Snow and Ash

This is the first chapter in book two (of three) of this series. If you haven’t read Fog and Flames yet, I suggest you start there. (Note: I changed the names of Alanna to Ilanna and Evelle to Avelle)

snow and ash

The days of quiet after the Moon Festival were anything but. Rumors flew from tent to tent following the near-disaster that almost wiped out the encampment. Some blamed Ilanna – she had represented fire, after all – but others defended her. Either way, she was being talked about.

I couldn’t tell if that enraged or pleased Avelle, mostly because very few people saw the clan leader outside her tent during the remaining days of quiet.

If Avelle was flighty, Ilanna had disappeared entirely. I made every effort to catch glimpses of her, but if not for the occasional cry splitting the night from Gorodok’s tent, she might have died and I wouldn’t have known the difference.

I couldn’t help but count the days past the festival, haunted by Avelle’s promise to keep my student with Gorodok longer than her initial deal with Ilanna. The festival had gone far from Avelle’s way, and she may just make good on her threat to give her to him for the next three months.

Ilanna had said one more night, assuming she had been spared the night of the festival. But it had been three, and she still hadn’t emerged.

The first official day of the dark months was greeted with a biting rain. Now accustomed to the idea of staying inside for long periods of time, the tribe’s behavior was almost like the days of quiet had never ended.

Until an older woman stepped into Rochte’s tent. She glanced around, and, only seeing me in the room, clapped twice. It was a call to arms for any warriors in earshot.

Seconds later Rochte was out from his side room, spear in hand and an angry glare in his eye.

There is no fight,” the woman said, putting a palm toward Rochte and sliding her wrist straight down in the air between them to calm him. “Avelle has called a meeting of the warriors.”

I glanced questioningly at him from my place by the fire. There would be no need to rally an army, not during the dark months. We were too far from tribal lands, and the other clans would not be foolish enough to attack. Why would they need warriors now?

Rochte didn’t even glance at me as he followed the old woman out. Curious, I left the fire where it was and fell into step behind him. Upon our first steps outside, the cold rain began to saturate my skin. Unlike me, it rolled off my companion’s muscular shoulders, as if it didn’t dare to offend him with its paltry winter offering.

Rochte apparently knew where to head, as the older woman passed to the next tent to repeat the gesture, but my owner didn’t follow. Instead, he marched straight to the arena where the Moon Festival had taken place days ago. A crowd was already forming there, complete with many spears and similar weaponry. They milled about, apparently as confused as I was, but patient. Rochte stepped past the mote to join the other warriors, comparatively solid in his stance. Not being a warrior, I stayed my step outside the circle.

Over the next ten minutes or so, little more was accomplished than our number growing to around sixty. Everyone was being soaked in turn. A part of my memory wandered back to the Day of Hot Rain, silently blaming Avelle for our collective misery.

No, I told myself. This was a standard winter storm. The only blame Avelle held was in summoning the group of warriors out into the cold.

Finally Avelle and her brother joined the scene, walking past the men and heading straight for the platform from where she had doused the clan in fog several nights prior.

She addressed them with another two claps. “Warriors.”

They had given her their attention before she even spoke, but those who hadn’t turned faced her now.

In my kindness, I have elected to give one of you a chance at fathering the Modakku.”

Rage boiled within me at the statement. That was Ilanna’s choice, not hers!

You know this, and the time has come to decide who that will be.”

What? Already?

One of the warriors from the crowd echoed my sentiment, but in a far more respectful tone. “Not the new moon?” It was the time mentioned by Avelle not two weeks ago.

My brother is finished with her now.” Her response was offhanded.

Finished with her. As if she were a goat, or furniture. I couldn’t help my step toward the mote, but managed to wrangle my tongue before it lashed out.

Avelle stepped off the platform then, directly at the center of the group of warriors. Only Gorodok was left standing on the raised dais. There was a brutal pride on his face, as if he had conquered the world, and took pleasure in the cost it wrought from those around him. Why was he here? And what had they done with Ilanna while they were away?

The warriors spread out as Avelle approached, clearing a path.

The sorceress stopped dead center, nearly invisible to me as the warriors formed a circle around her. “She may appear sweet, but do not take her lightly,” Avelle warned the group. “Learn from my brother. He has gotten what he wanted, but had to take it. Let her seduce you, and you will be disappointed.” There was a threat tracing her words as much as her step.

Many warriors nodded, understanding and agreeing.

I couldn’t stand by any longer. “Liar,” I spat, feeling my feet move to the edge of the mote as if of their own accord.

The warriors parted, and suddenly Avelle and I could see each other clearly. “Excuse me?”

You told her the new moon. Not sooner.” To hand her off so soon! “Give her a minute’s rest, for–”

Avelle’s arms whipped through the air, sending shards of ice at my feet, anchoring me where I stood defiantly. “You dare speak? To me? Why are you even here?” A third dart came, aimed at my face this time.

Though my mouth was closed, her magic still leaked in, lodging itself deep into my throat before stopping. Ice welded my lips shut as well, pulling at my beard as my gag reflex tried to free me from her spell.

I would cut that tongue out if I didn’t have use for it,” Avelle snapped. Her glare turned to the rest of the group. “Does anyone share his sentiment?”

Silence greeted her.

Giving up on my mouth, I tugged at my feet, but the muddy ground had gone solid around them. I was trapped at her will, watching her sell off Ilanna like a calf to hungry wolves.

Good.” Another shard of ice, this one longer than the others, launched my direction, gouging into my outer leg just above my knee.

I couldn’t scream with the fresh wound that split my skin. With my feet embedded in the frozen muck, even collapsing in agony was out of the question.

Avelle’s attention was back on the warriors. “Who among you is worthy?”

Rochte, whose broad shoulders were obvious even though had his back to me, stepped toward Avelle. “I am.” Knowing Rochte’s affection for Ilanna, I found myself hoping Avelle might agree. If Ilanna had to be with someone, it might as well be with a warrior who would spare her the misery Avelle and Gorodok seemed keen in inflicting.

Avelle laughed in his face. “You? You can’t even reign in your own slave.” She waved another hand my direction, but mercifully without sending more ice my way. “Plus, you still owe me.” There was malice in her voice that announced without saying that no one would ever owe her twice. “Step back.”

Rochte obeyed, shooting a glare at me as he did.

I didn’t need his ire to add to the guilt in my chest. It would be my fault when Ilanna was placed with someone less affectionate, all because I couldn’t hold my tongue.

Avelle was examining other warriors, many of whom puffed out their chests and stood as tall as the weather would allow, weapons at the ready. It didn’t seem to bother them that being gifted Ilanna meant they would owe Avelle, though I could only imagine the terror when she came to collect.

The rain plastered my pants to my legs, cooling the blood that trickled past my knee before it hit my ankle.

Avelle stopped, but I couldn’t see who she was standing in front of. “Khythim.” Gorodok’s second. I should have known. “Who would you choose?” Avelle waved a hand around her, indicating to the collection of warriors.

There was a pause as the group held their breath, waiting for his response. I, too, wondered who he might pick. Rochte was clearly the favored option in my book, but to even suggest the name now would make Khythim worthy of all kinds of wrath from Avelle.

Khythim stepped forward, chin down and palms exposed to her in submission. “I am not worthy of choosing.” Probably the safest answer he could have given.

Avelle looked to her brother, a cruel smile forming on her face. Gorodok nodded, though it was plain the sorceress had made up her mind even before she spoke again. “Then you, Khythim, will have this honor.”

Disappointment laced the group of warriors, though none dared to openly argue.

With respect, I must decline your generous offer.”

Shock froze the air in a way even Avelle’s powers could not. Only the spatter of the rain against the mud interrupted the scene now.

Is this a joke?” Avelle’s whisper was audible even from my position outside the circle. I had to confess, his refusal flabbergasted me too.

It is not.” Khythim raised his palms then, deepening his respectful posture.

Avelle looked ready to slit the wrists offered to her. “You will do your duty, Khythim. To me, and to the clan.”

If that is your command.”

It is. And if you do not fulfill that which is required of you by the next full moon, any children you have fathered up until this point will be your last.”

Khythim’s chin dropped further. “Understood.”

Avelle’s bitterness dropped out from under her then, leaving a disturbingly cheery grin in its wake. “Good!” She glanced around the rest of the warriors. “The clan needs food. Collect your hunting parties. Serve the clan–” I knew she meant her rule, not the people under her thumb – “well, and next month, the honor may be yours.” She clapped once, and chatter began afresh as the warriors started separating themselves into small groups.

Khythim waited until Avelle had crossed the mote, back to her tent, before breaking his posture and joining the conversation. I watched him join with Rochte, Trenj, and Gorodok, various weapons at the ready. Rochte glanced my way, but with little more than a curled lip, left me frozen to the muddy ground in favor of joining the hunt.

Within minutes, I was alone in the rain. The ice in my mouth and throat melted slowly, but it was too cold for my mask to fade. I put my palm across it, attempting to speed the process along with body heat, but I could tell by my cold fingertips by my ear that it was useless.

At first I thought the splatting in the mud behind me was rain, but it had lessened to a drizzle. I spun, finding the only face I wanted to see. Ilanna! She had a deep and colorful black eye, plus a fresh bruise high on her neck, but otherwise looked unharmed.

I wanted to tell her everything I’d just witnessed, but my mouth was still sealed shut with ice.

What did she do to you?” Ilanna asked, rushing the last few steps toward me.

I couldn’t ask the same of her.

She put her tiny, graceful hand across my mouth, warming the ice as she spoke. “It’ll be okay. I’m done with Gorodok now, and he knows it.” Her voice was hoarse, but I couldn’t tell if it was from her fight with Avelle or whatever Gorodok had done to paint that on her neck. “She was livid. Just now, when she came back? What did you do to her this time?” Ilanna asked with a smile, hand falling from my now-free mouth.

I was grateful just to taste the sharp winter air again. I hated to have to answer her, though, so I took my time breathing and putting pressure on my leg. It had already stopped bleeding. “I – She’s chosen the next man to be with you.” Two full weeks sooner than she’d originally agreed upon.

She looked crestfallen. “I thought I was going to choose. I participated in the Moon Festival, just like she wanted.”

Not just like she wanted,” I pointed out. Part of me regretted the foolish act, letting her be so openly antagonistic toward Avelle. Nearly at the cost of Ilanna’s life, my gut reminded me with a twist.

Ilanna must’ve been thinking along the same lines but with wildly different conclusions. She smiled. “And the clan noticed.” Her bare feet stepped on mine, thawing the mud next.

That they did.” I hesitated, eyes falling on her bruises again. “What did Gorodok do to you?” He still had one night with him after the festival, and all evidence read he took out his sister’s wrath on her.

Her victorious grin faded at the memory. “Let’s just say no children could be conceived that way.”

Every bit of held-back anger threatened to burst forth now, but my target had gone off into the woods and would not be back for some time.

Who am I to be with next?” she inquired. I wished desperately that I could answer no one at all. She needed time to heal.

I took a breath. “His name is Khythim. He’s Gorodok’s second in command.”

She hardened at the information. “Have I met him before?”

The only time I could recall they’d crossed paths came forward in my memory. “Your first day among the clans. He was the one who ordered your fellow students killed and you spared.”

Ilanna nodded slowly. “So I’m to expect the same, or worse.”

I didn’t know how to tell her. “If it’s any consolation, he tried to decline when Avelle gave him the order.”

Why would he do that?”

I shook my head. “I don’t know.” Uzaeri’s conspiracy came to mind – the tiny glimmer of hope for her. I’d seen the two together that first night of the bonfire, before Khythim had pulled me away to kill Faklo. I opened my mouth to tell her that Khythim may in fact become an ally, then thought better of it. It was better she brace herself for the worst. Then she couldn’t be disappointed.

What?” She’d caught me.

I needed to choose my words carefully. “Remember when you said you wanted to be tea to these people?”

I’m not likely to forget anytime soon.”

I measured my words, regardless of the fact that the clan couldn’t understand us. “Khythim may be more supportive of Avelle and Gorodok in public than in private.”

Ah.”

Be careful, though,” I warned. “There’s a very good chance he’ll show his wrath if he realizes you know that.”

She stepped off my feet then, taking a fair amount of mud with her. “Good to know.” She looked at me with the first real warmth I’d experienced all morning. “Thank you.”

It was I who should be thanking her for freeing me. “You should get back to the tent before they realize you’re missing.” And visible, with those bruises.

You find a fire.” At that, she put her warm hand on my shoulder before flitting away.

I headed back to Rochte’s tent, reminded of the wrong I had committed against him that morning. I should find some way to make it up to him. But how? My usual method of bringing home food was waylaid by the fact that Rochte himself was hunting. Fruits or vegetables, perhaps? He might be more inclined toward tea, if the rest of the day’s weather was as miserable as it had proven to be so far. Even gathering wood had been delayed by the rain soaking it. If they became desperate, I could bring some in to dry by the fire, but the tent had plenty.

That left me with time.

I shouldn’t have been surprised to see Linnova in the tent when I entered. “We need more water,” she announced without preamble. Just when the fire was offering to thaw me, too.

I dropped my chin to let her know that I had heard, heading to the urn that held the liquid. It was still about a third full. Part of my mind wanted to just put it outside and let the sky fill it, but the work would do me good. So I grabbed the smaller pot and stepped back out, into the cold.

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