The forest grew near the wagons again, and the militia walked the path ahead and beside the caravan. A stream wove from the north and followed the edge of the forest, and the days were hot and the nights were cool, and so in the morning, clouds hung low, covering the road.
The militia found a group of bandits in the forest, and Naltu was with them, and they fought the bandits in the trees. Derin rushed ahead, wearing his red robes and his mask. Arrows came from the trees, and two militiamen were wounded on the ground. Rifles cracked aimlessly into the forest. Perry left Metta and donned her green robe and found the end of the caravan. Her work was more clever, and her fog hid the wagons, and not the fighting men.
More arrows came, and they smoldered and burned as they shot across the sky. They were fletched with small feathers, and the tips were sharpened from the wood of the shaft, Only ash fell on the men. Derin found his focus, and the trees heated and filled with smoke. The bandits fell from the trees as fire erupted, and the militiamen rushed, drawing swords. The bandits drew the militia into the woods, fleeing.
Metta was alone in the wagon, breaking the night's camp for the group, when two men and a woman pushed through the canvas curtains and brandished long knives, chipped blades flecked with rust.
"Oi! Wot av we here?" asked the first. "At's it."
"De spirits girl. We don' wan' yer skin, wench, jes yer silvah, an' dat," the woman spoke.
Metta cringed and scrambled to the back of the cart. The words were all familiar, but the language was the strange mixture of Spherian and Nilanese, and spoken in the improper manner of the poor border folk. She yelped, and the second man's knife came close to her throat. "Now yar's a luverly, ken I'll slicken yer tongue out!"
The woman pushed five flasks of spirit into the pockets of each man, and took five more for herself. The bottles clanked softly, and the woman came close. She grasped Metta's clothing, searching for wealth, and tore away a pouch containing only a few clay coins.
"I don't have any silver."
"Sew much spirits fer ick coin, I ken not."
Metta caught a glance of the woman's wrist, and rolled her own sleeve up, and showed the brand. "I don't keep the money. I gave it all to my master."
Masculine shouts came from outside, and the sun began to burn through the fog. The shorter man poked his head out the curtain and watched.
"Ain we go? 'Urry!" asked the first man.
The woman shrugged and poked at the glass jars in the back of the wagon. "Wots dis?"
Metta shivered. "My alembic. How I make the spirits."
The woman looked over her shoulder and nodded to the two men, and they jumped from the wagon. More shouts came from outside, and closer. "Yar ta scramble oot ov dis shaw. Com' an git!"
Metta crawled on her knees towards the exit of the wagon as the woman prodded her with a knife, hoping to run to the militiamen's voices once outside. A heavy blow fell on the back of her head. The soft straw cushioned her collapse, and the men dragged her out.
More shots cracked, closer, and the three ran into the woods, carrying the unconscious girl between two of them. They dropped her onto a plank of wood and lashed her tight. Alger and Chelsea carried the plank between them, while Herst made an effort to hide the tracks. Metta stirred and struggled until Alger planted his fist in her eye. They rushed until the sun set, and found the fire, and dropped the plank. More faces were there, and one that Metta remembered.
Alger spat onto the fire and tipped a clay flask to his lips. He emptied the contents and smashed the flask against a tree.
"Nester an' Jamesy." He swore. "Luck'd trade fer some rot an' dis garl, eh?"
Herst grumbled and stared over at the old man. "Wha now? I'm ov mind ta amble an ramble."
The green man Jashi looked up and whispered to the old man.
"Mel?" Herst asked.
The man whispered, and Jashi spoke in clear Spherian. "The boss says you're staying. We're not done yet."
"What do you want with me?" Metta asked.
"Flay da meat from yar waggin' maw," Herst promised, and Metta fell silent again. Herst dragged her off the wooden plank, leaving her hands and feet bound. Metta rolled onto her side and drew her legs to her chest.
The two savages were yawning and stretching in their rotting pelts. The first, the one Jashi called Kertu, stood and walked over to the girl. Jashi translated while Kertu spoke.
"Naltu will come for you?"
"Yes," she whispered, her face soaked in sweat.
"We flappin', huh? Wot is dis?" Alger asked, holding another flask high.
Kertu watched her and gestured, pointing to the bottle.
"Brandy," she responded. "Strong wine."
"Brandy. Taste ov cunt," Alger laughed, swearing and swallowing more of the stuff. "Barnt rot. Good rot."
Kertu gripped Metta's jaw with his fingers, and squeezed until she squirmed.
"Wot's da slave worf?" Herst asked.
"I'll reckon gold. Don't ken we sell her soonly," Chelsea responded.
Herst crawled over to Chelsea and drank deeply from his flask, and spoke loudly. "We'll alls 'av a ball, Chelsers."
Chelsea slapped Herst's shoulders and pushed him away. "Nuh uh. Ye'll not tetch I wit dat little worm."
Herst laughed and crawled next to Kertu. "Let dat divot rusty den. Dis one? Just a moment wif it, boss." He pawed at Metta's clothes, tugging her shirt high enough to expose her naval. Kertu laughed and released her jaw. Metta put her feet on Herst's thighs and gently pushed him away, but he slapped her face and pushed her knees to the sides and then straightened her bound legs. She smelled his stinking breath as he licked her cheek.
Alger dumped dirt onto the embers. "We ought stomp de fire. Tis late and dey track and de smell."
Kertu spun and pushed Alger onto the coals, and the man yelped and spun away, drawing his sword. Kertu's own blade came free, and Alger knew his place, and let his weapon drop to the ground. Kertu was not sated, and so he rushed close. The sword plunged up through Alger's stomach and into his chest. He pushed the dying man onto the fire, and the flames licked Alger's shoulders. After a moment, his flesh ignited with the scent of burnt pork, and Alger breathed only smoke.
Chelsea hollered and shifted away from the fire, and Kertu pointed his sword and held her in place with his eyes. Herst turned and attempted to harass Metta, to force her prone, but she scampered back.
Kertu pulled woven rope from his pack, and made a snare-knot, and wrapped it around Metta's shoulders, and then looped the rope along and between her arms, binding elbows together over her chest. Herst fell away from her, and Kertu tossed the remaining rope over a thick branch in the closest tree, and yanked. She yelped in pain as she was lifted, until she hung from the full length of her arms, twisting. Her feet scrambled for perch, but dangled high enough over the ground that she had no chance.
Herst growled at the girl. "Shat it! Yar'll draw 'em in!"
Chelsea swore and gave a bitter laugh. "I ken his intent. Robbers we ain't. Fodder, eh?"
Jashi nodded and turned to Metta. "Boss Kertu wants you to shout, girl. Wants you to scream and cry till your throat is cut."
Metta shouted for help in Spherian. Kertu's throat rumbled, and he pulled a dull steel axe from his belt. He pushed her away, so that she swung away from him and back, and spun slowly. Metta squirmed, and her voice began to shift. Kertu grasped through the air as she twisted and kicked at him. She landed her foot solidly on his thigh, but he grabbed her leg, and pressed the sole of her boot against the flesh above his knee.
"No, no, no!"
Kertu let her beg for a moment until she ran short of breath and inhaled. He swung, the blade landing close to his knee, and her shin folded sideways, and she screamed in earnest pain, a low, broken wail. He swung again, and the flesh began to split. With a third cut, she swung free from Kertu, though the calf of her leg remained in his hand, and her ankles were still bound together by rope. Her shout had become a moan, for the excruciating pain had driven her near delirium.
Jashi pulled a long stick from the embers and burned the wound until the bleeding slowed. He winced at her low, loud howls, and was content to slink away. Chelsea stood and began to retreat into the forest when Jashi shouted an order.
"The militia are coming, pink-skin. Run and you'll die alone. You'll face them here with us. We mean to win. Ready your carbine."
Herst vomited brandy and walked unsteadily around the camp. Chelsea followed him, and she loaded two guns and lit the matches.
Mellosin stood, and placed a thin dart in his iron rod.
"He's here?" Kertu asked in the language of the green men and of Ghidiun.
Naltu emerged from the darkness. Blood streaked his arms and legs where his leather and skin had been torn as he ran through the forest brambles. His hand was on a machete, though the weapon was sheathed, and his carbine lay strapped across his back. The air left his lungs when he saw Metta bound to the tree, her ruined leg dragging in the soil as she swayed.
Mellosin's dart came loose. Naltu dodged, tumbling to the ground, and grunting with pain as he stood. He smelled a strange odor from the fire and recognized the poison for Mellosin's, but did not understand the nature.
"Brother, what is this?"
"This is your Sidhe? I challenge you, abomination."
Metta's groans became a cry for a moment, and Naltu glanced at her. Kertu glanced over his shoulder at Herst and snapped his fingers. Herst fired his carbine into Naltu's stomach from ten paces away, and Naltu slowly dropped. Metta screamed again, and struggled with the ropes, and her shoulder dislocated. The angle between her elbows changed so that the ropes loosened, and she began to drop.
"No, brother," Naltu begged, weak and on his knees. The Talent did not come, and his blood grew thin, and darkness filled his vision. He awoke spread-eagle and bound between two trees, opposite Metta, and close enough to smell her tears. She had fallen from the tree, and she sat in her own blood, tied about her waist to the trunk. Naltu stared down at the black liquid near the center of his gut, and his head lolled.
"I loved Yegha," Kertu screamed in the tongue of the frozen isles. "I loved her, and you insulted the Gods, and she was taken from me. Myristoyla has shown me the way, and I strike to redeem the Tlictal."
Kertu swung his axe, the dull spine dug into Metta's side, and her ribs cracked. She could not find the breath to cry, and coughed blood. Kertu let her mess fall onto the dirt. The fallen chieftain came and stood before Naltu.
"Yegha died in front of me. She bled out because of you. And the Ghislail came and slaughtered my warriors and took the women. Sijhi was taken. She could have been your Sidhe, Naltu, had you stayed, had you obeyed the Gods, but you ran like a coward. Like your father."
Naltu peered around. The others were standing back. Herst's carbine lay at the distant brigand's feet. Naltu screamed and strained and a rope snapped. His arm came and struck Kertu, and the axe flashed, and Naltu's arm fell to the ground, severed above the elbow in a heavy stroke. Kertu inspected the fallen flesh and touched the black streaks that marked the wound.
"What is this? You think the ink of the north is worth the blood of the south? I've taken your Sidhe, half-brother, and your flesh."
Kertu's hand swept to Alger's charred remains, and Jashi and Herst. "Before you came, I let my men fill your Sidhe with their stink. Who knows what child she bears? As your seed cut my Sidhe, you shall watch this one die, as Yegha slipped before me."
Naltu closed his eyes and begged. "Brother, this girl does not come between us. You wish to challenge me in Urung? I accept. Cut me loose and I'll face you. What you do to this girl does not earn you honor."
"I'd have given my hand to give Yegha a child, and as she died, she whispered in my ear, Naltu. She told me to blame you, brother, for her death, for offending the Gods. I offered my life, and she told me that the Gods demand only yours. There will be no Urung, only the slaughter of bleating goats."
The old man stepped forward. His eyes held a sort of knowing, as if he had already seen the end of the fight. He was calm, and Naltu found a strange sort of comfort in Mellosin's stillness.
"It is so. Kertu, this is sloppy and disrespectful. Sacrifice, not revenge. End this."
Kertu pushed Mellosin away.
Naltu spoke. "Does Kertu not have a daughter? Brother. Why do you chase after me alone? Does your child not cry for her father?"
"An orphan, Naltu. I know. Your seed, never mine. I bid Sijhi smash the orphan against the rocks, and Sijhi did, and ran to the mountains so that the Ghislail could not take the last of the Tlictal. You would have been warrior, you would have been my brother, and honored among the Tlictal. Instead you ran north, to find a pale wisp who only stomps through the trees and whimpers?"
Naltu felt the ropes loosen around his limbs. His blood slowed and became thick and heavy. "You have killed the child, then, Kertu? Mellosin said you killed the Tlictal when you kept the women."
Metta roused and cried to Naltu. "What's happening?" she howled.
"Metta, if you can crawl away, do this."
The ropes holding her failed, and she rolled from the tree. Kertu chased her and kicked her chest. She fell, gasping for air, and rolled. She could not breathe, and fainted.
Kertu tore the straps of Metta's leather blouse aside so that he could strike a clean blow. "I offer the heart of your Sidhe to Chokimero, and the blood that beats in your chest to Ryusupo. The Gods will be appeased and I will be forgiven. The Tlictal will swell along the grasslands!"
Naltu tasted festering hunger on his tongue, and a fragment of his power came. He fell to his face as the ropes that bound him rotted and twisted. Kertu saw this, and rushed with the axe in his hand and swung low, aiming for the skull. Naltu screamed. The blade came below his jaw, and Kertu's flesh burned with flame. The dull stone cut deep.
Derin shouted, and the odor of meat filled Naltu's face. Kertu staggered back, slapping the flames from his face, and a ruined eye poured from the socket.
Jashi's blade came free, and Derin lit the green man's eyes with white fire. The short man became as a candle, as the fat in his head ignited. Herst and Chelsea fell to their knees, hands high in surrender. Mellosin watched the fire and spun, running into the forest.
Naltu's body withered, consumed by green light, and stood. Thin fingers pulled broken bone and shattered teeth from the wound. Brilliant flashes filled the air and Naltu stumbled to his knees. The flames around Kertu extinguished as the flesh evaporated, and Naltu's body grew strong enough. The chieftain's bones cracked and burned with emerald fury. Naltu's ruined arm withered to a stump of flesh, and the remains on the ground were gone. Jashi's body, too, decayed.
Chelsea and Herst screamed together as Naltu rushed to them. His fingers grew sharp, and he plunged five blades into Chelsea's face, and her form burned with hateful light. Herst's knife found Naltu's belly, but the raging tribesman did not feel the wound, and Herst died the same as Chelsea, his body yielding to boiling rot and then dust.
The tribesman fell to the soil and cried. Metta crawled and fell on top of Naltu. Derin and Perry were there, and the trees burned with light as the sun rose near the horizon. Kertu was gone, leaving only bitter ash.
Naltu knew hunger, and he felt the dying flesh near him, and his soul longed for the material that lay so close. A moment of her life lingered in his blood, a remnant from the axe-blow, and his body desired to take the rest and be whole. The light filled his flesh as her blood beat in his heart. He tasted her scent in his nostrils and horror flooded his mind.
She struggled on the ground like a starved child, crippled and weak. His eyes flitted open, and Perry pulled her from him, and he screamed in agony. Metta swelled slightly for a moment, and the stolen flesh returned her shape. Naltu clambered to his knees. He crawled, and the stones cut his thin flesh, and he found her severed leg. Light poured forth from the black lines in his flesh, and fell down Naltu's skin like water, covering the ground in undulating mist.
Derin tried to pull him away, but Naltu persisted, and pressed the crushed limb the wound. The flesh knit, and his skin grew thin against his skull, and he pressed further. Her ribs became whole, and the blood ebbed from her lung until she could breath easily.
The bear came. Naltu sat in the warm hut and filled the cups with fresh cider.
"You have given your flesh for her? The flesh I have just given you? All of it!"
"Yes," Naltu agreed, and stared down at the fingers that grasped the cups. Only bones and rotten tendons held the leather flagons, and he offered one to the other.
"I would give the marrow in my bones," Naltu continued. "Only to make her whole."
"Riyadh once said the same words before me. There's flesh enough for you and her both, if you're willing to sacrifice."
"I'd pay any price," Naltu promised.
"Are you certain? Obedience is a high price. You walk my path already, and you think this journey difficult. Accept and my price is higher still, and not only from you. Others must pay my price as well. But she will be whole."
"Anything," Naltu agreed.
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