When Comes the Firetide | Chapter Seven

firetide_med


NOTE: This story contains depictions and themes that are mature in nature. If you find the use of foul language or the depiction of sexuality and violence to be distasteful, it may not be for you.  Some content may also be sensitive in nature for some readers.
This is an excerpt.  You can follow the blog and read past and future full chapters here: firetidecomes.blogspot.com/

Chapter Seven – Burned by Fires Cleansing and Cold

Mossreign Dale, Southern Dagger Fells Cord
1st Set of Integrity, Month of Foundations 8178

Mere inches from his face, Nelah’s fingers worked with a delicate touch.  Zakeriel’s eyes focused on them as she carefully stitched the split in his brow.  Long and tapered, they were elegant, yet the fingertips were hardened and dark like petrified wood.  Although he tried, he could not see the division of soft flesh to calcified point.  Although he did not know her, the man considered that it was a reflection of her personality.  Perhaps it was an Erahs trait, for Khes was much the same.  Was.

As she bent forward to bite the thread off at the knot, the man averted his eyes to where Khes lay.  It was the Erahs tradition to leave their bodies to nature.  They did not bury or burn the dead.  However, the idea pained him, to just leave the woman in a strange place, far from her people.  A fair notion of cruelty, to his mind.

Nelah had combed Khes’ hair and laid her out on a bed of collected moss.  Although removed of her chainmail and clothing, modesty was preserved in the gathering of purple Wolfsbane flowers.  Zakeriel had wanted to argue when Nelah placed one of the flowers in Khes’ mouth.  ‘Wolfsbane is poison!’ he had wanted to yell.  The realization that she was not waking up struck him before he spoke to his shame.  The Shae man never bothered to ask why one was placed in the woman’s mouth.  It seemed too irrelevant then.

“Go sit with her,” Nelah encouraged as she rocked back on her heels.  “Her energy has not left yet.  Be with her as long as you can.”

Leaving the man to his grieve for his “friend,” Nelah strode to where Paoel sat.  Although Zakeriel had explained what he was, she remained wary. The Tōk were creatures of legend, myths to many people. The Tōk was very upset, so Sahaan had asked that he allow Atirian help him bring Nahiet across the pond.  To spare his honor, Sahaan made no mention of Paoel’s apparent inability to swim.  This had left the Tōk alone in his grief and anger, which only seemed to be escalating.  Nelah feared what would happen if they did not soothe him somehow.

“Are you recovered?” the Calhalla Eto inquired maintaining a bit of distance.  “I imagine you are quite distraught.”

Twitching his head, bulging one large eye at her, Paoel stared as he determined her words’ meaning.  “Shamed.  Paoel’s honor is…no more.”

“You did what you could–”

“No!  Paoel is Relic!  To guard Motherless. To–”  The man’s upset dissolved his language into the clicks, dooks and growls of the Tōk.  Waving his hands and slapping his tail as he spoke, Paoel’s emotions reached a tipping point.  Nelah backed away a few feet afraid the creature of legend might suddenly spew fire.  Pointing out that she understood none of the rant was, at best, a very bad idea.

~Help me please. I cannot understand the Tōk  and he is very upset.~

Nelah’s plea to Sahaan was quickly answered.  ~Just listen for now.  Let him vent his frustration.  Perhaps the Shae can offer more intelligible information.~

She looked over at him as he and Atirian delivered the dead Shae to the shore and Zakeriel rose to help them arrange him on a pyre bedding.  At another silent urging, Sahaan gestured and left the men to join Nelah.

Reaching her side, Sahaan smiled patiently then interjected at the first opportunity.  “Forgive us, Paoel.  We are not familiar with the Tōk language.  Perhaps your friend can help translate?”

“No. Knows nothing.  They all know nothing.  You know nothing.”  Paoel snorted and turned away like a pouting child.  Relieved that no one was set on fire, or smacked with his barbed tail, Sahaan considered the exchange moderately successful.

– – – –

Dusk had begun to dim the day, fireflies popping about them like stars being born and dying in the damp forest air.  Although typically she would never do so away from the holt, Nelah collected colonies of the Inwaldrhe fungi to wrap bio-luminescent candles for the strangers.  Emotional distress was no time to be sitting in the dark and it would be upon them soon.  The ‘light of the rainforest’ might help alleviate more than just the night’s darkness.  She had rest one on either side of Khes and left Zakeriel undisturbed.

Zakeriel was kneeling at her shoulder and stared down at Khes’ serene face.  For not having known her, Nelah showed such care in preparing her.  Delicate braids wove flowers into her hair, and Nelah had washed away any signs of blood from the crack in her skull.  The thought of Khes’s head bouncing off a boulder caused the man’s own skull to throb.  A trembling hand rose to his sutured brow bone.

Reaching over he took the dagger from the neat pile of her belongings.  “I’ll find Revas.  I will make sure he gets this and knows how brave his sister is… was.”

He kept his eyes on Khes’s face, expecting her to suddenly blink or gasp.  Nothing.  Zakeriel hung his head with a soul-weary sigh.  Drawing the ornate blade, he examined his reflection in it, then tested its edge.  He imagined the tiny Erahs slaying bears and Ganroth. Boasting or not, the man coveted the fantasy of that woman.  Small in stature but powerful in spirit and will.

Sliding the dagger back into its sheath, Zakeriel waited for the figure approaching to speak.

“I am sorry to intrude,” Atirian announced himself.  With the Shae’s back to him, the sly Jasuuk took a moment to appreciate what bared flesh he could see.  The woman was dead, but showed no signs of such yet.  It was like marveling at a sleeping lover, if only the damned flowers did not hide his view.

Bending forward, Zakeriel tenderly kissed Khes’ brow and whispered, “join with the Light of Naaris, brave one.”

Too quickly distracted by Atirian, Zakeriel did not notice the droplets of watered-down blood that dropped from his wet hair into the woman’s jugular notch.  The diluted crimson fluid appeared like a tiny sunlit ruby nestled at the base of her throat.  Stark though it was, Zakeriel overlooked it as it seemed deliberate in placement for aesthetic.

“My apologies, but Sahaan has questions…and eventide is coming soon.”  The Jasuuk extended his hand in traditional Shae greeting, allowing Zakeriel to brush his knuckles against his own.  “I am Atirian Vaeth.”

“Zakeriel Téos.  I have many questions as well…how the Teigne died?”  The young man’s brow creased.  “Was it that…thing…?”

Atirian shook his head.  “No, I think merely the fall.  I found blood on a rock and his neck seems to be broken.  I fear he was unfortunate to not land in the waters as you and your Tōk companion.  We have questions about the ‘thing’, as you called it.”  As the worried Shae looked to him, ease was readily given, “it too is dead.  I…dispatched it.”

With a grateful nod, Zakeriel started toward the others but noticed Atirian lingered. He cleared his throat. The Jasuuk, looked to him. “If you do not object… she was of my people.  I can see the touch of Jasuuk in her blood.  I would like to say our prayers of mourning on behalf of her family– only if you will allow it.  You are welcome to observe if you like.”

A faint bob of the head and Zakeriel stepped off to the side, not wanting to be too present in what felt like an Erahs tradition.  Atirian bowed graciously, then lowered to one knee near Khes’ head.  He rest one set of fingertips on her brow, so tenuous a touch his hand trembled to stay aloft. He spoke in the Shae tongue so Zakeriel was not ostracized from the prayer.

“Divine twins feel my sorrow.  Nel I plead you bear–”  He glanced up at Zakeriel.

The Shae gasped, “oh, Khes Adaia.”

“Lovely name…”  Atirian offered a compassionate smile then lowered his head again and continued,

“Nel, I plead you bear Khes Adaia’s spirit through the Firetides,
then by Ndor’s side collect the spirits of those who wronged her.
Jaa heal my heart, cleanse me of this pain.
I ask this with a gift of life.”

Atirian opened his eyes and inclined his head to study her face as he murmured to Zakeriel. “Normally we would offer up a harvest or other game for the children of the goddess who would come to claim her… but, I have nothing.”  Looking down he saw the droplet of blood on her throat.  “I see someone else offered an adequate substitute, however.”

Drawing his dagger, he immediately calmed Zakeriel with a hush, then slit a small cut in his wrist and let a few droplets join with Zakeriel’s on Khes’s pearl-white throat.  The impression of a gemstone was complete, a swirl of ruby red and lilac .   Re-sheathing his dagger as Zakeriel turned away in discomfort, Atirian bent over the woman and placed his lips to her brow, still making a show of ‘tradition’.  As he kissed her, however, he began to draw the life essence from her that he and Nelah both could feel clinging.

Sinking back on his haunches he stared at the woman.  Zakeriel eyed his odd posture, and expression. The Jasuuk looked as though he struggled to contain something, hide some emotion, pain or confusion.  “Are you not well?”

“I am fine, friend.”  Atirian rose and shudder as if shaking a chill from himself.  “Just a headache coming on. It has been a long day.”

Exhaling his grief, the knight nodded agreement then gestured for them to leave the funerary shrine.  Joining the others, Zakeriel and Atirian sat opposite each other as Nelah and Sahaan completed a rough circle in the grass.  Feeling very alone, in spite of Paoel’s presence, Zakeriel felt on trial.  Answers, however, were in short supply, unless Paoel had more to offer.  The first question was not what either expected.

“Your companion was a thief?  She is far too young to be of the Witan, even if a Nelenr.”  Nelah fixed her glimmering amber eyes on Zakeriel and produced the Weyd journal.  “Who did she steal it from?”

With a shake of his head, Zakeriel fought to restrain the ire that snapped to the fore.  That fury gave him speed, however, and he rocked forward to snatch it from her hand.  As outrage was voiced, he hugged it to his chest.   “She was not a thief!  It was given to her. She was going to translate it…I think.”

“You think?”  Nelah snorted.  “How could she even open it?  The seal is an Iribynd. It is sealed by the Weyd owner’s blood…none but the blood of that Weyd can unseal it. Not even with magic.”

Confused at how this was even relevant or important now, Zakeriel flung one hand toward the waterfall and shouted, “I am far more concerned with how we came to be here!  This morning I woke up at the base of The Shards…at the Iaegonaul ruins!  Explain how we came over the falls to…to…”

“The Southern Dagger Fells near Mossrei–”

“WHAT?!”  Zakeriel’s jaw fell slack and he looked at Paoel for some correction.  “How did we fall into the Northern Kedei branch of the River Ceyr and land in the…in…this…?!”  He glowered at Sahaan, refusing to believe the Calhalla’s words.

Atirian interjected quickly, “well, technically this is still the Ceyr…just…a tributary vein to the south west end of the Mossreign Dale.”

~Not helping.~ Sahaan chastised with a scowl.

Atirian ignored the Elhia and spoke aloud, “you do not think it relevant that they entered the same waters that they emerged from, given the distance that he claims they traveled in the same day?  That is weeks, a month easily even by vnesh unless you are a dedicated rider. Even then he could not have traveled so far with a sick girl and–”

“HE is right here and does not appreciate the insinuations!”  Zakeriel glowered and waved to Paoel.  “Did you not ask him?  Paoel, tell them!”

“Yes. True.”  The Tōk postured with authority and stated, “Tōk settled Kedei. Reside in Kedei. Jaed army at–”

“–Kedei.”  Atirian interrupted. “Well, at least his story is consistent.”

Paoel’s tail slammed the ground with ferocity and the small Tōk stood.  “Paoel is Lalsamraat! No disrespect!”

In the hopes of averting any further unpleasantness, Zakeriel tried to calm his angry companion.  “Paoel, he means no disrespect.  We are strangers to them…please, calm yourself.  Do you have any idea what has happened?  Gregoire said you would explain.”

“No matter.  Motherless is dead. Paoel tainted Relic. Useless.  Death comes.”

“No one is going to die!”  Zakeriel insisted, although it sounded hollow to his own ears as he held Khes’ belongings in his lap.

Nelah’s role as Eto was one of nurturing.  Typically the ills she was meant to cure were not figments of the mind, this was a Jace’s role. Physical pain and loss, however, brought with them emotions should could not just push off to someone else to manage. She had become adept enough when required.  “Sahaan, they are all dressed for far colder weather. The other Shae wears furs under his armor. I believe them.”  Whether this was actually true was irrelevant, it soothed Zakeriel at least.  She looked to Paoel, “Lalsamraat, this is a title?”

“Yes, like…prince.” Zakeriel answered for the still fuming Paoel.

“I see.  You also called yourself ‘the Relic’ did you not?  What does this mean?”  Nelah studied both men in turn, but it was clear that Zakeriel did not know either.  The Tōk was not very forthcoming.

After an awkward silence, Zakeriel asked, “how much do you know of the events in Ejade?”  His eyes shifted to Atirian, “your accent, it is Ejadian.”

“Yes.  I was there, during the uprising.”  Atirian scowled and avoided their gaze, shifting with appropriate discomfort as Sahaan squeezed his shoulder to offer emotional support that the Ndorinr did not need, but played upon regardless.    “Born and raised a slave, it gave me opportunity to flee my captivity.  I know only that the Ganroth stormed the Viridian Cattedrale, and word was that the Jaed had fallen.  The Jaed and all his kin.  Assassinated.  Panic in the streets gave rise to stories about an old God…an Awakening.  Some ancient superstition that the ramskulls cling to.  They honestly believe that the Viridian is some kind of…temple, and that by claiming it they can awaken their ancient god.”  Atirian rolled his eyes with a snide chortle, “primitive nonsense…but there is to be another geological event or something that they believe will kill it…so, they rose up to save their precious Uvall.”

“Uvall?  That is what all this is about?”  Sahaan frowned with genuine worry in his eyes.

~You know of this?~   Nelah faced him, recognizing the concern on his face.

“I know very little,” the man began slowly, “but I know that Uvall is not just ‘some old god.’  The Ganroth believe that Uvall is THE God, that it gave birth to the universe.”

“No.  Ubhall.  Debhourer.”

Zakeriel, more accustomed to his accent questioned him as a polite translation for the others, “Devourer?

All eyes turned to Paoel.  The Tōk regarded them, then snorted a thick puff of air.  “Ubhall.  Name says Debhourer.  Eats.  Ubhall eats all.  Hungryhungryhungry.  Nebher sated.  Not creator. Destroyer.”

“Is Uvall real?”  Zakeriel asked with worry.

Nelah smirked and retorted, “of course not.  Some mysterious beast that devours worlds?  Utter nonsense.”

“Ubhall is real.”  The air seemed to chill with Paoel’s statement.  “Stories…wrong.  Ubhall, most real.”

Shimmying closer, Sahaan leaned in and murmured, “tell us what you know…how did it bring you to be here?”

Paoel drew a deep breath and settled back onto his rock.  “Ubhall did not.  Zak.  Zak make us go here.”

One long digit pointed with assertion at Zakeriel.  The Tōk’s statement left a weight in the silence that followed.  Zakeriel was too dumbfounded to argue.

“What does that even mean?”  The knight finally managed to implore.

With an audible huff of exasperation, Paoel lifted a stick from the ground and began to break it into pieces.  Lining them up in the midst of the crude circle of people, the man did his best with the uncomfortable language.  “Paoel must seek this many.  Samraat Taoel Gyreck say, this many…and the Motherless.”

“This many…what?”  Sahaan was patient.

Lifting one snapped piece of the wood, Paoel held it up.  “This.”

“Do you mean a piece…like part of a whole?”  Nelah supplied, Sahaan could not help but note that it was with far more patience than Atirian had been offered.

“Piece…whole,” Paoel echoed with some effort.  “Yes.  This.”

More confused, Nelah gestured to the sticks.  “You must find six pieces…of what?”

“Meta.”

Baffled expressions and blinking eyes surrounded the Tōk, who only threw his hands up and exploded in a frustrated rant of guttural sound.  Eager to calm him, Nelah waved her hands and hushed him.  “No, no…it is fine.  We will find a way for you to explain.”

Sahaan, though, seemed to understand.  “You are trying to find and awaken The Meta.”

“YES! THIS!”

After turning the ring on his finger several times, his eyes distant and fixated on an inner challenge, Zakeriel stood and paced away from them, heading toward Nahiet’s body.  “Someone needs to explain, so when you have a full, proper answer retrieve me.  Someone should give the Teigne a proper pyre.”

The young man’s storming off did not concern the others overmuch.  He was mourning a friend and the man he was trained to defend.  Sahaan was impressed that he was as tempered as he was.  Shifting to focus on Paoel, the male Calhalla pointed at the sticks.

“I think I understand. The six, these six, they are The Perfect.”

Paoel considered this with a series of grunts, then finally answered, “Yes.”

Sahaan turned to look at Zakeriel who had begun gathering firewood. As he silently pondered, Nelah grew impatient and prodded, “what is all this, Sahaan? I know none of these stories.”

“Old stories. Religious legends of a sort, I guess, if you believe that sort of thing.” The man returned his attention to them and explained to the best of his knowledge. “I just thought it all part of the old religion, the Ganroth beliefs… maybe there is more to it than just stories.” Brow knitting in deep furrows, Sahaan rubbed at the back of his neck in thought. “The Quirsahtha do not speak of the World That Was so, I only know little bits. The Meta is, or were a relic of that time. They are supposed to be extinct, like the Kaudrhe. Quirifen was the last of the Kaudrhe, perhaps the last Meta.”

“Meta kills Ubhall. Sire says.” Paoel was insistent as a child. The language barrier would, hopefully, improve in time.

Sahaan heaved a sigh and, while watching Paoel for approval or reproach, he elaborated. “The Ganroth believe that Uvall will rise and devour the unrighteous and elevate the Chosen–”

“Who are primarily Ganroth… of course.  It IS the Shae who have kept him imprisoned.” Atirian grimaced with genuine disdain then added, “but always the votaries and sycophants shall cling to the hems of the favored.”

With a simple nod, Sahaan continued, “it is alleged that one known as the Meta defeated him–”

“Must do!”

“Yes,” Sahaan sighed and adjusted his verbiage. “This Meta must be ‘awakened’ …in a sense. I do not understand who or what The Perfect are, only that there are six of them and that somehow they are needed to awaken the Meta.”

“Is this some sort of elemental arcane kai?” Atirian again interjected, his use of the curse word causing Nelah to purse her lips.

“It isn’t kai,” she argued with fervor.

“I have lived my life surrounded by Omíkhs and Valkto and have never heard of such prophecies or magics.”

Nelah’s eyes narrowed, but Atirian sensed that Sahaan stayed whatever remark balanced on her tongue. Instead, she explained, “Elemental magics are no less powerful than metaphysical energies, sometimes more powerful…depending on the wielder. They are…crude and somewhat primitive but they are not to be dismissed. But my guess is that the Meta is not related to base arcane magic, rather to Transcendentals.”

With a sage nod, Paoel thumped his tail. “Yes. Per’ect and Meta transindo’al.”

Nelah tried not to smirk or laugh at the Tōk’s attempt at the word, which sounded as if it ended in a belch. Instead she addressed Atirian. “Transcendentals are able to manipulate metaphysical energies.  We call them the Gifted now. They are far more rare than they once were.”

“You can thank the Shae and Ganroth for that, wholesale slaughter centuries ago or anyone- even their own- who showed signs of such abilities,” Sahaan pointed out.  The Erahs simply had a stronger lineage…

“So more were slaughtered,” Atirian nodded and looked down. “And why we were enslaved, I assume?”

“So some say, yes. History is, of course, in the mouth of the speaker.”  Nelah’s tone was bitter as she glowered past him to Zakeriel.  At a silent prod from Sahaan, she continued.  “The Elemental and arcane magics were forbidden even by our kind so many kyr ago.  The arcane had turned to Death magics which impose upon our fundamental beliefs as Erahs and often resorted to sacrifices and other vulgar activities.  Elemental magic was… is, in truth, I think a myth. I have seen no evidence of it. I think such ‘magicians’ were mostly charlatans and alchemists. No one can conjure fire or manipulate water though many city-kin still seem to believe so.”

“I am not so dense as that, but thank you.” The Jasuuk grimaced and glanced down at the sticks. “So, these six perfect people… they can do spells?”

“Spells are arcane and incredibly trivialized magic,” Nelah retorted with a narrowing of her eyes.

Sahaan interjected before a new argument began. “The Perfect represent the six foundations of metaphysics. I don’t remember them all. We’ll have to ask mother…very likely she does. I do know, however, that these are incredibly powerful rare gifts…far more rare than any elemental magics, and they cannot be taught. One is born transcendent or they are not. Elemental magic can be taught. I am certain someone knows why, but, I am not he.”

“So, these aren’t just, Sighted or Veniportr?”  Atirian looked to Paoel.

The Tōk blinked his eyes and twitched his head one way then the other.  “Ahwaken to more. Do…more.”

Looking up at the sky as it began to vary from its blue and its moods slowly came into view, Nelah sighed and looked over at Atirian. “Perhaps you and Paoel can help Zakeriel gather wood. We shall need it for the pyre…and night is falling soon. I must gather more resin and baneflowers.” Her amber eyes turned to survey Sahaan.

~Should all of this concern me so deeply as it does?~

The man need not answer, the weight of his shoulders and the darkness in his eyes asserted everything. After a moment he replied. ~Fear nothing until we speak with my mother. The Venerate should have an understanding of all this…if only we had not lost the Elihaet.~

~Does Uvall explain the red mist?~

~Possibly. Zakeriel and Paoel both mentioned red dust. I should take another look at the creature Atirian found. Perhaps it will give answers.~

~Please be cautious. Atirian says it is dead, but Zakeriel speaks of dead men attacking them. I fear it is the same as the plagued creatures that assaulted the holt.~

Rising, Sahaan pressed his lips to her brow and murmured aloud, “be safe in your gathering.”

Nelah rose and set out to scour the forest. She passed by the Erahs girl pausing when she saw the droplet of blood at her throat.  Glancing back over at the others she wondered at the Shae having left such an offering.  Strange, too, that Atirian would bestow life-gift for a woman he did not know.  Honorable, but strange.  Feeling guilty now that she had not also said a prayer for the girl, Nelah glanced toward the group again and saw that she was not being observed.

Though there was no mind to connect with, Nelah sent with the Elhia in hopes her prayer would reach into the aether.  She did not think the girl’s spirit could yet be far and perhaps if she heard it, she would be comforted that someone had spoken for her. ~Quirifen’s light bathe you, Ndor’s justice serve you, Nel carry you. Jaa guide you to keep the temper of The Blood…~  The next line of the traditional prayer was not applicable, so Nelah paused and altered it to be more fitting.  ~May Nel recognize the mark of his warrior upon you and pull you to his side or join you with your twin so you may know wholeness. I ask this with a gift of life.~

Drawing her knife as Atirian had, she also cut a small puncture at her wrist and pressed a drop of blood to join with the others.  Studying the girl a moment she mused, ~funny that you are white as the ice of the North but marked by the Black Wolf, Nel. A foolish irony or ill-conceived joke. In either case, I am sorry little one…~

– – – –

City of Medias, the Téos Estate, Eastern Tybraes
Autumnfiæll of the year 8174

Sconces of incense hung from the apex of every tierceron, the scent cloying and doing nothing to cover the rank odor of death and dust.  It merely drew attention to it, and stifled the air making it harder for the young man to breathe.  He had not stood upon Téos grounds since he was twelve years old. It had been ten years and the first of his father’s face he had seen was the faint impression of it through the shroud fabric.  The Fossarians, naturally, would not let him see, would not let him unwrap the man to look at him one more time.  He had been dead too long and the warmth of the Ripening months had not been kind, even here in the cool of the hypogaeum.  If they had sent word sooner. If his father had not been so bloody stubborn, perhaps he could have brought a healer from Ejade, or at least proper medicine.  The smallest kindness they could have done was allow him to see the man’s face once more before the Mists.  Instead, he was left with a small velvet pouch and a letter.

“Master Zakeriel, the sun is just hinting.  The Mists are coming.”  The doyen urged him gently, as he indicated the stairs. “We shall carry the Dūsan to–”

“No. I want to.”  Zakeriel rubbed at one ear then smoothed it, an anxious tick since childhood. “And…It is Knight Teos, now.
Address me as Sir.”

The crypt-keepers both bowed, the doyen murmuring, “of course, Sir.”

As he knelt beside his father’s body in the thick morning mist, awaiting some sense of Naaris’ presence, Zakeriel rest a hand over the man’s heart and spoke to him.  The Fossarians had moved a distance away to give him peace and those few friends and distant relatives kept a respectful distance as well.  They would each have a moment to lay their token upon his chest before the Fossarians took the body for cremation.  Then Zakeriel would have to sit through an afternoon and evening of pandering and storytelling about that wonderful man, his father.

Looking down at the edge of the stream, waters lapping the shore, Zakeriel tried to think of something poignant to say. What does one say after ten years?

“I was knighted. I had hoped to see you when I was dressed in the Jaed tabbard. Your…I suppose she was more nurse than anything this last year, she said you were too ill to travel. Could have told me then. Least I would not have stood there feeling as if the one man who any of that was supposed to matter to didn’t even care after all.”  He looked down at the damp, trodden grass poking up about the edges of the mat he and his father were upon. “You were a better teacher than all of the Monyale, Cenobitae and Keepers of the seminary.  I was grateful that I only had to remain there until I was elevated to Postulant. Was still four years in Fondroy’s bloody Wake, but…there wasn’t anything they could teach me in their damned Sorites Codex that you hadn’t taught me.”

His green eyes scanned out over the swirling mist around them. “I wasn’t really yours, and wasn’t even the kind of son you probably would have wanted. I daydreamed too much and was always too sensitive.” He chuckled, “and I like mulberry wine, you will just have to accept that. I’m a peasant’s son, I like a peasant’s liquor.”   His smile waned and quieted again.  The weight of his father’s signet ring felt heavier on his finger than his sword ever felt in his hand.  “But I did learn, tried to, everything you taught me.”

A hand fell on his shoulder and Zakeriel smudged at his eye before looking up.  It was his father’s Erahs mistress.  “The Prelate would like to begin service when the sun is risen. I know I haven’t the right to ask, but, there are others who would like to wish him blessing before Naaris takes him to her bosom.”

Nodding, he stood and looked down at the man once more.  When he turned his green eyes to the woman again he, fixed a stern look upon her and spoke soft enough that others could not hear.  “I was honored to witness your marriage to my father before he passed…I’ll see to it that all the proper paperwork is in the hands of the Advocacy so there is no confusion.”

“It was never my wish to-”

“A Jaed Knight cannot own an estate, title or lands. I am bound to only the Jaed. Unless you wish to sign a cheque to an auctioneer, then I suggest you come inside and provide me your signature.”  He bowed with grace and respect, then kissed her hand, “Dūsaan Téos.”  The woman gaped for a moment then bowed her head and let him go.

Dawn’s service looked serene and somber, early morning light spilling into the chapel through stained windows. The small choir singing hymns, an Erahs youth there singing an aria of pure beauty though Zakeriel did not know if it was words or just sounds.  On any other day, the rapturous harmonies may have elevated his spirits. They only seemed to echo within the hollow of his chest.

As the Prelate stood, reading from the Sorites Codex, Zakeriel stared at those who had come.  Some had made a show purely out of social grace or political suave. Many he recognized from his youth, old friends, distant cousins.  Only when he noticed a faint shifting of awkwardness among them did he move focus to the words of the Prelate. The pontificating had unsettled many and he studied the older man, who bore a mask far too angry for a funerary sermon.

“And in this guise as masculine, Naaris, who was Nabaar, demanded to know of Telloran the thick of his betrayal. ‘How couldst thou lie with a woman of the land, conjurer of death, a witch by any other name? You brother, stood beside and saw her like, the death they sowed upon field.  She will plant no less foul a seed upon the lain of your bed.’”  The Prelate stared out at them.  The only Erahs present not restricted to the very back row of the chapel was his father’s mistress, who sat but a pew away.  Tilting his head, he looked toward her, and Zakeriel could see she was afraid.  The Prelate’s hand smacked the altar with one hand.  “Telloran brought his axe down in rage, a sign of the taint already within his heart, and Nabaar knew it to be too late. Their brother had been deceived, his heart corrupted and his sight twisted to the foul visions of the earthen witch and her ilk.”

Standing up, Zakeriel crossed to the center of the chapel and reached over the altar.  Taking hold of the scroll, he pulled it off the stand and tossed it to the far back of the dais without taking his eyes off the Prelate.  “This is not a time for such sermons.”   Holding the man’s gaze as he sputtered and shrank back, the knight took one step up on the prostrum.  “Upon a death we speak of compassion, of love and loss and sharing.  We teach of being there for one another.  We do not spout personal opinion and vile political statements.”

Turning to face the chapel he growled, “clearly you do not respect my father at all.”  Holding out a hand toward his father’s mistress, he stated very audibly, “Dūsaan Ariet Téos, if you would accompany me to the manor for luncheon.”

Head ducked low, she rose and took his arm, eager to scurry out, but Zakeriel walked slow and proud. At the door he paused and very sternly stated, “do not attend if you do not know and respect the life my father led. You are not welcome.”

The doors closed behind them and Ariet looked up at him.  They were nearly at the house proper when she finally gasped, “I do not know what to say.”

Covering her hand, he exhaled a tremulous breath. “That my father would be proud.”

“He always was, Zakeriel.  Read the letter.”  They walked in silence until they were inside his childhood home once again.  “I do not know why you did this for me, forged marriage documents and transferred your deeds to me…or the chapel, I–”  she shook her head.

“Because it is what he taught me. There are no laws preventing you from having married, just petty people like them.”  Zakeriel shook his head and shrugged. “I am just glad he was not so lonely, finally.  What you gave him is worth far more than a…gehesht house and a petty title belonging to petty people. Everything is legal, more or less.”  he muttered the last and peeked at her from under his brows. “So long as you are happy then, I think Father would be.”

Leaning forward she kissed his cheek. “Read the letter, Zakeriel.”

The Fossarians had already lit the pyre long before Zakeriel returned from the nightmare of the Omíkhlæssectarian chapel.  Beside the flames, he read the small slip of parchment. Not any more verbose than is father ever was, the letter conveyed everything he needed it to say.  The words were not forgeries of Ariet’s making.  She could not know the private language of a father and son.  Staring down at the letter, he saw the fire glinting off the signet ring.  All that was said would be remembered in a band of vanadium.  Leaning forward, he tossed the paper onto the flames and watched it curl and blacken.  Closure felt painfully like abandonment.

– – – –

Mossreign Dale, Southern Dagger Fells Cord
Evening, 1st Set of Integrity, Month of Foundations 8178

Necessities of survival required that they move on. Sahaan and Atirian took up watch to allow their new Shae companion a moment of grief over the Teigne’s informal funeral. Paoel waited with strained patience for Zakeriel to finish arranging Teigne Nahiet Runii’s body upon the built up pyre bed. The moment the Shae was a safe step back, the Tōk inflated his chest with a warrior-like stance. As he erupted with a belching roar, fire flashed from his mouth, engulfing the pyre in a plume of heat and flame.

A stench of methane and sulfur filled the air as Paoel’s flaming-breathe died out. With a reactionary jerk of his head, Zakeriel slyly covered his mouth and nose, pretending to be emotional when Paoel’s large bulging eyes looked his way.

Nearly as difficult as speaking the Shae language for a Tōk, was spitting fire. Paoel was able to manage it this easily only because, this far south, the climate was far warmer and his body needn’t work so hard to maintain a safe body temperature. That extra energy was put into building defensive fire.

While their ancestors had a large developed bladder for storing the flammable gasses, the Tōk had to build it up, essentially belching while clenching the piezocyrstal at the back of his throat. The more proficient a Tōk was at this, the more revered they were in Tōk society. The Gyreck lineage was long, and many were Pathenos genders, so this trait remained strong within their bloodlines. Paoel of course, was not aware that even the smallest spark was enough to impress the Erahs and Shae.

“Oy, could kill someone with that breathe. That must be handy, eh?” Zakeriel managed a weak smile. Perhaps unaware that the Shae was trying to compliment him in an off-hand joking manner, Paoel puffed himself up and flicked the ground with his tail. Noting the change, Zakeriel shifted the subject. “So…Zak, hmm? I find that a comfortable name. The Shae aren’t taken to shortening names…but I like this.” He knew it was only because the Tōk found his full name difficult to say, and that was an acceptable reason for the truncated moniker.

“Zak. Yes.” Paoel bobbed his head in the hard staccato that seemed to sharpen all of his movements. Both men returned their gaze to the pyre. On the far side sat Atirian in a tree. The heat of the flames wavered his appearance, giving the deep grey skinned Jasuuk an ominous appearance. The Erahs offered a comforting smile before returning his gaze to the outer treelines. A campfire was dangerous enough, especially knowing there had been Shae and Ganroth nearby. A funeral pyre was an open invitation.

After an hour or nervous watch, Sahaan finally called an end to the vigil. “I am truly sorry friend, but we must move on. We need a safer distance from the fire if we are to rest for the night. We are still a half day walk from the Calhalla camp.”

With an understanding nod, Zakeriel acquiesced, motioning for Paoel to walk with them. There was nothing to be done for Nahiet or Khes now but wish them the blessing of the Goddess. He had made a crude satchel from Khes’ chainmail and the lacing from her tunic. Pragmatism served stronger than sentimentality in times of war. Although he stowed the Weyd Journal away in the bag, he slipped the dagger onto his own sword belt carrying it at the bow of his spine. Paoel had lost his glaive, so Zakeriel had given him Nahiet’s sword. Although the Shae would have liked such a fine weapon, it seemed more fitting that the son of a King be given a King’s sword… no matter in which language their titles were spoken.

After several hours of travel, they were a good distance from the pyre, but it was far too dark to keep walking.  Although both Zakeriel and Paoel had asserted they could walk all night, Sahaan insisted that everyone rest. Concerned for both their health after their ordeal, Sahaan had also noticed Atirian was quieter and seemed to be nursing a headache.  The man determined a safe place for them to rest near the river. At dawn they would push inland and seek out the Calhalla’s refuge.

Allowing the others to rest, Sahaan left to hunt food while Nelah carefully set the Bloodline. Feeling Atirian’s eyes on her as she prepared the ward materials, the woman grimaced. “It is called an Iripeth,” she answered his unspoken question.

“Bloodline…that’s what Sahaan had called it. I did not know such magic still existed.” Atirian’s reply was honest and curious. “It just looks like bane flowers and tree resin.  And you bleed on this and it is magic?”

~The Elhia is safer.~

Atirian tried not to smirk as she side-stepped divulging knowledge belonging to only “True Erahs.”  He could feel her discomfort as their minds touched, and yet she had bent and done so.  Approaching slowly, he sat on a nearby patch of grass. ~I understand why you distrust me. I am sorry for what happened to your family…but that was not me.~

~No, just some other Jasuuk who would betray his own kind.~

Such spite was palpable, but Atirian took it with grace. ~We are well aware of what the other clans think of us…but the history is distorted. And yet, you allow the Shae knight to sleep so near. Show him kindness.~

Nelah’s actions grew angered and forceful as she ground herbs between two stones. Her scowl deepened but she did not respond. Allowing her a moment of silence, Atirian said nothing. When she seemed receptive to talking, he tried again.

~Centuries ago we tried to make peace. The Cattedrale was once ours, and we foolishly believed that we could share it.~ Atirian picked at the grass but watched her from beneath his brows.  So much rage at odds with her nature.  He wondered what she was like before the Dusters slaughtered her clan. Sahaan’s accounts were colored by desire and admiration, by an Erahs’ greatest weakness: trust.   ~The Ancients were trusting. Too trusting. By the time it was clear to them that there would be no sharing, it was too late to fight back. We did not surrender or GIVE everything to them. At that time the Ganroth were the slaves of the Shae as well. Some say we tried to liberate them and that was what led to our own enslavement. Ganroth did not need us. They knew what they were doing all along…and this uprising…this isn’t new. I do not believe it is. I think the Ganroth have waited. They took their freedom and I think they have waited in the presence of their enemies to take control.~

~You sound like you believe the Ganroth tales, that you sympathize with them.~

Atirian shrugged. ~My slave masters were all Shae. I have less cause to believe their tales than the Ganroth. No Ganroth ever did me undue harm, but I was never hunted like your kin.~

Finally looking at him, Nelah glowered. ~This does not explain why the Jasuuk help to hunt their own…or are you more of Ganroth now that you do not even see us as brethren?~

To her surprise Atirian laughed aloud. Angered at this mockery, she returned to her ritual preparations. As the Jasuuk rose, Nelah thought he was leaving her, and felt a pang of guilt for insulting him.  Instead he knelt beside her, nearly behind her. His nearness was intimate.  Though this was not uncommon among the Erahs, this felt invasive.

~Nelah, you are blessed to have never known captivity, abuse… torture. You are blessed, but you are ignorant.~

The woman stopped her work again, but did not look at him, merely listening with a new found patience. There was a weight to his tone now, emotions that she was uncertain he knew he was projecting. One of his arms suddenly wrapped around in front of her, palm up and fingers splayed.

~Do you see the scars? Look closely. Slavers are remarkably talented at leaving the most minimal marks whilst inflicting some of the most agonizing pain.~

Shuddering with an audible exhale, Nelah studied his hand. Pale whitish dots dappled the spaces between the fingers. Dozens, possibly hundreds. Unthinking, she took his hand and ran a fingertip over the scars.

~Skewers.~ Atirian’s breath fell warm on her neck as he righted her confusion.~Metal heated until red turns white…then they are pushed up into the hand so far that you cannot bend your wrist. Sometimes they are clumsy and nick a nerve. That pain seems to never end. Even now, some days I feel it…over fifty years later.~

Leaning closer to her, Atirian breathed in her rich, spicy earthen scent. It was evident that she had no notion of her own intoxicating effect. Shivering as he exhaled, Atirian continued with so light a touch Nelah had to focus intent upon him. ~When you are born into this…if you survive childhood, one has only a few options. Fight them, which means death. Acquiesce, which is merely a slower death. Or, if one is very sly, they can join them. This offers a more comfortable life, a longer one, and sometimes rewards that can, at times, feel like freedom.~

~But it’s not.~

~No…it is not.~ Atirian studied the texture of her bronze skin. He wore the mantle of a ‘Free Agent’ but how free was he, even now?  ~As a man who spent so long fighting them, I cannot blame those who fall weak and cannot bear the strain. We are all animals trying to survive the winter. When there is no food, do the vulpin not turn on their own?~

Turning her head, Nelah met his gaze, noticing for the first time that he had the tiniest freckle in the iris of his right eye. One speck of black against amethyst and sorrow. Lowering her eyes in self-consciousness, she glimpsed his lips.

~Nelah…~  In the faintest whisper, he implored her for understanding… for acceptance.

As she strained to listened, her body felt warm in spite of the chill evening. At first the warmth was like a breeze, just brushing her skin now and again, but then she began to feel it, like the kindle of a flame starting in her groin. The region felt taut and firm as if she straddled a branch. That heat built too quickly, blocking out all other thought like the sudden blaze of a brush fire sweeping across a dry field in seconds. Without thought to why she suddenly felt this overwhelming desire, and physical sensations out of kilter with her own physiology,  Nelah’s focus shifted from Atirian’s lips to his hand. She felt compelled to press to her heart, holding it there.

~You must have suffered so terribly.~

The next movement she made was not as unexpected to Atirian as it was to Nelah. Sliding her hand off his, she gripped his hair and pulled him to her as she lifted her thick lips to his. The kiss was all-consuming, every sense blinded by the intensity of it. Immediately his hands went to her shoulders, turning her and urging her back onto the grass.

~Atirian…~ It was a gasp in his mind, desire tangled with compassion and confusion.

Atirian’s lips parted, but he was unable to speak as Nelah attacked his mouth with her own. Such a sudden shift of treatment should have confused him, if, that is, he had no part in it. Hours ago she hated him, would have killed him had Sahaan let her.  Atirian was certainly not opposed to the change and allowed only the slightest bit of confusion to emanate within the Elhia that was overwhelming her. Enough to be believable should Sahaan wander near enough to sense it, but not so much as to jar her out of the delightful engagement.

The length of her Erahs tongue threatened to invade his throat. The Jasuuk had long tongues as well, but hers felt unnatural, serpentine and foreign to him.  Then it called to mind a long forgotten memory, one he had fought decades to push away, to eradicate and with it came need.  Like any lover, Atirian’s immediate thoughts shifted to feeling that tongue on his cock. Instead, however, she thrust him to his back and straddled him with a possessive purr.

In response, the man uttered a low growl, like the predatory warning of a reptilian beast, a deep, wet clicking in his throat. The feel of her on him was so powerful and overwhelming that both of them did not hear Sahaan as he approached. With the Venerate’s son looping a strong arm about her waist, Nelah was suddenly off of Atirian. She kicked at him, fighting off an unexpected set of hands. He carried her five feet then dropped her in the river where she splashed into the eddy like a panicked cat.

When he returned to where Atirian sat, Sahaan’s expression had darkened.  Crossing his arms, he glowered down at his friend. “This is not how the Elhia is used. Not unless consent for such is given.” He pointed a finger toward the wet and sputtering Nelah. “That…that was very nearly rape, my friend.”

Atirian’s eyes widened and he gaped at Sahaan in mortification, “I didn’t– I had no idea I was even– Asha weyt sy, Sahaan– N-Nelah, please, you must know I did not intend to–”

~Sylf’alla fen! Asha, sylf’alla fen!~ Atirian finished in the Elhia.

Climbing out of the pond, Nelah snarled, “you honestly thought I just suddenly stopped hating you and your kind and wanted you for a Passari??!! Jasuuk are far more stupid and depraved than I thought!”

~Nelah, calm…you can sense the truth and regret in his words. The Elhia cannot lie.~

This was not the time to deride her vulgarities.  Sahaan was patient as he set a clutch of rabbits next to the other man and instructed, “calm your mind and clean these for dinner.”

Collecting himself in haste, Atirian gripped the hunter’s catch to his chest and repeated with feigned earnest. ~I am so deeply sorry…~

Perhaps the Calhalla could not lie through the Elhia, but Atirian had no difficulty. Sicarius training had perhaps honed his skills to such an extent, or it was possible he was simply that emotionally broken. Sociopathy likely did not translate the same way through the Elhia.  Regardless of reason, it suited Atirian’s needs.  Although he would admit that she had pulled him to a place he had long locked away, and for the first time in a long time he had lost some small measure of control, he knew very well what he was doing.  He was only sorry that Sahaan had returned so soon.

As the Jasuuk crept off in apparent shame, Sahaan went to Nelah’s side. When he reached to help her up, the woman shoved him away. Although it seemed to be anger, he could see it was embarrassment and shame.

~I am sorry I was not sooner. He is…as a child.~

Nelah side-stepped him and returned to her Iripeth preparations. “So you have said. I have to finish this. The sky is already dark.”

~Nelah…~  When she did not answer, Sahaan kissed the top of her head and whispered aloud, “I will speak with him, Nee.”

Just as he turned to leave, Nelah’s question hit him with panic. ~May I sleep with you tonight?~

Crouching to cup her cheek he met her eyes. ~You need never ask. You know this.  But I swear to you, no one means you any harm. If I am wrong, I would protect you. I promise.~

Her timid nod was a surprise to him.  No challenges of self-sufficiency. No boasts that he needed her more than she needed his protection.  Nor did she make any further accusations about the Jasuuk or the Shae strangers.  This was the Nelah he had seen kneeling over her dead family, momentarily broken and for the first time in her life, genuinely scared.  He only gave her brow a tender kiss before seeking out Atirian.  The man was not entirely at fault in Sahaan’s view, but he must be guided before things escalated.

As expected, the Jasuuk was sitting at quite a distance and diligently cleaning the rabbits. Their Shae and Tōk companions were nearby, perhaps Atirian hoped to avoid discussion. A polite nod in their direction, however, and both seemed to immediately glean that he wanted time to speak with his friend. Such conversations were more common between fathers and sons, but as his Guardian, Sahaan knew it fell to him to educate the awkward city-born.

As he approached, however, Atirian washed his hands in the river then rose and indicated the cleaned rabbits. “Do not wait to eat on my account.”

“Wha–”

“I need some time,”  the man rubbed at his temple as he turned and walked away.

~Atirian…~

~Peace.~

The Jasuuk shut him out with a forcefulness that was either emotional instinct or remarkable skill.  It had been quite a journey from the Capital, perhaps the Elhia was becoming more second nature to him now.  Regardless of the reason, Sahaan would not press him further and gathered their meal as Atirian disappeared into the woods to be alone.

– – – –

Having taken the first watch, Zakeriel now slept and Nelah stayed vigilant with Sahaan. Paoel had indicated that he meant to take a walk or bathe. In truth, neither Calhalla was entirely sure what he had tried to say. They watched him wander the river shoreline for a time. Nelah could sense Sahaan’s attention was elsewhere, his eyes occasionally shifting toward the woods.  Atirian had not yet returned.

~Why is he your friend?~

~He is a good man, Nelah, at heart. I sense it, see it.~   Indicating for her to climb up with him, he sought out a higher perch for their conversation, even though no one could hear them.

Once comfortable, he spoke again.   ~My visit to the Cattedrale for the Jaed Aonach was unfortunate in timing. They had heard nothing of the red dust and it worried them, but the uprising began whilst I was there, and any aid they had agreed to send to us was…retracted. Not out of spite. Death was…everywhere. People were being slain in the streets, Nelah…cobblestones mortared with blood.~  Sahaan sighed at what Nelah assumed were uncomfortable memories.

~I had to fight my way out…very nearly did not. I had found a sewer quite by chance…tunnels that led from under the city toward the outskirts. They ended with a terribly steep drop, emptying over a cliff-face. I was cautious in climbing my way down, but I was totally exposed. A Ganroth patrol saw me. By mere chance, Atirian had escaped the same way. I do not know why he risked his life for a stranger, but he did.~   For emphasis, Sahaan turned to face Nelah and held her gaze. ~He is fit enough and impressive with a blade, but he had gone hungry for days. Scraps maybe, trash.  He could barely stand, looked as if he had been tortured or… Quirifen’s Light.  I cannot fathom how he managed it… but if not for him, they would have slain me.~

~So you offered him asylum…~

Affirming this, Sahaan turned his eyes to look down at his hands.  ~I know he makes you uncomfortable. In truth, I knew he would, and I know it is a steep request for you to accept him.~

Twitching her head in disagreement she defied his remark, refused to concede. Sahaan continued, taking her hand in his.  He ran his thumb over the back of her hand in contemplating circles.  ~We barely spoke for days, just… running. He fell into fits of pain more than once. I was convinced he would die. Only the Goddess’ hand, I think, kept him here.  I stole vnesh to reach the Jont Mipa river. Stole a skiff. Stole food and medicine.  It saved us much travel time, but the fen and the forest, we were forced to foot.  Once he was well enough and willing to speak, he showed me some scars… told me what they did to him. Some. I have never seen such things. One hears stories…but…that girl-child…~

Nelah nodded, a quiet settling over her.  She did not convey to him what Atirian had shown her, told her.  Perhaps the two men had already spoken of such experiences.  The Avali girl, however, younger than Nelah herself, it had not occured to the woman that these things may have happened to Atirian when he was very young.  The girl’s scars were not recent. ~Her back was…someone had beaten her badly enough to mark her deeply.~ The woman’s eyes grew glossy and she lowered her head. ~I could not bear to ask the Shae about it. I know it was not him. His sorrow is not that of a Master who lost a slave, but I do not understand him.  I would like to think that I could be one of those who fought until the end.  They inflict such horrific things on children, children, Sahaan…~

~I know…~ The man shifted closer to her and held her close as she spilled tears of empathy. ~I know it is of hollow comfort, but there are many Shae who wish to help end this. Jaed Thelred was among them. Perhaps that was part of the reasoning behind the Ganroth assault. It is their economy. They are slavers and jailors.~

~But their income is from Shae pockets!~

Sahaan could not argue her point. After a moment he took her hand. ~No war is won overnight. Ours has been waging for a long time, perhaps this one will be the catalyst needed for the Erahs to gain freedom. Perhaps the Shae will become our allies rather than our oppressors.~

Staring at their hands, Nelah’s eyes were distant. Memories of a lost family, or the red mists and strange Ganroth all but permeated the Elhia. Reaching out for her, Sahaan meant to comfort. She would not be so optimistic, so hopeful, or understanding. Atirian would not be a friend, but, he hoped she would not count him as her enemy, either.

Loud and shrill, a scream cut through the night shrouded forest. Nelah very near fell from her perch in startlement. Sahaan reacted quickly, dropping from the tree and running toward the source of the sound. Nelah was at his side when the man drew to a sharp halt, eyes fixed on Zakeriel.

Laying on his back, the Shae man was shrieking with terror at a fleshy, purple lump on his chest. Both Erahs simply stood and watched as Zakeriel drew Khes’s dagger and speared the frog, flinging it to the side like skewered meat. As Nelah approached him, the young Shae was frantically swiping at his chest as if trying to whisk away armies of insects.

As the Erahs stared in confusion, Paoel stood gaping in horror, then ran to retrieve the impaled and discarded lump. Slow to calm down, Zakeriel was panting and whining then turned his wild eyes toward them.

“WHAT IN NAARIS’ NAME WAS THAT?!”

“A frog.”

“WHAT?!”

“A FROG,” Nelah repeated louder. “You just assassinated a purple frog. Congratulations, oh great and mighty knight.”

Sputtering and baffled, Zakeriel looked about as if expecting an attack of more. “Wh-why was it on my chest?!”

Paoel announced his return with a sharp slap of his tail on the ground, then a mournful dook. Like a woeful child, he held out the limp body of the dead frog. It was fleshy and moist, bulbous and shapeless with a strange, rodent-like nose. Hanging limp in his fingers, it seemed like a handful of purple blubber, but Paoel looked to have lost a pet.

“Token! Zak not like token?!”

A hush fell around them as all eyes turned back to Zakeriel. “Wha–…I didn’t…a token?  You meant to give me a gift?”

“Sad to lose Khes. Paoel grant token.” The Tōk lifted the dead frog toward him with a slight bob of his hands, indicating the Shae should accept it.

“Oh…” Zakeriel paled. “Oh, I am so truly sorry, Paoel. I did not realize– yes, yes, alright.” Interrupted by Paoel’s insistant thrusting of the frog in his face, Zakeriel snatched it from him, then made a face as his hands registered the slimy texture. “Um…well…it is dead now. I apologize for that. I’ll…uh…give it a burial then…”

Another shrill scream cut through the quiet and again everyone froze.

“Khes–!” Zakeriel dropped the frog and turned toward the screaming sound. It was distant and mottled between a scream and crying. Sahaan caught his arm as the Shae started forward.

“No, friend.”

Another scream distracted the knight, so Sahaan stepped in his view. “It is a vulpin, only. Have you never heard a fox cry?”

Nelah brushed his knuckles with hers. She knew it to be a Shae gesture. When his wild eyes turned to hers, she worried that she had the gesture wrong, misunderstood its meaning. “She is gone, Zakeriel. You held her. Khes is dead.”

Coming to full awareness, the Shae lowered his head with an ashamed nod. “I know…I just– …sorry.”

Turning away from them all, he strode to the river’s edge and sat down. The others waited in awkwardness, then let him be as Paoel scuttled near to him and rest a hand on his shoulder. Nelah suspected that Khes had simply become a surrogate for every single Shae or Erahs he had lost. Every friend, comrade and his regent Teigne. Dawn would not come soon enough, and she knew the man would not sleep again.

– – – –

[This is an excerpt.  You can follow the blog and read the full and future chapters here: firetidecomes.blogspot.com/ ]

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