Once, years ago, a young soldier had heard a high, feminine scream in the forest near his army’s camp. Going to investigate, he found a girl even younger than himself in the hands of brigands who cared nothing for her Herald’s immunity or the tenderness of her years—except insofar as it virtually guaranteed that most cruel of vices, the violation of an innocent. Without hesitation, the young warrior had drawn his sword and slain the villains to the last man in perhaps one of the most one-sided and brutally efficient slaughters of his career, all to spare the girl further suffering and visit revenge for the torment she had already endured. A sweet, awed, grateful look from her emerald eyes had been a repayment that he had cherished.
The young soldier and the girl-Herald had grown, and though he had chosen a path which denied that killing was ever necessary, he had never lost the fierce desire to protect innocents in general, and her in particular.
Now he stared from the trees into a clearing where time seemed to have run backward, taking him again to that place in the forest near the Ruby Dragon Army’s encampment. Unlike that time, however, he was already filled with a fury that was barely held in check, and the girl was no stranger, but the wife he loved more than life itself. To see her pinned to the ground in the mat of decaying leaves, her clothing ripped away from bruised and battered flesh, a brute of a man already climbing atop her, snapped the final thread of his self-control.
The anger that had kindled with the discovery of Shuru nearly dead of the wounds he’d been dealt trying to protect his mother and brother, and that had built up to scalding levels when he found Parva slowly strangling, hung from a tree in a blatant attempt to slow him as he closed in on the ones responsible, exploded into an inferno of rage that was almost elemental in its ferocity. There was no hesitation, no question of sparing any lives. His family was the most important thing in the world to him, and these animals sought to take that away from him. If not for Kerza, he would have no hope for the lives of his eight-year-old sons; Arjuna had only turned from following the trail to take the younger of the twins back to her care, as she’d remained behind to heal Shuru. He didn’t yet know if Jurnia would survive.
If she died, part of him would die, too. And so there was no hesitation at all as he drew his swords and leapt into the clearing. There were at least fifteen men, hardened criminals, murderers who had learned fighting the hard way.
It didn’t help very much.
Just as it had been all those years ago, the first man to die was the one who’d been poised to rape Jurnia. Even as his head parted company with his shoulders, one of the men holding her down received a stab directly through the throat; the other lost his head and most of a shoulder as well. The golden glow of Avatar power was searingly bright, visible even to ordinary eyes, as he tore through his enemies without even slowing down. The man who recoiled from killing had finally been pushed past his limits; the violence against his family could not be answered sufficiently except with blood. There was no question of guilt on the part of those he slew—even if any of them had not had a direct hand in nearly killing his sons or hurting his wife, their mere presence was indication of complicity. Even the wounds they managed to inflict on him before they died could not slow him down.
Jurnia opened her eyes, feeling a hot rain spattering over her skin. She had thought that all emotion had been burned out of her, grief for her sons consuming her whole being, but the scene she witnessed stunned her nevertheless. A tornado of blue and white, gold and flashing steel, ripped through the clearing like the wrath of some enraged god. When it spun to a halt, resolving itself into a human form, she almost couldn’t recognize Kara for an instant.
His clothing was torn in a dozen places, but most of the blood that drenched him belonged to his enemies. She had never in her life seen him so totally consumed by fury, nothing human left in his feral-eyed expression. His chest heaved with exertion, and that burning golden gaze swept the clearing as if hungry for more soft targets to vent his rage upon, but there were no survivors, no motion at all but the spasmodic twitching of bodies. A terrible, helpless anger welled up in her, anger at the now-dead men who had shattered the peace of her household and driven her husband to such an extreme. The perpetrators had already paid in the ultimate coin for their evil; Jurnia’s anger could not touch them now, she could add nothing more to their punishment. She closed her eyes as the unbelievable pain of grief welled up in her, her body hurting so much that she couldn’t bear to stir. It was sheer bad timing that turned Kara’s eyes toward her at that moment.
She wasn’t moving. She wasn’t moving!
The sound started far down in his chest, a wild, mindless sound that was beyond words. It was a raw expression of emotion, virtually shaking the leaves off the trees as it built up from a near-growl into a full-throated scream, a primal sound that would have scared saber-toothed tigers into retreat. Birds that had been too far away to be disturbed by the fight were spooked into flight by that sound, animals took to their heels, and Jurnia opened her eyes in shock to see Kara standing there, his fists clenched white-knuckle tight on the grips of his swords as that terrible, terrible sound ripped its way out of him, clawed up out of the depths of his very soul. There was anger and grief in it, an audible expression of what lay in his blazing golden eyes, and yet those words simply did not, could not, describe what she was hearing.
It was the sound of a soul shattering, of a mind teetering on the brink of insanity.
Sitting up was a struggle. At the slightest pretext, her captors had beaten her savagely, seeming to derive enormous enjoyment from the brutal act. The burns that had been inflicted on her arms and shoulders with a branch from the fire were more concentrated points of pain in the general malaise that enveloped her; she felt something grinding in her chest as she moved, and a hot dull sensation in one arm indicated at least one broken bone there. Despite all of it, though, she was suddenly desperate to do something that would show Kara that she was alive, and sitting up was about the extent of her current ability. Though one question absolutely had to be answered, one that was so important, she forced herself to speak the words. “Our . . . sons?”
That horrid scream ended on a strangled sob as amber eyes focused on her. Struck dumb with amazement, eyes wide, the short and long swords fell unnoticed to the ground from suddenly numb fingers. It took a long moment for her movement, the sound of her voice, the gleam of her weakened but still determinedly-present violet aura to register on his senses and pull him back from the edge of utter darkness. “Jurnia!”
He was instantly at her side, gathering her up tenderly in his embrace. Through either sheer luck or some deeper instinct, his arms had encircled her shoulders rather than her ribs, which was fortunate given the pain she could feel every time she drew a breath. Tears rolled down his cheeks as he hugged her like a drowning man clutching a piece of wood in order to keep his head above water—or a man clinging to a lifeline that could save him from a long fall into a deep, deep chasm. He buried his face in her shoulder and softly chanted her name as if it were a charm against utter madness, but grief and anger still tinged the tone of abject relief heard in his voice.
“What . . . about . . . the boys?” Jurnia insisted, dreading the answer but needing to know.
“They still live, last I saw of them. Kerza will do her best; you know that.” He paused, closing his eyes and casting out. “I still sense them. They still live.”
She drew a shuddering breath and let it out in a coughing sob of relief. Shuru had fought like a little fiend, leaving several of the men nursing very painful and personal wounds, but she had seen them stab him, seen his limp and bleeding body kicked contemptuously aside. She’d fought to keep them from taking Parva from her, but the beating she’d received for her efforts had resulted in her only regaining consciousness in time to see the boy hanging from a tree limb, struggling in a surprisingly organized way to prevent his airway from being completely closed off by the badly knotted noose.
“I failed,” she whispered into Kara’s shoulder. “I failed to protect them. I’m their mother, and I couldn’t protect them.”
“If anyone’s at fault, it’s me. I wasn’t there when you and my sons needed me.” He leaned back slightly, tears still glimmering in his eyes, then pressed a finger against her lips. “No more. Save your energy. I’ll take you back to Kerza. I’m sure she can help you.” He didn’t want to think about how badly hurt she was; it only made the anger remain white-hot, unslaked.
Jurnia would have protested that his absence had at least protected their daughter from whatever dreadful plans the abductors might have had for her, but the pressure of his finger on her lips silenced her. She had no desire to do anything that might agitate him further; the memory of that terrible scream lingered in her mind. He was very, very fragile at this moment, and she feared that a careless word might shatter him somehow. If she had not moved, if she had not shown him that she was alive, he might have truly gone mad. The image of him in that moment was branded into her mind, and she had a feeling that she would never, never forget that sight.
He rearranged her clothing to give her a little modesty and gathered her up as slowly and gently as he could, freezing into complete immobility every time she winced or gasped, only moving again when she was ready. There was more wrong with her than she had thought, and she knew now that she could not possibly maintain enough focus to heal herself. She concentrated instead on controlling her expression and stifling instinctive noises—there was simply no way that she could be moved without sharpening the pain, and Kara had enough on his mind without dwelling on the notion that she was suffering even more in his arms. One glance at the rough cart that she and Parva had been forced into, and he shook his head; the thing was so rickety that it looked as if it might fall apart any moment, and anything which had belonged to the monsters who had raided his home was too foul for him to touch.
The trip back to the estate seemed to take an eternity, Kara moving slowly and carefully to avoid jarring his precious burden. He couldn’t stop thinking about how she felt in his arms—warm, soft, alive. Even through the blood and dirt, he could smell the faint, delicate fragrance of the soap she liked to use in the bath, a veneer over the unique scent that was hers alone. Her hair fell in tangles over his shoulder and upper arm, bits of twig and leaf and dirt snarled in it, but it still felt like pure silk against the skin that was exposed by a rip in his shirt. Her aura shimmered at the edge of his vision, the rich amethyst darkened now that she was asleep or, more likely, mercifully unconscious. It helped to concentrate on the familiar details of her presence—her scent, the feel of her skin and her hair, the warmth of her body where it pressed against his, the glow of her energy . . . it all helped to push the raw fury and sorrow into the back of his mind.
Even before he could see Arjuna, he could hear that distinctive voice as his father directed the hastily assembled village men in their duties as temporary guards. The flicker of movement caught the silver-haired man’s attention, and his hand went to the grip of his sword before Avatar sight identified the approaching figure—or rather, figures, for he could see Jurnia’s violet aura protectively sheltered by Kara’s golden one.
“You found her,” he started in relief, and could only stare in silence for a moment as his son came fully into the light spilling from the house. Jurnia was asleep or unconscious in his arms, and the look on Kara’s face made him seem almost a stranger. There was protectiveness, certainly, and relief, but rage simmered beneath the surface. Arjuna focused on Jurnia, and his mouth tightened as he saw the shredded clothing, the dark bruises flowering on her skin, the ugly raw burns on her arms. He lifted his green gaze to meet Kara’s icy amber eyes. “Kerza is with the children,” he said quietly. “I suggest you take Jurnia to your own room. It’s best if they don’t see what has been done to their mother.”
Though instinct urged Kara to take Jurnia straight to the Swan, he understood the truth in his father’s words. With a half-nod, he moved up the stairs and into the house.
Jurnia did not stir as Kara laid her down on the bed with exquisite care; if he could not read her aura, could not sense her energy, he would have been in terror that she was dying. Her too-pale skin felt cold, and the labored sound of her breathing made him clench his teeth—he had heard sounds like that on the battlefield from men who had been injured within. The blood on her mouth and nose was dry, not the fresh bright red froth he had feared he would see on the journey back to the house. Kneeling beside the bed, he held one of her hands in both of his own, his fingers straying over the pulse point. The feel of her heartbeat against his fingertips was reassuring—weak, but at least steady.
One of the servant girls approached with extreme timidity, her eyes wide and wary, though filled with concern. Her voice was hardly more than a whisper. “My lord? Is—is there anything I can do to help you and my lady?”
“Water,” he said without turning his head, his voice flat—not angry, just empty. “Hot water, and cloths. Plenty of both.”
He had just started to clean the blood and grime off her face when the door opened again. He didn’t have to turn his head to know who it was. The fragrance of orange blossom was familiar, comforting, and he found himself relaxing just a little even before the graceful hand touched his shoulder. Almost without thinking, he raised his head, looking up at Kerzama. Her white hair had long since been loosed from the careful, neat style she had been wearing it in, and it fell down her back and over her shoulders like drifts of pure snow.
“I wanted to clean her up,” he said inanely, caught in the depths of her soft blue eyes. “She hates being dirty.”
“Stand up,” Kerza said in that calm, sweet voice of hers. “You’re wounded.”
“It’s nothing important. Jurnia—”
“Jurnia is not losing blood,” she interrupted gently. “You are, and it needs to be stopped.” She put a hand under his elbow and urged him upward. Reluctantly, he rose to his feet and let her examine his wounds.
“Most of the blood isn’t mine,” he mumbled.
“I know,” she said, with no condemnation at all. She pulled his shirt open to get a better look at the gashes on his shoulder and chest. “Your boys will live,” she murmured as she examined him. “Shuru was gravely wounded, but he’s strong, and the knowledge that he did seriously hurt some of the attackers is good for him. Parva was much more frightened than hurt—Jurnia shielded him from those animals, for the most part, and he managed to stay calm enough to figure out how to work against the rope around his neck. Neither of them are completely healed, but they’re no longer in any danger from their injuries. Arjuna is with them.”
Something eased in Kara’s gut.
A few moments later, he was sitting on the far edge of the bed and holding a pad of clean linen against the long slash on his chest to staunch the oozing flow of blood, watching with agonized eyes as Kerza cut away what remained of Jurnia’s clothes and began checking the dark-haired woman over. The hot water and cloths were pressed into service to gently wipe away blood and dirt to give Kerza a better look at the injuries. After a minute or so, Kara was startled by the icy stare that Kerza fixed on him. It was almost shocking to see that kind of vengeful rage in the face of the eternally gentle and composed Swan.
“Did any of them get away?” she asked in a dreadfully quiet voice.
“None of the ones I found escaped,” he answered just as quietly.
“Good,” she said fiercely, pulling the chair up next to the bed and sitting down. She drew a deep breath, and Kara closed his eyes out of habit. Just listening to Kerza sing was enjoyable, usually; when she brought her Avatar power into play, her voice became a nigh-heavenly instrument.
He felt his wounds closing, could see Jurnia’s bruises fading when he opened his eyes. The song wrapped around him, a comforting cocoon that shut out the pain, shut out the rage, shut out everything but a profound awareness of his own energy resonating with Kerza’s lovely voice. It brought a badly needed peace that soothed his spirit along with his flesh. He was somewhat aware of his surroundings, enough to know that Kerza had drawn him to his feet and was undressing him as if he were no older than Maena.
Kara’s expression was dreamy, his eyes closed, his body swaying a little with the rhythm. Without interrupting her song, Kerza went to work with the basin again, being quite careful as she ran the wet cloth over the sites of his wounds. The skin had already sealed, but it was still tender and pink; too much or simply careless pressure could reopen the gashes. His face was nearly as open and innocent as it was when he slept, and it was easy for her to see the earnest, sweet-natured little boy he had been long before he ever shed another man’s blood. Splashes of dried blood marked his face, but the trails of his tears were quite visible.
He needs her so much, the Swan thought, dabbing the blood away. And he’s not ashamed to cry for her. I just hope that he isn’t wracked with guilt over this dreadful situation. There was no reason to think that anyone would attack the house, much less hurt Jurnia and the boys so much. I’m glad that Maena was with us rather than being here when those animals arrived.
When he was clean enough to suit her, she gently took hold of his shoulders and urged him to sit down again and lie back against the pillows. He was aware of her insistence, and couldn’t think of any reason to resist. There was the vague thought that the bedclothes were going to wind up hopelessly stained, but it seemed an unimportant concern—they had more sheets and covers, after all. His free hand slid over to find Jurnia’s, his fingers meshing with hers.
“Please . . .” he managed in a whisper, dragging his eyes half-open. “Please make sure the boys know that Mommy will be all right.”
Though she gave no verbal answer, Kerza smiled; her soft hand touched his forehead, a wordless assurance. All of his energy was being channeled by her song into healing, and he had been tired to begin with. The ceiling of the room seemed to fade into the distance, and his eyes closed again as he fell into a deep and peaceful sleep.
It was some time before Kerza left the room, closing the door softly behind her and going down the hallway to the children’s room. The lights were mostly off, with only one in the corner where Arjuna sat in the large, comfortable chair that Kara or Jurnia usually occupied to read the children a bedtime story. All three of the children were piled into his lap, holding onto him and each other. Although Maena was still rather young to completely understand what had happened, she did understand that her brothers were hurt and frightened, needing comfort and affectionate contact. Shuru was given the lion’s share of Arjuna’s lap in deference to his injuries as well as a silent acknowledgement of his bravery. Three small heads—two bright fox-red, one dark auburn—turned toward the door as it opened, and three small faces stared anxiously.
“Your mother is going to be all right,” Kerza said, closing the door behind her. “And so is your father. They’re both resting right now, but they’ll see you as soon as they can.” The blossoming of relief on those little faces was heartwarming to see.
“Is Daddy angry at me?” Shuru asked in a tiny, trembling voice. Arjuna raised his eyes toward the ceiling; evidently this question had been asked before.
“No, he’s not angry at you,” the Swan answered, smoothing down the unruly fluff of orange-red hair. “You were very brave, and he’s proud of you.”
“But I didn’t help much,” the boy said tearfully.
“Yes, you did,” she corrected gently. “You kept them from getting away quickly, and you wounded some of them so they couldn’t travel as fast. If you hadn’t fought, they might have gotten a lot farther away than they did. Your father’s upset that you were hurt, but he’s not angry at you for that.”
“I need to supervise the guards,” Arjuna said quietly. He closed his eyes briefly in pleasure as Kerza stroked her fingers through his long silver hair, pushing it back from his face.
“Go on, then,” she answered, reaching down and gathering Shuru up into her arms as Parva and Maena scooted onto the broad, cushioned arms of the big chair to let Arjuna up. “I’ll stay here with the children until they’re asleep, and look in on Kara and Jurnia in a bit.” When she sat down in Arjuna’s place, putting Shuru in her lap, the other two swarmed in as well. As any number of people from Kara to Arjuna all the way up to the Dragon Princess herself had learned, Kerza’s very presence, her touch, was a soothing remedy. The children loved Arjuna, but they veritably worshipped Kerza.
The tall Fox smiled, looking down at his wife in the miniature garden of red and orange. It was a colorful complement to the image of her with their own three children piled on her lap, looking a bit like a drift of silver and white snow. He touched her hair as she had touched his, and was rewarded with a loving smile. “I’ll try to be back soon. I think the children need someone nearby tonight, and you’ll need to be free to move around.”
Maena peeked up with huge green-gold eyes. “Are you gonna make sure no bad people come again?”
He smiled again. “Most certainly.”
“Good. The bad people hurt Shuru an’ Parva.” She clenched her hands into little fists. “If I see ‘em, I’ll kick ‘em right where it hurts. That’s what Mommy says to do.”
Kerza and Arjuna exchanged a look.
Maena looked thoughtful for a moment. “Do you know where it hurts, Gwanpa?” she asked curiously. “Mommy didn’t exactly say.”
Arjuna coughed into his hand. “Er . . . that’s something you should ask your mother about,” he replied, taking refuge in the eternal family tradition of passing the responsibility for awkward questions off to another relative.
Though not exactly reassured about his father’s wrath, Shuru reached up and wiped his eyes quickly. “Right here, Maena,” he said, hand coming down to point at his lap where his legs joined.
Kerza’s blue eyes rolled upward; she loftily ignored the poorly masked expression of amusement on Arjuna’s face.
“Ow . . .” Parva chirped, wincing at the very thought of getting hit there. “But it’s not nice . . .” He thought about it a moment more. “Though I did see Mommy do that to the bad men,” he added.
“Bad men don’t deserve ‘nice’,” the older twin growled, then turned his amber gaze to his sister. “If you can kick or hit really hard right there, that’ll make any bad man think twice about messing with you.”
Maena blinked. “Why?”
Kerza coughed significantly. “I think that’s enough explanation for right now.”
“Because it hurts really, really bad,” Parva cheerfully answered, apparently as clueless at times as his father pretended to be. Before Kerza could wrap an arm around the younger twin’s form, he slipped off the arm of the chair. The moment he hit the floor, he stepped back and gave his sister a sunny smile. “It hurts so much they go like this,” he gravely explained—well, as gravely as an eight-year-old could. He suddenly bent over double, clutching his crotch, and staggered back while making horrible moans. Parva then fell to the ground and writhed from side to side, still moaning and holding himself. Maena watched in apparent fascination.
Arjuna just closed his eyes and shook his head, amused—and very grateful that the silly boy was still alive to engage in such antics. Still, noting the expression on his wife’s beautiful face, the Fox Chieftain cleared his throat. “That’s quite enough now, Parva. I don’t want you hurting yourself and undoing all that work Grandmother did on you.”
The younger twin instantly stopped his rolling about. Sitting up, he glanced up at Kerza, wondering just how much trouble he’d gotten himself into this time around. Kerza wore a long-suffering expression of patient forbearance as she shook her head at the boy. “That will do, Parva. I don’t think Maena needs any more illustration.”
With a sheepish grin, the little boy clambered back up into Kerza’s lap. She gathered him against her and looked up at Arjuna, who was coughing behind his hand again. “I’ll, ah, be on my way,” the silver-haired man said a bit hastily, recognizing the faint, ominous glint in his wife’s celestial eyes.
Although the temporary reinforcements were mostly just farmhands and the like, they were absolutely loyal to their lord and his family. Arjuna didn’t have to repeat himself even once when giving out their instructions, which freed him to make a small side trip of his own.
The carnage in the clearing was random at first glance, as if some wild animal had rampaged through. A longer, more careful looking-over revealed the terrifying precision with which Kara had destroyed his enemies. There was no chance of any of them surviving—every wound the Fox swordsman had inflicted was unquestionably mortal. The order of the day seemed to be decapitations, thrusts to the heart, and eviscerations delivered with such power that some of the men were literally cut in half at the waist. Arjuna found it difficult to feel any sympathy for the dead men. His memory persisted in throwing up two images: Shuru on the floor in a pool of crimson, the room slowly catching fire around him; Parva hanging from the tree limb, hands bound behind him, his face dark with trapped blood. If any of the criminals had showed signs of life at that moment, Arjuna might have forgotten the need for information and simply dispatched him.
The question didn’t arise, however, and Arjuna resorted to other methods of seeking information. The men couldn’t say anything, but perhaps their clothing and effects would give him some hint of why this had happened. It was hard to believe that this was some case of isolated atrocity; if anyone else was involved, Arjuna intended to see to it that they paid dearly for what they had done to his family, his clan.
Searching the bodies was an unpleasant task. The slaughterhouse reek of blood and waste hung over the clearing, thick enough that Arjuna could almost taste the foulness in the back of his throat. Carrion insects were already appearing on the scene; there weren’t as many flies at night as there would have been in the daylight, and larger scavengers hadn’t yet arrived, but Arjuna still had plenty of buzzing, crawling company as he went about his work. The men’s clothing wasn’t much to go on, being ordinary, durable stuff such as any peasant would wear, with no identifying marks or badges. They were seemingly just a typical assemblage of ruffians and brigands.
Except that they were all too healthy-looking.
True, they were unshaven, and grimy from the night’s ugly work, but they all had the look of men who ate well and regularly. Neatly-kept fingernails, trimmed hair, teeth in good condition, most scars showing the telltale faint marks of having been professionally stitched and treated. They were also all in good physical condition, as men who trained and exercised daily would be.
Arjuna knew soldiers when he saw them. The rugged peasant clothing was too well-made, as if an expensive tailor had been directed to create authentic-looking costumes. Even their footwear was far beyond what any group of brigands could have secured. He shook his head, scowling, wishing that he could have identified their clans the easy way, but spirit energy dissipated with the departure of life from the body, just as warmth did. The corpses were cold, both physically and otherwise.
He straightened, stepping back from the nearest body, and swept a thoughtful gaze over the clearing. From physical characteristics, he would have placed some of them as Sarpom, some as Mushakom, with one or two being a bit harder to identify.
One, however, was all too easy to identify. He walked across the clearing, stopping in front of a slumped body, looking down at the head which had rolled to one side. The gloss-black hair was dulled with blood and dirt, but he could tell a Kaykolom when he saw one. An outcast, perhaps, not rating the full horror of clan-death, but not welcome at the Rookery?
It said something that Arjuna did not even for an instant think that Iryasitru could be involved in this horror. It was simply out of the question that the Raven would have had anything to do with it, and so Arjuna didn’t entertain the idea for even a fraction of a second.
If the presence of the five men who were running at full speed through the trees had been known, it was possible that Kara would have roused himself and come after them, wounds or no wounds. Arjuna, uninjured and having had no outlet for his rage as yet, certainly would have. But night-roaming animals were the only witnesses to their desperate flight toward the far edge of the forest, and so they continued unhindered.
“I knew this was a bad idea!” one of them grated out.
“Shut up already! You’ve said that a dozen times already!” another spat between wheezing breaths.
“Both of you shut up,” snarled a third. “It’s bad enough that we’re making as much noise as we are—all your yammering is just adding to the problem!”
“Can’t we stop for a moment?” moaned the one who ran at the back edge of the pack. “I feel like I’m going to drop dead!”
“If we stop and those goddamned Foxes catch us, you will be dead,” the first man hissed.
“I can’t believe how badly this has gone,” fumed the second man. “It was so simple! Raid the house, grab the woman and the two brats, and be out of there before sunup! What went wrong?”
“First,” the third one answered, “the woman and those damned kits put up so much of a fight that we were delayed. Second, we had to leave one of those brats there because he was already dying and would have just weighted us down. Third, that bastard Karavasu got back earlier than we’d planned for and started on the trail too soon. Fourth, hanging the second brat out in the path didn’t slow him down at all. Fifth, those idiots were feeling so brave and stupid that they stopped—”
“They’re dead,” groaned the man trailing at the back. “They’re all dead.”
“Karavasu’s a weakling. He doesn’t kill,” snapped the second man.
“In a case like this,” the first said derisively, “I think he might just decide to make an exception.”
“If he’s a weakling,” the third interjected, “why are we running like all the demons of hell are on our heels?”
A degree of silence fell at that point as all five men concentrated on their breathing and on continuing to run, darting uneasy glances over their shoulders. When the road became visible through the trees, bathed in moonlight, all of them vented sighs of relief as they staggered out onto the broad, dusty track.
“Let’s have a breather,” begged the last man out of the tree line, bending over to brace his hands on his knees and wheezing. The gasps and groans of his companions were affirmation enough. Surely they were far enough ahead of the damnable Foxes and their vassals to afford the luxury of a five-minute break.
“What happens next?” asked the one who’d been first to bemoan their lack of good judgment in the plan. “We haven’t got anything we came for. We can’t just go back to our client empty-handed and say ‘sorry, we blew it’.”
“We’d wind up in shallow graves if we did that,” muttered the one who’d shouted for the others to shut up. “This was supposed to be straightforward and simple. Karavasu was at the Den visiting his father. He wasn’t supposed to come back this early, especially not with the Silver Fox and his Swan stepmother in tow. We were supposed to take the woman and the brats, and Karavasu would receive a message sometime today telling him what would happen next.”
“What was supposed to happen next?” asked the trailing man, his tone sullen.
“I don’t know exactly. We were supposed to just hold the woman and the brats at the safehouse, and any further instructions would come when they were necessary. I’m guessing that there would have been ransom demands—the usual stuff.”
“Maybe not,” said the man who hadn’t spoken yet. He rubbed a hand across his chin, looking thoughtful. “I overheard a few things. I got the impression that the real plan was to demand ransom from the Kaykolom chieftain as well, then get rid of the woman—selling her to a slave trader, probably—and something else was going to be done with the brats.”
He shrugged. “How should I know? I didn’t hear those details. I’d guess that the client would have been able to exert a great deal of pressure on both the Raven and Fox chieftains, though. Force them to support some military excursion, maybe, or throw some political power around. Hell, for all I know it was some elaborate scheme of revenge where he’d raise the kits with the intention of turning them into assassins and sending them after either clan.”
“That’s an interesting theory,” remarked a woman’s voice. “I’ll have to keep that in mind while I’m investigating this entire mess.”
All five men yelled and went for their swords, looking around wildly. Walking very casually down the road from the north was a rather petite figure in a swirling dark cloak. Any thoughts of escaping in the other direction were dashed when a masculine chuckle sounded, and a taller figure became visible, walking from the south toward the five schemers.
“There’s only two of them,” hissed the eavesdropper. “We can handle this.”
“I’m afraid you really can’t,” the woman said with mocking regret in her tone. She and the man each stopped about ten feet away from the knot of conspirators, and they pushed back their hoods in near-perfect unison.
The moonlight glowed on the pale, shiny line of the scar that slashed down the left side of the woman’s face, and cast the planes of her companion’s features into sharp lines of light and shadow.
“Chieftain Nizaisa,” whimpered one of the men.
“Chieftain Rakaznu,” choked another.
“It’s so nice to be recognized by one’s clansmen, isn’t it, Rakaznu?” the Sarpom chieftain remarked, shrugging her cloak back over her shoulders.
“Always,” her companion agreed pleasantly, doing the same. Both chieftains were dressed very plainly in simple leggings and full-sleeved shirts, wearing knee-high boots and leather belts, all in very dark colors. It was a certainty that they were armed, but no glint of metal betrayed the exact location or nature of whatever weapons they carried. They also had their hair tied neatly back—braided in Nizaisa’s case, but Rakaznu’s was short enough that a ponytail sufficed to keep his rust-red locks out of the way.
“So you’re all that’s left,” Nizaisa mused, staring at the men with eyes that shone a very faint blue in the darkness. “Out of twenty men, you’re the only survivors. I’m surprised that there are any survivors at all, to be honest.” She cocked her head very slightly. “Hm. Two are mine and the other three are yours,” she said, looking at Rakaznu. “Do you want me to start asking the questions of mine, or would you like to ask yours first?” She pointed at the eavesdropper. “He’s yours, and he seems to have heard a great deal more than the others.”
The rusty-red-haired chieftain bowed politely to his companion. “He may be a Rat, but he’s all yours, love.” Those red-brown eyes then fixed their gaze upon the eavesdropper. “I’d suggest answering her questions to the best of your ability, and make her happy. We’re both quite crabby about being dragged out into the cold to deal with such as you, and when milady gets crabby, people die.”
The man darted a look of mortal terror toward the woman who was approaching with slow, casual strides. “My lord, don’t let her do this! We’re your people, not hers!”
“Indeed. And I choose to let her question you.” Rakaznu nodded towards his sinisterly beautiful companion. “Let’s give him a chance to just tell us what he knows, dear. If he cooperates, I suggest we reward him with his pitiful life. The sooner we can get back to what we were doing, the more generous I’m going to feel.”
She smiled at him. “So very practical, my lord.” She turned her gaze back to the eavesdropper, who was starting to shake. “Now, then. Are you feeling talkative yet?”
Three of the other men had been edging slowly away; as Nizaisa spoke, they bolted. Without missing a beat, she spun and stretched out one hand, palm up, and curled her fingers in a beckoning gesture. Two of the would-be escapees shrieked as their feet went out from under them and an unseen force began pulling them back toward their chieftain. “Can you get yours, dear?” she asked over her shoulder, showing no strain at all as she literally dragged the two Sarpom back with nothing more tangible than their blood ties.
“Of course,” the redheaded chieftain replied. His gesture was more forceful, more straightforward; he thrust a hand out and grabbed at the air. A flick back as if he were tossing something caught onto the ground sent his clansman flying through the air to land hard on his ass at Rakaznu’s feet. Ruddy light glimmered around the Mushakom, pinning him to the dirt. He whimpered when he found himself unable to move. Rakaznu stared down at the bandit. “I suppose I can’t fault a Rat for running. It is a time-honored response to trouble.”
“True enough,” Nizaisa commiserated pleasantly. She looked straight at the now-sweating man as she finished dragging the pair of miscreants back; bands of pale green light twined around them like, well, snakes. They squirmed a bit, and whimpered, but couldn’t seem to break free. “Would you like to start talking now? I think we’ll give everyone a chance to talk, in fact. I’m just dying to know what disgusting scheme you all became involved in that resulted in my pleasant interlude with His Grace getting abruptly interrupted.”
“How did you find out?” one of the men on the ground burst out suddenly. “How did you know what was going on?”
She turned those cool eyes to him. “Shall we say, ‘a little bird told me’?” She lifted a hand and pointed; slowly, fearfully, the men followed the line of her hand.
The bird was almost impossible to see in the darkness, perching on an overhanging tree limb. It was definitely a raven, watching with an eerily intelligent gaze.
“How—?“ one of them half-shrieked.
“Mm. I’m guessing that someone who looks after Lord Karavasu’s wife realized that something was threatening her, assessed the situation, and sent a messenger. Rakaznu and I were passing through the area and had plans to visit the young lord anyway, and we came upon a secluded little cabin in the woods. We were . . . conversing,” flicking her gaze to Rakaznu with a wicked little leering smile, “when that bird flew in the window. It took a bit to get our attention—we were having a very interesting conversation, you see—but we received the message and followed it here.” She idly prodded one of the Sarpom with the toe of her boot. “What an interesting little exposition we heard when we arrived,” she noted, looking again at Rakaznu.
“Indeed,” the Rat Chieftain agreed, nodding pleasantly. “It sounded quite dire. Something about an arrangement to kidnap Karavasu’s wife and children and possibly hold them for ransom? I’m quite eager to hear the details.”
“The client will kill us if we talk,” the Rat on the ground whimpered.
Rakaznu crouched, bringing his face very close to his clansman’s. There was nothing even remotely comforting about the grin that curled across his face. “Right now, you don’t have to worry about your client killing you. He isn’t here, and we are.” He looked up thoughtfully at Nizaisa, then back down. “You do know what snakes eat, correct? Well, my lady is quite irritable since our . . . conversation was interrupted, and perhaps a little snack might soothe her ire.”
The man’s face went deathly white, and he started to babble hysterically, begging for mercy from his chieftain. He actually managed to roll onto his stomach so that he could clutch at Rakaznu’s boots, sobbing and groveling.
Nizaisa watched with her scarred eyebrow slightly arched. “He’s getting snot all over your boots,” she pointed out. “And with the road dust . . . ugh. You brought a cleaning kit, right?”
“I’ll take care of it,” the rusty-haired man replied, ignoring the cringing, sniveling creature at his feet.
“You’re so very good at taking care of things,” she purred.
“I’d like to get back to taking care of you, my dear, but we need to deal with this little matter first.”
“Mm. So true.” She leaned close to the eavesdropper. “Feeling talkative yet?”
By the time the entire story had come out, the hour was late enough to be early—certainly past . The hysterical Rat had expired, though not because of anything that Rakaznu or Nizaisa had actually done to him. When Nizaisa had come too close to him, seeking to prompt any other information out of him once he’d finished dumping out a considerable stream of words, he had suffered a heart seizure out of the sheer blinding terror of being so close to the chieftain whose clan animals made a habit out of eating his clan animals, and had subsequently died after several minutes of spastic twitching and gurgling. One of the Sarpom was curled into a fetal ball, catatonic, from whatever it was that Rakaznu had done to him when he proved recalcitrant. The Mushakom chieftain hadn’t actually laid a hand on the man, just looked him steadily in the eye and made a strange little gesture with one hand. Whatever the Snake saw after that was enough to drive him into screaming horrors and finally into his current state.
The other three men were extraordinarily cooperative, for some reason.
Nizaisa brushed her hands off as if ridding herself of dust. “Well. Do you think that’s enough, Rakaznu?”
“I think it’s all these creatures know, at the very least,” he murmured. He’d ripped a piece off the shirt of the dead Mushakom, propped a foot on the man’s hip, and was cleaning off the last of the mucus and dust that marred his boot leather.
“What should we do with them now?” She turned that terrifying little smile on the three remaining men, and they all cringed in near-perfect unison. “Do you think our helpful little friend here has earned his life?” She pointed at the surviving Mushakom, who flinched away from the gesture as if she’d threatened to stab his eye out with her fingernail.
“Yes, but he’s correct. He’ll be in danger from their client if it becomes known he talked,” Rakaznu said, voice matter-of-fact. Finishing his cleaning job, the Rat Chieftain dropped the scrap of cloth to the ground. He then strode over to his trembling clansman, who began pleading for mercy in a terrified whisper. Kneeling before the man, the redheaded clan-leader muttered, “I am being as merciful as I can under the circumstances. Now calm the hell down.”
The Rat stared up at the imposing chieftain. His words trailed off into whimpers of fear and he continued to shiver in terror, but his attention was caught by the other man’s unflinching, red-brown stare.
“I can’t let you just go as you are. You’ll be hunted down and killed after tortured to discover what you’ve told us. So . . .” Rakaznu held out his hand toward the other Rat. Ruddy light began to glow around the Mushakom, who began to scream in horror at the feeling of so much power flowing through his mortal flesh. As Rakaznu stared impassively, the Rat’s outline shimmered into an indistinct blob; a clench of the chieftain’s hand made both light and man seemingly disappear.
Rakaznu reached down and grabbed something that wriggled and squeaked in indignation. “Simmer down,” he ordered the struggling, huge brown rat in his grasp. “You’re alive, aren’t you? And your client will never recognize you like this, nor can you speak a word in this condition.”
The rat that had once been a man squeaked again and tried to bite the chieftain holding him.
“Hrmph. A bit of patience, please,” Rakaznu muttered, darkly. “I wasn’t done explaining things. But I may not say anything more if you’re going to be that uncharitable.” When the animal went limp in his grasp, staring balefully up at him with beady black eyes, the Mushakom Chieftain continued, “In order to reforge your look and your memory—which is the only way you can live without fear of your former employer—I had to take you back to our common source. Unfortunately, such takes a bit of time. You’ll have to scramble about as a rat for a month. If you survive a full cycle of the moon, then you’ll be returned to a human form—one with a new look, a different aura, and no memory of ever taking this job. You should be safe from your client after that and able to go on with your life.” Opening his hand, Rakaznu unceremoniously dropped the long-tailed animal to the ground. “The hitch, of course, is surviving that month. I have only one piece of advice there: trust your instincts. We may have the Goddess’s blessing, but under it all . . . we’re not much different from our animal cousins.”
Nizaisa was grinning in admiration, not particularly caring that the expression showed off her fangs. The rodent eyed her for a moment, squeaked in fright, and scuttled off toward the edge of the trees. “Oh, well done, love. A rather two-edged miracle there. He gets to live—if something doesn’t eat him—and he gets a very pointed sort of punishment, but he’ll still be able to avoid getting killed by this mysterious client once he sheds the fur and tail. Marvelous.”
Rakaznu bowed slightly. “I’m glad you liked it.”
“Now, then,” the Sarpom chieftain purred, turning to look at the remaining men. Two sets of fearful eyes stared back at her as she strolled casually toward them. “What to do with you, hm?” She looked over her shoulder at the other chieftain. “I think it would be appropriate to turn these over to the Lopayzom, don’t you?”
“They’re yours, lovely. Really, it’s up to you.” Rakaznu stretched his arms, rolling his shoulders, and turned a thoughtful gaze onto the men. “That would be an appropriate measure, though,” he added.
One of the men whimpered.
“After all,” Nizaisa continued, leaning down over the whimpering fellow, her nostrils flaring slightly, “I can smell blood on you. Young blood. You didn’t say it, but you were one of the men who wounded Karavasu’s elder son, aren’t you?”
He trembled like a rabbit, staring up into her impenetrable eyes. Without glancing away, she raised her voice a notch. “Well, then, Rakaznu . . . do you think we should drag them to Karavasu’s estate, or simply send a message so that someone can pick them up?”
The Mushakom chieftain didn’t answer for a moment, his attention caught by something in the trees. “Chieftain Arjunayazu.”
“What?” She blinked at him.
“Arjunayazu. He’s very near, and coming closer. He’s probably following the trail left by these incompetents.”
“That saves us the time of sending a message, in any case.” Nizaisa straightened up and cupped her hands around her mouth to better direct her voice as she shouted, “Oi! Silver Fox! Hallo?”
Silence closed in around the small knot of people. Rakaznu’s expression shifted into a slight smile. “That got his attention. But be careful.”
The Snake could sense it as well, the bright flare of silver Avatar energy off in the near distance. The Lopayzom was furious and wary both, ready to fight. A dangerous combination indeed.
The silver star halted. “Who calls?” challenged a deep voice.
She grinned at the rusty-haired man, then shouted back, “Nizaisa, Chieftain of the Sarpom. I’m accompanied by Chieftain Rakaznu of the Mushakom. I think we have a few fleeing rabbits that you’d be interested in catching, Fox.”
There was something about chieftains; legitimate holders of such status often knew the moment they were close enough to others of their kind that they faced another with the divine mandate to rule over a clan. The tall, almost ghost-white figure of the Lopayzom emerged from the darkness. His long topknot flowed behind him as he swept his silvery-glowing gaze over those there. Arjuna took his hand away from the hilt of his sword, then bowed slightly. The two were who they said they were; their auras were indeed that of the Rat and the Snake. “Well met, though I would certainly wish under better circumstances.” Arjuna glanced first at Nizaisa, then at Rakaznu. “I would have expected a serpent to catch a rabbit, but a rat?”
Nizaisa bowed in return. “The circumstances certainly aren’t optimal. We were intending to drop by sometime tomorrow—or later today, as I believe it’s now past midnight—but we happened across these.” She toed one of the men.
Arjuna stalked up to where the bandits were huddled at the feet of their chieftain. “Part of the group that caused such mayhem to my family, I take it?” he muttered. The trio had the same look as those left behind by Kara’s righteous rage—only they were still breathing.
“Exactly so.” She nodded toward the dead man. “My apologies, but he expired quite suddenly. He seemed to be suffering quite a degree of stress, for some strange reason.” She looked at the silver-haired chief. “How is your family?” she asked then, quietly, the sardonic humor fading from her expression. “These animals weren’t able to tell us, as they separated from the rest of the raiders shortly after they hung Karavasu’s younger son from a tree limb.” The last words came out through clenched teeth.
“Luckily, Kerza and I had decided to visit my oldest son and our grandchildren. They’ll all live, though I’m certain they’ll all bear some sort of scars from this.” As he spoke, his voice grew softer, colder. Just thinking about what had happened made the Fox’s blood boil; he wanted very much to lash out in deadly fury. He hadn’t felt anything like this since the night he’d stumbled into the burning village that had been the final Kaykolom slaughter of his clan.
“I’m glad to know that they still live.” She kicked one of the men idly in the ribs. “This is one of the creatures that stabbed your eldest grandson. If it contents you to gut him on the spot rather than trouble your son with his scabrous presence, I certainly shan’t protest. I’m giving all three of them to you for judgment, as is a chieftain’s right where it concerns harm done to his clan. I doubt Rakaznu will complain if you’d like to take the dead Rat too, if only to hang him from a post as an object lesson of some kind.” She looked up at the tall warrior, her face very serious. “Rakaznu and I had no knowledge of this, Arjunayazu. None whatsoever. Not even in the ‘if you’re caught, we will disavow all knowledge’ sense—we truly did not know of this.”
For a long, tense moment, the elegant Silver Fox stared at the Serpent. When he finally moved, it was with a whisper of steel. He stepped forward, pulling the sword from the black-painted metal sheath at his side.
Without a sound save a growling cry of fury and anguish, the remaining men were slashed into lifeless chunks of bloody meat. And still the rage glimmered within; Arjuna’s aura burned white hot as a faint corona around him as he stood there, blood dripping off his deadly blade. No matter what he did, none of it could undo the terror and pain his grandchildren had suffered—and he didn’t know yet how Kara would deal with finally drawing blood again after so many years.
Nizaisa stepped back smartly to avoid being splattered with gore; she actually chose to move around behind Rakaznu just to be certain. They were both wearing black, which hid bloodstains well, but the Snake chieftain tended to be rather fastidious.
When the Lopayzom swordsman finally halted, breathing hard, Nizaisa put her head around Rakaznu’s arm and surveyed the results of Arjuna’s rage. Her tone was very careful and mild as she said, “I was rather expecting that you’d want to make a more public trial out of it, as an educational opportunity at least. Seeing these creatures executed properly might have eased the minds of the children, if nothing else. Though it’s certainly your prerogative as a chieftain to dispose of them as you see fit,” she added, a touch hastily.
Those jade-green eyes glimmering with silver fire stared at the Snake. “The children have seen their house burned down, one from the inside. The other saw his mother beaten bloody, then was hung from a tree to slowly strangle. They’ve seen enough for now; I don’t think a public shedding of blood would do them any good but only give them nightmares to go with the rest.” He glanced down; blood spattered and stained his clothing. “I think they’ll know . . .”
“I believe they’ll have a certain awareness that they’re safe from this particular source of danger, yes,” she agreed carefully. “We questioned them as thoroughly as possible. Would it be acceptable if we arrived today, say around , and related the information we acquired? I suspect that Karavasu will want to hear it as well.”
He flicked the blood off his blade with a contemptuous fling, then wiped it clean. “I’m certain it’ll be acceptable.” The sword slid home with a snick.
“I’d tell you right now, except that it’s quite late and I think we’re all rather tired, and it’s probably best to just tell the story once.”
“I have no problem with that,” Arjuna said, voice still frozen. Without a look down at the carnage he’d wrought or a look back at the other two chieftains, the Fox began to walk back into the dark forest.
Nizaisa coughed delicately. “Shall we drag the carcasses along, or just let them rot?” Nizaisa was a great believer in the value of object lessons, usually somewhat gruesome ones, and the public display of interesting body parts from those who offended her mightily tended to reduce the need to actually make such lessons on a frequent basis. People stopped wanting to irritate someone who had the heads of previous irritating people arranged on pikes on an estate wall, she’d noticed.
Arjuna stopped for a moment, then waved a hand dismissively. “My own people have no need of such intimidation. They behave themselves. I wouldn’t know where to stake out the parts to get the point across to not mess with the Lopayzom. We won’t just stand back and take it now, not like Lord Sikitu made us do during the feud with the Kaykolom.”
The scar distorted Nizaisa’s grin slightly. “If you’ll trust my judgment, Arjuna, I’ll be delighted to handle that matter for you.”
Rakaznu had a faint, dreary sense that the “conversation” he’d been having with his lover was going to be postponed even longer. The Rat gave his companion a look that said she’d better be making it worth his while to delay what they were doing even longer.
“Do whatever you like,” Arjuna growled. “I need to return home before Kerza begins to worry, especially if I’m going to be rested enough to listen to what you have to say later on.”
The Snake bowed with sinuous grace. “Indeed.” She looked up sharply at the flutter of wings and the rush of air as the raven swept down off its branch and landed neatly on Arjuna’s shoulder.
“The hell?” The elegant chieftain halted, doing his best to look at the dark shape now perched upon him. The huge black bird leaned forward obligingly so that Arjuna didn’t have to nearly twist his own head off, and fixed him with the most silently intelligent look he’d ever seen on an animal.
Nizaisa, now leaning against Rakaznu’s side, murmured, “That’s how we knew that something was going on. The bird came to us and led us here.”
“Interesting,” Arjuna murmured, a bit startled. An emissary from Kaykolu? “If you’re worried about Jurnia, she’ll be all right. Kerza’s looking after her and Kara’s at her side now.”
The raven croaked quietly, then started fussily preening its glossy black breast feathers. Nizaisa half-smiled. “I think you have company for the trip back, if nothing else.”
“So it seems.” Arjuna kept his gaze on the sleek bird for a moment longer. “Well then. Off we go.” Turning his head forward, he began walking toward the estate once more.
Nizaisa remained leaning up against Rakaznu’s side, watching the silver-haired chieftain disappear into the tree line. She glanced down at the hacked bodies, their blood soaking into the roadway. “He seemed quite . . . piqued, didn’t he?”
Rakaznu gave her a hug. “I would be as well. This plot struck very close to home.”
“Very.” She shook her head, then rested it against his shoulder. “I think you and I should do a little investigation into this matter. This wasn’t a minor bout of petty revenge.”
“Oh, I thoroughly intend to. I don’t like this, not one bit.”
“Well. Shall we get going, then? I know just where to put these wretches for maximum effect. I think most people will think twice before making some casual attack on the Lopayzom by the time we’re done.” She grinned wickedly.
“The sooner, the better,” Rakaznu growled. “I’m starting to get rather upset at the delays. We get so little time as it is, dear.”
“I know,” she murmured, going up on her toes in order to nip lightly at the side of his neck; he seemed to like the brush of her dangerous fangs so close to major blood vessels. “I do try to make arrangements to see you as much as I can—you know that.”
“I know,” he murmured, eyes closing. He shivered slightly; though many would think him odd, he found there was a rush to playing with danger. “But I was looking forward to so much more.”
She walked her fingers up his chest. “So was I. But we’re doing a good deed, aren’t we? We’re such reprehensible villains most of the time that we need all the opportunities for good deeds that we can get.” There was a trace of laughter in her voice.
He closed his hand over her walking fingers. “We’re doing a good deed, and yes, we need that sort of karma.” He took her hand and raised it to his lips to give it a kiss.
A little shiver rolled down her spine as Rakaznu’s breath whispered warmly across her palm. “Then let’s see to it, shall we?”
“Let’s do it, love.”
Sunrise was turning the eastern horizon pink and gold by the time Rakaznu and Nizaisa returned to their private little hunter’s cabin. The task they’d performed would have taken a normal person quite a bit longer, but there was very little about the two of them that counted as “normal”. Among other things, Nizaisa was over a century old, Rakaznu wasn’t all that much younger, and neither of them looked close to their real ages. They were not only Avatars, they were both clan chieftains, which gave them an additional edge; they had, in fact, so many “edges” that a geometric rendition of them would have probably resembled a dodecagon.
As a result of this, they had managed to visit and decorate a fair portion of the western border of the Lopayzom lands in record time. There was now a twenty-mile stretch with object lessons prominently displayed on ten-foot-high posts—one every half mile. Nizaisa had decided that leaving Karavasu’s targets in the forest to rot probably wasn’t environmentally sound, and certainly not as useful as her preferred alternative. Anybody approaching the Lopayzom territory in that area was probably going to get the intended idea, since Nizaisa had also included clearly written signboards with brief messages explaining what the previous owner of the body part had done to merit such treatment.
Yes, there had only been nineteen men, but Nizaisa had made extensive use of the opportunity that the two Foxes had provided her by assaulting their targets with near-insane fury. By the time all was said and done, there were actually some pieces left over, so some of the posts had more than one gruesome adornment.
The Rat who’d died of heart failure was the only one who was intact, and he was thoughtfully hung from a pole not far from the main road that led to the Den. The note on his little placard stated that he’d expired of pure terror after seeing what had happened to his comrades, which wasn’t really a lie. It just omitted details that Nizaisa piously proclaimed weren’t all that important.
Fortunately for the two chieftains, the hunting lodge was located next to a fairly deep stream, which made cleaning themselves up easy—if chilly. After what they’d been doing, blood was the least offensive substance on their skin and clothing. Rakaznu let Nizaisa go out and start bathing first while he thoughtfully built up a good fire for them to dry off in front of.
“That was fun,” was the first thing Nizaisa said gaily to her lover as he doffed his gore-clotted clothing and waded into the cold water with manfully gritted teeth.
“I’m delighted that you enjoyed yourself,” Rakaznu replied, “but it wasn’t how I had planned to spend the night, you know.”
“Don’t be such a stick-in-the-mud, handsome. Have you got the soap?”
He dipped a handful of soap out and passed the jar over before starting to lather his skin. “I’m not trying to put a damper on your enthusiasm for your various hobbies, beloved, but my idea of a ‘good deed’ doesn’t involve giggling while hanging chunks of violently dismembered corpses on posts.”
“They were rather piecemeal, weren’t they?” she remarked blithely, washing her arms. “I still wonder how the Kaykolom managed to decimate the Lopayzom to such an extent, with swordsmanship like that involved.”
“The Lopayzom weren’t a very large clan to begin with,” Rakaznu pointed out, taking the soap and scrubbing his lover’s back. “True, they tended to be very skilled, but the Kaykolom simply had more bodies to throw at them. The Lopayzom’s power came primarily from their close association with the Derkontom, and from their individual martial prowess rather than sheer numbers. Lopayzom in command positions within armies and private security forces gave the clan a lot of pull in the right places.”
“I suppose it’s also not really fair to try measuring the rest of the clan up to the two surviving members,” Nizaisa conceded. “The Lopayzom were the best swordsmen in the Empire, and if Arjuna and Kara aren’t the best swordsmen among the Lopayzom, they’re probably in the top ten at the very least.”
Rakaznu chuckled. “You’re calling them ‘Arjuna’ and ‘Kara’?” he murmured. The mention of sword skill made the Mushakom think back on some of the wounds borne by some of the pieces. It’s been said Karavasu as the Demon’s Claw has been the best sword Aizvarya’s seen. Looks like one of his sons at least has rare talent as well. They did say one of the boys fought like a demon . . .
“I like informality. It helps me get along with people, and I can use all the help I can get. I really do have more in common with snakes than people, I suppose. Saying I’m cold-blooded probably isn’t far off.”
One of his hands slid around her side and down her abdomen to insinuate long fingers into a very intimate location. “Oh, I don’t know about that,” Rakaznu murmured in her ear. “You seem to get very warm at times.”
She purred, arching back against him. “What can I say? You’re inspiring.”
“So are you,” he replied with a sensual little growl, pulling her back against him and nuzzling her ear. “Do you think we’re clean enough?”
“Probably enough for right now, anyway,” she answered breathlessly. “We’re probably going to get rather sweaty and need to clean up again later anyway.”
“Sounds good to me,” the Mushakom chieftain said.
He was tired, weary in body and spirit, when he finally returned to the estate. The raven resting upon his shoulder seemed to weigh him down even more, and its presence still puzzled him. Mentally shrugging his thoughts aside, Arjuna strode through the walled grounds. The vile stink of death clung to him; the last thing he wished was to pollute the house with it. Bypassing the main structure, the elegant chieftain made his way straight to the bathhouse.
Jurnia had indeed built a connecting corridor between bathhouse and main dwelling, but she’d also seen to it that the bath had a back door that directly accessed the yard. Always a stickler for a clean environment—Arjuna still marveled at how she put up with Kara’s vagabond life for as long as she had—the silver-haired Lopayzom was certain Jurnia had done so for times like these, when whomever wished to enter was just too dirty to come in first. It was a trait for which Arjuna was thankful.
Stepping out of his sandals on the wooden deck, the pale-maned swordsman tried to look at the raven perched to his side. “I want to get the blood and gore off me before I go into the house. So unless you’re somehow also interested in a bath, perhaps you’d be better finding a new place to perch?”
The bird croaked again, a sound which closely resembled laughter, and flapped its way up to perch on the edge of the roof, where it began to ostentatiously preen its glossy black wings.
The bathhouse was, of course, very warm; the damp heat closed in around him, soothing after the chill of the night air. He was tired enough, buried sufficiently in his thoughts, that he wasn’t actually seeing very much of the room as he slid his scabbard out from its place tucked through his sash and leaned it up against the wall, taking a few steps into the room. The sash went next, his fingers slightly numb and fumbling with the knot before he unwound the long strip of cloth and tossed it into the woven laundry basket. He sighed and reached for the ties on the front of his robe, and blinked as his hands collided with a pair of slender, pale hands that had reached around either side of his ribs and were busily unfastening his clothes.
“Kerza,” he murmured, knowing her immediately as he started paying more attention to his surroundings. The sweet fragrance of orange blossom teased at his nose, pushing away the reek of blood and worse, and his wife chuckled softly from behind him.
“I thought you would be tired,” she remarked, “but I didn’t realize that you’d be so messy.” She sounded very calm. Some women would have panicked upon seeing a husband so drenched with blood, at least until they ascertained that none of it was his, but Kerza had an advantage; watching the flow of his oja, she could see that it showed no indication that he was wounded.
“I decided to do a bit of hunting,” he replied. “After having to turn the other cheek, I’ll be damned if we continue to do so.”
“It would appear you caught what you were hunting,” she noted, peeling off the bloody outer layer of his clothing.
“A few Rats and Snakes, interestingly enough. With a Raven, but I’m not entirely certain what that means.”
Dropping the gore-stained cloth into the laundry basket, she turned sharply to look at him. “A Raven was involved in this?”
“Yes. I found what Kara left of one. The rest were Rats and Snakes, including the ones I sent to the afterlife. Interestingly, those happened to have been snared by their respective chieftains. Something . . . big seems to be going on.”
Kerza blinked in astonishment. “Their chieftains are here?”
“They were apparently on their way here to see Kara and Jurnia when a little black bird directed them to the remaining conspirators.” He paused, shrugging out of the rest of his shirts. “The raven followed me home. If you’d like, step outside and look up on the roof of the bath. He should still be there.”
She stared at him for a moment, reaching up and touching his brow. “You don’t feel like you’re running a fever.” Stepping to the door, she slid it open and went out on the deck. A moment later, she said, “You weren’t joking.”
He laughed, the first time since learning of the horror that had befallen his oldest son’s family. Taking the opportunity to strip out of the rest of his blood-spattered clothing, he responded, “Why would I joke about something like that?”
Kerza stepped back in, shutting the door behind her. Hearing him laugh eased a tension that she had hardly been aware of, and she smiled faintly in response. “I was wondering if it might have been some kind of hallucination.”
“A very solid one, if it is. Though I wonder if it’s not an emissary of Kaykolu.” The loincloth was next, leaving the chieftain’s body fully bared to his wife’s admiring gaze. Not a scratch was upon him, confirming what she’d sensed.
“Their Graces mentioned that the bird led them to the remaining men. When I departed, it decided to tag along with me. I’m not entirely certain why its here or what it wants.”
“If it’s an emissary of Kaykolu, it can stay here all it wants,” she murmured, running a careful eye over him, reassuring herself that he wasn’t injured.
“Oh certainly. I’m not going to be rude to it. Just puzzled by its presence. It’s probably wanting to gain some assurance Jurnia and the boys truly are all right.” He reached up and untied the thong keeping his bright hair pulled up. The blood-flecked silver locks fell across his back. “How are they doing, love? I assume you’ve been checking in on them all.”
“Of course.” She dipped a bucketful of hot water out of the big tub and brought it over to soak down his bloodied hair. “The boys are going to be fine. They’re young and resilient—in mind as well as body. Shuru is still worried that his father will be displeased with him for not being able to protect his mother and brother, though.”
“Hmm,” Arjuna murmured as the water sluiced over him. “I’ll be certain to mention such to Kara. I think my son can hopefully lessen Shuru’s anger at himself if they were to talk.” He began soaping himself up, taking care to be certain all of the darkening red was out of his hair. He always did hate the thought of it becoming bloodstained.
“I believe he’ll be able to do so, yes.” She put the bucket aside to help her husband lather up his silvery mane. “Jurnia, on the other hand . . .” Kerza shook her head with a sigh. “She hasn’t awoken yet. She’ll mend, but it’s going to take time.”
“How bad do you think she is?” He found himself afraid of the answer. He knew that anything happening to Jurnia would have a devastating effect on his oldest son.
“There’s hardly a square inch of her that hasn’t turned black and blue. Truthfully, she looks worse than she really is, but there was considerable damage inside. She’s going to have to be kept very warm, out of drafts, and in as much peace and quiet as possible. I don’t want a chill to settle in her lungs—she had broken ribs that tore up a great deal inside her chest, though her lungs weren’t actually punctured.”
“Monsters. Why would anyone do something like that? She’s a Herald, for Heaven’s sake.” Arjuna sighed, then shook his head slightly before dumping water over himself to rinse off.
“Who knows why people like that do such horrible things?” She was already sloshing a second bucket over his head to get the soap out of his hair.
“If anything would ever happen to her, Kara . . .” He shook his head as his low voice trailed off.
“He said that he’d killed all the men he found with her,” she answered quietly.
“He had,” Arjuna confirmed. “Nor had he held back. All of the wounds I saw were intended to be lethal, to drop them as fast as he could.”
Kerza sighed. “After all this time refusing to kill . . . I hope he’ll be all right.”
Arjuna ran his hands down along his water-slicked mane, wringing out the excess water. “Ever since he recovered from that head injury that split his persona apart, he’s been different, somehow. It’s like a sword that’s accepted there will be times a cutting edge is the only appropriate response.”
She nodded slowly, wringing his hair between her slender fingers. “You’re right. That was when his outlook changed somewhat. I know that you didn’t entirely approve of his vow to use only non-lethal force.”
“I didn’t think it sane, love. Something too ideal to cling to in this world. Am I sad he couldn’t cling to it after all? Yes. But am I sad he made sure those who did this to his wife and children can do this to no one else? No.”
“I only hope he sees it the same way,” she whispered. “Having his sons and wife injured or having to break his vow would have been bad enough, but both coming at the same time? I hope it doesn’t unhinge him completely.”
“I don’t think this will, unless Jurnia doesn’t recover. That is what I mostly fear.” Arjuna stretched, then picked up one of the stools. Tossing it into the inviting tub of warm water, he quickly followed it. Settling down, he sighed in bliss. “Much better. I didn’t think Jurnia would appreciate me mucking up what’s left of the house like that.”
“You make it sound as if the entire house was burned down rather than just the one room and that section of hallway,” she pointed out, sounding slightly amused.
“It looked far worse when we first got here,” he grumbled, leaning back against the side of the tub. “Granted, I was more concerned about my family than the house. It’s good it’s only a small area. After all the work put into the place, it would be a shame.”
“Jurnia’s probably angry enough as it is without having yet another reason to be that way,” Kerza agreed wryly, kneeling gracefully on the floor beside the tub and beginning a slow, firm massage on her husband’s shoulders.
He purred in contentment. She always did know the best ways for relaxing him. Never once had he regretted finally giving in and marrying her; though he had promised to do his best to make her the happiest wife in the entire Empire, she seemed to wish to make him the happiest of husbands. “At least when she wakes she’ll find both her boys are well. She must have feared them both dead by the time Kara caught up with those with her.”
Kerza nodded solemnly. “I think that Kara told her that they’re alive, though she’s surely going to be worried about their condition.”
“Any mother would.” He lifted his head, jade green eyes remaining closed. “I don’t suppose you brought something for me to wear? As mentioned, this was a bit unexpected. I’m not planning on staying here long; my intent was to get the stink of death from me.”
“Of course I did,” she murmured. “What in the world makes you think I’d be waiting for you in the bathhouse and forget to bring a robe for you?”
He softly chuckled. “I must be getting old,” he groused, teasingly.
“No, you’re just inexplicably losing your faith in my organizational skills,” she teased back.
“Mmm.” He reached up with a hand, caressing whatever part of her he could touch given that he was sitting down in the tub and she was kneeling behind him. His wet hand slid along her slender forearm, and she giggled softly. If he had any regrets about his choice of wife, it was possibly the fact that he hadn’t married Kerza sooner.
He turned slightly, tugging her a bit closer. Facing toward her now, he tilted his head just a bit. Another tug and he was kissing her, a warrior returned home grateful he was alive and able to do so. She folded her arms affectionately around his neck, her mouth as soft and yielding as ever. She was very glad to have him safely home, uninjured; knowing that he was going out alone had made her worry a great deal. He was a formidable swordsman, but she remembered all too well what had happened several years previous at the site of the last Lopayzom village. He was good, but he wasn’t invincible.
“You need some sleep, beloved,” she murmured against his lips. “And I need to look in on Kara and Jurnia.”
“I know. I won’t keep you.” He kissed her again, longingly, then released her. Jade eyes opened as she straightened up. “Just let me get out of here and dry off . . .”
She smiled, stepping to the firebox and picking up a pair of towels. “Let’s see to that, shall we?”
He nodded in agreement. Standing up, water flowed off his gracefully muscular form. Even in his mid-forties, the man was quite the specimen, all masculine grace. He squeezed the extra water out of the ends of his long hair, then smiled as Kerza wrapped him in one of the towels. “Once I’m dressed, I’ll check and see if the raven’s still there. He may want to look at Jurnia for himself.”
“That’s thoughtful of you.” She was briskly toweling his hair; if he tried to let it dry entirely on its own, it’d be damp for at least half the day.
“I’m just nice that way, I guess,” he muttered from under her toweling.
“I’ve noticed that.” She kissed the back of his shoulder, smiling.
“Is that all you’ve noticed?” he asked, a hint of sly amusement in his voice.
“Of course not, but your self-esteem doesn’t need to be propped up by a list of your many good qualities.”
“Why not?” he playfully queried, peeking out from under his mussed-up silver hair.
“You’re usually quite content with yourself enough as it is.”
“True enough,” he replied. He began to run his fingers through his hair, trying to get some of the bigger snarls out.
She gently pushed his hands aside, helped him into his warm robe, and pulled a comb out of a pocket to attend to his hair. “You should eat something before you to go to bed, love.”
“Is there something waiting for me, then? I’d hate to have to rouse the staff so late after a traumatic day,” he replied, shrugging the robe to lie better across his shoulders. He lifted his head, letting her run the comb through his nearly knee-length mane. It took much to keep it in shape, and even with a warrior’s topknot, it was a potential hazard during a fight, but his hair was Arjuna’s one extravagant vanity. Lopayzu was said to have a mane very similar, and Arjuna liked having his hair long, even if it was a bit of a chore to keep in good shape.
That Kerza seemed to appreciate it just as much only added to his determination to keep it as it was.
“There’s something waiting, yes.” She smiled dreamily as she worked; she didn’t seem to mind at all that his hair took a great deal of work, as it gave her an excuse to play with the mane to her heart’s content. Her own hair fell past her hips, but wasn’t as much fun to play with—not for her, anyway. Arjuna seemed to like it, though, which was the main reason she let it fall loose a great deal more than she had before she married him.
He made some small noise of acknowledgement, closing his eyes and simply enjoying the sensation of the comb running through his hair, Kerza’s gentle hands working with the heavy mane. It helped to push aside the hideous events of the day—seeing smoke rising from the house, finding the dreadfully wounded Shuru and learning that Jurnia and Parva had been abducted, discovering Parva hanging from the tree, seeing the carnage that Kara had wrought in that clearing, finding and executing the survivors. Arjuna was a warrior and had seen—and done—his share of killing, but only a madman or an utterly heartless one would revel in slaughter.
It was slightly ironic that a Swan, member of a clan known for its strange ties to death, could give him so much peace of mind in the wake of so much slaying. Yet everything about Kerza soothed him, as always—the softness of her hair, the familiar fragrance of her skin, the touch of her hands.
For a split second, he tried to put himself in Kara’s place, imagining that it was his home which had been attacked, his wife and children harmed and abused, and his mind filled with flames. He turned and reached out blindly, hearing Kerza’s soft gasp of surprise, and then he had her locked in his embrace, pressing her close against his body, burying his face in her hair.
Her gentleness and serenity were not signs of weakness, but it hardly signified that he knew his wife’s deep inner strength. The thought of her bruised and broken and bloodied, as Jurnia had been, left him shaken and enraged; his hands trembled as he held her to him. Kerza was warm and soft against him, her arms wrapped around his waist, her head tucked under his chin. She said nothing at all, knowing that there was nothing that needed to be said, merely holding him and being held. He had sworn, years before, that he would protect and shelter her. He had taken her from her clan and brought her into his own clan, into his bed and his life. For a man who had once thought only to die, she had been part of the bridge that led him back from that final precipice, a path into the future. All of it only reinforced his determination that this would not happen again—the Lopayzom would never again be passive and yielding, at the mercy of those who understood no mercy. It had been dreadful enough to be helpless twenty years ago, knowing that his clan was dying. The clan was composed now of himself and his wife and children, his son and daughter-in-law and their children. Never mind the more nebulous idea of “clan”—anyone who threatened Arjuna’s family must be taught the error of their ways as quickly as possible.
It was several long minutes before his grip on his wife eased; she stroked her hands down his back, lifting her head to look up into his face. “You should eat and rest,” she murmured. “You’ll feel better for it.”