Happy reading! 😘
There were so many stars. How many hours had he and Nel stared at them, trading stories of each cluster and pinprick of light? No one knew exactly what stars were, of course; some claimed they were distant suns, and while that made sense, Atanar had always been partial to the legend that stars were the campfires of their ancestors. But that was folly, surely, for stars existed in every sky, not just in Cander, so how could they only belong to the Canderi? Perhaps, Atanar sometimes thought, stars belonged to everyone’s ancestors, so to watch their progress through the night sky was to look into the past lives of every being in the world.
Atanar turned his head to try and look around, but regretted it. Pain sluiced down his face, his neck, his chest…his entire body felt as if it was covered in bruises, cuts, and worse. It even hurt to breathe. He inhaled and tasted smoke on the back of his tongue – a fire was near. The cold air whispered over his skin and he realized he was naked, though his hands and feet were bound. Rocks jutted into his back, buttocks, and legs, with one particularly large one shoved against his cheek.
Images returned slowly: the pinched faces of the Aredian elders; the pale yellow of Kiluan’s teeth as her lips pulled back in a snarl; the red veil of fury that colored his own vision. What had happened to Ged and Merti? Killed, most likely, either out of vengeance or just because. He closed his eyes but he could still see Kiluan’s sightless gaze. And Sivoy… The snap of bone and the shriek of one who’d lost someone they loved.
What have I done?
But he knew the answer. Vorunn.
A monster, Sivoy had called him. How true that was. Cold stung Atanar’s wet cheeks as he blinked back up at the stars. Ancestors help me.
“Samaat,” someone said. “He’s awake.”
Footsteps approached; boots on rough gravel. Atanar blinked again and realized Sivoy and Tikaani towered above him, the other kulkri gathering on either side of the samaat and the clan elder. Sivoy’s wrist was wrapped in linen bandages and her mouth was hard. The expression on the elder man’s face made Atanar’s heart tighten in shame, for he knew a searching look when he saw one. He knew the gaze of a man hoping not to see what was in plain sight.
“Why do I still live?” Atanar asked him.
Tikaani closed his eyes briefly, then looked at his granddaughter, whose face was like stone. There was no trace of burning starlight in her gaze now; perhaps he had imagined it. “You wish for death?” she asked Atanar.
He was silent.
“Death will come for you, vorunn,” she told him. “As it will come for all of us. And you deserve no reprieve from the pain you have caused my clan – my family.”
Her voice broke, so she paused, ducked her head, took a long, slow breath while Atanar turned her words over in his mind. So she meant to kill him, after all. Atanar took a deep breath to brace himself. It would be a mercy, in a way. Despite this, his stomach churned and despite the cold air, sweat prickled his back and legs.
When Sivoy looked up again, she was weeping openly. “I have made my decision, Utu.”
Tikaani nodded. “I understand, Samaat.”
“No!” Corvac shoved his way through the others, eyes wide and beseeching. “Siv, don’t do this!”
But she was reaching for her claymore with her good hand. It was a sign of her strength that she drew it with no struggle. “Go away, Corvac. This is not for you to see.”
Aupti grabbed Corvac’s shoulder to urge him away, but the boy jerked out of the kulkri’s grip and stepped forward to glare at Atanar. “I should have just let you jump,” he said, then turned on his heel and fled.
Hot shame flooded Atanar again, but it brought no accompanying surge of energy. It left him heavy and cold, and unable to do anything other than lie upon the ground, awaiting the fate that had been sealed the moment he had killed his little brother. He thought of Ruuk and wished, stupidly and briefly, he would not be alone now. Sivoy raised her blade, gleaming in the light of the moons, and Atanar closed his eyes. Ancestors…
Steel whispered through the air. Someone gasped. Atanar took his last breath.
Something dropped beside him, something warm and heavy and… Atanar’s eyes flew open to see Tikaani’s wide eyes staring into his, his mouth open in a silent scream, blood already pooling around him as it flowed from the wound through his heart.
“Tikaani?” he managed through his shock.
The elder man’s eyes closed. “Tigu,” he whispered. “I am sorry, tigu. I wanted more for us all.”
A final warm breath swept from his lips to Atanar’s cheek, then Tikaani went still and silent. Atanar struggled to tear his eyes from the dead man and looked back up at Sivoy. He still wept openly. He did not care. “What have you done?”
She was weeping, too. “Me?” she cried, her face tight with rage. “You are the intruder here. You are the one who brought death to my family. You are the one cursed with vorunn, yet you have spread your sickness to us.”
“He was your grandfather!”
“Aye, and he claimed responsibility for you,” she shot back. “I am samaat. You know our laws.”
Bitterness added an equally sharp edge to Atanar’s retort. “I thought you weren’t Canderi.”
Sivoy lifted her chin. “We are who we are. Our laws are our laws. My grandfather,” her voice broke her, but she continued, “knew the consequences of accepting you into our clan, but he did so anyway. He’s a braver man than you will ever be.”
“For all the good it will do him.”
Some of the others muttered and stepped forward, but Sivoy held up her hand. “Take him,” she said, pointing to Tikaani’s body. “He’ll receive a proper cremation. As for this…” Cold spittle pelted Atanar’s cheek. “Death is too good for you. Leave him to the wind and sky. I hope crows take their time.”
With that, the kulkri lifted Tikaani and moved away, and Atanar was alone once more. He lifted his head enough to watch them go and note that they’d already packed up their camp to move on. Once they were out of sight, he leaned against the ground and stared at the stars. Already, the cold crept into his limbs and he had no energy to shiver. At least it wouldn’t be long now.
Next time: “You can’t be serious. Where would he sleep? How would we feed him? We’ve barely enough for us and Pepper.”