Sekher groaned and rubbed at the base of his tail as he settled down into the curve of a sandbank.
"Hard day, ah?" Chaiila asked, crouching down beside him.
"Huhnnn," Sekher growled. "Tell it to my tail."
Chaiila chittered softly and sank down, curling her tail around.
It had been a hot, hard day's riding, but it was behind them now, with only a few more to go. It was slow, taking longer than it had taken the Ch'sty Rim troops to cart him south. They were still forced to skirt the towns and villages and find their own river crossings. Now with the Lightbringer burning low in the clouds to the east the temperature was dropping. They'd found a sheltered hollow in the midst of a small copse, a tiny ground-fed spring overhung by the interlocking branches and long leaves of Watertails. A pack of Nichir had been reluctant to surrender their territory, but a few jabs from swords had persuaded them to move out.
Now a small fire burned beside the spring with their meagre bedrolls spread out around; three thin sheets to go round. Nersi was sitting cross-legged by the fire, talking softly to Seth'Nai as she showed the creature how to set meat out on a stone slab to cook. The creature was beside her, also cross-legged in an absurd caricature of a Trenalbi, glancing from her hands to her face as if he were actually following her words. Occasionally he'd interrupt with a growl or rumble of his own.
Sekher stretched his legs out - feeling the muscles trembling. "At least we've got an excuse to rest up every night," he said with a nod toward Seth'Nai.
Chaiila looked toward the creature, then at Sekher, "You're not worried that he's slowing us down?"
He hesitated. "Is there such a hurry?"
Chaiila sighed and nibbled at a claw, then said, "Che, walk with me."
Nersi looked up as they left but said nothing.
The night sky overhead was clear and dark blue. The rolling hills of the plains were split between the gold of the twilight and the black of shadow as the Lightbringer sank ever lower on the horizon. Somewhere over there was the Hub, then the sea, then beyond the realms to where the Lightbringer retired each night as all the Daughters came out to dance their ways across the heavens.
Amongst this two Trenalbi wandered through the seas of scratchbush and grasses.
"Sekher, you know where Che stands?"
He wrinkled his muzzle in puzzlement. "Of course."
"In the centre plains, on the Darktonight River."
"And the kingdoms around it?"
"K'streth, Taiska, and Fhel," he promptly responded.
"Ch'sty, Taiska, and Fhel," Chaiila corrected.
"No," his eyes widened in shock. "Not so soon. There were treaties..."
Chaiila barked, her laughter cold and harsh in the remote air and there wasn't a glitter of amusement in her eye. "Treaties, water in your hands. When the knife was to the stone the other parties let the Ch'sty Rim stall them with bluffs and promises until..." she spread her hands as though flicking chaff to the wind. "I doubt that what is left of K'streth holdings will last another half-year."
Sekher huddled deeper into his cloak. "Che... they wouldn't..."
"Sekher," she touched his arm. "You have made some very powerful enemies. Your clan shares them with you and you know as well as I that Che cannot afford enemies."
"I know," he groaned, "I know... but surely they would..."
"Would what?" Chaiila stopped to watch Sekher.
He also halted, rubbing his claws against his throat as the shock of what he was thinking sank in. "We can offer... they would be willing to bargain."
"Your Seth'Nai?" Chaiila asked.
Sekher crouched down where he stood, wrapping his arms about himself and unable to answer.
She stood behind him and with one hand reached down to caress an ear. Gently, she said, "Sekher, I think the time for compromise is past."
When he turned to look up at her, it was with a wild look, a hope so anxious it almost hurt her to see it. "If we hurry, we can..."
She stopped him with a hand on his muzzle. "We can what? ah?" she asked. "We can get there in time to charge in and slay the evil Rim Priests and Lords and carry the day to triumph for Che. Ah?"
"Sekher, please, think."
When Chaiila felt him sag she knew that he had thought, and that he had understood. It was a feeling she could sympathise with; that feeling of utter helplessness. She had felt that as she watched her home burn, watch her friends and clan fight and die. It was possible that was a reason she had gone after the male in the first place: just to have something into which to channel her frustration, some way she could strike back at the amorphous entity that was the Ch'sty Rim.
She stroked the stubble on his scalp: "You understand?"
He growled softly, then flinched as though just realising their proximity and her hands on his head. Standing, he withdrew from her touch to retreat. Alone on the gentle incline of the eastern face of a monticule with the final flaring of the Lightbringer behind him. She clasped her hands together before her and watched him.
"I understand," he said. "It hurts."
"Gods, Chaiila!" he bared teeth at the purple sky, his breath steaming, "I want to do something! I want to hurt THEM!"
"If you want to hurt them," Chaiila suggested, "the best you could do is not get yourself killed."
He growled, feeling his entire spine twitch as his tail slashed at the air.
Chaiila hissed. "Calm."
"Calm?! You try losing..." He remembered who he was talking to then. She knew what he was feeling. How had she coped? "Sorry," he growled.
"I think you need to work it out. It'll help you think."
"What?" Sekher stared at her. "You've got a suggestion?"
"Sparring," she shrugged. "Teth'Ai? Third movement? I assume you know a little about it."
Sekher growled - long and deep - as he turned away, then spun, bringing his foot sweeping around in an arc intended to disembowel had he used claws.
Chaiila yipped, but caught his foot between crossed forearms and twisted. He jumped, spinning in the air, his other leg kicking out to jar her arm when it struck. The dark female's mouth gaped in a bark and she dropped back, crouching with her arms spread.
Grasses and bush rustled beneath their feet as they circled, warily, slowly, like spiralling scavengers, their shadows stretching long.
Sekher struck again, still on the offensive and angry. Taking his frustrations out on the figure before him. The heels of his hands moved in a series of hammer blows that struck only air as Chaiila slipped aside with a fluid shift of her hips then slashed both hands in a Snowflake that batted his blows aside and stroked the fur of his belly.
Then she grunted as his foot raked down her thigh.
Tails lashing, they circled again.
When he struck, she blocked. Her blows he parried smoothly, turning them into an attack that forced her back. The power of her Lightning he blocked with the smooth shifting of Breeze. His hands slapped against the fur of her forearms, their low growls lost on the breeze.
Sekher was gasping when they separated again. His left wrist was throbbing where he'd taxed it too far. He sucked air, flicking nictitating membranes across his eyes...
...Chaiila struck him low, batting his arms aside and hooking a leg behind his knees. He dropped like a startled rock, twisting and grabbing a handful of fur. Chaiila yelped and went down with him in a tangle of limbs that rolled snarling and barking down the hill to end in broadleaf bush.
Sekher shook his head and raised himself on his arms. Beneath him Chaiila sputtered and spat a couple of scratchbush leaves from her mouth, then grinned and said, "You're better than I thought."
"Huh. Where did you learn your routines?"
"Small Guard. We're well trained." Then she reached up to touch his ear. "You know, even furless you're better than many."
He froze, staring down at her. She smiled back and there was a scent in the air: subtle, unobtrusive, unfamiliar. Sekher's nostrils flared and his sinuses tingled with a shock similar to the times he had touched metal and a spark flashed, but this time the spark was behind his eyes.
He yipped in surprise, blinked at her with nostrils wide.
There was a silence.
"I think..." he finally began. "I think we'd better start back..."
He rolled off her, then tried to stand, staggering and going to his knees. What...?
Chaiila's hand was on his shoulder. He snarled and lashed out; she evaded with ease, standing back and... waiting? His head was swimming with the blood pounding in his ears, then he keeled over completely with coarse grass pressing against the side of his face. He tried to move, twitched helplessly with muscles turned to water.
And Chaiila's hands touched him again, rolling him over onto his back. He looked up at her face silhouetted against the dusk, her eyes wide and staring like small amber lamps in the twilight.
"What..." he croaked. "Chaiila?"
She moved closer and the smell was stronger, overpowering when she nuzzled his neck, murmuring, "Calm."
How could he? His heart pounded in slow pulses, yet he couldn't move.
Claws ran over him, gently raking, raising uncountable tiny bumps as his fur tried to stand up like needles. Other parts of him were responding also, the feeling in his crotch that seemed to also burn in his mind. Then her hands were fumbling with the belt of his kilt.
"Chaiila," he gasped again.
She caressed his face, then stood to shuck her breeches.
He saw everything, felt more than he ever thought possible. The Daughters danced behind Chaiila's black form as she moved over him, lowering herself.
He howled at the heat that raged through his loins, then through every fibre of his body.
The Burrower meat was browned and crisped with spitting fats.
Nersi used two sticks to flip it over, taking care not to knock it from the flat rock into the embers. Beside her, Seth'Nai sat with the device from his arm opened, a multitude of fragments spread on a cloth on his lap. He paused in his fiddling to watch her hands working.
She noticed his fascinated gaze. "You've never done this before, ah?" she asked.
He looked up at her. Gods, she wondered, you're no animal, but why can't you speak?
"Here," she offered, passing him the sticks. "I'll show you." His pale hands were warm against hers as she showed him how to hold the sticks between the fingers of one hand and pick up the meat with them. He caught on quickly, but still fumbled.
"You need practice," she grinned.
He rumbled and bared teeth at her. Nersi flinched involuntarily. However it was something he did often, seemingly without intending menace.
"Don't worry," she assured him. "You'll smooth it out."
He blinked at her.
"Never mind," she hissed. "Pass that branch... Look, rot it, that branch over there," she pointed. "Pass it to me."
Seth'Nai looked from her outstretched hand to the branch, then reached to pick it up and broke it in half with a single flex of his arms before handing the pieces over.
"Gratitude," Nersi said.
He watched her stoke the fire, the flames licking around the dark wood. Flickering light made shadows in the small grove dance and shimmer in the twilight, throwing the planes of Seth'Nai's face into strange relief. His long-fingered hands worked delicately at the pieces in his lap.
Chaiila and Sekher had been gone for some time now. It was getting dark, and night was not the time to be wandering around the plains unarmed.
Talking, ah? She smiled to herself.
The Lightbringer was all but gone, the sky still aglow with azure and the hard silver disks of the Daughters. Beneath the boughs in the small copse the light was pushed aside by gloom. Seth'Nai paused in his work to dip into his peculiar bag and produce a small white tube about the length of a hand that he propped on a nearby rock. Nersi fell back with a squeak of alarm when it sprang to glaring life.
Panting hard, she stared from the glowing light to the creature. Its teeth were bared and this time she had no doubts of its amusement. Deliberately he touched the tube with his bare hand and gripped it so the light showed red through the flesh. He withdrew the hand and held it up, waggled the fingers, unscathed.
Nersi coughed, embarrassed at her overreaction. "Hai, alright, so you startled me. Don't DO that!"
The tube didn't bite. It just sat there, glowing. In fact, Seth'Nai showed her how to work it and thereafter she sat there for some time twisting the top, dimming and brightening the tube while watching the meat sizzling. Seth'Nai continued fitting the final pieces to his device.
When the howl rang out, Nersi jumped and stared out into the evening as the familiar wail rang across the grasslands, sending a tingle down her spine and tail. It was about time they...
She yelped as Seth'Nai leapt to his feet and was gone from the firelight, she could hear him crashing through the undergrowth.
"No! Wait! Godsdamnit! WAIT!"
Her leg almost gave out as she stood and chased after him, stumbling through the dark trunks. The howl sounded again, giving her a beacon to follow. Seth'Nai's white form was climbing a low hill. She gave chase, her leg aching abominably and slowing her, yet she still caught up with him.
"Gods! Will you stop!"
Just as they reached the crest.
There was still enough light. The two Trenalbi amongst grasses on the slope below them, clothing scattered carelessly. Sekher lay sprawled upon his back, twitching spasmodically, mouth working silently. Dark fur engulfed his hips where Chaiila straddled him, rocking, her head back, eyes closed, and mouth gaping.
Nersi sighed and looked up at Seth'Nai, standing tall and pale beside her with his own mouth hanging open. "Seen enough?"
Of course he didn't reply. As happened so often he seemed not to hear her. Unsure, she plucked at his sleeve. "Come on," she coaxed when he looked at her, "We'll leave them to finish, ah?"
When she took his arm - oh, so carefully - to lead him back to camp: he followed like a shen on a rein.
The meat was burnt.
Warm, soft fur surrounded him. On his back, his head resting upon a dark lap. Hands stroked at his face and neck, circling like a gentle breeze. There was the strong scent of crushed grass and tingleweed, the endless darkness above, the silver light of the Daughters in his eyes, the echoing traces of lust in his muzzle...
Darker fur bent over him, amber eyes peering down into his face. "Che, you there?"
He closed his eyes again. Still his limbs felt like stone, moved like rusty armour. He gave up the effort and lay there, panting.
"How're you feeling?"
He bared teeth, remembering the feelings: the helplessness, the piercing pleasure from his groin, confusion...
"I... I don't know," he finally grated.
"Your first time," the voice was soft. Sekher could feel her breath. When he opened his eyes her face was barely a span from his own, her lap still warm under his head. "It's always the hardest for you."
He licked his lips. "I don't understand... What..."
"You were never told, were you," she interrupted, her voice a soft hum. "A small town... They never told you."
It was true: they hadn't. The Unity Houses along the Wall were places cublin and youths were not permitted. Males came and went through the doors watched by Small Guard. He had seen the lights through the high, barred windows, heard the music and singing, the howls, but knew nothing of what happened inside. His brother had warned him... had he known?
Then he had to ask: "Why did you do it?"
Chaiila looked surprised. "Because I like you. You are a fine male: healthy, bright... If your seed takes, I know it will be a promising cub."
"Oh," he said, trying to think. "And where would you pouch it?" he asked. "Our towns..."
She smiled and touched his nose pad. "The female quarters in any town would accept it. They would take care of the hosting and the crèche."
"Oh," he said again, for lack of anything else. There was silence for a time.
The prevailing westerly breeze blowing over the plains had cooled with the going of the Lightbringer and now chilled with its touch. Chaiila's fur fluffed out, her ruff raising around her neck and atop her head, trapping her warmth. Sekher shuddered.
Chaiila felt it: "You're freezing! Gods! I forgot! Can you walk yet? Alright... Here, I'll help."
The fire, even the pale features of Seth'Nai, were welcome, familiar sights after such strangeness. Nersi and the creature looked up as Sekher lurched into the camp with an arm strung about Chaiila's shoulders. They both stopped and stared with shock at the small tube glowing with strong light. It was only when Seth'Nai arose and moved to take Sekher from Chaiila that the dark female cuffed him aside and lowered her burden beside the fire. Whatever had happened to him was wearing off, now he was strong enough to sit himself up while Chaiila draped a cloak about him.
"Thanks," murmured Sekher.
Nersi leaned over toward Chaiila to mutter an aside, "Is he all right?"
"Yes, thank you." Sekher looked up, right at her. "He's fine." Chaiila was late to muffle a bark.
"Excuse me," grumbled Nersi. "It's just that... His first time, right? I'm surprised he could put one foot in front of the other."
Sekher's ears went down.
"Sorry," Nersi hastened to placate him. "I wasn't thinking." She passed him a stick on which bite-sized chunks of meat had been skewered. "You're going to be hungry. This should help."
"Thanks." He took it and, methodically, began working his way along the stick.
Chaiila had been staring at the light-tube. "What IS that thing," she asked Nersi.
Her cousin shrugged. "A torch of some kind. Not dangerous, it seems."
Sekher smiled to himself at that. Even if they didn't realise it, they were becoming inured to the creature's strange ways: Anything peculiar happens these days, blame it on Seth'Nai. That one bore enough strangeness in his hairless hide to satisfy any adventurous spirit.
"What's the matter with him anyway?" Chaiila asked Nersi with a curious glance at the creature. "He keeps staring at me."
"He heard the howls," Nersi explained, looking pensive. "I think he thought you were in trouble... Anyway, he saw. Who knows what he's thinking."
"Not what a normal male would, I hope," Chaiila grinned. Nersi's ears flicked. "A Trenalbi male would have been out of his howling mind at the first scent of you. Him... Well, he's probably got about as much interest in your affairs as a stick."
Sekher coughed and when the females looked at him asked, "Is it always... like that?"
Chaiila ducked her head, flicked her tail around and began grooming the tip. "Your first time... it was like being hit by a house, ah? Now you know why some use copulation as a curse." She grinned as she said that, then grew serious. "You should know it grows easier. Next time, if you can find a next time, it won't be so... traumatic for you, but you will always be slow and as weak as a cublin."
The light of fire and magic threw strange shadows across her face as she spoke. "Also, remember the Unity Houses. They're there for a reason, as are the Small Guard and the Walls. Where there is mating madness, there is also fighting. Go there if you wish to mate, for whatever reason, but be prepared to fight. And obey their rules. Always!"
She shrugged. "They always change from town to city. They share the same roots, but details change. Usually nothing drastic: Behave, Listen, Obey."
"Huh," Sekher rubbed at his face. "And why be prepared to fight?"
"That," she grinned, "is something you'll have to learn for yourself. Now rest up and get some food in you." She stood, stretched, and yawned. "I'm going to wash off."
"Watch where you step," Nersi warned.
"You're starting to sound like Chaiila," Sekher pointed out.
"Ah, shave you," Chaiila spat with a grin.
Sekher returned the grin and took another mouthful of rich meat, watching her gather up a cloak and blanket and move off into the bushes and darkness toward the sound of running water.
Nersi glanced at him then away again.
The fire crackled away industriously as wet wood popped and spat. Seth'Nai was sitting cross-legged at the periphery of the light, toying with the thing strapped to his wrist, occasionally glancing up at them. Sekher concentrated upon eating. She had been right: he was starving.
"You enjoyed yourself this night?" inquired Nersi. "Huh?" Sekher looked up with juices dribbling down his chin. "Oh... Oh, yes... sure."
"You don't sound so sure," Nersi smiled.
Sekher wiped his muzzle with a sweep of his forearm and considered. "It was... unexpected."
Nersi sighed. "She didn't mean to scare you like that."
"Huh?" Sekher looked shocked. He was almost convincing; almost, but not quite.
"Don't, Sekher," she warned him. "I can see it and smell it. She had your ruff on end, didn't she."
Sekher's hand moved to run across the back of his neck before he remembered, so instead he hugged his arms around his chest. "Hai, she surprised me."
Nersi snorted. "Did she now? Don't worry about it," she assuaged the male. "She does things like that, like chasing off after a male who was probably dead. Impulsive." Nersi sighed and shifted to stretch her sore leg out before her, pressing against the bandage. That run after Seth'Nai had left it aching. Would it ever be the same?...
"She could have said something," said Sekher.
"It doesn't work like that," Nersi tried to explain, then shrugged helplessly. "She probably didn't know either. It can just... happen."
Sekher was just staring at her. "I don't understand," he replied, still sounding defensive.
"Sekher, she chose you. As I said, she's impulsive and can be blunt to the point of callousness, but she's a thrifty one when it comes to dealing out emotions. You're the only male I've ever seen her get so... close to. She certainly never meant to scare you away."
"Huh! Yeah, well if that's how she shows affection..." Sekher grunted and tipped his ears. "It's like an affectionate shen: a friendship that could crush you!"
Nersi chuckled and Sekher took another mouthful, chewing thoughtfully.
When Chaiila returned her fur was still damp. She looked around the other Trenalbi's faces, as if well aware that they had talked about her during her absence. It was a look that Sekher found himself unable to meet. So instead he turned his back on the pair and found a hollow among Scellerian tree roots where he hunkered down and pulled his blanket close. Several deep breaths and he felt his heartbeat slowing, his nictitating membranes drawing across his eyes.
"Sekher," said Chaiila's voice.
"Huh?" he snapped back to awareness to look across the campfire to where the females were beginning to drift. "What?"
They both blinked at him. "What?" asked Chaiila.
"You said something."
They looked at each other. "Ahh... No."
"Sekher," said Nersi's voice, but Nersi hadn't spoken.
As one their heads turned toward Seth'Nai. He ducked his head and growled, the sound followed almost immediately by coherent words from his wrist, a jumble of words and voices: his own, Chaiila's, Nersi's: "Sekher. Chaiila. Nersi," He looked from one to the other as it spoke their names. "Can't. Talk help I you."
A branch in the fire popped and hissed.
"Huh!" Sekher finally choked out. "It's been quite a night, huh?"
Standing unobtrusively at the back of the room with another advisor and that priest, Nerfith watched, the striped tip of his tail twitching almost imperceptibly.
The two males standing so casually before Kissaki's desk were the source of his distaste, their cloaks sweeping the floor, armour lacquered black against the elements. One towering, massively built, the flesh beneath his fur layered with slabs of muscle and scars, the other a nondescript fawn-furred slender male with notched, black-tipped ears and almost delicate hands automatically searching for the hilt of a sword he was forbidden to carry this close to the High Lord. Bounty Hunters! Nerfith's lip spasmed in distaste.
The smaller one was the voice of the pair, and he used his words well. It had surprised Nerfith, noticing that this lowlife's words echoed a trace of a higher teaching. He failed to quite place the accent, but it seemed to be eastern, maybe one of the towns further in toward the Hub; perhaps a Highborn who'd lost his standing due to clan feud. It happened.
And at the moment he was addressing the High Lord.
"If I hadn't seen the damage for myself I might have some trouble believing this," he said with a slight grin. "And they... overcame twenty battlegroups?"
Kissaki stared at him with his ears laying back into the dark fur of his ruff. "You have been given all the details we have seen fit to give you. There are four fugitives, two of them possibly female Trenalbi, one shaved male of noble birth, and something else. We do not know what it is, but it is the dangerous one. It is the one we want. The others, all I want is their hides."
The Hunter laid his head to one side. "Four. That's quite a contract."
"For which you are being paid quite adequately," Kissaki hissed. "You are good, I know that, but not uniquely so." He emphasized that word 'uniquely'.
The other smiled. If he had been making a bid for more cash, the look in the High Lord's eyes stalled him and he wisely passed the opportunity by with a casual wave of his hand. "Of course, High One. May I ask what resources will be at our disposal?"
Kissaki stared at the pair, then gestured curtly toward the Priest who stepped forward with a rustle of robes and acknowledged the High Lord, "Sire," then produced a scroll case from within his sleeve and turned to address the Hunters. "This document is signed and marked with the Council's seals. It details your assignment and will ensure the cooperation of the Priesthood across the world, also giving you limited credit for purchase of Temple goods."
The Hunter took the black leather case, hefted it, then hooked it to his belt.
"Watchkeeper," Kissaki waved Nerfith.
"Sire," he bowed stiffly as he stepped forward. "Sir, are you sure..."
Kissaki growled, deep and long, shutting Nerfith's mouth instantly. "You've had your chance, Watchkeeper," he snarled. "You lost it. Now get on with it!"
"Yessir," Nerfith succeeded in keeping his ears from wilting; barely. The Hunter was casually waiting, not bothering to hide the amused expression plastered across his face. He took the scroll case with a poor parody of a salute. Nerfith let his lips part to flash a glimpse of white teeth before handing the scroll case he carried over. "This is signed and sealed with the Royal crest. It'll make sure you have the full cooperation of any Lord in the Ch'sty demesnes. It also requires that any garrison or other military body aid you in any way, provided it is relevant to your duty. Understand?"
"Yessir," the Hunter smiled.
Kissaki spoke again. "Now you know what is required, start moving. Watchkeeper, accompany them and see they have whatever they need." He paused. "Any questions?"
"One." This time it was the large one that spoke. "This thing you want us to return... Ah, just what condition do you want it in?"
"Alive," the High Lord replied. "As long as it is in a condition we can work with."
"Understood." The tall Hunter bowed. "Alright Sire, you will have your creature."
Once outside Kissaki's private offices their weapons were returned. Nerfith watched as the small Hunter sheathed his rapier and slung a flail-blade from his belt. His partner slung the long wooden tube of a heavy darter over his shoulder and took up a two-handed sword. Steel, as Nerfith had noted earlier.
"How can you afford steel?" he asked.
The smaller one grinned. "Hai, Watchkeeper. Just because you can't do your job, doesn't mean we aren't capable of handling ours. We get by."
Nerfith's ears and ruff went tight against his skull. "Alright," he hissed. "Take your documents to the quartermaster. Get what you need, then get your mangy hides out of my town!"
"Day not many I/we travel/go."
Seth'Nai was improving rapidly. His syntax was indescribably terrible, but his vocabulary was increasing at a phenomenal rate. It seemed he never forgot anything he heard; or rather the device on his forearm didn't. He had also settled upon a voice to use. Now, instead of repeating words in a mangled collection of Sekher's, Chaiila's, and Nersi's voices, he had - with Nersi's patient assistance - chosen male tones that Chaiila had grudgingly admitted sounded more pleasant than the creature's features.
"You mean it is not far?"
Nersi was speaking slowly to Seth'Nai, and even so there was a pause before he tried to respond. He growled and words came from his wrist: "Yes. Far not."
"No, no. It is not far," Nersi corrected him.
Seth'Nai looked confused. He touched the speaking bracelet and the next time he made noises the device didn't speak.
Sekher stroked the worn leather of the reins between his finger pads. The shen grunted and tossed its head slightly, feeling for any slack. Sekher tightened his grip. When he touched claws to its flanks it obediently stepped up its placid pace to move alongside Nersi and whickered at her mount.
"He's learning," Sekher said.
"Hmmm?" The breeze toyed with Nersi's ruff as she turned to squint at him. "Huh! Ya, he's learning all right." She glanced at the creature. "He's trying to ask questions now, but he still doesn't know enough to answer."
"You mean, What is he?"
"How'd you guess," she barked a laugh. The sound was echoed by the creature. Both Trenalbi stared.
"Sekher," the creature acknowledged him, then asked, "Means what?" Again it sounded a laugh.
"Ah," Nersi looked at Sekher, "How do you explain that?"
Seth'Nai waited, his shen plodding along.
Nersi scratched her neck. "A Laugh... Like a smile," she began.
"Smile?" Seth'Nai asked.
"Smile," Nersi repeated. "Ah, means happy/amusement."
"Understand!" Seth'Nai bobbed his head. "Smile big laugh is."
"Yes," Nersi smiled her approval and Seth'Nai bared his teeth. The female turned to Sekher and said, "Well I learned something: that's his smile."
"Showing teeth?" Sekher twitched in surprise. "That's perverse!"
"I know," Nersi agreed. "Strange."
Sekher scratched at his nose where sun-reddened skin was peeling, then leaned forward in his saddle so he could see the creature clearly. "Hai! Seth'Nai."
The pale eyes and face turned to watch him.
"Where are you from?" Sekher asked. "Ah? Where... You... From? Up there?"
Both he and Nersi saw it. When he pointed at the sky the creature flinched violently, staring at him with wide grey eyes. Then he kicked his shen and moved ahead to ride by himself.
Nersi blinked at the creature's back, then turned to Sekher. "Do you really think it comes from..." she pointed up.
"I don't know," Sekher admitted. "One thing though: I reckon he understands a lot more than he lets on." He shifted on his saddle as his tail twitched. "I think it might be a good idea to be careful what we say around him."
The small group spent the following night sheltering among the collapsed and overgrown ruins of a long-forgotten Trenalbi settlement while a storm flashed and thundered outside. Chaiila had been fortunate enough to stumble across the remains of a garden from where she dug up several tongueroot tubers. When cleaned and baked the roots took on the flavour of spiced bread.
Yet still Seth'Nai refused to eat them, claiming he, "Not can eat."
So much for him being a grass-grazer.
Morning found the storm abated, yet the sky still overcast and despite the best efforts of the Lightbringer, a persistent slow drizzle soaked cloaks, trickled down necks and kept the ground beneath shens' hooves soggy. It was, Sekher thought, a thoroughly unenviable way to travel.
The rain, as did all things, passed. The Lightbringer continued on its path. Another night passed...
The western Ramparts were visible on the horizon, like a distant, hazy grey line stretching from one side of the grasslands to the other. From here to that distant line lay the rolling expanses of the green-gold sunlit central plains. It was in places like this that you could look around and convince yourself that there wasn't a city, a town, a village, or a house in the entire world.
Sekher settled back in his saddle, rocking with the shen's gait. It was starting to worry him: the further they travelled westward, the further from Che they went. He was well aware that the Ch'sty troops would be watching all borders for them, especially for a shaved male travelling with a daemon, but still he had to get back. Still, Seth'Nai had been leading them for the past couple of days. The path they followed was a convoluted one, sometimes moving west, then leading north again, always avoiding any sign of Trenalbi. He seemed to have some destination, but too much further and they'd have their backs to the Ramparts.
He flicked the stub of a claw along his forearm, pleased at the down-like new fur that was growing there. Still like a cub's pelt, but it was growing. Give it time. Cracking a jaw-breaking yawn he flicked an ear toward where Chaiila was talking with Seth'Nai. They were riding a slight distance from the other two and keeping their voices low, so Sekher was unable to hear exactly what was being said. Chaiila sounded... embarrassed? Seth'Nai... Well, Seth'Nai seemed to be getting a grasp on the concept of grammar; now some of the things he said almost made sense.
Sekher shrugged at the absurdity of it all and let himself slip down into drift, letting the memories of the past insinuate themselves from the depths of his mind...
...the book flying across the room in a flutter of pages before striking the wall. "I don't want to do this," he scowled petulantly. "It's boring!"
The Teacher sighed wearily and hauled himself to his feet to retrieve the valuable book. His grey-furred hands calmly dusted it off and set it back on the claw-scarred desk before Sekher. "Youngling, you have to."
"Why!" Sekher sulked.
"You know why." The Teacher returned to his chair, lowering his age-worn body carefully...
...Sekher cocked his head to look up at the bulky stranger who bustled around the dusty library, sorting out the precious collection of books and parchments. "Where's Teacher?" he demanded.
The male stopped what he was doing and smiled a careful smile at Sekher. It didn't fool him, Teacher had taught him too well for that. "I'm Teacher now, cub," this new male explained. "Old Hiler won't be coming any more."
"Why?" Sekher didn't understand. "Doesn't he like me anymore?"
"Yes, of course he does... You know he has been ill..."
Sekher stood watching the sparks from the funeral pyre spiralling upwards to join the specks in the Well. He found it difficult to understand what was happening. He saw his sire on the far side of the flames, his head bowed and ears low, a small length of blue cloth in his hands, like the one Sekher was wearing, a gift from his Teacher. And Sekher watched as his sire approached the fire and threw the cloth into...
...he heard a strange cry. Looking out through the bars of the cage he saw...
Sekher snapped from drift with a sudden intake of breath and looked wildly around, not quite able to believe his eyes. Their shen were now plodding along a rutted track alongside a small pool fed by rivulets of water still remaining from the last rains. Eroded banks rose above them to their right, tufts of grass and scratchbush sprouting at their rims. The track was worn, obviously used and littered with rocks tumbled from the banks around them. He knew this place!
Seth'Nai halted his shen and swung down from its back, then began poking around the debris at the bottom of the embankments. Sekher dismounted also and trotted after the creature. "Wait! Hai!" Seth'Nai looked around as Sekher slapped his shoulder. "Why'd you bring us back here, ah?!"
Sekher turned at the shout, leaving Seth'Nai with his mouth hanging open. Chaiila was glaring at him, her ears back. "You know where we are? Why don't you share it with us!"
"I don't know!" he protested. "I mean, I know this is where the Ch'sty caught him, but I don't know..."
"They caught him here?" Nersi looked around with a puzzled expression. "What was he doing in such a Gods-forsaken place?"
"Visiting relatives?" Chaiila suggested, then scowled. "Male, did we come all this way just for this?!"
Sekher shrugged, then looked at Seth'Nai: "Well? Why did you come here? Why... are... we... here?!"
The angular shoulders heaved. "I come. Look."
"Look?" Sekher blinked. "At what? For what?!"
Seth'Nai made a meaningless little gesture with his hands, then ran those fingers through his head fur. It had grown, Sekher had noticed, along with the face fur. He stared at Sekher, studying him, then looked around the weather-worn little valley. "Different now, ah?" the creature asked Sekher. "Afraid not. No..." he moved his hands in a square shape over his head then drew lines in front of his face.
"Cage," Sekher supplied.
"Cage," the other said, bobbing his head. "No cage."
"But why here?!" Sekher demanded.
Storm-grey eyes met his. "Stop here, not long. Go. Not... far."
"We've got further to go?" Sekher exclaimed. "How far?!"
The creature's shoulders heaved again, then he returned to poking through dirt and rocks, tumbled scrub. The two females dismounted, stretching to ease out the kinks and aches left from the long ride. Sekher turned to them to ask, "Answer your question?"
"In a roundabout sort of way; yes," growled Chaiila in exasperation. "Why is it impossible to get a straight answer from that thing?"
"Why don't you ask him?" Sekher suggested.
She didn't even bother to look at him. "Unfunny, Che." Seth'Nai kicked a couple more rocks aside, finding only a scuttler that blinked up at him, then scuttled off in a flash of green scales. Then Seth'Nai turned to peer into the murky water and for a few beats Sekher thought it planned to go wading around in there, but the creature growled something that the device on his wrist garbled as, "¿¿¿¿¿¿¿ it! Done. We go?"
Chaiila looked up from where she was sitting, chin on hand. "Why?" she snorted as she rose to her feet. "What can possibly beat this place for sheer excitement?"
Sekher wasn't sorry to leave that place. It called back too many uncomfortable memories. He shuddered, then nudged the shen and moved up alongside Seth'Nai whose mouth twitched as he bared teeth. "Not far."
"Not far. Right," Sekher sighed, then cocked his head to one side to ask, "How did they catch you?"
"They ¿¿¿¿¿¿¿ me. I fool. I fall," Seth'Nai pointed at one of the cliff tops and indicated a bouncing path down the nearly sheer face. "¿¿¿¿¿¿¿ in cage. You looking at me."
"Seth'Nai, what ARE you?"
The creature turned away and scratched at his ear. For a few beats Sekher believed he wouldn't reply, then the voice said, "You wait. I show you. You wait."
So Sekher waited.
They left the trail behind and struck out in a westerly direction. That pathetic little trace of civilization vanished into the grasses and left the grasslands to the scattered herds of Longrazers that drifted across it on their yearly migration, Hitherdarts perched on the backs occasionally taking to the air to peruse among the swarms of insects. In the sky above the clouds shared the azure emptiness with the remote specks that were Broadwings, searching the grasslands for their next meal.
Sekher shifted awkwardly on his mount. With only two saddles for the shen they had to take it in shifts, and at this moment was his turn to use one of the worn coarse-weave blankets in lieu of a saddle. It wasn't a very satisfactory substitute.
He stole a surreptitious glance across at Chaiila to see how she was doing. Drifting? No, just staring off into the middle distance, one hand absently stroking her abdomen. Thinking. About what? Sekher wondered.
And he wondered also, not for the first time. Had his seed taken? Was she going to bear? Gods! He, Sekher Che, siring cubs... the concept was... not an idea he'd ever harboured before. How long would it be before she knew for sure? He glanced at her again and wondered if she would let him be with her for the pouching. Male or female? Pray for male. How different would life be knowing there was a small part of him living on in the world?
Perhaps he may even get around to meeting them some day. Huh. If, if, if. There was no way to be certain and it was a sure waste of time to worry over something that may never be. When the time was right surely Chaiila would...
He almost fell off his shen in shock at Nersi's scream.
"What are you..." Chaiila began, then gasped, "Oh, shave it! Not again!"
From their left, moving fast up the flank of a rolling hill to meet them. It was a low, blocky thing that was all angled planes, about the size of a shen, a mottled yellow-brown that blurred into the grasses and scrub behind it. Six black-rimmed wheels sent clods of earth flying as it sped over the rough ground, the only noise it made was the crackling of crushed foliage. It slowed as it approached, a turret on its top deck rotating to keep several dark slots pointed their way. About fifteen paces away it stopped, waiting.
"Another one," Chaiila growled, hauling her shen back to huddle with the other two Trenalbi. "How many of them are there? Where're they coming from?!"
"It looked like it was waiting for us," said Nersi, staring at it with pupils huge and square. "One beat it wasn't there, the next it... I only saw it when it started moving. It looked like a rock."
Seth'Nai was watching their reaction with another confoundedly opaque expression. He bared his teeth then reined his shen around to ride back to them. "Is alright. Is friend," he assured them with another flash of teeth. As if THAT would reassure...
"Cousin," Chaiila started as Nersi nudged her shen toward the thing. "Careful..."
Nersi rode close. The turret on the thing turned to track her as she leaned forward and tapped it with a claw, then she looked at Seth'Nai. "Metal. Machine?"
"No understand," he said.
"Like that?" she pointed at his wrist. "Tool. Machine."
"Like this," he held up his arm. "Yes. Like this." He tapped the thing on his wrist and the next time he spoke his voice boomed out of the wheeled thing. "Like this. All one. All same. Joined."
Nersi jerked back in alarm.
"Sorry," Seth'Nai's voice sounded again, at more normal levels and from the right place.
Nersi's lip twitched to flash teeth and this time it was Seth'Nai who appeared discomforted. "Not far now, ah?" she said.
"No. Not far," he replied then turned his shen around and set off again. The machine waited.
The Trenalbi hesitated, then Nersi followed Seth'Nai, then Sekher followed her tracks. There was another pause before he heard a muttered curse, then the snort as Chaiila clawed her shen into motion. With a crackling of scratchbush beneath wheels, the machine rolled after them.
End Godsend part 10