Gift of the Flamekeeper
Wind smelt of wet conifers, and leaves mouldering in the undergrowth, and days of Rain’s blessings.
Which seemed more than odd, in the middle of the summering plain, with grass crackling dry beneath the hoofs of their mounts and dust rising to coat their riding leathers.
“Rain comes, a’io?” The words broke, down then upward.
With a grin, Anahli turned to her young brother. He had flowering needlecreeper, sage, and sweetgrass tied into his child’s braidlock. A wry, answering smile glinted through the coppery sand dusting his sepia face and tilted the hennabark ahlóssa tattoos stippled across his cheekbones.
The latter were fading. Anahli should help him repaint them… though from the crack in his voice, and the lanky-stretchy legs that hung against the bay mare’s sides, Kuli wouldn’t be ahlóssa much longer.
Maybe she would be painting him with the same hue that adorned her own cheeks: the indigo of oških.
“I can smell ša upon Wind,” he continued, with a cough and another smirk as the waver returned. “Surely you can, too. Even better.”
Not better, necessarily, but more innate. Wind had chosen Anahli as ša’s cotenant, even as Fire spoke to their sire, Palatan. Anahli slid a frown in Kuli’s direction. Such things weren’t to be spoken outside Owlclan…
Not that Anahli was—quite—Owlclan.
Kuli’s grin flashed wider, unrepentant. He’d no cotenant, but her little brother… well, he knew things. Even as their sire had, as a child, known things.
And knowing that made Anahli keep a careful eye upon Kuli. He’d also been touched—some would say tainted—by Stars.
Kuli’s horse rolled a snort through her nostrils and jerked her head up, ears swivelling forward. Anahli’s own mare did likewise, grass hanging from her mouth. Putting a hand to the bow athwart her back, Anahli scanned the horizon.
Nothing. And it wasn’t long before Ember, the eldest of the two mares, gave the equine equivalent of a shrug between Anahli’s knees and lowered her head. The younger mare eyed her companions, kept asking Is it danger? Should we run? Ember merely flicked her ears and returned to grazing. Anahli scratched her withers, eyeing Kuli’s mare as he tugged her black mane and spoke her name softly.
“Easy, Wings. You’re fine.”
The young mare was actually Ahlašatapa—She Spreads Her Wings, and apropos it was—but horseKin preferred the blunter sounds of Commingling-talk. They didn’t seem to have a two-legged’s need to safeguard their soul namings.
Of course, horseKin were more generous than any two-legged.
Wings slowly lowered her head, but her ears never stopped their twitching, every which way. Meanwhile, Kuli’s grass-hued eyes had focused past Anahli’s shoulder, across the plain
“There is something,” he said. “ScavengerKin, a whole flight of them!”
Indeed, towards dawn a great lot of flyingKin rose, circling. Something was dying. Or dead. Likely no more than that. Anahli relaxed her bow arm.
Paused, as Wings flung her head up and snorted. As Ember lurched and drew up, mane tossing in a sudden gust of Wind.
As Wind whispered something that felt like: Go. Help her.
More of flyingKin kept gathering, dark shapes wheeling and dipping against Sky’s cloudless turquoise. Waiting. Predators were patient…
“Let’s go see,” Anahli told her brother, and put heels to Ember’s sides.
With another flash of grin, Kuli followed suit.
She’d gone to ground against the rocky promontory known as Horse Nose in Sky. A sacred, uplifted place where many of horseClan had come to Sing a vision, now it witnessed another sort of transformation. Several of the buzzards had already dropped down, shambling a loose, wary semicircuit. A few of crowKin lingered on their borders.
All went scattering as the downed fem hurled a desperate rock into their midst. But the scavengerKin didn’t go far. They never did, when they knew a meal lay in the offering.
Anahli didn’t blame them. But she rode in at a gallop, Kuli letting out a shrill cry at her flanks.
More scattering; this time with flight and cheated caws.
The fem must have thought they meant to ride her down; after one terrified look, she curled up into a tiny ball—well, most of her. One leg refused to obey, tattered and blood-streaked.
Dust and gravel spattered against the rock face as the horses slid to a stop several lengths away. Just above them, flyingKin circled with cheated calls. The fem heaved herself up on trembling arms, her dark eyes white-wide. One determined hand reached for another rock. She growled, lips curling back from her teeth.
Instead, those eyes rolled up in her dust-coated face, and she collapsed, limp, against Earth.
“Take care,” Anahli cautioned as she sliding down from Ember’s ebon-spotted back. Kuli had already dismounted, walking towards the fem.
“A’io, I wi—Anahli, she’s snakebit!”
Anahli wasted no time. She ran the last few steps, unbuckling her belt and falling to her knees beside the fem. Kuli already had his small, sharp obsidian between his fingers, kneeling over where, sure enough, a set of bruised fang marks punctured the bloodied calf.
“You’ve no cuts in your mouth?” Anahli looped the belt around the fem’s knee, above the swelling. He nodded and she snapped, “You’re sure?”
Another tight nod, and Kuli bent over, first slicing, then bending over the swell of blood, sucking in then spitting it out to curdle and dry against sand and shale.
Anahli tightened the belt, restricting blood flow from wound to heart. Likely too late… but then it mightn’t be. Some viperKin hadn’t enough venom to kill larger People, though any amount could make you sick enough to want to die.
Pulling the carrysack out from under the fem’s back, Anahli made an impromptu pillow, propping up her shoulders. All the while her black eyes flickered, scrutinising first the fem, then the horizon. The carrysack made a poor prop, nearly depleted. Anahli let out a low whistle, and Ember willingly came, bracing as Anahli pulled herself upward, snatched her spare blanket and a duet of pouches hanging across the mare’s withers, then bent once more to pad the carrysack. Eyeing the underside of Horse Nose in Sky, she then dug into the pocket-pouch at her hip and, with a pinch of sweetsage, made offering and a soft orison to the place. Maybe what transformation Horse Nose in Sky would tender this wanderer wasn’t death, but deliverance.
The same garb that had confirmed said wanderer as fem also betrayed where she’d come from: midLands. The lightweave tunic—and the knee-length skirt wrapped and cut akin to trous—it was the sort of garb stoneClan preferred, though it wasn’t as fancy as many Anahli had seen. And those thin sandals seemed an odd choice for hard travel. MidLands wasn’t as far as dawnLands, to be sure, but this time of year it could be hard going…
Not only all that, but midLands had viperKin. This fem should have known better than to crawl beneath a rock overhang for shade without making sure none else had the same idea.
“What are you doing here here, travelling alone?” Anahli murmured.
Kuli hawked a last gob of venom and blood, face wrinkled distastefully. Anahli, whilst making sure her work was snugly tied, grabbed the waterskin from across her back and handed it over. While Kuli rinsed and spat several times, she rummaged in another pouch.
“What’s a midLander doing here, alone?” Kuli echoed, soft.
Anahli shrugged and took a tiny lava-rock bowl from one of the retrieved pouches, measuring into it a swift concoction of dried roots and plants no dawnLands traveller ever went without. Her fingers were deft, calluses scraping against the bowl’s rough interior, bruising the mixture and wafting a sharpish smell across her nostrils. It increased as Kuli leaned closer and added a spare amount of water—just enough to form a lumpy paste. With every breath it turned colour, from dust, to Smoke, to Grass. Finally Anahli gave a satisfied “Huh” and leaned forwards, slathering it over the bite. The swelling had lessened, but it still oozed blood. The flesh was yellowish, vein-broken. “Make sure you clean your blade.”
“A’io” as Kuli lathed the blade through a patch of sand. “A refugee from stoneClan, d’you think?”
“She might be.”
And not the first. Similar to the viperKin who taken down this fem, corruption had slithered into midLands and bitten hard. The tall ones—Chepiś, their old enemy—had swarmed downLand from the ice volcano they’d occupied a hundred lifetimes ago, and not only invasion, this time.
The chieftain a’Hassu had invited them in!
Anahli turned the fem—gently—and grabbed at the frayed ends of her skirt-trous, with a muttered “Sorry” ripping a long strip from it. She had to use her teeth despite the fraying—even light midLands weaving was many-threaded and strong.
“How’d she get this far downLand? And past our other outriders?” Kuli’s query only made sense. Most refugees headed with beeKin trajectory for Aišaa—Šaabo’s Haven. Even now, well past first grassMoons. Most didn’t seem to realise dawnLands People would no longer be in their wintering caverns, but out to grazing. “A’io, she’s oških a’Hassu.” Kuli pointed to the indigo Marks traced across the fem’s dark cheekbones, then bent closer with a small catch of breath. “Anahli, d’you—?”
All Marks had their own tale. These told of a fem who’d yet to take her adult’s Journey, one not only a’Hassu—stoneClan—but of their… well, stoneClan called them boundlings.
Others called them slaves.
Anahli rose. “We have to get her back to camp.”