Excerpt from Piaffe
The land whispered of things when Renji listened. He couldn’t hear it better if he cocked his ears just right. No scents carried on the breeze gave it definition. Though his senses sharpened when he shed human skin and returned to that of his idolon, this soft voice reached deeper. It awakened some dormant aspect, an awareness beyond what he’d learned from his elders over the years, idoloni with more experience than he.
This went deeper than the cleansing thrum from crystal veins of ametrine beneath his paws as he tread through the manda grove. Their roots of stone and wood tapped into Ommat herself and her soul seeped from the trees, undiluted power humming in the very air between their spiraled, ebony trunks, dark green hues of sage fern and moss crowding around and between. The All-Mother’s gift whispered against every hair on his shifted form, concentrated on the sensitive ruff blanketing his neck and shoulders. The energy traveled the length of each hair to zap his skin. Though not painful, the discomfort heightened his focus on the inexplicable laying just beyond his reach.
At the far edge of the northern woods, the local Liberti herd stood in attendance for one of the insignis in labor, birthing a late spring foal. Their communal mind held an endless line of ancestral knowledge, consciousness stretching back further than mere humans had preserved recorded history. There was no fear of uncertainty or complication. Nor did a strong musk or tang of blood herald the event.
It was one facet among many in this sensation. A thrum of awe, burgeoning culmination, the tingle of beginnings, tremors in the soil feeding into his bones. He felt more alive. He sat back on his haunches and stared up at the foliage. The sun felt warmer, filtering through the dense canopy of citrine and amethyst hues.
He didn’t enter the grove often. When he did, it gave him a distinct impression that his presence despoiled it. Yet today felt different. He felt stretched thin, spread out. As though the air were the breath in his lungs, the soil his flesh, the mandas his bones, and the warm sunlight his aura.
The kenning struck him, awareness so sudden it raised his hackles. He just knew.
If change had a particular scent, it would taste like this on his tongue; sharp, tickling his palate like wild mint. Every tiny bud of sage fern leaf and pebbled shard of crystal beneath his paws registered with as much significance as every twisted ebony trunk and glittering crystal leaf in the canopy of above. Every fractional shift in temperature as the breeze gusted, then died.
He gave a frustrated huff. Having that ken and understanding what it signified--what to do with it--were two entirely separate things.
The air stirred his ruff. He scented what the breeze brought and tasted the strong musk from a pair of insigni. Male, judging from the flavor, and at least one very young--or else there’d have been no faint rustle of the meadow grasses marking their progress. Curious, Renji flexed his cloaking. His opalescent pelt shimmered and became translucent, his paws all but invisible against the moss and ferns. He strode to the edge of the grove. Insects chirped in the tall grass, a faint melody harmonizing with the rasp of branches and leaves clacking and rustling. Shadows played over this part of the meadow, the colors fainter here, the light more natural as the sun eased toward the dinner hour, close to the horizon. With the wind in Renji’s face, the insignisi wouldn’t sense him any time soon. Staying hidden hardly posed a challenge.
One insignis was indeed young. Full grown but still on the leggy side, rangy enough to put his age at hardly a decade. His pale cream coloring reminded Renji of his father’s rich cheese sauce, drizzled over pasta. He tensed his abdominal muscles to keep his stomach from growling in hunger. The wild meadow grasses swayed above his knees as the colt swung his head back and forth, moving slowly, searching, picking his way around the wildflowers he stopped to huff and snuffle, nipping a taste here and there. What he lacked in height seemed compensated for in the depth of his chest and power in the hindquarters. An advantageous trade-off, some of his fellow Liberti would claim.
Except this pair didn’t hail from the local Liberti herd. Renji knew them all, save the one just dropped. Striding along the youngster’s off flank, a sleek liver chestnut escorted the youth, the elder stallion’s arched neck and roached mane screaming of Emendati. They stepped in flawless tandem. The scent of cold earth and damp stone reached him; how had he missed it before? Atelli scum. What business had they here?
The pale-cream colt stopped square in the center of the meadow and scanned the length of the old grove, ears pricked, nostrils flaring. He probably sensed a presence even though he couldn’t pinpoint location. Renji always held his mental barriers firmly in place when he shed his human skin. Nor could the colt possibly identify his scent. Even with his human skin pulled over his idolon self, he knew the colt would be sorely pressed to distinguish him.
An idolon form possessed a scent familiar to only a very select few Liberti, and not a single Emendare. Aedis Idolon was long believed extinct and every last bloodline that might’ve held communal memory of them had died fighting at their sides. The idoloni had passed from memory into myth.
Renji considered toying with the atelli. Howling the two insigni, stalking them. Chasing them off with stories of an unseen specter haunting the sacred grove. He doubted his fellow idoloni would appreciate the irony or tolerate his adolescent behavior. No doubt it would earn him some sort of punishment. He had better things to do with his time than muck a stable full of dirty stalls in payment for a prank.
When the colt gave an alarmed grunt and backpedaled, Renji pricked his ears forward. At the youngster’s flank, the seasoned stallion stood as though carved from granite. The colt glanced back over his shoulder, and the elder insignis held his gaze as mental conversation passed between them. Every sense on alert, Renji stretched his focus out across the meadow in search of what spooked them, but found nothing unusual. Except the breeze ruffling at his back. He missed it shifting, now carrying his strange scent full into the colt’s face. When the wind gusted, the palomino snorted, tossed his head, backing away more quickly. He didn’t expose his flank or wheel away until he’d gained the treeline on the far side of the meadow. The elder stallion mirrored him, every step of the way. Then the thunder of their large hooves on the forest floor rumbled through the ground and vibrated Renji’s body like spasms of laughter.
Well, whatever. Seemed the pair of Emendati would have a tale to tell after all, despite his attempt to behave. This time he could claim innocence without feigning it. Stupid atelli, buried deep in the belly of Ommat, away from sun and air and mandas, with only soil and stone for their beds. They wouldn’t get the best of him if he could help it. He smiled, letting his tongue loll out the side of his mouth as he bared his fangs, and kept himself well camouflaged.
A voice sliced through his mental barriers in the next heartbeat, tense and stiff, too loud, too strong. ::Your presence is required at Sorenne aedis with all haste.::
Renji shut his maw with a snap of teeth and stilled, focusing on the voice echoing in his mind, the mental tendril of contact from his fellow idolon. Urgency accompanied the thought from his aedis sibling, swirled rapid in his aural signature. A few years his senior, Ferril was usually steady and unshakable. He sent back a tendril of his own without tangible thought, just a confused swirl of inquiry for clarity. Specification. He couldn’t fight off the spike of adrenaline in response to the sudden intrusion no matter how hard he tried.
::Just come to us, brother.:: A caustic edge, although it focused elsewhere. He caught a glimpse through the other’s senses: of leather and road dust; of stone from deep within the earth; of strange sweat-smell and the musk reminiscent of insigni. They’d be unknown to him. The Emendati insigni had brought their kin. Though not unusual, their presence at Sorenne aedis left him reeling.
Renji sprinted for home. His camouflaging, held in place with conscious intent like the flexing of a muscle, fell away. Between one stride and the next, his body wavered into visibility, waves of opalescent color flowing over his pelt as he dug his claws into the firm turf.
On the far side of the small forest, the sprawling ancient villa of Sorenne aedis stood amid a gridwork of neatly fenced pastures and whitewashed outbuildings. Here, the ken of change swamped his every breath, a dense fog threatening to drown him. The tang in the air sat heavy on his tongue and his chest tightened with a mixture of dread and that tingling sensation of dangling on the cusp of something. Transformation. The zing of ozone before the lightning struck.
Herds of sheep with thick, curly coats awaiting sheering hardly glanced up as he raced past. When his claws hit the heavy wooden slats of the back deck, Renji pulled. On his aura, the magic in his body, he had no idea what it was--his body tensed, claws flexing roughly, digging faint gouges in the time-worn wood. He grunted as idolon body gave way with a flair of energy and his human skin slid into place. He squeezed his eyes shut and focused on breathing slow and deep as his knees hit the deck. His limbs couldn’t support him, muscles gone weak and watery. The grooves from his claws were sharp and raw in the smooth wood beneath his fingertips. His hair tangled around his face as the wind gusted, drying the sheen of sweat on his bare skin.
The world felt dulled, lifeless, the bland taste of food cooked without spices. The thrum of the mandas against his body was a faint memory aching along his nerves, a fading echo not yet still. Soft footsteps vibrated through the wood and Renji lifted his head, feeling edgy, spooked.
It was only Ferril, his outstretched hand fisting neatly folded tunic and pants. “Hurry. No time to bathe, I’m sorry.”
Renji heard the tension in his words, read the stiffness in his body, the lines etched at the corners of his mouth, between his brows. He took the clothes and dressed quickly, not bothering to ask for a belt as he took the strap of leather Ferril offered and followed him along the breezeway of the house.
Sunlight poured in through the front door, the tall windows, and the breeze followed him inside as well, tickling the back of his neck as he pulled his hair back and secured it in a tail. Not all of it deigned to behave, sliding loose to frame his face with sun-bleached white. “Why the haste. Why the Emendati, here?”
The look Ferril tossed over his shoulder was equal parts pity and frustration. “They hold the rank of venator, every last one of them. They’ve accompanied an insignis who led them here. They come hunting their own.”
Renji blanched. “We harbor none of their kind.”
“Consensus, brother. They seek you.”
Only when Ferril’s grip closed on his forearm and tugged him back into motion did Renji realize he’d stopped dead in the hallway.
The strange colt in the meadow. No. He didn’t want this, not like this. Not if it meant being ripped from the ranks of the Liberti and thrust into a culture he had no knowledge of beyond the superficial, no respect for. “No.”
His denial fell on deaf ears.
Matrem Sorenne stood a few paces inside the room as though holding the venatores prisoner within. Even from a distance, she towered over them both in height and aura. Legs clad in working leathers, feet braced shoulder width apart, she stroked the long platinum braid draped down her chest with one hand. The other she clenched in a fist at her side, self-restraint apparent in the bloodless white of her knuckles.
There were three of them, the Emendati. He smelled them from across the room. Even to his dulled senses, the scent of cool, buried stone rode beneath the heavy almost-taste of leather and road and insignis like a malignancy. Had they not thought to wash away the dust before approaching their aedis with business? Atelli were so predictable, always the same blatant disrespect. Renji curled his lip in a sneer before he caught himself and schooled his expression.
“Matrem, you called.” At his words, the venatores shifted their attention his way. Their gazes raked him in unison. One of them shook his head.
“I did.” The matrem didn’t turn. “Thank you for that, Ferril.”
Ferril inclined in a shallow bow, though she couldn’t possibly see it. “I’ll take his place on the guard rotation, if you wish.”
“Please.” Her tone communicated an edge of resignation tainted with exasperation. Only when his elder sibling departed did the matrem pivot to study him. “I know you don’t want this,” she said. Whispered acknowledgment, lacking sympathy or concern. “But there is no choice in the matter. And there is much to be gained from it.”
Renji shook his head. “They will take away my freedom and lock me in the bowels of Ommat. Away from the sun and wind, the sky and turf. You would require this of me.”
“Your insignis requires it.” The venator that shook his head not a minute past had a flat, unyielding voice, a perfect match for his equally flat and unyielding face.
“Quiet.” She spoke the word softly but it was a whip all the same, and the venator flinched. “I did not give you leave to speak.” Her authority transformed the silence into a harp string, waiting to be plucked.
Renji watched them share a glance behind his matrem’s back and his hackles rose. He’d always known that Aedis Idolon engaged a unique form of hierarchy, even among Liberti, but to have the differences enter into his own life so abruptly went beyond disturbing. “Matrem--”
“It may be you’ll have a position from which to bridge this chasm between the two, in the future. The Liberti have taken many from the Emendati ranks in the past year. We cannot take another. Our fair trade agreement demands balance.”
“And so the sacrifice must be mine.” Though he didn’t bother with inflection, he couldn’t hide his incredulity.
“You have the strength to make it, where others lack.”
Small comfort, strength.
“And no voice in the matter,” she added, voice hardening a fraction. “The met’karn have joined in the decision already.”
He stared past her, out the windows at the fresh air, radiant warmth, and soft soil. He didn't see the crushed stone of the road leading toward the north gate. Didn't see the carriage house, the barn, the outbuildings. Just lush foliage of the trees, swaying in the summer breeze. Fallow deer sneaking around the far pasture to forage for stray oats and alfalfa grass.
Could he lock himself beneath the ground, surrounded by stone and soil? His gut clenched.
“Brave venatores, daring to confront Liberti and steal away their aedis.” They didn’t do it often. And in this instance, they didn’t understand quite what they did. Approval from the met’karn set him off balance. He didn’t understand why they would demand this of him. She spoke of the met’karn as autonomous to the current situation, yet she counted among their ranks as the leaders of the local Liberti hall. They may have required she stand aside on the final vote, but that didn’t mean she lacked sway or influence.
Matrem Sorenne hadn’t raised him to be selfish, but to weigh the greater good. And yet...the idolon in his aura rode close to the skin, resisting, writhing; it trembled at the prospect. No, he cried. They were so few. And he was to be cast out, hemmed in by earth and stone and humanity. To go for weeks without feeling Ommat beneath his paws, breath rustling his pelt, scent teasing his nose with a thousand whispers. Claustrophobia clawed his thoughts, scattering any arguments he might have managed on short notice.
“As you wish it, matrem.” He folded his hands and bowed, according every inch of respect her position warranted.
And winced at the sharp piercing pain of disappointment manifesting like an arrow piercing his heart. A throb of pain spiked behind his eyes, and inside his head the idolon howled and raged, a feral animal caged. Aural energy flared along his fingertips, fueled by the urge to change, to flee what he could not hope to fight. The inevitable, inescapable. Thankfully, the white hue of energy laid almost invisible against his pale complexion and went unnoticed.
One venator made a grunting sound and cleared his throat. Renji straightened and met the man’s gaze, even though his matrem--was she, though, now that she’d cast him out for all intents and purposes--didn’t bother acknowledging the Emendare. Surely his subservience to a female wasn’t an issue; not even atelli dared be so discriminatory. Perhaps he was expected to have more backbone, if he were to be trained as arête.
Renji narrowed his eyes. If the dusty, leather-clad Emendare thought he had none, he would swiftly learn otherwise. He felt pressure in his chest, idolon pushing to surface. He controlled it, barely, although the instinctive growl rumbling up out of him made the man draw back, eyes wide, despite the generous distance between them.
“Enough, all of you.” The matrem sounded only tired now, as though disgusted with the situation and wanting nothing more to do with it. Or perhaps, Renji thought, looking at her more closely, she simply wanted nothing to do with the posturing of testosterone-driven mardonken.
He grinned faintly. She was right; that could wait until the atelli were dragging him back to whichever hole in the ground they’d crawled out of.
For now, he would behave himself as he’d been raised, and go along quietly. Let them think him a tamed creature, willing to eat from their hand and expose his throat.
Responding and reacting were two wholly different concepts, as his matrem was fond of reminding him. Theories. Always with the theories. Sometimes he got the distinct impression that his matrem thought too much and ran too little.
The venatores shifted, all three moving as one toward the door. Matrem Sorenne stopped them with a long glance and turned back to Renji. “You go with them, but you are Liberti and so you remain.”
He knew she uttered the words simply because she sensed the shift in his demeanor and thoughts. The stench of rejection, seeping from his pores, saturating his mind. We are more than just Liberti, matrem. So much more.
Renji stared past her, out the large open windows. The fresh breeze caressed his skin, carded through the loose strands of his hair. Radiant warmth, soft soil, the familiar musk of pine and sheep, fresh-cut alfalfa. On a deep breath he collected his memories and a final lungful of home, and followed the Emendati as they filed out out of Sorenne aedis.
Jaedyn felt it the moment the mare went still. The coiling and readiness communicated through the saddle, into his legs and seat. Her demeanor changed, abrupt and complete. From that alone, he knew this watch would only degrade into a bloody mess of an afternoon. Literally.
When the entire herd of cattle grew restless only a moment later, he eased the compact bow from his shoulder and notched a pair of barbed arrows against the string. Quiver braced against his shin, no longer swinging free. Loose reins secured to rings on the leading edge of the saddle flaps, he guided Astre with knee and leg pressure. The mare threaded slowly through the agitated herd, choosing her own direction and pace. Her ears remained perked forward, neck arched, head up and alert, although her breathing remained slow and easy, barrel expanding against his calves.
Jaedyn took a deep breath to steady his own nerves. Astre was the only mount--Astator or otherwise--he’d ride on guard anymore. She didn’t have the best nerves, but she had the sharpest affinity for sensing trouble and tracking it to its source. For the rest of it, she needed a steady hand and a reassuring voice.
Facing down a trespassing pack of half-feral belbus from the neighboring farmstead wasn’t conducive to that. His sire said he was the steadiest, despite the years of experience the ranch hands all had on him. Stray belbus were easy enough to intimidate and chase back across the river, if solo. In a pack, though, they were a rabid mob seeking blood. Nothing short of death would stop them.
“Then death it shall be for you.” He whispered in a lulling voice, and the sound soothed Astre’s nerves. “Need you with me now, astator mea. Hold your course.” He’d be at a disadvantage if he needed to resort to grabbing the reins to make her stand her ground. No way to defend them both--never mind the herd--if it came to that.
The packs rarely gathered before dusk. The height of afternoon heat on the prairie chased even mildly intelligent beasts for whatever shade could be had. He didn’t want it to be what he suspected. The riverbank laid half a league from where the herd had settled to graze in the speckled shade of an ancient stand of towering oaks. Astre’s pace slowed as the gurgling rush of water grew louder. Her shoulder twitched sporadically, and Jaedyn soothed her with one hand. He knew exactly how she felt. The fine hairs along the back of his neck stood up.
A feline’s petulant mewl confirmed his suspicion, its source indeterminate. The soft gust of a breeze carried it to them, cool air wafting over the sea of waist-high grass hissing against the knees of his leather chaps. A rustle from the heavy brush flanking the river. Astre stopped dead. The space of a heartbeat, two. She inhaled deep, barrel expanding hard against his legs. Jaedyn couldn’t pinpoint the precise origin of the disturbance. He narrowed it down, but they were still too far out for him to intercept the feline if it broke cover and attacked the herd. The mare exhaled long and low. She skittered sideways a pace before regaining her poise, the soft creak of leather and the crunch of sun-dried grass beneath her hooves gave music to her dance.
“Show me.” Astre flicked an ear back to catch his words, the barest murmur of sound, encouraging, asking. The scent of danger would be thick in her nostrils; the slightest demand or force would only make the tension crumble into a panic attack. Fight or flight. Julius Myfala had bred selectively for generations, trying to eradicate that instinct from his Astator breed. To create a beast with intelligence closer to that of an insignis. He’d managed it, but the progress was still frail at best, easily shattered by mishandling.
The mare took another breath, gathering her momentarily shredded courage, and resumed walking forward. Closing in on the thicket-shrouded riverbank once again. Lovely. Jaedyn grimaced and half -drew the string on his bow in a three-fingered grip. Spacing and steadying the shafts, ready to lift and loose at a moment’s notice.
Forty paces out. Thirty. Twenty.
The beast launched from a heavier branch in the thicket, affording greater height and range. A blur of grey pelt, slick fangs, and unsheathed claws, it soared through the air at their heads. Jaedyn raised his arm to sight down the shafts and loosed them, all in one smooth, thoughtless motion. It yowled, twisted and fell to the earth, tumbling with its momentum. Jaedyn tensed his leg against Astre’s flank as she tossed her head and sidestepped, her entire frame quivering. He put two more shafts in the massive feline in rapid succession and guided the mare to circle around. She high-stepped and snorted the whole way, but didn’t balk or hesitate.
He watched closely, for a flicker of life. For the big predator to scramble from the ground and attack. The last two had. Thank Ommat, these predators traveled solo.
After a count of thirty with no response, Jaedyn took pity on Astre and dismounted. He unstrung his bow with swift, practiced force and tucked it into the quiver. He drew the knife from his thigh sheath instead. His arrows protruded from eye socket, neck, and chest, glistening crimson with fresh blood. No tremble in the shafts from ragged breathing or pulse, no sign of life. Jaedyn wouldn’t risk it. Gripping a handful of pelt under its massive jaws, he arched the neck and sliced deep into the jugular.
“Requiesce, scies pace.” Jaedyn murmured a half-hearted prayer for the creature’s tortured soul as he wiped the blade clean against his thigh. He stepped back to wait, scanning the riverbank, the surrounding grassland. Though distant, the sounds of the herd remained calm, sporadic. Not the slightest hint of agitation. A faint whiff of feline blood might well change that, but the breeze had shifted in his favor.
The tattoo of hooves on the distant road reached him instead. Noise carried easily--and far--out here. Long stride, too long for a simple horse-mounted messenger. The beat carried too deep a resonance. He knew well the unique sound of an insignis on the road. They’d been coming around too much. In the aftermath of their presence, his sire spent hours, days, in a depressed and sour state. What they wanted with the former dux of Praesus, Jaedyn couldn’t begin to imagine. Sure, he’d had an entire grotto of Emendati under his leadership; that was a decade ago, before his consensus rent asunder with the death of his insignis. Now, his sire was emeritus. Retired, useless to them. Only, the traffic and communication suggested otherwise.
He grabbed the lifeless feline by its hind legs to drag it closer to the riverbed. The belbus would come for the carcass; no use luring them further into the pasture than necessary. He dropped the legs and braced his hands on his knees to catch his breath. The thing was huge; heavy and well-fed, its pelt dense and healthy. He doubted it would’ve done more than spook the cattle, unless it decided to have some sport.
“Why don’t they just leave us alone?” He dropped to a knee beside it and skimmed firm, probing fingers along the soft underbelly, feeling for the ribcage. Three swift strokes, more vicious than necessary, spilled its innards, hot and steaming. The stench of scored intestines burned his nose and lungs. He’d cut deeper than intended. He closed his eyes, grip flexing on the knife hilt, and then buried the blade in the dirt by his leg. His leather riding gloves, formed to his hands by sweat and body heat and long use, didn’t come off easily, but the time it took to remove them gave Jaedyn space to regain control of his temper.
The feline’s stomach was a pitiful, shrunken thing despite the healthy state of the beast’s pelt. Jaedyn wiped a hand clean of viscera on the grass, and retrieved his knife to slice it open and scrape free the contents.
Two lumps of acid-soaked leather. Message satchels. But why two? The smell of bile burned his sinuses, his eyes. Jaedyn wiped sweat and tears and snot from his face with one forearm, then glanced over his shoulder in the direction of the ranch house, the lack of sound now ominous. For once, though, the presence of a Praesus insignis would serve a useful purpose. The pair would know something. They had to. There would have to be an Ommat-cursed good reason for the closest Emendati forces to send patrols into the ass-end of nowhere.
He dunked his hands in the edge of the river, chafing the residue of viscera and blood and hair from his skin, splashed some water on his face, cleaned the acid from the blade of his knife. Dried his hands and steel on the front of his shirt. “To the dung heap with what some elitist insignis-humper thinks of my attire. I work for a living.” Nearby, Astre took a deep breath and sighed gustily, then braced her legs and gave a full-bodied shake sending saddlebags and stirrup leathers flopping every which way.
He grabbed a handkerchief from one of the bags to wrap the acid-soaked message satchels, then tucked them into a corner of the saddlebag. It was a relief that the Astator mare seemed unperturbed by the feline’s carcass. Once dead, the sense of danger, of threat, dissipated. Optimally. He rode a circuit of the herd just to be sure, then turned Astre toward the homestead.
Jaedyn had no intention of making his approach known. He eased Astre from her easy lope for the sole purpose of arriving unannounced. He desperately wanted to find out just why a pair of Emandati saw fit to stop by and harass his sire yet again. A direct answer or explanation wouldn’t be forthcoming--he’d tried that route following a previous visit that left the elder Myfala extremely agitated. Saying fortune hadn't favored him was an understatement.
His plans were foiled by the monstrous dapple-gray insignis browsing on locoweed, of all things, in the foaling pasture by the ranch house. It stood there, masticating rhythmically, and followed his approach with disturbing intensity. If it had been a bull, it would’ve been pawing the ground and weaving its horned head in preparation for a charge. Instead, the Emendare only dipped its head a fraction, nodding in greeting as he drew closer. Then flared its nostrils on a deep inhale, snorted, and took a step toward him.
He nudged Astre to a quicker pace, discomfited. There wasn’t much to call friendly in a creature whose withers were half again higher than any Astator on the ranch. He didn’t care how intelligent they were, it didn’t lessen the visceral response he had.
The door slamming shut on the porch pulled Jaedyn’s attention from the insignis. Its partner and his sire stood in the deep shade of the northern entry, observing his approach. He could see the tension in the familiar lines of the elder Myfala, arms akimbo, shoulders hunched. The way he stood apart from the leather-clad Emendare, without turning his back. Astre remained relaxed beneath him, unaffected by the pair’s presence, and that fact alone kept Jaedyn level. He stopped at the edge of the raised porch and looked from one grim face to the other.
He tossed the wadded handkerchief, aiming between the pair of them, not caring which one caught it. Julius Myfala still had quick reflexes, he noticed with a grin. “Third feline in two moons.”
His sire’s grip tightened on the cloth, assessing the contents. “Miles Andruski, my son, Jaedyn.”
Miles. An Emendati rank, but the discomfort of the ensuing pause held more meaning. Andruski’s gaze took in his full length, left him feeling weighed and measured. Her nod of acknowledgment was long in coming and short on respect, as curt as it was. Irritated, he returned the favor of close scrutiny, took note of the almost clean bandanna looped around her neck, the glitter of a clear quartz cabochon tucked into the base of her throat on a knit cable necklace. He recognized the knit metal design, and its placement, from previous Emendati. The stone was always different, though. He returned her nod at last and she seemed far from pleased at his reciprocation, eyes narrowed, mouth a hard, flat line.
“Were they traveling in tandem?” Julius began untangling the cloth.
Jaedyn shook his head. “Just the one. With two satchels.” The Emendare’s eyes widened as she held his gaze. “She was bigger than the others, too. Darker pelt.”
Astre shifted, edging away from the porch.
His sire nodded, acknowledgment and dismissal in a single gesture. “Take the mare out to the barn and see to her, Jaedyn. I’ll be out shortly.”
He had to grind his teeth to keep from objecting. At the offense of being left out of the informational loop, yet again. At being treated like a child by his sire, yet again. He was a man grown, fully capable of running the ranch on his own--his sire’s own training and instruction had solidified that. And yet. He was still sent off to do something else, while the ‘adults’ talked.
He wheeled Astre with a deliberately gentle touch, acutely aware that in his rage he could inflict abuse. The mare didn’t deserve it.
“Three, that you know of. How many have slipped your net? With all due respect, emeritus, this is dangerous ground.” Andruski’s words weren’t soft enough to escape his ears, for a few strides. But in the ensuing pause, he knew his sire remained silent until he moved out of earshot.
The tread of boots on wood, the slam of the screen door. He glanced back over his shoulder, though he didn’t need to see to know they’d retreated back into the house.
Emotion welled up, a surge so strong he trembled with it. Hands shaking, he steadied long enough to swing a leg over Astre’s neck and slide to the ground in the barn’s spacious corridor. He wanted to punch something. The vertical support beams could take an impact from his fist; the ebony wood of Mandas was renowned for its density. Probably break every bone in his arm, though, so he clenched his fists and resisted the urge. The Astators occupying the stalls snorted and moved away as he passed, easily sensing his emotional disturbance and unrest.
Distressing them was the last thing he wanted. Many of them were his friends. He’d trained them up from foals, learning alongside them. Matched each one carefully with buyers when they came out to the ranch. One of the smaller mares, the palfrey strain his sire also bred, nudged his shoulder roughly in a bid for attention. Jaedyn rubbed her forehead and scratched behind her ears. Tyshka, he’d named her. And matched her well with a young ‘steader girl from the north side of Kauwan. She’d need delivered to the inn in the next few days. Maybe it would be a good excuse to escape the ranch for a bit. He could do with a change of scenery and some space.
He’d worked his way around to throwing bales of straw down into the empty stalls when his sire finally walked into the central corridor of the barn.
No greeting, save silence. Jaedyn didn’t bother pausing in his self-imposed chore. The elder Myfala stood there with his arms folded, watching for what seemed an eternity. Then he turned and walked the line of occupied stalls. The Astators all perked up and came to the doors, for all the world like a battalion of troops eagerly awaiting inspection.
“Is she ready for delivery?” Julius stopped and studied Tyshka with a critical eye.
“Yes. Going to run her into Kauwan when I finish here.” He hadn’t consciously made that decision until the words slid from him. “The Lorths won’t mind stalling her at the inn until Ellida comes to get her on sabbata.” Not asking permission. He’d moved far beyond that, even if his sire still refused to acknowledge it. “Won’t be too long, and I’m sure the herd of little ones will love having her around.” He hefted one last bale over the edge of the loft, where it landed in an empty stall with a resounding thud, then made his way back down the ladder. “Not to mention the notice it’ll get us with merchants or travelers passing through.”
His sire’s body language shifted subtly in a way Jaedyn couldn’t translate. The man’s brain worked along strange paths, at times jumping from symptom to cause to cure without logic he could track. Perhaps he’d never get the knack of it. A good handful of days remained before the next sabbata came around. Did Julius recognize this for the excuse it was? Most likely so--not that it mattered. Jaedyn needed to get away, off the ranch, put some distance between them before his emotions got the better of him. His lack of involvement in the machinations of the ranch, its decidedly covert dealings with the Emendati, weren’t subjects he wanted to discuss. Not today. Not when his temper ran hot and his patience short.
“You’ve done well with her.” Julius managed to convey approval and the slightest edge of surprise at the same time in so few words.
Jaedyn grimaced as he stepped off the ladder and paused at his sire’s shoulder. “She’s more than Ellida is expecting. She’ll do the Myfala name justice.”
Julius nodded but seemed to be staring through the mare instead of at her. Tyshka disliked something of his gaze, judging from the way she turned away, retreating to the back corner of her stall with her ears pinned.
Jaedyn couldn’t have excluded himself from setting her off. He returned to his chores.
“We can discuss what’s bothering you tomorrow, after you’ve had a chance to think things through,” his sire said, suddenly, tone sharp. “Find me when you return.” With that, he departed the barn, though he paused to greet each Astator with a stroke of the nose on his way out.
Jaedyn straightened from shaking straw around the stall and watched his sire until he’d retreated back to the main house, the door creaking on its hinges with a flash of metal gleaming in the harsh sunlight.
Astre had earned her evening respite; he left her grazing in the side pasture. Instead he tacked up one of the spare geldings in the string of mounts the ranch hands used. Torrin was a hardy beast, but not much to look at and would never sell--a gangly, slab-sided rat of an Astator that never failed to make Julius Myfala shake his head. But he had stamina in spades and one of the smoothest traveling gaits Jaedyn had yet experienced--so long as he didn’t break into a lope.
With Tyshka on a long lead, he angled through the front courtyard. Plate-sized tracks from the insignis marked the dust, each gap of stride requiring two of Torrin’s strides to match. Powerfully large beasts, when a solitaire could create enough thunder at its passing to be heard out on the distant prairie.
The sun had receded to a flare of glowing color on the horizon when he finally made the outskirts of Kauwan. He couldn’t recall much of the intervening time; the rhythm of Torrin’s gait had lulled him into a reflective state where thoughts slid through his mind, acknowledged and promptly released, senses cognitive, aware, and yet numb. Letting Torrin do all the work, for the gelding had traveled this stretch of road into Kauwan enough times to know each rock and rut by heart.
At the sound of his approach, a lantern flooded to life within the dark maw of shadows of the inn’s livery. The pair of boys, barely twenty years between them, haloo’ed like it was going out of style.
“Slow day?” He laughed as the twin pre-teens grabbed lead and reins from his hands and all but pushed his feet from the stirrups. He rotated his ankles, working the blood back down through his legs. The one drawback to long hours in the saddle, and he’d been at it most of the day.
“Nah, but seeing to Myfala mounts is always a pleasure,” the one said.
“Yeah, don’t get bit, kicked, pushed around or stepped on,” his brother agreed.
The lads led the pair into the livery as Jaedyn swung a leg over, untied his bags from the back of the saddle, and slid down the gelding’s side. “Take good care to stall the mare deep, would you? She’ll be here a few days, until Ellisa comes for her.” He dug into a bag, fished out a couple coins and tossed them to the closest, who snatched them from the air with practiced ease. “Be sure you split that, and give Torrin plenty of hay.”
“Will do. Go on, Jaedyn, we’ll take good care of them. Get some food, Pap’s made that stuffed meatloaf you love so much.”
The prospect of a warm, hearty meal moved Jaedyn toward the common room with more alacrity than any other impetus would have.
It was closer to noon than midmorning when Jaedyn rode Torrin back into the courtyard. The air felt strange--still and heavy, as though the wind feared to stir. He couldn’t figure out what was off, but the sensation persisted.
As he made to swing a leg over and head into the homestead in search of his sire, the gelding gave a low grunt. Torrin backed away from the porch steps and flicked his ears, in tandem and then independently. Did the Astator sense what he did, that something was off, without being able to pinpoint the source? Jaedyn settled his weight into the saddle and relaxed the reins.
There were no sounds. No whinnies or bellows of cattle drifting in from the fields. No conversation between ranch hands carrying from the outlying barns or pastures.
Not a thing. Just the breeze finally, gusting through the courtyard, kicking up a small screen of grit.
He nudged the gelding forward, reining him in the direction of the outlying pastures. But Torrin wouldn’t move, wasn’t listening or responding at all. His ears continued to flick and pivot, his sides heaving beneath Jaedyn’s legs as he took long, deep breaths. Scenting what the wind brought.
It took only a moment to noose the reins through the safety catch on the front of the saddle. Jaedyn had done it so often, he didn’t even have to look down. He gripped the leather-wrapped saddle horn with his left hand, twisting back and forth to lock his hand in place. His gaze remained on the horizon, their immediate surroundings. If it had been any other trek into Kauwan, he wouldn’t have had his quiver and bow with him now. But yesterday afternoon, he’d simply tossed the tack he’d stripped from Astre onto Torrin. No presence of mind to give any thought to the weaponry.
Come to think of it, the residual streaks and scent of blood and gore were probably what elicited the odd looks from Pap’s serving staff in the common room last night.
Torrin side-stepped, slowly. Pausing before placing each hoof, as though trying to be as quiet as possible. Or listening, which was more likely. Jaedyn wished he would’ve lingered long enough for that second steaming mug of caffe before leaving the inn. Not that the slow crest of adrenaline in his veins wasn’t making him plenty alert. The gelding moved a few more steps, the breeze now gusting head-on at them from the eastern pastures. And he could hear it, then. The faint screams and growls, so distant, fluctuating on the whims of the wind’s strength.
“Go.” He breathed the word in a low urging voice as he twined a handful of mane in his free hand, shifting his weight forward and tightening his legs to the gelding’s flanks. Speed wasn’t a trait the ranch bred for in Astators. Yet Torrin had a quick enough turn and he’d unseated many a seasoned hand, leaving them behind in the dust. As the coiling explosion of the gelding’s sprint settled into a flat-out run, Jaedyn untangled his fingers to string his bow--a tricky feat on horseback when done one-handed, using his stirrup as a brace.
The sounds grew louder and Torrin veered, skidding to a halt at the top of a small swell in the endlessly rolling prairie. Jaedyn looked on in horror at the tableau before them.
His sire lifted his leg and kicked viciously at a belbus trying to climb up his mount’s shoulder--one of a teeming mob surrounding Julius Myfala’s Astator stallion. The stallion twisted and thrashed, fighting with teeth and hooves, against a mob easily thirty strong. The white of his bald face and high stockings of his four legs showed the vivid red of gashes and blood in brutal contrast. The belbus mob teemed and swelled with a mind of its own, their cackling calls an eerie, haunting sound. Malicious, bent on destruction. Answering cries echoed from the far side of the nearby river, drawing closer with each second.
Why didn’t the ranch hands do anything? Every last one of them keeping their distance, brandishing hunting bows and crossbows. As Jaedyn watched, a belbus leapt from the mob onto the Astator stallion’s hindquarters, claws sinking into its flanks. Even as the horse squealed and shuddered, helpless, the attacking beast blossomed with over half a dozen bolts and shafts and fell away.
Torrin exhaled heavily and trembled beneath him.
Five belbus came surging across the river, cackling nonstop, swelling the pack even further.
Jaedyn nudged Torrin forward and the gelding took up a slower, cautious pace.
The scavengers weren’t behaving in any way Jaedyn could identify as normal. They paid no mind to the nearby hands or their Astator mounts. No mind to the large herd of cattle a half mile distant, never mind the scent of them strong on the gusting breeze, never mind there surely wouldn’t be enough meat on a single horse to satisfy them all.
“We’ve tried.” Neolus shouldered her mount into Torrin, blocking him. Jaedyn blinked and studied the foreman, wondering where she’d come from. And why she wouldn’t get out of the way. The foreman’s peppered brown hair hung half loose from its tail, leather hat nowhere in evidence. Her Astator mare, Jada, was soaked with sweat and her own blood, in frothing streaks from nose to rump. Neolus had her right thigh swathed heavily in bandages soaked through with bright crimson in more than a couple places. Belbus were ruthless with their wickedly curved claws and unhinging, gaping jaws. The expression on Jaedyn’s face must’ve conveyed confusion or disbelief, because Neolus grimaced and shook her head. “We tried charging the pack a dozen different ways. They won’t let us through, and they won’t divert.”
There didn’t seem to be any way to stop them, drive them off. Closer now, he could see claw marks on the shoulders of the hands’ mounts, fresh blood marking their legs in steady rivulets. They’d tried, more than a few times. The toll in poisoned wounds alone could devastate them.
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