Catalyst Moon: Exile (Part Three)

Part One. Part Two.

Aaand we’re back. Here’s more of Atanar’s story! Enjoy. 😘


Three

A fire burned in a brazier at the center of the kulkri tent while its smoke escaped through vents at the top. The heat remained. It closed around Atanar like a fist as he stood, back to the fire, facing the assembled kulkri who studied him with those arrow-pointed eyes. The hide walls of the tent shivered beneath the assault of the storm that raged outside.

 Sweat prickled along his spine and his heart raced, but Atanar stood tall; he would not be cowed by these scrabbling brigands. He spoke carefully, lest his voice betray him. “If you want to know, my name is Caradoc Keraasi Atanar.”

The kulkri cast one another wide-eyed glances, and more than a few murmurs of surprise ran through their numbers. Tikaani nodded once, his wizened face set with satisfaction, while Sivoy was silent.

Tikaani raised his hands in a call for silence, then regarded Atanar once more. “You are of the Caradoc clan, then? The son of Keraasi?”

“That’s what I said.”

There were only a dozen kulkri within this tent; save Sivoy, most of them were older than him. Atanar stood, surrounded. His scalp prickled beneath their scrutiny; his breath came in short, shallow bursts and his heartbeat thundered in his ears.

Another kulkri, a man, shook his head. “If you are of their clan, where is your caradoc, then?”

The emptiness in his heart where Ruuk should have been howled with grief. Heat stung Atanar’s eyes but he forced himself respond without hesitation. “Slain.”

The kulkri man was unimpressed. “How do we know he speaks truly?”

“I can vouch for his words,” Tikaani said before Atanar could reply. “I recognize him from the last Gathering.”

“But that must have been nearly a decade ago, Utu,” Sivoy replied. “How can you be certain this is the same man?”

A few other kulkri nodded in agreement. Tikaani, unfazed, glanced between the others, though his gaze landed on his granddaughter. “My body is frail, but my memory is still sharp. He is who he claims to be.”

But Sivoy shook her head. “As you say. But what does it matter anyway? If he’s vorunn, if he is dead to his own family, then he’s of no use to anyone.”

She added another dark look in Atanar’s direction. He tried to return it in kind, but the warmth from the fire swam through his head and his vision swam, as if distorted by rippling waves of heated air. His heart beat faster. That chorus of voices, that strange impulsion, whispered somewhere in the back of his mind. Kill it. Kill them all.

His hands tightened into fists but he managed to push his words out regardless. “If my presence so troubles you, kulkri, I shall leave. You are not obligated to treat me kindly.”

Sivoy glared, but Tikaani cleared his throat, drawing everyone’s attention. “What did you do, to have your soul taken away?”

“Aye,” another kulkri called. “Explain how you came to be cursed with vorunn.

Where once heat had flooded Atanar’s body, now a cold unlike any he’d ever known swept through each vein. Everything around him fell into blackness as his memory cast him back to that night.

He is surrounded, his enemies pressing closer, closer. But he will not fall – not tonight. His arms burn he lifts his claymore, again and again and again. Ruuk’s roar reverberates in his chest, echoes in his ears, but he ignores the caradoc’s panic. His blade bites into something hard, like bone, and the impact shakes him to his core. But he cannot drop his weapon.

There are screams on all sides, and Ruuk’s roars, but no sound as loud as the shrieking cacophony from within the darkest corners of his mind, Kill them!

It echoes through his mind, but it is not his thought. Nor is the anger pulsing through his blood his. They are invaders. He must fight them back. He must end this now. But surely the voice that crawls from his throat is too harsh to be his own. “Get back!”

Kill them all!

No. This is wrong. He gathers all his strength, tightens his grip around the slippery hilt of his claymore, and strikes one final time. It will be the last one. “Get away! You will not have me!”

 At last, at last the foreign feeling falls aside. Empty, weightless, he collapses to the cold ground, gasping…but alive. The air is thick with the iron scent of blood, but his own heart still beats and Ruuk is beside him, warm and alive. He has won.

When Atanar raises his eyes to the stars to thank his ancestors, he sees the remnants of his battle.

His heart beat so fast, he did not know if he could speak. Where was his soul? Gone, if indeed he’d ever had one. How could someone who’d done what he had done be anything but a monster?

“Answer my grandfather,” Sivoy barked, rousing Atanar from his thoughts. “What did you do, to be made ‘vorunn?’”

“I… murdered innocents,” he said slowly. “A hunting party I traveled with.”

Silence settled over the kulkri tent and Atanar felt the true weight of the others’ shock fall across him like an avalanche. As well it should, and press the life from his body in the process.

Tikaani closed his eyes briefly, but nodded once. “Why did you do such a thing?”

How many times had Atanar asked himself that same question? The answer never changed. He shook his head. “I cannot say, exactly. All I know for certain is that some madness gripped me; some strange will took over my own and made me act…” He took a deep breath to calm himself. “I didn’t want to hurt any of them.”

“But you did,” Sivoy said. “And you cannot even take responsibility for such heinous actions.” She snorted. “’Some madness.’ A coward’s defense.”

“I know how it sounds,” he shot back. “But it’s the truth.”

“What did your samaat say to this?” Tikaani replied.

Atanar lowered his eyes to the burning coals within the brazier, and did not reply. The fact that he was here, outcast from his home and dead to his kin, was answer enough.

“You see, Utu?” Sivoy said at last. “He is too dangerous to stay.

“He’ll bring nothing but trouble,” one of the other kulkri women added. “I vote we send him away.”

A few of the others nodded and cast Atanar more dark looks as they muttered agreements. He tensed beneath their collective gaze; he could feel the judgment in their eyes as surely as the bite of winter wind. He swallowed thickly and stared at the entrance to the tent, beyond which the storm raged. 

However, Tikaani’s voice was quiet. “Will you treat us the same way, Atanar?”

He had not heard his own name spoken by another since he’d been marked vorunn. The sounds were almost foreign. Almost. Atanar glanced up, into the old man’s eyes, and found them filled with, of all things, hope.

For what, he could not say. “I don’t know,” was the only answer he could give. Again. “I have no wish to harm you.”

“Oh, aye,” Sivoy sneered. “You would be perfectly happy to live among…what did you name us? ‘Kulkri?’”

Kill it. Atanar fought to ignore the urge that beat through his blood and instead regarded the kulkri samaat with what calm he could muster. “So your kind have been named by mine. But we are not the only ones who do such things; your brother called me ‘pikarac.’

Peals of laughter rang out through the assembled kulkri at the word. Sivoy, smiling, regarded him again. “You would let a child’s teasing offend you so? Truly,” she added gravely, “you are a fine warrior, to return such treatment in kind.”

Atanar flushed and glanced at Tikaani. “Your offer is well-meant, but I cannot accept a place among your people.”

“Nor are you welcome here,” Sivoy added. She, too, looked at her grandfather. “I have done as you advised, Utu, but surely you can see that he should not be allowed to remain.”

 Again, silence fell across the tent as the others waited for Tikaani’s next words. They were some moments in coming. When they did, they were quiet as before, but shaded with sorrow. “You said you have no wish to harm us,” he said to Atanar. “What, then, do you desire?”

The answer broke free of him before he could stop it. “To go home.”

“But you have no home,” Tikaani replied. “According to your own family, you have no name, nor life, nor even a soul. What will you do if we send you away?”

Sivoy made a noise of disgust. “Why does it matter what he wants? He’s vorunn. The world is better without him.”

“So have many of our people been named,” her grandfather said to her, sitting straighter. “Including those of your own blood. Vorunn does not always mean evil. I would not be so quick to cast judgment upon that which you do not understand.”

Sivoy gestured around the tent, where the walls trembled beneath the wind’s battery. “I understand enough. Everyone here is under my protection, Utu. I value your guidance, but I am the samaat of our people, now, and I say we send this…murderer away.”

Atanar released a breath he didn’t know he’d been holding. Of course, there would be no other judgment; if she was truly the chieftain of this “clan,” Sivoy had every right to turn him away. But now that such an outcome was upon him, he realized he’d wanted a different one. Even if it meant living among these…brigands.

 Just as Atanar was preparing to verbally accept this fate, Tikaani spoke again. “One month,” the old man said to his granddaughter. “Give him a full cycle of the first moon. If after that time, you still desire to, you may send him away. And in the meantime, I will vouch for him.”

Only because he happened to glance at the right moment did Atanar see how Sivoy’s shoulders slumped, briefly, at her grandfather’s words. A fleeting look of what Atanar could only think of as resignation passed over her face, but when she looked back at Tikaani, her expression was like cool stone.

“You will claim responsibility for him?” she asked.

Tikaani nodded. “Aye.”

Atanar’s breath caught and dread pooled in his belly.

Sivoy seemed to feel the same. “You know what this entails, Utu. If he–”

“I know what I say, Sivoy.” Tikaani glared at his granddaughter and his words cracked through the tent like lightning; even Sivoy recoiled slightly, as if she’d been struck. The others were silent. Atanar, too, dared not move, lest he break whatever now passed unspoken between the family members.

At last Sivoy glanced around the tent slowly. “Do any of you object to these terms?”

  Silence.

  Atanar straightened. “I do.”

You have no say here,” Sivoy replied.

“It’s my life you speak of. And if you’re asking everyone’s opinion, shouldn’t mine count as well?”

“What objection do you have?” Tikaani asked.

Before answering, Atanar surveyed the kulkri again. Most of them were fair-haired and blue eyed, as he was, with strong bodies fit for survival in the skull of the world. But flesh and bone were so frail. Every one of these men and women could be torn to pieces so easily. He looked at his hands; though they’d long since been scrubbed clean, he could still see rivulets of blood. And within him, vorunn waited.

No, he thought, closing his hands into fists. I cannot risk it happening again. “I don’t wish to harm you,” he began. “But I cannot promise that I won’t. Before, when I…” The words died in his throat; he took a deep breath. “When I killed the others…I don’t remember exactly what happened. All I know is I cannot promise it will not happen again.”

Sivoy looked at her grandfather; she said nothing, but her disbelief was plainly written across her face. The others, too, shifted and cast skeptical glances at one another – and at Atanar.

But Tikaani only rubbed his beard in thought. At last he nodded once and met Sivoy’s eyes. “Then we will honor the terms of vorunn, and not allow him to touch a blade. And at the first sign of trouble, we will send him away. Will that satisfy you, Sivoy?”

She crossed her arms before her chest. “I suppose he may travel with us, for a little while. We can always use another pair of hands when we hunt.”     

“Will you stay, Atanar?” There it was, again, that naked hope in Tikaani’s face, etched in the lines across his forehead and around his eyes.

Atanar took a deep breath, assessing his strength. The foreign presence was quiet now, calm. As he was. Perhaps, with time, he could learn to control it, if not banish it outright. Perhaps there was some strange Aredian magic that could even help.

Maybe there is hope. Atanar nodded once, so low it was nearly a bow. “One month, as you say.”

His heart lifted as Tikaani smiled. “You won’t regret it, tigu.”

Atanar’s breath caught at the epithet, but he only nodded again. Sivoy frowned, but rose to her feet in one fluid motion. “The matter is settled for now. The stranger will travel with us for one month. After that…” She looked back at Atanar. “We will see.”

Moments later, the others began to leave of the tent, presumably back to their own tents, for the wind had quieted. As they left, Sivoy helped her grandfather to his feet. “Why would you call him ‘tigu’ when he’s not part of our family? Are you planning on adopting him? Because I won’t allow it.”

“Give him time,” Tikaani said, looking between Sivoy and Atanar. “I think you will find a different perspective, later.”

Sivoy stared at him, then sighed and shook her head.

“What happened?” Corvac asked. He’d slipped inside the tent as the others had left.

His sister crossed her arms before her chest. “Utu asked that the stranger be allowed to travel with us for one month. I’ve allowed it.”

The boy’s eyes lit up. “Really?” When Atanar nodded, he grinned. “Do you like hunting?”

 Atanar gave a noncommittal shrug. “I can provide for myself and those around me, though…”

He trailed off at the sight of Sivoy’s claymore, strapped to her back. How could he hunt if he could not wield a blade?

“We have kuvlu,” Sivoy said, as if reading his thoughts. “You can swing a rope with rocks tied at the end, I hope.”

Atanar nodded and Corvac bounced on his heels as he continued to regard their clan’s newest addition. “I’ll bet you’re a great hunter. Siv, if he goes with you on the next hunt, can I come, too?”

“You’re still too young,” Sivoy said, frowning again. “Don’t even think of it.”

The boy rolled his eyes to the tent’s ceiling. “Utu, tell her I’m ready!”

“Corvac,” Tikaani said, touching the boy’s arm. “Your sister is right. It’s too dangerous for you now. Come,” he added with a nod to the tent’s exit. “The storm has died down. Let’s see if the others left us any supper.”

“There’s some,” Corvac said as he helped his grandfather out of the tent. “But not that much. Tartok was really hungry tonight.” He glanced over his shoulder. “Are you hungry, pikarac?”

“He’ll be along in a moment,” Sivoy said.

Once they’d left, Atanar glanced at the young woman again. “Why did you ask the others for their opinion? How many kulkri are needed to make a decision for the good of their clan?”

“We are not like you northerners.” Sivoy touched her sash: red, yellow, green, blue and white braided cloth. “We are one clan, one family. Everyone has a voice.”

“That’s madness,” Atanar said, frowning again. “You…vote on all decisions? How does anything get done? What is the purpose of a single leader if everyone has a voice?”

“I would not be so hasty with my judgments, pikarac. You are not in a position to be so fickle with your fate.”

“Apparently, I am,” Atanar could not help but say.

She shook her head. “Everyone who is one of us has a voice. But you are a stranger. You are still vorunn. You will always be vorunn.” She seemed to consider something, then grabbed his wrist with surprising strength. “If you prove my grandfather wrong,” she hissed. “If you bring harm to any of my people, you will regret it.”

The claymore at her back shifted as she spoke, emphasizing her words. Atanar’s blood beat faster at her sharp tone, at her fingers closed around his wrist, at the anger in her eyes. His vision swam, and for one moment, all he could think of was blood.

He shook his head to banish the feeling. Sivoy tensed, though she did not release his wrist, nor did she look away. At last, when Atanar’s vision cleared, he took a deep breath. “If I harmed your family, you would truly end my life?”

Her brow creased in surprise. “Aye. That’s what I said.”

“Good,” he said, and wrenched his wrist from her grasp.


Next time: The caradoc moved across the clearing with the effortless grace of one who feared nothing, though no doubt every sense was alert for a trace of danger – or supper.

Thank you for reading! 💜

ficlet – Shadow Duty

Hi there!

If you follow me on social media, you might have seen mention of a FREE ficlet. Well, the time has come. This is a little something that popped into my head during my recent re-read of Incursion (Book One in my series, for the uninitiated.)

I hope you enjoy. 🙂

Thanks, and stay awesome,

Lauren


Shadow Duty

            Ganister kept her back straight and her gaze ahead, as sentinel protocol dictated. Her daggers and sword were polished to a sheen, and the hematite inlaid in her cured leather armor was clean enough to eat off of. She stood at attention while her new commanding officer, Captain Jonas, approached.

            “Welcome to Starwatch Bastion, Ser Ganister,” he said, his boots crunching in the snow. Fair haired and blue eyed, he was only a few years her senior—around twenty-eight summers—and his sterling reputation had, in part, drawn her to this remote location.

            Ganister saluted: crossing her arms before her chest and bowing deeply. “Thank you, Captain.”

            When he returned the bow, albeit less deep, Ganister realized that her new posting in Starwatch Province would be less-than-orthodox. In her experience, sentinel officers rarely, if ever, saluted their subordinates. Perhaps he read her surprise, for a small smile crept to his face before he sent it away. “You’ll find we’re not much on protocol up here,” he said, indicating the direction of a large stone building she took to be the mage bastion.

            Ganister fell into step beside him as they crossed the walled compound to the bastion. “I didn’t realize, ser. I’d thought…” She trailed off, biting the inside of her cheek before she said something foolish to her new captain.

            But he’d caught on. “You thought, because I was once in the High Commander’s elite squad, I’d be a stickler for rules and regulations.”

            She flushed, thankful for how her helmet hid most of her face. “Aye, ser.”

            “Sorry to disappoint,” he said, and she couldn’t tell if he was joking or not.

            Better to assume not. Ganister inwardly scolded herself for her misstep and tried to salvage the situation. She pointed to the stone buildings they were approaching. “That’s the bastion, ser?”

            “That’s the garrison,” the captain corrected, adding, “And the bastion.”

            It took all her training not to show her surprise. “They’re…”

            “In the same structure, yes.” Captain Jonas gestured to the surrounding, snow-capped mountains that loomed over the gray stone walls of the compound. “Livable space is hard to come by this far north. Close quarters with mages are part of life.” He slanted her with a look she could not read. “Is that a problem?”

            “No, ser,” she replied immediately. “It’s just… I’ve never heard of mages and sentinels living beside one another in this way.”

            “Ah. Well, you get used to it.”

            They reached the building, where two sentinels stood guard on either side of the door. Both snapped to attention at the captain’s approach, and his answering nod of response was completely proper. One of the guards unlocked the door and Ganister followed her new captain inside.

            There was a large main room with several fireplaces, all burning bright. Ganister half-wondered if the fires were mage-made, for the sheer amount of wood to keep such flames constantly burning would consume a forest, especially now that winter was nearly here. Tapestries covered each wall and lanterns hung from the wooden beams, giving the room a cozy feeling despite its size. Now that she was inside, Ganister could see that the interior housed two levels; the top level had a balcony along the interior perimeter, looking down over the main space.

            “The mages sleep up there,” Captain Jonas said, pointing at the upper level. “Our barracks and infirmary are on the ground floor, though we all share the common area.”

            Indeed, there were an assortment of tables, chairs, and benches in the main space that made Ganister think someone had mixed a parlor with a mess-hall. A few mages sat at one of the tables, sipping tea or speaking quietly. A single sentinel sat at another table, cleaning her gear. Both groups ignored one another, though the sentinel offered the captain and Ganister a salute and nod of greeting – respectively.

            The mages did not so much as glance over.

            “There’s our library,” the captain said, pointing to a small bookshelf beside one of the hearths. “And…” He trailed off with a sigh. “Excuse me.” He then strode past Ganister toward the hearth, where she could see a small, stockinged foot sticking out on the bookshelf’s other side. Perhaps it wasn’t protocol, but Ganister needed to observe how the mages were treated here, so she hurried after her new officer. Learn by doing, as the saying went.

            Captain Jonas stood before the foot and stared down at the child attached to it. “Young lady, you’re supposed to be with Mage Riyo, practicing healing.”

            A little girl, no more than eight summers, peered up at the captain through dark bangs. “But I hate healing. I want to read.”

            So she was a mage. Before the captain had spoken, and given how the sentinels and mages lived close together here, Ganister had not been sure this wasn’t a sentinel recruit. The Circle started them so young, after all. But the girl’s handspun clothes and messy braid also labeled her a mage, even if Ganister had not caught sight of the twin crescent moons tattooed on her little wrist.

            “Surely you’ve read that book a thousand times,” the captain replied.

            A grin split the girl’s face. “Aye, but this is a thousand and one.”

            “You must keep up with your lessons.”

            She fluttered the book’s pages, then beamed up at the captain again. “If I go to Riyo now, will you teach me the viol later?”

            “Not until you’re a little older, remember?”

            “But I want to play it now.

            The captain knelt before her and gently pried the book from her hands. “Kali, you must learn to control your magic. Do you understand? The One god has given you great power; you must use it wisely.”

            His tone was, to Gan’s thinking, a little too harsh, but the little girl only nodded. No doubt she’d heard this lecture before. “Yes, Jonas.”

            Jonas, not Captain, Gan thought. Strange.

            “You’re intelligent and strong,” the captain continued. “But you are easily distracted.”

            As if to prove his point, Kali looked over at Gan, and her dark eyes widened. “Who are you?”

            “Ganister,” she said, adding a small bow. “But you may call me Gan, if you like.”

            “I’m Kalinda, but you can call me Kali. I like to read.”

            Charmed by the girl’s enthusiasm, Gan smiled. “I can see that. Do you have a favorite story?”

            “All of them!” Kali considered the shelf beside her. “But I’ve read these over and over. We need more.”

            “I envy you,” Gan replied. “I can’t read proper Aredian like you can. Most sentinels can’t. We only–”

            Captain Jonas cleared his throat and Ganister snapped her mouth shut. He then held out his free hand to Kali, who accepted and allowed him to pull her to her feet. Gan hid her surprise at the captain’s willingness to touch a mage, gloves or not. Although hematite granted sentinels an immunity to magic, most would never lay a hand on a mage unless ordered to do so.

            “Do you need help getting upstairs to Mage Riyo?” Captain Jonas asked. Kali’s face fell and she shook her head. He seemed to debate something, casting Gan another glance she couldn’t read, then nodded to the little mage. “Run along, now, Kali.”

            The girl stepped away from him, and Ganister’s breath caught at the way she limped, as if each step took the greatest effort. “Bye, Jonas,” she said, waving to the captain. “Bye, Gan.”

            The captain watched as Kali reached the stairway and began what was surely a laborious process of clambering up each step. Ganister fought to keep still, following the officer’s lead, until she could tolerate it no more. “Ser,” she whispered to him. “Shouldn’t we help her anyway?”

            “She usually prefers to walk on her own.” The words were terse, but his gaze did not leave the little mage until she was out of sight. At last, he glanced back at Gan. “Right. Let’s finish our tour.”

*

            Four years into her posting at Starwatch, and Ganister was almost used to the winters here. Almost. The cold, she’d learned to tolerate, but she could not abide being snowed in. This winter, in particular, was the worst yet. Snow drifts piled to the bastion’s second story, effectively trapping mages and sentinels alike in their common building. There was only so much patrolling that Ganister could handle—the compound wasn’t that big—so when Captain Jonas had requested volunteers to drop off letters to the nearest fleet rider station, she’d eagerly volunteered.

Perhaps too eagerly. It’d meant a grueling day of slogging through the snow, but she’d finally mastered the snow-shoes and decided that biting wind was a small price to pay for freedom. Even so, by the time she returned late that night, her heart soared at the sight of the compound’s walls. All thoughts turned to shedding her gear and making use of the hot springs – one of the few amenities that little Starwatch Bastion could boast.

When Gan slipped into the bastion, silence met her. It was late enough that only the two gate-guards outside had been awake—huddling by their fires, poor dears—so she tiptoed to her quarters to drop off her gear before making her way to the side building that housed the springs. Divested of all but her soft clothes, Gan slipped out of her room on silent steps. When she entered the common area proper, she paused in the shadows cast by the blazing hearths. She was not alone.

Kali was curled on one of the larger padded chairs, wrapped in a blanket with a book splayed open on her chest. The soft snores the girl emanated made Gan smile, for Kali always insisted that she didn’t snore, and Gan was a sodding liar for saying otherwise.

Just as Gan was about to rouse the girl to send her to her room, she caught a familiar tread. The sound of Jonas—no, she scolded herself, Captain to you—made her pause. The officer emerged from the kitchens, a mug of tea in his hand, then caught sight of the sleeping mage girl. He glanced around; Gan shrank against the wall so he wouldn’t see her, though she couldn’t have said just why. Satisfied that no witnesses were about, the captain set his mug down and went to Kali.

He knelt beside her. The firelight cast his hair in platinum and painted a look of utter longing the stern planes of his face – longing, and love. Gan’s throat tightened. Carefully, the sentinel captain gathered up the mage girl—including her book and blanket—and rose, presumably to return her to her room upstairs.

But doing so would let him pass right beside Ganister. She couldn’t move without giving herself away, so she merely pretended to fiddle with her tunic, praying he wouldn’t notice and knowing it was a foolish hope.

Indeed, his footsteps paused just paces away. A warmth stronger than any hot spring flooded Gan as she reluctantly met her captain’s gaze. But to her shock, there was no reproach in his face, only a surprise that mirrored her own. Surprise, but also…

Fear.

He masked the emotion quickly, though, and frowned at her. “Gan. No one told me you were back.”

She saluted and kept her voice to a whisper. “Just returned, ser. All’s well. There weren’t any letters for us.”

            Despite her attempt not to look at Kali, her eyes slid to the sleeping child, and Jonas—the captain—straightened. “You should get some rest,” he said, his voice low. “You must be exhausted.”

            “I wanted a soak,” Gan admitted. “Does she do this often? Fall asleep with a book on her lap?”

            Whatever he’d thought she was going to ask, this was not it. Jonas’ gaze crept down to the girl in his arms, and Ganister swore his grip tightened a fraction. “Too much. But…” He took a shaking breath. “It’s her way. I don’t mind returning her to her room.”

            “I’m sure she appreciates it,” Ganister replied.

            Jonas’ mouth twisted in a wry smile. “Doubtful.”

            Then, because Gan was tired, and thus, foolish, she said, “She obviously cares for you. And I think you–”

            “Gan.” There was steel in his voice, and in the words he did not say.

            Ganister flushed again, but held his gaze. “I mean no offense, ser. Not that,” she allowed her eyes to flick between him and the sleeping mage in his arms, “there’s anything to be offended at. I see only a mage and sentinel; nothing more. Nothing worth discussing, at any rate.”

            He stared at her a moment longer, then, to her amazement, his shoulders relaxed a fraction and he offered her the tiniest smile. She tried to ignore how the sight sent her heart skipping.

            “Kali is…very dear to me,” he said quietly, almost too soft for Gan to hear. “I’ve known her since she was a babe.”

            It was as much of an admission as Ganister thought she’d get. So she nodded. “She’s a lovely child. You should be proud.”

            “I should be.” He shook his head and moved past Gan, heading for the stairwell. “But I can’t.”

*

            Seven years into Ganister’s posting at Starwatch, and she really should have moved on. She’d never stayed in one place more than a few years—she blamed her Sufani mother for her itchy feet—but Starwatch Bastion had come to hold more of her heart than she’d anticipated.

            It was two days before the midsummer festival, and the bastion buzzed with preparations. The sentinels didn’t bother much with celebrating the solstice, so the mages more than made up for any lack of enthusiasm in their armored guards. Some of Gan’s sentinel brethren grumbled at the fuss, but she loved flowers, mage-grown or not, so she didn’t complain.

            She was not, however, a fan of the dying-cat sounds of Kali’s viol.

            Even outside in the compound outside, engrossed in a sparring session with Taras, one of the newer arrivals, the shrieking sounds of Kali’s “music” assaulted Gan’s ears. Taras had not stopped scowling over at the teenage girl seated on the edge of the well, dragging a bow across the long-suffering viol strings.

            “Ea’s tits, that racket needs to sodding stop,” Taras muttered, wiping sweat from her brow.

            Gan rolled her shoulders, trying not to wince at the wrong notes. Gods above, the girl was either flat or sharp; there was no middle ground with Kali. “She’s gotten much better,” Gan said, adjusting her grip on her weapon and easing into another ready-stance. “Come on. Ignore her and focus on the woman swinging a sword at your head.”

            “I can’t think with that noise. Why doesn’t the captain put a stop to it?”

            “He’s the one who taught her,” Gan replied. “So I’d watch what I said about the girl’s musical abilities.” Or lack thereof, though, to Kali’s credit, she had improved a great deal since she’d started playing a few years ago.

            Taras frowned. “The captain…taught the moon-blood how to play the viol?”

            Gan’s heart seized at the slur and she reacted without thinking. She swept her blade at Taras’ boots, causing the younger sentinel to yelp as she jumped to avoid the blow – and promptly landed on her arse in a patch of mud.

            Ganister stood over Taras, leveling her sword at the burnie’s throat. “Keep a civil tongue in your head,” she growled. “Or else.”

            Taras stared up at her, defiant. “Or else, what?” Her eyes narrowed. “Why do you care so much?”

            “What’s going on?”

            Both women glanced over to see Jonas striding over in what Gan affectionately called his “captain’s walk.” But there would be no teasing now, not with his expression so steely. Gan stepped back and Taras scrambled upright, trying to swipe the mud off her gear.

            “Just sparring, ser,” Gan said, squaring her shoulders and willing Taras to keep her foolish mouth shut.

            Alas, no such luck. The burnie scowled at Gan, then jerked her thumb toward Kali. “Ser, how can we be expected to properly train with that din? What’s she even doing out here? Shouldn’t she be hanging flowers with the other moon-bloods?”

            Jonas stiffened at the slur and Gan sighed. Sodding burnies. I tried to warn her.

            “Mage Halcyon lives here,” Jonas said, adding, “And you will not use that foul term again, in my presence or otherwise. Is that clear, burnie?”

            But Taras’ blood still burned from that first big dose of hematite, which Gan supposed accounted for her stupidity. At least, one could hope. “It’s not fair, ser. The moon—the mages—shouldn’t be allowed the same freedoms as us.”

            The dying-cat sounds stopped. Gan risked a look over and realized that Kali, along with every other sentinel in the yard, was paying close attention to this conversation. It stung Gan’s heart more than it should have to realize how many of her fellow sentinels wore similarly annoyed expressions as Taras.

            Jonas must have realized it too, and Gan watched the familiar conflict play across his stern face. Only because she knew him so well did she recognize the dilemma within him, the one he dared not give voice.

            At last, he said, “Life isn’t fair, Taras. Keep your mind where it belongs.” In one fluid motion, he drew his blade and flipped Taras’ sword out of her grip, sending it skittering over the flagstones and into another mud puddle. “On the task at hand. That goes for the rest of you,” he barked, though he did not turn.

            His “captain voice” did the trick, and the others hurried to resume their sparring. As Gan waited for Taras to retrieve her sword, she glimpsed Kali by the well. The girl—well, she was nearing womanhood now—clutched her viol and stared at Jonas, then rushed inside as quickly as her bum knee would allow. Jonas watched her go, hands clenching, before he turned back to Gan and a muddy Taras.

            “Again,” he said to the burnie, holding up his sword. “This time, make it count.”

*

            “Fifteen years.” Gan skimmed her hand along Jonas’ chest.

            One blue eye cracked open to regard her. “Hmm?”

            The fire in her hearth had nearly gone out, so she pulled the blankets farther over her back, effectively shielding them both from the winter’s chill. “I’ve been in Starwatch for fifteen years, today.”

            Now he opened both eyes; her heart sank at the exhaustion in his gaze, and at how it never seemed to go away these days. “Has it been so long?” he murmured, toying with her hair. “Gods above…it feels like you just got here.”

            Gan smiled and leaned up to kiss him. Jonas returned the kiss with his usual enthusiasm…until he broke it off, grimacing, his body wracked with shivers. Every blanket she had was already piled on top of them, so Gan only hugged him close, willing her body heat to mask the incessant chill wrought by hematite.

            At last, his shivering eased and he pressed his lips to her forehead, his breath still short. Gan laid her cheek to his chest and half-listened, half-felt his heartbeat slow from its frantic pace. “Are you all right?” she asked when she thought he could answer.

            “No.”

            She pushed herself up on her elbow to better regard him. Although there were only a few years’ difference between them, he looked about twenty years older than he should. The lines around his face and mouth had deepened, and no amount of rest ever chased away the shadows beneath his eyes. But his eyes themselves were still a blue so clear it was almost painful, and his smiles, still rare, still surprised her.

            “How much longer, do you think?” she asked, her voice hoarse.

            He tucked one of her errant curls behind her ears. “I don’t know. Hopefully a few years, at least. It’s just…” He took a deep breath. “Hematite doesn’t burn like it used to. I need more and more to keep going. It’s not sustainable.”

            Her eyes burned. “You’re no cinder, Jo. You have time.”

            “Not as much as I need.” His hand fell and he stared up into the rafters of her ceiling. “Not as much as she needs.”

            “She’s almost twenty-four,” Gan started, but Jonas shook his head.

            “She’s just a girl.” He hugged Gan closer but she knew his mind was upstairs, at the bunk perpetually cluttered with books and scrolls. “I’ll be in my next life, one day, sooner than any of us would like. Then who will…” He paused. “Who will take over shadow duty for her?”

            Shadow duty; so named because the sentinel tasked with guarding a single mage must stick to that mage closer than any shadow, both to protect the mage from the world, and protect the world from the mage. Whatever the cost to either.

Gan glanced away to swipe at her tears before he saw, silently scolding herself at her lack of control. There would be a time to grieve; but not now. Hopefully not for a long time. She looked back at Jonas. “Here I thought you were smarter than that.”

            A blond eyebrow lifted inquiringly.

            She smiled; it was better than weeping. “I’ll take over when… When you can’t.”

            He stared at her, those blue eyes wide. “Will you?”

            “Do you doubt me?”

            He relaxed into her. “Never.”

            “I never had a daughter,” Gan said. “Not that I could, with the hematite. But I always wanted one. Until I met her. And now…” Flame rose in her cheeks but she pressed on. “Now I feel as though I do have a daughter, in some ways. And glad I am of it, of her. And of you. She’s…”

            He shook his head and pressed a kiss to her mouth. “Don’t,” he whispered when they parted.

            She made a show of looking around her room. “Aye, because we’re obviously surrounded.”

            “Gan.” The blue gaze turned hard, but briefly. “Please.”

            “Fine.” She playfully tweaked his chest, startling him into a laugh. “Have it your way, Captain.

            Strong hands wrapped around her waist, skimmed her up her spine to tangle in her hair. He pressed their foreheads together and stared into her eyes, as if he could will her to know his heart and mind. “Thank you, love.”

*

            Fifteen years, five months, two weeks, three days. Gan had lost track of the hours as she’d stood vigil with the others beside their captain as the hematite had finally claimed its sacrifice. Now Jonas was on his way to his next life, his spirit carried on the flames of his pyre. Tongues of fire leaped into the night sky, driving back the dark and the chill air, bathing the sentinels in warmth.

            Tears pricked Gan’s eyes again. Even in death, Jonas brought comfort however he could.

            Pinion, one of the younger lads, hugged her shoulder and she leaned against him, grateful for the solid press of his armored form. Gray and Taras, too, stood around her, close enough to keep the worst of the wind at bay. All of her fellow sentinels had rallied to her side, for they knew how much Jonas had meant to her.

            That was all they knew.

            Gan’s gaze crept to the bastion window. Grief struck her anew at the sight of the pale face peering out into the compound yard. The commander had ordered all the mages locked inside the building for the night, to allow the sentinels a chance to properly mourn their fallen brother-in-sacrifice.

            Around Gan, the others took up the all-too familiar litany: “Nox bring your spirits safely over the river. Tor guide your steps into the next life. The One keep you in all your days.”

            The words would bring comfort to most, but the mention of Tor stuck in Gan’s throat. Tor: the patron god of many sentinels, the god who demanded the utmost adherence to the sentinel oaths of honor, service, and sacrifice.

            Only that last one stung.

            When Gan could bear it no longer, she extricated herself from her brothers and sisters in service, pleading exhaustion, knowing they would stay to keep the night-long vigil as tradition dictated. But she had an oath all her own.

            She slipped inside the bastion. Warmth, light, and laughter met her, the latter jarring after the solemnity outside. The Starwatch mages—though Kali was not among them—had gathered by the hearths and opened several bottles of wine in what Gan tried not to think of as celebration. They did not fall silent when she entered, but the laughter dimmed and she felt their eyes on her as she went to the stairs. Once she was out of their sight, their talk resumed with the same vigor. Bitterness caught in Gan’s throat, but she tried to swallow it down and focus on the task at hand.

            Starwatch Bastion was too small for every mage to have their own room, so Gan went to the bunk that Kali shared with a few others, but it was empty. She considered checking the latrine, but Kali’s cloak hung on its peg by her bed, so Gan thought she was still in the building. The absence of Jonas’ viol confirmed her suspicion; Kali would not have taken it outside tonight.

            After a moment’s consideration, Gan made her way to a small storeroom upstairs, mostly used for spare linens and other assorted items. She listened at the door, hoping but not to hear any noise from within. But she was disappointed again—and again, not surprised—at the soft sniffles. Steeling herself, Gan rapped her knuckles on the door in the pattern that she’d learned from Jonas.

            Kali’s voice emerged somewhat strangled. “Gan?”

            “Aye.”

            Limping footsteps, then the door cracked open. Even the shadows could not conceal Kali’s red-rimmed eyes. How long had she been alone while Jonas succumbed to his chosen fate? None of the other mages knew the truth, either.

“What are you doing here?” Kali asked.

            Gan reached past the door to cover the girl’s trembling hand. “Shadow duty.”

            Kali stared up at her with that same, astonished look Jonas had worn whenever he met kindness where he’d expected cruelty. Her lips compressed and her eyes brightened, but she stepped back, allowing Gan entry. Gan shut the door behind her and took the girl in her arms, pressed Kali’s cheek to her armored chest. Kali hesitated, but only for an instant, only until Gan whispered, “If you know nothing else, know that he loved you.”

            Kali made no reply. Through the small storeroom window, Gan could see the funeral fires climbing higher, though from here they appeared little more than a candle flames. She hugged the weeping girl closer as her own tears formed anew, and they kept their vigil, together.

The End