The summer heat was fierce and unshielded by clouds, beating down with no cooling breezes across the wide coastal fields. A lone bird circled the green-golden ripple of ripened fields, its cry high and piercing. Eiri Mairisson looked up from where he struggled with a sheaf of wheat, shielding his eyes against the sun. To him, the call sounded sad and he noted, seeing the streamlined white-gray body, that it was a gull. He paused in his work, hand dropping without thought to the worn medallion around his neck, suppressing an instantaneous shiver of superstition. They lived a full day, almost two days really, from the coast. A gull blown this far by a southwestern wind boded change, whether bad or good.
With a sigh, Eiri swiped dark auburn hair from his eyes, re-tying it at the base of his neck with a leather thong frayed from constant use. He had to finish the whole row by night or the Bransson would be displeased. The prospect of displeasure tended to hasten his limbs, because he didn't fancy a taste of the man's boiled-hide belt on his backside. Eiri, as the Bransson tended to remind him at least once morning or night, was lucky he had a roof over his head and food in his belly twice daily. Bastard's sons didn't usually get so much, and it was only the Bransson's strong sense of familial duty that kept his late sister's child in his household.
Eiri looked up the row of wheat mournfully. There was several hours' work ahead of him and nightfall was closing fast. His cousins and assorted younger relations had already retired for the evening; their work-toughened, sun-browned bodies worked faster than slight Eiri. At fifteen, one would think a boy could work in the fields all day but even though he'd never been sickly Eiri had never been particularly strong. It was another point of contention for the Bransson, who resented the fact that his nephew would not earn his keep.
A breath of wind curled over the fields, stirring the heaps of wheat felled by the bigger boys' and girls' scythes, tangling the sweaty hair at the base of Eiri's nape. He lifted his head, short hairs prickling over his arms. The wind tugged at him, plucking his clothes, and Eiri stood still and listened.
Forgotten was the chore that must be accomplished by nightfall. Forgotten was the resentment that all his other kin had finished their rows; none dared or cared to help him, and they'd gone in to have their supper already. Forgotten was the empty gnawing that had plagued him since noon on, since the Bransson's get received two generous meals a day and not a crust more.
Eiri turned to look over the fields as they whispered around him, the sound tickling his senses. All of a sudden he could smell the sea air, almost taste it as the scent hit the back of his nose. The youth inhaled deeply. He froze like a hare scented out in the open. Something was different. Long heartbeats ticked past, pulse thudding in Eiri's throat, as he struggled with his senses. The world spun for a moment around him, stomach dropping as if he'd been punched. Something was changing.
He opened his eyes on the sight of his hands locked on handfuls of brown soil mingled with loose wheat. Eiri swallowed thickly. He must've fallen to his knees when the world spun away. He hated it, the dizzy spells that came over him, the fragmented whorls of vision like waking dreams. It didn't happen often but it always meant something changed.
The first one had hit him when Mairi Bransson fell sick. He was lucky he remembered his Mum, he supposed, because it was something to compare to the way the Bransson's wife treated him now. The second had been right before kindly old Father Leary had moved out of the area; if he'd stayed, he was the only one willing to take Eiri on as an apprentice. And the third...Eiri shuddered and his hand dropped to his medallion again as he stared out over the fields. He didn't like to think about what the third had preceded.
He pushed himself to his feet. The day was fading fast as summer paled into autumn, and he had to finish the row if he didn't want to be too sick to his stomach from a belting to eat his supper.
Eiri stopped again when he heard the jingle of harness, distantly, and the clop of hooves on the dusty strip of road. He whirled.
It was rare to get travelers in the Dickenston area; rare enough that a merchant caravan passed through, because the larger roads were all to the west. The highways were paved, and in this province dotted by the Queen's wayposts. It was rarer still to get lone riders; unheard-of, in fact. Eiri vaguely recalled a pair of heralds back when he was thirteen. No one had a reason to pass through Dickenston.
There was a single rider coming from the north.
Eiri shivered, despite the pressing heat of the early evening. Was it a herald? That was the only reason he could think of for someone to come through Dickenston rather than by way of the highway.
Just as the auburn-haired youth bent back to the row of wheat waiting for him, the rider drew to a halt abreast of him on the road, making an unmistakable gesture. Come here, boy. Eiri stared in surprise, then scrambled to obey. The rider wore a hooded cloak pulled up over his brow, unusual in such oppressive heat.
Tales of the Silver Reaper flitted briefly through his head as he hopped over the rows of mowed wheat. Every row but his had been tied into neat sheaves at marked intervals, and Eiri grimaced. He didn't care if it was the Silver Reaper; if this rider was the one to signify change, by now he was ready to welcome it.
Eiri came to a stumbling halt, panting, beside the stirrup of the roan chestnut horse. "Ser?" he said, acutely conscious of his manners. He must look a fright, having worked in the fields since sun-up, his constantly-sunburned skin having reached the peeling stage yet again.
"Beautiful boy." The deep voice issued from the shadowed folds of the hood, covering Eiri like warm honey.
"Ser?" Eiri repeated, startled. Something in the voice made the figure on horseback less frightening, though no less deeply mysterious.
"You heard that?" Without waiting for an answer to the puzzling question, the cloaked man swung down from his horse. One hand touched Eiri's peeling shoulder briefly. "You...why aren't you wearing sleeves and a hat, working in sun with your complexion?"
Eiri had never heard the word 'complexion' before, but he intuited it to mean his skin. He shrugged. "I wear what they give me, Ser." It was the most politic answer. The Bransson's wife Fiona begrudged any money spent on him, so typically Eiri wore the older childrens' castoffs. Right now his sleeveless tunic was from older cousin Briony, and the patched, somewhat ragged trousers, rolled up around the ankle because they were too large, were from older cousin Rory. No hats came his way because any hats the Bransson's get wore were in pieces by the time they were through with them.
"I see." The figure assumed a listening pose. For a moment it seemed the man could sense the things Eiri could, the wind and the plants weaving their subtle harmonies. Then he touched Eiri's shoulder again briefly, distracting him from that thought. "Boy, where is the nearest place a body can rest? I've been on the road since false dawn."
Eiri hesitated. A traveler in Dickenston was unusual, to say the least. Somehow, he sensed that this man would not be at ease staying at the Bransson's sprawling complex. Yet Dickenston didn't have an inn; they received no travelers but a few heralds scattered across the span of years.
"The bar?" he offered, after a moment of consideration. It was where the heralds put up when they did come, if he remembered correctly. "I think Cory would be willing to put you up, if you can pay."
Faint amusement. "I can pay."
After a moment, staring up into the recess of the cloak's hood, Eiri nodded awkwardly. He realized he was probably being very rude. Most people would invite a visitor into their homes. "I'm sorry, Ser, but I'm not able, that is, I don't have the rank..."
"It's all right," the man interrupted, and his deep voice was flowing, soothing. "I think you and I know that staying amongst their kind is a bad idea."
"Ser?" Eiri said cautiously. The man had spoken his thought before he voiced it.
The man laughed. He put a hand to his throat, loosening the complicated throat ties there. Then he shook back his hood, picking at a colorful scarf tied over golden-brown hair.
Eiri inhaled. "Wh-what are you?" He forgot his manners entirely. The youth gaped up at the striking alien countenance. The stranger had a lean face and high cheekbones, his features overall a bit pointed but very handsome. His eyes were like burnished copper, or deep red gold. And as he untied the kerchief over his gold-streaked rich brown hair, a pair of previously-flattened foxy ears jutted up from the crown of his head.
"Much better," the creature sighed. His copper eyes moved over Eiri's face. "I'm a youko, of course. What, on this route to the sea you've never seen my kind before?"
Eiri gulped. He was caught up in wonder. Was this the change of his vision-spell? He never remembered many of the images that clouded his mind during the spells, but he thought he recalled the sight of golden eyes. Nothing but an animal had eyes that color, he'd thought, and yet here before him...
"Ah, forgive me," the creature -- the youko -- said with a brief grimace. Even that expression didn't detract from his beauty. "I am Youko Kelarion, at your service."
Eiri shook his head frantically. "You don't -- I mean, um... I'm just...Ser, I'm nothing on the farmstead, the Bransson's bastard nephew, not...not..."
Kelarion drew himself up and looked angry. "'Bastard' is a human concept," he said, voice deceptively soft but carrying an undercurrent of rage the boy recognized. Eiri flinched. "You think a ridiculous human concept like that matters to me?" Without waiting for an answer, he turned to his saddle and unhooked a waterskin from the pommel. "This bar of Cory's you mentioned. I take it the place is at the nearest town?" He unstoppered the skin and lifted it to his lips, throwing back a long tanned neck.
Eiri licked his lips, shifting uncomfortably. "Yes. Dickenston, if you keep up this road here." He swallowed harshly.
The youko looked thoughtful, wiping his mouth with the back of one hand. "How far are we from the coast, child?"
"A-about a day and a half's ride," Eiri stammered, put off by the creature's intense burnished eyes riveted on his. In the fading sun's light they almost seemed metallic. Kelarion himself was exotic enough, new and unpredictable enough, but with those eyes fixed on him...
Kelarion shook his shaggy head. "Where are my manners? What is your name, boy?" His deep voice was gentle again.
"Eiri," the youth said, flushing as he cracked upwards an octave. He cleared his throat and tried again. "Eiri Mairisson." He didn't know why it was suddenly important to impress the creature, even in some slight regard.
"Hmm?" Kelarion raised an eyebrow, then tipped the waterskin back for another slug. He finished and held it out to Eiri.
Unthinking, the auburn-haired boy grasped it and tilted it back, gulping greedily. On the farmstead water was a commodity and he hadn't drunk since the noon break. Even then he had to jostle elbows with the cousins for a single tin cup. After an interval he handed it back, chagrined at his lack of manners. "I -- I'm sorry, Ser Kelarion."
Kelarion made a little pushing gesture, indicating that Eiri should keep it. His expression was suddenly mixed, vaguely menacing to the boy as he raised a thick brown brow. "I've got others and they're easily filled."
Eiri flushed again at the gift. Somehow he sensed whatever anger was inside the creature was not directed at him. It was a little frightening, nonetheless. "I can't keep it, Ser," he said plaintively, willing the youko not to be angry. The score of Bransson cousins would rip it away as soon as they saw it on him. The reasoning went, as he'd known since he was a child, 'it's our right; the little bastard wears our clothes and eats our food.'
The creature -- the youko -- looked at him, expression indecipherable. He looked as if he would speak, then checked himself. Without comment he took the skin back and swung up onto his horse in a quick, graceful economy of movement.
"Where are you traveling?" Eiri made bold enough to ask.
Kelarion pulled his hood up, overshadowing everything but the coins of his eyes. "The coast, Mairisson. After that, who knows?" His teeth flashed white as he grinned. It was a reckless kind of look. The youko pulled the colored scarf between his fingers.
Eiri envied him for an instant, the feeling stabbing at him so fiercely he was startled. But he hated his life at the Branssons', came the immediate thought. He wanted out. He wanted that kind of easy freedom.
The youko looked down at him, and the expression in the burnished copper eyes was strange. "Mairisson, can you make it to town in the next few days?"
"Yes..." Eiri faltered. "I...no...well, maybe..." The Bransson ran errands the next day, a traditional rest day but not entirely forbidden for work. Unconsciously he groped at the worn medallion. Since it was a rest day Eiri typically spent the time trying to hide from the score of Branssons in the tiny chapel attached to the complex. It was the only use he had for the chapel.
The youko's sharp eyes caught the gesture but he made no indication. "If you can, I'll be at the bar as you suggested," Kelarion told him. "I would like very much to see you again."
Eiri held still, flooded with unfamiliar emotion. "I -- I'll try." This golden creature wanted to see him? He shifted uncomfortably and pressed his legs together. Eiri gulped and bowed his head.
With an encouraging cluck from the youko, the chestnut horse ambled down the road again. Its unshod hooves stirred up small poufs of dust.
Eiri stayed motionless for a long time, until the feeling in his belly died somewhat and the sun's angle bent shadows of wheat like spears a long way across the road. The boy's head snapped up, panic thudding on his tongue. The wheat! He scrambled back into the field.
It was after dark by the time Eiri trudged up the outskirts of the Bransson complex, weariness in every line of his body. A brace of cousins played and wrestled outside in the dusty yard and he skirted them carefully.
"Ha!" Jenna Bransson caught sight of him and paused to jeer, hands on her hips. "It's cold leftovers for ya, little Mairisson-bastard. And be grateful if'n Ma hasn't flung 'em to the dogs."
Eiri bobbed his head in acknowledgement, heading for the structure that housed the kitchen. The taste of fresh cold water was still on his tongue. It hadn't occurred to him to wonder how Kelarion had kept it cold, hooked to the saddle as it'd been when the youko had been riding since false dawn.
"What's that?" A heavyset boy, the Bransson's second oldest, Geir, fell into step beside him, plain face creased in a scowl. "Not gonna answer Jenna, are you? Maybe you feel too good to answer Jenna?"
Two other boys, Eiri's age but bigger than the fifteen-year old, flanked him. They had nasty smiles on their faces. Dare and Shane went along with whatever their older brother started.
"No...I'm..." Eiri coughed into his hand, and made a show of clearing his throat. When he spoke his voice was raspy. "I-I'm not well, Geir. I wouldn't want to make Jenna sick when she works so much harder than me."
Geir folded his arms and stared at him, suspicion and thwarted bloodlust working over his plain face. He picked up any excuse to punish Eiri for his failings, but Eiri could, and did, dance a subtle verbal circle around him whenever he could.
"S'right, little bastard, everyone on the farm works harder 'n you, and you better remember it." Geiri scowled darkly at him as Dare and Shane sniggered.
Eiri bowed his head. "Thank you, cousin," he said, so soft it was barely audible. Sometimes this kind of response enraged the cousins, because it gave them no excuse to beat on him. Other times they seemed mollified. Altogether he had learned to expect inconsistency in their reactions.
"Little butt-licker," Dare sniggered behind his back as he continued towards the house.
Eiri's red shoulders stiffened, but he could make no retaliation. This he knew from experience and the memory of a beating so bad he'd been useless and unmoving for three days. Wearily he pushed open the side door.
In the kitchen, a woman with sun-leathery skin and colorless hair looked up from some stitchwork with a sour expression. "What took you so long?"
"I'm sorry," Eiri said meekly. "I finished the whole row."
Fiona Bransson snorted. The Bransson's wife might have been pretty once, but after so many years and children it was hard to say. Her nut-brown skin was wrinkled like old leather, and she looked half again as much her age. The lack of new children in her womb for more than five years had seemed less of a relief to the woman than a sign of her age, and she had become even more curt and angry to the boy, her brother's sister's bastard, whom she begrudged everything from his cot to the smallest scrap of bread. Her attitude to her own children was little better, but at least she provided for them.
"You'd have better finished the row," Fiona said, eyeing him with narrow pale eyes. Time seemed to have bleached any color from the woman but for her work-brown skin. "You know the Bransson would give you a sound hiding if you didn't, no matter how long it takes you, sluggard."
Eiri bit back a retort, literally clamping down on his lower lip. He bowed his head.
She eyed him for a moment longer, then gestured with her elbow, picking up her stitch again. "There's food over there. Don't waste it. Was about to give it to the dogs, you took so bloody long."
"Thank you, Serra Fiona." The Bransson's wife had never let him call her 'aunt,' as her husband had never tolerated the word 'uncle.' Eiri moved over to the shallow tin bowl. Old mutton in a thin greasy broth, with some lumpy mashed potatoes thrown in. It was long since cold, of course. One of Fiona's virtues, however, was that she did feed him the same as the rest of her brood, so this was exactly what they'd gotten, though his was no longer warm. He carried it to the kitchen hearth, glad that the dogs were outside in the pens in this warm weather. The fire was banked, nothing more than smoldering warmth to keep the kitchen from being too oppressive.
"Watch your fingers 'n toes," Fiona snapped automatically.
"Yes, Serra," he mumbled, placing the bowl in the ashes. The tin would warm quickly with hot ash all around it. The Bransson wasn't in the kitchen tonight and he was grateful. The Bransson usually wasn't; he tended to spend his time in the common room working on the latest craft project for the farm or house. Both he and his wife were never idle, and the oldest son was falling into his father's pattern.
There was silence in the too-hot room for a long time. Eiri's skin felt red and angry in his spot before the fire, but he didn't want to eat his supper cold again. He thought of the creature, the youko, descending from his horse by the fields but had the sense not to mention the strange visitor. Fiona wouldn't understand; none of the Bransson kin would, even though Kelarion's coming to Dickenston was big news.
After awhile Fiona spoke up, her chair creaking as she lifted herself and half-turned. "You know the Bransson sent Davis to Corston last week," she said neutrally. She spoke of her husband formally, as she always did.
Eiri felt her pale gaze on him and turned, keeping his head down. "Aa," he said noncommittally. Everyone in the household knew. It had been a big event, Davis Bransson taking part of their crops in to the city to drive bargains for the family instead of the Bransson.
Fiona stirred, and he felt her harsh gaze on him. "Davis said the Church was talking of sending another Father to Dickenston, since we've two more families farming in the area now."
The boy blinked, and glanced at the fire. An ember snapped and rolled onto the hearth-stones, glowing like molten copper. Somehow he couldn't manage the excitement that would have risen in him earlier this day. If a Father came, that meant Bransson would probably ask if he'd take in the burden of a bastard son.
"Once he comes..." Fiona paused, then coughed. "Once the Father comes we'll see about arrangements for you, boy."
"Thank you, Serra," Eiri said, almost inaudible, bending his head to his supper. The familiar tang of fear sizzled through him. What if the Father wasn't nearly so nice as Father Leary? Uncertainty cramped him.
Things were changing. Change had never been good to him.
The fear gnawed at his guts long after he'd finished his dinner, long after he laid awake in his cot near the banked common room hearth, absently shredding dead skin from his shoulders. Eiri pulled up the thought of the youko and wrapped himself in the memory, the thought of silken tiger's-eye hair and burnished, knowing golden eyes.
"Hurry up, you slugs, if you're coming! Hurry or be left behind!"
The Bransson's heavy walking stick thumped against the wall of the house, then he set off at a vigorous pace, Davis two strides behind him.
Eiri hurried towards the dusty rut of the road, hefting up the weight of the basket full of carded wool, all of it wound by younger cousins into tufts ready for sale. The easiest route to getting to Dickenston on a Sournedaye was to ask Fiona, rather than the Bransson. There was usually something she needed to have taken into town to sell or barter.
He would give the basket to Davis to bargain with once they reached town, but it was his arms that would get it there. As most of the Bransson brood preferred to lay about on Sournedayes, anyone who offered labor was snapped up at once.
Briony kept abreast of him, the older girl carrying a basket awkwardly but with care for the fragile cargo within. She had been caring for the hens for weeks, and in return, this week's production would be used today to swap for material to make a new dress. Briony had been getting an eye for the neighboring boys, and insisted on taking services at the chapel in town when anyone would hold them.
"Why're you coming today, Eiri?" Briony asked him bluntly. The older girl had a square but pleasant face, and a banner of bleached-blonde hair like her mother. Hers was better-kept. Of all the cousins, Briony was brusque but treated him with decency.
Eiri clutched the basket. "I dunno," he said with a shrug, feeling his stomach drop. "I thought...well, Serra Fiona said something about a Father coming to Dickenston, so I thought I could listen for news."
Briony peered at him sharply, ambling closer sidewise as they continued up the road. "You get a funny spell, Eiri?"
He blinked, and felt sweat trickle down the back of his neck. "Uh..." He didn't like lying outright, but he didn't trust any of the Bransson's get. "I-I think there's gonna be a stranger in town."
Briony snorted, sounding remarkably like her mother. "You've gone daft in the head. Unless the new Father's here, there ain't any strangers in town."
"'S true," he mumbled, and kept his head down the rest of the way into town.
Once in town, he waited near Davis' elbow until the young man finished his own armloads, and was ready to sell his mother's carded wool. He relieved Eiri of the basket and grunted a noncommittal instruction to amuse himself until the Bransson was ready to collect his brood and return home. As Bran Bransson usually mingled pleasure with business, namely dicing and drinking, they wouldn't be returning to the farmstead until the sun started to sink.
That suited Eiri just fine.
He took a roundabout path to Cory's bar, the Gilded Rooster. Though he was sure all of the Bransson's get were supremely disinterested in how the bastard chose to spend his free time, Eiri thought it better to be sure. He had the feeling that Youko Kelarion was like a valuable secret to be cherished, and had no wish to lead anyone to him.
The interior of the Gilded Rooster was dim and smoky as it always was, filled with the acrid, permanent smells of tobacco and beer and, underlying that, the vomit and probably piss that had splashed the floor beneath the straw. Cory looked up from his bar as the door opened, grimacing as he saw Eiri. The older man gave him a perfunctory nod, stringy hair falling partially around his face, then turned to the tap and heap of tankards.
Eiri's eyes darted around the bar. The structure had been enlarged twice since being built however long ago, and there were some nooks and crannies where a single figure could hide. He passed into the newest part of the Gilded Rooster, glancing around, and finally spotted the tan cloak that he'd seen in the fields the day before. Eiri's breath caught in his throat. It was real, then; Kelarion really had spoken with him.
The youko sat alone at a corner table, tucked away from the door's line-of-sight in the bar's addition. As Eiri weaved towards him he could see the creature's hood was pushed back, but the colored scarf was still tied tightly over his skull. There were two faint lumps beneath the scarf, but that could simply be knots of hair.
"Kelarion?" Eiri called softly, pausing a table over.
Kelarion's chin jerked as he looked up. He blinked, eyes strangely luminous in the dusky light as they settled on Eiri, then gestured with his tankard. "Oh, it's you. Come sit down, little one."
Eiri settled at the youko's left hand, back to the wall, feeling a little deflated. Kelarion seemed...more unkempt today, a little shabby, less the graceful, wildly exotic creature in the fading sunlight that he'd met yesterday. Really, what could he expect of the youko? Did he think simply because of his vision, the youko would take him away?
"Well." Kelarion sipped at his tankard, eyes watchful over the rim. "Do you want something, Mairisson?"
Eiri started, then realized the youko was probably speaking of something from the bar. "No, thank you."
Kelarion chuckled. After awhile, the intensity of the copper eyes on his forced Eiri to look away, squirming. He had the feeling that the youko could rummage around his thoughts like they were nothing. To his own senses, today Kelarion was as blank as the neutral expression he wore.
"You've Felt things before, haven't you, boy?"
The question took Eiri off guard and he glanced up, startled. He didn't know why, but the peculiar emphasis made that one word take on a capital in his thoughts. He stammered, blushed, broke eye contact again but couldn't deny it outright. Slowly the youko drew answers from him.
After he had sent Eiri up to the bar for another tankard, Kelarion fitted his fingertips together and fixed him with a particularly intense gaze. "So, you can sense, in a limited fashion, the immediate future that concerns you." Eiri nodded. "You can sense the world around you -- amazing for a human -- and some of the underlying energies." Eiri nodded again. "What about...pushing it? Manipulating it, trying to affect it?"
Eiri frowned, hand seeking the medallion beneath his tunic. "No..."
Again, the youko's eyes caught the gesture but he made no indication other than the brief dart of his eyes. Since Eiri's own gaze was downcast again, the boy didn't notice. "You don't belong here," Kelarion said slowly.
"That's what my Mum said, before she died," Eiri said, braving the molten copper eyes again. He felt a flare of completely irrational hope. The youko was a stranger, had nothing to do with him; no kin connections, no reason to take him with on whatever journey he was making. "The Bransson was going to give me over to Father Leary, but then he left Dickenston." The auburn-haired youth frowned. He didn't really remember the circumstances; he'd been too young, but he remembered the vision that meant the Father's departure had affected him.
"Hmm." Kelarion sat back and drank some more.
"Tell me about youkos," Eiri begged.
"Youko," Kelarion corrected. "The word for our race doesn't have a plural. So I'm a youko, and myself and my family and friends are all youko, too."
"Oh." Eiri wrinkled his nose, puzzled.
Kelarion blinked at him. "You can't read, can you?" He had the air of someone making an unpleasant guess.
"No...the Bransson doesn't like to waste letters on any but the eldest; he'd never have a bastard taught," Eiri said sadly. "If I'd gone with Father Leary I would've learned." Davis and Briony and Geir had learned their letters, but the rest of the family was thought a waste of effort and, more importantly, time spent working.
Kelarion sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose.
Eiri smiled hopefully. "Will you tell me about youko?"
After awhile the youko nodded. He began to speak of far-away cities, of merchants and provinces and courts. Kelarion had been, seemingly, every place Eiri had ever heard of, and many places beyond the queendom that he had not. The youko dazzled him over with names, but more confusing, images seemed to hang in the air between them. Eiri saw great stone castles and long, winding walls; he saw endless rippling fields, highway roads stretched out before him and, most puzzling, the face of a giant gray-green cliff.
Eiri jumped. It felt as if a door had been slammed in his face. He rubbed at his nose wonderingly but the sensation persisted; his temples began to ache.
Kelarion had broken off midsentence and was watching him with narrowed old-gold eyes.
"What's wrong?" Eiri asked him.
"What did you see?" Kelarion asked obliquely.
"Umm..." Eiri frowned, sifting through the images that had seemed to form in the very air in front of him.
"The last thing you saw," Kelarion prompted impatiently.
"Oh." Eiri gripped the arms of his chair, unable to look away from Kelarion's eyes. "I saw, uh, a big rocky cliff. I think?" He frowned again in concentration. "I've never seen anything but the fields around Dickenston, I mean, I don't even know--"
The youko cut him off with a curt, "That's fine."
"Did I do something wrong?" Eiri said in a very small voice. His thoughts pounded around his head like frantic rabbits. *Don't be mad, please, don't be mad at me; I didn't mean any harm whatever I did...*
Kelarion made a dismissive gesture. "I was careless, that's all."
After another silence the youko began to speak of the sea. Apparently Kelarion had already been there before, so Eiri wondered why he was making another trip now. Something in the youko's expression told him that he shouldn't ask.
He was acutely conscious of the fact that Kelarion had told him many things, but hadn't said a word about youko. Eiri was disappointed. He had no idea what youko were, really; Kelarion was the first one he'd seen and he was aching for explanations.
The door to the Gilded Rooster opened and slammed shut. The heavy tramp of boots echoed through to the addition, and Eiri slid down in his seat as the Bransson called for a round of ale, not that cheap stuff Cory kept on tap but the real brew.
"You're white," Kelarion observed. "Quite a feat with your sunburn."
"That's the Bransson," Eiri whispered.
"I figured as much."
"So where's this traveler I've heard of?" the Bransson boomed, sounding as if he was in good spirits. He would have driven a few good bargains that morning, being in such a cordial mood.
Cory muttered a reply.
"Davis, get our friends here settled; I'll go pay our respects," the Bransson said clearly. The grunt would be Davis. Then the Bransson was stamping his way into the addition and Kelarion's hands moved swiftly, pulling his hood back up. The youko assumed a pose of exaggerated ease.
"What's this?" Bran Bransson paused in the middle of the room, blinking at the skinny auburn-haired boy sitting beside the new stranger in town.
The youko made a languid gesture, inviting the Bransson closer. "I was asking the boy about the area around here, and the way to the coast."
"Then you're asking the wrong person," the Bransson said jovially. He tromped towards the table. "The little bastard don't know much of anything, much less directions."
Eiri clenched his fists under the table. He had never been to the coast but he betted he could find his way more surely than the Bransson, who had never been either. The wind, the path itself, the movement of the trees could tell him things, but the Bransson was blinder than stone.
"Hmm," was all the youko said.
"I'm Bran Bransson," the Bransson said, extending his palm.
The youko crossed it. "Troy of Ravensbell," was all he said.
Eiri blinked and kept his mouth shut.
"What brings you to these parts, Troy?" the Bransson asked, affecting cheer but his gaze was sharp and curious. He was asking on behalf of the entire town.
"I'm going to the coast. Family business," Kelarion replied.
The Bransson cocked his head. "The Queen's highway is to the west, you know," he said, inviting further explanation. "It's supposed to be the more direct route."
"So I'm told," Kelarion said, skirting the issue.
"You're just passing through, then?" the Bransson prodded.
"That's right," Kelarion said. Eiri thought he sensed a smile on the youko's lips.
"Well, then," the Bransson said, nodding. "Well, then. I'm sure you'll let us know if there's anything we can do for you."
There was a pause.
Eiri clenched his fists again, squeezing his knuckles bloodless. His temples were throbbing again. Something hinged, something was balanced on this. The very moment was painful around him.
"How much for the bastard?" Kelarion asked, tone deliberately casual.
At that Eiri went rigid, kept his head down, and thought unobtrusive thoughts.
Bran Bransson cast an eye over the tall cloaked stranger. "Well, I don't know...push your hood back first, and make me an offer. I won't deal with summat I can't see." His plain broad face was congested with suspicion and curiosity.
Kelarion hesitated for a long beat. Eiri's heart was loud enough, he was sure, for both man and youko to hear. Strangely enough, he heard a kind of echoing beat, as if someone else's thudded in his ears as well. The youko pushed his hood back.
The Bransson stared for a moment, then squinted, then his face contorted. He turned his head and spat to the side. "No deal. I don't deal with your kind, youko."
The youko's face went stiff for a moment like a mask, and Eiri could sense the rage behind it. For a moment he was afraid, and not sure where the fear was directed. Then Kelarion's expression relaxed into something crafty and coaxing. "Yet surely you deal with silver, Ser Bransson." His hand dipped into his belt-pouch and he tossed a small leather sack on the table.
The Bransson eyed it, then squinted at Kelarion. "Silver, you said?"
Eiri's heart tore at him like a trapped bird. This was it, this was the moment, the change was coming and he could feel it all around him like the air had become a heavy field smashing him down. The Bransson didn't care for him, everyone knew that; slavery was illegal in the Queen's land but Cory and whoever was sitting with Davis would turn a blind eye because the Bransson was the biggest farmer in these parts. He would want silver more than a continuing duty to Mairi's son. Eiri willed the man to say yes. Yes, take the bastard off my hands.
"Silver." Kelarion's lips curved, not quite a smile, and he stretched forth a hand, undoing the thong that kept the sack closed. He spread it wide and revealed a puddle of silver coins, taking one between thumb and forefinger. "You deal with silver, do you not? Take it, bite it, shave the edge if you wish. It's genuine silver from Her Majesty's mint."
The Bransson's face turned ugly. "An' how did somethin' like you get Her Majesty's silver, eh?"
The torrent of rage startled Eiri; he stared at Kelarion's smooth face and wondered that no one else could feel it. The heavy atmosphere felt now like a gale battering at him.
"You may not realize, but in larger cities 'my kind' is quite popular," Kelarion was saying dryly. "Anyone can pick up quite a bit of coin with the proper...patronage."
Eiri didn't understand that, nor did he understand the odd mixture of disgust and avarice that crossed the Bransson's face. What he understood was the Bransson reaching for a coin, not the one between Kelarion's fingers but straight from the pouch. The youko let him, molten gold eyes watchful, not glancing at Eiri but the boy had the feeling that part of Kelarion's attention was on him now.
The Bransson rubbed his thumb along the edge, bit the coin, and eyed it with satisfaction.
"How much?" the man demanded.
Eiri felt limp. He would do it. He would let Kelarion take him away from this place.
Kelarion raised a dark brow, and finally glanced at Eiri. "A fourth of the pouch. He's a scrawny bastard."
Eiri burned, but he understood the rudimentaries of haggling and stayed silent in his corner.
"Three-fourths of the pouch," the Bransson said, and continued bluntly, "You're costing me his labor from this point on, and we ain't even done with the harvest season."
Kelarion leaned forward, challenge in his eyes, and the haggling began.
They settled on twenty silver crowns and the Bransson gathered it up at once. Eiri hunched in his chair, a pall of mixed feelings settling over him as he watched the silver coins disappear into the Bransson's pouch. This was how much his life was worth. For twenty silver crowns, his kin gave him into the hands of a stranger -- more than that, a creature that wasn't even human, one that the man obviously loathed.
"Have you got anything to gather from the farm?" Kelarion asked him, pulling his hood up again.
Eiri risked a glance up into the Bransson's broad, uncompromising face. "No," he managed to say. There was nothing there that hadn't been given to him; none of it belonged to himself.
Bran Bransson gave him a jerk of his head. "You take care, boy," he said uncomfortably.
Eiri stared up at him. He wondered briefly if his mother's brother even knew his name. "Thank you for all you've done for me, Ser Bransson." The best thing the man had done was the transaction he'd undertaken today.
The Bransson bobbed his head again and turned, moving slowly at first then clenching his fist around the pouch. His step became vigorous.
"He swindled you," Eiri whispered. "I'm not hardly worth twenty silver crowns; that's what he'd make in three years' harvests."
Kelarion stood, chair scraping back over the stained wood and straw. "Let's go," he said abruptly.
Eiri bounced out of his chair, startled. "What? It's the middle of the day! The next town is--"
"It doesn't matter, we leave now," Kelarion cut him short. He was shaking his head. "Stupid, that was stupid of me..."
"Huh?" Eiri was confused for an instant, then humiliation flooded him. "I-I...you didn't have to..." He tried to gather up the shreds of his dignity. Kelarion must have decided he wasn't worth twenty crowns, after all.
"I showed him my face," Kelarion hissed. He grabbed his tankard and downed the last swallows. Eiri noticed that the youko's hands were shaking, but Kelarion's grip was strong as he grabbed Eiri by the wrist. "I said let's go."
"You didn't hardly give me a chance to move!" Eiri protested. The youko's hand was grating his bones together and he didn't dare to struggle. This was what he wanted, right? Why was it like this then? Eiri thought the floor might tilt, it was happening so quickly; as if the Bransson's acceptance of the money had burst a floodgate. "Kelarion..."
"Just be quiet and come with me," the youko ordered. He stuffed the remainder of his money back into his belt pouch.
It didn't take long, perhaps a quarter sun-mark, for Kelarion to load up his meager belongings on the chestnut horse and settle the tab with Cory. They stood outside the bar and the shadowed hood looked down at him.
"Can you ride, Mairisson?" There was something slightly more subdued in Kelarion's voice.
Eiri shook his head.
"Just as well," Kelarion decided. "I shouldn't buy a horse in a town this small." The hood tilted. "I shouldn't have even bought you, boy."
The brutality of this statement made Eiri blink and he stood there like a simpleton as the youko mounted his horse with the graceful swooping motion he remembered from yesterday. Had it just been yesterday? Then Kelarion was reaching a hand for him. The horse grunted and began to sidle as Eiri tried to scramble his way painfully up into the saddle behind Kelarion. Even hooking his foot into the stirrup, he couldn't manage to throw his leg over the horse that suddenly seemed immense. The saddlebags got in his way, too. At last Kelarion snarled something impolite and yanked on both his arms hard enough to make him cry out, dragging him up and forcing him into the saddle in front of him.
"Ouch," Eiri mumbled, as the folds of the youko's cloak settled around him. Kelarion's arms were to either side of him, picking up the reins. He was clucking to the chestnut horse, who broke into a trot. Kelarion clucked again, and the horse moved into a faster gait that jolted the breath out of Eiri each time its hooves met the ground.
"Why--" he started, and nearly bit his tongue in half as his teeth clacked together. Eiri shut up. If he was lucky, Kelarion would explain the need for frantic haste later.
Within half a sun-mark, Eiri and Kelarion had left the golden-green fields of Dickenston behind them forever.
"I should have kidnapped you, Mairisson," Kelarion said with a chuckle.
The chestnut had returned to a smoother gait with several sun-marks' distance behind them. They were in the foothills of the rolling coastal mountains, and Eiri felt more comfortably settled with the fact of Kelarion's arms around him, the lean body snugly behind his in the saddle. He was gone from the Bransson's farmstead. The simple wonder of that fact made it easier to bear Kelarion's brief harshness.
"Why?" Eiri tilted his head back, squinting as the sun got in his eyes.
Kelarion chuckled again, leaning forward a bit, his hood overshadowing Eiri's sunburnt face. "I'm sorry. I know I startled you. It's not that you aren't worth twenty silver crowns -- you're worth your damned weight in silver, boy -- but Bran Bransson will definitely remember 'Troy of Ravensbell' for that fact alone. Even more stupidly, I showed him my face."
"What's wrong with that?" Eiri asked cautiously. He was expecting to be slapped down at any moment; Kelarion had shown enough of a volatile nature that he was wary.
"I'm on the run," Kelarion said frankly. "Oh, they'll have pursuers on Her Majesty's highway, I expect, but they may send a Knight or two up this less-traveled path...in fact, I'd be shocked if they didn't. Which is why I was incredibly stupid to buy you like that."
"You didn't have to," Eiri repeated his earlier injured plaint.
Kelarion made a 'tsk'ing noise. "I could hardly leave you there. Jewel amongst dross. No, Mairisson, you're meant for one of us, but I should've kidnapped you."
"I'm sorry," Eiri apologized. He hesitated. "The Queen's Knights...why are they after you?"
The youko was silent long enough that Eiri thought he had taken offense, or simply decided not to reply. "The Queen has a very beautiful son," he said after a long moment.
For a moment Eiri was uncomprehending. He knew the basic facts of life, of course, growing up on a farm and all. Sex wasn't something he'd connected with himself yet, although uncomfortable urges had been coming and going since he'd hit his thirteenth year. He'd felt drawn to neither male nor female during his growing-up on the Bransson farmstead. Kelarion was the first creature that had drawn a shiver, however brief, from between his legs and the feeling had startled him.
"I wasn't able to resist, and he certainly never said no..." Kelarion sounded sad. "It wasn't his fault Her Majesty took an exception to the relationship when it was discovered. So I'm on the run."
"Oh...for...sleeping with the Queen's son?" Eiri said, a bit blank.
"Yes," Kelarion said shortly.
Was it really such a crime? Eiri knew nothing of court life. He'd grown up on a farm where, when it came to sex, the only taboo was brother sleeping with sister. After a moment, Eiri worked up the courage to ask, "Did you love him?"
Kelarion thought about it. "I don't know," he replied after a pause. "In a way, maybe."
Eiri didn't quite understand, but he let it pass. Either you loved someone or not, right? He had loved his mother. He hadn't loved any of the Branssons. But in a distant way Eiri grasped the fact that he wasn't old enough, or mature enough, to fully understand what Kelarion was talking about.
The horse's hooves stirred up faint clouds of dust on the road as they climbed into the foothills. Eiri felt comfortable in Kelarion's arms. The youko's rage had passed and he was now a warm presence all along the length of his body. It made him feel a little odd to be held like this, and it wasn't anything like being held by his mother.
"Will you tell me about youko now?"
Kelarion made a wry noise. "You noticed that, did you?"
"I'm not stupid, you know," Eiri said, staring between the horse's ears a bit sullenly. "I asked you about youko and you told me about the places you'd been. It's not the same thing at all. You didn't mention anything about other youko, or even what you are." His tone had turned sharp, a bit accusatory, at the end and he huddled a little, fearing retaliation.
The youko slung an arm around his waist, chuckling. Kelarion's hand was tucked against his belly, hand against the skin laid bare where Eiri's shirt had ridden up. Again, the creature's response hadn't been what he'd predicted.
"People used to call us the fox-spirits," Kelarion told him, tone low and husky. "I don't remember why. I don't think anyone but scholars might know, but we youko have been around since the Floods or before. I'm not clear on the details. I don't know when we first showed up, but as far as I'm concerned we've been around forever."
Eiri nodded, confused. He'd never heard of youko before but then, he'd barely heard of anything outside Dickenston.
"You've heard about the Floods, right?" Kelarion's burning upside-down eyes stared into his as a finger tipped his chin back. "And the Years of Recession?"
"Um, kind of," Eiri faltered, put on the spot. "Father Leary would talk about it, I think. How the waters came up to swallow the earth, driving man to high ground, punishing us for our wickedness. And then when man turned his back on the wickedness, the waters began to recede, and the two continents were joined by land again."
"Right," Kelarion said, with a twist of his lips. "Only it wasn't called wickedness, it was called 'technology.'"
"Never mind." Kelarion shrugged off the foreign word. "The important thing is, we've been around since the Floods, or before. Probably before. And man has always called us 'fox-spirits,' 'Changeling,' 'kitsune,' 'Changers,' or 'youko.' The oldest story we have is the one of our name, and a leader, Wolf Shikago taking the name 'youko' for our people."
Eiri was silent, digesting this.
"What does 'youko' mean?" he asked. "And that other word? Kit...uh, kitsu--"
"Kitsune," Kelarion finished the word for him. "That's an old one. It's a word from the isles of Nihon, before they were destroyed by the Floods. The Nihongo called us 'kitsune,' which means 'fox-spirits,' but also 'trickster,' I think. That part is accurate enough." He smiled briefly.
"And youko?" Eiri pressed. "What does that mean?"
Kelarion's eyes darkened. "I don't remember."
Eiri blinked. "Yes, you do." The words slipped out before he could catch them. Eiri had always been able to feel the difference between the truth and a lie. The untruth just...felt wrong. He didn't know how to put it into words.
Kelarion leaned back, hand rubbing idly against the skin of Eiri's belly, drawing a shiver from the boy. "Well, then I don't feel like telling you." There was a lazy sense of threat in the words, though Eiri didn't feel particularly frightened. He had the sense he should have been.
A snarling face matted with blood and wild hair swam up before Eiri's vision, vaguely human, youko-fox ears laid flat, lips peeled back in a vicious snapping growl. With a gasp, Eiri shook himself and stared wildly at the sky, realizing that his eyes had been closed. That face, that twisted angry *hunted* face... "It means demon, doesn't it?" he gasped, unthinking.
Kelarion's fingernails scraped across his stomach. "Watch it," he hissed in Eiri's ear. "You're treading on dangerous ground."
Numbly, the boy nodded, trying to relax again. The lean body behind him was tense for a long moment, then the hand resumed its idle stroking across his belly, providing him with another kind of tension. Eiri weaved his fingers into the horse's tangled mane and tried not to think too much.
That face had been Kelarion's.
Late into the evening, when the moon above cast clear white light through interlaced branches and the stars were pinprick flares dotting the canopy, they found a fur-trapping village high in the coastal mountains. It was bigger than Dickenston, bustling with lean men dressed in breeches and vests of fur, women in trousers -- something Eiri had never seen before -- and horses and dogs everywhere in the muddy ruts that criss-crossed the village. All of the low-slung buildings were made of raw timber, looking as if someone had piled a bunch of felled trees in rough square shapes. Eiri huddled against the cloaked figure of Kelarion and looked everywhere with wide eyes.
"We'll stop here for the night," Kelarion said in his ear, and the boy nodded.
He didn't have any say in the matter, did he? Kelarion had bought him for twenty silver crowns.
There was an inn, or rather, a tavern with rooms attached. Kelarion paid someone to see to the horse and led him inside, keeping him shadowed in one wing of the cloak.
A woman weaved between tables, carrying a heavy tray laden with drinks and food. She wore a fir-trimmed skirt that went to her knees, something that resembled the sling Briony wore for her breasts, and very little else. She took one look at them and craned her neck. "Lars, a couple o'sleepers!" Her voice was hoarse but not unpleasant.
From behind the bar, a huge ox of a man hailed them, waving a hairy hand. "Travelers! Welcome to Lars' Tavern!"
"Creative name," Kelarion murmured, and drew him further inside.
Unlike Cory's place, the only smell was that of smoke and drink and some kind of roast. The floor underneath was packed dirt, and here and there a dog lay beneath the table or squarely beneath the patrons' feet. The woman moved here and there, serving the man and occasional woman at the tables. On the other side of the tavern, a blonde dressed in the same kind of outfit performed the same service.
"I'm Lars," the big man greeted them. He had long, tangled, somewhat greasy black hair and a full beard that trailed down his chest. "Tavern owner and bouncer too. You need a room for the night?"
"It would be appreciated," Kelarion said, lifting his voice. One arm pressed Eiri close to his side, keeping him mostly-hidden under the cloak. When he spoke again, there was a lazy sort of grin in his voice. "We've been riding for quite some time and I haven't been able to take advantage of my partner's charms."
"Ah," Lars said, an odd sort of grin broadening his wide face. "Been that kind of day, huh? Where you from, stranger?"
"I'm Mihall from Capespuerto," Kelarion lied smoothly. "We got turned around in these mountains, but we're heading for the capital by way of Tarriston."
The big man squinted. "I see. Well, we've got a room open, we get travelers but we ain't got any right now. Pick one and make yerself at home. You pay now for the room, and tomorrow to settle up for the horse and any food and drink. Fair?"
"Fair enough," Kelarion acknowledged. Money changed hands. The big man indicated the door to the right of the bar, and Kelarion dragged Eiri through it.
"H-Hey!" Eiri protested, breathless, once they were inside the stuffy room and Kelarion tossed the saddlebags to the floor. He rubbed at his arm. "I'm not a sack of meal, y'know!"
"No, a sack of meal is far less dangerous," Kelarion retorted, pushing his hood back and tearing at the scarf covering his ears. There was that lazy grin again, the one that had been in his voice moments before, lighting his eyes with a predatory sort of look as he stalked towards Eiri.
Something inside him told Eiri to move, to get out of the way at least, but he stood his ground as Kelarion bore down on him.
The youko gripped him by the arms, and his dark gold eyes were searching Eiri's face for something. "You have no idea, do you?" His voice was low again, with that certain husky quality that made hairs prickle on the boy's nape.
"What?" he asked, still a little resentful for the way he'd been wrenched about moments before.
"What I could do to you," Kelarion told him, bending his head, breath on Eiri's skin gusting just below the youth's ear. Lips touched him and Eiri shuddered as the youko nipped his neck. The hands tightened on his arms, bruising pressure, but he didn't mind. Kelarion's mouth was sliding, wet and exciting, up the curve of his jaw and sealing over his mouth.
"Ohh..." The low sound was smothered by Kelarion's lips on his. Another shudder swept through Eiri and the youko held him closer, pulling him flush against his body. The cloak's folds fell around him like it had earlier that day but it felt different this time, like it was stroking across his skin. A thin line of fire played over his bottom lip as Kelarion licked across his mouth and when he gasped, the youko slipped inside.
When Kelarion wrenched his mouth away, Eiri's breath came faster, his lips still tingling. His mouth still felt...full. He could taste the youko in his mouth, and he thought he liked it.
"Your first kiss" -- Kelarion's eyes burned into his, inches away -- "will always be mine." He brought their bodies even closer, drawing Eiri tight against his hips. Something silken and downy-soft brushed over Eiri's leg, curling around his thigh. A tail. He was briefly stunned, then it was chased away by Kelarion's lips moving up the line of his neck again, on the other side of his jaw this time.
What frightened Eiri was not the fact of the tall youko's body rubbing against his, but the leaping response of his own body. He breathed raggedly, fighting the instinct to return the bodily caress with motion of his hips. Kelarion pushed against his thigh, then made a noise of disgust and shoved him away.
"Damn it," the youko snarled, transforming from sensuous to stormy in an eyeblink. "Get away. Go look out the window, or something."
Frustrated, a little frightened, but almost equally angry, Eiri backed away, staring up at the volatile creature. "What--"
Kelarion slammed a fist against the wall. "Now!"
Eiri jumped, eyes going wide, and scuttled for the opposite side of the little room. He could feel the youko's presence as if Kelarion's silky tail were still rubbing against his leg. The creature's rapid mood shifts still frightened him for the very unpredictability, which reminded him of life on the Bransson farmstead.
"Under other circumstances, I'd give you what you're so obviously wanting," Kelarion told him, eyes flaring with sparks of gold as he stared at him across the room. He pressed hands to his temples. "I can't think. I can't do this. You don't belong to me, and my head's still full of Tori."
Eiri kept his eyes turned away. The room was cold by the windowsill, because it had gotten cold outside and the chill clung to the windowpane.
After a long moment, Kelarion snarled something under his breath and left the room, slamming the door behind him.
He was still throbbing. Eiri closed his eyes and rested his forehead against the cloudy windowpane. He was near sick with frustration. For a moment, he felt he'd been so close to...to something, to the reason why he was here, why he was different from the Branssons and the other village kids, and he'd been so close to something as Kelarion touched him.
You don't belong to me.
What did that mean? Kelarion had just paid for him that morning.
The cold seeped into his bones and he began to chafe at his hands. It was colder up in the mountains, cold enough to snow probably, though it was high summer down on the plains. They had come a long way since that morning. Suddenly Eiri was frightened and, awful as Kelarion had been, he wanted desperately to see something that was remotely familiar, that connected him from one place to another.
There was a fire burning low on the hearth opposite the bed, and he paused to warm his hands for a moment before trying the door.
It was stuck.
Eiri stared at it, puzzled. His temples were aching for no good reason. This wasn't the kind of door that had a lock, it had a simple bar to prevent intruders. The bar wasn't crossed over the jamb. Eiri tried the door again, and the ache in his temples grew. He began to bang on the door.
"Kelarion?" Forlorn at first, his voice became swiftly frantic. "KELARION!? KELARION!!"
It was hours before the youko returned. By then Eiri had screamed himself hoarse.