Forty-Two – 1 1/2 Years Ago: Toney

The male jerked away from Juele’s touch, gasping shallowly.

Stop. Begging you, stop.” He huddled on the floor of the cabin, his raw back exposed, showing every block in his spine, every rib.

Toney saw Alan’s hands twitch, wanting to return to their work. He slid his eyes toward Toney, and Toney glanced worriedly between them. Ashur stood silently by the door, one leg crossed over the other, arms across his chest, staying out of the way as much as he could to give Juele what he needed to work.

“It’s too much for him.”

“Tell him I need to finish.”

Toney leaned over the male’s shaggy, filthy head and said softly, “He says it has to be now.

Can’t.” The male’s gasp was weak.

Kneeling, keeping his head at the same level, Toney murmured a story to him, something half forgotten, vague, about a meadow by a stream in a valley, anything to stay connected to him in that deep, dead silence. Eventually he stopped in the middle of what he was saying and stayed quiet, his hand resting on the back of the lridrisy’s neck. He could feel Juele’s impatience building, that feeling when he narrowed his vision to only one thing and wouldn’t look at anything else until it was done. Toney shot him a worried look, caught a flicker of something Juele’s brown eyes, surprise, reevaluation.

After a long wait, Toney leaned over the lridrisy again, and said gently, “Yes?

The male said nothing, didn’t even move, but Toney curved his fingers and motioned Alan forward. Toney felt the male inhale as Juele touched him, the barest pressure of his fingertips, tracing the map of sliced flesh across his back. Neither Ashur or Alan gave any sign when they made whatever connection they had, but he felt the male force out a strangled breath. He stayed almost perfectly still as Juele worked, but he didn’t stay quiet anymore.

It seemed to take so long, or maybe he just wished it wouldn’t take so long, as the male jerked, shaking with the strain, groaning. Toney tightened his grip on the male’s neck. “Beya. Beya.

When Alan pulled away, the male was shivering. Juele looked to Toney a question, and Toney jerked his chin toward the door. As Alan pushed himself into a crouch, before he could leave, Toney reached out and grabbed his arm, stilling him, making him look back. They looked at each other for a breath, then Juele followed Ashur out.

Later, Toney stepped into the hall, sharply hungry, mind dull. Juele ducked out of the sick cabin as if he’d heard Toney close the door, hair draped over one shoulder, and looked at him with a question.

“Gottim warmed up again. He’s not asleep. He’s still just… quiet.”

“You looked at me strangely, earlier, when we were waiting. Do you remember?”

It came out, unguarded.

“You had that look, like you’re going to do what you’re going to do no matter what anyone else says.”

Now he was worried that he had said that, but Alan just told him, yellow eyebrows up, “That’s good to know.”

~~~

Rie made room for him around the firebox, and Toney sat down heavily, leaning over to pass his bowl to Dhomlar, who was closest to the pot. Dhomlar ladled something thick and chunky and fishy into his bowl, handing it silently back. Taighaut and Jeik scooted in closer, tightening the ring around the mouth of the firebox, sending a slow wave of shuffling around the circle that stalled as Werser moved his massive bulk down a seat.

Everyone else was dressed for the cold season, wool and seal skin, hoods and headscarves. Toney still wore his tunic; the wet cold nipped, but he wasn’t uncomfortable enough to wear something thicker. They were still flying north as fast as they could, staying the western reaches, but the wind was limp, sails barely filling enough to move them.

Taighaut let him get a few bites down before he said, “So? Tell us something.” Toney could feel the attention on him, but no one rushed him as he took another couple of bites before settling his bowl in his lap. He sucked his fingers clean, then rubbed his forehead, staring at a worn patch in the varnish on the deck.

I can’t think what to tell. Ask something.

He’s one of yours,” Jeik said, not quite question. “He can really change into a giant animal?

Something made Toney laugh, humorlessly. “Not for a while, he can’t.” Jeik looked like he wasn’t sure he was comfortable with that.

Why not?” he asked cautiously.

Too hurt. They shift to two legs when they’re hurt bad. Easier to feed. Easier to hide.” He felt uneasy as he said it, as if he shouldn’t have told them that, as if he had given away something vulnerable. But they were his crew. He had no reason to think they would use it to hurt, but it nagged at him, an old feeling that saw them suddenly as Endon mercenaries, and himself as something else.

How bigg’re they?” Taighaut asked, something nervous and eager about him. “Like limbihte?

Bigger than limbihte.Toney happened to look up, found that Werser, of all of them, wasn’t looking at him. He stared at his food as he ate. Toney looked away.

Before he could think about that, Rie asked speculatively, tapping the shell he used as a spoon against one full, dark lip. “They eat people?

No.” Toney shook his head. It wasn’t exactly true, but it answered what he was really asking. He didn’t now if he could explain the rest.

How’d he get in Laschdarvi?” Rie went on.

He was in the last battle.” Battle wasn’t the right idea, but it was the only word he could think of in Donse. “Right before the big burning. They took him.

Ashur said they was draining him,” Dhomlar said, normally so silent, saving him from having to go into more detail. He glanced up with his pale eyes in his sandy, bony face. Toney had to look away, because his stomach went tight. “You know him? From before?

No.” He lifted his bowl, using two fingers to shovel more stew into his mouth.

Jeik had caught Taighaut’s attention beside him, and pursed his lips at something across the deck. Turning, Toney saw Juele level with the mainmast, kneeling in front of a long ivory curve, a whiteblade rib almost as long as he was tall, wide as an arm. He lifted a round, smooth hammer stone, tested his grip, the balance as he braced the rib with his knee, and brought it down with an ear-splitting crack. He brought it down again in the same place, and Toney had to close his eyes. Closing his eyes didn’t stop the noise.

Toney heard Rie’s voice. “Wha’you think he’s doing?

When he opened them again, Juele had laid down the stone, and hefted a club. He moved a handspan down the curve of the rib and gave a few experimental taps, then brought it down with the force of a blade meant to chop through flesh. Toney felt his stomach turn, subtly, and set his bowl down abruptly.

~~~

The male didn’t move after Juele left. It was almost a relief to have him gone, to have the air in the cabin empty of his unyielding resolution.

Toney’s eyes swept the damage; whatever they had used had cut down to bone in some places. He couldn’t see what had been healed, the skin of his back still open in long, bloodless gashes. The male wasn’t stiff or tense, just completely limp. Toney couldn’t sense him breathing. Lowering himself to his side, Toney tucked his body around the lridrisy.

He didn’t fall asleep, and he knew the male was still awake.

Are you cold or hot?” Toney asked softly. He couldn’t tell, and it came to his lips.

The lridrisy’s reply was slow in coming, muffled.

I don’t remember.

~~~

Toney.

He looked up, eyes gummy, burning, feeling the male’s shallow breathing against him. The door was open, letting in a fading edge of bright, cold midday light. Rher crouched beside him, light turning his sandy skin bright. Jentosh stood behind him, a dark silhouette.

C’mon,” Rher said quietly. “Up. Come skyside. Jentosh can look after him.” Rher took his arm, tugged.

He still won’t sleep,” Toney said muzzily, climbing to his knees even though something nagged him that he had to stay.

Looks asleep to me.

No, he won’t– He never–

He’ll be fine. Come get some sunlight.

~~~

Toney found the male pressed against the other side of the cabin, his limp hands clutching the wall.

I have to see the sky,” he gasped.

Hey, beya.” Toney paced over quickly, kneeling. “Your back…

I have to get out.” His eyes were wide, threaded with red. He pressed his back against the wall, writhing faintly.

The healer will be here soon, we can ask him–

I have to see the sky–” he burst out. “The walls, this space– the air is dead– my heart can’t beat in here. I’m begging you. I can’t open the wall myself–

Toney fought down the sourness rising in his stomach, trying to calm him.

Beya, my blood. I know the healer will be here soon, he’ll know if it’s safe to move you, and then–

Do you understand how long it’s been since I’ve seen the sky?” His voice was high, tight, edging on hysterical.

Toney stared at him, stricken.

I don’t know if it’s safe.

Tears suddenly streamed down the male’s face.

I need.

Toney’s stomach was tight, his chest was tight. He looked away, then hesitantly back.

Can– can you wait until the healer has come?

The male rammed his head back against the wall and started to wail. He sound of his head hitting the wall, over and over, pierced his gut.

All right. All right.” He stood quickly, looking back and finding the blanket. Snatching it from the floor he knelt again and began furtively tucking it around the male’s frail body, thinking furiously. “I don’t want to hurt you,” he said softly, gently pulling him away from the wall and easing him over his shoulder. Toney adjusted his stance, making sure the weight was balanced. He wasn’t heavy, but he was heavier than a not-limdri would have been.

Sliding a hand up the wall for balance as he stood, Toney slipped out of the cabin, holding the male carefully in place. Near the end of the corridor he met Juele, who paused and looked at him questioningly, an eyebrow raised.

“He said he needs t’see the sky,” Toney said quickly, and kept walking so Alan wouldn’t have a chance to respond. Through the open hatch the sails snapped and the ship heeled over hard. He swung his head around, ignoring everyone on deck, and carefully laid the male down in the alley between the mainmast and the length of the galley. Readjusting the blanket, he nervously eyed the swelling ocean.

Don’t look to the sides,” he said, laying himself beside the lridrisy. He glanced over, studying his sallow profile, black eyelashes open to the sky.

The sky was an infinite sheet of low, rippling clouds threaded with blue. Toney closed his eyes.

Hearing a sudden sound, he opened his eyes and looked over, but the male didn’t seem distressed.

I looked,” he said a few breaths later.

Toney sighed.

I told you.

I know.” The wind gusted, the sails luffing before they corrected course. “Does it always move?” The lridrisy’s voice was small.

Yes.

The healer’s here.” Toney looked down past his toes, saw nothing but a couple of men at the bow, then craned his neck back, saw an upside-down Juele sitting with his back braced against the cabin, like he could sit there all shift, and do nothing but wait. “I’m not ready.

He can be…” Toney searched for a word, and it didn’t feel quite right. “… patient.” Like a whiteblade could be patient. The breeze was cold and wet, enough to draw goosebumps from his skin, and he tucked the edges of the blanket tighter around the male. He was too cool, his body no warmer than Toney’s, no fat on him to keep him warm, hardly any muscle.

My names are sedronne efeddre phabel.

Toney felt his breath still, because he knew the first name.

Sedronne the speaker?” he asked quietly. The male’s eyes were closed.

Yes.

He watched the textures sheet of the clouds flow by, seemingly infinite, as endless as the ocean. Toney warmed his hand against his stomach, then reached under the blanket to slip his fingers into the lridrisy’s armpit. He was cool.

You’re still not warm enough. We need to get out of the wind.

I can’t go back in there,” the male said, body suddenly tight. “My heart can’t beat–

It’s just like a cave,” Toney said urgently, as if he could drown out the male’s sudden, frightening terror with words. “It’s just like a cave, warm, quiet, protected from the wind–

No. The air is dead. I don’t want him to touch me, he makes my skin feel like it’s coming apart. I can’t breathe–” He actually couldn’t breathe, voice growing tighter, gasping, fighting his way out of the blanket.

Just breathe now, please, it’s all right.” Toney watched helplessly as he choked for air, and in desperation rolled the male toward him and bit the back of his neck. He set his teeth until he felt resistance, not quite hard enough to leave a mark. Against the hold of his teeth, against his hands and his knees he felt the lridrisy shudder, all his limbs curling inward in a sudden, quiet tension. Then he relaxed against the deck, not limp, his body just eased in a way Toney hadn’t yet seen. He held on for a few breaths, tasting a musk that had none of the saltiness he had grown used to, then pulled back.

The males eyes were wide.

That was insightful,” he said, as if still surprised. Toney felt a flush under his skin, a cold wash of embarrassment after panic. He stretched out on his side, very close, head pillowed in the crook of his elbow.

My sister did that once, for one of our males. He was hysterical with grief. He said it reminded him of being carried.” A slight nod.

Why was he grieving?” the lridrisy asked softly. Toney looked into his eyes, clear, clear brown with stark black threads, felt his forehead pucker, his mouth tighten.

The mercenaries were hunting us, with a team of drefalqwant,” he said quietly. “We were trying to head for Secled, but they cut us off, chased us toward Endonsárre. They stalked us, killing off the lridrisy one by one. We went to some of the villages for help, and we took away disease. We had a flux, we bled from our guts, and poppa and my sister, and momma’s last baby died. We were so weak, and the only lridrisy left was one of our young females, before they caught her too. Momma died before we reached the city.” Toney hesitated. In the mountains there were no words for village, or city. “Do you understand city?” The male nodded faintly. “My cousin was the last to die. I didn’t know why. He just didn’t wake up. And I was alone in the port.

Why are you living with the mercenaries?” the ldridrisy asked quietly.

A couple of them saw me by the docks, where the giant canoes are. I was starving. They adopted me. Taught me.” Toney smiled. “Most of what mercenaries do is carry and guard things for other people.

An impulse, and Toney propped himself enough to bury his face in the lridrisy’s neck, soft hot skin against his his cheeks, his eyelids, his lips, breathing in deep. This close, with his eyes closed, shutting out the green-gray waves, the lines of the ship, the distant conversations across the deck, he could immerse himself in that subtle scent, even marred by sickness and ocean. The smell was like being with every lridrisy in his methala, on four legs or two, a primal, basic comfort he hadn’t known he’d forgotten. Toney moved enough to bite the male gently on the nape of the neck again, felt the tiny shudder, felt him curl into himself more, then melt.

What do I smell like?” the male asked when he pulled away.

Like home.

~~~

The real thing somehow wasn’t as nauseating as watching Juele practice.

Efeddre’s head lay in his lap, a soft shadow of hair growing back after having that blood- and grime- clotted mat cut away. He stared up at Toney, holding his eyes like an anchor, deathly calm. Ashur was almost invisible at his post by the door, one foot braced on the wall behind him. Hair braided out of his rawboned face, Litin crouched at Efeddre’s feet, a quiet presence, holding one of his crooked legs at the right angle as Juele brought the club down. Toney heard the impact, but Efeddre didn’t make a sound, staring up at him, a muscle in one cheek tightening. Juele hit again, and Toney heard bone break. Efeddre inhaled deep, fingers of one useless hand clawing weakly against his leg. He made a thick noise as Juele looked deeper with his hands, finding the angle for the next blow, and Toney stroked his forehead. Alan said something to Litin, who adjusted. He hit again, shattering the bone, and he and Litin moved quickly to reset the leg. Efeddre shook against him as they pulled and twisted, eyes never looking away, never blinking.

Alan said, “Ashur,” and suddenly Efeddre’s back arched, and something like a scream squeezed out from between his clenched teeth as they started knitting the bone.

By the time they were done he was really screaming, short and hard, wet tracks from the corners of his eyes down his temples, like it was unbearable, like he couldn’t take it for another breath, but he never fought them, never begged them to stop. Toney just held his eyes, everything else in the cabin a vague impression. Pressing Efeddre’s wrists to the deck gave him something to resist since he couldn’t grab, and Toney felt Efeddre straining against him, barely able to lift his arms from the deck when he should have been so much stronger.

Toney looked up when Efeddre’s screams turned to heaving gasps. He saw Litin and Alan taking turns examining the leg, the shin smooth and straight, running fingers down the length of the bone, testing how it moved. Their faces, so different, were both set, professionally curious, satisfied. By the door, Ashur looked sick.

~~~

Lines groaned under the load of the cutter as the men lowered them into the waves. Toney looked up, saw Lamdek and Rher and a dozen others looking down at them from the railing. Glancing down Toney couldn’t see Efeddre’s face pressed against his chest, just the top of his head, his body tucked against his, his breathing quiet. Fis eyed the approaching water, his bald head covered against the chill, then the lines, checking their descent.

The water met them with a soft jolt, rocking, and Fis used a pole to keep them from bumping the hull of the ship looming above them. Toney had already stripped to the skin, the wind brisk against his nakedness, warm clothes for both of them tucked under one of the benches. Passing Efeddre to Fis, Toney climbed into the water, held onto the edge of the cutter as the cold threatened to take his breath away. He took a few deep breaths until it was only cold, then signed ready. The cutter rocked as Fis shifted his weight, lifting Efeddre over the edge and helping Toney ease him into the freezing water. One hand on the gunnel, Toney held Efeddre close. He thought about swimming them farther out, then thought about supporting dead weight in bone-numbing water, and kept his hold.

When you’re ready,” he said. Efeddre didn’t look at him. His eyes were closed, almost tightly. For a few breaths nothing happened, and Toney craned his neck back, watching the small faces silhouetted against a white sky staring down at them.

A burst of warmth against his skin for less than a heartbeat, then he was shoved back, under the water.

Pushing himself to the surface in a froth of bubbles he heard someone shouting obscenities from the deck. Salt stinging his eyes, blurring his vision, Toney saw Efeddre snorting, tan fur streaked dark with wet, muzzle barely held above the surface as his paws trod water in great roiling swathes. Then all at once his black-tipped ears, black lines eyes, long whiskers blurred, tan turning the color of smoke. As the smoke turned solid again, he watched Efeddre’s head disappear under the water.

Blood spiked, senses clear, sharp, Toney swam the body length between them, felt limbs thrashing under the water, hauled Efeddre up, pulling him close, treading for both of them as he waved Fis over. With a surge of alarm Toney thought he was shivering, then realized as the sound made it through the water in his ears that he was laughing, choking on ocean water and laughing like he was cracked.

~~~

No more,” Efeddre growled, crouched on the balls of his feet. “I don’t want him touching me.” His hair had grown out half a finger, his body filled out to lean.

“He says he doesn’ want you t’touch him,” Toney said, face creased.

“Tell him,” Alan said slowly, “that I’m concerned that he may not be able to use his hands.” The cuts on his wrist had scarred over, thick, hard, hot and red. He had never seen a lridrisy scar before, never heard of it in any story, and looking at them made something tighten in his chest.

No,” Efeddre said in Seclednar. Toney’s gaze flickered between him and Juele. Alan’s eyes were only on Efeddre.

“… How much Seclednar do you understand?”

“Enough,” Efeddre said, the word thick and awkward, but understandable. Toney studied his face quickly. He had suspected, considering who his mother was, but he hadn’t been sure how much he remembered.

“I’m concerned,” Juele said again, still slowly, “that if the tendons heal wrong, you won’t be able to use your fingers. You won’t be able to hold, grasp. Do you understand?”

Tell him I don’t want his touch,” Efeddre said sharply. Toney and Alan looked at each other, and Toney shook his head helplessly.

~~~

He found Efeddre in the cabin, kneeling in a tight ball with his forehead pressed against the deck, hands gripping his head.

Beya,” Toney said, moving quickly, leaving the door open, kneeling beside him. “Are you all right? Do you need the healer?” Everything was healed, on the surface. There were deeper wounds, healing slower, but his skin was whole, his legs straight and getting stronger.

No.” The word sounded forced.

Look at me,” he asked, mirroring his position so their heads were level. Efeddre lifted his had, something hard and raw and fierce in his face. Something teased a memory, a flicker he couldn’t name from a childhood and young adulthood long past. He stayed quiet, still, watching, letting the memory unfold into a question he wasn’t sure meant anything.

Slowly, he asked. “Were you mated, before?

No.

… How old are you?

It took him a few breaths to answer, almost as if he was fighting.

Old enough to feel it before the burning.

Toney felt his brows crease, a sudden helplessness. His hand stilled against Efeddre’s neck. It was too long. Nine snows was too long after they felt the urge. It might take two, maybe three at most to find a mate. That look in his eyes, not lust, just need, and pain.

Will it help you, if I share my body with you?” he asked gently.

Won’t help,” Efeddre grated, and hid his eyes again.

~~~

Jormrher brought himself up short as he stepped out of the woods. Two lengths away a herdbeast glanced up, neck twisted around, and eyed him with not much concern, chewing grass, ears flicking. Idishe had reported the edge of the herd had wandered nearby, but he hadn’t expected them so close. He eyed them askance, then as Mehth came even with him, started moving again.

There,” Mehth made a broad circle in the air, indicating a patch of fresh-sprung broad, shiny leaves. “And there.” He pointed with an arm to a spot farther from the herdbeasts. The kid followed him out of the shade, spare boned and soft footed, eyes taking in everything. Slipping off his pack basket by the first patch, Jormrher stood for a few breaths, gazing at the scattered edge of the herd. The main body was invisible over the subtle hills in the plain. Juele came up and dropped his back basket beside his in the small clearing.

“Wish we’d brought Kol,” Jormrher said. “Mouth’s like an ocean, looking at that. We ain’t had meat that walks in half a pass.” He glanced at Alan. “Howwould you hunt ’em?” Juele moved his consideration from the scattering of herdbeasts to Jormrher. Brac was carefully unfolding blankets in the sun, damp from last night’s frost, not waving them around. The kid stood alone, almost looking Crec with his sallow skin and black hair except for the strange flat angles of his face, watching the the herdbeasts grazing.

“I’d pick a stray fawn and get at least two men with strong rope. We would noose him, then we’d wrestle him to the ground and slit his throat.”

Jormrher looked at Juele blankly.

“That means we have t’get close to ’em,” he said flatly.

Juele just smiled. Jormrher handed him a digging stick, annoyed.

Accepting it, Juele suggested, “Tuck that,” a hand tracing the shape of a headscarf with a brief tilt of the head toward the herdbeasts. He tucked his own hair into the back of his collar. Considering the cool sun and what it was likely to do to his fresh-shaved scalp, Jormrher did the same. Aaric joined them, and they started digging, pushing the root-matted earth away from the stems of the leaves and moving downward until they met tuber, then digging along the length of it.

Most of the roots were as thick as his wrist, soft gold under the dirt, and longer than his arm. They about wanted to come out of the ground like a baby wanted to come out of the cunt. Standing to stretch his back, Jormrher saw Mehth, Idishe, and Brac were working the other patch.

We’re gonna eat good tonight,” Aaric said, showing the broken end of a tuber already starting to peel into soft white layers. Spotting a shiny-backed sucker crawling toward his kinky hairline, Jormrher plucked it off and cut it in half with his thumbnail.

He looked up sharply as he heard a heavy stomp, saw a herdbeast buck. None of the other animals reacted other than by giving it room, not even lifting their heads from the succulent new shoots. When nothing else happened he put his head down and started digging again, feeling out the shape of the peeler tuber with his, cold, dirt smudged fingers.

He’d ripped half of it out when Aaric blew out a noisy breath, buzzing his lips. Jormrher followed his gaze to see the kid coming back –he hadn’t even noticed he was gone– with a fawn nearly as big as he was slung over his shoulders, hands gripping its long, bony legs. He walked past them without a word, into the shade of the edge of the forest against the grass, and carefully laid the fawn down. He stroked its brittle hair along the grain, caressing the curve of a shoulder. Leaning on his digging stick, Jormrher watched him move lightly through the brush at the edge where the plain and the forest met, disappearance into the woods. Jormrher glanced at the dead fawn staring from the grass.

I like him,” he said to Aaric.

They had a tuber as long as his arm coiled in the basket when he looked up at the crunch of grass and saw the kid coming back again, another fawn over his shoulders. Jormrher’s attention snapped abruptly to the herd, contentedly grazing. He turned back to the kid, saw him squatting to ease the fawn off his shoulders by the first.

How’n a dozen storms can he carry that much?” Aaric said. The kid approached Mehth like he wasn’t quite sure he should do it.

“String?” Jormrher heard uncertainly, fingers delicately pinching the air, spreading apart, showing something long. On one knee by a basket, meaty shoulders naked to the sun, Mehth stared at him.

“Rope,” Mehth said suddenly. “Rope. Hey Idishe, pass me a line.

“… Knife?”

Mehth pulled a knife from his belt, “You can keep it.”

Taking the rope, the kid stripped naked, strung up the fawns by their necks, and started skinning them down with Mehth’s little short-bladed knife. Bloody up to his elbows after hauling the guts out, the kid systematically piled the organs on beds of clean grass, cutting off little bites here and there and popping them into his mouth. As the afternoon went on Jormrher could hear the flies gather around the smell of fresh blood and offal.

“We got a scout,” Idishe said, voice soft and carrying. It was the Seclednar more than anything that made Jormrher pay attention. He hardly ever spoke it; the kid and Juele would be able to understand, though. Jormrher’s eyes fixed on a distant shape taller than the grass, sharp ears perked, feathered tail held high, the faint impression of a damp nose flaring.

Brac rolled into a crouch, quickly gathering two roots into into a basket. Idishe stilled him with a hand on his thin, brown arm.

Move slow. It might only want to scout.

“She’s a loner,” Juele called softly. “She’s going to be bolder.”

The limbihte started out at a brisk trot, trailing a rippling wake of grass and a waving tail. Juele was half standing, keeping himself low, watching the hunter parallel the tree line. They slowly, slowly gathered their gear, watching it turn and trot back the other way, slightly closer.

It charged, moving straight at them at a gallop, head held low. Everyone scrambled for the tree line except Juele, who was running the wrong way. Jormrher felt a burst of warmth against his skin, like a flash of sunlight, a muddled impression of something large moving in his peripheral vision.

Juele whipped one of the blankets from the drying ground and brandished it in a crisp wave, a dull pop in the air.

Saya saya saya saya!

Charging straight for him, the limbihte veered abruptly as he kept waving it around, barely his own height away. A thunder of hooves, the herdbeasts sprung into action, becoming one giant beast, clumped together with the fawns in the center, ears perked, eyes bright. The limbihte loped out, pausing on a low rise to survey them, ears fiercely attuned to every sound, then disappeared over the lip of the land.

Mother and my aunt,” Aaric cursed, actually pressing a slate knuckle against his mouth.

Juele’s face was a little flushed, eyes a little wide.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve done that,” he said, as if to anyone in general. Jormrher opened his mouth to say something. Juele stepped back, right into the mountain of muscle and fur and fang standing behind him. Jormrher watched the way he froze, the way the herdbeasts had frozen for a heartbeat when they sighted the limbihte. No one said anything. Jormrher wondered if he should run and grab him. The mountain breathed, and Juele jumped, got himself back under control, then slowly turned around.

They watched each other. One of the lridrisy’s big eyes closed, whiskers twitching. Jormrher saw Juele laugh, though he couldn’t hear it. He walked a few paces and shook himself out, still looking like he was laughing.

“Hey, kid!” Idishe called. Everyone, including the lridrisy, looked over, the long, frozen breath suddenly broken. Idishe jerked his sharp chin toward the plain. “You watch a length out. I’ll take the wood side.” Head still peering over one loose shoulder, the lridrisy straightening and stalked into the grass, the tips barely brushing his shoulders. About a ship length out he lay down with an audible crunch, only his big round ears and eyes visible above the grass.

I am going to pass. Out,” Brac said, voice high.

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