written and illustrated by Iron Eater
Riaag Bough-Breaker set his feet and hunkered down behind his shield, axe at the ready. He was the only thing that stood between his charge, one Sarouth White-Hair, and the band of wandering orcs before them, but Riaag was unconcerned; he’d felled far more fearsome opponents than than this sorry lot, and in greater numbers, while Sarouth had divine magics at his command. Between their respective talents it was usually harder keeping unwilling converts alive than fending them off. They glanced at one another and exchanged nods before Sarouth took a deep breath, slammed the butt of his staff down against the earth, and lifted his war-mace above his head with a bellow. The scavengers’ heads snapped up towards the pair of strange men standing over them.
“Hear me!” said Sarouth, his voice fierce and clear. “Agritakh has grown impatient with the blasphemies heaped upon Him by those such as yourselves. I’ve been sent here to bring you a choice: repent, and you’ll be taken fondly to His side. Resist, and you’ll slake His thirst with your blood. Where do you stand, lost children of the hills?”
The scavengers huddled together warily, eyes flicking between one another and the robed orc before them. Sarouth was certainly a noble-looking man—his back was straight, his fangs were white, and his clothes were clean and well-mended—and when he spoke it was as though the ground itself thrummed in anticipation; if anyone could play the part of a chosen son of Agritakh, it was him. Amid cautious murmurs they began, hesitantly, to kneel down. Riaag nodded approvingly. Sarouth, as Riaag was quick to inform others with no small amount of passion, was the Faaroug incarnate: he who not only carried out the will of the Hill God but also served as a harbinger of grand and bloody change. Sarouth himself would avoid the question when asked.
One of the band, however, refused to budge.
“Who’s this man who claims Agritakh’s words as his own?” he snarled. He was the biggest and most weathered of their lot and bore an elaborate amulet around his neck; judging by how the others shied away from him, he was likely the leader of their band. “Look at him! Soft and weak, like any other bread-eater, and yet he comes to us and says we should abandon the true ways. We’re better than that! I’m not afraid of any false miracles! Disturb these stones no longer with your wagging jaw, outsider, in the name of a true servant of Agritakh and His people!” With a few spat command syllables his amulet flared, dribbling a greasy sheen of magic across his skin.
“A heretic priest?” muttered Sarouth to himself, his voice so low that Riaag had to strain to hear him. “Now things are much more interesting.” He fixed his gaze on the scavengers leader once more.
“I’ll give you one last chance to repent your sins unto the Hill God,” he said, this time much louder, “for you’ve proven your ferocity by showing your teeth to me. Stand with me and mine and you can shake the heavens in His name. Will you grow strong with the truth or remain yoked to falsehood?”
“Silence!” shrieked the scavengers’ leader. “I’ll hear nothing from a man who won’t even give his name!” He clouted one of the kneeling men beside him before picking him up by the neck and shaking him furiously. “You!” he said, his eyes open so wide that there was red all around his irises. “I’ve known you since your mother shat you out! You’ve spent every one of your years with us, and you know the wisdom and purity of this life. And yet here you grovel before this stranger who comes from nowhere and offers you nothing! Are you so easily beguiled? Has he given you any reason to follow him?” The stricken orc shook his head as best he could. The leader threw him to the ground and gestured wildly. “Cowards, the lot of you! Afraid of this smooth-skinned child!”
Sarouth said nothing to this, but Riaag’s temper had run out. He lifted his axe and moved to charge, but Sarouth caught his eye before Riaag could rush at the other orcs. Sarouth shook his head. Riaag gave him a pained look but stayed his hand, lingering by Sarouth’s side and shifting uneasily from foot to foot. He gripped the haft of his weapon so tightly that his knuckles went white beneath his plated glove. An uncomfortably high number of the scavengers had begun to rise to their feet once more, their weapons unsheathed and their faces darkening as they gathered around their leader.
“No words for me, follower of false shadows?” said the heretic, pulling his fingers through the air as though he were swimming in place. “No true Faaroug would speak when no words are needed but fall silent when the faithful cry for truth. You’re here as a temptation to sway us from the path, nothing more. I’ll end you with my own hands to prove it!”
He cupped his hands together like he’d just captured a firefly. A moment later he pulled them apart, shaping a throwing spear from raw spellfire. He flung his hand and the javelin flew from it, slithering through the air like a great red snake; his arm was fast but Riaag was faster, blocking the volley with his shield. Riaag staggered backwards from the force of the blow—were he a smaller man he would have fallen—and prepared to intercept another spell. Sarouth whispered an invocation, this time soft enough that his voice was drowned out entirely, and as the final word escaped his lips the ground itself rose up to do his bidding.
Great spikes of stone jutted from the earth like the tusks of Agritakh Himself, impaling two of the scavenger orcs who had drawn their weapons. A great torrent of spinning pebbles swirled around Sarouth’s form just in time to deflect an arrow, and with a gesture of Sarouth’s mace a third man fell, choking, as dust poured from his mouth and nose. Riaag did not wait to let sacred magic handle everything: with a war-howl, he charged into the fray. The group scattered as he closed the distance between himself and the heretic priest; those who were too slow to flee were cut down in passing. He smashed his shield into the heretic’s jaw before bringing his axe around in a follow-up chop, but the band’s leader was no stranger to battle himself; Riaag’s axe locked with his foe’s cleaver sword and they bared foam-flecked tusks at one another.
A scavenger, slighter and faster than the others, came up behind Sarouth with a knife in one hand. The blade caught the light at the last moment and Sarouth, still wreathed in a handful of orbiting stones, saw its glint; he dodged to the side just swiftly enough to save his own skin at the cost of some of his robes. This tore a long gash in the fabric to reveal the intricate tattoo across his right arm and shoulder, its inks flawless in the harsh light of the noonday sun, and the deepest point in the cut broke his skin in a thin ribbon of red. Sarouth hissed but did not falter. Using his momentum from dodging he brought his mace around, its head blazing as it drew strength from Sarouth’s pain, and ended his assailant’s life with an organically gruesome sound. The mace hummed with pleasure as Sarouth pulled it free.
Riaag surged forward, hoping to knock the heretic off-balance, but he underestimated his foes’ cunning. Scavengers lived a jackal’s life in many ways, and like jackals they, too came in packs: he saw the second man coming up to flank him mere moments before he felt the dull thud of weaponry against his armor. The blow was hardly enough to penetrate the heavy iron-scaled coat he wore but it did stun him for an instant, and an instant was all the heretic needed to unhook his cleaver sword and attempt to behead Riaag.
Riaag’s shield came up to block the killing stroke with the unfortunate side-effect of leaving him wide open and staggering. He heard Sarouth shouting something at him, but a bash to his helm left his ears ringing and nose bloodied, and straining to hear what Sarouth was saying was the least of Riaag’s problems. The earth rumbled a warning as it stirred into action beneath their feet. Riaag was able to cut down the man who’d hit him in the head but still found little luck with the heretic, who seemed remarkably able to cast spells with a shattered jawbone. Sizzling bits of black and red energies crawled across the leader’s hands like maggots as whatever foul arts he passed off as the will of the Hill God answered the wordless call.
Sarouth was too busy with maintaining his own magics and facing off against yet another attacker to notice the way the heretic shaped a new lance from nothingness, nor the way he drew back his arm to throw it, but Sarouth had not lived as long as he had without an attentive retainer.
Riaag flung himself at the heretic and in the way of the screaming spellfire, the bolt striking him full in the chest with a pain that mortal means could scarcely match. It tossed him like a doll. He smashed into the ground hard enough to bounce, his lungs burning and his ribs crunching as he rolled helplessly to a stop, and the rocks rattled even more fiercely as he felt his blood oozing between the pieces of his armor. Someone whose voice he couldn’t place was roaring with mindless anger; it might have been Riaag himself, but he couldn’t tell. Everything swam before his world was consumed by blackness.
He had been this way before, years ago. Broken and forgotten, he had heard his battle-brothers’ voices silenced one by one until the last echoes of battle faded away. There was pain. There was cold. He could smell his own gore staining the dust. He closed his eyes and waited for the vultures, but a shadow too large for a carrion-bird’s fell across him. A small, numbing warmth blossomed in his chest as unseen hands washed his wounds and wrapped him in scraps of linen.
“Can you speak?” said a voice he didn’t know, rich and smooth like honeyed kumiss. “I’m sorry. You’re the only one I could save.”
Riaag opened his eyes and knew the face of salvation.
“Riaag? Can you hear me?” Sarouth’s voice hadn’t changed much over the years save for acquiring a certain resonance that came with long months spent in command of others. Hearing it was the only thing retaining consciousness held for Riaag. He groaned.
“Yeah,” he rasped, keeping his eyes shut against the sun. His mouth was wet and coppery with blood. “Hurts like a motherfucker, Faaroug.” Riaag coughed, the act sending knives into his aching lungs, and spat on the ground next to him. Someone gave him a bowl of water, which he drank. Most of it spilled out onto the fierce black beard sprouting from his chin. Riaag grunted in surprise when he realized that he could feel all of his tongue and that the impact hadn’t knocked out any of his teeth. He touched his chest, now stripped of his shirt and armor and covered in a light blanket, and felt for a wound that wasn’t there.
“I’m whole?” he asked. Sarouth chuckled.
“Agritakh looks fondly upon those who valorously do His bidding with their last breath,” he said. “You fought like a lion and sacrificed yourself for another of His servants without a second thought. It was His will that you live to sing the histories another day.” A pair of fingertips—which must have been Sarouth’s, given how careful the touch was and the closeness of the holy man’s voice—pressed gently against his forehead. The same small, warm feeling Riaag had known many times before welled up again and began to slowly erode the pain. “We are the iron and courage is the fire,” said Sarouth.
“And it is Agritakh who made us so,” finished Riaag. He scratched at his chest where the spell had hit him. A wry grin curled at the corners of his mouth, framing his tusks and revealing the sizable gap between his two front teeth. “Too bad that mad old bastard’s witchcraft didn’t leave a mark, yeah? That felt like it would’ve made for a fucking grand scar.”
“Your deeds have certainly left a furrow of their own,” said Sarouth. Riaag reluctantly cracked one of his eyelids, wincing in the light, and found himself beneath a simple cloth sun-shade surrounded by both the remaining scavengers and scavengers’ remains. The survivors murmured among themselves as he pulled himself up into a sitting position. Riaag’s eyes scanned the makeshift battlefield until he spied what he was looking for: a circle of rocky pillars folding in upon themselves like the petals of a flower rose up from the earth, the mangled hand of the heretic priest dangling from between two of them and the sundered remnants of his amulet lying scattered at the foot of the circle. The other orcs were keeping their distance from what was left of their now quite former leader, as though they feared retribution from beyond the grave. Riaag wrinkled his nose thoughtfully.
“Stone flower. That ain’t one I’ve seen in a while. Felt like making a point, holy one?” he asked. He play-snapped his teeth at a passing youth, who cried out in surprise and cowered behind Sarouth. Riaag snickered to himself before doubling over in pain again.
“He held too many people in his sway,” said Sarouth, giving the terrified scavenger a pat on the shoulder. “If he remained alive, more of them would fight and die in his name than I felt was necessary. The Hill God thirsts and the blood of the blasphemous soothes him, but we disgrace Him if we kill those who would gladly serve His magnificence if given a proper chance. It is my duty to scourge those who practice heresies.” He passed Riaag another bowl of water. “And besides, these lost souls would follow me. Why shouldn’t I show them what becomes of those who hurt those who have sworn me their loyalty?”
“You’re very kind, holy one. I ain’t worthy of it.”
“Tch. You will someday stop selling yourself so short, Riaag. Until that day, I suppose I’ll just have to endure your damnable modesty.” He ruffled Riaag’s hair. “Rest, now. You’re in no condition to move around today. We’ll make camp here and lead our new brothers and sisters back home come sunrise. No complaints! Even with the breath of Agritakh Himself in your lungs, I’d rather you get some sleep before you hike anywhere in armor.”
“Sleep here, your holiness?” said the youth still quailing behind Sarouth. “But there’s no caves here! What if animals come in the night to tear at us with their teeth?” Sarouth laughed.
“Let the beasts of the field rise up against me, for I am a wielder of wrath and fury!” he replied. He rattled his staff for emphasis. “We will pray over your dead and bury what we can, and I will watch over you all throughout the night. Anything that would disturb you must pass through me first. Go tell the others that they should make their preparations however they see fit, for we leave when the sky turns bright. Tomorrow brings much walking. At the end, though, there’s food enough for everyone.”
“You really are the Fuh-roog,” breathed the youth, his accent slightly mangling the title. Sarouth chuckled.
“As you say. Go now and gather your battle-kin, otherwise we won’t have enough time to get everything done.”
The youth nodded and rushed away, gesturing excitedly to anyone he could find. Sarouth remained seated next to Riaag as he drank deeply from his own waterskin. He poured a bit over his head, soaking the shaggy tail of white hair that was his namesake, and tilted his head so it ran down his face. The two of them watched the scavengers go about their business in silence.
“You gonna be able to handle this on your own, Faaroug?” said Riaag, after a while.
“Why do you ask, Riaag? It isn’t the first time I’ve done so.”
“This is beast country. There’s more than just rabbits and crows fucking around up here in the highlands, and night is when they feed. We were walking for a long time before we found this band, and you’re always exhausted after you channel His might. Are you sure you won’t sleep for even a short while?” He averted his eyes. “If I lie down to rest, I can’t stand watch with you. I don’t like leaving you out in the open. Means I’m slacking as a retainer.”
“You’ve saved my life twice today. That’s enough for now.” Sarouth smiled at him, and it was so bright and effortless he may as well have spent the morning walking along the lakeside instead of bringing a violent end to the unfaithful. “I’ll split our rations among our new friends as best as I am able. Sleep. I may need you to carry me on the trip back home, and how will you do that if your guts are still torn to pieces? I’ll give you a draught if it will make things easier. I still have one.”
Riaag nodded reluctantly. He made himself as comfortable as he could on his bed of empty dirt and wrapped the blanket more closely around his broad-shouldered frame. Most of his body was numb from divine healing, making this task more difficult than it normally was. Sarouth waited until Riaag nodded to him before uncorking a small vial full of something blue and cloudy. He tipped it into Riaag’s mouth. Riaag’s throat went cold, his thoughts went to cotton, and he allowed himself to drift away once more.
“You want to travel with me?” Sarouth had asked him as they shared the first campfire of many. Riaag nodded, careful to focus his gaze downwards. He was having trouble keeping from picking at the wounds that stitched themselves further closed before his eyes; while he had heard of miracle workers before, none of the sagas had said anything about the process being so itchy.
“There’s nothing for me here,” he said, waving a hand at the rocks where he’d nearly died, at the open sky above, at the empty lowlands below. “I got no family, and now no band, either. No clan’ll take me. I’m more kin to the goats than to anyone else.”
“But why with me?” said Sarouth. He cocked his head to the side. “Neither of us knew the other was alive until a few hours ago. You’re entrusting your life to a stranger.”
“You…don’t understand. I’ve been thrown out two times over by now. I got nothing left, so there’s no reason not to go. When you talk to me I don’t feel so much like shit, so I figured I’d go with you.” Riaag fell silent. He had braced for further questions, to be forced to admit past shame, to reveal himself as the disgusting creature he knew he was, but Sarouth had not gone the way Riaag had expected. Instead, Riaag found a piece of bread—an exotic thing in those parts—put into his hand.
“The colors they’ve painted on you claim you’re unclean,” said Sarouth. “Or at least, that is what they mean where I was raised. Is this so?” Riaag nodded wretchedly as he gnawed awkwardly at the crust. It was the best thing he’d eaten in weeks. Sarouth sighed. “It is the will of Agritakh that His followers follow His laws, but it is also His will that we learn and grow from them. We can’t crush His enemies beneath our booted heel if we choose instead to wallow in endless punishment. Riaag, is it? Tilt your chin up.”
Riaag did so, his eyes squeezed shut. Something cool and moist brushed his cheek, and it took him a moment to realize that Sarouth was washing away the smears of pigment caked on his skin with a scrap of cloth. He tried to pull his head back but Sarouth held him fast by the chin. Even back then Riaag had been a large man, but he was helpless against the combination of Sarouth’s grip and the novelty of being touched at all without a punishing strike behind it. It took only a few minutes before he was released. Riaag touched his face with the hesitant hand of a man fearing he’d be burned. While he was speckled with blackheads from where the paint had lain too long, for the first time in many years his skin was exposed to the air.
“Whatever you’ve done, either you have served your penance or I will know your crimes soon enough,” said Sarouth. He poured out the dirty water in his drinking dish and refilled it before handing it to Riaag. “Drink and be purified.”
The water was slightly stale, flavored sourly by the skin it had been in, and tepid against his tongue, but Riaag had never tasted anything sweeter.
Riaag woke before the dawn, stars still scattered across the blue-black sky above him. He sat up and pulled his blanket across his shoulders like a cloak as he slowly shook the sleep from his eyes. The first light of dawn had yet to pinken the firmament and the air was crisp and cold, having yet to be warmed by the early sun of summertime. The wind whistled through the hills. It was a small, simple moment, and he allowed himself to savor it.
He felt a chill against his hands and panicked briefly; once he collected his thoughts and started to rummage around, he was able to find his gloves tucked beneath the satchel he’d used as a pillow. Riaag slipped into them before doing anything else, and so long as he didn’t touch anything he’d be safe. A flutter of pain sparked through his muscles as he stood up and away from the sun-shade, but it was more like an ache from too much work in the fields than the screaming fire of a deep wound, and Riaag was able to ignore it. He shook the dust from his clothes. The scavengers lay around the fire, huddled together like puppies, and a bit of weight fell from his shoulders when he noted they were well. His eyes scanned the horizon. A silhouette stood out against the stars further up the face of the hill; Riaag clambered up the rocks to meet it.
“You look well, Riaag,” said Sarouth once Riaag had reached him. His voice was soft in the morning dark and his shadow formed the outline of a smile. “I’m glad to see you’ve recovered this much already.”
“We leaving at dawn still?” asked Riaag. Sarouth nodded. He ran his fingers through his hair, which he’d unbound at some point during the night.
“A leopard drew close, but a scattering of pebbles scared it,” said Sarouth, answering the unspoken question. “Nothing else paid a visit save for a few night birds. If this weary lot have any kin planning their revenge, I’ve yet to see them.” He yawned. “I’ll be honest, though: I’m glad we’re only a day’s journey out from home. Yesterday is catching up with me.”
“Will you need to seclude yourself when we arrive, Faaroug? You look like you’re gonna drop on the spot.”
“Nothing so dire,” Sarouth replied. He cracked his neck from side to side and leaned heavily on his staff. “I’ll just need some rest and a shave and something to eat. Yes, yes, before you ask, I’m not going to ask you to stop doing your usual chores for me. I know you like doing so.” He laughed to himself. “Though you’d best be at your finest composing on the walk home. The others are going to want some fresh verse about what all happened.”
Riaag clucked his tongue. A few good metaphors had already begun to surface in the back of his mind but it would take a bit of work to make them line up in any acceptable manner. He nodded.
“Anybody still need burying?” he said. A few little cairns rested at the foot of the hill; it was too dark to see, but if they were anything like the ones Riaag had built before each would have a single red hand print painted on the largest stone. Sarouth shook his head.
“The others put their dead to rest. I’ve prayed over the lot of them, even the one still in the stone flower. Agritakh will know His own when they enter His hall.” He sighed. “We’ll need to do a proper head-count so we can arrange for everyone to be fed when we take them home. We should have enough bread and meat stored up this season to handle it. ”
“You should eat something’, too, Faaroug,” said Riaag. He palmed a small, hard rope of jerky from one of his belt pouches and held it out to Sarouth. “It’s a while yet before it gets lighter. We got a long way to go.” Sarouth accepted the morsel and nibbled at it halfheartedly. “You want your privacy back?” asked Riaag, now acutely aware of how tired the priest sounded. Sarouth’s robes rustled as he shifted his weight and sat himself down on a boulder.
“No, I’m alright. I appreciate the company, actually. Will you watch the sky with me a while?”
“‘Course, holy one.”
They sat in silence as the stars winked out one by one and fingers of purple cupped the heavens. The wind tousled Riaag’s hair. He still ached, and Sarouth looked hollow and weary, but they greeted the day together. There were worse ways to start the day than at Sarouth’s side.
“You don’t have to walk so far behind me,” Sarouth had said as they left the highlands for river country the day after they had met. “I won’t turn away your oath simply because you kept my pace.” Riaag turtled his head against his chest and looked firmly at the ground.
“Wouldn’t be right,” he muttered.
“No? Why not?”
“It just wouldn’t be.” Riaag focused on the passing grass and stones. “Y’ might touch me by accident. It’d get you dirty. A holy man shouldn’t be dirty like that.” Sarouth was quiet for a while after that, and it wasn’t until the sky blazed with red from the setting sun that he spoke again.
“You may walk where you wish,” Sarouth had said as the night spread across the heavens, his hands restlessly arranging kindling for their fire, “and if you feel your place is at my heels, so be it. It is your decision to make, and none other’s, for your shameful mask has been washed away with the blessing of the Hill God. So long as you cleave to His desires you can do no wrong by me. The dreams He sends me have much to say about redeeming the unclean.” He rummaged in his pack and produced a pair of simple cloth gloves, the kind someone might wear if the autumn air was a hair too crisp for comfort, and handed them to Riaag.
“These I made myself. You’re welcome to wear them if you’re worried your hands are still unfit to touch the same things I do.”
Sarouth’s hands were smaller than Riaag’s, with finer claws and more slender fingers, and Riaag had to rip out some of the gloves’ seams to pull them on, but the fabric against his palms was comforting. Sarouth had embroidered his name on either cuff, which Riaag admitted to himself made the gift even more precious. He rolled up the ruined finger-sheaths to rest against his knuckles like a pugilist’s cestus. They didn’t gleam with magic or bristle with embroidered runes, but Riaag felt as though the unseen foulness that clung to him was held at bay. He flexed his fingers and allowed himself a smile. Riaag’s life up to that point had not exactly been conducive to pleasantness and the unfamiliar expression made his face hurt a bit.
“The next time we have any material to spare I can try to make you a pair that fit a bit better,” said Sarouth, who looked amused. “I hope they’re not too uncomfortable?”
“Better’n Al-Qashari silk,” said Riaag, fussing with a stray scrap of cloth. “When I close my eyes it feels like I could grab the sun itself with these, too. Pull down the light and lift it high, shake out some of its fury for passing heroes, then maybe go punch the fuck outta some dragon…” He trailed off when he realized Sarouth had raised his eyebrows and was studying him thoughtfully. “…I say something wrong, holy one?”
“Just that you have a fine voice, and a very…interesting way with words for a cast-aside fellwalker,” said Sarouth. “I was thinking that I could use a skald in my travels. Someone to spread stories of His purpose and the deeds of His faithful, yes? You might be a good fit for it, if you wanted to try.”
“I don’t know. I don’t think anyone would listen to me.” Riaag didn’t mention that he couldn’t understand why someone with a throat as gilded as Sarouth’s would want a wandering stray to sing for them.
“Perhaps not at first. That’s the way of things. But speak long enough, and well enough, and soon enough your words will spread. Think on it. I won’t force your hand.”
Riaag picked fitfully at his dinner that night, his head full of verse and his heart conflicted.
“…Loud were the voices
Of dogs seeking masters
Loud was the voice
Of the Faaroug in the dry places
Roaring its judgments
Into spaces left empty
Dread witchcraft was woven
To repel the earth’s fury
And tooth clashed with tooth
In the stone-storm of anger
Came down the bone-hammer
Fierce was the earth-fist
Though curses screamed shrilly
And cut through the air
Down fell a bone-picker
Down fell the song-throated
Down fell the woe-father
By Agritakh’s hand…”
Riaag’s voice rang out through the central meeting-field of their settlement, a horn of beer in one hand and a burning brand in the other, as he oversaw the first proper meal for the former scavengers. The new converts had already begun to mingle with some of Sarouth’s more senior followers as they adjusted to the strangeness of the food. It was a regular occurrence when Sarouth came back from his journeys; rare were the times when he went down into the cave-riddled places and didn’t return without at least one new face, and their stronghold—called Naar Rhoan after the evening star—had grown over time from a handful of scruffy outcasts in tents to a place with its own walls, fields, and storage halls. A few children had even been born in the past year or so, and Sarouth had been adamant that they and the scarce few others that had come there with their parents be raised with the old ways.
Sarouth himself was absent. He had blessed the assembly and smashed open the first exhumed clay jar to reveal the meat within, but as soon as the feast had begun in earnest he slipped away. Riaag was never wholly comfortable orating outside of Sarouth’s shadow, so he had to spend a little extra effort focusing on having his words burn in the hearts of those who heard them. It usually took no more than a day for him to hear others reciting them, matching the flow and meter of his original tellings, and even if their unpracticed tongues lacked the grace of a skald’s he could feel the hesitant wonder they had in spades. The knowledge that his sagas would outlive him brought Riaag a small, cozy bit of satisfaction.
After the last stanza had stilled, Riaag handed his torch off to one of the armored watch-women and went to fix a platter for himself. It was good, simple food, a meal of bread and meat and fruit, and once he’d rasped the bones clean he was pleased to find they all still had marrow inside. He sipped at his beer, crunching bones in his teeth as he watched people pass him by. Dogs barked. Chickens cackled. The stronghold thrummed with the sounds of prosperous life. More importantly, it was a life that was happy to ignore him entirely. It didn’t matter if he was as good as invisible when he walked through Naar Rhoan on his own; there were worse fates than being Sarouth’s unseen right hand.
Riaag finished his meal and carefully washed everything he’d touched separately from the others’ dishes. He spoke in quiet tones with the cooks before taking a fresh platter and preparing a second meal, mouthing prayers with each dish. He nodded respectfully before leaving through the back of the cooking pavilion and making his way towards the temple grounds.
The Naar Rhoan temple had three distinct parts: the hilltop shrine, a ceremonial chamber beneath the shrine, and the open temple grounds themselves. Sarouth’s tent sat in the lee of the hill, its oft-repaired woolen walls adorned with dyed holy symbols and Riaag’s own modest shelter pitched next to the entrance. Riaag rapped on one of the tent-poles with the metal plating on his knuckles. Someone stirred inside.
“It’s Riaag, Faaroug. I’ve brought you something to eat,” he said. “You feel like having any food yet?”
“Yes,” said Sarouth. He still sounded tired. “Please, come in.”
Riaag pushed aside the tent flap and stepped into the candle-lit dark beyond. Sarouth’s sleeping quarters took up the rear of the tent and were partitioned off from the rest of his tent by a curtain; Riaag counted to ten in his head before drawing closer. Sarouth was sitting up in bed, the blankets pulled up to his stomach; he looked to be wearing little more than a set of summer skirt-robes that left his torso bare and displayed his tattoos. The cut on his arm had already healed over into a little scabby line. Riaag knelt next to the bed and presented the platter with all the reverence he might have had for the relic of a saint. Sarouth took it from him and set it across his lap, then gestured for Riaag to sit more comfortably. He nibbled at a piece of boiled potato.
“Thank you, Riaag,” he said. “The chant went smoothly?” Riaag nodded. Sarouth made an approving noise. He pulled a bit of soft, well-fermented meat from its bone and popped it in his mouth. “We’re fortunate to have you with us as a speaker. We are nothing without knowledge of our own history.” Sarouth ate with little joy. Riaag was no diplomat, but he had picked up certain quirks of Sarouth’s over the years, and this was one of the worse tells. He frowned with concern.
“Something is bothering you, holy one,” he said. It wasn’t a question. “Your appetite always goes away when something’s on your mind. What’s happened?”
“Did any of the men we killed look familiar to you?” asked Sarouth. Riaag shook his head.
“No, none of ’em. From their clothes and how they talk I’d say they’re mostly Red Bears, with maybe some Burncandles from the south mixed in. Neither of those clans is too happy to leave the caves. Buncha fucking troublemakers.” Riaag sucked on his teeth. “You saw something that reminded you of somebody?”
“When we returned home I was expecting a few hours of sleep. Instead Agritakh, in all His wisdom, deemed it the time to send me a vision. It was very clear: I saw the two of us walking in the mountains with long shadows behind us, and a masked figure rose up out of yours and set upon us both with fangs dripping venom. I don’t like the implications.” Sarouth licked halfheartedly at the exposed part of his meat bone, his rough tongue stripping it of lingering morsels of carrion. “I think we need to be very careful of any new faces in Naar Rhoan for a while, or faces we think are new.”
“I sincerely hope this is a threat more metaphorical than physical,” continued Sarouth, “but that is troubling in and of itself. Tell me, Riaag…are you happy here?” Riaag looked up, startled.
“Walking where I set my feet, sleeping where I bed down, singing wholly of my deeds and only halfway of yours. A life lived in the background. Is this what you want?” Riaag swallowed hard. It was not the first time he’d been asked that question, and he dreaded the day he might have to give the entire answer instead of just a cunningly-edited synopsis. He closed his eyes to gather his thoughts and curb his rising anxiety.
“I’ll follow wherever you go, Faaroug,” he said, choosing his words with care. “I swore it when you found me bleeding out in the mountains and showed me the grace of the Hill God, and I swore it again when you cleansed me of my shame, and I swore it a third time when I first took up my shield to stand against your enemies. I ain’t gonna break any of those vows. Agritakh as my witness, I’d die before turning back on what you’ve made here.”
“That wasn’t what I asked, but I suppose it’ll have to do,” sighed Sarouth. He still picked at his food, though it seemed he’d found some of his missing appetite; he’d shredded the meat and arranged it atop the bread as a garnish. Rubbing at his eyes—still bruised with sleeplessness, still deceptively kind—he offered Riaag a smile.
“Come, now, we’ve only just returned home. Let’s speak of happier things. Did the newest ones have any trouble with their welcoming feast?”
“They didn’t know what the fuck to make of the bread, holy one,” said Riaag. He focused on the thought, using memories from earlier to help calm down. There were worse ways to cheer himself up than thinking of exposing free-roaming orcs to baked goods for the first time. “Some refused to try it before they saw some of our kids eating their suppers, too. I think one of ’em thought it was a puffball mushroom, and another was convinced it was some sorta turd. Nobody claimed we’d be willing to poison our own this time, at least.” He grunted. “Agritakh’s looked fondly on tilling His soil for how many generations and we’re still seeing this shit?”
“Our first mothers and fathers ran like wolves in the highlands and lived by what they could find or maul or catch,” said Sarouth. “Their children stood tall as hunters who clashed with one another to become strong, unafraid to kneel down and sup on deer fallen to rot. Those who stood against them did not do these things, and it became easy to see this life of eternal movement as that which separated them from their enemies. Still, we bring His words to the far places and spread it further every day, and so knowledge of how to become stronger still seeps into the stories of even the most backwards clans. It’s only a matter of time.”
“And until then, they gotta deal with the fact that a sonuvabitch big as I am eats plenty of food from the ground, and my dick ain’t fallen off yet.” Riaag grinned. The years in Sarouth’s service had expanded his diet beyond eating the scraps and garbage his battle-brothers no longer wanted, and this change in taste hadn’t exactly stunted his growth. The stronghold cooks were usually kind enough to let him take a little extra ever since Sarouth had taken them aside and explained how hard it was for a man raised on scraps to understand how much was too much, and that if Riaag developed a paunch because of it then this was Riaag’s problem, not theirs. Some days he was startled by just how large his shadow had gotten over the years “I’d offer to show ’em, give ’em some proof and all, but they’d probably claim it’d breathe fire. It generally doesn’t.”
“I shall take your word for it, Riaag.” Sarouth shook his head in mock exasperation, but his smile remained, and even broadened slightly. “To think that the same voice that can shout down the thunder with its majesty spends most of its time using that sort of language…next thing I know you’ll be playing dancing naked in the middle of a service. I’m sure someday we’ll find the trickster who encouraged this and all have a good laugh.”
“Yeah, and then we’ll end up having to go find where he put his balls or something’, and the only way we’re getting outta that with our dignity intact is to just string him up soon as we see the little shit,” said Riaag. “Probably not worth the trouble, unless you want the kinda scars that don’t show on the outside.” He craned his neck. The light in that part of the tent was still dim from Sarouth’s sleep, but Riaag was able to make out a fine layer of stubble on the priest’s chin. “You still want that shave?” he offered.
“Well, I am a bit too bristly for my liking,” said Sarouth, rubbing the side of his face. “I should still have a cake of soap on hand by the washbasin, and the whetstone’s still tucked in the same bag as the blade, so if you aren’t in objection…?”
“Nah. I’ll get some water heated up, Faaroug.”
Talk of prophesy could wait.
“I’ve gotta make myself more useful,” said Riaag on the fourth day since he’d been rescued. They had been sitting next to a stream then, feet in the water and makeshift fishing poles in hand. Sarouth had looked at him with a puzzled expression.
“Why do you say that?”
“If I’m gonna follow you, I should have a purpose, holy one,” Riaag continued. “I can serve you. I’ll do any task you want me to.” He flexed his toes, dragging his claws through the muddy bankside sand. “Anything to serve you better.” He didn’t mention the fact that when Sarouth thanked him for something it rose goose-pimples on Riaag’s skin, nor how when Sarouth smiled at him Riaag had to count for a while in his head to keep from shaming himself. As handsome as Sarouth was, he probably heard things like that all the time. Riaag felt it would be very bad if he came off as boring to this strange, wonderful man who looked him in the eye when he spoke.
Sarouth pursed his lips at the question, resting one hand against the back of his neck; Riaag had learned that Sarouth tended to do so when he was thinking. He thought in silence for a long while. A long-legged bird swooped low over the water, its beak flashing to snap up a frog while he thought; its feathers were a blur of white against the pale green river trees. Sarouth watched it fly away.
“You already agreed to follow me and speak my deeds in poetry. Being a skald is not enough?” he asked. “It seems as though you’re taking my lack of demands on you as a void to be filled. That wasn’t my intent.”
“If there’s nobody here to hear me, I’m useless,” said Riaag. “Useless shit gets thrown out. Ain’t too hard to understand.”
“I see,” said Sarouth. “I suppose that’s how it is in some places.” Riaag hadn’t noticed at the time, but later on when he went through his own memories he was puzzled by how sorrowful Sarouth had looked. He couldn’t imagine anyone would ever want to send a priest away, so why had it bothered Sarouth in a manner that looked so personal? Had he thought of it, he would have asked. Back then, though, Riaag was a much simpler man with a much simpler understanding of people, and he’d instead been focused on unhitching his hook from a sunken branch.
“So what sort of tasks did you have in mind?” said Sarouth. Riaag perked up.
“You know,” he said, “day-to-day things. Shit you shouldn’t have to worry about. If you were a chieftain it’d be the sort of thing you’d have thralls around for.”
“Let’s assume you had to make a list of what you’re offering, and you couldn’t put ‘thrall things’ on it,” said Sarouth. “What would it include?”
“Uh,” said Riaag, now thoroughly entangled in his fishing line. “Well…if we catch anything, I could cook it up for dinner,” he offered. “I don’t know how, but I could learn, probably.” He wrinkled his nose in thought. “And a lot of it’s just paying attention, right? Knowing what means it needs more cooking time and what means it’s gonna be on fire if you don’t take it off the coals right the fuck now.”
“If that’s what you want, you’re welcome to it,” said Sarouth, whose cooking the past few days had been extraordinarily unpleasant. They’d caught a hare and put it in a jar the day prior, but it’d be a good week before it had aged enough to taste sweet. “So, it’ll be preparing meals in addition to chanting what has come before, yes?”
“And other stuff! I could build the fire, and wash your clothes, and carry water for you so you’ll stay pure,” Riaag offered, his eyes bright with newfound fervor. “I’m good at keeping out of the way. You won’t even know I’m there unless I’m handing you dinner. Just say the word and I’ll do it. I’ll even help with your shaving if you’ll let me.”
“I assume you’d be willing to brush my hair for me, then?” said Sarouth, stroking his chin sagely to hide his grin.
“Yeah, of course!” Riaag replied. He had not yet learned to tell when Sarouth was joking or not. “I’d make it glossy and nice and fix it the way you want me to, and it’d be just like mountain snow. I’d make any sacred adornments look perfect. I’ll be careful all the while, too, so you wouldn’t get touched,” he added, rubbing his gloved hands together.
“I’ll be honest, Riaag,” said Sarouth. “I wasn’t expecting you to agree to that.”
“You…weren’t?” said Riaag, forgetting to hide the hurt in his voice. He’d only spent a few days away from his old band and already he’d lost much of the self-preservation he’d learned over the years. The unclean had no business questioning their betters. Realizing this only after he’d said it, Riaag steeled himself to be put back in his place again. He was not expecting Sarouth’s quiet laugh, nor for said laugh to be amused instead of harsh and mocking.
“If it means that much to you, I don’t mind,” said Sarouth, and his smile had a warmth to it that made Riaag’s guts ache in a very specific way. “All I ask in return is that I have the pleasure of your company.” Riaag nodded repeatedly.
Their conversation was interrupted by the excitement of a fish on the line. While it nearly escaped twice, in the end Sarouth was able to pull a fat salmon from the water, and Riaag held it still to behead and clean. He made good on their agreement, as well, building up a warm but mostly smokeless fire to roast the fish and dry their river-drenched clothes.
Riaag managed to cook their meal without scorching it too badly. The salmon was the first fresh meat they’d shared, and even with the slight layer of careless char clinging to it it kept its rich and buttery taste. Sarouth made no secret of how much he approved of Riaag’s fledgeling attempt. Riaag couldn’t think of what to say to this, his every instinct screaming to stop drawing so much attention to himself; he chose to say nothing, instead, and busied himself with grinding the leftover pieces into a paste they could make into broth later on. Anything was better than plain roots cooked in equally plain water.
Their camp was small, little more than a cleared patch of ground with a pair of crude lean-tos for shelter and a firepit dug between them, so even when they had retired to their own separate spaces they weren’t more than a few feet apart. It was when they were resting in this illusion of privacy that Sarouth had tired of tracing symbols of Agritakh in the dust with his finger and sat up, clearing his throat. Riaag was alert in an instant.
“You said you’d help with my personal grooming, earlier,” said Sarouth. “Do you think you’d be willing to put your words to the test?”
“‘Course I’d be, holy one!”
“Well, then. I suppose it’s time for me to see whether you’re genuine or I’m a fool.” Sarouth emptied out a small pouch onto the ground. Its contents were humble: a razored piece of metal, a hunk of soap slivers pressed together into a ball, a bowl, and a battered old honing stone. He arranged them into a line. “We can use water from the river. I can make the lather myself if you don’t want to touch things with your hands…?” Riaag glanced down at his gloves—still fingerless, but still good enough to protect things from his inherently grotesque self—before shaking his head.
“I won’t be touching skin. It’ll be okay.”
Riaag had more enthusiasm than ability when it came to playing barber, but Sarouth was very patient even as he ended up increasingly nicked and scraped. Riaag was careful to never touch him anywhere below the neck as he pulled the razor across the priest’s face and throat. When they were done, Sarouth examined his reflection in the water.
“It isn’t perfect,” he said, dabbing at an oozing cut with a dampened rag, “but it’s far better than I could do on my own. I don’t have the luxury of a mirror very often.” He flashed Riaag another heartbreaking smile. “And with near-daily practice, I’m sure you’ll be able to improve in no time. Would you like to borrow my kit for yourself?”
“No, holy one. That ain’t for me.”
“Indeed? I won’t ask you to, then. It’s there if you change your mind in the future.” Sarouth tilted his head at Riaag. “I do have another question for you, one I’ve been holding back on asking for a while,” he said.
“How good are you in a fight?” Riaag put down the shaving blade very slowly. The honing stone he clutched in his off-hand, thumb rubbing across it worriedly.
“What do you mean?” he asked, the hairs on the back of his neck standing at attention. He’d heard those words before, and they never came before anything good. He had his share of scars from such times.
“Ah, let me explain,” said Sarouth. “I knew, and soon learned to be true, that when I accepted this task from the Hill God Himself I might not necessarily make a lot of friends. I could use someone to watch my back even more than I could use someone to do my laundry. I’ve already agreed to trust you with my neck, Riaag. Why not the rest of me?”
“That’s…you’re asking a lot, holy one. Servant I can do, and skald I will try, but skald and servant and bodyguard all at once? I don’t know if I have it in me to do them well enough. I ain’t that good at anything more’n scuffling with the other unclean if the band thought it’d be funny.” His words were hesitant, but Riaag’s mind already reeled with thoughts of someone’s trying to hurt the young priest, and how awful it made him feel, and the many creative things he would do keep that from happening. They were red ideas that dripped hot, gory gobbets from their mouths. He was beginning to understand how a hunting dog felt when a boar charged at its master.
“I won’t expect anything until you’ve agreed to it,” said Sarouth. He packed up the rest of his kit and retreated to his shelter. “As I serve Agritakh with a willing heart, so too should any who follow me, or my authority means nothing.” Wrapping himself in his blanket, he offered Riaag a final sleepy grin. “Besides, just because I was able to staunch a little bleeding doesn’t mean you owe me your life.”
Riaag spent the night turning the honing stone over and over in his hands, wishing he’d had the courage to tell Sarouth how wrong he was.
Sarouth preferred to keep himself clean-shaven, having told Riaag on multiple occasions that he felt it made him appear more honest and open to others, and Riaag wasn’t about to disagree. He didn’t know if the priest was younger than he was, or older, or exactly the same age; either way, Sarouth had an unshakeable air of youthful intensity about him that a smooth chin accented well, and so it was up to Riaag to ensure he remained so. It was one of their more private rituals. Every day they remained at Naar Rhoan, and every day on the road when they could afford the time, they would retire to Sarouth’s quarters; once sequestered thusly, Riaag would meticulously prepare a lather before drawing the razor along Sarouth’s skin. It had taken him a while to truly acclimate to it, but over the years he’d memorized the subtle details of Sarouth’s face to such an extent that he could now give a perfect trim in the dark. The focused movements eased his mind.
He rinsed Sarouth clean of any lingering soap and patted away the damp with a cloth, careful as always to never let even the side of his glove brush against Sarouth’s shoulder. Stepping aside, he allowed Sarouth to feel the results of his work. The holy man nodded to him.
“Excellent as always, Riaag. Thank you.”
“Of course, Faaroug.”
“I think I’m going to meditate on what I’ve been shown once I finish the rest of my supper,” said Sarouth. “I’m not given visions for nothing, and knowing what it means may be the deciding factor in keeping a large number of people safe. Perhaps once I’ve figured it out I’ll be in more of a mood to hear your most recent verse, eh?”
“You want privacy, holy one?” asked Riaag.
“No, thank you. I’ll just be in the ceremonial chamber, down amongst the fumes. You won’t need to stand guard at the threshold this time,” said Sarouth, helping himself to another bite of his neglected meal. “I may come by the meeting-field later if I’m not in a trance all night. I’d love to become better acquainted with some of our newest followers, perhaps help them figure out where they’d best fit here. We don’t want them to feel threatened by the people who’ve come before.” He stretched, his lithe muscles rippling, and Riaag had to avert his eyes to keep from looking too long.
“Why not enjoy a little time in the safety of your own home?” continued Sarouth around a mouthful of baked apple. “Take a walk, talk to people, go down and watch the drovers move the animals around, anything you don’t have the chance to do when we’re miles out in the middle of nowhere with one eye on the horizon. Enjoy what we’ve built. Relax a little. Maybe you’ll think of another good edda to sing at the next festival, eh?” He licked his lips and dabbed at his mouth with the same cloth that had been used to dry his face earlier. “Allowing the soul a chance to unwind itself keeps us from becoming hopelessly tangled.”
“As you say, Faaroug,” said Riaag. He pressed his fist against his heart and bowed before stepping backwards and outside.
Naar Rhoan bustled with activity. Riaag lumbered through its roads at his own pace, the crowd moving around him as the water parted before a boat’s keel, and did his best to walk around children’s games or artisans at work; even though the sun had recently set it would be busy within the stronghold’s walls for hours yet to come. He briefly debated visiting the target range, then wondered whether or not the lakeside would be too crowded for a quick swim, before admitting to himself what he’d been waiting for as soon as they’d started heading back home. Lingering a few final moments in the warm summer air, Riaag made his way back to the temple grounds and slipped into his own tent.
He laced up the flap behind him, not bothering with a lantern or candles. Nobody ever bothered him, of course, but it felt good to be able to close away the rest of the world and stay in a place that was meant just for him and nobody else. If Sarouth ever came by that would have been acceptable, but the closest Sarouth ever came to stepping inside was rapping on a tent pole and asking if Riaag wanted to come out. That was fine, too, since it meant that inside his tent’s walls he could be truly on his own. It was just as well Sarouth stayed away, anyway; Riaag didn’t like the way he so easily thought of things they could do together if they were alone. It was as though Riaag’s heart kept forgetting it was was weighed down by his parents’ oathbreaking taint.
Riaag stripped away his armor piece by piece until he stood in nothing but a tunic, and then he wasn’t even wearing that. He lay down on his cot, resting his bare hands against his flesh, and let his mind wander in directions he could not afford to let it go while they were in the field.
The wind ruffled the outer wall of his tent and he thought of winter, and the furs they would wear while walking in the far places, and how many of those winter furs he’d trapped himself back in the day. They had hunters for that now, but in Riaag’s thoughts it didn’t matter. He’d throttled a wolf to death once to take its pelt, and he still bore the scars from hunting a saber-toothed cat with the softest, whitest coat he’d ever seen; it was the same color as Sarouth’s hair, and Riaag had made it into a mantle for him as a gift. Sarouth wore it rarely, claiming he didn’t want it to be damaged, but Riaag suspected it was because it made him look more like a high-born ruler than Sarouth was comfortable with. To Riaag, though, it was perfect for him, because the Faaroug was greater than any king or war-prince.
He painted snow on his mental canvas, dappling it with green-needled trees, and pulled up the earth into a mimicry of one of the blue-gray mountains to the east. Here there was a temple to Agritakh made from worked stone instead of piled dirt and scraps of wood, one meant to weather generations of blizzards instead of shivering in soft rains: it looked out over the craggy landscape below like a harsh and fearsome queen. Fires blazed within, both in hearths and in braziers, and Riaag walked through its halls with pride—for he had been one of the men whose hands had built it from nothing, he decided, weaving further details into the warp and woof of his story—as he sought out an ever-ascending series of stairwells.
Riaag came upon the highest chamber, one barred with two massive doors carved with symbols of the Hill God, and he did not need to even lift the cast-iron knockers affixed to them before they opened to welcome him inside. There was both stone and wooden flooring within, and a place for sand painting, and it was so luxurious a place that some of the windows even had glass in them, but these were not why Riaag had been so eager to climb the long stairs leading there. No, that honor fell to Sarouth—the saber-tooth mantle around his shoulders, his jewelry elegant, and his gold-edged robes brilliant in the mixed light of the fire and the blue-tinged winter sun—who smiled at Riaag and invited him to drink wine by the hearth.
Riaag accepted the goblet—putting aside the carcass of the great beast he’d slain for Sarouth and hauled up the many stairs, because he was returning home from hunting, of course—and seated himself in a chair adorned with the bones of fallen heretics that they had collected over the years. The wine was rich and red, and the conversation was good—and of course it would be good, for they spoke of conquest and glory in Agritakh’s name—and soon their words became less boastful and more intimate as each reminded the other of past triumphs. They chose to kneel on the floor instead—Sarouth close enough that Riaag could scent out the faint and lingering traces of soap clinging to his emerald skin—and trade verses, and when Sarouth looked into his eyes Riaag didn’t turn away.
Riaag reached to touch him—and in this story there was no shame in thinking it, because they had always been the most ferocious of battle-brothers, and Riaag had never been kicked or screamed at for being a vile unperson thing, so he could lay hands on someone so blessed without incurring Agritakh’s ire—and Sarouth’s cheek was smooth and warm beneath his fingers. The holy man nuzzled against Riaag’s cupped hand. He spoke kind words that made his face all the more beautiful—his full lips and short, pearly tusks framing each syllable perfectly, his face so close that Riaag could see the reds of his eyes, themselves ever so slightly crinkled with mirth—and Riaag leaned in to kiss him, tasting the wine they’d shared there. It was good. It was so, so good. Sarouth nipped at Riaag’s lip with his sharp and perfect teeth when they pulled away and cocked his head towards the bed—one draped with bright quilts and big enough for two men to easily share, because that Sarouth did not sleep alone, nor did that Riaag—with a sly smile. Riaag needed no more encouragement; he swept Sarouth up in his arms and carried him there.
Riaag pulled the curtain surrounding the bed closed, concealing their tryst with a tapestried barrier of capering quarry. They fell upon one another passionately. Riaag kissed Sarouth deeply while Sarouth’s hands—they were soft, but not unworn, and they moved with the same grace they did when throwing oracle bones—caressed him as they undid his armor stays, clever fingers wriggling between cracks in the plate to tease and entice. Riaag tugged at Sarouth’s robes, pulling them open but not away. He brushed away the fur mantle just enough to trace the lines inked on Sarouth’s skin with his tongue. Sarouth’s member pressed hot and hard against Riaag’s stomach—and while Riaag had never seen it save for brief flashes when he’d walked in on Sarouth while bathing, he had no doubt it would be as flawless as the rest of him—and he growled with need at each questing lick. Riaag rolled on his back, pulling Sarouth with him, and made a request that the holy man was more than happy to fulfill.
Sarouth nudged his knees beneath Riaag’s back—his robes flowing around him, crowned by the mantle that matched his white hair above and below, a perfect backdrop to display his equally perfect form—tilting Riaag’s hips upwards—very gently, of course, because Sarouth would know that it was easy to startle or upset him when they were together like this— and spreading Riaag open with his thumbs. He drank in the sight of the man reclining before him—taking his time and delighting in every detail Riaag had to offer, enjoying him as an equal, acting with fond and familiar slowness instead of the ugly, desperate speed the unclean relied on when they sought one another’s wretched company—before pushing himself inside—and it never hurt, never—and making love to Riaag—and it was making love, not fucking, because the Sarouth in his story loved him back and wanted him for something more than song or steel, and in his story Riaag never had to pretend he felt otherwise—with an intensity that moved the earth—and how else could the Faaroug himself, chosen of Agritakh and sculptor of His stones, do so?
Riaag bit his lip as he came, and when he was finished his fantasy unspooled until he was once more alone on his cot in the summer heat. His thoughts of wine by the fire and embracing against the snow evaporated as he cleaned his sticky stomach; while he was still lightheaded from orgasm, he could feel certain tensions in his body fading away in relief even as he dragged himself back to reality. He told himself it was good to be so honest with himself, for it was the Faaroug‘s duty to bring solace to Agritakh’s favored people, and what greater solace than letting a man born laden with woe pretend to be loved for a little while? Even if Sarouth never knew, in that way he made Riaag’s life a tiny bit more bearable. Shrugging back into his tunic and wiping his eyes on the hem of his sleeve, Riaag began to armor himself again.
It was clear to Riaag very early on that Sarouth was no ordinary wandering priest, and half a year after he had kept Riaag from death’s door, Riaag had started looking for the right moment to make his understanding known. This sort of revelation needed to accompany a proper sign. For many weeks he saw nothing that fit and had to bide his time instead, but as time went on and the season began to change once more, his patience was rewarded.
They’d been walking along a dry riverbed when Sarouth had held up his hand to stop. Riaag paused, concerned, but Sarouth just tapped the side of his nose.
“There’s something different on the wind,” he said. “Do you smell it, too?” They had both closed their eyes and took in deep lungfuls of air, and sure enough a few low notes stood out above everything else. A ghost of a taste lingered upon Riaag’s tongue and reminded him of days that weren’t quite so lean. His stomach growled.
“Yeah, I do,” he said. “You think there’s anything left?”
“The only way to know for certain is to see for ourselves,” said Sarouth. “Let’s go!”
They clambered over rocks and waded through crackling brown shrubs until they found the source of the scent trail lying at the base of a cliff: it was a wild horse, its neck broken from a fall and clearly dead for at least three days, most of it still whole and untouched by other carrion-eaters. Sarouth grinned with delight.
“Apparently Agritakh provides for us when He so chooses!” he said, unsheathing his eating knife. “We’ll sleep with fat bellies tonight once we’ve got a camp set up. I’d arm-wrestle you for the best parts, but I understand your circumstances…”
It was the best meal they’d had in weeks. The bones would make good soup-stock and the rest they could easily jar for later, letting it ripen further as they traveled. It hadn’t even been crow-picked yet. So perfect a gift in so desolate a place could be no coincidence there was no denying that this was the sign Riaag had been awaiting. A fuller stomach bolstered Riaag’s spirits, and he gathered the broken pieces of verse he’d been pulling together over time in preparation for this day. Sarouth had praised his bravery in battle. Speaking the truth also required no small amount of courage.
“I need to tell you something’, holy one,” he’d said. He’d spread his hands—now properly clad in gloves that fit—in the manner orators used to call their audience. Sarouth had looked up at him in mid-chew with a curious vowel sound, a morsel hanging half out of his mouth at a whimsical angle, and it was such a candid moment that Riaag nearly lost his composure. Fighting back laughter, he let his voice fall into speech that mimicked the cadence of the chant.
“When you speak, it’s good, ’cause I’m made less tired and dirty,” he said. “When you send me to do things for you, it’s good, too, ’cause I can pretend I ain’t a nasty pieceashit with bad teeth.”
Sarouth said nothing, though he swallowed and put down his knife to listen. Riaag continued, building momentum.
“Where you put your hand the water runs clear and where you walk the thorns don’t pierce your feet,” he said. “Your voice is clear and cuts through the fog, and when you go out into the wild places the earth rises up to meet you. Agritakh thinks you’re pretty hot shit, and so does anybody else with working eyes in their heads. Nothing stands in your path or conceals your majesty.” Sarouth had raised his eyebrows at this.
“We slogged through mud just this morning and my clothes get caught on brambles whenever we so much as think about passing through briar country,” he said, spreading out the sullied hem of his robes in demonstration. “What are you getting at, Riaag? This isn’t like you.”
“I mean you don’t have to hide it anymore. I’ve seen past your mask of modesty and I know you for who you really are, Faaroug.” The syllables danced across Riaag’s tongue like a splash of good whiskey. It felt right to call Sarouth that. Sarouth, however, seemed to have other ideas.
“That’s a very heavy title, Riaag,” he said, his words careful. He sounded like he was talking to an angry animal. “I know you only seek to honor me, but I don’t think you should be saying it so casually.”
“Well, ‘course you’d say that,” Riaag said, “since a favored child of Agritakh ain’t gonna announce themselves until the time comes to hold His glory in their hand. But I know. I know!” Riaag beamed. “You tested me pretty good, but I figured it out all on my own. It’s all there just so long as you’re paying attention. That’s how we found our dinner today. That’s why you encouraged me to make our meals, since cooking is all about paying attention, too.”
“I’m pretty sure you were the one who said that in the first place,” said Sarouth. He ran his hand along the top of his head and rested it against the base of his neck. “Besides, I’m not fit to wear that name, not by a long shot. It’d need to be someone who could actually lead and inspire people, not just wave his hands and wish for the best. Would the Faaroug have dust-stained robes? Or complete ineptitude in food preparation? I’ve put my hand in the pot plenty a time and all I’ve gotten for my troubles were scalded fingers and bad tea. Hardly water running clear and sweet.”
“But it’s still true!” said Riaag. He gestured uncertainly. “All you’ve taught me, all you’ve done, all you’ve said. You took me in when I was dirty and you made it so Agritakh will look at me again without curling His lip. This’s what the Faaroug‘s meant to do. It all makes sense. It all fits!”
“Anything can fit a promise so long as we wish hard enough that it would,” said Sarouth. He rested his cheek in his hand. “It’s why it’s a bad idea to hold stake in any prophecies above a certain age.”
“This ain’t like that at all!”
“I fear it may be. I’m honored you think of me so highly, but you’re seeking to put me on a pedestal so high there’s nowhere for me to go but tumbling over the side.”
“But that’s where the stuff of legend is supposed to go! That’s why it’s legend, ’cause it’s bigger than life and makes us grow big so we can fill up those spaces. That’s what you’ve been doing!”
“You’re clutching at a falsehood with this.”
“I just want to hear you say it!” shouted Riaag. He felt like a child in the throes of a tantrum, and was half prepared for Sarouth to strike him and take his food away. Instead the holy man sighed and shook his head. Riaag wasn’t sure if that was better or worse.
“I’m sorry, Riaag,” said Sarouth. “What you want is a dream. You’re wasting your time.”
“Stop saying that! I know what I’ve seen and I’ve seen that you’re the Faaroug, and it’s proved true for a long time now, and I’m not stupid…”
“I never said you were.”
“You were thinking it!” snarled Riaag, and Sarouth had actually looked genuinely hurt at that.
“I’m no messiah, Riaag,” Sarouth had said, his voice quiet. He sighed. “I’m just a wandering pilgrim who was in the right place at the right time. I’ve saved one man, but there are countless others I’ve lost. I walk through the wild places with my staff and my mace in search of others who might listen. I serve the Hill God, and I do so to the best of my ability. That’s all. I’m flattered you think I’m so important, but you have to accept the fact that I’m really just an orc out a-roving, same as any other.” Riaag felt his eyes sting; reaching to rub at them, he found he was weeping with frustration, though he wasn’t entirely sure why.
“It has to be you. That’s the only explanation!” he said, already hating himself for showing so much of his emotional underbelly. Riaag snorted loudly and wiped his nose, his face still ablaze with upset he only halfway understood. Tears dripped from his beard to puff against the dirt. “You’re the only one that’s good enough.”
“Then I’m afraid that there is no place in the world as it is for your Faaroug,” said Sarouth, and Riaag’s fragile hope died with those words.
He stormed away from their camp, then, hurt and sad and angry, crashing through the branches like he was more animal than orc. His wrath took him deep into the woods, and once he felt he was far enough out he threw back his head and wailed at the sky. His anger flared white-hot but burnt itself out quickly, leaving him lonely and sick. The rejection scoured like acid. Sarouth had cast aside both his rightful title and Riaag himself, and Riaag couldn’t figure out which was worse. All he knew was that his savior had spat in his face, and by running from it like a coward Riaag had simply proven he didn’t deserve a Faaroug, reluctant or otherwise. If this was a test, he had failed it.
In the morning he would put the hated paint back on and slink into the bottom tier of any band that wouldn’t chase him off. In the morning he would forget his child’s dreams of redemption in the eyes of Agritakh. In the morning he would go back to how things had been and were clearly supposed to be. Exhausted, he collapsed where he stood, and waited for sleep to take him.
A cautious touch on his leather-clad shoulder came first.
“I was hoping I’d be able to find you again. You went a long way,” said Sarouth. “I would have been sooner but I got stuck in a thorn bush. My calves are in shreds.” He sat down next to Riaag, who refused to look at him as he snuffled to himself, and rested his staff across his lap.
“I was unfair when I chose my words,” Sarouth said after a while. “I was careless, and in my carelessness I tore you open to the bone. That was wrong of me. Perhaps I am not this Faaroug of yours, but…perhaps that isn’t my choice to make. It isn’t my place to say whether others should call me that or not, merely to live as best I can as one of the Hill God’s many mouths.” He sighed. “Do you understand what I’m trying to say to you, Riaag?”
“Maybe,” said Riaag, who had yet to sit up. Sarouth exhaled slowly.
“Call me what you will. So long as you do not expect me to grow to fit an impossibly large shadow, I will accept it. I may only be Sarouth White-Hair to myself, but you clearly see something greater than I do. Maybe that’s how it’s supposed to be.” Sarouth stood up, wincing as he put pressure on fresh briar cuts, and dusted himself off. He waited next to Riaag for a moment longer.
“I’m going back to camp now,” he said when it was clear Riaag intended to remain silent. “I’d like it if you came with me, but if you need more time alone, I’ll understand. Either way, there’s some horseflesh left. I saved you an eyeball.” He took up his staff once more and turned to leave the way he came.
“…Faaroug?” asked Riaag. Sarouth paused and looked over his shoulder.
“Yes, Riaag?” he replied.
“Nothing,” said Riaag, allowing himself a smile. “Just wanted to see if you’d turn around.”
It was a while longer before Riaag felt ready to return, but Sarouth had made good on his promise: Riaag had something left to eat to help him recover from his furor. He curled up within his shelter and listened to the insects singing outside, their songs mingled with Sarouth’s light snoring. It was not the way he’d expected things to go, nor was it exactly what he’d wanted. He worried that his outburst had driven a wedge between them that could never be entirely undone. Still, Sarouth had been the one to come find him, and Sarouth had answered to his proper title, and Sarouth had even set aside a delicacy for Riaag despite everything that had happened. Those weren’t anything a man who hated him would do.
In the dry forest at the base of a nameless cliff, Riaag had found his Faaroug.
Sarouth and Riaag were playing diced fox-and-geese beneath one of the meeting-field pergolas, the ivy coiled overhead blocking out most of the morning sun, when a commotion sounded up from the western gate.
“Riaag Bough-Breaker!” shouted a man’s voice. “Who among you has seen the one called Riaag Bough-Breaker? I know he’s here!” Sarouth turned his head towards the sound with detached interest, but Riaag did not; he recognized the speaker, and the realization made his stomach sink. He had to fight to remain calm while the part of himself that had never quite been cleaned of outcast’s paint screamed at him to run and hide. Instead of turning tail he accompanied Sarouth to see what the matter was, his hand on his axe all the while.
Most of Naar Rhoan had gathered to investigate. The source of the shouts turned out to be a man dressed in clothes of the Split Hawk clan. He was scarred and wild, and made no attempt to hide his disdain for their settlement with its walls, kicking and spitting at the dirt as he bellowed. Riaag kept well behind Sarouth as they approached and did his best to blend in with the rest of the crowd; there were enough other men and women in armor to keep him from standing out as much as he might have. The people parted as Sarouth stepped forward to confront the strange orc.
“I am Sarouth White-Hair, the leader of these people,” said Sarouth. The meat of his hand rested casually against the butt of his mace, an act just wary enough to be a threat without being offensive to visitors. “Riaag Bough-Breaker is one of our own. Who seeks him, and why?”
“Harog Lost-Gather, supposed last survivor of my band,” spat the man. “I remember you, White-Hair: it was you who found us licking our wounds after a skirmish, and you who tore the ground apart when we’d have none of your blasphemous ways. Most of us died that day. Some of us survived to regroup, yes, though of their number I’m the only one left breathing.”
“Bands come and go, Lost-Gather,” said Sarouth. “It is the way of things. Why come here to tell us this? Do you seek distant kin?”
“Hardly!” said Harog. “I came here because a broken thing came to me last evening and whispered what it knew. I heard that one of us, one we thought had been slain with the others, instead walks free in the sunlight.”
“That he does,” said Sarouth. “Once the fighting was over I found him where your lot had abandoned him, and though he was near to death he had not yet passed. I tended his wounds and gave him a second chance. Now he serves me as my retainer. Step forward, Riaag.”
Riaag did so, emerging from the crowd like a piece of ocean ice; he was pleased to see Harog’s eyes widen as he did so. Harog’s cocky demeanor faltered for the briefest of moments when confronted with what Riaag had become over the years, and only then did Riaag truly realize just how different a person he was since those bitter days of his youth. He had come a long way from the skinny-legged foundling that would fight or bargain for his supper. He didn’t remember Harog being so short, either. Setting his jaw, Harog crossed his arms over his chest and sneered impudently at Riaag and Sarouth both.
“Ha! So this is the wretch called Bough-Breaker, is it?” he scoffed. “I nearly didn’t recognize him since he wasn’t mewling like a child. And his paint! Nothing covers his ugly face! Who let this thing clean it away, holy man? Don’t you know what he is?”
“He is a skald and warrior, a confidant and friend,” said Sarouth. Riaag felt his chest tighten to hear such things said in front of others; Sarouth usually didn’t speak about him at all. “He followed me willingly, and made no secret that he had been cast down as a sullied man, so I washed away the signs of filth and revealed his face. Through the will of Agritakh the Hill God he is no more unclean.”
“Unclean? Unclean?” said Harog, slapping his thigh like an old man. “He wishes it were so! This Bough-Breaker of yours is no better than a wild beast. He would have starved to death before his first beard came in had we not taken pity on him when we found him pulling scraps from our fire. Has he told you what he’d do to fill his stomach? You might not have seen the truth at first, but I’m surprised one who calls himself a priest didn’t smell the taint pouring heavy from his adopted stray.”
“I shall say it again, Lost-Gather: he bears no taint and needs no markings. This man is clean.”
“Lies!” howled Harog. “That thing is an untouchable! Ask him yourself and he will not deny it, O priest of dung and flies!” The crowd gasped. Those standing closest to Riaag shield away from him in horror, parents clutching at children and guards reaching for their scabbards; those further away turned to one another to whisper, scandalized.
Riaag gritted his teeth. He’d tried to outrun his shame, to pretend he was something else; he’d been able to hide it for so long and so well that he’d almost been able to forget who he really was: a bastard whelped in foulness by oathbreakers, abandoned without honor and cut off from any ties to sire or dam. Layered clothing kept the others—and Sarouth, especially Sarouth—safe from the stains he bore on the inside of his skin. His past was a lost and fading thing thrust upon him by the misfortunes of his birth, and yet here it was again, laid bare before Naar Rhoan and Sarouth himself with his heart in its mouth. The truth was as vile and loathsome as ever. His life crumbled ever-faster as he watched people who had once considered him an ally look upon him with disgust, as well they should, for the son of oathbreakers had no business claiming to be a whole person. All he could do was fight to retain what little dignity he had left.
“You do not hear me,” said Sarouth, and though his voice was quiet it cut through the air like a clarion call. It was the breath of the avalanche. The crowd fell silent; no one present, not even Riaag, had heard Sarouth speak in such a way before. “Twice I have said he has been judged already. Twice I have said he is pure in the eyes of Agritakh. You would have me say so again?”
“Bold words, god-speaker! You claim he’s been purified, but if this is so, why do you stand so far from him, and why does he wrap his hands in leather? Your lies are far too convenient.”
Sarouth moved like a snake, unfastening the ties of Riaag’s coat of metal scales and pulling it open with such force he tore the tunic beneath, leaving Riaag’s skin exposed to the open air. Sarouth pulled up the sleeve of his robe and pressed his palm against Riaag’s bare chest, his eyes meeting Harog’s defiantly as Sarouth held his hand in place. Riaag was stunned; why would Sarouth throw everything he’d built away just to stare down a scavenger? He had touched the untouchable, and there was no way Agritakh would have him now. The ground rumbled. Riaag closed his eyes, certain the Hill God would swallow up Sarouth where he stood, but this was not so: instead, a familiar halo of dust and stone orbited them both.
His hand against Riaag, Sarouth had called upon their god and his plea had been answered.
“See and hear, Naar Rhoan!” intoned Sarouth. The fire in his voice was stronger and his words now carried the promise of an earthquake. “I will hear no more claims that this man is less than a man. To do so is to go against the will of the Hill God Himself! Know that though Riaag Bough-Breaker was once lowly, he has been uplifted in the eyes of Agritakh, and now stands equally among us. I am Sarouth White-Hair, and my word is His law! Ignore it and behold how your blood flows into His cup!”
“Blasphemy!” shrieked Harog, drawing his battered old cleaver sword. He stepped forward into an aggressive stance. “I call you out, priest of lies! I call you out to single combat, an honest duel of iron with none of your tricks to distort it, and only death will satisfy my challenge!” Riaag prepared to step in front of Sarouth as he had done many times before, but all it took was a single wordless look from Sarouth to keep Riaag still. Their protective curtain of whirling rocks died down until it was nothing more than so much dust in the wind. The holy man pulled his mace from its baldric and the crowd pulled away, leaving the two combatants in a makeshift dueling circle. Sarouth stood firm and presented his weapon the way the warriors did before an honor-spar; Harog offered no such respect.
“To the death, then,” Sarouth said. Riaag winced; this Harog may have been older than the Harog Riaag had known before, but that only meant he was very good at staying alive. Sarouth knew how to fight, but it had been a very long time since he had stood against an opponent without Agritakh’s aid. How could a priest—even the Faaroug himself—stand against a grizzled old war dog?
“I will break every wall and burn every tent here once you lie at my feet, you bread-eating, shit-loving heretic,” said Harog. “You have forgotten how to live.”
“So say any who fear change,” said Sarouth. “You’re merely a corpse that’s forgotten to die.”
They surged at each other like floodwater through a drought-struck canyon. Sarouth’s movements were fast and agile where Harog’s strikes had the weight experience, and their weapons rang out harshly as they parried one another’s blows. The crowd was silent as it stood witness; the odd chicken cackled or baby cried, but no other sounds interrupted their duel beneath the sun’s harsh eye.
Two full minutes passed before Harog’s stance faltered for the briefest of moments. Sarouth caught him in the face with a lucky swing that snapped one of Harog’s tusks and sent it spinning. They circled one another warily. Sarouth adjusted his grip on his mace before baring his teeth in triumph at his bloody-nosed foe and closing in for another strike. It seemed his confidence had gotten the better of him, however, as Riaag was disheartened to see that Sarouth no longer guarded his left side at all.
Harog saw the opening as well, and took it.
The sword ripped through Sarouth’s robes with effortless cruelty, painting the ground with an arc of crimson. The holy man called out in pain, collapsing, and Riaag’s breath caught in his chest. The crowd cringed back in unison; some of the watchers turned away while others strained to respect the rite. Harog laughed and brought his cleaver sword down in an overhand chop with enough force to bisect Sarouth where he lay—or it would have, had Sarouth not deftly rolled to the side and kicked Harog’s legs out from under him once the sword was safely embedded in the dirt where he’d been moments before. Harog went down. With grace belying his terrible wound, Sarouth slammed the butt of his weapon into Harog’s stomach before pinning him to the ground with one knee and pressing down on Harog’s neck with the other. The old man thrashed for air.
“Now to finish the job I should have years ago,” snarled Sarouth before he brought down his mace on Harog’s skull, splitting it like an overripe squash. The crowd did not cheer, for this was a long way from the joyful spectacle of festival combat, but as the sounds of combat died a sense of finality settled upon the people of Naar Rhoan. Someone brought Sarouth a cup of water, and someone else took Harog’s sword away. Sarouth stood over Harog’s ruined remains like a crow on the gallows.
“Pike him up outside,” said Sarouth, giving the corpse a kick. “Let all who oppose us know the fate of those who threaten a child of Naar Rhoan.” He breathed heavily and held his side, the blood already staunched as the vicious gouge began to fill in with new flesh. When he coughed his teeth were red. He caught Riaag’s eye and attempted a smile through his obvious agony.
“Bravery is rewarded once again by His hand,” he said, wheezing, “but I suspect this is the sort of favor that works best when paired with a bit of bed rest. Will you help me back to my tent?”
The more they walked the more upright Sarouth was able to stand, though he leaned heavily on Riaag the entire way and several times he had to stop to collect himself. He collapsed gratefully on his bed as soon as they reached it.
“Thank you, Riaag. I think I’m getting a bit more of an understanding of just what you risk when you put yourself in harm’s way for me.” Sarouth flopped on his back and stared at the ceiling. “Two good robes ruined in the span of a week,” he said, partially to himself. “At this rate I’ll be reduced to wrapping myself in a sheet and hoping for the best.” Riaag craned his neck in an attempt to gauge just how badly Sarouth was hurt, but the dim light made it difficult. He tried not to think about how irritating it would be to wash blood out of the linens.
“I think,” said Sarouth, “that I’m going to feel much better once I scrub my own blood out of my hair. Would you mind preparing some hot water for me, please? There should be plenty of firewood out in the main tent.” He sat up slowly, his face contorting into a dozen pained new faces in the process.
“But what about your wound, Faaroug…?”
“In a few more minutes it’ll be fully healed, with just the mess and a good deal of pain left to deal with,” said Sarouth. He chuckled ruefully. “It seems Agritakh, in His wisdom, wants me to remember how much I rely on others for things these days, and isn’t about to let me off so easily. To think I ever missed that awful numbing feeling…” He rummaged in a storage chest, took out a potion bottle, and broke its wax seal with a flick of his thumb before downing its contents in a single pull. He grimaced at the potion’s potent taste.
“Liquor?” asked Riaag.
“Nothing so fun,” said Sarouth, once he’d recovered. “Just a mild curative draught. I refuse to die in my sleep because I was too careless to counteract whatever poisons he put on that blade.”
Riaag busied himself with heating the water while Sarouth rambled to himself. His fingers faltered slightly; it was an ordinary thing, just like when Riaag would brush the holy man’s hair each morning or gather up his laundry, but his mind still hummed with the exhilaration of Sarouth defending his name before so many people. He remembered the pressure of the hand against his chest—something he hadn’t known for countless seasons, particularly not from the Faaroug himself—and the texture of Sarouth’s palm against his skin. Despite the shade he found it was growing increasingly hot inside the tent; the fire was only partially to blame.
“Would you lace up the flap, please?” said Sarouth, waving a hand in its direction. “I’d like a bit of privacy. You’re welcome to stay, of course, and I’d rather you would. I’m still a bit rattled.”
Riaag grunted affirmatively. It was cooler in the main part of the tent; more importantly, he didn’t have to worry about sitting so close to the increasingly naked Sarouth. Once he’d tied off the final cord he sat down cross-legged on the ground and counted by threes until his trousers fit properly again. He leaned back against a chair. Neither of them spoke for a while, but the light splashing and slightly off-key humming from the other side of the curtain kept Riaag company. It was just as well, for Riaag’s thoughts were about as well-organized as a swarm of locusts and twice as cacophonous; he wouldn’t have been able to make much conversation.
About a quarter of an hour since they’d retired, Sarouth pulled the divider aside and sat down heavily in the chair next to Riaag. The robes he wore were of a much simpler cut, the sort he favored back before they could afford decent fabric, but they were made from airy, maroon-hued cotton Riaag recognized from the last merchants that had come to Naar Rhoan. Sarouth ran his fingers through his slightly dampened hair and let out a long breath.
“Good thing I finished these recently,” he said, tugging at a sleeve. “We’ll see how long this set lasts me before someone stabs me right through the embroidery. Again.” Riaag grunted. He picked at the fastener that Sarouth had pulled loose, staring straight ahead. Sarouth frowned.
“Something on your mind, Riaag?”
“You touched me, Faaroug,” said Riaag. “Just opened up my armor like a clam and did it. Damn near all the stronghold saw.” Sarouth sighed, nodding.
“I did, and I’m sorry. I know physical contact makes you uncomfortable. I couldn’t think of a better, more direct way to prove my point, though.” He chuckled ruefully. “At least it made an impression. I’m not about to have our brothers and sisters holding the wrong idea about your character just because some mad old bastard comes up out of the wastes and screams about ancient history.”
“What he said was true, though. I’ve been lying to you about it, Faaroug, or at least doing the kinda lying where you don’t say what needs to be said.” He gritted his teeth as hard as he could, trying not to think of the sad little frown Sarouth made whenever he was disappointed in someone, though in his head he could see nothing but.
“Riaag, listen to me,” said Sarouth. “When I invoked Agritakh in His glory to purify you, I wasn’t about to half-ass it. I wiped your face of pigment and gave you clean…well, clean-ish water, and I beseeched Him to make you a creature worthy of His favor. He chose to honor my request, and showed me what all He would be washing away in the act. I learned who you’d been, and how you’d suffered, and of those choices you made to endure despite your mounting hardships. It was certainly educational.”
“You knew? And you let me stay?” said Riaag, struggling with the rising bile of shame. Sarouth shrugged.
“We are all creatures of circumstances, some fairer or fouler than others. We don’t begrudge the rabbit eaten by its mother. The Hill God willingly bestowed His favor upon you, knowing full well everything that had happened, and that’s good enough for me.”
“But why didn’t you just ignore what Lost-Gather said?” Riaag gestured emptily, as though he were trying to catch invisible birds. He was drowning in a sea of possible futures, most of which ended rather badly for Sarouth; the fact that things had actually turned out for the best for both of them was a distant secondary thought. “You could’ve challenged him without risking yourself in the eyes of the whole fucking place. You didn’t have to do that!”
“Words are teeth,” said Sarouth. “They can tear out a man’s throat in a violent surge or gnaw him away over time, just as they can be bared at those who stand against us. He had ripped open their hearts in the ugliest way he knew how, and if I left that wound to fester it very well would’ve ended badly for you, perhaps for both of us. Better to bite back. Like swamp rats! Ngyah!” He curled his fingers into claws and pulled a face, gnawing at the air. When this failed to elicit a response from Riaag, Sarouth dropped his hands and propped his chin up on his elbow. “Not even a little smile? Damn.”
“Sorry. I ain’t in the mood to laugh right now,” said Riaag. His mouth was dry. With everything that had happened and everything Sarouth had said, he knew he couldn’t hide anymore. Glancing at the tent flap to double-check the lacing, he shuffled around on his knees until he was facing Sarouth. Riaag took a deep breath and stepped into the abyss.
“I have to tell you something’, Faaroug,” he said. “It’s important.”
“Oh?” asked Sarouth, his eyebrows quirking.
“I…” Riaag’s voice died in his throat. He looked up at Sarouth’s face—which was friendly and attentive despite the fact that he couldn’t have fully recovered by then, potion or no potion—and forced himself to keep talking.
“Ever since you found me I’ve served you however I could. Anywhere you went, I went, too. Anything you asked me to do, I did it. Any shitbird try and rough us up, I did ’em one better, least when I wasn’t too busy trying not to die or something. And a lot of that’s because you bothered to keep me around. But that ain’t the only reason.”
“It’s because you view me as the Faaroug, yes?” said Sarouth.
“Yeah, but that means more to me than it does to somebody else. A lot more. More’n just being the fist of His wrath and the leader of His children and His chosen messiah.”
“Yes, I know,” said Sarouth. “I’ve been aware of that for some time now.”
“And I ain’t too proud to say I’m more alive when I’m near you. You give me purpose when I ain’t singing the chant or just doing everyday stuff around the stronghold. When you smile at me and tell me I do good I feel like I actually got a reason to be here. I don’t let my guard down around anybody else, just you, ’cause I know you won’t gut me open if you find a soft spot.”
“I’ve been aware of that, as well.”
“And it’s the proper way of things for a man who’s found what he wants to present himself to ’em, be it love or war or just some screwing around on the side.”
“So it is.”
“So,” said Riaag, kneeling properly now with his head slightly bowed in supplication, “for any of those things, or for all of those things, for as long as you want ’em, will you have me?” His heart was in his throat; the longing dreams that had been his sole bed-company for most of his adult life were now right on the cusp of coming true. It was like walking outside in the minutes before a storm. Sarouth looked down at him with an expression Riaag couldn’t read and leaned back in his chair.
“I can’t do that.” he said with a sigh.
With those four small syllables, Riaag’s world was shattered. It was the rejection of Sarouth’s god-granted title all over again, but this time there was nowhere to run to, no empty space where he could vomit out everything that hurt. Had he anything left in him he would have wept. Whatever small and precious thing they’d had before had been crushed in Riaag’s oafish hand like a frost-stiffened leaf. He struggled to hold himself together while his throat coughed out what few coherent thoughts bobbed to the surface.
“But you said you knew who I was, and you didn’t send me away then. And you’ve known how I feel, and you didn’t send me away then, either. You extend your private places to me and trust me with your life. We’ve traveled together! We’ve fought together! That’s all it’s supposed to take!”
“I wish it were that simple, Riaag. I’m sorry.” The worst part wasn’t the rejection itself but the look on Sarouth’s face. Riaag opened and closed his mouth in disbelief.
“I’ve…I’ve loved you for years, holy one, I don’t—”
“No, Riaag. You have loved this phantom of a Faaroug that wears my face, not me. I can’t compare to it. It would be far crueler to claim I could. I have a choice in the matter, but you clearly do not, and I won’t take advantage of your hero worship. That’s something monsters do.” Sarouth pushed himself out of his chair and began to slowly pace around the tent, his hands behind his back. He favored his healed-over side. “What does that mean to you? What must a man do to live up to this concept you’ve built from dreams and air?”
Riaag struggled to plead his case but the words wouldn’t come, the threads of meaning lying just beyond his grasp; it was like trying to catch birds out of the sky. It was impossible for him to gather them together into a coherent whole. How could he summarize years of distant longing? How could he express what it meant to want to offer himself without undertones of desperation? He longed to be able to breathe out and have Sarouth know what he felt, for there to be some way for them to speak using intuition alone, but such things only existed in the fantasies he hid himself inside. Here he was stuck trying to express himself with ideas too raw to even voice correctly.
Thankfully, part of him remembered something that thrived on bleeding emotion.
“A mongrel unwanted
Scuttled low on his belly
Despised and discouraged
And grown gaunt on scraps
Of both suppers and lovers
Came down a god-talker
From the broken high places
All wielding the thunder
Of the stones’ earthen grasp
Blood flowed red with his passing
Mud churned red with his passing
Sky went red with his passing
Jackals scattered far
And abandoned their dead
Though youthful and humble
The god-talker spoke sweetly
As he knelt by a carcass
Still drawing false breaths
And offered him kindness
In the space of a moment
He let show his nature
For the first time of many
The Faaroug was known…”
The verses spilled out haphazardly. The pacing was bad, his diction sloppy, but Riaag didn’t care: polish was for chants that weren’t made on the spot, and his urgency smoothed over the rougher parts. He stayed on his hands and knees and bayed his three-legged song to Sarouth, singing of cruelty and deception and pain, and how through it all he still followed his savior with white hair. He followed a man who gave more than he took and coaxed promise from the hopeless. His Faaroug was larger than life but also unflinchingly mortal: he sang of a messiah who licked plates when no one was looking, who popped his lips when thinking, who could never quite manage to hit a target with a sling, and his stammered chant begged that he be allowed to stand beside—and lie beneath—this flawed savior all the same. When he finished he realized he had begun to weep again. He didn’t bother hiding it, because what good would it do him now?
Sarouth had stopped pacing shortly after Riaag’s chanting began. Now he closed the distance between them, squatting down until he was eye level with Riaag, and lightly brushed his thumb against the stricken skald’s cheek. He touched his digit to his tongue and tasted the tears there. Riaag flinched; it was the first time anyone had tasted for his integrity, and for Sarouth to be the one doing it would have tied him in knots had he not been emotionally spent.
“Bough-Breaker, you are nothing if not sincere,” said Sarouth, mostly to himself. He tilted Riaag’s chin up with the tips of his fingers until their eyes met one another’s, their noses scarce inches apart.
“I’m no great leader, Riaag,” he said. “I don’t know if I can change anything. I’m just a man like any other with all the flaws and bad ideas that entails. But if you truly want it, I can be Faaroug for you. I will take what you have offered me, this I swear by earth and blood and fire.” His hand hovered over Riaag’s shoulder, an eyelash-width away from touching. “May I?”
Riaag answered by pulling Sarouth close with such force that the holy man had the wind knocked out of him. Sarouth thumped on Riaag’s arm desperately.
“Recent wound, recent wound!” he yelped. Riaag released his bearhug slightly, allowing Sarouth to gulp for air. “So avoiding contact with others was more an ‘untouchable’ thing than a ‘personal preference’ thing, good to know,” he added, grinning. “You have the strangest knack for getting me to change my mind. A shame we’ve no horseflesh this time around to seal the deal.”
Riaag was suddenly very intimately aware of the midday sun outside, how heavy his armor was, and how he’d managed to get Sarouth in a mutual embrace without having to imagine it into being. Most importantly, Agritakh had yet to smite him for the crime of laying hands on a priest while in a state of disgrace; for the first time Riaag entertained the thought that he might have been purified after all. A very interesting idea blossomed in the back of his mind.
“We could find another way of doing that,” he offered in a raspy whisper. They were alone together—and no one would disturb them, for the people of Naar Rhoan were long since accustomed to Sarouth hiding himself away to work his sacred soothsaying—and their part of the temple grounds was far from the more populous places, but Riaag still felt compelled to keep his voice low. “You almost ripped out some of my coat’s cording earlier when you did, y’know, the thing. You wanna see how this shit’s supposed to come off?”
“That would be interesting,” said Sarouth. He cocked his head back towards his sleeping quarters invitingly; Riaag was briefly startled by how closely the movement matched the one he’d envisioned many times before. They leaned on one another as they walked, only reluctantly untangling themselves when Sarouth sat himself down on the edge of his bed.
Riaag closed his eyes and pulled off his gauntlets, biting back a sudden wave of nervousness. There was a vast ocean between imagination and actually having Sarouth watching him expectantly. He let his hands fall into the familiar motions they’d performed many times before. The plating on his arms and shoulders came first, then the faulds at his waist, then his belt and those things hung from it. When he reached his coat of iron scales, another interesting idea surfaced. He cracked an eye and let his posture relax.
“You can’t just rip at parts all willy-nilly, y’know. You gotta assume there’s both buckles and cord on coats made like this, whether it’s scale or mail or just a buncha animal hides all knocked together,” he said, adopting the tone of a teacher as he undid each fastener in time. “You wanna get all of ’em in order, and once it goes back on the stand you better catch at least a few of ’em or it risks pulling outta shape. If there ain’t a stand for it, fold it up, like so.” He deposited his neatly-folded coat atop the rest of his armor.
“Fascinating,” said Sarouth, who was clearly paying more heed to Riaag’s physique than the demonstration. Riaag preened a bit at the attention. He pulled his torn tunic over his head, pausing for a moment to shake out his hair before stepping out of his boots and trousers. Sarouth purred in appreciation.
“To think when we first met your ribs showed in places,” he said, his eyes roving over Riaag’s many scars. “Now look at you. Any warrior alive in Naar Rhoan would be glad to have you at their side, and I don’t doubt more than a few would have let you into their beds had you asked. I’d be a liar in His eyes were I to claim I never considered that very thing from time to time. More fool me for assuming you’d be repulsed by the idea…” He tugged at his robes theatrically. “Rather warm in here, isn’t it?”
Riaag didn’t need further encouragement. Still avoiding direct contact more by habit than anything else, he knelt to pull Sarouth’s sash free of its simple loop and quite literally disrobed him. Sarouth’s breath hissed between his teeth as Riaag guided the fabric away from his sides. Riaag froze.
“Did I do something wrong, Faaroug?” he asked. Sarouth shook his head.
“Just an unwelcome little part of almost getting bisected this morning: the spirit is willing but the flesh is rather remarkably tender. I don’t think I’ll be able to get up to much for a few more days.” He ruffled Riaag’s hair. “At least the view’s a good one.”
“Yeah,” said Riaag, his eyes level with Sarouth’s half-erect member. He paused. Hours spent adrift in daydreams hadn’t prepared him for the low-grade panic of actually being naked around another person—at least not one who saw him as something other than a means to an end—nor had his idealized Sarouth ever had a light dusting of freckles in private places. He hadn’t quite imagined the length and girth correctly. He didn’t know what Sarouth wanted and what he didn’t. What he did know was that as a warrior he’d spent a great deal of time healing up after fights, and this in turn had given him time to hone a very specific set of skills. It happened to be the only choice that didn’t come laden with anxiety, as well, and he couldn’t afford to let his nervousness ruin the moment. “We are the iron and courage is the fire,” he whispered under his breath. He hesitantly placed his hands on Sarouth’s thighs.
“If you’d let me, Faaroug, I think I got an idea,” he said.
“On one condition, Riaag,” said Sarouth. His cock had already begun reacting to Riaag’s closeness, stiffening bit by bit in time with his heartbeat.
“Call me by my given name. Just once. I’d like to hear how it sounds when you say it in that wonderful voice of yours.” Riaag was taken somewhat aback by this. He racked his brains for times he’d done so before, but the longer he thought the more he realized he never once had called Sarouth by name, save when introducing him to others. He nodded.
“I can do that for you, Sarouth White-Hair,” said Riaag. It felt good on his tongue, even though he preferred using Sarouth’s proper title. Sarouth shivered happily.
“That’ll be just fine. Thank you.” He leaned back, placing his weight on his arms and presenting himself to Riaag. “Now, then. Let’s hear this idea of yours.”
Riaag grinned and cleared his throat.
“The snow-veiled wanderer/ Went up to the heavens…” His palms slid up Sarouth’s torso—carefully avoiding the bright new skin where he’d healed over—to rest on Sarouth’s shoulders. He moved in time with the chant’s rolling meter. “He walked down the bearer/ Of Agritakh’s wrath…” Riaag repeated the motion in reverse, reveling in the way Sarouth’s skin felt and how dark and rich a green it was compared to his own lighter coloration.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” said Sarouth, laughing in disbelief. “All I ask for is my name and you give me this…?” In spite of his words his cock was almost fully erect; Riaag, emboldened, continued onwards.
“Long did he stride/ And long were his journeys/ From the dead weeks of autumn/ To the sweet dawns of spring…” He caressed Sarouth’s thighs, letting their contours shape his hands; as much as civilized orcs like Sarouth were derided by their wilder cousins for being soft, the holy man had been toughened far beyond the limits of any mere scholar from his constant traveling. Reaching up to cup Sarouth’s buttocks, Riaag let his claws prick ever so slightly at Sarouth’s skin before pulling back for a new verse.
“Fierce was his method/ When the land rose up against him…” He nuzzled against Sarouth’s chest, making Sarouth wriggle, and sent his hands meandering where they would. Sarouth rested an arm across Riaag’s shoulder, his fingertips brushing Riaag’s back, and Riaag risked ruining his patter to smile up adoringly. He pressed his lips against Sarouth’s toned front between breaths.
“Yet he stood his ground bravely/ His mace blessed iron/ His staff hung with bone-charms/ With necklace and circlet/ He rose up in turn…” They were suggestive lines, and Riaag wasn’t about to waste the opportunity: he cradled Sarouth’s balls in both hands, thumbs against Sarouth’s shaft, and pulled them together and up as though he was shaping clay. Sarouth vocalized his approval as Riaag began working his cock with more focus. First it was a simple matter of using both hands to massage Sarouth around the root with occasional upwards motions; Riaag soon abandoned this to have one hand stroking Sarouth’s shaft and the other exploring elsewhere.
“Have you been planning this?” asked a broadly-grinning Sarouth in between gasps. Riaag said nothing, his focus on his song and his hands and the way Sarouth felt when he readily thrust back against Riaag’s hand. He had performed the chant for Sarouth countless times before, the two of them engaged in deeds very much like this; the only way this differed was that its Sarouth—its beautiful, panting Faaroug with his hair stuck to his forehead and sweat sheening on his skin between his tattoo’s lines—was actually there. This Sarouth didn’t follow the long-established script, didn’t move with dovetailed precision, could barely return Riaag’s affections without worrying at his injury. This Sarouth did a thousand things wrong compared to his doppelganger, and Riaag wanted it no other way.
“Those who opposed him/ Were cast down and broken/ While those who would hear him/ Who knew of his glories/ Who followed his footsteps/ Those scant few were cleansed…” It was a self-indulgent song for a self-indulgent moment, and Riaag would have skipped the verse entirely had he been more focused. Sarouth, however, didn’t seem to mind; he twined the fingers of his free hand through Riaag’s shaggy hair and held him close. Riaag worked faster. His own cock ached for release, but there was no time for such things. His hands moved again: one tugged quickly at the first few inches of Sarouth’s cock, the other used the first two knuckles to apply constant rhythmic pressure on the space between Sarouth’s before and behind.
“Praises upon him/ The man of the snow/ The fangs of the earth/ The strider of hillsides/ Who walks even now…” There was nothing fancy, now, neither crossing of arms nor sleight of hand, just Riaag gripping Sarouth’s cock and stroking him furiously; the only embellishment he allowed himself was a slightly firmer grip near Sarouth’s glans at the beginning of each downward motion. He had no more verses, but given the muted sounds Sarouth was making he wouldn’t have needed them even if others had been written.
Their world was a private one. There were hints of the outside, of course: the wind that shook the tent’s felting, and the heavy summer air, and the buzzing of the stronghold around the temple grounds. To Riaag, however, nothing existed beyond the dim sleeping room and the touch of Sarouth’s skin against his own. Sarouth writhed a final time before his short-clawed toes curled and he called out softly. He came into Riaag’s hand and a little ways along his own chest in a series of frantic spurts that gleamed even in the bad light. He released Riaag’s hair, slumped backwards, and stared contently at the ceiling.
“I can’t believe you had a song for that,” he said. “A song about me. If I knew the right people, I’d brag.” Sarouth stretched and rolled over on his good side, propping himself up on one elbow. He waved a hand at Riaag’s fiercely erect member. “You might want to help yourself out a bit, too. If you’re as good on your own as you were for me it shouldn’t take long. I think I’d like to see that, actually.”
Riaag looked down at his sticky fingers and back up at Sarouth before cautiously licking the majority of the mess away. He adjusted his posture to provide a better view, now seated with his knees up instead of resting upon them, and began to touch his own flesh.
Riaag’s sex with himself was much more utilitarian than what he’d done for Sarouth, and he’d been so invested in tending to Sarouth’s needs—and the extremely distracting sounds Sarouth had been making—that he was closer than he expected. Part of him knew that this was no different than the countless times he’d touched himself before, but between the sheer novelty of someone wanting him to enjoy himself and the fact that it was Sarouth who was watching him made it so much better than it usually was. His palm, moist with saliva and a little leftover jism, slid smoothly against his cock with increasing speed and urgency; it took him less than a minute to finish himself off. It felt like he was finally exhaling after years of holding his breath. When his head cleared, Sarouth was smiling at him.
“Did you know you bite your lip when you come?” said Sarouth. “I like it. It really brings out the gap in your teeth.” He passed Riaag a damp cloth and patted the mattress beside him. “Clean yourself off and come on up, won’t you?” Riaag was more than happy to oblige.
They lay together, drowsy in the heat and ignoring the fact that Sarouth’s bed was too small to properly hold both of them; Riaag’s leg hung off the side. Sarouth took a turn of his own to let his hand run across Riaag, avoiding his cock in favor of touching his beard or tracing a puckered trail of scar tissue. Sometimes Sarouth would wince or shiver when Riaag shifted his weight wrong. Riaag wasn’t used to sharing space with someone in that way, much less as the little spoon of a pair, but he allowed himself to imagine what it might be like acclimating to it. There were worse ways to rest than with Sarouth’s chin tucked against his shoulder, even if they happened to be sticky from sweat and other things at the time.
As the sun reached its zenith outside they reluctantly parted to lounge apart from each other, sharing a pitcher of cool water and speaking of trivial things. Neither bothered getting dressed. While their conversation toyed with scraps of events—their abandoned round of fox-and-geese, the various colors and flavors of potion in Sarouth’s modest collection, odd things found at the hilltop shrine—it was Riaag who was first to properly turn things back towards the happenings of the day. He tapped at where Sarouth had touched him in defiance of Harog Lost-Gather’s claims.
“Thinking I might get a hand tattooed here. Y’know. As a memento.” After a moment’s thought, he added, “Not that it’ll get seen much unless the weather gets so fucking awful I have to do chores without a shirt on, but I’ll know it’s there.”
“A present from your Faaroug, is it?” asked Sarouth, his eyes sparkling over the rim of his water cup.
“Yeah, something like that,” said Riaag. He yawned. “Something to keep me company, remind me of where I stand with Agritakh. Maybe a little reminder that I got this—” and here he gestured at them both, “—going for me, too. Though once you’re all healed up proper I don’t think me forgetting is gonna be much of a problem.”
“Oh? You sound quite confident in the matter.” Sarouth smirked, and Riaag grinned back at him.
“You could say I got some singing to do.”
“What do you wanna call this place, Faaroug?” asked Riaag, his armor caked in dirt and his dark hair pale with dust. He squinted up at Sarouth; the holy man stood on the edge of the ditch Riaag had been extending around the hill where they’d made camp, rubbing the back of his neck in thought. He was a silhouette the size of the entire darkening sky from Riaag’s vantage point, though his voice was no grander than usual when he spoke.
“The evening star shines on our work. We shall call our new home Naar Rhoan, to honor it.”
“Yeah? That’s a good name for it, then.” Riaag shouldered his shovel and spat on the ground, offering his essence to the earth. “So this’s gonna hold the foundation for an entire fucking wall, holy one? Looks like you got big plans for just a coupla tents and a pretty rock on a hill.”
“It looks small now, yes, and our numbers are few. But I have dreamed that others will follow, and others will follow them, and we are best served by having a safe place for them to sleep. The wolves are hungry and the jackals are hungrier.” The subtle inflection he gave the word “jackals” implied he meant more than just the black-backed beasts that keened in the distance. “Besides, this is just for the temple grounds. The stronghold itself will be bigger, but we’ll need more people to help.”
“And nobody wants to rest their head where it’s gonna get staved in by the first band of assholes coming through,” agreed Riaag. “Why here, though? Ain’t much land here that goes up save for the hill, and I thought Agritakh liked highlands best for His holy places.”
“Fields,” said Sarouth. “These flat places will one day become fields, with men and women to till them. We will hunt and raise animals for our food, for we are not abandoning who we are, but I have seen visions of a prosperous future, and they are always wreathed with wheat and ivy.” He turned to gesture towards the hill and where their tents lay pitched in its lee. “And we will not oversee it from some fortress on a cliff. We’ll be here, on their level, and let Agritakh alone be the one to watch over us.”
“Makes sense,” said Riaag. A thought crossed his mind as he wiped his forehead.
“Holy one?” he asked. Sarouth looked over at him. “I ain’t doubting you for a minute, and I’m just asking for the sake of knowing’, but the Hill God grants you some of His domain over the earth and stone and shit, right?” Sarouth nodded, tilting his head to the side curiously. “Since that’s the case, why am I the one out here digging the fucking ditch?”
“Because…” began Sarouth, his face already settled into the teacher’s mask he favored when he lectured about the world and the will of their god, then he paused. A moment later he began to laugh. It was loud and helpless and unrefined, very unlike the solemn chuckles he used around others, and Riaag felt a thrill run along his spine to hear it.
“Because I’m an idiot who’d forget his own skin if it wasn’t wrapped around me!” said Sarouth once he’d recovered enough to speak. He giggled to himself, wiping away tears of mirth as he caught his breath. He extended his hand to Riaag. “Come on, I’ll help you out of there. Let’s call it a night and have some supper. Tomorrow we can see if we can get some of the earthworks started without forgetting all the tools we have at hand.” Riaag took his hand and clambered out of the pit with a grunt.
Their dinner was a simple one beneath the sky, the evening star joined by others as the night darkened; Sarouth soon excused himself to meditate, leaving Riaag alone by the fire. He looked out over the treeless land that spread in every direction. Closing his eyes, he tried to picture what things might be like in the future. He imagined drovers with their oxen and craftsmen plying their wares in an open market. He imagined fathers caring for their children as they waited for their wives to return from hunting. He imagined those hunters’ children play-fighting in between learning to work and chant and pray. He imagined a place in the shadow of the hill where Sarouth would oversee everything, and a little ways from that, a small space where Riaag himself would sleep. He would be in the middle of it all, and even if an untouchable thing like himself would never really know a life like the others had, he could at least belong to something for a while.
It would do.