Happy 2020 everyone! I hope your year is off to a great start. 🥰 I’ll have some updates/news soon, but for now, please enjoy the next installment of Atanar’s journey.
“There you are,” Sivoy said as Atanar and Corvac approached her at the edge of the kulkri camp. “What took you so long? We’ve been waiting.”
To Atanar’s consternation, Corvac swore and darted off to the main body of the camp. Atanar, meanwhile, glanced at the dozen horses, outfitted with Aredian tack and weapons, while their riders tended to last-minute adjustments. “For me?”
Sivoy tightened her horse’s girth and frowned at Atanar, all at the same time. A skilled woman. She nodded to a nearby horse, a chestnut. “Aye. Time to prove your worth, warrior.”
Atanar had ridden horses before, but not often. In principle, though, the Aredian beasts were quite similar to the huge elk atsuula that served as pack animals to the Canderi. The chestnut was equipped like the others, except in place of a bladed weapon, a length of rope with several stones affixed to the end was tied to the saddle. Atanar examined the kuvlu, ensuring that the knots around the stones were tight and there were no tangles in the rope. The weapon was well-made and sturdy, though he could not help the wistful feeling as he glanced at the others’ swords.
“I’ve not used one of these in some time – the horse and the kuvlu.” He glanced at the kulkri samaat. “I suppose I should thank you.”
She narrowed her eyes. “Get ready to ride out.”
As she turned to the others, Corvac came trotting up, dragging the reins of a reluctant atsuula behind him. “Wait for me,” he called to his sister as the others began to mount. “I just need to–”
“No,” Sivoy interrupted as she swung into her saddle. “I’ve told you, you’re too young. You’re not ready.”
“I’m thirteen summers! Ea’s tits…I’m ready.” He pointed to Atanar. “We hunted all morning.”
“Corvac speaks truly,” Atanar said. “He has some work to do before he’s skilled enough to go out on his own, but I don’t see why he couldn’t come with us now.”
The look Sivoy gave Atanar could have curdled milk. “Your word means nothing, vorunn,” she replied, then looked at her brother again. “My word is what matters, and I say it’s too dangerous, and you’re too young. Perhaps when summer comes, you’ll be ready.”
“Enough, Cor. I won’t speak of it any longer. You will stay here.”
With that, she turned her horse and made to join the others, waiting at the edge of the kulkri camp. As Atanar swung into his saddle, Corvac said his name. When he looked, the boy’s eyes were pleading.
Ancestor’s blood, Atanar thought with a sigh. He shook his head, then guided his horse after Sivoy’s. There was no time to speak, though, for the moment he joined the group, the other riders urged their mounts into the forest.
They traveled at a steady clip down the mountainside, until the sun had crossed its peak. When Sivoy held up a hand in silent signal, the riders halted at the topmost edge of a sloping valley, where conifers obscured either side and boulders lined a messy pathway through the road below. On closer inspection, the pathway was churned with mud and slush, and riddled with prints. This far south, there were no atsuula prints. What hoof prints Atanar could make out were those of horses and oxen; only tame creatures used by Aredians.
Unease flickered low in his belly and that strange otherness stirred in the back of his mind, but he tried to ignore both feelings.
The kulkri drew close to Sivoy, she gestured to the other side of the valley. “Aupti. Tartok. Kilaun; make sure they’ll have no opportunity to flee once we ambush. The rest of you know what to do. Atanar,” she sighed deeply, “you’re with me.”
As the other riders spread through the valley, Atanar shook his head. “I don’t understand. What are you hunting here?”
The smile she gave him held no warmth. “Ready your weapon, and try to keep up.”
Atanar had hunted his entire life, but never like this. The kulkri were adept at hiding; their mounts were so well-trained that none gave so much as a snort when the Aredian caravan approached. Compared to the Aredian merchants Atanar had met, this was not a large procession. Six armed figures on horseback flanked three wagons, all of which were laden with boxes and crates. Two non-armored Aredians, perhaps the merchants, rode horses between the second and third wagons.
Frowning, Atanar glanced at Sivoy, who’d drawn her bow and arrow. “What are you–”
She ignored him as she aimed her weapon, and ice filled his veins with his sudden comprehension. Atanar didn’t think. The instant before she let the arrow loose, he urged his mount close to hers so that the creatures’ shoulders bumped into one another. Sivoy’s arrow flew from the bow and landed with an audible thwack in the side of the first wagon, next to the driver, who jerked upright. Immediately, the Aredians began shouting to one another as the guards formed a defensive perimeter around their charges.
Sivoy swore and grabbed another arrow. “Damn you, vorunn,” she hissed. Before Atanar could reply, she called to the others, “Now!”
The kulkri descended swifter than an avalanche. Perhaps in the Aredians’ own eyes, they were outfitted for battle, but they looked so small and weak beside the Canderi who fell upon them with arrows and blades. Within moments, the kulkri had cut down both merchants and two of the guards. Atanar kept his horse away from the carnage, but he could not stop the smell of blood from reaching him, nor could his racing heart drown out the cries of the falling Aredians. And within his mind, vorunn stirred again. Like some creature roused from hibernation, the strange otherness crept to the surface and peered out through his eyes. It liked what it found.
Kill them! Kill them all!
Atanar’s vision washed with red. Yes, he thought, reaching for his weapon. They all must die…
But the moment his hand brushed the kuvlu’s rope instead of a steel sword hilt, he snapped out of his haze. “No!” he shouted.
Gritting his teeth, he shook his head, desperate to get rid of the other presence, the foreign will. In an act of defiance, he tossed the rope and stones at the feet of Tartok’s horse, enough to send the beast skittering away from the wagon driver, who was trying to calm his horses. Tartok’s mount crashed into Kiluan’s, momentarily disabling both kulkri women. The moment of respite was apparently enough for the Aredian driver to urge the horses onward, away from the chaos of battle and Sivoy’s arrows. The remaining riders and the other two wagons followed, until the only sounds were the horses’ labored breathing and the fading rumble of wheels and axles.
In truth, Atanar barely paid the fleeing Aredians any mind, for his vision swam and his heart raced, and the impulse to kill still beat through his blood. He tried to hold the desire in check with deep, calming breaths.
Until Sivoy whirled her horse so that she was right beside Atanar’s, and slammed her bow against his cheek. Pain exploded through each nerve; his jaw rattled and he bit his tongue involuntarily. Stars pricked his vision and he tasted copper. On the heels of pain and blood and confusion, anger swelled again, and Atanar truly forgot himself. Someone roared in fury and the next thing he knew, he knelt over Sivoy, his knees braced against the cold ground with his hands around her throat. Their eyes met. Hers were blue, like his, but wide and pale with fear, as if illuminated by moonlight even though it was midday.
Vorunn spoke in his ear, Kill her. Now.
“No,” Atanar whispered. He closed his eyes against her gaze, dropped his hands to either side of her slender neck, and sagged.
Only when Aupti and Tartokpulled him off her could he think clearly again. The two kulkri held him in place as the six others stood between Atanar and Sivoy. For a moment, he and the samaat only stared at each other, each panting heavily, before Sivoy touched her neck. There was no mark, but Atanar imagined crimson handprints upon her pale skin. She murmured something to Kiluan, then glared at Atanar. “Are you mad?”
Of all the things she could have said, this pricked too close to the truth.
“I should ask you the same thing,” he shot back. The right side of his face throbbed and he tightened his fists into white knuckles to prevent himself from striking out. “You’re the one who attacked me.”
“Because you ruined our sodding hunt,” she snarled. “We’d been planning that ambush for days – Kiluan and Aupti had tracked that caravan almost from Saskah… Who knows when the next merchant will come through? We’ll have to move the entire camp because of you.”
Atanar fought back another surge of rage and jerked his chin toward the fallen Aredians, who lay in pools of their own blood. “Ambushing these soft folk is not hunting. There is no honor in such an act.”
Tartok wiped her bloody sword on one of the dead Aredians before she knelt and began to search his gear. “They are weak. It is our right to take from them what we wish. If you think differently, you are a fool.”
“Aye, and you struck Sivoy.” Kiluan, a young woman with unusually dark hair, glared at Atanar. “She is our samaat. Such an act is punishable by death.”
“Justice can be had right now,” Aupti said, and tightened his grip on Atanar’s arm.
Several of the others muttered agreement, but Sivoy raised her hand in a gesture for silence, though her gaze did not leave Atanar’s. “They’re right, you know. I could have you killed.”
He stared back. “So do it.”
Sivoy frowned at him as she touched her neck again, then glanced between the others. “Take what you can. Leave the rest.”
Aupti jerked Atanar’s wrist, causing him to stumble sideways. “What about this dreg?”
“Slit his throat,” Kiluan murmured. “Leave his carcass for the crows.”
Sivoy did not look at Atanar as she replied. “Bind his hands and bring him back with us.” A few of the others objected, but Sivoy silenced them with a glare. “I am your samaat. You will obey my command. We’re going home.”
Next time: “And you are all Canderi in the eyes of the Aredians. If one clan brings the branch down upon its own head, the rest of the tree will surely follow.”