1.     Bitter Truth

 

It was the third day since their departure from Ummana. Canubis had taken the first watch, eager to have some time on his own, alone in the darkness with nothing to distract his thoughts. He still didn’t know whether he should be pleased about this year’s unusual campaign or if he should write it off as a failure. Their original mission had been a success, no doubt. Not only had they gotten their revenge on the followers of the Good Mother in Medelina, they had also seen to it that the lives of those worshipping the old hag in the vicinity of the Confederation were going to be a lot more uncomfortable from now on. It was all thanks to his brother’s heart, and that was where the problems started.

Canubis liked Casto, not just because he was Renaldo’s missing part, but also for his stubborn and unbending personality. Once you got past his defenses, the young man was easy to like. He was also a king who had shown impressively what he was capable of at any time of the day. Canubis didn’t feel threatened; his own dominance was too absolute. It was his nature, after all, just like Renaldo’s nature was the fire, wild and untamed. He was worried, though. It was hard to read Casto, and Canubis still wasn’t entirely sure if he could rely on the capricious blond like he had to.

Then there was all that trouble with Noran. The Wolf of War had silently watched the affair Renaldo had with the master smith shortly after he joined them. Since he himself had rarely said no to anybody before he met Noemi, he didn’t have the right to interfere. When Noran had chosen Arja, Canubis had still held back. From his point of view, it had been a minor incident with little to no significance whatsoever. Well, he had been wrong about that one. Now he had to deal with an Emeris who was so riddled with guilt, he was hardly capable of performing his duties. Canubis wondered whether he should have a word with Noran. On the other hand, Hulda seemed to have taken this in hand. Interfering with her was unwise, to put it mildly. Besides, leaving the whole business to her made life easier for him.

Their latest addition, the demon called Sar’reff, was another problem he hadn’t decided how to deal with yet. His sudden appearance had at least shed some light on Lys’s nature, and so far, that was the best he could say about him. Canubis wasn’t too keen on having two alien creatures who did not answer to his power inside the Pack. There was nothing he could do about Lysistratos, since he was irrefutably linked to Casto, but the other one was a different matter. Noemi thought it was a good thing to have him here, a notion her husband didn’t share. If push came to shove, Lys would always side with Casto, and he was unpredictable. Most likely, Sar’reff would follow the stallion’s example, since he hadn’t found his anchor yet. And probably never would—putting him out of his misery might even be an act of mercy, just as Renaldo had suggested.

Losing the Luksari had been a low blow. Given the circumstances, they had to be grateful for getting out of their debt toward the young man almost unscathed, but the whole thing still left a bad aftertaste. Of course, it was hard to recognize a Luksari—not even Ana-Aruna was always dead-on—and there had been that damned spell, but still. He and Renaldo had not only not recognized what Sic was, they had also subjected him to their wrath and left him to Noran. It was the worst blunder Canubis had ever made in all his years as a leader. And now, of all times, when they had gotten so close to finally completing their ranks. It was infuriating. And stupid. If only—

One of the wolves who had been lying at his feet perked up. A single rider was approaching. The Wolf of War drew his sword, his eyes piercing the darkness.

“Whoever you are, come out and show yourself or I’ll kill you.”

There was a rustling in the bushes and then a thin, familiar voice answered.

“Please, don’t do that, Master. It’s me, Sic.”

The smith emerged from the shadows, leading an unhappy horse toward the warlord.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to sneak up on you, but this one here isn’t used to the wolves and she’s kind of edgy.”

Canubis indicated the predators to leave them alone and take up their posts a little farther from the camp. Once the wolves were gone, the mare calmed down enough for Sic to step closer.

“Thank you, Master.”

“Sic, what brings you here? I’m thrilled to see you, but, to be frank, I expected to never meet you again.”

The young man evaded his gaze.

“Can we go to the camp? I’d better show you.”

Canubis furrowed his brow but followed the smith back to the fire in the middle of the camp. He could tell there was something strange about the young man, probably the awakening of his Luksari nature. At the fire, Renaldo was waiting for them. He had felt his brother’s surprise and was curious about the reason. When he beheld Sic, his eyes widened.

“Sic! What are you doing here?”

The Luksari stepped into the light, his eyes shyly cast downward.

“Some things have happened, and now I want to ask your permission to return to the Valley with you.”

“Something bad? You don’t look very happy.”

Thrilled about the prospect of getting Sic back, Canubis had to concentrate on not showing his excitement. The smith looked so crestfallen, his reason for returning had to be something serious.

“After you left, I had a visit from Ana-Isara. She kissed me.”

Stunned silence followed these words. Then Canubis rushed forward.

“Show me.”

Demurely, Sic took off his riding coat and opened his tunic. The warlords stared at the black runes glowing on the unmarred skin, unable to believe their own eyes. Here stood the last Emeris, the one they had been waiting for so long—it was too good to be true. Renaldo reached out to touch the signs with an expression of sheer awe on his regal face.

“This is so amazing. And so perfect.” He hugged the smith gently. “Welcome to the family, brother. It’s good to have you finally here.”

“My brother is right—I’m glad we’re now complete. Welcome, Lord Sic.”

The oddly formal words made Sic realize how drastically and completely his life had changed. All of a sudden, he felt exhausted.

“I’m very tired, Masters. May I rest?”

“Of course. This must have been difficult for you.”

Canubis patted his shoulder. “Go and have a good night’s sleep. We can talk tomorrow.”

“Casto will be thrilled. I can’t wait to see his face.” Renaldo radiated happy excitement, which made Sic feel even more miserable than before. Then again, seeing Casto was the one thing he was actually looking forward to. He went to lie down and hesitated. On their journey to Ummana, things had been painful but clear. He had helped the other slaves to set up camp, served Noran as his personal toy, and then slept on the ground in the master smith’s tent. It was not a place he wanted to visit right now, so he directed his steps toward the area where the common slaves slept. A heavy hand on his shoulder stopped him.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Renaldo sounded apprehensive.

“I wanted to lie down. But if there’s anything you want me to do, Master….”

“No! You don’t have to do anything. And you’re most certainly not going to sleep with the slaves. Come with me. You can have my place.”

Sic was close to panicking. Having the aloof Angel of Death treat him like a treasured friend was too much after all the strain he’d had to endure. Desperately he tried to find a way out, but Renaldo was already dragging him toward his own tent. He shoved the struggling smith inside, pressing a finger to Sic’s lips.

“Shh. Casto’s sleeping, so try not to make too much noise. My furs are right next to him. Now take off your boots and rest. We’ll talk about everything tomorrow.”

Sighing, Sic obeyed the commands of his god, too tired to argue with the empty air, for Renaldo was already gone. Casto was sleeping soundly, his soft blond hair surrounding his face like a halo. He looked very young and vulnerable in his sleep, nothing like the stubborn, arrogant, and short-tempered man Sic had come to call his friend. When it came to hardships, they both had gotten more than their fair share. Being with Casto again was the only good thing he’d gotten out of the bargain with Ana-Isara. He was still afraid of her sons, and he dreaded having to deal with Noran again. It was too confusing, too painful. If he had still been a normal human, he could have evaded the master smith somehow, but now that he was an Emeris as well, there was no way he could ignore him. Sic would have to address his issues with his former owner, and the sooner, the better. The mere thought terrified him.

Well, there was nothing he could do right at the moment, so he took off his clothes, made himself comfortable on the furs, and was asleep before he even noted the velvet softness of his covers.

 

 

The next morning Sic woke with a start. Casto was looming over him like a hungry vulture, his face only a hand from the smith’s nose.

“So you’re finally awake. I thought you’d sleep the entire day. Why didn’t you wake me when you came here?”

Sic smiled weakly. Talking to his friend again made him feel all tingly inside.

“Because a certain god who has the means to make my life unbearably miserable told me to let you sleep.”

“Why would you listen to him? He’s like a mother hen, so just ignore him.”

“I can’t do that, as you well know. I don’t have your guts.”

“I’m not that brave either, just annoyed as hell. He’s really getting on my nerves. Now back to the issue at hand. Why are you here? I mean, I’m thrilled, don’t get me wrong, but I do remember your reasons for staying in Ummana, and they were substantial. So what made you change your mind?”

Sic’s face darkened.

“Not what. Who. I got a visit from the Empress of the Dead. Seems like we’ll be staying together for quite some time.”

It took a few moments for the words to sink in, and when they finally did, Casto’s face was a sight to behold. Different emotions flickered across his features, among them joy, pity, regret, and fear. It moved Sic deeply to see how completely his friend understood him and how he felt with him. Finally, the king hugged the smith, his voice a harsh whisper.

“I can’t say I’m sorry. I know how hard this must be for you. But I just can’t say I’m sorry. For that, I’m too glad.”

“I know. And you’re the only one permitted to say so.”

They were still basking in the intimate moment when Renaldo came barging in. Sic couldn’t remember ever seeing the god so jittery with excitement.

“What are you two waiting for? There’re lots of people out there who wish to welcome the new Emeris to the Pack. So get going. Get going.”

“Easy, Barbarian. Sic has just woken up. He hasn’t had breakfast yet.”

“He can eat later. Now come!”

Renaldo grabbed Sic by the hand, dragging him into the morning light like an impatient toddler would his mother. In front of the tent, they were all gathered. Up front were Noemi and the Emeris—Hulda, Wolfstan, Kalad, Aegid, and Noran, although the master smith stayed back when the others approached their new brother. Behind them came the warriors and then the slaves. They all wanted to greet, or at least catch a glimpse of, the last Emeris. Sic was buried under an avalanche of hugs, kisses, and salutations. It was Canubis who rescued him in the end.

“It’s enough! Sic has gone through a lot, and we still have to get back home before the winter storms set in. So while he eats his breakfast, it would be nice if the rest of you could put down the camp and prepare our departure.”

 

 

The journey back to the Valley was peaceful; no highwayman was crazy enough to go after the heavily armed baggage of the divine brothers. Sic spent a lot of his time with Hulda, who introduced him to the rules that would shape his life as an Emeris from now on. If he wasn’t with the beautiful killer, he rode next to Casto. Most of the time, they kept their silence, simply enjoying each other’s company. They didn’t need words to understand each other. In the evenings, when the slaves erected the camp, the Angel of Death took Sic aside to teach him the basics of fighting. Sometimes Aegid and Kalad would accompany him and act as sparring partners. Renaldo was satisfied with Sic’s progress.

“You’re a fast learner, Sic. And you’re talented. Soon you’ll be able to stand your ground in any fight—except against me, of course.”

Sic bowed demurely at receiving such praise.

“You’re very gracious, my lord.”

Renaldo put his hand on the young man’s shoulder.

“You know you don’t have to call me ‘lord’ anymore? At least not all the time.”

“Yes, but I have to get used to the thought first. Not long ago I was worth even less than the dust beneath your feet. My sudden ascent is still confusing me.”

The powerful warrior laughed out loud.

“You’re not the first one. Believe me, you’ll get used to it. In a hundred years’ time, we’ll think about this day and have a good laugh.”

At the mention of his immortality, Sic still felt uneasy. He didn’t want to imagine what it felt like to have all the time in the world. Right now he didn’t want to think about anything at all.

When they were only a few days’ ride from the Valley, Canubis sent a messenger to announce the happy news about their latest addition.

“We want the last Emeris to have accommodation befitting his rank,” he had told his brother with a broad smile. Renaldo had reciprocated the smile. Both gods were in an exceptionally good mood, since the time of waiting was finally over for them.

The welcome to the Valley was as effusive as could be expected in view of such good news. Cornelia and Bantu had prepared an elaborate feast during which Sic was officially introduced as the eighth Emeris. A shower of gifts rained down on him, and his spartan rooms in the main house filled up quickly, a fact he mainly owed to Aegid. The intimidating giant had excellent taste and was eager to decorate Sic’s new home.

More important to Sic than the pleasant housing was the small forge Renaldo had built for him adjacent to his chambers. Through a newly installed door, he could enter his working space any time he wanted. Since his rooms were facing west, away from those of the other Emeris, he wouldn’t disturb them even when he started working early in the morning or stayed late into the night. Sic was so happy about this, he even managed to forget about Noran for a couple of minutes each day.

The master smith kept away from him. Even coincidental meetings were rare, although Sic longed to see his master’s face. He hated himself for still loving the monster who had hurt him so much. The contradictory feelings tore him up inside, constantly gnawing at him, making his thoughts go round and round without ever coming to a solution. Even the peace in his smithy was disturbed by this emotional whirlwind.

Only during the training sessions with the Angel of Death was Noran completely erased from his thoughts for some time. The god was working him so mercilessly, he had trouble standing on his own two feet after each lesson. This overwhelming exhaustion helped him to stop his useless pondering, at least for a while.

Another reason for worry were the slaves he had received during the feast as part of a welcoming gift. The two men and three women still saw the traitor in him he had been at his departure in spring, and they acted accordingly. Not being able to bring himself to punish them didn’t help his case at all. He was still musing how to solve this problem on his own, because he would rather die than ask any of his new brethren for help, when Casto took matters in hand. How his friend had found out about it, Sic didn’t want to know, but it reminded him never to forget that Casto was far more than met the eye.

One day, his capricious friend waited in front of Sic’s door with an elderly slave at his side.

“Sic, may I introduce Gweris to you? She’s been working for Renaldo for ages, and from now on, she’s going to take care of you. You’re so busy at the moment, nobody can expect you to keep your slaves in line as well. Gweris is going to do that for you.”

The slave bowed to him respectfully. Her voice was a soothing, congenial alto.

“My Lord Sic.”

“Gweris. I’m honored to meet you. Please, come in.”

The slave entered the room. Her friendly green-brown eyes narrowed when she took in the chaos inside. Her voice was stern when she talked to her new owner.

“Where are your slaves, Master?”

Sic blushed. “To be frank, I don’t know.”

With a last scornful glance, Gweris pushed the two young men out of her way.

“I understand. I’m going to take care of this.”

Her tone of voice indicated that those on the receiving end of her wrath would regret their abhorrent behavior quite deeply. When she was gone, Casto’s shoulders slumped forward.

“I admit, she’s a bit scary, but she’s also the best.”

“Scary? You’re kidding me, right? I almost lost control of my bladder, that’s how terrified I am. Have you seen her eyes? She’s almost as bad as Cassia. I think Gweris has only spared me right now because she was too busy being furious about my slaves. How can anybody own a woman like her?”

Casto grinned.

“Because she chooses her masters, which is the reason I brought her to you. Even Renaldo treads carefully around her. She’s going to bring your servants to heel.”

Embarrassed, Sic glanced at the ground. “How did you know?”

“I’m your friend, Sic. And a king, heart of a god, and not stupid. I can sense it when you’re upset. This is a problem with which I can help you, so I did.”

The underlying message in these words was clear. The king also knew about Sic’s other problems, even though he wasn’t able to offer useful counsel. His voice was very gentle.

“Perhaps you should talk to somebody who understands what you’ve been through. Once you think you’re ready, I’m sure Cornelia will gladly listen to you.”

Lost for words, Sic embraced Casto. He thanked the Mothers for blessing him with such a wonderful friend. It was up to him to prove that he was worthy of such grace.