…ah, but that did leave one order of business to which he felt he should return.

“The little one, Valin Mad-Eyes.”

“Yes?”

“If’n you sees her…,” he began, but he wasn’t sure how to finish that sentence.

A fine-fingered hand touched his shoulder. “If I see her, I will be sure she does not see me,” said Etxeloi, not unkindly. “If she needs help, I will see that she gets it, or is led to it. I can do no more for a child with such a wild heart.”

“That’s all I can really ask ‘a you, ain’t it?”

Etxeloi nodded. “Give your White-Hair my greetings, Riaag Bough-Breaker,” he said. “Usoa is strengthened by his friendship, even if to admit it pains us.”

“Yeah, reckon Naar Rhoan’s much the same,” said Riaag as he tied off another set of stitches. “We sure as fuck wouldn’t be gettin’ us a whole-ass lodge built up proper without y’all ter guide our fumblin’ hands. Pretty sure this one won’t go up in flames, neither.”

Riaag looked up, eager to continue the joke, but he had been left alone with the socks in a quiet corner of the woods. The man was gone, and his wolf was gone, and that was the way these things went. Not even tracks remained. With a shrug, Riaag returned to his sewing while there was still plenty of sunlight left. It was the proactive thing to do.

Sarouth hadn’t emerged from the private back half of their tent to greet Riaag when he’d finally returned for the evening, which probably meant he was still in need of more lying down. The horrible snore-gargling racket he made while asleep was nowhere to be heard, nor were the equally common sounds of journeyman harp-playing; straining his nose, Riaag could smell a warm, familiar mix of person and muddled incense eddying from the direction of the bed, so Sarouth was either lost in a freshly-sent vision or bored out of his mind and staring at the ceiling. Either way, it was nothing that couldn’t wait for Riaag to get some fresh water on the fire to boil. He’d yet to meet a holy man so divine that their dinner would agree to make itself.

He didn’t hear anything from the back until the dumpling soup he was throwing together was really going, but the moment the herbed vegetables he’d put in with the broth decided to stop fucking around and start smelling wonderful Riaag heard a distinct creak from the bedframe, the kind that might be made were someone to shift in place to better taste the air. So Sarouth had a hint of his appetite back? That was good, then. He finished folding up a piece of dough around the last chunk of salted camel meat before dropping each dumpling in turn into the bubbling pot. Upon replacing the lid he deemed things ready to be left alone for five minutes. Sometimes things had to be let be if you wanted to get anything done. Promptly ignoring his own advice, Riaag pulled off his gloves, tucked them into his belt, and ambled back to see how his favorite demigod was doing.

The answer, it turned out, was more or less what he expected: Sarouth was still lying where Riaag had left him earlier that day, the blankets rucked up around him to imply he’d tossed a little in his sleep, but he was alert enough to raise his head when Riaag came near.

“Something good is on the fire,” said Sarouth. “Is that going to be banshtai shul?”

“More ‘r less, anyway. I wanted ter use up more ‘a that good meat them highland herders brung down ter trade shortly after we got back. They’s plenty ‘a marrow ‘n rice in the mix fer ter help you get yer strength back.” Riaag settled down on his knees at the side of the bed. “You gonna have the desire ter eat much once it’s done?” Not that it mattered if Sarouth did; Riaag was already planning on downing a big bowl of his own, especially if they had any more of the beer that had gone with breakfast, and even if only a drop of broth hit the bottom of Sarouth’s belly it’d be good for him. The rest of the soup would keep if it needed to. That was the smart (and arguably only) way to do it: make a lot now that could hang around until later, as the needs of the soothsaying stomach decreed. Riaag had long since gotten the hang of cooking for a dyed-in-the-wool mystic.

“If you’d asked me when you first got in I would’ve said no. It turns out I’m willing to change my mind if you leave me marinating in the fragrance of pan-seared onions for long enough.”

“I’s gonna keep that in mind next time you’s bein’ a headstrong pain in the dick,” said Riaag with a smile. He lay his hand against the back of Sarouth’s where it lay tucked against his chest. Sarouth didn’t feel too cold or too hot—both of which were possible after exerting himself as he had—and when he rubbed his thumb against Riaag’s knuckle he wasn’t trembling. So far, so good.

Sarouth turned his head to better look at Riaag. He’d taken off his hood at some point, leaving his shaggy hair to drift sweetly around his face, so his divine left eye remained squeezed shut. The symbol of Agritakh he’d painted around it that morning was still in place. God-speakers kept that part of themselves hidden for the sake of everyone else around them, be it through a mask or a patch or just the gap between a pair of upheld fingers, and up until that winter Sarouth had covered his left side with his own locks. Then they’d gone south of the river, where things had gotten complicated, and one of those complications had seen Sarouth’s namesake shorn away. At least it would grow back to its old length in time. Until then, the hood did look pretty good on him.

What didn’t look so good on him was the exhaustion that still clung to his person like burrs on a runaway animal. “You knew the dance would take this much outta you ‘n you still was askin’ me ter slip off fer a midday meal?”

“Absolutely.”

How was Riaag meant to reply to that with anything less than a groan? “Sarouth White-Hair, how does you even live.”

“Very comfortably and in the company of a man I love dearly, I’ll have you know,” said Sarouth with a defiant flip of his not-quite-long-enough hair. “Did anyone ask for me while I was down?” he added. His tone implied he knew the answer.

“Yeah. Save fer Etxeloi, who says hi, t’were just a single soul. I told ’em you was abed, ‘n offered ter act as go-between, seein’ as emergencies has theyselves a habit ‘a not reschedulin’ fer nobody. They said it could wait.”

“Who’s ‘they’ this time?”

“Osmo Wild-Tooth.”

Sarouth made a happy little sound as he pushed himself into more of a sitting position. “Oh, one of the gardeners that travel through here! Good to hear that bunch is around again. What’s that cutesy word he’s been using for him and his? Rootmongers?”

“Leafmasters,” said Riaag. He tried not to let the cringe he made in his head make it all the way to his voice.

“He can call himself the grand king of the meadow so long as he’s willing to trade us more tarragon.”

Riaag nodded. “Yeah, I told him ter get tergether with his band ‘n figure out what they’s wantin’, as we’s in the mood fer plenty ‘a what they got. I saw they gardens when I was helpin’ out at the camp, ‘n what part weren’t covered up ter keep the cold away were lookin’ lovely. The god-speaker business he had was just bein’ able ter attend the next offering, so it ain’t like you gotta haul ass over there ter prevent a body from dyin’ in a state ‘a disgrace ‘r nothin’.”

“Splendid. More time for me to sit on my unhauled ass and eat dumplings.” Sarouth sniffed the air again. “How much longer on that soup?”

“It’s got a ways, though I’s needin’ ter get back ter the fire ‘n tend ter it. Wanted ter see how you was doin’ afore I had ter stay too close.”

“I guess I’ll just lie here, wasting away until it’s done,” said Sarouth, who was undeniably on the mend if he was feeling good enough to try vamping at Riaag despite still being most of the way tucked into bed.

“Good. That’ll keep you outta trouble fer a fucken minute.”

A glint of mischief flickered dangerously in Sarouth’s eye. “Is that a challenge?” he asked, steepling his fingers so the tips of his claws tapped against each other.

Maybe if dinner wasn’t still cooking, but right now? “No. Now lie your ass back down until I can bring you somethin’ nourishin’.”

“If I must,” Sarouth replied in a faux-offended voice, though given how eagerly he tried to kiss back when Riaag leaned in to leave a peck on his lips he didn’t feel like committing too hard to the bit.

Dinner smelled delicious long before it was ready to be eaten, so by the time Riaag was ready to ladle it into a pair of eating bowls his stomach was threatening to clamber up his windpipe and throttle him if he didn’t have a bite of something. He popped a whole dumpling in his mouth and chewed. The meat was tender—not as tender as something that’d been cooking for another dozen hours or so, but not every day was a day for pit barbecue—while the dough was the right kind of chewy, and the broth’s creaminess paired with the vegetables and seasonings he’d chosen had turned out just right. You could totally feed a god-speaker this. You could feed a god-speaker quite a lot of things and if they weren’t a total asshole they’d be happy for it, of course, but this had shaped up to be the sort of dish people thought about when asked to envision a meal worthy of such a holy station. Riaag tore off some pieces of bread, poured them both drinks, and returned to Sarouth’s side with tray in hand.

Given how Sarouth outpaced even Riaag’s appetite, asking for seconds (and nearly thirds) before Riaag could finish his own first serving, it was safe to assume he liked it. Riaag chose to kneel at Sarouth’s side throughout instead of seating himself in a chair; the angles were still all wrong for him to look up in adoration, but at least it kept their heads closer to level. They killed an entire jug of beer and several shots of kumiss between them before declaring dinner to be over. Cleanup was nice and simple, as was preparing a few things for breakfast the following morning, and while it had gotten dark before the soup was even half done there were still plenty of hours left in the evening. That left quite some time before either of them would need to consider going to bed for the night. If Sarouth didn’t have any ideas for what to do with themselves until then, Riaag could certainly concoct a few.

But first, due diligence. “You feelin’ any better yet?”

“I think so. Would you be willing to look me over just in case? Just to make sure there’s no, say, lingering injuries?” Lingering injuries? Even if he hadn’t been stripped down to nothing for his bath (and therefore already implicitly checked for said), god-speakers didn’t have to worry about things like that, provided they could live long enough to staunch any bleeding and then get some proper sleep to recover in the dreamless embrace of the Labyrinth. If Sarouth was feeling good enough to joke about things like that then he was decidedly on the mend.

“Maybe,” said Riaag. He leaned, knees still pressed to the carpets, against the side of the bed, his hair framing his face as he looked down at Sarouth. Just because Riaag liked feeling smaller in the presence of his oathbound didn’t mean it was the only way he knew how to be. “Now, hypothetically speakin’, if’n I was ter gently flip open them vestments ‘a yers ter hunt fer any such wounds, would there be a boner waitin’ beneath fer ter ambush me?”

“Correct!” said Sarouth, who sounded pleased.

Riaag leaned back a bit, though he kept his hands on the quilt. “Iunno. Sounds dangerous.”

“Extremely so. If I ever changed my deed name it’d have to be to Very-Deadly, just to give everyone else fair warning.”

“Sarouth Very-Deadly, Faaroug of Agritakh. Hrm.” Riaag tweaked his lips this way and that, as though tasting the words. “Don’t have quite the same ring ter it.” He sighed with great and purposefully overblown reserve. “Guess we just gotta proceed with great caution when venturin’ ‘neath them bed linens.”

“Indeed we must,” said Sarouth, equally mock-grave.

He offered no resistance when Riaag folded down the blankets, nor when a hand touched gently at his side. The robes Riaag had put him in were simple things compared to his more typical magnificent blacks, being just a single layer with a sash about the middle to keep them in place, but not everything had to be magnificent; nothing he wore had to work very hard to make a man as enticing as Sarouth White-Hair demand attention. He was calmer than usual—the dance really had tired him out, no matter how many rests and hot meals he’d made time for afterwards—and this, too, was fine, since it meant Riaag could take his time running his fingers along the meat of Sarouth’s calves in search of knots to massage away. He didn’t find any on the first pass, nor the second, and the third proved just as bereft, but who was to say there might not be something that could only be found after four tries? Certainly not Riaag, no matter how much Sarouth tried to wearily wiggle away from him.

“Won’t you please go any higher?”

“Like you said, ‘s extremely dangerous. I gots ter be cautious.”

“Give me something above the knee, I beg of you.”

“Patience, Holy One,” said Riaag, even as he slipped his claws up the inner side of Sarouth’s thigh.

The plan had been to continue with the slow pace Riaag had set for himself, but if Sarouth was too tired to have fun with a little teasing, it was time to adapt on the fly. Sarouth looked as ready to go as he sounded, even while still clad; the spare robes were only so voluminous, and between that and the way he kept angling his hips the promised erection was easy to spot beneath the fabric. It was so easy to spot that Riaag decided he didn’t need to bring things out into the open just yet. He nudged against the soft skin of Sarouth’s balls with the back of a crooked finger and smiled to himself at the sound this inspired. Riaag’s hands were well-sized for cupping all of that part of Sarouth at once, this they both knew, and since he’d made up his mind to behave himself he angled his wrist to do so without any further teasing. Sarouth’s lips parted around the new sound Riaag inspired. They were just slightly off of an alignment that would let Riaag stroke the pad of his longest finger up behind where Sarouth’s balls joined his body, and while on a more normal day that might’ve been Riaag’s cue to adjust where he knelt so he could do exactly that, this was a calmer time. It was enough to simply appreciate the heft and weight of what he held. Sarouth was certainly appreciating being hefted and weighed, and that was what really mattered, now wasn’t it?

Riaag had come to really appreciate Sarouth’s balls. They had a pleasant size to them, not too small and not too big, flocked with a scattering of downy white hair (because Sarouth’s deed name applied to all of him), and when Sarouth wasn’t hard (which was extremely not the case at the moment) the tip of his glans hung just above their lowest curve. You could do a lot with that. They were also rather nice to touch, downright invitingly so, in Riaag’s opinion; on those occasions where they were pressing against him and not vice versa, he’d yet to find this theory disproven. Maybe one day he’d even be strong enough to leave a kiss there. That Sarouth would never, ever ask him to do so was what gave Riaag hope for that distant someday.

His hand drifted upwards and found Sarouth’s waiting shaft, warm and firm and once more very neatly sized for someone of Riaag’s proportions. He could tell by touch that Sarouth was well and fully hard with little room to grow further, which was fine; that simply meant Riaag could get to the meat of the deed sooner. The skin all around Sarouth’s slit was already slick. Riaag flicked his thumb across the wet spot and spread it across the rest of the glans as best as he was able. His hand knew the lay of the man beneath it, navigating Sarouth’s body with the same confidence he had when returning to the stronghold after time spent away. One stroke brought a shudder, another one a sigh. He’d know just where to touch even in the most starless dark. Sometimes, when Sarouth had called for company down into the depths of the sacred cave, Riaag had proven he could do exactly that.

A different hand caught Riaag’s wrist before he could really get going. “I want you to see me while you touch me,” said Sarouth, his voice firm. It was only a request in the sense that one could always say no to him. The lid of his that wasn’t kept closed had drifted halfway shut anyway, his golden iris so rich and bright against the red of the rest of his eye, and while there was still plenty of tiredness on his face there was no small amount of desire there, too, paired with the familiar sexual hunger that left him needy in a different way than the pangs sparked by an empty belly. That craving was something Riaag had learned to love. He provided for Sarouth’s worldly needs, from those as humble as clean dishes to eat on to such grand affairs as staying safe and unharmed despite wading into the midst of a band of angry jackals, and knowing that he could temporarily slake something as fearsome as the libido of a god-touched man was, to be honest, flattering. It was a little scary at times to have that intensity aimed directly at him. Of course, nobody dallied with an Agritakh-ruhd of any authority if something as petty as a little bone-deep fear was going to be a problem.

Upon untying Sarouth’s sash, Riaag pulled the halves of the robe aside to better reveal what Sarouth had asked of him. The dark green skin between Sarouth’s face and his cock was mostly free of tattoos, barring that ink that looped across his shoulders and around his neck like a permanent cowl, and this arguably drew all the more attention to how perfectly toned his midsection was, how bright was the tuft of white where it sprouted at the fork of his legs. That pale patch further served to draw the eye to the cock itself, its head an even darker shade than the skin around it, and no matter how many times Riaag caught sight of it—and there was ample opportunity to do so, oh yes—he would never tire of being able to look at Sarouth this way and know that, on some level or another, he was responsible for what he saw. The girth didn’t matter. The length was irrelevant. The angle had no business being debated. As far as Riaag was concerned, it was a cock attached to Sarouth, and therefore it was perfect.

“If you feel like getting back to jerking me off, I’m pretty sure any danger has passed,” said Sarouth. “Not that you aren’t cute admiring me like that, though. You look like you’re waiting for First Dawn with your very first fire-sharer.”

Riaag snorted. “You is my first fire-sharer,” he said, pointedly not putting his hand back. Not that Sarouth didn’t know this; sometimes Riaag suspected he was trying to erase all those years of self-imposed celibacy Riaag had lived before their oath, with or without a fire to share in the first place. That probably wasn’t how it worked. Riaag was hardly about to tell him to stop trying, though.

“Well! So I am. Lucky, lucky, lucky. I’m honored to have such a privilege.” His sly smile returned. “I hear I’m an oathbound man myself these days, even. Can you believe somebody might think to swear something so binding with little old me? Who upon the earth would ever do such a thing?”

“Reckon it’d be one Riaag Bough-Breaker, Chosen ‘a Wolf, him who’s yer herald ‘n guardian alike. So they says, at any rate.”

This got a chuckle out of Sarouth. “Next time you see him, tell him he’s got bad taste.”

“Think I’s gonna say he’s got fucken superlative taste, instead.” He pressed his palm against Sarouth’s hip bone, the splay of Riaag’s fingers and thumb framing Sarouth’s cock just close enough to feel the heat of that sacred implement against his skin without touching it. Oh, how Riaag wanted to touch it. That, however, would need to wait until certain improprieties had been addressed. “You better say somethin’ nicer ’bout yerself if you’s the desire ter see me get back ter work.”

“I never should’ve taught you that trick,” said Sarouth with a grumble. “You keep turning it against me. At this rate I’m going to end up a better person or something.”

“I’s waitin’, Sarouth.”

With a long, pained sigh, Sarouth pressed his hand against the left side of his face. Keeping one eye shut like that was probably more tiring than it looked. “Oh, fine,” he said. “I am doing good things out here. I’m helping people. And thanks to a certain oathbound I could name, I’m getting my shit together more than I ever could on my own.” He glanced over at Riaag. “I also have it on good authority that I’m extremely witty, and charming, and handsome, and I don’t feel like disputing any of those, so there. Happy?”

“Yeah.”

“Happy enough to get back to touching on me?”

“Oh yeah.”

Sarouth smiled and put his hands behind his head, his godly eye once more closed. “Well then! Whenever you’re ready, my love, you have my full attention.”

There was no need to tell Riaag twice. He reached out again to take Sarouth in hand, now witnessing the deed as a proper (at least by certain definitions of proper) acolyte should, and even though his own cock was still tucked inside his trousers without so much as a fingertip against it he shivered as though it was his own member he held. Riaag liked touching Sarouth this way. A nice, leisurely handjob was a good way to spend the evening even when one or both of them weren’t exhausted beyond measure. This was the first way they’d lain together, after all, and no matter what curious experiments they attempted or how many nights they spent curled up in the same bed, there would always be time to return to a classic. Could it truly be said to be classical if they’d only been having sex with each other for just shy of two years? Riaag wasn’t about to argue the point with himself; there was work to be done.

He stroked Sarouth from base to tip in a steady rhythm, taking care to squeeze just a little more on the downwards motion than the upswing. Going at any speed even approaching fast could be for later, once Sarouth was feeling better, and perhaps after a little dig-around in Sarouth’s ever-fluctuating potion collection for some of the slippery stuff that was ever so useful during times like these, but now? Now it was best to remain firm and slow, letting Riaag really appreciate what he was doing. The world outside the tent could simply fall away for a little while. He was pretty okay with that.

Sarouth kept his gaze fixed on Riaag throughout. Sometimes his exposed eye would flick down to watch what Riaag was doing, which was ever so nice when paired with that contented expression he wore or the rare-but-treasured way he’d wet his lips, but most of the time he was determined to study Riaag’s face. It was impossible to escape that stare. Sarouth saw him, the truest version of him, without any of the extra roles he played or any of the countless tricks Riaag had learned over the years to keep himself safe. Not that Sarouth still saw him as the sniveling creature he’d once been, oh no; Sarouth had been right at Riaag’s side for every step of his reinvention, had comforted him through oceans of tears, had defended him when he wouldn’t think to do so for himself, had seen something in Riaag that Riaag himself hadn’t known was there. By that point Sarouth knew everything there was to know about the sad fat man that knelt at his side.

More importantly than any of those things, Sarouth approved. Riaag was sure to regularly mention this in his prayers.

A soft, primal sound from Sarouth’s throat demanded Riaag’s attention. “More ‘r less?”

“More. I’m close.”

Riaag did so, taking care to focus on those spots and angles he’d found Sarouth liked best. “What else?” he asked. It seemed keeping his questions short had been the right idea. Sometimes Sarouth was chatty during sex and sometimes he wasn’t, his mood shifting across the hours like the tides of a lake, so Riaag had taken to matching the pace of whatever he heard when they were trading off turns like this. More flowery language would have its due later, when the time was right, and speaking it any sooner might ruin the mood they’d set between themselves. Any poet worth his songs knew that.

The smile Sarouth wore sweetened. “Kiss me?”

No words were necessary at all to answer that request. Riaag adjusted his position next to the bed to better reach Sarouth’s lips with his own without having to let go of Sarouth’s cock, then leaned in, eyes closed. The kiss he met in exchange was a fierce one. Riaag kept where he was until Sarouth finally tensed up, sighed into Riaag’s mouth, and broke their kiss as he relaxed back against the pillow, leaving both his own stomach and Riaag’s hand sticky with come. Sarouth sounded happy, Riaag had gotten some positive attention, and they’d reaffirmed the bonds between them: all in all, a perfect end. Now all that was left was for Riaag to clean up, and—

“Don’t think I’ve forgotten about you, my precious little bird,” said Sarouth between heavy breaths. “This won’t be one of those nights where you have to finish yourself off without me.”

Riaag ducked his head. “Aw, I don’t mind it, though.” He really didn’t. They were busy people with an entire stronghold to run, and even if they weren’t, a thoughtful partner would be understanding of another’s needs, such as a difference of time, or interest, or (in their current state) energy. Riaag’s shoulders bore plenty of bite marks beneath his caftan, these being smaller, more orc-sized ones much less permanent than the scar left by Wolf’s incarnation, and most of those were still quite fresh, so if he needed to it would be trivial to tuck Sarouth in for the night and go jerk off while pressing his fingers into the bruises to remember how they’d been left. He’d engaged in some variation on the act plenty of times before. It wasn’t like he’d never lived for much longer on much less!

Just because he would’ve gotten by on his own didn’t mean Sarouth would let him, of course. “Mind it or not, I don’t want you to finish on your own. You understand?”

“Oh. Yeah.” Riaag left the spatter still cooling on Sarouth’s stomach where it was, but hesitantly licked at the mess that striped his knuckles. Hopefully Sarouth didn’t have weird plans for that. Jizz could get wherever it wanted during sex itself, but the instant he was going to need to touch anything other than bare flesh, Riaag wanted his hands clean. Lest anyone get the wrong idea about what all he was in the mood to do, he decided to ask the next question. “So how d’you want me?”

Sarouth hummed dreamily. “I want to look at your cock,” he said, struggling to prop himself back up on one arm. “Show it off for me a little. Let me see that pretty smile, too.”

What lingering hesitance Riaag might’ve clung to melted like wax in a bonfire. Just because he had heard those words countless times before didn’t make them any less special. Someone as gorgeous as Sarouth, as sleek and perfect as the avatar of a god should be, could look at his mess of scars and calluses and see both the victor of a thousand battles and a sweet little thing with a heart like honey? How incredible! How miraculous! It was easy to smile in the face of such praise, and the warmth that doing so kindled in Riaag’s breast was sure to stay with him the way it always did; who cared about the unevenness of his teeth, or the big gap between the top middle set, or the way he managed to have both an over- and an underbite at once? If Sarouth thought showing a little outward cheer made him shine, then Riaag would make of himself a star, and a very pretty one, at that. Praise be unto the Hill God that he’d broken the habit of covering his mouth with his hand when he did so.

The air inside the tent was warm against the spring chill, so if Riaag had wanted to he could’ve stripped down entirely, but since he rarely failed to find a little fun in seeing Sarouth stay half-clothed during sex, why not repay the favor? He left his belt and sashes in place as he loosened his trousers; while it would have been much easier without them in the way, that would mean putting his trophy skulls to the side, and even back in the old days he’d noticed how proudly Sarouth would look upon each new prize Riaag claimed. Nowadays he’d graduated to bearing the heads of three other orcs (properly boiled clean before being blessed against ghosts and curses, of course) in place of the simple beast skulls that had first rested in that spot against his hip. You wore the most meaningful of your kills on you so people could tell at a glance where your priorities lay. Anyone who saw the bandits’ paint-daubed remains would know just what Riaag was willing to do to protect his own, and Sarouth was part of that anyone. You didn’t wear the bones of a person unless you were dead serious about doing so. Yes, there was reason to leave them where they were from time to time.

Having good reason for a deed didn’t necessarily make it any easier, and so it was not without some effort that Riaag was able to tug aside the last layer and pull himself into the open. He kept himself balanced on his knees and adjusted his posture so the curve of his gut didn’t block the sight of his cock—Riaag was a very large man of reasonable endowment but truly impressive weight, and the difference between these proportions sometimes worked against each other a bit—before framing himself with his hands. He’d never lost his smile, not even when fighting to not get tangled up in his own pants. “This showin’ off enough fer you?”

“Lovely,” said Sarouth. He had managed to find a way to sprawl that somehow wasn’t sending the come still on him sliding onto the inside of his left-open robe, which was clear proof enough of his innate divinity. “If I wasn’t still too tender to touch I’d be busy appreciating just how lovely,” he added, licking at one of his tusks suggestively.

Learning to take a compliment spoken with sincerity had been one of the hardest things Riaag had ever done, and even at his most agreeable he still slipped up now and again, so it was a good thing Sarouth had bothered to butter him up ahead of time. He resisted the urge to toy with a lock of his own hair; sometimes Sarouth liked him shy, but usually what Sarouth expected from Riaag was someone with an ironclad will, a true and steadfast warrior who’d do what he was told anyway because they both liked the results. Well, Sarouth would probably appreciate all the thinking Riaag had been doing on how to be more than a leaf in a breeze, then, so Riaag didn’t wait until spoken to before cradling his own balls in one hand and beginning to work his shaft with the other. He was ever so cautious with his claws. Just like always, having Sarouth watch made it even better.

Sometimes when Riaag was touching himself he needed to have an elaborate fantasy in place to do anything more than make his wrist tired. He’d gotten pretty good at thinking up scenarios over the years—more than a few of which had included Sarouth well before they’d ever sworn their oath, as Riaag had possessed complex god-speaker feelings since way back—and even now, with easy and plentiful access to a more than willing friend, sometimes he was more in the mood to spend time in his own head than with anyone else. Where was the harm in it? Sometimes he just wasn’t feeling very physical, and other times it was a borderline mechanical process where he just needed to get off so he could get back to whatever it was he was doing without distraction, and neither of those would’ve been very fun for Sarouth given how quickly Riaag would try to finish in such situations. He took no shame in wanting time alone when the occasion presented itself.

This was not one of those occasions.

Oh, but how having an audience of one specific person could change things. There was no room to be simply engaging in a process, applying speed and friction in ascending amounts until the deed was done. That would get him off but it would be loveless, artless. No, with Sarouth’s eyes upon him Riaag was now giving a performance, and as an accomplished skald he had opinions about how to properly perform. He touched himself in a way that wasn’t his favorite but looked good (something Sarouth had once proven by having Riaag do so in front of a mirror) and took satisfaction in how much pleasure he could bring just by posing right. He arched his back. Panting extra hard just made him feel lightheaded, so that was out, but little vocalizations he usually didn’t make on his own were a lot more fun with Sarouth there to enjoy them, and so Riaag found excuses to coax soft little happy sounds from himself. All the while he kept stroking and fondling and whatever else he could think of. He wanted Sarouth to see him, and he wanted to be seen, and knowing Sarouth also wanted both of those things brought a buzz that usually took an entire bottle of imported rice wine to achieve. He was blessed, truly, to be able to turn the Faaroug’s head so. No amount of imagination could compare to being studied by the real thing.

When he felt his teeth in his lip he dropped all pretense and shifted his grip to one he knew would be just right. His blood boiled. The feeling of tension inside him rose ever-higher, climbing and climbing until he was ready to fling himself into the waiting abyss—

“I’ve a request for you, my love.”

Riaag cracked an eye. Are you fucking serious? his mind snarled, but that was the wrong attitude for what had been up until then quite a nice time. “Yeah?” he managed, instead. Stopping an orgasm in its tracks was not a task for the faint-hearted and it was taking everything he had not to come anyway without losing the feeling of joyful release that was supposed to go along with it. He could feel sweat rolling down his forehead and blooming beneath his clothes from the strain. Sarouth would never stop finding new ways to edge him and it would’ve been maddening if Riaag wasn’t into it a little.

“When you come, don’t wipe it away too fast. I want to taste you.”

Was that all? What momentum he’d lost came roaring back at the thought of Sarouth leisurely licking Riaag’s fingers clean. He’d probably do that obnoxious lip-smacking thing of his afterwards. Riaag hated the lip-smacking thing but he wasn’t about to ask Sarouth to stop. Instead, all he said was, “You got it.”

He’d been knocked a few rungs down the ladder but had little trouble scaling back up to the same heights as before. Riaag paused just before reaching the apex, wary of new requests, and when Sarouth in his mercy chose not to interrupt for the next several seconds that was enough permission to continue. Riaag came, and Sarouth saw, and together it was good.

Upon being handed Riaag’s once more sticky right hand—Riaag had yet to think of a better word for describing something somebody had gotten come on, and as Sarouth’s suggestions were all things like enjizzened he was no help whatsoever—Sarouth reacted with the same gusto as when he’d been given his first bowl of banshtai shul earlier that night. His tongue rasped teasingly at Riaag’s knuckles. Figuring out how light a lick was too tickly and how hard was too scratchy had been one of their first shared discoveries back in the day, and Sarouth rarely passed up a chance to use that knowledge to get under Riaag’s skin in the most loving of ways.

“You keep goin’ like that ‘n you’s gonna scrape alla’ the hair off.”

“You’ll grow it back, it’s fine,” said Sarouth, who kept finding new places to lap at. He fit his mouth around the end of Riaag’s pointer finger, took it all the way down to where it joined his hand, then pulled off of it with a too-moist pop. Sarouth was so gross sometimes. “You’re a treat for the senses as always, Riaag,” he continued. “Did you enjoy yourself? I know I did.”

“T’were mighty pleasant,” said Riaag. “Hope you didn’t exert yerself too much.” He was still in just enough of a happy headspace to not be thinking too hard about what chores would need doing before he called it a night, but he could feel them threatening to press in all the same. They would have to wait, just like always, until his duties in the back half of the tent were complete.

Sarouth blew a scoffing raspberry. “I got to lie down on a comfy bed while a very pretty thing touched my cock before jerking himself off while I watched. I’m very relaxed. Decadently so, I’d wager.”

“Uh-huh.” Riaag reclaimed his hand at last and went about the usual post-sex cleanup routine: mint to chew, hair re-brushed, wet cloths applied where applicable. He only halfway tucked himself back into his trousers, as it had been enough of a pain in the ass to get his dick out without taking his belts off before, and if Sarouth expected something else from him it made sense to establish a path of least resistance. At least his untucked tunics were long enough to cover things. Sarouth had only been minimally flirty while Riaag was tidying him up, which probably meant he was done for now, but an Agritakh-ruhd’s strength could be likened unto the elemental stones themselves, so who knew if he’d rebound ahead of schedule?

The best approach, as always, was to be direct. “I’s at yer beck ‘n call should you be wantin’ more from me, as always,” said Riaag, once more kneeling at Sarouth’s side.

“You’re sweet,” said Sarouth. He kissed Riaag’s cheek. “What I want is more of that soup, and then I want to spoon for a bit, and then I want to sleep for a thousand hours. I’ll accept sleeping until morning if a thousand hours would fuck up the planting schedule.”

“Might disrupt the offerin’, yeah.”

Sarouth ran his claws along the underside of Riaag’s chin. “Don’t feel like you need to keep your cock half out on my account, now. We can’t be having you frizzle the tip if you lean against the soup pot wrong.”

Riaag cringed. He’d come hair-raisingly close to that exact injury once before when he hadn’t taken the proper precautions before rushing in to see to a boiling-over stew. Sarouth hadn’t had to bargain with Agritakh for healing that day, thankfully, and Riaag wasn’t interested in learning how well that sort of thing would work in the first place, so he was happy to take the extra time to fasten everything back in place. Chores were easier in general when a person wasn’t preoccupied with not pinching his nuts between his legs.

That wasn’t the only thing that had caught his ear. “Spoonin’, you said?”

“If you’re not too busy. You’re nice and familiar whenever my head’s gotten all addled from doing god-speaker shit. If you have to get up to finish anything after I nod off, I won’t be offended.” Sarouth yawned. “At this rate it shouldn’t be too long from now.”

“Reckon I oughtta refill that soup afore you’s too tired ter sip it,” said Riaag.

“I’d be ever so grateful, my love.”

They kissed again, brief and soft, then parted. Riaag wrapped Sarouth back up in his robes and pulled the blankets up past his waist: too low for sleeping, but high enough to provide a little extra warmth as fires were stoked and soup bowls were filled. With luck that would keep him cozy without ending up so cozy that he fell asleep before Riaag could return with more well-deserved camel-meat-dumpling soup. Sarouth worked hard, and while his kind of hard work was shaped differently than Riaag’s, that didn’t mean he was any less weary after a day spent half in bed. Some days it would be Riaag who was flat on his back, lain out with the vestiges of an injury that divine intervention hadn’t completely undone, or sick with a fever Sarouth would never catch, or just sore all over from pushing himself beyond what his body could readily do. Neither of them outstripped the other with the weight of their labors. To view what they both did as a competition, much less things that could be compared on equal terms, was to render all their hard work little more than mindless self-destruction. Riaag had endured enough of that to last a dozen lifetimes.

He refused to acknowledge the dishes that needed washing or the stray clothes that had gotten kicked beneath the low table set up in the front of the tent or the state of Sarouth’s more magnificent garb from earlier. These and all the other chores still nagging at the back of Riaag’s thoughts could wait just a little longer, as seeing to Sarouth’s satisfaction was the highest calling of all. If it came to pass that Riaag, too, drifted off while heeding that call, leaving more work for tomorrow, well, what did it matter? He’d have time to make up for it. There were far worse fates than cuddling.

Most people didn’t live near holy ground. That wasn’t to say the stronghold was a cursed place, far from it; the Hill God had called for Naar Rhoan to be built by His ever-dreaming decree, so it stood to reason that most parts of it were sufficiently sacred so long as they kept up with basic maintenance. Places carried blessings because of the actions of a god-speaker, a humble and intimate interaction that even the most solitary of nomad bands sought out plenty of times every year. No, holy ground was different. Places were holy because the influence of Agritakh Himself seeped through the Labyrinth in which He slept to touch the world of His children, thinning the barrier between the mortal and the divine until one could scarcely tell the difference, becoming a place where no foul thing could tread without His notice. While it was a lovely concept in theory, in practice that proximity gave people the creeps. Riaag didn’t blame them. He Who Sleeps Beneath the Earth wasn’t an easy god to love up close—god-speakers like Sarouth were not just trusted emissaries but absolutely necessary to keep His dreams from tearing His beloved children apart—and there was an ocean of difference between kneeling by a shrine to feel the touch of an Agritakh-ruhd’s laid-upon hand and, well, holy ground. It was like the air before a really nasty storm, except the storm never came: all potential, and power, and impending dread.

Like most of the more terrifying aspects of the Hill God, Riaag had long since gotten used to it. Every morning he woke up on holy ground and every night he slept there. He’d made camp in a humble one-person tent on the sacred hill since the day Sarouth’s visions had first led them to this part of the valley, and since swearing his oath he’d settled quite comfortably into sharing Sarouth’s much larger tabernacle, and some days he’d return to that smaller tent of his (still kept pitched a little ways away from where Sarouth slept) if he needed privacy for whatever reason. It had worked pretty well: the nearness of his god made prayer feel that much more special, and since Sarouth was always getting summoned to climb the hill to count stars or descend into its cavernous depths to commune more closely, it was just more convenient to stay close to Him. Agritakh perceived time the way stones did (which was to say He did so at the same rate a mountain rose or a canyon crumbled, if that), which was great for stones but not so much for people, so one of Riaag’s duties as an acolyte was to make sure Sarouth didn’t get lost in that same vastness of time for too long. Granted, most acolytes probably didn’t ever have to do so by picking up their god-speakers bodily and dragging them somewhere, but Riaag wasn’t going to argue with methods that worked.

Sarouth, however, wasn’t satisfied with settling for things that worked if he felt there was some incredible new paradigm shift lurking just beyond the horizon, some great new idea he could introduce to others if only he could stretch out his fingers a little further. That was where the architects had come in.

Naar Rhoan had comfortably hosted specialists from Usoa since the summer of the previous year, and during their visits they’d shown the Rhoanish how to build, and then overseen the design of, storage sheds, animal pens, and the entirety of the weatherproofed healers’ pavilion. It was a common sight these days to see long-eared, pointy-faced figures, usually bundled up in a hilarious amount of coats, mingling among their much taller hosts, often while drawing up plans or overseeing construction or discussing engineering with whomever would listen. Having Usoans around wasn’t weird by then. What was weird was how Sarouth had decided to make use of their services.

“So I was thinking we’d use a combination of the local wood with stone and fine tiling,” he said as he strolled through the build site he and the architects had marked on the hillside. It was barely more than bits of bamboo and rope at that stage, but the healers’ pavilion had once looked like that, too. “Our friends from the west will guide the numbers and angles, but we have a chance to make this lodge something truly Rhoanish, even if we might not entirely yet know what that means. Clever use of the bounties of the valley seem a good way to promote His glory while we’re at it. Won’t it be nice having a nice, clean floor to go underneath the carpets instead of dirt?”

The entire point of carpet was that it was easy to carry and you could take it outside and clean it if it got dirty, so it didn’t much matter what went underneath the damn things so long as they could lay flat. Riaag suspected this fact was not at the top of Sarouth’s mind. “I admits I’s thinkin’ ’bout matters other’n the ease ‘a future sweepin’,” he said.

“Oh?”

“Holy One, beggin’ yer pardon, but you’s a habit ‘a not even wearin’ socks, e’en in the most frozensome ‘a weather, simply fer not wantin’ that amount ‘a space atween yerself ‘n His surface.”

“I suppose I’ve been known to do that,” agreed Sarouth.

Suppose nothin’, I’s been the one ter chase you down ‘n insist you not get fucken frostbite. Sometimes with great passion.”

“You’re good at passion. It’s a fine thing for us to care very deeply about that which is important to us.”

Riaag sighed. Some days being oathbound was a little more trying than others. “So you does agree I’s some skin in this, yeah? Which means you’s willin’ ter entertain outside opinions? Which means I can ask you somethin’ directly?”

“Mmm-hmm?” Sarouth didn’t sound like he was listening to the same conversation Riaag was having.

Same conversation or no, it was important for Riaag to say his piece. “I brings this up because you’s been arrangin’ ter have us this special little spot built up ter take the place ‘a our usual livin’ quarters, ‘n while I ain’t against such in theory, ‘n in fact is tentatively enthused fer the novelty ‘a it all, I gots ter ask: how the fuck is you gonna keep from climbin’ them walls they’s buildin’ if a single layer ‘a fabric is enough distance from Him ter make you risk yer own toes? Way you’s describin’ this thing, it’s gonna put you way further from the open ground ‘n a pair ‘a sock feet ever would.”

“It’ll be fine. His essence is being infused into this place so the whole of it is sanctified. Whatever I touch here shall be blessed, and I will thusly feel no distance between myself and Him.”

“Uh-huh. I’s gonna hold you ter that next time I wake up in the night ‘n cain’t find you until I goes outside ter check the ditches ter see in which one you’s rollin’ all ’round.”

“That is a completely unrelated phenomenon and you know it, my love.”

Their debate was interrupted when one of the many architects Sarouth had coaxed into following his bizarre cause—whether they were a chief architect or just one trained specialist among many remained unclear—popped up with a scroll covered in a detailed picture of what Riaag was pretty sure would eventually be the holy lodge, though the picture was done as though he was looking down on it from above instead of showing what it would look like from the front. It was like reading a very focused map. There were extra squiggles all over it that clearly depicted something the Usoans knew about and he didn’t, as they drew them everywhere, but Riaag could only handle having one world-shattering revelation at a time, and an intimate understanding of the many nuances of the River People’s culture was going to have to wait its turn. So long as they helped get the job done and didn’t piss off He Who Sleeps Beneath the Earth in the process, Riaag was willing to ignore the squiggles entirely.

Conversation ensued. The gist of it seemed to be that Sarouth was asking for very strange things, which was hardly unusual, and he was doing this in a way that was making the builders concerned, which was a bit moreso. Mediation was needed before things could proceed. Riaag listened with great patience and translated whenever it seemed like the specialist’s speech was exceeding Sarouth’s own fluency with the language. Sarouth’s vocabulary had been honed to function in matters of social conference, after all, whereas Riaag had made it his goal to practice communicating humbler ideas with more dirt under their claws (or, where Usoans were concerned, nails). At least there was only one dialect to keep track of; some bands way up in the highlands spoke dozens, and some of those could change so quickly they were practically a whole new animal by the time you hiked that deep into the mountains again. Traveling sermons had been a dice game once you left the treeline behind! Yes, Riaag was just fine with the time it was taking to fully wrap his head around a foreign tongue whose grammar had the decency to stay put for a generation or two.

Another thing that was staying put was Sarouth’s opinion on how the channels running beneath the lodge should be dug. “We need them for the blood, you understand?” he said to the increasingly frustrated architect.

“Can’t you have a different temple for cutting throats in?”

“No, no. We have a place for sacrifices already. This is not that. This must be….” Sarouth twirled his hand next to his hood-hidden ear helplessly. He looked up to Riaag and switched back to Rhoanish. “How do I say ‘immaculate’ in words that make sense to our guest, here?”

Riaag’s lips pulled back in a brief, unconscious grimace. “Uh…fucken, gimme a sec. Use it in a sentence?”

Sarouth cleared his throat and made as though he were quoting the Chant itself. “The lodge must be a meeting of the worldly and the divine, and by enabling us to quench His sacred thirst in the very place where we sleep, we may create an immaculate whole by which He is elevated.”

“Shit, that’s a lot. Lemme think….” How to convey what he needed to with the phrases he could use? The followers of the River God treated Her differently than the Rhoanish did their Hill God, so a one-for-one replacement was right out. They gave Her gifts of breath, not blood, anyway, so trying to explain that Sarouth’s meticulous drawings in the dirt with the butt of his staff were part of a larger pattern was going to come off as a non sequitur to people who’d never dug trenches to carry the fruits of a sacrifice all across a festival space. Sure, some River People had been present for more than one Harvest by then, but that didn’t mean they got why their hosts would sing the hymns they did or walk around with bandaged hands for days afterward. Riaag definitely didn’t know enough of the River God Herself to make any guesses on Her behalf. He’d met exactly two god-speakers of Hers and one had tried to blast his head off in the middle of the night. Unfounded speculation seemed like a bad idea, there.

Maybe the best approach was to elaborate on the reasons Sarouth had for his bullshit requests? It was unlikely he’d be able to wrap up the entirety of the whys and wherefores until he had a lot more practice with Usoan, but at least if the workers knew what they were trying to do in the first place it’d make a little more sense to them. That was probably going to work out better; he was dealing with other adults, here, and if he was in their shoes (technically sandals, most of the time, but that didn’t sound as nice) he’d appreciate being treated with the same respect no matter how much of his host’s language he could puzzle out.

“Our god is hungry,” said Riaag. “We ease His hunger in many ways. If we do this where we sleep, it brings us close to Him in a way no other place can be, and the land becomes very holy.” He cocked a thumb at Sarouth. “If the land is not holy, then Sarouth White-Hair will go to a place that is, instead, and the effort is lost. We wish to praise our Hill God and honor the gifts of the River God’s beloved with the same structure.”

His hopes that he’d made their case were not immediately addressed one way or the other—the people of Usoa could be quite good at hiding most emotions that weren’t some flavor of upset or contempt, and this one was no different—but Sarouth seemed happy enough with his translation, and that had to count for something. A few joins clicked together in Riaag’s head as he realized a few questions that weren’t getting asked the way they needed to.

“Can you say more of why the channels are a problem?” he said. “We are new to this kind of building, and have never called for something of its size. We have only seen things from the outside and never from their birth. Maybe we do not understand the bones yet.”

The specialist’s expression didn’t change, but the slightest flicker in their eyes and the way their foxy pupils twitched made Riaag think of all the times he’d been relieved for some merchant or diplomat to get their head out of their ass and start talking sense, not that he’d ever say so openly in their presence. He’d take whatever common ground he could get.

“The problem is that the foundation must be stable or your lodge will fall in on itself,” said the architect, as though explaining to a child. “A building is heavy. Too much weight in one place makes it crumble. If there are empty spaces beneath that weight, that makes even a strong and well-balanced base likely to collapse.”

“And if we build first, to make it stable, we then make things unstable if we dig around that?” asked Sarouth.

“Right.”

Sarouth rubbed his chin. “What if we make the shapes we want before any digging happens at all?”

“The ground here is soil, not rock. They’ll either be filled in when the other building is finished or the foundation we construct will smash them flat. Even if neither of those things come to pass, it won’t be steady, and a single rain is likely to cause problems. You may as well ask us to build on sand.”

“Oh, is that all?”

The architect squinted. “Yes…?” they replied, and their hesitation sounded more concerned than confused. “Please don’t say you want us to find some sand for you now.”

“Don’t worry, I have a plan,” said Sarouth, and Riaag fought to hide a shudder at those words. Just because Sarouth’s plans worked out more often than not didn’t mean they were fun to see through to completion. “Have the others mark where the supports need to be, would you? It doesn’t matter with what. I just need to know where they will go. Make sure they’re all at the heights you want, too.”

It didn’t take long for this to be done. The Usoans could be a difficult people in social settings but they absolutely knew what they were doing when it came to putting buildings together, and soon the ground was littered with length after length of cut bamboo shoved endwise into the soil. Seeing the supports marked out in such a way made it clear to Riaag just how much he’d underestimated the amount of bracing that would be involved; he’d still been thinking in terms of permanent yurt frames and the boxier skeletons used to build the stronghold’s granaries. The lodge was neither of those things. What lay before them now was like the rib cage of some impossibly massive animal, picked clean by the efforts of countless scavengers. At least it was a fitting impression.

Upon watching the last bamboo length sink into place, Sarouth kicked off his sandals, knelt, and placed his hands palms-down against the ground. What looked like a breeze stirred the dust and pebbles around his feet, though the air was still; no Agritakh-ruhd could hide when they had invoked their god into their body, and even if Sarouth could it wouldn’t be in his nature to do so. Standing, he began to walk a very precise pattern through the markers the builders had placed at his behest. To the naked eye it looked like nothing had happened. Once Sarouth returned to where he’d begun he rattled his staff of office and slammed its butt against the ground before retracing his steps, this time dragging the staff after him. This resulted in a light furrow marking the complex route he’d taken and not much else. He kept repeating his path, and while Riaag could see a half-familiar shape forming in the dirt, there sure didn’t seem to be anything that would address the structural issues about which they’d been told. If Sarouth paid this any mind he was doing a fine job of not showing it. Riaag was inwardly grateful that Sarouth had worn multiple layers of sleeves that day or he would’ve been tempted to see whether or not the lines on the ground matched any of that day’s patterns of red ink. What Labyrinth of his own did he hope to build?

“Is this normal?” muttered the architect.

It took Riaag a moment to realize the question had been directed at him. “Yes and no,” he replied. “I do not know what he is doing, but I know it has a purpose. Maybe that purpose is one we will learn and maybe not.” He shrugged. “God-speakers, eh?”

“God-speakers…,” said the architect, their voice somewhere between worried, tired, and knowing. Who knew how many equally strange things they had to deal with when making holy places back home?

The lodge was slated to be quite big—Sarouth had merrily stated he’d been thinking on some of the grander structures they’d visited, as even without any stated goal of awing visitors he’d insisted on the plans being drawn up on such a scale that they could entertain plenty of guests at once—and so each lap through the bamboo took some time to make. The tell of invocation remained clicking and whirling at Sarouth’s heels throughout. Was this going to tire him out again? Sarouth usually didn’t borrow the Hill God’s might for very long, barring instances where there were a lot of injured to see to at once, and while Riaag had seen him pull off some pretty impressive feats using that great might, the slowly incrementing number of laps had yet to do much in the way of raising pillars from the earth or causing the ground to gape open like Agritakh’s own maw. Years as the witness of a holy man had taught Riaag just how often miracles could be pretty boring to actually watch.

Sarouth completed circuits until he reached whatever needed sum was in his head, returning to where Riaag and the architect still stood. He straightened up, dusted off his robes, and stretched with his staff resting across his shoulders. “Almost done!” he said. “Riaag, darling,” he added, once more switching back to Rhoanish to say it, “would you ask our kind friend if I’ve disturbed any part of their markings for the lodge? I figured I should ask before I declare anything finished. Like, assuming the building was plonked down right on top of it with all the foundations it needed put in between the parts I dug, would it be able to stand for generations?”

Riaag furrowed his brow. Between the strength of his eyebrows and the definition of the ridges over each socket, his was a brow well-suited to furrowing. “Generations? Really?”

“If I was going to be satisfied with something impermanent I’d just keep the tent,” said Sarouth.

“Cain’t say that ain’t fair.”

Keeping an eye on the now quite adorned build site, Riaag paused to gather his thoughts. What would be the best way to express what he needed to know in Usoan? How could be best express his question without knowing a lot of specific foreign terminology for a craft he only barely understood in the first place? What was the clearest possible wording least likely to confuse him and Sarouth with the response? Where did he draw the line between getting as much information as he could and not trying the already strained patience of the architect? It felt like there was only one right answer.

“Did the holy man fuck anything up?” he asked. Riaag would remain a long ways from being able to properly recite poetry in Usoan until it had a few more months to settle on his tongue, but he’d gone out of his way to learn the best swears as soon as he was able.

The architect studied Sarouth’s work and compared it to the picture they carried. Their lips pursed with concentration. “It, hrm. It looks fine. But this thing he’s done will just be trampled away the longer we work in the same spots. That still won’t yield the channels he’s asked us to put in place. What are you trying to do?” they added, this time addressing Sarouth directly.

“Just watch,” said Sarouth, and Riaag struggled to keep his anus from clenching up for the second time in one day.

A shudder ruffled the surface of the earth. It was a gentle thing, the sort you’d see from a water drop falling into a still lake, though given that it was moving previously quite solid ground as casually as that same water was cause for alarm. Riaag planted his feet against the sensation that someone was very slowly pulling a rug out from beneath his boots; at first he thought it was centered on Sarouth, which would’ve made sense since he was the resident weird-shit locus, but the angle wasn’t quite right for that. No, it turned out the eye of this subtlest of storms was the lovingly-traced trench all across the build site. Things shimmered ever so slightly, like looking through the wavy air made by heat radiating off a forge, and then, with a complete absence of sound that made Riaag’s ears pop, the dirt was no longer dirt.

The architect hesitantly approached the transfigured ground. They untied a lead weight on a line from their belt and dropped it; when it struck the ground it made a sharp clack as though it’d been dropped onto a slab of rock. To be fair, that was what had happened. Where once had been nothing but soft, well-packed (and ultimately pliable) soil, there was now soil-colored stone, the trenches running across it as crisp as any master mason’s work. Another tremor passed beneath them and one at a time each of the marked spots popped up into squat pillars with what looked to be the exact dimensions requested by the Usoan builders. They were rough-sided, some crying out for a stonemason’s chisel more than others, but even at a distance they looked remarkably sturdy. Whatever was built here would be braced against the very ground itself. Riaag, himself no stranger to holes and ditches and sturdy things of all stripes, nodded in approval. It was the Hill God’s own dreams that had shaped the world out of stardust, and it was He who gave purpose to every crumb of earth and grain of sand, so who was to say He couldn’t make revisions later on?

“Will this do for your work?” asked Sarouth of the architect, as casually as he might have inquired if a skein of yarn was the right color.

“I will…inspect things,” said the architect. They proceeded to hustle themselves off in the direction of the newly-stony ground and away from Sarouth as fast as they could without breaking into a run. Miracles had that effect on people.

Now that they were alone again, Riaag nudged Sarouth in the side. “Show-off.”

“I’m just doing His bidding, thank you very much.”

“Ain’t you the one what’s always complainin’ ’bout how Agritakh-ruhds is best off when they ain’t spendin’ their influence with Him ter do flashy shit?”

“I simply drew a symbol on the ground and then followed the instructions our guests left to make some helpful changes to the environment. The builders already did all the hard work for me. Nothing flashy about that,” Sarouth added with a grin. “It’s not, like, magic rock or anything. If they want to go peek inside the sacred hill and scratch tools on the cave walls to test, they’ll find it matches. Everything not intended to brace part of the lodge has been left as the same soil as before, too, so it won’t fuck with whatever building methods they were planning to use. I was very thorough when making my request.”

“So He’s a builder now?”

“No moreso than before, though we’ll just have to find out if He ends up getting a taste for anything smaller than a canyon.”

Riaag scratched his beard. “Guess we’s gonna find out if’n He so chooses. Looks like the builder’s on they way back again, so let’s hear ’em out….”

Between the murmurs of the other builders and the general frazzled state of the returning architect, Riaag was prepared for there to be raised voices, perhaps a demand for Sarouth to change things back to how they’d originally been, perhaps a declaration of some other taboo they’d unknowingly violated by doing flashy Hill God shit (and it was flashy, no matter what Sarouth said) on holy ground heavily peopled by visitors who didn’t venerate Him. Whatever the cause, he was ready for things to be bad. What he did not expect was for the architect to be wearing the closest thing to a smile he’d ever seen on them. Whether this was cause for concern had yet to be revealed.

One brief conversation later, Riaag still wasn’t sure if he should be worried, but the builders were happy with what Sarouth had done—something about him saving them days, maybe weeks, of hard labor in the space of a few minutes? the numbers were vague but positive-sounding—and the lodge could be constructed as sturdily as everyone wanted, so that was good enough for him. There was something suspiciously close to a spring in the architect’s step as they returned to start organizing the next stage of work. Maybe by Harvest things would be far enough along to actually think about moving in? He hoped it would be a nice place to live once all the dust had settled. That he didn’t promptly start imagining all sorts of ways things could go wrong, or all the ways he might hate it once the build was too far along to turn back, or anything else along those lines, really, was either a sign he was becoming more confident or a sign his amulet was working. Riaag would gladly accept either of those.

Sarouth finger-wiggled at the architect and company before turning back to Riaag with a huge, smug grin. “That handles everything I needed to do today between now and evening prayer,” he said. The big grin softened into a fonder, less self-satisfied smile. “What about you, brave warrior? What’s left on your plate?”

Riaag thought on this. The lodge business had gone so well he suddenly had a chunk of time he’d expected to lose now back in his hands. “Reckon it’s clear enough fer now. Got somethin’ on yer mind?” This did not, in his opinion, go against his efforts to be a more proactive person; being considerate of others was far more important than self-motivation, and if Sarouth wanted something, Riaag at least owed it to him to hear what it was. Good moods deserved to be celebrated.

“I,” said Sarouth, “want to go fishing, and I’d love the privilege of your company. You up for it?”

That sounded nice. Riaag had always been fond of spending a little time trying to outfox the children of Fish, and the weather was the pleasant kind of near-spring stuff where the wind was chill but the sun was warm, the two balancing each other nicely. Much like hunting, you could eat anything you found by casting a line, but unlike hunting, fishing was more social. Riaag couldn’t imagine himself chatting away with anyone while running down a hare or driving some deer into a pitfall, at least not without ruining the chase entirely; talking while waiting for a nibble, though? That was practically expected. Drinking was also practically expected while fishing, and there was still some pretty good ice wine left over from the colder months, and there was nothing quite like finding an excuse to sit on one’s ass with purpose for an hour or two. Depending on whether either of them caught anything he could even balance their supper around it.

A soft, questioning sound reminded Riaag he hadn’t actually answered Sarouth despite thinking about his reply in detail. “Yeah, I’d say I is,” he said. “Let’s go collect up a basket ‘a rods ‘n shit ‘n see what finny friends we might bedevil.”

“That’s the spirit!”

Fishing had been something they’d enjoyed together since way back when, a task that had livened those long-gone days when Riaag was too reedy to hope to hunt for anything more dangerous than a mushroom, and he was glad Sarouth still found time for it. Naar Rhoan was a beautiful creation of theirs, perhaps the closest thing to a child of his own that Riaag would ever know, and as the stronghold’s own parent he sometimes needed a break from the needs of his many-bodied brood. There was nothing quite like sitting at the water’s edge with a lure bobbing in time with the tide to refresh the senses and make him ready to take up his loving burden once more. That Sarouth would spend said time with his robes tied up about his loins so those well-toned legs of his were free to scramble around if he got a feisty bite on his line sure didn’t hurt anything.

Different fishing spots ran through Riaag’s thoughts as he evaluated the benefits of each during the short walk back to their tent. It would be nothing to find a promising spot and just exist for a little while, sharing drinks and stories and laughter. Maybe they’d even share more than that, if their mutual moods decreed. The sun on his face and the taste of the air promised nothing but good weather in the future. Oh yes, it was a good day to be lakeside, and if they happened to dally a little before prayer time came ’round again, well, who could blame them? Agritakh had decreed that His beloved were to thrive, so that was what they were going to do. There was no sense in arguing with the whims of a god. At least when the whims were as straightforward as these, anyway.

With a smile, Riaag stepped into the comfortable dim of the tabernacle and prepared to have himself a truly pleasant afternoon.

Perhaps Riaag shouldn’t have been surprised when what was meant to be a simple outing ended up getting thorny.

“Hold still, and breathe evenly,” said Sarouth. He held his hands crossed, palms-outward, in front of him and his thumbs locked together. “Focus. Do you feel something in the middle of your chest, pulling? Something that makes you feel a bit like a dropped rock falling towards the ground? Maybe like you’re running and about to trip, but you never do?”

The girl standing opposite him, her hands held in the same position, scowled through her long black hair. “No.”

“That’s fine. It’s a little bit different for everyone. Just keep concentrating.”

“This is boring,” she growled.

Sarouth made an amused noise somewhere between his nose and the back of his throat. “Never said it wasn’t. It’ll only get less boring once you get the hang of it, and until then you’re always going to feel like you have to sneeze but you just can’t make it happen. Every other god-speaker you meet has had to figure this out one way or another. Trust me, Valin, it’s easier with a guide.”

Valin’s scowl remained in place. “If you’re really serious about guiding me, then why is he here?” she said. She kept her hands in place but nodded towards Riaag, who was still loaded down with two people’s share of fishing kit and trying to keep it (and himself) out of the way. He pointedly kept his eyes on the trees and his expression stony. The less he had to deal with that withering glare of hers, the better.

The bait Valin dangled went ignored by Sarouth. “Riaag is here because I enjoy his company,” he said, matter-of-factly, “and because, as you’ll recall, someone interrupted the nice walk we were having to holler about being taught more about how to be an Agritakh-ruhd. If you want some actual one-on-one time you’re going to have to do better than popping out of the bushes and yelling when I clearly have other plans for my day.”

“He’s not doing anything,” growled Valin. Riaag kept his unfeeling mask in place even as that part of him that was trying as hard as it could to be less passive wrung its hands and gnashed its teeth in frustration. The little squirt was alarmingly good at figuring out exactly which words he wanted to hear least.

Sarouth still didn’t give her the satisfaction of getting angry. “He’s gracing me with the pleasure of his company and keeping an eye out for anything that might want to kick my ass, both of which are priceless,” he said. “If anyone has the right to show a little attitude today, it’s him, since he’s been doing a lot more ground-clearing this week than I have. You’re lucky he’s sweet as can be. My beloved oathbound can find more patience in a single day than I will know in my entire life, and that’s a fact.”

Some people treated oaths as a deeply private affair between themselves, the cause or causes to which they’d sworn, and the Hill God, and Sarouth was very much not one of those people. He would, whenever possible, find reason to mention he was an oathbound man these days, and that Riaag was the co-bearer of that solemn promise, and how he, Sarouth White-Hair, had found someone willing to share that great burden with him, and had everyone noticed how wonderful Riaag was yet? While a little embarrassing at times, Riaag couldn’t blame him; most god-speakers avoided oaths as a matter of cause, since having a scrap of the divine inside them made their words all the graver for everyone involved, and for someone with Sarouth’s history of terrible liaisons it was quite the anomaly that he’d not only found someone who’d put up with his shit but was willing to stake their very personhood on putting up with said shit. The inverse was no less incredible—a god-speaker accepting the oath of a man born untouchable was more the stuff of poetic tragedy, not real life—but Riaag preferred saving his boasting for special occasions. Not so Sarouth. He wanted the whole world to know what he thought of the big man who followed him like a second shadow, and by the Star-Eater’s teeth, the world would be told.

Valin, of course, was having none of it. “So?”

“So he’s staying put and you’re going to have to deal with it,” said Sarouth. “Now, are you feeling for that inner pull?

She put her hands down and kept her shoulders defiantly squared. “No.”

“Then why are you wasting my time?”

“Because I asked you to teach me more…more god-speaker things!” she snapped, all piss and vinegar. She’d been bristling ever since she charged out of the treeline and started making demands; Riaag had taken that as his cue to stand aside and let Agritakh’s servants sort things out between themselves. Her little claws scratched at her bandaged right forearm. “I didn’t say anything about doing boring brain pulls or whatever for an hour! I asked you to help me!”

Given the position of the sun it had been much less than an hour since she’d interrupted their walk, but Riaag wasn’t going to correct her. Why make things harder than they needed to be? Children felt time differently, angry children were even worse, and even on a good day Valin was a thumb’s width away from finding some new way to go beyond simply being angry into some transcendentally furious new state. She’d chosen a pretty apt deed name when she dubbed herself Mad-Eyes. If she was ever able to have more control over it than it had over her, that ferocity might serve her well someday. Until then, there promised to be a lot more shouting.

“Believe it or not, those ‘boring brain pulls,’ as you call them, are important,” said Sarouth.

“Yeah? Why?”

“Take a look.” Sarouth gestured towards his feet, and just like that a familiar little halo of dust and pebbles was orbiting his ankles like a kindle of frisky kittens. “This is what happens when you feel for that pull and make it your own.”

Valin scoffed. “Great. I can ask the Hill God to make a mess.” It took everything in Riaag’s power not to smile at her grumbling; he needed to be a united front with Sarouth, and he needed to make it clear that even a god-speaker needed to try to respect others, and neither of those would ring true if he showed any amount of approval for Valin’s outbursts. As sour a child as she could be he couldn’t help but be amused at how much of Sarouth’s own medicine she made her mentor swallow.

“Invocation’s more than just a mess,” said Sarouth. “It’s the key to a greater connection between yourself and His subterranean majesty.”

“Yeah? Prove it!”

“Gladly.”

The pebbles at Sarouth’s feet whirled more intently. He raised his hand and the ground moved with it, jutting upwards into a spire as sturdy as any natural formation. It looked natural, too, which was the amazing thing; those miracles Riaag had witnessed that hadn’t been sourced from Agritakh in His grace usually had something unnatural to them that made them easy to spot if you knew what to look for, and yet (save for the fact it hadn’t been there a minute ago) the rise may as well have always been a part of the landscape. It was just like the time with the lodge save that it was on a far simpler scale. Turning his hand back around, Sarouth lowered his palm again, and the pillar once more returned to the earth. There was nary a trace left that anything had even happened.

This, at least, seemed to have Valin’s attention. “When do I get to do that?

“You feel like looking for that tug again?”

“No.”

“Then I’m afraid you’re shit out of luck. You’ve got to master the boring parts before you can wield His miracles with any amount of skill. Until then? You’re not going to manage so much as blowing sand around.”

“Aw!”

“Walk before you run, kiddo. That’s just how it goes.” Sarouth relaxed his posture and rested his left hand against his hip, leaving the other to twirl and twiddle as he spoke. “Let’s change the subject. Have you had any luck during your time in the Labyrinth?” He gestured at her bandages. All new god-speakers wore such dressings, since the wounds beneath their bandages wouldn’t set properly until they reached the center of the Labyrinth on their own, and the only way to keep from getting lost in there in the first place was to take a map. Since you couldn’t take anything with you that wasn’t part of your own body, Agritakh-ruhds of old had gotten creative with how to handle said cartography. Riaag didn’t like thinking about the realities of that.

Valin scrunched up her face so hard it was like she was trying to swallow her own tusks. “I hate it there. It’s…I hate it! I don’t want to find anything hidden in it.”

Sarouth sighed. “You’re going to have to eventually,” he said. “All of us must travel towards the center.”

“Or?”

“Or you’re going to tear yourself apart from the lack of reaching it. You might not care if that happens, but I do. I want you to be able to get there, Valin. Everything will make so much more sense once you can stand within the Great Geode and perceive Him with your own eyes.” Sarouth gestured at the side of his face hidden by his hood. One of those aforementioned eyes was more important than the other. “The Labyrinth won’t always be as bad as it feels for you now,” he added, his voice weary and kind. “Keep walking. Keep trying. You deserve to find your missing pieces.”

“All my pieces are missing!”

“Which is why you have to look for them. Got to get started somewhere, right?”

“Why…?” began Valin, though her words were choked off by an angry sob. She tried, unsuccessfully, to swallow the angry tears welling in her eyes, and continued. “Why can’t you just take me there yourself? You said you were going to be my guide, so why can’t you tell me where to go? Why can’t you give me your map?” She raised her bandaged forearm defiantly, her hand balled into a little fist. “You could put it on me and save me from being so scared!”

Sarouth sighed and shook his head. “I keep telling you, it doesn’t work that way,” he said. “My route isn’t yours. The path I walk tonight won’t be the same one I find tomorrow, or the day after that, or the day after that. The Labyrinth is shaped by nothing less than His endless dreams. It’s why your map disappears every night, and will keep disappearing until you find the center. But you will find it, Valin. I know you will.”

“How am I supposed to if I don’t know what I’m seeing is real?”

That was another problem. Even if Valin hadn’t been a spitting firebrand of a kid, even if she’d been born the gentlest, most perfect future god-speaker imaginable, there was some sort of sickness in her head that sometimes twisted up what she heard with her ears or saw with her eyes. Riaag was not a man with any amount of scrying skill but he could scarcely fathom what it’d be like to have to sift actual missives from beyond from a bunch of nightmare noise that, from what little Valin had been willing to say in his presence and from what little else Sarouth had been able to add to said understanding, was indistinguishable from the expected weird visions of a god-speaker. Riaag barely knew what to do when an otherwise functional adult got lost in their own head, much less a little girl. He wanted to help. He wanted her to let Sarouth help. He wanted to be able to hug her and tell her everything would be okay. He knew she wanted none of those things, and so he remained in the background, watching for any threats from the outside while Valin fell ever deeper in.

“That’s why you’ve got your amulets, isn’t it?” said Sarouth. “You’ve been making new ones for yourself when you need them, right? Just like I showed you?”

Valin said nothing.

“If you need supplies, or if you have a new idea for them you want to talk about, you know I’m here, right? I don’t mind discussing this sort of thing. I put them together all the time.”

Was Valin breathing faster than before? Why was she shaking? Riaag still kept his eye on the trees but prepared to intercept a berserker lunge, just in case.

“Naturally, if you don’t feel like your current amulet is helping, we can always adjust it to see what feels better for you. If you’ll let me see the one you’re wearing now—”

“Shut up!” said Valin, her voice spiraling into a scream. “Shut up, shut up, shut up! If you’re not going to tell me what I want to know then I’m done talking!” She then spun in place and darted into the woods. There was nothing either of them could do but watch her disappear. It was not the first time she’d done this.

“Well, there she goes again,” said Sarouth once she’d fully vanished into the landscape. His words had the same tired, slightly sad calm that Riaag usually associated with Sarouth sitting vigil with someone at death’s door, where the only thing to be done was wait things out until what would happen, happened. Maybe that would be the case here, too. Riaag tried not to let that train of thought go very far.

“I’s worried fer her,” said Riaag.

Sarouth nodded. “I know you are, my wolf. So am I. I have to hope she’s close to a breakthrough, whether it be finding the Labyrinth’s center, or an amulet that does what she needs it to do, or just letting someone else help care for her while she figures things out. I don’t like the other option.”

“Me neither.” Riaag thought back to the little bits of cheese and jerky he’d left behind on their long ride back to the comforting walls of Naar Rhoan. He hoped Valin had actually eaten them, not just used them as a way to track him and Sarouth on their journey. At the time he’d assumed it was a given thing, but now? Now he wasn’t so sure. The last few times he’d seen her she had looked scruffy and lean, but it wasn’t the kind of leanness he’d known as a kid, so Etxeloi’s report that she was bothering to feed herself held true. Who knew how long she’d lived like this since she’d turned from a normal—if head-sick—child into the terror that was a god-speaker of Agritakh? Maybe it was more a matter of her having to adjust to a lot of new ideas than he’d first thought.

Something else nagged at the back of Riaag’s mind. “Sarouth?”

“Hm?”

“How much ‘a yerself does you see in her?”

A sigh, a rueful chuckle. “Too much, my love. Far too much.” Sarouth reached for the load of fishing tackle Riaag still carried. “Here, let me take some of that off your hands. We’ll want to do something with what we’ve caught today before it starts to turn in a bad way, and I don’t know about you but for now I’d rather leave brewing fish sauce to the masters.”

“Yeah, a’ight.”

Their possessions redistributed, the pair of them continued their walk. “I don’t know about you,” said Sarouth as they slowly headed home, “but I think we might want to leave a roasted fish or two out past the gates this evening. You know, to see if any wandering demons take themselves a bite.”

Riaag smiled. “Reckon that’d be a reasonable use fer some ‘a these here fishies, indeed.”

What darkness had settled upon them faded over time, as the weather was still fine and the fishing had still been good. They’d given Valin time until she’d decided she was done, and she knew where to go to get more help; there wasn’t much more they could do for her until she was feeling more like accepting the kindness of others. He wouldn’t not worry for her, because that was his nature, but Riaag tried to give himself permission to simply let her exist. She probably would’ve wanted it that way.

There was a lot to like about winter turning to spring. Longer days meant it was easier to get things done without running through too many candles or lamp oil, warmer weather meant not relying on so much firewood and a chance to air out the cold-brewed funk that settled into everything, and the turning of the season meant things would grow and animals would once more bustle, so fresh food would once more be on the table. These were all well and good, but when it came to Riaag’s favorite parts of spring, he personally spent the last few days before thawing time looking forward to being able to take a dip in the lake without having his balls immediately hurtle back into his body.

You could keep yourself clean enough with a washtub and heated water, or even heating up a cramped tent until your sweat was heavy enough to scrape off with a knife, but there was really nothing quite like being able to strip down and soak with as much room as you needed for as long as you wanted. It was even deep enough to get a good swim in if you were so inclined, and Riaag tended to find that after a few months of staying cooped up indoors his muscles yearned to push against the lake in whatever direction he pleased. He never had to worry about sloshing suds onto the carpeting or if there’d be enough clean water left to wash out his hair, and the soft splashing and chatter from everyone else bathing at the same time provided a cozy sense of being alone in public. With so many eyes around you could afford to let down your guard; if something happened while you happened to be doze-floating, there was sure to be someone else to see it and raise the alarm for you. The lake really was a place where everyone could relax.

Also relaxing was how Sarouth, who usually would take any excuse he found to mess with Riaag, would actually halfway behave himself when they went swimming in public. They’d had to figure out what to do about his hair and eye, of course, ultimately devising a sort of tied-scarf solution that clung tight to his face and reminded Riaag of Usoan rover’s garb, but this approach left the rest of him bare, which meant he could get a good, proper scrubbing. Riaag was more than happy to help with that latter task. It felt longer than the scant few months that had passed since last they’d been able to bathe together like this. He’d need to make good use of the opportunity.

“You’re really putting your shoulder into it,” said Sarouth as Riaag applied another layer of frothed-up soap to his back. The tattoo mapping looked dense today. Did that mean he was going to have a rough time ahead of him or had he already walked those corridors whose shadows traced his skin?

“Sorry.”

“It’s fine, it’s fine. Feels pretty nice, even, I’m just used to you using a softer hand most days. Something on your mind, my wolf?”

“Ah, you know, somethin’ always is.”

Sarouth turned to face him, looking far too graceful for a man scooting around on his butt while still staying seated, then reached over to tap his claws against the amulet of beads and bone wrapped around Riaag’s left bicep. “The sort of something this little friend helps with?”

Had Riaag been that forceful with his washing? The amulet felt the way his amulets did whenever they didn’t need to do too much at once, which was to say he forgot he was wearing it most of the time, and after a little concentration it didn’t strike him as needing to be replaced just yet. At least that was one less thing to worry about. “Nah, nah,” he said with a shake of his head. A few drops of water flicked from the shock of hair in the front that always stuck up. “Ain’t that kinda thing bedevelin’ me terday, thank He Who Sleeps Beneath the Earth fer that. My head ain’t on fire. Problem is that shit’s just all goin’ at once. Guess I needs ter relax a bit more afore I snap myself like a too-tight rope, huh?”

“I’m glad your amulet’s behaving as it should, my love,” said Sarouth. He stretched up to place a kiss on the tip of Riaag’s nose. “But you know what I’m going to say next.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Unlike certain people he could name, Riaag was used to talking about whether or not the little helper strapped to his arm was doing its job. It was sometimes the only way he could be sure the things were working right, whether it be due to his own broken head overcoming the amulet’s aid or just because things were going so well he didn’t notice all it was doing for him. “Lemme collect my thoughts some ‘n I’ll talk it over with you some. We don’t have ter head back yet. It ain’t overly personal affairs, I don’t mind us havin’ us a chat about it while we rinses off the stink.”

“Call it ‘stink’ all you want, I still say you’ve never smelled anything less than delightfully masculine.”

Riaag rolled his eyes. There wasn’t anything unusual in friends or bandmates sampling one another’s scent, since getting a good whiff of somebody was just as reaffirming as seeing their face or hearing their voice, but Sarouth had opinions about getting up in Riaag’s personal space after a long day of physical labor. Sometimes he’d borrow a shirt—or other things than shirts—before Riaag could properly launder them. Riaag had once lost a very nice tunic for the better part of a month because Sarouth had decided to keep moving where he’d hidden it whenever it came time to tidy up the tent. The Chant had many things to say of Agritakh and His Faaroug and none of them had prepared Riaag for the reality of an avatar who was kind of gross.

After a bit of reflection, Riaag settled into a more comfortable position in the water with his fingers laced and his hands resting against his stomach. “Most ‘a what’s buggin’ me ain’t too peculiar. Just lotsa shit ter do all at the same fucken time, yeah? My head feels more ‘r less how it ought. Ain’t had trouble concentratin’, ain’t had trouble not concentratin’, I just got too fucken many thoughts at once now ‘n again. Still a little wound up from the winter, I reckon. I’s relearnin’ how ter temper things proper.”

“You and me both, brave warrior,” said Sarouth with a smile. “But you said most of that isn’t too peculiar. What’s the outlier?”

“Well, whatcha think it might be?”

“Valin?”

Riaag nodded. “Valin.”

“I think about her a lot, too.” Sarouth leaned back to watch the clouds drifting by overhead. “We have to take comfort where we can where she’s involved. She followed us here, didn’t she? That means she knows she can have a better life in Naar Rhoan than farting around in the wilderness all day. She might not want it yet, or think she’s allowed to, but she at least was willing to put herself close enough for it to be a chance. Just like how we’re both having to remember how good we have it here, so too does she have to remember how to be around people who want her around. Those both sound easy, don’t they? But sometimes life makes supposedly easy tasks much harder for somebody than those same tasks are for other people.” He wiggled his toes where they poked out above the surface of the lake. “We have to keep giving her time and remember to leave our hearts open for her, no matter how much of a little turd she makes herself out to be.”

“Seems reasonable ter me,” said Riaag.

“Anything else troubling you, my love?”

Was anything else troubling him? They’d talked about Valin, and they’d talked about the winter, and since they’d talked about the winter they’d essentially talked about how Sarouth was recovering from that hellish season, so that seemed to cover everything important. Sarouth’s hair would grow back and so would Riaag’s already formidable resolve. It was going to be okay. Probably. “Reckon that’s it,”
said Riaag. He patted his amulet where it lay just out of the water. “You wanna look at this thing afore we ferget?”

“But of course.” Sarouth rested the pads of his fingers against Riaag’s amulet and closed his eyes. He opened them after a few seconds of deep breathing. “Everything feels in order on this side. I’m not about to guess how long you’ve got on this one since that’s not my call to make, but it doesn’t feel like it’s about to sputter out tomorrow or anything. I’ll check on it next week and see if you’re due for a new one.”

“Yeah, a’ight.”

After another few heartbeats, Sarouth took his hand away and settled back against the bank. “And I promise I’ll stop asking if you’re feeling okay every five minutes if you promise to forgive me if I forget,” he said, slightly sheepishly.

“Now that’s one tall order, Holy One.”

Sarouth flicked a little water at him. “At least I’m admitting it.”

The water beaded against the hairs on Riaag’s arm and brought with it a fun way to help shake off more of the tension they both carried. He gave a rumbling chuckle. “Iunno,” he said, “y’think I oughtta listen ter a fella what only makes such dinky little splash? Seems ter me he might not have his whole heart behind it. Might mean he ain’t trustworthy.”

“Is that a challenge?” said Sarouth, his voice sly and his eyes bright. He’d always had a competitive streak, even if it meant he was heading right into the path of a sure loss. For Sarouth, the promise of a trial was often far more important than whether or not he had any chance at winning. It certainly made playing board games against him interesting.

Riaag simply smiled. “Might be, Holy One. Might be.”

“And your terms?”

“No god-speaker shit. No kickin’. Nothin’ that won’t disturb nobody else havin’ a bath terday. That’s all, though.”

“I accept your terms, Riaag Bough-Breaker,” said Sarouth. He slid further into the lake, where it was deep enough to stand and still have the water reach up past his waist. He bobbed down, paused just before his ears were submerged, then surged back up in Riaag’s direction with arms outstretched. “Think fast!”

Being a life-long bodyguard meant Riaag could think very fast when he needed to, so it was trivial for him to roll out of the way of Sarouth’s attempt and into some deeper water of his own as he nimbly avoided the worst of the threat. “You’s callin’ that a splash?”

“What if I am?”

“Then you oughtta be educated right ’bout what do ‘n don’t count as such,” said Riaag. Sarouth had made the mistake of standing still after making his move. Riaag took advantage of this to note how deep the water around him was, how close they stood to one another, and whether any of the other Rhoanish in attendance (some of whom had turned to watch the show) were in range. The numbers all lined up the way they were supposed to. He angled his hand against the surface of the water like a scoop, reared back, then used both his scooped palm and the mass of his arm to create a truly magnificent wave that hit Sarouth dead center. A few onlookers cheered. When the foam cleared both Sarouth and his scarf-hood were drenched.

“Riaag, my love, my champion, I’ll get you for that,” he said as he spat out lake water.

Riaag’s scoff was mighty. “I’d like ter see you try.”

“Then keep your eyes open and watch!” With that, Sarouth lunged again, and their little wet-war was fully in swing.

He didn’t remain dry for long, but why worry about it? He was allowed to not worry about things every so often. Splashing around was fun, and so was swimming, and assuming the wind wasn’t too high later on so was drying off in the afternoon sun. He was safe and surrounded by people who were safe, too. For the time being Riaag’s cares about everything else—from amulets to those that wore them—could be rinsed away by the lake, his too-busy thoughts drowned out by the laughter of Sarouth and everyone else bathing with them that fine spring day, and while he was sure to look like a prune by the time they both tired of their game, who cared? There were far worse things to be than wrinkled.

A large part of keeping the stronghold healthy was in making sure it could house any visitors—nomads, merchants, River People pretending they weren’t some of Etxeloi’s spies, whoever—who happened by, but an equally large part was making it clear that a single step within Naar Rhoan’s walls was not a binding, permanent covenant. Visitors who didn’t convert were allowed to leave at any time. If they weren’t, what was the point? Sarouth could talk at length about the importance of that freedom, tying it in to how much he valued a crumb of loyalty freely given far more than any amount of fealty sworn by someone still reeling from being hit full in the face with a blast of divine majesty, and hearing how he wanted people instead of voiceless thralls was very nice on its own terms. Riaag, however, viewed things more simply: when he and Sarouth had been on the road for all those many years, there had never been a time when he felt he wouldn’t be allowed to turn and walk away if he’d really wanted to. This had never been the case, of course, since at the time the thought of leaving Agritakh’s own prophet in the middle of the woods with zero cooking ability and significantly less self-preservation was right up there with physical contact, which was anathema, but he could’ve. That sad possibility had given meaning to everything else.

With such philosophy in mind, it was with a heavy heart that Riaag was helping a visiting band of woodworkers pack up their things to go. Such a shame, too. Their craftsmanship would’ve looked wonderful as part of the lodge.

“We just don’t know if this is the right place for us right now,” their leader told him, not that Riaag had asked. “This stronghold is a paradise, no question, but what good are warm fires and plentiful food if something in your gut says it’s all meant for someone else?”

Feeling like an impostor in his own skin (not the same thing as being a skin-thief, though there was an idea that was so unpleasant it made Riaag’s amulet flare up mightily against his arm until his heartbeat wasn’t so loud in his ears) was one of those things Sarouth had been working with him about, and hearing it from somebody else was always a sobering perspective. “We’s most understandin’,” he said. “Sometimes things just ain’t where they needs ter be yet afore one can find true comfort in strange circumstances. They’s plenty ‘a valley out there fer folks what ain’t at home inside these here walls.”

The leader nodded. She’d introduced herself as Ikreth Whorl-Cutter, a woman of her people, when Riaag had first greeted her group, and given the intricacy of the wooden charms that she wore she’d certainly come by that name honestly. “It is…good, yes, to hear such things from a god-speaker’s aide. It makes disagreements settle more easily on the stomach.”

Disagreements? Given how the members of her band only ever referred to Sarouth as a god-speaker, or as an Agritakh-ruhd at the most formal, Riaag suspected their refusal to acknowledge Sarouth as the Faaroug of the Hill God was one such quibble, not that he was going to put her on the spot about it. Riaag had had years of his life to bear witness, after all. These people had barely been around for a few days. Sometimes it was the biggest truths that were the hardest to see.

“Should things change, y’all’s always welcome back, no questions asked,” he said, hefting another handful of tent poles onto an ox cart.

“Yes, of course. We’ll keep it in mind. We’re from more traditional stock, my bandmates and I, and just as we treasure our clans’ adherence to the Chant we need time to come to terms with how these new ideas fit into its guidance. It will likely be a while yet until we feel our hearts belong somewhere like Naar Rhoan.” Not in Naar Rhoan, Riaag noted, merely somewhere like it; Ikreth was clearly trying to remain as diplomatic as possible despite those disagreements of hers. He could feel her eyes linger on the spaces where his clan markings were not. “Might I ask after your own clan, Bough-Breaker? I see you wear no patterns. It…must have been a terrible loss.”

In technical terms, it was, but in other, differently technical terms, there was no way Riaag could know. “Cain’t lose what you never had.”

She blanched. Riaag was a lot more used to that these days; in his less noble moments he got a certain nasty little thrill from giving others even a fraction of the discomfort he’d once known as intimately as his own name. “And yet you’re a god-speaker’s aide now in spite of…that hardship? There are such wonders upon the Hill God’s earth! How inspiring!” He was fairly certain she meant something other than inspiring. “Well, know that this member of clan Rabbit-Foot enjoyed much of her stay, and was challenged by other parts in unexpected ways, and will be thinking about all of it while we roam.”

“Such thought is all we’s ever askin’ ‘a those what stays theyselves a while,” said Riaag.

Ikreth looked relieved; Riaag wondered what all she’d been expecting him to say, exactly, and who might’ve encouraged her to think so. At least the latter camp was probably going to keep well away from the stronghold for fear of getting heresy cooties all over themselves. “There’s so many things we’re not used to!” she said as she loaded up another rolled-up carpet. “You’re lucky to have an Agritakh-ruhd on hand to ask about all of it. I’d simply run out of room in my head if it was left up to me alone.”

Riaag raised his eyebrows. A staunch non-convert willing to actually show a little vulnerability was a rare treasure, so it felt like his duty to pull on that thread a little more. “Oh yeah? Anythin’ in partic’lar givin’ you trouble?”

“Where to begin!” said Ikreth around a laugh. “Take that strange food you make here, what do you call it, bread? I watched someone bake it just like it was a little piece of clay. When it was done, they cut me a piece to eat, and offered me jam and yogurt and carrion to go with it. No one who saw all that goes into it could claim it was food meant for beasts. The Chant tells us to be resourceful and clever, and I think that your bread is both those things.”

“I’s inclined ter agree.” Riaag had been a cook only a little longer than he’d been a barber, and the only profession he’d held longer than that was being Sarouth’s bandmate (which could be extremely taxing at times, which was why he counted it), so he felt more than qualified to judge which growing things belonged to the beasts of the field and which only ended up as they were by trained and thinking hands. The day he saw a hare manage to knead dough and wait for it to proof before popping it in the oven was the day he’d have to seriously reevaluate how he perceived those creatures. “What else done captured yer imagination?”

She made a thoughtful noise as she wove a knot in one of the many tie-down cords that kept the cart from spilling everywhere. “We have stayed with other strongholds, so we understand some of the nature of your walls, but to stay in one place for so long is…strange.”

“Ain’t no diff’rent from a mine in certain ways, ain’t it? They’s tasked ter dig up ores from a single spot, just as we’s tendin’ this land what we’s been commanded ter nourish. Makes it real easy fer folks ter know where we is if they’s runnin’ from tumult, too.” He grinned, knocked his knuckles against the dome of one of his trophy skulls, and added, “Same fer if they’s keen ter start a little extra, in case they’s wantin’ a good view from up on them wall pikes.”

Ikreth laughed and clapped her hands. Anyone who wasn’t scared off by the corpses atop the walls was generally inclined to understand their purpose and be comforted by the sight. “It’s true! All you have to do is sit back and wait for trouble to find you! It must be so relaxing, knowing you don’t have to go chasing after it.” She sighed. “My heart cries for the land beyond, Bough-Breaker, but I must say there have been few places we’ve known to be safer than here in Naar Rhoan.”

Someone else in her band called out and Ikreth excused herself once she finished knotting the last rope, leaving Riaag to tidy up the campsite while he waited on her return. He tried not to think about what she’d meant when she said that all they had to do was wait for trouble; his entire adult life had been nothing but that, the past two years overwhelmingly so, so what did she expect him to do, go stir shit up for fun? Did these people expect him and Sarouth to leave the stronghold even more often, and for longer, than they already did? Ruzhu would have their hides for it if they did; that poor woman deserved a few months of peace where the only reason she had to return to the stronghold was because someone in her entourage got a hankering for Rhoanish food (and maybe started missing a Rhoanish sweetheart) again.

Was it active or passive to stay put and watch over other people? Wolf had commanded him to protect his pack, however big or small it may be, and as neither the scar he bore or the helm he wore had left him he had to assume Wolf approved of the job he was doing. Then again, what if that was just because he was getting results from sheerly surviving his own interesting luck? Would Wolf still favor him with Wolf’s blessing if life suddenly got very boring for a few years straight and he didn’t have to go run down heretics or talk to merchants in far-off places or kick would-be despots in the dick? If one of the Animals chose to rescind a favor, what happened to you in the eyes of the rest? What would Agritakh think if His emanations started making a stink about Riaag not being as fierce as he used to be? If he beefed up the patrols he ran around the stronghold, did that count as being more proactive (because he was actually out there with his axe and shield) or reactive (because a patrol was just supporting the status quo and waiting for something to happen while you were looking for it)? He needed to stop thinking about this so much, but not thinking about it was definitely passive, and that felt counterintuitive to the entire exercise.

A pair of soft voices approached from another part of the mostly-broken camp, pulling Riaag out of his own head and back to alertness as he collected garbage and swept up dust. The speakers—he’d not been given their names—were already loaded down with heavy packs that belied their plans to leave swiftly. He couldn’t help but listen in on them; he’d saved both face and his own ass plenty of times solely by paying attention when people forgot he wasn’t part of the scenery.

“Can we leave soon?” murmured one. “The speech the god-speaker’s man uses is making me uncomfortable. You’d think if he had the choice not to talk that way, he’d do so.”

Their companion shushed them with a hiss of air so short and soft it could barely even be called a noise. “Quiet, you, he’ll overhear. I’ve never met a herald that didn’t have keen ears.” Riaag wasn’t sure whether to feel flattered or sheepish at that comment. “Whorl-Cutter promised we’d be leaving within the hour, anyway. You can stand listening to him for a little bit longer.”

“It’s not just him, it’s everyone here,” said the first voice. “You can tell who’s been here too long because they’ve got the speech of wickedness oozing into their words. Even their god-speaker does it. A god-speaker, talking like he’s unclean. It’s practically blasphemy.”

“Last I heard he’s still a god-speaker in spite of it.”

The first voice scoffed. “Heretics can wield miracles, too.”

“White-Hair’s a pretty good heretic if he can still walk on holy ground without it consuming him for his insolence,” said the second. If anyone wanted to do anything whenever Sarouth was insolent, they’d run out of days in the week before they were through, though Riaag found he’d be interested in seeing if their efforts actually did anything. For the land’s sake, sometimes there just was no getting through to that man.

“I’m just saying, if these Rhoanish didn’t want the rest of the valley to think they’re all criminals and heathens, they’d try a little harder to be presentable. What are we supposed to think when we hear that shit? The Chant has decreed we are to speak that vile way if we’ve committed a sin. It’s pretty clear we’re expected to stop.”

“Clear to you, maybe. No need to be rude.”

“Bough-Breaker doesn’t even wear the colors of a clan! He flaunts it! And nobody here cares! If I’m supposed to ignore every single thing we’ve been raised to believe since the time of our ancestors because it’d be rude to bring it up, what’s the point of the Chant? Why would it even call for us to cast out the unclean in the first place?”

Same shit, different day; Riaag was done trying to get a more nuanced appreciation of these specific nomads’ opinions. “Ay, there, y’all got any more trash fer me ter haul off?” he said in a loud, hopefully cheerful-sounding voice.

The two speakers startled and turned towards him.

“It looks like you’ve collected most of it, thank you!” said the second speaker. The other remained pointedly silent.

“We’s gonna miss y’all at the sacrifice. Shall I have His Holiness stop by ter lay down some blessings aforehand?” He fought as hard as he could not to take satisfaction in the face the first speaker made at this offer. People needed time to work through a lifetime worth of ingrained ideas—he knew this as well as anyone, after all, since he’d had to walk that very road himself—and part of that required some element of compassion towards someone stuck in the middle of cultural turmoil. Sarouth had a lot to say about this sort of thing. Riaag took this to heart as much as he did most things Sarouth said on the subject. Even with a mountain of patience and understanding towards the whole of his blood-kind, as befitting of the oathbound of the very avatar of their god, he still got a nasty little thrill from fucking with too-outdated outsiders on occasion.

Ikreth chose that moment to return. “There you two are,” she said. “I’ve been looking all over! We need to make sure the animals have all been given water before we go.” She gave Riaag a polite nod of acknowledgment. “Did you need anything from these two first, Bough-Breaker?”

He shook his head. “Nah. Just offerin’ ter arrange fer a travel blessin’ if’n it’s so desired.”

“I think we’ll be fine.” She glanced up at the sky and pursed her lips. “It’s about time for us to head out, so I fear we must focus on ourselves to ensure nothing is left behind. We’d like to be a few hours further down the road before dark. Please convey our gratitude towards White-Hair.”

Whether Ikreth sincerely needed to focus on her own band’s headcount or if she was simply looking for a polite way to be rid of him, Riaag was willing to go along with things. “Most naturally,” he said, wrapping the words in as much roughnecked decorum as he could manage. “Y’all watch out fer jackals out there, y’hear?”

“Thank you kindly. We’ll do our best,” said Ikreth with a smile. “May you enjoy many years of peace and prosperity here in your stronghold.”

Riaag waved to all three of them, shouldered the little sack of rubbish he’d collected, and made for the middens with long strides, and if he happened to brush the nameless first speaker with the unpatterned hem of his caftan as he passed, who but he could say it was anything other than an accident?

On the night before the fields were to be fully blessed, Riaag was pleased to find he was a lot calmer about it than he’d expected. It wasn’t like there was much to worry about: he’d help oversee the rite, same as always, and he’d lead the hymns, also same as always, and the ground would be fed its great sacrifice to properly kick off planting season in full, and the next sunny day the farmers would start their tilling in earnest. It was pretty hard to mess up a sacrifice once you’d done it a time or two. He’d already spoken with those who’d volunteered to work the public kitchens that day about how they’d prepare the leftovers. Sacrifices only wanted blood, so why leave the rest of things unused? The First Scavenger expected better of His children than that. Those parts of the gifts they gave Him that He didn’t eat would fit in just fine on a shared lunch platter.

What didn’t hurt the overall peaceful mood was how all afternoon, and in fact the whole of the evening barring a break for dinner, Sarouth had been picking at his harp on and off. His claws drifted dreamily across the strings as Riaag finished the chores for the day. Sarouth was no virtuoso—he’d only had the thing the better part of a year by then, and had hardly been a performer before that—but this didn’t matter to Riaag. Music was music. For a man whose throat killed any song he tried to push through it, it must have been intoxicating to find a new way of making a suitably joyful noise. If nothing else he was getting back all the muscle memory he’d lost from not practicing over the winter.

Riaag hummed along with the current tune as he scrubbed the bottom of the cooking pot. Normally he’d wait until daylight before bothering with such a task; as he’d made milk gruel in it that night and more variations on cream-based soups for the meals before, he didn’t fancy the idea of being greeted with a sour dairy smell the next time he went to boil some cabbages. A little physical labor helped focus any last-minute nervous energy quite nicely.

It had been a quiet few days. Traditionally they waited a week between Sarouth’s dancing and the actual stronghold-wide sacrifice, just in case anything weird turned up, and save for the occasional Valin sighting there had been no such things this year. This was great for keeping things running smoothly but less good for Riaag’s focus on happening to things instead of letting them happen to him. How was he supposed to practice if nothing awful was going on? That was a ghoulish way to think, he reminded himself, and he was doing plenty, since it wasn’t like he’d stopped checking in on the lodge’s construction, or making sure the public middens were sanitary, or helping repair the tools the farmers would be using the day after next, or grudgingly grooming his horse (assuming it didn’t try to bite him again), or herding other people’s children. He was managing all of that and still keeping Sarouth company. That was a lot to ask of half a dozen men, much less just the one of him.

Nice as that was, he still wanted to find more ways to test his heart’s waters. Conscious action, conscious action. What was a good kind of conscious action? He wasn’t about to go rouse Kala Cold-Iron out of bed and ask her to throw fresh recruits at him until they got tired of having their asses kicked, since with her firstborn almost two years old by then she needed what sleep she could get when not roaring at goofy teenagers still learning which part of the axe you were supposed to hold. He’d bartered with Osmo Wild-Tooth for everything he could think of and a few things he couldn’t, so that was out, and the fruits of that transaction were already properly stored away for whenever the time was right. He was absolutely not going to practice any more fucking horseback riding. Leaving the tent for any reason other than the most necessary seemed like a waste of a good mood, honestly.

He ran a drying rag around and around the now gleaming-clean interior of the pot as he pondered. The downside of cooking with metal instead of ceramics was how you absolutely, positively could not leave them wet unless you liked the taste of rusty food. Unlike his skillet it wasn’t made from seasoned iron, so he at least had the benefit of using soap if he wanted, but at the end of the day a lot of cleaning came down to pure elbow grease. The motion of his hands helped guide his thoughts. He wasn’t up for any games with dice or tokens, and seeing as he wanted to save his voice for tomorrow he’d need to ease off of singing or storytelling just in case. Prepping a tub for laundry or hunting for more clothes in need of repairs were both off the table seeing as he was about ready to be done with domestic tasks for a few hours, thank you very much. He hadn’t a clue how Sarouth’s standing loom worked, much less the desire to learn, and even if he’d possessed an inkling of either there was a half-woven length of fabric on there already. Potentially messing up something made from common fibers was one thing, but Sarouth had been working with some delightfully soft camel wool yarn (acquired from the same nomads who’d traded them the animals’ meat), and Riaag dreaded the thought of wasting so much as a scrap of it. So what was he meant to do with himself with such limited options?

Oh.

There was one thing.

Riaag put everything away and began to prepare the tent for bed, checking the flap’s lacing and dimming any lamps Sarouth didn’t seem to be using. He said his prayers—Sarouth stopped his harp-playing long enough to join him for these, as was usual—and swished out his mouth with ash-water before brushing out his hair one last time for the night. He pretended not to feel Sarouth’s eyes on him as he stripped away his outer layers and spread them out to air overnight. Now clad in merely a tunic, trousers, and a single broad sash, he turned down the big quilt they used in all but the hottest of weather and slipped into his side of the bed.

“You tired, brave warrior?” asked Sarouth as he noodled around with variations on a song Riaag remembered hearing the Usoans singing with each other.

“Nah. I’s just feelin’…nice. Figured it might be a fine idea ter take such a good mood with me under the covers.”

Sarouth nodded. “Good idea. We have another big day tomorrow.”

“Thing is, I’s feelin’ plenty nice, I just ain’t, uh. Tired.” He reached his hand out across the bed to Sarouth, beckoning as enticingly as he was able. “Join me?”

“Up for some cuddles, are you?” Given how Sarouth’s fingers stilled and his harp found its way back into the basket where he kept it, he certainly seemed to be. Cuddling with Sarouth was lovely. It was warm, it was gentle, it was a safe and comfortable way to remember his look and his touch and his scent. It was a fine way to prepare for the busy day ahead. It just wasn’t what Riaag had in mind.

Riaag swallowed. What was he worried about? It wasn’t like he was never the one to make the first move, and Sarouth was never nothing short of flattered to pieces when propositioned. Riaag knew what he wanted and he knew what Sarouth wanted, too. He could do this. “I’s interested in more’n just that, Sarouth.”

“Are you, now.”

“Yeah.” He used his previously beckoning hand to brush a strand of hair behind the point of his ear. So what if he had to look away as he continued talking; Sarouth thought that was cute, didn’t he? “I wanna be touched. I wanna touch you back.”

Do you, now.” Sarouth was still seated on the same stool as before, his ankles crossed, and while he had his full attention directed at Riaag he hadn’t made any move to stand, scoot, or even lean closer to where Riaag lay. He now looked keenly invested even as he kept to himself. It was a rare sight, like a shooting star or a single-blooming flower: Sarouth was playing hard to get.

Well, no sense in not being obvious about things: “I does. In the lovemakin’ way, I’s meanin’, if such weren’t established overly clear.”

“Clear as the sky, my love. Clear as melting ice in the sun. Today has simply brought no end of surprises!”

What was Riaag supposed to do with this? If he was too forceful he’d spoil the mood, but if he gave up now he’d spoil it a different way. Proactivity was so hard. “T’wouldn’t be a burden, would it?” he asked.

Sarouth laughed, and it was a merry, kind-hearted sound, the kind that was hard for Riaag to hear without smiling a little bit himself. “Whyever might I object to a big, strong man with tusks the length of my pointer finger asking for a little of my time?”

Hopefully Sarouth didn’t mind the color Riaag felt rising in his cheeks. “Didn’t want ter impose none.”

“Oh, Riaag, you sweet, sweet thing, you’d rot out every tooth in my head if I let you,” said Sarouth. “Shit, I just might. My next set’s not that far off from growing in. I’ll carve myself some falsies to last until then.”

Riaag knitted his brow. Of all days, this was when Sarouth had chosen to be anything other than obviously hot or cold? “Is you in the mood ternight or not?” he asked.

“My, aren’t we bossy today?”

Not immediately folding in on himself upon hearing those words turned out to be quite difficult for Riaag, as everything in his nature wanted to wither at the thought of inconveniencing Sarouth in the name of trying to be appealing. He pulled his hand back. Was he sulking? He hoped he wasn’t sulking. “Sorry.”

“Nothing to be sorry about,” said Sarouth. He tilted his head and frowned, a few loose strands of hair falling across his forehead. “What’s gotten into you? I thought being asked to make your case was part of what you wanted.”

“I mean, if’n it’s supposed ter be—”

Sarouth rested his cheek in his hand with a rueful little smile. “Riaag, my love,” he said, “I may be a soothsayer of no small talent, but I can’t know for sure what you’re thinking unless you tell me. I guessed where you were going, and that guess was clearly wrong. Sorry about that.” He uncrossed his legs and re-crossed them with the opposite ankle on top. “Seeing as I most definitely am in the mood to treat myself to some quality time appreciating that magnificent body of yours, and I’d rather you not be too upset to enjoy yourself were I to do so, why don’t we both start over?” After tucking the stray hairs back up where they belonged, Sarouth straightened up. “So, you were saying something along the way of me joining you over there, right?”

“Yeah….”

“Then let me be clear when I tell you that there’s nothing I’d want more.”

The verdict was still out on whether this counted towards Riaag’s less immediate goal; be it active or passive or somewhere between the two, he wasn’t going to complain about the way Sarouth glided over to the bed and sat himself on the side to kick off his sandals. He picked Riaag’s hand up and laced their fingers together, his skin dark and blue-green against Riaag’s lighter hue, and when he settled on his side so they could lie face to face it was suddenly so much easier to focus on the elegant arc of his brow or the curve of his tusk or anything else, for that matter, than whatever silly-ass thing Riaag had let upset him this time.

A tingle from Riaag’s amulet where it lay beneath his sleeve made him aware of what he was thinking. It wasn’t silly or foolish to get stuck inside a small thought, he reminded himself; a few small thoughts on their own could have a big effect if they came at the wrong time, the same way a marmot hole was harmless and small right up until you stepped in the damn thing in such a way that you tripped and sprained your ankle. He’d been told as much by the very man who lay next to him now. That was the amazing part, really: Sarouth had a lot of experience in bringing salvation to souls that needed to be forgiven, Riaag’s own being easily the most significant among that vast number, and unlike some holy men Riaag had met during his near three decades of life, Sarouth was willing to extend that offer of grace to everyday shit, up to and including having a head and a heart that kept getting out of sync with one another and the world. Sarouth saw that sort of thing as no different than a more tangible, physical wound. One of the endless reasons to love him was how there was always the implicit permission to fuck up in his presence.

Meditating on Sarouth’s endless compassion was nice but it wasn’t really what Riaag wanted to do with his evening, so he pulled at Sarouth’s hand until Sarouth was nestled up against him, the quilt and bed-dressings the only barrier left between the pair. With his free hand Riaag cupped Sarouth’s hood where it fell across his hidden left cheek. A spark of mischief glinted in Sarouth’s eye at that touch, and a spark was all that it remained; for once it seemed he was waiting for Riaag’s lead. Well, that’s what Riaag had wanted, wasn’t it? It was time to keep flexing those muscles of his in a new way.

“I wanted ter say…,” he began, choosing his words with care. “No, not say. I wanted ter thank you. Fer bein’ here, with me. After ever’thing. You’s always thought this all was worth it, ‘n ’cause you does, so I’s able ter do the same.” He squeezed Sarouth’s hand, still clasped in his own. “You ain’t got any shortage ‘a blood ‘n thunder, but you’s aware that ain’t why people stay, yeah?”

“Do tell,” said Sarouth. It wasn’t in the tone he used when he was merely letting someone finish spitting up all the words in their craw, so Riaag did, indeed, tell.

“Ter hear you talk ’bout the stronghold, it’s like a man fawnin’ o’er his own child. You cain’t stop bein’ amazed at the shit these people does. Why shouldn’t they be doin’ great things? You’s given ’em a home, you’s given ’em guidance, you’s given ’em permission ter be somethin’ nobody ain’t ever seen before. But most of all? You makes people believe. Not in the Hill God, they know He’s down there all smilin’ up at alla us as He’s dreamin’. That part’s pretty easy ter find true ‘n it ain’t like we don’t got an abundance ‘a most pious souls millin’ around in these parts; any god-speaker could handle that part. What you does is give ’em faith that they’s a future in bein’ Rhoanish.”

Sarouth wet his lips. He didn’t look away—not that Riaag would’ve blamed him if he had—and yet there was a sense that he wasn’t looking at Riaag anymore. It was over in the literal blink of an eye: his lid fluttered closed and then he was all the way back again. Had Agritakh demanded a brief audience? It wouldn’t have been the first time He had interrupted things in the middle of one or both of them trying to get off. Sharing a fire with a demigod had challenges all its own.

“Look at you, trying to get me all hot and bothered by reminding me I’m not half bad at this whole avatar act,” said Sarouth. “I’ll admit it’s not the pillow talk I expected. And before you worry, no, that’s not a bad thing at all. Especially since you deserve some of the same.”

Riaag raised his eyebrows. “I’s hardly a man ‘a yer stature.”

“You’re damn right you aren’t, you’re like thrice as broad as I am and that fact never fails to bring warmth to my blood on the coldest of nights.” He chuckled and pressed closer against Riaag’s front. This probably would’ve worked out better for both of them if Riaag had possessed the presence of mind to have them both on the same side of the covers. Well, the night was young. There was time to fix that. Or there would be once Sarouth was done talking, which might be never, but that wasn’t necessarily bad, either. Sarouth’s voice was a wonder all its own. “Somebody very smart once told me that a foundation must be stable or anything built upon it is doomed to fall in upon itself,” he continued. “I’d be floundering if Naar Rhoan stood on dunes of sand, mired down if the only thing beneath it was mud. Without strength running to its very core the stronghold would crumble at the first sign of hardship. But we both know that’s not the case, now is it?”

Warriors of the valley were no strangers to trouble. There were jackal bands roving all over the place, and dangerous animals aplenty, and then you had things like members of other clans and blood-kinds showing up with funny ideas about what to do when visiting unfamiliar orcs. Some parts of the world saw orcs as little more than animals who’d learned what metal was, and depending on about whom you were talking sometimes they were even halfway right. Riaag had met all these challenges and more, had traveled to lands where his kind were killed on sight and returned to tell the tale. He’d faced demons, heretics, ghosts, and monsters. He had scars on top of scars, each its own testament to his ability to survive, and his bravery had never failed him when he needed it most.

All these challenges he’d met and overcome, and for all of that his greatest trial could still be accepting a heartfelt compliment.

Did proactive people accept compliments? Was having something nice said about you a passive act? Thinking too long on that wasn’t going to get Riaag anywhere, not if he still wanted to get his dick touched that night, so instead he went with what felt natural. “Aw, you gonna make me say it?”

“I am.”

He heaved a sigh full of weariness and drama. The nerve of his oathbound, making him state laudatory truths about himself! “T’ain’t the case ’cause I’s yer true foundation, bein’ all loyal ‘n reliable ‘n shit.”

“That’s right. And I love you for it.” Sarouth kissed the tip of Riaag’s nose. It would’ve been a sweetly chaste gesture had he not been rubbing his cock against Riaag’s leg at the same time. Sarouth could mix more signals than a cauldron full of message beads. “Did you tell me what you wanted to?”

“Almost,” said Riaag.

He twisted his wrist just so and tilted Sarouth’s face up to level with his own, then leaned in to leave a longer, more meaningful kiss with as much tongue as he dared not to distract from the message. When they parted and his eyes opened once more he found Sarouth already looking back at him with the intensity of an owl. There was no sound but the wind outside and gentle crackle of the firepot. There was no one to interrupt. There was no catastrophe to pull them apart. For now, it was just the two of them, alone with each other and the Hill God’s dreams.

Riaag smiled. “Wanted you ter know I loves you back. Usin’ words ‘a no uncertain clarity, ’cause it matters.”

“And yet here you were, giving me guff for saying you’re just the sweetest thing alive,” said Sarouth. He laughed, a little ruefully, but pointedly didn’t refute what Riaag had said in favor of a genuine, “Thank you.” If those yellow eyes of his shone a little more wetly than usual in the lamplight, Riaag saw no reason to mention it. He knew from experience how much that little courtesy could mean.

“That’s all I needed ter say,” said Riaag. He nuzzled at Sarouth’s neck with his beard. “Unless you’s somethin’ ter add, I thinks we’s good ter move on ter the horny part.”

“Praise ring through His tunnels, yes, let’s move on to the horny part, I am dying.” Sarouth had thrown his sash to the floor and was halfway out of his robes before Riaag could so much as shift his weight. He only paused when he was a bit of tossed fabric away from fully disrobing. “Sorry, sorry, should’ve asked before I assumed. You wanted me naked, right?”

“Yeah.”

“And did you want to be that way, too? Or did you want me to grab something from my potion collection before we go any further?”

Riaag had admittedly not planned things out as far ahead as he usually did save for a vague sense of taking charge! and being assertive!, so going with what sounded like a pretty good idea seemed the wisest course of action. Sarouth was so good at this. Taking a different lesson from Sarouth, Riaag hastily shook the idea in his head until it was shaped like something he would naturally say. “How ’bout you help me get nice ‘n comfortable fer ter better keep you company? Maybe say some nice things ter me while you’s at it?”

“I think I can manage that,” said Sarouth, cracking his knuckles.

One moment Riaag was still in his sleeping clothes and the next he was not. He could feel Sarouth’s hands pressed against his stomach, their blunted claws dimpling his flesh, and there was the hard, hot length of Sarouth’s cock, also dimpling his flesh. Riaag felt these things instead of seeing them since Sarouth had slithered under the covers in the process of moving Riaag’s clothing from his body to the floor. There was a lot to like about the current situation. Nice and comfortable, indeed.

For his part, Sarouth (still in his hood and jewelry but not a stitch else) wasn’t content to stop there. He clung to Riaag’s side like a shelf fungus. Riaag wrapped his arms around Sarouth’s slender frame and leaned in to brush his beard against the side of Sarouth’s neck again, earning a happy sound for his trouble. Sarouth responded to this by wiggling until he could lean up next to Riaag’s ear. A quick nip of the point was followed by a second, longer, much less chaste nibble at the earlobe, and Riaag would have gladly reciprocated had Sarouth not chosen that moment to start talking again.

“Were you showing off for me at the lake?” he purred. “It’s fine if you were. I liked it.”

Had he been showing off? At the time Riaag had been focused on getting himself clean, at least when he’d not been focused on ducking Sarouth in the water. Riaag tended to keep things simple when he wasn’t busy reciting some saga or another. Then again, if he’d done something Sarouth had liked, the forward-thinking thing to do would be to learn more about it so he could repeat the process later with a little more aplomb. It’d certainly encourage more of those nice things he’d asked to hear! He moved a hand from where he’d been holding Sarouth close and let his fingers brush down Sarouth’s side until they could settle around one cheek of his firm and shapely behind. Riaag was a large man with large hands; the fit was near unto perfect. “Now how might I’d’ve gone doin’ such a thing?” he murmured back.

“Oh, how weren’t you?” said Sarouth. “I watched you put your whole wonderful self on display. I was there when you flaunted how easily you could overpower me if you wanted to. I watched you swim. You’re so graceful in the water, you know that? Graceful and powerful. I’ve always admired how you always seem in control of your body. When you move there’s purpose to it, there’s a confidence that says you can handle any challenge put before you, be it a lap around the lake or a tall stack of chores or something more raw and violent. But there’s more to it than that, hm?

“I love watching you do things. Doesn’t matter if you’re chopping wood or chopping heads, all somebody has to to is look at you and they can tell how you’re a man of no small potential. They don’t have to see your scar from Wolf’s messenger to know you’re a fierce and mighty warrior. They don’t have to see all the hours you give to Naar Rhoan’s people to know you love this place we’ve built with all your heart. And they don’t have to hear you say it to know you some love me even more. I swear, I was the last man upon the earth to figure that one out, but just because I’m a real dense motherfucker doesn’t mean it wasn’t obvious to everyone else. I’m glad for that.

“I love the sight of you, even when you’re not trying to get my attention with how delightful you look,” Sarouth continued, now alternating between grinding his cock against Riaag’s thigh and his ass back against Riaag’s hand. “I love your pelt. I love your scars. I love your smile. I could admire the softness of your belly or the mass of your arms for a thousand years and still be left longing for more. When I close my eyes at night, my final thoughts are filled with gratitude that I can feel the warmth of your flesh against mine before the Labyrinth takes me back. And when we go to the lake, the whole of the stronghold sees proof that yours is a body worth desiring.” He ran his tongue along his teeth. “Show it to me again.”

Under normal circumstances Riaag might have said no, since while the weather was getting warmer it wasn’t that warm on that particular night. His instincts cried out to burrow under some blankets to wait for the sun to rise before doing anything without a protective layer of batting between himself and any drafts that might get into the tent. Normal circumstances didn’t involve nearly as many compliments. Riaag was but helpless clay upon the potter’s wheel, so who could blame him for throwing insulation quite literally to the wind as he tossed back the covers to reveal himself? He swept up his hair with the hand he’d been using to hold Sarouth and tucked both hair and hand behind his neck to ensure there was nothing in the way of the view. If the Faaroug in his most holy eminence wanted to creep on him, then Riaag would damn well let himself be crept upon.

“Yes…,” said Sarouth, the sibilant hissing between his teeth lustily. “Roll all the way flat, please, and keep yourself facing me. I want to enjoy every inch of you.”

Riaag obliged. He liked being on his back, at least when Sarouth was involved, so it was never that much of a struggle to get him supine. It was easy to see the whole room while lying in such a way. The only person who could sneak up on him like this would have to be able to dig through the ground itself! As that would mean invading the Hill God’s own territory while His avatar was trying to get up to something, it was an implausible feat. This freed Riaag up to lie back and let himself be adored. That prospect suited him just fine.

Sarouth knelt in the open V of Riaag’s legs and took his time looking over the newly-exposed expanse of green. He wasn’t being subtle about his wants, either, as he’d taken himself in hand by the time his knees struck the mattress and was slowly stroking his shaft with the same unhurried pace at which he admired Riaag. Sometimes he’d finish this way, touching himself with increasing fervor until he anointed Riaag with his passion, and whether Riaag would still be crying out for his own release by the time Sarouth was done depended entirely on their whims.

As Riaag’s own whims lay elsewhere, he made himself say something. “Don’t come just yet, okay?”

“Hm?” said Sarouth with a sly smile that said he hadn’t been considering it at all until just then. “Now what could be nicer than putting my mark on this big, soft stomach I see before me?” His hand moved from his own cock to Riaag’s, keeping still in favor of an unmistakably possessive squeeze. “Got something in mind, my pretty little bird?”

Going for one of Riaag’s favorite terms of endearment when he was already in such a state was cheating. There was no way it wasn’t. If he wasn’t careful he was going to find himself sliding into the fuzzy headspace he found himself in when all he wanted to do was whatever Sarouth told him to; this was a very fine headspace in which to find himself, but it didn’t seem like it’d go too well with his attempts to take charge of his life a little bit more. He forced himself to keep from melting. As befitting of a warrior-poet, he managed to overcome no small adversity to put words in a more or less working order. “Take another look at me ‘n tells you what you sees?”

“What do I see, what do I see…,” said Sarouth, now a little sing-song. “I see Riaag Bough-Breaker, my very own oathbound, handsomest man in this or any other valley, and I know the reason he’s trembling so isn’t because he’s afraid. You’re excited to lie with me, aren’t you? I certainly hope so, I’m trying to get you hot and bothered over here.”

“Y-you’s doin’ a fine job ‘a that.”

“Good! Now, what secret little detail of yours needs to be my focus today?”

Riaag turned his head to the side, further exposing his throat while keeping an eye locked with Sarouth’s own. Even in the dim light it was easy to tell which of the discolorations along his collar and trapezius were scars, which were patches of dark hair, and which were Sarouth-sized bite bruises. “My shoulders is too plain.”

“Oh? But look at all these little marks,” said Sarouth. He leaned over and, using his free hand, pressed his thumb into one of the fresher ones. The ensuing ache made Riaag hiss with pleasure.

“Yeah, ‘n look how faded they is. It’s been days since the last one got left.” This was true, in the sense that Sarouth hadn’t chomped on him that entire week, but also less true, given how many were still a fierce and mottled purple. Riaag didn’t care. “I wanna get bit. I wanna get bit real good.”

The sly smile Sarouth wore turned predatory. “Yeah? Tell me why.”

“Next time we’s at the lake? When we’s stripped down proper? I want ever’one ter see I belongs ter somebody. I want ’em ter know that somebody is you.”

“Of course they will. All of Naar Rhoan knows that so long as you draw breath, and so long as you still wish it, you will be mine, and mine alone. They also know that I’m all yours. When we’re both nothing more than bones, the skalds will still sing of our love, and of all the great things we’ve done in one another’s names. I could ask for no finer guardian. I could ask for no finger acolyte. I could ask for no finer friend.” Sarouth leaned in closer. “Now tell me the other reason.”

“‘Cause….” Riaag’s mouth was dry. He couldn’t look away from the eye that pinned him in place. He couldn’t escape the heat of the hand on his cock. He was right on the cusp of getting what he wanted, now all he had to do was stick the landing. “‘Cause it gets me so fucken hard,” he rumbled. “When I come it’s better if’n yer teeth’s at my neck.”

A chuckle like liquid smoke rolled over Riaag. “You’re lucky kin-feasting’s a sin or I’d have to eat you up myself,” said Sarouth. He snapped his teeth, half playful noise and half a reminder of how hard he could bite down when he wanted to. Riaag let out another long, shuddering sigh at the sound. Even someone with as slender a neck and narrow a jaw as Sarouth could still crunch a bone to pieces if they tried. Sarouth never drew blood, ever, but on one night the previous summer he’d come about as close as he could without actually breaking something in Riaag’s shoulder. The pain had been exquisite. The soreness Riaag had felt during the next three weeks of chores had been less so, so they’d agreed it wasn’t something they’d repeat lightly, if ever, but the potential was there. An imaginative soul like Riaag could do a lot with potential.

“Not just yet, though,” said Riaag as Sarouth moved to lean in.

Sarouth froze in place. “No?”

“When you does it, I….” How did he want to come, anyway? The sacrifice was tomorrow, so nothing that’d leave him too wrecked to sleep well, but Sarouth seemed to be in a good mood and very attentive, so nothing that was easy to replicate via a little quickie session in the front half of the tabernacle. Oh, that was something: “I wants you ter get up ‘gainst me ‘n touch us tergether. Wanna feel yer heartbeats ‘gainst mine. We can mix what we does nice ‘n easy that way, ‘n sample our comminglin’ thusly.”

“Ah, so something like this?” said Sarouth. He leaned forward until he was halfway lying on Riaag, one hand propping up the weight of his body while the other was wrapped around both their shafts.

“Yeah.”

The thing Sarouth was doing with his thumb was very distracting. The thing he then did with his hips was worse. “And you still want to get bitten, right?” he asked, as casually as if he hadn’t been frotting against someone he reportedly found most fetching.

He hadn’t so much as been nibbled yet and Riaag still felt his eyes want to roll back in his head at the thought. “Oh yeah.”

“Then I should probably get started on that, hm?”

Riaag’s cock found itself stroked from two different sources, one belonging to Sarouth’s never-callusing hand, the other the hot, velvety press of Sarouth’s shaft; the both of them had already begun to glisten at their tips, and each squeeze of Sarouth’s hand coaxed forth more while each pull dragged the new beads of precome down their respective lengths. When Sarouth shifted his weight he added a third source of stimulation to the equation, that being the touch of Riaag’s own gut against the upper side of his shaft. It worked with his shape, not against it, and since his cock wasn’t getting shoved up against the slabs of muscle that hid beneath his outer layers of fat it was actually rather nice. The fat parts made the battle-hardened parts much cuddlier. Once he’d gotten over his fear of taking up more space than he deserved Riaag had never much minded his size, and once he’d started sleeping with Sarouth he’d been given plenty of proof that Sarouth not only didn’t mind it, himself, but was helplessly horny for the chance to spend time with someone who was big in so many dimensions.

As if to prove the point, Sarouth wasted no time in switching from slow-but-powerful strokes with hips and hand to pressing both of his hands against Riaag’s broad chest and humping furiously. Sometimes he’d lean in to plant a kiss somewhere around Riaag’s sternum. They’d had to practice to make this sort of thing work in the first place; Sarouth was lithe and leggy and also half a head shorter than Riaag, so if they wanted their cocks to remain in relative proximity they couldn’t go for any angles that’d require him to scoot up too much or that caused Riaag to push Sarouth away by not keeping nice and flat. Luckily for them both, there had been ample opportunity to learn. Sarouth stayed exactly where he wanted to be no matter how energetic he became. Even more luckily, this was exactly where Riaag wanted him to be, too.

One of Riaag’s hands remained tucked up against the back of his neck as Sarouth rutted away, since that felt right, but what was he to do with the other? He didn’t want to put Sarouth off-balance—especially not now, what with how their cocks were pinned together in just the right way and Riaag could feel the first inklings of a really good orgasm starting to build in his loins—but he similarly didn’t want to lie there like a fish on a chop block. Of course, with how Sarouth was bracing himself with his arms there was no way he could reach Riaag’s shoulders unless he grew a long, long neck, so why not solve that problem at the same time? Riaag reached up and rested his hand right between Sarouth’s shoulder blades. He held it there, seeing if Sarouth would complain, then put more pressure on it until he’d pulled Sarouth (still merrily grinding) to lie flush against his stomach, the tips of Riaag’s claws pricking at the expanse of tattooed skin upon which they lay. Sarouth responded to this by taking Riaag’s head in his hands and leaning in for a kiss.

Kissing Sarouth while he was in motion was a perilous game, as one wrong move could result in a rasped lip or a painful clack of tusk on tusk, and as usual Sarouth was keen to play the daredevil. He was infuriatingly deft with his tongue, always seeming to know just how to turn the rough side against Riaag’s own to sweeten a kiss instead of harshen it. Riaag was quietly thankful for all the dozens of people Sarouth had kissed in the past to refine his technique. He was even more thankful still that Sarouth had been willing to teach him a few tricks, himself.

The bedframe creaked beneath them. It wasn’t at risk of breaking, as they’d had it built specially so it could be safely shared by two very friendly people (one of which was Riaag-sized), and it wasn’t about to disturb anyone, since nobody else camped any less than a good hundred paces from the shadow of the sacred hill, but Riaag couldn’t help but feel a little self-conscious all the same. What if someone needed to pay them a visit in the middle of the night and overheard? What if there was an intruder and the (very quiet) groan of wood on wood drowned out the sounds of their passing? What if he stopped fucking worrying for five minutes and let the pleasure simmering in his blood boil over, since Sarouth was really going at it and Riaag hadn’t exactly been lying still, either? That last one sounded like the best hypothetical of the three, and so Riaag focused on it, confident he was making the right decision. Any visitors or intruders or otherwise were going to have to wait until he came.

A familiar question was whispered against his cheek. “Are you close?”

Words weren’t finding their way from between Riaag’s ears to the tip of his tongue, so he nodded instead. He could feel the wicked grin this inspired even if he couldn’t see it.

“Good. Brace yourself.”

Pain roared to life in Riaag’s shoulder like a coal at the heart of a smelting furnace. He gasped. Sarouth growled into Riaag’s skin as he shook his head to and fro, like a stray dog worrying at a scrap of meat. The pain let up for a moment only to be replaced by a second bite, and then a third, and somewhere between number four and number forty Riaag came, joyfully, all through the tiny space between his body and Sarouth’s. Sarouth followed soon after. Just like Riaag had asked, their come mixed together into a two-toned whole. He couldn’t wait to taste it. Now if he could only catch his breath….

Sarouth gave Riaag a kiss on the cheek and rolled off of him onto his back. He ran his thumb along the spot on Riaag’s stomach and licked it clean. There was much smacking of lips. Riaag had expected him to comment about the flavor, or the consistency, or whether or not it was about to drip into Riaag’s navel again, but instead Sarouth surprised him: “I noticed you made the effort to take point this time! How’d you like it?”

Riaag grimaced. “Honestly, Sarouth, Iunno how you stands it.”

“Oh?”

He stared at the ceiling of the tent. Ropes draped with charms and dried herbs looped overhead, making abstract shapes in the dark. Riaag usually only saw them from this angle after sex, so the familiar blobs of light and shadow were comforting to let his eyes wander across while he collected his thoughts. “They’s so much fucken…thinkin’. I kept worryin’ I was gonna screw up.”

“Now why would you think that?” asked Sarouth. “You’re thoughtful and attentive all the time, and making requests of me instead of me making them of you doesn’t change things.” He swiped his thumb through their come and cleaned it off again. “I don’t know if you noticed, but you don’t have jizz all over your belly because I didn’t enjoy myself.”

“Yeah, but, uh. That was ’cause you was takin’ charge when you did? You had ter step up fer me.”

The ensuing raspberry was blown with such force it ruffled Sarouth’s hood. “No, I stepped in because I’m terrible at sitting back and letting other people lead. You were just too much of a sweetheart to call me on it.” He hugged Riaag’s upper arm. “Why try that role if you don’t like it? Has something made you feel like you have to do that?”

Riaag kept his eyes on the overhead shapes. “I just lets shit happen ter me most ‘a the time instead ‘a doin’ more ’bout it. I don’t wanna be a burden.”

“Well, that’s good to hear, given how much of a load-bearing orc you’ve become in these parts, and I imagine you’ll be equally pleased to know I’ve never found you to be one. You’ve never been anything but steadfast and helpful ever since I dusted you off and asked you your name. Why burn yourself out trying to live up to some ideal nobody else is even thinking about, much less expecting you to uphold?”

“Uh….”

“Look at it this way, my wolf: if you’ve come this far, and done this much, and inspired so many, all by simply, as you put it, letting things happen to you, doesn’t that seem to be working out pretty well?”

“I don’t wanna stagnate, though.”

Sarouth clung to him ever tighter. “I’m not saying you have to toss self-improvement to the crows, oh fuck no! But you’ve been able to remake yourself from the tip of your nose to your cute little toes, you’ve learned to know how to staunch your heart’s bleeding and when to call for someone with stronger potions on hand, and while we’ve had our ups and downs you’ve never stopped being the best herald a god-speaker could ask for.” He touched at Riaag’s bearded cheek and guided his eyes from the ceiling to Sarouth’s half-hidden own. “Now, remind me: who was it who ignored every single offer I made to free him of any perceived obligation because he felt so strongly about not leaving me on my lonesome?”

That felt like a lifetime ago, probably because it was. Riaag hadn’t really known how to do much of anything other than singing and drudge work back then. He’d learned the rest out of sheer necessity. “I mean, I couldn’t just leave you ter starve. Yer cookin’ is shitty ‘n you was too often a long time between stop-offs with other bands who had hands ter spare. You deserved better.”

Sarouth rolled his eyes at the comment on his cooking—not that he’d argue the point, this they both knew—before continuing. “And who was it who first asked me to share his fire?”

“T’were in response ter you winnin’ a duel ter defend my own dubious honor,” said Riaag, meekly. He could still almost feel the way Sarouth had thrown open the heavy coat of metal scale and laid a hand—a most pure and blessed hand—upon the bare skin beneath it, challenging any who would claim Riaag was untouchable in the eyes of the Hill God. The ensuing fight had pretty much ruined that set of cleric’s robes. Emotions had been high all around that day. “Prolly ought’ve waited until you wasn’t halfway ter bleedin’ out afore sayin’ nothin’, truth be told.”

“Tch, you still asked. And you probably had a better chance at getting through this stubborn head of mine when I was all loopy from blood loss.” He tossed his head. His tresses still weren’t long enough to properly accent the gesture, but they were getting there. Time might not’ve been able to heal all wounds but it could do a whole hell of a lot for a bad haircut. “Next up: who was it who first invited me to mark him, that all might see him and know he was another’s?”

The bites on Riaag’s shoulder ached, a friendly reminder of the first and every time he’d asked for them. He demurred: “I mean, you was the one what gave me a teensy nibble in the first place.”

“And you were the one who said it was wimpy, in not as many words, and encouraged me to put my jaw into it. I’m not letting you weasel out of this on a technicality.” He petted Riaag’s face even as he kept it pointed at his own. “Who was it who came to me and asked for a love that he wanted but feared would break his heart?”

Riaag squinted. “You’s startin’ ter get a little airy-fairy with yer wordin’. Is you askin’ about the ass thing?”

“Okay, yes, we’ll put it that way: which of us, after great personal introspection, first asked to do the ass thing? And I mean the bit with me actually putting my cock and/or fingers up your asshole, this is not a trick question. Rimming doesn’t count.”

“It don’t sound very romantic when you puts it thusly.”

“But you admit you were the one who suggested it, right? On both initial occasions?”

He had indeed suggested they try both acts, in spite of how much he was afraid it would hurt, and while they hadn’t repeated the one where Sarouth came inside of him since that first experimental night Riaag found he was starting to miss the feeling of Sarouth filling him up that way, of how when they were done the warmth that had tried to dribble down one leg had felt welcoming and holy and nothing else. He’d never felt more pure. That information wasn’t going to win him any debates, however, so he sidestepped the question. “I mean, you was always mighty clear ’bout how you weren’t gonna do nothin’ I didn’t want, ‘n the only way you was gonna know what I did was if’n I chose to speak it thusly. It weren’t never gonna happen otherwise.”

“And that, my darling, is because when our oath was still so fresh its echo hadn’t faded, you took me to the side and told me you could only do what you could do, and begged my forgiveness of the limits of your strength, and do you remember what I said to you in response?”

Riaag sighed. Sarouth had him dead to rights, same as always. “You said no matter what shape this thing ‘a ours took, even if’n someday I got so’s I could never stand ter be touched again, you wanted what I’d give you, ’cause t’were me what were gracin’ you thusly. Then you offered ter jack me off fer the third time that day. Then you rucked up yer robes, sat in my lap, ‘n jerked us both tergether, ’cause you like touchin’ on cocks in the name ‘a friendship ‘n brotherhood.”

“Precisely,” said Sarouth with a shimmy of his hips. He was already halfway hard again. God-speakers, honestly! “And what I’m getting at with this little exercise is that you’ve always taken charge with your own life, at least when it most mattered. I’m glad you’re taking the time to really think about yourself! But you should be pushing beyond your limits because it feels right to do so, not because you’re ashamed of your own nature. That thoughtful approach of yours has pulled my ass out of the fire—and away from the edge of a chasm—more times than I can count.” He glanced down and wrinkled his nose. “Speaking of things on the edge of chasms, I’m going to get us a wet cloth. One moment.”

As Riaag allowed himself to be cleaned, he reflected on both the goal with which he’d shackled himself and the sobering counterpoint Sarouth had offered. Was Sarouth right? He usually was, in Riaag’s experience, but sometimes he could be terribly, terribly wrong, and he always spoke in the most glowing terms about how Riaag was willing to doubt a god-speaker’s word—the word of the Faaroug himself, no less!—if it didn’t sit properly with him. Maybe he was trying to disagree because he hadn’t quite shaken all of his self-deprecating tendencies and the thought of him already doing what he was supposed to be doing was anathema to that. Maybe he was just looking for excuses because the alternative was frightening, and Sarouth had said what he’d said because that was just the way he saw the world; god-speakers spent so much time with their heads and hearts elsewhere you couldn’t blame them for being out of touch. Maybe the answer was neither of those, but something he hadn’t yet settled upon. Riaag was going to need to chew this over a while longer.

He’d worry about it tomorrow, though, as the look Sarouth gave him upon putting the cloth away was much more interesting. “Somethin’ on yer mind, Sarouth?”

Sarouth licked his lips. “Did you have any more ideas for tonight? I could still go another round or two, if you don’t mind me pacing myself.” He wasn’t simply being polite; in the span of the few minutes between coming and cleaning up the aftermath of said orgasm he’d gotten most of the way hard again.

The sight of Sarouth’s mostly-stiff cock was an inspiring one, even though Riaag was at a loss for what all they should do to celebrate its presence. What would a smart leader do in a situation like this? The answer was obvious: it was time to delegate. “Does you have any ideas?”

“How about the one where you lie on your front and I press your ass cheeks around my cock? I like that one. I figure by the time I’m done doing that you might have an idea of your own or two. And I’ll be sure to never shut up, just so you always know it’s me.”

“You never shuts up anyway,” said Riaag, grinning even as he rolled onto his side.

“See? That just means it was meant to be.”

Stomach-down, his hair swept to fall across his back so his oldest scars wouldn’t be so distracting, Riaag waited for the familiar feeling of hands cupping his body, and when that anticipated touch arrived (along with Sarouth’s inexhaustible supply of compliments) he didn’t have to be forward-thinking about it at all.

When the sun rose over Naar Rhoan once more it greeted a throng of people, farmers and otherwise, who lifted their voices in song as the sky blazed with color. Their breath steamed in the early morning air. Unlike Harvest, where the festivities built and built until reaching a crescendo in the form of the nighttime sacrifice and plentiful feasting, the planting ceremonies were all about new beginnings, and that meant waking up before the ass crack of dawn to have everything finished well before lunchtime. In spite of Sarouth’s best efforts Riaag had managed to actually get a full night’s sleep; just like always, it was his voice that led the pack, and it was his melodies that guided the Rhoanish to follow or harmonize as they so chose. They welcomed the day with open throats. Whatever winter weariness still remained in the fields surely couldn’t last in the face of such exultations.

The last unified note rang out clear and sweet as Sarouth stepped forward to greet the crowd. They did not cheer at the sight of him, as he was as much a symbol of the stronghold as the fields in which they stood and the corpses on the wall; his presence was a constant in their lives, just as theirs were in his, and Sarouth had always made a great deal of noise about how it was his deeds, not his demigodly appointment, that he expected people to respect. Humble intentions hadn’t made him dress any less extravagantly that morning. His many jewels shone as brilliantly as torches as he spread his hands to address his assembled flock.

“Welcome, children of the Hill God, children of Agritakh, called the First Scavenger, children of He who was once called the Star-Eater, children of He Who Sleeps Beneath the Earth. Welcome to this place He has bade us nurture in His name.” His uncovered eye flicked from face to face and brought his gentle smile with it. “You all ready to get some religion today?”

Now the crowd cheered, though there was a hesitance to it. That was normal. Any good rite took a little while to build up the biggest chunk of its momentum.

“We are gathered here together to enact a blessing. Some of us will be toiling in these very fields later this week, while others will not walk here until later, and yet others have their places elsewhere for the whole of the growing season until the time comes to enjoy what is nurtured in this good soil. We all have a place here no matter when we tread this ground He has called us all to tend. Let us recognize the truth: as a single stalk of barley is made good by a hundred days of growth, and as that barley becomes more than a stalk as it travels from farmer to miller to baker to child, so are all of us made great through the combined love of our people. Agritakh has given us our task to better understand Him, that we might know a fraction of His nature by working His earth in honor of His dreams, and as our hands coax the barren ground into that which can nourish life, so can we mirror His divine burden and His sacrifice. By blood and steel and fire, it shall be so!”

Another cheer rose up, more enthused than the previous one. Riaag’s ears could pick out how much of that was due to hesitant new converts finding comfort in Sarouth’s words, to say nothing of returning worshippers being reminded that what they were doing was good and right; their taboos against stealing food from beasts of the land ran deep, and as radical as Naar Rhoan was you couldn’t expect people to come to terms with agriculture not counting as grass-theft overnight. He and Sarouth used to sit up for many a long night trying to understand why Agritakh would ask such a thing of them, as if building an entire fucking stronghold in His name wasn’t enough! Sarouth had been the one to figure out the core of the parallel, Riaag had been the one to refine it by thinking out as many logical outcomes as he could imagine, and Sarouth had taken that heat-tempered concept and once again made it something all his own. It had taken them ages, and even though it was technically finished by then the springtime rite—much like all the new rites they’d had to devise—was forever a work in progress, as Sarouth kept tinkering with the guts of the thing to find greater meaning, greater mysticism, greater clarity. Above all else it had to feel right. Making shit up to cover circumstances the Chant had never anticipated was hard work.

Riaag led another hymn as Sarouth walked the crowd, greeting each attendee in turn with clasped forearms and a reminder that the Hill God smiled upon them that day. Unlike the stronghold-sized rituals held every Harvest there were only so many farmers and farming-adjacent people in Naar Rhoan who would come to these things, so while it took him forever to make his way through their numbers he actually could without Riaag having to scramble to keep the singing going. One day that might not be possible anymore. They’d have to figure things out when they got there.

The wind pulled at Riaag’s hair where it wasn’t kept in place by his hat. He’d braided flowers into it that morning to both look his nicest and keep the general winter-banishing theme at the forefront of everything; to his pleasant surprise he hadn’t been the only one to do so, though where his were the impossibly large, bright blossoms one only got from cunningly worked silk, the others’ leaned more towards whatever wildflowers had started to haltingly bloom out on the steppe. Was that becoming a thing? It wasn’t as though Riaag was the first orc in all of recollected history to wear flowers that way, but it felt like he’d been seeing it a lot more around the stronghold ever since he’d started doing so himself. Maybe it was just a frequency illusion. If it wasn’t, though, and he’d actually had yet another impact on these people who lived inside those walls he’d raised himself, there were worse ways to be a trendsetter than encouraging others to wear pretty colors no matter how fierce they looked.

Sarouth made his way from face to face and finally back to Riaag’s side. He raised his hands and all eyes were upon him.

“We gather here in fellowship to see how the land reflects the needs of our god. He thirsts but not for water, He hungers but not for food. Let us ease the needs of the land that He may be comforted in turn. Let us offer of our labors and of ourselves. Let the bowls be passed.”

One by one, a number of empty wooden bowls were handed around until there was one for each roughly band-sized knot of people. Riaag cradled one of his own in his hands; he’d not had the time this year to help with as much of the carving as he usually did, which meant the bowl he carried was one of the few he’d actually made himself, so it was important that he’d kept it apart from the rest. When it was one gift out of many and the winter had been a winter like any other he didn’t care that much, but Riaag was still eager to grab any new start into which he could get his claws. He held it up at chest height so those at the back of the crowd had a chance of seeing what he and Sarouth were doing. Sarouth had insisted they not bring out an altar, nor anything as much as a table to stand on, and the absence of something to boost him up was sorely felt. At least he didn’t have any trouble getting his voice to carry.

“With Harvest we give gifts of blood and steel and fire, that the Hill God may feast even as we do,” he said. It was still a little weird to hear so much about the opposite end of the year when spring had barely sprung. Riaag knew why, of course, but that knowledge didn’t make it feel any less like the seam of a glove that rubbed just a little too much against the side of his hand. “With this thing we do today we promise that another Harvest will come. We do not give in the same way as Harvest demands, yet give we do. We have not forgotten the greatness of His gift. How can we forget something the size of the entire world?”

He stepped to the side and gestured at the long troughs that had been set up in the spaces between each field. There were always a complicated number of the things; during rites Riaag would fret that there weren’t enough, and when it came time to actually build and move the troughs themselves around he’d find himself wondering if they couldn’t leave a few out this time. In the end there was somehow just enough. Sarouth, who presumably had other things on his mind than furniture, continued: “Come and gather up a gift for Him, beloved of the Agritakh.”

Each trough was, surely as Sarouth had said, filled with a modest amount of animal blood, perhaps an inch or two per. The beastmasters had handled the actual slaughtering that morning. Some gods could get quite persnickety over how their sacrifices were prepared and how fresh was truly fresh, this Riaag knew, and to the great relief of anyone who had to oversee a ritual with more than a handful of people taking part, Agritakh was willing to cut His children some slack when they strove to slake some of His terrible thirst. Everyone who wielded a knife against an offering, be that a humble rabbit all the way up to the tallest and fattest of oxen, had slept the night before, and therefore when they woke it was the same day as the rite even if dawn had yet to break, so it counted. Sarouth had long spoken of the importance of plentiful time for this sort of thing; if you rushed your work you risked doing a sloppy job, and that was a disgrace towards person, beast, and deity alike. So long as sacrifices weren’t tied to a specific time of day—and most were not, barring those that needed to be done in the light of a certain constellation—Riaag had yet to be given evidence that He gave that much of a shit. The Hill God was busy dreaming the eons away at the heart of the world. That He knew the sun was up at all was the impressive part.

Sarouth waited until the crowd had evened out to about two groups per trough before taking the next step. He and Riaag had a smallish container of their own, of course; since every ritual could be somebody’s first and there was an entire year of down time between each of these things, clearly demonstrating the next part was important. Sarouth took the bowl from Riaag’s hands and raised it high, then scooped up a modest amount of the offering from their own little trough. “We take the life’s blood of creatures we have tamed and loved, part of the cycle of the world, and we add to it our own,” he said as he passed the bowl back to Riaag.

The rising sun was as bright on the knife he drew from his belt as it had been on his rings and bracelets. He cut his finger just deep enough to break the skin—his ritual knife was kept razor-sharp for situations such as these—and let a drop of his own blood well up and fall into the bowl. After wiping off his knife with a cloth he offered it to Riaag, who pulled off his left glove to prick his finger the same way. It wasn’t as much of a wound as Harvest demanded, which was the point: everyone had the time to let cuts down the sides of their hands heal up, since the whole point of Harvest was that a large amount of work was done for the year, but for this rite? They were just getting started. Expecting farmers to struggle against the dry soil with one hand wrapped up in moss and bandages was unfair.

Riaag began another song to help cover up any murmurs that might rise up from people going about their own careful cuts. His time as Sarouth’s attendant had taught him the value of giving people a little wiggle room when it came to approaching the metaphysical. Trying to send a message from the natural world to what lay beyond would never not be kind of weird. You were allowed to feel weird during a ritual, what with how close it brought you to Agritakh; one reason god-speakers were so creepy was because they experienced that closeness every day. Songs made people feel less alone in the midst of that weirdness. The Hill God’s own Chant spoke of the value of song, anyway, and if there would ever come a point where there needed to be less music over the course of a sacrifice, not more, Riaag had yet to find it.

When the song ended it looked like each group’s bowl had been properly seen to and each person had bled accordingly, so Riaag nodded a cue to Sarouth. “Children of Agritakh, take up what you have prepared for Him and stand in His fields,” Sarouth said, once more making lots of large gestures with his hands so the furthest farmers could see. This was where having people who’d attended before really came in handy, as returning parties could help the first-timers, and each group moved to find a spot of its own on the cleared planting ground. Most people kept their bowls held in the middle by as many hands could fit on it. Riaag was pretty sure Sarouth had never explicitly called for that, which didn’t matter; it looked right, and felt right, so it had a place among them that morning.

“The ground is dry and cracking,” said Sarouth, and while the actual fields were in better condition than a lot of soil in the more open parts of the lowlands, the sentiment wasn’t wrong. “Pour out your offerings and let it drink deeply. The earth nourishes us, and so we nourish the earth in return, in life and in death, the cycle everlasting. Let us pick the bones of the old year and find strength for what lies ahead. Let us renew and be renewed.” He and Riaag dumped out their bowl in tandem, their own sacrifice landing not on a spot to be tilled but on the path leading to the western gates. Symbolism was very important in a ritual. Lifting the hand of his not busy with clutching the bowl, Sarouth shouted, “Praise unto He Who Sleeps!”

“Praise Him! Praise Him!” cried the crowd, and for a brief moment the blood flowed like water.

Sarouth plucked a brand from a nearby brazier and touched it to a mass of wood and kindling made up of everything cleared from the fields that hadn’t been deemed too useful to give to someone else. The wood caught unnaturally fast, as wood tended to do during rituals, and Riaag reverently added their now empty bowl to the now blazing bonfire. Sarouth tossed a handful of road dust after it. “I bid each of you bend down to take the blessed earth in your wounded hands and place it where your offering lay,” he said. “Bring up your vessels and let them become ash on the fire, which we will spread over all you see around you. This is the beginning. There is great work to be done.”

So it was: upon consigning their final offerings to the fire the farmers were free to go have some breakfast, and most of them followed their noses towards the barbecue pits where the meat of that morning’s sacrificial animals was cooking away. Agritakh only wanted anything other than the blood of a sacrifice on very specific occasions, none of which were paired with the planting season, so with typical Rhoanish frugality it had been agreed upon years ago to do something useful with the leftovers. Riaag’s stomach growled at the smell. Even with only a few hours of cooking time to them he was sure the results would be delicious, especially once he recognized the scent of roasting horsemeat in the air. That would have to wait, though; somebody had to keep an eye on the bonfire until it burned itself out, and somebody had to collect up the troughs and evaluate if they were good for the next sacrifice or more fodder for the pyre, and most importantly somebody had to keep an eye on Sarouth while he was still all woozy from running things.

A familiar voice called to him and Riaag turned towards it. Sure as he’d promised, Osmo Wild-Tooth was there, and the patterns on the clothes of the others he was with implied they were bandmates or family or both. Riaag waved him over. Maybe once the fire no longer crackled there would be time to mingle elsewhere, but for now Riaag was once again on a sacred guard duty.

“Good morning to you, Riaag Bough-Breaker,” said Osmo, who appeared to be wearing a garland of marjoram instead of something more floral. It suited him, though Riaag wished the season had been right for the sprigs Osmo had used to be covered in little pink blooms. There was never enough pink in the world.

“Good mornin’, Osmo Wild-Tooth. Glad ter see you could make it.”

“Wouldn’t miss it for the world! My pride as a leafmaster demanded I make the effort.”

Riaag once again managed not to scrunch up his face at the silliness of that word. “We’s honored ter have y’all attendin’,” he said. “His Holiness is delighted any time friends from the outside is willin’ ter see what we does here fer consecrationals.” He cocked a thumb at Sarouth, who was currently occupied with someone who had questions about the sacred ash. “Is you needin’ the Faaroug fer somethin’, or didja have an issue fer me ter address myself?”

“Well, it may be a bit of both,” said Osmo.

“Yeah?”

Osmo nodded. “You see, my band and I, we were planning to move on in a few days, as we have our rounds to make through the valley. There’ll be good foraging in the northern foothills we’d be fools to pass up, and we need to top up some of our seeds and shoots. We usually try to do a little swapping in Caiz Gratag and Ruv Kith at least once a year, too, since trade hubs are a good place to find samples from abroad. And that doesn’t even begin to touch on all the other nomads who appreciate us passing through! Many wanderers only know what a leaf is because they’re the same color, and that means they need someone to show them what’s foul and what’s fair among the flora. There’s plenty of reason for us to be on the move.”

“With you so far,” said Riaag.

“Each time we visit your stronghold we find ourselves wanting to stay a little longer, though, and it’s got us to talking. It might not be for seasons, maybe not even for years, but I have to ask: would there be a place for us here, even if we don’t find our calling in these fields?”

“Shitfire, Wild-Tooth, ain’t no reason there wouldn’t be. Reckon there’s plenty y’all knows that we’d be well served ter learn. Merchants is always comin’ by fer Rhoanish spices as is.”

Osmo clapped his hands together and beamed. “I’ll tell the others while we eat. We’re still figuring out how best we’d do this, maybe trading off who’s staying in the stronghold and who’s out under the sky, since we’re not about to abandon the people out there who rely on us. Some of us were worried there’d be trouble if we did so, maybe because it would look like we didn’t truly consider this place home…?”

Riaag shook his head. “Nah. His Holiness ‘n I is baked inter this place sure as flour inter dough, swirled tergether since the very beginnin’, ‘n we’s findin’ usselves on the road plenty regardless. Little while back we was gone fer months. Both ‘a us, months! Yet when we got back we was welcome as always, ‘n our bed was still waitin’. I’s inclined ter believe it’d be much the same.”

“That’s quite the relief to hear! Now, that wonderful smell, is that for just anybody…?”

They chatted a bit more as the fire continued burning down. Osmo, it turned out, had some questions about how they interpreted the Chant’s stance on certain things—being a gardener he was more open on some things than most, though being a nomad meant there was a lot about Naar Rhoan he didn’t understand—that Riaag happily found he could answer. He was nowhere near the expert on the Chant that Sarouth was, what with not having those most sacred of words echoing in his veins all the live-long day and all, but nowhere in the reaches of how own philosophy had he encountered anything about how god-speakers had to answer every single question there was about it. It felt good to be reminded of how useful he was in many ways.

Upon bidding Osmo farewell Riaag had prepared to spend the next while letting his mind wander, maybe chewing on one of the poems he’d been working on recently, and that had worked out for all of five minutes before he spotted something in the southern trees. An unsuspecting viewer might see the flash of brown and gray on cream and assume it was one of the stronghold’s many dogs out romping about; trained eyes would note its size and the shape of its head, the feral gait of its walk. Riaag’s eye was plenty trained. If he squinted, he thought he could make out a cuff of beads around one of the wolf’s legs as it wove through the shadows between the trunks. He was pretty sure it wasn’t letting him see it by mere chance.

When wolves came to find Riaag, in his experience they’d always had good reason.

Asking Sarouth to come along wasn’t an option since he was probably still tired from the ritual, as even without dancing himself ragged the strain of channeling so many prayers could be a lot for the orcish body to endure for long. There were too many unknowns in play to risk it. Riaag waited several nerve-wracking seconds for Sarouth to lay a benediction on some new parents who’d come to see him that morning; only once they’d left did he close the distance to murmur in Sarouth’s ear with quiet urgency.

“Holy One, I’s got ter ask you ter watch the fire fer the rest ‘a its burnin.'”

“Certainly,” said Sarouth. He tilted his head. “Is something the matter? Usually you stand by it until not even embers remain.”

Riaag glanced up at the wolf, which danced about impatiently. If he wasn’t careful he’d risk making it howl to get his attention, and a wolf howling this close to the stronghold (which normally would never happen, between the fires they kept burning and the patrols they send through the trees) was a problem. He had to act fast or there could be a panic. “Look, I dunno, all I knows is I gotta go take care ‘a somethin’, a’ight?”

“Of course,” said Sarouth, looking slightly surprised. “Shall I save you some breakfast for when you get back?”

The roast-horse smell had only gotten stronger as time went on and Riaag’s mouth still watered every time the breeze picked up. Just because he was taking charge of the situation didn’t mean he couldn’t have nice things once he was done. “Yeah. That’d be nice.”

“Then I’ll see you when I see you, brave warrior.” Sarouth popped up on tiptoe to give Riaag two kisses, once on the lips and once on the forehead. “Go with my love and with my blessing.”

“Much obliged, Holy One,” said Riaag, and with that he began the long walk towards the forest.

“Riaag Bough-Breaker,” said a familiar voice behind and slightly above Riaag as he stepped beyond the treeline into the woods. “Follow. Hurry. There is no time for words.”

“You sure does know how ter start a conversation,” said Riaag, drawing his axe from its baldric and clutching it in a warrior’s grip. He didn’t bother looking around for Etxeloi, as a man who dressed like a bundle of mottled colors was generally not in the habit of making himself easy to follow, instead relaxing his eyes enough until he could once more make out the fleeting shape of Etxeloi’s wolf among the trees. It ran and he ran after it.

Keeping pace with the wolf wouldn’t have been so bad if they’d been on open ground, or even if there were plenty of rocks between Riaag and his destination; the trouble was that tear-assing through a forest meant not careening into any of the tree trunks that grew thick and dense there. He kept having to sacrifice speed for not getting entangled in yet another patch of ferns. Each time he had to shoulder-charge through some low-hanging branches or vault over a fallen log he thanked himself for not trying to drag Sarouth out in all of this, that the snow had mostly melted, that it wasn’t yet fully overgrown again, that he’d gotten in the habit of never leaving his tent without wearing a good pair of boots. If things ever got truly bad he also had his axe on him. Wherever he was being taken and why, Riaag tried to trust that he’d be prepared for whatever he’d find there.

The sounds and smells of the stronghold were long gone by the time the wolf ran up an incline to stand at the top, staring down at Riaag. He stopped in his tracks and listened. There were distant sounds of birds and insects, of wind through the canopy, but neither of those surprised him. He heard no footsteps. He didn’t bother looking for Etxeloi; if there had been no time for words before, why would there be now? Straining his ears, Riaag tried to pick out anything out of place in an otherwise isolated forest. There, at the edge of his hearing, was a sound he knew too well from all the times before he’d made it himself: someone very small was trying not to cry.

Riaag slipped his axe back into his belt and took a step towards the incline. He could see now that it formed the roof of a hollow, and whoever (or whatever, said the part of him that fretted about skin-thieves in the bushes) was in that hollow was trying not to be found. It made enough sense, since the same primal thoughts that urged his blood-kind to dig and fight would sing soothingly of the comfort of a cave, and someone had clearly gone to ground in search of the solace promised by their instinct. Riaag already had an idea of who that unseen someone was. Upon quickly checking for any signs of booby traps, of which he saw none, he pulled aside a curtain of dead moss and looked inside.

Valin lay on the ground of the hollow, curled into a tight ball. The dirt around her stirred irregularly, like the surface of a too-thick stew someone kept trying to mix into itself, and sometimes a pebble or small rock would rattle around before bouncing off of something. She held her amulet in both hands with such force her little fingers were going white at the knuckle. It didn’t smell like she’d been living in her little hidey-hole, so who could say how long she’d wandered in her current state before taking refuge there? They were a good ways from the nearest road, further still from any water, and the berry bushes and shelf fungi Riaag had tried not to trample on the run out hadn’t shown much sign of a child harvesting a snack for herself. He cursed himself for not bringing a canteen with him. The poor thing might’ve been able to find her own food and water on a normal day, or so Etxeloi claimed, but in her current state? Riaag couldn’t be sure she’d had anything in her stomach before her current episode.

He felt at his belt for one of the charms he bore there. Wolf had chosen him to do great things, to protect his pack and guide them with holy song, and this was a duty he approached with all due gravity; that said, Wolf was not the only one of the great Animals that Riaag venerated. He clutched the little figurine of Scorpion he wore and prayed for strength. Let me carry this weight.

The Animals were not as conspicuous as the Hill God, at least when not dropping giant bitey avatars on people, so he didn’t have any visions of pincers reaching in to embrace him or the comforting sight of a great arcing tail when he called upon Scorpion, and that was fine by Riaag. Either Scorpion would be with him or Scorpion wouldn’t, just as either Wolf would be with him or Wolf wouldn’t. He still had to try. His petition complete, Riaag knelt down at the mouth of the cave and prepared to catch Valin if she bolted. This time he couldn’t afford to let her leave on her own.

“Valin Mad-Eyes, who is holy,” he said. His voice reverberated within the hollow.

Valin shied away, still curled up. “Don’t come near me! There’s monsters!” Her voice was raw from bawling. Maybe she hadn’t been trying to hide her wails before; it was quite possible that by the time Riaag had arrived she’d simply run out of sobs to give.

This was probably the result of one of her less divine visions fucking with her head, so Sarouth had guessed when they’d first been able to talk with her for long, and even still Riaag took a moment to check. He’d slain his share of monsters before. He knew some of their signs. “I sees no such thing,” he replied. “Don’t matter even if they’s unseen, though. They wanna start somethin’, they’s gonna have ter deal with someone what’s beat stranger asses’n they own, ‘n that’s a great fucken truth.” He reached to a different part of his belt and produced a bone chunk, which he lay on the ground between them. “You ought ter eat somethin’,” he added. “That Agritakh-ruhd shit you’s doin’ is hungry work.”

Her trembling stilled, and then so did the tell of invocation that had set the dirt around her in motion. Whatever episode she was having seemed to be easing off for now. Riaag kept his eyes focused on the ground between them when she looked up—who knew if she was properly obscuring her divine eye if she was in such a state, after all?—and he likewise kept one knee pressed to the rock and lichens underfoot, ready to propel himself upright at a moment’s notice. He’d worry about the stain this was no doubt leaving later. He gestured at the chip. “Go on, Holy One. It’s a gift.”

She reluctantly took one hand off of her amulet and reached for the chip as though worrying it would burn her. When Riaag made no move to grab for her, Valin snatched up the bit of bone and fit the whole thing in her mouth in a riot of crunches. Hopefully that would help her keep body and soul together long enough to try and talk to him.

It was Valin who spoke first, in fact. “I keep calling, and calling, and I don’t know what He wants from me!” she said, high and panicky. She looked exhausted and her face was muddy with snot and tears. Sarouth worried for Valin because he saw too much of himself in her, he’d said? Riaag could relate.

“‘Fraid I cain’t tell you the answer ter such a question, Holy One, seein’ as I is but a layman what cannot hear His voice. I can listen ter yers, though, if’n you’ll speak with me.”

She sat up with her arms hugging her knees. The spaces where her bandages had unraveled a little showed clear, unblemished skin. Did that mean she’d found the center of the Labyrinth? Or did it mean she was refusing to try? There were no red trails marking the path she’d need to take to reach the Great Geode when next she slept, so Riaag’s heart sank at what was very likely the answer. Her amulet was more or less in one piece, at least, so if he could figure out how to get her back to Sarouth without her fighting like a wildcat every step of the way, they could see if it was helping her the way it was meant to.

“There was something big today,” she said after gulping down the last bite of shattered bone. “Not just today, but today was most recent. I could feel it, this big, this big pull from somewhere. Like the stupid rock thing Sarouth was talking about, all mixed up. What was it? Why has it happened twice?”

Riaag did a little math in his head. “T’would be the rite the Faaroug were overseein’ across many days this week. You think you got some backwash or somesuch?”

“Do rites from one god-speaker hurt other god-speakers?”

“They ain’t supposed ter, but that don’t mean they cain’t. You’s been runnin’ ’round all half-unraveled, all stickin’ yer claws in funny directions ’cause you don’t know how ter grab on right, maybe you got somethin’ the wrong way ‘n it wrenched on you like a ram draggin’ a shepherd what’s got tangled up in its lead.” He removed his hat, ran his hand along the top of his head, then replaced it. “If’n you’d be willin’ ter follow me ter Naar Rhoan, Holy One, I can take you ter the Faaroug, see whether he can make things right.”

Valin looked at her feet. “Maybe I’m just seeing things. I’m head-sick. That’s what happens.”

“Maybe,” said Riaag with a half-shrug. “Don’t mean you ain’t a god-speaker. Don’t mean you ain’t deservin’ ‘a not feelin’ like shit.”

She tapped her fingers against her amulet rapidly, her claws clicking against its surface. “Then why am I like this?” she said.

“Iunno, Holy One. Bad luck? Sometimes bad things happen fer no reason. We cain’t hope ter understand the whole world. All we can do is pick up the pieces ‘n find good in ’em. Ain’t no better way ter venerate the First Scavenger than by eatin’ up all the stardust He cain’t.”

“I have to go,” said Valin. She dropped the amulet and clutched at herself. That was probably bad. “I have to…do something. It’s important. I have to! But I don’t know what it is!”

Riaag best understood god-speakers through the lens of how he understood Sarouth, which was to say sometimes he didn’t understand them at all, but he sure as hell could recognize the signs of thoughts getting stuck in a loop. He’d need to be calm enough for the both of them. “A’ight. Which part ‘a you is sayin’ such?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know! I don’t know!” Her words started running together into a mush of stammered syllables as she started to panic again.

“Valin, who is holy, listen ter my voice. You’s not in danger. You’s gettin’ pulled in too many directions, ‘n that is a right frightful experience. You don’t gotta do this alone.” He picked up her amulet where it lay and draped it across her arms. “Can you feel yer amulet tryin’ ter help you?”

“I don’t know!”

“Touch it with yer hand.” He knew better than to touch her directly. How many times had it been Riaag doing the crying as Sarouth tried to talk him down from wherever his head had gotten? How much fear and sorrow had he gone through just to be able to sit on the other side of things to help someone else? Riaag was not about to say his old life had been worth it for that personal knowledge, because his old life and the scars it left should never happen to anyone for any reason, and yet there was still some good that could come from sitting next to somebody whose brain was on fire and saying, truthfully, I’ve been there. Picking treasure from garbage had once been the only way he’d been able to find any good in the world at all. No wonder the First Scavenger thought he was willing to stand next to His own most perfect avatar.

Valin cried and lashed out with her feet and fists—Riaag steadfastly took this abuse, since it was better she strike a surface with a little give in it than break her hand on the stone—until she tired herself out again, at which point she seemed to remember her amulet was waiting for her the entire time. She pulled it close and snuffled in exhaustion. “Oh,” she said, as though surprised at finding a long-lost personal treasure right at her feet. “It’s still here.”

“Yeah.”

You’re still here,” she said with decidedly less fondness.

“That’s right, Holy One.”

She eyed him suspiciously. “How’d you know where I was?”

“The night wind were up past its bedtime, ‘n once it saw you was havin’ a time ‘a things it came ‘n fetched me. Ran me fucken ragged gettin’ me here, I tell you what.” He didn’t smell Etxeloi’s wolf anymore, which meant they had anywhere between perfect privacy and a whole score of forest-walkers and their lupine friends just out of scent. Was Valin afraid of wolves as she picked her way through the trees? Did she know she was supposed to be?

“I bet that’s a lie,” she snarled. Her words weren’t running together anymore but there was still something a bit off with them, like she was trying to talk fast enough to outrun another thought. “I bet you knew the whole time and you didn’t show up earlier because you want me to die so you can have Sarouth all to yourself. You should’ve left me. I’d starve to death pretty soon, I think.”

Riaag snorted. It was just the sickness talking, he reminded himself, and of course a little kid (god-speaker or otherwise) out on her own would lash out in any way she could, hurting anybody she could reach so long as it didn’t make her feel so small. Of course she’d think he was trying to monopolize Sarouth’s time if the only times she could demand Sarouth advise her were when he was strolling around outside the stronghold, and Sarouth rarely ever left the gates without Riaag in tow because Riaag’s most solemn duty was keeping the world from trying to tear his oathbound to pieces. He still didn’t appreciate the comment. “Why would I give you somethin’ ter eat if I wanted ter starve you out?”

“Because it’s tiny, and you can pretend like you want to help me if you only have to carry tiny things around. You’re a bad man! You’re a bad man and you wouldn’t talk like one if you weren’t! You want me to hope so it’ll be funnier when I break!”

That was the final straw; Riaag could weather insults and death threats, challenges to his strength and challenges to his ability, but there was no place upon the Hill God’s green earth where he would tolerate someone claiming he’d ever be anything like the demon that had raised him. “Listen,” he said with just enough volume to trample over any other sound that threatened it, and Valin was surprised enough by this that she stopped mid-argument. He sighed. “You hates my fucken guts fer reasons I cain’t begin ter understand, Holy One, ‘n such is yer right, so I’s gonna make this crisp ‘n clear so neither ‘a us is lackin’ in comprehension.”

Valin squinted up at him. “Are you going to keep using those words to say it?”

“Damn fucken right I is. This’s how I talks. You got a problem with it, you’s invited ter go piss up a rope on a windy day.” Being so crass to someone so small felt strange; Riaag had always been very gentle with children, even when still a child himself (in age, if not in innocence), and he couldn’t remember a single instance where he’d been at most courteously firm with even the fiercest little hellions. But Valin wasn’t a normal kid, was she? Nor was she a normal god-speaker, though that was an oxymoron of its own. He wouldn’t get anywhere if he kept treating her like one or the other instead of the composite she was. She deserved better.

When it was clear she didn’t have anything to say to that, Riaag continued. “I ain’t gonna mince words. You’s a heart fulla anger, ‘n them amulets the Faaroug showed you how ter make can handle some ‘a that, but you ain’t gonna get nowhere on such things if’n you cain’t sit ‘n puke up some ‘a the poison yer head brews up ter trick you. You’s done been chosen by He Who Sleeps, fuck if any ‘a us’ll ever know by what metric He makes such decisions, ‘n you deserves ter be mentored by people what’ve walked some ‘a that path you’s treadin’ now, ones that’ll help you not just understand yer gift but command it. You do this however seems right, but if you’s doin’ so in Naar Rhoan, it’s gonna be with somebody else ter watch yer back.” He let his stony mask slip a bit. “I’s worried about you, Holy One, ‘n it ain’t good fer a god-speaker ter be alone.”

“Yeah?” growled Valin. “Who’re you going to burden with me? Some family that lost a baby, so they’re so sad they’ll take anything? Maybe some god-speaker’s band that’s passing through, so they don’t know how messed up I am? That’s a real dirty trick you’d be playing on them, saying they have to take care of me before they know what that means. Nobody stays. Not once they know what I’m like.” She tilted her head, the fall of her tangled hair coming dangerously close to revealing her eye. “Or are you going to do it?”

Let me carry this weight, Riaag prayed again, and spoke the only answer there could be: “Yes.”

Valin’s mouth, already open to offer a retort, snapped shut with a clack of tooth on tooth.

“If such an offer ain’t ter yer likin’, I ain’t gonna force it. If’n you’s a mind ter find somethin’ better, like taggin’ along with one ‘a the many god-speakers ‘n they entourages what come through Naar Rhoan on the regular after they’s learned what you’s like, so be it. I ain’t no jailer. There ain’t no chains. But you’s been left alone this long, Holy One, ‘n we both know you cain’t last ferever ter live this way. You need help, Valin Mad-Eyes, who is holy. You’s got ter find yerself someplace that’s home.”

She goggled at him. Riaag felt like he was doing a fine job of looking competent and collected instead of desperately needing to put his head between his knees and gulp air like he was dying, which had to count for something. Sarouth probably felt like this all the time. Granted, Sarouth probably had more of the competence side and less of the hyperventilation, and probably none of the hyperventilation if Riaag was being honest about things, but that was Sarouth for you. When it came to his own self-preservation he was usually too mad at whatever threatened him to be scared for himself. No wonder he resonated so much with Valin.

“Well?” Riaag asked.

“I don’t know. I’ll, um. Think about it.”

“That’s fair.” He stood up and out of the hollow and brushed himself off. Sure enough, there was a big ugly lichen stain where he’d been kneeling. He’d just washed these pants…. “You gonna come along quietly or is I gonna have ter flag down the night wind again ‘n have it set some snares?”

“You wouldn’t catch me in a trap,” she said, trying and failing to look less gobsmacked.

“Yer right, I wouldn’t. The night wind, though, it can blow most deceitfully. You’d prolly oughtta not test it unless you cares ter learn how easy you is ter transport while all wrapped up in a net.”

Valin crawled out of the hollow on her hands and knees, rising unsteadily once she was out in the open air. Riaag kept himself braced to grab for her, just in case. She gave him a defiant little frown. “Are you gonna make me hold your hand?”

“Only if’n you cares ter do so.”

“Oh.” If Riaag hadn’t just dealt with her spitting thorns at him for an extended period he might’ve said she almost sounded disappointed. Valin hooked her finger around one of the tusks in his belt and gave him another faux-scathing look. “I’ll do this,” she said.

“Then back we goes thusly. I has it on good suspicion that they’s gonna be a hot meal at the other end fer us both.”

She perked up and hid it badly. When was the last time he’d seen her eating hot food? Had he ever? She was certainly due to start again no matter the case. “I guess I can stand having some of your nasty Rhoanish food,” she said.

“Good news, then, Holy One, that’s all we ever eats.”

Valin trailed after him begrudgingly. “Will Sarouth be there, when we get there?” she asked.

“Cain’t imagine why he wouldn’t be.”

“Good. Will he teach me the thing where I can make everybody afraid of me? That sounds like it’d be fun to do.”

Riaag glanced over his shoulder with an incredulous expression. Agritakh-ruhds were a mortal wrapper around an unfathomable divine core, and while part of their purpose was to keep that terrifying divinity cordoned off from normal people, sometimes it was more beneficial to rip the lid off and make people confront just who and what stood before them. When Sarouth did so, it usually meant he was pissed. Teaching Valin how to wield that would be like handing someone a trained war dog before they knew how to care for a puppy. “Reckon he’s gonna help you learn ter not be afraid ‘a yerself first, Holy One, but that is a thing god-speakers learn.” He pondered. “Just don’t expect it ter work the same on me. I’s built diff’rent.”

“Aw!”

“Maybe next time, Holy One. Maybe next time.”

Time had a funny way of changing things. Take meat, for example. Time on its own made meat into well-aged, tasty carrion. Add heat and time and you got a lovely roast. Add salt and time and you got jerky instead. Add vinegar and time and the result was pickles. Add a knife and time and you got an empty plate. Riaag wasn’t sure what all time would do to how Valin saw him (assuming she ever managed anything other than only barely tolerating his presence, that is), but he hoped it would be good for her. It didn’t matter if she ever accepted his offer. It didn’t matter if she started sleeping in the cave beneath the sacred hill instead of out in the cold. If didn’t matter if she someday picked out a corner of the lodge for herself and made it her own, something that was truly hers. It didn’t matter if she left the next day. She’d agreed to follow him home, accepting both the prospect of people who could care for her and a home in the first place, taking the last step she’d been refusing ever since following him and Sarouth north of the river, and that was good enough for him.

Now all he had to do was explain himself once they got back.

One thing Riaag had had to learn about metal way back when was that it didn’t just come out of the ground ready to go. Miners had to excavate it, that much he’d known, but that was hardly the end of the process: the ore had to be separated, then cleaned, then smelted, and then (and only then) could you go about making it into much of anything. He’d picked up metalworking much the same way he learned everything else: by standing back and keeping out of the way until somebody deigned to let him practice. It had taken a lot of years of standing back before he’d been good for much other than the simplest repairs. There were better smiths in the valley than he was, those whose blades were masterpieces and whose tools never faltered. That was fine. Riaag could swing a hammer when it counted, and that worked for him.

Naar Rhoan had given him ample time to practice. Shit was always breaking, and when shit wasn’t broken it was in short supply. Workers needed tools. Anyone pulling guard duty needed arms and armor. His evil-ass horse needed shoes. Sometimes there was even cause to make things purely for trade, which meant spending more time on making them look pretty, so Riaag had honed more than just a few spear points as more and more merchants came poking around in hopes of finding Rhoanish steel to take home. It was his hand that had made the great shield he carried into battle, had adapted it from bits and scraps (including his first frying pan) into something now as much a part of him as the fur-capped helmet he wore. He hadn’t made every scale in his coat of armor—there were hundreds of the damn things, there simply were not enough hours in the day if he expected to tackle that on top of all his other duties—but he’d sized it to fit his frame, same with the extra plating that fit over said coat. It all added up over time. Every time he stepped into the forge was another chance to get better.

Three day after the sacrifice was one such chance. Noontide found him once more stripped to the waist with his hair pulled up and back to keep from singeing in the heat; a leather apron wore across his wide front protected his chest hair from similar conflagration. He’d made a habit of manning the forges the first few days of field work just in case somebody busted a hoe or a plowshare got dinged up or something. The tremendous heat pouring off the smelting furnaces ensured Riaag’s remaining clothes were dark with sweat even with the furnaces left open to the crossbreeze. He’d been working for hours by then. Some of it had been the usual repairs and replacements. Some of it, however, was not.

“Why’s the smelter burning that color?” asked somebody Riaag recognized as an apprentice smith who had a fondness for working with tin. It was a fair question; the flames weren’t the usual licking orange of burning charcoal, instead having a blue-white tinge that hurt to look at for long.

“It’s got diff’rent shit in it fer fuel,” said Riaag. “They’s a fallen star in there, so it’s got ter heat up special.”

“Oh!” said the tinsmith. “Is that the one they say the Faaroug called down to smite the foe you and he went down south to take care of?”

Riaag nodded. “The very same. His Holiness were purifyin’ it these last few nights once the sacrifice was done. Once we made sure we got all the wickedness washed off, inter the furnace it went.”

The tinsmith peeked into one of the ventilation holes in the smelter and looked away quickly, blinking furiously. “What is that stuff, anyway?”

“Beats the fuck outta me,” said Riaag, cheerfully. “The Faaroug pulled it from his many potions ‘n told me ter go forth. T’were some manner ‘a purple goop what stank most strangely afore it caught fire, ‘n he no doubt found it in a dream afore handin’ it o’er ter me, that’s all I’s able ter tell you. Least this way I don’t gotta worry ’bout it goin’ out until the star gets proper roasted.” He glanced over at one of the furnaces loaded down with entirely normal ore and cringed. Someone was going to have to work the bellows on it or it’d risk going out early and spoiling the whole load. “Speakin’ ‘a such improper roastin’, ‘scuse me a moment….” 

As usual, performing hard but not terribly engaging labor gave him plenty of time to think. Riaag’s mind was busy as ever as he hauled on bellows and tapped slag from cooking iron. He was pretty sure he knew what he was going to do with the star. It would depend on how much usable metal came out of the furnace once the too-hot flames extinguished themselves, of course, since depending on the purity of the ore you could spend all day purifying shovelful upon shovelful of stuff in exchange for a crappy little blob the size of your fist, and you couldn’t make an entire weapon out of one fist’s worth of bad steel unless you were planning to alloy it with something first. He had no plans for alloys, though. Riaag had a good feeling about what the star would yield.

He’d handled metal from the sky once before, back when he’d watched a different falling star strike the ground of its own volition with a great shake and a roar of noise that Sarouth had needed to calm him down from before they could investigate. The metal they’d harvested from the star’s crater had been fine in a way that had been difficult to explain when others asked him about it later. Meteoric iron, it was sometimes called. Riaag usually kept with star-steel since it rolled off the tongue better. His hands itched to work with it again, to make something truly wonderful from the remains of a star that had missed Agritakh so much it was willing to hurl itself from the sky at Sarouth’s behest. Sarouth had made it quite clear he had no intention of calling something down like that ever again. This was likely going to be Riaag’s only chance to handle such metal for years, if not the rest of his life. He was going to make it count.

Making it count required making anything at all, and that required finished metal, which meant more time spent trading off with the other forge crew so there was a regular rotation of breaks for water and cool air. Riaag toiled diligently alongside them. He hated his apron, being bulky in a way his armor was not, and at times considered slipping his head back through the neck loop to keep it from sealing every drop of sweat against his salt-stained stomach. The only thing worse than wearing full forge gear while working would be going tits-out while working, though, and he hated the thought of searing off a nipple or burning weird patterns into his chest hair due to his own carelessness. He needed that hair! He wasn’t sure what he needed it for, exactly, but he was fairly sure it was supposed to stay put! If nothing else its loss would upset Sarouth for both empathetic and aesthetic reasons, and Riaag couldn’t be having that. He continued to sweat it out and promised himself the longest, most luxurious soak in the lake imaginable once he was done.

Farmers came and farmers went, as did Kala Cold-Iron, who was happy to share dirty jokes with him while he fixed a hinky joint in one of her gauntlets. He sharpened the tip of somebody’s sewing needle. He repaired a dulled cleaver-sword that wasn’t yet ready to be broken down for its metal just yet. Much to his surprise he even found reason to patch up a saw belonging to one of the visiting River People; the strange silver-white metal it was made from didn’t handle like iron, and he was pretty sure he could’ve done a better job, but once he’d brushed away any lingering iron crumbs it might’ve picked up from the anvil the saw’s owner studied it, thanked him in Usoan, and took it back to their camp without another word, so Riaag considered the job a good one.

At long last the last tongue of blue-white fire curled in on itself, leaving the smelted star blisteringly hot inside the otherwise empty furnace. Riaag resisted the urge to peek in; that sort of thing was a good way to ruin a baking loaf of bread, so why assume baked metal from beyond the sky wouldn’t be similarly whimsical? He was going to have to wait for it to cool down, and then he was going to have to make the shapeless blob waiting for him into a billet, and then he’d have to figure out what, exactly, that billet was meant to be.

Would it be a weapon? It seemed almost a cliché to do so, given how fierce his entire blood-kind was and the reputation they carried. Orcs from other ends of the world had entirely different customs and methods from those who lived in the valley, to say nothing of the Old People who ran voiceless and naked in the depths of the wild places, and yet the common thread between them all was a shared joy of conflict. It was a sad state of things that half the time they met some new bunch from foreign parts the first thing that had to be done was promising they wouldn’t be subject to the aggression Riaag’s kind considered an everyday part of life. Some people didn’t grow up fighting tooth and claw with their siblings. What kind of message did it send if he took this gift he’d been given and just made another deadly sharp thing with it? Shouldn’t something made from a star be itself a little unearthly? Then again, if Agritakh valued that ferocity of His children, would it be more disrespectful to not make it into a weapon? The problem with having a swift wit was that it could very quickly go down many different conflicting paths. At least there was plenty of slag-dumping and water-carrying to keep his hands busy while he was being drawn and quartered by his own cleverness.

The afternoon sun was at the exact midpoint between high noon and the horizon when Riaag decided the star-steel had cooled enough. He’d also gotten to know the tinsmith a little better—said apprentice being one Uvot Tin-Knuckle, a woman of her people, also a new sire who was very proud of how well her brood’s dam had handled the birthing and was thrilled to death that Riaag never tired of hearing the details—and so he thought to call her over when it came time to pluck the metal from the smelter he’d been circling like a hawk for half the day. He noted with amusement that she was not the only forge regular who found reason to watch him as he took up the tongs.

“Keep yer distance, this shit’s gonna be hot as fuck e’en with its surface cooled back ter black,” he said. “Somethin’ ’bout star-steel remembers bein’ born in fire.” A few appreciative murmurs came up from the crowd as he wrenched the star-steel free. Trust dedicated smiths to know good metal when they saw it! Riaag hoped they could forgive him for keeping the stuff all to himself; as he’d been present to see it fall, it felt important that he be the only one to handle it. Anything less and it might feel like it’d been slighted.

He lay the metal bloom on the anvil and studied it. It probably wouldn’t be too difficult to hammer it into a shape he could actually work with. Riaag held his pair of tongs in one hand as he rummaged for the right tool among the many hammers stored in the forge. He needed something sturdy that wouldn’t break in his hand no matter how hand he swung it, yet something refined enough for a bit of detail work without having to switch out entirely. His eyes followed the natural shape of the metal, hunting for any sign of what it was meant to be or any ornamentation that longed to be made real. Was that Vulture’s blackened grief-mask he saw? Was that Serpent’s forked tongue? Hope against hope, was that Scorpion’s many legs that marched through his imagination, or Beetle’s, or Spider’s? He had more than just the business end to consider, too: what sort of handle would he made for it, what decorations would its finished self bear? None of that could start until he made a decision.

What would a forward-thinking person do? Get asked questions by eager tinsmiths, apparently. “Do you have any plans for it yet, Bough-Breaker?”

Riaag grunted thoughtfully. “Was thinkin’ maybe a new axe head or somethin’. Mine’s pretty good, been lastin’ me years thus far, but given all the weird-ass shit the Faaroug gets me inter I was wonderin’ if’n I ought ter reconsider.” He sighed. “Thing is, that don’t feel quite right. I’s made plenty ‘a axes in my time ‘n I knows there’s more’n I’d need fer a proper bearded head” —to Riaag’s great relief he did not have to be suscept to any jokes about how of course a bearded man needed a bearded axe, at least not this time, as Sarouth was elsewhere— “but not quite enough fer a sword or similar longer blade. I ain’t inclined ter be wasteful. I’s still hypothesizin’ ’bout the proper answer ter this riddle.”

Uvot pursed her lips. “Couldn’t you just make an extra-big one?” she asked. “Or a fancier counterweight or something?”

He considered this. “I fears I ain’t much fer ostentation,” he said with a sigh. “I could make it thusly, but it wouldn’t be mine, yeah? No point ter the exercise if’n what’s made don’t get used.” It was arguably even worse than not making anything in the first place. He left this unsaid, however, as Uvot was only trying to help. She didn’t deserve to have one of the men who raised her home from nothing dashing her dreams so easily.

The tools sang as he struck the metal, willing the uneven mass to let itself be changed just as the Old People had when Vulture first taught them the mysteries of fire. He sang, too, and others joined him even as they returned to their own tasks: Be shaped as my heart is shaped/ Shake away the scraps and ashes/ Find strength in each strike/ That I lay down by my hand/ Oh flesh of the ground/ Oh bones of the earth/ Let the fire transfigure you/ As it long has changed me. It was a good song for trying to force something to be bar-shaped when it seemed much happier resembling a plant, or perhaps some sort of internal organ. He ran through all the verses he knew and switched to another, then another, then another. The only time he let his throat fall silent was during his breaks. He knew he was probably going to feel it all at once if he stopped. Something in the back of his head told him he absolutely could not stop.

Worse than the thought of negotiating that devil’s momentum, he hadn’t settled upon an idea he liked. Everything he thought of felt just a little bit off. Every minute at the anvil was another minute closer to when he’d have to make a decision. If he stopped to think just a little harder he might think of something, but if he stopped to think then he’d have to stop, and if that came to pass he was essentially done for. He didn’t know if the star-steel would trust him again if that happened. What was he going to do?

When the time came to return the star-steel to the heat, he still had no answer. The separate billets he made felt like they were staring back at him in silent judgment. Uvot hovered around him, unable to completely distract herself with making little cups and lanterns for trade. “Any luck yet, Bough-Breaker?”

He shook his head. His hair whipped across his back (and still covered most of it, he reminded himself, as if anyone in the forge was going to be looking there instead of at whatever red-hot whatsit they were trying not to drop) and made him wonder just how much sweat it had absorbed over the course of the day and how long it would take to get the smell out. At least Sarouth, in his infinite grossness, would be happy about things. Aside from creeping on his oathbound, what would he do if he found himself in this situation, anyway? Probably look for a sign from beyond, Riaag guessed. What did signs look like? He didn’t see any divining stones or entrails in the forge, and if a message was going to come to him more subtly than that he wouldn’t have the first clue what to look for.

Something in the forge snapped and sent out a spark that tried to land in his beard. Riaag swore and hurriedly ducked his head in one of the quenching barrels before it could spread further. It didn’t feel like he’d lost more than the tiniest bit, nothing he couldn’t fix with a trim and some time with a comb, and since it had left his mustache alone he doubted most people would notice until it grew back. If only Sarouth had been granted the same mercy! But speaking of Sarouth, he probably would’ve agreed the spark was some sort of sign. What did it mean? Riaag threw himself into his thoughts with twice the fervor as before, convinced there was an answer staring him right in the face if he could just turn his head the right way to see it.

“Bough-Breaker!” cried Uvot, who’d been scratching patterns into a cup when the spark had jumped. “Are you all right?”

Riaag wrung his hair out onto the ground. That sure was one way to handle excess sweat. “Yeah, yeah, I’s fine. T’were a surprise, nothin’ more.”

“That’s strange, though. Usually the charcoal doesn’t spit at this stage of things unless someone’s poking it with something, and you’re the only one who was standing anywhere near it.”

“Fucken weird, right? I’s meditatin’ ‘pon this mystery.”

Uvot chewed at her thumb-claw nervously. “It’s almost hot enough to start being worked again, I think,” she said.

“I’s aware, Tin-Knuckle,” said Riaag. His brow furrowed in contemplation. There was a spark, a spark from a forge, a forge with a star in it, a star that would become…something. An axe head felt half right, especially since he could pass along his old one to someone in need, he just had to figure out the last little detail. Sparks. Stars. His hair aflame. Or was that more meant to convey his whole head aflame, if he’d let things get out of hand? His amulet kept that from happening on a metaphorical level, so why—

Aha.

“So what are you going to do?” repeated Uvot.

If he made the axe head, there would be enough left over for a second piece, so long as it was relatively small. Small things had their uses. Small things could still cut deep. Riaag smiled. “I’s got an idea.”

Pulling the smallest billet of purified star-steel from the coals, he began to hammer it into the shape of something new.

Long hours in the forge took a toll on even the strongest of backs. Riaag’s days had been shaped by the anvil nearly as much as the star-steel was, in that instead of spending his time performing his usual profusion of helpful tasks for people he’d woken up, said his prayers, performed a modicum of personal grooming, made breakfast for Sarouth, then headed out to toil away in the blazing heat of the smelters until it was time to come home, make dinner for Sarouth, then rinse off and say his prayers before collapsing into bed. So it had gone until the last of it was done. It hadn’t been ideal to neglect his oathbound so much, and Riaag had the feeling Sarouth was going to jump his bones the moment it looked like Riaag wasn’t about to collapse from exhaustion, which was why Riaag had tried to make those meals count, and why he always strove to cuddle back if he felt Sarouth loving on him before he passed out for the night. They’d talked about it before Riaag took so much as a single step into the forge, so he knew Sarouth was, if not happy about things, at least at peace with them, which was one of the few balms Riaag had been able to lay upon his weary soul.

Now, though, the job was nearly done—everything save for the finishing work, in fact, and that was at the stage where he just had to wait on things to cure overnight—and he had the luxury of time again. As he did not yet have the luxury of stamina, he’d chosen to spend what little remained of the day soaking in the lake by himself. The water was cool, the sun was warm, and nobody needed him to do anything. He’d want more from life once he wasn’t so tired. For now? It was perfect.

He let the sounds of the other bathers wash over him. Any time it wasn’t too dark or too cold to be in the water there were guaranteed to be a few other bands and families enjoying the lake, which made for a pleasant low-key din of happy Rhoanish in which Riaag could lose himself. People laughed, splashed, and called out to one another, children shrieked and roared piping challenges at the tops of their little lungs. He was fairly sure he overheard one caretaker teaching their charge (or charges, maybe) how to swim over in one of the shallows. Even further down he could hear snippets of people singing laundry songs. This was a safe place for all of that. That safety wasn’t all his doing, as anyone who’d ever volunteered for watch duty would have intense daydreams about breaking his face if they ever heard him claim as much, but he’d cleared the way for it, and when he wasn’t having to leave home on urgent ass-kicking business he worked with dozens of others to maintain the stronghold’s lasting peace. It was nice seeing people enjoy that tranquility.

Someone addressed him while his eyes were closed: “Oh, hello, Bough-Breaker! Is His Holiness about or are you by yourself today?”

Riaag cracked an eye and turned his head towards the voice. “Just me terday,” he said. “Need me ter go petition the Faaroug fer somethin’?”

The speaker, whom he recognized as Yazat Fine-Glaze, a ceramicist, waved him off with a smile. “No need, no need. Just saying hello.” They placed their clothes on the bank and settled down in the water next to him. “The last few times I saw White-Hair you weren’t with him. My children’s dam was worried you were sick, though my children’s sire was quick to bring up there were probably a lot of things needing your attention that got backed up during the time you were gone. I’m glad to see you’re well, even if there’s a lot of work left on your plate!”

Riaag groaned. He was less behind on shit than he’d been in a long while, even with losing days to working the fallen star, and that had involved no small amount of effort; sometimes the only thing that allowed him to take a walk or take a soak or just rest for a few minutes instead of finding something else to do was Sarouth’s gentle teasing that one man couldn’t support the whole world on his own, and even if he could, they had a god for that already. “Sorry fer grumpin’,” he said as he closed his eyes again, “I ain’t ill, I’s just been feelin’ that workload powerful hard as ‘a late. Thanks fer yer concern.”

“Ah, it’s no trouble! Glad to hear you’re not in need of mending. Though if you were, reckon that’s why the healer’s pavilion is there, eh?” Yazat didn’t quite pronounce reckon the way that he did; Riaag suspected it was still more of an affectation than a natural word choice for them. Rhoanish, as both a language and an identity, came to some more comfortably than others.

“It’ll be grand havin’ a place fer folks what’s doin’ poorly that the weather ain’t so keen ter get inter, tell you true,” said Riaag. “Ain’t so hard keepin’ it warm in there now, nor dry, nor clean. Gotta make sure it’s a proper place fer folks ter recuperate.”

“My brother stayed there a while when he sprained his toe,” said Yazat.

“Yeah? What’d he think?”

Yazat laughed. “It was a far better time than the last time he injured himself while out mushroom hunting! He tells me that Rhoanish healers are the finest in the valley, and I’m inclined to agree, even if I don’t share a fire with one like he does. I’m sure he’s not biased.”

“Yeah, yeah, clearly not.” Healers had time to share a fire with someone? Would wonders never cease. Riaag liked the thought of them having the chance to do things other setting bones and brewing snakebite cures. That was a big reason you had to let people feel like they could talk to you on their own terms; there were a thousand little details about life in Naar Rhoan that could go ignored forever if you only went off of things you directly saw and questions you thought yourself to ask. When taking care of something the size of an entire stronghold you needed to be careful to seek out its joys and pleasantries in addition to the pain or you’d end up tainting the whole blessed well.

“So you and White-Hair have been back for some weeks by now, right?”

Was Riaag forgetting something important? Surely not, he’d been running his ass off since the day after they’d returned and had practically never stopped save for little pockets like his current soak. He needed this soak, too, so he scooted down a little deeper so more of him would be under the surface of the water. “Feels like t’were just yesterday we rode back in, but yeah, ‘s been a bit.”

“My band’s only lived here for about three years but it seems like you two are always needing to head out somewhere to go right some wrongs. There’s always some amazing thing happening! We were just curious about when the next one is planned.”

“Ideally fucken never,” said Riaag. Why be coy about it? The past two years had practically aged him twenty. He’d grown closer to Sarouth than ever before in exchange for a never-ending torrent of bullshit, and that was on top of how exciting his life had become since founding the stronghold, and that was on top of tagging along after a god-speaker in the first place. If Agritakh was testing his mettle, hopefully He would be satisfied sooner than later; Riaag was so tired. If the only time he had to leave the stronghold in the next five years was to go check on Usoa and attend the occasional diplomats’ conference, he’d be a very happy man.

Yazrat didn’t seem to view things the same way. “Oh, really?” they said. “I thought it was a point of Rhoanish pride.”

Situations like these were easily the stickiest. How could he address that without digging himself an even deeper hole or accidentally offending a devoted, happy stronghold-dweller? How could he not tear down everything he was and continued to be while giving a proper answer? What would Sarouth say in a situation like this one? Better question, what would he say if he was determined to not be unabashedly abrasive towards whomever had said it? “We’s plenty proud ‘a what we’s accomplished here, we meanin’ me ‘n Sarouth ‘n also we Rhoanish as a whole, but don’t get it twisted: ain’t nothin’ finer than ter tend ter the stronghold in times ‘a great peace. Means folks can put they time inter bein’ people, raisin’ they kids ‘n makin’ they art ‘n meditatin’ ‘pon matters ‘a philosophy insteada worryin’ ’bout gettin’ they ribs staved in afore starvin’ ter death.”

“Aren’t you worried it won’t be enough?”

All the fucking time, thought Riaag. “It’s got ter be, don’t it?” he said aloud.

“Suppose that’s so,” said Yazrat. They ducked their head under the water, scrubbed their hair with their claws, and surfaced with a loud gasp. “It’s something for me to think about, if nothing else,” they said as they wrung out their sodden locks. They grinned at him. “Tell White-Hair to watch out, or next thing he knows his oathbound is going to be the one answering all the questions around here. You’re not a god-speaker in disguise, are you, Bough-Breaker?”

“May He Who Sleeps Beneath the Earth forbid ‘n forfend it,” said Riaag, pressing the heels of his palms against his eyelids. “I’d not wish such on nobody.”

“Forbid and forfend!” agreed Yazrat, and while they promptly changed the subject to the different patterns they were working on with which they could dazzle the next merchant caravan, too much of what they’d said before that lingered in the back of Riaag’s head until he finally fell asleep.

The sacred lodge was, to Riaag’s infinite pleasant surprise, coming along pretty nicely. At least once every day he’d head to the build site to see how things were going, sometimes in Sarouth’s company and sometimes not; every time he visited he could see something that hadn’t been the way it had been before. The pattern of grooves Sarouth had dug had been almost completely concealed by more work on building up the foundation and the floorboards. Sarouth seemed fine with this, so Riaag had decided he would be fine with it, too. Some of this process involved digging around the spots that Sarouth had bidden become as iron, as apparently the walls would also need to be sunk a good ways into the ground for the architects to be happy with it, which was a comfort all its own. Of course something raised in the Hill God’s name on His own holy ground would want to burrow into it a little bit! Riaag still wasn’t sure if the builders he asked about the actual digging thought he was an idiot or not. At least it was good practice with some of the more precise words in Usoan.

He couldn’t quite yet envision the interior—any attempts to do so resulted in some variation of the guest palace where he’d stayed during visits to Usoa, which wasn’t right but wasn’t entirely wrong, either—so Riaag instead thought of how they’d decorate the outside. There would be woodworking involved, of course, and carved stone, and it sounded like the roof was going to be tiled in Rhoanish ceramics so there’d probably be opportunity to incorporate that elsewhere, too. Would there be tapestries on the outside, or flags? The idea appealed to him, since it would connect the some-day-imposing structure to the yurts and tabernacles that came before, and it would be another way to display the visual traditions of the valley to curious visitors. A building that stayed in only one place needed something to make it look as alive as its more mobile brethren.

Before they did any of the decorating they’d have to get past their current hurdle, however.

“There can’t be a pond here. There’s nowhere to get the water,” said one of the architects, their expression peeved as usual.

Sarouth scoffed and tossed his head. His hair was getting a little longer every day. “There is not right now,” he said. “But I can feel a hot spring deep below. It will come up to us if there is a place for it to live.”

Riaag frowned at this. His knowledge of the caves beneath the sacred hill was skewed towards walking it himself (usually because he needed to go find Sarouth at the bottom), as there was so much downwards involved that he couldn’t have drawn a map of it without needing to sketch out one slice at a time along the descent; what he did know was that the tunnels were dark and not exactly dry, and that for all the years he’d been very carefully walking that stygian descent he’d never once come across so much as a puddle matching Sarouth’s description. It was a shame, too, since the Usoan guest palace had used some sort of clever construction to have its own personal spring despite being on an island surrounded by river water, and Riaag would’ve liked the chance to have something like that at home. Maybe you just couldn’t get those without the River God’s help? Having a different god’s influence in the middle of another one’s holy ground didn’t sound like a good idea at all.

“We have surveyed this place” —Riaag had to translate surveyed for Sarouth, since the architect pronounced it a little differently than how either of them had learned the word— “and found no such thing. If we dug over water without first taking the proper steps it would be an entirely different problem than the one we faced with the tangle of trenches you wanted.” They narrowed their eyes. “Will this involve more miracles?”

“Of course!” said Sarouth.

“Oh. Of course it will.” They rubbed at their forehead with a pained expression. “Fine. Fine. Show us where you want your pond to be, then do something impossible we couldn’t have planned for. We’ll…we’ll update the diagrams as needed.”

Sarouth clapped his hands together and shook them twice for emphasis. “Very good! Usoa is full of such clever, helpful people. It will truly be a lodge to remember.”

“I don’t think I could forget this job if I tried,” muttered the architect under their breath as they followed Sarouth towards wherever he was going to make questionable use of his Agritakh-ruhd gifts this time. Riaag was very familiar with the weary twinge in their voice. Sarouth could have that effect on people.

“He is like this?” another builder asked Riaag. He was surprised that they’d used Rhoanish to say so. Clearly he wasn’t the only one keen on practicing his language skills.

“Always,” he replied.

“It will be a long task,” said the builder, who was untroubled by the planking they balanced on one shoulder. River People could be surprisingly strong for how reedy they tended to be. “I think I will enjoy telling the story to my family. I will enjoy it more when the task is done, though.”

Riaag chuckled. “Cain’t blame you there. I’s been his herald fer comin’ on nine years now ‘n he ain’t never not pulled this bullshit on the regular.”

“Hm. Yes, that sounds right,” said the builder. He could practically see the wheels in their head turning as they deciphered his dialect. If they wanted to exercise their knowledge of the Rhoanish tongue, Riaag would give them one hell of a workout. They looked at something behind him and twitched their ears at the sight. “Is that small one over there yours? It’s dangerous for children while we’re building.”

He already knew who he’d see if he turned around. “I’ll go take care ‘a this. Good luck with the Holy One, friend.”

The builder swung the timbers they carried to a different position and began walking to wherever they’d been delivering the wood in the first place. They tapped their fingers to the golden half-headdress thing Riaag had never not seen grown Usoans wearing. “Calm waters, man of Naar Rhoan.”

There was plenty to look at all around the build site and plenty of reasons to not be in the way, so Riaag took his time backing away before turning to see if the person standing there was who he thought it was. He was greeted with the entirely expected sight of Valin skulking around the edges of the construction site. Two weeks of being left to make peace with the stronghold had been both easy and rough on her in different measures; her clothes and hair were clean, and the bandage around her right forearm looked freshly-wrapped, but while she wasn’t quite as gaunt as she’d been while living on the outside she still hadn’t lost her habit of looking around like an animal in a cage far too small for it. Her amulet, worn openly, looked new, so either she’d decided to make herself a new one or asked Sarouth to do it for her, and either way it hopefully was as good or better than the last one. She made a face once she realized he’d seen her. That was pretty typical of the past two weeks, too.

“Oh, it’s you,” she said, as though someone else had been checking in on her all this time. At least she tolerated him enough to let him comb out her hair in the mornings. Left to her own devices it could look quite a fright. If she was going to live in the stronghold—and he very much hoped she would, by hook or by crook—she was going to actually look the part of someone with somebody who was watching out for her.

“‘Course it’s me. You was expectin’ some other fat guy with a beard, Holy One?”

Valin ignored the question. “Sarouth says this is going to be a place to live when it’s done,” she said, peering at the lodge’s foundation.

“That’s right.”

“Why? He has a tent already. Isn’t that good enough?”

Riaag had asked very much this same question when Sarouth had first floated his lodge idea. His eyes drifted towards where his and Sarouth’s tent stood, and where his smaller private tent was still pitched a little ways off. By the turning of the next year they might be gone entirely. “Thing is, t’ain’t a matter ‘a good enough,” he said. “The Faaroug is tryin’ ter make Naar Rhoan somethin’ legit new, not just old ideas what people already done ter death. Doin’ such while respectin’ tradition ain’t no easy feat. So he’s been lookin’ at shit folks does outside the valley ‘n thinkin’ ’bout how those ideas might do good ’round these parts while remainin’ proper reverent.” He thought on the decoration plans he and Sarouth had discussed. Looking fancy for the sake of looking fancy wasn’t the only reason for them. “Also this way it’ll be plenty show-offy ter visitors from afar, ‘n they’s more likely ter take us seriously ter see our prosperity ‘n cleverness at work. You get better trade deals if’n they don’t regard you as a buncha bumpkins fightin’ o’er mud ‘n sticks.”

She scratched at her cheek. “So it’s like…deer antlers? On the stronghold?”

What she meant was clear enough to Riaag, but he wanted to see how well she could explain the idea. “Now how might it be like that?”

“Um.” The stalling was expected, as Valin had yet to be willing to talk to him as easily as she did Sarouth. She fidgeted. When Riaag did nothing but stand there and listen to her, she ultimately gave in. “Stags fight with their antlers, and does like it when their horns are real big, but once they get big enough they don’t need more than what they’ve got. But they grow them bigger anyway. Because they look important, so other deer think they are.” Valin shifted her weight. “I mean, uh. The stronghold isn’t a dumb deer. But if we do stuff that shows off where other people can see, they think we’re important, even if we were just as smart and strong and whatever before showing off.” She glared up at him. “There. Are you happy?”

Riaag had not missed her referring to Naar Rhoan as a we instead of a you. That was happening more often these days. “Thrilled ter death, Holy One,” he said.

A commotion came up from the direction in which Sarouth had led the architect. “Oh, come on!” said Sarouth, who sounded more pleased than irritated as he shouted in Usoan. “It’s just a little water! Watch, I will make a basin for it.” This resulted in more chaos. Riaag decided he would be most helpful by not getting in the middle of whatever mess Sarouth was making until anyone actually cried out for help.

“Why aren’t you going over to see why they’re yelling?” said Valin. “That’s what bodyguards do, Sarouth says. Aren’t you supposed to be one?”

“I’s a lotta things,” said Riaag. “Among ’em is familiar enough with the tongue they’s speakin’ ter know the Faaroug is makin’ a mess a-fucken-gain, but t’ain’t the dangerous kinda mess what requires me ter extricate him. A big part ‘a bein’ his acolyte is figurin’ out time ‘n place, ‘n bein’ most careful ter pick my battles. Battles is gonna pick me enough ‘a the time as is.”

Having failed to get a proper rise out of Riaag, Valin changed up her tactics a bit. “Sarouth says you’ve been spending lots of time in another place. He says you’ve been doing metal stuff for days. Why are you ignoring him so much? Don’t you love him anymore?”

“Been busy workin’,” he said, and it took every ounce of self-control he had not to react to her cheap shot; of course he loved Sarouth, otherwise he’d never have sworn an oath over it, and having something else that required his time and attention for a while didn’t make that love any less of a thing. It wasn’t like he was neglecting anything! Sometimes grown adults with grown adult lives had to spend parts of those lives focused on something than one another, and part of being an adult was understanding that this was neither the end of the world nor the end of their romance. Riaag said none of this aloud, as giving her what she wanted would set a very bad precedent. He could always cry on Sarouth’s shoulder about it later. “That star he called down weren’t gonna forge itself. Today I’s finally done with it.”

“What’d you make?” she asked. To Riaag’s not insignificant surprise she didn’t follow up her question with any nasty jabs about his perceived blacksmithing ability.

Long days of work had been building to this. He pulled an axe from his baldric—it was still too new to feel like his axe just yet, though he knew that would happen on its own—and showed it to her. Its design was very much like his old one, with a bearded head, a leather-wrapped wooden handle, a tassel-tipped cord tied around said handle, and a metal cap weighing down the butt end, but unlike his old one the handle cap bore a small, subtle design etched into its surface: a wolf’s head, alert with bared teeth, flanked by a pair of scorpions. Like most things he wore into battle, its modest decoration was designed not to get in the way of necessary violence, as Riaag far preferred function over form when it came to his arms and armor. The star-steel felt just a little bit heavier than pieces of more worldly iron of similar dimensions. He’d spent ages getting the balance just right.

Valin screwed up her face again. “That’s it?

How thoughtful of her to give him an opening! “Not quite,” said Riaag as he slipped the newly-finished axe back into his belt. He palmed a little bundle of rabbit fur from a pouch that hung next to his baldric and held it out to her.

“What’s this?” she said.

“It’s yers is what it is.”

She gave him the same distrusting look she did whenever he tried to give her a gift, though at least she didn’t throw it back at him this time. She unwrapped the fur to find a small sheath inside it, from which she pulled a knife. It was made of the same star-steel as Riaag’s new axe, its handle made from two pieces of smooth-worked antler and banded with hints of a god-speaker’s birthright gold. A purple agate, a smaller twin to the one set on Sarouth’s own circlet, glinted from the pommel. The knife fit her hand well. With luck it would continue to do so as she grew.

“It’s small, but that don’t mean it ain’t sharp, ‘n it’ll get the fucken job done if’n applied properly,” said Riaag.

“Oh,” said Valin. She turned the knife this way and that, admiring the shape of its blade. “This is one of those metaphor things Sarouth says you do.”

Riaag made a short, amused sound. “That’d be right, Deer Antlers, who is holy.”

“Oh, hello! Are we bonding?” said Sarouth’s gradually approaching voice, once more speaking Rhoanish. The hems of his robes, parts of his hood, and several spots on his front were wet, and in some places muddied. If this bothered him he didn’t show it. Riaag supposed the hot spring of which Sarouth had spoken had come to pass in its own special way.

Valin brandished the knife. “This is what he was making in the forge for so long, Sarouth. It’s so tiny. Why’d he make something so little? Why couldn’t it have been a sword? Why’d he make this? If he loved you he would’ve made you something, instead.”

“You’s bein’ a little asshole, Holy One,” said Riaag, because she was.

Valin gasped, nearly dropping the knife in the process. She pointed at Riaag accusingly as she huffed at Sarouth like she was gearing up to tattle on someone for stealing the last bit of dessert. “Sarouth! He’s being mean!”

Sarouth was having none of it. “No, he’s being accurate. You’re acting like a little asshole. As a tremendous asshole, myself, I would know. As for why he didn’t make me anything…,” he added. He pulled a mace from his sash, the head viciously flanged, and the way the light caught the strange black metal from which it was made was like no ordinary mineral Riaag could name. It shimmered with red along the engravings that ran all along its surface. Even at a distance Riaag could feel a hint of its innate bloodlust, which was not usually something weaponry could be said to possess. There was nothing else like it in the world. “I’ve got far better than star-steel. He knows it, I know it. Even metal from the sky can’t compare with a tooth from Agritakh’s own maw.”

“Where’d you get that?

A broad smirk bloomed on Sarouth’s face. “The Labyrinth, of course. It kept finding its way back to me until it followed me all the way out.” He flipped it in the air and caught it by the handle as though it wasn’t made of solid metal. “A pity you’ll never have a chance to find something like this for yourself. You can’t be given anything if you don’t find it first. Such a shame. More treasure for me, I suppose.”

“You’re trying to trick me,” said Valin.

“No, I’m trying to bully you. Big difference.” He put his mace away and put his arm across Riaag’s shoulders fondly. He still couldn’t reach all the way across them. “Now, if you wanted me to be nicer, you could always try being nicer to my oathbound, who works very hard in ways you most certainly cannot understand, but I can’t force you to do anything. There is absolutely nothing I can do to make you have to be less horrid if you insist on being so. Plenty you can do if you want me to be pleasant, though.”

Valin wilted. “You’re going to stop teaching me.”

“Oh, no, I’ll still teach you plenty. Being a god-speaker is awful and I’m not going to leave anyone to tough that out on their own, even if they’re rude on a level even the sagas can’t rival. I just don’t have to be nice about it.” He tapped a finger to his chin and popped his lips like he did when he was thinking. “For example, I might see if I can break into your Labyrinth and grab all the good stuff. You don’t want to walk towards the center so it’s not like you’ll be using it.”

“You can’t do that!”

Sarouth rucked up both his sleeves, revealing how the tattoos that went up his right side and around his neck went all the way down to his left wrist. Most god-speakers’ never went past the shoulder. His grin was tremendous. “Want to bet?”

“Riaag! He’s being mean!”

For his part, Riaag managed to keep his expression neutral even as yet another ridiculous situation unfolded all around him. “I ain’t havin’ no part in this fiasco, Holy One.”

She tilted her head back and made a long, exasperated sound halfway between an animal groan and metal scraping against metal. “Fine! Fine! I’ll talk nicer about people! And the thing Bough-Breaker made for me is good, actually! And I’ll be more patient in my lessons! Don’t touch my stuff.” With that, she bolted, careening down the sacred hill and into the mix of tents and people outside the borders of holy ground.

“You know, I was going to invite her to have dinner with us,” said Sarouth. “The public kitchens are doing something really nice with eel today. It’d be good practice for how to be a person. But no, zoom, off she goes again to go spend the whole day in a box until she feels like begging me for advice.” He sighed. “What a pity. It’s going to be some really good eel, too.”

“I’s sure she’ll figure somethin’ out, Holy One,” said Riaag. 

A comforting hand squeezed somewhere around the side of Riaag’s neck. “I hope so, my wolf.”

“You’d think, bein’ a god-speaker ‘n all, she’d be inclined ter postulate ‘pon what the Chant says ’bout the strength ‘a many ‘gainst the solitude ‘a one. I mean. That’s kinda what y’all’s expected ter do, ain’t it?”

“Oh, she does not know shit about the Chant,” said Sarouth with a weary laugh. “We’re…going to have to work on that. At least she’s safer in here than out there?”

Riaag nodded. “Least she’s safe.” Something Sarouth had said came back to him, one which had raised more questions than answers. “Can you bust on inter some other god-speaker’s dreams?”

“I have absolutely no idea! Maybe one of these days I’ll find out, eh? I’m sure I can find some applications for it other than terrorizing anyone unlucky enough to have me as a mentor.” Sarouth released Riaag’s shoulder and straightened up. “Now, there’s still a lot of daylight left today. Let me get into some dry clothes so I don’t drip on everything, then we can go see how the planting is going, then we’ll swing by the healers’ pavilion and see if anyone laid up there is in the mood for some songs or fancies a prayer or two. How’s that sound?”

“Sounds as fine an option as any, Holy One,” said Riaag, and as he followed Sarouth back towards their tent he still kept an eye out for any little shadows that might come creeping after them in hopes of a rematch.

Hints of smoked eel still danced on Riaag’s tongue a good hour after dinner. They’d shown up at the stronghold’s kitchens towards the tail end of the day’s hot meal so they’d braced themselves to make do with what had remained, which had turned out to be more than enough; apparently someone had misreported how many hungry nomads would be turning up at the table that day. Tomorrow’s cold meal was bound to be huge. Once he was sure more people had eaten than hadn’t, Riaag hadn’t felt bad about having a few extra servings of pickled vegetables. He’d appreciated the bonus greens during his evening patrol around the stronghold. Who knew hunting for a lost puppy would end up taking so long?

The soft sound of slightly amateurish harp music greeted him when he stepped into the tabernacle, as it often did those days. Riaag smiled at that. He’d hoped Sarouth would be playing, since days of hard labor spent hunkered over a smelting furnace had rendered a lot of their nights quiet ones; the thought of being able to sit and sing and maybe help keep time while Sarouth practiced some chords sounded like a good way to ease back into being a little more sociable after a day spent tending to their people. He’d assumed this would be the case right up until he turned to lace up the tent flap behind him, at which point the music stopped and shortly thereafter a familiar shape flung itself up against his back.

You,” said Sarouth, “have been as busy as Bee in those forges. I’ve missed you.”

“So Valin says.” Her voice echoed in his head: Why are you ignoring him so much? Don’t you love him anymore? It wasn’t personal, he knew, and she was clearly still trying to get her tiny little claws into the parts she guessed might hurt him the worst, but Riaag had lived his life assuming anyone could see his unwavering devotion to Sarouth from a hundred paces. Having that questioned for any reason still stung hours after the fact.

Sarouth was having none of it. “Valin says a lot of things. Let’s not talk about her for a bit….”

Was not talking about things that were bothering him active, since he was choosing to avoid something he knew could cause him future pain, or reactive, since he was failing to even rise up to address events that had already passed? He had to stop thinking about this. “A’ight.”

Riaag could feel a pair of short-clawed hands tugging at his caftan even as he finished tying the last slipknot. Surely he hadn’t neglected Sarouth that long? They’d slept next to each other, ate and bathed together, but as Riaag ran through the past two weeks in his head he couldn’t think of more than twice when one of them had gotten his hands on the other. To Sarouth’s credit he hadn’t complained at all; Riaag had been clear about how focused he was going to be until the star-steel situation was resolved to his liking, Sarouth had accepted what needed to be done, and they hadn’t needed to negotiate anything after that. Now he was finally on the other side. Riaag was feeling more or less refreshed and a good deal friendlier than he had in a while, so it was as good a time as any to start acting on that friendliness.

He let Sarouth turn him in place. An eager yellow eye peered up at him, framed by shaggy wisps of white hair; Sarouth’s simple ponytail must have slipped its tie again. One day it would be back at its proper length so it would actually stay put after being fastened! Sarouth didn’t seem to care about it either way as he leaned up to kiss Riaag with a lot more restrained than he’d expected.

“You dear, dear thing,” said Sarouth when they parted, his fingers brushing the side of Riaag’s face. “I’ve been watching how much wrangling that star took out of you. I was worried when I saw you’d had to trim your beard back a little, so I’m glad you didn’t risk any more burns after that. Not that you came through unscathed. You must have sweated half yourself away out there.”

“Kinda did, yeah.” He was still mostly the same broad, boxy shape as always, but Riaag’s clothes had started fitting a little weird towards the end and he’d needed to cinch up his belts tighter than usual. Hopefully it wouldn’t be too tricky to build that mass back. The extra vegetables on his dinner plate hadn’t just been for patrol energy.

“Hear me, Riaag Bough-Breaker: I am the echo of the Voice in the Labyrinth. I have drunk from the font of ever-flowing blood. Rest your head at my feet and I will ease your weariness. Bring your wounds to me and they will be healed. Let me at that dick and you’ll see what other nifty things I can do.”

When would Sarouth ever get tired of playing up the disconnect between his sacred and worldly selves? For that matter, when would Riaag ever tire of it, himself? “Sounds good.”

Sarouth took Riaag by the lapels and pulled him towards the back of the tent, stepping around the harp in its basket as he did so. Riaag saw no reason not to come along. If Sarouth had plans to pamper him back to top shape there was no sense in complaining, now was there? The Faaroug only wanted what was best for his people, and Riaag was very much one of those. A more proactive person might’ve thought differently; for the time being he decided that wasn’t who he wanted to be, not when there were prospects of getting laid while having his head petted and being told he was pretty. He was happy on his back. A building’s foundation lay flat on its back, too, and its strength was what kept the rest of what stood atop it from collapsing. Riaag liked the sound of that.

Riaag had expected to be stripped down with great enthusiasm, or maybe pushed onto the bed, and when both of these came to pass he felt himself slipping away into the soft, dreamy place where all his troubles slid off his shoulders like an unfastened coat of scale. The mattress against his back was so comfortable, the firepots so warm. There was nothing between him and the open air now, what with him being so exposed, and if any demigods in the area cared to look they’d see how glad he was to be left unfettered as he rested his tired bones. Yes, he was in the perfect state to do exactly as he was told. It would be so easy to touch him this way. He was exquisitely vulnerable. Sarouth could get on with the opening stages of having his way with Riaag any minute now. Any minute now he’d join Riaag in their shared bed and indulge himself in all Riaag had to offer and more. Aaany minute now….

What was he doing?

Upon reclaiming enough presence of mind to lift his head from the pillow, Riaag did not find Sarouth looming ominously at the foot of the bed, or anywhere else, for that matter; he was, instead, rummaging through his collection of many potions. That was curious. Sarouth was no stranger to digging up a vial or phial or cruet or whatever when they planned to have sex with one another, as he maintained a modest stock of god-granted lubricant among the many other elixirs Agritakh bestowed upon him. Did he forget where he’d put the last stuff? If he’d misplaced it that ruled out a few options which Riaag wouldn’t have minded exploring, but that was hardly the end of the world. He was naked, himself, which at least implied Riaag hadn’t managed one whopper of a misunderstanding. It was nice having the chance to admire Sarouth from behind. With how they preferred to do things, Riaag was hard pressed to think of any instance where Sarouth had actually been facing away from him, and that was fine, honestly, but it did mean Riaag had to rely on different circumstances if he wanted to study the tautly subtle musculature of Sarouth’s back or the greater contrast of red ink on green. A shame that hood of his covered up as much as it did!

“You know, I’ve heard that in some places their fertility rites are all tied up in lots of sex,” said Sarouth. He was, somehow, not being flirty, instead keeping his eyes on the little bottles’ contents.

Riaag rubbed at the side of his neck, once more very aware of how few bite marks he bore that hadn’t already faded away. That cloudy-headed feeling he liked so much was seeping away rapidly. Where was Sarouth going with this? Was it related to what he was looking for? “You don’t say?”

“Oh, but I do say. Sometimes it’s all dedicated to things in the privacy of a tent or a hut or whatever, like the fun parts of Longest Night, but sometimes? Well, they do it right out in the open. They want their gods to see they’re serious about it, or they want there to be so much good, lively energy around that the crops can’t help but follow suit, or, I don’t know, maybe plenty of other reasons we can only guess at.”

The sound of anything so personal happening somewhere so public made Riaag’s stomach sink. He’d gotten frisky outside of a tent before, but that had always been in the middle of nowhere, and usually with some nearby water to dive into for privacy if any uninvited guests showed up. Not that he’d ever been interrupted that way, but it was the principle of the thing! He was willing to see where the conversation was going before raising a stink, he told himself. He needed to know the scope of what was being suggested before refusing purely out of habit. “That’s, uh, somethin’…?”

“Now, I know you, brave warrior, and you are not the kind of man who’d appreciate sneaking out into the middle of the night to go have a crack at each other while the seeds are only just now in the ground and the soil’s still practically all wet from offerings. Don’t think I didn’t notice you prickling up! I wouldn’t ask that of you, never ever. However,” said Sarouth, his finger upraised for attention, “given that I am this stronghold’s resident holy man, and given that as a god-speaker it’s my duty to connect He Who Sleeps Beneath the Earth to the deeds of His people, and given that everyone’s been working their asses right off getting a new season’s worth of crops ready to grow, I think we should make sure everything’s tied up properly with a bow.”

“I ain’t followin’.”

Another few vials were plucked from the potion box, uncorked, then sealed up again. “The land lies fallow at the end of each year, then with the coming of spring it is split by the plow, that a bounty of joy may follow.”

Maybe it was him still being halfway in that compliant state of mind but Riaag was having trouble following this. Usually he was so good with florid, ritual-flavored language, too. “Seriously, Sarouth, the fuck’s you sayin’?”

Sarouth turned around and leaned up against the little table where he kept his box of many vials, his eye bright. Gracious but he was erect. “What I am saying, my wolf, is that as the god-speaker of this land, it’s my turn to get plowed.”

“Uh,” said Riaag. Hadn’t they talked about this before? Riaag would gladly take part in a variety of things in the privacy of their bed, and while he was even prone to instigating a time or two, they’d established what made him most comfortable when they were together. Comfortable tended to mean being on his back, either physically or metaphorically, and there wasn’t any way he could think of that reclining while looking cute was going to muster the kind of power it sounded like Sarouth wanted. Why had Sarouth gotten him feeling all cozy if he wanted Riaag to lead the dance, anyway? Maybe that’s why he was digging through his potions: somewhere in there could be a draught that would do something to Riaag’s head that would make him want to be proactive in that way, since he’d clearly not been up to the task on his own. Were there potions that did that? Who was to say that somewhere in the twisting depths of the Labyrinth there weren’t? “Was that…why you was lookin’ fer somethin’?” he managed.

“What? Oh, no, I just had some really nice liquor in here somewhere that I wanted to split with you tonight, since I figured you’d be nervous about my idea and some shots could take the edge off a little. Got the usual stuff right here,” Sarouth added, a familiar-looking vial appearing between his fingers by sleight of hand. That answered two of approximately a thousand questions.

It took some effort, but Riaag was able to roll onto his side and sit up a little. His cock wasn’t sure what it was supposed to be doing. Sarouth had been inside him before and it had been nice, that much was so, and Riaag liked the thought of being able to do nice things for him; the problem was that it had required Sarouth being active, attentive, and a little bit forceful in all the ways Riaag was not. He wasn’t afraid of hurting Sarouth (much, anyway; Riaag had mostly gotten the intrusive thoughts about rolling over wrong and crushing Sarouth in his sleep under control), but disappointing him? That, Riaag could not permit.

“I don’t know if I’s gonna be a good pick fer that.”

“Don’t you worry about a thing, little bird. I’ve done this plenty of times before, even with a certain multi-year gap in my experience, so I can guide you through the tricky parts. It’ll be fun!”

Riaag shuffled until he was seated on the edge of the bed with his feet flat against the floor. Apparently his cock was going to stay plump but not hard enough to stand up, which he supposed was a good state in which it could be. Nobody looked at a mostly-soft cock and expected it to be the star of the show, at least not without playing with it first. He hoped Sarouth wasn’t going to do that. “T’ain’t my sexual nescience what worries me,” he said.

“Good! It shouldn’t. You’re so smart, Riaag, you’ve always been such a fast learner.”

“Ain’t about learnin’ new things, neither.”

“No? Well then, my love, whatever’s weighing on your mind so?”

It was like Sarouth was going out of his way to ignore how uncomfortable Riaag was. He fumbled for a simple argument. “I’s gonna fuck it up.”

“Why would I mind mistakes? It’ll be just like anything else we try. And if you like it, that just gives us more reason to practice! Remember what it was like the first time I ate your asshole? You weren’t sure about that, either, but you put on a brave face, and it turned out to be a good time for b—”

“Sarouth, I don’t think I’s made ter lead this sorta lovemakin’!” There. The words were spoken, the bell could not be unrung. If he was going to bum Sarouth out at least it would be before hopes had gotten too high. Communication was important. Maybe they’d both need to take a break from each other for a little bit to sort out all their respective messy feelings, but it wasn’t like they’d never done that before, and they’d already come this far in spite of that. Riaag cursed at himself for failing to be the kind of proactive person Sarouth clearly wanted, and at the worst possible juncture, too. At least he had other talents.

A shadow fell across Riaag’s face. “Oh, you sweet thing,” said Sarouth. He touched his claws to the underside of Riaag’s chin, coaxing his eyes open, and tilted his face up so Sarouth could look down at him serenely. “Who said you’d be in charge?”

The words hit Riaag like a kick from his horse. Where was the despair? Where were the little jokes to hide the despondence? Also, hold on, how did that thing Sarouth said even work? “You can…do that?”

“I can. You can. Anybody can, if they have the right attitude.” He toyed with Riaag’s beard. “You see, brave warrior, the thing about me is that I love cock any way I can get it—giving, receiving, doesn’t matter—but I don’t like handing the reins over to someone else. It’s probably been the biggest cause of problems for my love life over the years.” He took a step closer. “If you ever asked me, if you ever wanted it? I’d give them to you. You mean that much to me, and I want you to be happy.” Sarouth leaned in a little more, now so close that the tip of his glans pressed hot and wet against Riaag’s skin. “But I know another thing that makes you happy, my pretty little bird, and that’s doing exactly what I tell you to.”

“Yeah,” said Riaag, his heart hammering in his chest. “You’s right. That’s nice.” He’d built up so much nervous energy over a situation that hadn’t existed in the first place he felt like he could’ve run five miles, or at least he could have if he hadn’t wanted to lie very still and be very sweet.

“Do you want me to do that, then? Tell you things?”

“Yeah….”

“Good. We’ll worry about where that liquor went later. Now lie down.” Sarouth placed his fingertips against Riaag’s chest and gave a little push. Riaag collapsed, hard, onto his back, his arms and legs splayed helplessly. “I’m going to tell you every little thing that’s going to happen,” Sarouth continued. How had he gotten his knee up against Riaag’s chest so easily? It didn’t matter. The pin was complete before it had even begun. “No confusion. No tough decisions. Just me, and you, and the divine inside me.” He smiled knowingly. “I bet you’d like to be inside me, too.”

Riaag nodded. He couldn’t move. No, that wasn’t quite right: he didn’t want to move. If he wanted to he could wrench a tree from the ground with his bare hands. If he wanted to he could pick a fight with a band of ten armed jackals and come out the victor. If he wanted to he could be every inch the warrior his titles said he was, winning two fights for every one he’d made himself lose during his old life, and he would stand proudly behind all of it. He could be all these things. He could also be whatever Sarouth wanted him to be. That one sounded a lot better than everything else combined.

“You remember how I get you ready before I put myself in you?” purred Sarouth. Technically speaking he should’ve used past tense for that, as they hadn’t been together that way since crossing the river again, though Riaag supposed they had never said anything about not trying it again. A busy winter was giving way to an equally busy spring, that was all. As Riaag realized this had not been a rhetorical question, he nodded again. Sarouth looked satisfied. “I’m going to do that for myself, now. I want you to watch. You feel like doing that for me? Get yourself a good look?”

Having never given much thought one way or the other to Sarouth’s asshole, Riaag found he was in a fine mood to learn new things about his oathbound. Another nod.

“I’m glad to hear that. You stay put, I don’t want to cut you with my toe claws while I’m wiggling around.” Sarouth eased the weight off of his knee and released Riaag (who was happy to ignore his chance at freedom), then doused the first two fingers of his right hand with the vial he carried. He flexed them against each other. Once they were suitably anointed, he raised them up for Riaag to see. “First I get these nice and slick. You know this part, right?”

Nod.

“Of course you do. Now, do you know one reason why I can make you feel good when I touch you like this? I’ll tell you. It’s because I’ve had lots.” He swung his legs around so he was facing towards the foot of the bed and straddling the narrowest part of Riaag’s torso, which was still quite a feat of agility given how poorly narrow described most parts of Riaag. “Of.” He leaned forward, his dry hand pulling himself open by one ass cheek and proving that he had been ever so thorough with his washing that day. “Practice.” Sarouth’s fingers pushed inside of himself, and he sighed with pleasure as they sank ever-deeper into him before pulling part ways out only to thrust inside once more. He took more of them than Riaag had expected. Riaag was bigger than a couple of fingers, so if Sarouth was already enjoying himself this much, that was promising.

“Are you looking, my wolf?” said Sarouth over his shoulder. “I want you to see everything.” He released his buttock to brace himself against his thigh as his fingers pumped faster. “That, right there. Where my hand is. That’s going to be you. You’re going to feel amazing, you know that? Can’t wait until I’m relaxed enough to show you. Are you excited? I hope you’re excited.”

Nod.

“Very, very good.” Sarouth was really putting his wrist into it. It really was quite a sight. Any problems with Riaag’s past flaccidity were not going to be an issue going forward. “I’m going to take all of you, Riaag, I can’t wait,” continued Sarouth. “I’ve thought about this for so long. You have no idea how long, and how badly, I’ve wanted to lay you down, get you hard, then ride you until you’re begging me to let you come. Hmm, and I’d probably even let you. A special offering, just for me.”

The problem-solving part of Riaag’s brain was not yet wholly asleep and it recognized a potential clue in Sarouth’s wall of words. “Y-you wants me ter beg…?”

Sarouth laughed softly. “You’ll know if I do. Sounds fun, doesn’t it?”

Nod.

With great reluctance Sarouth pulled his fingers free. “I shouldn’t get too carried away, now. Can’t be coming too early. Might spoil things.” A huge, toothy grin spread across his face as he wiped his hand clean with a rag and a little soap. “Except that’s not the case with you on top, now is it?”

“I thought you said ter lie down.”

“Figure of speech, my darling, you’re going to stay on your back a good long while.” He ran his tongue over his teeth. “Here’s the trick: if I jerk myself off first, I’m going to last a little bit longer when you’re actually in me, and that’s going to be nicer for both of us. I’d love it if I could use you for inspiration. May I do that?”

Nod.

“Wonderful! Now, there’s so many places that’d look nice with my mark on them. Your stomach, say, or your chest. But you know, I was thinking: here I am, with jewelry to spare, and you don’t have so much as a necklace to your name. I don’t think that’s fair. There’s one way we could even that up a little, though.” Sarouth bent down and ran his tongue across Riaag’s cheek possessively. “Wouldn’t it be nice if I came all over your pretty face?”

Many nods.

One moment Sarouth was at Riaag’s side and the next he was towering over him, knees pressed against Riaag’s shoulders (because there was just no way even a man as limber as Sarouth was going to straddle all of that, not unless he was getting up to something they hadn’t yet negotiated), and he’d angled his hips and cock so there was no question of where things were going to end up once his swift-moving hand finished the job. Riaag wanted to touch him, too, but as Sarouth hadn’t told him to, he was going to behave. Instead he settled for watching the way the gems and precious metals of Sarouth’s jewelry looked this close to his face. One nice thing about Sarouth being such a magpie was it was difficult to mistake all that glitter and gold for anyone other than him.

It didn’t take long for Sarouth to start breathing faster as he jerked himself faster still. He caught Riaag’s eye with his own. What did he want? What question could he possibly ask after they’d gotten this far?

“Will you smile for me?”

There was no need to be self-conscious. Riaag relaxed and let his face split open in a big, sincere grin full of tusks and gaps and snaggly uneven teeth.

“There it is,” said Sarouth, and those words became a sigh that almost sounded like Riaag’s name, and then Riaag’s face was very warm.

“Whoo, yeah, good thing I did that now or I would’ve popped the second my balls touched yours. You look great. I didn’t get any in your eyes, did I?”

Blinking from left to right and back again just to be sure, Riaag shook his head very carefully.

“Nice!” said Sarouth. “Must mean my aim is getting better!” He bent down to lick away a drop that was threatening to do a crime to Riaag’s eyebrow, followed by a peck on the lips. “So, you want to keep that where it is, or have me clean you up before we continue?”

There was something intellectually satisfying about having another man’s jism cooling on his cheeks while the same person was riding his dick, Riaag decided. It made the second part of that feel a little less…forceful. “Leave it,” he said. “Looks pretty, right?”

“Does it ever. I’ll just touch up anything that looks like it might get in your hair, and by the time that’s done and I get you all lubed up, I shouldn’t be tender anymore.”

Ah, right, going inside someone worked best if both parts were slippery, didn’t it? Riaag permitted himself to be cleaned—this involved more kisses than a strictly grooming-based exercise would entail, not that he minded—and braced himself for the chill of the lubricant. How fortunate he was, he thought for neither the first time nor the last, that the Hill God in His grace would grant such wonderful things to His faithful, and frequently enough (and to enough avatars) for it to clearly be intentional! There was no finer proof in Riaag’s mind that the First Scavenger wanted His favored children to be happy.

Riaag knew the touch of a hand against his cock quite well, how the texture of a person’s palm and the strength and nature of their grip could glide along his shaft, and he even knew a little about the way the stuff from Sarouth’s potion selection could make that familiar touch glide across his skin with only the slightest dab. He was not prepared for how it would feel to have his whole length covered in the stuff with great zeal. He could see that Sarouth was once more propped up on his knees with his behind situated purposefully above Riaag’s cock, so it must’ve been another reverse-grab sort of thing. It felt quite good. The longer Sarouth touched him the more Riaag gave not negligible consideration to asking if Sarouth wanted to finish him off this way, maybe with some bonus questing fingers for Riaag as a treat if Sarouth’s arm could reach. He could already imagine how good the view would be.

“Brace yourself, my love.” For what?

Then Sarouth pushed down with enough force to pop Riaag’s glans inside of him and the situation needed to be evaluated once again.

“Riaag? You okay?”

Nod.

“Just a lot at once?”

Nod.

“Want me to keep going?”

Nod.

He felt Sarouth grab at his wrists, placing one hand on either hip like some sort of overcompensating saddle strap, and he knew the flesh and bone beneath his palms nearly as well as he knew his own; all Riaag could see, however, was the way Sarouth so comfortably enveloped him, how effortlessly he took Riaag into himself. Riaag didn’t see when he bottomed out, as the curve of his stomach hid that part from him at his current angle, but it didn’t matter: he could feel it, feel Sarouth all around him, feel how well their balls rested against each other in this configuration as well as the one he’d already known, with everything snug and hot and the good kind of wet. Was this what he felt like when Sarouth was playing the other of their two parts? He hoped so, as having his cock inside Sarouth was turning out to be pretty great, and Sarouth deserved something that nice for himself.

Then Sarouth started moving and Riaag just wasn’t going to bother with introspection until there was no longer a moment in which to be lost.

“Hold on nice and tight,” said Sarouth in his perfectly sultry smoke-and-honey voice as he gyrated, as apparently he was going back to sexy talk again, because the odds weren’t against Riaag enough. “Just keep your hands where I put them, hm? That’s right. I love feeling how big and strong you are, even when I’ve got you compromised like this.” He pressed all the way down again and wiggled his butt once he got there. “Go on, make me work for it a little. Remind me you’re my champion.”

Well, that was a reasonable enough request. Riaag flexed his claws just enough to keep them from pushing too much into the skin, then dug his fingers into Sarouth’s hips and flexed the muscles in his arms to keep Sarouth in place. That was the idea, anyway; Sarouth was damnably nimble, even while impaled, and kept finding ways to slide out of Riaag’s grasp just enough to slide part ways off before thrusting back down again. In a way it was like one of their wrestling matches, just with less clothing. All the while Sarouth remained in motion. So long as Sarouth remained in motion Riaag wasn’t doing his job, which was bad, but it did mean that the both of them were treated to more of that fantastic friction, which was splendid.

“Very good,” said Sarouth. “Ease up a little, now. I’m going to go deep and slow.”

Sarouth’s definition of deep and slow involved him taking Riaag all the way back up to the hilt, then working the last inch or so with short, powerful motions that felt leisurely despite the force he put into them. He placed his hands atop Riaag’s as he shimmied.

“You feel so nice, you know. Big in all the good ways and none of the bad ones. You’re filling me up in the best way. I knew I’d like this. I’ve gotten to know you so well over the course of our oath, all of you, and the more I held you in my hand or against my cock the more I knew we had to try this, just the once. Just to see what you’d think. Speaking of….” He glanced over his shoulder. “You still having a good time back there?”

Nod.

“Good, very good. You’re doing great. Now, I am very out of practice so I can’t make any guarantees I can come hands-free, so here’s what we’re going to do.” Sarouth patted the back of Riaag’s hand. “You’re going to take this big paw of yours,” he said, lifting it, “and you’re going to put it around me like so,” he continued, pulling Riaag’s hand around to his front and carefully wrapping its fingers around the base of his shaft, “and you’re going to jerk me off while I ride you however I please, and then you’re going to learn what it feels like when somebody comes while you’re balls deep in his ass. How’s that? You ready to learn today?”

Education was a gift at any age. Riaag didn’t need to nod this time, instead touching Sarouth in every way he could think of that worked from this angle. Some creative adaptation was required as he had to deal with the unfamiliar direction and motion alike, to say nothing of the immense distraction that was having somebody on his cock. For how easily they fit together this way Riaag was almost never the smaller nesting bowl; he slept with Sarouth snuggled up against his back, was usually able to see all of Sarouth’s face when they were intimate. He didn’t know if he liked the new direction as much. It was allowing Sarouth to do some very interesting things and providing Riaag with the rare view of Sarouth’s back muscles as they rolled and flexed against him, so even if it wasn’t a favorite, there was still plenty to enjoy. If Sarouth liked this, and if he had decided that the shape of their oath meant Riaag would be the sole person to bring him this sort of happiness, then Riaag would gladly do this for him, and that was what really mattered. At least he had plenty of experience with some of this.

It wasn’t long before Sarouth picked up the pace. Riaag followed suit, marveling at the way Sarouth’s hands felt against his wrists and the brush of thigh against thigh all the while, and then Sarouth tensed up all over before arching his back with a shuddering sigh.

The physical sensation of being inside someone—no, not someone, that implied it would be anyone other than Sarouth, which was patently impossible—during their moment of release was something Riaag had never experienced, in no small part because he’d never been inside anyone for any reason before that very evening, and while he’d had some idea of what it might be like based on educated guesses, mere guesswork and the real thing were leagues apart. It was like his cock was being gripped all over by a warm, wet hand that was firm in spite of being surrounded by pliable softness. Then, after being initially seized, he was gripped again in a series of pulsing waves that shook Sarouth from core outwards in a way that reminded Riaag of how Sarouth would use his hand to either bring Riaag release or get him nearly there, though who could confuse such a feeling with that of another man’s palm? This was what Sarouth had bidden him learn, and so he would commit as much as he could to memory.

Sarouth’s joy couldn’t have lasted more than a moment, a handful of seconds elapsing between when he was still approaching his goal and when the deed was done, and yet for how deep Riaag was in his throes of concentration he could not say for certain it hadn’t lasted across the space of a mountain rising and falling once again. What he could actually be sure of was how over the course of that long moment his face was warm again.

“Over my shoulder, Riaag? Really? Were you trying to prove a point?” panted Sarouth. He followed the arc over his shoulder to where it had landed. “Oh. Well, that’s more proof your face is innately lovable, that’s what that is.”

“Ain’t in my eyes this time, neither,” said Riaag. Hopefully by keeping the mood light he could keep from freaking out, because he could tell even through his head-fog that he was very close to coming, himself, and Sarouth was probably going to insist it be in him. Riaag had been blessed, cleansed, sanctified, and favored countless times since Sarouth had first pulled him from the dust, had had the untouchable sins handed down by his sire and dam scoured away by Agritakh’s judgment ever since that first happy day, and had engaged in quite a lot of sex with a holy man in good standing by then, including taking the opposite role in this very act complete with inevitable conclusion, and all of that paired with Sarouth’s clear enthusiasm should have assuaged any doubts he had of the rightness of coming in Sarouth. A little part of himself, part that his amulets usually kept in check but he’d never fully been able to banish, kept whispering its goblin thoughts into his ear: what if that makes him dirty.

“Whew. Well, there’s one for the sagas. What a wonderful time! I’m good to help you finish up whenever you’re ready, little bird.”

Sarouth was so important. He was the lifeline between Naar Rhoan and the Hill God, the arbiter of His Chant and a chosen messenger of He Who Sleeps, that His unfiltered majesty not destroy that which He so loved. There was nobody else like him, not even Faarougs of the past who had come so long ago even their songs were fading away. He was precious, wonderful, special. Naar Rhoan needed him.

“Riaag?”

A disgraced Agritakh-ruhd was a miserable thing, a blasphemous one even moreso. Riaag had seen both and slain both. He’d had sex with Sarouth plenty of times, and nothing bad had happened then, but none of those had involved something quite like this, had put him so deep past Sarouth’s defenses, had pushed him right up against Sarouth’s very core. What if that little bit of history that sowed doubt in his heart got out of him and into Sarouth, and Agritakh didn’t want him anymore? What if his demigodhood got ripped out, like when a god-speaker defied their gift and wounded themselves the only way He couldn’t heal? Riaag didn’t have the heart to risk that. He had no right to risk that. And because his amulet wasn’t telling him to stop, clearly what he was feeling was the unspeakable truth.

“Riaag, I want you to listen to me, and listen carefully. Your head’s stuck again. You can get out of this, and I can help you, but you need to listen. Nod if you understand.”

Following orders was the only thing Riaag trusted himself to do.

Nod.

“If you were in danger I wouldn’t keep pushing you, okay? I’m doing that for a reason. You’re very close even though you’re stuck. You need to know why I want you to finish.”

All Riaag could manage was an anguished, “Why?”

The bottom fell out of the world. Shadows were darker, fires were dimmer, and what had once been a cozy little tabernacle was now adjacent to one of the deep caves deep beneath the hill, the ones that ate light and swallowed up sound because such frivolous things did not belong there in the black below. What tread there now was something that defied mortality because it had never been mortal. It was a hunger that could never be sated, a thirst that could never be quenched, and a love that would destroy if there was no scabbard in which to hide its dreadful blade. Riaag instinctively squeezed his lids shut, as at least the darkness there wasn’t so crushingly unearthly, but he knew what he needed to do. He forced his eyes open to see what they would see.

Sarouth was looking over his shoulder, and from the terrible way his right eye fell upon Riaag, he knew he would have been burned to ashes by a single glance from the left. When he spoke it was like Saber-Tooth’s own voice rattling down from the lonely mountaintops, the last thing heard by many an orc alone, yet it was also his own, its sweetly sensual hunger a harbinger of a far greater threat than even that most vicious of the Animals.

“Because I am Sarouth White-Hair, the Faaroug of Agritakh, the Void-Touched, the messiah, the bringer of change, the earthly vessel of your god, and I demand an offering.”

Riaag couldn’t have stopped himself even if he’d wanted to.

Throughout the whole of his probably-twenty-six years Riaag had never come inside another person until that very moment. Seeing as how he’d never been in someone until that evening it was a logical deduction to make, and yet part of him was eager to make the distinction: he was not merely physically present but had been welcomed into Sarouth’s most intimate company, had been invited to stay there with great enthusiasm, and had not only been guided to his destination but commanded to finish the job in a manner most ferocious and foreboding. No room remained for doubt. Such a voice as that would not permit the presence of anything other than exactly what it wanted, and what it wanted was Riaag. What words it spoke were nothing less than a divine edict. It was a shred of the Hill God’s own profound need that he was called to fulfill, partly born of the endless wanting (a wanting whose scope stained Vulture’s own face forever black from sympathetic grief), partly born of the carnal urges of the mortal man who embodied both their god and His fearsome godly need (and whose heart had been broken time and time again in the shadow of that impossible standard). That descended chthonic majesty had chosen Riaag for this, and found him to be enough.

The way he clutched at Sarouth’s hips was enough. The sting of his teeth as he bit his lip was enough. The way he let go, lying helpless on his back as Sarouth gripped down around him to seize every dram of the prize Riaag tendered, was enough. He had been called to offer up of himself into the sacrificial bowl, and the gift he could give was far more intimate than his own blood itself, was coaxed from him with more than a simple cut on the hand. It was his turn to shudder. He came, and it was good.

Sometimes you heard people talking about sex as a religious experience. For Riaag, they were rarely anything but.

In the pleasant haze after he was no longer held in the grip of ecstasy, Riaag felt Sarouth slide off of him and scoot along the other side of the bed to rest at his side and kiss his sticky cheek. “Told you I’d get you unstuck.”

“Whuh,” said Riaag, one of the greatest orators in the valley. “All that ’cause you was missin’ me?”

“Mostly, but not entirely,” said Sarouth. He kicked up his heels behind his back, crossing his legs at the ankle. “Like I said, I wanted to make sure we weren’t missing anything when it came to ensuring a healthy growing season out there. I feel exquisitely plowed, thank you kindly. But! It was also meant to be a philosophy lesson.”

Riaag frowned. “Bullshit.”

“No, really! See, I was thinking about something we talked about before. You were going on about how you hated to think of yourself as passive, as a person things happen to and not because of, and I might’ve gone on a bit of a ramble about how you did plenty as you were, but I don’t think I left that thread where I should’ve. See, there’s more than one way of looking at this sort of thing. When things are happening to someone, that can mean they’re simply lying back and enduring it, but it can also mean they’ve engineered the situation to play out the way they want. And sometimes things can be a little bit of both.”

Abstract thought while he hadn’t fully returned from that far-away place was not what Riaag had expected to get into that evening, but he was nothing if not willing to rise to most of the frustrating challenges Sarouth threw at him when he least expected it. “Like how you was doin’ some ‘a the stuff I often does, but you was the one what were in control?”

“Right as rain, brave warrior!” said Sarouth, giving him another kiss.

“Since it were…what you wanted, ‘n how you guided things, ‘n that’s more important than whose dick was where?”

“You’re so smart.”

He stroked his beard thoughtfully, immediately after which he found himself grateful that Sarouth had passed him a cleansing cloth. He’d make sure to take a proper soak, and maybe hit the lake again in the morning, just in case. “Thing is, I likes bein’ as I is, ’cause it feels right in here,” he said, tapping his temple with a claw, “but is it what the stronghold needs from me? I’s gotta, you know. Be the strongest foundation I can be. Fer it, fer all them Rhoanish out there, fer Agritakh, ‘n most ‘specially fer you.”

Sarouth sighed. It took Riaag a moment to recognize it as a happy one with a hint of bless your heart, the sincere version and not the way some people cussed without actually swearing. “Riaag, my love, you do more for every one of those things than words can ever say. You work from sunup to sundown, and very often longer than that, with your eyes always towards the future without neglecting the needs of the present. I cannot believe you’re allowing yourself to think that’s insufficient. You may not be saddling up and riding out in search of villains to foil, but who cares? Naar Rhoan has a proud and determined servant in Riaag Bough-Breaker.”

The transcendent peace that had come with Riaag’s orgasm was harder to find with a clearer head. “Is it enough, though?”

“Well, here’s a question for you, my wolf: do you want to be this proactive go-get-’em always-conscious-thinking hero of heroes you keep describing? Because I know that type, and I know you, and one of the two is a lot more responsible about hanging out the laundry.”

No, in his heart of hearts Riaag certainly did not want to be that sort of person, which was the source of the problem in the first place. He heaved a sigh of his own. “I worries I ain’t livin’ up ter bein’ a proper champion if’n I keeps livin’ as I is.”

“Little bird, I gave you that title because of what you do, not what I want you to be. And I am pleased to announce as of this evening I am definitely something you have done. Remind me to ask if you’re in the mood for that again when it’s my birthday. Or your birthday. Or whenever.”

To someone who didn’t know Sarouth it might’ve seemed that he was changing the subject to avoid losing a debate, but Riaag hadn’t been Sarouth’s acolyte and dearest friend for so long for nothing. What Sarouth was doing was backing away to let Riaag chew on the idea himself. That was something Riaag had only learned to appreciate over time: Sarouth would give sermons and call for changes of heart en masse all day, the usual god-speaker stuff, and when people (such as Riaag) came up to him to speak personally he would always adjust the scope of his logic to something more specialized. Sarouth would shepherd his people while never forgetting they were each individuals, and individuals had to be approached like a brand new person every time. In Riaag’s case, Sarouth would give him things to think on and trust him to come back with fresh insights. One conversation after a round of enthusiastic sex could only do so much. A lot of conversations (and a lot of sex), though….

“I’ll give it some thought,” said Riaag, because he would.

Sarouth helped him clean away the last spot that threatened to congeal in his beard. “Glad to hear it, my wolf. Want me to find that liquor I was looking for earlier? It’s Usoan stuff, so it’s got plums in it.”

Previous experience had taught Riaag that Usoan booze required a different approach than the fermented mare’s milk and wine and gentle beers that the Rhoanish palate expected. “Maybe termorrow. I’s powerful tired ‘n wouldn’t enjoy it proper as I is.”

“Oh, boo, it’s not like you were the one with a dick up your ass.”

Riaag laugh-scoffed. “Yeah, I’s just been the one workin’ metal what’s hot as the sun ‘n then some fer days upon days, tryin’ most determinedly not ter burn nothin’ important, all while tendin’ ter no end ‘a external responsibilities, ain’t no thing.”

There’s the man who made me fall in love with him,” said Sarouth as he mussed up Riaag’s cowlick. “Okay, okay, so I’ll go easy on you until you’ve had more rest. How about I play my harp for you, instead, and you can sing along if you like, and either way we’ll have ourselves just a little more time together before we sleep? Clothes optional. I like the view.”

“First you’s gonna fix what you did ter my hair.”

“Riaag, my darling, I suspect even He Who Sleeps Himself couldn’t keep it from flipping up in the back,” said Sarouth, and since he already had a comb in his hand Riaag would let it slide. Maybe he’d ask to have a braid put in for later. He was already dreamily thinking about what music he wanted to hear, organized by how well Sarouth would be able to play it. It wasn’t like Sarouth wanted anything from Riaag but his company until he’d rested up. All he had to be was here.

Life changed. People changed. Even Riaag changed, when he wasn’t looking, though if pressed he’d admit it had nearly always been for the better. Sarouth had made the stone-solid foundations of the lodge from materials that previously would’ve fallen apart, so Riaag reflected, and what was now gleaming star-steel had once been a dark, nigh-unusable chunk before hours of careful tending had smelted it into what it could be. Damn metaphors, they always caught up with him in the end. Was he strong enough to be the rock on which Naar Rhoan as a whole was built? Sarouth seemed to think so, and knowing he was Sarouth’s own stable base (not an easy feat, as Sarouth in his natural state was halfway a disaster) was proof to Riaag that he was good enough for something big. He could let himself be built up. He could let himself cure in the fire. He would figure out something that matched the shape of everything he felt the stronghold needed him to be, and at the end of the day he would still be Riaag Bough-Breaker, Chosen of Wolf, taker of heads and baker of pies and long-suffering voice of reason for an actual, factual demigod.

That sounded like a pretty good man to be.

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6 thoughts on “The Heart’s Own Cementation

  1. Love the title/ending graphics and images! So many nice textural details and they helped me imagine the characters in my head as I read them.
    Riaag is such a lovable precious softie <3 <3 and I’m glad that Sarouth and Riaag are so supportive and understanding of each other in all ways imaginable.
    Demanding the offering in the last bed scene = made me smirk so much hahaha

    Thank you for crafting and sharing this story and characters! I can imagine that there’s a Valin side story somewhere…

  2. This is a surprisingly chill piece! I spent the first half going “aaaand NOW something’s gonna go wrong” every time I hit a break, but no! Lovely slice of life orcish fun from start to finish. Very contemplative. I really appreciate how dang practical Riaag can be. The line “Mending tangible things (like other people’s socks) felt like a good way to remind himself that the intangible could be healed, too” hit home beautifully for me (and, in the spirit of honestly, got me to get up and do some chores I’d been avoiding, so extra thanks!).

    Absolute favorite bit was Sarouth’s very fancy speech concluding with “Let me at that dick and you’ll see what other nifty things I can do.” Caught me totally off guard and got a laugh. :)

    Illustrations are (of course) gorgeous. I love all the little dots and lines you’ve used to pattern things, like the owl’s wings and Riaag’s coat. It makes such a cool visual texture! The first illustration of Sarouth dancing is my favorite. I love the little floating pebbles and it gives a perfect visual for both him and Valin doing that very trick several times throughout. Third illustration looks like it should be a sticker. Do I know what I would put it on? No, but MAN does it cry out for stickering. (Plus, awwww, so domestic! Adorable.)

  3. part of me is like, oh good, riaag is being sensible and not trying to force things or take on too much at once, good job

    and part of me is like GIVE RIAAG A TERRIBLE DAUGHTER ALREADY UNIVERSE

    anyway riaag continues to be relatable with his “i need to be less passive. but what does that mean? does thinking about things count as being passive? does consciously deciding not to take action count as passivity???” riaag my darling. chill out

  4. Particularly love the images — kind of in awe of all the tiny details in each one, and actually in awe of the detail you’ve built up in this world, in general. It feels both grounded (literally, I guess, with all that earth-shifting :) ) and roomy, and the semi-vignette style of this piece makes it such a comfortable, absorbing read. Loved all the little set-ups and pay-offs, especially the use of the star-steel. Knife for Valin! Yay! She is very believably small-child-mean.

    Also, the way you write Sarouth is so hilarious, oh my god. The last scene in particular — sweet, but also extremely funny :”) Legend.

  5. Great to see Valin back, even if she doesn’t fully get her happy ending yet. Nice for everyone to get some quiet time after recent adventures.

  6. I love these SO MUCH. Riaag is such a sweetie and he and Sarouth are so good for each other. I’m really not any good for anything other than incoherent squeeing right now.

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