Avali Holt, Northern Kestrel Pine Barrens, Eastern Tybraes
On the 2nd Som of Fortitude, in the Month of Fogmire 8176
Squirming and throwing an elbow at his captor, the youth growled and sneered like a feral beast. The hunter raised his other hand to swat the side of his head. Then he pointed at Elihaet Calihl, indicating the boy should pay heed to his elder and, by the Venerate’s decree, guardian. Revas was disinclined to listen to anyone until he was not being held like a child. Julien het’Camio, however, only gripped his arm tighter and hauled it up a bit more to keep him off balance as the cleric approached with a somber pout.
~Oh, Revas, look at you. Covered in soot… I can smell the Fogmire on you.~
The boy turned his head away, long blue tresses falling over his face, tangled and nettled with brush. The Elihaet waved at Julien to let him go, but the hunter shook his head. “He tried to bite me twice, Elihaet. I think it wise he be restrained until he is calmed. Perhaps you have some tea or magic smoke to still him.”
“I shall manage, Julien, thank you.”
Revas jerked and pulled at the older Avali. The hunter tightened his grip. “Arrow works just as well.”
Stepping forward, Calihl separated them and pushed a hand to Julien’s chest whilst ushering Revas behind him. “Violence is far from necessary, Erahnn het’Camio. He is in my care now, sylf’atha.”
With an exasperated huff, the man snorted and strode away joining the group of others his age standing about gossiping with giggles. Revas watched them with a glower before hanging his head and turning away. As Calihl began to pick briars and burrs from his long hair, he swat at his hand. ~Just leave it.~
~You look a fright.~
~What difference does it make? I could be as handsome as J’reth and all they’ll see is a useless foundling and a bane on the clan.~
Calihl grimaced as he lifted Revas’ face. ~Enough of such nonsense. Boann granted my petition to give you your Iridas early. Foundling or no, you are head of a House now, Revas. You must behave as such.~
~Last of a House.~
Taking the youth’s hand, Calihl drew him to his modest hut and sat him down inside. Producing a comb and a bowl of scent water he instructed, “Wash the stink of Firetide smoke off you.” Standing behind him as Revas half-heartedly scrubbed the rag at his soot-blackened face, the man began to draw the bone-carved comb through his hair. “Khes still lives. You believe so, else you would not keep running off to Enoa Vale trying to find her.”
“No one drags J’reth back by his hair.”
Calihl paused with an angered gasped, “Julien dragged you by your hair?”
“No, Marin did.” Revas glared at his half washed reflection. “Julien swat my behind as if I were a swaddled babe.”
He could hear the Elihaet’s breath pushing through his nostrils as he attempted to compose himself. Suddenly the comb thrust into his view like a jabbing knife. “I shall make us some pepper-vine and blue lily tea,” he announced with remarkable calm. Accepting the comb, Revas set it on the small, low table in front of him. Peering past his shoulder, he looked over as Calihl readied a pot of water and knelt to start a fire. If the man had merely exhaled upon the kindling and they burst into flames, Revas would not have bat a lash in shock.
“Boann hates m–” His eyes shifted to his only recently healed Iridas tattoo. Lihaan’s blood and the inks of her family were now the mark of his house on his skin, a mark only one other person shared and she was gone. With a delicate swipe, he cleaned the soot away so the family sigil colors of mulberry and fern green could be seen against his blue skin. “I shall live past a thousand and never be recognized as an adult of the clan. Just forever a burden.” Looking back down at his half black, half blue face, he raised the rag, hesitated, then began to scrub again as he murmured, “finding Khes will never change that, but at least I won’t be alone.”
~I haven’t a large home, Revas…~ Calihl hesitated, a whisper of something more behind his Elhia, then he smiled. “Maybe you could help me build it a little bigger. Next migration when we must move on. You could help me build a larger hut. A yurt like Lihaan’s, perhaps.”
“I am an orphan, not homeless.”
The Elihaet’s silence brought a prickle to his skin and Revas regretted saying it almost immediately. Placing the filthy rag into the equally filthy water, he smeared at his damp skin. He was not clean, but he was no longer wearing the ash and coal of Fogmire. Lifting the comb, he began to tug it through the snags and tangles of his waist length hair.
Coming to kneel beside him, Calihl regarded him, a deeper sadness in his eyes than he presented upon his lips. “If you insist upon crawling through the briar, you should at least braid it. One of these days, you shall snare yourself and be trapped as a fennec in a net-trap.”
“Braiding Khes’ hair and braiding my own is very different. Reaching and not being able to see it’s… awkward.” He scrunched his nose and mouth in frustration. “Maybe I should shave it, wear a top-stripe like yours.”
Gesturing for him to turn around, Calihl chuckled and took the comb back. “Such is more work than you think, boy.” Dropping onto the floor in front of the man, he let him finish taming the mess, then sat with patience as Calihl began to weave and tie the pale blue tresses into a neat, sleek rope. “You’re hair is very soft, even after such rough business,” he chuckled. “You complain about not being so handsome as J’reth but, I would dare to prophetize that you shall rival him some day. Far outshine his hair, at the very least.”
Puffing a scoffing raspberry, the youth shrugged, “Yenahr. I don’t need to– or want to be like him. Heard stories. Handsome doesn’t mean much when someone is valdrahtha.”
A quick jerk on the braid brought Revas’ eyes up the Calihl. “I am Elihaet. We do not lie. Nor do friends. AND, it is not nice to call someone black-hearted…” he released the youth’s hair after finishing the tie. Then muttered, “…even an Onr.”
Standing up, his elder moved to finish fixing their tea. As he did, a light knock came at the door. “Yes?”
Revas just sat quietly as Brisa tu’Onr stepped into the hut. Her pale purple, almost pink silks billowed around her as she swept inside. The diaphanous fabric floated like flower petals on a breeze and Revas could not help staring. Such fabrics were owned and worn by none but Boann and House Onr and gave her an ethereal quality that made his own leathers feel heavy and crude. Like every Onr (except their decease father) she was lovely. Just past two-hundred years old, therefore, younger than J’reth but older than Khes. Her aqua skin was pale beneath the flowing waves of her teal hair. The one purple tress at her temple framed her face and drew his gaze to the unifying Onr-sapphire eyes. Those eyes were looking at him. He was staring.
Dropping his head, Revas wished Calihl had not braided his hair so he could hide within his own long locks, but it was too late. His blue skin was warming and his cheeks were likely a deep, rich purple. He heard a soft chuckle before Calihl’s voice greeted her.
“Brisa, an unexpected visit. I– …welcome.”
The woman gave a formal genuflect. “Sylf’alla fen, Elihaet. Quiaraltae sy, I did not know you had a guest.”
Calihl dismissed this with a wave of his hand. It was all cordial formality. All the clan knew that he was viewed as Revas’ guardian in Khes’ absence and after Lihaan’s death. As a child, he had to be claimed by someone, and no one else so much as postured. Though Revas had been granted his House name, he was required to have a steward to take responsibility for his care. Not that Revas ever allowed Calihl to do so. He could take care of himself. He hunted his own food and was perfectly capable of tending his other needs, and he had his family home. Fourteen or not, it was all just formality. Calihl, of course, argued this with him… endlessly.
“I know this is irregular, Elihaet… normally, I would go to S’eto Megri but…” she cast a glance sidelong at Revas. He had a strange feeling that she was lying, which seemed a very odd thing to lie about. “Perhaps we should speak privately a moment.”
Handing him a cup of tea and a dandelion-rosemary biscuit, Calihl murmured, “of course, Brisa.”
Drawing his knees up and hooking his elbows around them, Revas sighed and idly pecked at his snack. The other two conversed by Elhia behind the meager screen that separated the front of the hut from the back. A few glances his way began to concern him. He was not sure if they were merely aware that he was watching or if they were speaking about him. Both possibilities were uncomfortable, but the latter more unsettling. Shifting to the side, he put his head down and sipped at his tea.
When they finally emerged, Brisa paused beside him and rest delicate fingers on his shoulder. When he looked up she spoke in Elhia, the Erahs way of sincerity. ~I am so sorry about your family, Revas. If it… matters to you, I did not think it right that Boann would not allow you at the Enoahethia Covenant. It was not right at all.~
Mention of the clan’s mourning ritual pained him, which must have showed upon his face. He did not know what ‘Enoahethia‘ was, but he knew what the Covenant was and they should have let him come to make his Vows of Reunification to Lihaan before she was left to the earth and fawna. Brisa seemed uncomfortably aware of all this, and her gaze dipped away in discomfort. She turned away and scurried from the hut as if afraid to be seen with them. Waiting until he knew they were properly alone, and Calihl seated himself with tea of his own, Revas looked up to study the Elihaet. “So… what exactly was that about? Brisa’s never looked twice at me and now she’s talking to me?”
Calihl did not raise his head. “You should finish your tea, Revas.”
Scowling, he leaned forward. “Just say it’s personal. Don’t treat me like a child. I saw you both looking at me.”
Lowering his cup with a shaking but agitated hand, Calihl did not notice that he had sloshed the tea. “It… it is of no concern for the time being. Just… finish your tea. It will calm yo– …us.”
Stuffing the sweet biscuit into his mouth, Revas set his cup on the table and pushed to his feet. As he started for the door, Calihl barked with surprising anger, “Where are you going?!”
“Where ever the wense I want, Elihaet–”
“Revas!” Calihl gasped in genuine shock, wounded at his language.
“You may treat me as a child, but I am not one.” Storming out of the hut, Revas took long, determined strides toward his own yurt. The stares and whispering of his clansfolk did not elude him as he passed them by, but it was only as he just neared his home that anyone stopped him.
“You really did it this time, Foundling.” The voice was that of Amth het’Niall, the insufferable kaisan. “This time, Venerate Boann won’t be sweet-talked by the Elihaet.”
There was a snicker from him, then he heard another voice, feminine. Luhra. Of course it was, because they never did anything alone. “Aw, the little jyokeshlen will be all alone in the big bad wilderness… if he is lucky.” Because he had only slowed and not turned around, the young woman bounded in front of him and leaned herself in his doorway. If she did not revile him so much on principle, it may have been a seductive poise. “Tell me, Halerahnn… you afraid of Ganroth finding you in the woods? Or… maybe your Hunerahs parents will find you again.”
“Don’t you have a cave somewhere with eggs to coil upon?” Revas sneered at her and crossed his arms.
“Oh-ho!” Amth stepped up behind him and nudge him with his chest to knock him off balance. “Hallen thinks he’s a big man now.”
Rolling his eyes, Revas held his hands up in a dramatic fashion. “No, no, please. I cannot bear another Foundling joke.” His deadpan pleas came with a sour, dead eyed glare. “How ever shall I survive another. Tired. Old. Brinlhr insult?”
Leaning down toward his ear, Amth grinned and purred, “won’t have to, vaherathi. If Aila dies… so will you.”
“What?!” Turning to gape at the youth, Revas’ eyes were wide.
Gripping his tunic, Amth thrust him up against the yurt beside his cohort. “Who feels like an idiot now?” He whispered, “traitor.” Whilst he growled at him, Luhra grinned and leaned closer from the door frame. Pressed back against the bundled stick wall, Revas could not isolate which discomfort was most significant.
Too distracted to care about Amth’s bruised ego, Revas pleaded, “what are you talking about?”
“Aila,” Amth hissed in his face, “is in a terrible state after fleeing Jasuuk scouts that YOU lead back to the clan, jyokeshlen yenari.”
“You nearly brought another raid upon us, Foundling Filth.” Luhra spat on his face, echoing Amth’s insult. The frothy spittle clung to his cheek before starting to ooze down. “My father and baby brother died in the last one. My cousin was taken and I dare not imagine the horrors being done to her–”
“MY MOTHER DIED! Khes was taken too! Sikre suffers no less than Khes!” He snapped at her raising a hand then to swipe her spit away with a dirty sleeve.
Luhra exploded with a snide laugh. “With that face?! Please. She’s in a scullery or a laundry somewhere just as useless as she ever was here.”
Erupting with rage, Revas slammed his head forward and caught Amth in the nose with a crack then turned and raised a fist toward Luhra, but a hand caught his wrist.
“That is quite enough of that!” J’reth’s voice was stern but below a shout. “Luhra tu’Saar, get out of my sight before I have a mind to tell Boann how lacking her great-granddaughter is in compassion and couth. NOW.” The young woman bolted away, but J’reth did not release Revas. Amth held a bloody hand out at them, lavender splotches on his fingers and palm, and smeared upon his upper lip.
“You going to let him go? He broke my nose!”
J’reth leaned forward and growled, “so lucky you have been. Get to the Eto and be hopeful I do not revisit this conversation later.”
After the young man left barking a string of curses at them, J’reth turned Revas to face him. Hanging his head, Revas muttered, “I’m fine…” Light blanked his vision for a moment then the sting registered in his cheek. Blinking his eyes wide he gaped up at the far taller Avali. “Wha–?”
~I ever see you raise a hand to a woman again, I shall give you a beating of your own. Understand me?~
“Reene and Lihaan fought the male warriors all the time–”
“War and abuse are two very different things, Revas.” J’reth gestured toward the fleeing Amth and Luhra. “You cannot let their ilk rattle you.”
Rubbing his cheek, Revas felt his nose twitching with hatred for the man in spite of his intervention. “What do you care? If what they say is true, you and Boann are just itching to execute me over your sister anyway. Did you just come here to gloat?! To beat on me for fun?”
“Certainly not! That smack was to knock sense into you. Your mother or Khes would have done the same– that you even thought to raise that hand.” He glowered then looked away. “…and Aila is fine. Histrionic as usual, but far from dying.” He shook his head and glanced over at a few people watching them. “Unfortunately… she has more sway with the Venerate than I do–”
“I thought you were Boann’s council.” Revas couldn’t help but smirk at the man’s admission of impotence.
J’reth shook his head, “politics are a bit more complicated than that. Someday… well… I hope you never do, but someday you will understand.”
“Pfft.” Revas rolled his eyes and pushed past the man to enter his yurt. As he tossed his smoky-smelling shirt into a basket by the window, he glanced over, irritated that J’reth had invited himself in. “Absolutely, you’re always welcome Tumahnr Onr,” he grumbled. “Help yourself to some food…”
The tall Avali stood in distracted solemnity and gave no reply. His eyes fixed in a stare over at Khes’ abandoned bed, neatly made and awaiting her return. Revas seethed at the intrusion. Stepping into his view, he demanded, “why are you here?”
Clearing his throat, J’reth answered with a gentler tone than he was used to hearing from the man. “Elihaet Calihl would have come but he is… he is arguing with the Venerate on your behalf. It is fruitless. I told him as much.”
“So…” Revas blinked down to the floor. “It’s true. They are going to banish me. If I’d know I was bein–”
“It was not you, Revas. And I argued it already… but House Brash is…”
“Novila? It was her fault?”
“Fault is the wrong word.” J’reth shook his head. “I do not think anyone is at fault. But she is inexperienced and, she wandered away from Julien. If he had not been so preoccupied and intent on punishing you then–”
Clenching his fist, Revas snarled, “so you are saying it’s my fault!”
J’reth held out his hands, “NO–” Drawing a deep breath, the man stepped back and whispered, “I am saying… I talked the Venerate into as light a punishment as I could and… and I’m sorry.”
“If no one is at faul–”
The door swung open and two of Guards of the Protectorate stepped in. One, a broad-chested man bowed his head to J’reth. “Tumahnr Onr, I must ask that you vacate the home.”
After giving a solemn nod, J’reth glanced back at Revas. ~I did try. Please believe that. For you and your sister.~
~Era’wense, J’reth.~ Revas bared his teeth as the two guards took hold of his arms and hauled him out behind the Tumahnr.
The entire clan had already gathered. Boann stood upon the central dais, the Elihaet beside her. Although the Venerate was tall and looked down her nose with a damning glare, Calihl’s head was low and canted to the side. The guards drew to a halt before them, but at a distance that made him visible to all the clan. Revas glared up at her as defiant as he could be. Motion from the corner of his eye drew attention to Novila tu’Brash standing timidly behind her aunt, Master of the Hunt, Reene tu’Brash. Beside Novila stood Julien het’Camio. Anger swelled in him at the number of faces eager to see him punished, all outnumbering those that looked sympathetic or, at the very least, merely curious.
Boann arched a brow and lifted her chin. “It is only upon the grace of House Onr that you are not to be banished, Revas het’Lihaan.”
“I am not even to be told my crimes?!” he challenged her.
Gasps went up amongst the clan, but Boann raised her hand to silence them. “Repeatedly, you have been commanded to cease these unsupervised hunting trips. Repeatedly, you disobey and run off from camp. You disrupt the Iripeth and leave the clan vulnerable… all for selfish reasons. Not in search of ALL lost kin– only YOUR lost kin. And now, Aila tu’Onr has paid a dear price for your carelessness and selfish, reckless disobedience.” The woman glowered and pointed toward the Onr home. “She lays, bleeding and terrified. It was only the Goddess’ divine intervention that she was not captured or killed by the Jasuuk scouts.”
“What was Aila doing outside of the Holt boundaries?” Revas lifted his gaze to her with an intense stare. “I assume… hunting?”
“HOLD YOUR TONGUE.”
Calihl lifted his head to meet Revas’ eyes. ~Please, Revas… do not make this worse.~
Boann pointed at the baskets of black and white judgment stones. “I can still change my mind, boy. Do you wish it?”
Hanging his head, Revas held back the tears that threatened to belie the anguish he felt, the betrayal and fear, the loneliness and rejection. Was it Reene that had talked her into using him as a scapegoat to spare her niece the humiliation? Reene had been Lihaan’s friend, his mother’s friend. Nothing could stab deeper than that save if it had been Calihl. Calihl’s betrayal would be the weight of those stones thrown at him, not just piled at his feet to watch the Clan’s judgment measured in stark contrast- the weight of it in their hands as much as on their conscience.
“Tumahnr Onr. Your house suffered the most direct offense.” Boann turned her eyes from Revas to J’reth then gestured to the youth.
Although he genuflected, he did not touch the knife presented to him by Guard Taames. “The gesture is… appreciated, Kaurahsan, but I decline. Thank you.”
Revas studied the two as Boann’s curt smile remained frozen, a pretense that did not match the fury of her eyes. Finally she stated plainly, “If House Onr refuses, the duty then falls to Elihaet Cali–”
“I understand, Venerate. I shall…” J’reth took up the blade. “I shall fulfill this duty… on behalf of my sister.”
“As it should be,” her voice dripped with cold disapproval.
The two guards forced Revas to his knees then stepped away as J’reth came to stand in front of him. Lifting his violet eyes to fix upon J’reth’s sapphire gaze, Revas whispered with as much sarcasm and taunting as he could muster to sound as much like Khes as he could. “You going to kill me now, J’reth?”
The man dropped to one knee and looked him in the eye. ~If that were the sentence, I’d have given you time to flee.~
~Wouldn’t do much to help you remain the shining jewel of Clan Avali though, would it?~
~And should Khes ever return? What jewel is that in her eyes that allowed you to die?~
Revas smirked, “and the truth is spoken.”
J’reth lowered his head with a sigh. Standing again he moved around behind Revas and drew him back to his feet. ~You are owed this much dignity at least.~
Barely having uttered the last word, he took up Revas’ braid and put the blade to it at the base of his neck–
“You talked me out of many things, J’reth Onr. Do not try my patience.” Boann’s voice was a stone cast across the court.
Revas felt the blade move higher up the braid to just below the nape of his neck, then felt it begin to saw through the newly woven plait. J’reth held it out for Revas to hold. The youth took it in his hands, holding it as he would the heirloom of a deceased loved one. The Avali never cut their hair without cause, the most dire, religious or criminal. He had lived to grow it for at least fourteen turns of the seasons. The braid was longer than his forearm. Tears began to drop onto his hands now as he saw chunks of pale blue, like fallen flower petals, flutter past his vision to the ground. There was no beauty in these petals, not as he had seen in Brisa’s skirts. Brisa, the messenger of mercy. The only abatement of misery he could muster was in the lack of empty comforts offered by anyone, including Calihl. What was to be said? That it would grow back? If Boann did not insist upon the shaving of it every year.
J’reth was delicate as he cut close to his head. ~I have made it as even as I can. Perhaps if Calihl has sheer– ~
Finished, J’reth walked away in silence returning the knife to the timid Protectorate guard without so much as a glance. After a moment of silence, not a single member of the clan uttering a sound, Boann gestured to him. “Guards… take the braid and his clothes.”
“Wait. What?!” Revas half turned looking at the guards behind him and flexing, ready to bolt. They took hold of him, however. The braid was ripped from his hand and tossed a far distance. Another guard picked it up and handed it to Boann as Revas bucked and fought with the guards stripping him naked.
“Venerate, is this really necessary?” Calihl pleaded with her.
The woman’s voice was loud and bold, “it was you who felt he merely needed to be taught a lesson, yes?”
“In lieu of punishment! Not AS punishment!” the Elihaet wailed.
“I see more value in both.”
Garments collected, the guards carried them away and left him standing with only his two sentries again. Revas stood in a defiant stance and glowered at her. “You think I am humiliated to be naked? What Erahs would be ashamed of this?!”
Boann snorted and rolled her eyes. “It is not to humiliate you, boy. You shall remain thus… here upon this very dais where I stand, with only that sustenance brought to you by the Protectorate, no contact from ANYONE,” she arched a brow at Calihl, “until Aila is able to leave her bed and face the clan.”
“What is that to prove? A test of how long she can milk the teet of clan compassion?”
“VULNERABILITY, Young het’Lihaan. It is to teach you humility and what it is to feel so vulnerable.” Boann’s voice was sharp enough to sting and he ducked his head with a step back. “Something it is evident your neglectful mother and deviant sister were remiss in teaching you.”
The guards signaled for the clan to disperse and Revas was shoved forward up onto the dais. Boann glared down into his face and hissed with venom, “why the Elihaet and Tumahnr Onr insist upon defending your every transgression I do not understand jyokeshlen – but understand when I warn, my patience is a fine thread which you and your little Lihaan house have pulled very, VERY taut. I am well past feeling gracious and shall no longer brook the burdens of a thief.”
Remaining silent, Revas just glowered as she flung his braid into the brazier of Quirifen’s eternal light. The flames consumed it within seconds and the youth felt the muscles of his face twitching as he fought against another onslaught of tears. He did not resist as a guard turned him to face the holt courtyard, displayed as an example. The boy did not care. Nudity held no shame for him or most Erahs, it was only the expressions and thoughts behind the staring eyes that brought any semblance of embarrassment or shame.
~I am not allowed to visit or speak to you, Revas. Not until you are released.~ Calihl looked up at him from the ground below the dais. ~But, perhaps at night if you need to talk…I can listen.~
Lowering his head and looking away, Revas could not answer, only wait for the man to leave. After a moment he lifted his head again, resisting his every urge to rub a trembling hand over his shaved head. Across the courtyard he could see Novila seated on a bench, half hidden by some bushes talking to Sashri tu’Camio, Julien’s sister. Clenching his jaw tightly he lifted his chin higher and fixed his eyes on his yurt, his home, upon House Lihaan. It had been several months and in one more, the calendar would turn over. But a year meant nothing. He would shave his head every day– down to the skin- if it meant he could find Khes or bring his mother back. Rubbing the Iridas on his arm, he swallowed down his emotion. He had over three quarters before he was allowed the title of Tumahnr. Until then, House Lihaan meant nothing more than loss and loneliness. House Lihaan were warriors. His mother, Khes, they never stopped fighting. Alone or not, neither would he.