Waegofaun

The Hightower carriage came within a hand-span of crushing the poor creature. No more than a hand-span of course because as soon as the horses caught its scent they would go no further until it was removed. They reared back, neighed softly to clear their nostrils of filth and then stood adroitly.

A horse did not step on a Tant no matter its condition. Even the lowliest slug had a sense of propriety in this regard, and the horses would not be outdone.

This did not stop Jeskin Ferrier from whipping them for the supposed sin of stubborness. He did not whip them hard, for Jeskin was a man who knew horses, and lacked the energy for any kind of enthusiasm. It had been a long ride, and his whole body creaked.

Fathers cuss ya!” he moaned. Jeskin gently whipped them several more times for good measure, then resolutely jumped from the jockey box into the mud. His feet sunk a full finger’s length. It would take at least an hour of thorough polishing to get his boots back to a mirror shine.

Damn Rivenguadi winters. Ain’t proper. Not by a finger sir, no they ain’t. Trees too!” Jeskin muttered. The evergreens were in some cases as wide through the middle as a man was tall and Jeskin, who hailed from the south of M’Doun, found this to be another act of insolence. Even nature wasn’t supposed to be this natural.

Now now, Master Ferrier. Let us comport ourselves as gentlemen.” Jeskin ran in a panic to the carriage door a moment too late. Lord Hightower had already exited. Bad enough they’d been sent north, but to see Lord Hightower in the mud? Too much! Too much by half!

Lord Hightower! Please sir, you mustn’t leave the carriage. There’s filth all about, sir!” Jeskin wrung his hat in his hands.

The door opened on the other side of the carriage. Jeskin inhaled sharply. His stomach tumbled end for end.

Lady Hightower!” Jeskin coughed when he could speak again. They must think him the worst servant in the world! ”There could be brigands in these woods! Thieves and rapists, my lady! You must stay in the carriage!” It was a damn stupid thing to say to a Silverman, but he had been raised in the south, and was old fashioned.

What’s gotten into the horses, Master Ferrier?” the Lady Hightower asked, dismissing his warnings as if they had never been. She wore jodpurs and a red wool jacket buttoned neatly in the front. “Are they tired? I do fear we’ve been a bit hard on them.”

Seeing that containing the Hightowers was no longer an option, Jeskin, wishing to prove his worth, quickly ran back to the front of the carriage. Something stirred in the mud at the feet of the horses. It was a bit smaller than a cat, but who knew what it might be in this wild place? Jeskin grabbed his whipping-handle and prepared to brush the beast to the side.

Whatever it was didn’t even seem to have the energy to protest its own death.

Come now, out of the way…” Jeskin muttered as he cocked his arm back. “I’ll send you back to your Rivengaudi forests quick enough.” Jeskin was a merciful man and thus had every intention of killing the creature where it lay. No need to let it suffer.

Lady Hightower’s hand wrapped around his wrist before his arm could complete the motion that would have brought death. She was a quick one, the Lady Hightower, and Jeskin froze instantly when she touched him.

I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” said the Lady Hightower.

While Jeskin was disturbed by a number of things, the chief of which being that a woman of noble birth was actually touching him, he asked only “Why not?”

Because,” began Lord Hightower, as he kneeled into the mud and picked up the struggling creature, “it’s a Waegofaun.”

The Waegofaun struggled in Lord Hightower’s hands, trying to beat its leather wings to gain flight. Its eyes glittered from an internal source hitting every color of the rainbow.

It’s Tant!” Jeskin felt his face go white, as relieved as if he’d been saved from inadvertently strangling an infant. He fell to his knees and the mud and let loose a gasp. For a moment, all was silent.

Can we keep him?” the young Master Hightower shouted excitedly from the window of the carriage.

*****

The red-haired woman lay in the mud and did not give up.

Not giving up was very important.

The recovery would be much harder than that of course, but it started with the not giving up. By the time she got around to actually crawling, she wish she hadn’t bothered with step one.

Crawling hurt.

She didn’t even want to think about standing.

*****

No doubt about it, he has the Brights,” father murmured around the stem of his pipe. Even in the relative dark of the carriage, helped in no part by father’s pipesmoke, the eyes of the Tant glittered with rainbow light. Red streaks lay to the left and right of its eyes with every color of the rainbow in between on top and bottom.

The Waegofaun, for its part, took to being held relatively well. It had ceased flapping about, and had contented itself with a grumpy frown. Occasionally its eyes would close halfway and Tedi could tell that it wanted to fall asleep. It just couldn’t seem to relax enough to do so.

Tedi supposed it wasn’t used to being held… at least not by stupid adults with no sense of adventure.

So can I hold him?” Tedi asked, fingers anxiously writhing as he watched his father clean the Waegofaun with a handkerchief. Tedi was amazed by this simple honor, as father usually reserved the kerchief for removing crumbs from his moustache. Even if snot and blood had been pouring down the front of Tedi’s face, father would never have offered the kerchief.

However do you suppose he managed to wind up in the middle of the road?” asked Mother.

I bet someone dropped him,” Tedi murmured, “I bet someone did take care of him proper, and he was out looking for a new family. Bet you a million gold rings that’s what done it.” As this was the first interesting thing to happen in days, Tedi had no intention of letting his attention flag for even a moment. He was like a curiosity sponge set down in a bowl full of interesting.

There’s a snake bite on the back of its neck,” Lord Hightower turned the Waegofaun at such an angle that Tedi could not see a thing. Furthermore, Tedi believed that this had been done intentionally and meant that his father was no gentleman at all.

Good Lords, is that what I think it is! How could one ever get its fangs into a Waegofaun?” Mum began to sift through some papers at her side, as if it would confirm her suspicions. Tedi realized he was being ignored and decided the proper etiquette was to glower.

Probably some bloomed idjut didn’t pass him over to someone else when his turn was up. Ain’t gentlemanly, sir. Ain’t gentlemanly, at all.” Tedi said this at the exact volume where his father would hear what he said but not consider it to be actionable.

I haven’t the faintest, but this certainly does not bode well for our mission from the king,” said Lord Hightower, favoring his son with the smallest of glances. “However, I suppose there’s nothing for it but that we must keep him until he is well enough to fly on his own.”

We can put him in a bird cage!” Tedi offered excitedly and in a moment of forgetfulness reached forward to pet the Waegofaun on the head. His father casually slapped his hand to the side as his mother clucked indignantly.

Tedi, you will do no such thing! Caging a Tant is punishable by death.” He had been inside a carriage for four weeks, which by most definitions was nothing more than a cage on wheels. Tedi welcomed the prospect of certain death.

Tedi looked at his parents for a moment, considered, then clutched his hand to his chest and made a big deal of it being hurt. He screamed in a not very sincere fashion until it became obvious his parents were going to continue to ignore him, as the Waegofaun was now struggling for release and this seemed much more important than Tedi’s tantrum.

Lord Hightower put the creature on a bit of empty seat to his side where it ruffled its white leather-like wings, shook itself, and then in a manner of appreciation crossed one wing across its chest bent a knee and bowed. Its knees wobbled as it did so, and Tedi would have bet that the Waegofaun had trouble keeping its balance.

The Waegofaun dropped over to the side, and stopped moving. It was bleeding between the legs.

Alarell bleedin’ at Ragnad! He’s-” Tedi shouted, not believing his eyes. His parents collective gasp was almost lost underneath Tedi’s declaration that the Waegofaun was ”a lady!”

*****

Jeskin winced as the Lord and Lady Hightower shouted “Tedi” in part because he was sorry for the boy… but mostly because he knew there was going to be a very uncomfortable conversation about where Tedi had picked up such language. It was the Lady Hightower that always seemed to conduct those conversations. The collar of his coat seemed at once too tight, so he stuck a finger in the front of his tie and pulled it forward to create extra breathing room.

The smell of bodily stinks clung to his clothes now, but Jeskin would not be denied his memories of propriety. Propriety, after all, was only proper. He even had plans to grow a moustache in the manner of Lord Hightower. Yet, a month ago he would have the luxury of a copper bathtub, fresh linens, and a mattress. How he missed them…. And now sent north! Sent north as if the Hightowers were common undesirables!

Jeskin looked at the looming trees again, and spat. “Ain’t proper. This surely ain’t proper.”

Lord Hightower shouted for him to stop the carriage, so he did. Then Tedi appeared from the inside of the cart as if thrown. Jeskin picked him up, brushed him off, and the two sat in the jockey box, saying nothing. Two hours later the Lady Hightower appeared, her hair frazzled with sweat.

Jeskin had never seen her so distraught.

We have to go out for a couple of hours. We shall return as soon as possible.”

Tedi muttered under his breath, but Jeskin gave it no  mind. The Lord and Lady Hightower walked off into the woods. Lord Hightower walked off holding a white shirt covered in a blood. Lady Hightower cradled the Waegofaun in her red wool jacket.

Jeskin put a restraining hand to Tedi’s shoulder.

Let them be, lad.”

Where are they going?”

I think they’re going to have a funeral.”

*****

The red-haired woman knew that she was still alive because her heart was still beating. She could tell her heart was beating because her whole body felt like it inflated to the point of bursting every time it pumped.

The red-haired woman would have been able to make better contact with her but she was still slightly concussed. Eventually the red-haired woman dragged herself out into the dirt road where she had been. She was not there. There were, however, a set of carriage tracks going off into the distance.

So the red-haired woman stood. It hurt.

Then the red-haired woman walked.

It hurt even worse than standing. Her stomach began to spasm, somewhere up the road again. The red-haired woman could feel it even from where she was. Her baby! Her baby!

The red-haired woman sat down after a while and said “Damn.”

Then the red-haired woman fell asleep.

*****

What annoyed Tedi the most over the next few days was his parents absolute insistence that they not name the Waegofaun. He had figured out fairly quickly the the “events” of the previous night were “truly serious” and were thus not to be inquired after. However, the name? Oh how it nagged at him, like a puzzle to be solved!

What about Benny?”

Tedi, we will not have this discussion again.” His mother rubbed at her eyes in that peculiar way she had by pinching the bridge of her nose in one hand.

But I knew a Benny back in Town School! Honorable young man, he was!”

Father looked up from his leger and scoffed so hard his moustaches blew out. His parents were all for looking at their ledgers during the carriage ride and it took quite a shock to get them to look up. “Is this the same Benny from whom you took those marbles?”

Tedi found the word “took” to be an effrontery, for he had won the marbles fair and square. However, he was a nobleman’s son and knew better than to argue on the merits, so instead Tedi replied with “Like I said, he was a right honorable young man. Always gave up what he lost without no complaints.”

Lying was wrong. Misdirection was the definition of forgivable.

Is it not the case you were suspended for punching him in the nose?” his mother added dryly.

Only after he broke the rules… like I said once he understood he’d done me an injustice he was right honorable about the whole thing,” Tedi muttered seeing that this argument was a losing battle. He supposed if he hadn’t convinced them with “Killer Warrior” there wasn’t much chance of slipping something as boring as “Benny” under their noses.

The Lady Hightower handed a sheet of paper to her husband. “That’s as best as I can figure with the report we’ve been given. They’ve been getting bolder month by month. Something is driving them westward. I’ll have to send a message when we reach Abreen. The Metal Weavers will want to know.”

The Lord Hightower took the paper from his wife, spent a minute silently reading it, and bit his moustaches with his lower lip. Tedi knew he only did that when he was particularly frustrating. “But why would they go through the North? The Loke have little love of Rivengaud. No one in the Network knows why?”

A double feint?” asked the Lady Hightower.

Perhaps. There is nothing to do but prepare ourselves for Abreen. If they intend to make a move, that is the only place through which they can channel their forces. Even Panters can’t travel across country forever.”

Tedi pulled at a loose thread on his jacket and wondered how long it would take to construct a noose with which to hang himself.

When his parents turned back to their ledgers, Tedi waited just long enough for their concentration to slip away from him before he reached out with a finger to touch the Waegofaun. It was hanging upside down from the middle of the carriage roof… and it was just fantastically wobbly. It rocked to and fro every time the carriage bumped anything. Plus, as it had wrapped its wings around itself, all you could see were its two pinkish ears and they looked seductively soft.

As a child Tedi had often gotten in trouble for grabbing the earlobes of passing strangers should they have presented themselves in a particularly “softish” manner. His mind remembered the pleasure of it and his fingers were hungry for the sensation.

Tedi!” his parents said in unison just as his fingers found their intended target.

No fun at all!” Tedi hollered and faced the window.

The Waegofaun opened one tired eye and stared at him. Tedi stuck out his tongue at it.

*****

Wherever she was, there was a boy.

The boy was, apparently, very annoying.

Her knee buckled before she had time to catch herself on a tree. She supposed there were worse things than annoying children. She found a streak of clay in the dirt and swallowed some.

Phosphorus would have been better.

She avoided thinking about the lost child no matter what. She put a hand to  her own full womb, as if to guard it from the troubles ahead.

*****

P’raps what you need is a story,” Jeskin said later that night, when he took Tedi to sleep under the carriage. Tedi knew that this was not, strictly speaking, proper. A nobleman’s son and a servant sleeping side by side! However, he also knew that his parents were never ever going to let him sleep in the same space as the Waegofaun.

I already read all the books they brung for me… least ‘fore they took ‘em away.” Tedi said bitterly. It was cold, and he knew it would be another week yet before he would have the luxury of sleeping indoors. Or whatever passed for “indoors” in Abreen. From what he’d heard, Tedi wasn’t expecting much.

Although Jeskin would not say so now, before their trip he had given Tedi every impression that people in Rivengaud walked around naked and frequently went to the bathroom in the same places they ate.

What made ‘em take away your books?” the coachman asked.

Said it weren’t proper for a young boy to read Biza Kinzang. Which truth to tell, I don’t figure at all. Biza Kinzang is every bit as old as Oran Hesker. Old words is old words, I say.” His mother had not seen fit to recognize the similarities when he’d looked up from the book and asked the meaning of “the liquid of romance.”

Come now, young Master Hightower. We can’t be questioning your parents. They’re on an important mission from the King an’ all.”

I suppose,” Tedi said glumly.

Tedi had been more confused than anything else, and had been wondering at the term in the weeks since. Every time there was a sword fight, a man and a woman went off together afterward and there was “fiery passion” which could only be quenched by the “liquid of romance.” Tedi found it boring as all hell and typically skipped those pages until he could find another sword fight. He was at the age where the only bodily fluid that interested him was blood.

I don’t figure you got any books to read from?” Tedi kicked a rock.

I ain’t talking about no stories from books!” Jeskin laughed as he spread out his bedroll. “I’m talking ’bout stories from the great olden times! Back when Alarell bled at Ragnad.” Tedi winced when Jeskin said this, for the belt marks on his bottom had not yet healed. “Way back when Madd Dendrai weren’t no place you only went to after you died, but was a place where folk walked the streets. Back ‘fore M’Den, Angard, and all the rest.”

Tedi frowned. It sounded suspiciously like history. “Don’t we have to be up early tomorrow?” A blade of grass tickled his ear as he crawled onto his mat and he shook his head vigorously.

The coachman, a master story-teller in his own limited way, suddenly added “A story of mighty warriors, great battles, and desperate struggles.”

Tedi was enrapt at once. “Who was fighting?”

The Day Lords and the Shadowman!” The coachman exclaimed. Tedi thought this sounded suspiciously like religion but decided to give the coachman the benefit of the doubt.

I read all about Alarell in Town School.”

But I bet the Pillar of Alarunde they never told you the story of Tants!”

What’s a Tant?” Tedi knew that this was in some way related to the Waegofaun, but had been at a lost to expand the term.

A Tant is a Waegofaun. Or rather, a Waegofaun is a kind of Tant.” The coachman, now at his ease and drunk on his own story took a silver flask from under his jacket. The boy wouldn’t tell anyway. Plus, it was only one bottle in an entire month. Further, everyone knew spirits were okay if you kept them encased in silver. Jeskin was only flesh after all.

Way back when, back ‘fore the Tide War, and the Loke, and the Woa. Way way back… the Haestan gave birth to the World. Now it weren’t like human birth where it happens all at once. They gave birth to the World every day. Every blade of grass. Every cloud in the sky. Go back far enough and you’d find one of the Haestan breathing the Lights of life into it. That’s why some people call them the Fathers and the Mothers. Everything that lived, they had a hand in its making.

And when the Shadow Man came, he done the same ‘ceptin he was the source of all the bad. He looked at the world, and what he gazed at died. Find an end anywhere and it was him as writ it down and made it be. That was how they fought, the Haestan and the Shadowman. The Haestan done breathed the Lights into the World, breathed them hard and shiny and the Shadowman did all he could to make the Lights give up to the dark.”

Tedi nestled deep inside his blankets as the coachman wove the tale. The night seemed suffocatingly near. Horror Beatles, Graeddi, and Gabbo competed in his mind for maximum terror. The Shadowman had made them all. In humans, the Shadowman had found vice, and with a feral rage he had twisted the world to create Temptation. Tedi saw black slithering bodies crawling through the eye sockets of skulls. Oaz stripped the flesh from men’s bones. Spiders that weren’t quite spiders turned women’s babies into monsters. Fungus ate people alive! All had been done by the Shadowman.

But this were long ago,” Jeskin waved his hand dismissively “and before the Day Lords made the Tants to protect us.”

Tedi sighed with relief.

“‘Fore the Tide War, all they made was for pleasure. Like painting a picture. But when the Tide War came, they met cunning with cunning. They made babies to be warriors!”

Jeskin became rather excited when he said this and it made the flask slosh.

They made the Loavreng and the Sheffalam to hunt the Graedd and the Gabbo.” The coachman explained the Loavreng was like a mean swamp dog and the Sheffalam was like a great big bird with a beak like steel. “Then they made the Waegofaun, the Goldens, and the Silkspinners to hunt the Horror Beatles and the Oaz.” There were others once, Jeskin explained. Big great gray horses with giant ears and long noses that had been made to crush undead dogs. Wolves with teeth made of steel and cats that could see through walls to hunt the Infested.

Way back when, Tedi, they didn’t make their weapons on anvils. They grew them. A baby at a time, is how they fought the Tide War. Mark my words, Tedi, a baby at a time.”

Here Jeskin gave Tedi the sense that the same thing may have been true of people, for he talked of horses that carried men at great speeds and who when their hooves struck the Infested called lightning from the sky. He talked of crows that had the sense of men and would tell all they saw if you only knew their language. An animal with a mane the color of gold roared loud into the sky and its breath was fire in the imagination of Tedi.

That’s what we got in that carriage, over yonder young Master Hightower. A bit of the great olden days still livin’ and breathin’. Something that don’t fight the Loke ’cause it learned it. It’s something that fights the Loke cause that’s what it was born to do. Almost none of ‘em left now. Savin’ up north maybe… up north with all the….”

Tedi knew that the coachman had said more than he intended for Jeskin suddenly lay down and dropped his silver flask, which almost emptied itself into the dirt before Tedi grabbed it and saved it the trouble. He coughed, and hurriedly hid the bottle behind his back when he realized Jeskin was still awake.

You know them by their Brights,” the coachman said breathlessly, “like a little bit o’ the rainbow was broken up and put inside ‘em.”

Tedi tucked in the coachman as well as his small hands would provide and decided he definitely needed to pet the Waegofaun at least once.

*****

“… And you came all by yourself… in a single carriage?” The mayor of Abreen, Tedi decided, was not particularly happy to see his family. In the small office, made of plaster and lathe in a city which seemed to have been made of timbers, the mayor seemed on the verge of erupting. He hadn’t given a hint of smile ever since he’d opened the letter. “… And you brought your son with you. How very… unexpected.”

The mayor put his elbows on his desk and began to rub at his temples. Tedi wished he could have found a way to politely tell the mayor that etiquette demanded that he stand while his guests stood. He’d learned it in school. Tedi, however, had been told in what he could only describe as a “truly serious” tone of voice not to say anything at all. Or there would be “serious repercussions.”

We will stay as long as it takes. We intend to make sure your town gets the exact care it deserves,” mother said in such a polite and regal voice you wouldn’t have ever guessed the bath she’d taken in five minutes that morning was the first she’d had in almost a month.

I must apologize for my lack of hospitality. Had I been sent any… advanced notice I might have been able to arrange better accommodations.” The mayor seemed to be trying to ignore his guests by shuffling through paperwork on his desk.

Father laughed, and Tedi marveled at the sight, for not only was father’s laughter unusual it was also the first time his moustache had been respectable in weeks and it seemed new-made above his mouth. “I’m sure that we will be able to make ourselves at home without too much effort on your part.”

Tedi found this statement confusing as there seemed to be two very different ways in which it could be taken. In fact, the same seemed to be true of what his mother had said as well. He decided it was meant politely, as Tedi’s father frowned very strongly at rudeness.

Is there a reason the king did not think Abreen’s City Watch would be up to the task at hand? With warning we could very well have been able to handle this problem ourselves.”

The king tries to keep a civic mind when it comes to our Rivengaudi cousins. We are always happy to extend a proactive hand of help.” The Lady Hightower gave a preemptive bow of “your welcome.” Tedi noticed that this action forced the mayor to pretend to have said “thank you.”

I don’t suppose if I explained that as Abreen is not properly part of M’Doun that we do not require your help, you could be prevailed upon to leave?” the mayor asked. The mayor spat something dark into a brass bucket at the side of his desk and wiped spittle off his chin. Tedi was amazed that such impropriety was possible.

Quite right!” answered father.

Then I suppose I shall leave you to it. However, I regret to inform you that you must conduct your business privately. Our resources are dedicated… elsewhere.”

We would never dream of troubling you,” mother said.

Tedi made sure to bow alongside his parents because this was another action that he had been told would result in “dire consequences” if it were not performed correctly. Then, also as instructed, he pivoted smartly on his heel and in perfect lock-step with his parents exited the mayor’s office and began to walk back to the inn. Knowing that he had done all this correctly, Tedi anxiously looked forward to “as much cheese as he could possibly eat” which he planned to eat melted on the top of a plate of spiced potatoes covered in tomato sauce.

I have a hard time telling if he is just lazy and incompetent or truly corrupt.” Father harrumphed. He and mother were both in their blue coats. The ones with the copper buttons that had the king’s face on them. The ones that always meant there was going to be trouble.

You say that as if the terms are mutually exclusive.” Mother quipped. Quippy. That was the word Tedi had made up for his mother when she wore her blue coat.

How long till I can have my cheesy potatoes?” Tedi interjected. When they wore their coats, his parents tended to lose all sense of what was truly important.

We tell him he’s going to have an army of Panters coming down on this town and he dismisses us as if we were sent to exchange pleasantries!” Father shook his silver-headed cane in his fists at the incorrigible rudeness of it.

I imagine he expects them to pass through. I further imagine that he thinks a fight would only give them a reason to stop long enough to burn his town to the ground.”

Father bit his moustaches, and almost stomped.

I should wonder what else an idiot may imagine,” Father grunted.

Tomato sauce…” Tedi wondered, “do tomatoes even grow when it is this cold?” Tedi licked his lips. “I suppose I could have cheese sauce, but that seems quite excessive.”

Realizing his parents were ignoring him, Tedi stopped. It was time to explore anyway. Abreen was not overly large, and he was close enough to the inn that he could find his way back on his own with little trouble.

Tedi began to walk in the opposite direction of his parents toward a building with a roof that seemed to be made of hay. As all the roofs in M’Doun were made of baked tile, Tedi was curious to find whether or not such roofs could be climbed. Which is about when the hands grabbed him from the alley.

*****

He knew right away they were not his parents hands for they were rough and their owners stunk… and not the way his parents had stunk in the carriage. No… this was dedicated stench. This was the stench of people who wanted to be dirty.

Not to say that the stench stopped him from biting the hands when they tried to cover his mouth, for it certainly did not. He was a M’Douni noble after all and there was an etiquette for these things. However, Tedi wished he could have supped on cheesy potatoes instead of having to endure that… taste. He knew that he would be scrubbing his teeth with salts as soon as he got indoors without even having to be asked.

Tedi’s heel found one of them in a groin, and caused a groan that was most edifying. Tedi smiled at the sound, then remembered he was supposed to be hollering for help, so he did.

You boy!” Said the one who still have his hands wrapped around Tedi’s middle, “Your parents, they Silvermen?” Tedi answered this question by hollering in an even more heroic fashion. The one holding him was stupid enough to clamp his mouth shut again, so Tedi went ahead and bit until he tasted blood… as well as the other unfortunate flavors that lived on the skin of men who lived in alleys.

Illness, Tedi thought with resignation, was probably inevitable.

Someone drew a knife. Tedi rolled his eyes. That’s what he hated about criminals. Always so stupid. No sense of subtlety. His parents may have been negligent, but they would be along shortly and then… well Tedi rather pitied anyone dumb enough to have a blade drawn.

They held the blade to his throat, but Tedi didn’t bother to be afraid as he knew in all likelihood they weren’t dumb enough to kill him. Killing a boy for information was stupid even for criminals. ”Boy, you scream again you’ll lose a tongue. You hear me?”

Tedi shrugged. They removed the hand from his mouth. Tedi figured his first two hollers were enough. They had a minute at most to question him.

Your parents Silvermen?”

Was your mother a rutting whore?” Tedi… quipped? He felt this had been quite a quip indeed and saw at once what his mother enjoyed about being “quippy.” Granted, Tedi was not sure quite what this meant, but he’d heard Master Ferrier say something similar with excellent results.

The man hit Tedi in the face with a closed fist.

Ow!” Tedi exclaimed.

He’d have to have his nose reset, and then it would probably grow all crooked like Corporal Hillman’s.

Someone came from further back in the alley. He wore all black robes, draped down over his face and he panted as if trying to pump the westward wind with his lungs. There seemed to be some kind of rattle sound coming from out of his throat. The black robed man took the knife from the hand of the man who held it to Tedi’s throat, and put it next to somewhere most ungentlemanlike. The man who had held the knife previously seemed as if he could not move away fast enough.

Are… your… parents… Silvermen?” The wheeze between the words smelled like fecal death.

Ugh…” groaned Tedi, feeling his nostril hairs burn. That was really saying something as his nostrils were also currently full of blood. The man in the black robes smelled faintly caustic and combined with the smell of his breath it was enough to make Tedi sick.

When… do… their… reinforcements… arrive?” The man in the black robe practically gulped at the air now. The rattling grew louder.

May the Lightless rape your ass in Ewil Brenven.” Tedi only felt a little bit bad for breaking his world to Master Ferrier, who had made Tedi promise to never ever say such things… even if someone failed to give him right of way.

The hooded man drew his knife back….

That’s when the shrieking started. It was part hoot, part high-pitch Key Box note, and part nails on a chalkboard… and it was swooping down into the alley. Not swooping well, to Tedi’s mind, but definitely swooping.

The Waegofaun wrapped its leather wings around the cowled man’s face and began to bite and scratch. Tedi pushed the back of his head into the face of the man holding him. Which was when the Lord and Lady Hightower rounded the corner.

In accordance with the Social Contracts of M’Den, I will have to ask you to voluntarily surrender yourselves into our custody.” Father was always all for following the rules, said it was the only thing that separated men from animals. It didn’t seem he really meant it though, because he was already twisting his cane and pulling the sword out of it. Mother had her badge up over her head, and a whistle in her mouth.

Final warning!” Mother said.

Tedi waved hello. His father neglected to return the salutation, and instead charged directly at Tedi.

One of the cloaked man’s acquaintances thought this meant mother was vulnerable to attack. He died with Mother’s badge buried in his jugular. The man holding Tedi had the misfortune to get stabbed in the side. When Tedi had stepped out of the limp arms far enough he saw that the man holding him had also had the misfortune of being stabbed through the other side as well.

Father really did have such a fearsome temper.

Tedi found himself suddenly flying through the air as father grabbed him by the shoulder and launched him toward the entrance to the alley. Tedi landed in the mud. Some of it went up his broken nose.

Poor form, sir! Poor form!” Tedi protested.

Almost everyone in the alley was dead now that mother had drawn her needle. She wasn’t like father. Mother was content to kill evil-doers with the smallest of wounds. However, when she got to the cowled man at the end of the street, who was still fighting with the Waegofaun, she took a knife out the top of her boot and stuck it deep into his gut. Then she kind of… wiggled it back and forth like she was cutting up a ham. Tedi’s father came along and joined in, ignoring the still-flapping arms of the man as they tried to pry at their faces.

Tedi had never once seen his parents actually try to saw someone in half.

A snake fell out of the hole his parents had opened. Tedi’s mother stepped on its head immediately, causing it to explode gore.

Wow!” Tedi exclaimed.

*****

The red-headed woman watched the boy and his family from the entrance of the alley.

They were clearly insane.

But they had killed the last of the Panters. The one she had missed back in the forests. She smiled as she thought of this. It was something like revenge at least.

*****

A merchant from Alarunde had stayed in Tedi’s home once, and made the mistake of bringing his children. Tedi loved to play with other children, and after realizing that these children did not like to wrestle even a little, Tedi had tried to get the children to race with him across a couple of rooftops.

The merchant had screamed upon entering Tedi’s bedroom upon finding his children half out of the window. After everyone was ”safe” the merchant had diplomatically explained that not everyone was as “exuberant” as M’Douni nobles. They left that same night.

Tedi had looked this word up, and been very confused. The merchant had given the word “exuberant” a negative connotation. Tedi had taken the problem to his father.

Father… how come Mr… Mr. Wossname from Alarunde thinks we’re exu..berry?” His father, in a rare show of affection, had taken Tedi on his knee sucked a deep pull from his pipe and said the words which Tedi had chosen to etch upon his heartstrings:

Because, my dear son, everywhere else in the world people are stupid enough to think they’ll live forever if they’re careful.” Then father had told Tedi to fetch the cleaver from out of the kitchen and help the cooks slaughter a few chickens for dinner.

Tedi was aware that some people were shocked and appalled at the way that M’Douni nobles behaved. In some countries, so Tedi had been told, it was even unheard of for nobles to solve crimes. They had never heard of Silvermen!

But who would figure out right and wrong!” Tedi had asked, so bewildered and utterly rocked he had felt dizzy.

They leave it to the peasants.” Jeskin had explained.

Are they even educated to do that kind of work?”

Tedi had been told, in point of fact, that in other countries the people solving crimes had not been bred their entire lives for this function. In fact, in other countries people would rather live for a long time than know deep down in their hearts that justice had been served accurately.

Tedi had never heard an idea that was so throw-uppable.

Which was why Tedi had felt himself morally obligated to punch Benny Fetch in the face for not abiding by their agreement with the marbles, even though Benny was twice his age and already had a little bit of a moustache. Sure, Tedi had been beat almost to death… but it was the principle of the thing. A world without principles was like a world without a ground. Even if principles weren’t strictly speaking, real, they had to be defended otherwise people would just… go insane.

In summation, Tedi had learned, as all the children of Silvermen learned, that pain didn’t really hurt all that much if you were “exuberant” enough about the idea of justice.

Which was why Tedi tried not to raise too much of a fuss when his mother pinched his nose between fingers and thumb and… crunched it back into place.

Gentle! Gentle! Gentle now!” said the innkeeper’s wife from the front of the room. She’d raised all kinds of fuss about Tedi when his parents had stormed into the inn holding the Waegofaun in their arms like an infant. She’d screamed for several minutes about how she was going to call a Doctor, until Jeskin had informed her that it really wouldn’t be necessary.

The innkeeper’s wife held in her hands a plate of spiced potatoes covered in cheese and cheese sauce. Tedi sniffed to make sure his sinuses were clear and got up, bowed courteously as he knew how, then pulled the plate from the stunned woman’s arms and ravenously ate the food.

Are you sure you’re okay?” she whispered, looking at his parents suspiciously.

Tedi sniffed a couple of times to check, and smiled. “Right as rainbows!” he grinned. He could barely feel the pain anyway, he was so excited. There was serious business about.

Tedi didn’t understand why the color ran out of her face.

Mind your manners now, Tedi. We must be civilized.” Father was focusing very hard on stitching a wound in his side, which was why he’d taken his monocles from out of his luggage. Normally, mother would have helped with such injuries in return for future services, but she was occupied with the snake they’d pulled out of the Panting man.

As for the Waegofaun, it was sleeping up in the rafters. The fight had done it no good, and it needed rest. It opened its eyes briefly at Tedi and gave an approximation of a smile. Tedi waved at it. It nodded back. Tedi decided the Waegofaun really wasn’t as uppity as he had supposed.

It was ready to split. I’ve counted thirty eggs so far. There may have been as many as twenty others but we smashed most of them when we….” Mother looked up from her magnifying glass to the innkeeper’s wife who was even whiter. “Well… yes. Anyhow, despite the difficulties in counting, I would estimate somewhere on the order of forty viable offspring.”

Jeskin politely took the innkeeper’s wife by her arm and showed her to the door.

With half of his attention, Tedi watched as his mother picked up bits of the snake with a fork and examined them with her magnifying glass. With the other half, he shoveled fistfuls of food into his face. By the Lords it was good to have food with flavor again! He was sick of dried meat and stale bread. Every bit of the snake that looked like skin was covered with mucus, as if someone had used it for a snot rag.

So let us say that twenty Panters are intending to move through here… that would be something on the order of….” Father had never been good with sums.

Eight hundred eggs!” Tedi supplied.

Don’t talk with your mouth full, Tedi.” Mother scorned.

Eight hundred Panters could produce enough Hot Dust to supply….” Father winced as his fingers slipped and he stabbed himself in the side with a needle deeper than was necessary.

Somewhere on the order of forty-thousand people.”

Lords and Ladies, why would they need so much? There are not that many Dusters in the whole World!”

The door opened again. The innkeeper’s wife reappeared.

I’m afraid my good lady, that we have not the time for any-” Mother began, then inhaled sharply. Tedi choked on his potatoes and had to spit it out of his mouth. He had never seen his mother stop speaking in the middle of a sentence like that before.

Perhaps I can help you answer that question, Constables Hightower.” Said the red-haired woman at the door. She walked into the room as if it belonged to her.

When she walked under the Waegofaun, it unfurled its wings and gave a smile full of fangs before dropping onto her shoulder.

*****

Tedi put a glass to the door, and then put his ear to the glass. It wasn’t real crystal of course so its efficacy as an eavesdropping device left much to be desired. Not like back home, but it would have to serve. So far he had only caught the following bits of the conversation.

“… deeply honored!”

“… shall of course be most discrete.”

Then they’d all got real quiet like they knew he might be listening. Tedi was not happy about this. How did they expect him to get educated if they kept leaving him out of all the important conversations?

Pillars shattering!” Tedi cussed. Then, because he was alone with Master Ferrier added “Betraying Riam raping the Raven Azraem… in the face!” this last bit he improvised, but felt it was very appropriate. He’d decided ever since the alley that he needed to include the word “rape” more often into his swears, as Biza Kinzang used the word quite often and almost always in spectacularly profane ways.

Come now, young Master Hightower, you know you ought not to be there.” Tedi waved his arms annoyedly at Jeskin until the coachman got up from the bed and pulled Tedi physically away from the door.

Unhand me at once, sir!” Tedi gasped, kicking with both his feet.

“‘Fraid this is important business. Can’t be snooping on such as this, Master Hightower.”

When Jeskin placed him down at the first landing of the stairs, Tedi harrumphed in the style of his father, crossed his arms and frowned.

You make it sound like I’ve never seen them conduct an investigation before!” Tedi complained, as he smoothed his shirt and tried to regain his pride.

Oh, this ain’t like a’fore Master Hightower.”

What’s so different about it? An investigation is an investigation, and I have to learn for when I’m grown up.”

Jeskin sat down next to Tedi. “I were a fool for not thinking this was going to be important. What with them wanting to get here as fast as possible an’ all.”

What are you talking about!” Tedi demanded.

Master Hightower…” Jeskin began, “did you see that woman’s eyes?”

Tedi gasped. It was the first rule that Silvermen learned, and it had slipped his mind. Notice everything.

He had been so used to seeing them on the Waegofaun he hadn’t noticed.

She’s… she’s… she’s-” Tedi stammered at the implications.

Right behind you,” mother announced.

*****

The red-haired woman looked at the stout boy. He may have been ten years old… probably given to a number of silly superstitions and foolish traditions shared by all who lived below the Tree Line.

His parents had requested he been granted an audience with her. They said it was necessary for his education, and then looked at one another showing for the first time ever in her sight how afraid they had been that their son would die in the alley. She wondered how they had done it. How they acted as if they had no fear, when it was obvious now that they were afraid even after the fact.

The red-haired woman agreed. Child-rearing had recently become fascinating to her.

*****

We’d like to thank you for all you’ve done,” the red-haired woman was sitting in a chair, with the Waegofaun perched on her shoulder like a bird. Tedi had seen sailors who kept their birds on their shoulder and the style was much the same. The red-haired woman sat in a chair with her legs crossed, and watched Tedi intently.

She’d told them to call her “Erona.” Tedi was very much aware that didn’t mean the same thing as “my name is “Erona.” He was the son of Silvermen, after all.

What’s his name?” Tedi asked, since apparently this meeting was for his benefit. Apparently, all that she’d needed to say of importance had been said while Tedi was out of the room. Erona’s eyes flashed with rainbow light.

Her name is also Erona.”

Oh…” said Tedi, suddenly feeling very stupid.

Erona, the human Erona, could have given Tedi’s parents lessons in regal bearing. She sat with her back ramrod straight, and even though it looked like all her clothes had been intentionally shredded she seemed… in command. Knowledgable. Dripping with the ornaments of civilization.

How did… err… Erona get hurt?” Tedi noticed that the Waegofaun was also staring at him. In fact, it seemed that the Waegofaun’s mannerisms seemed to follow Erona’s by only a few moments… as if the two were connected somehow.

We were attacked by Panters. We were lucky to escape with our lives. You and your parents killed the last of them. For that, you have my eternal gratitude.” Erona supplied.

What about the others? I heard my parents talking about them.”

The Lord and Lady Hightower exchanged glances behind Tedi’s back. Tedi heard them muttering about “being more careful in the future.”

All dead. They won’t trouble you anymore. I’m surprised the one you saw in the alley made it as far as the city. The rest have been dispatched by… very efficient means. I have given your parents the location of their remains… it should make filing their reports rather easier.”

Animal attack, I believe you said,” said mother.

Yes, quite fortunate. Animals don’t have to be Tant to be thrown into frenzy by Loke. Especially Panters. I believe it was probably a wolf pack.” Erona smiled at Tedi’s parents.

But that’s not what really happened.” Tedi said.

Erona smiled. “It is what I have said.”

I understand,” said Tedi. And he did.

My thanks young Master Hightower. You are a most courageous young man. You are a tribute to your nation.”

Father and Mother bowed, signalling the meeting was at an end. Tedi fell into the motion with them seamlessly.

Do you truly wish us to say no word about… yourself? It would give so much hope to so many… I… I don’t know what to say.” Tedi said.

Your Networks are watched by many, young Master Hightower. Many eyes that want to do too much good. We work alone. Always.”

Erona’s stood, and returned the bow of the Hightowers with a nod. “Until the world After, Hightowers. I await the Promise fulfilled, and the song of the Spear.”

Then she left, and many years from that day when Tedi grew old and his nose was bent and his face scarred, and he led a heroic charge in the new War of Tides… he would think back and realize it was probably the most significant moment of his life.

It was the first time he realized there were things bigger than him, and that he was never going to understand them.

*****

She didn’t know why she’d said that last bit. The bit about the Promise. She’d been born and raised to know there was no such thing. Raised to know that she was the architect of fate. That history didn’t move in grand sweeps driven by other forces, but was chaotically planned by human beings. That destiny was rough and tumble.

But the Promise would be fulfilled, even if only by men. It was close now. Fifty years away at most. And then it would actually happen. He would actually return.

(We have lost half our child)

The red-haired woman, put her hand to her womb. It was impossible not to consider. A child born without a Tant. It had not happened in years. There would be repercussions.

It was not safe up North for unbonded children.

The red-haired woman and the Waegofaun walked away into the woods and nature.

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