Part One. Part Two.
Aaand we’re back. Here’s more of Atanar’s story! Enjoy. 😘
A fire burned in a brazier at the center of the kulkri tent while its smoke escaped through vents at the top. The heat remained. It closed around Atanar like a fist as he stood, back to the fire, facing the assembled kulkri who studied him with those arrow-pointed eyes. The hide walls of the tent shivered beneath the assault of the storm that raged outside.
Sweat prickled along his spine and his heart raced, but Atanar stood tall; he would not be cowed by these scrabbling brigands. He spoke carefully, lest his voice betray him. “If you want to know, my name is Caradoc Keraasi Atanar.”
The kulkri cast one another wide-eyed glances, and more than a few murmurs of surprise ran through their numbers. Tikaani nodded once, his wizened face set with satisfaction, while Sivoy was silent.
Tikaani raised his hands in a call for silence, then regarded Atanar once more. “You are of the Caradoc clan, then? The son of Keraasi?”
“That’s what I said.”
There were only a dozen kulkri within this tent; save Sivoy, most of them were older than him. Atanar stood, surrounded. His scalp prickled beneath their scrutiny; his breath came in short, shallow bursts and his heartbeat thundered in his ears.
Another kulkri, a man, shook his head. “If you are of their clan, where is your caradoc, then?”
The emptiness in his heart where Ruuk should have been howled with grief. Heat stung Atanar’s eyes but he forced himself respond without hesitation. “Slain.”
The kulkri man
was unimpressed. “How do we know he speaks truly?”
“I can vouch for his words,” Tikaani said before Atanar could reply. “I recognize him from the last Gathering.”
“But that must have been nearly a decade ago, Utu,” Sivoy replied. “How can you be certain this is the same man?”
A few other kulkri nodded in agreement. Tikaani, unfazed, glanced between the others, though his gaze landed on his granddaughter. “My body is frail, but my memory is still sharp. He is who he claims to be.”
But Sivoy shook her head. “As you say. But what does it matter anyway? If he’s vorunn, if he is dead to his own family, then he’s of no use to anyone.”
She added another dark look in Atanar’s direction. He tried to return it in kind, but the warmth from the fire swam through his head and his vision swam, as if distorted by rippling waves of heated air. His heart beat faster. That chorus of voices, that strange impulsion, whispered somewhere in the back of his mind. Kill it. Kill them all.
His hands tightened into fists but he managed to push his words out regardless. “If my presence so troubles you, kulkri, I shall leave. You are not obligated to treat me kindly.”
Sivoy glared, but Tikaani cleared his throat, drawing everyone’s attention. “What did you do, to have your soul taken away?”
“Aye,” another kulkri called. “Explain how you came to be cursed with vorunn.”
Where once heat had flooded Atanar’s body, now a cold unlike any he’d ever known swept through each vein. Everything around him fell into blackness as his memory cast him back to that night.
He is surrounded, his enemies pressing closer, closer. But he will not fall – not tonight. His arms burn he lifts his claymore, again and again and again. Ruuk’s roar reverberates in his chest, echoes in his ears, but he ignores the caradoc’s panic. His blade bites into something hard, like bone, and the impact shakes him to his core. But he cannot drop his weapon.
There are screams on all sides, and Ruuk’s roars, but no sound as loud as the shrieking cacophony from within the darkest corners of his mind, Kill them!
It echoes through his mind, but it is not his thought. Nor is the anger pulsing through his blood his. They are invaders. He must fight them back. He must end this now. But surely the voice that crawls from his throat is too harsh to be his own. “Get back!”
Kill them all!
No. This is wrong. He gathers all his strength, tightens his grip around the slippery hilt of his claymore, and strikes one final time. It will be the last one. “Get away! You will not have me!”
At last, at last the foreign feeling falls aside. Empty, weightless, he collapses to the cold ground, gasping…but alive. The air is thick with the iron scent of blood, but his own heart still beats and Ruuk is beside him, warm and alive. He has won.
When Atanar raises his eyes to the stars to thank his ancestors, he sees the remnants of his battle.
His heart beat so fast, he did not know if he could speak. Where was his soul? Gone, if indeed he’d ever had one. How could someone who’d done what he had done be anything but a monster?
“Answer my grandfather,” Sivoy barked, rousing Atanar from his thoughts. “What did you do, to be made ‘vorunn?’”
“I… murdered innocents,” he said slowly. “A hunting party I traveled with.”
Silence settled over the kulkri tent and Atanar felt the true weight of the others’ shock fall across him like an avalanche. As well it should, and press the life from his body in the process.
Tikaani closed his eyes briefly, but nodded once. “Why did you do such a thing?”
How many times had Atanar asked himself that same question? The answer never changed. He shook his head. “I cannot say, exactly. All I know for certain is that some madness gripped me; some strange will took over my own and made me act…” He took a deep breath to calm himself. “I didn’t want to hurt any of them.”
“But you did,” Sivoy said. “And you cannot even take responsibility for such heinous actions.” She snorted. “’Some madness.’ A coward’s defense.”
“I know how it sounds,” he shot back. “But it’s the truth.”
“What did your samaat say to this?” Tikaani replied.
Atanar lowered his eyes to the burning coals within the brazier, and did not reply. The fact that he was here, outcast from his home and dead to his kin, was answer enough.
“You see, Utu?” Sivoy said at last. “He is too dangerous to stay.”
“He’ll bring nothing but trouble,” one of the other kulkri women added. “I vote we send him away.”
A few of the others nodded and cast Atanar more dark looks as they muttered agreements. He tensed beneath their collective gaze; he could feel the judgment in their eyes as surely as the bite of winter wind. He swallowed thickly and stared at the entrance to the tent, beyond which the storm raged.
However, Tikaani’s voice was quiet. “Will you treat us the same way, Atanar?”
He had not heard his own name spoken by another since he’d been marked vorunn. The sounds were almost foreign. Almost. Atanar glanced up, into the old man’s eyes, and found them filled with, of all things, hope.
For what, he could not say. “I don’t know,” was the only answer he could give. Again. “I have no wish to harm you.”
“Oh, aye,” Sivoy sneered. “You would be perfectly happy to live among…what did you name us? ‘Kulkri?’”
Kill it. Atanar fought to ignore the urge that beat through his blood and instead regarded the kulkri samaat with what calm he could muster. “So your kind have been named by mine. But we are not the only ones who do such things; your brother called me ‘pikarac.’”
Peals of laughter rang out through the assembled kulkri at the word. Sivoy, smiling, regarded him again. “You would let a child’s teasing offend you so? Truly,” she added gravely, “you are a fine warrior, to return such treatment in kind.”
Atanar flushed and glanced at Tikaani. “Your offer is well-meant, but I cannot accept a place among your people.”
“Nor are you welcome here,” Sivoy added. She, too, looked at her grandfather. “I have done as you advised, Utu, but surely you can see that he should not be allowed to remain.”
Again, silence fell across the tent as the others waited for Tikaani’s next words. They were some moments in coming. When they did, they were quiet as before, but shaded with sorrow. “You said you have no wish to harm us,” he said to Atanar. “What, then, do you desire?”
The answer broke free of him before he could stop it. “To go home.”
“But you have no home,” Tikaani replied. “According to your own family, you have no name, nor life, nor even a soul. What will you do if we send you away?”
Sivoy made a noise of disgust. “Why does it matter what he wants? He’s vorunn. The world is better without him.”
“So have many of our people been named,” her grandfather said to her, sitting straighter. “Including those of your own blood. Vorunn does not always mean evil. I would not be so quick to cast judgment upon that which you do not understand.”
Sivoy gestured around the tent, where the walls trembled beneath the wind’s battery. “I understand enough. Everyone here is under my protection, Utu. I value your guidance, but I am the samaat of our people, now, and I say we send this…murderer away.”
Atanar released a breath he didn’t know he’d been holding. Of course, there would be no other judgment; if she was truly the chieftain of this “clan,” Sivoy had every right to turn him away. But now that such an outcome was upon him, he realized he’d wanted a different one. Even if it meant living among these…brigands.
Just as Atanar was preparing to verbally accept this fate, Tikaani spoke again. “One month,” the old man said to his granddaughter. “Give him a full cycle of the first moon. If after that time, you still desire to, you may send him away. And in the meantime, I will vouch for him.”
Only because he happened to glance at the right moment did Atanar see how Sivoy’s shoulders slumped, briefly, at her grandfather’s words. A fleeting look of what Atanar could only think of as resignation passed over her face, but when she looked back at Tikaani, her expression was like cool stone.
“You will claim responsibility for him?” she asked.
Tikaani nodded. “Aye.”
Atanar’s breath caught and dread pooled in his belly.
Sivoy seemed to feel the same. “You know what this entails, Utu. If he–”
“I know what I say, Sivoy.” Tikaani glared at his granddaughter and his words cracked through the tent like lightning; even Sivoy recoiled slightly, as if she’d been struck. The others were silent. Atanar, too, dared not move, lest he break whatever now passed unspoken between the family members.
At last Sivoy glanced around the tent slowly. “Do any of you object to these terms?”
Atanar straightened. “I do.”
“You have no say here,” Sivoy replied.
“It’s my life you speak of. And if you’re asking everyone’s opinion, shouldn’t mine count as well?”
“What objection do you have?” Tikaani asked.
Before answering, Atanar surveyed the kulkri again. Most of them were fair-haired and blue eyed, as he was, with strong bodies fit for survival in the skull of the world. But flesh and bone were so frail. Every one of these men and women could be torn to pieces so easily. He looked at his hands; though they’d long since been scrubbed clean, he could still see rivulets of blood. And within him, vorunn waited.
No, he thought, closing his hands into fists. I cannot risk it happening again. “I don’t wish to harm you,” he began. “But I cannot promise that I won’t. Before, when I…” The words died in his throat; he took a deep breath. “When I killed the others…I don’t remember exactly what happened. All I know is I cannot promise it will not happen again.”
Sivoy looked at her grandfather; she said nothing, but her disbelief was plainly written across her face. The others, too, shifted and cast skeptical glances at one another – and at Atanar.
But Tikaani only rubbed his beard in thought. At last he nodded once and met Sivoy’s eyes. “Then we will honor the terms of vorunn, and not allow him to touch a blade. And at the first sign of trouble, we will send him away. Will that satisfy you, Sivoy?”
She crossed her arms before her chest. “I suppose he may travel with us, for a little while. We can always use another pair of hands when we hunt.”
“Will you stay, Atanar?” There it was, again, that naked hope in Tikaani’s face, etched in the lines across his forehead and around his eyes.
Atanar took a deep breath, assessing his strength. The foreign presence was quiet now, calm. As he was. Perhaps, with time, he could learn to control it, if not banish it outright. Perhaps there was some strange Aredian magic that could even help.
Maybe there is hope. Atanar nodded once, so low it was nearly a bow. “One month, as you say.”
His heart lifted as Tikaani smiled. “You won’t regret it, tigu.”
Atanar’s breath caught at the epithet, but he only nodded again. Sivoy frowned, but rose to her feet in one fluid motion. “The matter is settled for now. The stranger will travel with us for one month. After that…” She looked back at Atanar. “We will see.”
Moments later, the others began to leave of the tent, presumably back to their own tents, for the wind had quieted. As they left, Sivoy helped her grandfather to his feet. “Why would you call him ‘tigu’ when he’s not part of our family? Are you planning on adopting him? Because I won’t allow it.”
“Give him time,” Tikaani said, looking between Sivoy and Atanar. “I think you will find a different perspective, later.”
Sivoy stared at him, then sighed and shook her head.
“What happened?” Corvac asked. He’d slipped inside the tent as the others had left.
His sister crossed her arms before her chest. “Utu asked that the stranger be allowed to travel with us for one month. I’ve allowed it.”
The boy’s eyes lit up. “Really?” When Atanar nodded, he grinned. “Do you like hunting?”
Atanar gave a noncommittal shrug. “I can provide for myself and those around me, though…”
He trailed off at the sight of Sivoy’s claymore, strapped to her back. How could he hunt if he could not wield a blade?
“We have kuvlu,” Sivoy said, as if reading his thoughts. “You can swing a rope with rocks tied at the end, I hope.”
Atanar nodded and Corvac bounced on his heels as he continued to regard their clan’s newest addition. “I’ll bet you’re a great hunter. Siv, if he goes with you on the next hunt, can I come, too?”
“You’re still too young,” Sivoy said, frowning again. “Don’t even think of it.”
The boy rolled his eyes to the tent’s ceiling. “Utu, tell her I’m ready!”
“Corvac,” Tikaani said, touching the boy’s arm. “Your sister is right. It’s too dangerous for you now. Come,” he added with a nod to the tent’s exit. “The storm has died down. Let’s see if the others left us any supper.”
“There’s some,” Corvac said as he helped his grandfather out of the tent. “But not that much. Tartok was really hungry tonight.” He glanced over his shoulder. “Are you hungry, pikarac?”
“He’ll be along in a moment,” Sivoy said.
Once they’d left, Atanar glanced at the young woman again. “Why did you ask the others for their opinion? How many kulkri are needed to make a decision for the good of their clan?”
“We are not like you northerners.” Sivoy touched her sash: red, yellow, green, blue and white braided cloth. “We are one clan, one family. Everyone has a voice.”
“That’s madness,” Atanar said, frowning again. “You…vote on all decisions? How does anything get done? What is the purpose of a single leader if everyone has a voice?”
“I would not be so hasty with my judgments, pikarac. You are not in a position to be so fickle with your fate.”
“Apparently, I am,” Atanar could not help but say.
She shook her head. “Everyone who is one of us has a voice. But you are a stranger. You are still vorunn. You will always be vorunn.” She seemed to consider something, then grabbed his wrist with surprising strength. “If you prove my grandfather wrong,” she hissed. “If you bring harm to any of my people, you will regret it.”
The claymore at her back shifted as she spoke, emphasizing her words. Atanar’s blood beat faster at her sharp tone, at her fingers closed around his wrist, at the anger in her eyes. His vision swam, and for one moment, all he could think of was blood.
He shook his head to banish the feeling. Sivoy tensed, though she did not release his wrist, nor did she look away. At last, when Atanar’s vision cleared, he took a deep breath. “If I harmed your family, you would truly end my life?”
Her brow creased in surprise. “Aye. That’s what I said.”
“Good,” he said, and wrenched his wrist from her grasp.
Next time: The caradoc moved across the clearing with the effortless grace of one who feared nothing, though no doubt every sense was alert for a trace of danger – or supper.
Thank you for reading! 💜