Outcasts & Runaways – Part 1.16

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Chapter 15 – Thera

Barrenger raced through endless hallways, but each one held a mirror. He would turn a corner as soon as he saw one, but there was another, and another, and another. All of them were his face – or were they his father’s? Or Salein’s? Or some other Rukilef he didn’t recognize? Barrenger almost ran into another mirror, and the faces all blended, their mouths moving with the same words over and over as they stared into his eyes.

“Murderer. Traitor. RUKILEF.”

Barrenger rolled awake and off the rug automatically at the sensation of someone tugging the fur out from under him. When he stood to his feet, groggy and covered with sweat from the quickly fading nightmare, he realized the tent he’d fallen asleep in was gone. In fact, the whole camp had practically vanished. Tents were being loaded onto the rocky-skinned corbays, warriors shouldering and adjusting their packs and armor for the trek. Barrenger stood amidst a field of busyness, lost for what he was expected to do. For the most part, the Rukilef warriors ignored him, or pretended to; but he caught more than a few stares in his periphery.

“Hey.” The voice close to Barrenger’s ear made him whip around. A tall, skinny man with a narrow face and green stripes on his cheeks grinned down at him. “You gonna eat that?” He had the same rough accent that every Rukilef except the Fasha and her guard Brinak had demonstrated when speaking the Haweyh tongue.

“What?” Barrenger followed the man’s gaze and realized that two fried fish sat on top of his pack, miraculously saved from being toppled into the dirt by the determined rug-roller. Barrenger’s stomach growled even louder as he realized he still hadn’t eaten. He scooped them up, and hesitated, eyeing the hovering Rukilef. He was starving, but it wouldn’t make sense to give a bad impression on his first day… “Uh. Here.” He held one of the fish out.

The man’s face pinched warily. “What do you want for it?”

Barrenger mouth quirked in a puzzled frown. “Nothing. You can have it.”

Cautiously, as if expecting Barrenger to suddenly slap him with it, the man reached out and took the fish. Once he had it completely clear of Barrenger’s hand, he stared at it, then at Barrenger, bare-faced amazement on his face. Barrenger’s spirits lifted a fraction.

Then the man burst out laughing. “By the Under, the Haweyh really are gullible milksops!” Barrenger’s jaw tensed as the man wiped tears from his eyes, laughing even as he gobbled mouthfuls of fish. “Jush’ gives ‘ou food wiffout makin’ a deal! Hilarious!” The dark green man walked off, still snickering and spewing fragments of Barrenger’s fish.

“That was stupid,” Brinak said. Barrenger didn’t even react to his sudden appearance, still glaring after the man with his face burning. Brinak put a giant furry hand on Barrenger’s shoulder and spun him, pointing towards where Salein was talking to several familiar faces. The “delegation” to T’lani Suun, Barrenger realized. “The Fasha will have you up front. And get those Haweyh niceties out of your thick skull. This is a war camp; we’ve no patience for that drivel.”

“Then how does anything get done?” Barrenger grumbled, ripping off a mouthful of fish. It tasted great, actually, with a pungent herb in the seasoning that he didn’t recognize.

Brinak rolled his eyes, or at least Barrenger assumed so; it was hard to tell when they were in a constant state of full-powered selah, glowing from corner to corner. It struck Barrenger that he had yet to see Brinak in his natural tulinai form. “The Fasha and her generals give commands, and those who fail to do them to satisfaction are beaten. Repeated failures mean death.”

Barrenger shook his head, finding it difficult to comprehend both the mercilessness and the waste. Since he doubted the subject of mercy was familiar to Brinak, he went with the second. “What, you just… kill them? Why not demote them to another unit? At least then you don’t lose fighting strength.”

The beast warrior’s mouth twisted in disgust. “One does not enter the Fasha’s elite guard without earning the right. Those who don’t continue to meet that standard prove they have grown weak and worthless. We wouldn’t sully our armies with such sloth.”

All of these people are the Fasha’s elite guard? Even that one?” Barrenger marveled, forgetting that he was talking to one of ‘these people.’ “There must be over a hundred!”

“One hundred exactly,” Brinak said, a hint of pride in his gravelly voice. “The best and most deadly in all our armies. Yes, even Karcha.” He smirked down at Barrenger. “Careful you continue to entertain him, unless you are prepared to honor-duel one of our most cunning assassins.” As they neared the Fasha and her generals, Brinak’s voice dipped menacingly low. “And they will not care that you are the Fasha’s blood if you fall from her favor, whelp.”

As if I didn’t know that already, Barrenger thought, casting uneasy glances at each Rukilef they passed. This mission of his was looking more deadheaded by the minute.

“But no,” Brinak added, and pushed a small form Barrenger hadn’t even noticed forward. “Not every Rukilef here is a guard.” Barrenger blinked. It was a short, thin woman, probably in her late twenties to early thirties. She did not meet his eyes, only staring subserviently at the ground between them. But the truly strange thing about her was her appearance. She had alabaster-white skin with pale pink selah squares all over her arms and face; he’d never seen that combination before, but perhaps she was related to the red-selah’d Zan. And oddest of all was the long braid of moss-green Rukilef hair on her head, a few errant pink streaks gleaming in its depths. Barrenger couldn’t remember ever seeing another tulinai who looked so strange and mismatched.

“This is Tylic,” Brinak said dismissively. “She’s a personal servant. She will make sure you don’t starve or do something truly stupid.” The tall beast warrior leaned towards Barrenger, making the young man lean back as he bared his fangs meaningfully. “Remember that she is a servant. I don’t want to see you bringing shame on our Fasha with more of your Haweyh stupidity.”

Barrenger looked back and forth from Brinak to Tylic. They could not have been more opposite, and it perplexed Barrenger to think that this timid woman with eyes downcast could in any way be of the same bloodline as the looming Brinak. She was clearly a hybrid like Barrenger. The conversation with his aunt earlier that morning came back to him. One look at the silent servant told Barrenger that this woman, whatever her parentage, hadn’t fulfilled Salein’s requirements for “prowess in battle.”

Unsure what else to do, Barrenger nodded. “Uh, thank you.” Brinak snorted and shook his head, leaving Barrenger, closely followed by the silent Tylic, to trail along behind.

Salein was just wrapping up her meeting when they arrived. “—send the secondary troops forward and await my command. Dismissed.” Two of the beastform Rukilef in the meeting turned and peeled away on their mounts, heading in the direction of the border. Brinak’s cleared throat brought her head around. The Fasha’s night-green face lit with that clever grin. “Ah, nephew, you’re awake! Come on then, you’ll ride with me in front.”

Barrenger bit back a sigh of relief when she gestured at several corbay riding lizards. As much as he wanted to stay on the Fasha’s good side, the idea of another full day of marching with his energy reserves so low pained him. Barrenger climbed into the saddle without hesitation, receiving an inquisitive snort from the corbay. He scratched one of its tall, fan-like earfins, earning a grunt of pleasure. Not as fun or as smooth as a hoverbike, but at least they can’t claim I’m a complete city wash, he thought proudly, noting the slight nod Salein gave at his smooth mounting. The servant woman, Tylic, came to stand beside his mount, her eyes staring blankly ahead.

The double suns were reaching their zenith as the camp moved out. Barrenger was surprised by how thoroughly the camp ignored him; the Rukilef seemed utterly focused on their individual tasks, showing much the same discipline Barrenger had witnessed in the Haweyh Temple Guard. Of course, they would have to have some discipline to be able to stand up to our armies, Barrenger noted, although he still felt a little put-off by the evidence that these warriors weren’t the completely crazed berserkers he’d always pictured. Though it could be because they aren’t fighting anyone right now.

There were fifteen corbay riders besides Barrenger and the Fasha, most of them the same delegation that had come to T’lani Suun; the mounted warriors set a fast but managable pace for the ground units. Barrenger found himself shooting frequent sympathetic glances down at Tylic as the morning wore on; she bore a heavy pack, and lines of effort creased her face as she strove to keep in line with her temporary master’s mount even while climbing over rocks and roots that Barrenger’s corbay walked over easily as they passed through the craggy, forested foothills.

“Come now, nephew,” Salein said, edging her mount closer to him. Another servant paced quickly at the side of her mount, and Tylic had to move dangerously close to Barrenger’s corbay to avoid getting stepped on. But Salein didn’t spare her a glance. She had donned a deep brown cloak edged with fur, seemingly unconcerned by the rising heat. “You must have questions about our way of life.” Her knowing chuckle told him that she was well aware of his violent expectations about Rukilef daily life.

Barrenger cleared his throat, searching his thoughts. He wouldn’t be able to act for some time; didn’t it make sense to get more information? That was what spies did, after all. Barrenger looked over at her, bumping softly in his saddle to the corbay’s plodding gait. “Uh, sure… Alright, what’s this ‘initiation’ I’ll have to do?” That seemed like a smart opener; he had no intention of going through with whatever crazy ritual they wanted him to perform, but she would expect him to wonder.

And he didn’t yet have the nerve to ask the question he really wanted to ask.

Salein casually twirled one of the many knives always strapped to her body. “It is a combat challenge. You’ll have a week to train beforehand, so take advantage of that. There won’t be any mercy given by the judges for your weak upbringing, or your relation to me.” Her eyes and teeth flashed. “I expect you not to dishonor our family line, my nephew.”

Barrenger blinked in surprise. Just a combat trial? He could handle that; he’d been trained in twa’ki by the best, and the last few years had seen him coming out on top more than not when someone dragged him into a fight. Still, he’d expected something… darker. A ritual killing, maybe committing one’s soul to the Underlord.

Perhaps, if worst came to worse, he could manage this charade for a longer period. Not that I want to, he told himself firmly. But it’s something to consider.

Despite her apparent delight at his military interest, Salein was deft and dismissive in turn with any of his more probing questions as the day wore on. Getting detailed information about Rukel tactics from her was like trying to pry a suckerfish off a rock barehanded. She explained in detail the upcoming Festival of Groton, a week-long feast with games and dancing to celebrate a long-ago victory by the famed Rukilef General Groton the Bloodletter. Her description of the special giant cakes covered in rare, glazed fruits from the heart of Rukel made Barrenger’s mouth water. But any question about army training tactics was met with a patronizing, “You’ll experience that soon enough.” And forget asking her how she had brought this large of an encampment into Haweyh territory without raising alarms, much less lost the T’lani Suun escort guard that surely must have been sent to make sure they exited Haweyh lands peacefully; that just earned him a secretive smile that put a chill down his spine. The likelihood of multiple Haweyh bodies in a ditch somewhere made his stomach turn, and the first prayer he’d managed since waking flew upward on instinct. Élo, protect them if they still live. He could do nothing more but put the gnawing question out of his mind.

As the day wore on, Barrenger found that he didn’t fully know what to make of his aunt. He would have suspected that Salein was still suspicious of his true intentions, if she didn’t take every free moment between conversing with her generals to enthuse about his rejoining his proper bloodline and the “glory” that awaited him as a warrior of the Rukilef. There were even short periods where she seemed almost normal: a war commander, to be sure, but with an enthusiasm for her people and their culture that surprised him. Perhaps he’d never really considered that the Rukilef had a culture, aside from murdering for fun and worshipping the embodiment of all evil.

But those moments were brief, quickly swallowed up by another bloodthirsty smile or deadly joke at the Haweyh people’s expense. In a way, he was grateful for his aunt’s vile humor. It reminded him of her true nature… and helped squelch his discomfort about what he planned – what he needed – to do.

The warband marched the whole day at a fast clip, bringing their party steadily closer to the mountainous border between Hawath and Rukel. Barrenger found that if he balanced himself properly, he could catch quick naps in the saddle (especially in the afternoon, when Salein was more occupied with leadership matters), which made the day more bearable. The other Rukilef continued to give him little more than curious looks, marching or riding in units of twenty with the backmost group leading the packlizards, all moving steadily towards the two tallest peaks of the Castio Mountain Range. And as Barrenger settled into the rhythm of the march, he caught himself… well, enjoying part of the experience. This might be the closest he would ever come to being in a real military unit. If he pretended it wasn’t a military unit of the Haweyhs’ worst enemies, he could almost imagine that he was in a proper Haweyh regiment, riding with loyal comrades to defend Hawath from her enemies. Like the one his…

There was one question he had yet to ask Salein, and it would not leave him be. It hung in the back of his mind constantly, but the sick feeling it stirred in his chest made him push it aside again and again. Not yet. Not yet.

They stopped only for a brief midday meal, but Barrenger felt grateful for any excuse to stretch his legs – and to get away from his aunt, who moved off to meet with her generals again. Tylic silently brought him his food: a haunch of some roasted fowl wrapped in hefty bread. Barrenger had taken three relishing bites before he noticed something.

“Aren’t you going to eat?” he asked.

Tylic visibly startled, meeting his eyes for the first time. Her pupils were the light pink of her selah, and they glowed brightly with astonishment. “I… I have already eaten, my Lord,” she said quietly, breaking his gaze to stare ahead again.

Barrenger frowned. “When? You only left for a moment to get mine.”

Tylic glanced up at him uncertainly. “This morning. The Daignak eat a hearty meal of fortified porridge and travel bread at first light to give us strength for the day. We eat again in the evening, after chores.”

He stared at her incredulously. “That sounds harsh.” A flicker on her face that might have been agreement was quickly hidden. Barrenger almost offered her some of his, but then remembered Brinak’s warning. He took another bite instead, studying the woman. “What is a Daignak?

“We are, my Lord.” Tylic bowed deeply. “The Daignak are the servants of the great warriors of our people. It is our honor to serve and die for the glory of Rukel.”

“Well, hopefully they won’t need you to die today,” Barrenger said lightly. The joke apparently didn’t sink in, as Tylic only nodded. Barrenger gave an uncomfortable cough. “Anyway, uh… thanks for the food.”

The utter bewilderment that filled the white-and-pink woman’s face made Barrenger wonder if he’d made an offensive gesture without realizing it. “What? What did I do now?”

“I… you…” Tylic shook her head, glancing uneasily around her. “The Daignak do not receive thanks for their work. It is our purpose to serve.”

Ah. So that’s what Brinak was talking about. Barrenger felt his disgust rise again. Every time he let himself start believing the Rukilef might not be as horrible as the stories said, he was reminded of the truth. “Well, it is a custom where I was raised to thank anyone who did a service for you, whatever their station. Pardon me if some habits are hard to break.” He nodded to her again, saying quietly but firmly, “Thank you.”

Tylic stared at him, but her expression was not one of gratitude. She looked scared. She furtively glanced around again before speaking in a nervous whisper. “Please, my Lord. I am assigned to serve you and ensure you know what you must to not dishonor the Fasha, so I must inform you of this: you must not discuss or act upon the ways of the dread Haweyh here. It is a blasphemy, and your servant may be punished. Of course, you should not concern yourself with the pain of a Daignak,” she added, as if she truly considered herself beneath concern, “but I fear it would cause a rift between yourself and our beloved Fasha.”

Barrenger bit his tongue to keep the angry words in check. Calm down. You’re not here to start a revolution amongst the Rukilef’s slave class. But he couldn’t just leave it at that. “So how will I know which ‘ways’ I’m not supposed to do before I do them?” he asked irritably. “Am I supposed to just treat everyone as if they’re beneath me? Act like you aren’t worth the dirt on my boots?”

Tylic simply shrugged. “Well… yes, my Lord. It is the way of the warrior: to assert your dominance over all who are weak. To show their lack of worth in order to exemplify your own.”

Suddenly the food in his mouth had lost its flavor. Barrenger stared at the woman in front of him: at least ten years his senior, but without even a spark of self-respect. An ache settled in his stomach. “You’re not worthless, Tylic,” he said softly.

Tylic shook her head, eyes downcast. “I am Daignak. I failed the trials, proving my weakness. That is all that matters.”

“No, it isn’t.” Barrenger fought to keep his voice down; if anyone heard him talking like this, they might both be killed. But he couldn’t keep quiet in the face of this broken woman. Not when he wanted to punch every one of her slavers in the teeth. “Everyone has worth, Tylic. It doesn’t matter what your strengths are. You have worth because you’re a person.”

Tylic smiled then. But it was a bleak smile, devoid of hope. “Are these the beliefs of the Haweyh, my Lord? Forgive me for disagreeing with my betters, but my duty demands that I say these ideas are foolish – nay, blasphemy.” A wistful look entered her eyes. “Perhaps it would be nice if such things were true. But even if it is true for the Haweyh, we are Rukilef. The Haweyh god would destroy us; it is only through the Underlord that we may rise above His designs for our people. It is the Underlord who determines our worth, and I have failed to prove mine. So it must be.”

Bile roiled in Barrenger’s stomach. We. She was biracial like him, yet she felt she was fully Rukilef. And that he was, too. And hadn’t his people been claiming for years that the Rukilef were cursed, doomed to be cut down by the Maker for their sins?

Is she right?

The worrying thought turned what had been a fire of righteous indignation at his core into a cold, ashy pit in his stomach.

“It is not so terrible as you may think, my Lord,” Tylic added hesitantly. Her eyes strayed towards where Salein stood with her personal servants and Brinak, eating her lunch. To Barrenger’s astonishment, a smile briefly touched the woman’s pale face. “Before our Fasha Salein, the trials did not exist. Now we of the foreign-born have a chance to prove our worth. This is a great thing she has done.”

Before Barrenger could unravel this information or ask for more, the noises of soldiers reassembling broke in on their conversation. “The time to travel on has come, my Lord.” Tylic bowed deeply, her eyes returning to their vacant stare with alarming speed. “Allow me to assist you if any further questions come to mind. I am here to serve.”

Sure enough, Salein and Brinak were returning to the mounts next to his. It occurred to Barrenger too late that perhaps he could have asked Tylic the burning question he couldn’t bring himself to ask his aunt – surely a personal servant of the Fasha herself might know – but the green-haired woman was already facing forward, submissive and blank-faced. He shook his head, cursing himself. Élo, am I getting anything right here?

Salein flashed her toothy smile, tilting her head towards the pink-selah’d woman. “Is your Daignak performing well? The Daignac of the Fasha’s Guard are our most highly trained servants. It is considered a privilege to have one assigned to you personally.” Tylic straightened a little at the Fasha’s words, but did not alter her submissive mien.

Barrenger swallowed a sharp reply, keeping his eyes fixed on Salein’s so he wouldn’t glance at Tylic. “She is performing very well, Aunt. Tha…” He reconsidered his words, remembering Brinak’s derision from earlier. “I am honored by the privilege.”

Salein’s smile widened, and Brinak nodded slightly in approval. The Fasha slapped Barrenger’s corbay on the rump, making it startle forward. “We might just train you yet, nephew!” She vaulted onto her lizard’s saddle and made a sharp gesture to her waiting forces. “Camp, move out!”

As Barrenger urged his mount forward, Tylic’s whisper caught his ears, barely audible over the sound of tramping feet. “These ways you speak of… sound nice, my Lord.” He glanced at her, but she was still staring blankly ahead. Her lips barely moved with the words. “Would that they were true for us.”

She said nothing more to him the rest of their walk, leaving Barrenger alone with a new cadre of troubling thoughts.

—–

The second sun had almost set by the time Salein called a company halt; they were still surrounded by trees, but the forest giants were beginning to thin and shorten as they reached nearer to the mountains. The marching order dissolved into organized chaos as tents were once again erected. Barrenger slid off his corbay’s back, thighs aching. Salein appeared at his side and smirked as she looked him up and down. “Not used to day-long riding, I take it.” She jerked her head at Tylic, who hurried forward with a fresh canteen for Barrenger. “As much as I’d like to put you through your paces, you won’t have to endure much longer.”

“How close are we to the border?” Barrenger asked, wiping his mouth after a long swig. And how are we getting over it? Whatever way in which they’d avoided detection so far, it wouldn’t last if they tried to exit the massive mountain pass that was the most reliable way through the Castiel Mountains for large parties; the Hawath side of the pass was heavily guarded by a Haweyh fort.

Salein waved a hand dismissively. “We will through the pass and on Rukilef soil the day after tomorrow if the weather stays fair.”

Two days… Their way through the mountains, pass or otherwise, would be within another day’s travel. Barrenger looked away, pretending to study the rising campsite as his thoughts raced. I have to make my move tonight. I won’t stand a chance of escaping if I wait until the mountains. Salein would be dead by his hand tonight, which meant that if he ever wanted an answer to his question, he would have to ask it soon.

He wasn’t sure which prospect chilled him more.

When he turned back, Salein was gone, taking Brinak with her. Barrenger blinked in surprise, momentarily frozen with indecision as the work flowed around him. They really leave me alone a lot, he thought, mystified. Then again, what was he going to do in the middle of camp that wouldn’t be noticed by a dozen Rukilef warriors?

Tylic hadn’t spoken to him since their talk at lunch, becoming once again an emotionless automaton making herself known only when she was needed. He couldn’t tell if it was from fear of his earlier blasphemy against her dark god, or simple exhaustion. But she stuck close by his side regardless. Not sure what else to do with himself, Barrenger went to see if he could help.

Most of the tents were already raised and ready to go, so Barrenger wandered towards the basic corral that had been erected for the corbays. Trained corbays were docile creatures, happy to stay within a simple strung rope line so long as they had brush to munch. Barrenger walked up to one of the Rukilef rubbing the back scales of the corbay he’d ridden that day. Barrenger was surprised to realize, in the rapidly fading light, that the man’s selah wasn’t typical Rukilef neon green, but closer to a cerulean blue in color. He was probably part Baracai. Barrenger cleared his throat. “Any way I can help?”

The Baracai-Rukilef jumped like a startled futhopper, turning a wide-eyed stare on Barrenger. Barrenger put his palms up, surprised by the amount of fear and astonishment in the man’s eyes. “Sorry, didn’t mean to startle you. I want to be useful.” He put a hand on the corbay’s scales and smiled slightly. “I’m pretty good with these lizards.”

The man glanced wide-eyed at Tylic, who had snapped out of her blank trance and was looking equally horrified. He stared hard at Barrenger’s chin and gave a quick shake of his head. “Nan. Seba t’loch na,” the man murmured in the unfamiliar Rukilef tongue, but his meaning was obvious. No. There is no need.

Barrenger remembered Brinak’s warning about “Haweyh niceties” again, but his jaw hardened. How was making himself useful weaker than simply standing around doing nothing? Barrenger reached a hand towards one of the extra brushes, determined to make his intentions clear. “It’s no trouble. We have corbays back in—”

The man clutched the brushes to himself, goggling at Barrenger. And then, to Barrenger’s utter surprise, he spoke in the Haweyh tongue, as clear as crystal. “You mustn’t!” he hissed, once again looking around for watchers. Tylic appeared to be trying to block Barrenger from the view of the Rukilef in camp, her arms spread so that her woven gray poncho created a shield. With surprising speed, the man jolted towards Barrenger and shoved him towards the corral entrance. “Go! Quickly!”

Barrenger let himself be pushed, jogging a few steps away before he glanced back over his shoulder in bafflement. The strange man was already back to caring for the corbays, as calm and quiet as if nothing had happened. “Okay. What was that about?” he asked, turning to Tylic.

Tylic nearly vibrated with agitation. She had her hands clasped to her face, covering her tightly shut eyes. “Oh, my Lord, what have your servants done that you would risk them this way?” she moaned.

Barrenger stared at her, stung. “What? You didn’t do anything! I was just trying to be useful!”

She suddenly clutched at his sleeve, although the act of touching her master seemed to pain her. “My Lord, did you not understand my warning? Was I not clear enough? Forgive me if it is so, my Lord, and may I try once again to explain. You must not help a Daignak once they have been given a task, or in any way treat them as an equal. To do so is to display weakness. You could become Daignak yourself!” The green-haired woman snatched her hand back from his sleeve and bowed deeply, almost touching her head to the ground. “But as you did not know, and as you are kin to our beloved Fasha, may she rule a hundred years, it is my failure that you have done this transgression. If you will allow, I will take the blame upon myself so that the Fasha will not be dishonored by her kin, nor need to eliminate more of her servant force and so inconvenience her warriors. May my death satisfy the law,” she finished solemnly, and then then straightened and turned as if to march off to that very death immediately.

Barrenger grabbed her by the arm. She didn’t protest, but her head still hung low, her green braid hanging over her shoulder. Barrenger swallowed. “I didn’t realize. I’m sorry, Tylic.” She jerked again, and he bit his tongue. “Look, I can’t help it, politeness was etched into me as a boy.” His thoughts raced, and an idea reared its head. “I… I command you not to tell the Fasha about this, alright? I would be greatly dishonored to know I caused your death with my… my ignorance. You’re not allowed to put yourself up to be killed, alright? Alright?” he repeated insistently.

Tylic didn’t move for a moment. But gradually, her eyes rose to meet his. They were bewildered again. “Why… do you protect me, my Lord?” she whispered.

“Why would I not?” he rasped, finally losing patience with all this Rukilef insanity. “Why would any sane person execute someone simply because they didn’t warn someone else not to groom the packlizards? I’m not letting you throw your life away over something so stupid!”

Tylic stared at him wonderingly. Her eyes were edged in tears. “You… you really do care,” she whispered. “About a Daignak.

Barrenger huffed a sigh. “Yes. Yes, I do.”

Tylic looked at the ground for a long time, fingers interlaced. “I have heard of the ways of the Haweyh, the ways of which you spoke today. Kind ways.” She closed her eyes. “May I be cursed by the Underlord for desiring such ways. But my Lord, have you not joined us? Have you not renounced the Haweyh and your ties to their god? Do you not realize that these are the ways you have embraced?” Her gaze, when she briefly dared to meet his again, was searching. Pleading.

Barrenger growled in his throat, letting her go. He was this close, this close, to blowing his cover once and for all. Why she hadn’t ratted him out already, he didn’t know, but he had to tread carefully. “I may have joined you, but I don’t… agree… with all of your ways,” he said carefully, wary of any listening ears. But they were alone. “Perhaps… there is hope of changing some of them.”

Tylic’s eyes were bright pink in the twilight shadow of the mountains. And for a moment, there might have been a flash of something in them. Something like hope.

Barrenger ran a hand through his hair, anger fading and leaving him feeling uncomfortable. “Look, let’s… not talk about this right now,” he said. “I’m not making any promises. For now, just don’t… don’t believe you’re worthless, alright? Just humor me in this.” He hadn’t made any false promises. Killing the Fasha would certainly change something. Maybe someday all of these unlucky halfbreeds could be free. Maybe they aren’t cursed. Maybe… maybe WE all have some hope of being free.

Tylic studied him a moment longer before dipping a small bow. “As you wish, my Lord,” she said formally. But there was a lighter lilt to her voice than before. “If you will come with me, I will show you to the Fasha’s tent.”

“Right,” Barrenger sighed. Another meeting with his aunt. Another meal across from someone he was planning to… Barrenger buried the thought again. Use this evening to find out what you need to know, he reminded himself.

They had no trouble finding the Fasha’s tent; it was the first up, and Brinak seemed to relax ever-so-slightly as Barrenger approached. Likely he had been keeping watch for him. The burly beast warrior tipped his head towards the tentflap. “The Fasha is inside. Your meal will be brought soon.”

Barrenger took the hint and ducked inside, where Tylic immediately parted from him and stood against the wall with other tulinai who Barrenger assumed were more Daignak; most of them were obvious halfbreeds like herself, although there was one that could have been a pure Rukilef. Salein already lay sprawled sideways on the moe rug, a small table set out in front of her. A huge, crisply browned tropha fish lay on a steaming platter of purplish rice, and cups of a deep blue drink sat on either side. Barrenger’s mouth watered at the warm, salty fragrance wafting off the platter, and he found himself at the opposite end of the table before the Fasha could finish gesturing for him to sit.

“No need for pretty table manners here, nephew,” Salein chuckled, digging a chunk of meat from the fish with her fingers. She didn’t seem to have noticed his interest in the servants. “Dig in.”

The food was heavenly, and not just because Barrenger was hungry. If he had to admit one thing good about the Rukilef, it was that they knew how to cook – at least for their Fasha.

They ate in silence for most of the meal. Barrenger had noticed early in the day that Salein seemed to watch him near-constantly, and for all her gestures of acceptance, something in her gaze made him squirm. Perhaps it was just his knowledge of who and what she was that kept him on his toes; perhaps it was the gruesome task he had to do and his fear that she suspected him. Or perhaps it lay in the question still lingering at the back of his mind. Regardless of if it was one or all three, Barrenger found himself badly wishing to be anywhere but here.

Finally, Salein set her cup down and eyed him. “Alright, boy. I’ve been patient all day, but you’re dragging your feet on whatever it is you’ve been burning to ask me.” She smirked knowingly at his startled expression. “I’m not a fool, nephew, although you do hide your thoughts well. Get it over with so we can sleep.”

Barrenger flushed, chiding himself for being so easy to read. He could divert if he wanted to; there were any number of questions still in his head, from the sillier, “Is the love of fish genetic?” to the more serious, “If everyone born Rukilef is Rukilef, why do you treat some of them as lower than dirt?”

But he knew he couldn’t avoid this anymore. Barrenger studied the table for a moment longer before meeting the Fasha’s smirk.

“When we get to your capital… am I going to meet my father?”

Salein’s knowing smile grew. Her eyes strayed to the pack sitting on Barrenger’s left, and the twin blades still strapped to it. Barrenger hadn’t let them out of arm’s reach all day, but no one had commented. “Ahh. I thought that might be it.” She sat up from her lounging position. “Yes, although not yet. There will be time for a reunion soon enough. But he is away on a special mission.” Her mouth quirked, but Barrenger couldn’t be sure if it was meant as a smile or grimace. “I know he will be most excited to be reunited with his offspring.”

Ice chills ran up and down Barrenger’s arms and neck. He really is alive! For a moment, the wariness of the day melted under a boyish longing. He didn’t have to act tonight! If he played out this plan a few days longer, he might actually see his pap again. After ten whole years…

And he’ll be a traitor. Bile wiped the pleasant taste of fish from his tongue. In this moment, Barrenger realized that for all his gloom, all his fears, he really had held out hope that his mother was right. But now he had the truth. His father had been deceiving them all those years – had fooled and broken the heart of Marta Teshma most of all. He was nothing but a filthy, backstabbing turncoat. Rukilef blood really does burn black, Barrenger thought bitterly.

But I’m NOT a full Rukilef! His jaw set even as he fought down the sick swirling in his stomach. My father may have given in to their curse, but I won’t follow in his footsteps. I will set things right.

The vow gave him a fraction of strength… even if it couldn’t dull the pain of watching his last hope for his father’s innocence shatter and drift away.

“Well,” Salein said with a stretch, sliding smoothly to her feet, “it is time we both went to bed. Your education has only just begun, and I want you more than half awake on the ride tomorrow. You’ll sleep on the rug again. If you need to skat, there’s a hole by the lizard pens.” She paused to add with a wink, “Just be sure you don’t wake me, or I won’t be responsible for your cut throat.” And with that charming goodnight, she brushed a hand over the chargestone lamp hanging from the center of the tent and flopped gracefully onto her cot.

The entire parting lasted mere seconds, leaving Barrenger stunned in the dark. The servants slipped from the tent one by one, Tylic at the end with her pink eyes and square selah patterns glowing. She shot Barrenger a furtive look before disappearing out of the flap with the others.

Barrenger’s mind buzzed as he shoved the table aside, arranging his pack close so he could reach it easily where he lay on the moe rug. The painful prickles of his revelation still burned through him, making him tremble. Never mind his idiotic dreams of playing the long game or gathering information; he had to do it tonight. While they were still close enough that he might get away.

While they were still far from meeting his traitor of a father, whose face he never wanted to see again.

The twin swords gleamed dully in the moonlight that slipped through the tent flap, drawing Barrenger’s eyes irresistibly. He’d never taken a life before. A tremor ran through him, but Barrenger clenched his jaw, refusing to look away from the shining blades as he repeated the mantra that had gotten him to this point: She is a murderer and a criminal. She needs to die. I’ll do what I have to do to make this right.

But can you make anything truly right this way? a thought very like his mother’s voice whispered. Barrenger clamped his eyes shut against it and rolled over, wishing this miserable feeling would let him be.

Just focus on what comes after. Do the job and get out. Then you’ll be free.

Several servants returned eventually, bedding down around the edges of the tent. Hours passed, and the camp grew quiet. But Barrenger did not sleep. Fear and adrenaline brought him back to staring into the darkness faintly lit by the glow of campfires outside. The moon had been briefly visible through a slit in the doorflap, but now it had to be well above them. Soft breathing noises from several directions told him that Salein and the Daignak were asleep. Barrenger clenched the rug in his fist, willing himself to be a man and get to it already. Élo, I…

He couldn’t bring himself to finish the prayer. Something told him he was on his own.

He rose from his rug, as silent as a thief, as quiet as he had ever been sneaking across the rooftops of T’lani Suun. The outline of the Fasha was visible by her banked green glow, limp and relaxed on her cot. A few steps, and he stood over her, one of his father’s swords gripped in a pale-knuckled hand.

Some sixth sense made him freeze and glance to the right. Two glowing pink eyes stared at him in the dark. Horror filled him as he realized: Tylic was awake. Watching him. Any moment, she would sound the alarm—

Those pink eyes stared intently at him a second longer, twin moons in the night. Then they closed and vanished.

Barrenger barely silenced a gasp of relief as he released the breath he’d been holding. After Tylic’s seeming admiration for Salein on the march, he’d have thought for sure she would call the alarm. Perhaps he had gotten through her Rukilef brainwashing. Gratitude swelled in his heart; maybe he could even take her with him when he escaped, give her the better life she deserved. So much for your slaves’ loyalty! he thought, and squared his shoulders as he glared down at his sleeping aunt. He was doing everyone a favor tonight.

With a deep breath for courage, Barrenger raised his arm to scythe the blade down into the Bloody Queen’s heart.

A lithe hand flashed up and grabbed his wrist, clamping iron-like behind his selah. Suddenly Barrenger was airborne, then slamming face-first onto the rocky ground. Air fled his lungs, leaving him gasping and panting while his left shoulder wrenched painfully in its socket. A soft clink accompanied his sword dropping to the ground, but Barrenger couldn’t turn to look with his nose firmly ground into the dirt.

Salein stood over him, wide awake. She held his arm twisted behind his back practically to the breaking point, her bare foot pressed against his neck. As Barrenger’s mind scrambled to catch up, he heard her tutting, like a mother with a recalcitrant child. “Really, nephew. I had hoped you’d at least make it back to the capitol before trying something this foolish. Ah well.” She turned to the tent flap. “Brinak! Bring him in!”

Barrenger stopped struggling for a moment, confused. Then the tent flap opened, and cold understanding swept his swimming senses clear.

A beaten and bloody Samlin, hanging limply between two Rukilef warriors, was dragged in and unceremoniously tossed at the Fasha’s feet. Barrenger fought to move towards him, but Salein’s grip on his arm tightened and twisted, dragging a cry of pain from his mouth. Samlin shifted weakly – Praise Élo, he’s alive! – and met his eyes in the dark.

“S…sorry, Barren…ger,” he coughed. Barrenger saw with alarm the dark, glistening stains in the guard’s matted white hair. His gold selah barely glowed even in the dark tent. “Guess I’m n-not… good ‘nough at… sneaking,” Samlin managed with a hopeless chuckle. “M-messed up… the plan…”

Salein casually ground her foot into Barrenger’s neck, as if crushing an insect. “Oh, don’t blame this whelp for your failure, nephew. I knew you were lying to me the moment we met. You have so much of that Haweyh disdain in your eyes.” She clucked her tongue. “It’s insulting, really, that you’d think such a foolish plan would work on me. I have withstood assassins of the finest caliber.” One of the Rukilef warriors stepped closer to Samlin, his sword extended to rest on the young man’s bloodstained neck. “And hung their heads on my wall,” Salein added, voice dripping with grim satisfaction.

Panic shot through Barrenger, giving him new strength as he thrashed. “NO!” he roared, bucking against her weight. “He was helping me! ME! Don’t touch him!”

A strike like a hammer blow concussed his head, dazing him back into submission. “Oh, never fear, pup,” Salein said coldly. “You will have your punishment. But perhaps it is fitting that the Haweyh filth share in it.” She hummed to herself as if musing an interesting thought. “Yes… yes, I think that would be delightfully appropriate.” At a signal Barrenger couldn’t see from his dirt-level view, the Rukilef sheathed his sword and stepped back. “We will see if both of you would not prefer a quick death by the end,” Salein chuckled.

Barrenger watched Samlin’s eyelids flutter and close back into semi-consciousness. The frigid reality of their situation crept through him like a northern blizzard, leaving him numb. She knew all along. He swallowed and closed his eyes, gritting his teeth against the pain in his shoulder and skull. At that moment, it came second to the pain of realizing his own utter stupidity. I’m sorry, Mum.

“It’s too bad, really.” Salein gave his arm another cruel twist. “I so looked forward to making you fight this Haweyh filth in your initiation trial. It would have been poetic for your first victory to be the death of a Haweyh spy. But,” she shrugged lightly, “it was a pale hope. I knew your heart was too weak to truly join us.”

Sudden, blinding rage boiled out of Barrenger in a furious scream, green selah whipping from his stripes and forming a mask around his eyes. Salein moved to maintain her debilitating hold, but Barrenger didn’t even feel the pain as he found purchase and pushed his selah with all his might. The force of his push was magnified violently, launching him up and back against the Fasha and sending them both tumbling across the tent. Barrenger’s muscles remembered their Twa’ki training and rolled him into an offensive stance, just in time for him to launch his fist at her chin with a roar.

Salein fluidly dodged his first attack, but he forcepropelled himself into a hard spin, kicking her legs out from under her. She landed in a crab-walk position and turned it into a backflip, her own foot lashing out. The impact missed his head but found his shoulder with force far beyond what Barrenger had expected. As he skidded backwards, a ray of realization piercing his haze of desperate fury: She has force transference, too.

His foot found something sharp in the dirt, and Barrenger whipped down for it on instinct, bringing his father’s blade up and swinging in a series of deadly arcs. It didn’t matter in that moment whether he’d ever taken another life; the memory in his muscles and the rage erupting in his chest led him on, even as his selah latched onto the chargestone of the blade and swathed it in green light. Salein threw herself to the ground and rolled, coming up with a handful of her throwing daggers.

“My, my,” she taunted as they circled each other. It vaguely occurred to Barrenger that the other Rukilef had not interfered, but he couldn’t tear his focus away from the woman leering at him across the moe rug. “Few can land a hit on me, nephew. It seems you haven’t let yourself go completely to waste. Just think how far we could take you if you did join us!”

Shut up!” Barrenger charged across the empty space, sword swiping before him. His sword glowed with power, selah strengthening the blade. If he could land even one hit—

Salein was suddenly not in front of him. Barrenger spun, barely able to follow the woman’s speed as she darted under his guard and behind. Before he could collect himself, a fist full of green selah clocked him under the chin. It felt as if his head was separating from his neck. Barrenger wobbled, then collapsed with a groan, the weight of exhaustion and multiple head injuries finally shattering his adrenaline-fueled rage.

Heavy breathing was the only sound for a moment – mostly his. The green-lit form of his aunt crouched over him, pressing sharp steel against his throat. “Well, that was a fun little exercise,” Salein said, digging the edge of her knife into the skin of his neck. She was panting, but only just. “What a beautiful burst of temper you gave us there. We could have done a great deal with that.”

His strength was fading. But Barrenger twisted his chin against the blade, seething through his teeth. “Why? If you knew I would never join you, why did you even come? You ruined the little I had in my life, and for what? What do you want from me?!” His howl of fury became a wail as the full magnitude of his loss crushed down on him.

“Oh, nephew.” Salein patted him condescendingly on the cheek, even as she traced a thin, painful slice along the side of his neck. “You are Rukilef. And if the Rukilef cannot have you… no one can.”

Barrenger slumped, panting as the last of his resistance faded. The weight on his neck shifted, and Barrenger’s skin crawled as that evil voice whispered into his ear. “You had a chance to be great, nephew. And you threw it away. Remember that.”

Then a glowing green fist tapped his temple, and a force like stone sent Barrenger hurtling into darkness.


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A/N: And so the spam finally hits the fan. This was a funky chapter because originally these two scenes were at the tail end of opposite chapters, but I decided they fit well together. Also: I really like Tylik, enough that I added that scene of Barrenger talking to her on the trail. We’ll, uh… we’ll see whether ya’ll thank me for that or not later. >.>;

The spam hits the fan and Barrenger really needs a hug. (Spoiler: he gets hugs in Part 2 from an unexpected source :D)

Thanks for reading!

-Jenn/River

4 thoughts on “Outcasts & Runaways – Part 1.16

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