Chapter 13 – Thera
When you can jump thirty feet at a time and land with no force of impact, roof-hopping is a breeze. Unfortunately, Barrenger’s partner in his mission did not have this advantage. Barrenger stopped at the edge of another rooftop halfway to the city wall, waiting for Samlin to leap the gap from the last roof and jog to catch up. The guard shot him a rueful look in the moonlight as he rubbed sweat from his brow. “You’ve obviously had practice at this.”
Barrenger grinned behind his mask. “What, am I going too fast for you?” he quipped, already lining up for his next jump.
Samlin was panting slightly. He still wore the light armor of his guard uniform, which put him in even starker contrast to Barrenger’s black outline. But he shrugged, giving his shoulders a loosening shrug. “Nothing I can’t handle. Just don’t want to lose you in the dark; you’re like a pit shadow in that outfit.”
With a covered smirk on his face, Barrenger pointed towards the next roof and bounded across, his feet trailing arcs of green selah. It felt good to be in the lead for once. And he was starting to like Magela’s friend, even if only on the grounds of their mutual dedication to hunting down Salein. A positive swelling in his chest that he hadn’t felt in weeks buoyed him up as he sailed from roof to roof, heading towards the source of his freedom. This is going to work!
Samlin caught up with him again two houses farther down the hill. He held up a hand to halt Barrenger’s next jump, face wary as he peered into the night. “You might want to stop selah-jumping now. We’re getting close to the wall, and we don’t know if any guards are out looking for you yet.”
Barrenger nodded. Selah-jumping had been more expedient, but the glowing green flashes did interfere with his stealth. It was time to switch to the second phase of their plan. The two young men located a fire escape on the side of the building and scaled down to street level. Samlin could walk openly, being in uniform and obviously not a Rukilef. Barrenger trailed him, sticking to the shadows with relative ease. Few people were awake in the residential districts this late at night, but they moved with caution just to be safe.
“So. Your house watch.” Samlin’s unexpected whisper brought Barrenger’s head up. “They seem loyal.”
Barrenger picked up on the implied question. “Lefl’s been with us a long time,” he replied quietly, constantly checking for movement as they slipped down another side street. “She worked with us back when my…” He swallowed but made himself finish. “Back when my father was still around.”
Samlin went quiet again, and Barrenger thought that was the end of it. They were about two blocks away from the wall when the white-haired guard spoke again. “Your whole staff seems to care a lot about you and the Prophetess.”
Barrenger shot him a sidelong glance, unsure where this topic was heading. “Well, she is the Prophetess of T’lani Suun. It’s a very important role.” He paused, then amended himself. “And my mother is about the kindest person you will ever meet. That inspires loyalty.”
Samlin laughed softly. It had an oddly bitter tang to it. “Yeah, I figured that had something to do with it. Trust me: being in a prestigious position all on its own doesn’t guarantee loyalty.”
Barrenger shot him a surprised look. “I’m guessing that’s something you’ve experienced first-hand?” he asked cautiously. It felt strange, delving into someone else’s personal life like this; people didn’t usually offer him the opportunity. But Samlin had brought it up, and now Barrenger was curious.
The guard shook his head, turning them down another corner. “Let’s just say there’s a reason I transferred to the temple here at T’lani Suun. S’tani Ko is experiencing political upheaval of the worst kind right now.” He grimaced. “I’m just hoping I have a better experience with the leadership here.”
Good luck with that, Barrenger thought wryly, but he kept his mouth shut. He’d heard of the leadership struggles going on in a few of T’lani Suun’s sister-cities, although nothing bad enough to explain soldiers transferring out. Perhaps Samlin had a personal connection in S’tani Ko’s politics that had him wanting to distance himself. And while Barrenger and the Council didn’t get along, it went without saying that T’lani Suun was prospering under the current leadership.
The two lapsed into silence as they made their final approach, ending in the shadow of a shop just across from the city wall. Barrenger knew this city like the stripes on his skin; he’d been to the wall more than a few times. But that never prevented a fresh sense of awe when he stood before it.
The walls surrounding T’Lani Suun were legendary. Ten yards thick, forty feet high, made from seamlessly stacked blocks of steel-hard whiterand stone, with battlements, signal pyres, and watch patrols spaced at regular intervals along the top. Only a ring of greenery touched the wall, all buildings separated from it by a wide road, and the only structures within it were guard corridors and stairs. There would be no climbing over or cutting through this monstrosity; the sides inside and out were polished smooth as glass once a year by tulinai possessing the selah gift of earth manipulation and tested hourly against gifts that could be used to alter it in any way. The wall guarding T’lani Suun from invaders had stood impenetrable for a thousand years.
But, like any impenetrable barrier, it had one weakness: the people guarding it. That was where Samlin came in. Barrenger sank further into the shadows and watched as Samlin walked across the thirty-foot-wide cobblestone road that separated the city from the barrier. The young guard approached a small wallgate where a single guardsman stood watch – just as they had hoped. Despite the threat of the Rukilef, the city had not actively experienced an attack in over a decade. And certainly never from the inside.
This was the tricky part. Well, the next tricky part, Barrenger amended. As if sneaking out of his heavily guarded house, escaping across the city, and tracking down and assassinating the leader of the entire Rukilef nation were all much easier phases of the plan.
With the night so still, Barrenger could just pick out their voices as Samlin hailed the wall guard. He’d informed Barrenger that if the guardsman was a low-rank Reson, which was likely, he should be able to pull this off by his authority alone. Samlin flashed his badge of temple guard office at the man. “Good eve, guardsman. State your name and rank.”
The man came to attention, although not quickly; Samlin’s authority apparently didn’t quite reach high enough to inspire him. “Reson Mikha Lerob, sir.”
Samlin nodded. “Well met, Reson Lerob. I’m here to relieve you of your watch.”
That got a puzzled start out of the sleepy man. “What sor’a manner is this?” The guardsman spoke in the drawl of the western provinces; another transfer to the capitol, no doubt. “I’s not t’be relieved for a’nor two moonshifts.” He tilted his head, likely eyeing the shiny breastplate and signature tunic Samlin wore. “An’ aintchu a Temple Guard? Wor they up to at t’Council?”
Samlin shrugged and gave a friendly chuckle. “Who knows? Everyone is spooked by the Rukilef delegation’s little visit. Adding more guards to the patrols should help keep everyone fresh and alert in case those rot-tongues try something.”
The man straightened, taking his weight off his spear, and cast a nervous glance at the wall. “Aye, sure ‘nuff. Those filthy raknef would be the sor’ to pull such a bizness.” His mouth suddenly split in a cavernous yawn, and the man ducked his head sheepishly when he finally managed to close it off. “Can’t be lyin’ t’say I’ll appreciate th’ extra nip, isa.”
Samlin clapped the man on the back. “You go rest easy, soldier. I’ll buy you a hot te’coa next time I see you.” The man nodded and waved a hand sleepily before tottering off.
Barrenger breathed a sigh of relief as the guardsman disappeared between the houses. Now they had a full two moonshifts before anyone noticed this wallgate was unmanned. Élo might just be blessing their mission, after all – sending them straight to a gate with a tired and low-discipline watchman. But a pang of conscience made Barrenger look back towards the guard disappearing into the shadowy streets. Would the man get in trouble with his commander when it was found out that he left his post? Even if Samlin were caught, he would theoretically be fine when it was revealed that he had helped to bring in the Rukilef leader. But Barrenger hadn’t considered the possible collateral damage to others… His thoughts flashed back to Lefl with another pang.
Samlin waved him the all-clear sign, and Barrenger took a deep breath and steeled his thoughts. Too late to back out now. Barrenger took his steps carefully, weaving across the field like a slip of shadow until he stood by the door with Samlin. Barrenger could feel his heart pounding with adrenaline as Samlin pressed the chargestone key against the lock, and the mechanism within unbolted with a sharp clunk! They had really made it!
“Alright,” Barrenger whispered hoarsely as they stepped inside the cave-like wall tunnel. The chargestone lamps were off, only the green light of Barrenger’s stripes and gold glow of Samlin’s splashy patterns illuminating the stonework. “This is where we split up.”
“Nothing doing,” Samlin retorted, locking the door behind them with another click! He shoved the key in his pocket and walked briskly past Barrenger into the tunnel. “Come on, we’ve got a lot of ground to cover.”
Barrenger stood rooted in surprise. The plan had been for Samlin to help him get out of the city, then head back before his absence was noticed. Barrenger jolted back to his senses and trotted to catch up, scowling through the darkness. “I don’t need you to pupsit me! What are you going to do, come as my manservant? That’ll go over well,” he snorted.
Samlin’s glowing eyes rolled. “I’m going to stay in hiding and be ready to cover your back when you escape. You really think they’ll just let you go after you assassinate their overlord? Don’t be an idiot. Besides, I have a few tricks in my boot, so don’t worry about me.” The guard gave his head a decisive shake and walked faster down the dark tunnel. “I’m coming. Accept it or head back.”
Annoyance warred with gratitude as Barrenger silently followed his new partner in espionage to the second gate. The outer doors were watched by guards on the wall top who could signal to the inside men to open the door catch, but all of them were watching for bodies coming in, not heading out. It would be a simple matter to open the door from inside and sneak out between the patrol gaps.
Barrenger stopped Samlin with a hand to his shoulder just as he was about to open the gate. “At least leave the keystone inside the door.” Leaving his post was one thing, but losing a wall key could have dire repercussions on the wall guard’s career.
But Samlin shook his head. “We might need it. If the other Rukilef follow us all the way back, we’ll want to get inside as fast as we can.”
Barrenger stared at him. “Maybe, but I don’t really want to land that guard in more of a bind for letting us out.”
“It’s his own fault if he does get in a bind,” Samlin snorted. “That was shoddy guardsmanship if I’ve ever seen it. Anyway, there’s no use worrying about it now. Bringing down the leader of those demon-worshippers is more important than one or two Reson losing their posts.”
It was hard to argue with that logic. Even so, as they slipped out the gate and slunk into the night, Barrenger felt the guilt in his stomach twist a little tighter.
The moon shone overhead bright and full, lighting their way across the wide farming plain that surrounded T’lani Suun. It had been over a year since Barrenger last left the city, and he breathed in the pure smell of unharvested shasho with relish. He’d already stowed his mask and gloves in his pack, and his white bangs flapped in the wind as he ran. To the east was the forest where his pap had taken him on hunting trips. He hadn’t done that in a long time.
Fortunately, his dormant tracking skills weren’t needed. “Look at these,” Barrenger said, crouching on the side of the road where stone paving gave way to a packed dirt road. Massive pawprints still stood out amidst the marks of regular foot traffic, too large to be from any of the pets or livestock that might accompany travelers to the city. Samlin nodded in silent agreement, and they set off into the night past flowing fields of grain. They had a day’s travel to make up fast if they wanted to catch the Rukilef party.
It didn’t take long to reach the edge of the massive forest that surrounded T’lani Suun; cleared farmland gave way to gorlan trees a hundred feet high, their wide fronds cutting out all but trace glimmers of moonlight. Their green, scaley trunks were so thick that the road cut through the trunks as often as it swerved around. This was the second great natural barrier that protected the city from large-scale Rukilef invasion, after the Castio mountains in the distance. The space between the two, a mix of smaller forest and rocky terrain, was sparsely inhabited due to its proximity to the pass which connected Rukel and Hawath through the mountain range – a favorite point of attack by Rukilef raids. That was where they would likely catch up to Salein’s party.
They settled in a steady jog, breaking every few miles to drink and catch their breath. There was little to no talk; the only sound that accompanied them was that of pounding boots and chirping insects. Barrenger keeping up with Samlin’s military-trained endurance with occasional selah-boosted jumps, dulling the impact of his steps to spare his feet. Cool night breezes ruffled his hair, the smells of loam and dense plantlife a subtle contrast from the dustier scents of the city. The faint glow of Samlin’s selah markings led the way like a cloud of lightbugs.
He reveled in the freedom of it – just running, pursuing his goal with a comrade at his side. No judgmental eyes! No barely veiled fearful looks! And none ever again if this works!
After you spill someone’s blood. After you get yourself killed. After you break your mum’s heart.
The biting thought made him misstep, but he quickly straightened his pace. Barrenger distracted himself from the fresh wave of doubt by reviewing his plan to the rhythm of his tired feet tattooing the soil. Everything was going better than he’d dared hope: escaping the city without notice, and now finding and following the trail of the Rukilef. All he had to do was get close enough to approach and join their group.
Of course they’ll welcome me, Barrenger assured himself nervously. I’m the reason they came all this way, aren’t I? And the Fasha had seemed convinced that he would want to join them if given the chance. He would just have to play to that arrogance. It might take a couple of days to gain their trust, but all he really needed was to be alone with the Fasha long enough to catch her off guard and…
Barrenger’s blades rested heavily on his pack. It’s necessary. Soldiers do it every day in the military. This is no different. She deserves to die. And once he brought her head back to the city gates and proved his loyalty, he would finally be free of the haunting distrust he’d endured for the last ten years of his life. Never mind how the faces of his mother, Lefl, the wallguard, Samlin, even Magela, swirled accusingly in his mind’s eye.
Despite the fatigue dogging his limbs, Barrenger picked up speed, outpacing Samlin briefly – as though he might outrun the stubborn doubts nipping at his heels.
It’s too late to turn back now.
The two young men stopped for their tenth rest just as the trees, now growing sparser, began to brighten with ghostly predawn light. The road they followed, while still wide, had split from the main thoroughfare two hours back. Barrenger leaned his arm and forehead against a gorlan trunk, chest heaving. Beside him, Samlin sat on a rock on the edge of the dense undergrowth beside the path and took a swig from his canteen. “You alright?” the guard asked, and he had the gall to sound barely winded.
Barrenger heaved another breath before forcing himself to straighten. Force transference may have saved his soles some pain, but six hours of jogging through the massive forest on uneven roads had turned his legs to jelly. “Not… used to… endurance running,” he admitted grudgingly, accepting the canteen from Samlin and trying to ignore his complaining muscles.
Samlin grinned. “I hear you. It was torture when they started us at the academy. They really drill it into you, though.” He wiped his mouth on his sleeve and nodded towards the trail they’d been following. “These tracks look fresh. We might be getting close.”
Barrenger gulped another breath before taking a look for himself. He could pull enough knowledge from his fuzzy memories of trailcraft to see Samlin’s point. His brows came together. “That doesn’t make sense. They should be half a day ahead of us still.”
A thoughtful frown creased Samlin’s brown face. “…I might be able to check. Hold on.” He crouched to the ground, placed his bare hand against the dirt, and closed his eyes; then his selah patterns pulsed with gold. Several beats passed as Barrenger waited for Samlin to finish whatever he was doing.
Finally, Samlin stood up, rubbing his hand. “There’s a large group of something, maybe five miles up the road, but I couldn’t get a clear read on them with all this rock and root. I doubt we’d run into any others on this trail, though. Might be time for me to fall back.”
Understanding dawned on Barrenger. “You’re an earth shifter?”
Samlin offered him a wry grin. “It’s a minor gift – not so much earth shifting as earth sensing. I’m not strong enough to manipulate earth, but I can sense vibrations through it. It’s handy for scouting and hunting.” He paused, shooting Barrenger a sidelong glance. “Aaand I can do a little wraithing,” he admitted.
Barrenger gawked at him. “And you didn’t mention that before?” he asked incredulously.
Samlin’s grin turned sheepish. “We didn’t exactly plan for me to be out here, and there wasn’t much room to talk last night. Besides, I can only hold it for about twenty minutes at a time, so it’s not that impressive.” He paused, eyeing Barrenger with a speculative air. “What about you? Any other useful gifts I don’t know about?”
“No, just force transference and some weak shields,” Barrenger replied absently. If Samlin had the power to become invisible, even for a short while, it would take a huge load off Barrenger’s mind in the next phase of the plan. In hindsight, he realized he should have asked; almost every tulinai had multiple selah gifts, usually a strong primary ability and one to three minor gits. Infusion – the ability to infuse objects, primarily chargestones, with energy – was the one universal constant. Most others occurred frequently and randomly throughout members of all the races, like shields, beams, and heightened senses. Others, such as wraithing and nullifying, were less common than the racial gifts but nowhere near as rare as the seven Maker Gifts.
“Huh. I didn’t guess you had shields,” Samlin said, tilting his head thoughtfully. Barrenger’s eyes narrowed, but Samlin quickly raised a hand. “Hey, sorry, I’m not trying to say you aren’t Haweyh. But you didn’t even throw up a shield when I came at you yesterday. I understand why you didn’t use your force transference, since it’s mostly offensive and you were trying to avoid a fight, but…” He shrugged.
“I didn’t have time,” Barrenger pointed out wryly. “My shields only last a second or two, but if I’d known you were going to lash out like a selvipe, I could have blocked. Or I could have absorbed the blow with my force transference. It’s not just offensive,” he pointed out. It rankled, hearing Samlin so casually assume his powers only worked for causing damage. Of course, he saw you in your venting room, Barrenger remembered, feeling heat creep up his neck. Not hard to understand why Samlin would assume it was primarily destructive after seeing that.
“Well, at least you got our racial gift,” Samlin said, raising a fist as if toasting a victory. He tilted his head to the side, white hair shorter but just as messy from running as Barrenger’s own. “So… does that make your force transference a racial gift from, ah, the other side?” he asked meaningfully.
Barrenger winced. “No. I mean, yes, I got it from my pa— from my father,” he muttered. “And I know the Rukilef get it more often than Haweyh, but it’s not a racial gift.” Racial gifts were gifts that, while not exclusive to any one people group, tended to be far more likely – and far more powerful – if you were of certain blood. Most Haweyh possessed the gift of shielding, and they had more healers than any other people group, making some claim this was a secondary racial gift. Forgas nearly all gained flight, and many had wind control; Corlans rarely had gifts that didn’t involve elemental manipulation; Tielgen universally possessed either enhanced sight, smell, or hearing; the Sanforda had a stronger likelihood of long-movement, the shifting of objects outside of one’s reach.
And the Rukilef held the monopoly on shapechanging, which they used to take on those bestial forms that made them so terrifying in battle. But whether or not they had enough occurrences of force transference – a gift that was admittedly rare among the Haweyh – to make it count as a racial gift was a subject of research that Barrenger had no interest in investigating.
Samlin’s golden eyes were bright. “And did you… y’know. Get the real one?”
Barrenger blew out a sigh and shook his head. “No. Thank Élo. I’ve only got the two.”
“Have you ever tried?”
A jolt went down his spine, and Barrenger shot a sideways glare at Samlin. The white-haired guard threw up both hands this time. “I’m just curious! It’s not like shapechanging itself is cursed, there’s even a few Haweyh with the gift—”
“Yeah, and we both know how much they go around showing it off,” Barrenger snapped. “Look, I don’t have shapechanging, and I’m glad. It’s one of the ways that reminds me I’m not totally one of them. Now drop it.” He emphasized his point by hurling the capped canteen into Samlin’s chest with just enough boosted force to make the guard umph! as he caught it.
“Alright, alright. Probably deserved that,” Samlin admitted, strapping the canteen to his belt. He didn’t look quite so convinced, but after a thoughtful pause and more irritating staring, the brown tulinai hopped off his rock. “Well, at least we all know where we stand. So how do you want to play this?” He nodded in the direction he had indicated before.
Barrenger ran a hand through his hair, exhaling his pent-up emotions from that uncomfortable conversation. He stared in the direction of Samlin’s mystery group, and felt new trepidation step up to the plate. If it really was Salein’s party… time to prove he could back his own plan. “I’ll approach the camp, see if they’ll welcome me in. If they do, and I can get close to Salein, I’ll look for the best opportunity to take… take her out.” He bit his tongue, hating how uncomfortable it made him just to speak his intentions aloud. I have to do this. “It might take a day or two, depending how… uh… welcoming she is,” he added.
Samlin nodded. “I’m not in a hurry. We need something off her to prove we succeeded if we want the Council to believe us. A head would be preferable, but probably too bulky to carry long-distance.” The detached way the guard talked about carrying a severed head did something uncomfortable to Barrenger’s insides. “I’ll stay wraithed as much as I can, maybe grab a riding mount and have it ready for when you run. I’ll do a felhawk scream so you can find me. Sound good?”
Barrenger nodded back, stamping down the uncomfortable squirm in his gut. “Sounds good. I… guess I’ll scout ahead,” he murmured, adjusting his pack on his shoulders. Conscious of the twin swords on his back.
But before he could turn away, he found Samlin studying him again. The two stared at each other for a long moment, birds whistling in the air overhead. The faint smell of their sweat mingled with the forest air, and Barrenger was suddenly conscious of how tired he felt. What is he staring for now? he thought, irritation warring with nerves.
Samlin finally broke the silence, his voice low. “Barrenger… no offense here, but you can do this, right?” The guard’s golden eyes were solemn. Intense. “I know you can fight, but you’re not technically a soldier. You’ve never killed someone before. I just don’t want you to lose sight of the goal here – this needs to be done.” Samlin suddenly grabbed Barrenger by the shoulder. Barrenger flinched, reining in instincts born of too many attacks, and forced himself to meet Samlin’s steady gaze. “Can you follow through on this?” the guard demanded.
An involuntary swallow gripped Barrenger’s throat, his hands tightening on his pack straps. Can I? Should I? Can I still turn back? Should I have waited?
Yesterday’s catastrophe rushed back on him with force. That wicked laugh ringing in his ears; those green slitted eyes, the mocking tone, her arrogant condescension. Spewing her disrespect and venom at his mother, who never did anything to deserve all the pain she’d gone through because of her husband. Because of her son.
“He is of Rukilef blood, and our blood always bears true.”
“I have to,” Barrenger said, a little too loud, as if he could drown out Fasha Salein’s poisonous words. “I have to prove her wrong,” he whispered beneath his breath.
Samlin nodded after a moment, and a fierce smile creased his face. “Good. In case you run into them sooner than we expect, I’ll fall back now. But I promise I’ll be there to watch your back when we need to run.” Samlin saluted Barrenger, a fist to his breastplate-clad chest. “Élo be with us.”
Barrenger exhaled heavily. “I hope so,” he muttered, and jogged down the road.
It was an hour later when Barrenger decided he really wanted to be done hiking.
Here on the far side of the gorlan forest he and Samlin had run through last night was a short expanse of flatland. This quickly gave way to foothills, low and smooth but gradually rising as they led up to the lush Castio mountains. Barrenger had reached the edge of the flatland a while ago, and now he found himself winding through rocky ravines shaded with thick foliage, his only noticeable company the ringing with birdsong and lizard cries. “Five miles, my foot,” Barrenger grumbled. Maybe Samlin had been picking up the movements of a herd of jungle sedges; those furry behemoths could probably shake the ground for miles.
Or maybe Barrenger wasn’t as great at judging distance as he liked to think. He decided to quit whining and focus on following the tracks.
The pawprints were clear on the path in front of him, as if the Rukilef simply didn’t care who knew of their presence. “That doesn’t make sense,” he muttered to himself. After all, a scout from T’lani Suun could easily track their movements and report back if the military heads decided it would not be a breach of the truce flag to attack the Fasha before she exited Haweyh lands. Not that they would, but… the Rukilef probably didn’t know that. And why were the tracks still so fresh? Even if they’d camped for the night, their prints should be at least a night old. Something isn’t right.
Hair prickled on the back of his neck just before he noticed that all the birdsong had gone quiet. Barrenger slowed, every nerve on edge as he approached a small rise that blocked his view of the road ahead. If the Rukilef were over that hill, he’d be walking straight into their camp… and that would be it. He either succeeded, or… he didn’t want to consider the alternative, but it crossed his mind that death might be preferable.
You can do this. Barrenger steeled himself and took a determined step forward.
The knife was at his throat before he knew it. Barrenger froze, all his senses focused on the cold line of steel pricking his jugular. From the corner of his eye, he saw a dark shape with glowing green lines slip out of the brush, following the arm that held the razor-sharp blade. Barrenger swallowed involuntarily at the monstrous outline that revealed itself in the dim light. A beast warrior.
The looming figure was not as tall as the two creatures who had accompanied Salein to the Council meeting, but it stood with the poised readiness of a frenic cat ready to pounce. White fangs gleamed beneath its grotesquely feline lips as it smiled. “Ah, you must be the nephew. Welcome.” It was a male voice, natural if harsh from unfamiliarity with Barrenger’s native language, but the low chuckle and the fact that the blade didn’t move from Barrenger’s neck didn’t exactly make him feel welcome. Staying on Barrenger’s right side, the cat-faced creature leaned forward, black nose snuffing his white hair. Barrenger resisted the urge to gag. “I’m not one to doubt my Fasha,” the sentry said with a smirk, and a glow-tipped tail lashed eagerly behind him, “but now I best shame myself for lacking belief. You do look the son of our Drago and one of those fetid white-hairs.”
An angry retort leapt to Barrenger’s tongue, but he caught himself and stilled it. The whole point was to convince them that he wasn’t loyal to the Haweyh. Barrenger swallowed shallowly against the blade and tried to meet the creature’s eyes at the awkward sidelong angle. “I’m here to see Fasha Salein. My… aunt.” It took effort to keep his tone neutral, but he was reasonably sure he’d managed it.
The Rukilef sentry barked a laugh, flipping the dagger in a lightning-quick arc and jabbing it against Barrenger’s spine. “Of course you are. She’s been expecting you.” His captor didn’t try to take the twinblades from Barrenger’s pack sheathes. That was either an indication of the beast warrior’s overconfidence, or a warning to Barrenger that he should not get any funny ideas about fighting his way out. “Come along then, boy; let Jash be your guide to your new life.” With a grand flourish belied by the slightest pressure of steel, the beast warrior urged Barrenger over the crest of the hill.
There was nothing there except more path, trees, and rocks. Barrenger didn’t have time to be nonplussed before the feline Rukilef nudged him off the path and into a barely visible ravine lined with brush. “Where are we—?” Barrenger started, but another jab in his back made him bite his lip and keep walking. Just play along. Samlin will find the trail. Or perhaps he wouldn’t, and the temple guard would go back to T’lani Suun. That would probably be for the best – let Barrenger finish the job alone, like he’d planned from the beginning.
Strange how he found himself hoping Samlin wouldn’t leave. He’d only just met Samlin O’dara, and most of their experiences together had been rocky. But the zealous temple guard had stuck with him this far – had helped him make this plan possible. It might be selfish to want a friend – did he consider Samlin a friend now? – to put himself in danger. But as Barrenger walked along this hidden path, “guided” by the knife of a shapechanged maniac towards a secret Rukilef encampment, on a mission that made his conscience squirm, he realized that he’d never felt so alone.
They walked for half an hour through the ravine. Then a clawed hand on Barrenger’s shirt jerked him to a stop, and the cat guard twisted his tail around to push back the brush in front of them. Barrenger swallowed when he realized they had almost walked right off a small cliff.
Then he saw what was at the bottom of the cliff and falling became the furthest thing from his mind.
A low valley ringed tightly with rocky outcroppings and trees lay below that cliff, and at its center sat the Rukilef camp. But it was not a camp for ten warriors. Dozens of tents stretched out before him, dotted with the faint blue smoke lines made by campfires. Rukilef soldiers prepared food or tended to the score of packlizards in a hastily assembled corral to the left of the camp. Dozens of those figures in camp bore animalian features – most of them more saberdog like the Brinak warrior from the meeting, but with a rich mix of other muzzles, beaks, feathers, ears, even scales. Barrenger couldn’t get an exact count from here, but there had to be more than a hundred – far more than the Haweyh would have tolerated on their lands if they knew.
Barrenger’s mouth had turned into a desert. There weren’t supposed to be this many. Are they planning an attack? Does the Council know about this? Questions swirled chaotically around one certainty that lay like a rock in his stomach: his plan, which was growing more holes by the second, had not accounted for this.
A low chuckle and an impatient jab reminded Barrenger of his current situation. “Aye, it’s a lovely sight, isn’t it? But we’d best not keep the Fasha waiting. You’ll be introduced to the kin soon enough.”
Barrenger cleared his throat and nodded, forcing himself to walk forward with confidence even as his pulse hammered in his ears.
Sights and smells swept over him as he walked down the rise towards the camp. The gray tents were four-man travel structures, rough and hardy strichlin fabric stretched over poles for easy assembly and breakdown, although most had one or two scraps of colorful cloth as haphazard decoration. Amid the pungent odor of unbathed soldiers and old leather, someone was cooking meat with plenty of seasoning, making Barrenger’s stomach rumble. A tent twice as large as the rest sat at dead center of the camp, and it was in this direction that Barrenger was guided. Heads turned as he passed, and soon calls rang out, drawing those not yet out of their tents into the morning light to see what was happening. A large crowd of Rukilef, man and woman and beast warrior alike, streamed towards Barrenger and the sentry, laughing and pointing like spectators at a particularly interesting fight. Barrenger had never seen so much forest green in a crowd, and neon green selah slashed the crowd.
Even the words the Rukilef shouted back and forth weren’t familiar to him. Plenty of languages came to T’lani Suun through visitors from neighboring and far-off countries, and his mother had ensured that he learn the basics of one or two as any educated child of the higher classes should. But everyone Barrenger had ever conversed with spoke fluent Haweyhen. The absence had never occurred to Barrenger until now, when he found himself surrounded by a strange tongue. Of course they don’t speak Haweyhen, he chided himself, trying to bolster his confidence. But the Fasha does. And you won’t be here long enough to worry about the rest! How you’re going to get out of here once the deed is done is… something I’ll figure out. Hopefully soon.
His “guide” jerked him to a stop as they came to the entrance flap of the large tent. The cat sentry nodded to a guard standing outside the tent flap, who ducked inside, leaving Barrenger with hundreds of green eyes intently watching his every move. He focused on keeping his breathing steady, clenching and unclenching his fists. It would be stupid to try and beat his way out of this crowd, but if the plan fell flat right here, he would at least go down fighting.
The flap was thrown aside, and the Rukilef soldiers stilled on some unseen command as Fasha Salein stalked out with feline grace, looking just as powerful and terrible as Barrenger remembered from two days before. The hulking beast warrior Brinak followed close behind her, canine lips twisted into a scowl.
This had better be the best acting of your life, Barrenger thought, working to keep his back straight and his gaze unflinching as he finally came face-to-face with the Bloody Queen.
Fasha Salein Szor walked right up to Barrenger, stopping barely a foot away. Hands on hips, the Rukilef leader gave Barrenger a long look up, then down, taking in every part of him until Barrenger had to fight the urge to squirm.
Then that shark-like grin flashed across the Fasha’s face, and she threw her arms wide. “So, you finally decided to show up!” she crowed, and the silence was broken by chuckles rippling around the warcamp. Salein prodded Barrenger in the chest, her fingernail sharp through his shirt. “We’ve been expecting you since high suns yesterday. I was almost ready to send Brinak back to retrieve you before my warriors lost patience with all this idling.”
Were they really that convinced that he would be eager to join them? Even after his outburst during the Council meeting? Barrenger eyed his aunt uncertainly, conscious of the knife still pricking his back. “It… uh… took time to find the right opportunity,” he said slowly, and tried a cool shrug. “But I’m here.” He dared to throw a contemptuous glance back at the sentry for good measure. “Although your welcoming committee could use a few lessons in hospitality.”
Salein barked a laugh, and even the sentry smirked. The Fasha clasped Barrenger’s shoulder in a proprietary grip. “By the Underlord, the pup might not be a complete sweetgut, after all.” She leaned her face even closer to his, giving him a keen view of her narrow, green-glowing eyes. Something in that gaze unnerved him – as if a wild power lurked below, ready to leap out. But even stranger was how familiar her features looked. Her nose was the same as… as his father’s. The shape of her face, though sharper, reminded him of the one he saw in the mirror every day. She really is my aunt, he thought, and his stomach clenched. What else besides facial features did the two of them share?
“But let me hear it from your own ears, Barrenger,” she said quietly, drawing all his attention. “Tell me why you left everything you’ve ever known to join us.”
The crowd went silent again, leaving Barrenger standing in a pool of expectation. This was it – whatever he said now had better be enough to convince the Fasha and all her deadly warriors that he wanted to be one of their demon-worshipping, bloodthirsty, soul-corrupted brood. He’d never had to do something so repulsive in his life, but this was what he’d come to do. Steeling himself, Barrenger looked the Fasha in the eyes.
“I thought about what you said, and… you’re right. They treat me like trash in that city.” True enough, he thought, a flash of resentment lending an air of honesty to his bravado. “I’m tired of being barely tolerated by those self-righteous, holier-than-thou weaklings who only care what I look like. When I lost my temper at the Council meeting, they put me under house arrest, treated me like I was already a Rukilef spy in their midst.” The ease with which the words came from his lips was disturbing. He made himself talk louder, including all the Rukilef in his declaration. “If they already see me as a Rukilef, then I might as well embrace it and finally be somewhere I belong!”
He finished and fell silent, waiting nervously. Salein eyed him just long enough to make it uncomfortable before saying, with a sickly-sweet smile, “And what of your loyalties to that dung-eating puppet of a woman and her god?” Something flashed in her eyes – maybe rage, maybe excitement. Whatever it was, it unsettled Barrenger even further.
Barrenger hesitated… but only for a moment. I’m sorry, he thought, not sure to who, before saying, “I’ll get over her. As for her God… I never really had a use for Him, anyway.” The words sent a knife into his gut as a thousand liturgies of the love of the Threefold and the dangers of rejecting Him flowed through his mind. A picture of his mother’s face, full of sorrowful disappointment, filled his mind’s eye, and he had to work not to close his real ones. It’s just for the act; I don’t actually mean it, he thought anxiously.
He kept his attention trained on the Fasha and tried to ignore the little, niggling whisper in the back of his mind: Don’t you?
All the warriors who had been staring at him turned their eyes to Salein. The Fasha’s green eyes bored into his, a keen intelligence there that made him wonder how he ever thought this charade would fool her. He was so convinced he was about to be stabbed in the gut that he startled when she grabbed his arm and lifted it into the air. “Strak, put that spine-sticker away. That’s no way to greet our long-lost bloodkin!” she yelled, and that razor-sharp smile split her face once again.
A roar of approval washed over Barrenger from all sides. Green-skinned Rukilef raised their fists in an unfamiliar salute, and a few even came forward to clasp his arm in welcome. Barrenger stood in a daze, wondering at this odd sensation as men and woman, some his age, most in their late twenties or thirties, greeting him with enthusiasm. Maybe that was it; he’d never experienced such a large group of people being happy to see him. The realization that he enjoyed the feeling despite it coming from this particular crowd was the final topping on the already unsettling cake.
I have to finish what I came here to do and get out, he thought nervously. Before they really DO corrupt me.
Salein soon waved the other Rukilef away, her hand on Barrenger’s shoulder. She was shorter than him by several inches, but her entire being radiated authority and the expectation of obedience. “Enough! Get back to your posts,” she barked. “I want this whole camp ready to move out in an hour!” As the Rukilef broke up, Salein jerked her head towards a nearby campfire. “Come, nephew, let’s get some proper food in you. I think we’ll begin your education now,” she added cheerfully. Brinak stuck close to her side. Most likely he was more her bodyguard than a political “delegate.”
Wary, but working not to show it, Barrenger followed her and Brinak to the campfire. Four Rukilef crouched around it, each holding a long wooden skewer. The delicious smell of cooked fish wafted up from the pot hanging over the fire, and Barrenger’s stomach growled again. He’d brought rations, but they were still in his pack, which they hadn’t taken from him; he wanted to save those for the escape. Still struck by the surreal experience of walking among his people’s vilest enemies as if he were strolling the market, Barrenger crouched tensely by the fire and waited to see what Salein would do.
Salein crouched next to him and propped her chin on her hand. “Your first lesson, nephew: we don’t give a fesnip’s shan that you’re a mix.” Barrenger jolted, reaching involuntarily up to his white hair and glancing around. As if to reinforce their Fasha’s words, the other Rukilef pointedly ignored them, walking quickly by on their various tasks. Salein chuckled. “You’re not so uncommon as you think. Barl! Trenona!” She raised a hand, waving over a man and a woman. Barrenger did a double-take at the sight of them: while both had the signature green selah stripes of the Rukilef, one had purple hair more common to the Tielgen people, and the other had blue-green skin as if he were half Baracai or Sulden. None of the other Rukilef spared them a second glance as they came and bowed to the Fasha.
Salein smiled proudly. “As I told that pathetic excuse for a Council: Rukilef blood is strong,” she stated with fire in her eyes. “If you are born to a Rukilef, you are Rukilef, body and selah. The only proof we require is your prowess in battle.” She reached over and plucked at a lock of his wind-tossed hair, making him shiver involuntarily. He hated people touching his head, and her doing it was even worse. Seeming not to notice, Salein continued with a viciously cheerful air. “Once you have proved yourself, you will be accepted as a warrior in the greatest nation on Thera; but you were Rukilef the day you were born.”
The claim should have made him sick to his stomach. But as Barrenger stared at the two serious-faced warriors – so a match for their fellows that aside from their unusual markings, they might have been exact copies – an ache stirred deep in his chest. He closed his eyes, trying to shut it out, but he couldn’t extinguish the sense of bone-deep longing. To be accepted like that by his mother’s people, in spite of his strange markings… Why were these demon-worshippers, these blood-drinking berserkers, more adept at extending that kind of acceptance than the ones he truly wanted acceptance from?
“Well, that’s a relief,” he said lightly, straightening his hair with a quick comb of his fingers. “I wasn’t excited about the idea of going bald to fit in.”
Salein chuckled again, dismissing the two warriors with a sharp jerk of her chin. She speared a fish from the pot and tore a bite from it, eyes closing in relish. “Really, nephew,” the Fasha said conversationally, lounging with all the ease of a relaxing wildcat despite the bustle of packing soldiers around them, “it’s not your appearance that makes the Haweyh despise you.”
Barrenger did a double-take. What’s her game? “I have a hard time believing that,” he answered slowly, some of his suspicion creeping out.
Salein swallowed her mouthful and turned over, that oddly predatory grin of hers spreading wide. He wondered if she was capable of an honest, genuine smile, or if her face simply lent itself naturally to that expression. “No, no, that’s only what they think they don’t like about you. Let me tell you the truth, boy. The real reason they fear you is that they sense your power.” He flinched slightly as her finger poked him in the ribs once, twice, three times. “The Haweyh fear power, and in you, they sense the potential that comes naturally to our line. The power to defeat them, to show those self-righteous degenerates their true place. That is what they fear, and that is why they have worked your whole life to control you. But now you’re free of them, and we can help you reach your true potential.” The Fasha leaned uncomfortably close again, her glowing green eyes shining fervently with something other than selah as she placed a hand on his shoulder once more. “You have power of which you cannot even dream.”
Barrenger’s years of practice in keeping a neutral expression were a lifegift today; but he couldn’t stop the prickle that ran over his skin. What does that mean? Did she expect him to be able to shapechange? He couldn’t very well tell this mad woman that he didn’t want her power; in fact, he would happily be rid of the powers he had inherited from his father’s blood. He just wanted…
The thought trailed off. What did he want?
To be accepted?
To be someone else?
To be a full Haweyh?
All of those and none of them summed up the hole that constantly lurked in his chest. And as repulsive as he found this woman who was responsible for the death of thousands of innocents, some part of him couldn’t help but be drawn by the possibilities she offered…
Salein was watching him. Barrenger forced a short laugh, rubbing the back of his neck as he came back to the present. “Sorry… I haven’t slept since yesterday morning. Might be catching up to me.”
Salein rolled to her feet at lightning speed, startling him. She reached down and, when Barrenger hesitantly accepted her hand, jerked him up with impressive strength. “We’ll have to toughen you up, boy,” she stated. It was not a suggestion. “But we’ll accommodate you for now. Brinak will take you to my tent for a kip while the rest of the camp is broken down.” She tipped her chin at the hulking bodyguard. “Make sure he is not disturbed.”
There was a meaningful look between them that Barrenger did not miss. They didn’t really trust him. Good. The feeling of rightness this brought put Barrenger back on even footing. Standing up, Barrenger nodded to Salein. “Aunt.” Then he followed Brinak back to the large tent.
It was spacious inside, spartan but comfortable. A long-haired moe rug covered the center of the space, and a sturdy but collapsable cot covered in furs marked where the Fasha slept. Brinak pointed at the rug. “Sleep there,” he said tersely. “We’ll be leaving in an hour, and you will not dishonor the Fasha with weak complaining when we move.” The beast warrior snorted, eyeing Barrenger’s frame. “You may look fit, but civilian life has made you soft if one night of travel has you so weary.”
“I’m sure I’ll sleep better knowing someone as tough as you is looming over me,” Barrenger muttered, and Brinak bristled. But whether it was a natural-born part of Barrenger’s act or he was just too tired to care, he held the beast warrior’s glare with one of his own. Finally, Brinak cracked a small smirk, nodded once, and ducked back out of the tent flap.
Barrenger flopped onto the rug with a deep sigh. I am in a deep, deep pile of mukdra dung, he thought, just before falling dead asleep.
A/N: The chapter in which Barrenger starts to really understand how deeply underplanned his scheme is. XD; This is one of the chapters that got split in half, and thankfully I already had this perfect stopping point built in! The next part always felt like a new chapter anyway.
I reworked the bit where they discuss powers, adding some more conversation as well. Hopefully it makes for interesting reading! I’ve always seen the selah gifts as a cross between supernatural and genetic influence; there is definitely a supernatural aspect to them, but they are also in many ways tied to bloodlines and material influences. Much like our world, depending how you look at it.
Thanks for reading!