Content warning: suicide
Even Aredian mountains were weak. It took Atanar the better part of another day to find a suitable cliff, one that he could summit, one that overlooked solid chunks of rock that would show his body no mercy when it fell from a great height. Preferably sooner rather than later. Already the sky darkened with heavy clouds and lightning flickered on the horizon.
Atanar stood upon a cliff while snow-scented wind rifled through his long, blond hair, lifting the knotted strands as if in play. It was a very long way to the rocks below. Go, he told himself, nudging his feet toward the cliff’s edge. This is what you deserve.
At first, his body refused to listen and stubbornly remained on the cliff’s edge; no amount of mental cajoling would convince his feet to move. At last, he pictured Nel’s face, to remind him why he was here. The painful spike of grief was too much for even a Canderi warrior to bear. With his last breath, Atanar prepared himself and took a step into empty air.
“What are you doing?”
Atanar jolted away from the cliff’s edge and froze in place, heart pounding. He felt no anger now, only his body’s insistence to remain earthbound. Even so, the sense of otherness within him, whatever-it-was, pulsed brightly at the rush of blood through his veins, and his vision blurred again while his thoughts slipped out of his control. Kill, vorunn whispered, in that samechorus as Atanar had heard the night he’d destroyed everything he loved. Kill them all.
Something cracked through what passed for scrub-brush up here and Atanar shook away the whatever-it-was and managed to find his balance enough to turn. This time, his heart turned to ice in his chest. Nel stood several paces behind him, one arm outstretched, blue eyes round with surprise.
It was difficult to speak at all, let alone to a ghost. All Atanar managed was a croaked, “Nel?”
The boy’s forehead creased. “Huh?”
Blinking, Atanar took another deep breath and fought for control, fought to clear his vision so he could see properly. The other voices, what he’d come to think of as the voices of vorunn, fell away, and he was himself again. Another look at the boy confirmed this was not Atanar’s younger brother, but a stranger – and a Canderi. That much was evident in the lad’s fair hair, bright blue eyes, and strong build, though his limbs seemed too long for his body in the way of a gangly youth. Older than Nel had been, but not by much – perhaps thirteen or fourteen summers. He carried a slender Aredian bow and arrow, a brace of rabbits swung at his belt, and he wore a braided strip of multi-colored cloth around his forehead.
Even in his stricken state, Atanar recognized the mark of a kulkri, and scowled.
The boy must not have seen Atanar’s expression, for his gaze darted between Atanar’s face and the empty air below. “I said, what are you doing?”
Atanar opened his mouth to answer, but the words died in his throat. This boy was not Nel, but he was as close as Atanar would ever come, and there were some things that should never be said to a child. Even a vagabond kulkri.
He shrugged. “Just…looking.”
“You looked like you were about to jump.”
“Your eyes are liars,” Atanar shot back.
The boy frowned again and swept his gaze across Atanar from head to boots. “What’s a pikarac doing in Aredia, anyway…?” He trailed off as his eyes fell on the place where Atanar’s claymore should have been. “Ea’s tits,” he muttered, taking a single step backward. “Unless…Vorunn. You’re exiled.”
Heat flushed through Atanar’s veins and his fists balled. “I am. Now leave me be, child.”
He emphasized the last word as he turned his back on the boy, and tried to concentrate on his own fate rather than the wild urge that suddenly beat his blood. Kill it. Kill it. Kill it.
Clenching his jaw, he tried to ignore the urge and instead focused on the fact that none of this would matter in a few moments. He was vorunn; he could not find peace with his ancestors, but perhaps there was something for him in what waited beyond.
But the boy spoke up again. “Are you hungry?”
It was too strange a question at this moment. Atanar shot a glare over his shoulder. “No. Go away.”
“I didn’t think I’d catch anything,” the boy went on, tugging on the rabbits. “I just wanted to practice. So if you’re hungry, we have more than enough food for supper.”
“We have plenty.”
“My words stand,” Atanar said though gritted teeth. “Save your rabbits for your own people, and leave me to my fate. And don’t watch; you’re too young for such things.”
He pitched his voice to be a low growl, hoping to send the boy scurrying, but another growl – that of his stomach – undermined his words, and the boy laughed aloud. “Come on, pikarac. A storm’s coming. You can always kill yourself after.”
Atanar bristled at being called “child” by a boy not old enough for facial hair, but…
Well, he was hungry, and the sky looked surlier by the moment. If he could not summon the courage to end his life now, he’d spend the afternoon in a snowstorm.
And even though this boy was not Nel, the sight of him stirred memories within Atanar’s heart; even after what Atanar had done, would Nel want him to die like this? Torn to pieces on a pitiful excuse for a mountain was not supposed to be Atanar’s fate.
Nor was Nel’s fate supposed to be death by your hand, Atanar reminded himself. He was vorunn; he deserved nothing more than what he had found in Aredia so far.
As if reading his mind, the boy said, “If you jump, I’ll watch, and be haunted the rest of my days. Is that what you want, pikarac?”
Atanar rolled his eyes. Ancestors curse this child to the fire and ice. But he knew when he was beaten and turned his back on the cliff. For now, anyway. “Very well,” he said as he approached the boy. “I’ll eat your rabbits, kulkri.”
The boy chuckled, but Atanar did not miss the flash of relief in his eyes. “Let’s hurry, then,” he said as he stepped through the nearby brush, toward the game trail Atanar had followed to reach this point. “My sister gets very cross when I’m late.”
Atanar soon found himself in another Canderi camp, a place he’d never thought he’d stand again. Several dozen men and women bustled about with evening tasks: cooking food over several scattered fires; grooming horses and herding children; securing the rounded tents made from animal hides. Despite the approaching storm, laughter and conversation rippled through the camp.
Kulkri, the lot of them, but for one moment, Atanar could have been back home.
Or it might have, had each kulkri’s eyes not marked Atanar for what he was, then narrowed to dagger-points.
The boy—Corvac—led Atanar through the others without a word to anyone, instead trotting toward one of the fur-lined tents in the middle of the camp. There, he paused and listened beside the entrance before giving Atanar a look that was almost concerned. “Wait here. I’ll be right back.”
Before Atanar could ask what was going on, Corvac disappeared within the tent, leaving Atanar alone in a camp full of people giving him dark looks. Well, he could return the favor, particularly to a bunch of thieving kulkri such as these. Perhaps he was vorunn, but he had some measure of respect for tradition.
So Atanar stood tall and met each glare with one of his own, until movement to his right caught his eye. A young woman strode toward him. She was a few years younger than Atanar, perhaps in her twentieth summer. Her hair was neatly braided in the Aredian fashion; it was darker than most other Canderi but still streaked with pale gold, and, like so many of the others, she wore a sash of red, yellow, green, blue and white, all woven together.
“Who are you?” she called as she approached.
Your name will be forgotten. As it should be. But he had no other to give. He shook his head. “No one.”
The moment she registered what he was, her stance turned even more hostile as her body became strung taut with tension. “Cor was right,” she murmured, halting just over an arm’s length away, one hand reaching for the claymore strapped to her back. “You’re cursed by vorunn. What in Nox’s void are you doing here?”
Atanar frowned over the strange word, Nox. The woman’s speech was Canderi, but was that word Aredian slang? Is that what happened to Canderi who left their home: they lost themselves and turned into those soft, weak folk? Ancestors strike me dead before that happens to me, he thought with a shudder.
He shook his head. “Corvac brought me.” She scowled up at him and he could not help but add, “For supper.”
Her scowl deepened. “Corvac is a child. He has no say in who or,” she wrinkled her nose, “what comes into our home.”
“And you do?”
“Aye, as far as you’re concerned.” She pointed the general direction he had come, where he could now see a rudimentary sort of passage that wound through the tents and cooking fires. Beyond these, in addition to a few large elk-like atsuula, there were a dozen or so scraggly Aredian horses, outfitted with Aredian saddles, bridles, and other gear. In fact, most of the gear he saw was Aredian in make.
Atanar frowned. A sloppy affair, this kulkri camp.
“Leave, now,” she said, lifting her pointed chin. “Save me the trouble of dirtying my sword with your blood.”
“Quiet, Sivoy.” An elderly man slipped out of the tent, Corvac on his heels. Like the rest, the older man wore thick furs, though he leaned heavily on a staff and on the elbow of the boy at his side as he regarded Atanar curiously.
“He’s vorunn,” Sivoy said. “Corvac never should have brought him here. I’m within my rights to cast him out, Utu.”
“So you are,” her grandfather replied. “And so you may. But your word is not the only law. We are not like them.” He nodded in the vague direction of Cander, and Atanar bristled despite everything. “I advise you to learn a little more before you toss this warrior back into the storm.”
There was greater meaning in those words than Atanar could glean. Indeed, Sivoy frowned, but regarded Atanar with a new sort of speculation. “Very well, stranger. I will allow you a chance to explain why we should not cast you away.”
Atanar frowned. Vorunn, he may have been, but these vagabonds did not deserve even his respect. He straightened and regarded Sivoy from his full height – considerable, even among the Canderi. “Your graciousness humbles me.”
Sivoy glared back, but her words were honey-sweet. “Corvac, please tend to our guest while I gather the others.”
With that, she spun on her heels and marched away, disappearing within one of the other tents. Atanar looked back at Corvac and the older man, presumably the boy’s grandfather as well, given the resemblance between Corvac and Sivoy. “I have no need of your charity.”
The older man leaned on his staff and regarded Atanar with a shrewd gaze before he smiled; the expression shone through his white beard. “That remains to be seen, my friend.” He nodded to the tent behind him. “Come, sit. My name is Tikaani. Rest easy, warrior, and eat your fill, for now you are among kin.”
Tikaani spoke the benediction with a familiar, musical cadence that Atanar had heard more times than he could count. But even so gently said, the words struck Atanar in the chest as would a thrown spear or a stray atsuula hoof. At once he was overtaken by an ache so deep and powerful, he could not speak. Beyond the camp, the sky darkened further still, and each gust of wind cut more bitterly than the last, adding to the ache. Vorunn. So it had taken almost everything from him – almost. It would eventually take his life. It should take his life. Very likely it would, if he tried to weather the storm without proper supplies.
But death is what I want, he thought, clenching his jaw lest he reveal his battered heart to these vagabonds. Isn’t it?
Perhaps sensing his indecision, Tikaani said, “Outcast or not, cursed or not, you have no home. Please share ours – even if only for a night.”
Kindness…perhaps. In all likelihood the old man had an ulterior motive. Nevertheless, Atanar nodded once. “I may as well get out of the wind.”
Thanks for reading! Let me know what you think so far. 😊
Next time: “It’s my life you speak of. And if you’re asking everyone’s opinion, shouldn’t mine count as well?”