“Not even half-a-day’s walk into the borderlands. That’s when I found it.” Leyre shifted uncomfortably, gaze dropping away from those of the adults who surrounded him.
Enerai almost felt sorry for him. Almost. He was a child, but even children knew not to enter the borderlands, and especially not alone.
Across the kitchen, her gaze caught that of her wife. Klydri was straddling a bench on the far side of the table, her back to the massive stone hearth, carefully checking and rechecking her crossbow. Wisps of reddish hair had slipped free from the bun at the back of her neck and curled against her skin. Klydri smiled at her, a warm curl of lips — then her gaze bounced to the older woman seated at the head of the table and her smile disappeared.
Mam Juthia aRauni, matriarch of the family which had settled in this isolated spot, perched on the only true chair in the room; heavy blackwood with engravings on the arms and the high back. Her dress was the same rich black, long skirts pooling around her feet, sleeves tight around her wrists, and her thick white hair was twisted into a braided knot.
They were so close to the borderlands — perhaps an hour’s walk — that Enerai could feel the faint buzz of the Rauni’s protection along her skin. It was barely noticeable, but still ….
Beside her, Jeniver stood unmoving, his arms crossed over his chest. The brass tip of the rifle slung across his back caught the sunlight spilling in through the window, causing glints of orange-gold to scatter across the walls.
“Rest assured, Obra Ewein, that my grandson has been, and will be, appropriately punished for his foolhardiness.” The old woman’s hard gaze moved from Jeniver to Enerai and settled on Leyre. The boy flinched, and that almost evaporated from Enerai’s thoughts. Juthia aRauni’s punishment would be severe, indeed.
Jeniver grunted, a noncommittal sound. He tilted his chin towards Leyre. “Show us.”
The boy nodded hastily and bolted over to the sideboard. He flipped open the well-fashioned wooden box that sat there and lifted out a slick, glimmering piece of eggshell — with his bare hands. He came back and held it out to them. The thin layer of mucus, shimmering like oil on water and stinking of rotten meat, dampened his fingers and the palm of his hand.
No blisters. No burns. No cries of pain.
Truly aRauni, then. A distant descendent of the Purehand himself; no claim to the Rauni’s seat in the Black City, but one who was immune to the poisons and toxins of the Mother’s monsters.
Enerai wondered how many of Mam aRauni’s other children and grandchildren had inherited the ability. Perhaps that was why they had settled so close to the borderlands: they considered themselves impervious to the terrors which haunted the wilderness and thus had nothing to fear.
Enerai found her gaze thoughtfully slipping towards the old matriarch. Perhaps Leyre was not the foolhardy one, after all.
“Morag shell.” Jeniver pulled a slim dagger from his leather boot and poked at the shell, rotating it. “Half-a-moon old. And you say you found it a sevenday ago?”
Leyre nodded, head bobbing up and down rapidly, his eyes wide.
Enerai grimaced. “Another moon and that morag will be laying its own eggs.”
A second noncommittal grunt from the Obra.
Juthia aRauni sniffed. “Thus, the banner we raised to call you, Desta Luule. You will exterminate the monsters.”
Klydri stopped in her examination of her crossbow, eyes narrowed.
Jeniver did not answer. He carefully wiped off his dagger on his leathers and slipped it back into his boot. Then he ruffled Leyre’s hair, offered the boy a small smile, and motioned for him to place the eggshell back in the box. Finally, he turned his attention to the woman seated at the end of the table.
“Desta Luule has sworn an oath to protect Raunival and all of its people, Mam aRauni, as have I and every member of the 3rd WildWalkers. And every other company of WildWalkers and RoadWalkers and RoadRiders. None of us need to be reminded of our duty.”
Juthia aRauni flushed a deep purple-red, her lips pulled into a thin line.
“Now, if you will excuse us. May the Six Divines watch over you and yours.”
Mam aRauni’s lips remained compressed, no answering farewell or blessing forthcoming.
Klydri stood and tucked her crossbow over her back, and they left the kitchen.
“Speak, Enerai. I know that brain of yours is bubbling with thoughts like an over-heated teapot.”
Klydri chuckled at Jeniver’s good-natured teasing and looped an arm through the crook of Enerai’s elbow.
“I have many thoughts,” Enerai admitted, “none of them pleasant.”
The aRauni farmstead was large and well-maintained. A main house with enough rooms to accommodate the forty-odd members of the family: Mam aRauni, her husbands, their sons and daughters, their spouses, their children; with at least three more to be added before the Autumn Equinox, to judge by the size of some of the women’s bellies. Plus, barns and cattle and goats and pigs and chickens. Trees had been cleared away to create a vegetable garden and, on the far side of the infant vineyard, a field thick with grain still green with summer’s promise. A dirt track led west through the trees and eventually connected with the Rauni’s Road.
But no shrine to the Six Divines. Not even a simple cairn with candles or bowls of water.
The other members of their company of WildWalkers were scattered around the compound. Rhael and Gwynda stood near the well refilling their water-skins, while Friida sat nearby sharpening her blades with a stone. Young Pedr and Vychan sprawled near the vineyard polishing their leathers with chiva wax and trying to flirt with one of the aRauni daughters, while Roj and Witha checked their pistols and tried to flirt with one of the aRauni sons. Ynar wandered alone, meeting Enerai’s gaze for a moment before he returned to surveying the farmstead and surrounding wilderness, his eyes narrowed.
A balloon bopped high above the house and the trees, the small clay dish immediately beneath it filled with burning hearthmoss. A bright red distress banner attached to the line beneath the dish snapped in the wind. A second blue banner had been added since their arrival. Enerai wondered if any company of RoadRiders or WildWalkers would even be close enough to catch sight of it and know that the distress had been answered, but not resolved; it was only sheer chance — or the wills of the Divines — which had put that landslide in the path of her own company, forcing them to move just far enough south to see the red banner, at all.
Enerai’s mouth thinned. “They are a week’s hard ride from Brenavin, and nearly as far from the nearest Road Station. No matter if they are aRauni. That will not protect them from teeth and claws. They could have settled elsewhere — anywhere. There is rich land along the Cannet River, within hours of both Brenavin and Frigevil.” She waved a hand east, to where the forest thickened. Here and there, the spiky white tips of pallav trees and the scorching red of clana trees shown through the maples and oaks and firs of the borderlands. A mile beyond that, the friendly trees gave way entirely to the poisonous, lethal wilderness of the Mother. “Why here?”
“Mmm,” was the Obra’s only response. He whistled, a skipping trill that brought the other WildWalkers trotting over. Pedr threw a jaunty wave over his shoulder and the aRauni daughter smiled shyly in response; she lifted a hand as if to wave in return, but turned away instead to prune the vines. The company clustered around their Obra, kneeling and standing, arms crossed or resting lightly on longbows or daggers. “Morag. At least one nest-mother and one hatchling. Beyond that, unknown numbers.”
Ynar hissed under his breath.
“We leave now,” Jenevir continued. “Once we find the nest where Leyre picked up the egg fragments, we’ll move east-west/north-south through the borderlands in a standard search pattern. Witha, Roj, you will scout ahead and find a suitable campsite. We will not be leaving until we are certain that we have them all. Questions?”
Enerai stepped forward. “Pair up. Ynar, Vychan, lead. Pedr, Friida, rear. Move out.”
The abandoned nest was easy enough to find: a shallow pit dug out among the roots of an apple tree, filled with cracked egg pieces, shiny pebbles, and bits of twigs and leaves. The apple tree was nearly dead, the saliva and mucus of the morag leaving its trunk pitted and burned. Most of its bare branches had broken off and lay in a scattered circle on the ground or tangled in the canopy of nearby trees.
“Only three eggs.” Enerai crouched a safe distance away while she pulled on thick leather gloves. The Rauni’s protection was a soft pressure against her skin and inner ears. Here, it was bearable; the closer she ventured to the far edge of the border, the heavier and harder it would become; a warning and a punishment.
Stepping carefully around puddles of mucus and rotting leaves, she used one dagger to poke at the single open shell and the two that remained intact. “Unfertilized, thank the Divines.” She looked up at Jeniver and Pedr, wrinkling her nose at the stink. The others circled them, carefully watching, listening, studying the wilderness. “We may have only two morag to deal with, after all.”
Jeniver nodded once. “Pedr.”
The younger man grinned and Enerai could only shake her head at his enthusiasm. She moved gingerly away as he pulled a pouch of firesalt from deep in his bag, opened it, and scattered a generous amount over the nest. Joining Enerai some dozen steps from the nest, he touched the bracelet of multi-colored thread and six beads on his left wrist and whispered a quick prayer. Slipping his bow off his shoulder, he scooped a fire arrow from his quiver and dragged the flint across the head, once, again. It caught, a soft golden flame. Sighting, inhaling, exhaling, Pedr loosed the arrow.
The firesalt caught with a low whoomph and a spray of iridescent red sparks. The flames quickly consumed the nest, the unfertilized eggs popping loudly. The fire spread up the trunk of the dead tree, reddish-orange smoke rising higher and higher.
The WildWalkers watched the conflagration for a moment. Enerai offered up a silent prayer to blind Choviar to watch over them all, and then they moved away, east, hunting.
The whistle far off to her left was low and lilting, tipping up into a tight curlicue at the end.
Enerai stilled, hands wrapped loosely around the twin daggers sitting at either hip. She swung her gaze around, skimming across Klydri and Rhael in the line ahead of her, to Gwynda and Friida on her left.
A second whistle, Gwynda a green and brown smudge in the dense foliage, crossbow braced against his shoulder. Sunlight caught his bare scalp, glinted for a moment, and then vanished as branches danced, scattering the light.
Behind her, Jeniver was a solid, silent presence. He dashed up the slope, neatly side-stepping leaves and sticks and shrubs until he reached Gwynda. The two men knelt, disappearing into the green for long moments.
Enerai moved her eyes away, searching the wilderness, seeking out every patch of darkness, every odd shape and strange movement. She tilted her head, catching the grunts and growls of squirrels squabbling, the chatter of finches and bluejays, and the yips of foxes. The breeze carried the scent of pine and maple and wild cherry and, much more distantly, freshly turned soil. Nothing rotten.
Her gaze continued to move around, passed Friida, settling for a moment on Rhael and then Klydri.
Her wife winked at her, wisps of red hair already dropping loose from the bun at the back of her neck. The fingers of her left hand rested lightly on the hilt of her miniature crossbow where it hung in her leg holster.
Enerai rolled her eyes, but felt her mouth tipping up at one corner. She tried to squash the smile and failed.
She continued her survey, eyes sliding across Pedr and Vychan on her right, and finally to Ynar at the very rear of the party. He scowled. She tilted her head in inquiry, but he just scowled harder.
Gwynda and Jeniver stood. The latter let loose another whistle, his hand moving in a series of circles and jabs.
Morag tracks. Fresh. Moving east.
Enerai slid her left dagger from its sheath. Around her, the other WildWalkers readied crossbows, longbows, and swords, Klydri’s small crossbow making a twang as she primed it. Jeniver slid his rifle from his shoulder as he descended the slope and fell back into line behind her. She caught the itchy scent of powder as he pulled a cotton cartridge from his bandolier, tore it open, and poured the contents into the rifle’s pan.
Two low whistles and another wave of Jeniver’s hand.
Stepping lightly, keeping one another within sight, the WildWalkers moved forward, deeper into the wilderness of the Mother’s monsters.
The sun was near to overhead when Rhael suddenly lifted her fist and dropped to a squat. Enerai followed suit, catching the movement in her peripheral vision as Pedr and Vychan and Gwynda and Friida did the same to either side. Klydri was slower to drop, swinging her large crossbow off her back. The click as she primed it seemed too loud.
A wild flap and flutter as a host of bluejays, chickadees, and sparrows leapt from the trees, winging frantically towards the south. A fox stopped in mid-yip.
Branches creaked in the silence, leaves whispering a warning.
Rhael twisted her hand, fingers dancing. Enerai repeated the gesture for Pedr and Vychan.
Morag. Fresh scat.
They nodded and the line crept slowly, slowly forward.
The forest remained silent.
The sun was behind them, brushing their shoulders, when Rhael lifted her fist again. This time, the dance of her fingers called Jeniver forward.
He slipped passed Enerai, leather boots sure as he moved around shrubs and twigs to reach Rhael. The other woman pointed at something on the ground when he reached her, then gestured ahead. Enerai squinted, making out a clump of bone-pale pallav trees some thirty paces ahead. She sniffed, tasting the rancidness on her tongue. A barren circle of sunlit grass and dirt surrounded the pallav grove, their massive, gnarled roots shoving aside and strangling any friendly trees which attempted to grow near them.
Jeniver nodded and stood, gestures coming quick. To Gwynda and Friida: circle left. To Pedr and Vychan: circle right. To Ynar and Rhael: hold the rear.He motioned Enerai and Klydri forward.
They crouched beside Jeniver and she touched Klydri’s knee for a moment. Too brief. The other WildWalkers disappeared from her view. Jeniver motioned, fingers spread, wrist snapping. She and Klydri nodded, daggers and bows held at the ready, and they moved towards the pallav grove.
Closer. Around a stunted maple.
Closer. Oak branches scraped her cheek.
Closer. The trees thinned and disappeared. They paused at the edge of the grassy circle. Enerai caught movement off to her right — Vychan — but saw no sign of the others.
Sighting down his rifle, Jeniver stepped into the grass. Enerai remained on his right and slightly behind. Sweat rolled down her ear, tickling. She blinked at the sudden onslaught of sunlight and brilliant blue sky.
A few steps brought them to the first of the roots, as fat around as her calves. They stepped up onto the bumpy bark. Low cracking sounds as it splintered between their boots.
The three WildWalkers stilled, Enerai holding her breath. Jeniver tilted his chin up, trying to peer ahead. To their left, Klydri leapt forward, quickly skipping across half a dozen roots, each larger than the last. A low crack followed each step. Jeniver frowned at her, but said nothing.
Klydri crouched when she reached the last root, pausing where it merged with the massive trunk of one of the pallav trees. Twisting, she hastily looked around, into the hollow formed by the trees, then pulled back. Another quick look.
Stowing her bows, one on her back and one in the holster on her thigh, her open fingers flew. Nest. Six eggs. One hatched.
Jeniver gave a tight nod, shifted his rifle to one hand, and dug into the pouch at his waist. He tossed the small black bag to Klydri and she caught it neatly. He split off to the left while Enerai moved to the right, circling, moving from root to root to root. She bit her lip at the soft crackling of the bark, too loud in the silence of the wilderness.
Pedr came into view for a moment, bow drawn taut, arrow nocked.
Enerai repeated the gesture to him — one hatched — and continued circling the grove, keeping Klydri in her peripheral vision as much as the trees would allow. Her wife dropped inside the hollow and dumped the entire bag of firesalt, spreading it over the nest. Scrambling back out again, Klydri tossed the empty bag to Jeniver, who had come around and now stood opposite Enerai, balancing on two different roots. Digging a flint from its pocket on her sleeve, Klydri dragged a small firebolt across it.
The crack-hiss of the flint was even louder then the crackling of the bark.
Enerai flinched, eyes darting, searching.
Another crack-hiss as Klydri struck again.
A smudge of greenish-purple, a low angry sshhhhh.
Enerai looked up just as the infant morag dashed out of the foliage above, scuttling down the trunk of the pallav tree above —
— her dagger flew, impaling the morag, pinning it to the trunk. The monster shrieked, a high pitched keening. Its mottled skin changed from greenish-purple to a garish red-orange, poisonous mucus glistening in the sunlight. Klydri spun, jamming the arrow deep into its brain, ending its cry.
“Circle up!” Jeniver yelled, and Pedr and Vychan and Gwynda and Friida and then Rhael and Ynar came crashing through the underbrush and into the grassy field even as a high wailing filled the wilderness.
Answered by a second wail.
And a third.
“Well, that is unfortunate,” Vychan muttered.
Behind her, a crack and a long hiss as a second firebolt finally struck true. A snap as Klydri loosed the bolt into the nest, and a shower of sparks and a pillar of reddish smoke.
A moment later, Klydri appeared at her side, both crossbows primed.
Enerai spared her wife the quickest of glances. “Did it touch you?”
Klydri shook her head, never taking her eyes off the surrounding wilderness. “No, not my skin. I am well.”
A high wail again, rising and rising and then falling, just like the first. The nest mother, most likely.
Answered by a second wail and then a third.
At her shoulder, Klydri whispered a low prayer to blind Choviar.
“Tighten up!” the Obra ordered.
They backed up slowly, moving by touch across the uneven roots.
More popping and the stink of burning firesalt and burning flesh and the pitiful squalling of infant morag being cooked inside their eggs. The frantic sounds of at least one of the monsters attempting to escape, quickly silenced by Ynar’s sword.
The wailing among the trees grew louder. Enerai grit her teeth as the cry dug at her brain.
And then it stopped, the silence sudden and absolute while the wailing echoed in her ears.
The morag that charged out of the wilderness was the length of a horse, bulky and squat, its flesh slick and mottled grey-green. Its teeth were the size of her thumbs, its claws larger than her hand, its tail tipped in serrated bone. It wailed and shrieked as it ran, tearing up clumps of dirt and dead grass until it hit Pedr and took his leg off with a single bite.
The morag sped forward, trampling Pedr, swallowing his leg in a single gulp. It swung its head, spotted Klydri, dug its claws into the ground, and leapt.
Klydri loosed a pair of bolts. One slid across the morag’s back and embedded itself in the ground. The second sank quarrel-deep into its eye.
Keening, the morag stumbled, front legs collapsing. It surged back up again almost immediately, but not before Enerai sliced her dagger across its remaining eye.
Toxic blood and fluid sprayed, coating her leather jacket and vest. The protective layer of chiva wax hissed, but held true.
Another slice across its exposed throat, but not deep enough. The blinded morag scuttled back, fluid leaving burning holes in the ground. Vychan grabbed Pedr’s arm and dragged him out of the way just before the morag’s rear claws would have skewered his chest. Pedr didn’t even whimper, his head lolling, blood a thick trail behind the stump of his leg.
Jeniver’s rifle cracked. The heavy pellet flew passed Enerai’s head to bury itself in the morag’s skull. The monster thrashed. Another crack, the stink of powder, and the morag fell, tail twitching.
Klydri ran forward, crossbow primed, and pressed the bolt into the base of its skull. She pulled the trigger, and the bolt snapped forward, sinking through skin and meat and slipping underneath the skull to bury itself in the monster’s brain.
The morag stilled, mouth gaping crookedly.
Another morag, purple and gray, leaped from the wilderness on the far side of the meadow. It hissed, drooling, serrated tail narrowly missing Vychan where he still crouched beside Pedr. Dirt and grass flew when it landed, and then Gwynda was there, sword slicing a thick chunk of flesh out of its side.
And then the third morag, a deep red, its tail catching Gwynda in the thigh before he had a chance to react. He screamed, knees buckling. The red morag lunged, only brought up short when Ynar buried his sword hilt-deep in its neck, blood spraying across his face. Gwynda pushed himself upright, limping backwards onto the uneven roots even as Rhael grabbed the back of his jacket and hauled him towards the pallav trees.
Howling, Friida raced around the grove, raining arrows on the purple-gray morag, three, five, seven, eight. They sprouted from its back and sides like quills.
Snarling, twisting, the monster lunged, jaws snapping just short of her chest. She wheeled to the side, coming up beside Vychan and Pedr. From his knees, Vychan leaned passed her to ram both of his daggers up into the morag’s chin and the roof of its mouth, pinning its jaw shut.
A loud bang from Jeniver’s rifle, and the morag was still.
A moment later, the red morag fell, spine severed by Ynar’s sword. Smears and spots of blood and toxins covered his jacket and cheeks and forehead.
Silence, save for their loud breathing and Pedr’s low, rattling moans.
Reddish-orange smoke drifted through the meadow, mixing with the clouds of gunpowder.
Enerai backed up slowly, Klydri at her shoulder as the WildWalkers tightened their circle, watching the wilderness, always watching.
Jeniver’s voice was low, his chest heaving. “Pedr?”
Vychan shook his head, Pedr’s hand clasped tightly. “Soon to return to the Mother.”
Jeniver nodded once. “Gwynda?”
A loud hiss as Gwynda slathered antivenin over the wound in his thigh. “Can walk.” Rhael handed him a small leather flask and he gulped it down, thick pink fluid dribbling down his chin. “Give me a day. Be fine.”
Another nod from Jeniver.
A terrible, gasping breath from Pedr.
“Obra, allow me?” Ynar still held his sword tight in one hand, blood dripping from the tip. The dried grass hissed.
Jeniver shifted his gaze from his rifle to the other WildWalker, then to Pedr, and back again. “The honor is yours.”
Ynar wiped his sword on the grass, then on his leather pants. The chiva wax turned pale brown, leaving streaks up and down his leggings. Resting the sword point down, he knelt beside Vychan at Pedr’s head. “Hear me, Divines: I, Ynar aRauni, speak for the one who was Pedr Gefjion in this life, now fallen performing his duty to Raunival. I return this brilliant fragment of Istvan to the womb of the Mother. May he drink from the Cauldron of Mahnaz and return soon to us, we who call him friend and brother.”
Lifting the sword, he plunged it through Pedr’s heart and into the ground beneath.
The young WildWalker lay still.
Nearby, a squirrel chittered and a bluejay let out a harsh croak. A moment later, a sparrow trilled, followed by another, and then a warbler joined in. An elk bellowed.
Enerai felt her shoulders loosen. She drew a long, slow breath as she felt blindly to her side. Klydri’s fingers tangled with hers and they stood like that for long minutes while the woods around them slowly filled with the sounds of birds and foxes and deer and wolves.
Jeniver slung the rifle back over his shoulder. “Desta, spike the grove. Vychan, Rhael, gather wood for a sledge. There is a new cherry tree in a little clearing near camp. We will lay him there.”
[End Part One. Read Part Two here.]
[Rebecca Buchanan is the editor of the Pagan literary ezine, Eternal Haunted Summer. A complete list of her published poems and stories can be found there.]