Atanar stood at the edge of the kulkri camp, hands bound behind his back while Sivoy and Tikaani argued a few paces away.
“He ruined the ambush,” she was saying. “And tried to strangle me!”
“In self-defense,” Atanar could not help but reply. He turned his cheek so that the afternoon sunlight fell upon what would surely be a nasty bruise. “And you–”
She cut him off mid-sentence. “He’s dangerous, just like I said. Utu, don’t you see now why we must send him away?”
Tikaani’s reply was quiet. “Atanar, what have you to say for yourself?”
Sivoy crossed her arms before her chest with huff, but her grandfather ignored her and kept his gaze upon Atanar. It was tempting to lower his eyes, to sink into that shame, but Atanar kept his chin high. “I will tell you what I told Sivoy,” he said slowly, carefully. “Hunting Aredian merchants is a coward’s ploy. They are little more than children; no doubt young Corvac could best any of them in a fair fight.”
“Hunting as we do is the way of our people,” Sivoy replied.
Atanar shook his head. “Not my people. Not Canderi. There is no strength needed to snap twigs and saplings. A true warrior, a true Canderi, only faces foes who are at least an even match.”
“By that logic, you would not hunt deer or rabbits,” Sivoy shot back. “Are you ‘true Canderi’ cannibals, then?”
Heat flooded Atanar’s face, causing his bruised cheek to burn. “Hunting as you do is lazy and cruel. You may as well steal milk from the mouths of babes. What sort of example are you setting for Corvac and the other young people? What kind of pride can you lay claim to when your lives are full of theft and trickery?”
She snorted. “Says the man who lays snares for rabbits and deer!”
“It’s not the same thing.”
Tikaani raised his hand in a plea for silence. When Atanar and Sivoy looked at him, he rubbed the bridge of his nose before glancing at Atanar. “You laid hands on my granddaughter, on our leader. Some of the others are calling for your death.” Atanar opened his mouth to reply, but the elderly man cut him off with a glare reminiscent of Sivoy’s. “Your own family has cast you aside. While you live among our family, you must follow the lead of our samaat, or you will be tossed back into the storm.
“And you,” Tikaani said to his granddaughter, who flinched. “You retaliated in anger. You acted violently and without judgment – do not try to argue, child. That is not the way of a proper samaat.”
While Atanar would have liked to take pleasure in Sivoy’s visible discomfort at Tikaani’s reprimand, he could only hear Tikaani’s words echoing in his mind. “Your own family has cast you aside.”
The elderly man sighed deeply. “Sivoy, you may be our samaat, but as the clan elder, I have some measure of authority. And I have claimed responsibility for you, Atanar. So, then, Sivoy,” she looked up at her name, “if you wish to kill Atanar for his transgression, you must kill me as well.”
She blanched, then glared at Atanar. “You know I won’t do that, Utu.”
“So what will you do?”
She was silent.
Tikaani sighed again before withdrawing a small knife from a sheathe at his waist. With one deft move, he cut through Atanar’s bonds. Blood prickled Atanar’s hands and forearms to life as the elderly kulkri replaced his knife and looked between the two younger folks.
“If we are to be a strong clan,” Tikaani said. “We must learn to work together for the greater good. Atanar is strange to our ways, Sivoy, but he has much to offer us – and you. Atanar, you have no other option than to remain with us; you must learn to appreciate our way of life. I think the two of you together would be like the strongest steel: able to withstand any foe. But you each must take care not to cut each other to pieces.” He straightened. “You are not to return to the main camp until you have reached an accord. Is that clear?”
Atanar shot Sivoy a sideways glance. Surely as samaat, she would object to being ordered? But she only offered a quick bow in the Aredian fashion and a quiet, “Yes, Utu.”
Tikaani turned his pale eyes to Atanar, who spread his palms out to his sides in a proper Canderi gesture of assent. Tikaani nodded once before making his way back to the main body of the camp.
Atanar and Sivoy were alone.
The moment her grandfather was out of earshot, Sivoy muttered, “Ea’s tits!”
“At least swear like a Canderi,” Atanar grumbled, rubbing feeling back into his wrists.
“I’ll swear however I choose.” She glared at him again, but it was short-lived, for she sighed deeply and slumped against a nearby tree.
Having nothing better to do, Atanar joined her. “What, exactly, does he expect us to do?”
She startled him with a laugh. “Wed.”
Pride and anger fled. Atanar gaped at her. “Wed? Us? Are you mad? Is he?”
“That’s what he meant with all that ‘the two of you together’ talk,” Sivoy said. “Didn’t you understand?”
Atanar groaned and closed his eyes. “Must have missed that.”
“Well, I didn’t,” she said grimly. “He’s been after me to wed for years. I’ve managed to hold him off so far, but I knew, the minute you came to us, he’d bring it up again.”
“Is that why he was so…eager to have me stay?”
She sighed again. “Aye. Well, one of the reasons – at least the only obvious one to me. I can’t see that you’d have any other uses besides fathering fat, blond babies.”
It was Atanar’s turn to laugh, and laugh he did. Unexpected, it bubbled up from some place within his belly and leaped out of his mouth, startling a pair of crows from their roost in the tree. When he glanced at Sivoy, she was frowning at him.
“Why is that so funny?” she demanded.
“Perhaps I could father babies,” he replied, still chuckling. “And in truth, I think I would like to be a father – one day, a very long time from now. But the act of fathering is not one I’m interested in…” He cleared his throat. “Well, with a woman.”
Understanding flashed in her eyes, and a smile tugged at the corner of her mouth. “You prefer the company of men?”
“Very much so.” He considered her again. “Not that you’re–”
“Oh, shut up,” she replied, waving her hand. “Don’t pretend you like me or care what I think.”
“I have no wish to insult you as a woman.”
“Only as a hunter, a warrior, and leader.”
Atanar sighed. “There are many reasons I would not be a good husband to you.” Or to anyone. He kept that thought to himself.
She leaned her head back against the pine. When she spoke again, her voice was soft. “I would be a terrible wife to you.”
He’d said the words without thinking and expected a retaliatory remark, at least a glare, but she only stared up at the needles of the pine tree they rested against. “Though I would like children, too, I have no wish for a husband.”
The tone of her voice gave her away; within it, Atanar heard his own experience echoed. “You prefer women,” he said.
She nodded. “Utu has said it is a feeling that will pass, but it’s not passed after eighteen summers. I see no signs of change.” She sighed again, heavily. “He only wants me to bear children and continue our clan. But…”
The words died in the air between them, but Atanar understood. Too well, perhaps. His reply was slow and halting. “My mother felt the same way.” When Sivoy glanced at him in surprise, he grimaced. “She was the samaat of my clan. She is the one who named me vorunn.”
Sivoy’s face drained of all color. “But you said–”
“Yes, I murdered innocents,” he said. “But I broke her heart long before that night.” Not until the words left his mouth did he realize their truth, nor the way they cut him to the quick.
Neither spoke for several long moments until Sivoy exhaled and glanced back at him. “Corvac told me how he found you on the cliff. Did you want me to have you killed today?”
No trouble to meet her gaze now; no difficulty to speak the truth. “There is nothing left for me in this world, Sivoy.”
She looked away again. “And you call us cowards,” she muttered, shaking her head.
“I never said I wasn’t one,” he replied.
She grunted in what he imagined was reluctant humor before she turned so that she faced him, leaning her shoulder against the tree and crossing her arms before her chest. “So what happens now?”
“You ask as if I have the answer.” When she did not reply, Atanar glanced away from her, letting his gaze fall across the bustlingcamp. More than a few kulkri looked away quickly, though a few continued to stare openly. No doubt word of the foiled hunt had spread like fractures on a frozen lake.
Atanar considered a pair of kulkri tending to the horses before looking back at Sivoy. “You know,” he said carefully. “The Aredians do not share our people’s distaste for preferences such as yours and mine.”
Her pale brows arched in surprise, though she schooled her face to disinterest almost immediately. “I’ve never cared what those soft folk think about anything. Why should I start now?”
“There was a pair of traders my mother used to favor,” Atanar went on as if she’d not spoken. “Two women. They were married – to one another.” Sivoy sucked in a breath and Atanar felt a smile tug at his mouth. “They brought us some of the finest leather I’ve ever seen; soft as butter. Not to mention the chocolate…”
“Shock-ah-latt?” Sivoy stumbled over the foreign word.
Atanar nodded. “It’s food. I think. Well, it tastes wonderful. It’s made from some sort of bean the Aredians grow in Greenhill Province.”
“A bean?” Sivoy pulled a face. “We have no use for those here.”
“Perhaps not,” he admitted. “But Aredians are quite inventive – as you’ve seen.” He gestured to the kulkri camp. “And many of them are eager to trade with us. Our steel is worth a great deal to them, as are the furs and meat we can easily hunt here.”
She frowned. “Surely even Aredians can hunt for those things.”
“Some of the hardier ones, perhaps. But most of them won’t travel this far north. And none of them would know what to do with an atsuula or caradoc.” He took a deep breath. “Have you ever considered trying to trade with them?” When she did not answer, he added, “Your family has much to offer.”
“None of us can bend our tongues to their language,” she said at last, waving a hand in dismissal. “Besides, it’s too much trouble to gather items to trade when we can simply take what we wish.”
“I can speak enough Aredian to trade,” he replied. “My mother often called upon me to take on that responsibility. And as to your sort of hunting…”
He fought back a surge of anger at the notion of the kulkri‘s methods; even so, he felt the stirrings of that foreign lust for blood within his heart. To counteract the feeling, he laced his hands together and dug his nails into his skin, letting the pain redirect his focus away from thoughts of violence. “How long can you sustain such a practice? Even Aredians have their limits. Eventually, they will come looking for the ones who’ve broken the Avalanche Truce.”
“I’m not afraid of their paltry armies.”
“Perhaps, but you don’t have the numbers necessary to face an army, even an Aredian one.”
“Many other kulkri clans hunt as we do. We have friends among them.”
“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.” He allowed his words to sink in before adding, “My mother used to tell me that the most effective leaders often choose not to fight. They put their clan’s well-being above their pride.”
Given Sivoy’s attitude toward him so far, such words were a gamble, but he didn’t have much to lose. If she ignored his counsel – as he expected she would – he would be no worse off. But if she listened, he could save her people a great deal of trouble.
My people, too, he thought, but shook the notion away. He had no clan, nor family. Only vorunn.
She was quiet for several heartbeats, her gaze resting on the other kulkri who milled about the camp. Just when Atanar could stand the silence no longer, she sighed. “How would we go about trading with the Aredians? They all but piss themselves when they see us coming.”
He was startled at the strength of his relief, but tried – again – to keep his feelings from bleeding into his voice. “Gather items you wish to trade. Scout along the main roads until you see a caravan, then meet them in the open, with your swords thrust in the ground behind you and your goods spread on the ground at your feet. If they are willing to trade, they will approach. If not,” he could not suppress a smirk, “they will likely flee like rabbits.”
She straightened. “You wish us to meet them unarmed?”
“Not unarmed, just not actively armed. Your claymore should be within easy reach, but you should not meet them as if in combat. Such a tradition is passed down from the Avalanche Truce.”
Sivoy shook her head. “What does that mean? What truce do you speak of?”
Now he could not help his surprise, though he tried to conceal it when her eyes narrowed. “The Avalanche Truce is the reason your people are no longer at war with the Aredians. Nearly fifteen generations ago, the Aredians and the Canderi warred constantly – fighting over territory. One such battle took place,” he nodded toward the mountain peaks in the distance, “along what we now call the border between Aredia and Cander, at the end of a very harsh winter. Both armies gave their harshest battle cries, meant to strike fear in the hearts of their enemies and to show their own strength, and the very mountains trembled.
“The leaders of each group—the general of the Aredian army and the samaat of the Canderi—rushed to face each other. When the two women met in the middle, the great battle ensued. But so fierce was the fighting that the mountains could not withstand the force of it, and began to collapse – an avalanche. Both leaders were injured and separated from their armies, and had to rely on each other to survive. During this—and no one knows the truth of how it played out—they managed to form a truce, though they resolved to kill each other when they returned to their armies.”
As he spoke, Atanar noticed how a few of the kulkri, including Corvac and some of the other children, had crept closer to listen. He pretended not to see them and kept speaking.
“Through their combined strength, they found their way back to the others and emerged on a peak high above the battleground. Looking down, they both saw how blood marred the snow, how the bodies of their people, on both sides, lay dead and dying. They realized they could not continue this war. Together, they went down to their armies, who paused their fighting to allow their leaders passage. When the two reached the center, they thrust their blades into the snow behind them, and faced one another in peace—if not quite friendship—and the truce was made.”
Sivoy had been glancing between the others and Atanar, but when the tale ended, she frowned at him in earnest. “Is that true?”
He spread his hands. “That is how it was told to me.”
“Will it work?” Corvac spoke up from amidst a group of boys and girls about his age. “Will the Aredians understand we wish to trade?”
“Surely they’ll just run away,” Kiluan said. Like the others, she’d come closer to hear the story, though Atanar did not miss how she sidled up to Sivoy.
He shrugged. “That is how my clan traded with them in the past. I have seen some Aredians quail at the sight of us, but most are brave enough to at least approach.”
Kiluan glanced at Sivoy. “This tactic would bring them within easy reach. We could–”
“No,” Atanar snarled, causing both women to start. Vorunn clawed at his will, urging for blood, but he fought the feeling back and spoke with more control. “Attacking them after making an overture of peaceful trade would be an act of war.”
“Assuming we left anyone alive to tell their little queen,” Sivoy replied.
Atanar balled his hands into fists. Why could they not see the folly of such actions? “Yes, and so you lure a merchant with the promise of peaceful trade, and kill him. Then you do the same again, and again, and again. But word will spread—you know it will, Sivoy—and the Aredians will come for you. All of you.”
“How long would that take?” Kiluan shot back. “In the meantime, we’d have easy hunting. Winter will come eventually,” she added to Sivoy, who looked troubled.
“It might take weeks, or months, or even longer,” Atanar replied. “But eventually, the Aredians will seek retribution for those you’ve killed.”
Corvac gnawed on his lip. “I heard Aredians lock up their own people for no reason other than they have magic. I’ve heard they even kill those who bears a certain mark on their hand – they call it a ‘mage-mark.’”
A few of the others murmured assent, but Sivoy rolled her eyes. “Those are just stories, Cor. There’s no such thing as magic.”
Atanar had heard otherwise, but kept that thought to himself. Such stories were rumors, unsubstantiated and probably exaggerations from Aredians wishing to appear stronger to the Canderi, who had no magic among their kind. Although…if anyone could cleanse him of vorunn, it was probably a magic-user, though of course, he did not deserve such a boon.
Sivoy frowned at her brother. “What are you doing eavesdropping, anyway? Get out of here, all of you,” she added, shooing them away. Kiluan gave her a questioning look; Sivoy hesitated, glanced at Atanar, then jerked her chin to the dark-haired woman in a silent order. When they were alone again, Sivoy faced Atanar once more. “Very well. We shall try to trade with them – once. You will speak for us. But do not forget that you are acting under my authority.”
He spread his palms. “I understand, Samaat Sivoy.”
Her brows knit as she tried to find sarcasm in his reply, but he only regarded her without expression. It was a trick his mother had taught him well. Too well, perhaps, for Sivoy rolled her eyes and muttered something unflattering about him beneath her breath. Well. That was as good a dismissal as any, so Atanar turned to leave. However, she halted him in his tracks with his name. His name.
When he turned, she was studying him. “Before,” she said quietly. “When you grabbed my neck…” He grimaced. “I am sorry if I hurt you, but you–”
“No, not that.” She hesitated, then dropped her pitch again. “Your eyes were…strange.”
Something cold formed in his guts. “Strange, how?”
“It might’ve been a trick of the sun,” she said, brows knitted. “But I swear they…shone. Like stars. Just for a moment. Just when you were looking at me, with your hands at my throat.”
Just when you tried to kill me. She didn’t have to say it out loud; they both knew. Atanar felt as though he stood naked on the tundra, in the first moments before a blizzard descended. “You’re certain?”
“I know what I saw.”
Vorunn. He didn’t know how, why, or what it meant, but he knew the two were related. “If you see it again,” his eyes darted to her claymore but he only said, “let me know.”
Sivoy nodded again, then turned away from him. Atanar remained beneath the tree, alone, and did not return to the main camp until dusk.
Next time: 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.
I may still turn this into a published novel. (With more editing, cover art, etc.) But I’m still not sure. Thoughts?