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  • Writer's pictureL.L. Stephens

Short Story: Blood Scent

 CONTENT WARNING: Blood and gore; violence. Sensitive readers might find parts of this story disturbing.


Note to Triempery series readers: This story counts as lore. It takes place in the earliest age following the Return and features artifacts and historical persons who in Sordaneon are myth.


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I smell the men beneath the lake. The scent stirs a race memory and I am sure of what I have found. Tiny waves lap at my feet. The weather has been mild and the Little Sister’s surface is smooth, the color of pewter and winter sky. Pine-topped bluffs loom to either side of this crescent of shore. Stones and debris litter the waterline. I sniff again, ignoring the scent of fish and rotting wood.


It takes concentration to filter out the stronger stench of sweat-soaked leathers, matted hair, and filthy armor. My band and I have been hunting our elusive quarry for days. Those comrades squat nearby, staying out of the bluff’s cold shadow, watching me. They sense, as I do, that the halfborn have passed this way. Cold morning air, bright with frost, tickles my flaring nostrils with the faint hint of halfborn breath. I have been up and down this shoreline, following that seductive trace. The scent had been stale before, but here it is fresh, an ephemeral suggestion of blood, honey, and tooth.


“Hloraf?”


The low growl of my name breaks my concentration. Fegnar hunches at my side, fixing me with the yellow eyes of our kind.


“In the water,” I say.


He creeps along the lake’s muddy skirt and crouches forward on his hands, angular elbows out and high, moving his muzzle above the water. The reddish beard on his heavy jaw darkens where it brushes the surface. “I do not smell them.”


“But I do.”


A jangle of harness brings us all to attention. The approach has not caught us unawares; Hen Kyon senses are acute as befits our task as hunters. Even without heightened senses, however, we would be attuned to the Masters, whose jeweled marks of our servitude burn at the bony edges of our eye sockets. Fegnar bounds to his feet and I turn my back on the lake before dropping to one knee. From the trees lining the ravine that feeds this shore emerge seven horses, each snowy beast bearing a proud Aryati Master. All seven Masters wear dazzling diadems, jeweled rainbows of power. They wear no armor and carry no visible weaponry.


“What have my Hounds found?” Areith, my own Master and their leader, speaks with a voice colder than the mountain from which she has descended.


“The halfborn vermin. They fled this way, this far,” I say.


Her gaze scans the lake. I keep my own gaze lowered, not wishing to invite her scrutiny. Fegnar does the same. The Masters read the thoughts of their servants, and my thoughts at the moment are of how much they resemble their halfborn prey.


“This lake?”


“This place. The scent is faint but fresh. They are here.”


Fegnar sidles a step to the right and I lift my head, hazarding a glance at my Master. She permits Fegnar to speak. “It may be they covered their scent by swimming for a distance, Master.” He cocks his head in my direction and lifts his upper lip. “A ploy to throw us off their trail.”


Areith’s lips stretch in a thin line. “Is that possible, Hloraf?”


Her golden gaze burns down upon me, along with a prickle of compulsion delicately spiking from the bone-rooted jewels nested in a scar beside my left eye. The honey-colored jewels in the crown Areith wears speak to the seven smaller stones that mark me. My eyelid twitches.


“Master, I am sure. I have ranged along the shore, up and down. Only here do I smell them. The scent is fresh, even now. I believe they are in the water.”


In the lake? How very clever of them.” With a soft creak of leather and wood, my Master settles back in the saddle. She gestures with one pale hand to Fegnar. “If they are here, find them.”


Fegnar removes his boots, recently earned and of which he is proud, and his garments, revealing his oily red pelt. Though we walk upright and are man-like, he is more furred than I, more bestial. I cannot, however, relish our differences. My white hair, though less dense, is plentiful enough. Now that I have entered my fourth decade, the ruff on my back and shoulders has become as thick as an ermine’s coat. I watch Fegnar wade into the water and, though it must be cold, sink beneath the surface. For our kind to show hesitation to the Masters is perilous.

My comrade’s body, sleek now, dives into the silvery body of the lake. Fegnar’s feet break the surface as he propels his angle downward, and briefly I glimpse the claws tipping his broad toes. His nails, like his teeth, are thicker and longer than mine, curved and deadly, designed to rend.


Fegnar’s head breaks the surface again and again. He makes his way to the nearer bluff, touches stone, and dives down into dark, cold water. He is down a long time and when he surfaces again, he makes for the shore. He clambers out on all fours, water sluicing off tightly muscled limbs. “Something... beneath.” He gasps for air and Areith, though she looks impatient, waits. A feral joy gleams in Fegnar’s yellow eyes. “At the bluff... under it. Even a bird might not see it.”


“We found their hole!” Areith declares to the other Masters with her. They laugh. “Fetch them.”


The Masters dismount to look on as we descend upon the hiding place. My pack brothers howl like the wolves the Masters have fashioned us to be. I do not join my voice to theirs, though the hunt fever remains strong and I strip off my outer garments with eager hands. Lungs filled with air, I plunge into the lake, its water dragging heavily at my ruff with each stroke that drives me deeper. A shadow world awaits my eyes, an icy realm of floating things, but I keep my gaze open. The jewels beside my eye burn, letting me know Areith wishes to see what I see, what I do. She wants to witness the enemy’s downfall.


The chamber in which the halfborn spawn have taken refuge sits tethered to the bottom, partly beneath a hollow at the base of the bluff. It is too round, too symmetrical, to be a piece of the outcropping that conceals it. The cliff hides it from above, and from land none would know it is not part of that rock’s underwater shadow. Exhilaration fires my blood. Now that we have found them, we have the advantage, and not just in numbers. Despite the powers they possess, the halfborn breathe air. Soon Fegnar finds the pipe that supplies them. A flimsy structure, crafted with haste. He tears it free. Though those within move quickly to seal the hole, their effort will not save them now.


The chamber is air-filled and buoyant, held underwater by a net of rope. We have but to cut it free of its anchors. Only Fegnar has stripped of all he carried; the rest of us bear knives. I gesture for my den brothers to surface, where we gulp breaths of fresh air, exchanging glances and signals as to who will take the far side or the near, then we head back down. We attack the anchors, slicing at the ropes until the net breaks free. Ponderously, the chamber floats upward. Grabbing handfuls of netting, we drag it after us to shallow water where, wet and soaking, we haul it up onto the shore.


The Masters call on us to open it. We try, but like a nut, the halfborn construction has a tough shell that thwarts our claws and knives. More of their magic, surely. They command the very elements in ways the Aryati cannot and my Hen Kyon people will never understand. The thing is seamless but for the place where the breathing pipe entered. We work at that hole, breaking through their repair and prying away pieces using Orrho’s heavy axe, until the hole is large.

Death waits within. One of my brothers is overeager. He tests the entrance too soon, only to be cut to pieces by blue fire. Fool, for we knew the princes bore the god-sword with them. We continue to chip away from outside. Areith will not use mage fire because she wants the girl alive. Females with blood pure enough to bear Aryati young are rare.


I station myself on top of the thing, crouched above the edge of the opening, waiting upon my chance. It comes when the sword wielder weakens and does not achieve a clean kill. My kennel-mate, Hima, grabs the sword and, in falling, pulls the man to the fore. Dropping down upon the man’s neck, I seize his arm and drag him from his safety. The Hen Kyon descend upon him, ripping away his weapon, then we pour into the broken shell of the hiding place. Another sword waits within, but it is mere steel and we are too many. Though several of my band take serious wounds, we prevail.


Unwounded, Fegnar and I grasp the arms of the man I pulled from the shelter and haul him across the sand. He is old, with hair white like mine. Fegnar curls his claws through the man’s garments of silk and wool, into flesh, and suddenly the sweet-hot smell of halfborn blood perfumes the air. Areith walks near and I am struck again by how tall my Master is, as tall as her enemy might be did we not keep the prisoner on his knees. My remaining brothers drag the others to join him. Another man, two females, and two pups.


“Telarion Malyrdeon,” Areithon says.


It is but a name, yet it sings along my nerves. The man Fegnar and I hold is the offspring of a god. A Wall like no other surrounds the halfborn city on the sea, a Wall through which flows the immortal life of this man’s father. The halfborn claim their Wall shows them the future and allows them to look into the past. One of my ancestors witnessed the abomination’s birth and my mind retains an indelible image of a wraith-creature of movement and light, girding the city like a living thing. The Aryati do not name their feeling about this god or their reasons for wanting to destroy it, but I have heard fear weaving through the Masters’ whispers; I smell it now, trickling from Areith’s pores.


Areith lifts up the sword Orrho brings to her. It glows with inner fire, frost blue within silver. Power pulses through every sense I own. I taste its metal on my tongue, shiver where its emanations penetrate my skin. It was not made on this world, and I know I look upon one of the weapons of the ancients that the Aryati covet above all other things.


“So this is the sword your bastard progenitor used to kill our father and steal his crown. Where is it?”


The Undying Crown is at the root of all of this. I do not know all its history other than that Areith wants it. All the Masters want to recover its powers and the god it houses—a different god than those which the halfborn claim to have sired them.


The prisoner does not speak. Though his gaze confirms what sword we have recovered, he will die before he reveals the location of the crown. Those who stole it do not want it to be found.


“You, at least, will never wear it. I am making sure your halfborn kind plagues us no more.” Areith slashes with the sword, right to left.


It takes all my training not to flinch, the blade passes so near my hands. Telarion does not even jerk, but simply stares at Areith’s hand and the shining sword. No blood mars the perfect blade, but it has done its work. I know this when, a moment later, the upper and lower portions of Telarion’s ribcage slide one from the other. Blood wells, then trickles... then gouts of red flow from the corpse, its honeyed smell so encompassing that I reel from it. I release the man’s arm and the upper half of him falls at my feet.


The remaining prisoners scream, to no avail. Their fortress was taken by surprise three days ago, their soldiers defeated; there are none left to defend them. Areith does to the second man, whom she does not name, what she did to Telarion. It amuses her to stop half through the cut, then continue. The result is the same. According to legend, the blade will sunder even stone or metal with ease. The first of the young ones, a youth, is next, and Areith, enamored of her new toy, tests it by gutting her captive alive. Then, ignoring the pleas of the females, one of them just barely more than a girl, she turns the blade on the remaining child. It too is a boy, and there is no chance Areith will let it live. I turn my gaze aside and do not watch. It is enough to hear the screams, the thick sound of flesh parting. The laughter of the Masters and the wails of the women are drowned out by the satisfied howls of my brothers, some of whom beg for the meat. The boy, they wheedle, the tender one.


“No!” the woman screams. Her silken dress, bright blue with yellow threads over an abdomen swollen with child, stands out vividly against the lake and blood-red sand. The silver-haired girl beside her, young and pale, puts her hands over her ears.


Areith turns, her attention now diverted. She walks over and places her hand upon the woman’s belly.


“And this one’s nearly old enough to live.”


The woman realizes what Areith means to do and throws back her head, her throat howling to the sky. I join my brother who is holding the younger girl and help him wrestle her aside. She is fierce and stronger than her round, soft limbs suggest. I am surprised when she does not flinch from the carnage when Areith slices the sword neatly through the woman’s melon flesh. She falls to the sand, a gasping thing, while Areith opens her like a piece of fruit, scooping out the child within. The girl I am holding watches, staring and tight-lipped. The newborn is covered not in a sac, as a human child or a Hen Kyon, but with a thick blood-filled inflorescence that Areith rips away. A smile comes to her lips and she slides her gaze sideways, to where Fegnar hunkers at her side.


“This one is really tender,” she says.


Fegnar looks at my Master worshipfully. Does he sense that he has earned favor? “Please, Master. Let me.” He holds out his hands, claws already caked with halfborn blood.


Areith hands the feebly moving infant to him.


Its life ends quickly, in two snaps of Fegnar’s wide jaws. My stomach rises, for this is not how I was raised. The woman has ceased to gasp, lying upon a broad blanket of sand stained crimson with her blood and that of her child. Her dead eyes stare vacantly at nothing.


Dog men, they call us, and this is why. We have become dogs in obedience and dogs in violence.

The girl whose arm I clutch does not look away from the dead woman’s eyes. Neither does she struggle.


#

 

Though the halfborn heal from almost any wound, they do not heal from death. After fashioning poles from hewn saplings and driving them through the hollowed cavities of the bodies, we hoist what remains high upon the lake shore, where they can be seen from the water. Perhaps their kin will find them and their fear of the Masters will increase.


The Masters camp on high ground, away from the ravines and the lake, hidden in the trees. Tents of heavy hide oiled against weather, stamped with gold in the emblems of the Aryati, rise above the cruder shelters of the servants who see to their needs.


Areith calls me to the Masters’ cook fire and bids me sit before her. When she hands me a plate of meat, I already know by the smell that it is venison so I take it. The last week has been arduous and my belly craves the food.


“Are you still my Hound, Hloraf?” she asks.


The deliberateness of the question instills ice in my veins. “Yes, Master.”


“You did not watch all of the vermin die. You looked away. You did not eat.”


“I was trained never to taste human flesh.”


“Ah. Yueron.”


I flinch at the name of the Master who first taught me. My earliest self-memory is of sitting at his feet, thrilling to the sound of his voice. His training helped my senses become keen, so that I surpassed all others in the hunt, but he did not neglect my intellect. Many nights he read to me from books or plays written by the Masters. He believed the halfborn to be human, and the Hen Kyon also, because we both were bred from men. Trust your memories, he would say. All history can be rewritten but that in your blood. His fellow Masters decried his soft ways and pronounced him a heretic, then killed him. Now only memories of his hand and voice remain, and the lessons he taught reside alongside those of my ancestors.


“Yueron was wrong, Hloraf.” Areith’s voice reminds me that I am her Hound now and my former lessons detested. “These vermin are not human.”


Though I nod and cannot meet her eyes for shame, I know better—and not only because Yueron said otherwise. The sweet taste of halfborn blood, its complex richness, comes from the god who joined his flesh to that of a man. It is that mortal residue, musky and rank and sometimes pungent, that brands them human. I cannot smell them and think otherwise. That and because when I look at my Master, I see Telarion as though in a distorted mirror. They are kindred races, these two, though neither will abide the other.


Areith rises. “I’m adding Fegnar to my House kennel,” she says. “I wish you to be his mentor, to teach him what you know.”


Teach him how to track and scent. But not, I understand, that Hen Kyon should not eat the flesh of men. A chill remains in my blood even after Areith, following some pleasantries and praise for my contributions that day, goes back into her tent. My stature has fallen, now that Fegnar has proven himself to be a better beast than I. I follow and curl upon my sleeping fleece just outside Areith’s door. She has the girl in there and I am to ensure no disturbance of her time with her. Tomorrow the girl will be given to Maemon, Areith’s son.


Once, and once only, I hear her say the girl’s name. Palame.


Though I must not show it, I pity the girl. My human mate, Kyra, had been Areith’s captive, whom she later bestowed upon me. Areith intended to reward me and shame Kyra by mating her to a lesser creature than Maemon, to whom she had first been given. Despite our appearance, we Hen Kyon were once human. We walk upright and have the hands and structure of men, although our noses and jaws protrude, our skins are furred, and we bear more practical claws and teeth. Some of us, at least, remain more man-like than beast. We can and do breed with humans. I calm my heart and close my eyes, recalling soft Kyra’s fragrance, warm and vibrant as a summer meadow, and how her sweet lips track kisses upon my cheek.


Kyra told me on the day I left Iddolea that she was carrying our child. We had thought it impossible after Areith’s son’s cruelty.


The screams and slaps within the tent cease. For now. I know they will resume.


#


Exhausted by the hunt, I sleep deeply. My Master has removed the diadem of her power and the absence of its pulses provides a welcome respite. When not wearing it she does not intrude upon my mind or flesh and I am glad to be free of her device. I sink gratefully into the blackness.

Even in sleep, my senses are ever attuned to intruders approaching my Master’s tent, though sounds from within the tent float through my dreams. It is still before dawn when I twitch awake and turn my head, listening, to hear only silence. No. My ears detect a pattern of slow, steady drips. No soft breathing accompanies them, no snores. I pull air into my nostrils and recognize what has awakened me: the bright tang of fresh blood. My alarm spikes and, not waiting to be summoned, I move aside the flap and enter.


Light gutters from the iron brazier that warms the chamber. The reddish glow reveals my Master upon her side on the cot, her arm under the pillow. Just below the clotting stump of Areith’s neck, her displaced head faces me with a dead, open stare, the mouth open and surprised. Blood soaks the mattress, flows down the loosely draped sheet, and trickles in a stream on the floor.

She never cried out. Her killer severed her neck in one clean stroke.


The girl is gone. A quick scan of the tent shows that Areith’s diadem and the god-sword are gone too. A slash at the rear of the tent, fluttering open with every breath of breeze, discloses the girl’s path of escape.


How did I sleep through this death? Did my dreams mistake violence of one kind for another?    

I howl to raise the alarm, then set off immediately to track the scent of my Master’s killer. The girl is clever and wears socks rubbed with ashes. She wears Areith’s blood and has scattered bits of bloodied clothing to confuse the trail. My ability to scent is the keenest of my kind, however, and I pick up her trace. Not cloying blood but thickened endometrium. She has reached puberty and ovulated, has begun menstruation.


Despite my skill, the forest does not give up Palame easily. I must crouch often and put my nose near the ground so as not to lose her. When I hear horses whinnying, feel the rumble of their hooves striking the forest floor, I know what she has done. She’s as smart as she is plump and pretty. Shouting for my band brothers to join me, I race toward the trees where the horses had been tethered.


Fegnar lopes to my side and glares at me, his yellow eyes lambent in the dark before dawn. Here under the trees, shadows still rule.


“They will blame you,” he snarls. “You failed in vigilance.”


He tells the truth. Because I did not prevent Areith’s murder, I am now masterless.


One of the younger Masters shouts for us to find the girl, and the others join their voices in a chorus of hate. Her value to them lies in claiming a vacant throne and Areith’s plans to breed its heir, but the girl has put both to ruin. Though Maemon arrives today he will not have a bride. 


Confusion reigns. The Masters send their servants, Hen Kyon and human alike, after the horses, causing disorder. Fegnar and Orrho, hot and eager to prove themselves in this calamity, hound me until I bare teeth. Only then do they back off and leave me to my work. I sort through conflicting spoors until I locate the girl’s trace. From that place, I raise my head and scent the air.

“This way!” Two Masters, their steeds recovered, are now mounted and direct the search east, toward the fallen halfborn castle, where they believe the girl to have fled.


“Come! We’ll lose her!” Fegnar and Orrho, never able to resist a call to hunt, spring from their crouches and obey, vanishing into the trees to join the pursuit.


They do not scent as well as I. My nose untangles the truth: the girl drove off the horses but did not mount one. She is on foot and has gone another way. Though I give the alarm, none of my band answer. They clamor in the distance, intent on their own baying. The Masters are already far away. I plunge into the forest on my own.


Palame, Telarion’s granddaughter, is just a girl, clever but not wise in evasion. Her pampered kind are seldom this desperate. Once I have her trail, I follow her easily, led by a rich perfume of Areith’s blood and Palame’s fertility, mingled with horse dung and cinders. Indeed, she is foolish, running toward the lake and its ranks of treacherous ravines.


The first ravine in her path is narrow, a gorge of striated cliffs thick with saplings of berry elder and mallow. I pause at the edge but see no sign of my quarry. The stream below rushes in a series of churning cascades. She would not seek to cross here. I follow her scent back into the trees until it emerges again where the eroded earth has given way and three old giants of the forest have fallen, anchored to the clifftop only by a handful of roots. One of the sturdy trunks spans the narrow gorge. Her scent leads me to it. The air I inhale resonates with pine, moldering wood, ashes, and blood, telling me she used this tree to bridge the gorge. If she makes it to water, I might lose her. I jump onto the trunk and begin to make my way across.


My journey lasts several feet, just enough that I cannot make the leap back to safety, when I hear a scrabble and thunk. The tree beneath my feet shifts, then rolls. I grab for one of the protruding branches and secure it, but the trunk continues to turn. Looking back over my shoulder to the edge of the ravine, I see her crouched on a ledge. The trunk’s root mass, still clinging to earth, had hidden her. Palame stands, the pale undergown she wears stained by dirt and blood.


In her two hands, the god-sword gleams with a fateful blue light as she swings. Its roots cloven by a weapon of power, the tree falls and I fall with it.


#


I do not die. The ravine is not that deep. Though I throw myself aside, I land hard, and one of the tree’s roots, as thick and solid as its branches, lands upon my lower right leg, trapping it. The leg, pinned to soft earth, feels whole and unbroken but I will not know for certain until I move it. Pain lances through my left shoulder and burns between two of my ribs. I draw a searing gasp of air, only to hear the skitter of stones, of something moving down the slope. Even before I look, I know what I will see.


Palame. Still carrying that cursed sword.


She walks toward me, paler than morning, barely covered by the remnants of her torn undergown and crowned by the lambent gleam of Areith’s stolen diadem. The torn socks on her feet are the color of ashes and every exposed part of her is scratched and smudged with blood and dirt, her thighs showing bright menstrual smears. The stony ground slows her. At one point she stumbles forward and catches herself, but not before the diadem slips from her head. With one hand, she snatches at it, but it tumbles out of reach, bounding down the slope and out of sight. She stares after it, then stands again and turns toward me.


I scrabble with my right hand for the knife in my belt. Though it is pinned under my body, I make a great effort to sit up, twisting just enough that I might pull the weapon free.


“Stop!” I hold the knife by the haft and raise my hand to show it to her. The blade is of one piece, shining, broad and wicked. I calculate how many turns it will take to reach her. “Not another step, not even one, or I will throw this and it will kill you. Be sure of it.”


Her soft body is a lie. Her eyes reveal how her spirit has hardened. Kyra never hated anything, even Areith or Maemon, the way this girl hates me.


“You were there,” she says. Her voice is clear and pure, just like the contempt it flings. “I remember you. You held me while they killed my sister!” She radiates vengeance with every word. “You helped them murder us. My grandfather’s blood stains your hands. My father’s! My uncles’! You slew my little nephews like animals! Drank their blood and ate them!”


That I ate none of that flesh she may not know, nor does it matter. I did the Masters’ bidding just like Fegnar and Orrho and am no less a monster in her eyes. My hands had given her over to Areith, full knowing what her fate would be.


“Palame,” I say. No choice remained but to bargain. If forced to throw the knife, I might miss. If I fail to kill her, I will find myself at the mercy of this vengeful girl and that god-killing sword. “You want to live? So do I. I have a mate, a girl like you—a woman—whom I love and who loves me, and who is carrying our child.”


“Don’t compare me to your filthy kind! Don’t compare us!”


She shifts her weight from one foot to the other. I fear she is preparing to move, so I lift my knife again to remind her of the blade. “I told you, not one step nearer!”


“I don’t care if I die.”


Kyra said the same, upon a time. With her, I’d had the luxury to be tender. Here, my options are fewer and I grasp at words my mate once spoke to me. “Life is too precious to squander.”


Palame’s lip trembles, pink and pale. “What do you know of life? You’re nothing but an animal. You hunt life; you mock it and shatter it and tear it apart—and not even for yourself, but for them.”


“No. For my family,” I counter, hoping she can understand. “They threaten our families, our females and cubs, if we do not serve. I hate them too.”


Bird calls from the surrounding trees have fallen silent. I hear the cracking of branches, bootsteps on the ravine’s soft ground, and smell the male musk of a Master cloaked with sword oil and rage. Not behind this spot where I face the desperate girl but to the right where the creek has cut a wider path to the lake. The sky to the east has paled and I see Palame better now as she too notices the sound and turns to stare in horror. I dare look also and see golden-eyed Maemon, his hair silver-bright against the ravine’s dark slope and trees. Out of reach of us both, he strides to the fallen tree and plucks something shining from its broken branches. Areith’s diadem glitters in his hand.


“Well now, at least I have this.” He sneers and places the crown on his head.


I feel it instantly, a sear of pain covering my will with his. Maemon notices; his hard gaze fixes upon and then dismisses me. Other quarry interests him more. Worse for me is knowing the extent of his control, that he has willed me into a beast again, mute and awaiting command. Though I want to warn Palame, tell her to run, to fight, I cannot. Maemon is beautiful to look upon, but he is a sorcerer armed with mage weapons and she must not trust him.


Brandishing the gleaming sword in her hands, Palame steps toward me. “Don’t try to stop me from killing him.”


Maemon laughs. “Do it. Give me the opening and I will have you.”


“Then I will kill you too.”


His lips shape a cruel grin. His eyes narrow to slits. Fool of a girl, she hasn’t run. She wants to kill him, but he will kill her first. My fingers grip the knife in my hand, my wrist rotates just that much as the command to throw it pushes into my brain, down my spine, along my nerves. He wants me to wound her. While she is focused on him, and only on him... he wants me to slice into the muscles and tendons of one leg. Cripple her, force her to drop the weapon.


The sky has paled. I see Palame clearly now. Though covered in the blood of her family, she is unbowed. In her I see the truth of my first Master’s heresy. Whatever Palame believes, she believes it more fervently than I do the Masters’ paltry explanations, more than they believe those explanations themselves. Her belief that I am a monster is as powerful as the Masters’ belief that she was born of one. Only one thing is as strong as her conviction, and that is my love for Kyra. I hope to see my beautiful mate again, to protect and nurture our child. As much as I wish to secure my life and theirs, I also, strangely, wish that this grieving girl Palame keep hers.


As I raise my arm, draw back the blade, and throw it, I howl. In rage. In torment. In warning. Palame turns to look, but her leg remains planted and the knife bites deep. She falls... and the god sword falls too, released from her hand. Though Maemon sends a bolt of power to silence me, I have anticipated his anger. I curl down behind the fallen tree that pins me and the bolt strikes only my left shoulder. It is my first time feeling mage fire, but I do not cry out. Blood flows thick down my arm.


I hear Palame scream as Maemon moves to seize her. Frustration fills me. She cannot run and he will take her with him. He can use mage art and power with a Master’s diadem now upon his brow. He will leave me behind to die or send others back to make sure of my end.


At that moment a horn breaks the silvery silence. The round, true note carries over the lip of the gorge and pushes out over the lake. My ears are keen enough to know it comes from the shore. Needing to know if Maemon and Palame are still there, I push my head up enough to peer through the charred gouge Maemon’s attack left on the fallen tree. They remain in front of me, him standing over her, paused because of the sound.


“That is the horn of Laakon, my uncle.” Palame sounds almost joyful. “He will find the corpses of his brother and nephews. Then he will find you.”


“Good. I hope so.” Fingers spread, lr rings flashing, Maemon reaches for her. Using her good leg, Palame pushes against the soft earth, angling toward the god sword that lay now within reach.

A sound akin to wind barrels up the gorge, filling its empty spaces. Something bright slashes Maemon’s extended fingers and they fall to the densely needled ground to lie there in bloody accusation. Clutching his half-severed hand, Maemon screams, staggering and looking around for the source of the attack. From my vantage I see it already. Man-shaped. Shining. Striding toward them. A new scent teased my nostrils. Halfborn, but brighter...


“No!” Maemon screamed. Bleeding and maimed, he nonetheless arranges his limbs for a major deployment of power. Only to scream again and fall, sprawling on the ground before a half-kneeling Palame. The god sword glows blue in her hands and she pulls the blade back, ready to deliver a second blow against something other than the one leg she has severed.


Using his remaining leg, Maemon rolls away but the diadem has slipped sideways. The pressure within my skull eases and I pray for the foul device to fall from his head, breathing relief when it does. The golden circlet tumbles to the ground where it bounces once, then rolls down the littered, tree-fallen slope. It comes to rest against the fallen tree, just out of my reach. Though I am released from its power, I am not free. In the clearing before me the shining halfborn, bright sword raised, darts toward Maemon.


But the Master is gone. Vanished, leaving behind only forest floor and blood and air. Maemon has devices of his own and has used one. I look for signs of wonder from this halfborn arrival but discern none. His kind are too wondrous themselves to be amazed by the Masters.


I huddle behind the tree and hope to be forgotten. I want to make my way home again, unseen and unheralded. I want the girl to forget that I wounded her leg.


I hear her sobs. I glimpse just enough from my hiding place to know the newly arrived halfborn kneels before her and is offering comfort.


“Oh Deben! Did you see... see what they did? They’re horrible—”


His is a name from which the Masters flee.


“Take heart, little cousin. We’ll hunt them down. Laakon has done it. He’s learned how to speak with the Wall. And I’ve learned how to use my father’s armor... see? I’m wearing it now.”


He has removed his helm—or sent it back into the shining armor he wears—and I see his face. Deben’s beauty is shocking: perfect Aryati features crowned by hair black as night. His eyes, vivid green, call to mind the first leaves of spring. Where Palame is golden, he is dark. There is about him something alien, other, a lingering trace of the god that sired his father.


“You’re hurt.” Deben helps Palame upright, then catches her as she sags. “I came when I heard a Hound’s howl and then your scream. What happened to the beast? Did it run off?”


My heart staggers to see her look toward the tree. Toward my hiding place. Palame still holds the god sword in her hand, the blade’s blue edges glittering as dawn’s pink light crowns the ravine and touches the cliffs on the other side.


“No,” she says. “The creature’s over there. Trapped under the tree.”


“Is it?”


Deben is tall and straight and carries Palame in his arms. Her injured leg dangles bloodied and accusing, her slight form braced by gauntlets shaped like talons and cradled against the eagle wings of the armor’s breastplate. She still grips the god sword in her hands. As they stand over the fallen tree and look down upon me, I know I am helpless.


“I want to kill it. But I don’t need to.” Palame smirks with an ugliness that chills me. “Grandfather told me the Aryati will do it before long. They breed useful things—but destroy their creations. Like they created us, and now they kill us too.”


Her words trigger a memory. Yueron telling one of my foremothers that it had not been the god’s choice to mate with a man. Deben’s gaze slides to one side and he walks three steps in that direction. I draw several ragged breaths as he very carefully places Palame, still clutching the sword, on the broad bole of the tree, where she shifts to a sure seat. He too bears a sword, a long silver tongue of a weapon sheathed in odd metal. Though I fear he means to finish me himself, Deben doesn’t draw the blade. Instead he bends down... and picks up Areith’s diadem.


“It’s one of theirs,” Palame’s voice quavers. “I saw it on their she-wolf’s head while she watched her pack of Hounds slaughter us.”


Deben turns the device, examining it. A ring upon his left hand, eagle-clawed and bright, blazes with verdant light. “We too can wear these—and wield them.”


He lifts the diadem in both hands and places it upon his head. His dark hair feathers the circlet’s brilliant gold, the glowing amber sorcery of its crystals. Within my skull, laced with the crystals embedded beside my eye, the pain returns. Though tears limn my eyelids, I do not look away from his gaze. He sees me now even as the Masters do.


“This thing controls you?”


Deep habit commands that I turn my head and lower my gaze. “Yes... Master.”


“Don’t call me that.”


Newly hopeful, I dare look upon his face again.


“You speak well, Hound,” he says. “Give me a reason to let you live.”


Though I scour my mind for what he asks, even under compulsion I struggle to find one he might accept. My brothers hunt his breed for the Masters. We torture them, slay them... eat them... and we have done so for generations. I have only to look into Palame’s hot, accusing stare to see my people’s crimes—and my own. All I have to offer is Yueron’s possibly mistaken belief that the godborn, like the Hen Kyon and myself, are creatures of a god’s struggle to remake the World.


“I have no reason that I should live, only ones for why I want to. I hope to return to my mate. I would like to see her again and my child soon to be born. I fear for them both if I do not return.”


When he speaks, Deben points to Palame, “I do not care about your fear.”


I have but one plea left. “The Masters control us. Breed us. Beat us. Fashion us like clay, to mold and harden us into useful shapes. I have failed them. They... know no mercy.”


“And neither will we.” Though his lips relax, their hardness relenting, Deben’s gaze holds no pity. “I will not release you from your bondage. But neither will I kill you—” he slides a look to Palame, whose haunted gaze he acknowledges, “—given that your Masters will surely do that for us. Escape to them. Warn them and save your mate if you can. But know this also: now it is we who hunt you.”


My misfortune sinks in only after Deben lifts Palame again into his arms and, sorcery crowned, his shining armor enabling him to race faster than the wind, flees from the dark cover of the pine-clothed gorge. He has taken Areith’s device and, with it, the power to control me. Now indeed I am Masterless. But I am alive, albeit trapped by a tree.


Using only my claws, I dig at the flinty soil where the root has pinned my right leg. I work fiercely, spurred by knowing that others of the halfborn are near and if they find me I will be slain. Fegnar too would slay me if given the chance. The light breeze that skips inland across the Little Sister carries Hen Kyon scent to me, alive and angry, mingled with the sweet, heavy odor of the halfborn dead.


No enemies find me in the time it takes to dig my leg free. Though I limp, I can move well enough and make my way down the slope to the rocks and boulders that line the stream. Because I fear discovery, I flee into the narrows of the ravine. From there I will climb and make my way out.


Kyra, I think. I need to get back to my mate. I need to make certain she and our child will be safe. Right now, my family’s fate is as uncertain as mine. If the Masters believe I failed in my duty to Areith, my life will be forfeit. Palame’s words stay with me, like the scent of death itself, that the Masters destroy their creations. Already they have killed what was noble in my race; next they will kill our chance of ever being free.


The sounds of fighting reach my ears but I run the other way. The Masters, even if they survive, will think me dead. They will soon learn that the halfborn have Areith’s diadem; it will humiliate Maemon to have to tell them its fate. They do not yet know that I am alive and if fate works in my favor they will not care.


Surprise works well against sorcery.


I make my way to the bluff overhanging the deep lake where Telarion had sought so futilely to escape. The corpses are gone, the poles scattered on the trampled beach. Only Palame still lives, bright and filled with hate. Of this I am sure, and I fear for my kind in the battles to come. For there will be battles until one side has slain all of the other. My breed cannot turn on or destroy the Masters—but the halfborn can and will. I must free my family and flee to safety first, and I will free also as many Hen Kyon as will follow me.


Why else did I spare that bitter child?


The Masters can no longer use a diadem to hold me. But Deben has told me already that the halfborn will use Areith’s to find me.


I turn my feet toward Iddolea.

 

END


********************

Artist: Jamie Noble https://thenobleartist.com


Additional note: This illustration is of the Dog Man Cortogh, a character who will appear in Book 5, The Walled City--but it works so well for this story that I'm including it here in advance.


Other note because I'm feeling chatty: This story gives a firsthand view of why the Highborn in the series bear animosity toward both the Dog Men and the Aryati. These groups have history. So when in Sordaneon Dorilian is more or less tricked into being among Dog Men, he reacts out of that history. There's more, of course. Lots more. But this story forms the basis of a thread that winds through the entire series.


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