Unearthed Substratum

written and illustrated by Iron Eater

A single pale eye followed Riaag’s hands as he gestured to a little pile of beans arranged on the low trading table at which he sat.

“Now, you ‘n I both knows the worth ‘a these here beans,” he said to the owner of that eye, his tone the calm and even rumble he used whenever demonstrating something new for a curious onlooker. A man of his size had to mind his tone of voice, be they an orc like himself or members of any other blood-kind under the sun. “We grew ’em here right proper, tended ’em with love ‘n harvested ’em with similar affection, ‘n they’s useful fer all manner ‘a things. Thing is, whoever’s showin’ up ter parlay don’t necessarily have all that information. A big part ‘a responsible tradin’ is ter convince ’em that what we got is the good shit, what is right ‘n proper ter be handed over in exchange fer whatever they showed up with that we’d like.”

“What if I don’t like anything they have?”

“Then it’s time ter suss out whether they’s anythin’ that someone else we’s in reg’lar trade with might want, or if we’s likely ter be short on shit they’s offerin’ in the future, or—”

“No, I mean what if it’s all boring?

Riaag sighed. Valin Mad-Eyes was as sacred as any other god-speaker, her essence infused with the chthonic spark of Agritakh, the Hill God, but she was also nine years old on a good day, which made instructing her in all the myriad skills expected of a god-speaker a special sort of trial. For the longest time she’d made a big deal of outright hating him. All children were wonderful, special treasures, each one holding a unique promise for the future, and while that was still true for Valin, she had yet to behave as anything less than half feral for all the months Riaag had been looking after her. Spring had turned to summer, then from summer to the warmer side of autumn which they currently enjoyed, and not once had she showed any sign of lightening the fuck up. Her attitude was consistently nasty. Maybe that was what the Hill God felt He needed to best serve Him in the world, and maybe she’d be a truly inspiring leader someday because of that venom. It didn’t mean raising her was any easier.

“Trade ain’t a matter ‘a shit bein’ boring or not-boring, Holy One,” he replied. “Sometimes it’s a matter ‘a want, but afore it comes ter that you’s gotta take care ‘a the matter ‘a need. Whether you’s handlin’ yer own little entourage or the whole ovva stronghold, you needs ter always ensure you’s meetin’ people’s needs first ‘n foremost.”

Valin’s face screwed up like a dried plum, an all-too-common expression for her. “I don’t want either of those things.”

“Yeah, well, tough shit, you cain’t be an Agritakh-ruhd ‘n a hermit at the same time. Not fer long, anway.”

“Sarouth didn’t have people for a long time, though. He told me. Don’t lie about it.”

Intellectually, Riaag knew Valin was only bringing up Sarouth White-Hair—the more important of the stronghold’s twin leaders, not just a god-speaker but Agritakh’s most recent earthly partial incarnation, and unfairly hot as demigods went—because she knew it was a sensitive topic, same for why she was accusing Riaag of being a liar, but on the inside he still felt his stomach sink at the thought someone else might consider him truthless. The way he spoke hadn’t always been a badge of honor. That she knew he’d had no choice but to talk like one of the honorless unclean just made it hurt worse. He had to pull out some of his oldest-learned skills to keep from letting the pain show on the outside; she couldn’t learn that she could solve problems by bullying her way through them. What kind of god-speaker would that make, someone barely above a common heretic sowing discord in the wild places? Valin deserved better than that.

“The Faaroug weren’t on his lonesome so long by full choice, Holy One,” said Riaag. Sarouth’s formal title was ever-sweet upon his tongue. Just saying it could soothe Riaag’s troubled heart a little if he let it. “You don’t gotta push people away like he did. If’n you’s desirin’ ‘a loyal company, you’ll find it, so long as you’s able ter be kind.”

She scoffed at him and looked away. One day she’d probably get better about hiding her disappointment that he didn’t outwardly take the bait she’d thrown at him; until that day came she’d remain as clear as fresh ice in the sun. To think that this was progress compared to how she’d used to be! It was time to steer things back on course.

“Let’s do some thinkin’, Holy One,” he said. “We’s got some beans here. We’ll pretend they’s more in a wagon somewhere ‘n this’s just a sample. Who all would want these? Fer what is they useful?”

The silence that followed was a good opportunity for Riaag to center himself. The amulet tied around his bicep was a quiet reminder that he was loved, tangible evidence that he had someone in his life who wanted him to feel okay and was willing to call upon Agritakh for help to see that desire through. The Hill God wouldn’t lay so many blessings upon him if He didn’t think Riaag was worthy. Worthy people didn’t spread knowing falsehoods. Even if Riaag was a liar, there would be room for absolution if he was willing to change for the better; the only people who couldn’t be forgiven were cast away or piked up on the stronghold walls. Everyone else could expect to find a new life within the embrace of the palisade. Naar Rhoan was founded on new beginnings. Also slate, if you dug deep enough.

Valin toyed with a strand of her hair instead of answering his question. She wore it long and swept over her divine left eye, much like how Sarouth liked to wear his own, and half the time it seemed like she was hiding from the world behind it. Her little tusks framed her frown. “Beans are stupid,” she mumbled.

“Plants generally ain’t known fer they coruscatiin’ intellect, no.”

She straightened up with a huff of irritation. “I mean they’re boring. They’re beans! Who cares! I don’t care! Why should anybody care? You’re supposed to be telling me what I need to know when the merchants come through next but instead we’re talking about beans. I bet you just don’t know so you’re making it up, you fucking liar.” Valin was not as eloquent with her cussing as Riaag was, so the expletive didn’t hit as forcefully as it should have. They’d work more on that particular skill later.

“There’s a lot I don’t know, that’s He Who Sleeps Beneath the Earth’s own honest truth, Holy One,” said Riaag, his practiced stone-face still keeping a lid on his fraying nerves. It was easy to set his brows and position his mouth so that he looked like one of the rock formations god-speakers spent so much time contemplating. His tusks had come in plenty big. “I ain’t never gonna claim otherwise. You’s welcome ter look at this here stronghold’s prosperity ‘n evaluate how it mighta come ter pass if I didn’t know shit about shit, however. Ain’t my doin’ alone, ‘course, but t’were two sets ‘a hands what built them first walls what marked Naar Rhoan’s genesis, ‘n one ‘a them were mine.”

Those first walls had been tiny things, just sticks shoved in ditches, but the promise of the wall had remained the same: come, come and rest, come inside and know peace as long as you stay. Now that those walls were grand enough for people to patrol along them (to say nothing of the corpses that studded them) that promise meant more than ever. It wasn’t every day you saw strongholds that entertained blood-kinds other than orcs with the frequency the Rhoanish did. Merchants, River People, nomads, whatever: what had but less than a decade ago been empty space around some holy ground was now downright cosmopolitan, and the wall watched over everyone who passed through its gates. 

Naturally, Valin was not impressed with such abstract concepts as architecture bringing freedom from uncertainty. “Yeah, well, I bet Sarouth did all the hard parts….”

“Fucken ‘course he did, he’s the Faaroug. He gets all the shitty tasks. All I’s gotta do is dig the latrines ‘n make sure nobody’s brood murders each other if I’s watchin’ ’em fer a bit.”

“It’s not like you knew how to plant the stupid beans, either!”

This again. The little hellion couldn’t seem to wrap her mind around how Agritakh had commanded Sarouth to make Naar Rhoan happen but precious little about how to actually do that. “Sure didn’t. That’s why we traded fer the knowledge from someone who did ‘n spread it ’round. That’s why them fields out there’s green as we is. That’s why we’s in this nice, sturdy lodge outta that fucken sun out there, too: we found people who knew how ter do it ‘n asked ’em.” Riaag spread his arms demonstratively, his gloved hands sweeping across the room’s worked wooden walls and the mix of Rhoanish and Usoan-style decorations that adorned them. The artisans had done an incredible job. The lodge—Sarouth had picked the word up from somewhere or another, and Rhoanish was not a language known for its abundance of building-based vocabulary, so that’s what they called it—had been built on a scale Riaag had previously only associated with foreign keeps, and yet here it was, big as life and proudly perched atop the sacred hill in the middle of the stronghold. He hoped the sight would inspire her to think more about how good it was to have such clever allies, even if the bones of that alliance had been written in blood. There was so much he could tell her about the value of coming to friends for help.

“River People smell weird,” said Valin, pouncing on a new target instead. “Stinky like fish guts.”

Riaag was having none of it: “Hey. None ‘a that fucken bad manners shit outta yer mouth, Valin Mad-Eyes, who is holy, I’ll be havin’ none ‘a that not now nor never. They smell different ’cause they’s a different blood-kind ‘n eat different foods, same as you smell different ter them. Don’t be a little asshole.”

Valin practically glowed with delight at an opportunity to misbehave. “Yeah? Yeah? Whatcha gonna do about it? You gonna hit me? You gonna yell real loud and tan my hide? You gonna put me in my place, Riaag?”

He hadn’t told her much about his early years, Riaag reminded himself, so this was just her being her usual loud and petulant self, not anything personal. She didn’t know about the nightmares. She didn’t know why he couldn’t sleep with his back to the entrance of wherever he lay his head. She didn’t know why he was so quick to check on children who showed up a little more bruised than the usual roughhousing-prone kid. She couldn’t know. She just saw his size and his strength and the skulls on his belt and thought it’d be fun to taunt a man who clearly strove every day to be gentle in a world that was not. He could still feel his mask threatening to break in spite of how much he told himself these things.

“I ain’t interested in that,” he said, his voice still measured even as his thoughts raced. “But I hear that kinda unneighborly bullshit outta you again, I’s gonna tell Sarouth ter withhold god-speakin’ lessons from you fer a week. Maybe more, if it sounds like you actually meant it.”

Her face fell and her visible eye went wide. “You wouldn’t,” she whispered.

“So how’s the trade negotiations going in here?” said a cheerful, lilting voice as someone pushed through the curtains leading into the lodge’s great room.

Valin wheeled around on her sitting cushion. “Sarouth! Sarouth, Riaag’s being mean to me!”

“Yeah?” asked Sarouth, for that was who it was; he strode right past her to stand behind Riaag and rest his hands on Riaag’s broad shoulders. His black robes brushed against Riaag’s caftan. Riaag could hear the good cheer in his words, so Sarouth’s service to the stronghold must have gone neutrally-to-well that morning. That was good, then. Riaag suspected he wouldn’t have been at his best if he’d needed to serve as moral support in his current state.

“You probably deserve it, then,” Sarouth continued, “since you and I both know he’s the sweetest thing between land and sky normally. What’d he say?”

“He said he’d tell you to stop teaching me how to do miracles.”

Deceptively forceful fingers squeezed Riaag’s shoulders reassuringly. This was not the first time Valin had pulled a stunt like this one, nor would it likely be the last; you just had to face this kind of thing head on until it was over. “And he’d tell me to do that because…?”

She was much less forthcoming this time, looking everywhere but up into Sarouth’s half-hidden face. “No reason. Saying stuff, I guess.”

“What kind of stuff, Mad-Eyes?”

Valin cringed. Sarouth had a way of saying people’s deed names that sounded like an executioner’s decree, even if he was still smiling when he did it. Given how his own little tusks pointed down instead of up, he almost always looked like he was smiling, anyway. “Uh. Um. I just said something that everyone knows is true and he got weird about it.”

“And what do we all know is true?”

“Just some stuff. About River People.”

Riaag could feel Sarouth leaning forward over the top of his head. Sarouth loved doing that sort of thing during those few occasions where he stood while Riaag sat; the half a head of difference between them meant Riaag usually stood as the taller of the two, and with Sarouth already being on the rangy side, himself, this meant Riaag towered over most people. For Sarouth to be the one head and shoulders above the other was a rare treat for them both. “Indeed? Were you reciting useful facts about them, like how nearly all of the ones who live or visit here are from the village of Usoa, or how they worship the River God, or how you absolutely must tell them if you’ve put carrion in a dish you’ve prepared to keep them from getting sick…?” He let the question dangle in the air between them. There were, after all, plenty of interesting things to know about their neighbors.

It wasn’t a fair match-up. Valin was young and prickly and intentionally difficult even with amulets of her own to help with the worst of her head-sickness, which Riaag was pretty sure had been a big reason why she’d been scrounging on her own when they’d first found her, but Sarouth? Sarouth was a man with the weight of an entire god stuffed into a single lithe, mostly-mortal body, whose humblest days were still laden with oracular visions and calls from beyond; he was a man who was woven with the unbearable love of Agritakh that He might commune with His distant children, but who would still stand before the source of that all-destroying love and demand answers. Valin would bloom into a leader of her people one day, but her potential simply couldn’t compete with the force of personality that was Sarouth White-Hair in his prime. She crumbled.

“All I said was that they smelled like fish….”

“Well there you go, that’s proof Riaag is instructing you plenty today. He’s teaching you how not to be a shithead. And I don’t have time for shitheads when it comes to giving out god-speaker advice. See? He’s just looking out for you.”

“Why can’t I say that, though? It’s true.”

“So you’d like it if someone said you were the same shade as baby shit? Riaag changes diapers all day if you let him, he’ll back me up on this.”

This was probably a bit harsh, and Riaag would’ve been the liar he wasn’t if he claimed it wasn’t a tiny bit satisfying to watch Valin get taken to task for some objectively bad behavior. She wasn’t the light grass-green Riaag was or the deep pine-needle color or Sarouth’s skin; if one was being uncharitable, there were certain similarities to be found between her pigmentation and the offending substance. “Depends on what they’s been eatin’,” Riaag said, taking his cue, “but I’s fairly certain I’s seen an instance or two ‘a that particular hue when gettin’ the little ones cleaned up proper.” He’d been sure to speak to the parents about how much spinach was too much for a growing stomach to manage after handling that one.

Sarouth put his hands on his hips and thrust out his chest. “There you have it. Valin Mad-Eyes, baby-shit green. You can’t get mad because it’s true.”

“Lots of other things are my color! You’re just saying it nastily!”

“And if a River Person heard what you were saying before, they’d think you were being nasty about things, too, even if they smelled very fishy, indeed. You need to think more about how things you say affect other people. They have a different culture and they’re born with different noses. They don’t talk about scent the same way we do because they perceive the world differently. If you told one they smelled strange, or strong, or fishful, they’d think you were saying they stank, and they’d be hurt or insulted or both. They’re guests in our home. We don’t talk that way to guests.”

“I bet they think we’re stupid, anyway,” said Valin, still wildly sulking. “I bet they think we’re going to burn down their homes and feed their babies to dogs.”

This was a troublesome opinion held by a lot of people who lived outside the valley, honestly, and the presence of some warbands that actually would do such things was guaranteed to get brought up any time Sarouth and Riaag were trying to engage in some friendly diplomacy with strangers who’d only heard of Naar Rhoan in passing. Friendly diplomacy could be a real pain in the ass. Riaag was happy to keep quiet as Sarouth continued. “Look around, Valin. Nothing’s on fire out there that shouldn’t be, and all the babies and dogs you see are healthy and happy and not eating each other. So what does that tell you about people who’d say that actually happened here?”

She sucked on her teeth in thought. “That they’re liars.”

“Not necessarily,” said Sarouth. “Could be they’re angry. Could be they’re scared. Could be they have something to gain by making other people angry or scared. And sometimes people so badly need to feel better about themselves and their situations that they’ll believe lies, but convince themselves that they’re truths.” He sighed. “That last one’s the hardest to deal with of all. It’s like poison in a well: if it gets in there, it can make a lot of people sick, and it’s so much harder to get it out than putting it in there. That’s why Riaag told you what he did, and that’s why he was right to do it.”

Valin’s brow knitted. She was such an emotive child, sometimes even with her more positive feelings, and Riaag tried to encourage that during the rare moments when she wasn’t being a little monster to anyone. “I don’t get it.”

“What I’m saying is that you need to think more about what comes out of your mouth. Doesn’t matter who you’re talking to, or what you’re talking about, don’t let unkindness live on your tongue. Even if you don’t mean it at first, say something enough times and your heart can start believing it’s true. And you know how hard it is to disbelieve something even if you know it’s false.” Sarouth had to be serious if he was going for words that struck as close to home as those; Valin Mad-Eyes named herself so because of the illusions that whirled in her head, not because her gaze was an angry one (though it often was), and even as openly as she wore it, Sarouth refused to tolerate anyone speaking ill of her delusions in his presence. Usually it was treated as something she was learning to live with and around, similar to her and Sarouth’s shared divinity. This was the closest Riaag had ever heard him come to saying that Valin had the potential to be a liar.

She drew her knees up against her chest and hugged her legs. She was good at passing herself off as a war orphan, having probably used that role to wrench pity from passing bands during the days she’d been on her own with nothing but her illness and her sacred gift for company, though the cleanliness of her clothes, how clearly they’d been tailored for her, and how neatly her long black hair had been combed spoiled the effect a bit. Her clothes didn’t have a clan pattern on them yet—or even a conspicuous lack of one, like Riaag’s did—but it was hard to look at them and think she was a forgotten creature dying from neglect. Over the past few months they’d convinced her that they’d keep her fed, watered, and safe from the wild places. Now they were stuck with the unenviable job of unweaving all the flawed logic she’d knotted around herself to try to make sense of the world.

“We Rhoanish are kind to our guests and our neighbors, our friends and our strangers,” said Sarouth, his tone now gentler. “We also are kind to ourselves, as sometimes we’re the ones who need it most. Don’t let your pain become a knife in someone else’s flesh, and be careful where you spit it out, but don’t let it fester in your gut, either. Riaag tells you when you’re wrong not because he wants to tear you down but because he knows you can learn.”

Riaag nodded. This all felt like a very serious discussion to be happening over Valin refusing to evaluate the uses for a pile of legumes, but that was how some of the nastiest things started, wasn’t it? “I wants you ter know when you’s fuckin’ up, Holy One, in terms most clear ‘n certain. You’s gonna be an Agritakh-ruhd once you grows up, no matter what we does. Might as well try ter help you be a good one.”

Whether she’d truly absorbed their words or just appreciated the attention was yet to be determined, though at least Valin had relaxed her tight ball a little by then. “I guess,” she said, eventually. “I still don’t see why I have to care about beans, though. They’re beans.”

The soft intake of breath Sarouth made was as familiar as his terrible snores: he’d found an opportunity to bring the Chant into all of this. “From the depths of His eternal slumber, Agritakh looked up upon the Old People when they roamed wildly,” he said. “Neglected and ignored by the other gods for their scavenging ways, He saw them clean His earth of that which rotted, bringing cleanliness to the green places, and for this He loved them with all His heart, resolving to make them His own even where no other divine hand would touch them. Our ancestors ate carrion and happened to be His favorite color, and for those two reasons we carry the everlasting favor of He Who Sleeps. Sometimes it’s the little things that matter most.”

“But beans, though?”

Sarouth began to pace back and forth behind Riaag as he spoke. He was the only man alive that could do that without Riaag feeling like all of his skin was threatening to peel off his bones and crawl away. “Imagine that you’re starving, because your band has no herds and hunting has been bad. Someone who can bring you beans for a soup will keep your whole family alive another precious day. Imagine that you farm the land, but a blight has devastated your crops. Someone who can bring you beans to plant will help you weather it, perhaps even help you grow things that ignore the blight entirely. Imagine that you live in a place with neither famine nor plague, but you’re going to absolutely lose your mind if you have to eat the same reliable-but-boring meal again. Now imagine that you are none of those three things, but you travel to places full of people who are, and you want them to be happy. Those beans may mean nothing to you unless you stew them for a meal, but they could mean everything to someone else. That’s why we call to traders far and wide. That’s why we grow more than we need. These,” he said, tapping the table with his blunted index and middle claws, “are how we can better the world with which we’ve been entrusted, even if only a little bit.”

Valin now sat with the barely-hidden look of fascination she wore whenever Sarouth was really going off on something in her presence. “Is that what we’re gonna be doing when the merchants get here?”

“Dunno! Maybe!” said Sarouth, cheerfully. “But hey, you don’t need to worry about it. No need for you to be there if you won’t understand the meat of what’s going on. It’ll be bean-counters only. Don’t want to go frustrating you for no reason, now do we?”

She groaned loudly. “Fine, ugh! I’ll care more about beans! I still think they’re stupid, but I’ll try to care about them more! And I’ll stop saying people smell weird even if they really do smell weird! Are you happy, Sarouth?”

He cooed like a parent at a baby who’d just figured out how to roll over. “Oh, that makes me so very happy, yes it does, yes it does. So happy that I think I actually will be tutoring you today. You’ll probably want to clear out first for a little, though.”

“What? Why?” barked Valin, once more a font of pure, childish anger.

“Well, I’m going to be talking with my oathbound about some very mushy romantic things, but if you’d rather stay and listen instead of preparing for your sand-calling practice, who am I to stop you?” He leaned down to place a peck on the crown of Riaag’s head. “After all, I’m not shy about telling everyone we meet how much I love my dearest, sweetest little wolf. I’m due to remind him so he doesn’t forget. There’ll probably be big, wet smooches, since I’ve found those jog his memory pretty nicely.”

Valin made a face like she’d been fed an entire sour fruit at once. This only encouraged Sarouth to kneel down to better drape his arms across Riaag’s shoulders and nuzzle at him like an enormous cat, making exaggerated air-kissing noises the entire time. It was intentionally as embarrassing as it could be for Valin as possible, which looked to be a rousing success, though Riaag had to admit he did like the syrupy attention for its own sake, just a little.

“You oughtta get on that practice, Holy One,” Riaag said to Valin, whose expression kept cycling through a spectrum of grossed-outedness. “You knows he’s only gonna get worse ’cause he knows it bothers you.” He accepted an actual kiss on the cheek from Sarouth and smiled in spite of himself. “Think on what we’s discussed after you’s worked on that miracle-workin’ s’more. We’ll try learnin’ more ’bout trade affairs termorrow. They’s still plenty ‘a time afore the next caravan’s due in.”

“I guess,” said Valin. She stood from her cushion and glared directly at Sarouth, being one of the few Rhoanish who’d even think of doing such a deed, much less dare to actually do it. “You can’t be gross during my lessons, though. And if I do good enough with the sand you’ve got to show me how you did the thing with the lodestone again.” 

Sarouth grinned. “Show me results and I show you mercy. Now get yourself gone before you have to witness any kissing. Don’t test me, I’ll do it.” He pursed his lips and lingered dangerously close to Riaag’s cheek, his bearing all but daring her to call his bluff.

Throwing up her hands in disgust, Valin vanished into the lodge hallway in the vague direction of one of the many practice spots they’d cleared for her around the stronghold.

“That girl’s gonna be the death ‘a me,” said Riaag once they were alone again. He ran a hand down the side of his face and through his beard. “You think them lessons is gonna take? The not-bein’-shitty ones, I’s meanin’, reckon she’s doin’ fine with them other’ns you got her doin’.”

“I’d like to think so,” said Sarouth, his good cheer now tempered, “but you know how it is with these things. I’ll keep forcing patience and understanding into her angry little head until it stops falling out.”

“All we can do, I guess.”

Sarouth gave Riaag another kiss—a proper one on the mouth this time, his head angled just so as to not make their tusks click together—then took a seat on a cushion next to the one Valin had recently vacated. He laced his fingers together and tilted his head, a few white strands falling across the dark green of his cheek. Sarouth’s namesake pale hair was still growing out from where a foe of theirs had shorn it away that winter, so he’d taken to wearing a hood to cover up his divine eye until he could return to his usual styling; Riaag still felt his own hands trying to over-comb for a length that wasn’t there when he prepared Sarouth for his priestly duties every morning. At least people were so used to god-speakers doing weird god-speaker shit that the other Rhoanish had barely blinked when he’d ridden back from the other side of the river with a vastly different look. Riaag still longed for the day when he could pull Sarouth’s hair back into its proper low tail without the damn thing slipping its tie after a few hours.

“I overheard some of what Valin was saying before I walked in, my wolf,” said Sarouth. He reached across the table for Riaag’s hand. “I know she was just doing what she usually does, but…are you okay?”

That was a question worth asking. “Kept insinuatin’ I’s untruthful again,” Riaag mumbled. “I tries not ter rise ter it, but it still gets me in the gut. She’s smart, I’s sure she can tell when it’s at its worst. Dunno if she truly knows the reason.”

“You don’t have to tell her why if you don’t want to,” said Sarouth as he gave Riaag’s hand a squeeze. “You’re not there anymore. You’re doing a better job looking after her, and every other child in this stronghold, than those wastes of breath and blood who failed you could imagine. You’re incredible, Riaag. I wouldn’t be oathbound to you if I thought otherwise.”

“Yeah, well, we both know you’s got sublimely awful taste,” said Riaag with a chuckle.

“You bet your cute little ass I do. Why else would you have had to convince me not to turn away the best thing that’s ever happened to me? Clearly I have trouble knowing a good deal when I see it. I would not be half the man I am today without you.”

“That’s prob’ly ’cause you’d’ve been bisected by some bandit or another by now.”

“See? I need someone around who makes jokes. And that’s the truth.”

They sat in silence for a bit with their hands clasped across the table, passively enjoying one another’s company away from the bustle of the stronghold proper, until Riaag sat back to adjust his weight. “You oughtta go check on her afore she gets bored ‘n starts settin’ shit on fire,” he said. “Once we gets her understandin’ the concept ‘a barter I’s gonna try ‘n give her cookin’ lessons again, so at least she can put that conflagratin’ fascination ter good use.”

“Good luck with that, my love,” said Sarouth. He stood and leaned over to thump Riaag on the shoulder. “I’ll see you back here for dinner if our paths don’t cross before then.”

Riaag nodded. “See you then, Holy One. Bring yer appetite, ’cause I gots plans.”

Plans, he says! Now I have to be on time. Got to make sure I have a proper meal before the evening services.”

Services, plural? It wasn’t a holy day, aside from how you could argue any day was a holy day if you looked at it from the right perspective, and Riaag wasn’t aware of any new converts, or children in need of blessing, or funerary rites to perform. The solstice had already come and gone, so it couldn’t be that, either. Usually he was so good with keeping up with Sarouth’s ever-busy calendar. “You doin’ some special nighttime prayers?”

“Just the usual,” Sarouth replied. His soft little smile became something bigger, toothier, and with clearer mischief. “Performing my sacred duties to my people is service number one, of course.”

The impending punchline was so obvious Riaag could’ve seen it through three layers of blindfolds, but part of the fun of being Sarouth’s long-time attendant and short-time oathbound was indulging his shitty jokes. “So what’s the second one?”

A rasping tongue tickled at the point of Riaag’s ear, followed by a snap of teeth just close and loud enough to be exciting. Mouths designed to strip flesh from bone before crunching down to get at the marrow within could do so much more with the right motivation. Sarouth was a man forever motivated. “Then I return to this absolute palace they’ve built for us and service the man I love, of course.” he purred. “I hope you think of me between now and then. I’ll sure be thinking of you.”

With that he straightened up and left in the same direction Valin had gone earlier in the hour, his pace deliberate enough to give Riaag a long, lovely look at him as he went. His robes weren’t even that form-fitting—they were, after all, made from layered wool, which was not the most salacious of fabrics—and yet it was trivial to imagine the shape of the flesh beneath them. There were many reasons to be thankful for the oath they had sworn, from the grand to the trivial; Riaag truly would be a liar if he didn’t count knowing the touch of Sarouth’s hand and the warmth of his skin among them. Forget the furniture, the trophies, the incense, the prayers, the blessings of blood and liquor, all of it: when it had come time to mark the lodge as their home all those weeks ago, they’d managed to properly lustrate every single room over the course of a few days with nothing but their shared joy. What better way to dedicate a monument to new beginnings than a celebration of what they already had? It had been a very productive summer for them both.

Riaag scooped the forgotten beans back into the pouch from which he’d poured them. He hefted their weight and listened to them click as he contemplated the little drawstring bag. What could he do to make it clear that there was more to beans than just how many there were in a pile? Maybe those cooking lessons he’d mentioned would help Valin better understand the value of the fields’ bounty. Maybe Sarouth would get through to her in ways Riaag could not. Maybe Riaag should’ve brought in a more exciting trade good, like a knife or an embroidered hat. Maybe it just hadn’t been the right day for learning, and his lectures would work better another day. He hadn’t made it as far as he had by refusing to change when things simply weren’t working out. Valin, bless her fierce little heart, deserved better than that. For that matter, so did he.

Maybe he’d quiz her on what she knew about the lodge as an excuse to find out what she only thought she knew. He and Sarouth had spent plenty of time speaking to the other Rhoanish about what they were building and why, fielding constant questions even as people became increasingly used to Usoan architects hanging around the stronghold. He could potentially turn those questions around into teaching tools. Did she know why the lodge was built in such a way? Yes, so it wouldn’t fall off the sacred hill and into the caves below, but also so it could see far and wide, and be seen far and wide, and also so the channels dug all around its foundations could properly divert the blood from sacrifices. Did she know why they would have sacrifices outside instead of indoors? Yes, some of that was because the wooden floors would stain too easily, but also because people needed to feel like part of the land and part of a band if they were expected to venerate Agritakh with any enthusiasm. Did she know why they cared about flashing their antlers at visitors? Yes, very good, it was all about looking important so people would know they wanted to be seen that way, and maybe even believe them. If Naar Rhoan as a whole was at peace with the lodge, surely Valin could be, too.

He could chew on his more abstract plans later. For now, there were chores to be done, and sick people to sing to, and dinner to be prepared, and prayers to say, and on the very tail end of it all, a demigod to please.

It could still be a pretty good day.

A few hours into the first full night Riaag was spending in the lodge, he couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something wrong about the room.

Sarouth had been very particular with the builders when the lodge was first being designed, making much ado of where to place doors and windows and spots for lights or fire pots, and it certainly looked like he’d had his fingers in the mix since the very beginning, but as Riaag tossed and turned in bed he still couldn’t shake the peculiar feeling that dogged him. What had seemed fine all through its construction was proving quite a different beast now that Riaag was actually daring to sleep inside of it.

It wasn’t that it was an actual structure and not a tent, because he’d slept in the former plenty of times. He’d slept in palaces, he’d slept in caves, he’d even slept on a boat once; that last one was its own special thing, since it had moved with the waters through which it cut, but it still had solid walls, an actual ceiling, and planks between the ground and Riaag’s toes. Tents didn’t have those. He knew some clans made wooden frames to help keep their tents secure against the elements, but that was still an inherently portable form of housing. This was a room, in an actual permanent building, made to pioneer a new way for people to make their homes (assuming they felt like it). It was vastly more secure than a tent wall that someone could just cut through if they wanted. There were multiple ways for him to escape if he was in danger, and multiple ways for him to get in if he needed to prevent that danger, instead. They’d only moved the bed in earlier that day and the chamber he shared with Sarouth was already cozily-decorated. Everything smelled fresh, clean, and comforting.

So why did he feel so weird?

The carpets spread out across the floor were the same ones that had been in the tabernacle he and Sarouth had shared since cementing their oath. Those same carpets had always been there. If he swung his legs over the side—he was not going to swing his legs over the side—they would be plush beneath his feet, but not so much that they’d risk catching on his claws. He knew the way they were worn and every color and pattern they bore. They went down in different arrangements every time he hauled them in from cleaning them, so it wasn’t like moving them from one place to the other had disrupted an order his mind had imposed on things. They kept the room from sounding so strange and echoing, too, so it was definitely good to have them in there even if he didn’t need a barrier between himself and the cold, hard ground that time of year. If there was a problem, it couldn’t be with them. At least that was one less factor to contemplate.

It was a big place, the lodge, and to some extent he could feel that unseen vastness around him the same way he could feel that he was standing in a really fucking big cavern even if his light couldn’t show him its true dimensions. There were hallways, the kind you saw in foreign palaces, as opposed to having all the rooms stuck together like the Usoan houses he’d seen, so future guests would be able to move around a little without disturbing one another. The walls were thick; some of that was so that the place would last through the ages, through storm and siege, and yet Riaag also knew for an absolute fact that Sarouth had wanted the place built in such a way that someone (especially Sarouth) could have sex next door to someone else without the other party having to pretend to ignore every thump and groan. Traveling was stressful and visitors deserved a place to relax. What better way to relax than to take advantage of obliging company? What better way to take advantage of obliging company than to not make it everyone else’s business? Riaag liked the idea. Nobody grew up living in tents without learning what sex was pretty early on, especially when you only had one or two shelters to house an entire band, but that didn’t mean he was eager for others to intrude on his more intimate hours. In some funny other life that saw him corralling children of his own, he’d prefer for them to sleep somewhere else, thank you very much. It’d save him the trouble of waiting for them to drift off. If only he could be as quick to slumber as that theoretical offspring!

Darkness blanketed the room thanks to it being just a little too hot to leave a banked fire pot lit. Hints of starlight streamed in through the window lattices, the shutters thrown wide and the screens pulled out to permit fresh air, and in the distance the lights of patrolling guards and late-burning campfires glowed like fireflies. Riaag’s eyes followed the lines of the ceiling beams above him. Charms dangled from the rafters, and herbs strung up to dry, and all manner of little decorative whatsits that Sarouth had collected during his time serving the will of the Hill God. Sometimes a late spring breeze would slip in and make them rustle or clink. The tabernacle had always been full of hanging shit, too, and if Riaag really wanted to he could probably set up one of the fancy hanging lanterns that traders sometimes brought. Not that it’d do him any good at that moment; lighting something might risk waking up Sarouth, currently snoring away, and a god-speaker needed all their sleeping hours to walk the Labyrinth.

Sarouth made a lot of noise about how good he’d gotten at plumbing the Labyrinth’s depths for hidden mysteries, to the extent that he not only would reach the Great Geode at its heart but head back out and back in again for another lap, but just because he was confident with where he strode didn’t mean Riaag was eager to interrupt that thankless task. God-speakers didn’t wear tattoos all up their arms because they merely wanted a reminder of the thing that had eaten their ability to dream; the marks were a map of that ever-changing place, and without them a god-speaker was prone to losing their way night after night. When the first visitors to that lightless place learned they could bring nothing with them but the skin on their backs, they gouged maps into themselves to find their way. The tradition continued even now: Valin kept her forearm bandaged, and would have to until she made her own way to the center, whereas Sarouth wore his own tattooing up his arm, across his back, around his throat, and down the opposite arm, giving him an imposing set. He spent so much time in the Labyrinth. Some days Riaag worried what might happen if Sarouth never bothered to wind his way back out.

Divine self-mutilation wasn’t really at the front of Riaag’s thoughts that evening, though. It was a shame that god-speakers suffered so, just like it was a shame every other way that god-speakers suffered, but if Riaag lost sleep every time he worried about Agritakh-ruhds in distress he’d never manage so much as a light nap. No, this was something else bothering him.

It wasn’t that they had more between themselves and the ground than a few carpets. That was Sarouth’s problem, not his, and Sarouth had assured him that the Hill God’s nature so suffused every part of the lodge that it was like he never lost contact with Him at all, which was good enough for Riaag. Was he too hot? Sarouth was warm where he’d cuddled up against Riaag’s back in his usual place, but they had long since put away the winter blankets and the night air was cool. Was he hungry? It had been a feast day that day, the public places piled high with barbecue and vegetables, and Riaag was by no means a shy eater anymore, so that wasn’t it, either. He wasn’t thirsty, or wanting for medicine, or in need of a piss. It wasn’t like he wasn’t tired, either, since organizing the feast preparations had taken a lot of hustling and shouting, often both at once! He was, for want of a better term, fussy, and unfortunately he was far too big to be picked up and walked around until he drifted back into the black.

The cacophonous snores stilled, followed by a sleepy hum as Sarouth stretched and gained his bearings. “Can’t sleep?”

“Not really,” said Riaag, keeping his voice low even though they were the only two who were in the lodge at that hour. Most people avoided holy ground at night unless attending a ritual that kept them late. Most people still avoided the lodge in general, which was kind of nice, honestly. Riaag liked the idea of it still being a quiet place for himself, Sarouth, Valin (in theory; he still wasn’t sure where she put herself at night beyond a vague notion of “somewhere in the stronghold”), and maybe a few visiting dignitaries. At least, it would be that once he figured out what his problem was. “Somethin’ keeps buggin’ me ‘n I don’t rightly know what.”

Fabric rustled as Sarouth adjusted how he lay. “Maybe if you try to explain it to me, you can figure it out,” he said. Comforting fingers ran lightly through Riaag’s mane of wavy hair. “I’ve a sleeping draught somewhere in my potions if it comes down to it.”

“A’ight.” Riaag rolled onto his back, careful not to squash Sarouth; the Hill God’s current favorite son deserved to go out in a more dignified way than accidentally getting crushed by his oathbound. “I’s proper tired, ‘n I’s said all my prayers ‘n washed up nice ‘n we’s already had us some lovin’ fer the night, ‘n I’s not overly worried ’bout nothin’ so I’s not in need ovva fresh amulet or the like.” He glanced over at Sarouth, whose visible eye caught the faint glow of the stars in its golden depths. “I think it’s somethin’ about this room what’s gettin’ up my ass.”

Sarouth rustled and wriggled again until he’d propped himself up on his forearms with his back against the pillows. “Okay. Let’s start whittling things down. What about the room doesn’t bother you?”

“You,” said Riaag with a tired smile.

“Nonsense, my champion, I’m very bothersome. I’m the absolute best at pissing people off and don’t you forget it.” They traded hushed laughs. Riaag had made an entire career out of handling what happened when Sarouth pissed off the wrong people in too great a number.

“Well. I likes how the place is decorated. ‘s real homey, says a lot ’bout who we is as individuals ‘n as a people, ‘n I likes all them little geegaws we’s collected from foreign folks so’s we can remember what we’s learned ’bout ’em.” This was so: while he was always reminded of how different his environs were when traveling abroad, Riaag liked having things that could reflect his more peaceful journeys. Here were some glass beads and tiles they’d gotten from the Palace of Concordance, there were figurines from craftsfolk in other strongholds, here was a tapestry woven by the only cousin Sarouth still bothered speaking to, there in the corner was a strange little spear-tip worked into something Usoan-style that vaguely resembled a wolf’s head. At the very back, high on a shelf (and shelves that were right on the wall were a novelty all their own!) were some half-scrapped merchant divination tools that had been too dangerous to leave behind and far too interesting to destroy. There were countless other things stored away in the trunks that stood against the walls. Even if he hadn’t had his axe, shield, and armor on display, no one could look at this room and assume it belonged to a man who’d never lived his own life.

Sarouth nodded. “That’s good. What else?”

“The woodwork’s pretty,” said Riaag. He thought for a moment. “I likes the window parts, too, ’cause we’s got a real good view from up here.”

Another night breeze rustled the hanging herb bundles, bringing with it the smell of wood smoke and the distant freshness of the fields. Riaag closed his eyes and breathed deeply. The extra ventilation was quite nice, especially since the tent they’d shared risked building up a funk if the air was too heavy or the weather too foul to air it out properly; if he so chose he could walk out along the half-inside, half-outside porch that wrapped much of the way around the lodge. Depending on how hot summer got that year, maybe they’d hang up long pieces of curtain all along the balconies and sleep out there. It might not be as fun as being somewhere more private—Riaag was forever mortified by the thought of getting friendly with Sarouth where anyone might reasonably see, so sexy business was probably not going to happen out there—but it carried with it an air of romance that appealed to it. Maybe it would inspire a new poem or two.

When was the last time he’d written a poem or song about a place he’d stayed at? It had to have been more recent than the boat trip, but he’d only been to Usoa a scant few times since then, which meant—

“Ah, shit. I think I know what’s buggin’ me.”

“Yeah?”

“It’s remindin’ me ‘a prison.”

That was it. That was absolutely, positively, without a doubt it. Where had he last spent the night in something as formally-built as this? The chambers of a now very dead merchant who’d been a menace to everyone on the other side of the river, technically, but those had been big and showy in a way the lodge wasn’t, and once they’d started scrapping said merchant’s tower for parts they’d returned to ground level like normal people. Before that, though? It had been a little prison cell, and then a much different room in that not-yet-scrapped tower that had been a different prison cell in all but name. Now here he was, stuck with a head that looked at the hand-set wood all around him and saw nothing but reminders of a past spent trapped within halls of seamless marble.

“Oh, my wolf, I’m so sorry….” Sarouth draped himself over Riaag’s thick-muscled arm and stroked the back of his hand. “Is there anything I can do?”

“Dunno. Just one ‘a them fucken things, you know?” Riaag was a little upset with himself for being troubled so much. He’d endured the tower with just a little lost dignity; Sarouth, on the other hand, had been kept so high above the ground it had broken something inside him for a bit, had been shorn in an attempt to break his spirit, had had the very skin flayed from him for grotesque reasons only to heal over in his sleep and do it all over again the next day. All of that misery, all of that suffering, and yet nowadays the only thing that still marred him was a less than flattering haircut!

Riaag forced himself to stop right there. No, that wasn’t a healthy way to look at it: there was no hierarchy of woes against which every wrong in the world was balanced, and comparing himself to the mortal manifestation of a deity was pretty misguided, too. He was himself, and Sarouth was Sarouth, and if one of them saw bars on the windows when he closed his eyes then that was that. It wasn’t some kind of fucking trauma competition. Sarouth loved him and wanted him to be happy, which was why he’d stayed awake to talk Riaag through things instead of rolling over and drifting off again, so Riaag was going to take that goodwill and damn well do something productive with it.

“I mean…I dunno, you can look around ‘n see bountiful evidence what proves this ain’t where I keep partways thinkin’ I is, ‘n not solely ’cause you’s here with me this time, but I cain’t shake the feelin’ I’s stuck myself in another box.”

Sarouth popped his lips in thought. “So what we need to do is find ways to remind you this is someplace new, right? Or at least it’s a place where you’re safe?” he asked. “Like how we make sure you could always see the front flap of the tent from the bed?”

They’d arranged the bed so it could see the door and the windows from where he usually slept, which was nice, even if it clearly hadn’t been enough. “Yeah. Shit like that seems right.”

“So let’s start by getting that door open,” said Sarouth. He swung his legs over the side and hopped upright, then padded over to the doorway to throw it wide. The corridor lay beyond it. “We’ll leave this propped for a bit,” he continued, “so any time you look up you can see that you can walk right on out whenever you want. Good first step?”

“Yeah. Good first step.”

“Good. Now follow me.”

“It’s late, though…?”

Sarouth blew a loud and juicy raspberry. “We’re the only ones in here and we built this place. I’m not going to enforce a curfew in my own home.” He held out his hand, beckoning. “Come on. We’re going to look at a thing or two more before I let you get back to bed.”

“Fine, fine, I’s comin’….” The boards didn’t creak beneath Riaag’s mighty weight, having been carefully tuned to do so, which made it easier to maintain his preferred cat-quiet tread when the lights were low. Some of it was due to sheer courtesy, but some of it? Well, a big man could get a lot done after hours if people expected to be able to hear him first.

He followed Sarouth into the darkened hallway. What few Usoan homes Riaag had seen generally didn’t use corridors, but their grander buildings sure did, and he’d spent so much time roaming the Palace of Concordance during its namesake diplomatic function that the idea of a long, skinny room that connected smaller rooms together had become intertwined with the very notion of a structure being important. It’d make things so much easier for hosting guests. Maybe in time the lodge would become its own meaningful, if smaller, site, a sort of neutral ground for those unaffiliated with the Rhoanish to come and settle their affairs, or plan alliances, or just hang around for a real rip-snorter of a party. Those felt like good things to do with a palace. Walking between the rows of tapestries, Riaag could already imagine the dark rooms around them warm with dreaming bodies, the air lightly tinged with the scents of company and the gentle sounds of sleep.

A familiar blunt-clawed hand took his own. “You can leave whenever you want, see?” said Sarouth in a hushed voice. He pulled Riaag along, touching at doors and curtains as they went. They uniformly opened at the slightest push. “Nothing’s locked unless the person inside wants it to be. And even if they did get blocked, there’s windows. Any windows that don’t look out over the terrace aren’t more than a scrabble off the ground. Pretty handy, right?”

“Suppose so,” said Riaag, allowing himself to be led. It was quite dark inside, one might say downright tenebrous, and if he hadn’t had a guide he would’ve been moving at half his current pace at most; lucky for him Sarouth was with him, and a god-speaker with their feet on the ground never lost their way in the dark. The shapes of the ceiling beams tangled overhead. Every few paces there was an alcove set up in the wall that was big enough to house a lamp, though with only him and Sarouth sleeping there they’d decided to leave them unlit for now. No sense wasting oil on company that hadn’t yet arrived.

They passed through the grotto that held the lodge’s dedicated bathing pool, heat radiating from the steam that drifted from its waters; it was a wet heat, nothing like the tower’s cleansing fires that Riaag had thought he’d put behind him. They walked along the balcony, where if anyone saw them the most that would have happened would be a friendly shout and a wave, with no sign of the tower guards that had hurried Sarouth away. They watched the stars, which were all in the right places. Sometimes a dog barked or a bird called. It was peaceful. This was the Naar Rhoan that Riaag knew.

As the sliver of a moon rose ever-further overhead, Sarouth led Riaag back indoors and on a winding journey through several side rooms until they ultimately came out into the main chamber of the lodge. It was eerie without light or people there, its silence a different animal from that found within the rough privacy of the sacred caves below. They stood in the center of the room for a long moment. There was nothing to hear, see, or smell. It was just an empty room.

“What all is I supposed ter be perceivin’, here?” said Riaag after Sarouth failed to explain himself further.

“That’s the point: there’s nothing to notice. We could walk out here and fart around because there’s nobody stopping us. If we wanted to fall asleep right here it’d be fine. There’s no one who’ll be walking the halls seeing if we’re where we’re supposed to be, because there’s nowhere we’re supposed to be in the first place. No schedules here but the ones we make for ourselves. You get it?”

Riaag grunted. He did, in fact, get it; everything here was a reminder that his current solid-walled quarters were very much unlike the ones in which he’d spent too many weeks. This was a place where he could cook the kinds of meals he liked for the kinds of people he liked, where laundry would only remain dirty until washing day. There wasn’t a warden here. The worst thing that prowled the lodge was Riaag himself, and that was as things were supposed to be. He understood all of that on an intellectual level. As was typical for him, it wasn’t the intellectual side of things that was causing problems.

“I dunno,” he said. He closed his eyes and spread his arms, tilting his head back slightly. He couldn’t touch a single wall from where he was. “I knows it ain’t the case, but I still believes it, kinda.”

Sarouth squeezed Riaag’s arm. “That’s the hard part, isn’t it?” he said with a weary laugh. “We can recite all the evidence to the contrary we like, but all bets are off when the sun goes down and the lights go out.” He rocked back and forth on his heels a bit, the loose robe he wore to sleep in swishing against Riaag’s leg. “Would it be easier if you slept by yourself tonight?”

Fuck no,” said Riaag. Sarouth’s touch was another thing that absolutely had not happened at the tower, at least not until they’d taken care of the asshole running the whole wretched operation, and that wasn’t the part that kept bubbling up in Riaag’s hindbrain. There was no shame in sleeping alone—sometimes Riaag’s thoughts were just too busy to handle trying to bed down next to someone else, even his absolute favorite person in the world, and sometimes Sarouth was kept awake for long, strange hours by the First Scavenger’s demands—and if he’d just been feeling fussy he would’ve taken the offer. The problem was he kept feeling a panic he thought he’d already killed and buried in a place that was supposed to be safe. Of course, Sarouth couldn’t know all that unless Riaag actually said so, so it was time to put his skill as a poet to work. “It helps when I’s next ter you, really ‘n truly. It just ain’t enough.” He was glad he was past the stage where admitting Sarouth just being around wasn’t the perfect cure to all his problems felt like the gravest possible betrayal.

Pop pop pop went Sarouth’s lips. “Okay, so, tell you what,” he said. “Tonight I give you an elixir to help you sleep dreamlessly. Tomorrow we’ll check on your amulet, make sure it’s not slipping in subtle ways on you, and we’ll also walk through the lodge a few times so you can get used to the feeling of being in here with nobody else around. We’re going to be getting some dye merchants in later this week, according to the raven messages I’ve been getting, so we can invite them to sleep here if they want, and even if they don’t want to we’ll still use the main room for trading. That’ll hopefully make the place feel more properly lived-in for you. And,” he added, holding up one finger for emphasis, “I already had plans to build up lots of positive associations about this place now that all the workers have packed up and left. We clearly need to do more than we already have. I hope that doesn’t sound too…arduous.” Even in the dim light it was easy to see him run his tongue along his teeth and down one tusk in a familiarly lascivious display.

“What a terr’ble fate,” said Riaag, now comforted enough to smile back. How fortunate he was to be loved by a man like Sarouth, a man determined to solve problems from half a dozen directions at once! How wonderful to adore the Faaroug in his element of nurturing his own! Even if the healing took a dozen more steps than expected, and when it came to trying to un-fuck Riaag’s myriad problems Sarouth had to take those steps more often than not, it was hard to be upset about those sexy-sounding plans of his.

Sarouth tugged at Riaag’s arm. “Let’s get back to the room. I haven’t organized my potions in a cat’s age so it may take me a bit to find the one we need.”

“So what happens after that?”

“After that you get some sleep, silly! I know it may come as a surprise, but there actually are times during the day when I’m not horny. I’m pretty sure I had five whole minutes today.”

“T’were an event fer the sagas, truly,” said Riaag, and the tremendous yawn he let loose was enough to convince him he was probably too weary to get up to anything fun, no matter how nice the idea sounded. Weary, however, was not the same thing as being without drive at all: “Does I get a reward if’n I’s able ter stay down all night?”

“Get me in the right mood and I might have an idea or two for after morning prayers,” said Sarouth with what Riaag was pretty sure was a wink.

The walk back was short—while its scale might have dwarfed most other structures in the stronghold, the lodge was no Palace of Concordance—but as Riaag waited patiently for Sarouth to dig through his ever-changing collection of elixirs he couldn’t help but feel like he’d managed to start leaving the worst of those unwelcome memories behind him.

“You’d be a good father, you know.”

Riaag’s heart—previously occupied with babysitting—leapt into his throat at the words. Him, a man with no clan to his name and no ancestors to pass on, suitable for raising children of his own? Preposterous. Even if for some reason a man born untouchable had any business being a parent, that still left the matter of Sarouth, and there was no way Riaag could dedicate himself to nurturing a new little life if he knew his own oathbound couldn’t be a part of that. Children were afraid of god-speakers because they could see the godly parts clearly. Any child of Riaag’s would be exposed to the Faaroug himself on a regular basis by dint of their father being said demigod’s trusted disciple. It wouldn’t be fair to the kid, and it especially wouldn’t be fair to Sarouth. Riaag had long since consigned himself to dying without progeny. Sometimes people wanted things they couldn’t have, and that was that.

He made sure none of his inner turmoil at the comment showed; it had been meant as a compliment, after all. Instead he forced a gentle smile and continued rocking one of the fussy infants he’d been looking after. “Me? Nah. Better fer ever’one if I’s just here ter help out whenever I’s needed. Not havin’ none ‘a my own means I’s always an extra pair ‘a hands, y’know?”

The baby in his arms gurgled before spitting up. Riaag, no stranger to all manner of gross things that the orcish body could produce, rinsed away the offending sputum with a damp cloth and barely a second thought. The little one was at that difficult age where they were transitioning from dam’s milk to regurgitated food, which was always a messy time. At least at that age you could safely put them down somewhere to clean them without worrying about them wiggling off. Riaag tapped the baby’s little nose with his index finger, making them smile toothlessly up at him. “Seems this one’s agreein’ with me.”

“Sure,” said the speaker, one Dovvei Bark-Spindle, a weaver who’d been an inhabitant of Naar Rhoan on and off for about three years by that point. He’d cut his dominant hand when some wicker lashed out at him from a basket he’d been working on and had insisted on making himself useful while he waited for the wound to heal. It was nice to work with a kindred spirit. “You do a good job looking after everyone else’s, that much is true. And anyone with eyes can see how patient and loving you are. There’s brood who’d kill for even a drop of how much kindness you have for other people’s little ones. Even my own love telling me about how Bough-Breaker is always ready with his bag of bone chips to hand out if they can prove to him they’ve been good.”

Growing bodies needed lots of bone, milk, and chalk to build up strong, and Riaag had yet to meet anyone of most any age who’d turn down a chip to crunch on unless they were in the most dire of straits. It was the easiest thing in the world to make people smile if you had gifts to give. He waved off the compliment. “That’s real sweet ‘a them ter say, but it ain’t like carryin’ a bag ‘a snacks is hard ter do.”

“Maybe not, but you still do it where a lot of other people don’t. My eldest, Zufwe, says she wants to start doing the same once she’s picked her first deed-name. You’re an inspiration!”

A moment’s thought brought forth Zufwe’s face: yellowish olive in hue, pale birthmark on her chin, tusks growing in with a strong curve to them. Another moment more and Riaag could remember more personal details: she liked pickled radishes, didn’t pick any more fights than was usual for that age, once got yelled at for pushing a smaller child into the lake, had gotten pushed into the lake herself many times since then. Sometimes she ended up underfoot in the kitchens because she was keen on learning how to cook for a lot of people at once. A cook would certainly be able to load up on bone chips once the meat was prepared and the stock pots were prepped. Riaag appreciated that level of thoughtfulness from someone still so young. “Reckon it’d be a good fit fer her, Bark-Spindle, ‘n you’s welcome ter let her know I said as much if it ain’t gonna give her a big head or nothin’.”

Dovvei chuckled. “It very likely will. I’ll save it for a day she’s feeling down.” He adjusted the swaddling on one of the other baby-baskets in the tent before continuing. “It’s your choice whether you want to be a father in the first place, of course. I just think you’d be good at it.”

“All the more reason fer ter spread that lovin’ around, hey?”

“True enough!”

That was thankfully the end of that part of the conversation, which meant Riaag was free to concentrate on making sure the babies’ claws were rightly bundled up so they didn’t scratch themselves (or, more likely, anyone else). Cleaning up little accidents, keeping the children warm, feeding any of them who began to call for food: it was all very meditative to him once he got a good rhythm going. The problem with meditation was that it left him free to think.

If he was being honest with himself, he did want to be a father. Taking care of other people’s brood at their cutest (and most disgusting) was fine, since he’d been singing to babies ever since he was a child, himself, and it wasn’t like he was ever short on chances to hold them or play with them. If all he wanted were the fun parts of parenthood he’d be set. What he wanted more than anything, though, was to be able to watch over someone as they grew, giving them love and care as they stumbled towards the infinite possibilities of adulthood. He wanted to provide more than food, shelter, and safety. He wanted to give them both a future and a life he’d never had.

He’d be failing that hypothetical child from the start, of course. They’d take blood from their sire and dam, but that wasn’t the same as being family, and Riaag…well, he did have some family of his own nowadays, that being Sarouth White-Hair and Sarouth alone, but that felt like a paltry gift in comparison to the majestically complex offerings one could inherit from someone who hadn’t been cast into the midden at birth. A child of his wasn’t necessarily a child of Sarouth’s. God-speakers could be sires or dams with the same ease and difficulty as anyone else, but god-speakers who were parents? Surely there were a few. Riaag could only imagine how badly that had fucked up all parties involved. Agritakh’s love, even after being made safer and more palatable to the mortal mind by wrapping it up in a god-speaker first, was too painfully alien to comprehend without a minimum amount of life experience. Even seasoned veterans could find themselves tested if an Agritakh-ruhd chose to reveal the magnitude of what they were. Riaag had seen warriors fall to their knees, overawed, when confronted with Sarouth in all his terrible glory. He’d also seen warriors flip their shit and attack out of that same fear. Neither reaction boded well for a healthy parent-child relationship!

Thinking of Sarouth as an obstacle was unfair no matter how accurate it was. He hadn’t asked to wake up one day with the pulse of the earth in his veins, same as how he hadn’t asked to be the next messiah, same as how he hadn’t asked to build Naar Rhoan and keep it running in spite of everything working against him. He hadn’t asked for much of anything, really. It was just one of those times where bad things happened to good people, and blaming Sarouth for being a god-speaker was like blaming the sun for rising. Riaag couldn’t’ve been the man he was now without Sarouth to guide him and purify him, anyway, and if by some strange twist of fate he had to choose between the two lives, he knew he’d rather be clean of spirit and empty of cradle than the alternative. Keeping the Hill God’s envoy from somnambulating into danger while in the throes of yet another vision had been close enough to parenting that Riaag mostly hadn’t had the chance to think about it until the founding of Naar Rhoan. That was one thing about the less nomadic life: with so much less of his brainpower dedicated to watching for dangers, he’d had a lot more time to think. If only those freed-up thoughts had solely gone to composing more poems.

Riaag had never heard Sarouth mention wanting children of his own, not once in the many years they’d known each other, but did that mean anything? Sarouth had cast away most of his family—not his ancestors, that was different, everyone knew that—because of how badly they’d failed him, leaving himself with Riaag and a single cousin, and he’d not said anything about wanting to raise those numbers again. That could mean he didn’t want more relatives. That could also mean he was being quiet about what he wanted, again, since according to other people he’d been carrying a torch for Riaag for a lot longer than Riaag had ever suspected.

Adopting progeny old enough to not get freaked out by Sarouth’s inner nature wasn’t really an option, either, at least not for a good while. They’d both had enough adventure for half a dozen lifetimes before either of them had even hit thirty; claiming a child only a few years younger than he was didn’t sit right with Riaag. If he allowed himself to be selfish he could admit that he longed for the joys of helping shape a kid into a whole person. Someone who was grown had already done the majority of that. People could learn new things at any point in their lives, this was so, and Riaag himself was a far cry from the sad little thing Sarouth had pulled from the blood-spattered dust so long ago. Maybe when he was older Riaag would be willing to try that sort of thing himself. For now he’d rock other people’s babies to sleep in his arms while singing gentle words of love and comfort.

That was another thing he had to consider: as it was, when Riaag was done looking after the brood of another, he’d simply put them down, hand them off, or otherwise return them to their caretakers, then return home to the tent—lodge, now—he shared with Sarouth, where they could be alone together. He liked that they could be alone together. Sometimes that meant conversation, sometimes that meant moving game pieces across a board, a lot of the time that meant sex, and in general they didn’t get interrupted save by the gravest of emergencies. Being oathbound had been pretty nice, honestly. Their oath had been tested before and so far had proven strong. Bringing a kid of his own into the mix was a whole new kind of trial, though, as that would mean he’d no longer be able to honestly give the absolute whole of his attention to Sarouth, since what kind of father would he be if he didn’t keep one ear pricked for cries of distress? Sarouth deserved more than scraps of affection. He deserved all the love in the world! Given how much it’d pained him when, through some truly massive flaws of communication, he’d taken Riaag’s often-stoic nature as a lack of the kind of love Sarouth craved, what would things be like if there really was someone else for whom Riaag would drop everything? They lived their lives in a tight orbit around one another, and that didn’t leave much room for a third without upsetting the balance.

“You want to be a father so much. You’d be good at it. But you won’t do it because of me, will you?” Those words had stayed with him ever since they’d leapt from Sarouth’s tongue. The truth of them burned like acid. Yes, of course it was because of him! Riaag had sworn an oath of loyalty with the whole of his being, and if that meant he had to sacrifice things he wanted in the name of preserving that vow, that was just how it had to be. Nobody had to be oathbound just to love somebody else, or even to share a fire for a night and fool around; Riaag had felt the overflowing need for it after Sarouth had fought an honor duel in his name—an honor duel, for an untouchable!—and come away victorious before the eyes of the whole stronghold. Anything less and Sarouth might’ve tried to brush it away or claim it was nothing. He’d almost done that when Riaag had first tried to swear that oath in the first place! So much of his life had been spent either being cast away or alienating others; Riaag had promised to never do that so long as Sarouth still wanted him around. Would focusing on some new little life feel like the first sign of Riaag losing interest? He would never, the idea was unfathomable, but the heart had a habit of being unreasonable, especially when broken. Just because people didn’t wear amulets for their problems didn’t mean they didn’t have them.

Even if, by some miracle, Sarouth wouldn’t be hurt by Riaag dividing his time between his oath and his child, where would that leave Valin? Riaag had claimed responsibility for her all of two seasons ago, and while that role involved its share of making sure she was eating properly and brushing out her hair, that was not the same as being a parent. Parenthood was a choice where caretaking was just doing right by those who needed help. What kind of asshole wouldn’t pitch in if someone else’s brood was hungry? Who wouldn’t bring blankets to someone who had none, or clean water to someone thirsty, or song and companionship to someone healing from an injury? He’d helped found an entire fucking stronghold that made it easier than ever for people to call on their neighbors for aid. When Valin had first followed them back to Naar Rhoan, Riaag had prayed she might soften a bit once she wasn’t fighting for survival all the time. He’d prayed she could find some peace of mind inside the walls. He’d prayed she’d find some people she liked enough to grow closer to. One out of three was more than zero, since her amulets had proven consistently effective, but it wasn’t the result he’d been hoping to see, either.

Valin was grossed out by seeing others express affection; that distaste ran all the way through towards seeming to find all but the simplest, most passing physical contact loathsome. Riaag had plenty of experience with helping others clean up without actually touching them—growing up deathly afraid of making other people dirty through contact with one’s unclean self was not a fate he’d wish on anyone, but it had encouraged him to practice some very specific skills when he’d ended up a god-speaker’s barber out of the blue—so he’d been able to help her stay presentable without setting her off. That distance was important to her continued well-being. It also meant she was an island in a stream, refusing to reach out while the world flowed around her. If Riaag ever tried cuddling her the way he did with other people’s babies she’d probably try to remove her own skin. Riaag only needed one god-speaker in his life to live through something like that, thank you very much. He could respect her need for space even as he worried.

The easy answer was that he could always claim Valin as a daughter, then go from there if she remained too prickly to keep close. The easy answer ignored how that wasn’t a real solution at all. Valin wasn’t some sort of convenience he could invoke to get what he wanted. She was a young person with her own wants and what she wanted wasn’t him. She often spoke at length about how dim her view of his constant babysitting was, never directly to him but always in a way that implied she knew he was listening. She was scornful of how other children her age relied so much on their parents. She didn’t seem to want a family, period, being happy in her wild and bandless state, so it wasn’t like he could ask her if she wanted to be claimed as his own, especially not if it was just a stepping stone to claiming some other kid who didn’t have the same problems. What if she saw it as a rejection? She was hurt by her divinity and she was hurt by the illness behind her eyes, so why wouldn’t she see Riaag doting on someone else instead of her as proof she couldn’t be loved by anyone? She deserved better than that.

Valin still slept outside. She moved around, and during daylight hours she’d let herself be seen inside the stronghold walls, and yet once the sun went down and she finished her dinner and evening prayers she was gone. Riaag never saw her joining someone else’s camp to listen to stories, never saw her dancing around the many public fires. She may as well have stopped existing until dawn. What kind of life was that? She was an Agritakh-ruhd, a shepherd of her people, and she deserved to be able to live and thrive among them! What did she need to be able to do that? What wasn’t Riaag giving her? Maybe she needed a room in the lodge, too, or at least a tent pitched near it, but what if she rejected the offer? How much time did he have left before she vanished into the trees one night and never returned? What was wrong with him that he couldn’t help a scared little girl who so clearly needed it?

A hesitant hand touched at his sleeve. “Bough-Breaker? Are you feeling okay?”

“Yeah, yeah, I’s fine,” said Riaag, surreptitiously wiping his eyes. “Just got caught up in my own head is all. Sometimes babies is too fucken cute ter stand, y’know?”

Dovvei chuckled. “Don’t I know it. When the first of mine was born, her dam couldn’t stop crying at how small and precious this thing in her arms was. It got easier the more times it happened, but get me in the right mood and I can fall to pieces at something as simple as spying the first hint of a tusk peeking through the gums.”

That did sound precious. Riaag looked down at the fussy infant in his arms, now either asleep or so close to sleeping it counted, and sighed. How had he ever been that tiny? Maybe he liked looking after children this age because they were so small and simple and easy: you fed them, you cleaned them, you clothed them, and you never had to worry about them screaming hurtful insults inspired by the lying voices in their heads. Fatherhood didn’t end once one’s brood stopped being cute and started being difficult. How well could he nurture someone once he couldn’t scoop them up by the scruff of the neck? How prepared was he for the inevitable life questions for which he had no answers? And what about the ever-looming problem of ancestors? Maybe he didn’t really have it in himself at all, no matter what people like Dovvei said. Maybe he just liked the idea of children more than actually being there for them through all the twists and turns of adolescence.

Maybe he was being too hard on himself and needed to calm the fuck down.

He put his current baby back in their basket and picked up another that was making the soft, mewling gurgles he associated with the lead-in to a squall, crooning to them as he checked for what might be the cause of their distress. In the back of his head his mind still raced. If he was fixating on Valin so much, clearly he felt she needed more than he was giving her, and there was an easy way to work on that. If she wouldn’t offer information unprompted, he’d just have to create more scenarios where she’d want to tell him, or where he could reasonably ask her things without her exploding in uncertain profanities and vanishing into the night. Valin was not the sort to be put away into a basket when people were done with her. He’d treat her like an equal, a cleric, and a child, whichever felt right at the time. If he didn’t know how to help her, it was damn well time to do some fucking finding out.

It was time to be proactive, and the thought filled him with utter dread.

There was still a lot of work to be done before the lodge was suitable for anyone to sleep in it, but Riaag had to admit the architects had worked wonders with building around the natural hot spring. Not that natural was the correct word for it—Sarouth had called it forth from the depths of the land, somehow not flooding the caves beneath the sacred hill in the process—but it was still more of an elemental force than something brought into being through time, tools, and materials. The steam curled gently into the grotto air. When cold weather came it was no doubt going to billow handsomely, and they’d learn the hard way whether or not the ventilation that had been put in would be enough. Regardless of where the steam went, one could stand on the platform at the top of the stairs leading down to the water’s edge and feel at the cusp of something primal. Maybe that was hints of oracular smoke leaching into the water as it flowed.

Riaag knelt at the edge of the pool to admire the water’s clarity. In some angles he could even see his own snaggle-toothed reflection, his brows and beard already glittering with beads of moisture from the steam, and he smiled shyly at the sight. He’d yet to find much reason to look at himself, but if Sarouth said he was pretty, he was damn well going to try to see things that way, too.

He removed a glove and let his fingers trail in the water. It was a good heat, not so much as to risk boiling him like an egg but still fierce enough to feel magnificent on healing bruises and sore joints. It was already sweltering in there in the heat of late springtime. The spring was a bit too much of a walk to invite the old and sick in without having someone help them make the journey; while asking for Sarouth to will more hot springs into being might strain his limits as a miracle-worker, Riaag was already thinking about how to ask the people working on the lodge to build an enclosed bathing space for the healers’ pavilion, and if the Usoans didn’t have any good ideas, surely somebody riding through with a caravan would. Naar Rhoan was making a particular reputation for itself. It turned out there was an awful lot of innovation you could encourage under the law of the Chant so long as you were creative enough about it.

“What do you think? Pretty good, right?”

Riaag glanced up to see Sarouth leaning against the banister at the top of the stairs. “Reckon so,” he said. “Them River People really knows they shit when it comes ter gettin’ water arranged nicely.”

“Sometimes it pays off to get specialists involved. We and our Hill God reclaimed their sad-ass fields, they and their River God have enabled us a better bathtime. I think that’s a pretty even trade, don’t you, my wolf?”

“Suppose that’s one way ter see it,” said Riaag with a chuckle. He turned his attention back to the water, his fingers still drifting across and though its surface like lazily-dabbling ducks. “I gots ter ask, though. Why don’t it stink?”

“Because I asked it not to,” said Sarouth with one of his sly grins.

If Sarouth had been any closer Riaag would have flicked water at him. “Is you bein’ serious or is you just funnin’ me?” he asked.

“Little of both! But I remembered visiting some springs before, when I was very small, and they didn’t have the smell, so when I called for water from below, I specifically asked if there was any that was fresher to the nose, with the caveat that it not be full up of toxins instead. You know how things are under the surface, fucking everything jumps for a chance to sicken up your lungs.”

This was so: like most orcs, Riaag had been in caves of varying depths all throughout his life. Most of them were generally benign so long as you didn’t disturb any animals and remembered not to drink anything that looked like standing water, but he’d also been in mines before, and those were treacherous places even with plenty of air-gill fungus to sweeten the staleness of the underground. All too often you’d hear tales of people who went too deep in search of treasure, and all they got in return was asphyxiated. A mine without a memorial in it was either new or desecrated; Riaag had seen both. Sometimes he had to wonder how many times he’d narrowly avoided danger simply because he had a god-speaker to lead him through the dark.

Not that the grotto was anything like those perilous places. He let his eyes follow the spots of sunlight along the rocky walls, a friendly reminder that he was far closer to the surface here than he was in the guts of the sacred hill, and that cave was one he visited all the time, so all was well. There were nooks all along the rock for lamps to light when the days were shorter. A breeze stirred some wind chimes set up at one of the vent spots. It was a funny place, a little bit inside and a little bit outdoors, and given that the work crew was busy with other parts of the lodge it was likely he and Sarouth would have a few minutes of privacy before someone, inevitably, needed one of them for something. Getting an entire stronghold built and functional had taught Riaag a lot about the joys of solitude, and this was on top of him always having appreciated the chance to step away from the world for a bit.

“So you like it?” asked Sarouth.

“Yeah. It’s nice.”

“Good, good. You want to give it a try?”

Riaag sat back in a squat, his center of balance swinging back over his feet in a stance ready to spring to action if Sarouth had any bullshit tucked in one of his flowing, embroidered sleeves. “Don’t you dare think about tryinna’ push me in, Holy One,” he said, equal parts playful and serious. Sarouth was the Faaroug, the divine made flesh, and he was also a total menace. Fearsome splash fights had been started for less.

“Hey now, I’m an innocent man!” laughed Sarouth, still at the top of the stairs with his hands held palms-forward.

“You was thinkin’ it.”

“Maybe I was, but that’s not the point.”

“Oh yeah?”

“The point is I want to watch you have a nice, comfy soak, so we can make sure there aren’t any last-minute adjustments we need to make with the pool or anything. You know, just to be sure.”

Riaag narrowed his eyes in mock suspicion. “Sure you ain’t just lookin’ fer an excuse ter look at my cock?”

“Pah! I’m hardly looking for an excuse, my love, I’ve found one and I’m using it.” Sarouth wet his lips. “You look so nice when your hair’s drifting around you in the water, you know. Very pretty.”

It was such an obvious ploy and Riaag was a sucker for it every time. How he loved the way it felt for Sarouth to run his eyes along his body, the honey-gold of Sarouth’s gaze tracing every roll of fat and every loop of scar tissue like a master craftsman evaluating a work of art! How special it made him feel, how treasured, how worthy of that attention! There was just one problem: “They’s still workin’ on them walls terday, though. What if somebody comes by ‘n asks fer you? Way you’s talkin’, you ain’t gonna be satisfied solely watchin’ me have a sit ‘n scrub from yonder vantage, ‘n I’d be right fucken discomfited were such an act ter be interrupted by parties external.”

When Sarouth laughed it sounded the way warm brandy tasted. “Oh, my sweet little bird, do you hear anyone working out there? It’s one of the River God’s feast nights tonight. I sent the crew away early so they could have the strength to revel as She is deserving.” He leaned against the railing at a different angle, now, one that showed how his robes hung a little differently in the front if one knew how to look. In the time since Riaag had sworn his oath he’d learned a lot about the proper ways of looking. “As the hour finds us, it’s just you, and me, and a little warm water.”

“Iunno…you gonna say nice things about me if’n I does as you’s askin’?”

“Like how handsome you are, and how clever, and how strong, and how you have such a sweet smile even when you try to hide it? I don’t know, I guess so….”

“Ain’t soothsayers supposed ter know better than ter guess?”

“It’s a divination he wants, now! The nerve! The cheek!” Sarouth smirked. “Show me those other cheeks of yours and I’ll see what meaning I can find in the shape of them, how’s that sound.”

“Sounds…pretty good, yeah….”

Riaag was careful to undress well away from the water’s edge, since Sarouth was not to be trusted when it came to situations like these, and if this meant he took his time and faced away while slipping out of his caftan or unwinding his sashes, well, where was the harm in being cautious? It was an untested spring. There could have been slippery spots just waiting for him to turn his ankle and take a tumble. More importantly, there were Agritakh-ruhds to mess with, and that meant concealing as many of the exciting parts as possible so as to extend the fun of discovery. A proper disciple kept their god-speaker in mind above all things.

His pace was a deliberately slow one, sometimes brushing his mane of black hair away from his back to show off his scars as he walked. He made sure to keep facing towards the back of the grotto; if it was ass Sarouth wanted, then ass Sarouth would get. Slipping into the water without turning around wasn’t too difficult, actually, in no small part thanks to the shape of the step-stones descending into the pool. Each broad, flat piece of rock was just rough enough to keep a bather’s foot from skidding out, all while remaining smooth enough that sitting on them felt like it’d be comfortable. The water was as hot as a fresh kettle. Riaag winced as he waded deeper into the spring, so caught up in adjusting to the temperature that he forgot he’d intended to be more of a tease. Playfulness could wait: instead he found a lot more of himself submerged than he’d expected. A man of Riaag’s dimensions was used to living in a world made for smaller people.

“Huh,” he said, taking a seat and marveling at how he actually had space between his navel and the water’s surface for a change. “This thing goes deeper’n I thought.”

He heard Sarouth chuckle somewhere behind him. “I did ask for it to take your size into question when I called it forth, you know. You’re always talking about how you can only fit so much of yourself in the washtub. It’s the least I could do.”

People who could invoke the power of the very god sleeping beneath the land itself and use phrases like least I could do were truly something else, and it was just as well Riaag liked the one he knew. He made himself comfortable. “Why a whole hot spring, though? This place’s practically a cave all its own. Seems downright fancy ter me.”

“I’m allowed to be fancy if I like! Besides, I seem to recall someone once telling me how much he liked the idea of having a little private time together in something like this, and I’d rather not ride all the way out to Usoa and back every time I want a warm dip without having to prep it kettle by kettle. You work yourself so hard, you deserve to be able to ease those tired muscles at a moment’s notice. It also gives visiting guests somewhere a little more out of the way to have themselves some social bathtime. You know how weird some people can be when we invite them to the lake. Apparently some cultures don’t think public nudity is acceptable when going for a little swim.”

Riaag knew that much already. He’d been keen on asking any visitors to the stronghold about their likes and dislikes once he’d been able to convince himself it was part of being a good herald—a good host, even!—and it truly was amazing just how different people could be, even discounting obvious physical variations like lack of tusks or coming in colors other than green. Something about the shape of Sarouth’s words implied he was dancing around something, though; after nearly a decade of following at his heels Riaag had learned to pick up on that sort of thing with the precision of a hunting falcon. “So what’s the reason you ain’t tellin’ me?”

“How about you earn yourself that divination and I’ll see if I can find room for a secret or two in the process.” Sarouth’s voice was closer now. He must’ve finally descended those stairs; it sounded like he was a few paces back from the spring itself. Clearly he expected a show. It was time to give him one.

Leaning back, Riaag let the water support his weight until his arms and hair were floating in the steaming pool. The sun from outside reflected off the water and cast ribbons of light across the grotto walls, some shimmering across the hairy curve of his half-sunken stomach. The angle revealed how the yellow-green expanse of his skin was spotted with bruises. Some were the usual sort anyone would get from combat practice or hard labor, the little cuts and scuffs that would heal up on their own without needing so much as a dab of poultice smeared across them, but some? These others were deep, dark bruises all along Riaag’s shoulders, on the inside of his thighs, and some positioned just so on his neck that his clothes and hair usually hid them. They were all exactly the size of a bite. Sarouth enjoyed leaving his mark on things he liked.

“How’s this fer tryin’ shit out?”

“Hmm, very nice. You look so comfortable. Spread your legs a little bit more for me? Perfect.”

While Sarouth would probably have been fine with Riaag lying there with his legs spread, cock out, and nothing more to it, once Riaag had started coming around to the idea that he was good enough to be deserving of Sarouth’s love and attention, he’d rarely settled for merely good enough. He splashed water on his face, soaking his cowlick enough to keep it down for a whole ten seconds before it began to spring up again, and he worked his claws into the bristles of his beard and mustache to ensure there weren’t any dry pockets hiding in there. When he opened his eyes Sarouth had drawn ever-closer, a familiar dark figure among the poolside stones. There was just enough steam to give things an element of mystery. Riaag turned on his side and bent his knee to conceal his privates.

“Hey now, I was admiring that.”

“Though you was lookin’ ter evaluate the other side?”

“Changed my mind. I’ve decided I want to see my oathbound’s cock. It’s my favorite one, you see. The perfect size and shape.” Fabric rustled as Sarouth knelt behind Riaag at exactly the spot where it was impossible to see him. Normally Riaag couldn’t fucking stand it when people did that, but with Sarouth, things were different. For starters, most people didn’t have voices like smoke and sex that rarely spoke with anything less than perfect confidence. “I like to hold it in my hand,” Sarouth continued. “I like to feel it against my skin. And sometimes, when I’m in the right mood, I like how well it fits inside me….”

Riaag whimpered in spite of himself. He could feel himself stiffen up from the twin dangers that were Sarouth’s words and some very nice memories; Riaag generally preferred being told what to do when he and Sarouth were being intimate, and on certain rare and special occasions Sarouth had told him, very plainly, that he was the plow and Sarouth the field. It was easier for Riaag to do once he’d been convinced that he was still taking direction in the end. He hadn’t woken up in the mood to engage in such, but the thing about Agritakh-ruhds was that they could be very convincing, and it wasn’t like he didn’t enjoy the feeling of Sarouth around him or the way his hands felt against Sarouth’s slender hips, all while basking in words of joy and praise. What had Riaag originally been planning with the hot spring? Didn’t matter. Letting Sarouth wind him up like yarn around a distaff sounded more fun than whatever that original idea had been.

With a shuffle and a small grunt of exertion, Riaag revealed himself once more. He kept his fingers laced across his belly. If Sarouth wanted him to touch himself, that fact would swiftly make itself known, and who knew, maybe Sarouth was more in the mood to watch him twist in the wind for a bit. The thought of that frustration only made him that much harder. Riaag wasn’t sure if getting off on a god-speaker telling him not to get off said something damning about his character; whatever the case, he knew he liked it, and he knew Sarouth did, too, and the Hill God certainly hadn’t tried to put a stop to anything. Riaag’s nervous heart always rested a little easier knowing he wasn’t doing anything with He Who Sleeps Beneath the Earth’s chosen prophet that he wasn’t supposed to be.

Riaag kept facing forward, looking at nothing but the opposite wall of the grotto and the steam floating between himself and it, even as his cock twitched with the knowledge that Sarouth was studying him like a treasure on a trading blanket. You weren’t supposed to stay in a hot spring for too long in a single sitting—something about the fumes, maybe, or perhaps too much heat could cook your organs, though it was hard for him to recall details at the moment—and yet it was easy to let his imagination fade into the billowing vapors until his thoughts could concoct no way to exist that didn’t involve sitting in heated water up to his nipples. His purpose was to float in place and be looked at. Given his current company and how much of himself he wanted to show off, that sounded pretty nice. He gathered up his hair and swept it to one side, baring his left shoulder, then returned his fingers to their laced position. All that remained now was to see what Sarouth did next.

The bite mark on his shoulder was as crisp as the day it’d first scarred over, a mark of favor from Wolf Wolfself once Riaag had bested that great Animal’s champion. He proudly wore its skin and skull to that day; the soup he’d made from the rest hadn’t tasted that good, but his unexpected trial had taken place during the lean and early years when he and Sarouth had roamed the land, and it’d been better than nothing. A man had to be practical when he was responsible for other people. Wolf didn’t mind. Wolf understood Riaag’s desire to provide for a pack, even if for the longest time that pack had only been two awkward young men who barely had their wits about them on a good day. That dedication had prepared him to become what he would become. What he was now was fierce and confident, determined and gentle, taker of heads and easer of sorrows. What he was now was the shield of his people. What he was now was adored. It wasn’t all because of the mauling, but Riaag could scarcely imagine what kind of person he’d be without that fateful encounter so long ago.

Sarouth’s fingers traced the deep V of the bite scar. Where he had to work to keep his own marks up to date, the gift of an Animal was everlasting, though he often liked to decorate the skin around that scar with sharp-toothed blessings of his own. “So brave, my wolf is,” he said in Riaag’s ear. “So fearsome and so strong. And so very, very sweet, to offer his throat to me without my ever asking.”

A chill ran down Riaag’s spine. “You could always wade in ter have a nibble, if’n you so desired,” he said, hopefully. There was always time for a new bruise. Maybe a few scratches, too. Sarouth was always in a better mood when he had the chance to really work Riaag over. Riaag liked it when Sarouth was in a better mood, too.

“Maybe later,” said Sarouth. “I’m still savoring this little moment we’re sharing.”

“Aw.”

“Oh, he’s dissatisfied, is he? That’s okay, that’s okay. We can always stop. I’d hate for someone to think I neglect my oathbound or force him into things he doesn’t enjoy….”

The tone was light and teasing but the words were sincere. Riaag had suffered enough freak-outs and breakdowns in the middle of being intimate with Sarouth to know he could pull back whenever he wanted, and the only questions asked would be about what he needed to feel okay again. It was part of why they worked, why he was able to be brave this way in the first place. He didn’t have to explain himself. Sarouth already knew all the ugliest parts of Riaag’s history, anyway, from both Riaag’s mouth and the words of the Hill God Himself, having seen Riaag at his very lowliest, and he still thought there was something worth loving there. If Riaag hadn’t already been utterly smitten with Sarouth, that would’ve been enough on its own to change his mind.

All that being said, Riaag was enjoying himself, thank you very much, and it was equally important to voice that sort of opinion. “Ain’t I showin’ myself off proper, though?” he asked, curling in his fingers like a cat’s paws. “Does I got room fer improvement?”

“Hm-hm. Let’s see.” He couldn’t see Sarouth’s reflection in the water—the angles were all wrong—and yet Riaag could still clearly picture the way Sarouth would tilt his head from side to side, rubbing his chin with one hand on his hip, and maybe pop his lips a time or two for good measure. Sarouth liked to stall at times like these. Inaction could be its own form of action. “I think,” he said after much hemming and hawing, stretching out the I into one long vowel sound, “you should show me a little more proof that you’re feeling nice.”

“Yeah? How ought I do such?”

Sarouth chuckled. “Why, I thought it’d be obvious, my love. Just show me that you’re feeling nice.” He squeezed Riaag’s shoulder for emphasis. “With your hand, if I wasn’t making that clear enough. You know, fingers, touching…you get it, right?”

The dismal non-humor was enough to make a man break character: “Yer shitty fucken jokes is truly a test ‘a my boundless loyalties, Holy One.” This didn’t mean Riaag stopped smiling, of course. The badness of Sarouth’s comedic efforts was part of their charm.

“Lucky for you we’ve yet to find a test you couldn’t pass, hm?” He lowered his voice back to its previous seductive purr. “Let’s see that superlative mind at work. Maybe I’ll find it…inspiring.”

How was a man expected to resist that kind of offer? Riaag certainly didn’t care to find out; instead he cupped his balls in his hand and arranged his claws just so, ensuring a safely powerful squeeze. He let out a quiet gasp. The fullness of his stomach and the angle of the water meant he’d have to go for exaggerated gestures if Sarouth was going to be able to see much of anything from where he loomed. Not that Sarouth didn’t know this, having plentiful experience with Riaag’s body, so if he was going to stay in a spot with less than perfect viewing conditions, there were clear expectations for Riaag’s behavior. Exaggerated was fine.

He flexed his fingers a few more times for good measure, each palpation inspiring its own soft sound of joy, before moving his hand from his balls to his shaft. This was what Sarouth wanted to see, no doubt. Riaag used his free hand to brace against the bottom of the hot spring as he began to stroke himself. Each swipe upwards bunched the skin up around his glans only for the inverse stroke to pull it taut. It was comforting in its own special way. He took his time; if Sarouth wanted him to go faster then something would be said. Until such words were spoken, however, Riaag would luxuriate in the texture of his palm, the heat of the water, and the knowledge that someone he loved dearly was watching him jack off on command. It was quite a potent recipe.

The rustle of robes against the stone happened somewhere behind him. Riaag smiled to himself. He could already imagine the sight of red ink on pine green skin, the subtle flex and bend of flesh as Sarouth chose to enjoy the scene before him. It was enough to encourage Riaag to quicken his pace. His lids drifted closed as he called up memories of how Sarouth looked when in the throes of indulgence. It didn’t matter if his own thoughts were turning to soup the longer he stayed in the water; that was just something they did if he was feeling good and knew Sarouth was looking out for him. Riaag could just float along in that dreamy state of being until they both were satisfied. Sarouth had always reeled him in before, after all, and if the Faaroug decreed that Riaag was to spend his afternoon with the mental sharpness of a lump of warm butter, it was probably because he was due a little time away from his ever-so-busy thoughts. Forget the basic joys of sharing a fire: being with Sarouth had been good for Riaag in ways he’d probably never have understood if he could have listed them for his younger self.

What had either been a long parade of hours or a few minutes had passed in silence when Riaag felt a familiar shape slide into the water next to him. He paused but did not take his hand away. “You’s joinin’ me?”

“The view was just too nice to stay on dry land,” said Sarouth. “I want to help finish you off.”

“Sounds pretty nice, Holy One,” Riaag replied, and kept his eyes closed.

A smaller, softer hand closed over his own, forcing his grip ever-tighter, and Riaag made a little noise as his fingers were urged to press against different places. Sometimes Sarouth would use his own hand to bring Riaag to climax, taking great and outward delight in the precise control he had over everything, and other times he’d simply tell Riaag what to do for the sake of watching someone lovingly follow orders, and then there were times like now. Times like now were all about the contrast between them, how Sarouth’s delicate digits and filed-down claws could hold so much influence over Riaag’s more brutishly-built mitt. No, brutish was the wrong word for it: his fingers were thicker, his claws longer, his skin hairier, and while all these things were true those same hands were no less capable of acts of gentleness than anatomy that came smaller and finer. His was still a hand weathered by labor, of course, so very unlike Sarouth’s too-perfect skin with its blessings from the Labyrinth, and that was more fun to meditate upon. They each toiled in their own way that the other might sleep easier.

Such abstractions were harder to focus on once Sarouth did something with his wrist that made Riaag yelp in discomfort.

“Sorry! Sorry, my love, just a bad angle. I didn’t mean for it to be unpleasant. How about…this?” The new option was far nicer. When Riaag nodded, Sarouth continued. “I’ll ease up for a little bit. Don’t want this to stop being fun for you or anything.”

“S’alright,” said Riaag, because it was.

They fell back into a silent, gentler groove, and as said groove remained gentle Riaag realized that Sarouth was forcing him to check his speed. There was already a bit of interference from the water, so it didn’t take much to keep Riaag from being able to reach those promised heights. Sarouth still pressed into Riaag’s side and he hadn’t stopped touching, his free hand thrown across Riaag’s shoulders. Was this his idea of helping? Jerking off in tandem was great—many a pleasant interlude between them had been spent with their hands overlaid like this on one cock or the other—and Sarouth had said he wanted to help Riaag finish, so why make things more difficult once he’d been sure Riaag was no longer in discomfort?

Then the talking started again and everything explained itself.

“I love you, Riaag,” said Sarouth, the words sweet and innocent despite what his tongue did to Riaag’s ear. “You’re so pretty like this, you’re just so pretty. I just can’t stop looking at you. Will you come for me, looking as nice as you do? I want you to.”

He could feel the hard heat of Sarouth’s cock pressing into his leg. Sarouth wanted him like this, and Riaag figured he was pretty amenable to the idea, himself. Of course, they’d also been talking together about the importance of Riaag being clear about his wants, and he had a very clear want on the mind.

“I’s close,” he said between pants. “Please, won’t you lay yer teeth ‘pon me?”

He was answered with another dangerous laugh. “We both know you don’t need that to finish,” said Sarouth. “If you had to, you could come just like this, and it’d be lovely.” The familiar wet rasp of a tongue ran up the length of his neck, making Riaag whine.

“Please, though…I’s askin’ you nice….”

“Hm hm! Oh, you’re just so cute when you beg, how could I say no? But there’s just one more thing.”

Riaag whine-growled in response, but this just made Sarouth laugh again.

“All you have to do is answer a question for me, my champion.”

“Whadissit?” said Riaag, his years of war-poetry failing him in the heat of the moment. If Sarouth didn’t ask what he planned to ask really damn quick he was just going to get a mouthful of meaningless vowels in response.

“Will you name the man you love?”

“Sarouth,” said Riaag. When this didn’t prove sufficient, he tried again, this time straining to make each inflection more than so much half-gasped breath. “Sarouth! Sarouth! Please, Sarouth, it’s you, it’s you, it’s you, ain’t nobody else what gets me in such a way…!”

Sighing happily, Sarouth left a kiss on his ear. “My name sounds so nice in your mouth, you know. It sounds so special the way you say it. That definitely deserves a reward.”

Riaag scarcely had a chance to prepare before his right shoulder bloomed with exhilarating pain. He cried out in agonized pleasure, dug his teeth into his lip, and spent himself in the water with only the slightest of thoughts about how he was going to clean that up afterwards. When his hand fell slack it was Sarouth’s who kept it in place, milking his cock until nothing was left. Upon feeling Sarouth’s touch pull away, Riaag released his teeth’s grip on his stinging lip and cracked open an eyelid.

A familiar half-hooded face looked upon him fondly. “Did you like that, my pretty little bird?” asked Sarouth, smiling with great self-satisfaction when Riaag nodded vigorously in response. It was hard not to agree when Sarouth pulled out the most powerful pet names like that. “I’m glad to hear that. So glad that I want to finish myself right across that chest of yours, in fact. All by myself while you watch. Will you let me do that?”

“Yeah. I’d like that.”

“Very good. Now hold still, my love.”

Sarouth’s waist was still fully submerged when he stood on the bottom of the hot spring, even given how long-legged he was, and so when he stepped up to balance on Riaag’s thighs it was unexpected but hardly a surprise. It also meant he could look down at Riaag, which was important. Riaag focused on keeping himself as still and solid as could be as Sarouth touched his own shaft. The position just made sense: Riaag was the rock and the foundation, and Sarouth was the one who could tell such rocks exactly what he expected them to do, and if Riaag wanted things that way it was just another sign that it was meant to be. All he had to do was set it up and let it happen. Like a flash flood or a thunderstorm, the avatar of the Hill God tended to be the kind of man that happened.

After a truly impressive display of balance, Sarouth let out a sigh in the shape of Riaag’s name and came in spurts that painted Riaag’s chest, face, and beard with smears of gleaming pearl. Riaag smiled lazily at the sight. Sarouth did so enjoy putting his mark on things he liked, after all.

They hauled themselves out of the water to tidy up—mostly in the form of Sarouth putting his tongue to places, because he’d put his tongue anywhere he could get it if you weren’t careful—and lay on the platform surrounding the spring to dry off and cool down. They rested with their arms touching and little else. Cuddles could come after they weren’t quite so freshly-boiled.

“So, what do you think of the grotto?” asked Sarouth after a little bit.

“Reckon it’ll do nicely.” A passing comment resurfaced in Riaag’s now much clearer thoughts. “All this really was ’cause ‘a one little passin’ fantasy, though?”

“Maybe not all of it,” said Sarouth, crossing his ankles, “but enough. It’ll be useful for guests and residents alike, for generations to come, and above all else, it’ll be useful to us. A little enlightened self-interest never hurt anybody.”

Riaag was pretty sure that wasn’t exclusively true, but he didn’t feel like arguing. “Who fucken knows what future folks’ll want. All I’s able ter say is that if we’d inherited a hot spring, I’d be in there damn near all the time.” He grinned. “Guess we’s just gotta break it in fer them what comes after us, huh?”

“Guess we just gotta,” Sarouth replied. “We’ll get around to the rest of the lodge as it gets finished, of course. A man must mark his territory in the ways he deems best.”

The rest of the lodge? Riaag was going to be spending an awful lot of time with a bucket and rag if their time in the hot spring was any indication. “You’s disgustin’.”

“The absolute grossest. Now scoot over, I’m a little chilly and it’s too soon for me to get back in there. You’re going to have to keep me warm yourself.”

“If I must…,” said Riaag, raising up his arm to invite Sarouth to snuggle in closer. He still wasn’t completely ready to think about living in this place, as it was too much like a bunch of half-built frames and too much unlike a home for his liking, but this grotto? He could see himself here, relaxing alone, or with mixed company, or with Sarouth being a bright-eyed menace. It felt like it was intended for his presence, like he belonged there, rather than like he was struggling to make do with a space never meant for him; be it soaking in the water or resting next to Sarouth, everything felt correct in the grotto. It was somewhere he was supposed to be. However the rest of the lodge experiment panned out, Riaag couldn’t be too unhappy with results like that.

Riaag was busy grooming his ignoble steed, Stupid Horse, when he felt a pair of eyes on the back of his neck in a very particular way.

“Hi, Valin Mad-Eyes, who is holy,” he said, not bothering to turn around. Keeping an eye on Stupid Horse was probably the wiser of the two choices, anyway. “Comin’ ter look ’round the paddock terday?” Valin tended to give the horses a wide berth these days; a past attempt to liberate a quartz braided into the mane of Sarouth’s mount, Karsta, hadn’t gone well, had given her a brief but powerful education into how terrifying the horses could be, no matter how delicious they smelled. This was the closest Riaag could remember her getting to them in a long while.

She didn’t bother greeting him, or even answering his question, instead asking, “Where’s all the people bones your horse is supposed to have on it?”

Stupid Horse was not wearing its travel tack, which was to say it wasn’t dressed for war, which was to say it wasn’t bristling with the clacking skulls of orcs, River People, and a few merchants. The trophies were hardly for the sake of ostentation: it was important to be clear to strangers about Riaag’s martial prowess and his thoroughly egalitarian stance on voluntary manslaughter. If people knew not to start shit, there wouldn’t be shit, and everyone would be happier and healthier for it. That his sheer number of purified head-takings was a source of pride didn’t hurt things, either.

“I don’t have more’n the most basic ‘a bardin’ on there ‘less I’s plannin’ ter ride out,” said Riaag. “I takes the saddle off when I don’t plan ter go nowhere fer a spell, same fer the skulls. Horses need ter have time ter stretch out, too. Cain’t expect a person ter wear armor all day. Cain’t expect it of an animal, neither.” He finished tying another ribbon in its mane and stood back to admire his handiwork. From this angle it was possible to pretend the thing wasn’t a beast of pure murder! A few more flowers couldn’t hurt, though. He’d need to gather some that afternoon.

Valin squinted at him. “How come it’s got so many? When the bones are on, I mean?”

“Reckon it’s ’cause I’s killed a whole fuckton ‘a people, Holy One.” 

“Oh.” Valin’s eyes (well, the visible one, at least) darted from Stupid Horse to Riaag himself. “You’ve got skulls, too. You wear them on your belt,” she said, her voice scandalized and delighted.

Riaag grunted proudly. “Sure do. Motherfuckers oughtn’t’ve tried pickin’ on li’l baby kids. I’s taken more heads in my time, both afore ‘n after, but these sumbitches? T’were personal fer me.” Belt skulls were a pretty common adornment in the valley and the mountains surrounding it, to the extent that most people knew what it meant to wear them, but most people were content with a single one from a meaningful kill. Riaag wore three. He had not been happy with those bandits.

She crept closer until she could’ve brushed the edge of his coat with her hand if she’d wanted. Usually she kept her distance unless he was brushing out her hair for her. “How do you keep from getting haunted?”

“Easy, Holy One. I just asked the Faaroug ter bless ’em fer me. Keeps the ghosts away a treat.”

“Oh.” Valin shuffled ever-closer. “Can I…touch them? Without getting a ghost on me instead?”

He thought on this for a moment. They’d been prepared so that he could stride through crowded spaces without causing problems for anyone else, so the idea of another Agritakh-ruhd getting her fingers on them didn’t sound too bad. It wasn’t like she hadn’t handled them before when he’d had to chase her down during one of her bad patches and she’d only come home by hooking her finger around a tusk and shambling after him. “If you cares ter, I don’t see the harm in it. They’s purified with real fucken potency. Sarouth White-Hair, who is holy, can show you how ter do that’n yerself, once you’s far enough along in yer practicin’.”

“He’s only showing me boring stuff…,” she muttered, even as she reached out to trace the curvature of a tusk with her claw. The skulls had been boiled to clean them of any hints of meat, the resulting stock poured out over the fields to nourish them, and each now bore the mark of Agritakh on its forehead as proof that they wouldn’t call forth any unquiet souls. In life they had made the wrong decisions. In death they were sentinels. That had seemed like a pretty good trade-off to Riaag, and had encouraged him to continue putting more and more bone on Stupid Horse as the days progressed. If it broke, who cared? He’d never be that far away from getting more.

Riaag wasn’t about to leave Valin’s comment where it lay, either. “You’s still startin’ out. Shit like learnin’ ter map the Labyrinth is flashy, sure, but you cain’t be expected ter handle complex shit proper without understandin’ all the underpinnin’ elements. It’s like cookin’.” Riaag chose not to elaborate further; Valin had shown little to no interest in learning how to prepare food for herself or others, though at least in her case it felt like genuine lack of concern over Sarouth’s more catastrophic relationship with cookfires. The man could burn water. Even Riaag’s first awkward attempts at making a meal for the two of them had been better than whatever scorched-to-shit sludge Sarouth had made before, so Riaag had kept doing it, and now he was legitimately quite good, going by others’ reactions. He’d have to figure out a way to spin that into a lesson she’d want to absorb.

“How come you’ve had to kill so many people?”

That wasn’t where he’d expected things to go—he’d been halfway primed to defending the honor of the art of the kitchen, actually—but Riaag didn’t have to fumble for an answer. “The Faaroug has a whole fuckload ‘e enemies, Holy One, as that same majesty y’all both share can make some people real fucken pissed off. He ain’t helpless, but he’s only one man, ‘n folks what ain’t right pleased with him tend ter come in numbers most abundant. That’s why he’s got me.”

Valin squinted. “But you’re only one man, too, Riaag.”

“Yeah, but I’s real big,” he said with a chuckle. “I weren’t always, though, so we had ter keep on the move back in the old days. That’s why you cain’t be such a little shitstain ter ever’body alla’ time, Holy One. You’s needin’ kindly sorts ter look after you ‘n provide good company. Get yerself a nice li’l entourage ‘n you won’t want fer nothin’, ‘specially if you’s inclined ter stay in Naar Rhoan.” He pulled the comb from his belt and set to untangling another lock of Stupid Horse’s mane. “We wouldn’t mind it if’n you did. Lotta room inside these here walls.”

She was quiet at that. Riaag let her sit with herself for a bit as he combed; Valin tended to react to the smallest scraps of goodwill with suspicion, and pushing hospitality on her would just scare her off again. Sarouth had long since told him the value of letting a busy mind untie some of its own knots, at least once it could be trusted not to be burning itself for fuel. She had her amulet to keep the worst of it at bay. God-speakers had to learn how to think important thoughts somehow.

He was most of the way through a fresh rebraiding when Valin spoke up again. “I shouldn’t live here, though. Nobody likes me.”

“Yeah? Why not?”

“Dunno. They just don’t.” He heard her kick a rock somewhere behind him and kept a steadying hand on Stupid Horse’s flank. The last thing Valin needed during a rare moment of soul-bearing was getting stomped on by an animal as unpredictable as her deed name. Riaag caught a hint of a sniffle and kept his eyes on the lock of horsehair in his hands.

“They’re right, though,” said Valin. “I’m a bad god-speaker. Everyone hates me and everyone’s scared of me and I don’t have bonds with any of the Animals.”

The quality of her god-speaking was not Riaag’s place to evaluate. That other part, though? That, he could more fairly discuss. “It ain’t strange ter not know which of the Animals feels right even at twice yer age, Holy One. I didn’t know myself ’til I was startin’ on my twenties. Prob’ly my twenties, anyway.” He could feel the question bubbling up in her throat and answered before she could say it: “I only says prob’ly ’cause I don’t truly know the hour nor the day. Me ‘n Sarouth, we’s picked out a birthday ter celebrate, but mostly I’s got ter get by on gut instinct. You ask me how old I is ‘n I’ll tell you how old I’s feelin’ in my bones that day.”

He could feel her squinting at him through her hair. “So you’re lying about how old you are…?” she guessed.

“Cain’t lie ’bout what I don’t know,” said Riaag, calling on every ounce of self-control in his body to pretend it wasn’t getting to him. “I ain’t ever gonna know, not fer certain, so I’s content with a rough estimate ‘n a sense ‘a what feels accurate when.” Even half-wounded, he could still see right through her fierce little smokescreen. He glanced over his shoulder at her. “What’s the question you’s meanin’ ter ask but won’t?”

Valin looked away. “You’re gonna say I’m stupid.”

“The horse’s stupid. You ain’t a horse. Speak up, now.”

She rubbed at the back of her neck. Sarouth did that, too; how many of his quirks had she already picked up without realizing? Come to think of it, how many of Riaag’s had she taken as her own, too? “I know the Chant. Everybody knows the Chant except for little babies. It’s getting all up between my ears like a headache that doesn’t hurt. I can’t go a whole day without you or Sarouth telling me more Chant stuff so I don’t have a choice about that, either. Um.” She glanced up at him and them back at the ground. “Nobody tells me other stuff, though. Like. What the Animals mean. I know the Scavenger Kings,” she added, hastily, “but that’s just Beetle, and Jackal, and Vulture. That’s just three. Nobody tells me anything about the others! How am I supposed to be guided by the Animals if I, if I don’t even know which Animal means what?”

It was easy to forget just how much time Valin had spent on her own, her sickness keeping her isolated even before her divinity awoke. Oral traditions were harder to learn when people kept scaring you off before you could absorb anything! How could he explain this in a way that’d bridge some of that gap where her social skills were not? She didn’t listen to anyone but him and Sarouth, and in Riaag’s case he suspected she was only humoring him most of the time. Why else would she keep making weird demands he wasn’t sure how to approach? Best to start with the basics, if she was actually in the mood to absorb things today. “You can start by listenin’ ter more people, ‘n askin’ ’em nicely if’n you’s any questions once they’s done. Most folks is more likely ter be friendly if they knows you’s tryinna’ be courteous. We’s all done a grand service by actually fucken listenin’ ter others. Most storytellers is right thrilled ter death ter have proof they audience were payin’ attention, too.”

“Okay, storyteller,” she said. “What Animal should guide me?”

Maybe he should’ve expected this. Riaag let his features soften a little and adjusted his stance so the charms he wore opposite his trophy skulls were more on display. With no clan to show on his clothes, Riaag had chosen to wear everything else. “I cain’t tell you which one is right fer you, Holy One, but I can tell you ’bout mine, if you cares ter hear it.”

“I guess.” She took a hesitant step closer, her eye on Stupid Horse the entire while. She pointed at the most prominent of the charms. “Start with that one.”

“This one’s Wolf,” said Riaag. “Gotta have Wolf, ’cause it ain’t so much I picked Wolf as Wolf picked me. T’would be fucken weird were I ter ignore such a clear message. Gotta be fierce in a fight, with sharp teeth ‘n a mighty howl, all that’s ter be expected, but Wolf also takes care ‘a the cubs ‘n nurtures the pack. Reckon runnin’ a whole fucken stronghold counts. I’s Chosen ‘a Wolf, like I said, so I’s put great thought inter how ter best exemplify such a creature.”

The corners of Valin’s mouth creased into a frown. “You mean nobody told you what you’re supposed to do?” Her displeasure was thick enough to cut into kebab chunks.

Riaag chuckled. “That’s the thing, ain’t it? We favored get ‘a the First Scavenger, we’s got ideas ’bout what them Animals is up ter, but we cain’t know fer sure without great contemplation. It’s diff’rent fer ever’body. You just gotta chew on it until you know what feels right.”

Valin’s frown deepened. “Oh. This is the same kind of shit as you picking your birthday, isn’t it, Riaag.” She was already learning to flatten a question into a statement to show resignation or contempt. Sarouth would be happy to hear she’d picked up something from him during their work together, if nothing else!

“Fucken right it is, Holy One,” he replied, cheerily. “You see why the Hill God needs god-speakers ter help sort this shit out, eh?”

She grumbled like a crocodile and pointed at another charm on his belt. “So what can you tell me about that one?”

He slid his hand beneath the charm so it rested flat against his palm. “This’s Scorpion. Scorpion’s got a fucker ovva sting in that tail, ‘n pinchers ter match, ‘n can be a source ‘a great surprise ‘n consternation if found somewhere surprisin’, but that ain’t why I follows.”

“Yeah? So why, then?”

“You ever been out in the hills ‘n seen a flesh ‘n blood scorpion skitterin’ around, all loaded down with they babies? Just cartin’ them li’l boogers around ’cause they’s too teensy ter help theyselves yet? That’s Scorpion, ter me. They’s always gonna be need fer someone ter bear a burden, someone ter raise a child, someone ter be strong when others cain’t be. Scorpion carries the weight.”

“Huh.” He could almost see the ideas whirling in her head. Not many people revered Scorpion the way Riaag did, which was fine; most people were happy to ask for Scorpion’s blessing for ease in childbirth or help with parenthood and leave things at that. Not Riaag. What greater onus was there than to be responsible for someone else? What heavier load could one find than to preserve another’s life? Each of Scorpion’s get would one day become Scorpion Scorpionself, and yet to get there, Scorpion had to nurture each one with love. What was helpless today was ferocious tomorrow, and yet tomorrow’s warriors could only exist if they were allowed to be small and helpless today. It was a wonderful not-quite-paradox. Just as Wolf granted him the howl that rallied the pack, so too did Scorpion ensure his back would not break when it came time to carry them home.

If Valin had clicked to any of this she showed no sign. “Isn’t it weird to worship a bug?”

Worship wasn’t the right word for it. He’d worry about teaching her the subtle differences between words later; for now she had questions to answer. “Veneration takes many forms, Holy One. Beetle’s a bug, too, ‘n ain’t nobody what keeps the Chant who’ll say we oughtn’t revere the most beautiful Scavenger King.”

“Huh,” she said again. In spite of her earlier claims Valin’s knowledge of the Chant was scattershot, thanks to a combination of no one to sing it to her when she’d been on her own and Sarouth having more luck teaching her how to call to the earth and stones than philosophize. Riaag tried to counteract this by pointing out whenever the Chant could interact with her everyday life; even if she didn’t know it yet, the idea was that this way she’d understand a little more about why it was so important. If she cared, though, she was too busy asking questions for him to tell: “What if somebody came up to me and said they ven-er-a-ted Spider, though? Or Fly? Stupid nasty buzzing Fly, zzz!” She bared her teeth gleefully when making the buzzing sound.

“Then they’s prob’ly got good reason ter revere such a lowly Animal, ‘n ought ter be heard out. Maybe they’s got secret words hidden there that you ain’t gonna hear unless you’s willin’ ter engage thusly. Just ’cause you ain’t fond ‘a somebody’s Animal’s worldly nature don’t mean nobody cain’t draw great purpose from it all the same.”

“I guess….” Valin craned her neck to better see the small, bird-shaped token hanging towards the back of his belt. “So what’s that one, then?” she asked, pointing.

Riaag glanced askance with a small smile. “Nightingale. I likes ter sing.” There was so much more to his relationship with Nightingale than that, chief among them the way he felt like he could truly be the sweet little bird Sarouth often said he was thanks to Nightingale’s gentle approval, and if Valin wanted to know more about that she could ask him again when she was a fair deal older. A girl who could barely handle seeing her tutor give his oathbound a peck on the cheek in front of her without breaking down in disgust didn’t need the juicy details of his intimate life.

Valin was, for once in her angry little existence, willing to leave things at that. “That’s it?”

“Pretty much. Sometimes somebody’s gonna have an Animal in they life fer simple reasons. A warrior asks fer help from Tiger’s claws, someone what swims ‘n fishes hopes ter be more like Carp, that kinda shit. It don’t got ter be fancy. It’s like decidin’ if you’s a boy or a girl or similar such. You can always change it later, it’s just gotta feel right fer who you is now.”

“I guess.” She scratched at her cheek. “I don’t have any charms or things, though, so it doesn’t matter.”

Was that the problem? Valin wore an amulet to help her separate real and godly things from various less true visions, but that she kept under her clothes these days, and save for a simple wooden bead necklace and the dagger tucked into her sash she didn’t have much else in the form of ornamentation. In Riaag’s case he’d always realized kinship and then made things to reflect it. Maybe things worked in the other direction for her. At least she was thinking about things at all.

The tricky part would be convincing her that it wasn’t a problem. “Can always make yerself somethin’, see if it fits right,” said Riaag.

Valin groan-growled and threw up her hands, attracting Stupid Horse’s attention. Riaag gripped its lead just in case the damn thing got any ideas. “That’s not the point!” she cried, ignoring the way the beast’s eyes tracked her. “Ugh! I don’t want to talk about this anymore!”

“That’s all right, then. Just don’t go scarin’ the horses or we’s gonna have a problem on our hands.”

Her eye met Stupid Horse’s and they stared each other down, each too stubborn to move. Riaag kept himself ready to intercept the animal. He’d never had to flip anything over his shoulder that was bigger than a deer, so figuring out where its center of balance fell and how to keep his soft, important parts away from the hooves would be critical. It wasn’t a matter of whether he was willing to shoulder-check something big enough to carry his fully-armored weight on its back for hours at a time. The issue was how good a job he’d be able to do when the time came.

Undeterred, Valin pointed right at its nostrils. “Are you sure that’s a horse?”

Stupid Horse had a different number of toes than the horses Riaag was used to seeing (and eating), and its mouth was differently-shaped, and its eyes pointed forward a lot more than your everyday soup-pot pony’s did, and its pupils were rounder, and it was significantly larger than usual, and it might have been pure evil incarnate, but the merchants who’d sold them Stupid Horse and Karsta had called them horses, so horses they must be. Dwelling on the alternative wasn’t very charitable. “Yeah. They don’t spook when they smell orcs, so I think they’s bred ’em special. Trained ’em not ter freak the fuck out when shit gets loud, too. They eats grass ‘n goes clip-clop ‘n have the most delicious scent ter ’em, so I’s ready ter declare ’em equine.”

“Prove it.”

This particular challenge Riaag knew how to solve. He rummaged in his pocket to produce the tapering purple length of a freshly-dug carrot, which he offered to Stupid Horse with a flattened palm even as he kept the lead clenched tightly in his fist. The hateful animal once again chose to spare his fingers. One day he might not be so fortunate. “See? Horses like carrots.”

She regarded Stupid Horse with slightly horrified wonder. The few times he could remember seeing her around the paddock, Valin had always preferred Stupid Horse to Karsta; Riaag always thought of Karsta as the less horrible twin, but he hadn’t pissed the damn thing off the way she had, so maybe Stupid Horse’s generic outward venom made it the more known of two mysteries. Having watched him feed it without losing any parts, her childish petulance had sizzled away to leave enthusiasm behind.

“I saw you and Sarouth sit on their backs! Like merchants! You rode on them and didn’t even fall off! Nobody rides horses!”

He nodded. “They sure don’t. We’s always makin’ a big-ass entrance when we gallops up on these things. S’a good way ter show just how diff’rent Naar Rhoan ain’t afraid ter be.”

Who taught you to do that, though?”

“We got shown how ter put the tack on ‘n feed ’em ‘n such, but mostly? We had ter figger it out as we went,” said Riaag. At the time it’d felt like his nuts would never recover. Another nice part about being able to stay close to Naar Rhoan for all these past weeks was not having to worry about saddle sores. Being a broad, fat man wasn’t as nice as it usually was when it came to staying on the back of an ornery animal! How Sarouth managed to ride at such a good clip, all while sitting sideways in the saddle so his robes didn’t get all tangled up, remained an eternal mystery.

Riaag could see something in Valin’s eyes, something she might not have known others could spot. Valin Mad-Eyes was a problem and a god-speaker and a walking, talking liability, but she was also a little girl, and Riaag hadn’t been herding the stronghold’s children for as long as he had to not know a thing or two about what kids liked.

He leaned over just enough to get his mouth a handspan closer to her ear. “You wanna sit on its back yerself?”

Valin’s visible eye went as round as the moon, which was fitting, given its color. “What? No way! No way! She chewed her lip. I can’t do that, can I, though? It doesn’t have a seat on it….”

“You don’t need a saddle ter ride, Holy One, just some balance. C’mere, I’ll pick you up ‘n put you up on there.”

Releasing Stupid Horse’s bridle to have both hands free was an act of unmatched trust which Riaag hoped he wouldn’t regret. Valin lifted her arms and he hoisted her into the air—he caught her trying not to laugh as he did so—to then place her onto the horse’s back. Its barrel-wide sides made her legs stick out at funny angles. From her current seat she was actually a good ways above his eyeline.

“I’m so high up,” she said around a manic, toothy grin. She didn’t seem to know what to do with her hands.

“Now you knows some ‘a how I sees the world,” said Riaag as he hurriedly reclaimed Stupid Horse’s lead. “Grab yerself a chunk ‘a mane with each hand, Holy One, ‘n I’ll take you ’round in a circle.”

She did so and clung in place as Riaag urged his steed to take a few plodding steps. Valin shrieked with delighted fear and Stupid Horse’s ears flicked towards her; in response Riaag kept his ironclad grip on the lead and produced another carrot chunk to ensure its cooperation. Stupid Horse didn’t seem to mind the noisy thing holding on to it so long as Riaag was willing to provide it a steady stream of treats. Valin probably didn’t weigh that much more than a saddlebag when you got down to it. If she tolerated riding, or even liked it, what feats of horsemanship would she get up to after growing up with time in the saddle? Riaag had figured out his share of dirty tricks in the scant few seasons he’d been taking Stupid Horse into battle, and he was a late bloomer. Maybe she’d be a natural. Maybe she’d discover completely new ways to fuck people up from horseback all on her own. If she got on well enough with the Usoans to learn some of the ways they fought from astride those deer they rode on, say, or decided to figure out what the deal was with their weird spear-throwers, or got some war-dogs and taught them to keep her horse’s legs safe from enemy axes while she rode into battle….

No, that wasn’t fair to Valin. She had potential, yes, and she’d surely do incredible things if she wanted to because that was just what god-speakers did when left to her own devices, and he had no business pinning any other grand dreams on her angry little head. Now he needed to give her a chance to be an excited little kid in spite of her getting handed a life that expected her to do all her growing up at once. Her laughter was a rare enough sound. Perhaps if he gave more opportunities like this one she’d one day forgive him for wanting her to care so much about beans.

Riaag walked them around the paddock a few times. Valin nearly lost her balance now and again and he was quick to be at her side every time; unlike when Sarouth had been learning, she didn’t fall off, and it was only when Riaag eventually lifted her from Stupid Horse’s back and set her feet back on the ground that she finally gave in to wobbliness.

“I was on a horse,” she said as she draped herself against the paddock fence. She looked tired. Riaag still remembered how much energy it’d taken him to stay in the saddle at first, and he’d never been screamed at by an irritable orc-horse before. “Riaag, I could see so far from up there!”

“How was it? The Faaroug tends ter get a bit wiggy if he cain’t keep both feet on solid ground fer long. He took hisself a while ter acclimate ter ridin’. You seemed ter be doin’ okay, though.”

She giggled wearily. “I could see everything,” she said. “All I had to do was sit and the horse went around and around for me. Nobody said it’d be fun.”

Horseback riding and fun were two concepts that Riaag tended to keep very separate in his head. Sure, he had a good time when he’d go racing with Sarouth, and leaping from the saddle to bear down on some poor fucker who’d picked a fight was tremendously satisfying, and he sure did like making Stupid Horse’s mane and tail look properly pretty. All of that was obviously true. Was it fun, though? Valin seemed to think so, so he wasn’t about to tell her she was thinking wrong.

“I want to go again,” continued Valin. “My legs are sore, though. Can I go again once I feel better? I’ll be fine in the morning. God-speakers are always fine in the morning.” She tried to stand up again and promptly fell back against the fencing. That checked out with Riaag’s first riding experiences, too.

God-speakers were, indeed, always fine in the morning. They could shake off the most hideous wounds if they were able to walk the Labyrinth after sustaining them; a little bow-leggedness was nothing compared to the horrors Riaag had witnessed. He glanced at her bandaged forearm and the hints of too-fresh rust stone markings that spangled the skin there. Was Valin close to finding the center? Were Sarouth’s tips for traversing those god-sculpted halls any help? Riaag could never truly understand what it was like to have his dreams ripped away from him with something far greater left in their place; he’d never felt the call of the divine in his bones and he’d never had to carve a map into himself to keep from getting lost, so he didn’t feel like it was his place to ask about it. At least He Who Sleeps Beneath the Earth was eager to knit together those bodies that broke in His name.

It wouldn’t do him any good to fret over Valin the same way it didn’t do him any good to fret over Sarouth. What was important was that she was letting him see a part of herself that was anything but sullen and contrary. She almost never did that! That kind of trust was worth celebrating.

“Yeah, a’ight. We’ll talk with Sarouth some later terday, see how you’s doin’ with yer studies, maybe see what all you’s earned in return. Reckon good learnin’ is deservin’ ovva reward now ‘n again, eh?”

Valin let out a tired little cheer, once more drawing the attention of Stupid Horse. She reached out to pat it on the nose. “Good horsey. Good. You hear that? We’re gonna be friends.” Stupid Horse let this play out without incident. Maybe Valin was some sort of horse whisperer. Stranger things had happened.

“Just don’t let the fucken thing bite you, Holy One. I ain’t too eager ter learn whether you’d wake up with all them claws back where they ought ter be.”

She rolled her eyes at him. “You always call me Holy One this, Holy One that. You know my name, Riaag. You can use that.”

“Ask Sarouth how good I is about not callin’ him his title ‘n see how that’s gone fer him.”

“Ugh! That’s different! He’s important, it’s not the same. Important people get their own rules.”

“Makes it extra-special that he uses yer name, then, don’t it?”

Valin leaned back against the fencing and dug her toe-claws into the soil. She was still at that age where it was easier to keep her feet wrapped, and maybe in sandals, than to deal with growing claws shredding custom-sized shoes. Riaag could’ve sworn she’d gained several inches during her time in Naar Rhoan alone. “Sarouth’s different. He usually calls me a little rat bite, anyway.”

“Is you troubled by bein’ referred ter as such? You can always tell him ter quit.”

She shrugged. “I dunno. It’s, um. It’s almost good, as a name, but not quite. And it’s still not the same thing as you calling me Holy One all the time. That’s all.”

Referring to an Agritakh-ruhd casually was anathema to Riaag, as even Sarouth, the unmistakable love of his life and his closest, most treasured friend, had learned to let the formalities slide so long as they were in public. Valin deserved the respect granted by her demigodhood no matter how young or untested she was. Was there some way he could connect her wanting to be called the right thing to how other people wanted to be treated right, too? It smelled like a teaching moment. Maybe he could get her to be less vicious to other people in exchange for giving her a different title, loath as he was to do so. Then again, Riaag had promised her he’d look after her until she found somewhere else she’d rather be, and just getting her to accept that had been a fight. She was just so angry all the time, and frightened. Was this her way of opening up? He’d be a fool to ignore what few chances she ever gave him.

“Well, let’s put it like this. You prove ter me you’s good enough at swearin’ ter keep my company, maybe I’ll consider referrin’ ter you by somethin’ a smidge shorter’n Valin Mad-Eyes, who is holy.”

“You’re telling me to cuss?” She sounded excited by the prospect, and a little anxious.

“I knows you can. I’s askin’ you ter prove you can do it well.

Valin took a deep breath before barking out, “Shit!” Stupid Horse flicked its ears towards her, its snout now buried in a feed bag to make sure its record of not biting anyone stayed that way. Riaag remained unimpressed.

“You’s gotta do better’n that. C’mon, go fer the big one. Use it in a sentence.”

“Riaag’s being mean because he won’t say my fuck-ing name!” What in the world was with that pronunciation? It was like she almost forgot the rest of the word. At least she was using a fuck word in a properly creative way. She was almost there! He just needed to coax a little more out of her.

“Again.”

“Riaag is being mean because he won’t say my fuck-ing—”

Riaag shook his head. “Not quite. You’s makin’ it too staccato, like it’s two li’l words you don’t much enjoy the taste ‘a, when it ought ter be near as ter a single forceful sound as you’s able ter manage. Fucken. It’s a good fucken cuss word, Holy One, you’s needin’ ter respect its power ‘n make it yer own.”

“Sarouth doesn’t say it that way.”

“Yeah, well, I’s better at swears ‘n he is by a fucken league. Ask him next time you’s practicin’ miracles, he’ll say the same.”

Her face scrunched up again, but this didn’t stop Valin from taking a deep breath and belting out, “Riaag Bough-Breaker had better say my fucken name after this!”

“Fucken tremendous, Valin,” said Riaag, glowing with avuncular pride. He opened the paddock gate and gestured to her. “C’mon, rat bite, it’s almost noontime. I’s gonna show you how ter make a new kinda meal, ‘n you can tell me if it’s pleasin’ ter yer sensibilities.”

“And now Riaag’s going to make me some fucken lunch,” she said to herself as she fell into step behind him. The profanity still sounded like someone else’s word in her mouth, and that was fine. She just needed time. Time was something Riaag found he had more and more of to give these days.

Latching the gate behind them, the mismatched pair made their way towards the lodge and its kitchen full of promise (and, if Riaag had anything to say about it, braised horse chops).

The talks with Usoa had gone much better than Riaag had ever expected, especially given how their truce was barely six seasons old. The Rhoanish had sponsored Usoa’s return to Concordance, much to Usoa’s chagrin, and that’d been a success most ways you sliced it; when Riaag and Sarouth had dealt with the tower there had been Usoan remains on the premises to bring home, and Etxeloi being allowed to return some of his fallen wood-watchers to rest had been another bittersweet victory. All the progress between their settlements had inspired Sarouth to keep pushing for more and newer ideas. In practice this meant that the River People had orcs in their midst again.

Their leader—somehow Riaag never seemed to catch his name, and he was starting to suspect it was a cultural thing—was an unbelievably sour man in a very large hat who’d probably rather die than give any Rhoanish the time of day, but he was not the only one who kept the village running, and those hard-working others had truly gone above and beyond. Riaag being on friendly terms with the village herald, its warlord, and the leader of its spy network had paved the way for Sarouth to offer the next entry in a series of collaborative opportunities. Wouldn’t it be nice if they could put their construction skills towards something more artistically satisfying than sheds and barns? Yes, of course it would. It’d be a perfect way to show their continuing friendship as assured by their treaty, and even more reason for the Rhoanish to provide extra crops and field workers as compensation. Everyone would remain such good friends. There was no reason to discuss the bloodshed in which the agreement had first been forged, now was there?

Riaag ambled along the riverside to admire the waters from which the River People took their name. The river was long and broad, filled with fish that the Usoans devoured in turn, and knowing that their River God made Her home within it sounded about right. The water’s surface sparkled beneath the light of the afternoon sun, broken by passing boats and the occasional swimmer. He knew from experience that the waters would be surprisingly balmy despite the late-winter chill. If Riaag had to be some sort of very wet deity he wouldn’t mind personifying such a thing. He’d rather be a Lake God, of course, and he didn’t like following through on that line of thought too much further because it implied he’d no longer have such a wonderful relationship with the Hill God, but sometimes a man liked to muse upon impossible things.

A swimmer surfaced with a flopping fish clenched in one hand. She (as upon getting a better look at her clothing he could see that she was dressed as an Usoan woman) kicked her way to the docks and hauled herself ashore to start eating her prize alive, paying Riaag no mind as she did. He may as well have been a post, or a lantern, or one of the big wolves the Usoans kept instead of dogs. It was nice to be just another part of the scenery in someone else’s village; not too long ago it seemed like the River People still saw every orc they met as a potential threat, no matter how small or friendly-looking. Being ignored meant people felt safe enough around him to not dwell on the fact that he was there.

Two bundled-up children and a wolf cub ran past Riaag as he continued his stroll. All three of them looked as well-fed as could be, at least accounting for the River People’s innate scrawniness, which was good. He still remembered the wan and hungry faces that’d watched him and Sarouth be escorted through the village gates all those months ago. It’d been nearly two years since the Usoan famine, nearly two years since their neighbors had arrived to appease the land and deal with their god-speaker at the time. The fields, once fallow, now boomed with vegetables, the paddies producing their own hearty crop of rice come harvest time, and it was all thanks to the blessings of one god, the rescission of another’s wrath, and a whole lot of hard work from everyone. Rot that got into the ground was no easy feat to clean up! It’d taken an entire slew of Rhoanish farmers working day and night to get the soil turned and ready to grow once more. So long as Usoa managed not to piss off their River God again, it’d hopefully hold.

It took a special kind of person to forge an intimate bond with a god and proceed to rub their ass all over it. Riaag had never realized just how much he’d come to rely on Sarouth not being a tremendous shithead when it came to leading people until he’d met the competition; that late leader had been so eager to blame the village’s problems on outsiders he’d completely ignored the River God’s wishes, which seemed like rule one when it came to serving a deity. He’d trashed a good chunk of the island palace in pursuit of Sarouth even after the two of them had accepted hospitality in Her name. Riaag hadn’t blamed the village warlord for cutting off the old god-speaker’s head when all was said and done. Once they got someone more level-headed (if sour) in place, diplomacy had been much easier for everyone.

Riaag stepped to the side to allow a scythe-horned deer pulling a cart to trot past. He’d yet to get a bead on how Usoan beastmaster traditions worked, as while the River People kept animals for food and even rode on their backs at times, they seemed impersonal with any creature that wasn’t a wolf. The Rhoanish, on the other hand, doted on anything they could get their hands on, with every chicken and rabbit intended for the stew pot given a loving life until the final hour arrived. Even Riaag’s villainous horse was guaranteed a nice, warm stable with regular treats. He’d spoken with Usoans about their animals before—you couldn’t really know your neighbors unless you took the time to talk to regular folks, not just the excitingly important names—and there was just something there he couldn’t quite wrap his head around. Maybe they saved all their love for their pets (and their wolves). River People couldn’t eat carrion without getting very, very sick, so maybe they got sick if they cared too much for something that died, too? He’d have to look into that one more.

That was another reason he made the ass-destroying trek to Usoa whenever Sarouth suggested they go: the Usoans working back at Naar Rhoan deserved to have their needs anticipated. You couldn’t anticipate much of anything without understanding people. People had died because of mistaking hunters and search parties for raiders before, and the peace brokered in the aftermath of that mess had been strained by mistaking simple oversights for malice. Naar Rhoan thought of itself as a friendly place, and yet it seemed the natural orcish need for friendly clashing and play-fights could be easily interpreted as bloodlust from a village that saw most combat as the most serious of affairs. Perceived bloodlust was scary, and a scared Usoan would turn to poison if they thought they had to. Keeping their respective groups from murdering one another was a lot of work! The lodge was going to be a symbol of all that effort that would endure longer than either he or Sarouth ever could. You had to build things to last if you were serious about them.

Riaag’s feet took him further along the riverside until he came to the bridge leading from the mainland to an island some ways out into the water. This was where they stayed when visiting Usoa, both as a matter of convenience and a matter of pride: it was said that any who set foot upon the island was cursed to die if they acted against the village. Sarouth and Riaag’s continued good health was a nice little way to show they did not come to the River People with anger in their hearts (or at least that any such anger was entirely reasonable levels thereof) and that they desired to be on their best behavior while within Usoa’s limits. His boots tromped along the curve of the bridge as he enjoyed the brisk weather. That their host holm just so happened to be kept separate from the rest of the village was an added bonus, especially when visiting during those wonderful few months of the year when it was peak firefly season. They were still too early in the year for that, but Riaag didn’t mind. Privacy mattered. If a man wanted to hold hands with his oathbound while traveling abroad, he didn’t always want the whole of his host village watching his every move while he did so.

The island palace spread out before him in all its splendor. It really was beautiful now that they’d fixed the holes that’d gotten blown through the walls. Some people might’ve complained about calling it a palace because it didn’t have much in the way of multiple floors save for a tower or two; Riaag was willing to make exceptions due to the loveliness of the architecture and the clear purpose it served, to say nothing of the fact it had to stay up on stilts so the river’s regular flooding wouldn’t carry it away. Everything in Usoa was balanced on long, spindly wooden legs. The River People had a daily relationship with stairs he was happy to never have needed to develop.

While Riaag could’ve used his remaining time to simply explore the island across the bridge in solitude until Sarouth came back from whatever the fuck he was doing, his sentinel’s eye had picked out the shape of a groundskeeper sweeping away some snow that had fallen across the path. If the lodge was to be successful, somebody would have to be mindful of the details, and nobody could share minor little details quite like someone in charge of keeping things clean. He kept his distance as he hailed the distant figure.

“Clear waters, friend. Will you speak to me right now?”

The groundskeeper startled a bit before pushing back their round reed hat to better look up at Riaag. He could see their eyes flick from his face to the skulls on his belt and back again. Were River People more at ease around an orc who wore evidence of slaying other orcs, or did that just make things worse? In this case it seemed to be the former; even someone still getting used to telling Rhoanish faces apart would have a hard time mistaking him for anyone else. “Clear waters, guest of She Who Changes,” they said.

“I have questions about the island. Will you answer them for me?” asked Riaag, careful to say each tone correctly.

“If She wishes for you to be here, then I’ll see what I can do to answer any questions you’ve got for me.”

That was a downright exuberant response for an Usoan. Riaag once more found himself grateful for his status as a minor celebrity. “This island is sacred to the River God, yes?”

“That’s right.”

“When was the palace built on it?”

“The palace?” repeated the groundskeeper. “It was soon after our forebears came here, guided by the River God, so maybe a few dozen years ago. Why?”

Riaag didn’t know how long River People lived when they were well-fed and healthy. Was a few dozen years a long time for them, or barely anything at all? He opted for a straightforward answer: “We have been talking about building more things in Naar Rhoan. If any who raised this place from nothing are still with us, they could make it very lovely.” He wasn’t sure if that was the most nuanced way to say things, but a body had to make allowances for having only so many months to practice a foreign language.

“Huh! I’d heard gossip about that going around, but I didn’t realize how serious your lot were.” The groundskeeper stroked their tidy beard. “Belasko the poisoner was one. Osabide and Eguntsenti, too. They were all young people when it was done. Still all very proud of their work, even though it’s been years since they’ve drawn up plans for so much as an outhouse. Give them half a chance and they’ll talk your ear off.”

Usoan names had a different cadence than Rhoanish ones and Riaag was careful to repeat each of them a few times to make sure he’d nailed the pronunciation. He grilled the groundskeeper—one Santutxo, he discovered after a little prodding—for as much personal information about the old builders as he dared, committing each hard-won detail to memory. Belasko’s toxin-brewing was a better lead-in than it sounded like on the surface, given that Riaag had seen the work of many Usoan poisons in person and had collected fun little facts about quite a few more; it would give them a little common ground, and perhaps Belasko would be more willing to draw up some ideas if he knew that the likenesses of poisonous animals could be worked into the detailing in his honor. The other two Riaag was less sure on (what in the absolute fuck was a scribe?) but he was sure he could make something work. Naar Rhoan already had architects running around and helping people build sheds right side up. Who wouldn’t be honored by the knowledge that they’d been sought out for their expertise despite there being suitable alternatives?

Not that Riaag was about to speak to any of the veteran three before floating his plans past Sarouth. Diplomacy made everything it touched extra-sticky, and they weren’t getting anything as big as Sarouth wanted to see built without a lot of diplomacy. There just weren’t enough Rhoanish builders with the skill the project would require. Sure, anyone could nail a bunch of boards together and call it good, but how did one build to endure the wind and the rain? How did you keep the snow from bowing in the roof? Could you make your struts with these decorations instead of those? How much ornamentation was a good idea and how much was detrimental to surviving everyday wear and tear? These were things that he could only guess at and which people with generations worth of knowledge could tell him. The longer he’d been working as a god-speaker’s aide, the more of a taste Riaag had gotten for listening as other people told him things. Sometimes they even knew they were doing it!

It was how it’d always worked between them: Sarouth handled the big ideas and Riaag handled the small ones. Having sworn an oath hadn’t changed that at all. The secret was in understanding how the big things were sometimes broken down into lots of little ones, and how a small idea could easily expand in size the longer you let it. A lodge sounded like a big idea at first, and it was, but it required lots of simple things to happen for everything to go right. There would be plans to be drawn—likely in part by the trio the groundskeeper had mentioned—and supplies to be arranged, builders to be guided to the stronghold and housing for said builders, and who knew what fresh bullshit would befall Naar Rhoan between now and then that could only be handled by an Agritakh-ruhd and his favorite disciple. Every plan they made nowadays had a bullshit contingent baked into it. Not doing so would be downright irresponsible.

Speaking of irresponsible, Riaag could already make out a familiar black hood weaving its way towards the bridge, trailing important-looking hats in varying stages of frustration. That was the way Sarouth strode when he was sure he was about to get his way, and it was also the same walk he’d walked just before picking a fight with an entire band of jackals. Yes indeed, those were some pissed-off gaits if Riaag had ever seen them. All this over negotiating making a suitably large building? Was it too much to ask to expect a diplomat to actually be diplomatic? Apparently so. Riaag sighed and made his way back towards the bridge to meet the coming crowd. The veteran planners would have to be dealt with another time, as now the call came for Riaag to go rescue Sarouth from the most fearsome foe under the sun: himself.

There was no set ritual for meeting with “the wind,” as Riaag was fond of calling things, but it felt at its smoothest and most proper if he just so happened to leave out a gift of tea or something small to nibble on while doing some chores that sent him outside the walls. This wasn’t mandatory—if there was truly an emergency Riaag would find words in his ear without so much as asking, and sometimes far closer to the stronghold than expected—but given that it was information he so frequently sought, compensation felt right. Today’s information was going to be something a little different. With luck, tea and a light meal would be enough to cover everything. Luck was just unreliable enough for Riaag to keep his eyes on the trees as he walked.

Valin tagged along after him, wearing her usual scowl and dragging an empty sledge behind her. She’d agreed to his offer of learning how to speak with voices from outside the stronghold—Valin was very keen on learning how to tell useful voices from hurtful ones in general—and had been enthusiastic about things up until the part about waking up early had come into play. Now she was in the full throes of a snit. Well, that was fine. It probably wouldn’t hurt if her first experience with speaking to people she technically wasn’t speaking to was paired with a less than sunny attitude. That same surliness would encourage her to dissect what she heard. You couldn’t always assume people were telling you the whole truth even if you were a direct representative of Agritakh. Riaag had learned that one the hard way.

They stopped in a little clearing a ways off the nearest path. Riaag was careful with the places he chose for meetings, since they were ideally just private enough to not have half the stronghold pouring into his personal space while just convenient enough for him to easily haul back the wood he’d been chopping, or the water he’d been hauling, or whatever it was he was doing outside the gates. Whenever he had the chance he preferred to be doing something purposeful while waiting to hear from the wind: if it turned out they just weren’t in the same place at the same time, at least that way he’d have something to show for his efforts, be it some fresh mushrooms for an upcoming meal or parts of a new poem. Information was never a guarantee.

“A’ight, rat bite,” said Riaag after a cursory scan for trouble. “Put that sledge down ‘n help me pick out a good tree ter chop up. I’s thinkin’ it’ll be fer tool bits, so we’s gonna want somethin’ sturdy but with a li’l bit ‘a flex ter it so it won’t shatter if it bonks somethin’ too hard.”

“I thought we were out here to talk to that mystery guy you mentioned.”

Riaag made an amused sound in the back of his throat. “Is we? We’s just out doin’ a little labor. I’s a mind ter teach you a li’l woodworkin’.”

Woodworking?

“It’s a good skill!” He gestured matter-of-factly as his eyes kept flicking between the trees. “Sometimes shit breaks when in the middle ‘a nowhere ‘n knowin’ how ter replace it can be a matter ‘a life ‘n death. Or at least life ‘n significant irritation.” He picked up a fallen branch and hefted it in one hand. “C’mere, lemme show you the kinda bark patterns that mean wood-bugs’ve got inter it….”

He saw the wolf before anything else. It was big, not as big as the one that’d given him his scar but still big, and its eyes shone with a cunning that was dangerous in an animal. A little cuff with beads on it encircled one of its forelegs. Riaag could hear Valin gasp as the beast padded up to him and stuck its nose into his free hand. He pulled a bone chip from the pouch on his belt and tossed it to the wolf, who caught it in midair before settling itself down to crunch. Riaag didn’t reach out to pet it. You didn’t pet the wolves raised by the River People unless you wanted to lose a hand, and at any rate, it was still on the job no matter how many snacks he fed it.

Valin clung to Riaag’s caftan in terror. “Is this another servant of Wolf?” she hissed to him through her teeth. “Is it gonna bite me, too?”

“Nah. This here’s just a li’l forest friend. It don’t serve the Animals more’n any other critter.”

“Who does it serve, instead?”

“That’s an excellent question!” said Riaag. He put down the branch and rested his palm on the head of his axe. “Don’t try ‘n spot ‘im afore he feels like lettin’ you spot ‘im. The wind has ways ‘a goin’ unseen.” He gestured to her with the hand not resting on his axe. “Pass me that bindle we packed. We ought ter set usselves a little place afore we get too far along ‘n ferget our manners.”

The wolf watched them both as Riaag laid out some teacups and a pot of cold black tea on a nearby stump. What to bring in terms of food had been quite the riddle; he’d originally intended to bring some boiled eggs, but Sarouth had learned of those plans and soon after there had been eggs no more. Steamed buns seemed like a safe choice, paired with vegetable bread and a little barbecue (without carrion in it, of course), and Riaag probably could’ve spent the entire day putting together a menu if he’d let himself. Instead he arranged the pots and bowls appealingly before taking one bun for himself, passing another to Valin, and letting things be. You had to be patient with these things, no matter how long ago you’d first seen the wolf. The wind hadn’t been freely blowing for so many years because it was predictable.

A figure melted from what had looked like nothing but bark and shadow a moment before. They looked lithe at a glance, though the figure’s loose clothes concealed their build, and the many different shades of gray that made up their cloak blended easily into the dappled sunlight through the boughs overhead. A sword hung at their belt opposite a long tube filled with the slender, feather-tipped spears the Usoans used. A mask covered the lower half of their face. They weren’t green like an orc, and their eyes were white where a normal person’s were red, but the easiest way to tell one of the River People had made their appearance was the pair of long, leaf-shaped ears that swept back and away from their narrow features. They showed no fear in appearing out of nowhere within grabbing range of Naar Rhoan’s most notorious defender.

Riaag nodded to the figure and received a nod in return. “Hi, Etxeloi. This here’s Valin Mad-Eyes, one ‘a our god-speakers. You’s likely seen her a bunch. She’s learnin’ ter talk with the wind terday.” He looked down at Valin, gesturing towards Etxeloi. “Valin Mad-Eyes, who is holy, may I present Etxeloi of Usoa, spymaster.”

“He’s spying on us?” she squeaked.

“Who d’ya think tells me if’n you ain’t been washin’ behind yer ears?” said Riaag. He allowed himself a little laugh before correcting himself. “He lets Usoa know all is friendly out here. Maybe a few other things, shit what’s a bit more sensitive than ever’body sittin’ in a circle ter sing, but I ain’t about ter judge a fella just watchin’ out fer his kin ‘n kind.”

“Bough-Breaker. Mad-Eyes. Greetings,” said Etxeloi. His Rhoanish had the same accent with which most Usoans spoke, though his use of it had only gotten more confident with the passing months. Things had come a long way from the days when they’d had to communicate using fragments of a shared trade language that neither of them knew that well. His slit-pupiled eyes regarded Valin with detached curiosity. “So she’s your daughter, now?” he asked, in Usoan. “Congratulations. It was only last season I kept finding her curled up in the bushes to sleep. She’s looking a lot better. You always did strike me as good father material.”

Riaag blanched. “Nothing like that,” he replied in the same tongue. “She’s our god-speaker’s pupil. I make sure she eats and has clean clothes to wear, but she’s here with me to learn how to speak with the wind, no more. I can’t claim any more than that. It wouldn’t be fair to her.”

“Hey! That’s not Rhoanish!” shouted Valin. She’d never been one to worry about her volume when interrupting adults and today was shaping up to be no different. At least she wasn’t cowering quite so much behind anyone now.

“It sure ain’t,” said Riaag, swapping languages again. “You ought ter learn some ‘a their tongue fer yerself. It’s important ter understand yer neighbors.”

“Yeah, yeah….”

Etxeloi helped himself to some of the tea, which he managed to drink through his half-mask. Riaag had never seen him without it. That Etxeloi actually had a nose and mouth under there like the rest of the River People was a matter of faith. “How does one learn to speak with the wind?” he asked, having returned to Rhoanish himself.

“Knowin’ it’s out there ‘n capable ‘a speakin’ is a good place ter start,” said Riaag. “Same with knowin’ a bit ‘a common courtesy, fer ter show cordial intent.”

“Both good things,” agreed Etxeloi.

“Also what all ter watch out fer, like knowin’ they’s wolves in them trees.” The wolf in question ignored the people speaking about it and continued crunching.

Valin, further emboldened, squinted up at Etxeloi’s face. “Why does Riaag talk to you?”

He hummed thoughtfully. “Because I talk back,” he offered. “And because while some of my people don’t trust Naar Rhoan, I’ve known him since the start, and he and your White-Hair have no lust for conquest. The Rhoanish only came to our lands because we took sacrifices we should not have.”

That was enough to send her zipping behind Riaag again. “You never said they killed anybody, Riaag!”

“It’s a bit rude ter put it out in public thusly,” said Riaag.

“But they killed people!

“Y’ever wonder where we got that number from, ’bout how many years Usoa is ter be friendly with us, no arguin’? One life given ter the River God, one year ‘a friendship.” He rapped his knuckle on one of his belt skulls. “Ain’t like I’s never done the same. Best we can do is look fer ways ter not get caught up in a loop ‘a grievances. Playin’ nice has done us both more good ‘n the alternative, anyway.”

It had been a mess back when things had first started. Riaag wasn’t about to pretend that the treaty was a perfect reparation, as no amount of smiling new faces could undo the people who’d lost their lives to misguided forest patrols or drowned in the name of a god they didn’t know. What it was was a way to shackle people’s anger so they could get anything done. Usoa had seen a lot of jackal raids, enough that they’d come to view all orcs as rampaging foes, and while they could be fierce warriors—you didn’t get berserker traditions without at least a baseline level of ferocity, and Riaag’s sole experience with that ghost-eating, warp-spasming lot had been more than enough for a lifetime—it was also far too easy to break them.

You could make an Usoan sick just by using the wrong tools to dig up the crops they ate. You could make one sick by feeding them the wrong meat. You could make one sick just by kissing them too much without swishing your mouth clean with ash-water first. With how simple it was to cause them woe by accident, why invite intentional strife? If they hadn’t been bound by the treaty, too many Rhoanish might have sought to collect on blood debts in the name of band and clan. Riaag didn’t know how long River People could hold grudges, but he knew how long a family of his own kind could, and given that the first Usoans had come to the valley because they were (as far as he could gather) just too shitty for their original neighbors to abide, it wasn’t anything he cared to test. He preferred making new friends at knifepoint to the alternative. Riaag’s first meeting with Etxeloi had ended up with a blade to his neck, and that had worked out for the best, so why not see where things could go if they were given a proper chance?

Valin seemed pleased enough with the answer she’d been given, so Riaag didn’t go into the details. It wasn’t like she wouldn’t learn all that shit eventually. God-speakers were responsible for the uglier side of the people they guided, too.

Instead, she’d found her courage again. “Were there always River People here?” she asked, once more scowling up at Etxeloi’s half-hidden face.

“Not always,” he replied. “My kind only began to travel this far east after our treaty with Naar Rhoan. I am here to make sure they stay safe.”

Riaag nodded. “Don’t never ferget that, neither. He’s they guardian, kinda like I is ter the Faaroug. He helps us so long as it ain’t gonna harm them ter whom he’s loyal. We’s a convenience. Best you remember that in case it’s important later.”

Now Valin’s frown was focused on Riaag. At least Etxeloi had a long history of seeing Riaag’s resting stern face so the sight of her tinier, less craggy glower wouldn’t be too startling. “Why do you trust somebody who tells you he’s got better friends?”

“Easy, rat bite. I trusts him ’cause least he’s bein’ honest ’bout it.”

Etxeloi looked amused at this. Riaag spoke the truth—he took great pains not to forget that Etxeloi’s duty was to spy on Naar Rhoan and its surroundings, and the intelligence thus gathered was never assured of reaching Rhoanish ears—and yet in spite of that it was Etxeloi who’d been a common source of guidance, who’d brought the right news at the right time, and who, in the past, had even fired on his own to protect Rhoanish lives. He couldn’t be trusted to keep a secret from Usoa’s strange and grouchy leaders. What he could be trusted with was Riaag’s friendship, and that counted for a lot more to Riaag than trivialities like village allegiance.

“Now,” said Riaag, giving Valin a soft tap on the top of the head, “how ’bout you explain what all we’s got on this here stump, so’s the wind can decide whether to blow on by…?”

They shared their simple meal with Etxeloi as Riaag explained the various things Etxeloi was known to do (mention things he’d seen, warn of impending faux pas, point out suspiciously bandit-free trails) and what they never asked of him (talking about Usoa unprompted, revealing the other spies who worked for him, sharing any of his poisons). Valin was willing to listen throughout, which was a pleasant surprise; if he had to guess, Riaag would’ve wagered it was because talking to foreign dignitaries wasn’t the kind of thing most other people did, even grown-ups. Maybe it was easier for her to give a shit about it because there was a man and his wolf right there, big as life, instead of a pile of beans and a bunch of abstract thinking. He’d need to be sure she was present for the next trade meeting even if she wasn’t going to talk to anybody. That kind of hesitant enthusiasm needed to be nurtured.

Valin herself seemed content with Etxeloi sharing extremely limited personal information. He didn’t ask much of her, Riaag noticed, and it had to be a relief for her to speak to someone who didn’t have any expectations for what an Agritakh-ruhd was supposed to be. Nobody mentioned the incident from that spring when she’d run into the trees, pursued by waking nightmares and a certain unseen guardian. Nobody asked when she’d be choosing a clan, or where the rest of her band was, or what she thought about her ancestors. It was so rare for Riaag to see her able to be a curious little kid with only a mildly shitty personality; most of the other instances he could think of involved him supervising her horseback riding practice, and those never involved other people. He’d hoped she’d take to Etxeloi as much as he had. What a relief to be proven right for a change!

She was even willing to ask a few questions of her own, once she’d warmed up enough and learned the basics of what was and was not wise to bring up. No, the wolf didn’t have a name. No, the River People didn’t name any of their wolves. No, they couldn’t speak wolf language. No, they didn’t ride on their wolves’ backs. No, they didn’t mind Riaag’s avatar-pelt helm, since an animal big enough to be used as armor was clearly no average beast. No, River People weren’t part wolf. Yes, she could pet Etxeloi’s companion, just this once. No, she wasn’t going to be taught how to bond with a wolf of her own. On and on she went. Riaag was grateful he’d thought to ask whether or not Etxeloi minded this sort of thing back when he’d first floated the idea of introducing the two; Valin was quickly proving to have the sort of inquisitive mind that made for very good diplomats. They’d get her speaking Usoan yet.

The sun crept across the sky as they spoke. It didn’t feel like that long, maybe a few minutes at most, but Riaag could clearly see how far the shadows had swung and smell the perfume of noon-blooming plants. They were needed elsewhere. So was Etxeloi, probably.

“I’s in great appreciation ‘a yer time,” he said as he began to stack up the empty cups for travel. Between the three of them the pot of tea had long since been drained. “Valin is learnin’ a great many things ’bout yer blood-kind as ‘a late, ‘n knowin’ more ’bout what all is goin’ on ’round the stronghold is always a fine idea.”

“Of course, Bough-Breaker,” said Etxeloi. He clicked his tongue and his wolf was on its feet in a flash, its ears pricked alertly. “I’m pleased that Naar Rhoan thinks enough of us to seek out knowledge.”

Riaag nudged Valin in the side. “Thanks, Etxeloi,” she said, mostly pronouncing his name correctly. Figuring out which intonations to use when was always the hardest part for anyone coming to Usoan from Rhoanish (or, for that matter, any of the countless nomad dialects from which Rhoanish drew its origins).

“I’m sure we’ll meet again, Mad-Eyes. I pray it will be on good terms.” He leaned against the trunk of a tree. Even looking directly at him, he was a little hard to make out among the patterned bark. His face was thoughtful beneath his mask and hood; Riaag had been getting in a lot of time reading expressions with hoods in the way. “And, Bough-Breaker?” he asked.

“Yeah?”

“A wise man doesn’t deny the inevitable,” said Etxeloi in Usoan.

Where had this come from? “What?”

“Think about it. You already know what I mean, and so does she.” With that, he was gone, and his wolf slipped into the trees behind him.

“So that’s it?” asked Valin once man and wolf had left. “We’re done here?”

“Almost.”

“What do you mean, almost?

This was what had been on Riaag’s mind all day, more than anything else. This was when he had to take a chance. He unlaced a pouch on his belt and drew forth something wrapped up in scrap cloth. Unwrapping it, he revealed a little statue carved out of wood with bits of paint picking out its eyes and tail. It was about the size of an egg and had the familiar shape of a short-eared rodent.

“This is Rat,” said Riaag. “Rat is small, ‘n Rat is smart. Rat’s got clever li’l claws fer solvin’ problems what bigger hands might fuck up. It’s easy ter underestimate Rat until you end up on the wrong end ovva nasty fucken bite.” He turned the statue around in his hand and held it out to her. “You says you ain’t got much ovva connection ter none ‘a the Animals, Holy One, but I’s reckonin’ you just ain’t been shown the right one yet, nor been given a proper focus fer ter contemplate. Dunno if Rat’s the one, ‘course. Cain’t hurt ter think about it, though, right? Put yer hands tergether, now.”

Valin cupped her hands and Riaag pushed the figurine into them, only letting go when it felt like she was ready to hold it for herself. She looked at it with a face that kept veering from confusion to dismay and back again.

“Do what you wants with that. Now it’s yer own choice, ‘n I ain’t gonna tell you otherwise.”

She stared at him through her curtain of hair. “You keep making me stuff. You made me my knife. You made me this thing. You make me food and clothes and all that stuff. Why do you keep doing that, Riaag? What do you want?”

He shrugged. “I wants you ter be okay. Cain’t promise happy, ain’t nobody can do such, but I can try fer okay. That’s all.”

“So you made me a statue of Rat?”

“Seemed fittin’ fer a little rat bite such as yerself,” said Riaag with a soft smile.

Valin held the figurine close before tucking it into her sash next to her knife. That wasn’t an outright rejection. That was all he could hope for, really. “So now are we done?” she asked, the pull for the sledge (now laden with firewood, as the conversation had gone on a bit) wrapped around her hand. Her other one kept resting on the statue’s nose, like she had to keep checking it was there. Rats were tricky creatures, after all.

Riaag bundled up the dishes in the bindle cloth. “Yeah, now we is. You wanna lead the way back? Reckon we oughtta test yer sense ‘a direction while it’s safe.”

“Okay,” she said. To her credit, she even knew which way to go.

They’d been walking for maybe five minutes when Valin stopped so suddenly he nearly trampled her. “Wait. Wait! Stop right here, there’s…I gotta get something.”

Riaag looked around. He didn’t see anything, nor did anything out of the ordinary come to his ears or nose. “Yeah?”

“Yeah, hold on, it’s, um….” Valin scanned the tree line. She got down on her hands and knees and began to tear at the brush, eventually unearthing a little shrub, roots and all; what was left looked like a little rabbit’s burrow, though there had been no creatures digging there before. Valin reached into the hole, rummaged around, and withdrew her hand, now clutching something. When her fingers uncurled they revealed a little glass vial, stoppered with cork and waxed twine, with something blue-green and oily sloshing around inside it. She held it up to the light. It sparkled.

“What is this?” she asked, her brow knitting up once again.

“Valin Mad-Eyes,” said Riaag in as even a voice he could manage despite his excitement, “you’s just found yerself a worldly gift from He Who Sleeps. The first ‘a many, no doubt.”

“But what does it do?

“Fucked if I know! Each god-speaker’s potions is diff’rent. We’ll show it ter Sarouth, see if he’s got any ideas. I think I remember him sayin’ somethin’ ’bout them matchin’ what you sees in the Labyrinth.”

She scowled. “Is this because I accepted that little carving of Rat?”

“Who knows? He Who Sleeps works in mysterious ways, ‘n it’d be easier fer alla us if He didn’t.”

“Oh.” Valin wedged the potion vial in the space between the Rat charm and her knife. If this kept up they’d need to get her some bigger carryalls to fasten to her sash. She hefted the sledge tie and continued hauling the firewood back towards the stronghold. Her thoughts were clearly busy ones. Riaag left her to her silence; he hadn’t grown from a scared, thoughtful child into a stronger, thoughtful, chronologically-young-enough-but-spiritually-very-old man without learning to spot someone else puzzling their way through some shit. He steeled himself for the quiet to last all the way to the gates and beyond.

It didn’t last that long.

“So, that stuff…that stuff that Etxeloi was talking about earlier. Did you mean it?”

Riaag froze. From the tone of her voice he could tell which stuff to which she was referring. “Thought you said you didn’t speak Usoan, rat bite.”

“I said it wasn’t Rhoanish. I didn’t say I didn’t know any of the words.” She leaned back in an attempt to look him in the eye without turning all the way around. “What wouldn’t be fair to me?”

He met her gaze, then glanced askance. Her moon-white glare was hard to look at for long. “Demandin’ somethin’ from you what you ain’t interested in pursuin’.”

“Like what?”

Was she going to make him say it? She was taking after Sarouth more than he’d realized; Valin was proving herself quite the emotional menace even without cheap shots. Still, he owed her honesty, because somebody had to. Riaag sucked air through the gap in his front teeth and forced himself to put the words in some sort of proper order. “Lookin’ fer kinship where they ain’t none. Tryinna’ offer solace what ain’t wanted. Askin’ you ter be what you ain’t. Just ’cause people think somethin’s true don’t make it so, after all.”

“You’re talking about family shit,” said Valin, flatly. At least she was swearing better nowadays.

Riaag ran his fingers though his hair and sighed. “Yeah. I is. Sorry.”

The firewood sledge slowed its steady course over the assorted litter carpeting the forest floor. Did she want a break from his sappy self? He couldn’t blame her; the gift of Rat had probably been too much already, given how skittish she was about presents and emotions, and an emotional present was out of the question. That on top of meeting Etxeloi, someone he’d taken great pains to establish was a dear friend of his and a trusted ally of Naar Rhoan itself, and that on top of finding her first potion, which Sarouth was sure to crow over! It was too much. He was too much. He’d told her the truth, though, because that was what she deserved to hear, so now she could make her own decision like the adult the world kept demanding she be. Once he wasn’t so upset he’d be able to explain himself better, anyway.

He could hear the rattling of the kindling a ways behind him, keeping pace instead of stopping entirely. A small hand found his own. Now it was Valin’s turn to have trouble looking straight at someone.

“Hey, Riaag? Can we, um…talk about something…?”

“We’re going to build a lodge,” said Sarouth as he stood atop the sacred hill, his breath puffing in the pre-dawn cold.

Riaag, who’d climbed the hill that morning with a bowl of hot porridge in the event Sarouth was in the mood to have a proper meal, frowned in confusion. “We’s gonna build a what?”

“A lodge. A seat of authority. When great leaders come to speak to whoever’s keeping this place going a generation or two from now, they need to be able to look towards somewhere and know we’re serious about who we are as an evolving people.”

This was some pretty deep stuff for breakfast time. “We’s got sheds. We’s got that pavilion fer the healers. We’s got plans fer barns ‘n things fer the beasties in fell weather. Ever’body else seems mighty pleased ter keep with tents, just like they ancestors used. What’s a lodge gonna do that we ain’t got already You ‘n me’s got us the tabernacle already.” Riaag also still maintained the smaller tent he’d used for himself before swearing his oath, since sometimes a man just needed peace and quiet and a space where nobody was going to bother him if he needed to recover after yet another instance of his brain setting itself on fire again, but a bodyguard’s personal quarters weren’t exactly as impressive as the space Sarouth kept. Sure, other places had fancy buildings in them to wow their guests, but Naar Rhoan was founded on the principle of changing the way people thought orcs could live. Riaag wasn’t sure how he felt about piling up a bunch of stuff to impress outsiders the way a lot of other strongholds liked to do. Weren’t the corpses on the walls enough?

“We do, my love, but we need to make it clear to those visiting that this” —he waved at the snowy stronghold in general while saying this— “is here to stay. They can’t show up at the gates expecting to humor us for a little bit until we get bored and either fall apart or walk away. We have to think years in the future, for the sake of Rhoanish who haven’t even been conceived yet.”

“I dunno…,” said Riaag. His was not the place to question the Hill God, but it was the place to question the Hill God’s fallible mortal avatar, and this was a duty he took seriously. The damnedest bullshit could come out of Sarouth’s mouth at times. Picking through the conversational garbage for treasures took no small amount of effort. Some days, such as today, simply refusing to agree outright in hope of forcing Sarouth to refine the point he was trying to make felt like the best way to get anywhere. “I mean, I guesses I just ain’t seein’ the point ‘a this, or somethin’.”

Sarouth’s gaze was bright and fixed on the horizon. What did he see in his mind’s eye? “Think about the places we’ve seen together, brave warrior. Think about how much of what we do we associate with major works of architecture. The island palace of Usoa. The Palace of Concordance. The wizard‘s tower.” He spat out that last example like it tasted bad in his mouth. “All of these places are more than just the stone and wood used to build them. They’re ideas. Naar Rhoan is an idea, one that all our fellow Rhoanish share, but we need it to be more. A lodge can do that.”

“Seems kinda wasteful ter have a place what sits empty most ‘a the year, though.”

“Oh, but it won’t! While we’ll obviously skew it towards entertaining visiting dignitaries, it’ll be worked into the sacred hill itself, allowing people to visit holy ground in a manner that’s hopefully far less intimidating. We can let refugees stay there until they get new housing put together. And you and I will live there year-round, of course.”

“We’s gonna what?” Something about sleeping in a big wooden box rubbed Riaag the wrong way in a fashion he didn’t currently have the luxury to unpack.

“We’ll take the contents of our tent and move them into a permanent room, just for us,” said Sarouth. “You can keep your private tent where it is, if you like, or you can claim a separate room to be your own space. I know how important it is to you.” He turned to Riaag with a smile. “It’s going to be the same approach we take with everything, you know? Doing something ourselves to show others they don’t have to be so afraid. Also this way we won’t have to worry about the ground getting all sodden when the weather’s shitty, which you were just complaining to me about the other day, so don’t pretend you’re suddenly fine with your boots getting caked in slush and mud all of a sudden, you.” He reached for the porridge, which Riaag was desperately trying to keep out of the worst of the wind. “I think I’m ready for that meal, please. No sense in letting it go cold while I try to unravel and re-weave that which He has shown unto me. I swear it felt like half my last Labyrinth run was through chambers made to look like parts of a big, impossible house.”

Riaag surrendered the bowl and palmed a spoon from one of his belt pouches before Sarouth could go facedown into his breakfast like an animal at a trough. God-speakers, honestly. “I guess one thing I’s worried over,” said Riaag once Sarouth had taken enough bites to be sure the quality was agreeable, “is whether folks might see it ‘n assume we’s puttin’ on airs. Like, tryinna’ be fancy in ways we ain’t, just ’cause it’s how others does things. Why cain’t we be happy with what we’s got?”

“It’s not a matter of being satisfied, my love. It’s a matter of being proud of these strange new ideas of ours. We have to embrace them, show their worth to us, even if someone might not understand. We can’t base success solely around whether or not people who don’t even live here think we’re backwards! You know as much as I do that we get our share of visitors who think we’re just beyond tacky because we dare to put food indoors if we don’t need to eat it yet.”

Once they’d figured out how to keep them properly weatherproofed and learned the importance of fire safety around flour, the Rhoanish had taken well to storehouses; Riaag could scarcely imagine life without them now. Some random asshole giving them the stink-eye over some sheds wasn’t the problem, though. “Yeah, but such offended parties is outsiders, ‘n we both knows an outsider’s gonna form whatever opinions they pleases. Best we can do fer ’em is make the impression we feel’s truest. I’s more worried our own people might be the ones offended, is the heart ‘a problem.”

Sarouth tilted his head, chewing. “How so?” he asked once he’d swallowed his current mouthful.

“Well, it’s…you’s a god-speaker, right? Ain’t nobody what follows His Chant what’ll see yer jewelry ‘n think it unseemly fer ter wear all casual-style. But this’s a whole built-up thing, a whole big-ass house! That’s more’n just some gold bangles.” Riaag paused to gather his thoughts. “It’s like, Naar Rhoan’s doin’ pretty good fer isself, but what’re you gonna say the first time someone rolls up ‘n asks why you ain’t in that nice, big tent like you was fer so long afore this?”

“I’ll tell them the same thing I do when people ask why we live inside these walls: I have to do this myself to give people the confidence to try it in the future. I want to start building houses here, with pointy roofs so the snow and rain rolls off, and tall, tall legs so there’s space underneath them for animals, or storage, or somebody else’s tents. But that’s scary, right? If they see how even a god-speaker can be at peace in something like this, without my feet touching the dirt every waking second, it means more than just telling them that everything’s fine and they should trust me.” He chuckled. “Just because I’m a priest doesn’t mean I expect our people to take everything on faith alone.”

Riaag scratched his chin. “So you’s sayin’ it’s ’cause we’s got ter be examples most visible?”

“And because sometimes we have to let ourselves have nice things,” said Sarouth. “Otherwise I’d still be trying to convince myself I didn’t need to get any closer to my bodyguard than I already was, because my champion already did so much for me, and I didn’t want to ruin that.” He scraped the last of the porridge from the bowl and licked the spoon clean. At least his appetite was back; it was always so stressful for Riaag to watch the man he loved barely express interest even when presented with his most favorite foods. “It will be a testament to His glory, and to the adaptability of our people, and to having a nice little temple-house to live in for the rest of our days. People need to take us seriously. This is one way of many to ensure they do.”

“You’s sure ’bout that?”

“Positive. They’ll see us viewing our lives not as unyielding stone but as clay to be shaped, and that clay is made from the same stuff as those who roamed the steppes before us.” He drummed his claws against the side of the bowl. “People who see it don’t have to want to become Rhoanish, of course. It’s not a life for everyone. We’ve had enough nomads come through the gates only to turn right back around for me to think otherwise! Visitors just have to be willing to view us as capable of change, and maybe turn some of that introspection inwards. You know, for fun.”

“Fun. Right.” Riaag looked out over the distant tents, each one its own little household. You couldn’t look at Naar Rhoan and claim it was anything but itself. The existing permanent buildings within the walls were a slightly more delicate matter, however; calling in favors from their neighbors had given those wooden structures a distinctive style that wasn’t quite like everything else Riaag thought of as Rhoanish. “What if people gets on our asses ’bout the design bein’ overly Usoan?”

Sarouth blew a loud and spit-filled raspberry in distaste. “Then they can fuck right off! It’ll be a good, lasting reminder of the bond of peace our settlements have between them for the moment, and even if we end up souring on each other later, it’s important to remember that at one point we were friends.”

So the lodge was to be a memorial if things went badly? Riaag could see the value in that. He wrung his hands anyway. “It’s just weird ter me,” he said after some thought.

“Weirder than digging the ditch for the better part of an entire palisade wall because some wild-eyed Agritakh-ruhd told you to?”

“C’mon, Sarouth, t’were a diff’rent matter entirely.” It was, wasn’t it? They’d been on their own for so long, and then the Hill God had guided them to this place and called for them to make a place for their people to rest. That was…probably normal stronghold stuff, wasn’t it? You generally only built them by divine decree—or, sometimes, tremendously good positioning on a trade route—because it was too much of a pain in the ass to organize otherwise. Lots of people thrived when a stronghold was healthy. How much could a single lodge improve others’ lives? It’d be too small to move more than a handful of families into even if they covered the entire sacred hill in scaffolding, and as a rule most people were uneasy sleeping on holy ground. It was a place for rite and ritual, for song and sacrifice, and anyone who wasn’t a god-speaker or a member of a god-speaker’s entourage tended to clear out pretty damn quick once the aforementioned activities were over. Naar Rhoan had yet to host any clerics who hadn’t been more comfortable making camp in the traveler’s fields like most nomads, anyway.

“How about this,” said Sarouth. “We go into this knowing you think it’s weird, and we’re not going to pretend you don’t. We’re going to see it through. We’re going to host some fine trades within the walls that will one day stand on this very spot. And no matter what, you’re always going to be able to have a little place off to the side where you can go if you just need to be alone, same as it is now. Just because we’re charging off towards some new goal doesn’t mean I want to forget everything we’ve learned that works for you.”

Riaag considered this. “You won’t get lonesome all by yerself?”

“I’ll get as lonesome as I care to get, thank you very much, but I can endure a colder bed if it means you’ll be happier.” Sarouth laughed, the sound tinged with a little sadness. “This has to be done if we expect for the stronghold to flourish. That’s just the way it is. You’ve put up with so much of my shit over all the years we’ve been together, you know how His requests can be. That doesn’t mean you have to spend every waking minute hating things, though.”

“It don’t, no.”

Sarouth squatted down, hiding his sandaled feet in a puddle of robes, and Riaag knelt down beside him. “You can imagine it, can’t you? Maybe that’s where I’m going wrong. You’re so good with painting images with words, so clever and bright, I almost wish it was you with the grand vision and me who had to be convinced. I am aware of how fucked-up that would be,” he added, swiftly, as though Riaag would ever expect him to forget the burden of being a demigod. “I just don’t know if I have the words I need to properly let you know what’s all in my head that I’m trying to pull out and make real.”

How could Riaag find some sort of common ground, here? When it came to matters of the Chant, they both knew those holy sayings inside and out, so Sarouth just had to give Riaag the skeleton of an idea and he could easily fill it out with proverbial meat with phrases most loquacious. When it came to basic diplomacy, couching everything in terms of reducing the collective shittiness going around went a long way, and seeking out ways to praise the less shitty parts generally handled the rest. This, though? This was trying to take one of the impossibly big ideas Sarouth had—the ones so big he walked around in them while he slept—and condensing it into something correct when Riaag didn’t even know what correct was in this case.

It was time to approach this like making a stew, and Sarouth would bring him the ingredients.

“We ain’t viewin’ this right, Holy One.”

“No?”

“You said it yerself. It’s a grand vision. What we’s got ter do is respect that grandiosity.”

“Do tell.”

“Tell things ter me one bit at a time,” said Riaag. “Bits ‘n pieces. Flickers ovva torch on a cave wall. Don’t do it all at once or you’ll choke yerself on it. Once I knows more ‘a them bits I’s gonna be able ter fit ’em tergether inter somethin’ larger, but until then? We’s startin’ small.”

“Small, huh?” Sarouth’s breath curled around the edges of his hood as he craned his head back to look at the stars. He hadn’t been obsessively counting them as much as he had been when they’d first returned from the tower. That was good, probably. He stretched out his hand and Riaag took it; Sarouth’s slender fingers were swallowed by the fabric of Riaag’s glove, one sheltered from the cold by the other. “Okay. We start small.”

“Yeah,” said Riaag with a nod. There was nothing wrong with small. Small things were still important, and small things could still make a difference. A single line of poetry was small in comparison to one of the sagas, and yet what were sagas made from if not a bunch of smaller lines all pieced together? What was a song if not a bunch of individual notes? To use an example more intimate to Sarouth, what was a tapestry if not thousands of single strands lined up in just the right way until they became a thing of warmth and many colors? If Sarouth could just break things up into little enough pieces, surely Riaag would understand.

This had been what it had been like in the days of the Old People, surely, back when the world was new and the Chant had not yet been sung. They’d only known the most fleeting guidance of the Animals, being led by the Scavenger Kings to the Hill God’s waiting arms. Those first Agritakh-ruhds, pulled so fiercely into the depths of the Labyrinth in Agritakh’s desperate attempt to find a way to speak to His beloved children without hurting them so terribly, had been called upon to figure everything out themselves, and in those days there were no elders to ask for consul. They didn’t yet know the ways of divination, still blind to the secrets written in smoke or in the way bones fell against one another. Maybe things as simple as learning to use fire—to think of being so new to Vulture’s guidance that the Old People didn’t even know fire! and yet those whose hearts remained wild fled from it the same as any beast—had felt impossibly big at first, too.

How had the first god-speakers gotten anything done? How had they managed to return time and time again to the Labyrinth, breaking themselves in the hollows of their own dreams night after night, and wake with anything but pure fear? Someone had to have figured something out. Someone figured out the way to map the passages. Someone figured out the secret of rust stone. Someone made it to the center, and after they did, so did others. In spite of everything, they had done it. God-speakers were terrifying if you thought about it too much.

The stars glittered in the cold sky. The soft sounds and smells of civilization drifted past them as a reminder of everything for which they had toiled. It was a good night and a pretty one. Riaag could imagine great truths being shared on a night like this; some would be spoken of with reverence, as shards of something greater, while others would be whispered in his ear upon them retiring to the tabernacle, as sweet wisdom to be heard by Riaag and Riaag alone, and both were important and good. He squeezed Sarouth’s hand. The night wind wouldn’t be carrying him away any time soon.

Riaag was no god-speaker. He was no blessed figure, no font of holiness. What he was was a disciple of Sarouth White-Hair, oathbound and blood-sworn, and a disciple’s most important job was to sit at their god-speaker’s feet and listen. So he would listen.

With a deep breath and a hand run through his still-growing strands of snowy hair, Sarouth began to speak, one small detail at a time.

Riaag had been sleeping badly.

It had been a few days since he’d taken Valin to meet with Etxeloi, and that had been the same day she’d pulled him aside and asked him to talk. They’d talked a lot between then and now. She’d had opinions on family shit. She’d had opinions on what were, in her words, stupid little babies who didn’t care who cleaned up their sick, and whether the people so often found looking after them could be making better use of their time. She’d had opinions about people who were so weak they needed gross things like kisses and hugs to get by. She’d had a lot to say about patterns, and ancestors, and the very concept of a clan that Riaag had needed to untangle for her; the more they spoke, the more holes in her knowledge he was able to find, so the least he could do was try to actually teach her what she didn’t know. Sometimes in the midst of learning about her own heritage she even asked about Riaag himself. Those times included some weird questions where he had to strike a balance between complete honesty and what kinds of darkness a kid her age should reasonably be exposed to. Sarouth had taught him the power of taking control of his own story. Riaag had come to understand that some of that meant understanding which parts of his story were anyone else’s business in the first place.

There was still so much he hadn’t told her, maybe things he never would, but the air was clearer for what had already gone down. She was still a rare sight around the stronghold—Valin claimed she had somewhere dry to sleep and Riaag had to take it on faith that she was telling him the truth—so when she’d come to him that morning for her daily tidying-up and hadn’t vanished into thin air once he was done, he’d taken notice. He’d learned how to read Sarouth’s endless litany of weird behaviors. It was only fair he do the same for Valin.

The two of them sat in the main room of the lodge on the same side of the table, facing towards the door. Breakfast was over with, prayers had been said. This time they weren’t talking about beans.

“Where is he?” asked Valin, drumming her knuckles on the floor in front of her.

“He’ll be here.”

“Yeah, but where is he? I thought you said you told him to show up!”

Riaag shrugged wearily. “You’s followed him around sometimes. You’s seen how busy he gets, even on do-nothin’ days like this’n.”

She snarled. “It’s rude.”

“No, it’s responsible. He knows I’s asked fer his presence, but he also knows I can wait more’n someone what needs his healin’ touch or someone else what’s beggin’ sanctuary. You cain’t let little things slide if’n you’s tryin’ ter keep a stronghold tergether.”

Valin huffed but had nothing more to say to that.

It really wasn’t that much longer until Sarouth’s familiar figure crossed the threshold, resplendent as always. Riaag was glad to see him wearing the circlet with the purple agate on the front; there had been too many chores needing doing to weave his hair through it the way he liked that morning, so Riaag had simply requested he dress accordingly for a meeting. Sarouth could dress himself very well, honestly. The authority he radiated felt correct for why they’d called him there.

“Hello, my wolf, Valin,” said Sarouth, nodding to each as he named them. “So what’s this all about?”

“Valin’s got somethin’ she’s wantin’ ter say.”

Sarouth’s eyebrows quirked, clearly surprised at Riaag not using a more formal address for her while in her presence. “And she wanted to use the meeting hall to say it?”

“Yeah,” said Riaag. He pointed with his chin to a cushion already waiting on the opposite side of the table. “C’mon, sit down. She’s been waitin’.”

“Well! Can’t keep another god-speaker in suspense, now can I?” He folded himself into a not-quite-meditative position and rested his hands on the table, one over the other. He looked casually comfortable. Riaag had known him long enough to spot all the subtle tells that he was not. “I’m listening.”

“Uh,” said Valin. She looked up at Riaag with pleading painted all across her little face.

Riaag was only oathbound to keep one god-speaker out of difficult situations, and that one was waiting to see why he’d been called away from a busy schedule of looking at crops and convincing a fresh group of visitors that eating bread was not, in fact, heresy. Sometimes the kindest thing you could do for someone was give them a push. “You gotta use yer words, Holy One,” he said. “I cain’t do this one fer you.”

She huffed. “So, um. Riaag says I could probably stay here, if I wanted, instead of wherever,” she said, and to her credit she was actually looking at Sarouth as she said this. “I guess it’d be nice. There’d be less bugs. And I could have my own space all the way on the other side of the lodge so I don’t have to see or hear you two doing nasty grown-up stuff. Also it keeps the wind out, and I could have a bath whenever I wanted. If I’m gonna be learning god-speaker things from you then I shouldn’t look like a bramble all the time.”

“Ever since you let Riaag actually brush out your hair for you you’ve been looking plenty presentable, I’ll have you know, but that doesn’t mean I’m any less happy to hear you want to actually live here with us. It’s a big lodge. There’s a space just for you in here somewhere.” His usual half-smile cracked into something broader. “That’s kind of the point of Naar Rhoan as a whole, after all.”

“Okay,” said Valin. “Okay, that’s…good. Do I have to bring any stuff here before I’m allowed?” Riaag knew she had at least one blanket, since he’d seen her accept it with his own eyes, and he’d washed enough of her clothes to know she had more than a single set, and save for her knife and the statue of Rat he’d made for her he couldn’t honestly guess anything else. She deserved more than that, not because she was a god-speaker but because she was a person (albeit a young one) with needs all her own. At least they’d be handling some of that today, no matter what else happened. Little victories counted.

This got a small chuckle out of Sarouth, as though she’d told him a not-too-funny joke. “You can go pick out a nook right now if you want to! There’s plenty of blankets and cushions to spare. If you want furniture, though, that may take a bit. Good things take time to build.”

“Told you it’d be fine,” said Riaag. It was important to keep her spirits up as she floundered in these newly vulnerable waters. He had more experience than she did working up to asking Sarouth for something impossible, after all.

“So was that everything?”

Valin’s fingers clutched at a fistful of Riaag’s clothes. He lay his hand atop hers; part of their talks had been about what kinds of contact she would and wouldn’t accept from him, and this was one of the more acceptable options. He had a lot of experience with being strong for other people, too. “Go on.”

“Uhhh….” She scrunched up her face. “God-speakers should be good examples, and I don’t have clan patterns, and Riaag would probably give me his but he says he doesn’t have any so he can’t and he won’t just give me the blank ones because it means something different than just not wearing any, and I really want some, so…give me yours.”

Sarouth laughed again, though this time it had a tinge of sadness to it. “You know I can’t do that, rat bite. We don’t have the same ancestors. I can’t just make you somebody you’re not.”

Valin growled. She clung to Riaag’s sleeve and pointed at Sarouth accusingly, like he’d told her the ground was up and the sky was down. “Riaag! He’s being a dipshit!”

Who wouldn’t swell with pride at such a well-delivered swear? The emphasis was in the right place, the syllables had the proper amount of confident force, and it just rolled off the tongue like there was no possible way for it not to exist in the world. All that time spent practicing had paid off. Riaag leaned across the table, took Sarouth’s hands in his, and looked him in the eye. “You really is bein’ a dipshit right now, Holy One.”

“I’m not sure what you’re asking of me,” said Sarouth.

Riaag sighed. He’d been afraid of this; Sarouth hadn’t even been willing to accept the oath of someone he’d just taken a most grievous flesh wound for until he’d been sung at with sufficient emotion, and even then he’d taken a whole fucking year to figure out he was loved. That’d been four whole-ass seasons of devoted service and long-overdue sex and he hadn’t picked up on it at all! This past year had gone a little better, granted, but that didn’t mean Sarouth was any better at taking a hint if he could convince himself people were just humoring him. That was the Faaroug in all his descended majesty for you, honestly. It was time to sound it out for him.

“She wants ter be a family, Holy One. With me, but also with you. Tergether. You get it?”

What!?” sputtered Sarouth, having pulled his hands from Riaag’s grasp to thump his own chest. The reaction was so sudden and violent it was like he’d been burned. “Riaag, I’m a fucking Agritakh-ruhd. You know we don’t raise our own get, or anyone else’s, and I’m certainly not about to go siring any even if we did. It’s pretty well-established why we don’t try to go caring for them. Besides, besides, I’m demonstratively much better at shedding family members than finding new ones. Since when am I the one who’s good father material?”

The answer came easily to Riaag’s tongue. “Most people ain’t until they’s actually got experience. You ain’t gonna be doin’ this alone, anyway.”

“I’d be a terrible parent!”

“Valin seems ter think you’d do an okay enough job, ‘n if’n you fucks it up, well, like I said: that’s why I’s there. Won’t be the first time we’s done somethin’ deemed too hard ter bother. We got Naar Rhoan up ‘n goin’, didn’t we? We pulled down the tower ‘cross the river, didn’t we? We got this whole fucken lodge built, didn’t we? Or is we actually just sittin’ in the woods by usselves ‘n dreamin’ this mornin’? Valin’s got the most recent knowledge ‘a how that’d go, just ask her fer her expert opinion.”

“We’re inside,” said Valin, helpfully.

“See? We’s inside.” He leaned back in his seat. Trying too aggressive of an approach would just make Sarouth shut down, and this was too important to Valin to fumble forging it right at the final quench. Shit, it was important to Riaag, and that alone had to be worth fighting for. “You’s got ter accept maybe you’s worth more ter some people’n just bein’ a god-speaker, y’know.”

Sarouth rested his head in his hands, one palm against his cheek and the other against the fabric of his hood. His shoulders slumped. “How am I supposed to make my case if you’re both arguing against me at once?” he said, and there was a subtle smile in his voice even if there was nothing of the sort on his lips.

“Well, she’s yer pupil, ‘n I’s yer oathbound, so we’s both got advantages most unfair. You ought ter give up afore you tire yerself out.”

A yellow eye darted from Riaag to Valin and back again. “Since when have you known me to give in so easily?”

“Since we’s askin’ you so nicely,” said Riaag.

“I don’t know….”

Valin crossed her arms and pouted with such intensity it could’ve been recognized as an act of war. “Riaag said you’d do this, and I thought he was just trying to make me expect something hard so if stuff was easy it’d be a fun surprise, but you’re being just as bad as he said. It’s not fair! You’re not allowed to tell me I could be okay and tell me I’m not a monster or a demon and tell me I’m not broken just ’cause my head is and then send me away when I decide I really do want to stay.” She lowered her voice, a hint of emotion other than anger filtering into her words. “I followed you across the river and everything.”

While Riaag had always been suspicious about her true motivations, it was still something else hearing Valin confirm things in her own words. Of course she’d been terrified of rejection! Of course she’d latched onto Sarouth the moment he’d shown her the tiniest grain of kindness! The man had a knack for collecting strays. He’d oathbound himself to one, after all.

What turmoil raged in Sarouth’s heart? This would be a sore spot for him, because of course it would be, as it was hard to hear Valin crying out for acceptance and not imagine Sarouth’s own life as a newly-turned servant of the Hill God. He knew firsthand the pain of being cast out for just being too fucking strange for other people to endure. Every failed love and every cry of terror tapped into those old wounds. Riaag had never brought up the idea of claiming a child or two of his own because he didn’t want to add to that pain, and yet how could he say he was doing the right thing if keeping to the status quo meant a little girl was denied the care of exactly the right people to try to keep her on the path of righteousness, or at least the path of not being an asshole every waking hour?

Did Sarouth want children? He’d never seemed to imply as much; that had always been solely Riaag’s thing, being the kindly uncle to the whole stronghold at once. Sarouth was hardly the only member of his clan, either, as even if he’d disowned most of them his ex-family was still hale and hearty up in the highlands with their many herds of fat-bottomed sheep. If he was to be the last of his line there’d still be descendants of his ancestors walking the steppes and mountains. Agritakh wanted His favorites to thrive and be prosperous, but the Chant was pretty clear that fecundity wasn’t the only way to do that. God-speakers had a pass on that, anyway. Sarouth was so frequently taken by visions or called to count the stars or any number of other things that one could argue he simply didn’t have the time to make sure a little life could blossom into a functioning adult. That was assuming either of them knew what a functioning adult looked like!

All this Riaag knew. But what didn’t he know? What was going on inside that head of Sarouth’s that Riaag had never touched on in the name of sparing his feelings? He seemed to genuinely like Valin when they weren’t busy antagonizing each other. Maybe he wanted an excuse to raise her just like himself in all the right ways, and nothing like himself in the wrong ones. Then again, what if he just liked their mentor-and-pupil dynamic more, finding comfort in the distance that remained between them that way? Maybe this had been a mistake. But if it was a mistake, where did that leave Valin? Riaag had promised to be her caretaker (which was very different from being her father, he’d told himself), and he wasn’t going to go back on his word when she clearly needed him. How would that affect Sarouth? How was anyone expected to know this shit?

It would’ve been easy to think in circles so fiercely and so long that his amulet would have gone off to cool his head, so Riaag was grateful for the small mercy that was Sarouth straightening up to run his fingers through his hair. He bore the same nobly determined demeanor he did as when he’d bargained for his life in front of the whole of Usoa.

“So,” said Sarouth. He spoke softly, like distant thunder. “Riaag Bough-Breaker, Chosen of Wolf, oathbound of mine, love of mine, disciple of mine, friend of mine. You’ve heard the demands of Valin Mad-Eyes and know them to be true: that she would inherit my ancestors, that through me she would be of my clan. She would become my daughter, and by my ties to you she would also become yours.”

“That’s so.”

“And is this…something you want?”

“More’n Vulture craves the sky,” said Riaag, as only invoking a Scavenger King—arguably the closest to Agritakh, for what other Animal’s face was forever stained with grief for the First Scavenger?—could give those words the right gravitas.

“Valin Mad-Eyes, god-speaker of Agritakh, you would inherit my ancestors, that through me you would be of my clan. You would become my daughter, and by my ties to him you would also become the child of Riaag Bough-Breaker.”

“Um, yeah, you already said that!” barked Valin, now vibrating with excitement. “Is that all it takes? Us agreeing?”

Sarouth chuckled wearily. “It can. But I think you probably want something a little more binding, don’t you?”

Valin nodded with such emphasis it was a wonder her head didn’t detach from her neck.

“Thought so. Pass me your knife.”

Ritual bloodletting was a skill everyone learned to some degree if they followed Agritakh, as He was an ever-thirsty god, and Sarouth hadn’t led so many sacrifices without picking up a few tricks. After thumbing the edge of the star-steel blade he made a quick incision along the side of his hand. It was the same kind of cut used for springtime and Harvest offerings. He wiped the blood from the knife’s edge and passed it to Riaag, who did the same before passing it to Valin. Riaag stood to drag a fire pot closer to the table as Valin winced her way through her own cut.

“Blood follows steel, and is cast into the fire,” said Sarouth. “Blood and steel and fire, the great trinity, as taught to the Old People in the first days.” He raised his hand over the flame and clenched his fist, coaxing a few wine-red drops to fall into the pot with a sizzle.

Riaag went next. “Beetle teaches us ter thrive. Jackal teaches us ter change. Vulture teaches us ter know.” The blood evaporated shortly after striking the coals within the pot. It barely even made a smell.

Last was Valin. Riaag had expected her usual irreverence, so it was a surprise when she lifted up her little hand with solemnity. “I’m busted, but I’m getting fixed. It’s okay if I’m not fixed yet. I can have good things even though for a long time I thought I was bad. It’s okay if I want something, because people can want me, too. So the Kings had better listen up when Sarouth is talking.”

“Your blood is my blood,” said Sarouth, who had never had an issue with taking cues from others. “Your clan is my clan. By blood and steel and fire, I am your father, and you are my child until the end of all days. Just don’t expect me to know shit about anything that isn’t related to our mutual ties to the First Scavenger, in His Descended Majesty, you got it?”

There was no mysterious wind, no strange shapes hidden in the fire, and the earth did not quake beneath their feet to spit up plumes of molten stone in celebration. Not every ritual god-speakers did was flashy. Riaag could feel that things had changed between them all the same.

“So is that it?” asked Valin.

Sarouth thumped her on the shoulder with his unbloodied palm. “That’s it, pipsqueak. Go get your hand wrapped up. You’re stuck with us now.”

“I have dads,” she said to herself. A look of confusion crossed her face, causing her to look back up to Sarouth in concern. “Wait, what do I call you now? Is that different? I’m still Valin.”

“You can keep calling me ‘Sarouth,’ if you want. It’s going to take a bit for me to get used to anything else. And you, my wolf?”

Riaag straightened up and adopted his most formal herald’s voice. “Valin Mad-Eyes, who is holy, I accepts you as my daughter, ‘n through my bond with Sarouth White-Hair, who is holy, I shall raise you with nothin’ but great love ‘n devotion, ‘n may be referred ter by whatsoever title you does see fit by which ter address me, however you so seeks ter approach my appointed fatherhood.”

She threw back her head and groaned. “Sarouth, he’s still doing it.”

“You’re going to just have to get used to that, rat bite. He pulls the same shit with me all the time. No matter how often I tell him that he! Doesn’t! Have! To!” These last few words were punctuated with some playful prodding at Riaag’s side.

“I speaks naught but His truths,” replied Riaag, primly. He scooted the fire pot back to its original spot on the floor. “Now, go pick youself any ‘a them smaller rooms in here fer ter make yer own, so long as they’s done. We’ll get some bedding ‘n such put in, ‘n you can move in whatever you’s got in yer current spot when you chooses ter. If you ain’t inclined ter keep anything, just make sure the usable bits get washed proper ‘n handed off ter someone who might be in need.”

Valin squinted at him. “What if I stay here, instead?”

“Dunno. You might have ter bear witness ter the Faaroug layin’ a smooch on me, though, as he’s known ter do after achievin’ that what was thought unlikely.”

“What a good idea!” said Sarouth. “See, Valin, this is why you need to listen to the people in your entourage. They’re full of excellent advice.” He puckered his lips like a fish and hovered next to Riaag’s cheek, making mwah mwah noises.

“Gross!” cried Valin. “I thought now that we’re family you’d stop being gross!”

Riaag grinned. “Now that we’s family, it’s just gonna get worse. You said yerself the lodge could grant you protections from our incessant flirtin’. Best go pick that room fast, rat bite, lest yer eyes be ferever scoured by the sight ‘a yer fathers’ public affections.” Your fathers. It felt good to say. Natural. A long time coming, probably. He could get used to referring to himself and Sarouth with that sort of phrase.

As for Valin, she scurried back into the main hallway, yelling her disgust all the way. Once she was ready they’d introduce her to the stronghold formally, and once Naar Rhoan knew her as its own it’d be time to start telling the local itinerant god-speakers about the newest member of the fold. There was so much she could learn from others like her. There was so much she could be now that she was more than so much dandelion fluff, buffeted by the winds of fortune. There was so much she could do if she wanted to continue the work they started. There were so many people she could love if she was only given a chance. Hers was a life full of potential no matter how many amulets she burned through while growing into whatever kind of adult she would someday be.

And until all of that came to pass, it was Riaag’s solemn duty as a father to annoy her for every second of it.

“This is it,” said Sarouth, gazing out over the landscape with a giddy grin. “This is where we’re going to make it happen.”

Riaag frowned out at the vista before him. Aside from the usual rolling plains of the lowlands, there was a lake, some grassland, plenty of trees…and in the exact direction Sarouth’s finger was pointing, some higher ground, with what looked to be the opening of a cave yawning from the rock. A cave, out here? He’d assumed the land was too flat to get a really good one, but no, even from this distance Riaag could tell it was the sort that’d cut deep into the earth, no doubt full of twisty-turny passages chock full of bats or something. That was nice and all, but how was Sarouth going to fit as many people as he’d been babbling about into a single cave? How much air-gill did you need to house more than a dozen people in the same cavern without things getting smelly and stale?

He was hesitant to voice such concerns. Sarouth was the Faaroug himself (even if he sometimes pretended he wasn’t), a direct conduit from the Hill God to the world He could only touch through a veil of eternal sleep, whereas Riaag was just some guy who didn’t know how to walk away from someone he could tell needed somebody to look after them. He was a disciple, and disciples were usually defined by having some greater purpose they followed. Questioning a holy man sounded like a short road to being asked to leave said holy man’s service, which would make Riaag a disciple of nothing in particular. He shuddered despite the balmy weather. If Sarouth ever tired of his presence he wasn’t sure what he’d do with himself.

Maybe he could ask questions that would lead Sarouth to answering what Riaag really wanted to know without having to actually say it. “Don’t most strongholds get built up in the mountains, Holy One?”

“That they do! It’s why this is so exciting, y’know? It’s something brand new. And we get to do it.”

“But…why?”

Sarouth leaned back and laughed. It was a nice laugh, bright and clean and tinged with hints of music which his actual singing voice was denied. Riaag liked that laugh because it was never aimed at him mockingly. He just had to keep telling himself that was the only reason.

Why, brave warrior? Well, because we’re here! Obviously! Also because He no doubt put a bunch of clan patterns into a bag and pulled out mine. I’m just lucky, I guess.”

Such was another one of Sarouth’s quirks: he accepted being an Agritakh-ruhd, more or less, since it was hard to deny the map cut into his skin or the mysterious power he could exert upon the dust and pebbles, but the moment anyone started talking about how his skills were more in line with the next promised emanation of the Hill God given mortal flesh, he got weird about it. You’d think prophets would be excited about their station. Then again, Riaag hadn’t staggered after Sarouth for so many years without seeing all the many ways being a god-speaker sucked shit (not that he would ever phrase it thusly in front of Sarouth), so maybe he was trying to keep a low profile to prevent more trouble from finding them. That was nice of him.

Sarouth twirled in place, gesturing at the entire countryside at once. “It’s genius, right? There’s no strongholds in this part of the valley, so it’ll be perfect for people passing through, and there won’t be so many mountains to deal with so traders will be more likely to come visit. Look at how much space there is! We’ll be able to house so many faithful here!”

That sounded like a logistics nightmare to Riaag. Suddenly cramming everyone into the same cave wasn’t the biggest problem on their plate anymore. “How’s we gonna get enough food ter feed so many?”

“Easy. We’ll grow it.”

“What…?” Surely Riaag hadn’t heard that right. The Chant was very clear about not stealing food from the mouths of animals, since the gift of fire put orcs (at least the ones who didn’t live as the Old People) head and shoulders above the beasts of the land. They’d been commanded to tend to the green places. The lowlands looked pretty green to him. He didn’t know too much about how people grew the rice everyone traded for, but supposedly they did it on flooded ground, which was adherent to the Chant’s decree. This place looked way too dry for that, lake or no lake.

“I’ve been shown visions,” said Sarouth. Well, that explained everything! Agritakh was never not sending oracular portents Sarouth’s way. Some days it was a wonder he was able to stay awake at all. “We’ll grow grapes here, and beans, and grain. We’ll nourish the land, and it in turn will nourish us. It’s a new way of doing things. He wants His children to thrive, and He’s decided I get to be the one to do all the messy experimenting to figure out what’s going to work.”

Riaag chewed his lip. There were already flaws with this divinely-mandated plan. “I dunno how ter grow shit, though, Holy One.”

“Neither do I! So we’re going to have to find someone who does and ask them to teach us. We don’t have to do everything all at once. In the echoes of His voice, I know that He Who Sleeps is going to be perfectly fine with us fucking around until we find out. We just have to succeed a little bit at a time.” He shouldered his carryall and pointed towards the cave again. “Come on, Riaag, let’s go set up camp around that hill. It’s a great hill. All that land around it’s holy ground! Perfect for two pious young men like us, wouldn’t you say?”

“Reckon so,” said Riaag, because sometimes you just had to trust that Sarouth’s wild-ass ideas were good ones.

Once they’d reached the hill—the sacred hill, Riaag corrected himself—he had to admit it was a pretty good vantage point. He would’ve gone wherever Sarouth went, of course, since you didn’t just forget someone pulling you from a life of pain and misery into a life of…maybe not serenity, exactly, but he wasn’t getting hit or yelled at anymore unless he was actually swinging an axe at somebody, and that counted for a lot. His nervous heart appreciated how much he could see from up there. If Sarouth stayed somewhere up high, the easiest way to keep him safe was to make sure any motherfucker who wished him ill was kept down low, and once they started putting up walls then that would be even more security. Sarouth had talked at length about how he wanted their stronghold to be a friendly place, which meant big gates to let people in through those walls, which was probably fine. The walls had to be for everybody, and everybody had to be able to leave the safety they provided whenever they wanted. Otherwise all you were building was a cage.

What all would they do with all this holy ground, anyway? Save for a god-speaker’s entourage, most people preferred not to sleep in the same places the Hill God’s influence was most intimate. Rituals, maybe, you always wanted enough space for a ritual. If the only people who’d be staying here were himself and Sarouth, they could host some pretty good sacrifices without worrying about mixing up food for people and food for their god. That’d also save people from having to look at his ugly face too much. Everyone would prosper. Riaag supposed he could get used to not moving around all the time if he could find a place for himself that felt right. Wherever it was, he had the cold comfort of knowing he’d already spent the whole of his childhood sleeping somewhere worse. He began to survey the hillside in search of someplace that’d serve him well enough to not worry about things so much.

Sarouth, of course, had already found a spot he liked. “I’ll put my tent here,” he said, “and you? If you want to, you can put yours over….” He strode a few dozen paces away from the first spot before stamping his sandal against the dirt. “Here! Close enough to keep an eye on me but far enough to have some privacy, right?”

“Sounds good, Holy One,” said Riaag. It did sound pretty good. They kept their tents closer when they were traveling, of course, but if this stronghold thing panned out then Riaag wasn’t going to turn down the luxury of space. Having his own place to cry without disturbing anyone would be perfect. It also meant he’d be able to cook all of Sarouth’s meals, and keep him well-groomed, and do the laundry, and come running in an emergency, all only a few dozen paces away from his own little spot!

Also important was how those few dozen paces would make it so he wouldn’t have to find excuses to walk away from camp, or pretend he didn’t hear anything, whenever Sarouth was sharing a fire with someone. That was another good thing about this stronghold business: it wasn’t tainted with bad memories or flawed relationships, just the Faaroug doing Faaroug things with a bonus bodyguard to keep the petty day-to-day shit under control. Sarouth made friends easily—nowadays it was rare for them to stop in another settlement without him either recognizing somebody or quickly meeting someone new with whom he could swap gossip—and yet that ease of camaraderie did nothing for the string of fallings-out that smoldered in his wake. God-speakers had trouble bonding with people outside of their entourages, so maybe being Agritakh’s own avatar made him a double god-speaker or something? Either way, it broke Riaag’s heart every time a familiar face stopped coming around to Sarouth’s part of camp. Sarouth was usually quick to speak kindly of them; he was just difficult to love, he said, which had been a problem for him ever since he’d first turned, and that was the start and the end of it all at once. It still wasn’t right. Hopefully someday he would find somebody who could make him as happy as he deserved to be.

A familiar hand touched the corner of his caftan, careful not to make contact with his skin. “Hey, Riaag, what’s wrong?” asked Sarouth. He released the fabric once Riaag turned to face him. Sarouth had never questioned why Riaag hated to be touched, he’d just respected that, which was surely further proof of his sacrosanctity. “Are you doing okay? You don’t need me to fix up your amulet any, do you? You know I don’t mind.”

Riaag’s hand unconsciously went to touch at the collection of blessed teeth and stones wrapped around his left bicep. It felt the way it always did when it wasn’t trying to smother the occasional forest fires that broke out in his head. “Yeah, yeah. S’alright,” he said. He wiped at his eyes and his gloves came away wet. Making a home on holy ground must’ve been more emotional for him than he’d expected. “Just got in my head a spell over nothin’, Holy One. You know how it is.”

“I know. I’m always here if you want to talk, okay?”

“Okay.”

Riaag didn’t want to talk about it. He instead busied himself with the lengthy process of unpacking the different parts of their tents from their respective carryalls. With so much work ahead of them they needed to have things pitched before they were too tired to do it. After making sure both of their tents were set up properly, spreading out carpets and bedrolls before getting a fire started just outside of Sarouth’s shelter, Riaag thought about dinner plans. There was enough daylight left that he could probably get a pretty good stew going with the meager supplies they had. Something this important needed to be kicked off properly, and few things were as proper as a hearty meal.

Sarouth seemed to agree, since he came sniffing around the moment things started to smell like more than just a bunch of raw mess in a pot. Riaag hadn’t even realized he’d left save that nobody was trying to make him talk about his feelings anymore. Where had he been? The cave, maybe, since nine orcs out of ten left in the vicinity of a big hole in the ground would be drawn to go have a look, and the tenth was probably busy with a nap or they would’ve gone spelunking, too. God-speakers didn’t need light to walk safely in the dark. It was one of the best places he could be if Riaag was too busy with chores to actively protect him.

“That smells delicious,” said Sarouth, already licking his lips. “Are those some of the spices we got from Riv Kuth? You said you were saving those for a special occasion.”

“You’s foundin’ a fucken stronghold, ain’t it? Seems plenty special ter me.”

“Not me, Riaag. We. You know I couldn’t do this without everything that you do.”

Waving off the unearned compliment, Riaag tipped a few more vegetables into the bubbling pot. “All the same, Holy One, it’s a whole-ass stronghold. We’s gonna need plenty ‘a strength in the comin’ days. Especially ’cause somebody’s gotta dig some shitters afore we’s got critical need ‘a such.”

“You’re so resourceful, brave warrior!” Sarouth crowed. “See, this is why I need you around. You’re always thinking of how to keep the little things running smoothly, all the small bits that can add up to big trouble if nobody’s taking care of them. Left to my own devices we’d be lucky if anyone would even have clean water to drink after a week of me in charge. With you by my side to keep me grounded this place actually has a chance of making it through its first year.”

With you by my side hit Riaag in the gut in a way he absolutely wasn’t going to think about right now. There was too much to do, so many more tasks that needed his attention than mooning over impossible things, even if in the dead of night he could (sometimes, maybe, just a tiny bit) admit that they sounded kind of nice. He went for a straightforward issue to take his mind off of passing fancies: “So, we really is doin’ this, this stronghold thing. What is we gonna name it?”

Sarouth laughed. “I haven’t the foggiest! I’m sure something will come to me.” He looked towards the blue haze of the horizon. “You know how ideas are. Sometimes you’ve got a whole lot of nothing, then ta-da! The answer you were looking for comes at you sure as the evening star heralds nightfall.” Sarouth flashed Riaag one of his usual dazzling smiles, the kind that made Riaag’s stomach tie itself in knots even more than it already had been. “Until then, we’ll just call it ‘the stronghold,’ yeah? It’ll be accurate enough.”

“Yeah, a’ight.”

“I’m going to start tracing where all the foundation ditches need to go,” said Sarouth, cocking his thumb over his shoulder. “The smaller, innermost ones, anyway. That way you’ll be able to get digging once you’ve had enough time for dinner to settle in your belly, and it’ll give me a chance to walk the land some. Get a proper feel for it.” He scuffed his heels against the ground. “I can feel something calling for me here. It’s probably deeper in the cave than I got, but I need to know the whole of the place before I can confidently say I’m best preparing it as He’s asked of me.”

“What’s down there, y’think?”

“Oh, you know. I don’t want to jinx it. But I think there’s a fissure down there, and oracular smoke is coming out of it. Just something I felt in the air.”

An entire cave formed around receiving divinations? That was something, even if it meant Riaag’s thoughts of hosting people within its subterranean embrace were scuttled as a result. You didn’t go near those vision-bringing fumes unless you were a god-speaker, and they could only manage it because of the same strange nature that kept their rust-stone-enhanced tattoos from turning their blood to poison. Sometimes you could almost forget that god-speakers were more than regular people, like if they were telling you jokes or helping mend socks or something, then they’d pull some bullshit like this and remind you ten times over that they were the stuff of legend in all the ways you were not. Riaag didn’t mind. It just made sense for the Faaroug to be an enlightened being beyond mortal comprehension. At least it didn’t make shaving his jaw every morning any more difficult.

Having had his fill of hovering around the fire, Sarouth stretched like a cat and yawned like the winter wind. “I am tired,” he said. “I’m going to have myself a nap while I’m still able to sleep. Wake me up once it’s mealtime, okay?”

“Okay.”

With a rustle of robes and a flip of a flap, Sarouth retired to his tent. He didn’t even take the time to lace it up before the softly obnoxious sound of his snoring reached Riaag’s ears. At first glance it was no different than any other little nomad camp: two tents on a hill with a fire outside one of them. You had to turn your head and squint to see the potential Sarouth kept talking about. That potential was going to make all the difference, though, no matter how humble their beginnings.

That’d be another early goal of theirs, Riaag decided: a god-speaker deserved something much better than a dinky little shelter that was a tight fit for anything more than a single person. If Sarouth really was going to be running an entire stronghold, he’d need a suitable place to receive believers and other visitors. More than just that, given how handsome he was! A stronghold meant people, lots of people, and at least one of them had to be the right match for the chosen prophet of He Who Sleeps Beneath the Earth. Yes, Riaag was going to look into arranging a proper tabernacle for him, a nice roomy one, maybe with a curtain down the middle to divide it up into parts. There’d be holy symbols sewn into the walls. There’d be room for fire pots. There’d even be a place for all the miscellaneous weird shit Sarouth kept finding, like his potions and his jewelry and the black-iron mace that hung at his side. During appropriate visitation hours, there could even be room for Riaag in there, too.

Yes, good. He could see it now: actual ideas and plans, not just the vague portents that Sarouth kept trying to spin into something more solid. Riaag had a lot of work ahead of him. What trade routes went through here? What merchants would be willing to talk to a scruffy, mismatched pair of orcs with little to barter with but trinkets and a dream? When would the first bands decide to settle here, and would things be ready in time? He felt worthy of the wolf-skull helm that proclaimed him an Animal’s own Chosen, that had thankfully been easy for his sick and wounded heart to accept, but how much convincing would others need to agree with that? So much to do, so little time. He was pretty sure this wasn’t the sort of thing most people had to worry about when they had but freshly stumbled into their twenties. Thinking on that, that meant he probably still had a few years to get this right. Maybe the shitty part of raising a settlement was a young man’s game, after all.

A phenomenal snore, much louder than the rest, practically rattled the poles of Sarouth’s tent, and Riaag smiled fondly. If even half the things said about the stronghold were true, Sarouth had been tasked to make a paradise. Riaag would work his hands bloody if it meant he could make this place worthy of someone like him. A life lived at arm’s reach from someone so wonderful was far closer than Riaag had ever dreamed possible, to say nothing of what he thought he actually deserved. He could easily remain a confidant across those few dozen paces. He could easily keep Sarouth safe. It was more than enough for a redeemed untouchable like himself. The unnamed stronghold would be a place where even someone like him could have a chance at making things good for other people, and Sarouth was going to be one of those people. He could do this.

Now all he had to do was keep believing that.

Riaag had accumulated an awful lot of experience in sleeping next to Sarouth, whose usual spot was snuggled up next to Riaag’s broad and scar-crossed back in a tight hug, so he was keenly attuned to when something wasn’t quite right with his favorite prophet. That evening they’d shared dinner and prayers with Valin—with their daughter, Riaag could still scarcely believe it—before she’d vanished to her own little corner of the lodge to escape their incessant hand-holding, and Sarouth had seemed fine enough during all of that. He’d seemed fine during their intimate time before settling down for bed, too. They hadn’t disturbed Valin, as near as either of them could tell, and the sole time they’d walked past her chosen part of the lodge after their tryst she’d looked lost to sleep. Sarouth hadn’t seemed upset then, either. What was the matter? Riaag could hazard a few guesses, but it was best to start this sort of thing off neutrally.

“Now it’s yer turn ter be unable ter sleep in here, huh?” he asked, laying his hand atop Sarouth’s. Sarouth’s arms simply were simply not long enough to get all the way around Riaag’s ox-broad shoulders, much less the slab of layered fat and muscle he had for a torso, so this meant Riaag had to tuck his arm in like a chicken’s wing to reach. So long as nobody made any sudden movements it’d be fine.

Sarouth squeezed the proffered hand forcefully, his face pressed into the curtain of wavy black hair that spilled down Riaag’s back. “Is it that obvious?”

“Kinda.” Stay around god-speakers long enough and you started learning the difference between their version of normal sleep, when their sleep was disrupted by His call, and everything else. Riaag had yet to pick up on any reason this case wasn’t a category three. “You wanna talk about it?”

“I don’t know….”

“So that’s a yes, then.”

“It’s an I-don’t-know.”

“Uh-huh.” Riaag had been on the other side of this little impasse too many times to count, so he prepared himself for a long evening of being present and supporting until Sarouth felt like sharing what was eating at him. It was the kind thing to do. Until they got to that point, though, Riaag would take the opportunity to (very carefully) roll over to hold Sarouth close.

This part was so much easier these days now that he didn’t spend his every waking moment terrified of tainting Sarouth’s divine nature with his wretched, untouchable self. To think it had taken a dramatic political gesture on Sarouth’s part to start undoing some of that in spite of years of friendship! Even if they’d never gotten any more physical than a single touch of hand to skin in front of the entire stronghold, Riaag would’ve been forever overwhelmed by the generosity of the deed. It’d required an actual-ass honor duel just to get it through his own thick head that he was worth more than the acts of service he performed. They were still working on it two years since! Fuck’s sake but growing up unclean really messed a person up on a bone-deep level.

It wasn’t the place for Riaag to mull over his own situation, though. He was getting his shit together one day at a time; right now it was Sarouth who needed the attention.

“I’s gotcha,” said Riaag before laying a kiss on the top of Sarouth’s head. Little reminders could go a long way, in his experience.

Sarouth snuggled up against Riaag’s front. “I know,” he said with a sigh. When he next spoke he kept his face pointing at Riaag’s clavicles; the half-head of height between them felt so much greater than it was with how he was curled up under the blankets. “Riaag, my love, what if I fuck this up?”

There was no need to ask what this meant in this context. “We built a whole fucken stronghold with our own two hands in a way ain’t nobody done before. We figgered it out through plentiful trial ‘n error, ‘n we’s got this far already. Least with raisin’ a kid we got people we can actually ask ’bout shit.”

“Brave warrior, I am a disaster,” said Sarouth, keeping his chin tucked down. “It’s not like she doesn’t have any say in the matter! Shouldn’t she have picked someone else? Someone who’d do a better job?”

Now that sounded like some post-ritual jitters if Riaag had ever heard them. Important things like finding family, well, people got cold feet about them all the time; the compassionate thing to do was keep them from bolting and wrangle them gently back towards the happy new future they’d arranged for themselves. In Sarouth’s case, that meant Riaag would need to do something about some no doubt unrealistic expectations that nobody actually cared about. He nudged his knuckle underneath Sarouth’s chin to tilt his head up until their eyes met.

“She ain’t the same as Him, Holy One,” said Riaag. “She ain’t askin’ fer nothin’ but kinship ‘n kindness. You don’t gotta be the Faaroug twice over. You don’t gotta be perfect. You just gotta be there.”

Sarouth leaned his cheek against Riaag’s hand, eyes closed. “I really don’t know how to even begin doing this, though.”

“Well,” said Riaag, trying to think of the kindest way to say it. How to summarize things for someone who didn’t have that same nurturing urge that’d guided Riaag for as long as he could remember? “I find it helps ter think ‘a all the shit you wished you had as a kid, ‘n aim fer somethin’ in that general direction, common sense prevailin’.”

“That’s going to take a while, my love.”

“Good news! Kids take theyselves a few years ter grow. We’s got time.”

“Assuming she doesn’t wake up and realize her mistake.”

Riaag snorted. “Valin followed us from the shadow ‘a the tower all the way across the river back ter the stronghold, in the fucken cold ‘n snow, ‘n she ain’t lit out yet. T’weren’t a spur-‘a-the-moment decision, neither. She ‘n I, we’s talked about this some, ‘n I suspect she were feelin’ out the idea fer some time previous. She didn’t ask fer nothin’ ’til she were good ‘n fucken ready.”

That got Sarouth’s his attention. “You were planning this?”

“I’s known ter plan lotsa things,” said Riaag with a grin broad enough to be seen even in the nighttime dark.

“You don’t say?” Bits of his usual good humor—good cheer, more accurately, as Sarouth’s sense of humor was absolutely dire most of the time—were starting to creep back into his voice. He shifted his weight and Riaag could feel some of the tension ease away. “So you both think I can do it, huh?”

“I ain’t gonna pretend I knows what Valin thinks at this juncture. But I knows what I does. I thinks you givin’ a shit ’bout doin’ a decent job means more’n you realize.”

This got a chuckle out of Sarouth. “So how many times have other people told you that one?”

“I chooses not ter respond ter such inquiry at this time,” said Riaag with a haughty sniff.

It felt like a good point to stop talking. They held one another in comfortable silence for a while, Riaag keeping one hand at the small of Sarouth’s back with just enough pressure to keep him close. The autumn air had only just begun to crisp with the impending arrival of Harvest time, and even then the lodge was a lot more pleasant to sleep in than the heavy felted god-speaker’s tent had been. Sleeping indoors was already making quite a compelling case for itself.

After hearing a rustle of sleeping robes, Riaag felt Sarouth leave a kiss against his chin. “You know, my love, the timing’s all wrong if you were planning this as an anniversary present.”

They’d already had a very nice second anniversary two weeks ago. Riaag was willing to see where Sarouth was going with this, though, so he didn’t correct him. “Hm?”

“Yeah. You’re the one who’s late this time. We’ll have to do better next year.”

Riaag groaned in (mostly) mock frustration. “Do not start implyin’ we’s always gotta be one-uppin’ usselves. I ain’t havin’ it.”

“Oh? What if we made up for last year, then? It was the middle of Concordance and we were both a mess in different ways.” Another kiss found Riaag’s lower lip, just beneath a tusk. “I’m sure we’d have a deficit if we brought out my abacus to check how many tender caresses we’re respectively owed.”

While that could only be true if they were expected to keep up with a truly unreasonable amount of lovemaking (as opposed to the well-paced frequency which they enjoyed), Riaag didn’t feel like correcting Sarouth this time, either. A horny Sarouth was a happy Sarouth. Even having already come earlier that same day, Riaag was still barely out of his first quarter-century of life, and he only needed the slightest amount of encouragement to prepare for a repeat performance. The touch of Sarouth’s smooth, well-toned body against his own was more than slightly encouraging. What better way to emphasize a new bond than to fool around in celebration? More reasonable heads could probably think of something; Riaag was happy to leave reason behind for a little to indulge in the instincts of old. They hadn’t tied off the curtain-door that evening for nothing.

Sarouth ran his claws through Riaag’s beard before leaning in for a leisurely kiss, their lips parting to let their tongues meet. They’d long since figured out the angles required to account for Riaag’s size. It had been a light struggle at first, as Riaag had been inexperienced and Sarouth was still figuring out how to touch him without setting him off; Riaag had always been a fast learner, however, and Sarouth had a long history of inviting fatter men to share his fire, so between them it hadn’t taken long. Now they knew how to fit together even in the darkest of environs. Riaag had known the touch of Sarouth’s lips—and quite a lot of other things—in the stygian depths of the sacred hill itself, so the moonlight filtering in through from outside was more than enough to see the way Sarouth shrugged one arm and then the other out of his robes.

What an invitation! Riaag’s fingers went to Sarouth’s shoulder blades. No matter how many times the tattoos there changed the skin was still smooth and perfect, though it was fun to pretend he could still feel them, somehow, like a spark between bare flesh and metal on a dry day. Not that Riaag needed that tactile sensation to be satisfied; feeling the way Sarouth’s back muscles rippled was thrilling all on its own. Also good to feel was the growing hardness pressing against Riaag’s stomach. The robes and sleeping tunic between them dulled the familiar warmth there, but there was nothing wrong with letting things drag out a little while still making out. Leaving those layers in place for a bit would make it all the sweeter when they were pulled away. How fine it’d be when it finally came time to study the texture of Sarouth’s cock by whatever means they chose! Yes, that’d do. Riaag could work with that.

He slipped his hands under the sash still around Sarouth’s waist. As a younger man Riaag had fretted over his size, always feeling too big for any space he was in; a few months of getting friendly with an Agritakh-ruhd had introduced him to the wonders of having palms perfectly sized to cup someone else’s ass. Riaag tilted his hips and pulled Sarouth against him. Shaft rubbed against shrouded shaft and he could taste Sarouth’s gasp in his lungs. He smiled into the kiss. It was so easy for Sarouth to render him as so much wobbly porridge with just a few words and touches in the right places, and Riaag strove to repay the favor whenever he was in the right mind to do so. Just because Sarouth was in charge (because Sarouth was always in charge, which was just the way they liked it) didn’t mean he had to handle every single pull of the reins himself.

Blunt claws dug into Riaag’s soft front. That was something else Sarouth liked: he could while away an entire afternoon just touching at the fattier parts of Riaag’s figure, marveling at the pliability of his flesh right up until he hit the hard muscle beneath it. You didn’t work a forge as long or chop as many trees as Riaag did without having something to show for it, and you didn’t have your whole body try to make up for a childhood spent starving without piling on a lot of mass. One fueled the other. Riaag was pretty happy with the way he looked nowadays—having someone to tell him he was pretty helped, as did the ribbons and flowers and jade hair ornaments he could wear whenever he wanted—so knowing that Sarouth felt the same, or maybe moreso? Sublime.

Riaag broke the kiss long enough for a question: “How does you want me?”

“I want to remind you that you’re mine,” growled Sarouth. As that could mean a lot of things, Riaag was grateful for the clarification that followed. “I touched you earlier tonight. I was in you up to the meat of my hand. I want more.”

“Yeah?” panted Riaag. He still felt a little stretched out from their previous fun. Sarouth kept his claws blunt for very good reasons. It probably wouldn’t be hard at all to get Riaag ready for whatever wicked thing Sarouth wanted to do to him. Maybe he was even still a little bit slick from the potion-stuff Sarouth had poured liberally over his fingers. There was a nice thought for you.

Sarouth, of course, had ideas. “I want you to roll over for me, if you can,” he said. “Let me get my tongue between your cheeks and taste you until you beg for my cock. I want to push into you so slowly you can barely stand it. I want to feel you trembling all around me. I want to plow you until you’re nothing but a wreck, my pretty little bird, and then I want to come inside you until I’m nothing but a wreck. How’s that sound?”

Even in the throes of some alarmingly hot foreplay, Riaag couldn’t escape the part of himself that had to do the laundry every week. “Put a cloth or somethin’ down first,” he said.

Sarouth blew a raspberry. “Yes, fine, we’ll put down a cloth or something,” he replied. “Once the stage is set, though, do you like what I said?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Very good. Now, let’s get things ready….”

The nice thing about lodge life was there had never been any problem finding someplace to put the storage trunks. It had never been that bad in the tent, of course, but how could that compare with how much room they had inside a place with a floor? Riaag was able to easily find what he needed in the dark. He lit a lamp, remade the bed, and spread out a spare blanket atop the thin quilt they used this time of year. All the while Sarouth clanked around in the potion collection somewhere behind him. Every god-speaker’s collection of divinely-granted phials was unique to them and them only, covering everything from poison cures to sleep aids to miraculous things that could actually knit wounds back together. Sarouth’s, of course, also happened to be regularly stocked with a variety of personal lubricants. Riaag chewed on his lip in excitement. The way he felt, he could’ve had Sarouth push inside him all the way to the base with no care for the details; the way things actually were, it couldn’t hurt to have a little help just in case.

A proper striptease involved more to work with than a tunic, some trousers, and the utilitarian underdrawers between them. Still, Riaag tried. He tossed his hair and did his best to vamp as Sarouth stepped out of his half-undone robes. There was no point in being demure, since they’d both made their desires very clear; besides, it would’ve taken a level of acrobatic grace Riaag did not possess to obscure his cock from that angle by any means other than shoving his hands in front of himself. Where was the fun in that? Instead he perched on the edge of the bed and let himself be seen. The lamp wasn’t for nothing, after all.

Sarouth made a twirly gesture with his finger and Riaag, ever obedient, turned around to lie flat on the bed with his cock pressed firmly into the mattress. That latter part wasn’t his favorite bit, admittedly, but it was fine; the mild discomfort would make for a feeling of relief when he finally rolled onto his side for Sarouth to slide into his proper place. Sometimes, on rare occasions when they were both in a particular mood, Sarouth would tease him like that for ages until letting him flip over, only to ride Riaag’s cock until, near as Riaag could tell, Sarouth got bored of it. Those were interesting days. Today was not such a day, which was fine, because Riaag was always the last word on what all they got up to. It was nice knowing he’d always feel safe no matter what on the earth Sarouth decided Riaag’s fate would be. He was currently feeling a little more like being a vessel for the divine, anyway.

Riaag had gotten into the habit of cleaning himself very thoroughly if he expected to entertain Sarouth’s more involved desires, as there was always good reason to be sanitary. This came in very handy when Sarouth was in the mood for spreading Riaag’s ass cheeks apart until his pucker was on full display, then licking and probing everywhere that the green parts flushed to pink. How thorough were his lips! How dexterous was his tongue! The Chant had a lot to say about the many-faceted nature of the Faaroug, but it was probably for the best that it was silent on how much the current incarnation liked to eat his oathbound’s ass. It was just as well. This kind of information getting out could lead to some very terse negotiations once people found out they couldn’t queue up for their own turn.

How Sarouth had figured out exactly how to use his tongue to keep the rough parts from being painful down below was anyone’s guess; by whatever means he’d learned and practiced, one couldn’t argue with the results. He knew all the right spots. The praise and satisfied chuckles he offered between laps were never short of genuine. He was fully in control of the room, which meant he’d tacitly agreed to handle burdens like “thinking about things” for the both of them. Riaag could actually relax like this. Mostly relax, at least, as he was still pinning a delicate portion of his anatomy beneath his own weight, and that sort of thing was difficult to ignore completely. Even that was a promise: it wouldn’t be that way forever, and if it ever stopped being a fun kind of frustration he could always say something about it. Sarouth was never upset with him if they ever had to stop.

Not that Riaag wanted them to stop. He whimpered as appealingly as he could muster, writhing just enough to show that he was having a good time without disrupting Sarouth’s feast. How wonderful it was, how fabulously lucky, that they could share this together! It was weird—Riaag had never thought getting his ass eaten was an option up until relatively recently, much less asked anyone to try it—but a fun weird, something he wouldn’t mistake for anything else. As for whether Sarouth was having as good a time as he was? All it took was a look over Riaag’s shoulder to see a familiar narrow-jawed, small-tusked face lost in blissful abandon. If their eyes happened to lock during such a look back, Sarouth would smile and wink, maybe waggling his eyebrows before redoubling his efforts for a bit. No matter what happened between them, Sarouth remained Sarouth. That was the best part.

Sometimes Sarouth would pause what he was doing to nip at a buttock, making Riaag yelp and wiggle. Any love bites he left there were the gentlest sort; one never knew when one might need to saddle up to go handle an emergency, so Sarouth was careful never to give Riaag anything that would still sting a few hours out. Riaag was fine with that. It meant more of the marks he did get were put somewhere he could actually see them. A collector liked to appreciate his collection!

Sex being so easily playful had taken stress out of the equation Riaag had never realized he’d had until he’d actually felt ready to sleep with someone. Wringing his hands over potential lost time was pointless: the man he’d been when he’d pledged his oath to Sarouth hadn’t been the same person as the man he’d been at sunrise that same day, so it was better to focus on how far he’d come and how well he was doing instead of anything else. Did anyone else think about things this much when they had someone else’s tongue up their butthole? Did other people think it was inappropriate to philosophize in the middle of something so carnally intimate? Given the clarity of mind Riaag could find at times like these, those other people were missing out.

Riaag had lost track of how long it’d been when Sarouth leaned back to give him a little tweak of a cheek. The shifting of weight this inspired reminded Riaag that yes, he was still powerfully hard, and yes, he was ready for some of those other ideas Sarouth had promised. But first? It was time to sit still and pay attention.

“I can do this all night, you know,” threatened Sarouth. “Feel free to call my bluff if you don’t believe me. I can be a very patient man.” He leaned in for another deep, forceful lick that made Riaag’s hands clutch desperately at the blankets. “If you want a-a-anything else we talked about, brave warrior, you’re going to have to ask for it.”

This, always this. It would’ve been annoying how often Sarouth made Riaag beg if Riaag didn’t enjoy it so much. “I wants what you done promised,” he rumbled.

“Do you, now? You want all that part about feeling my shaft slowly fill you up, since you fit me so right?”

“Yeah….” Riaag couldn’t help but flush a little bit at that. The thought of being made perfect in some way was intoxicating, and he’d gladly take the fucked-up teeth and the hairy body and all the rest just because those things added up into being so right. He’d used to dream of waking up one day looking more like Sarouth, something smaller and smoother and not so fucking big; these days he suspected he didn’t know what he’d even do with himself if he wasn’t built like the sacred hill itself. Amazing what some perspective could do.

Sarouth smirked. “And that part where I take my time screwing your brains out, only letting you come when I feel like it?” he asked. “You want that, too?”

Maybe enthusiasm would be more properly convincing. “Yeah!”

“Very good, my wolf. Very good indeed.” Something uncorked. “Now then, why don’t you get yourself comfortable while I finish readying up, and we’ll find out if you’re as prepared as we think you are, hm?”

No sense in keeping a cleric waiting! Riaag rolled onto his side, freeing his poor cock from its prison against the blankets. He sighed with relief. With one leg propped up (his size made creative positioning a necessity) he still felt like he was on display, showing off all the parts of himself Sarouth liked to explore in private, and this way his neglected shaft would be well within stroking range. Sarouth would do that for him, wouldn’t he? There had been a very clear statement about Riaag coming with Sarouth buried in him. Riaag concentrated, making his shaft flex a few times. It was important to remind Sarouth that he was eager. His actions were rewarded: Sarouth straddled the leg of Riaag’s that was still against the mattress, one knee on either side of Riaag’s massive thigh. This was it, yet another threshold at the borders of a very special experience. Riaag exhaled and relaxed as much of his body as he could. It was almost time.

Just like when he was sleeping, Riaag needed to be able to see what was going on in situations like these. The nice part was that once they’d figured out the necessary angles they were able to address that need of his with barely a thought anymore. The shape of his stomach meant he couldn’t actually see the tip of Sarouth’s glans nudge him open before slipping inside, but that was okay: Riaag could feel it, and despite being a big man with an equally big asshole his breath still caught as he was stretched to accept the only cock he ever cared to know in this manner. What Riaag could see was the way Sarouth’s lips parted to sigh, the way he clung to Riaag’s raised leg, and the way he wasn’t getting anywhere near enough to Riaag save for the way his thigh brushed against the underside of Riaag’s balls. So slowly you can barely stand it, Sarouth had promised. He was certainly living up to the expectation.

Sarouth pushed into Riaag bit by delectable bit. The lack of speed was agonizing. It wasn’t because Riaag wasn’t capable of taking him—previous experience had taught them Sarouth could fit in him up to the wrist if they really wanted to, and the most recent application of stuff from his assorted potions had them as slick as melting ice against one another—but because Sarouth, bless and damn him in the same breath, was pacing himself. His thighs were tensed, his brow furrowed in concentration. No part of Sarouth’s body was permitted to relax lest he go any faster than the exact pace he wanted. When he finally buried the last sliver of his shaft against the fork of Riaag’s legs the moment arrived with the finality of a calving glacier. Riaag fit him so right, Sarouth said. The inverse was also true.

When Sarouth began to move Riaag let out a breath he didn’t know he’d been holding. This left him open to being surprised when a hand went straight for his balls; there were many parts of himself that Riaag had learned liked being touched quite a lot, actually, and that general approval was enhanced tenfold if Sarouth was already busy getting his cock in or against some other part of Riaag’s anatomy. His senses were on fire, in a good way. There was no room for fear or worry in his heart like this. There was only Sarouth, only the echoes of the Labyrinth in the sound of Sarouth’s breathing and the way his inked skin reflected a map of tunnels Riaag would never know. A god-speaker in their majesty was terrifying; this god-speaker was no different, but the terror that thrummed in his blood couldn’t hope to get its hooks into Riaag in the way that most Agritakh-ruhds bothered people, since there was no way a devoted servant of the Hill God could break him in a way he hadn’t already survived. Sometimes the dread still eddied out of Sarouth when they were together like this, in fact, like the smell of a bonfire lingering long after the blaze. Riaag had come to find it pretty hot.

As slow as Sarouth’s strokes were they sure weren’t lacking in power. Riaag’s whole body shuddered with every thrust (some portions shuddering a little jigglier than others) and he marveled at the sight of Sarouth’s own rippling torso in the lamplight. They contrasted in so many ways, no wonder they worked well together! Each accented the other’s strengths: Sarouth was dark-skinned with a head of his namesake white hair where Riaag was lighter and yellower with a raven-black mane; Sarouth was svelte and smooth where Riaag was massive and scar-spangled; Sarouth was the talker, the peacemaker, the diplomat whose life and livelihood was the responsibility of Riaag, the herald and shield-bearer. A career built on being a living wall made quieter moments like these all the more special. Even as he felt the hard edges of the world start to blunt in his mind, Riaag took solace in the fact that everything he loved about Sarouth no doubt had its own mirror twin in himself, and that gave him plenty to feel good about.

The hints of a quake built in the pit of Riaag’s guts. He shivered. Good thing he was still lying on his side instead of propped up against the bed the way they tried sometimes; his knees already felt like so much stewed fat, all soft and wobbly and ready to melt into a morsel of tenderest meat. Sarouth’s hand danced along his shaft. Riaag was close, so close that any moment now he knew he’d be swept away by his own passions. Would he manage a performance as grand as what Sarouth had demanded of him? Probably, based on previous evidence, but that was no reason not to put in the effort. Riaag steeled himself. He’d look good for the Faaroug, feel good for the Faaroug, and there was probably a sense or two he couldn’t quite remember in his dreamy daze. Pleasing his oathbound was serious business.

“You gonna sing for me, little bird?” murmured Sarouth.

Oh, that was what he’d been forgetting. Riaag didn’t have the chance to answer with words. Instead he came, gasping and calling out, and he clenched down around Sarouth even as Sarouth’s soft and perfect hands milked forth every last drop Riaag had left.

“Just like that,” said Sarouth. He snarled with pleasure. He was moving faster, now, and between that and the way Riaag was still wracked with spasms they seriously tried the limits of the oil that smoothed Sarouth’s passage. Sarouth had wanted Riaag to tremble all around him. Surely this was trembling enough! The hand on Riaag’s cock, its original duty finished, now clung to Riaag’s leg as Sarouth used it as leverage to bury himself time and time again. Truly he was a worker of miracles; Riaag wasn’t too sensitive to enjoy things even as he teetered on the edge of overstimulation. Great poetry had been inspired by so much less! Not that Riaag had found his words again, as the most he could manage were soft, vowel-filled cries that urged Sarouth ever onward. A songbird didn’t need language to fill the trees with music. Nightingale’s noble example could come in handy at the damnedest times, really.

At long last Sarouth growled his name, shuddering, and by the time they’d both caught their breath Riaag could recognize the slackness in Sarouth’s muscles that meant he’d had a very good time, indeed. Sarouth had to brush some hair out of his face to properly smile back at Riaag again. He slapped the thigh still crooked up over his shoulder as though it somehow didn’t belong to a man whose weight measured in the hundreds of pounds.

“You’re so sweet, Riaag,” he said. “That’s just what I wanted. But I’m not done with you yet.” Sure enough, a little wiggling revealed that he was still hard. “Pretty thing like you deserves having me come in him again, don’t you agree? A little reminder that you’re lovely, inside and out.”

He gyrated his hips. Riaag was nowhere near being ready for a repeat performance of his own, and that didn’t matter in cases such as this one; he could still enjoy being used with love no matter if he was likely to reach the end of that road again himself. A hand could touch wherever it pleased even if the libido was weary. Assholes were quite a lot different from hands, but so long as he wasn’t too tender to touch Riaag was willing to let the metaphor get a little muddled. It was the least he could do for his favorite person.

“Sit tight, my sweet little bird,” Sarouth continued. “You’ll know when I’m done with you.” Then, with the inevitability of thunder after a fork of lightning, he was back to rutting at his previous pace, as though the come he’d spilled had never happened at all.

Somewhere between climaxes two and two thousand Riaag lost count. All he could do was drift in a happy, well-loved stupor as Sarouth burned through reserves of energy that didn’t care that he and Riaag had already had sex that night. Something about being a conduit for divine power made him a bottomless pit of need. Be it an attempt to match the presence of the Hill God in his head with sensations more physical, or just Sarouth being really fucking horny at every hour of the day, Riaag was glad that he could help slake those needs even a little bit. Hearing Sarouth whisper his name and shudder above him never got old. So long as there were libations to receive, so Riaag would accept them with great joy in his heart and probably more than a little stickiness to his person.

Once Sarouth was finally done, he remained where he was just long enough to sigh contentedly before he pulled out, which was done more swiftly than when he’d first gone in but still involved a leisurely process. Riaag could feel a familiar wet warmth against his leg as his nethers adjusted to no longer being occupied. Such a show of approval it was! The actual amount of jism couldn’t have been much; in emotional terms, however, Riaag may as well have been host to the sea. A shame he couldn’t hold on to Sarouth’s gifts forever, but such was life. He could always ask for more the next time he was in such a mood. For now he would simply hold Sarouth close, bask in post-coital bliss, and thank Agritakh yet again for all the good things in his life.

Riaag needed some help cleaning up after they parted thanks to how soft and foggy he still felt, which Sarouth was happy to provide. By the time the lamp was once more snuffed, their sleeping clothes were once more donned, and they’d fallen back into one another’s arms, he felt most of the way back to his usual sharpness. The remaining woolly-headedness was equal parts how tired he was from the day and how relaxed he was from getting well and truly laid. There was just one more thing left to do before he turned in for the night: he pulled Sarouth close and aligned their faces as though he was ready for a final kiss before bed, though this time he had something other than puckering up in mind.

“I loves you more’n words can say, Sarouth,” said Riaag, because even if the numbers added up for anniversary kisses there was definitely something he could stand to say more of out loud.

“Yeah?” That Sarouth always sounded a little surprised to hear it hurt a little. Clearly that just meant Riaag would need to keep doing so.

“Yeah. With utmost sincerity.”

For the longest time Riaag had refused to believe what he knew to be true: he’d loved Sarouth for so long, and in so many changing ways, and yet there’d always been excuses he could make for himself. Ah, Riaag would gladly perform even the most grueling tasks asked of him, but wasn’t that a drudge’s calling? He would bleed for Sarouth, but wasn’t that the joyful role of any who brought sacrifices to Agritakh’s hungry mouth? He would fight and kill, even lay down his life for this god-speaker who’d seen him at his worst, but wasn’t that the duty of any bodyguard, much less one chosen by Wolf? Riaag was done with that shit. He loved Sarouth, Sarouth loved him back, and there was no formula of equivalence needed to permit both these things to be.

“I love you, too, little bird,” said Sarouth. “You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”

Riaag smiled. “Yeah. Same.” He stretched before pulling Sarouth close against his side. “T’were downright pleasant, I gots ter say.”

“Naturally,” said Sarouth. “Who better to feel the earth move than a cleric of the Hill God?”

Oh no. It was a sign that Sarouth was in good spirits if his jokes were bursting out all over. The problem was that his jokes were awful, just the worst, and Riaag could already imagine Valin picking them up for herself, just to be a menace. That sounded like the sort of thing she’d do. “You’s a father now, Sarouth. You oughtta consider shapin’ up that shitty fucken sense ‘a humor ‘a yers, fer ter make a good example.”

“Ah, but one could say fatherhood is the best time for my jokes, since people can’t escape them!”

“That’s what I’s worried about!”

“Don’t worry, she’s a good student. She’s already better with miracles than you’d expect for someone so young. I’ll only teach her the best ones.”

None ‘a them’s the best.

Sarouth cackled like a rooster. “Then that means I’ll just have to make sure she learns all of them, doesn’t it? She wants to know far more than she’ll ever admit. Present it like she can wrestle some great secret out of you and she’ll be a startlingly apt pupil.”

That lined up with Riaag’s experience. He was about to say as much when he caught something on Sarouth’s shadowy face. It wasn’t a good look. It was, however, the kind of look that needed to be addressed before it festered into something nasty. One didn’t go from good-natured jabs at one another to that kind of face unless there was some real motherfucking turmoil going on inside. “Somethin’ on yer mind, Sarouth?”

“Yeah,” he said. “It’d kill this mood we’ve got, though.”

“If it gots ter be killed, it gots ter be killed. It’s about Valin, ain’t it?”

“Yeah.”

He’d been afraid of that. “Okay. What’s botherin’ you this time?”

“How do you feel about her learning what happened to you? Before we met?”

How nice it had been to not be thinking about that for a few minutes. Riaag grimaced; it felt disrespectful to use even them most euphemistic of language about his childhood on such a happy day, so soon after knowing the sweetness of Sarouth’s touch, but if that was the metric he went by then when could they talk about it? A life of great despair, he’d called it back when first schooling her why he spoke the way he did, and that was, if anything, an understatement. He grasped for words that could hold the shape of the truth. “I…dunno if I’s ever gonna tell her. Maybe when she’s older. She don’t gotta know specifics.”

“No one does,” said Sarouth, softly. He and Riaag were the only ones left who truly knew. It came as a comfort these days. “If she asks me, shall I say it’s not my story to share?”

“How many times has she asked you already?”

“None directly, my love. She’s tried to come in sideways, asking what you were like before you became my acolyte, that sort of thing.”

“So what kinda answers does she get in return?”

Sarouth stroked the side of Riaag’s face, from cheek to jaw. “I tell her that you wore the paint before I met you, and upon begging my mercy I cleansed you in His eyes, that the rest of your life be your own to shape in His grace. I’m also sure to say that I’d never met you before that sweet summer day. Our job is to serve our people no matter how well we know them.”

“That’s…that’ll do, yeah.”

“Besides, she needs to know the hazards of taking an entourage.”

Riaag found bits of a smile. “A tale most cautionary. You never does know who you’s gonna be haulin’ up from the dust.”

“I hear it’s a good way to end up oathbound,” agreed Sarouth.

“Terr’ble. Awful.”

“Mmm-hmmm. I’ve ended up promising to honor and to cherish the man I love above any other thing upon His earth. I fear it’s terminal.”

“So it goes,” said Riaag. A new thought crossed his mind. “Y’know, once you meet yer ultimate fate ‘a lovesickness, you’s actually gonna have a proper successor lined up now. No more frettin’ o’er whether Naar Rhoan’s gonna twist in the wind anymore.”

This got a laugh out of Sarouth. “Maybe once she’s older!” he said. “But you’re right. One day Valin’s going to be ready to watch the stronghold if my foolish ass dies sooner than later. I’ll have to put some beads together to let Ruzhu know. She’s going to be thrilled. Not having to keep her band so close will be liberating.”

“Just so long as you still keep invitin’ her ‘n hers over on the regular. I think she’d miss this place if she stayed away too terr’bly long.”

“Very true. It’s the pies, so she claims.”

She’d said as much in Riaag’s presence before, so he was willing to accept it as true enough for an excuse. Ruzhu Kind-Knife was easily one of Sarouth’s closest friends among the other god-speakers who came through the stronghold; her knack for scrying was second to none, and more importantly she had the skill and authority to hold Naar Rhoan together when its founders had to step away. It was good for Sarouth to have other god-speakers in his life, a steadying and sympathetic presence with whom he could discuss the kind of shit someone who was all the way mortal could never truly comprehend. Now he’d be that kind of presence for Valin, as well. Everything was falling into place.

“You’s gonna need ter mention that you’s a father, not just a successor-haver, y’know,” said Riaag.

“Details! Besides, can you blame me for wanting to see her face in person when I tell her?”

The thought of Ruzhu’s ever-so-taciturn face going slack-jawed around her eyepatch was pretty funny, Riaag had to admit. “Yeah, a’ight, that’s fair.”

“Of course it’s fair. I’m the Faaroug. I am nothing but even-handed to all before me.”

Riaag could’ve disputed that statement in dozens of ways. He chose not to invoke any of them. “So you think you’s ready ter try ‘n sleep more proper?” he asked, instead.

“Hmmm…maybe. Is it going to be weird waking up next to someone else’s dad in the morning?”

“Dunno. How ’bout you tell me when you does it yerself?”

“I guess I could,” said Sarouth. He finger-combed his shaggy hair more into place, his left eye squeezed shut. “Would you mind rolling over so I can put myself back where I’m supposed to be?”

“Always,” said Riaag.

One final kiss alighted on Sarouth’s lips before Riaag turned away from him and adjusted the fall of the blankets. He could feel the bedding change beneath him as Sarouth made himself comfortable. A hand snaked around his waist to rest against his hip. Riaag expected to hear the gradual slowing of Sarouth’s breathing as he succumbed to the Labyrinth’s call; instead it was like a plummet from a cliff, as in one moment Sarouth was resting gently in his usual spot, then in the blink of an eye he was snoring like a hailstorm. At least there was no question of whether he’d be able to actually get to sleep.

What a day. What a life! Riaag still had a few years left to go before he hit thirty, and once he hit that he had many a potential decade until he was too old and gray to guard his metaphorical pack. Not that he was worried about that; you saw wild wolves caring for their elders, after all. Now he knew one of the potential faces that would keep him fed in his venerable age, and she’d be there for Sarouth, as well. She was tied to them both, not one or the other, by the very bonds that composed their oath. They had a daughter. They had a daughter. They had a daughter. No matter how you emphasized it, it was true. He’d see how he felt with the coming of the distant dawn. For now? Riaag was pretty sure he was, to use Sarouth’s words, where he was supposed to be.

With a gap-toothed smile, accompanied by snoring so fierce it sounded like divine retribution, Riaag let himself drift away to his first sleep as the father he hoped he could be.

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3 thoughts on “Unearthed Substratum

  1. Awwww, my heart is fit to burst over here! I teared up when they were binding themselves together as a family. I have *infinite* space for found family and this one is really sweet. Riaag is gonna be the best dad (even if Sarouth will have the lion’s share of dad jokes). I love Valin, that horrible little gremlin (who heartily deserves her new dads!). Okay, mostly I love watching Riaag and Sarouth interact with her. I was cackling at the bit where they chase her away by being horrible mushy grownups. Reminds me a lot of some of my own family. :) Horsie ride and Riaag teaching her to swear was also (fucken) adorable. Riaag is just one giant marshmallow (except, y’know, deadly) and his POV is a nonstop delight.

    Various other things I noted while I was reading:
    – I love the description of Sarouth as “a man determined to solve problems from half a dozen directions at once.”
    – Absolute favorite line is this: “It’s like decidin’ if you’s a boy or a girl or similar such. You can always change it later, it’s just gotta feel right fer who you is now.” I quoted it and only had “I love you Riaag T_T” as a note, because seriously, I love that guy.
    – All of the character portraits + Animal sigils (if that’s the right word) are really great. I have to assume Valin’s is AFTER Riaag managed to help with her hair. :)

    If I remember correctly, you said you were going to finish the series here, so congratulations on the end of an era! This is such a lovely, soft place to leave them. A good, solid foundation for their lives ahead of them, hopefully filled with lots and lots of joy.

  2. I’ll miss Riaag and his no-nonsense approach to life! I’m still fascinated by how you managed to bring him and Sarouth to life – their way of talking, thinking and acting feel so natural even though the stories happen in a veeeery strange setting. Reading about Riaag’s and Sarouth’s adventours have been one of my favourite Christmas traditions. Rereading them will be a joy for a long time to come.

  3. So great to see Valin settling in and growing. I also appreciated the flashbacks to times we’ve seen in other stories but not specific details we’ve seen before.

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