Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
We all stared, but not as much as Nika, who had eyes only for Thrax. Her mouth opened and fluttered a bit, before snapping closed as her face went completely red. Focused on his axe, he didn’t notice, or at least didn’t react if he did. But it had been many years since I’d seen a mortal so immediately smitten. In peak form, Tarrha would have been hard pressed to inflict infatuation so quickly.
Malia hid her smile behind her hand. “She nick your heart, too?”
“Her spirit is indomitable! She has absolutely no propriety, no respect for convention.” The last time Kydon had grinned this broadly, he’d outmaneuvered Zephyrus over flooding season. “I could not ask for a better candidate.”
“I wouldn’t recommend conscripting your champion.” I breathed a laugh as Nika gave up trying to catch Thrax’s eye and settled for glaring at us again, her face still considerably flushed. “She’s more likely to sabotage the tasks and slit your ankles.”
Kydon’s smile stretched his face near to breaking. “It has been far too long since I have schooled one so spirited. I shall enjoy the challenge.
“Your claim might be contested.” Thrax slid his axe into his belt and shifted off the wall as something chirped and clattered up behind us.
A trio of mounted kavak riders, lances pointed skyward, trotted their birds within a stone’s throw of our accidental gathering. Feathers powdered dark gray by ash, the birds were larger than Nika’s, their beaks a uniform dirty bronze, as opposed to the collage that coated Cika’s bill. The lead bird’s rider holstered his lance and dismounted.
“Unhand the girl and return her to us.” The look the man gave Kydon was reprimanding. Though perhaps a little shorter than Hasda, he held himself high with assumed authority. “Where is her companion?”
Malia’s wings snapped in annoyance. Before she could answer, however, Thrax had slipped between us and the riders, arms spread and smile wide.
“It has been many years since I last traversed these lands.” His eyes and teeth flashed as he approached the men. “Yet, I remember that the divine were held in high regard here. Perhaps you are unfamiliar with their forms? I would be honored to enlighten you.”
“Divine or not,” the man said, sliding his gaze over us before returning to Thrax, “that girl has absconded with a tribal heirloom. Return her and that which she has stolen, so that we may reprimand her among her own. Privately.”
“What kind of punishment will you mete?” Thrax’s voice held an edge to it I’d never heard him use before. “Dishonor? Debasement?”
The man frowned. “Whether we have her stripped of rank or set to tentkeeping is not for outsiders to concern themselves with. Release her to us at once.”
Shaking his head, Thrax planted his hands on his hips. “My axe is freshly polished. It would be a shame for it to require further cleaning.”
“Alas, we’ve ridden our birds hard,” the man replied. “I would hate for mine to sprain its neck.”
“What did you do to Duszan?” Nika snarled.
“There are Sleepless about, Nika-durla.” He talked out the side of his mouth, never breaking his staring contest with Thrax. “He is safe at home. Vythar sent us in his stead, to see you safely home.”
“Kloka-mouthed bastard.” Still dangling from Kydon’s grip, she struggled and spat at the riders. “Duszan would never.”
“Watch your language, ill-bred b—” His words cut off as the edge of Thrax’s axe kissed his neck.
A vein popped in Thrax’s neck as he leaned down, inches from the man’s face. “Many kinds of people I have met during my travels. I have found that those who speak with such violence tend to act such. Men with no respect for their children, men who take more tender care of their animals than their women, these are monsters wearing stolen skin. Is your god so poor, that he must settle for devils?”
“Where did you get that weapon?” The man glanced at the axe, not with fear, but eager interest veiled by suspicion. His hands twitched as if he wanted to snatch it away from Thrax.
“A djinn from my ancestor’s well. Enchanted to only cut those whose hearts are corrupted with evil.” Thrax’s smile was cold. “Would you like to see?”
“That isn’t how nebotsvo works.” Frowning, the man held up a hand as his companions shifted their birds forward. “We have been hunting deposits of such metal for a long time. If you’ve found that within our territory, the law requires you turn it over to us, and show us the location of the deposit.”
“Lucky for us, this isn’t Elthiian territory, nor is that axe’s home Elthii.” Malia slid forward, wings snapping. “You’ve failed to introduce yourselves, as is proper. You’ve insulted us, implied us thieves, and forgotten your station as mortals beneath your betters. If Thrax had taken your head from your shoulders, he would have left a handful more slights unavenged. So tell me, why do you deserve to continue living on Carthian land?”
“Strange, Vythar ruled when we left.” It was kind of admirable, the man’s determination, despite him being an ass. “Curnerein still belongs to the House of Balphar.”
“From my observations,” Kydon rumbled, “that pantheon stands but a stiff breeze from collapsing. Upon our return, we found Frischii lay barren and godless. Where is this Vythar, to enforce his claim?”
“So you claim Curnerein for Carthia?” The man’s voice was tight.
Kydon looked at Malia and me.
“Not a martial claim.” I sighed. “We are traders, not conquerors. But Vythar’s father failed to defend his House, his wife, his children, and his lands. Frischii has hidden beneath our wings since before his fall. In all that time, where was Vythar to guard his father’s flock?” I shook my head. “Rule of the land is the concern of the gods. If he wishes to contest, he must be present to speak with.”
Malia set a hand on Thrax’s shoulder, who took a step back and holstered his axe. My gorgon kept her eyes on the lead rider as she circled towards the other two. “I’m interested in how you know celestial steel, and that you seem to think its ore resides within Curnerein.”
“Balphar mastered all metal during his time. We remain to gather his scraps.” The man turned and did his best to look like he was striding in step with Malia, rather than scurrying to keep her from flanking him. His riders backed up.
“Scant copper and inferior iron is a far cry from all ore.” Eyes hooded, Malia slipped in front of Thrax. “How much of this ‘nebotsvo’ does Vythar have?”
Scowling, the man climbed back atop his bird. “The girl, if you please.”
“She is under our protection.” From the way her wings twitched, she was restraining herself from summoning her War Bow.
Hanging from Kydon’s hold on her, Nika muttered just how good she thought our protection was and where she was going to stab it.
“You have no authority to claim her.” Anger clouded the man’s face. “Return her and her bird to us at once.”
Kydon smiled and lumbered towards the riders, depositing Nika in Thrax’s arms as he passed him. “Then it should be a simple matter for your god to validate his superseding proprietorship. Although he doesn’t merit a summit, he ought to at least be able to hold an official conference.”
“We do need to meet with him.” Malia eyed the trio thoughtfully. “Regardless of whether he wants or will accept our help, he needs to understand where we stand.”
“If you really wish to help, unhand the—”
“I don’t think you understand your position.” I frowned at his glare from being cut off. “Although we’re not conquerors, we are at war. We now have three unknown variables, demanding a fourth be released into their custody, to be taken to a deity—however minor—who hasn’t made his position clear. You could be spies, appearances notwithstanding. So we’re not releasing the girl to you, and you’re not leaving here without an escort we trust. The last thing we need is a secondary ambush while we deal with the primary threat.”
“I’d been meaning to scout the river one last time before the Trial begins tomorrow.” Kydon nodded to himself. “Then it’s settled. Prepare yourselves to ride. I will accompany you back to Comann and meet with your god. If I am satisfied, then you may return with me to retrieve your charge. But I mean to do some convincing of my own.”
The head rider spluttered, flush creeping into his face. His companions looked ready to bolt, though they seemed more afraid of the offense their captain was giving unfamiliar deities. Before he could protest, Kydon grabbed the kavak’s lead and dragged the bird towards the village entrance.
“The time has come,” he said as he led the bird away. “I will speed them on their way, but if I haven’t returned by sunrise, begin the Trial.”
“We could wait until you get back.” Malia gave him a slight smile. “I’m interested to see what you find.”
The ogre paused, ignoring the increasingly irate Elthiian beside him. “Normally, I would agree. But I’ve already satisfied myself with my search for your caches, and I’ve been…advised by Phemonoe that the Trial suffer no delay. May Hasda succeed in his task.”
I really hated the void that settled in Kydon’s absence. Phe hadn’t warned me of a new foretelling, and from Malia’s surprise the seer had kept her in the dark as well. If a new vision involving the Trial had come to Phe, then we had to stay vigilant. She’d said this would be Hasda’s final Trial, and I fully intended him to survive it.