Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
and danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings.
Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds - and done a hundred things
You have not yet dreamed of - wheeled and
soared and swung.
Chased the shouting wing along, and flung
my eager craft through footless halls of air.
Up the long, delirious, burning blue
I've topped the windswept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or even eagle flew.
And, while with silent, lifting mind I've trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.
-John Gillespie Magee, Jr.
The wind picked up after midday. Gradually - without haste - the light drizzle turned to a steady downpour, rattling through Needletip leaves and pattering to the ground. Swollen grey clouds cloaked the heavens, leaving the lands below bathed in a sallow light.
The village had vanished into sheets of rain and except for a few dozen paces of hillside, nothing else was visible. Sekher wiped moisture from his muzzle and ducked back under the meagre cover his crude lean-to offered. There was nothing to do now but wait. Awkwardly he settled down and leaned back against the tree, relaxing, letting his breathing slow.
Water trickled through the matted boughs of the roof, running straight off the silvery material of his poncho. When he blinked it was automatic - a reflex flicking his translucent nictitating membrane out as a droplet of water touched his eye - yet he saw nothing.
In Drift the world was an amorphous blur. His body would watch for him, would breathe for him, could even walk for him while his mind slowed, rested, methodically ticking over. So in a sense it wasn't Sekher who sat there. He was far away, floating in a warm dark, drifting through remote memories:
...the hot metallic taste of fresh meat.
...his eldest brother riding beside him as they left the palace. A guard leaning against his spear and enjoying the midday heat tipped his helmet back and saluted casually. The streets were unpaved, the buildings small...
...shabby. The unyielding stone walls of K'streth and Ch'sty, their bustling streets...
...two cubs ran across the street to tumble in a whirl of gangling limbs, dust, and laughter before racing off.
"It's going to be empty around here without you," Methlin said, leaning forward on his saddle horn and watching Sekher.
"Huh, you'll find something to keep you busy," Sekher answered.
"Perhaps," his brother flagged amusement. "And I'm sure you're going to. Outsiders have some strange ways."
"So I've been told. I thought that's what I'm going to see. Come on, they've taught me everything my head can hold about court etiquette and protocol."
Methlin barked in outright laughter causing guards and retainers to glance at them. "Diplomacy!" he grinned. "Brother, you're still young. There are a things in creation besides the stuffiness of court life."
Sekher blinked. "You have something particular in mind?"
Methlin reached over to clap Sekher's arm. "Hah! Get out of the palaces! See the towns! How they live. You can learn more from some of those places than books could ever teach you."
Sekher cocked his head; interested.
"Try the taverns in Taiska. They brew a hot, spiced ale that'll set your tail straight. Also their Unity Houses... but perhaps you'll find out about those for yourself."
"What?" Sekher blinked at his sibling. "I've tried to drag more than that out of you a thousand times. Now you talk about Unity Houses? Why now?"
"Give you a chance to find out for yourself," Methlin grinned. "You're old enough."
At the town gates they passed a slow trickle of peasants. "Remember," grinned Methlin; then: "Fare well, brother."
"Thanks," Sekher replied and reined his shen about.
"One more thing: Ware the outland females. They've probably got strange ideas."
Sekher barked his own laughter.
...Chaiila knelt: winded, panting, with a gleam in her eye and sun in her fur...
...a pale face and grey eyes watched...
He pulled out of drift, the face still hung before him. Seth'Nai was outside the shelter looking even more peculiar than ever with a tight waterproof hood enclosing its head, shedding water as if it were oiled. Odd, but the daemon was fascinated with the rain. Water ran in rivulets from its clothing as it crawled under the shelter and propped its back against the tree the lean-to was built against. The hood retracted into the collar when removed and Seth'Nai ran its hands through the patch of fur atop its head. The fur stuck back and Seth'Nai looked at its hands, growled, then wiped them against its legs.
"So, they're not back yet," Sekher yawned. The daemon looked startled. "Taking their time, aren't they?"
The creature's mouth turned up, baring square teeth, then it shrugged and began to fiddle with the device strapped to its forearm. A wondrous power, Sekher mused, to be able to produce glowing shapes that danced in midair, although exactly what use it may be was beyond him.
After the rains the air was cool and fresh. Moisture beaded on foliage; glittering, transient jewels. The ground underfoot was soggy, with mud pushing between Sekher's toes. Clouds of tiny insects hummed and swarmed. He growled in irritation as one buzzed in his ear. Of course they didn't seem to bother his daemon in the least; Sekher watched, somewhat annoyed, as the bugs bent deliberate arcs to avoid it.
Four shen in single file were moving up the slope of the hill, two bearing riders, the others saddleless, but fitted with blankets and cargo slings. They had left the hamlet and circled to the far side of the hill before beginning their ascent, threading their way through rocks and scrub to the wood straddling the crest. A few paces short they dismounted to lead their mounts the rest of the way into the trees.
"Any trouble?" Sekher called as they passed.
"Smooth," Chaiila replied with a grin as they passed.
Sekher paused and watched for a few more beats to make sure they hadn't been followed or observed, then followed.
The four shen weren't the specially bred animals used by cavalry, rather they were the sturdy, stocky breed farmers preferred, bred for hauling ploughs and wagons. Three females and a gelding; all scruffy and past their prime, but sufficient for their needs. Both Nersi and Chaiila looked rested, their coats well-groomed. Nersi had a clean set of wraps on her leg and a new crutch made from fresh-cut wood that she was removing from one of the pack animals.
"I'm glad you came back," Sekher told Chaiila as she worked at the harness of her own animal.
Chaiila grinned: "You thought we wouldn't?"
"I had my doubts," Sekher confessed.
"You wound me," Chaiila laughed and turned back to regard the animals. "Not such bad beasts, huh?"
"Yeah." Sekher took up a hoof and inspected the underside. It wasn't as worn as he'd feared, so the animals hadn't been driven too hard. He dropped the hoof again. "So, what else?"
"Food," she said, hefting a sack. "Also some clothing and blankets."
"Food?" Sekher's eyes lit up.
Chaiila's face twitched a smile and she dipped into the sack and pulled out a small loaf, tossed it to Sekher who snatched it from the air. By the Gods! Still warm! His stomach snarled as he tore into it with a will. "Blessed Gods! I needed that."
"It shows," Chaiila remarked and jabbed a digit to where Seth'Nai was trying to examine a shen that shied whenever the creature went near it: "You think your creature could do with something? Hai!"
Seth'Nai caught the scone she tossed and sniffed at it, then tore it apart with its blunt fingers and examined the fragments. Carefully it placed a piece in its mouth, chewed, swallowed, and bared its teeth at them. It polished off the rest of the scone in short order.
"I think it likes it," Chaiila observed dryly.
"A," Sekher stared. That was the first normal food he had ever seen it eat. Why? He shook his head; that was something to figure out later. For now... "Any money left?"
"A little," Chaiila jingled the purse on her belt. "It'll last us for a while. I doubt we'll be doing much spending."
The clothes they'd purchased were scruffy, torn, and slightly odiferous, but they were much less conspicuous than Rim armour and the silver poncho Sekher was wearing. He swore as he struggled into them and laced the seams: they were a little small, and they were inhabited. Well, there was nothing to be done about that. Travelling anywhere one picked up passengers. It was a fact of life.
There were no spare saddles for the extra shen. Two females on their own was unusual enough, but if they'd asked for four sets of tack... now that would have raised a few suspicions. The blankets they'd obtained would have to suffice.
The shen turned skittish whenever Seth'Nai approached, kicking out with their blunt claws. It was the next day, after an uncomfortable night, that they were able to break one of the females enough to tolerate its presence.
It was then they discovered it couldn't ride.
"I do not believe this!" Chaiila groaned, sinking her claws into the bark of a tree, looking as if she were about to start pounding her head against the trunk.
Glumly Sekher watched as Nersi coaxed the creature through the signals that would tell its shen to move, stop, turn. In a way it was amusing, that hulking, pale figure so lost on the back of a beast, but also every moment they delayed meant time for trackers to pick up their trail. That wasn't so amusing.
It did learn quickly, however. It wasn't too long before it had the basics and Nersi limped over with her crutch to say, "I think it's going to be able to manage. I got the stirrup length right as well, at least it shouldn't fall off again."
"Alright," Chaiila sighed. "Then we go. It can work out the finer points on the way."
Shen were infinitely slower than the daemon's transport. The ride left the base of the tail aching and sore. Windblown dust whipped into your nostrils and eyes and ears while insects tormented you and heat beat down on shoulders and neck. But Sekher understood shen, he knew what they were, he was comfortable with them. Also, they didn't fall apart or exploded at inopportune moments.
They moved in a general northerly direction, skirting towns as they found them, avoiding the main roads and a couple of times detouring some distance where towns controlled a bridge or ford to find a place to cross.
Methodically the shen picked their way through lush gallery forests where streams and pools turned the land to brief belts of brilliant green, then across rolling prairies of golden grasses. All regions boasted their share of dangers. The biota concealed predators and poisons; sometimes the predators rode shen and fast, lean Mrakers, the poisons were on the blades of swords and tips of quarrels.
Sekher drifted as they rode, they all did, but lightly, barely dipping out of full reality, always with at least one part of their awareness watching the horizon. It was not as refreshing as sinking deeper, but over a long period it had the same effect. So they rode in single file, one shen placidly following another while the Trenalbi took it in turns to guide them. Night followed day, for two days. They ate in the saddle, pausing only to relieve themselves.
Sekher blinked himself out of drift to find himself at the rear, following the others. Ahead of him Seth'Nai's shen was plodding quietly along its way, its tufted tail swatting at insects while the daemon slumped motionless and silent in the saddle. It wasn't riding very well, Sekher noted, rocking awkwardly with the shen's rolling gait. Further up the two females were riding abreast, talking quietly. He yawned and fished in his saddlebag for a piece of smoked meat, looking around while he chewed.
They were off the plains again, following yet another of the small river valleys with its gallery forest that divided the prairies a little like spokes on a wheel... or perhaps more like branches radiating from a central trunk. The trees were old ones, tall ones, their trunks as thick as his torso and the shade they cast was a welcome relief from the alternating stifling heat and biting winds on the plains. High up in their canopies flyers leapt from branch to branch, chittering and squeaking at the intruders below.
They were harmless, but their excitement could attract the attentions of something that would be willing to have a go at even three... four dangerous opponents.
Sekher snarled, then slapped at a bloodsucker that had alighted on his neck. They were near water, in fact he could hear it. The stream was only a few paces wide, the water flowing fast and shallow across a pebbly bed. The shen hesitated on the bank before stepping down into water that barely covered their anklespurs and easily crossed to the spit of fine sand on the other side. They left deep prints in the sand, then lurched up a shelf perhaps ten spans high.
Seth'Nai slipped sideways, then fell from its saddle, hitting the bank and sprawling face-down in the sand.
Sekher yanked back on the reins: "HAI! STOP!"
Seth'Nai stirred and rolled over as he touched its back. For the first time in a long while he saw its face, really looked, and was shocked. There were large dark patches under the eyes, skin was drawn taut across bones, and the scraggly fur sprouting from the angular chin had grown much thicker, becoming a mane encircling the head.
"Huhnnn," Chaiila was at Sekher's shoulder. "It don't look so good."
"Gods shave you!" Nersi scrambled over - a half-limping gait - to the creature's side, kneeling with her damaged leg outstretched. "Don't just stand there," she snarled and put an arm around the creature's shoulder to help it sit upright. It blinked at her, seeming dazed. "What's wrong with it?!" she demanded.
"I don't know," Sekher protested with a shrug. "It just... turned toes up and fell off!"
"So it can't ride worth a square wheel!" Chaiila spat. "We could always tie it into the saddle."
"Not a bad idea," Sekher agreed. "You want to be the one to do it?"
She grinned and snapped at him even as he ducked away. Still glaring, she growled, then stretched and looked around. "Well, while we're here, we may as well make the best of it. My teeth are swimming."
They left Nersi tending Seth'Nai. The shen were hobbled and left to strip a brightbush while the Trenalbi tended to bodily demands. Sekher finished, filled the hole in, then lifted his tail and bent to void his scent-glands against a tree. The scent would fade in a couple of days, and the pressure had been uncomfortable. One advantage of a hairless hide, he reflected as he cleaned himself in the stream, one didn't have to worry about shit sticking to the fur.
But it was cold.
Nersi was waiting anxiously for them, fidgeting. "It's not moving!" she began as soon as Sekher came up to her, there was almost panic in her voice. "It's just lying there. It just closed its eyes..."
Sekher crouched by the motionless figure. No, not dead: the chest was moving, there was breath whistling through its mouth and nostrils, the closed eyelids flickered. "I think it's alright," he said hesitantly. "I've seen it like this before. It stays like this for some time..."
It struck him then.
"Oh, Gods!" He rocked back, nearly falling over with the realization: "Oh Gods. It... it doesn't Drift!"
"What?" Nersi's confusion was plain on her face. "But everything Drifts. Surely..."
"No, THIS is its drift. Completely gone."
"But," Nersi stared at the recumbent form, "it's so... helpless."
"Now what's wrong?" Chaiila was readjusting her kilt as she returned. She cast a critical eye at the creature. "Is it alright?"
"Sekher thinks so," said Nersi. "He was saying that it... uh... doesn't drift."
"Huh?" Chaiila blinked. "Come on, everything has to drift." Sekher sighed, then tried to explain it again. "Look, I was shut in a cage with this thing for weeks and it didn't seem to drift once, but it did this a lot. It'd just curl up and close its eyes and stay like that for ages. All night. I don't know. Perhaps I'm wrong, but it's either wide awake, or like that... Nothing like drift."
Chaiila scratched at a square ear, then patted Sekher's arm. "I guess we have to take your word on this, Che. If that's true, I would say it's been riding without a rest at all for the past two days." For once she looked at Seth'Nai with something besides distaste. "I suppose we could all do with a decent break. Any objections to spending the night here?"
Nersi had none. Sekher had wanted to return to Che as soon as possible, but the aching in his tail persuaded him that a night out of the saddle may not be such a bad idea. The shen needed a break. They could rest up, perhaps hunt some fresh food. And this was as good a place as any they were likely to find.
The fire was small, the dry wood burning clean. The Trenalbi gathered around in the pool of warmth and flickering light, watching insects describing complex patterns around the flames before burning in tiny flashes of fire. Chaiila had made good her earlier promise about hunting and now the carcass of a burrower was sizzling and popping on a spit. On the very fringes of the illumination Seth'Nai lay, silent but for the rasping of its breath.
Nersi finished spreading the blanket over the limp alien body and gave the face a final pat. Stealing a glance, Sekher saw Chaiila's dark-furred face and ears twitch into a despairing look, then crack into a forced smile when Nersi rejoined them. "Cousin, do you have to do that?"
Chaiila made a vague gesture. "Touch it like that. It's not... right."
Nersi looked both surprised and hurt. "Why? It's got soft fur, and it's not going to hurt us. Look at it; it's so vulnerable."
"Yeah," Chaiila's eyes instead dropped to watch the fire. "I know, but... Look, you're right; I worry too much. I'm sorry, just forget it."
"Huhnnn," growled Nersi softly. "Chaiila, I like Seth'Nai. It's friendly. It's gentle, and it's very intelligent."
"It didn't know how to ride..."
"Do you have any idea how to do ANY of the things it did to get us out of Jai'stra?" Nersi asked. "Just because it can't ride... What use would a... whatever-it-is have for riding anyway?" She used her sword to turn the carcass on the spit over, then tore off a hind leg. "Ahh! Hot!" She juggled the meat a couple of times, then bit into it.
Sekher waited for the females to get their food, then helped himself to remains. A little overdone, he judged as he picked at the white flesh and watched the females as they huddled together, conversing in low voices. Chaiila was meticulously grooming Nersi's ruff, exploring and combing with her fingers, smoothing her pelt down with long, languid strokes of her tongue.
There was something Chaiila had said. Nersi had misunderstood: Chaiila didn't fear the creature, it was the familiarity with which Nersi handled it that made her hackles raise. Perhaps she was overprotective, but Sekher too had seen the fascination with which Nersi watched the thing and he could sympathise with Chaiila's uncertainties. He considered it a friend, in the same way he would bestow his affections upon a favourite pet, but still it was an unpredictable thing.
He sighed, stood, and walked over to the creature. For a time he simply stood over it, watching. Its face was still, the mouth slightly open and - despite the fire - breath forming almost-invisible clouds in the night air. On its cheek the scratches Chaiila had scored still glared an angry red against the pale skin. It gave a low moan and twitched then fell still again.
You saved my life. Why do I fear you?
For that he didn't have an answer. His ears laid back and he returned to the warmth of the banked fire where he curled up in a blanket and watched the warm lump where the females lay huddled together.
The lumpy, grey slowburn-gum candles flickered in the draught that kept the atmosphere cold and damp, throwing a dim pool of light across the face of the warped desk and dancing shadows on the stone walls. It made the yellowed manuscripts difficult to see, even more so to read.
Chenuk growled in irritation and hitched his cloak a little tighter then turned another page in the weighty book. The delicate line drawings wavered in the unsteady light, but it was clear enough for him to be certain this wasn't the one he was looking for. His hand ached again, a throb that made his whole arm convulse, the thumb and ruined stumps of fingers beneath their bandages clenching in a parody of a fist. Chenuk tucked it against his side and used his left arm to turn the page.
A cub in the squared grey-and-green tunic of an acolyte pushed through the door curtain, staggering under an armful of the heavy tomes. "These are the last, Sir," he said.
"Leave them there," Chenuk waved abstractly at the piles of mildewed old books still to be searched already atop the desk. The ones he had finished with littered the floor. The cub sighed to himself and collected another armful on his way out.
And Chenuk resumed rifling through the untold scores of pages. Another illustration caught his eye and he paused to examine it. There was a vague resemblance to a Trenalbi, but judging by the scale of the agonised Trenalbi it was carefully dismembering with a sickle-like talon, it was much larger. Fleshy webs joined waist to wrist. Its fur was patchy, but it had fur.
No, that wasn't it either. More pages flipped by.
"Who... ?" Chenuk nearly fell off his stool twisting around. "Oh... Sir!"
"Don't bother saluting." Watchkeeper Nerfith let the curtain fall back into place and stepped inside. He stooped to pick up a book from where it lay open and spine-up on the floor and examined the cover. "'Searches in Distances', Huh! These are valuable, you know. I think the Priests would resent you using them as rugs. Well, any luck so far?"
"No Sir," a dejected Chenuk said. "There're still more to go, though." He patted a pile on the desk before him, but he didn't harbour much hope.
"So I see," said Nerfith, then awkwardly snuffled and Chenuk saw his ears were back. He set the book aside, unease gnawing at his insides. Officers didn't make social calls. For the Watchkeeper to have personally hunted him down in the bowels of the temple, he must have something to say. By the amount of hedging the officer was doing, it couldn't be good.
"Soldier, how is your hand?" he asked.
Ah, the crux. The stumps of Chenuk's own ears twitched and despite his efforts, the faint stink of fear tinged the air. Slowly he raised the bandaged limb. "Most of the pain's gone."
"But you can't hold a sword, can you."
"Ah, Sir... I can use..."
There was a heavy silence. Wind moaned along the corridor outside, carrying the remote sounds of priests chanting. "Look, Chenuk," Nerfith sighed again. "You may be new, but you're one of my battlegroup, so I reckoned I should be the one to tell you... face to face."
"Sir," Chenuk stood, knowing what was coming next.
"The army... it is not the place for... for one with injuries like yours. I have been authorized to give you some money to help you on your way. Also this," he fished under his cloak and popped the seal on a scroll canister hanging from his belt. He pulled out a cream-coloured scroll. "This is a recommendation bearing Kissaki's personal seal. It will help you find employment."
Numbly Chenuk took the scroll. It was almost weightless in his hand while his soul weighed like lead. He looked up at the Watchkeeper. "There is nothing I can do? There's no appeal?"
Nerfith didn't meet his eyes. "I did try. All the channels... You will have to return your sword. Your kit is already packed."
Chenuk stroked the scroll. His life... gone. Soldiering was all he knew. He could read... a little; about as good as his writing, and the best that could be said for that was that it was almost legible. There were plenty of labouring jobs available - especially with so many males gone to fight - for able-bodied Trenalbi. He swallowed. "Serving in the army... it's my life... Shave me! Who will take on a cripple?!"
The Watchkeeper flagged helplessness and turned to leave.
Nerfith stopped and hung his head, then half-turned back to Chenuk and hissed softly. "There's the Watch. They are often so desperate for a good Trenalbi that they'll overlook certain... difficulties."
Then the curtain fell back into place and he was gone.
Chenuk sat back and stared at a cold wall for a long time. When he threw back his head his howl rang through the corridors beneath the temple and his claws punched through the cover of an ancient leather and silver bound tome.
"I... will... find... YOU!"
Sekher groaned as toe claws poked at the small of his back. "You're on the morning meal duty, male," came Chaiila's voice.
"Uhhhnnn," he groaned, rolled and flicked back his third eyelid. Her ankle leapt to sharper focus. A very nice ankle, he thought drowsily.
Then that ankle kicked him again.
"Come on, rocks-for-bones. Move it! I've got the wood, you can do the rest." The foot drew back again.
"Alright! Alright!" Sekher yipped, scrambling to his feet. "Shaved slave driver!"
"YOU'RE calling me shaved!" Chaiila laughed at that.
Through the gently swaying boughs of trees a cloudless, azure sky was visible, heralding the beginning of a hot, clear day. Sekher scowled. Miserable weather to be riding in. The skin on his hands and muzzle was already peeling and sore.
Huh! He scratched at an itch in his crotch. So, how was his daemon this morning?
He did a double take. The blanket was still there, but Seth'Nai, and its bag, were gone. As was Nersi.
She was engaged tending to the shens' tack, tugging on a cinch with a great deal of grunting and muttering. Annoyed, she didn't turn at his call, just growled, "What?!"
"Where's the creature?!"
"No idea," she grunted. "Got up earlier. Didn't seem any the worse for wear. Went for a walk, came back and got its bag, then went out again."
"You didn't try and stop it?"
"And where's Nersi?"
"Nersi, she's..." Chaiila trailed off and forgot about the cinch strap. She turned on the spot, looking around, then cupped hands to her mouth and screamed, "NERSI!"
Her call rang from the trees, startling flyers. Something in the distance howled back, but there was no answering call. Chaiila snarled, her tail bristling and ruff flattening, then pulled her sheathed sword from her shen's pack and buckled it on. "Alright. You go downstream. I'll search upstream. If you find..."
"What's going on!?" A breathless and dripping Nersi limped into the camp. "What's all the shouting about?"
"Gods!" Chaiila wailed. "Where've you BEEN!"
Nersi shook herself. She was soaking wet and droplets went flying until she finished and stroked fur back into place with her hands as she said, "With Seth'Nai. Over that way. Ahh, there's something I think you should see."
"You're alright?" Chaiila asked, catching her cousin's arm. "Your leg..."
"I'm FINE," Nersi growled, then shrugged Chaiila's hand off and started off upstream. "You coming?" she asked.
Sekher glanced at Chaiila, shrugged, then started after her. It wasn't very far. Easily within earshot. Sekher felt annoyed they hadn't found it; it was certainly a desirable campsite. Above a small clearing the stream cascaded down a series of massive stone steps to fall into a deep, broad pool lined with raw rock worn smooth by the water. The rays of the Lightbringer were already on the rocks, raising small ripples of heat and warming several basking lizards. Flyers skimmed the air, pursuing insects. Plants grown green and lush with the abundance of water spread across the pool, shading it.
In the pool a pale shape moved underwater, languidly flowing from one end of the pool to the other, turning and going back again.
"It... swims?" Sekher asked Nersi. A foolish question; the evidence was there before his eyes.
"Oh, yes," she smiled. "Very well. He was teaching me."
"I think so," she said.
With a spray of water and a gasp of breath the creature broke the surface, steadily treading water. It wiped aside the water running down into its eyes and blinked at the three Trenalbi gathered on the banks, watching it. Nersi beckoned to it, making coaxing sounds and it stared back, then growled and swam forward into shallow water and stood up.
"Gods!" Chaiila spat.
Perhaps 'he' was a reasonable assumption, although that... arrangement was nothing like a male Trenalbi. The fleshy organ didn't tuck away into a sheath the way a normal male's did and to have something like that dangling out all the time didn't look comfortable. That must be the reason it wore clothes, that and the fact it was, for all practical purposes, hairless. It... he had body fur. Well... patches of it and quite heavy in localised places. The hairless hide was light bronze-brown and slick with water, accentuating strange muscles flowing under the skin. A large patch of the skin, about the size of Sekher's hand, down the creature's left side was discoloured by what looked like a large bruise. It probably was; that explained its stiffness.
A strange body. Sekher's eyes couldn't find it attractive, nor most likely any of the others, but it fitted; it worked. There was a symmetry there that gave it a grace of sorts.
"What are those things on its chest?" Chaiila asked.
"Nipples, I think," Sekher replied uncertainly. But if it was male, how could it have...
"Breasts? Up there? And what about that?" she pointed at the organ between its legs. "And that hole in its stomach? Is that a pouch?"
"How should I know?" said Sekher. "There are some animals that don't have pouches, aren't there? Some trappers brought some in once. The females had teats on the outside, all along their torsos. The babies are born fully formed. They don't pouch."
"Sounds disgusting," Chaiila grimaced with distaste. "Then maybe those teats are vestigial; like your pouch."
Sekher scratched his ear. Vestigial, that would make sense. Still, the thing was more confusing naked than it had been clothed. "What say we call it male?"
Chaiila tipped her head to one side. "Might as well. To think of that as female..." she trailed off and spat air.
Seth'Nai rolled his eyes, looked down at... himself? growled something at them, then fell back into the pool with a splash that sent waves lapping at the banks. A gentle kick and he drifted back into the water.
"It likes water, doesn't it," growled Chaiila.
Nersi glanced at Chaiila, then said, "You could do with a wash yourself."
"You don't exactly smell like a rainfall, you know," Nersi grinned, then cuffed her cousin's arm. "Come on! Live a little!" Before Chaiila had a chance to pontificate, she had her breeches off and was splashing into the water.
"Come on in," Nersi laughed. "You'll love it!" She floated on her back and awkwardly kicked out into the pool. Seth'Nai glided up alongside and put his arms beneath her to steady her.
"Hai!" Chaiila snarled, anxiously pacing the pool like a caged beast. "Gods, Nersi. Don't do this!... Che! What're you doing!?"
"What does it look like," Sekher growled as he fumbled with the lacings of his scruffy clothing. He threw the jerkin aside and kicked the trousers off. "I'm dirty, dusty, and itching from the Gods-blasted blood suckers in those clothes. This is the first chance in I-don't-know-how-long I've had to get some of this filth off and I'm not going to miss it."
With that he turned his back and gingerly walked out until the water was up to his waist, then crouched down, pinched his nostrils shut, and dunked his head. He surfaced again coughing and sputtering and shaking water from his ears.
"It's not so bad once you're in, ah?" Nersi was floating on her back, lazily waving her hands against the current.
"Hai, Chaiila!" called Sekher. "If you're not going to join us, why don't you go and bring the shen over here."
And Chaiila turned to him and slowly bared her teeth. "Male, you can get them yourself, then you can..."
Sekher wasn't really sure that what she suggested next was physically possible.
A pair of small Hitherdarts twisted and spiralled in the air above the pool, dodging through overhanging leaves as they pursued and snapped at insects. Sekher lazily bared teeth at them, then flicked an ear and rolled over. The Lightbringer was warm against his skin, as was the dark rock, while the spray raised by the waterfall was a cool mist in the air, shot through by a rainbow of colours.
He squinted and glanced over at where Chaiila was perched on a sunlit rock, her fur almost blending in with the darkness of the stone. She had stripped down to breeches, but disdained to swim. She looked hot, also tense; sitting with ears twitching uneasily as she watched Seth'Nai and Nersi.
The mismatched pair was further downstream by the pool, Nersi leaning back, her damaged leg stretched out before her, the bandages pulled back to expose the wound to the sunlight. Seth'Nai's idea. He was sitting beside Nersi, wearing the silver poncho he had cobbled together for Sekher and practising skipping pebbles across the pool. He was improving, Sekher noted as a series of seven ripples appeared in succession across the water. A Hitherdart dived upon one of the ripples, mistaking it for an insect or small fish. As he watched, Nersi took up one of Seth'Nai's hands and manipulated the fingers, exploring their flexibility.
Sekher watched the pair, then watched Chaiila staring at them with such ill-concealed apprehension and he had to smirk to himself. It was probably for the best that Seth'Nai had - however unwittingly - donned the poncho. It concealed that strange body - especially the maleness - transforming it into something more androgynous. Certainly Chaiila was nervous enough of its differences without it having to advertise. Down at his feet Seth'Nai had left his water flask lying in the stream after drinking from it. Now, why drink from that when there was a whole damned stream of water running beneath his nose?
He snorted and scratched at the itching across his chest. Gods-burned fur itched madly growing in. Still, there was a good stubble there now, although the skin was still very visible. Seth'Nai had as much fur as he.
Ai, hells... What was he going to do with the creature?
His lips twitched in an uncertain grin. They could trust it... him, see where he was leading them. Or was that perhaps too trusting? His head lolled to the side and he caught a glimpse of white: Seth'Nai's clothing had been rinsed in the stream then spread out on the rock close by, split down at the seams and left splayed out to dry, spread-eagled like a flayed white hide. It was as obscurely confusing as the rest of the creature's devices, Sekher decided, crouching down beside the clothing, all manner of curious tubing and lumps tucked away under the fabric. There were no visible clasps or closures, and there was an arrangement of devices and tubes in the crotch of the breeches that looked... extremely uncomfortable.
Sekher decided he wasn't about to try them on and turned his attentions to the foot coverings. Peculiar cups with a tough base. Now Sekher could see them he saw that the feet were another place where Seth'Nai differed radically from Trenalbi: long and broad and bulky with five stubby digits and a bulbous heel, the creature's feet were nothing like the four clawed toes a Trenalbi walked upon.
"Huh?" he blinked, looking up to meet Chaiila's eyes. She grinned and moved to crouch down a little closer, tucking her tail in close: "Anything interesting?" she repeated.
Sekher dropped the foot covering. "Not really. Needs to wash his feet though."
Chaiila growled softly, shaking her head and poking at the clothing. "It really wears all this stuff?"
Sekher barked, saying, "I can tell you from experience, it gets very cold without fur."
"I'll take your word for it," Chaiila smiled, grinning slightly, baring her teeth. It was one of those flashbacks, as vivid as if in drift, Sekher remembered the first time he'd seen her: the fire and smoke, the darkness, she lifted off her helmet and grinned at him.
She was watching him with head cocked to one side.
"You have beautiful teeth," he said, and instantly felt like a prize fool.
"What?" Now Chaiila looked confused.
Sekher's ears went back in distress as he tried to meet her eyes and failed dismally: "You are... you are the most beautiful female I've ever seen," he choked out.
"Seen a few in your time, ah?" she retorted guardedly, tail thrashing.
Sekher hung his head and rubbed at the sparse stubble on his arm. Was he really expecting to get somewhere with this? A young male, barely out of cubhood and threadbare as an old rug... Gods, why bother?
"Hai, Che," she reached out to tap his knee lightly, drawing back after touching. "Thank you."
He looked up, startled.
The gold eyes burned in that soot-grey face, glinting with amusement. "I have seen more adroit approaches," she said. "But you are sincere. I'm sorry if I was... sharp. Nersi tells me it's a habit I've got to break."
She stood then and came over to Sekher. He flinched as she stroked his head, giving him the briefest of groomings. "I like you too, Sekher Che," she murmured in his ear, then raked her claws down his side and left him sitting there, staring while she smoothly crossed the rocks to the water's edge. Her breeches came off, her tail bristling and dancing as she stepped down into the water.
Sekher shook his head. What in the hells just happened? He was... then she... Gods, don't try to understand females.
Downstream Nersi hastily turned away but not before Sekher saw the smile. Seth'Nai caught his eye and twisted his mouth up at the corners, baring teeth. His next gesture left Sekher puzzled: just what did a raised thumb mean?
His breath was misting in the early morning chill as he slung his meagre kit across the shen's back behind the saddle then laboured to secure the straps, snarling softly. His ruined hand flexed stiffly behind its bandages, sending a surge of pain up his arm. After a final check of the tack he gritted his teeth and swung himself up into the worn leather saddle, draping himself stomach-down across it then swinging his leg over to bring himself upright.
Just above the walls two of the Daughters hung in the clear sky, dark blue above, fading to dusty gold in the west where the Lightbringer was still low in the clear heavens, leaving the lower courtyard in shadow whilst the upper stone reaches of the palace were bathed in early light and warmth. There were Trenalbi stirring, as there had been throughout the night; another troop convoy leaving the city, menials scurrying to load equipment. A squad of elite cavalry clattered in through the gateway in double file, pennants fluttering from their spears tucked upright behind their saddles, eyes alertly scanning their surroundings from beneath flared helmet rims.
Chenuk ducked his head and reined his shen out of the way of the armoured cavalry beasts. They passed him without a second glance. Of course. A single crippled male in patched brown riding cloak and breeches with the orange seal of his pass displayed prominently on his shoulder riding a messenger shen way past its prime. There wasn't a lot to look at.
"Chenuk!" there was a trooper running to head him off. "Hai! Chenuk! Gods burn it! Wait!"
The shen's claws scraping on stones as the ex-trooper reined back and leaned on the saddle-brace as the other jogged up.
Chenuk knew this Trenalbi; had known him for some time. They'd been in the same battlegroup through several campaigns. That had ended that night on the roof of the palace, that night when the sky opened, fire rained and his battlegroup was slaughtered. Who remained? A few.
"Chenuk," the other removed his helm, running fingers through his ruff. "Copulation! We heard you were out. You're really leaving, aren't you."
"Not a lot for me here, ah?"
Chenuk raised the bandaged stump of his hand to the remains of his ears, his scarred face. "I lose a few pieces and they give me my marching orders. Huhhnn, what do they need with another useless mouth."
"Chenuk, even wrong-handed you could still outfight most."
"Thanks," Chenuk's tail twitched. "Wrong-handed perhaps; one-handed... forget it. No, they can't use me."
"You have plans?"
"Yah," he started the shen moving again at a slow walk. Lire paced alongside.
"No, nothing here." Chenuk rubbed at his hand. "Perhaps the Hub... perhaps not. I don't know. I've a debt to settle."
Lire's eyes glanced down at the hand resting on the front of the saddle. "A debt? Something to do with that?"
Chenuk stared back at him. Lire's fur crawled. This Chenuk had changed... The lack of ears? It left him unreadable, cold. Maybe it was something else.
"Perhaps," Chenuk replied, not offering any more.
There was an awkward pause, then Lire chittered softly. "Well, wherever you go, may the Gods smile on you. Also, there is this," Lire fumbled at his belt then handed across a small purse made from a piece of old cloth tied with a leather thong. Chenuk felt the weight, the clatter of silver inside.
"You'll need it," Lire said.
"I... Thank you," Chenuk said and reached down to clasp wrists with Lire. "Thank them also."
"They know," Lire grinned. "If you really want to impress them, find it. Bring back an ear."
"I'll do that," Chenuk acknowledged, then clawed his shen forward, leaving Lire staring after him until a cavalcade of heavy goods wagons rolled between them.
He took it slowly through the town, although the main street wasn't nearly as crowded as it was before the wars. The fighting had taken a lot of the able-bodied. The remaining were older males, cripples, and those with skills that made them too valuable to conscript and ship off. There were the few females in their veils and robes with their own contingents of Small Guard, over in the male sector to procure goods unavailable on their side of the Wall.
None paid any attention to him.
The guards at the gate gave the seal on his shoulder a cursory once-over then waved him on. Chenuk started across the bridge, letting the placid shen have its head while he sat staring at the horizon. Halfway across he tore the seal from his shoulder and casually tossed it over the railing. He didn't look back as the piece of parchment fluttered down to be carried away by the river.
End Godsend part 9