The next morning the man offered Alan a pair of leggings and a loin cloth. Ashur expected him to take them; his pants were fraying, the cloth too flimsy for walking through grass and brush. But he rolled one shoulder, and went back to pounding curds in a bowl.
Something brushed his arm, and Ashur glanced over to find one of the younger herder woman, maybe Toney’s age, smiling at him. Her smile deepened as their eyes met, and she slid her hand up his arm and traced his earlobe with a thumb.
Leggings still draped over his arm, the herder man kissed the back of Alan’s neck and Alan leaned back into him, hand cupping his knee.
Ashur felt another caress on his shoulder and glanced at the woman distractedly, frowning, not motivated enough to brush her off. She paused beside him, then left him, unconcerned.
She went to Kimfen, and Ashur was irritatedly glad she was gone. Kimfen was undistracted, unsure of but accepting of her attention. She spent some time exploring what body could take and could give before she opened his stolen pants and took him in her mouth in the full light of the day, in front of everyone there. Kimfen gasped a little, constrained by how much his body hurt, hands finding her shoulders convulsively.
No one paid any attention to them, except Crazy, who widened her eyes and abruptly stalked to the other side of the camp, turning her back. Ashur allowed himself to admit, consciously and not merely by default, that she couldn’t be a breeder.
“How much longer do we travel with them?” Ashur asked Alan as he sat with Kimfen’s feet in his lap, gently tugging his toes.
Alan rolled a shoulder.
Ashur’s mouth tightened, and he finally eased onto his side on a pile of grass, staring at the fathomless blue of the sky. His back itched, the scabs washed away, skin knitting itself whole.
“Bet you four,” Kimfen called lazily, tying his brittle hair into a knot at the back of is head, foot twitching in Alan’s hands. Ashur didn’t answer him.
“God I’m out of shape,” Crazy said as the herders finally stopped to make camp, bracing her hands on her waist and leaning back. “And it’s flat.” She laced her fingers and stretched her arms upward. “No more TV for me. Uh, can I do anything to help?” The herders ignored her. Ashur couldn’t even tell if they understood Seclednar.
He managed to tip himself out of the travois before the herder woman tipped him out, and tried to fathom how he could be so tired when he’d barely done any of the walking.
The grass was trampled and the fire steady when the herder man came up behind Alan.
The man kept talking, and Alan’s answers grew shorter and shorter, until he finally turned his back and sat. Alan gave no reply even as the man continued to talk to his back. The herder’s words slowed after a while, and he stared, brow furrowed with something Ashur couldn’t read. Later their woman tried to give Alan a sliver of bone, touching his left nipple. He gently pushed it back into her hands, and Ashur considered the possibility that they would try to kidnap him.
He drowsed off before he could strategize what he would do if they tried.
When he woke he saw the youth reweaving one of the men’s braids. He hung his head, hair a sunburned yellow curtain falling into his lap as the young man braided his hair from the base of his skull over the crown of his head.
One of the two women who usually worked by the fire came and crouched by Ashur, feet dusty and calloused, handing him a bowl of blood. It was fresh. He could hear flies dancing somewhere nearby, could have become one with them if he had cared to try. He drank, watching her over the rim, assessing her steady interest, perceiving the slow changes of her body quickening, turning to desire. Thinking of the young woman he had ignored yesterday, Ashur began to wonder what was wrong with him. When he was done drinking he gave her his hand to pull him up.
She was nearly as tall as he was, and from behind completely naked except for the string of her apron. She understood by his gesture and his eyes what he wanted, and led him patiently to a small clearing out of sight of the camp where a trio of herdbeasts had bedded down the previous night.
Suddenly given privacy, Ashur found himself unsure. Any opportunity with a woman was something he would almost always take, but he suddenly didn’t know how they were going to do this in any way that would make the pleasure worth the discomfort. Laying on his back made it too hard to breathe, and any attempt he made to hold himself on top of her would be laughable.
She seemed unconcerned, and teased his nipples, fondling him until he was hard. She straddled him sitting, propped up on her hands to keep her weight off of him, moving for both of them without any sign of awkwardness for the unusualness of the position.
In his orgasm, he noticed for the first time that beneath the fringe of yellow hair her eyes were pale.
Around the fire that night he saw her take her hair down, her face suddenly startlingly Secled with her square jaw and hairline, her pale eyes. She watched him briefly over the licking flames, then turned back to the woman beside her.
“Cheese,” Crazy said, pointing obscenely with a finger, the nail long and ragged. “Cheeeese. Yoghurt,” she continued, pointing at a pot of thick, fermented milk.
“Tchremimukuleranda," Ashur heard Colae say as he gripped Clisand's shoulders and slid down Efeddre's side. The sand softened the shock.
Ridiath passed them and helped Colae and Alan slide the cutter into the water. She waded into the surf without rolling up her pants and hopped lightly into the boat. Crazy followed her, water sloshing up around her knees as she walked, and warily put one leg in, found her balance, then carefully drew in the other. Clisand helped Kimfen limp to the cutter, and Alan came back to wrap a careful arm around Ashur's healing back, holding him steady in the water.
Efeddre didn't change to join them in the boat, but waded into the surf up to his jaw and started paddling, muzzle just above the water.
"My mother and my aunt, I don't even know if I can hug you," Clisand said to Kimfen, looking him over as he anchored the cutter with an oar in the sand. Kimfen reached out a bony brown hand and squeezed his arm.
It wasn't until Colae pushed the cutter further into the foam-laced shallows that he could finally allow the tightly locked fear to unfurl in his mind, that Alan might have chosen to stay.
The smell of salt, and old wood filled his senses, unexpectedly comforting, right. When the water started to lose some of its translucence, Alan plucked out the binding of his braid, dragging his hair loose to fall down in wavy clumps. It was shorter.
"Those two didn't want to let you go," Kimfen said. Colae's pale eyes found them briefly, headscarf pulled low on his forehead.
"They wanted me to give them a child," Alan said, dragging fingers through his hair.
"Do you think you did?"
"I hope so." He stared out over the waves. "Her womb was ready. It was too soon to tell."
"You wanted to stay," Kimfen said. Ashur could have knocked him overboard. He still listened, not looking.
"Part of me."
"Why didn't you?"
"They are not where I am." It didn't make sense, but Kimfen didn't ask him what he meant.
"It's easy to think of you as Secled," he said finally.
Alan glanced at him, one side of his mouth pulled up in a smile that didn't quite match his eyes.
"Man, I really hope I can cash in those points," Crazy said into the silence, random nonsense that jolted him into some other reality, and Ashur followed her gaze toward the distant ship, anchored and waiting for them on the waves.
Something under her heart relaxed as she set two feet on the deck, the journey suddenly done. Faces across the ship turned toward her expectantly, and Ridiath signed, everyone, hands stuttering on the sign for retrieved.
Several men jumped up, making for the anchor, the sails, snuffing the flame in the firebox in an instant transition from rest to activity. Solme threw down the ropes to haul in the cutter as Hannah cleared the railing, so careful of each handhold before she let go to find the next.
"She didn't run off, huh?" Aaric called. Ridiath was too tired to answer. Hannah stared at him blankly.
Megars was watching from mid-deck, not crowding the ladder, arms crossed over his chest. She walked up to him, and when he lifted an arm slipped beneath it to press herself against the comforting bulk of him, pressing her forehead against his lips. She saw Felghaim shift, surprised, out of the corner of her eye.
Alan and Clisand appeared over the railing next after the cutter was safely tied, Alan's hair still in three wavy clumps. Half a dozen men, Werser and Gerril among them, lined up to haul the cutter aboard and help Kimfen and Ashur out.
"Fly us out," Eana whooped as he saw them.
"Kid's still swimming."
Hannah was standing awkwardly off to the side, eyeing the men considering her askance.
"So what's your boon?" Jormrher asked, standing with feet braced, eyes reassessing.
"Boon," she said, tucking her thumbs into the waistband of her pants. "I can't believe you guys didn't whip that one out sooner. But the deal was that if I help, and especially if everything works out, I don't have to sleep in the dank, nasty-ass bilge anymore."
Across the deck Alan lifted his eyebrows at Ridiath. She hadn't told him about that part. But he just glanced around to gauge the collective reaction.
Cosag pursed his lips, thoughtful.
"You can sleep in my hammock," he said, shrugging.
"Uh... I know I'm at the bottom of the totem pole, but-- I'd like my own." Aaric laughed, but Cosag waved a hand.
"Not sleeping together. I don't share with anyone for my shift, so you'd sleep there when I'm on shift, then when it changes we switch."
"Oh," said said, in a tone as if it were a profound pronouncement. "That could work."
"Speak now or stuff it," Cosag called.
"Wait, what am I speaking about?" Felghaim yelled from the halyard block, tying two bundles of his matted hair into a knot.
"Crazy's gonna take my hammock during my shift!"
"Well. I guess she doesn't have lice and she hasn't tried to gut anybody yet."
The ship lurched to the side.
"Tsunami are--" Clisand, grabbing the railing for balance, peering over. Then, "He is not doing this."
Megars went to the railing and Ridiath followed him, looking down the curving slope of planks to the water.
Efeddre was scaling the hull, claws sunk into the wood.
Colae's urgent voice, his inland Donse accent thick in Seclednar.
"Kid, kid, just let go, you're gonna rip something out! My mother and my aunt! Just—"
Ashur clutched the railing, staring over the side, and finally lost it.
"You cracked, ungrateful salt peddlar you do not abuse my ship! I will wring your neck like my grandfather's ducks and sell you to a pack of starving auctioneers you useless, lizard-eyed freeloader!"
Ridiath caught sight of Toney, who had actually slapped his palms over his eyes.
"Go tell him to drop off!" Cosag was hissing at him.
"It's not gonna help, it's not gonna help..."
"Someone go get that mountain spear and make him get off," Ridiath heard muttered, dark.
Aaric, Cosag, and Gerril were all shouting down at him. Ashur had been rendered speechless. Ridiath almost went below to her hammock right then. The ship lurched again, tilting the deck, wood groaning. She remembered what Efeddre had done to the armored door at Laschdarvi. Time seemed to drag past, until finally a huge paw wrapped over the railing. Ridiath was suddenly, numbly convinced he was going to rip the stanchion apart. With a supreme effort of straining muscle, Efeddre managed to get another paw over and brace himself without gripping the railing itself. His nose appeared, black-marked ears, his head and shoulders over the lip, shoulders, then he slunk on deck, giving Ashur a brief, distinct look with his slitted eyes.
"Do not make anything go weird, Ashur," Aaric said urgently, wrapping his slate-dark arms around Ashur's shoulders and hauling him back, startled into supporting him when Ashur hunched in pain. "Sorry. Just, calm down."
"Are you permanently cracked?" Oraun raged as Efeddre's took a creaking, groaning step. "Are you trying to sink us? What is wrong with you? You cannot keep doing this shit." Efeddre's long, tan body turned murky and grey, details indistinct, then began to shrink like a roil of fog, until he became sharp and clear again, the body and face of a boy and the eyes of something else. "Do you ever think about anyone or anything outside yourself? Look around, you thoughtless—"
"Go get stuffed by a dice dealer," Efeddre said, turning away from him and Oraun's body tensed, about to lunge forward like he was going to hit him.
Efeddre, naked, shorter, slighter, stopped and just looked at him.
Oraun caught himself, staring furiously. After a few low, tense breaths, he jabbed two fingers toward Efeddre's face and said, "You ever fall overboard, I won't throw you a rope."
Alan had gone to knock on Efeddre's door. Taighaut had told her this, and that when Efeddre hadn't answered his soft call, Alan had slid open the door, and closed it behind him. Miraculously, Alan lived.
Ridiath didn't know if Efeddre had actually spoken to anyone in the three fourths of a twelveday that had followed. She didn't even know if he spoke to Toney. Toney never said, at least that she heard. Ridiath didn't join the meeting where he shared the details of the understanding he had reached with Efeddre, though it would have been her right, and probably advisable. Filtered through Ibleton, understanding was simple: If Efeddre ever intentionally endangered any of them again, he was gone. Whether that meant dropping him off on the mainland or throwing him overboard, or depended on the circumstances, Ridiath hadn't asked.
The night was cool, as dry as the ocean air could be. Kydele strung a thread of white across the whole southern horizon, almost like a strand of spiderweb hooked on each of the stars. An ache gently clenched and unclenched her womb, her first blood in two passes.
It was a strange time to pick, but the mood struck her.
She rounded the overturned stern of the galley, not sure she would still find him there. A vague silhouette leaned against the hull, knees drawn up, and she folded her legs to sit beside him in the space between the boat and the railing.
She hadn't spoken to Alan since they had parted from the herders. As they had followed the herd it was like she had watched and never seen. And now the images and smells and textures replayed in her mind, suddenly real in retrospect in a way they had not been in the present.
The silhouette turned toward her, assessing her shape and movements in the dark. Ridiath kept the silence when he turned back to the darkness, so easily companionable after stiff, brittle distance.
"Are you feeling, being, or dare I guess thinking?" she said after a while. Alan didn't laugh, but she guessed he smiled.
She knew him well enough to ask, knew him too well in some ways, and as she remembered his quiet joking and laughing and the pattern of his movements with his herder lovers found she knew him not at all.
"Being," he told her, tilting his head back on the hull as if watching the stars. He didn't have an accent. She was used to that, had listened to his neutral, vaguely formal dialect for years, and now it was strange. They sat with the silence again.
"Are you still hurting?" he asked. He was perhaps the only man on the ship who would have asked it so straight. She didn't respond at first, not really thinking about any answer.
"No," she said eventually. A thought, a pause, pulling her knees up and pressing her hands between them. "I didn't expect to go empty after the camps." That was what Rie and Rher called it. Empty. "I just knew I could do it. Knew I had the experience, the language, the inside help."
"There was a field of wingbright, where we fought once," Alan said unexpectedly, and in the dark suddenly bloomed a brilliant orange field of tiny, four-petalled blossoms, the kind that carpeted parts of the plains in the north as Secled transitioned to Serg for a single, flaming twelveday. "We were ambushed by four outriders on the flight to Secled. They rode us down into the field. The pollen clung to everything it touched. When it got kicked up it was hard to breathe. The smell was lodged so deep in my lungs." It was a somewhat bitter, heady smell, the kind that made you inhale deeper, grasp for more.
"On one of Serg's second son's envoys, he once wore wingbright in his plait when treating with the One-Ruler. There had been a death, on his dam-sire's side. I could smell it across the hall, and I broke into a sweat. It was the cold season."
She didn't understand at first, unconcerned with her lack of understanding. Then she did, and it was enough.
Something started gnawing at her, an inward debate to say or not to say. Ridiath started toying with a gouge in the deck, picking at the fibers of the wood.
"With the herders, you even looked different. With your hair, your clothes, speaking Ekkednar, you looked, sounded nothing like then, and when I felt you come up behind me." It felt like she needed to finish was she was saying, and she couldn't think of what to say.
Ridiath had just enough linguistic acuity to understand that it was something to do with sadness.
"No, it's not— I don't—" She frowned hard, feeling the chip of wood prick into the quick beneath her fingernail. "You saved my life, Alan. It just was."
They both let it sit between them, all its consequences and no excuses.
Suddenly, Alan laughed softly, just breath. "If you were a woman of my herd I would put my head in your lap." He left unspoken, in that way he had, that he didn't know, sometimes, how to touch her.
But Ridiath laughed, "Tande does it all the time."
She settled cross-legged again and lifted the arm nearest him, removing an obstruction and a shrug of, Why not? She could almost feel the quirk of his eyebrow, then the scuff as he uncrossed his legs and twisted around, laying on his back, the weight of his head pushing into her thigh. It was completely natural, and dissonant, and she couldn't separate the two feelings. A pulse in her leg started beating under his skull, out of time with the quiet throb under her gut. She was suddenly aware he must have been able to smell her bleeding, but it was nothing he wouldn't have learned just from touching her.
Ridiath stroked his hair from his forehead like she did Tande's, the texture smooth and long instead of short and nappy. Something built, strange and intense, behind her sternum, unidentifiable until she realized that she wasn't comfortable with the motion, and simply stopped, hand on his shoulder, watching the light-speckled sky.
"It's hard, sometimes, being attracted to you."
He didn't say anything back, just acknowledged.
Arammys called the shift change when the stars of the Crossroads reached the place where the sun rested at midmorning. They stayed still for another few breaths, then Alan pushed himself up, her leg suddenly relieved of his weight. Crouched, he paused to stroke the hairline above her ear, a surprising intimacy that left no unsettled feelings in its wake, then left her to find his hammock.
- Come up with me on the ridge, see the main herd. ↵
- I don't want to. ↵
- It will just take the morning, then we'll be back. Grab some cheese, we can start now. ↵
- I don't want to go. ↵
- You make funny sounds.[footnote]" the youth laughed, and handed her a piece of meat and a chunk of butter.
"No, I mean, what's your— Okay, thanks, but how do you say—"
Ridiath stepped into the firelight shyly, her empty face showing a hint of some emotion, and squatted by the fire. She said something hesitantly, feeling out the sounds, and the young man and the pair of women laughed.
"Atrembishg,[footnote]Aged cheese.[footnote]" the youth corrected, and handed her a hard hunk of cheese.
Ashur noticed a few of the herders straggling, a few calls as the rest continued to follow the ragged tail of the herd. The land spread flat and endlessly gold. Alan had stopped with them, scanning the eternal grass, and Ashur's attention sharpened. Looking at him questioningly, Ridiath began to gather their gear from the travois, accepting the dried meat and hard cheese the herders offered her. Alan was exlaining something to one of the women, pointing with an arm to some invisible point. The couple had halted with the others, and stared at him, quiet and dry eyed and yet somehow unutterably sad. Alan embraced them both, their arms twined around his waist, his voice too soft to hear. When he pulled away from them, it was with a sweet regret Ashur didn't want to look at. Kimfen stood shakily, and Alan crouched to heft him onto his back, Kimfen's knees locked around his hips. Ridiath stood beside Ashur, unasked, and he held her shoulder. There was grass, and there was sky, a soft shushing as they passed, seedheds scratching at his arms. It wasn't until they had walked nearly two leagues before Ashur could remember what it was like to breathe without the smell of herdbeast musk, dung, and fermenting milk. Another league and a pattern edged along his senses, dense and somehow dark, and quiet. It was so subtly still it almost took him until the faint rustle in the grass to understand what it was. The grass parted and Efeddre slunk out, his massive, tawny body loose and powerful. His slitted pupils adjusted as the brown eyes flicked between them with minute shifts of his head, black whiskers twitching faintly. He stepped forward, mute, looking to Alan. When Alan hefted Kimfen higher on his back, Efeddre dropped a shoulder. Gripping Efeddre's fur as Alan helped him get a leg over his back, Kimfen said, "I'd actually kind of wished this would never happen." Efeddre flicked a black-tipped ear back at him. Ashur didn't even feel any resistance as Ridiath walked him forward and helped Alan boost him onto Efeddre's back behind Kimfen. "I was hoping I'd hallucinated you," Crazy said, forehead wrinkled, mouth puckering. Crossing her arms she stepped forward, frowning, eyes sweeping his body. Ashur felt something rumble beneath him, and inwardly winced, suddenly feeling the weight of his exhaustion as Efeddre took a step forward, putting his massive face right in hers. Not now, just once don't do this... He wasn't sure which of them he would have said it to. "Baaaaack, back!" Crazy lifted her hand, stopped, and paused, closing her eyes. "I swear to god, mutant cougar-tiger or not, I will smack you." Ashur elevated her from stupid to suicidal. Ears twitching back, Efeddre growled at her, a sound deep in his throat that made Ashur's bones shiver. Her hair ruffled in the breeze from his breath, his black lips lifting faintly to reveal long, ivory teeth. Then he turned in a smooth circle and started walking. Ashur had ridden a limbihte perhaps twice in those three years in Lum, and there had always been a saddle between them. It wasn't the same, a long, smooth glide compared with springy precision. The problem was not rolling off. Efeddre tolerated them for the better part of three leagues, strangely quiet for his size as the grass closed behind him. Ashur found himself staring at the grass scraping past his knees, until he heard a sound from Kimfen. Looking up, he found the ocean, a moving vastness shockingly blue after the gold of the plains. Rounding a bed of grassy dunes, Efeddre padded up to a camp on the beach. Colae jumped up from a blanket beside a cold bed of charcoal, counted faces, and did a little dance in the sand. Clisand appeared from their other side, tucking his machete back in his belt, silent and unsmiling, but his eyes fiercely satisfied. He waved them toward the cutter, overturned on the sand. As Efeddre walked past them, Ashur saw Colae reached up and feel the shape of Alan's braid, thumbing the fringe of hair on his forehead. Alan draped an arm over his shoulders. "Ilk-mihabt,[footnote]It's done; We're finished. ↵
- We'll talk. ↵
- I mourn that I have wounded you. ↵