She smells smoke.
Moving swiftly in the dark, T’Rayles pushes through the dense forest as she makes her way back to the village.
The smoke grows stronger with every scarred birch and solid spruce she passes. It’s not the comforting scent of a home’s hearth or metallic tang of the blacksmith’s forge.
It smells of sage and hair and cedar and cloth and barley and flesh. This smoke, it’s the twisting, rueful child of a funeral pyre. Someone in the village has died. Someone important. T’Rayles thinks back, no one was sick when she left. No one was injured. Or pregnant. No. This death, it must have been sudden.
T’Rayles swallows the bile that rises suddenly in her throat.
No. He’s too young yet. Isn’t he?
She ignores the nocturnal creatures as they skitter and scuttle away from her as she pushes her way through the bare saskatoon and raspberry berry bushes separating the forest from the village surrounding her home.
Her breath puffs out in white clouds in the chill night air as she takes a moment to calm her lungs. Across the freshly cut fields of barley and wheat a flickering glow lights the village square.
She shouldn’t have left.
T’Rayles pushes herself into a run, the remains of the harvested crops crunching and scratching against her boots. The soft, cultivated earth feels so different beneath her feet than the forest she’s been hiding away in for the last two weeks.
She approaches the village square quietly, following the smoke and the fire’s glow. The crowd is large. Everyone in the village, including the Ibinnashae of the Silver Leaf, is there, surrounding the pyre in a loose circle. The fire’s light dances off their faces, drawing deep shadows and catching on the tracks of tears on many of them. At the head of the pyre that ridiculous Ecrelian priest with his flowing white robes gestures to the fire and to the sky, speaking in his people’s old tongue. Besides him, thank the gods, is Dellan.
T’Rayles holds in the sigh of relief as she spots Corleanne, an Ibinnashae-ni woman, weeping against his side. Dellan’s eyes aren’t dry, either. T’Rayles searches the crowd. Corleanne’s son, Quiin, is a good friend of Jung’s. But he’s not here.
Neither is Jung.
A prickle at the edge of her senses pulls her attention to her right. A man, one who often frequents the Silver Leaf, the tavern that she and Dellan and Jung built all those years ago, is looking at her. But not with the open fear and distrust and disgust she’s come to expect from him. No. He’s looking at her with compassion. He’s looking at her with pity.
Something deep within her roils but she pushes her fears down and finds the pommel of her mother’s sword she keeps strapped to her hip. She grips it tightly, twisting her hand so the familiar edges bite through her gloves and into her palm.
The pain steadies her, forces her to focus and breathe past it. Jung. Find Jung. Forcing herself to look back to the flames, she sees that the pyre holds only one form, already partially consumed by the fire that warms her from across the square. Even so, T’Rayles can tell the form was too small to be Jung. Too small to be her boy. A touch on her elbow makes her jump, but she settles just as quickly when she realizes it’s Dellan.
How long was she staring into that flame that he was able to cross the square without her noticing?
He points in the direction of their tavern with his chin, a habit he picked up from her, and turns to walk away. Everything in his sunken gait and curved-in posture screams at her to run, to ignore the feeling of ravenous dread scraping its ice-tipped claws along her skull. Down her spine.
Jung. There’s only one reason he wouldn’t here. Especially if that is Quinn on that pyre.
If she left right now, she wouldn’t have to hear it said out loud. She should just go. She should.
But she follows.
“Quinn died first.”
T’Rayles’ eyes snap to Dellan. He won’t look at her. She stands in the darkness of the empty tavern, its windows covered in mourning cloth, like every other home and building in the village. Dellan slowly moves from one lamp to the next, his wrinkled hands shaking as he lights each wick.
“Remember that farmer you cut wood for when her husband was sick? Their son, the curly-haired boy? He was almost pulled into the forest by a tircaskei. A big one, by the sounds of it. Ripped up the boy’s leg something bad. Jung, Quinn, and those boys went after it.” Dellan replaces the cover on the last lamp. His beard is scruffy and unkempt as his gold and silver hair falls over his eyes. Even if it was just him in this state, she’d be on edge.
“Is Jung dead?” Her tongue feels like it’s coated in lead. She isn’t sure if the sounds she forced out were actually what she was hoping. Probably not, because Dellan just keeps going.
“They followed the trail deep into the forest, past the border markers. The boys, they said Jung was insistent; that he was going to go after the tircaskei no matter what. They didn’t know it doubled back on them.”
“Is Jung dead?” She’s sure she’s clearer this time. But Dellan keeps talking.
“Quinn was in the back of the group. The tircaskei hit him first. The boys, they said they panicked. Scattered. When it pulled Quinn into the underbrush, Jung followed. And when they finally found their nerve, they found Quinn’s body a few minutes later. Other than a wound to his neck, he was—” Dellan looks at the floor. “Intact.”
T’Rayles slams her fist into a nearby table making the lit lamp on it clatter with dangerous intent. “IS. JUNG. DEAD.”
Dellan doesn’t even flinch as he walks over to her table. He carefully lifts the oil lamp and moves it to a hook on the wall. “They said Jung—” A shuttering sigh escapes him. “There wasn’t much left of him. They returned with his bow. I had to restring it.” He still won’t look at her.
“They didn’t bring him back.” T’Rayles’ lip curls at the disrespect. They just left him out there?
“They said there wasn’t enough to bring back.”
Silence fills the tavern. Dellan finally looks her way. Beside him the tiny fire in the lamp dips and sputters. He’s allowed it too much wick.
T’Rayles draws her fist back, clenches it tight, and slams it down on the tabletop as the skin on her knuckles burst apart. She hears screaming as she pulls her fist back and smashes it down again. And again. The color of a warning sunrise paints the wooden table, splattering and smearing more and more with each strike. She didn’t realize it’s her own screams that fills the tavern until her voice breaks with a cracking sob.
She falls to her knees when the table finally gives out and collapses under her assault. Then Dellan is there, his thick arms wrapping around her. Pulling her into his solid chest. He’s clutching her with a fierceness she forgot he had.
His entire body shudders as he buries his face into the crook of her neck. She can feel his tears seep into her collar.
He is weeping.
She will not.
She looks down at her bloodied, torn hand, and lets Dellan take whatever solace he can from an embrace she can’t find the strength to return.
“Which way did they go?” Her throat burns as she forces her words past cracked lips.
Dellan continues to dress her hand, intentionally ignoring her as he concentrates on wrapping the linen. He’s been evading the question since she first asked it ten minutes ago.
He doesn’t want her going back into the forest. He doesn’t want her to find their son like that. In all truth, neither does she.
“I’ll find out for myself, eventually. Make this easier.” She sits at the edge of her chair as her eyes lock on his.
“Just leave it be.” Dellan’s voice is barely a murmur. He tears another strip of linen and starts wrapping it over her knuckles.
“Leave it be?” She yanks her hand from his, the linen dangling from the half-finished wrap. Dellan lets his hands fall into his lap. “Leave it be. You gods-damned coward. You bloody, pathetic old man. You’ve already given up on our boy?”
T’Rayles knows he’s none of those things. Knows he’d fight to the death for their boy. But he’s giving up. Just like he’s been doing for years.
“I already told you—”
“That’s there’s not much left of him. Enough.” She yanks the cloth around her hand, clenches an end with her teeth, and ties it off quick. “I am not leaving him out there.”
“T’Rayles.” He sounds so tired. Old. “The tircaskei may still be out there.”
Clenching her bandaged fist, she watches at the blood seeps through the cloth covering her knuckles. “If it is, I’ll cut its damned head off.”
“Or it will kill you, too.” Dellan stands and takes her hand back in his.
She allows him to untie the bandage she just tied off. He replaces it with a new strip of linen and rewraps it, his hands steady as he smooths the cloth across her palm.
A gods damned tircaskei. Every year they’re pushed further inland thanks to Ecrelian expansion up the coastline. The beasts hunt best in water, but the village have seen more than a few wander into the pasture lands to take a ewe or ram over the years.
She’s never heard of one try for a human before.
They’re usually beasts of bluster, while their braying is a terrifying mix of a high-pitched scream and a rumbling roar, they aren’t as tough as they act. And usually, it’s only to warn other predators off their territory. Or their freshly killed prey.
“Dellan.” T’Rayles rests her other hand on his to stop his work on the bandage. He pauses but still takes a moment to look up at her. Her words must have cut him deeper than she thought. “Did you hear the tircaskei bray?”
“What?” His brow furrows.
“The tircaskei.” T’Rayles stares at him, wide-eyed. “I didn’t hear it when I was out there.”
“No.” He tries to follow her train of thought, eyes darting back and forth between hers. “But I really haven’t been listening for it.”
T’Rayles pulls her hands from his and walks to the fireplace, eyes intent on the flames. She can hear Dellan come up behind her, but he stays quiet. “How long did it take for those boys to get back with Quinn’s body?” The flames, steady and bright and warm, jump in the hearth before her.
“A day.” Dellan starts a bit when she spins to face him. “Only a day.”
She tests the wrap on her hand. It was solid. Good. She walks over to her abandoned pack, pulls out soiled clothes, a whet stone and polishing cloth, and a bundle of birchbark one of the Ibinnashae asked her to gather, and tosses them on the floor. She doesn’t need any of them and isn’t sure what she might be bringing back.
“T’Rayles, what is this about?” Dellan asks behind her. His voice is getting taut and a little shrill. It does that when he gets nervous.
“The tircaskei didn’t bray.” She says as she closes the pack up once more and stands.
Dellan shrugs and sighs.
“If it didn’t bray, it didn’t kill.” She keeps her eyes on him, making sure he understands what she’s saying.
As the realization of what she’s saying dawns on him, his face flits from confusion to surprise to despair. “You still think he’s alive?” Dellan shakes his head and reaches out for her. “T’Rayles, those boys saw his body.”
She shakes her head and steps back out of his reach. Those boys. “Garin and his little crew?”
“Why were they even there?” She doesn’t try to hide the sneer that pulls at her lip. “They aren’t hunters. They have no love for Jung. For any of us.” Her sneer turns into an all-out grimace. “Garin’s father wouldn’t let them learn anything about patrolling the borders.” She will never forget what that bastard said when he and his family followed the priest to Silver Leaf. She and Jung offered to teach them what they learned about the surrounding forest over the years, about the animals and the plants and the hidden dangers. He refused to allow anyone in his family learn from them. “Leave it to the savages. Takes one beast to deal with another.”
“I never said they weren’t assholes.” Dellan shrugs listlessly. “But Jung needed the manpower. You were still away.” He flinches as he glances at her. Like he’s ready for a biting retort.
But he’s right.
If she were here, she would have been out there with Jung. Quinn, too, probably. She would have been able to help them fight off the tircaskei.
They died because of her.
She knows this.
Her selfishness. Her stupid need to wander. How could she have left him alone like this? He was only twenty-three.
“T’Rayles.” Dellan steps up to her, gently guiding her to look at him. His hand, soft against her cheek, and his eyes… Oh, his eyes. No matter how old he gets, those deep blue eyes sear into her soul. “Jung knows how to handle the forest. You learned it all together. He knows the risks. He wouldn’t go out there if he didn’t think he’d be coming home again.”
She closes her eyes and leans into his rough, warm palm. He’s right. Jung wouldn’t be stupid. He wouldn’t have rushed after the tircaskei without a plan.
There’s a sudden and small knock on the tavern’s side door. T’Rayles pulls away from Dellan as the latch clicks open. Relea, one of the Ibbinashae who help run the tavern, glances inside before ducking back out again. Seconds later, the door swings wide and Quinn’s mother walks in. The woman looks like her light was drained from her.
“Corleanne?” Dellan steps toward the woman but stops mid-step.
Relea slips into the room and closes the door behind her. T’Rayles thinks of asking her to leave for a brief second, but she’s a trusted auntie to Jung. She deserves to be here, too.
“Mister Dellan.” Her voice is monotone. Empty. She looks at T’Rayles and gives her an exhausted nod. Corleanne is an Ecrelian who settled in the village with an Ibinnashae man. He died three winters ago. Their family were close with Jung and Dellan. But they still avoided T’Rayles as much as they could.
“I thought you’d still be pyre-side.” Dellan doesn’t seem to know what to do with his hands, lifting one, just to let it fall to his side again.
T’Rayles catches the hint of a grimace cross the woman’s lips. Does she think Dellan is judging her for leaving her son’s side? The silence is stifling and awkward.
Relea nods at Corleanne. “Tell them. Tell them what you told me.”
“I— I was hoping—” The poor woman sighs. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be here.” She turns to leave.
“Wait.” Dellan pulls a chair out at the table closest to him. “Please. Sit.” He pulls out another two chairs. “T’Rayles? Please.” He waits until the two women take their seats. He offers another seat to Relea, but she waves him off. “What do you need from us, Corleanne?”
T’Rayles tries to look as kind and open as Dellan. Corleanne lost her son, too. The least that could be done is to listen to her. The room is quiet. The fire is warm. They can wait for a little longer for the woman to speak.
“My boy, he—he idolized Jung. Always did.” Corleanne glances over to T’Rayles. “And you.” She smiles at the look of surprise. “You taught him a lot.”
T’Rayles can feel Dellan watching her. Tears prick at her eyes as she looks away. Quinn was a good one. Always asking questions about the Ibinnashae. She tried to answer as many as she could, which, unfortunately, still wasn’t that many.
“I prepared Quinn for the pyre. I washed him, cleaned his wounds—” Corleanne stumbles over those last few words and pauses. Dellan moves to comfort her, but she waves him off. “No. Let me get through this now or I never will. I may not know much about weaponry, but I’ve seen enough wounds and nasty accidents in my day.”
A dull roar rumbles to life in T’Rayles’ head. She has a good idea what Corleanne is about to say next.
“I know a beast didn’t kill my boy. His throat, it was torn. Definitely. But under the—” Corleanne breathes out, heavy and stuttering. She gives herself a moment and then pushes the next words out so quickly it takes the rest of them a moment to realize what was said. “Whatever ripped up his throat, I think it was meant to cover the clean mark of a blade. It was deep, but clear as day.” Corleanne pauses a moment as her voice cracks. She coughs and continues, “the priest didn’t believe me. He said I was just— just a grieving mother who wanted someone to pay for her son’s death.”
A burning emptiness sinks into T’Rayles as Dellan shakes his head, eyes fixed on the wall behind Corleanne’s head.
“I’m sorry. Maybe he’s right. Maybe I’m just looking for meaning in all this.” Corleanne pulls her shawl tight around her shoulders. “I just— This doesn’t seem real. Does it?” She sighs and stands. “I need to get back. I just know our boys deserved better.”
The moment the door closes and they’re alone once more, T’Rayles returns to her pack and slings it over her shoulder. Dellan stands, goes into the kitchens, and returns with a small, wrapped bundle and a full water pouch. She turns to let him add it to her pack.
“If Quinn died by a blade…” She trails off, unable to finish the sentence. She knows Jung wouldn’t have let that happen. Quinn was like his younger brother. He would have protected the boy until his dying breath.
Dellan taps her pack. She reluctantly turns to face him.
His expression is a mixture of pain and carefully bridled rage. “They went north. Past the feywards.”
She nods and heads for the door.