Surely, he was dreaming, for his mother hummed a lullaby and the scent of sage hung in the air. Both of those were hallmarks of Atanar’s childhood; white sage was often burned to calm young children or the sick and injured, for its smoke was purifying. Clearing the mind of fear was said to be the first step toward healing, or growth. Atanar didn’t know about that, but the musky, earthy smell had always comforted him after a nightmare.
The humming, too, reminded him of happier days, though as consciousness trickled back, he realized the sound could not come from his mother. He would never see her again. But who would hum a Canderi lullaby to him? Atanar struggled to open his eyes, but they refused and he was too tired to fight for long. So instead he took stock of his condition: still cold, but that was a good thing, for it meant he was not yet numb; a blanket was stretched over his feet, legs and most of his chest; a fire crackled nearby, bathing him in faint waves of heat that warred with the wind. His hands and feet were unbound. He was free.
“It’s all right,” a woman said in Canderi. Her accent was warped and dusty, as if she’d let it sit unused for too long. A warm, broad hand rested against Atanar’s forehead. “You’re safe, now, tigu.”
Tigu. The word brought memories of Tikaani. To Atanar’s disgust, tears pricked his eyes again even though he did not deserve to wallow in grief over yet another death he’d caused; he did not deserve this woman’s kindness.
With that thought at the forefront of his mind, he summoned the strength to open his eyes. He found himself looking into Merti’s face, the proud lines weathered by age and experience. She sat beside him, the fire close by and a thick shawl wrapped around her shoulders, above the fur-lined coat she wore. At his look, she drew her hand back and rested it in her lap.
“He’s awake?” This from Ged, who stood a few paces away, scanning the shadows beyond the ring of light their fire cast. Not far from the Aredian man, the teal caravan rested, the ox nosing at the rocky ground.
Merti’s eyes did not leave Atanar. “Aye.”
“Can he walk?” Ged asked in Aredian. “We must leave before those…” He checked himself. “Before the others return.”
“They’ll have moved on by now,” Merti said, also in Aredian.
Ged’s voice was gruff. “Will you bet our lives on that?”
She did not answer. Instead, she picked up a mug that had been resting beside her on the ground, next to a smoking bundle of white sage. “Lavender tea with honey,” she said in Canderi as she offered it to Atanar. “It’ll help set you to rights.”
Atanar sat up, slowly, for he ached and throbbed all over. He tried to ignore the pain as he accepted the mug from Merti and took a deep drink. Sweetness flooded his tongue, followed by a warmth that trickled down his throat and spread though his body. It made him realize how hungry he was as well, but he ignored that feeling too in favor of regarding the Canderi woman who even now watched him as though he was some wild creature who would attack.
It would not be an incorrect assumption. “Thank you,” he said in Aredian, passing back the mug while his stomach twisted into knots. “But your,” he searched his memory for the Aredian term, “cousin is right. You must leave.”
Her forehead crinkled, then smoothed with her smile. “Aye, my husband is right, but we agreed to make sure our protector was well before moving on.”
Husband. Of course. Atanar noted the word for later and nodded to her. “I am well, now. Thank you.”
As if to prove it, he tried to get up, but when blood rushed back to his legs, they buckled, and when he gripped the blanket to keep it in place, his balance was off. He wound up back on the ground, silently cursing himself. At his struggle, Ged came over, but Merti held up a hand and the Aredian man went still. Atanar shot her a grateful look and managed to get to his feet after another attempt. She rose as well, Ged helping her, and the three of them stood by the fire. Atanar tugged the blanket around his body to shield as much of himself as he could.
“Oh, now, this won’t do,” Merti said in Aredian. “Ged, we can’t let the poor boy run around naked.”
“Especially not in this weather.” He hesitated, then shot his wife a look Atanar could not read. “I think we still have some of Colin’s old clothes.”
Merti went still before nodding once. “We do. I’ll fetch them.”
With that, she bustled to the caravan and stepped inside, causing the wagon to shift with her movements. Atanar glanced at the Aredian man to see that Ged was studying him with sharp, brown eyes.
“Not sure what to say,” Ged said at last. “You saved our lives, son. I can’t thank you enough.”
Atanar shook his head. “You don’t–”
“To refuse my thanks would be an insult to us,” Ged broke in, adding a knowing look. “You’d best just accept graciously.”
Cheeks burning, Atanar gave an Aredian bow. “Then, you are well met.” Gid frowned and Atanar corrected himself. “Welcome.”
The older man chuckled and ran a hand across his woolen cap, beneath which strands of gray hair peeked out. “You killed that girl, didn’t you?”
A cold wind blew right through Atanar as he nodded slowly. “I did.”
“That’s why the others…” Ged made a waving motion with his hand. “Banished you?”
Banished. Atanar did not know the word, but caught the meaning well enough. “Yes. In part.”
“Well, which is it?”
“Both,” Atanar said. The wagon shifted; the door opened and Merti emerged, a bundle of fabric in her arms and a pair of boots swinging from the laces looped over her elbow. Atanar swallowed thickly. “They are not my clan. I was only with them…timely.”
“Temporarily?” Merti asked as she approached. “As in, for a little while?”
Atanar nodded and accepted the bundle that she offered: a set of Aredian clothes that included wool trousers, a tunic, coat, and socks. At Merti’s direction, he slipped behind the wagon to change. In the shadow cast by the wagon, he could not make out the extent of his cuts and bruises, but he didn’t think any were debilitating. He would be sore for a while, but nothing more. It wasn’t fair that he still lived while Tikaani—and Nel, and Ruuk—did not. The boots were a little tight, but fit well otherwise, though he fumbled with the laces, having never worn Aredian clothes. He also took a moment to try and untangle his hair, but gave up when his fingers caught in the snarls.
When Atanar deemed himself presentable, he stepped back around the caravan and went to the fire, where Ged and Merti spoke in low tones. As soon as they saw him, they went silent. Atanar held his grimace in check and instead offered Merti the blanket which had covered him.
“My thanks,” he said. She didn’t move. She only stared at him with eyes like full moons. To his consternation, her lip trembled and tears sprang to her eyes, though after a moment she nodded and took back the blanket, murmuring something Atanar did not catch.
Ged, too, had taken to staring at him, though the older man shook away his apparent shock and cleared his throat. “I suppose you can’t go back to your people.”
Those kulkri were not his people, but Atanar was too tired to make that point. “No.”
“What’ll you do now?”
What, indeed? Atanar stepped closer to the fire to warm his hands. “I don’t know.”
By all rights, he should be dead. Any other samaat in Sivoy’s situation would have killed him without hesitation, but she’d known that was his heart’s desire. Perhaps she even thought he’d killed Kiluan on purpose, just to get her to return the favor. But no. Tikaani’s stricken face loomed in his memory and his throat tightened. Nel, then Ruuk, now Tikaani. How much more would vorunn take from him? Hot shame coursed through him again, but he worked to set the feeling aside with deep breaths. That strange otherness that had become his constant companion seemed to be strongest when he was upset or angry, so he strove for calm. He could not risk endangering these kindly folk as well.
“Come with us,” Merti said suddenly, causing both men to start. She ignored her husband’s look and reached for Atanar. As before, her hand felt so small and fragile in his, and her eyes held a plea. “We could use a strong lad to help load and unload the wagon, to help Pepper pull—he’s about as old as we are in an ox’s years—and to run errands and the like. We could…” She swiped at her eyes and smiled at him. “You would be welcome with us.”
Atanar was too stunned to say anything but, “Would I?”
He glanced at Ged as he spoke, but the other man’s face was unreadable. “Merti,” Ged whispered. “You can’t be serious. Where would he sleep? How would we feed him? We’ve barely enough for us and Pepper.”
“He can sleep in the hammock,” she replied. “We’ll head south, so it won’t be so cold. And he seems like a capable lad. No doubt he’s a fine hunter. Aren’t you?”
This last was said to Atanar, who still reeled from her offer. “I can hold my own,” he managed.
Merti beamed at him, then at her husband. “You see? And with him, we’ll be quicker, more efficient. He can help me set up and sell, and you can focus on your repairs. We’ll get double the work done.”
“And remember that last time in Lasath?” she added. “Those fourth tier thugs who wouldn’t leave us be? No one will dare to cross us now.”
Ged rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Love, few will dare to come near us with a Canderi warrior glowering at them. No offense, lad.”
Atanar frowned. “I don’t glare–”
But Merti interrupted. “Then he’ll stay back and keep an eye on us from a distance. Won’t you, son?”
“Merti.” Ged squeezed his wife’s shoulder with one hand and turned her chin to face him with the other. “He’s not–”
She jerked out of his grip. “I know he’s not, Ged. I’m not stupid. But look at him.”
Atanar felt their gazes like the very clothes he wore. It was an effort to speak normally, but he managed. “I am not…fit for company,” he said in halting Aredian. “I would only bring damage.” He paused, then added in Canderi, “I am vorunn.”
Ged frowned but Merti shrugged. “So?”
“Do you not understand?” Atanar pressed a hand to his chest and continued in Canderi. “I am cursed. I have no family, no home, nor even a soul, according to the laws of our people. I am tainted – dangerous in a way you cannot fathom.”
“Na nippu ikhu,” she replied calmly. “I am also vorunn. My father named me so when I chose an Aredian man over all others. I have spent many more summers in this world than you, tigu, and I tell you this: no one can take your soul away. It is a part of you, now and forever. As to the rest…” Her blue eyes twinkled with mischief. “Ged and I can take care of ourselves.”
For a moment, Atanar only gaped at her like a carp, though at last he found his tongue. “You saw me murder one of those kulkri–”
“In defense of me and my husband,” Merti interrupted. “Aye, the situation grew out of hand, but–”
“Kiluan isn’t the only one I’ve killed,” he broke in. “My brother. My hunting party. They are all dead by my hand. Why do you think my mother—the samaat of the greatest Caradoc clan—would cast out her eldest child?”
To his strange satisfaction, this new information gave Merti pause. Ged, who had been listening carefully to the exchange even though he clearly didn’t understand much of it, shot his wife a nervous look. But Merti only had eyes for Atanar.
“Why?” she asked.
His explanation sounded no better the second time. “That same feeling took me again when Kiluan tried to attack you,” he added once he’d finished the story. “I could not fight the urge to kill her. If—when—such a thing happens again, I cannot guarantee your safety.”
She nodded slowly, then looked at her husband. “We must discuss this,” she said to Atanar in Aredian. “Will you give us a moment alone?”
So Atanar found himself in the nearby brushwork, taking a piss while trying to think over his next step. He could go back to his original plan and find a suitably high spot, but having been saved from death not once, but twice, he thought a third attempt might not be fruitful. Once he finished, he stepped through the brushwork and peered up at the sky, trying not to overhear Merti and Ged’s conversation. The scent of sage still hung in the air; he inhaled deeply, trying to imprint the feelings of safety and security into his heart, for he would surely need them.
He did not want to be alone any longer. He could not risk living with anyone else. Atanar peered through the biting wind, searching. So it would be the cliff for him after all.
He turned to see Merti and Ged standing together between him and the fire, the light casting them in a golden glow. Atanar went to them and held his hands loosely at his sides. He would be gracious. He would try to find some way to repay them for their kindness before he sent them off into the world. It was the least he could do.
Then Merti took his right hand in both of hers and said in Canderi, “My offer stands.”
“But I’m…” He shot Ged a helpless look, but the older man’s face was unreadable.
Merti squeezed. “We know what you think you are, tigu. And at the first sign of trouble, we will part ways. But in the meantime, come with us.”
Objections rose to the surface of Atanar’s mind, but they could withstand his foolish heart’s answer, Yes. Sage and fire smoke filled each breath; sweet honey lingered on the back of his tongue.
“You don’t even know my name,” he managed at last.
“Does it matter?”
He looked at his large hand wrapped in her smaller ones, then back into her blue eyes, fixed so resolutely on his own. If he hurt her, he would never forgive himself. If he hurt either of them, he would end his own life then and there. Vorunn had taken so much, but it would not take away his honor.
Yes, he was a weak man, but he was also stubborn, so he said, “I will travel with you – for now.”
“For now,” she agreed, and smiled again.
Next time: Merti squinted through the sunlight. “Sufani.”
I’ll have a real update on my writing progress soon. For now, know that Darth Real Life is finally allowing me to write again. 2020 has been one hell of a decade.
Thanks and stay safe 💜