Outcast Part VI

“And she’s a girl dragon?  Dragonet?” Mina asked, voice briefly taking on a distracted aspect.

“She is.  Why?  Think it makes a difference?”

“No idea.  But it might.  Is there any way to discover those details about the Barrakai and slith who left?  Were they all opposite gender pairings?”

That left him without much to say for a moment.  “You don’t sound like any other woman I’ve ever met,” he confessed.  “Bold as a Barrakai lass, but… smart.  You know things.  You understand things that are more than I can grasp.  I am not a stupid man, my lady, but…”  He let his voice trail off, shrugging.

“No.  Clearly not stupid.  Not really educated either.  Can you read?”

“Read?”  He shook his head.  “I know a few common sigils, but that’s all.”  He knew that wasn’t really ‘reading’ the way she meant it.  Sigils were tradecraft icons shop owners and other business folk painted on their signs to let people know what they sold.  Most people, even the illiterate, could suss them out.

Her smile wasn’t the least bit mocking, though he’d half expected it to be.  “Of course.  Well, that’s how I learned things.  By reading books.  There were thousands where I grew up, most dating back to the Empire.”

He’d heard of books, of course.  He’d seen them from time to time.  The idea that someone pour knowledge onto paper so someone else might absorb it?  He found it baffling.  He would have called it impossible, yet clearly this woman had knowledge he couldn’t imagine gaining by ordinary means.  He would have never considered the possibility that she was a girl and he a boy could have made a difference.  But what if it did have something to do with it?  What if there were a way to increase the likelihood of pairings?  What if they could finally find a way to end the long war between Barrakai and slith?

It seemed too much to hope for.  Hard not to think of it anyway.  “I wish there was a way to know for sure.”

“Maybe there is.  Maybe we shall undertake to study it, once we get my sister back.  To go up into the Barrakai hills and observe the interactions of your people and the slith.”

Again, she’d left him without anything to say.  What could he say to that?  It was insane, of course.  Madness.  They’d fall prey to slith themselves, trying to study such a thing.  Who would be mad enough to think of such a thing?  His people would never tolerate it either.

He nearly said as much but held it back.  Why antagonize her to no purpose?  She was his employer, after all, though he began to suspect if she might be a little mad as lowlanders saw such things.  To think of observing the Barrakai and slith to record their interactions?  Surely madness, if anything was.

Yet something about it seemed oddly enticing.  To learn new things.  To see something he’d always taken one way and try to look at it in another.  It was another kind of adaptability.  Oh, sure, his people could adapt to nearly anything the world threw at them.  It had helped keep him alive this long, hadn’t it?  But what she was talking about here wasn’t adapting oneself to the environment, or shaping the environment to suit a particular need.  No, it was shaping the way one looked at things.  Seeing it from a slightly different angle.

He’d never considered it before.

She watched him in silence for a long moment, a tiny smile playing at the side of her mouth.

“Who are you people?” he finally asked.  “You’re no noble.  Or at least, you’re a noble the likes of which I’ve ever seen.  Those two over there are nobles, sure enough.  Dumb as a stump and twice as useless…”

“You’re sitting on a stump,” she pointed out.  He had built the fire-pit to make use of a natural seat.

“Don’t try to distract me.”

“Who said I was trying to distract you?” she asked, scooting a little closer to him.

He saw firelight dance across bare skin and wondered how she’d shed clothes so quickly.  Then, before he could make assumptions about it, she seemed to be wearing clothes again. Had it been a trick of the light?  But, no.  She had different clothes on.  At least, she’d changed into a longer, looser shirt, divesting herself of the chainmail cuirass.

He wore a jacket of studded leather and small steel plates he’d had commissioned some years back.  It turned most of what he needed it to turn, though he’d had to patch it a few times.  It probably weighed as much as that cuirass, he thought, and I’m damn near twice her size.

Not quite literally.  She wasn’t small.  Not really.  She was lithe in much the same way that Vex was, supple muscle and effortless grace.  “Nightsong isn’t a noble’s name,” he blurted out.  Well, he could have handled that better, he decided, but done was done.  “It’s like no surname I’ve ever heard of.”

“You’ve never been to Northwestern Ruall, have you?”  To the Abriada Isles?”

“What?  No.  Why?”

“There’s a school there on one of the islands.  I can’t tell you which one.  It takes in talented people and teaches them how to use those talents.  A lot of noble houses send their children to this school for specialized training.  But you don’t have to be noble to attend.  They probably take in more orphans than nobles.”

“And you’re talented?” he asked, lifted a brow at her.

Her bold wink took him aback, as did her verbal reply.  “You have no idea.”

He blinked at her.  That had been completely unexpected.  The woman was flirting with him.  No way could she be a noble, no matter how progressive.  To flirt with a commoner, and a hill barbarian no less?  Inconceivable.

His gaping stare earned him a poke in the ribs with a stiffened forefinger.  It found muscle rather than naked ribs, but he could imagine it tickled anyway.  A part of him wanted it to, for her touch to bring him to laughter.  “You look like a fish,” she told him.  “Pucker up.”

“So you went to this school.  You’re not a noble, are you?”

She shook her head.  “Nope.  My parents were merchants.  Successful enough, I suppose, but nowhere rich enough to send me to this school.  But someone had noticed me.  Not sure how.  Messenger came, with not only an offer to send me to the school for free, but to pay my parents to allow them to educate me.

“Hard to say no to that.”

He hadn’t heard of this school, but he had the feeling that this wasn’t an unusual condition.  Most people probably knew nothing of it.  “And what talents did you develop there?” he asked her.

“Now that,” she said, “would be telling.”

“Ha ha.  If you’re not going to tell, why bring it up?”

She laughed, shaking her head.  “You’re a gift, Hillman, you know that?  More than anything I need someone near me who I can trust to tell me what I need to hear, not what I want to hear.  Or expect to hear.”

“Glad I could be of service.  So now I understand more of this, I think.  I understand a bit more about you, if you went to this strange school that teaches lowland women to be more like highlander women.  I approve, I assure you.  I mean no criticism.”

This prompted another chuckle.  “And just when I think you cannot surprise me, you show me the wit and grace of an accomplished courtier.  You are a wonder to me, Bastion Wolvish of the Barrakai Hills.  I am so very glad I met you.”

“And I, you.”  Now, feeling far more comfortable with her than he had even a few moments earlier, he thought he might test their growing rapport.  “So if you’re not a noble, I think I see why they felt comfortable grabbing your sister, who I also assume is not a noble.”

“You imagine right.  But it wasn’t her nobility or lack of it that caught their attention.  My sister is a witch.”

“A what?”  he cut short a laugh of his own, one that would have woken both their companions.  “There’s no such thing as witches,” he said firmly.

“So you know oh so much about such things, I suppose, Mister Barrakai Hillman who cannot read.”  What had recently been a soft tone grew hard, and edged.

That had gone off track quickly.  He gave a quick, seated bow as best he could, holding it long enough to show that he’d not meant to mock her.  “I have heard stories that the Empire pursued and killed witches, but I’d thought they were only stories.”

She nodded.  “Those stories are true.  The Empire was very specific about who could and couldn’t own or use magic within its borders.  They had wizards that did nothing but look for people using magic without official leave.  Those people they called ‘witches.’

“So why do you call your sister a witch now?”

“Because that’s the official term for a woman trained outside the established official schools sanctioned by the old empire and its three remaining gods.”

He repeated the phrase “three remaining gods” and frowned.  “What gods are these?”

“I’m not sure I should get into it now.  Let’s just say they don’t always want what’s best for mankind and leave it at that.”

“I’m not sure mankind wants what’s best for mankind,” he told her, thinking back on the decade and a half he and Vex had spent learning the lands of the Broken Empire, and the bloody minded, greedy fools and maniacs with weapons he’d encountered seemingly behind every building and tree.

She didn’t bother to argue the statement and instead they sat in companionable silence for a while.  He was okay with people believing in gods, as long as they didn’t try to force the issue.  That would be as mad as him trying to make folks not believe in gods.

Magic, to him, had always seemed like something that, if it existed at all, had died out while the world was young.  She was telling him that it hadn’t and he believed her no matter how weird it seemed.  The whole thing now made a kind of lopsided sense.  Before, it had made no sense to him at all.

That’s what happened when you were in full possession of all the facts.  Puzzle pieces sliding into place were unmistakable, even if they didn’t seem right at first.  “So what’s with these two?”

“They’re assigned to help me.”

“Those two?  With what?  Any jousting you might need done?”

She flushed a little.  “Stop that.  Maybe they’re not up to your standards, barbarian, but they’ve been loyal companions so far.  I won’t have you mocking their efforts.”

“I apologize.  Again.”  Then, with a chuckle, “I think you may be the only person I’ve ever apologized to twice.”

She seemed uncertain of how to take that.  This time it was his turn to wink at her.  “Stoke the fire, won’t you?  I’ll be back in a few minutes with a couple of rabbits.  We’ll do roast rabbit for breakfast before we head out.”

Outcast Part V

He hadn’t accounted for Vex, though.  She didn’t seem to care one whit about the ancient treaty, and she roamed on and off the road at will.  She ranged far enough ahead to verify the scent before falling back to scout their rear, but he lived in constant worry that the threatening clouds would finally burst and drown any scents the dragonet could follow.  Once they reached the southern border of the Sward, they’d face a dilemma trying to figure out where they’d gone from there.  Even if it stayed dry, enough of the scent might not remain for the slith to follow.

It was his primary concern, after his fear that Vex would anger something that lived in the forest and it would forget all about whatever treaties and safe places and murder them in their sleep.  Not for the first time he wished the dragonet could talk.  She understood the common tongue well enough, of that he’d been sure since before they’d come down out of the hills together.  She was far smarter than even the smartest dog, and the Barrakai hill folk were known as much for their dogs as for their sheep.

On the last night within the Sward, they were woken out of a sound sleep by a blood-curdling shriek mere yard from the edge of their camp.  Looking around, Bastion was relieved to find Vex right there in camp with them.  For a moment he’d thought the damned lizard had doomed them all.

Then Vex took off into the woods in pursuit of whatever had let loose that horrifying scream, leaving the humans to stare after her in utter astonishment.  Mina, who’d up until now been the most sympathetic to the beast, let out a groan.  “She’s going to get us all killed.”

Part of him wanted to say he’d been thinking the same thing, but another part wanted him to say that he had the utmost confidence in the dragonet.  She knew what she was doing.  Or so he hoped.  He was going to look like a complete jackass if she ran off and got killed by something in there.

Sure, slith were tough.  Pound for pound a lot tougher than a human.  Only the Barrakai’s ability to adapt had given them any chance at all to keep up with the slith.  It had been a long battle waged between the hill people, their dogs, and the small, wingless dragonets.  Relatively speaking, that was, as a fully adult slith might weigh as much as an adult human male and stand shoulder on its rear legs.

Not that anyone had ever seen a slith stand on its hind legs, it didn’t mean they couldn’t.  If they wanted to.  They were damn agile enough, chasing sheep all over the damn level hills while fighting off crazed Barrakai, so Bastion wasn’t going to say it was impossible.  Spending time with Vex had just convinced him of something he’d figured out as a boy.  The slith ate the impossible for breakfast.

“Shit.”

He heard Mina giggle in her bedroll.  “Oh, sure, you’re laughing now.

“Now I know why no one else owns a slith.”

“You’re kidding, right?  No one owns a slith,” he shot back, grinning ruefully.  “Vex goes where she wants to.  It just so happens that she wants to go where I’m going.”  And as he said it he found himself hoping it wasn’t quite that simple.  He’d hate to lose her companionship this late in the game.

How long had it been now?  Almost fifteen years, he realized, since they’d left the Barrakai hills together.   It was a frightening experience, being rejected by their mutual clans, being forced to descend into the lowlands to make their way.  But at least they’d had one another, even though half the time he’d wanted to strangle her.  Young slith were very curious creatures, and curiosity leads to trouble as often as not.

He had no idea how long the dragonets lived.  No one had ever bothered to study them to find out. His people had one answer to the question?  How long do slith live?  Until a Barrakai catches up to them.

Not in the least bit helpful, he chastised himself, shivering involuntarily at the thought of losing his friend and partner.  Had she done this on purpose, heading off into dangerous territory to make him worry about her?

He wouldn’t have put it past her.

He heard several shrieks and an unmistakably draconic roar and then nothing.  Every breath stretched into hours, it seemed, as his senses attempted to plumb the depths of the forest night.  Even the shadows had shadows, and they ran on swift feet.

Bastion wasn’t a particularly superstitious man.  He’d never bought much of the shamanic ‘magic’ he’d seen as a boy.  Too much of it would have been easy to fake, and he’d learned how to do a few things with powders just from watching the old goat work.  If he’d had a scrap of mage gift, Bastion had seen no sign of it, and even less any sign of a god’s favor.

Was there a god of charlatans?  He thought it unlikely, but he found the notion of gods in general to be more than unlikely on its own.  Bastion didn’t fool himself.  Humans were very much like other animals, no reason to believe that they were anything special.  A little smarter, maybe, but not enough smarter to make a difference.  The slith alone proved that humans weren’t all there was in the brains department.

The very idea of gods just got under his skin.  Oh, he supposed there might be some deities out there of some kind or another, but why would they give a damn about humans?  What would they get from worship?  If they’re that powerful, it seems little more than blatant flattery to gain favor, and what kind of idiot found that enticing?

Nothing he would consider a god.

He found himself on the brink of praying, to whom, he knew not.  None of the Three gods of the Empire appealed to him.  Even his people’s original gods had been wiped out by the militancy of the Empire’s missionary work.

Outside the broken empire one might find people worshipping other gods, but in the lands that were once its own, such heresies were rarely tolerated.

He nearly leaped out of his own skin when the sleek black shape emerged from the shadows and gave him an affectionate head butt to let him know she was back.  He wanted to yell at her but of course he didn’t.  If he were to be completely fair, Vex knew what she was doing by now.  If she wandered off into the Sward at night it was because she had every reason to believe she’d be safe.  And not only safe, he judged, by the way she curled up to snooze, but easily able to feed herself.  Even without Barrakai sheep to steal.

He glanced over and saw that Mina was awake, and watching him silently over the campfire.  He met her gaze for a long moment, watching the flame transform her face into a thousand different masks before he refocused his attention.

“How did you end up with her, anyway?” she asked, in low tones so as not to wake the others.  Watch systems weren’t very useful if you didn’t allow the people not on watch to get any sleep.  As it turned out the Du Chalagne brothers slept like two tow-headed bears tucking in for the winter.  The weird thing was that he’d seen them sleep like that while still in the saddle.

Hardy campaigners, it turned out, despite their silly sewing needle swords. He supposed it explained why she’d invited them in the first place.  Had to be some reason.  Then again, she was wise enough to see Bastion and, by extension, Vex, as potential members of her little team.  Once they broke out the other side of the Sward, they’d be in Miosh.  There, the slavers would be the law abiding citizens and they would be the raiding party.

All thanks to treaties signed by the ten kingdoms of the Broken Empire, promising not to interfere in another’s internal business.  All that meant is that so-called ‘rogue elements’ could cross over the border at will, taking slaves and whatever else they could find, with the southern kingdoms denying any knowledge or involvement.  Despite the fact that the raiders used state-of-the-art gear and weapons.

Sure.  An elite fighting force sent into the north to take slaves was made up of outlaws and bandits.  Who happened to have really good equipment and mounts.

The rulers of the northern kingdoms knew this but had no way to prove it.  Whether they operated in secret under the auspices of their respecting southern kingdom governments, or the pawns of moneyed interests who knew a good thing when they saw it.

Slavery was lucrative, big business. And the people who ran it made a lot of money.

“It’s not that interesting a story.”

“I find that hard to believe.”

“Why?  It’s really not.  She stalked me for two weeks and then, when she had the chance to kill me, she didn’t.  She knocked me down and sat there, staring at me.  If I tried to reach for a weapon, she shrieked and snapped at my hand until I stopped.  To be honest, she tamed me.  I knew what it meant, of course.  When I finally realized what was going on.  I knew we were both exiles, that neither of our kin would take us back.”

At her puzzled look, he shrugged.  “It’s happened before.  Not often.  Maybe once every few generations.  Something weird happens.  The Barrakai and a slith forge a bond.  And I don’t think it’s breakable short of death.”

The Outcast Part IV

The woman’s eyes followed the dragonet’s lithe form as she wove around and through their clustered group.  Bastion couldn’t tell at first if she were afraid, or merely curious, but quickly came to the conclusion it was indeed curiosity.  She hadn’t struck him as the kind of woman ruled by fear.  If more lowlander women were like her, he thought, more lowlander men might be worth a damn.  Then again, that was asking a lot of the women.

“They were taken four days ago.”

He considered it.  Two days to the northern edge of the Great Sward, then two more days through the Sward itself.  It put him six days behind them, no matter how he sliced it.  It was too much to hope they didn’t have enough mounts, or that they’d be so foolish as to use wagons or carts.  Possible, he thought, but unlikely.

What he couldn’t figure out is why they’d stolen away two noblewomen.  Woman or no, a noble wasn’t easily broken.  They had a lifetime of haughty superiority to get past in order to turn them into a useful slave.  Seemed like a lot of work.  Unless someone had specifically requested noblewomen and sent the slaver troop out after them?

That made a little more sense, he decided, but still… Something about this really didn’t sound quite right.

Lucius Du Chalagne was back on his horse, his face streaked with yellow, his eyes cold and angry as he glared at Bastion.  Bastion pretended not to notice.  He’d taken the noble’s measure.  As long as Vex kept an eye on his back he’d be safe enough.  Looks couldn’t kill.  But slith could.  Something the silly noble had best keep in mind.

“You’ve got yourself a  thief-taker,” he told Mina, thinking all the while that something still didn’t quite fit.  He’d worry it over and figure it out soon enough.

As he accepted the purse of coins from her, she met his gaze, smiled slightly. “If we succeed, the next bag will be more than twice as heavy.”

Not really doing it for the gold, he thought, but he said nothing as he tucked the purse in his jacket.  They rode on in silence.

It wasn’t until he woke for his watch that evening that it struck him what had been bothering him.  Nightsong was no kind of noble surname that he’d ever heard.   Granted, he didn’t know every noble house in the Broken Empire, but that didn’t really even follow the pattern of most of the noble houses.  The Du Chalagne he’d heard of, as they’d been named for a river in eastern Cair.  But there was nothing of the nobility’s traditional naming conventions in the woman’s surname.  Geographical features, prominent animals or trees, legendary creatures—these were the things from which most noble houses took their names.  Something like Nightsong made no sense.  Yet here were the Du Chalagne treating her like another noble, and if they’d known her all her life.

He was missing an important detail about their relationship, and who this woman actually was.  And the worst part was that he wasn’t sure if it was because it was being deliberately hidden from him, or if it was supposed most lowlanders would know automatically and he’d somehow just missed finding out about it.

They fell into a rather easy rhythm on the road and at camp.  Watches were claimed and passed with little incident, though he had a feeling that would change once they approached the Great Sward.  The place was uncanny, and not only because its name didn’t match its reality.  A sward was a grassland, and the largest forest on the continent stood wasn’t certainly not in any way a grassland.

Yet that’s what every map he’d seen had always called it.  And no one knew why.

The forest itself had a fell reputation.  Oh, it wasn’t as though caravans and riders didn’t pass through all the time.  The South Kingdom Road, the single guaranteed path through the heart of the great ancient wood, seemed to hold within it a charm that kept the forest’s less hospital denizens at bay.  But everyone had heard the stories of those foolish enough to step off the road.

Tales had it that the road’s access had been negotiated with the beings that lived there, though the legends didn’t say much about what or who they were.  Only that the road couldn’t have been built without their approval.  He’d been surprised to discover that the Empire had been willing to accept this deal, given that it had razed every other land that dared to stand against it.  But whatever lived in the Sward had been powerful enough that they’d only been able to get a single road.

Small campsites could be found from time to time along it, apparently included in the original plan, but people ended up spending much more time in the saddle than they would anywhere else.  More than one poor horse had been lamed by its master’s inability to sleep while within the forest’s boundaries.

As much as he wanted to, Bastion knew they wouldn’t be able to ride straight through.  Even trying to divide it in half, stopping only once in the middle, he knew they wouldn’t be able to make it.  Their horses wouldn’t be able to tolerate it and unlike those people in those legends, he had no intention of sacrifice his horse for nothing.

He hadn’t accounted for Vex, though.  She didn’t seem to care one whit about the ancient treaty, and she roamed on and off the road at will.  She ranged far enough ahead to verify the scent before falling back to scout their rear, but he lived in constant worry that the threatening clouds would finally burst and drown any scents the dragonet could follow.  Once they reached the southern border of the Sward, they’d face a dilemma trying to figure out where they’d gone from there.  Even if it stayed dry, enough of the scent might not remain for the slith to follow.

It was his primary concern, after his fear that Vex would anger something that lived in the forest and it would forget all about whatever treaties and safe places and murder them in their sleep.  Not for the first time he wished the dragonet could talk.  She understood the common tongue well enough, of that he’d been sure since before they’d come down out of the hills together.  She was far smarter than even the smartest dog, and the Barrakai hill folk were known as much for their dogs as for their sheep.

Outcast Part III

“No,” said one of the Du Chalagne brothers, as he kicked his horse into motion.  The stallion lurched forward, snapping angrily at his gelding’s neck as its rider tried to stab Bastion with his rapier.  With almost contemptuous ease, the Barrakai leaned out of the blade’s range and thrust his fingers into one of the bags tied to his saddle.  The hand emerged, trailing a cloud of yellow dust that he then flung into the blond man’s face.

Shrieking, the blond nobleman tumbled from his saddle to lay coughing and spitting in the middle of the road.  Bastion snatched one of his fighting blades from its scabbard and leveled it at the other Du Chalagne.  “Are you as stupid as your brother?”

“Rarely,” the young man answered.  “Is he going to be all right?”

“Sooner or later.  He’s going to be miserable for a while yet, though.”

“What was that you threw in his face?” Mina wanted to know.

“A mix of various pollens and spores,” Bastion told her, not quite truthfully.  “Now what in the burning hells was that all about?”

“I’m afraid Lucius is a bit overprotective,” the other brother—Caspar, then—told him sardonically  “He seems to be somewhat smitten with our intrepid lady friend here, and wishes merely to defend her honor.”

“He’s going to get himself killed pulling shit like that,” Bastion said.  It wasn’t until he heard her laugh that he realized that he’d used a word she’d probably rarely heard.  Lowlanders didn’t talk that way around highborn ladies.  Neither did highlanders who knew what was good for them, he reminded himself.  He’d heard some of the punishments they’d dreamed up for such transgressions.  He knew a lot of different uses for his tongue and preferred very much to keep it behind his teeth.

One of those uses came to mind as his gaze trailed along the curve of the lady’s shoulder and he groaned inwardly.  He’d been cursed with a spectacular imagination for a warrior, and sometimes he found himself regretting it.  This was one of those times.

“You still haven’t told me what you want to hire me for,” he said, violently shoving his thoughts back toward business, where they belonged.  It wasn’t like him to be so easily distracted.

“I need your help to rescue my sister.  She’s been taken by slavers.”

The Barrakai hated slavers, an enmity extending back to the days of the Old Empire.  When Imperial forces first discovered them, they’d been suitably impressed by their fighting prowess—gained, as it was, in defending their flocks from the slith.  This led to the Emperor demanding a tribute of slaves from the Barrakai, a threat they couldn’t afford to ignore.  Formidable or not, the Emperor’s mages would have made short work of his people.  So they’d sold their children into bondage as the price of not being destroyed completely.

It had remained a stain on their honor until the empire fell, at which point the Barrakai tribes swore, as one, that they’d never again bend a knee.  They’d sworn to go down fighting, to die as a people, before ever again sacrificing their children in such a way.

Slavery was still common through most of the southern kingdoms, though, in recent decades it had fallen into disfavor in the north.  Some of that, he believed, was because the north was more accepting of magic and mechanical innovation.  The southern kingdoms preferred things to remain the way they’d always been.

While slavers often ranged into the northern kingdoms, raiding and taking people as they could, Ruall was pretty far north, even for the more adventurous ones.  And to take a noblewoman?  There were plenty of peasants no one would miss—why would they have risked something so blatant?

Taking his silence as the invitation it was, she quickly added details.  “She was visiting relatives in Cair, near the edge of the Great Sward, when she was taken.  They wiped out a whole troop of house guard just to take her, a cousin, and their two maids.”

That answered his questions well enough.  As she opened her mouth to continue, he raised a hand to forestall her and let out a series of sharp whistles.  A moment later a series of trills came from the blackberry briar and the five and half foot dragonet emerged.

She shook herself like a dog emerging from water and the air around her was suddenly filled with a cloud of thorns.  Bastion, who had never seen her do anything like that before, was suddenly struck by how useful that could be in a fight.  Had she been standing anywhere near them or their horses when she’d shaken herself, they’d have been breathing thorns.

He noted it for future tactical consideration and set it aside as she came trotting up.  She sniffed each of the horses in turn, her tongue’s sensitivity allowing her to take in and memorize the scents of both horse and rider at once, then took a moment to investigate the downed Du Chalagne, who’d gained enough ground to sit up again on his own.

Lucius’s watery eyes weren’t so dysfunctional that he failed to see the dragonet’s approach.  He froze in place as Vex studied him.  She got one whiff of the powder he’d been covered in and sneezed, after which she shot Bastion a dirty look.  For not warning her, he presumed.

“So… you want me to try to find four girls taken by a bunch of slavers down at the southern border of Cair how many days ago?”

Outcast Pt 2

Book I

Heretic

The slith is a sly, feral beast, thought to be a degraded cousin to the now-extinct greater dragons.  Possessed of low animal cunning and exceptional hunting abilities, the slith are in a constant battle with the Barrakai hill-folk, who prefer to keep their sheep for themselves.  This has made the Barrakai fierce fighters, for the slith are a formidable enemy. Legends have it that occasionally a bond arises between one of the Barrakai hillmen and one of the slith, but most reputable scholars put this down as superstitious twaddle.  If such a thing did happen, they would be driven from their respective communities to live among the lowlanders.  And no Barrakai tribesman would ever tolerate such a fate.

 

From the Moratovian Index

Entry By Barles Tarklay, Circa 1538

Hooten Grove Township

Outskirts

Pine Province

Kingdom of Ruall

Spring, 1555

Five and a half feet of sleek, reptilian death  slipped into a dense thicket of blackberry bushes at the side of the road as three riders came galloping toward them down the east road.  Her companion, the Barrakai Hillman Bastion Wolvish, let his mount amble to a stop and watched them approach.  The bay gelding beneath him whickered softly as he caught scent of their horses.

“Easy, boy,” Bastion said, laying a broad, calloused hand on the beast’s neck.

They wore the clothing of gentlemen, not soldiers, he noticed.  And armed with dueling weapons, not the tools of real warriors.  They’d pose little threat to him even if he didn’t have an ally in the bushes.  His second thought, however, was that it seemed very strange that three nobles would be out on the road without an escort, particularly this close to dusk.  The efforts of Bastion and people like him had made the roads safer by far, but the world was full of desperate men and women who’d be willing to risk a lot to take a noble’s purse.  If you did it quickly enough and fled, you might escape justice altogether if you had any kind of a head start.  Not even the best thief-taker could find a killer no one could identify.

As they drew closer he realized it was even odder than he’d first imagined.  One of them was a woman, dressed much as the men in long breeches, sturdy boots, and tunic, with a light chainmail hauberk and warm riding cloak rounding out the ensemble.

As they drew closer he realized that even she was armed, though not with the dueling swords the men carried.  Instead, she wore a pair of long knives, one on each hip.  The unmistakable end of a bow stave stuck out of a scabbard mounted to her horse’s saddle.

They reigned up about twenty feet away from him, the men’s hands falling to their sword hilts in what he found to be a truly amusing bit of bravado.  They were actually trying to threaten him with dueling swords?  He refrained, having had enough experience with nobles to know they wouldn’t take it well if he dared to find them laughable.

The woman wasn’t what most men would call pretty.  Horsey would probably be the most conventional way to describe her features.  What it lacked in beauty it more than made up for in strength, he decided, as she broke the silence.  “Can we be of any assistance to you, stranger?” she asked.  Her voice matched her face somehow, being deeper and more gravelly than one would expect out of a woman.  If he had heard the voice without seeing the owner he might well have thought it had come from a man’s throat.

“I don’t think so,” he said in reply, “though I thank you for the offer.”

Her two companions, two fair-haired men who might have been brothers, exchanged glances behind her back as she regarded him soberly.  He saw her take in his various accoutrements, most of which were only barely visible.  “You are Barrakai.”  It wasn’t a question.

He nodded.  “I am.”

She cocked her head as she considered him, then nodded to herself.  “You are the one called Bastion Wolvish, are you not?”

He blinked, surprised.  He hadn’t expected anyone to recognize him this far north.  Not that quickly.  Word had clearly traveled faster than he’d hoped.  Sighing, he admitted his identity.

She broke into a wide grin, the expression transforming her face into something that transcended mere beauty.  Her eyes, green as a forest pool at midday, danced with what he took to be genuine pleasure.  “I had hoped to meet you,” she announced, surprising him again.  “I just didn’t think it would happen so quickly.  The gods be praised.  My name is Mina Nightsong,” she said, “and I’d like very much to hire you.”

After the series of shocks she’d already delivered, he grasped after that concept as if it were a lifeline thrown to a drowning man.  He could wrap his mind around that much, at least.  “Hire me?  For what?”

The two men objected, loudly.  “You have no idea if he’s even telling the truth,” the one on her right said, while the one to her left exclaimed “The only thing you know about him is based entirely on rumor!”

“They’re right,” said Bastion, feeling a little more firmly on solid ground.  He knew entirely too well how many criminals and worse prowled the roads just waiting for a tasty morsel like this one to fall into their hands.  The idea of her falling prey to them made his stomach twist as if he’d just swallowed a large draught of very cold water.

Something was wrong with him, he realized.  How had this woman so quickly gotten under his skin?  What was it about her that had piqued his interest?  Her boldness?  It was rare in lowlander women, from what he’d seen.  Barrakai women were as fierce as the men, and for good reason.  Everyone had to know how to protect the sheep.

“Right about what?” she asked, challenge in her eyes.  “By all means, please elucidate.”

He didn’t know the word, but he caught her meaning anyway.  “You shouldn’t trust someone you meet on the road.  Rumors can also be unreliable.”  He let his gaze fall on each of the two men in turn.  “And you are?”

“Lucius and Caspar Du Chalagne,” Mina said.  “Who are merely humoring me, as it happens.”

“Humoring you?”  And just when he’d thought he’d found some solid ground.  Bastion resisted the urge to sigh.  “How so?”

“Now, Lady Nightsong, I really must object,” said one of the two Du Chalagnes.  Bastion had no idea which, since she hadn’t bothered to identify one from the other.  “You can’t be telling random strangers on the road your business.”

“My business,” she said, “is too damn important for you to muck it all up with your timidity!”  She refrained from stomping her foot, if only because she was still on horseback and the horse wouldn’t like it.  “Sir Wolvish. I  would like to hire you for a sum of twenty four gold Royals now and another seventy-six when you deliver me and my sister safe at home.”

A hundred Royals?  That wasn’t quite a king’s ransom, but it might well have ransomed a prince or two.  “I accept.”

Outcast

Long before humans learned to measure time, the deity known as The Other wandered the unformed lands, exploring and learning all he could about this strange universe into which he’d been born.  As he wandered, he came upon a copse of trees growing in a circle, and in that circle he saw some of his siblings, along with a contingent of cooing mortals.

These creatures interested him far less than the beasts of field and forest.  Everything else had been created with a purpose, but he could see no purpose to these mortal beings.  Though sculpted in the gods’ image, they seemed but frail shadows before their creators.  It seemed to him that they’d been created simply for the amusement of his brethren, and this he found disturbing.  And here these poor creatures threw themselves at the feet of his siblings, crying out in either exultation or agony.  He wasn’t certain which.  Without bothering to first send a mental flare that would have announced his presence, he stepped through the ring of trees and the veil creating the bubble between their world and the mortal realm.

Everyone froze, mortal and immortal alike turning to peer at the trespasser.  “What is it you do here?” The Other asked, violet eyes alighting on each of his siblings in turn.  He looked upon Lorynn the Quick.  He was tall, fair-haired and whippet-thin, always seeming to be driven by a relentless inner energy.  Now he looked even more exultant, as if he were in the throes of some great battle.  The other then turned his eyes to regard Ogonn the Strong, who was as tall as the wiry Lorynn, but heavier of build.  Lorynn’s every movement seemed ponderous, his strength so great he could crush mortals with a mere sweep of his arm.

His third and final sibling was Neyatt, known as the Stormcrow.  She wore her courtly garb, foregoing her working gear of skeletal visage and sackcloth robes favor of a very pale green gown that contrasted perfectly her alabaster skin.  Seeing her in this form could almost make him forget that she was a death goddess.  Almost.  But, perhaps, for that faint charnel scent that followed her, he mused.  He repeated his question, confused by his siblings’ refusal to answer.

“They worship us, my brother,” said Ogonn the Strong, in his deliberate way.  “They look upon the glory that is ourselves and bathe in our magnificence.”

The Other grunted.  Some days he felt less magnificent than others.  But this made him curious nonetheless.  “And what is it you gain here?”

Lorynn laughed suddenly.  Violently.  “It feels good to be acknowledged.  We created them.  They owe us fealty and obeisance above and beyond all things.”

The Other shrugged.  “Perhaps this is so,” he admitted.  “But why do you ask them to grovel at your feet?  That one is kissing your sandal, Neyatt.  Who knows where it’s been?”  He let his tone lighten, to make of it a jest.  She met his violet gaze with her own jet black stare, saying nothing for a long moment that stretched into decades, then centuries. Eons.   The mortals who clustered around may have lived and died and lived and died again before she answered him, had they not been in their gods’ presence.

“They like it,” she said, dreamily.  “Look at them.”

The Other did so, gazing down at the mortals clustered around her feet like pale white shadows, naked and writhing.  “Some might enjoy it, but not all of them.”  He pointed to one that was off to one side, holding a limb as if injured.  “That one is certainly not enjoying it.”

She made a waving gesture in the air, as if brushing away an irritant.  “If you think you can do better, feel free.  You may have this mortal,” she said.  “I release her to you.”

The Other stared back at her, nonplussed.  What was he to do with a mortal?   They were dumb, and messy, and often mindlessly violent.  Animals he understood.  They fought for food, or to survive.  Mortals fought for all kinds of silly reasons.

“Well,” she prompted, “go ahead.  Take her.  You may heal her as you wish.  It is easy, even for one such as you.”

He ignored the jab.  One such as me.  It became a growl as it replayed in his head.  They thought they were so much more than he was because they existed first.  By a second, a minute, an hour, a day, a month, or a year… or maybe an eternity.  They existed first.  They recalled being born all at the same time, looking around and seeing one another.  Before they had even known who they were, they had each other.

The Other was born a short distance away, a moment later, but it might have been a whole universe distant.  He was not one of them.  He was The Other.

He’d expected the mortal to be stupid, but it wasn’t.  It was smarter even than the wolves he ran with, or the crows he flew with.  It picked up language faster than anything he’d ever seen.  Maybe, he thought, the other gods created mortals because they were lonely?  Certainly he’d grown to despise his fellows’ company, preferring instead the company of mindless beasts.

He understood loneliness. Sometimes it visited him like a phantasm in the quiet of the moments before the Celestial Dawn—the moment the divine realm synchronized with the mortal realm and time began to run concurrently in both.

In essence, the year One.

While his siblings brought civilization to their mortals, The Other remained apart with his own.  As he only started with one, he’d had to steal another.  They had plenty.  They’d never miss one.  This was what he told himself and he was right.  They did not care for their mortals, for all of their claims.

He taught his mortals all kinds of things like sailing, tracking, music, and how to speak the language of animals.  Bits of the song of creation, that allowed his kind to shape the world to their liking.  His clan would be different from the other mortals, he decided.  For one, they would not know the burden of ‘worship.’  The Other merely required loyalty and service, not abject obeisance.   His siblings believed they were serving order, but he saw the truth of it.  They served their own vanity, their own egoes.  And did their mortal charges a great disservice in so doing.

It was not long before they learned they were not alone.  The world was large, and there existed other gods, and other mortals, and some of these other gods had also discovered the joy of worship.  They believed that the more worshippers they had, the greater their worth.  Thus they began to compete for worshippers, and eventually turned to warring throwing mortal armies at one another, trying to end their feud via sheer attrition.

In the mortal realm, great armies rent the land, and vast, powerful sorceries cast down the mighty and exalted the weak and vulnerable.  Dynasties were born, lived, and died.  Empires rose, conquered, and fell.  Many mortals went early to his sister’s realm, or one just like it forged by the hands of another death god.

But in the end it seemed he knew the ultimate outcome long before it came.  One after another the other gods fell before his siblings.  For one reason or another, they were always slightly stronger, or a little faster, or just a tad more desperate and ruthless at the right moment.  Either way, one by one the other gods died, slain in the celestial realm by these conquering gods, or slain by default as their followers were converted or killed.

Maybe they were the first, as they claimed to be.  Certainly they always seemed to have the upper hand.  They seemed to draw an ace in every hand.  But despite all of this they’d never come after him.  It made him wonder, because he was certain that he too would fall in short order.  He couldn’t hope to stand against the might of all three of them at the same time, even if he was born of the same divine spark.  Where they were conductivity, he was resistance.  Where they were heat, he was cold.  Where they were order and unity, he was chaos and division.

It wasn’t something he chose.  It was thrust upon him.

His siblings grew even more cocky with each passing century.  It had been eons since they’d killed the last of the other gods.  They shared their power amongst themselves and grew even stronger.  But now they’d gained an appetite for a meal they’d rendered all but extinct.  And unlike mortals, they couldn’t simply wave a hand and make another god appear.

They boasted of the creation of the ultimate mortal government, a wedding between the state, the church, and the gods.  They would bring their wisdom to bear on mortal problems and create an earthly utopia. Or so they believed.  But their wisdom was cold, icy comfort indeed.  What kind of world did they have?

The Empire covered a continent, and, for a time, served as a center for learning and law through the known world.  Roads were built, and coliseums.  Great playhouses and immense libraries.  Grand palaces for the favored.  The Empire could honestly say that the hands of its gods were upon it.

But The Other saw the things his siblings never bothered to look for.  He saw the underside.  Not only the battlefields full of corpses, but the haunted eyes of those who could never forget the wars.  The tormented and the mad.  Widows and orphans.  Refugees.  The lost, the addicted, and, yes, even the lazy.  People who couldn’t measure up to even the least of the Empire’s standards, who could not no matter how hard they tried.

Some of these were pressed into slavery.  Others were used as cannon fodder in yet more wars.  There was always someone else to fight, even if they claimed the other gods were dead.

The Other had his doubts.  Then again, he always did.

As the empire grew, crushing everything in its path, so did the Other’s mortal clan.  Taught the god’s tricks and sent among the faithful, they limited themselves to little rebellions to keep themselves  primed and ready to go when the moment came.

And come it did.

A nudge here, a gentle push there, a bit of persuasion elsewhere.  He hadn’t done much to sabotage their empire personally.  He hadn’t even spent all that much time badmouthing it.  For one, it wasn’t necessary.  And while the three gods held a great deal of power, they could not force worship and in some places the worship of the dead gods remained.

Others chose to begin worshiping The Other, which made him cranky.  He finally found himself a prophet just so he could pass on the message that he wasn’t to be worshiped.  Talk about a scam.  People don’t listen to gods directly.  You could walk right up to a mortal, prove you’re a god, and they’ll question everything that comes out of your mouth from that moment on.  Give them a nice prophet spouting vague missives from a mysterious “god” and they’re all on board.

Yes, it irritated him.  Sometimes he found himself reassessing his initial question with regards to the mortals.  Were they simply that bloody stupid?  No other animal of his experience chose to piss where it drinks, but humans didn’t seem to have enough sense to avoid it without someone sending a prophet to explain things.

Oh, yeah.  Don’t eat the shellfish when they look like that.  Yeah.  Like that.  No, that’s fine.  No, that’s fine too.  No, that’s awful.  You mean you can’t see the green spots?  Oh, forget it.  Just don’t eat shellfish, okay?

He imagined one of his siblings trying to have that conversation with one of their prophets.  And, no, you couldn’t just go out and pick someone who’d explain it in plan words everyone could understand.  If you did that, no one would believe it.  Seriously, the less sense it makes, the more likely people are to buy into it en masse.

Were the mortals worth it?  He asked himself that question on a regular basis.  To put it in terms mortals might understand, it was like raising kids you know will never grow up enough to move out.  Humans would probably always need gods, the poor things.

His humans were pretty smart.  They followed his prophet’s instructions to the letter.  The Empire lies in shambles and people are going to be looking to pick up the pieces without their old gods.  Their failure to protect the people would not go unnoticed.

The Other’s people were, of course, prepared.  They’d helped to set the dominoes up and then triggered their fall.  While whatever splinters of the old empire remained struggled to survive, much of The Other’s people would be heading north, into what had been the province of Ruall, where they would establish a center for magic and learning that would teach The Other’s perspective rather than that of the Three.

Centuries pass and new nations arise.  The continent was now made up of ten different kingdoms, five in the north and five in the south.  They’re about to have a big argument with regards to the institution of slavery, one of the only human institutions that survived the fall of the Empire.

As he’d never actually experienced trouble personally, he certainly wasn’t anticipating it when he returned to the Celestial realm.  Until the outer wall of his personal keep imploded and admitted his brother, Ogonn.  So that’s what he looks like when he’s really mad.

Ogonn was very angry because he’d finally figured out that it had been The Other who’d toppled their Empire.  With a little mortal help.  “How dare you!” Ogonn roared, snatching chunks of brick from the walls and crumbling them in his fists.  “You are nothing!  An insignificant gnat!  You do not deserve any of our power, much less a whole fourth of it!”

He stopped, as if realizing he’d said too much.  And he had.  In that moment he’d told The Other everything he needed to know, answering questions he’d had since he’d asked the first question.  Then, before he could react, the huge god snatched him up in one gigantic hand and began to slowly squeeze.

The Other’s mind began to skip around as he tried to think of an escape route.  His brother’s hand had become a prison, and he felt them moving, as if his brother was carrying him somewhere, though he couldn’t see anything through the cage of Ogonn’s closed fist.

Arriving at the other end, the god dumped his rebellious sibling onto the hard ground without ceremony.  Arranged in a half circle around them were the three gods who refused to allow him his godhood, who treated him like some second-class being despite knowing that he was indeed meant to be one of them.

When Neyett spoke it was in an attempt to shame him again, telling him he usurped power that rightfully belonged to them, that he’d been a mere mistake, a glitch in the weave.  They meant to do away with him and absorb his power, as they had with the other gods they’d conquered.

He laughed a long time as they stared down at him, unspeaking.  His amusement puzzled them and they wore their mental millstones down to gravel trying to figure it out.  Ages passed yet again as the world turned below them.

The Other threw back his head and laughed some more as he realized that he’d never heard one of them laugh in genuine amusement.  Anything resembling a laugh that came from any of his siblings would have been the result of careful calculation.  They did not understand his outburst.

He mocked them without speaking, then, using one of his tricks, replaced himself with an image that continued chattering away as he’d been doing, saying nothing of consequence but filling the world with noise.  When they realized what he’d done, they could do little more than throw curses after him.

Now that he’d shaken up the very foundation of everything, it was time to challenge the most basic assumptions in the Broken Empire.  For the first time in his long life he was a god on a mission.  He’d either guide his clan to help build a new kind of world or… or nothing, really.  He was a god.  And now he knew that his siblings were afraid to attack him, maybe believing that their power was also wrapped up in his.

Maybe they’d killed other sibling gods before and learned something about the way it worked, he thought.  Maybe it weakened the other gods and made them more vulnerable.  Maybe even vulnerable to mortal attack.

The thought intrigued him and he pondered it for a year or two while wandering the northern kingdoms as a madman.  He kept half of his mind on where he was going, the other half making all kinds of mental connections.  It said a lot that though his siblings’ so-called “Book of Truth” called for the killing of madmen, the only people who threatened him were people just as lost.  Those who considered themselves ‘decent folk,’ would never think to kill a man simply because he was mad.

It wasn’t as though they could kill him.  Oh, they could try, which would be a lot more fun for them than for him.  But death was beyond him, he thought.  Unless maybe one of his siblings chose to eat him, and then he feared that death wasn’t the end, that a part of him might remain floating around in his brother’s sick and twisted mind.

Now there was a notion to drive a man mad indeed, he thought, as, passing a temple, he paused to listen to a hymn.  Once it was over he began to wander off, but a voice reached out and caught him.  A voice slandering him in the sweetest tones.

I never did!  I wouldn’t!  That is not my crime!  he objected silently.  But he listened as the song continued, claiming that he had sent succubae to tempt men into working against the gods and the Empire.  He stiffened in outrage at the line, thinking I would never treat a succubus so badly.

And then he heard it.  His name.  Not his real name, of course.  He had no real name.  But a name that would work for him, that stood for him, that his siblings had chosen to refer to him, if they deigned to refer to him at all.  Outcast.

His name was Outcast and he was a rebel god in a broken empire.  And for some reason, all of that felt as if it was meant to be.  And maybe it was.