Sun warrior, p.10
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       Sun Warrior, p.10
 

         Part #2 of Tales of a New World series by P. C. Cast

  “Really. In some ways they’re smarter than humans. They can smell layers of scents we can’t, and they can distinguish the scents from each other, even when they’re mixed.”

  “You mean Rigel could identify all the ingredients in a salve I’ve made?”

  “Absolutely,” O’Bryan assured her.

  “Huh. That’s interesting. I’m definitely going to talk to Mari about putting him to good use when they get back. I mean, if he can identify what all is in a salve, then why can’t he search out and find each of the ingredients for me—or Mari?” Sora said, stroking the sleeping puppy absently.

  “He can, but a Terrier would be even better at it. They’re Hunters, used to relying on their noses even more than the Shepherds.”

  “I don’t understand how those big Shepherd canines can live up in the trees with you. Look at Captain.” Sora jerked her head toward where Captain and Sheena were walking beside Lydia and Sarah. “He’s enormous. How can he possibly climb a tree?”

  O’Bryan stifled a laugh. Though his eyes were sparkling with subdued humor, he answered Sora as if he enjoyed teaching her about his Tribe. “Our canines don’t have to climb trees. The Tribe has created a lift system so that none of us have to climb trees. We also have ropes and pulleys all around the city. It’s much easier to rappel with a canine strapped across your back than you’d think it would be—even an adult Shepherd.”

  “Rappel? I don’t even know what that word means.”

  “It’s a quicker way of getting up and down—especially down—from the city. It’s hard to explain without showing. If you’d like, I could show you sometime.”

  Sora’s gaze caught his. “I won’t be going to your city. Ever.”

  O’Bryan’s perpetual smile slid from his face like tallow from a melting candle. “I can show you anywhere, really. All I need is a good length of strong, thick rope and an anchor. I could rig a demonstration pretty easily. It wouldn’t be like in my city, but I could still make it so that you understand what it means to rappel.”

  Sora hated that she’d taken the smile from his face—and then she was annoyed at herself for caring whether the Companion smiled at all.

  “I doubt if you’ll be with us long enough to show me much of anything,” Sora said. “Here, take her back. I need to check on the group.” She didn’t really want to give the puppy back to O’Bryan, but she made herself do it anyway, though the baby whined and seemed to struggle, if only for a moment, to get back to her.

  “I hope she made you feel better. Even if it was just for a little while,” O’Bryan said, his smile returning to lift the corners of his lips. “We say that pups are good for the soul.”

  Thunder boomed in the distance, and then the sky broke open and rain began to pour down on them.

  “Thank the Sun!” O’Bryan said reverently.

  “This weather is going to help with stopping your fire, but it’s definitely not going to help our wounded,” Sora said.

  “Do you always look at the negative in everything?” O’Bryan asked her.

  “I’m not negative. I’m honest.” Sora had meant to tell O’Bryan that compared to Mari, she was an overachieving optimist, but a thrashing in the brush broke off her words.

  The Earth Walker staggered onto the trail in front of them. Sora gasped in shock at the man’s appearance. He was filthy and covered with dried blood and strange-looking wounds. He looked up and captured Sora in his pain-wracked gaze.

  “Moon Woman. Help me.” He fell to his knees, still looking up beseechingly at Sora.

  O’Bryan didn’t hesitate. He turned to Sora, handing the pups he’d been carrying to her as he pushed her behind him and pulled a long knife from his waist.

  “Get out of here or I’ll kill you!”

  Sora wasn’t sure what was more shocking, that sweet, smiling O’Bryan had morphed into a killer Companion right before her eyes or that the Earth Walker who was begging for her help was Jaxom—the same young man who had attacked and tried to rape her just two days before.

  “I know him,” Sora said, putting her hand on O’Bryan’s arm. “Don’t hurt him. Or at least don’t hurt him yet.”

  There was movement behind Sora, and then Sheena with Captain growling beside her, and Rose with little Fala also growling a warning, had joined her and O’Bryan. Both women were also holding knives at the ready.

  Sora made her decision fast. “Here, take them!” She transferred the pups to Rose, and then she told Sheena and O’Bryan, “Stay close to me. He might be dangerous because he’s been sick, but he’s an old friend.”

  Sora approached Jaxom.

  The young man’s head had lolled down. He was breathing heavily, and Sora could see that his body was trembling.

  “Jaxom, do you know me?”

  His head lifted slowly. He blinked his eyes clear of sweat and tears. “Sora.” His voice was like gravel. “You are Moon Woman. Help me.”

  Sora stared into his eyes. She saw pain and confusion there, but none of the madness she’d seen when he and two others had attacked her. He didn’t look like her Jaxom, the young man she’d almost decided to claim as her mate, but he also didn’t look like a monster.

  “Can you walk?” she asked him.

  “Will try,” he said.

  “You’ll have to do better than try, but you don’t have far to walk.” She opened an outside flap of her satchel and pulled a length of tightly braided hemp rope from it. Then she met his gaze steadily. “I’ll help you, but I’m going to tie your hands, and this Companion is going to take the end of the rope. Jaxom, if you get violent I will let him kill you.”

  “I understa—” Jaxom began, and then his body shuddered horribly, his eyes rolled to show their whites, and the wounded man passed out.

  Sora sighed and went to Jaxom’s still body, feeling for his pulse, which was there but beating entirely too fast.

  “Is it smart to take him with us? Males are always violent,” Sheena said.

  “No, they’re not.” Sora spoke as she began tying his outstretched hands, wrists together. “It’s only at night that they’re violent, and then the violence is directed at themselves, unless you’re trying to kill them or steal a member of their family to be your slave.” She finished tying him and then faced the three Companions who were frowning at her. “His name is Jaxom. He’s wounded and sick, and he hasn’t been healed in a long time. I’m going to help him—we’re going to help him.”

  “But he’s unconscious. How’s he going to come with us?” O’Bryan asked.

  Sora arched one brow at O’Bryan. “Well, you said it was much easier than I thought to carry a grown Shepherd across your back as you rappel up and down from your city. Jaxom doesn’t look like he could weigh much more than Captain weighs.”

  “Yes, but—” O’Bryan began.

  “Unless you’re not strong enough?” Sora said, her lips lifting.

  “I’m strong enough,” O’Bryan said quickly.

  “That’s exactly what I thought.” Sora tossed O’Bryan the end of Jaxom’s rope and called back to the group, “We’re almost home. Let’s get out of this rain!”

  CHAPTER 8

  Dead Eye had been pacing back and forth across the God’s balcony since Dove awakened him just after dawn. She’d felt a shift in the air and detected a subtle scent of smoke. As always, he had been her eyes. As usual, she had been correct—something was happening.

  Their world was changing forever.

  The city in the clouds that held the Tribe of the Trees was ablaze.

  Dead Eye wanted to call together the youngest, healthiest of the Harvesters and race for the burning city to claim it for himself and the People.

  A portentous shiver skittered down his spine and Dead Eye looked behind him and up.

  The enormous copper statue that was the Reaper God, She Whom the People worshipped, loomed over him. If She stood, the Reaper would tower fifty feet above the ground. Here on Her balcony, She knelt, one hand extended down, beckoning t
o Her People—the other was raised, holding Her skin-reaping tool, the triple-pointed trident.

  She appeared to be everything a God should be: powerful, frightening, and able to mete out justice swiftly and terribly.

  Dead Eye met Her lifeless gaze and the strange, portentous feeling subsided.

  “Someday they will know the truth—that you are no God but are simply a statue created by people who have been dust for centuries. You are as dead as they are, as dead as this City.” He turned his back to the statue and continued gazing out at the distant ridge and the ominous clouds that undulated up from the forest as if lifting in time to the beat of sinister drums.

  He remained there all day, watching the distant destruction of the city that had filled his dreams for as long as he could remember, listening to the thunder grow ever closer and planning … always planning for his future, Dove’s future, and the future of the People. In spite of their superstitious attachment to a statue, he and Dove would lead them from this spoiled and poisoned City to the beauty and safety of the untainted trees.

  But first they must be rid of the Others.

  The rain began to fall in earnest several hours before dusk, and as it pelted against the dead metal of the statue he knew that he could be patient no longer. As if Dove could read his mind, the moment Dead Eye made his decision her voice drifted from inside the God’s chamber to wash around him, as welcome and cleansing as the rain.

  “Beloved, the God has spoken to me. She commands that I share Her words with Her Champion, so that you may speak them to the People.”

  Dead Eye turned from the balcony to the entrance to the Temple and the Chamber of the God, to take in the lovely sight before him.

  Dove stood in the center of the chamber, surrounded by the young women she called Attendants, the healthy girls she had recruited to take the place of the God’s Watchers—sick, selfish old women who had tainted the Temple and pretended for generations to be the voice of the God.

  Dead Eye had culled the Watchers from the Temple, sparing only young Dove, who had lived her entire sixteen winters pretending to be the God’s Oracle. After the culling, he and Dove were the only People who knew the truth—that they controlled their own fate, because the Reaper God was as dead as the crones he had thrown from Her balcony.

  Now Dove stood in the center of her Attendants looking radiant. Like them, she was dressed traditionally: her young, full breasts bared, her skin painted with ornate patterns, always grouped in threes, like the God’s trident. The decoration was both intimidating and pleasing, as Dove had intended. She wore only a long skirt trimmed with human hair of sacrificed Others. He noted with pleasure that Dove’s skirt was also intricately decorated with bright bits of shining things, making her stand out from the others who were more plainly dressed.

  She deserves to be swathed in ritual decorations, but my Dove would stand out with or without such luxuries, Dead Eye thought, well satisfied at the sight of his lover.

  “Beloved? What is it?” she asked, her smooth brow wrinkling in concern.

  “All is well, my Oracle,” Dead Eye assured her. He motioned abruptly, freeing her Attendants from the deep, respectful curtseys they had knelt in the moment he’d appeared at the entrance to the chamber. “Though I would ask that you send Attendants to bring to me the best and strongest of our Hunters and Harvesters. I call for Iron Fist, Stalker, Thunder, Eagle Eye, Digger, Rebel, Steel Heart, Bones, Joker, and Midnight.” Dead Eye ticked off the list he had so carefully compiled during his sleepless night and watchful day.

  “Lily, choose a helper and do as your Champion commands.” Dove spoke to the young Attendant who seemed the most eager to please. “Seek out the men and tell them that they are summoned to the Temple.” She clapped her hands together twice and the Attendants scurried from the chamber.

  Dead Eye came to her then, taking her elbow in his hand and guiding her through the cavernous room to the section of the God’s chamber they had claimed as their own, using vines, braziers, and stretched hides to separate their living area from the rest of the Temple and to provide the young couple much-needed privacy.

  More Attendants curtseyed low to them as they passed, showing Dove the respect she deserved as the God’s Oracle and Dead Eye the deference he required as the God’s Champion. But they straightened quickly, returning to their work restoring the God’s chamber to its former glory.

  Dead Eye acknowledged the women with only a slight nod. They were of no importance to him, except that they made Dove’s life easier—and anything that brought Dove pleasure pleased him as well. But today he had little time even for that, which amused Dove.

  “You’re going to the forest and the City in the Trees, aren’t you?”

  Dove had turned to him the moment they’d reached the sanctuary of their bedroom, tilting her lovely face up to him. Dead Eye didn’t answer her for a moment. Instead, he drank in her beauty. She wore her nut-brown hair long and free, so that it fell past her slim waist in a soft, shining curtain that did nothing to hide her high, full breasts. Dove’s skin was miraculously smooth, free of pustules or the taint of cracking and shedding. Her full lips curved up in the familiar smile Dead Eye was coming to crave as much as the taste of those lips. Her only flaw was that her eyes were completely missing. Where they should have been there were only two dark, empty pits.

  Dead Eye smiled, though she could not, of course, see him. There was nothing about Dove that he didn’t find pleasing, including her eyeless face. That accident of birth had allowed her to be claimed by the old Watchers and raised in the Temple as Oracle of their Reaper God. When Dead Eye proclaimed himself the God’s Champion, it was only logical that he also claimed Dove as his own.

  And in return, Dove’s devotion to him was unconditional.

  “Beloved? Is something wrong?”

  He took her into his arms, holding her slight, soft body against his. “No, everything is completely right.”

  “The rain has halted the forest fire?” she asked eagerly.

  “I cannot tell if it is actually halted, but the smoke has definitely thinned.”

  “And now you will go into the forest to the city of the Others.”

  This time, she didn’t frame her words as a question, but Dead Eye answered her. “I will, but let us stop calling it the city of the Others. I believe soon it will be our city, my precious one.”

  “We must be wise about how we present this to the People. They will be reluctant to go where the God cannot follow.”

  Dead Eye snorted. “If only they knew the truth.”

  “Patience, Champion. All will come in time.”

  “You are right, though. They will be reluctant to leave our City, little matter that it is poisoned and has been killing the People for generations,” Dead Eye said as he stroked her hair, as always fascinated by it softness.

  “So, begin by freeing them of the poison of the City so that they might see the truth, just as you and I have,” Dove said.

  Dead Eye bent to kiss her. “Of course you are right! I won’t tell them we are entering the forest to begin claiming the territory we deserve.”

  “What will you tell them, beloved?”

  “That we hunt. And from the hunt I will make Harvest, so that the People may begin to heal.”

  “And as the People heal, they will follow you from the City to the forest,” Dove said.

  “To live in the trees, subjugating the Others to do our bidding, far from this place of death and poison,” Dead Eye said. “There, you and I will truly live like Gods!”

  “Indeed,” Dove said, sliding her hands up his strong arms to his shoulders. She cocked her head to the side in a thinking motion that Dead Eye found endearing. “Beloved, I can feel differences in your body.”

  “Yes, as can I. I wondered when you would speak of it to me.”

  She caressed his body. “Your shoulders are wider. Your arms thicker.”

  “There is more.” He bent down so that he could guide her hand from
his shoulder to the back of his neck.

  She gasped, stroking the strange fur that had begun to grow there, thick and soft as a stag’s. “What is it?”

  “Follow my spine with your hand.”

  Dove did so, tracing a path down his back. “It’s spreading down your back! What is it?” she repeated.

  Dead Eye was pleased that she seemed excited rather than repulsed by the changes in him. Should Dove ever turn from him—no—Dead Eye could not even finish that thought.

  “It is from the spirit of the stag whose flesh I joined with my body. It lives on in me, strengthening me—healing me from the City’s poisons—changing me. Don’t let it frighten you. Don’t ever let changes in me frighten you,” he told her, staring at her sightless face, trying to read every nuance of emotion she was feeling.

  “Oh, my Champion! You could never frighten me!”

  “Then you accept the stag?”

  “Whatever it is that is happening to you I accept because you are my fate, you are my Champion—you will eternally be my hero. Whatever it is you are becoming, I will accept because it is you.”

  Dead Eye’s legs went weak with relief, and he dropped to his knees, wrapping his arms around her and burying his face in the curve of her waist. Her hands caressed him, moving from his back to his shoulders and then up to stroke the thick blond hair that he kept tied back with a leather cord.

  Her hands suddenly stilled.

  Dead Eye held his breath, knowing what she had discovered.

  “Horns?” she whispered.

  He nodded into her waist. “Yes, though I think it more accurate to call them antlers.”

  She didn’t hesitate for one instant. Dove pressed her lips to him twice—once against each of the small, pointed antlers that had begun to grow from his scalp above his ears.

  Dead Eye released a long breath in relief. Still she accepts me!

  “My Champion, you are a mighty leader filled with the wisdom of man and the strength of a stag. Where you go, the People will follow,” Dove said, still stroking him. “Where you go, I will follow.”

 
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