Two out of the three of them woke screaming – again.
By the time Crys flailed upright out of the nightmare, sweat sticking his shirt to his back, Ash was stoking up the fire and the calestar was huddled by it, gaunt and rocking. Dom’s nightmares were a product of him killing the Dark Lady. Crys’s were the result of Dom nearly killing him.
‘Morning,’ Crys croaked, scrubbing sweat from his face and reaching for the waterskin. Ash grabbed his hand, grazed a kiss across the knuckles. Neither of them looked at Dom. Despite the Fox God’s insistence that he should accompany them, Crys’s skin crawled every time the Wolf came near.
It will fade.
Crys grunted and drank. Weeks of running and hiding from Mireces and their own people to get over the border into Krike hadn’t improved his mood much, but at least now they were here and safe. Unless the Krikites decided to kill them. An archer, a god and a one-armed madman walk into Krike . . . Worst joke ever.
They picked through the remains of the previous night’s meal, slung weapons and blankets scavenged from a burning Rilporin over their shoulders, and began to walk. Dom was silent. Dom was always silent and that was just how Crys liked it. He and Ash walked a few steps apart from him, unwilling to forgive – and unable to forget – what he’d done. Everything he’d done.
Not all the choices were his. Not all the betrayals were willing.
And not everything he did to me was felt by you, Foxy, Crys countered. But I felt it. All of it. I looked into his eyes and saw joy.
I looked into his soul and saw despair, the Fox God said. Crys told himself he didn’t care.
‘So, this Warlord,’ Ash said, picking up the threads of the conversation they’d been having for the last few days, perhaps in response to the faraway look Crys got whenever the Trickster within spoke to him. ‘Rules all of Krike?’
‘Sort of. He’s the military and secular arm of the government. They have a seer – Seer-Mother or Seer-Father, depending on who’s elected – who leads the priesthood and arbitrates those disputes that can’t be settled by local priests. When I served in the South Rank, the Warlord was Brid Fox-dream and the seer was a woman.’
‘Fox?’ Ash asked.
‘No relation,’ Crys said and grinned, the change of subject blowing away the last tendrils of memory and nightmare. ‘They’re quite particular about it, though. They have some ritual, performed by the priesthood once a year, I believe, when they take children of a certain age on some sort of spiritual journey and they are confronted with a . . . creature that they’re particularly attuned to.’
‘Ridiculous,’ Ash snorted. ‘Mine would be a majestic wolf, of course, with a silver pelt and noble aspect.’
‘Flea-bitten badger, more like,’ Crys teased him. ‘But maybe we’ll get to find out when we meet her.’
‘Riders,’ Dom said and pointed.
Ash’s hand went to his bow and Crys gripped the axe he’d taken from Rilporin. Not a favoured weapon, but all he had. Dom just cradled the stump of his arm – hand severed by the same axe – and watched them come. The Fox God rumbled wariness but not danger.
The small band cantered up and encircled them, spears pointing down at their chests. Ash twitched again but then Crys was stepping forward. ‘Greetings, warriors. May the Fox God shine His light upon you and the Dancer bless you with plenty.’ He dropped his axe into the grass and raised both hands, shirt sleeves falling back to expose the scars on his forearms. ‘You have heard of the war in Rilpor, the invasion by the Mireces and their Red Gods? We’ve come to see if you will fight alongside us – fight for your gods – to repel the heathens? May we speak with your clan chief?’
‘I am Cutta Frog-dream,’ a woman said. ‘I am war leader of Green Ridge and clan chief. We know of your troubles, Rilporian, but they trouble us not. We have already answered your emissaries and promised to shed the blood of any more who came.’
‘Well, that’s awkward,’ Ash muttered. ‘This is no normal emissary,’ he shouted and nearly took out Crys’s eye with his pointing finger. ‘This is the Fox God Himself, the Great Trickster in a mortal’s flesh. He fought – and killed – the Dark Lady of the Mireces! He brought me back from the dead! He healed thousands of wounded soldiers and civilians! You owe him your allegiance.’
Crys waited for the laughter followed by the spears. Neither came.
‘The Two-Eyed Man,’ someone whispered. ‘The old tales . . .’
‘You make a bold claim for your friend, Wolf,’ the war leader said. ‘Yes, we know your clan by your look. A bold claim and one that will see you all dead if it is untrue. You think us savages and wild, our beliefs childlike, but you are wrong. If you think to trick us, it will be the last thought you ever have.’
‘Thanks for that, Ash,’ Crys said as the Krikites turned their horses and clicked them into motion back the way they’d come, the three men in their midst.
‘May as well start as we mean to go on,’ Ash replied with a tight smile. ‘You never said this would be easy, after all. But I’d quite like to live, if it’s all the same to you.’
‘Wouldn’t we all,’ Crys muttered. ‘Come on then, Foxy. No pressure.’