Chapter Fourteen – The Guiding Hand
The Kestrel Plunge below the Mith’inae Waterfall on River Ceyr, Kestrel Pine Barrens
1st set of Temperance, Month of Foundations 8178
Billowing around them, the mists of the falls were thick enough to cleanse by, but Gregoire gave the soldiers time to relax and frolic in the plunge pool. The push southward had been hard, lacking in the meager supplies that began to feel like true luxuries in their absense. Several days by land still faced some of them, but the weak and injured, he would send ahead by skiff. Belks and a few of the others gathered deadwood, felling only what was necessary. They built sturdier rafts than he expected. Although Hakken assured him the waters were smooth the rest of the way, Gregoire would send some of the stronger men to ensure they arrived at the Purlieu intact.
Standing waist deep in the waters, he bent over a still eddy trapped amongst moss-claimed rocks. The reflection staring back was a weary old man with face fur far too thick to command respect. Gripping damp tufts, he carefully shaved them shorter with his dagger.
“Oh, Goddess spare us. Not sure which is uglier, the feral beast or the barbarian under it all.” Hereth limped over then eased down to sit. They began to undo the prosthetic as Gregoire chuckled and tried to keep his cuts even. Hereth removed only their boot and prosthetic, they shimmied over to stradle the rocks in front of him, putting one knee at his waist. “Give me that before you completely butcher your face.”
Gregoire surrendered the blade and stood still, allowing his old friend to salvage what was left of the beard. “I am considering sending Hakken with Belks down the river. He is more diplomatic. Stavros is more likely to be receptive to him.”
“Not going to find validation from me. Send Obret in his knickers for all I care.”
“I am asking if you will–”
“I know what you’re asking, idiot.” Hereth tugged at his beard with a particularly sharp jerk, before cutting the tuft free and tossing it in the water. Their scowl only flicked to his eyes briefly before returning to stare at the barber’s task. “Even down a third to half the troops, it could take until Perseverence to reach the Purlieu. Could push them. Purlieu will offer plenty of rest and food, but– asks a lot.”
“I know it asks a lot of you.”
Hereth went rigid a moment, expelled a soft huff then asserted, “soldier goes where ordered. Best place for everyone.”
“Else. Everyone else.”
“Tello-else has changed?”
Turning to glance around, Gregoire meant to survey the area but was swatted upside the head. Hereth turned his face back. A soft grunt measured between an apology and displeasure. “Basin offers opportunity to stock on fish, likely find some other game as well. Rations will be a little less tight.”
Hereth only hummed a curt agreement then turned his head each way. “Ugly as you’re going to get. Step up from hideous though.”
“Appreciated.” He stepped back to dunk under the waters. Whicking the moisture from his fur and hair, he scrubbed at his face. Discreet, he somberly surveyed the troops laughing, splashing one another, playing games. When he turned back, he found Hereth still watching him. With a murmur he dismissed their intent stare. “It is good to see them with a small measure of peace.”
“You should share it.”
Bowing his head, Gregoire shook it ever so slightly. “They need their leader to be strong.”
“They need their leader to be Shae, not stone.” Hereth smacked him in the chest then sank back onto their hands. “If you show no signs of easing, they will do nothing but fear every shadow.”
“Perhaps, we need to right now.”
Hereth’s grey eyes lifted up to the powerful cascade of water. “You know Erahs words. What’s the name mean?”
“Mith’Inae,” Gregoire chuckled, “you’d have liked whoever named it. Means ‘Little Big Water.’”
Delighted as he knew they’d be, Hereth laughed, “probably some Erahs scout being sarcastic with their Shae owners, sent them all to their deaths. Story like that, too good for the name not to stick.” As they turned back, Gregoir felt a foot pat his hip. “Just take a few minutes. Let your guard down.”
“Just for them to see? No. That’s not reason enough.” Gregoire gave a firm shake of his head. As he leaned on the rocks, Hereth pat the top of his head.
“Tell me what reason you need then.”
So many thoughts pounded through his mind, like the roar of the falls. No single one discernable, just a swirling mist of vagueries. Exhaling the cool, damp air, he tried to expel all but the one he needed. It seemed to leave only emptiness and confusion behind. Shifting to the side, he pushed up out of the water. Collecting his dagger and small pile of clothes, he muttered over his shoulder. “I have some things to attend before Hakken and Belks head out. We’ll leave at Apex.”
Quiet, Hereth stared out at the Kestrel Plunge, at the laughing troops. “Of course. Attend to your things.”
His pause felt longer than it should have been, but no words came to Gregoire that could mend. He never could mend things. Hereth was always the healer, tough and pragmatic love as it was. Yet, here they were. Striding away he found a quiet space to dry and redress alone with his thoughts.
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Along the River Ceyr, Kestrel Pine Barrens
1st set of Temperance, Month of Foundations 8178
Sunk into a felled tree, the dagger required a rock to beat loose. Tradition required the clan leave a weapon so the Outcast could fend for food and protect themself. It was not to be a death sentence. Not directly. That bitch Reene, however, planted that dagger in live wood, hilt deep, and the delicate Aila was not muscled enough to work it free easily. The strips of her own dress that bound her hands and feet made the process more difficult, as did the screaming pain of her arm. Although Jace Trin would not touch her, Elihaet Calihl did a kindness and bandaged it before the clan left her. Trin’s spitefulness surprised her, though it should not have. The old man had been, once upon a time, more to Boann than most could claim.
Far too many hours were wasted weeping, before and after she claimed the weapon. Most for the betrayal of her brother’s party to their abuses, if only in his refusal to stop them. His mutiny was well-played. That, in fact, she admired to no small degree. Devious as he could be, Aila never truly thought he could be so cold. How cunning he had played them, and played them still.
He denies his nature. Wrestles it. His genuine compassion is a leash chaining him down like a powerful winged creature forbidden to fly. You must break him to set him free.
The voice of her conscience whispered on the fringes of her mind as it always had done. A motherly coo assuring her of her path with a surety no one but Doeseln had ever echoed. If only she could guide J’reth to be more as his father… what a pair they could be. Someday. Soon.
Another handful of crushed pheasant eggs dropped onto her fire, the woman knealed and focused first on the easier task. Regrowing her hair was a trivial matter. A trick done for children requiring little or no skill. Hands over the fire, she whispered incantations to Dyásr. An injustice was done, healing was needed to rectify it. She called upon Ndor and Jaa to form the dual aspect god to deliver the needed power. Dyásr could come in many forms, of course. Any of the gods could chose to join if they felt her purpose was misguided. Nel and Ndor to reign vengeance, Nel and Jaa to provide guidance and mercy. Upon rarest incarnation the Apotheosis god, J’Vahun; the triple aspect of Nel, Ndor and Jaa would join, J’Vahun and Quirifen, herself. Dyásr in this form was terrible and beautiful, it was the Reckoning and the void torn open to swallow all the world.
Lingering echoes of life, unclaimed essence, unassigned ReBirths, drifted through the flames to her hungry fingers like tendrils of smoke and ash. Aila felt the essence fill her. In flourished hand gestures, her fingers curled and danced to an unsung erotic melody. Drawn toward her head, she wrapped them about in a swirl of fluid movements. Lengths of jade silk flowed from her scalp. Sweeping it up in her hands, she draped it over one shoulder. Still whispering to the flames in a sing-song chant, she coaxed her tresses ever longer until they reached her lap, fuller, smoother, more lush than before.
“Such vanity, Aila,” she whispered to herself as she stroked at her newborn locks. No one else to appreciate you, a woman must love herself.
Attention then turned to the three rabbits she had trapped in a makeshift cage. “I am sorry woodland kin. We are both soon to suffer enormous amounts of pain. Take some comfort in knowing yours is not for mere amusement. You will be doing good. I need both healing and food.”
The creature’s nose wriggled, eyes blinked at her, not understanding her cooing. The first resisted as she pulled it from the cage by one leg. “Were I not what I am, this would be far quicker. Alas… my ways are not kind.”
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