Toney’s head whipped around only a breath after Efeddre stilled, lines deep around his eyes. He had been a boy when they burned the mountains, but he knew. Efeddre waved him down, and Toney started toward him without questioning. Clasping Efeddre’s outstretched hand, Toney used him for balance as he dropped from the ledge.
Efeddre led them down the slope, judging the wind on his skin, tasting another flicker of woodsmoke. Toney’s instincts were good, but he was young. Patchy fires were already seeping around the curve of the hill, feeding on the resinous mat of leaves, spreading upward. The first glimmers of heat began to beat against his skin, as warm as if he sat by a cooking fire. The wind swirled through the heads of the fires, twisting them into snapping banners as they ate across the ground. Crackling, blackened bands of bark began popping out from the bases of the skycombs, filling the air with the scent of boiling resin.
Efeddre moved without thinking, feeling Toney behind him, following the land where it would lead them ahead of the fire and toward the tear-water. The skycomb bark began to ignite, flame streaking up the soaring trunks. With a crack that shot through his skin, the first tree cast off its mantle, towering splinters of flaming bark crashing to the dusty floor.
The air was burning, the soil was burning.
Smoke blotted out the sun, and they ran with their shoulders low, beneath the bulk of the fumes. Toney pulled the neck of his shirt over his nose and Efeddre did the same.
Fire wanted to run upward, but the wind was pushing it south, flanking them. They were running in earnest now, slip-sliding down the steep slopes, the risk of a twisted ankle against the risk of the radiating heat. Efeddre could feel the arm facing the fire begin to blister, and he grabbed Toney, pushing him in front, shielding him. Toney stumbled, but kept his feet as they raced the fire’s edge.
There was no way to count the passage of time, no thought to try. But he was tired when they finally broke through a finger of fire to untouched scrub before the beaches of the tear-water. They turned, breathing heavily, watching the wind push the fire through the hills, the heat still palpable over a ship’s length away. Toney coughed, not badly, but Efeddre pulled the neck of his tunic down and took Toney’s round face between his hands.
Covering his mouth with his, Efeddre waited for Toney to exhale, then breathed into him. Toney understood, sucking in the breath as deep into his lungs as he could, breathing out through his nose. Efeddre took another breath and gave it back, feeling the spasm Toney suppressed as he gripped Efeddre’s arm.
As Efeddre pulled back, he watched Toney take a belly- and rib-swelling breath. There was a little hitch, like a tickle in his chest, but he didn’t cough. He reached out and laid a hand on the side of Efeddre’s neck, already pointing his chin toward the north.
Black, smoking earth and spears of charcoal lined the tear-water, all the way to the scarp where they had started. They followed the shore, avoiding the blistering ground, listening, watching for any sign of the others. The ship was flying a loop through the deeper waters until tomorrow, staying out of sight. Unless they somehow spotted the smoke they would have no way to know the landing party needed help. The slow, long current of the cold inside him had shifted minutely as they raced the fire, taking the hard edge away, leaving him only watchful, aware. They had walked a league past the scarp where they had left the woodworkers and the hunters when Efeddre he heard yells, muffled, indistinct.
The charred earth was too hot to walk on. Toney ripped his split tunic at the shoulders, cutting cord from his netted bag to tie them to his feet. Efeddre copied him, eyeing the spots where the coals would be cooler.
As they split, Efeddre said, “Stay in sight.”
Efeddre jumped from point to point like rocks in a stream, down toward Jalar’s sharp grunts. Finding a grip on the hot char, he hauled the log off the man and crouched. Jalar was still gasping from the pain, but Efeddre could see no other injury but his broken legs. His pulse was fast and strong. Though mute, his eyes stared at him clear and aware. Finding Toney in the field of charcoal, Efeddre strode past him, following the scent of burning blood.
Given immediate attention, Ashur, and time, Alan might have been able to save Wemir. Wemir knew that.
“Mer—” he choked. “Mer—” Gripping the back of his neck, Efeddre pressed his palm against his forehead. A sharp shift of his hands, a grinding crack, and Wemir’s body gave a convulsive twitch.
He found Jovrec farther up the slope, dazed, possibly concussed, and paired him with Cosag, who was scrambling down the hill, having escaped the fire by luck or reading the wind. For the barest moment the wind currents shifted, and carried to him a scent.
Yes, they were—
“Alan!” he yelled down the slope, cupping his hands around his mouth. He watched Alan’s head snap up from where he crouched over someone, finding the source of the shout. “Northeast!” He pointed with his arm up the slope. “Follow me!” He didn’t wait for acknowledgment, but dashed up the hill of ash. Finding Trich hoisting Mirea on a shoulder and keeping a blistered Rie in tow, he ordered, “Follow.”
The trees were spaced perfectly. There was room. Shucking his makeshift shoes and hopping out of his pants, he shifted. He felt his skin grow indistinct, then swell as he broke past the barriers of flesh like the crack of an ice sheet broke sound.
He spread his toes, his footing on the slippery ash better now on wide paws. He dropped his shoulder and Trich didn’t hesitate, swinging Mirea behind his shoulder blades. Mirea clutched at his fur weakly with one hand, his harsh breathing reverberating behind Efeddre’s heart. Trich helped Rie up behind Mirea, who steadied him, then turned and spotted Jovrec and Cosag toiling up the slope and shuffled down to help them.
Efeddre started climbing, leaving massive divets in the ash, Mirea and Rie’s weight shifting unsteadily on his back. Rie was collected enough to squeeze his legs around the barrel of Efeddre’s ribs, a discomfort borne of inexperience that couldn’t be dealt with now. Mirea was barely able to hold on. The wind was carrying scent away from him now, washing back ash like sparse snow. He headed for the source, toward the zone that wind and fire and incline told him would be untouched by the fire. Flicking an ear back, he heard Trich and Cosag, could hear more men working their way upward. The wind shifted again, bringing him smoke, heat, boiling sap, and burned hair.
Clearing the trees at the border of the little leaf-matted meadow covering the crown of the hill, Efeddre could sense nothing, no other presence but the fire and the hills and the forest. He took a draft of dry air, mouth hanging open, fanning air across the back of his tongue, tasting. Every shift of light from swaying twigs and wisps of smoke stood sharply clear to him.
When she burst out of the trees he only had time to shake Rie and Mirea off his back before she rammed into him.
Knocked onto his side, Efeddre kept himself tucked low as she circled around him, black lips peeled back in a silent snarl. He could smell her chill, her seniority, feel the weight of her anger. Keeping his head down on his front paws, he edged forward, purring desperately, displaying no threat, no threat.
She slapped him with a paw, claws ripping through his shoulder with streaks of bright pain, blood soaking his fur. In the background he heard Trich’s voice.
“Old Man’s balls.”
Rolling onto his back, Efeddre tilted his head back as she padded forward and hovered with bared teeth over his throat. He shifted, making himself smaller, breaking past his skin to fold inward until he was naked and tiny, her snarling mouth almost covering his head.
“I don’t mean to bring harm,” he said, heart pounding, blood leaking out of his shoulder into the grass. “We were caught in the fire. My names are sedronne efeddre phabel. I was seeking you. The not-limdri are here to scout for food, they have no wish to look on you.”
“Hey! Let him up, he’s just trying to help us,” Trich called in Seclednar, holding up his hands as he took a step into the clearing.
Tense, Efeddre slid his eyes back.
“Trich, shut up.” The man’s mouth tightened, but he kept quiet, stepping back.
“You left a trail,” she spat, her voice low and gravelly, vibrating behind the skin of her throat. “The drefalkwant think they have forced us north, but we are not there. If they search, they only have to follow.”
The words settled beneath his quickened breathing, bringing to the surface what he already knew but had not consciously thought.
“I know. I didn’t know what else to do.”
Her lips relaxed, and she settled her weight back on her hindquarters, her anger shifting but not assuaged. Efeddre climbed to his feet, feeling blood trickle down his arm, the gashes already healing. At the edge of the meadow, Rie was holding Mirea up under one arm, ready to run. Hearing a new group crest the slope, Efeddre turned, scanning the five, then six faces, spotting Alan, then Toney. Stepping up to Mirea, Efeddre wiped a swathe of blood off his arm and smeared it across Mirea’s bleeding eye.
“Who are they?” she growled, close enough to kill them before any of them could draw weapons. “What is their purpose?” It had taken both Alan and Kol to carry Jalar up the hill, and they lowered him to the ground, breathing hard. Alan gave her one swift study, but Kol kept glancing up warily.
Her fur was almost the color of iron rust, a little lighter. The ruff around her face faded to a dusty yellow, like dried grass. At the shoulder she was as tall as he was, her massive face at a level with his. Her pupils flexed.
“Not-limdri from the tear-water,” he told her. “They need wood, and meat. We were both served so we came together.” Her yellow eyes turned on them, nose flaring.
“Mercenaries,” she said, voice lower. She used the Donse word.
“They didn’t burn the mountains.” It was what she meant.
She hadn’t so much as flicked an ear behind her, but Efeddre knew almost exactly where the two limdri were waiting, hidden behind the treeline. Idishe was not among the men on the hilltop, and Efeddre hoped he wasn’t trying to sneak around them.
“Why are you alone? Why are you with them?” she demanded, raking Toney into her focus with her slitted eyes. He had been listening but had not stepped in, carefully picking singed cloth out of Mirea’s burns.
Being near her pulled at his heat, pulled it through the wall of cold and suddenly he was nervous. Grass crackled and popped as he sat, pulling one leg up, voluntarily making himself vulnerable.
“I was captured just before they burned the mountains. The drefalkwant bled me for rethor. The not-limdri from the tear-water rescued me.” He held out his wrists loosely, showing her the thick scars, the only marks that had survived from Laschdarvi. She tilted her head to see them, nudged her head forward to smell him closer to his skin. Her cold scent washed over him, tugging at him, surrounding him. Her very presence aroused him, not for sex, but to be alive, even though she also smelled mated and furious and much older. The tips of her fur grazed his skin, a whisker dragging against his arm.
“No one escaped from the last massacre.”
“No,” he agreed.
Toney didn’t look up from tending a flinching Mirea, but he felt her eyes shift to him.
“My family, and my methala died around me. I was orphaned. The not-limdri fostered me.”
Alan was examining Jovrec, feeling his skull through his dark hair, but he was listening, even though he didn’t understand. He paused to cough, bending over, spitting a wad of something yellow and thick.
“Why do you stay with them?,” she demanded. “They are not mountain people.” His heat let the current of his mood swerve, and Efeddre could feel his face become mobile, earnest.
“They catch the wind. The wind can push us along all the banks of the tear-water without meeting the drefalkwant or the secled. I can find camps, hear news of others, far away, and find them. We came to meet you.”
She growled, tail batting the air, making Jovrec inch back.
“They are not what you need. You need methala.”
“They’ve been my family for half my life,” Toney said simply, his brown eyes steady.
“There is more here than it might seem,” Efeddre willed her to understand, knowing he wasn’t giving her enough that she could. “I need to do this.”
“‘Need can want as want can do.’ You do not speak for all the methala.”
Suddenly, Efeddre laughed, caressing her muzzle, fingers sliding around her whiskers into short fur. Kimfen’s head whipped around to stare at him.
“I do not speak for anyone. But I learned much from sedronne. Take us home with you. Let me tell you of camps across the flat grasses. Let me tell you the story of the last massacre. We will tell no one where you are if you don’t want it. The not-limdri will say so.”
“You led mercenaries to my methala. The drefalkwant have only to look, and they will find your trail. How can we trust you, without family, without methala, with mercenaries?”
He looked at her for a long few breaths, the bright spark of his joy filtering away until he was left starkly somber.
“Maybe you can’t.”
She looked at him, unreadable.
“Come home with us, and stay, or leave and do not look for us again.”
Efeddre watched her in return, the shape of her, the texture, the color, just took her in. Then he looked over his shoulder at Toney. Their eyes met, and held. Toney reached out a hand over Mirea’s legs, and Efeddre laced their brown fingers together. Toney gave the tiniest shake of his head. Pulling away, Efeddre turned back to her.
“This is where we need to be.”
She did not say anything at first.
“Does anyone speak for them?”
“The healer.” He glanced at Alan.
“Then he must say they they will not look for us. You must all say it.”
Efeddre held her yellow eyes for what seemed like a long time. Then he raised his voice, “Alan.” The man looked up. In Seclednar, Efeddre told him, “She requires your oath as their speaker that you will not seek them out again. She requires this of me as well.”
Alan studied them, his body silent, his Secled face giving nothing away.
“Kabetjmiraddooshel-t.” he said after a breath. “Swear.”
“She requires it of all of you.”
“Swear,” Kimfen said, watching them, followed by Rie, and faintly, Mirea.
Trich, then Jovrec. “Swear.”
“I will not look for you,” Toney said.
Kol tapped his breastbone just below the hollow of his throat. “[Tip:Suthf mar.=By honor.] Swear.”
Slowly, Jalar said, “Swear.”
“I will not look for you,” Efeddre told her, and a weight suddenly plunged into his stomach, a sadness so raw and deep there was no word for it.
That was it. There was nothing left to do, or say. She curved around herself, stalking across the meadow toward the invisible limdri in the trees.
As Efeddre stood, she stopped, and turned her head so that he could see one huge yellow eye framed by the ruff of fur around her face
“You’re sick-wounded,” she said.
After a heartbeat she turned away, and disappeared over the forested lip of the hill.
“We should check to see if Idishe an’ Cosag found the cutter,” Kimfen said into the silence. “Fire’s past us now.”
Kol managed to crack off two branches from a skycomb finger sapling for splints, but they had nothing to cut poles for a stretcher.
He and Rie took Jalar’s heavy, dead weight this time, planting their feet carefully as they moved down the hill. Efeddre could feel the cold creeping back in, and he narrowed his focus to changing his mood while he still could. He didn’t want to be sad for days. Didn’t know if he could stand it. But it was Kol who settled it.
“Ah,” he said, “I think these are yours.” Efeddre studied his pants, soiled with ash, mud, and Kol’s blood, and accepted them. The familiar hard impassivity settled around him, the cold starting to lock it in. As he started walking again, he felt Toney move up beside him.
“What was that like?” Toney asked.
“Like being with my father’s brother.”
“I can’t remember the last time I felt so embarassed.”
Efeddre sent him a long, sideways look, and Toney grinned.
“I was waiting for her to tell you to stop flirting.”
Efeddre glanced forward, catching sight of water through the long, charred trunks.
“You know I can barely stop myself.”
“I think you proved that you can’t stop yourself.”
As they shuffled down the hill, Alan caught up with him, smelling of singed blood and hair. He didn’t speak immediately. It was one of his virtues.
“Did you kill Wemir?”
“It was clean.” After a pause, “How much did you tell her?”
“My story, and your role in my rescue. Nothing more.”
After a heartbeat, Alan said, “Telling her more may have given you more opportunities.”
“It was neither the time nor the place to reveal Ridiath.” Alan was silent for a step, then coughed harshly.
“I thank you for bearing the weight of her suspicion for us.” Efeddre said nothing. “She did not seem satisfied.”
“She discriminates against the young.”
“Are you young, then?” he asked, glancing at Efeddre curiously.
“Older than you.”
He felt Alan ponder that.
He wondered if this was what the mountains had felt like after they burned. Efeddre halted, Jovrec and Kol moving ahead of him, Toney growing smaller at the head of the procession. He stared down the ashy slope to where tear-water washed away the beach. No view with that much water could ever feel like the mountains.
Efeddre turned, staring up the sweep of the three hills, at the spires of the elder skycomb who had survived, naked and pale as bone, the air still hung with smoke and ash. For the space of his breath, he allowed himself to be somewhere else, somewhere past. The sensation seized his bones, prickled his skin. Then he turned and joined the trail of men making their way down the slope.
Alan had halted, face tucked into his elbow as a coughing spasm seized him. Jovrec stopped to put a hand on his back, helping him keep his balance as the coughing grew worse. Toney looked back at Efeddre, but said nothing.
- I step in the footsteps of the herd. ↵