“Let that bleed, then go ask a healer.” Asleda eyed the dripping gash above Jaoy’s elbow, blood running down his forearm into the creases between his fingers, slicking his grip on the long, curved barbarian blade.
“Ämi,” Jaoy agreed, his other hand not moving to stanch the flow.
“Ruimafe,” he called, and the youth stepped up in the baking afternoon heat to take the blade from Jaoy. He bent over to rip a handful of papery grass to clean the wipe the slick blood from the hilt, but Asleda was on him, whirling to bring the force of his drefanna right through his ribcage and Ruimafe had to drop to the ground or die.
Startled, the youth stared wide-eyed up at him, rolling as Asleda immediately threw his body into a new deadly curve, using his momentum to change direction instead of fighting it.
To know the enemy they had to know what it was like to fight like them, how they thought, how they felt, how they moved. They needed to know what it was like to face a fighter with a drefanna. Their blades were long and light, easy to shatter but deadly quick. They had to know what it felt like to balance the slender length of it, to be forced to stab and slice rather than crush and rend. They needed to know what it felt like to snatch a blade from a dead barbarian hand, fight with it if they were disarmed.
Popping to his feet, dust clinging to his sweat, Ruimafe settled into one of the barbarian stances, one that would give him power for the thrust. Good. His barrette had been jarred loose, grass-gold hair falling around his face to one side. He ignored it, framed by the backdrop of his watching brothers.
Asleda worked Hannic next, just blooded in their last skirmish with the barbarian scouts. Hefting another of the barbarian blades, he flowed into their movements, as he had seen them, fought them, metal rasping against metal, the screeching slide. The blade was light enough to strike with the flat, leaving bruises and welts, and precise enough to leave fine cuts.
Breathless, carefully not using the blade as a prop as he held his side, Hannic said, “Thank you, ämi,” blood beading in a cut on his thin chest.
“Clean your weapons, go drink and bathe,” Asleda called, all eyes drifting up to meet his. “And I swear to Oadi, if any of you get into one more evening-fire fight, I’ll send every last one of you to meet him for three days.”
He went down the short, steep bank with them, drinking before twenty-one pairs of feet churned the little river to mud. Stripping out of leather and metal, he scrubbed the sweat and dust off with silty muck while his fighters laughed and wrestled in the water. There was so much water here, no snow and ice to painstakingly melt. Downstream another toinn and a hedulc of birthers were also bathing, though it was becoming less washing and more foreplay. He watched them for a while, scraping wet black hair out of his face, twisting it back up into its barrette.
Asleda took a different route back to his oinne fire, going around the rim of the caravan rather than through it. The change in routine kept him open, kept his senses from dulling. Birthers were scraping meat and grain from trampler hides staked to the ground. The sharp, overpowering smell of aged piss came from a rack of hanging bladders and stomachs, ready to finish the tanning.
There was a commotion farther around the perimeter, scuffling and yelling, a child rolling on the ground, thrashing. He might have passed the scene by, except some part of him called him to bear witness. There were seven of them tied and hooded, he saw, little unblooded fighters and birthers, barbarian children being prepared to serve the gods.
The barbarians who had bred them toiled in the sun, stabbing the ground with sticks, hunched over the earth pulling plants from the ground. They were weak, pitiful, not even fighters. They had given up their children rather than fight, but that hadn’t stopped them from dying to please Geromal.
There were different stories of the barbarians to the north, where the grass grew warmer. Five toinn had surrounded and razed a settlement twice their number, killed the fighters, and taken their birthers and young children to consecrate to the gods. The sun and risen and set three times when a barbarian army had ridden down on them and slaughtered the caravan, reclaiming those who had been taken. Riders had speared down pregnant birthers, the healers and children. What fighters they hadn’t killed in battle they had executed: They castrated them and left them to bleed out.
Asleda watched. This duty was only given to the vese, those who commanded an oinne. A leather bag was tied over one of the children’s head at the throat, hands bound behind his back as a fighter beat him, careful of his age and size. The child screamed, charging him blindly, only to be knocked into the dust by a calculated blow to his gut. He scrambled away as he heard footsteps in the grass, twisting to take the blow from knotted leather on his back with a sharp cry. He tried to struggle to his feet, tried to run, and the leather cord wrapped around his ankle, yanking him down. He kicked, twisted, screamed in rage and pain with every blow. The fighter knocked him to his knees again.
The child knelt in the dirt, trails of sweat lacing through his dusty, welted skin, sobbing for breath, face hidden by the hood. Slowly, gently, the fighter knelt in front of him and embraced him, held him tight as his thin, small body was wracked with sobs.
“Fighter,” he said gently, rubbing his back.
“F-fight-er,” the child sobbed.
“We are the beloved of the gods,” the fighter quoted.
The child repeated it, choking, mispronouncing. It was his rebirth.
“Good. Good. You’re ready.”
A birther was already pulling another child from the huddled line, unknotting the cord around her ankles. The birther was old enough to have given birth on the Ice, old enough to have frost in her hair. She was one of those who the gods had chosen to live past the life of her womb to pass on their will to the next generation. Her mark had been renewed, showing dark and bluish against the tight bulge of muscle of her calf, marking her as Ibivri’s.
The next child was already thrashing on the ground, kicking wildly as the birther methodically beat her legs. She landed a kick on the birther’s jaw, but the birther just swatted her foot away. When the child huddled in a shivering lump on the ground, the birther pulled her into her arms.
“Birther,” she said, pressing the child’s forehead to her breast, then gently laid a hand on the child’s flat chest. “Birther.” The child lunged at her, trying to bite through the hood, kicking, rolling, and the birther knocked her to the ground.
“Ichada ichada ichada mayel!” she screamed.
“She’s not ready,” the birther said, and swung the knotted cord again.
Blace and Olaled were the only ones at the fire when he walked up. Olaled was deep in his litanies, legs crossed, hands on his knees, staight-backed and relaxed. Blace was checking over the stiff leather of his saddle, pushing an awl through a strap. Asleda laid a hand on Blace’s muscled shoulder as he passed. Blace was fedaslu, like Jaoy would be when he came into his full growth: Broad across the shoulders, bulkier, stronger than their quicker, leaner counterparts, necvao.
“I saw your fighters drifting to their fire,” he said, pulling a bone needle out from between his teeth. “I thought you’d be back sooner.”
“I was watching the barbarian children.”
“They’re lucky,” Blace said, examining the girth on his saddle.
Lucky, that their lives had not been wasted toiling in the dust, lucky that they could now serve the greatness of the gods.
“You wear yours out?” Asleda asked, squatting to throw another cake of dried trampler dung onto the fire.
“Ilil willing. Yours?”
“I threatened them with three days and nights of litanies to Oadi if they didn’t behave. Bloodied one of my middle-ranks.”
Dechon arrived, shook out his bedroll and flopped down on it without greeting, arms crossed over his chest.
Blace and Asleda were eating sizzling ribs, fat dripping down their chins when Chieru returned half out of his clothes, hands and mouth tangled with a birther’s. They tumbled down beside the fire and were fucking by the time the birther’s sisters arrived.
“Have some meat, Chiu, enjoy the fire,” Olaled suggested, choking on a laugh as they practically rolled into his lap, breaking his concentration on his devotion.
A breeder straddled Blace’s lap, molding herself against him as Dechon woke with a startled, pleased sound, pulling a tall, heavy birther beneath him.
“Eat later,” she suggested, nipping his jaw.
“Sorry, lovely, I’m Ambion’s.” Amused, Blace firmly, politely put a halting hand on her chest. He peeled down the edge of his leather waistband to show more of the circular mark the size of his palm that covered his hip.
“Silly god, to take a strong fighter away,” the birther said, wrapping her arms around his neck, mouth half smile, half pout. Blace laughed.
“You can fight her. I won’t.”
Asleda found himself watching the birther’s sister, standing just within the firelight.
She was small, hard, barely any fullness in her breasts and hips, a mane of brown hair around a strong face and night eyes. She didn’t say anything as he watched her crawl toward him, grinning as she pushed him to the ground. Around the line of her shoulder Asleda saw the other birther bend over backwards in Blace’s lap, only to find all the other fighters claimed.
“See, now I’ve wasted my opportunity on you,” she sighed. “There were five of you, so we brought five…” Blace grinned at her unapologetically, and she punched him lightly in the chest with a snort, squatting by the fire to poke for the roots in the ashes with a stick.
Asleda followed her sister’s pace, enjoying her slowly, watching her face as she massaged herself around their joined bodies. She grew tighter and tighter around him until she grunted, clenched her teeth, closed her eyes and he thrust harder, spilling his life inside her with an explosion of breath. They stayed joined, breathing fast, flushed.
Looking around, Asleda found Blace watching Olaled moaning in tandem with a birther’s sharp cries as they ground their bodies together, more than interested. He didn’t try to hide the bulge in the crotch of his breeches as they changed rapidly from Olaled behind her to him covering her as she lay on her back, gripping his hips. The birther he had refused noticed, made a face.
“Ambion never had a fighter’s life spilled inside her,” she told him, a tart challenge.
He gave her an odd smile, more eyes than mouth.
“I’ve known the embrace of a birther.”
She puffed her cheeks and made a sharp noise, disbelief.
“How old were you, when she took you?”
“Already blooded twenty-one times. It came rather as a shock.” She laughed.
“Do you miss it?” Asleda asked, feeling the birther flex around him, soft inside her.
Blace rolled a shoulder.
“How not? But what the god offers…” A slow smile curved his lips, his sky eyes lit with the euphoria of the touched. It was an eerie, fierce, and quiet bliss Asleda didn’t know, realized suddenly that he didn’t know that he would ever know. “What she can give… is more than compensation.” One of the birthers made a doubtful, feminine noise.
“I don’t know how you do it,” Chieru told him, lounging against his birther’s legs, tugging at his foreskin. He glanced at Olaled as he twisted the birther onto her side, thrusting slowly, so slowly as her back arched.
“She is Vengeance,” Blace said ritually, with a shrug. “She is ineffable.”
“She still might have to chase me all the way back to the Ice before she convinced me to give up sex,” Chieru said flatly.
“Amü! Amü.” One of Blace’s fighters ran up, drawing all eyes. “There’s another fight,” he said breathlessly. Blace hastily stacked his saddle and sleeping furs in a neat pile, pushing himself to his feet.
“Your toinn’s boiling fighter’s-blood is like a disease, Asla.”
“Have fun,” Asleda called after him as he sprinted into the dark, and the birther against his side swatted him in mock disgust.