It felt like waking up, or maybe falling asleep.
The being that might have been Hannah felt existence around her for an instant of total clarity, and then there was darkness.
No, not darkness.
Not white, not black, not light, not dark, not hot, not cold. Nothing. No sensation, no touch, or smell, taste, sight, or sound. Total. Sensory. Deprivation. She tried to call out, but it wasn’t a word, not even a thought, just a reach.
There was no answer, but suddenly she was aware of someone else, distant, seeming to rush closer as her attention narrowed through the void.
Pain. Desperation. Violation. All encompassing terror as every thought, every memory, every hope, every love, every fear, every doubt and dark secret was ripped open by the merciless force that invaded his body and was slowly, layer by layer, crushing his mind.
It was a slow, inexorable force, seeping through the cracks in his defenses, embedding itself deeper and deeper. It was utterly passive in its conquer, shattering defenses by the sheer immensity of its being. Fighting, struggling, desperate to remain himself because of the absolute certainty that if he let it in there would be nothing of him left.
She didn’t pity him, didn’t feel shock, or anger. She was just there, absolutely present.
She suddenly remembered what she had come to this place of nothing to say. And so she said it.
I know you can barely [hearme.understandme.beartobealive], and that me being here hurts you. But this is the last gasp. If… being [crushed.devoured.subsumed] is easier for you, then that’s okay. Do what you [need.allthatisleft.exhaustion]. Don’t do anything just for anybody else. But if you think that you might still want to live a life of eating, and talking to people, and masturbating, and sweating in hundred percent humidity heat, you have to [release.open.submit.giveup]. And that’s up to you. What you want.
She felt another wall crack, crumble, ground into dust, felt the shuddering agony as the invasion reached deeper, and suddenly in this place of nothing there was sensation, images, tastes, textures, smells, noises, coming together into coherent flashes of a life she had never lived, like a movie playing in her head that had no stop button…
Warmth, sweet and wholesome, leaked into his mouth as he sucked. The world was soft, and blunt, and smooth. There were sounds around him, a cadence and pitch and rhythm he had always known, the ambient noise of his existence. The comfort of a strong grip, holding him, molding together the skin that separated him from her and the skin that separated her from him, dissolving the difference. The life that pumped through her was the life that pumped through him.The sweet-salty-smooth taste of her flesh slipped from his mouth, and he slipped into fuzzy warmth, the light and noises fading around him.
Laughing, jumping, weaving between tall spindly legs, herdbeasts snorting and stomping. Grabbing for her elbow as she darted around a hock, then there was something wrong with the light, the herdbeast rearing back, flashing hooves, falling, then an agonizing crunch as something landed on his back.
Keening, whimpering. The boys chasing the herdbeasts back, “Saya saya saya!”
“Mamas!” she was yelling, pelting back to the camp. “Mamas!”
Dark, too dark to be under the sky. Was it night, or was it death, life burned to charcoal?
A figure squatting in the grass lodge, grinding something finer than powder between two stones. A heavy ache, a wrong ache, not like the ache of running all day, like a fist balled around his spine.
“Don’t move, little Second Boy,” she said, a quick caress of her strong fingterips on his young, thin arms. “There’s a time to follow the herd, and a time to bed down in the grass, and now is your time.” Her hands carefully running along his back, tracing the length of his backstraps. The piercing burn of a bone needle slid under his skin, rolled in her deft, knotted hands.
Fighting to suck in the breath to say, “I’m afraid.”
“Don’t not be afraid. The fear will guide you to what is good for your body.”
Another day, another night in the grass hut.
Alone. More alone than he had ever been in his life. Just him and Big Mama and Six Points sleeping outside the lodge to guard them from stray hunters, the night too quiet, not even the smell of the herd remaining in the whispering grass. Spiders singing softly. Big mama’s strong, deliberate hands twisting the needles in the skin along his back, draining the pethertt.
“I feel like I’m suffocating,” he told her, desperate, choking after so many days on his belly, as many days as there were points on an old herdbeast’s antlers. He ached, could feel his blood congealing in his limbs. He had drunk nothing but blood, the lingering residue of it sour in his mouth.
“If you can still talk, you can still breathe.”
“We aren’t following the herd,” he said, voice small, fearful. She had unbraided his hair, combed it long and loose away from his neck.
“The fear is your herd, now. Where have you followed it?”
Squeezing his eyes shut, moving deeper, deeper, sinking beneath what he could taste and touch, hear and smell, see. Until he could feel his own shattered bone, the blood that fed the bone, the swollen muscle that protected the bone—
“Shag Hocks, too,” she told him.
“She can be half mine then,” he said lazily, feathering his fingertips along the downy cheek of the tiny girl-child in Fourth Daughter’s arms. He lay along her back in the grass, watching the newborn wrinkle her face, her little body shiny with butter, squirming closer to the breast. His hand wandered to Fourth Daughter’s belly, still big and round. Last night she had disappeared into the grass a daughter, alone, and returned a mother. He sank beneath his senses, felt her womb contracting, shutting down, fulfilled, sated.
“What will your new name be?” he asked softly. She laughed, plucked a shaft of hairy grass and tickled his face with it.
“Why would I tell you first, Second Son?”
Her hair was still down from birthing, her breasts full and heavy, her skin cast in shade from the clouds moving across the late harvest sun.
“Let me massage your belly,” he told her, twisting to kneel between her legs.
Fat snowflakes, every bone of them etched clear, floating down to rest on the guardhairs of his robe as he sat by the fire with Long Stripe’s Third Son in his lap, cuddling against the cold.
Shock and terror and numbness, Shag Hock’s guts spilling out on the ground, the prime of his life ended in twitching, his intestines green and yellow and red writhing laguidly in the dust. They were surrounded, planters riding hunters, their long yellow teeth grinding around the bit, their feathered bellies caked with mud. Their horny-toed paws trampling the fires, the sleeping furs, knocking over boiled leather pots of milk and cheese. The bright, beaten melting rock of the planters’ long knives, the supple shine of their fish-like skins as they cut the herders from the gatherers and children like he might cut a fawn from the herd.
The planter whose long, bright knife was smeared red with Shag Hock’s blood yelling, pale eyes hard, “Denimb tegh randilaur shocumb Foi Negang ecla Secled ilur eina dit anaulicash lhira mi Serg-im Hannad dit yaighif Demb. Lheranae terg ufima eada— ”
His hair was gathered in an uncomfortable tail at the base of his neck. The long cloth sleeves and leggings caught at him, restricted his movement, hid his body from the weak winter sun. He looked no one in the eye as he filed out of the barracks with the others for the mess, a head taller than almost every other man there.
Across the dusty training grounds, the first thing he noticed was the way he moved. One foot in front of the other, not the heavy rocking from side of side of the planters under the weight of their melting rock skins and knives. He was shorter than Second Son, but taller than the planters, his hair turned brown from living in the fetid darkness of the barracks.
At his turn in the line, Alan offered his bowl for the wordless plop of soaked, mashed grains from the hard planter woman at the pot. Eyes on the ground, he walked softly between the rows of men sitting on the ground, only a few talking, and he sat down, not looking at the herder beside him.
He didn’t look up. Alaun spooned cold mash into his mouth, tasteless, soaked in water not blood or milk or butter. It hurt his gut, turned his bowels soupy with mucus. Only the officers ate meat. Sometimes there was fat, or bones to crack for the marrow.
He wasn’t from Second Son’s herd, and it didn’t matter.
They didn’t say anything to each other. Didn’t even look at each other. Never spoke the language only they could understand because the memory of the lash was still too raw. They pretended they didn’t see each other, intensely aware of each other, occasionally coming together to eat or stand together during training as if by accident.
When their units were assigned, they were separated. Second Son never saw him again.
Terrified, he shoved the lhir into the warrior’s belly, twisting it upward as he convulsed, eyes fever bright with his killing edge, rummaging for the liver. The Sergile’s body seemed to suck at his blade as he ripped it out, used the length of it to hold himself up, stabbing it into the collapsing edges of the muddy pit.
On the plain the battle was screaming, screeching chaos. A Sergile impaled a Secled soldier on the ground, stabbed him again and he was still alive, convulsing.
A warrior rushed him, screaming, lhir raised, the impact of their bodies knocking them to the mud and there was only the single, unguarded point of his throat—
He fumbled through the dead doctor’s bags, leather cases. So many kinds of knives, none of them right.
“Alaun, what are you doing?” Delyn demanded. “You aren’t a doctor, you can’t—” Needed something sharper than metal— He spied a glass bottle of liniment, unstoppered it smelled something foul and useless, broke it, picking through the shards for what he needed. “Alaun,” Delyn said, aghast. “Those’re all the medicines we have left, what are you doing—”
Gemig was screaming through the bit between his teeth as the others hacked his boot away, revealing the tube of jaw-shredded flesh and pulverized bone below the knee.
Alaun’s hand slowed over the tools, hefted the metal saw, traced with rust, thumb testing its jagged metal teeth. He stood up, and turned toward them.
“Hold him down.”
He twisted, tugged, the sensation of meat separating from bone, and Gemig’s lower leg separated from the knee, as cleanly as jointing a herdwalker. Alaun set the shredded, shattered thing aside. Gemig was still screaming hoarsely through the bit, still impossibly, agonizingly conscious. Haddre was still draped over his legs, still holding him down with the weight of his armored body even though he was too exhausted to buck, thrash, his staring, pale eyes full of a different kind of agony even though he wasn’t the one under the knife. Blood, sticky and crusty filled in all the creases of his knuckles, all the tiny lines in his hands. Alaun flipped the glass knife, slit the connective tissue still holding the knee cap in place. The saw lay beside him, unused. There was enough flesh to close over the perfect, intact end of Gemig’s femur…
Reigel, strong, valiant, struggling in the dust, hamstring cut. Erue, a spot of blonde to a war-frenzied gaze searching for dark hair and beaded plaits, desperately trying to haul him up, an arm over his shoulder. Tripping over the stony ground, Alaun lashed out wildly at the Sergile warrior behind him. Managing to parry the swing of the warrior’s lhir, stabbing at the unprotected front of his thigh, begging to hit the artery as the Sergile went to his knees. Reigel, dark hair scattered about his face in sweaty strands, heaving for breath, Erue half dragging him, the next wave of cavalry regrouping, rearing limbihte and battlecries.
Alaun snatched at Erue’s arm, jerked him away, dragged him onward. Erue twisted, reaching, grasping, Reigel trying to drag himself toward them.
“We can’t, he’s still alive—”
Dragging Gemig behind him on the travois, Alaun dropped the poles on the mounded earth of the fence before he collapsed beside Delyn, chest heaving. Four day’s flight, four day’s exhausting march, no food, little water. Another fence of stacked stone spread across his southern vision, barely long enough to be called one, and past that another, just a line in the distance. Who knew which side had built which of them. Haddre hobbled the limbihte, stomping the iron stake into the ground with the last of his strength. Caeris was still standing, hand on hilt, scanning the rolling flatlands with sharp eyes.
“Start digging!” he shouted, the command spreading out through the dry, empty air. “We will hold the fence for Secled!” Delyn closed his eyes, a flicker of pain in his slack face. Everyone was staring at Caeris, shocked, disbelieving dread.
He was sick in the head. They all were.
Haddre’s voice, quiet, strained, reasonable, “My rehel, the men are tired. We could be better served—”
“I will not surrender so much as a pace of land to those honorless bloodthirsters. Get them up. We will rebuild the fence.”
Alaun watched Ien roll over numbly, young face blank as he started prying a rock from the grip of the sod. Delyn tensed, mustering the strength to stand.
Alaun stood up unsteadily. He took the travois and Gemig’s fevered, half-senseless weight and started dragging it toward the limbihte. Caeris was striding down the line of the fence.
“Get up! Start digging. We will have the fence repaired by nightfall.”
“Help me,” Alaun told Lir, who still sat astride the limbihte, protecting his side with one arm. They got Gemig up in front of him in the saddle, moaning at the pressure on the raw stump of his leg. The limbihte’s eyes rolled back, showing white, questioning, tired. Alaun rubbed his shoulder, hauling on the chain to rip the stake from the earth. Then he took the reins loosely, and started walking.
Delyn ran up beside him.
“What are you doing?” he hissed, watching Caeris furtively over his shoulder. “This is desertion! You’ll be beheaded for breaking your vows.”
“I didn’t even speak Seclednar when I made my vows,” Alaun told him. “They just kept beating us until we could say it back understandably.” Delyn stopped abruptly, left behind as Alaun led the limbihte on.
Erue was the first one to follow them. Then Haddre, helping Rais. He didn’t see any of the others fall into line, didn’t care. Alaun didn’t stop when Caeris called out to him. He didn’t turn his head when the rehel started screaming orders, accusations of treason, desertion. No one else stopped either, until Caeris fell silent.
A ragged string, they passed the stacked stone fence, then the one beyond it.
As they made their cold camp at dark, no one said anything.
They were arguing over the dry-rotted map, absorbed.
There was a man under his hands, skin hot, breath hitching but strong, unconscious, his side opened by a long clean slash. Alaun’s hands stilled, and he reached up to his throat. He found the thready beat of the man’s heart on both sides of his neck, covered one with this thumb and one with his first two fingers and gently pressed.
Alaun’s eyes flicked to the blood drenching Haddre’s pant leg, the dull look in his eye.
“He’s already dead.”
“He’s alive and he’s our brother,” Lir bit. “We’re not leaving him. Never again, Alaun.”
His mind raced, watching Lir’s hard determination.
“I’ll take him,” he said suddenly. “You’re wounded, I can carry him better. Get ahead with the others.” Lir’s eyes widened, his focus shifting.
“All right. We’ll wait for you. Hurry.” Alaun took Haddre’s weight, arm over his shoulder as Lir hobbled up the rocky rise. Haddre sucked in a hard breath, trying to use his good leg to support himself, war cries chasing after them. Alaun waited until Lir was around the curve of the thrust of rock, waited until he was out of call.
“What, you—” Haddre said hoarsely as Alaun pushed him down. His pale eyes widened as Alaun took his knife and shoved it through his neck. Spurting blood, gurgling, clouded eyes fading fast, trembling lips. Shoving his bloody knife back in its sheathe, hastily arranging Haddre’s body, Alaun scrambled up the rock, hearing the first riders reach the scree of the hill. He saw Lir keeping watch behind the cover of a boulder, saw his eyes widen in confusion, then his face harden. He had barely reached the knot of men behind the rocks when Lir lunged at him.
“You disgusting bastard of a herdbeast-fucking whore, you left him.” The others watched Lir take him to the ground, driving a mailed elbow into his side, kicking him, pain on layers of pain, screaming wordlessly. The others let him, watching numbly.
Clenching himself into a ball, arms over his head, Alaun tried to say, knowing Lir wouldn’t understand not understanding how he couldn’t understand, “He was already dead, we can’t sacrifice all of us—”
“They’re retreating,” Erue said, staring down the hill, voice shocked hollow.
“What?” Delyn said.
Lir gave him another savage kick, before someone hauled him back.
“They’re retreating, regrouping.”
“Rule of Mercy,” Alaun gasped, tasting blood. “They won’t pursue an enemy forced to mercy kill to escape. We have two days.”
Lir hit him again, cursing him, then rolled into a fetal position and wailed.
Scrambling over the rise, Rais and Delyn following him, Alaun spotted the stiff, buff shape in the churned, black devastation left behind by grosses and grosses of hooves, a track cutting through the plains that could be seen a league away. He quickened his pace, as fast as he could walk without running, stumbling to his knees by the herdwalker’s bloated side.
He was old, wasted by age and parasites, his antlers brittle and worn, left behind to return to the grass. Flies buzzed around his dried black nostrils, around the gummy residue in his cloudy eyes. Taking out his knife in an almost shaking hand, Alaun poked through the edge-dulling hair to slip the blade under the skin, slitting it open along the spine. He pried his fingers under the jagged lip of skin, prying it back, the meat warm, soft. Digging in along the spine, he started tearing out a backstrap, the last meat to spoil, laying the heavy length of it on a clean bed of grass to take back to the others.
Rais and Delyn had reached him, Rais’ aging face twisting as he reluctantly took out his knife and started fighting against the hair to cut at a haunch. Alaun handed the second backstrap to Delyn, ripping a chunk from a fistful of meat with his teeth, barely bothering to swallow.
He stuffed his mouth with the rest of the meat, pushing Delyn aside to slit open the old buck’s belly with a noisy eruption of rotting gas. Intestines and liver bulged out, and Alaun rooted through the offal for the lumpy strands of fat, ripping them out to add to the meat.
“This is disgusting,” Rais said. Alaun ignored him, stuffing himself with fat coated with bile. Bundling the grass and meat together, he clamped a gored hand on Rais’ shoulder as he stood.
“Leave it. There’ll be more. Fresher.”
Hidden in a little hollow was a tiny doe fawn, one eye bulging, kicked in the head, mourned and abandoned. She was fresher, and Alan opened her belly, pulled her stomach out and cut it open, found the soft cheese. Delyn looked queasy at the sight of it, and he didn’t offer any of it to them, the best thing he’d tasted in two winters. He pulled out the organ fat, and they cut out the backstraps, quartered her, tied the legs and started the long trudge to where the others were waiting.
A row of hills like the scallops on a clam’s edge where the sun would set, a braiding of the land. He knew this land. He knew like he hadn’t known anything for the past two years.
“If we’ve overshot the Imbath, then we should have hit the tributary—”
“I know where we are,” Alaun said, drinking in the vastness of the landscape until it felt like it must burst him. That stilled them, quieted the argument.
“You’ve been here before?”
“If you haven’t been here before, how can you know where we’re going?” Erue demanded, his square cheeks too hollow, sick with frustration, his blonde club frayed with sun and dust, full of tiny flecks of brittle grass.
“I can’t explain it in your stupid, ugly language!” Alaun snapped. How to explain atikmbailgh, the story maps, told by the grandmothers of the grandfathers of grandmothers and longer ago. “I know where we are and I know how to get us back into established Secled territory.”
“The Fifth Thocas’ army went east,” Lir said, voice cutting. “We have to find them, regroup. It’s our duty and our only hope—”
“East there’s nothing but grassland desert.” He threw his hand toward where the sun rose. “It can go two years without raining. We won’t find so much as a sink for a gross of leagues. We’ll starve to death for water in five days. I know where there’s water. I know where the land will lead us, I can get us past the third fence, where the Sergilé won’t dare hunt us—”
“You’re a witnessed liar and a coward,” Lir cut him off, face hard. “Your blood’s told all. You’ve done nothing but run from your duty, fealty to no one. You wouldn’t know honor if it offered you a helping hand.”
The absence of voices that followed fell like a mallet to the head. Alaun stared at him, half watchful for any sign of violence, half overwhelmed by an impotent fury. For cowardice he would have been flogged. For desertion he would have been beheaded, if their company wasn’t in such tatters, without a single ranking officer to give them orders.
Alaun sent him a vicious look. “Follow me if you want. Go east if you want to die.”
He started walking.
With a touch of his stump, Gemig cut the limbihte’s broad body in front of him, blocking his path.
“You don’t have any authority.”
Alaun stared up at him. Mounted, in command of a long-toothed hunter, Gemig was the most formidable man there. On the ground he was close to helpless. Alaun wanted to knock him out of the saddle, show him exactly how helpless he was, thought he would succeed if he tried.
He turned abruptly, started fighting with his surcoat, letting it drop to the ground. Fumbling with his belt he let his lhir tumble to the grass and started jerking at the leather thongs holding his mail. It slithered off his arms into a metal puddle in the grass. He walked away from it, like in shedding his mail he could shed everything, suddenly free, light.
“What are you doing?” Rais demanded, the lines in his narrow face deepening.
Stripping out of jerkin, padded tunic, stained tunic, Alaun said, “I’m going to sit here and let the storm and the wind and the sun kill me. Because if we go east it’s as good as death, and I’d rather die now, clean in the rain.”
“The sky’s clear,” Delyn said. A single shred of cloud hung almost directly above them, a veil of white against limitless blue.
“By the time you’re all half finished arguing, the sky will be a flood.” He kicked off his boots, struggled out of his heavy breeches, stumbled as one of the legs caught. Naked, he walked away from them into the grass, and sat cross-legged on a soft patch of fur creeper.
After the silence of their shock, they argued. The sun cleansed his fetid, moist, itching skin, sick for want of light. A warm wind teased around his body, the sun warming him when wind rested, then the breeze would whisk the warmth away. They argued in the clean, bright sun, and gradually the world darkened behind his closed lids.
Then the sky opened up, and let loose a torrent. It was a cold rain, lashing his skin, running down his body, taking sweat and grime with it. The cold didn’t matter. It was just cold. The cold would slow his blood, then take the feeling from his fingers and toes. It might not be the cold alone that would claim him, but it would take its share. Then the grass would have him, then the herd.
He opened his eyes once, saw the shape of them in the water-streaked half light, huddled around the limbihte bedded down in the grass. The torrent faded to a downpour, then to a steady rain of fat drops slapping his skin.
He was beyond the reach of words, beyond the reach of his senses.
He heard it the second time. It took him a breath to open his eyes, to come back to his body, chilled and covered in bumps, water running in droplets down his skin.
His eyes cracked, and through the soaked strands of his hair, he could see Delyn in the gray, low-sky gloom, square planter face drawn with starvation, soaked to the skin, shivering under the bulk of all his armor and weapons.
“There’s been a decision. We’ll go southwest, if you guide us.”
“I will kill him.” Alaun scrambled out of the cool confines of the cellar, sack stuffed with smoked meat, a jar of lard, dark bread, tubers. “Stay back! I kill him.” Breathing hard, Ien dragged the farmer back, hauling his head back by his long brown hair, lhir at his throat. The Sergile held himself stiffly, silent, his wife staring expressionlessly from a corner of the hut. Alaun eyed the woman warily, eyes flicking to the boychild huddling in the opposite corner. The boy rushed him, something sharp and jagged in his tiny fist, screaming, and Alaun kicked him in the chest, sending him sprawling.
“Slit his throat and let’s go,” Alaun hissed. Ien convulsively tightened his grip on the Sergile, blade grinding against his throat. This entire raid was insanity. He hadn’t been able to talk them out of it, and furious he had gone because it was the only control he had.
The woman’s eyes drifted expressionlessly to her son, stunned on the floor. Her eyes returned to Ien, and she pushed herself away from the wall, took a slow step toward him.
“I kill him!” Ien jerked the farmer back, retreating.”Stay back you!”
Overlapping him, Alaun said harshly, “Ien, do it now.”
She took another step forward, and then she started to run.
Face twisting, Ien sawed the knife across the Sergile’s throat, shoving him away, hand covered in blood.The farmer twitched on the floor, hands clutching his throat as Ien raised his lhir into a guard, physically rocked by the force of her body as the wife impaled herself on his blade.
An instant of shocked stillness as she stared at him through strands of her cropped blonde hair and shoved herself farther on his lhir. Ien lurched back, ripping sharp metal out of her body, watching her fall to her knees.
“Let’s get out, now,” Alaun told him sharply, ears ready for any call from Rais standing guard outside. Ien stood there numbly, staring at her bleeding out on the grass-strewn floor.
“Why did she do that, I told her— why did—” Alaun grabbed his shoulder, wrenching him closer.
“You say you’re going to kill then you’d better be ready to kill,” he snarled.
—a narrow woman, all angles and edges, almost like if he had looked at her from the side she would almost have disappeared like a blade of grass. Her eyes raked him from where she sat at the council table, assessing him and disregarding him in one sharp motion.
“Alan,” said the One Ruler at the head of the table, his Lum dialect turning the sounds of his name wide and soft. His soft, full face was so ingenuously pleasant, as if he were somehow completely unaware of the terrible power he wielded.
The narrow woman’s dark eyes found him again at the One Ruler’s greeting. “Jueden,” she said briefly.
His belly felt tight, his skin taut as they climbed the hill. Two of his men flanked him, uneasy guards escorting him away from the bivouac, to keep him safe or to keep him in he never knew. But they were forgetting. They wouldn’t suspect.
Every spring since he had first watched the world from his mothers’ backs their herd had wandered these hills, leaving a wake across the land. He knew them like he knew the seams in his hands. No one would miss him until it was too late.
They crested the hill, and he stopped.
The herd had followed this rill for generations, as far back as his grandmothers’ grandmothers’ grandmothers’ memory.
And there was nothing.
The plains were empty, just billowing grass.
Something in him broke, like there was suddenly no ground to stand on.
“—will not hesitate to drink us dry! The harle laugh at us, and you can imagine what the Trade Barons are doing. We must monetize—”
“Timber is timber, iron is iron, and rye is rye,” Chiea interrupted the Councilor, once a chief trader of Camanl. “If they have no actual wealth to barter, then let their ships sink at the ports. We have no use for—”
“This isn’t just about Endonsárre, this is about the Duchies and the lands that lie beyond. We hobble ourselves…”
The one ruler gazed distantly at a point between the two men, somehow listening to both men and their cacophony of overlapping arguments. Across the table Belan sent Alan a look of amused long suffering, and his face stayed carefully blank. Her dark eyes returned to the Councilor, listening politely, chin resting delicately in one pale hand, her hair dark against skin that had been shaded by roofs all her life.
“The Duchies are nothing but—”
Alan looked up, saw a wiry Endon man fold himself seated across from him. He had the black hair and gold dusted skin of one of the foreigners across the Narrow Water, pale eyes in a rawboned face with a hooked nose.
He held out his arm, elbow crooked.
“Tell me what you feel.”
Slowly, Alan reached and took his elbow, running his hands down the length of the bone, cupping the joint, sinking deeper, tracing his fingertips around the curve of muscle, feeling the snarled, hardened tissue underneath. He pulled away.
“You’ve dislocated it at least twice. You’re prone to it.”
The don watched him, then his hand went back to his belt, pulled out a small knife. Alan watched as he slit a fine line along the top of the muscle of his forearm, just enough to show blood. He looked up to hold Alan’s eyes.
“Tell me,” he said in his delicate accent, holding out his arm, “what you feel.”
Alan reached for his arm again, fingers trailing through the blood, reached deeper, into skin, into nerve, and found himself pausing. There was nothing to say about the cut. A cut was a cut. It was what he didn’t feel.
One of the northern Endon men, Nemasd. He casually slipped a hand to the small of Alan’s back. Alan gave him a sideways look. Ashur didn’t interrupt his report, and Alan quickly returned his attention to him, still curious, letting the gesture stand.
When the report was over he would have left, except Nemasd tilted his head toward one of the open barracks. Curiosity made him follow, and when the don lead Alan inside, no one else paid attention.
There, surrounded by more than three dozen men at his beck and call, it was almost safe as Nemasd sat him on the bed and kissed him.
Lounging on the bench Ashur drawled, “If this were port politics I’d tell you you need to cut off all your hair, but your Secled men, not to mention your fat monarch, would probably think you’d cracked.” If he felt the eyes of the Secled soldiers coming at him from every corner of the room. Alan eyed him slightly askance, considering this lean, sharp-faced man and his idiomatically flawless Seclednar. “They also don’t know how to bet.”
“… Bet what?”
Felghaim was standing watch tonight, standing by the door, but Nemasd was also there. He smiled as Alan eyed him, unbuckling his belt laying his lhir on the edge of the bed nearest the wall. Boots next, tunic, stole, pants. Nemasd started stripping out of his clothing, and was unfazed by Alan’s hesitation as he lifted the blanket to slip in the bed beside him. He lay rigid against the warm, relaxed body beside him, unable to fall asleep until exhaustion wouldn’t have it any other way.
He startled awake when someone touched him, clutching his lhir, took a frantic heartbeat to remember Nemasd was curled beside him, breathing deeply.
He jerked awake with Nemasd rolled over, felt his hand on his stomach.
“S’all right. Just me.”
The fourth time he jumped awake, he was almost desperate with exhaustion. “It’s all right,” Nemasd said, a warm hand suddenly holding his face in the dark. A soft laugh as he climbed out of the bed and stretched himself out on the stone floor. “I’ll see you in the morning.”
Belut struggled, shoving at him, a sob snagged in her throat, and he pushed her back down, their bare skin sliding together. The dark wave of her hair spread over his bed, her delicately square features twisted and red. His hips pressing into the softness of her open thighs, not yet filled out to womanhood, the arch of his thumb cradling her budding breast. He used his weight to hold her down, kissed her mouth, teeth scraping together as the door burst open—
Wind buffeted him around, nothing but a feather in a whirlwind, a doll. Never known it was possible to fall so long, vertigo claiming him, eye-piercing sun and fathomless blue-green and sheer, plunging wall, couldn’t tell what was up, down, above, below, couldn’t breathe past the screaming wind tearing at his lungs just falling, falling, brain scrambled inside his skull—
Calm. The sky white, everything wet and cool with morning. Jalar leaning exhausted against the railing, head tilted back. Alan crawled beside him, bruised, scraped, soaked. The storm had sapped everything from them. The ship seemed almost abandoned, rocking against the anchor line, the exhausted men on deck fading into nothingness.
Jalar opened his eyes as he felt Alan’s shoulder press against his. They sat there, alive, watching pale, warm light leak through the clouds. Alive. Just alive. Stiff muscles protesting, Alan leaned down, hand slipping under Jalar’s waistband to pull the soft weight of his cock and balls free, took Jalar in his mouth, felt him stiffen in surprise, make a sound of unexpected pleasure, his carpenter’s hands moving to grasp the back of his head—
“I’d call it a complete disaster, except we all came back alive,” Ashur told him outside the cabin door. Inside the screaming and softer cursing and sound of flesh against wood seemed to expand outward, a storm between the walls reaching out into the icy night of the southern ocean. “We’d’ve never known he was there if I hadn’t felt him. They had him stashed in a hole, not even big enough for a lizard. Nearly scratched Oraun’s eyes out when we pulled him out. You need to look at him. I don’t even know how he’s alive.” Something was creasing the sharp sweep of Ashur’s eyebrows. His mouth opened, then he hesitated.
A scream that wasn’t the boy’s sliced through the cacophony inside, jerking them inside. Lamdek was cursing, wrestling the boy to the ground, arms twisted behind his back while Felghaim beat the deck with one hand, his ankle bending inward at the wrong angle. Alan knelt beside him, tracing Felghaim’s clay skin as he hissed through the pain, the joint already hot and puffy.
“Runt’s stronger than he looks,” Felghaim told him through gritted teeth. “Knows what he’s doing. Knocked me down and then he just stomped.”
“I can have you walking in three days, but I need to deal with him now.”
“He needs it,” Felghaim agreed, voice tight.
“No one’s gonna think you’re pretty if you’re a cripple,” Ashur said, grabbing Felghaim under the armpits and hauling him to his feet.
“You wanna get fucked anytime in the next three seasons?” Felghaim said, arm draped over Ashur’s shoulder as he hopped to the door.
Solme had wrapped his arms around the boy’s legs, trying to pin him down. The angle was wrong there, too, stomach-turningly obvious with the bones stripped of muscle. Broken through, never set. The boy’s head hung, limp exhaustion, face hidden by a dark mat of hair. Alan took what his eyes could see and his fingertips could feel, a maze of open lashes and welts on his back. The gashes on his wrists were so deep and so wide he could see severed tendon, the hint of bone under sinew, the flesh dessicated, like meat dried on the bone.
He sank beneath his senses and the boy screamed, writhing. It was like trying to sink into wood, something dark and dense, the structures and textures of the bones in the arm, the overlap of muscles the same and the substance somehow different–
Alan lurched back, grabbed Lamdek’s arm and jerked him stumbling back with him. “Solme, back!” Solme scrambled away and Lamdek jerked his head around to stare at him, but Alan’s eyes didn’t leave the boy.
“He’s Lridrisy. Stay back.”
Alan watched the boy struggle agonizingly toward the wall, gasping, pushing himself up against it with his useless hands. Exhausted, he tipped his head back, watching them through slitted, bloodshot eyes, fighting to even keep them open.
“My mother and my aunt,” someone said from the door, and Alan looked back sharply, saw Toney staring wide-eyed, arrested. “Stay back,” he said suddenly, fumbling out of his tunic, jerking at his belt, shuffling out of his pants before anyone could say anything. Naked and brown, he held his hands up, empty, dropped to his knees.
“Keppe thret rekart toneyiel miira. Edweloshkus toney. Badd aklo be pilasho.” He moved forward on his knees.
Heaving a breath, the boy rasped, “Why do you share scent with the Drifalcand?”
“They’re not Drifalcand.”
“Mercenaries,” the boy hacked. Alan felt Lamdek and Solme’s surprised reaction to the word.
Toney paused, his face unreadable.
“Yes. But not the way you mean.” Another long pause. “You’re hurt. You’re cold. Let me come to you.”
The boy didn’t say anything, panting so shallowly Alan could barely tell he breathed at all. Toney crawled toward him, and when he touched him, the boy didn’t lash out, let himself be pulled into the cradle of Toney’s arms and legs, held close. For a long time, Toney did nothing but hold him as they watched, didn’t look at anyone else.
“Hot water,” he called softly. “Blankets.” Lamdek slipped out of the cabin.
“Will you tell me your names?” Toney said softly. The boy didn’t answer him, an exhausted bundle of broken sticks. Alan sat, crossing his legs, settled into waiting. “Will you let the healer come to you?”
He didn’t answer. Didn’t open his eyes when Lamdek returned softly with blankets and a water jar, setting them quietly in Toney’s reach. Wouldn’t drink the water Toney tried to coax past his lips.
“How long?” the boy coughed suddenly. “Since the mountains burned.”
Toney didn’t answer him for a heartbeat.