Witha and Roj had made the camp in the shadow of a tumble of large boulders and ancient oaks, a crisp spring bubbling up from the crack in one large rock. The cold water spilled down, forming a shallow pool before dribbling away and disappearing back into the ground. A short distance away, lightning and age had felled several ash and apple trees, creating a small circle of sunlight. It was just large enough for a cherry tree to take root, branches spreading and reaching towards the sky.
They laid the body which had been Pedr to rest there, digging out a shallow grave and then covering it with rocks. Witha braided a handful of yellow and blue wildflowers into a wreath and laid it at the head of the tomb.
“I liked his smile,” Enerai said. “I hope he brings that back with him.”
“His laugh was nice,” Roj added. “It always made me laugh, too. I hope that is true in his next life, as well.”
Klydri rolled her eyes. “When he drinks from the Cauldron, I hope that he forgets all those awful puns.”
Vychan snorted and Rhael covered her mouth, trying to hide a giggle.
Jeniver spoke next. “May he return with a heart just as brave as he possessed in this life.”
And so they went around, each offering a remembrance or a blessing. And when each had spoken, Jeniver turned to Vychan. “You found something for his family?”
“Yes.” He held out the loop of threads and beads. “The bracelet his niece made for him. It was blessed in the temple in The Black City.”
Jeniver nodded in approval, and, slowly, a few at a time, they returned to camp. Roj stoked the fire back to life while Enerai prepared some rabbits on spits and Klydri threw handfuls of vegetables in a small pot of water. As night fell, they gathered around the flames and ate and wept and told stories of Pedr and his terrible puns and his flirty smile.
Witha had just begun her favorite story about Pedr — caught in a barn with twins by their mother, who drove him out with a pitchfork, butt-naked and barefoot — when Jeniver twitched his hand, fingers curling and jumping low at his side. Enerai returned the gesture and caught Roj’s eye; he tipped his head in understanding. He stood and leaned forward, playing at refilling his bowl with vegetables. As he turned to sit again, he suddenly leapt over the log and around the jumble of boulders. Enerai jumped up and dodged around the other way.
They found Leyre on the far side, crouched low, his eyes wide in shock and surprise. As Roj grabbed the boy by his collar and hauled him to his feet, he stammered “Please! My apologies! Please don’t hurt me! Apologies!”
“Roj! Roj, release him,” Enerai ordered.
Leyre stumbled forward when the WildWalker suddenly let him go. Enerai caught his shoulders to steady him, and knelt. His face was pale and tears threatened at the corners of his eyes. She gently tilted up his chin, keeping her voice low and soft. “Leyre, it is dark and these are the borderlands. It is far too dangerous for you to be about alone.”
He gulped and shuffled his feet.
“I — I will go with you! Please? I will carry your packs! I know the best springs! Turkey nests with eggs and wild chickens and — ”
She kept her voice low. “Leyre ….”
He took a deep breath, eyes jumping back and forth between the two WildWalkers. “Grandmother,” he finally whispered. “She’s gone mad.”
They wrapped a blanket around his shoulders and filled his belly with hot rabbit and vegetables. When he had calmed and eaten his fill, he told them:
“Grandmother is Rauni. She is … she is our Rauni.”
Ynar paused in sharpening his sword. “There is only one Rauni.”
Leyre looked down at the ground, pulling the blanket tighter around his shoulders. “Grandmother should be Rauni. That is — she ….”
Enerai shifted on the log, wrapping her arms around Klydri’s shoulders, rubbing her cheek against her wife’s hair. Klydri drew her knees up, cuddling into Enerai’s chest. Jeniver remained silent, so she did, as well, allowing Ynar to take his time.
Ynar flipped his sword over. “How many generations removed is your Grandmother from the Rauni?”
“Uh, six. Only six, sir.”
“Six.” Ynar ran a stone across the edge of his blade. “No successor to the Rauni has ever been named who was greater than four generations removed. And in the whole history of Raunival, that has happened only twice.”
“Grandmother says she should be Rauni. She says her seat in The Black City was stolen, that it is rightfully hers. She says … she says the Rauni is false, is … not the true Rauni ….”
“Lies.” Ynar carefully stowed his sharpening stone and set to work polishing the scabbard. “Only the Rauni can sit at the heart of Raunival, because only the Rauni can bear the weight of the Divines’ power, wield it, channel it like a riverbed. A Rauni can never be false. The borders would never hold. Raunival would fall, overrun by the Mother’s terrors.”
Leyre stared at the WildWalker, mouth hanging open.
Ynar set aside his scabbard and leaned his elbows on his knees. The lines on his face stood out in the firelight. “I attended a Kithing, once.”
Enerai straightened, feeling Kyldri’s shock in her stiffened shoulders. A Kithing. No one ever spoke of what happened at a Kithing.
“It was a handful of years ago, just weeks after kithRauni Adhan died of grey fever. The Rauni is old. She understood the urgency of naming a new heir. She called and we answered — all of us. I do not recall seeing any of your branch there.”
Leyre looked away and whispered, “Grandmother said it was a false Kithing.”
Ynar barked a laugh, a rough sound. “Do you know what a Kithing is, boy? Does your mad Grandmother? No? It is a simple test. You sit. That’s all. Just sit. You take the seat upon the Black Rock in the center of The Black City at the heart of Raunival.” Ynar paused, swallowing hard. “It is pain like you have never known, and grief, and anger, and fire burning through your body. And love. Fierce, implacable love. It is the Divines, their grief at the death of Istvan and their anger at the Mother and their love for us, Istvan reborn in a million million mortal fragments. And their power, dedicated to this.” He spread his arms. “To Raunival. A promise of sanctuary for us in the midst of a wilderness of horrors, a place where we can live without fear, their fallen Istvan, reborn ever and ever.”
Silence settled over them.
Owls hooted and bats flew low overhead, snatching up bugs attracted to the firelight. The spring made low gurgling sounds as it spilled over the rocks and settled into the pool behind them. A wolf called, a long howl, rising and falling.
“The morag were hers.” Leyre spoke so softly that Enerai had to strain to hear him. “We collected the eggs. She wanted — ” He gulped. “She wants to create a new borderland, a new land within it. Separate. We tried, but — we couldn’t — they — we couldn’t control them — ”
He broke down, chest heaving as fat tears spilled down his face.
Klydri pulled away, crawling over to lift the child into her lap. She hugged him tight, eyes hot with anger and compassion. She rocked Leyre gently. “I have heard enough. I, Klydri Tilaiya Luule, call Juthia aRauni traitor.”
“Second. I, Enerai Luule Tilaiya, call Juthia aRauni traitor.”
“Agreed.” Jeniver shifted forward on the log, eyes moving around the group. “Are there any here who object, who will speak in defense of Juthia aRauni?”
Rhael snorted. The rest remained silent.
Jeniver inhaled sharply. “Very well. Friida, with Gwynda injured you are the fastest. At dawn, you will set out for the Road Station towards Brenavin. The rest — ”
“I will accompany her,” Witha interrupted. She shrugged at Jeniver’s arched eyebrow. “It’s a half-moon on foot, at least. Stopping to sleep and scavenge, hunt — and there may still be morag about. Two is safer.”
A pause, and then Jeniver nodded. “Friida and Witha will make for the Road Station. The rest of us will scout the aRauni homestead tomorrow. And then, at sunset, we kill the traitor and any who stand with her.”
Enerai and Gwynda watched the farm from an outcropping of rock, a root of the northern Astracannet Mountains which stretched east to poke up through the soil. Close enough to observe the aRauni clan as they went about their daily activities, but hopefully far enough away to be hidden by the spreading branches of friendly ash and oaks and maples. Gwynda lay on his belly, wounded leg twisted oddly to the side as he sighted down the length of his rifle. Enerai crouched nearby, absently braiding grass as she watched one of Mam aRauni’s pregnant daughters move between the small barn and the vineyard.
No, not Mam. Traitor.
Leyre sat with them, pale and silent, knees pulled to his chest.
All day, they watched, the other WildWalkers lost among the trees; she never caught sight of any of them, not once. Occasionally, she and Gwynda would whisper a comment to one another or whisper a question to Leyre. The boy would mutter an answer, a single word or maybe two, or just grunt a response.
As sunset approached, Leyre began to quiver, and then shake.
Remembering the compassion in her wife’s eyes the night before, Enerai crawled over to him and wrapped an arm around his shoulders. “We will spare whom we can, Leyre. You have my word on that. But the traitor Juthia aRauni must be stopped, and there is only death for those who would betray Raunival. The Divines themselves swore such to Rauni Purehand himself.”
Leyre nodded, breathing hard.
As the sun moved towards the western horizon, Enerai gave his shoulder one last comforting squeeze, bid Gwynda farewell, and moved down through the woods towards the homestead. Quick and quiet, she was soon at the edge of the cleared land; only a vegetable garden and the well lay between her and the house, its few windows lit with firelight and candlelight. One of the aRauni sons stood at the well, drinking from the bucket.
The sun dipped behind the trees, staining the sky in twilight colors.
Jeniver stepped out from behind the larger barn, strides long, his rifle in his hands. He made no attempt to hide himself. The aRauni son spotted him, choked, spit water, and bolted towards the house and through the kitchen door. Two of the aRauni daughters and a little boy appeared in the open door of the smaller barn; the little boy giggled and pointed at Jeniver. The taller woman grabbed him and dragged him behind her legs, her face tight.
The kitchen door swung open and the traitor stepped out, long skirts swinging around her ankles. Her white hair hung in thick braids across her shoulders and down her back. Behind her, shadows moved in the light of the fireplace. More movement at one of the windows on the second floor.
Her voice was cold as she called out, “Obra, where is my grandson?”
Jeniver paused, halfway between the house and the well. “Juthia aRauni, I, Obra Jeniver Ewein of the Rauni’s 3rd WildWalkers, name you traitor. You will surrender for judgement and punishment in The Black City, or you will be judged and punished now — as will all who stand with you. Speak your choice.”
Enerai drew her daggers and crept out of the woods, keeping low, making for the well.
“Where is he? Where is my grandson?”
Jeniver remained silent, rifle resting in his hands.
Enerai reached the well and carefully peered around the stones. She could just see the traitor framed between the rock and her Obra.
“Traitor? You dare to call me traitor?” The older woman’s hands curled into fists. “It is you who have betrayed me! All of you, and that vile Leyre!”
“Lies.” Ynar appeared from around the side of the house, only a few running steps from the elder aRauni. She started at his appearance, falling back a pace. “In your madness and greed, you speak lies. I, Ynar aRauni, third removed, name you traitor. Surrender for judgement and punishment and you will be escorted safely to The Black City.”
The older woman hissed, hands balling in her skirts. She leaned towards Ynar, face contorted. “You are no aRauni. No aRauni would lower himself to walking the wilds.”
Ynar’s eyes narrowed. “You brought monsters into the sanctuary that is Raunival, defiled the land, threatened the lives of all, defied the the will of the Divines Themselves.”
“I am the true Rauni! It is my will which shall be obeyed! I will never surrender to you nor to anyone else for judgement!”
Movement to Enerai’s right. She slid her eyes to the side, holding still as one of the traitor’s husbands moved around the back of the large barn, attempting the sneak up on the Obra. He swung a sickle in his hands.
The crack of a rifle from behind them, high up on that outcropping of rock, and he fell and was still.
The aRauni daughters screamed and fled into the depths of the barn, dragging the crying child with them.
Neither Jeniver nor Ynar moved. “Speak your choice!” the Obra called again.
The traitor tilted her chin. “No.”
The window on the second floor shattered, glass tinkling to the ground below. The traitor turned on her heel and bolted inside the house as her husbands and sons and daughters and their husbands and wives and even a few grandchildren poured out of the building around her, rifles and hoes and swords and clubs in hand.
Ynar was gone, slipping back around the house in pursuit of the traitor.
Jeniver lifted his rifle and fired towards the window, movements smooth and practiced. There was a quick flash of fire and an answering shot, the ball striking the dirt at his feet. Enerai dodged out from behind the well and together they ran, boots digging into the ground.
They collided with the mob.
A club arced towards her head. She ducked, sank her dagger into her attacker’s arm, and moved on to the next, leaving the man behind her screaming. Jeniver caught a hoe along the length of his rifle, twisted, flipped the traitorous son onto his side, and jammed the butt of his rifle into the other man’s knee. Another scream.
A second shot, barely audible above the screams and the clang of metal, the ball whistling passed her cheek.
Then Klydri was there, crossbow aimed high. The bolt sailed through the shattered glass and a moment later a traitorous granddaughter tumbled through, rifle slipping from her fingers. She landed hard and flat, bolt sticking up from the center of her chest, eyes still open.
And Vychan and Roj were there, arrows embedding themselves in legs and shoulders and skulls. Enerai found herself standing back-to-back with Rhael, dodging razor-sharp hoes and shovels and pruning shears. There was a meaty grunt and sucking sound behind her and a body fell, tangling their feet. Rhael grabbed her arm and they held each other steady as they fought off their attackers, finally breaking free to stand beside Klydri and Jeniver.
A sickle caught the outside of her thigh. A middle-aged woman, eyes wild. Enerai hissed, feeling the blow but no cut. She lunged, dragging her dagger across the woman’s knuckles. The sickle fell and the woman tumbled after, the butt of Vychan’s knife cracking into the back of her head.
With a hoarse cry, a man with a shaggy beard lunged for Klydri. A bolt through his open mouth and he was dead and it was done.
Panting, limping slightly on her bruised leg, Enerai looked around. Bodies lay piled around them. A few twitched and moaned. A few cried. Most lay still, staring sightlessly up at the moon.
Her head hurt and she felt blood trickling down her ear. Roj stood near the kitchen door, left arm hanging uselessly at his side. Jeniver’s right eye was bloody and purple. Their leathers were stained, splashed with dirt and gore.
“Desta Enerai, Klydri, find Ynar and the traitor,” Jeniver ordered, rifle loose in his hand.
She could only nod, jaw tight.
“Yes, Obra,” Klydri answered. Her fingers grazed the back of Enerai’s hand.
Forcing herself to move, Enerai followed her wife around the house, opposite the path taken by Ynar. Dark, empty windows, their shutters hanging open. A few flowering shrubs planted near the side of the house; they smelled sweet and pure.
They found Ynar standing in the open field passed the house, staring into the wilderness. The moon caught the traitor’s white braids, bouncing as she disappeared into the treeline.
Enerai’s legs unlocked and she found herself running, refusing to allow the traitor to —
Ynar caught her arm as she ran passed him, pulling her up short. She hissed, heat pulsing through her leg, and yanked her arm away.
“You allowed her to escape! You let her go! Explain yourself!”
She felt Klydri’s hand settle on her shoulder and made to shrug it off, but her wife held on tight.
Ynar inhaled, long and slow. His gaze moved from her to the wall of trees at the edge of the homestead.
“She is unarmed. Alone. On foot. In the borderlands.”
Enerai opened, then closed her mouth. Closing her eyes, she nodded once.
Klydri’s hand dropped from her shoulder to slide down her arm and curl through her palm. “May she find the justice she deserves.”
The bodies of the traitors were left where they had fallen. The little boy and the two aRauni daughters, shaking with fear, were dragged from the barn. A pregnant woman and two men emerged only reluctantly from the vineyard, and two more young men were found hiding in one of the bedrooms. The last were two girls pulled kicking and screaming from the attic crawlspace. When one of the girls tried to claw Rhael’s face, she neatly spun the girl around and bound her hands. She resorted to spitting, so Rhael gagged her, as well.
In all, of the forty-three members of the homestead, only nine remained.
Enerai stared at the carnage, belly twisting with anger and regret.
She turned away only when Klydri called her, needing help with the horses.
They hitched the animals to two different wagons; one for Gwynda and Roj, too injured to walk; and one for the surviving traitors. Leyre rode with the WildWalkers, pale, head down. He flinched and turned away when a middle-aged woman hurled curses at him, wishing that she had never expelled him from her womb. One of the girls pulled from the attic settled for hurling rocks, so Rhael tied her up, too.
They set out at dawn, leaving the homestead burning in their wake, a makeshift white banner snapping in the wind. They followed the rough track west. It was well after mid-day when they finally reached the Rauni’s Road. The smooth stones gleamed in the sun, the seams between them barely visible. They paused for a quick meal and then set out again for Brenavin, not stopping until dusk.
They made camp on a hardened dirt plot beside the road. At some point in the past, RoadWalkers had dammed the stream nearby to create a pool for bathing and washing, and planted a small grove of berry bushes and bean shrubs.
Roj let out a laugh. He crouched beside one of the bushes and then stood, holding a strip of leather aloft in his good hand. One end had been cut into three long tassels. He grinned. “Witha and Friida. They are making good time.”
Rhael returned his grin, than slapped her palm on the thigh of one of bound and gagged daughters. “You hear that? You’ll be in the custody of RoadRiders and on your way to the Black City for confinement even sooner than we thought.”
The daughter only glared.
Jeniver grunted. The bandage over his eye was spotted with blood. “Ynar, scout the perimeter. Enerai and Klydri, gather supplies. Roj, assist me with the injured; their wounds need tending. Rhael, Gwynda, the prisoners are yours. Make sure they get food and water.”
Planting a quick kiss on Klydri’s cheek, Enerai set out into the nearby trees. It did not take her long to locate a patch of wild onions and a few wild potatoes, and collect an armload of firewood. As she made her way back towards the Road, however, she paused at the sound of voices.
Frowning, she listened, finally locating the sounds off to her left. Ynar and … someone. A woman. Klydri? No. A voice she did not recognize.
Setting down the wood, she approached quietly, stomach churning with a combination of curiosity and apprehension.
In the growing darkness, she found Ynar standing beneath the sweeping branches of a massive apple tree. His hands were clasped and pressed to his heart. The woman standing before him wore a hooded cloak and carried a great walking stick in her hand, one end planted firmly in the ground.
As Enerai watched, mouth dropping open in astonishment, a tiny seedling sprouted from beneath the end of the walking stick. It curled up, trunk thickening and lengthening until it reached Ynar’s knees. Branches popped up and leaves unfurled and the scent of fresh apples filled the air.
Enerai must have made a sound, moved, something.
Ynar looked up.
The woman turned. She tilted her head. The hood of her cloak fell back, the moonlight revealing a beautiful face and two jagged holes where her eyes would have been.
Had been. Before She lost them in the war with the Mother.
Enerai gasped, unable to breathe, and fell to her knees. Her eyelids squeezed shut and when she looked again there was only Ynar and the old apple tree and sapling with the bright, newborn leaves.
Her tongue tangled. “That — that ….”
Ynar held out a hand, grasping her wrist to pull her unsteadily to her feet. “Yes. Blind Choviar as the Wanderess, seeking and bearing news.”
She still could not seem to make her tongue work. “N — n — what n-news?”
Ynar’s jaw tightened. “The traitor is no more. She fell to the Mother’s monsters. As it was promised in the beginning: Raunival shall endure.”
Enerai shook her head, tightened her fingers. “Dead?” No more. The traitor is dead. “Yes.” Finally, her tongue seemed to be working again. “As it was promised: Raunival shall endure.”
[Rebecca Buchanan is the editor of the Pagan literary ezine, Eternal Haunted Summer. A complete list of her publications can be found there. If you would like to read more tales set in Raunival, check out “Through the Teeth of the Mother” in Bards and Sages Quarterly 11:3 (July 2019).]