The Aredian merchants approached slowly, carefully, as one might approach an uncertain face of rock they wished to scale. Atanar stood between Sivoy, Kiluan, Tartok, and Corvac, who’d insisted upon coming. All but Atanar had claymores thrust into the ground behind them. Atanar had no sword, but the phantom weight against his back made him feel his claymore’s absence like a physical loss.
Ignore the feeling, he told himself, and spread his hands to either side, his palms forward. “Well met,” he said in Aredian, after first sounding the words out in his mind.
There were two merchants, a man and a woman, both in the winter of their years. The man was a typical Aredian: small and finely made, as if carved from a willow tree, though he had a rounded belly that spoke of a fondness for ale. The woman, though, she had the tundra in her blood. Her shoulders were broad and her eyes were a clear, bright blue; while the man’s gaze darted between the waiting Canderi and their goods, the woman’s fell upon Atanar and did not waver.
“Well met,” she said in Aredian, then added, “You wish to trade?”
Disbelief colored her words. Atanar tried not to wince. “Yes,” he said, and indicated the goods the kulkri clan had collected: a vast assortment of rabbit pelts, a set of throwing daggers made with Canderi steel, a bundle of cured atsuula meat, and a basket of ripe cloudberries. Paltry offerings, perhaps, but it was a start. Perhaps it would herald the beginning of a new way of life for these kulkri.
Atanar ducked his chin once in an approximation of an Aredian bow; a concession he was willing to make. “This is what we bring.”
He glanced at the wagon the merchants had left some paces away. A cream-colored ox was harnessed to the teal and saffron wagon, sniffing the barren ground in search of the first shoots of spring grass. There was writing on the side of the wagon, but Atanar had never learned to read Aredian script.
The merchants exchanged glances. The woman’s brow lifted and the man considered before nodding once, almost too small a gesture to see. The woman nodded too, and they looked back at the kulkri as one. A married pair, then. Atanar regarded the woman again with new eyes; what had caused her to wed an Aredian? To his consternation, she looked back at him with an expression he could only think of as longing.
Sivoy must have made the same assessment, for she shifted in place and glanced between the two. Out of the corner of his eye, Atanar watched her face harden with some emotion he could not place. He risked a nudge at her side, urging her to be still, to be calm. She glared at him and lifted her chin. “What do they bring?” she said in Canderi, obviously expecting Atanar to translate.
Before he could, and to everyone’s surprise, the man answered in Aredian. “Music.”
Sivoy frowned at Atanar. “What did he say?”
Atanar turned the word over in his mind, trying to decipher exactly what the fellow meant, but could not, so he ignored her and looked back at the merchants. “What goods do you have to trade?”
The man grimaced. “Ah, nothing you’re interested in, I’m sure. Merti – does this satisfy your damned curiosity, woman?”
The woman—Merti, if Atanar had heard correctly—replied sharply. “Quiet, Ged.” To Atanar, she said, “You speak our tongue?”
“A little,” he said. “And not well. But more than my comparisons.” Merti gave him and odd look and he mentally cursed, searching for the correct word. “Companions,” he managed at last.
“What are you saying?” Sivoy hissed. The others shifted in place, eyes trained on the merchant.
“We are discussing the trade,” Atanar shot back. “Be still.”
The older woman did not seem to notice Sivoy or the others. Her eyes were for Atanar alone, and crinkled with her smile. “Do you truly wish to trade? Or do you have allies waiting to spring upon two elders and their poor Pepper?”
Atanar frowned over the mention of the spice, but decided to ignore it. “We wish to trade,” he said again, slowly, carefully, in case the pair did not understand. “Do you?”
“Aye, in a sense,” she said in Aredian. “We sell musical instruments. I’m not sure you’ve much use for dulcimers and viols, but…” Her eyes fell upon the basket. “Oh, cloudberries! I’ve not tasted those since I was a girl.” She looked at her husband. “We have those sugared almonds; you said I bought too many.”
“Love, I’m not sure the lad is interested in sweets,” Ged replied with a knowing look at Atanar. “Are you, son?”
Merti tensed at something Atanar could not guess, for he was too busy sorting through Ged’s offer. “I do not know what ‘sugared almonds’ are,” he admitted. “I cannot guess a fair shade. Trade,” he corrected himself immediately.
“We’ve a scale,” Ged offered. “We can do an exchange of weight. I think cloudberries are about as rare in Redfern as almonds are in the skull of the world.”
“Redfern’s where we got them,” Merti explained, smiling at Atanar. “They’ve been roasted, dipped in honey, and rolled in sugar with cinnamon. You’ve never tasted anything so fine.”
Atanar considered. It was not an especially lucrative trade, but then, he didn’t think these merchants had much more to offer. But perhaps a simple trade would be a good start, a way to foster trust on both sides and allow the kulkri to see that profit was possible without bloodshed. Even better if these “sugared almonds” tasted as good as Merti claimed.
So he nodded to Ged. “An exchange of weight is good.”
Sivoy and the others had been following the exchange. As the Aredians returned to their wagon, Sivoy nudged Atanar’s side. “What’s going on? Where are they going?”
“To fetch the items they wish to trade.”
Her eyes gleamed. “That was easy. What do they want from us?”
“The cloudberries.” He bent to grab the basket and berries.
“The…?” She frowned at him as the others began to mutter in consternation. “Why?”
Atanar bit back his impatience. “They are considered a delicacy in Aredia.”
Corvac leaned over to whisper. “What are you trading them for? More weapons? Arrows? Swords?”
“Aredian steel hasn’t impressed me yet,” Kiluan snorted.
“No, but there are vast mines in one of their provinces, right?” Sivoy asked Atanar. “Gold, copper, silver, that sort of thing? Those could make fine adornments to our claymores.”
The merchants approached, so Atanar shot the kulkri—Sivoy included—alook meant to encourage silence, then went back to meet the Aredians. Their steps were still slow, but he thought it was not with caution, but with infirmity, so he offered his hand to Merti as she struggled up the incline toward Atanar and the kulkri. Sivoy and the others shifted in place, most likely perturbed by the display, but Atanar ignored them. For Merti’s part, at first she gaped at him, but she soon accepted and he helped her take the final few steps. Her palm was broad, with strong fingers, but the skin was thin and dry; he could feel her bones even with the lightest pressure.
Ged carried both a set of brass scales and a small table, which he placed on the ground between the two groups. As he rested the scales upon it, Merti dug through a satchel slung over her shoulder and withdrew a linen sack and a small basket, both of which she placed on the table while the kulkri craned their necks to see the Aredian treasures. Ged fiddled with the scales, presumably assessing their accuracy, while Merti pulled a few small items from the linen sack and presented them to Atanar.
“Go ahead and try some,” she offered in Aredian, smiling at each kulkri to get her point across.
Sivoy, Kiluan, and Tartok exchanged glances. Corvac bit his lip and eyed Merti’s hand. All held their ground, so it was up to Atanar to select one of the small, oblong seeds. It was sticky, coated with sugar, and he caught the scent of honey amid others he did not recognize. Conscious of the others watching his every move, he popped the almond in his mouth. Sweet and spice flooded his tongue, making him think of warm campfires and cold wind, and filling him with an odd sort of nostalgia for a place and time he’d never known. The almond gave way to his teeth with a satisfying crunch, adding a nutty, earthy flavor to the sweetness.
“Very nice,” he told Merti, then grinned at Corvac. “What are you waiting for?”
The boy lunged for Merti’s hand, grabbed the rest of the almonds, and shoved them in his mouth, crunching noisily. His eyes widened and he shot a delighted look at Atanar. “Ea’s tits,” he said between chews. “These are delicious!”
Merti smiled fondly at the boy. “They are, aren’t they?” she said in halting Canderi.
Corvac froze, eyes round and bulging as he stared at her, then he swallowed. “Uh…aye.”
“More to come,” Ged replied in Aredian. “If you’ll just bring the berries…”
Moments later, Atanar stood by the table while Ged carefully measured out equal portions of cloudberries and almonds. Given the table’s small size and lack of stability on the rocky ground, it was a slow, painstaking process. Atanar didn’t much enjoy waiting, but it was the price of such transactions and he’d had to do so before.
The kulkri had not.
To Sivoy’s credit, she tried to keep the others in line, first with sharp looks at Corvac’s exaggerated sighs, then with muttered words of warning aimed at Kiluan and Tartok’s shifting feet. They all stilled and Sivoy turned her attention back to Ged’s measuring, her gaze sharp and speculative. A good sign. She seemed interested in the Aredians – and not only in stealing from them. Atanar caught her eye and offered a small nod of approval, which he should have kept to himself, for she scowled in reply.
“A bit more, Ged,” Merti was saying as her husband prepared to bundle up the almonds.
“It won’t be even,” he replied gruffly. “Don’t want these fine folks to think we’re incapable of a balanced trade.”
Her blue eyes flicked from Atanar to Corvac, then back to her husband. “I don’t care. We can get those more easily than they can.” Something in her tone did not allow room for argument, so Ged sighed and scooped another handful of almonds into the cloth bag.
Behind Atanar’s back, Kiluan poked Atanar’s side. “What’s taking so long?”
His elbow nearly came up reflexively to jab her back, but he only pointed to the scales. “They are weighing everything, to ensure a fair trade.”
“Who sodding cares?” the dark-haired woman muttered. “It’s just a bunch of nuts and berries.”
“Kil, hush,” Sivoy hissed.
But Kiluan was undeterred. “This is a waste of time, Siv.” She jerked her chin toward the ox and wagon. “Surely they have something of real value. Why don’t we see for ourselves?”
Alarm flashed through Atanar’s veins, but Sivoy answered first. “Not this time.”
“Why not? Who’ll miss a couple of withered Aredians?”
“Because I said so!”
Kiluan’s face darkened. “When did you become such a coward? Is vorunn rubbing off on you?”
Sivoy whirled to face her companion. “Shut up, Kil. You have no idea what you’re talking about.”
Ged and Merti started at the sudden movement; though she was the taller of the two, Ged stepped before his wife as if to shield her. Corvac and Tartok each tensed, the latter reaching for the dagger Atanar had seen her slide beneath her tunic.
“Oh, and he does?” Kiluan replied, pointing to Atanar. “We’re only here because of him.” She stared at Sivoy as if something had just occurred to her. “You don’t…”
Sivoy glared. “I don’t, and you should know better.”
“Well, you tell me why you’ve gone so soft,” Kiluan replied as if Sivoy had not spoken. “We’re hunters, Siv. Not traders. How much time have we wasted over what we could forage?”
Tartok cleared her throat. “She has a point.”
“Aye,” Corvac added with a glance at the carriage. “Those almonds were delicious. I’m sure they have more.”
Sivoy’s cheeks were pink. “Cor, shut up.”
“All of you, shut up,” Atanar broke in, turning to face the kulkri. “We have agreed to enter into a peaceful trade with these Aredians. We must honor that agreement.”
Ged and Merti had gone still at the first sounds of argument. Out of the corner of Atanar’s eye, he saw Ged’s hand creep to his boot, while Merti’s went to the inside of her coat. Of course they would be armed as well, but not openly. No doubt they knew they would not walk away from a fight with these kulkri. But what else could they do but protect themselves?
This day was about to turn ugly.
Blood pulsed through each vein; his heart raced and his vision swam, shot with pinpricks of light at the dark edges. Everything faded to red and vorunn spoke in his mind, “They are weak, we are strong. Kill them; take what we wish.”
Atanar was not the only one to notice the merchants’ movements. Corvac pointed. “Look! They brought weapons!”
Immediately, Kiluan and Tartok grabbed their claymores, the blades gleaming in the light. Sivoy, after a beat of hesitation, did the same, though her gaze darted to Atanar in what he imagined was consternation. Both merchants stiffened; Ged urged his wife further behind him and drew a small knife from his boot.
“We don’t want any trouble,” Merti said in rough Canderi.
Tartok took a single step forward and lifted her sword. “Too bad.”
“Aye,” Kiluan added darkly, her own claymore angled for Ged. “You’ve found it.”
Vorunn whispered, Yes.
“No,” Atanar cried. He lunged forward, snatched up the heavy brass scales and slammed them into Kiluan’s temple. All his weight, all his strength, fed the blow, but only when she collapsed wordlessly to the ground did he realize what he’d done. He stared down at the dark-haired woman, stared at the blood staining her pale skin and the rocky ground beneath, stared at the stillness of her chest and the sightless blue of her eyes.
Then Sivoy was upon him, tearing at his face, his beard, his hair. She shoved him down; his head struck a rock and stones dug into his back, and the sheer surprise of it all snapped him from vorunn‘s spell. But he had no time to feel relief, for she pummeled his face with her fists, her knee digging into his sternum, and death burned like stars in her eyes.
“Monster,” she screamed, eyes blazing. “Murderer! I should’ve killed you!”
Something within Atanar snarled to life. His heart beat so fast he could not take a proper breath and his vision swam with red and fury. Kill them all. He sprang up, shoved her off enough to scrabble to his feet, then grabbed one of her small wrists—for she was small, compared to him—and jerked hard enough to hear bones snap. Sivoy screamed again, but this was a sound like no other Atanar had heard. Shrill, resonant. Inhuman. Then Tartok was there, and Corvac, both grabbing Atanar’s arms to wrest him away from Sivoy. They threw him to the rocky ground again, but he felt no pain this time. Nor fear, not even when Sivoy grabbed her claymore with her good hand and raised it above his head. Then hilt descended and darkness with it.
Only vorunn remained.
Next time: When Sivoy looked up again, she was weeping openly. “I have made my decision, Utu.”
Sorry this story is such a bummer. I’m trying to work on happier things, but am having difficulty focusing. Stay safe out there, friends. 💜
In brighter news, Catalyst Moon: Storm is available for preorder! 😍 linky link
It will be available on April 20th, and I’ll be doing a giveaway for all four ebooks as well! To keep up with the news, I encourage you to join the Catalyst Moon Collective Facebook group!