Having spent three nights in the cozy and dry but limiting shelter, it was an immense relief when the rain finally broke.
They soaked, scattered, and buried the remains of the fire, and packed everything up. Kaveri gathered the odd mix of articles she’d collected and constructed into a net of plaited grass slung at her side and into the basket she supported on her hip with one hand. Tyrel had reclaimed his own gear, mostly out of stubborn habit, but he did make sure Kaveri kept a butterfly knife in case she needed it, its bronze blade safe inside the two folded-forward halves of the horn handle. While they moved, she foraged ceaselessly. Considering the meals she concocted from what she found, Tyrel wasn’t at all inclined to question.
They followed the edge of the Forest, neither venturing deeper nor returning to more open ground. The more distance they put between them and Dunnval, and ultimately all the forts, the better.
That night, they slept in the open under brilliant full yellow Talir, waning half-full greengold Sanur, and waxing lilac Lirit.
When spending days doing nothing but walking, it was easy to just let your mind wander, Tyrel had found long ago. The problem right now was that while there was too much to think about, there wasn’t enough information to reach any decisions or conclusions. Madoc was better at picking paths through the greenery than he was, and always had been. Maybe, to distract himself, he should ask Kaveri what she was looking for and see if he could help… no, the answer would probably be much the same as about the shelter, that she knew it when she saw it. Tyrel sighed to himself. Only a few days between having his future mapped out for him with little say in the matter, and having no idea at all what the future held.
Something caught his eye, and he frowned at the spot, off to one side a hundred yards or so ahead. Light… a glimpse of sun through moving leaves? Sun on water?
No, sun on polished bronze.
He whistled softly to Madoc and grabbed Kaveri’s arm at the same time, pulling her down to a crouch. There shouldn’t be metal like that here. Had someone gotten around in front of them?
Madoc dropped to a crouch where he was, shed his pack, and slunk over to them quietly. “What?” he asked, in an undertone.
“Metal ahead and to the left.” Tyrel shrugged his own pack off. “We need to check it out. Kaveri…”
“I can scout,” she suggested. “I’m more familiar with this kind of ground, and they’ll never see me.”
Madoc shook his head. “If it’s someone hostile, you can’t defend yourself. Climb a tree or something and stay safe. We’ll be back.”
The brothers left their original route and circled wide to the left, moving as quietly as they could. Tyrel saw Madoc pull on his clawed glove. Wishing wistfully for his lost off-hand katar, he slid a throwing knife out of its hiding place inside his leather jerkin and closed his left hand around the hilt—not the best hand-to-hand weapon, but it was something, and it was in reach if he had a target.
A piercing whistle echoed through the woods, startling both into pausing for an instant to evaluate.
An arrow skidded across the leather of Madoc’s jerkin above one shoulderblade, clearly fired from somewhere above and behind. Both dove to the sides into deeper cover, Tyrel reversing his grip on the throwing knife as he moved. He rolled to one knee and took aim at the archer who had concealed himself in a tree. A choked scream suggested that at least there’d be no further arrows from that quarter.
The problem was, there were now other bodies in motion, and they were presumably going to home in on this location. Going straight ahead would be stupid, and so would straight back. Towards the Forest to the right, or farther to the left, away from it?
The former was probably what they’d expect and plan for. It was also the more sensible course, since it led to more cover, and they were outnumbered.
Tyrel caught Madoc’s eye, and jerked his head towards the left. Madoc, expressionless as always in a crisis, just nodded.
Keeping enough distance between them that they couldn’t both be jumped at once, they worked their way farther from the Forest proper. Madoc pointed out another sentry archer, and Tyrel caught him neatly in the throat with a second throwing knife. That only left him with two more. How many people were they up against? How many could possibly be so offended they’d spend this long tracking them?
Madoc edged closer to the sentry, studying him, then flashed Tyrel a quick hand-signal: not-ours. Not from Dunnval? Then who?
“You rude arrogant little toadshit,” a harsh voice said, and Aella stepped into sight, her enormous partner Gair trailing her. “Where do you get the nerve to call us all names? I am so glad you came this way so I get to kick your sorry ass personally.”
“We won the last fight,” Tyrel pointed out, conscious of Madoc falling into place behind him.
An enormous four-footed shape, a blur of silver-frosted dark fur, lunged past Tyrel and Madoc and tackled Aella, ducking up under her spiked buckler and going directly for her throat. She went down under it with a grunt, her bronze axe flashing. Red blood sprayed across Gair, the amarog, and the nearby greenery. Gair bellowed, slamming downward with his own axe, but the amarog eeled out of the way and the descending blade only hit Aella’s violently convulsing body, driving deep into her abdomen. Gair wailed and dropped his axe, collapsing to his knees beside Aella, only to be slammed in the shoulder by the spike on Aella’s buckler as her body continued to spasm.
The amarog spun around and barked a warning to the stunned brothers, jolting them out of their shock—not quite quickly enough. Four more attacked Madoc, and three came at Tyrel.
A length of cord with stones weighting the ends whipped out of the trees and wrapped itself around the neck of one of Madoc’s. He clawed at it desperately, sword and dagger falling to the ground. A neatly thrown rock thudded into the side of his head and he went limp.
This was second nature, the blend of reflex and cunning to win a fight. The amarog was right in the middle of it, ignoring blades drawing topaz blood, and a few stones thrown with excellent timing provided welcome openings.
Tyrel looked around for another opponent, but none of their assailants were in any condition to fight any longer. Aella was finally still; Gair was hunched beside her, weeping, bleeding from at least two wounds from her buckler before he’d gotten it off her, and he paid no attention to them. The others were dead or soon would be.
Madoc looked around, nodded vaguely, and slowly fell to his knees. Greengold blood stained his shoulder and his side… a lot of it. Tyrel forgot about mercy strokes and leapt over a dying warrior to reach his brother.
Madoc blinked at him, his eyes exactly the colour of his blood, and smiled faintly. “Moved too slow.”
“Hold still.” Tyrel ripped at Madoc’s clothes, exposing the wound on his brother’s side. The peculiar colour made it hard to assess precisely, but he was certain it was deep enough to reach internal organs. He ripped a piece of Madoc’s shirt off, pressing it to the wound. The sheer volume of blood pulsing from both wounds was… bad.
Kaveri came at a run, dodging around dead and wounded. The amarog interposed its body to stop her, then nudged Tyrel aside, sniffing at both bloody sites. Oddly gentle for a huge carnivore that had just torn out throats and severed spines with such deadly precision, it nuzzled Madoc’s cheek, tail waving slowly, ears up and forward. It whined softly, pressing closer, supporting Madoc’s body with its own.
“Quit, ‘Rel,” Madoc said, leaning against the amarog, his eyes closing and his breathing laboured. “Lost too much blood already. Are you… the same amarog we met before?”
The amarog nudged its head under Madoc’s hand, and very deliberately nodded affirmatively.
“I’m… like… you…”
Another clear nod.
Madoc’s hand slid limply off the amarog’s head, and his head fell against the amarog’s side. His breathing simply stopped, and the pulsing of the bloodflow slowed to a listless trickle.
Tyrel shuddered, bowed his head, too much at a loss even for tears. Kaveri’s next breath was a sob.
The amarog’s soft whine made him look up.
Greengold light shimmered and flickered around Madoc’s body… no, through his body.
Madoc’s clothes collapsed into an empty heap, with no sign of Madoc himself.
The amarog stood up, shaking free of the clothes, and padded over to nuzzle Tyrel, luminescent topaz eyes fixed on his.
“Madoc’s like you,” Tyrel echoed numbly.
The amarog, never looking away, nodded.
“You died, and you weren’t there, and now you’re back.”
Tyrel swallowed hard, trying not to feel the rising hope. “Does… does that mean Madoc will be back?” He held his breath, waiting for the reply.
A very firm nod.
He released that breath in a shuddering gasp.
The amarog whined sympathetically again, and nudged carefully at Tyrel’s left thigh. Tyrel twisted to look, and blinked in astonishment at the broad, shallow wound across his thigh, where a substantial amount of leather and skin and flesh had been sliced away.
And at the greengold blood he hadn’t even noticed, all over his hands, and his own handprint that partially overlapped the slash.
And at the increasingly topaz sheen of the fresher blood, against the red of the older drying blood.
Tyrel swore. “It’s the blood, isn’t it. I’m like you now.”
The amarog nodded.
“I know you can be a human,” Kaveri said softly. “Can you right now, so you can explain?”
The amarog shook its head negatively.
“It’s the moons,” Tyrel said. “It has something to do with the moons.”
The amarog nodded.
“Then I guess we wait until moonrise.”
One more nod. The amarog trotted off to sniff at each fallen body, and each time it encountered one that wasn’t dead, it severed the spine. It slipped up behind Gair, and seized the back of his neck. Gair probably died too quickly to realize what was happening, Tyrel thought.
“We should get away from here,” Kaveri said, untying the long strip of cloth that covered her breasts and kneeling to wrap it around Tyrel’s wounded leg with practised hands. “Scavengers will show up soon.”
“We can’t just leave them to rot!”
“They won’t rot. Scavengers will clean their bones. You and I alone can’t bury them. If you bury them, different scavengers will eat them, but they’ll still be eaten. What’s the problem?”
“It’s so… disrespectful.”
“They weren’t very deserving of respect while alive, why should it be different just because they’re dead?” She fetched Tyrel’s discarded weapons, cleaned them on the nearest body’s clothing, and returned them to him, then gathered up Madoc’s clothes. “Here, I’ll help you up. Lean on me.”
Walking on a flat surface would have been painful. Walking through woodland was sufficiently excruciating to keep him from thinking beyond the next limping step.
The amarog padded along protectively on his far side, and a time or three when he stumbled badly, it was the only thing that kept him from falling. Each time, it nuzzled him reassuringly, supporting him while he gritted his teeth against the pain and struggled not to cry out.
With their packs in sight, the amarog steered them carefully off to one side, and guided them to a small sun-drenched clearing completely ringed by pines at least three deep. It trotted off, and Kaveri steadied Tyrel while he sat down, panting and sweat-soaked.
She unfastened his jerkin and pulled it off, then his weapon-belt and doublet, leaving him in just his shirt. She gave him a thorough examination for any other wounds above the waist.
The amarog deposited one pack within her reach, and left again.
“Nothing deep,” she pronounced, fishing around in the pack for a flask of beer. Taking great care to avoid the bloodied parts of Madoc’s shirt, she vandalized the rest with her knife and used the rags and beer to clean up a couple of minor cuts. She pulled his boots off, and picked up her knife again. Tyrel tried very hard not to move while she cut his ruined pants off—as much as she could, she cut seams apart rather than straight through the leather.
The amarog returned with the second pack and left again while she was doing that.
“This is messy,” Kaveri said.
“And it’s yellow,” Tyrel said with a sigh, letting himself fall back on the old pine needles and looking up at the blue sky above. “And Madoc is… dead, gone, who knows. I have no idea what’s going on right now.”
The amarog came back a third time, carrying Kaveri’s grass net bag. It set it down within her reach, gave her an apologetic look, and flopped on one side next to them.
She smiled. “I wouldn’t really have expected you to carry the basket. Most was in the bag anyway. Thank you, and don’t worry, I can make another basket. Tyrel, this will hurt, I’m sorry. What… move, I need to clean that properly before it goes bad!”
Tyrel sat up enough to see what was going on. Every time Kaveri reached for the wound on his leg, the amarog bumped her hands away with its head. It finally caught her right wrist in its mouth, very gently, and simply held her.
“I don’t think it’s going to let you,” Tyrel said. “Is it because you don’t want her touching my blood?”
The amarog released Kaveri’s hand before shaking its head in the negative.
Tyrel forced his mind to focus. What other reason? There was topaz blood liberally streaking frosted dark fur, enough of it clumped densely together to suggest real damage underneath, but the amarog seemed completely unconcerned.
When they’d first encountered the amarog, Madoc had been hurt, but by morning, there had been no trace.
“She doesn’t need to because it will heal?”
The amarog not only nodded in the affirmative, but thumped its tail against the ground.
More tail-thumping, even more rapid, and the amarog’s ears perked forward.
Kaveri heaved a sigh. “We can’t get answers until moonrise, Tyrel can’t move until moonrise… I guess we just wait.”
The amarog lowered its head to its forepaws with a deep sigh of its own.
Kaveri helped Tyrel get comfortable, with a rolled blanket for a pillow, and he drowsed in the warm sunshine, trying not to feel the empty space where Madoc was supposed to be. He heard her soft song as she worked on something; her hands always seemed to be busy now they were out of the fort, and always with a song.
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