Excerpt--Wolf's-own, Book Two: Weregild
Storm-month, Year 1322, Cycle of the
He hadn’t been expecting to see Jacin
again so soon. He certainly hadn’t been expecting to see him
before the small hours, and yet here he stood, rain-soaked and
hollow-eyed, in the doorway of the little hut, blinking about
himself like he’d forgotten why he’d come. Joori’s mouth quirked
up in an uncertain half smile—right up until he saw the two men
who came up to stand behind Jacin in the doorway.
His first instinct—hunters? bandits?
was Jacin some kind of hostage?—was to yank Jacin through
the door and slam it shut. Too bad his body’s first reaction was
to freeze like a rodent beneath the shadow of a hawk’s wings.
Joori was still gaping like an idiot and
didn’t catch Caidi before she made a run at Jacin, so she was
rather open prey for the man who stepped forward to intercept
her. Jacin didn’t move—Joori couldn’t. Just watched the man
swing his little sister up onto his hip with a grin Joori didn’t
quite believe—more wolfish than friendly—then cut a narrow
glance at Morin and a mocking one at Joori.
“Kamen Malick,” the man said, “you can
call me Malick,” then he tipped a nod at Morin and spared a
quick smile for Caidi as he tweaked her nose before turning his
cool glance back on Joori. “Friends of your brother’s. We’re
here to take you somewhere safe.”
The other man, the big one, pursed his
mouth in clear disapproval. “You plan on telling everyone
you meet your real name?”
You-can-call-me-Malick just grinned. “It’s
Fen’s family,” he said, like it was a perfectly reasonable
Handsome. Friendly-seeming enough. The
other man was big and blocky, a little bit scary, maybe, but not
threatening, though a broadsword hung at his hip. The one who
called himself Kamen Malick was armed, as well, but no weapons
were drawn, which had to be a good sign—right? With Jacin just
standing there, somewhat glassy-eyed, You-can-call-me-Malick
smiling, all amiable amusement, and the other waiting in the
doorway like an attentive steward, it all seemed absurdly
unthreatening for a sudden appearance in the dark of night with
a storm rolling steadily. And the statement—safe; could
it be possible?—really should have set elation through Joori,
not raise his hackles the way it did.
It was the hand on Jacin’s shoulder that
made Joori’s eyes narrow. The casual way You-can-call-me-Malick
tipped in and spoke something quietly into Jacin’s ear as he set
Caidi down and gave her a pat between the shoulder-blades then
gently pushed her away from Jacin. The impossible to mistake
marks just below Jacin’s ear. And then the way Jacin merely
peered at Joori, then at Morin and Caidi, said, “Take what you
can carry; the cart’s only big enough for Caidi and a few
provisions,” then angled stiffly away from the door and out from
under the grip on his shoulder to direct Caidi and Morin with
Joori had had his suspicions for years
about what Asai had wanted with his brother—hell, he’d been
pretty sure he knew exactly what Asai was about the night he
stepped arrogantly into their dooryard—and Jacin’s reticence and
unwillingness to talk in detail about the man at all in the
weeks they’d spent in this little hut had drawn conclusions of
every sort of abuse and exploitation Joori could fathom. And
he’d be damned if he’d see it done again—not in his name,
He pushed past the cocky stranger with the
too easy grin, growling a little at the way the man tried to
angle himself between Joori and Jacin, like he was trying to
keep Joori away—keep Joori away from his brother; how
dare the man—and took hold of Jacin’s elbow.
“Jacin, what’s going on? Who are these
people?” And then he peered a little closer. “Are you drunk?
Or…?” His eyes narrowed, and he wheeled on the grinning
stranger. “What’ve you got him on?”
You-can-call-me-Malick’s eyebrows drew
down. “What’ve I got him—?”
“I can barely see the color of his eyes
for the pupils, and he looks like he’s about to fall over.”
“Joori, not now.” It was snappish and
short. Jacin pulled his arm away from Joori’s grip. “They’re who
they say they are. This is Malick. And that’s Samin.”
He waved at the man still standing like a
block of stone just outside the door. Good thing too, because
the hut was only so big, and Caidi was taking up half the floor
with the pile of clothes through which she was sorting with
Morin’s help. Caidi was chattering excitedly, while Morin kept
half a cagey eye on everyone in the room.
“Yori and Shig are keeping watch outside,”
Jacin went on. “We’re taking you to a safe place in the city.
Get your things.”
“A safe…?” Had he really said “a safe
place”? In the city? Was there such a thing? Joori looked
around. At Caidi and Morin obediently throwing together all the
clothes Jacin had brought. At the man Jacin had called Samin
standing out in the rain on the other side of the door, watching
everything going on inside while simultaneously scanning the
yard. At the other man—this Malick—smiling that self-satisfied
smile, eyes far too focused on Jacin, even as he crouched down
beside Morin to help shove balled-up clothes into a sack. At
Jacin, making his stiff way over to the rickety board and
staring down at the piles of food, like he couldn’t decide what
to do about them….
“Leave it,” Malick said quietly. “You
won’t need to worry about it anymore.”
…at the way Jacin just nodded vaguely,
Joori gave Malick a bit of a glare as he
stepped up behind Jacin, annoyed when Malick simply widened his
smirk and shook his head, like Joori’s distrust amused him.
“Jacin,” Joori said, leaning in so he could speak softly, for
Jacin’s ears only, “are you sure this is real?”
Jacin turned to Joori slowly, gaze a touch
murky, but by no means muddled. He was pale, going sallow, with
twin spots of color on each cheekbone. “As real as I can
manage,” he muttered, dropping his glance guiltily to the floor.
Half moons like bruises blotted the thin skin beneath his eyes,
and his jaw was clenched so tight Joori would swear he could
hear teeth squeak.
“What’s wrong with you?” Joori demanded.
“You looked fine last night.” A little shredded around the
center, but otherwise all right. No, that wasn’t true,
really—he’d looked exhausted, too, and there’d been… something.
Something in his eyes.
“Nothing that won’t keep.” Jacin tried to
smile a little, but the ghastly thing that crooked at his mouth
only knocked up the worry blooming in Joori’s gut. “We don’t
have much time,” Jacin said. “I didn’t know… I had no idea….” He
paused, dipped his head again, and rubbed at his temple. “Asai…
Fuck, Joori, I’m so sorry, I never—”
“I think that’s got it all,” Malick cut
in, shouldering past Joori to pull up beside Jacin. That
too-possessive grip went once again to Jacin’s arm. Tawny eyes
settled far too keenly on Joori as long fingers curled around
Jacin’s braid. Smirking. Silent laughter bubbling just beneath
it. Like he knew exactly what Joori was thinking, and thought it
terribly funny. “We should go, Fen.”
“Yes,” was all Jacin said. He reached out
and gave Joori’s shoulder a quick brush as he squeezed around
Biddable. Like what this Malick person
Joori took hold of Jacin’s elbow and
stopped him, leaning in to speak softly into his ear again.
Joori kept his narrow gaze locked onto Malick’s smug one.
“Jacin,” Joori whispered, “are you sure this is real?”
Jacin turned his head, met Joori’s eyes.
“It’s real.” Then why did he look so damned miserable? “It’ll be
all right, Joori. I… this wasn’t… I’m sorry.”
“For what?” Joori shot a look at Malick,
who was still holding onto Jacin’s braid like some kind of
leash. Joori set his jaw and tugged a little until Jacin took a
step away. “Why are you sorry, Jacin?” He dropped his voice as
low as it could go and still make sound. “What are you paying
Rising dread turned to unfocused alarm
when Jacin whiffed a tired laugh. “No price,” he murmured. He
craned his neck around to meet Malick’s even gaze for a long,
heavy moment, face unreadable, then straightened and pulled
away. Joori was ridiculously relieved when Jacin irritably
yanked his braid from Malick’s fingers, and even more so when
Malick let go. “We have to leave now.” Jacin turned to face
Joori squarely, eyes flicking quickly over Joori’s shoulder at
the smirking man who watched a little too closely, then back
again to Joori. “Please, Joori.”
Joori looked at Jacin hard then turned his
glance once again on Malick, let it narrow at the steady look he
got back. “I don’t trust him,” he said, voice deliberately loud
enough that Malick could hear. Joori kept his gaze steady, even
as Malick shrugged, indifferent.
“He never asked you to,” Malick
said, then he sauntered on past and made it a point to drop a
quick touch to Jacin’s shoulder as he angled around them both
and out the door, collecting Samin as he went.
Joori turned back to Jacin, anger receding
and worry crowding back in at the weariness and wan cast to
Jacin’s face. “Jacin—”
“Brother,” Jacin cut in, closing his eyes
for a moment as he sucked in a deep breath, then he leveled his
gaze with Joori’s. “Please.”
Joori could only stare, mouth tight and
unease roiling up his backbone. He nodded. Because really—what
choice did he have?
For all the rush and worry, Yori
concluded, this “job” was turning out to be the most boring one
she’d ever been on. Not for the first time, as she rolled her
neck irritably, mouth pinching tight as rain trickled down
between her shoulder-blades, she wondered why she’d even been
necessary to carry it out. The conclusion she drew was that she
wasn’t—neither were Samin or Shig, or even Fen, when it came
right down to it. Maybe Shig, now that Yori thought about it,
since Malick seemed to keep Shig close while he was using his
magic, laying hands on her more than Yori thought entirely
necessary, but Shig didn’t mind and Malick was Malick, so Yori
didn’t say anything. Still, though, it seemed Malick could have
done this job all by himself.
Well… all right, he might have had some
trouble getting the three refugees to come along as compliantly
as they’d done without Fen, but other than that….
She didn’t suppose she was too put
out. She’d only gotten to see Malick do his trick with the Gates
once before—most of their jobs fell inside the city’s walls, and
he used his magic so rarely she sometimes forgot he had it at
all—and she rather enjoyed the high the aftereffects gave her.
Nothing she understood, and nothing she cared to understand, but
Malick had half-explained it as fazing their corporeal realities
while altering the perceptions of any who might cross their
paths. Yori had just sort of nodded a, “Yeah, yeah, whatever,”
at him, and enjoyed the bit of euphoria.
It didn’t work with Fen, which surprised
Yori a little, but wouldn’t have done, had she stopped and
thought about it. Magic didn’t work on an Untouchable. Maybe she
forgot because she hadn’t thought of Fen that way since after
that first night. She’d only noticed the braid anew as something
compulsory and not really a part of him when they’d had to wait
for him to make his own stealthy way over the Gate. Too bad for
him. It was a heady thing while it was happening, Malick’s
magic, a little like coming down from poppy afterward, but even
that bit of a thrill—and the knowledge that there would be
another like it when they returned—wasn’t enough to offset the
squishiness in Yori’s boots now, the too-steady rain seeping
through her oiled cloak, and the annoyance that was Fen’s little
brother. And Yori had thought Fen was hard to get along
with. She snorted.
“Why couldn’t they have gotten a cart big
enough for all of us?” Morin was snarking at Fen.
Fen mumbled something back at him that
Yori couldn’t hear, and though the tone sounded almost mellow to
her own ears—or at least as mellow as Fen got—Morin’s mouth
still shut up tight and didn’t open again.
Yori shook her head.
The strangest reunion she’d ever seen,
though admittedly, she couldn’t recall ever having seen one
before. Still, though, she’d sort of expected hugs and shouts of
relief; what she’d actually witnessed were intense looks between
Fen and his twin, some sort of silent plea that the brother had
accepted with clear reservations, and distrust and hostile looks
at all of them, but particularly at Malick. The little one,
Caidi, seemed to be rather a limpet where Fen was concerned, to
which Fen submitted with some softening of his usual stony
expression, and stiff embraces when she demanded them, but the
other one, that Morin, was a bit of a puzzle. Not hatred in his
eyes when he looked at Fen, but… Yori couldn’t tell, really. He
was too obviously afraid of both his older brothers, and Shig
engendered harsh distrust from the second he laid eyes on
her—the hair was apparently too much for him—which turned to
outright anxiety when she spoke. Though, Yori mused, the fact
that Shig’s first words had been, “Damn, but you’re an angry
little rabbit, aren’t you? Stop thinking so loud, you’re giving
me a headache,” probably hadn’t helped. Not the best way to
introduce herself to a boy who’d been taught that magic, or even
one’s proximity to it, meant painful death. Pretty amusing,
though, at least to Yori, but then lots of inappropriate things
Samin terrified the boy, with his granite
face and hard eyes, though that might have been because Samin
had made the mistake of trying to smile at him. Not a pretty
thing, Samin’s smile, at least not ’til you got to know him. For
whatever reason moved little girls, it had stirred a giggling
fit in Caidi, and she’d allowed Samin to lift her and plop her
on top of the things they’d packed into the dray, and even
obediently complied when he gruffly directed her to fan out her
cloak to cover what it would. Yori thought perhaps she better
understood the girl’s good humor when she saw Caidi
surreptitiously poke her tongue out at Morin as Samin settled
her in for the ride.
The boy hovered about their edges now,
sticking to a loosely defined middle ground between his two
older brothers. Fen kept his head down, jaw set, silent but for
occasional monosyllabic answers to Caidi’s chatter behind him in
the cart that he refused to allow anyone else to help him pull,
all the while pretending not to limp. The twin, Joori, had
engaged Malick for a while in a conversation Yori hadn’t been
able to hear above the rain and the squishy grind of the dray’s
wheels on the road, but she’d heard Asai’s name spoken sharply
twice—first by Joori then later by Malick—before Malick had
stopped abruptly. He’d jerked his head at Yori to take point
while he pulled the brother to the side to growl something at
him, low and intense and strangely cross. Malick’s eyes stayed
on Fen the whole while, though Fen hadn’t seemed to notice
anything but his own feet and the death grip he had on the
dray’s handles since before they’d even gotten to his family.
Samin had offered four times now to pull it for him, and four
times had been ignored, until Samin had given up and dropped
back to slog along beside Shig as rearguard.
“You’re Yori, right?”
Yori shifted a glance sideways and tipped
a little nod. “And you’re Joori.” She couldn’t help the silly
grin. “Sorta rhymes.”
The chuckle out of the dark sounded more
tense than sincere. “So, how long have you known my brother?”
With an irritable swat at some fringe that
wouldn’t stay put beneath her hood, Yori blinked rain out of her
eyes, squinting at the blob of murk walking beside her that was
Fen’s twin brother. “About….” She paused.
Besides whatever had passed between him
and Malick, she’d watched this one trying to wring conversation
out of Fen since they’d maneuvered the little cart out of the
scraggy yard of the hut where they’d been staying, and had been
surprised that he’d been just as unsuccessful as she’d ever
been. She would’ve thought Fen would be more communicative with
his family, at least, considering what he’d apparently gone
through to protect them. All things considered, perhaps it
wasn’t her place to be blabbing things Fen himself didn’t choose
“A little while.” She slanted a look
sideways at the sigh that was nearly a growl, and steered the
subject in another direction: “Has anyone told you we’ve a
hot-spring bath where we’re going? Bet it’ll be nice for you to
sink into that, won’t it? I know I can’t wait.” And she
hadn’t been living out in the middle of nowhere for weeks and
weeks with no apparent bathing facilities but a half-full barrel
in the dooryard.
“You’ve come very well armed,” Joori
observed, ignoring her comment altogether, his voice just as
deep as Fen’s, but with a different nuance she couldn’t quite
ken yet. “I take it you don’t have the same magic as that other
one, with the hair.”
Yori snickered at the description. She’d
have to remember to tell Shig later. “That’s Shig,” she told
Joori. “My sister.”
“I figured,” Joori replied. “You look a
“Except for the hair, yeah?” Yori grinned.
“And you’re prettier.”
Yori only just kept from rolling her eyes.
Honestly—men were so transparent. “So, you tried wringing
answers out of Fen then arguing them out of Malick, and now
you’re down to flattery.” She shook her head. “You’re not even
very good at it.”
“Huh,” said Joori. “Strange, because I
meant it.” Yori could just make out a shrug in the dark then
frowning features momentarily illuminated by a fleeting streak
of lightning. “I won’t say I’m above it,” Joori said over the
quiet rumble of thunder, “and I certainly do want answers, but
it’s still the truth.”
Yori gave him a slit-eyed stare as he
walked along beside her, looking right back, his eyes a mere
dull gleam in the night. She had to admit he was attractive.
Identical to Fen in respect to facial features, but there was
something about Fen—his hardness, maybe; that all-consuming rage
too often in his gaze—that had… not repelled her, really, but at
least put her off from the start. Unlike some infatuated
dimwits, Yori had never had a single carnal thought about their
newest duckling. This one, though….
“Fen works with us,” she told Joori.
“And you rescue the families of everyone
who works with you?”
“Everyone who works with us is
Joori went quiet for a few moments, taking
that in, then: “He’s been looking for our mother.”
Silence again while Joori pondered
whatever he was pondering, turning every now and then to walk
backward for a second or two, likely eyeing his brother, before
turning back. “He looks like shit,” he told Yori, low and just
for her. “What’s going on with him?”
Yori looked back over her shoulder,
squinting, but all she could make out was Fen’s hunched figure,
stubbornly pulling the dray and trying to keep up with the pace
she and Joori were setting. Malick was walking beside him now,
and Morin hovered a little closer than he’d done before. Fen had
stopped even the quiet, one-word answers he’d been giving his
sister, a chore that Malick had seemingly taken to himself,
though Caidi didn’t seem to mind. In fact, she seemed charmed,
which almost made Yori roll her eyes, but the girl couldn’t be
much older than ten, and it was Malick, after all. Samin
had moved up to walk behind the cart, leaving Shig to watch
their backs, which he wouldn’t ordinarily have done unless
Malick had told him to. It appeared Fen’s brother was not the
only one waiting for him to collapse, though Yori was putting
her koin on Fen—he was too mulish to let his body stop if he
wanted it to keep going. In Yori’s observation, when Fen hit a
wall, he just rammed until it fell down.
“He got a cut on his leg last night,” Yori
said. “Umeia had to sew him up. Probably just needs a
painkiller. And to stop insisting on pulling that dray by
himself.” Bloody bonehead.
“I saw him last night.” Joori had turned
again, cloak billowing around his knees as he pivoted to walk
backward. Yori could see more of his face now, though he was
still little more than a dim smudge against the foggy black. “I
didn’t notice anything wrong with his leg, although….” A shrug.
“He was covered in blood.”
It was the accent—that was what was
different. Joori had the same voice as Fen, but Fen didn’t have
the twangy Jin accent. Huh.
“Yeah?” Yori shrugged too, but didn’t
volunteer anything. Like how Fen’s descent from the top of the
Gate had been more like a fall, and that he’d landed awkwardly
then snarled off any concerned attempts to help. And how she was
almost certain she’d heard a strangled wheeze of a scream when
he was trying to drag the dray from the culvert where he and
Shig had stashed it, and then nearly bitten Malick’s hand off
when he bulled his way in to help. Obstinate idiot. She’d have
to make sure Umeia knew about it when they got back. Umeia would
take care of it, whatever it was. He’d probably gone and gotten
the thing infected, and Yori would bet some stitches got pulled
when he was wrestling with that cart. What the hell were they
supposed to do with all these people if Fen up and died on them?
And anyway, what would…?
“You saw him last night?” Yori frowned.
“Is he sleeping with that man? That Malick?”
Yori blinked, eyebrows snapping upward.
Apparently, flapping from subject to subject was a family trait.
She almost barked a laugh, but the question had been posed so…
almost angrily, and the tone of it, the suspicion inside it,
rose something oddly protective in her. Fen’s brother or not,
this Joori wasn’t theirs, at least not yet, and what Malick and
Fen got up to wasn’t even her business, let alone his.
“I’m not quite certain that’s your
concern,” she told him, her own tone deliberately even and
unruffled. “Or mine. Perhaps you’d best ask Fen.”
Joori turned his head from his scrutiny of
his brother, stared at Yori for several strides, then waved a
hand vaguely over toward Fen, said, “Pardon me for a moment,”
and he walked off.
Damn. Yori wished she could warn Fen, and
apologize in advance for apparently setting his brother on him,
but…. Well, maybe it would make him stop dragging that stupid
cart for a little while, at least. Joori was right about
that—Fen looked like shit.
Deliberately, Yori looked away, sent a
glance ahead and to all points, scanning the shadows, but if
anything was going to come at them, she was fairly certain she
wasn’t going to see it before it saw them, not tonight. No
moons, a low-hanging fog, and trees bloody everywhere. She’d
have to rely on Shig and Malick twigging in time. Anyway, they
were halfway home, and nothing had happened so far, and she had
more magic at the Gates to look forward to.
Biting back a bit of a sigh, Yori ignored
the steadily rising sound of Joori’s voice as he chastised his
brooding brother, tried to ignore her numbing toes with rather
less success, and tucked her hands up under her cloak to warm
her fingers. If there was trouble, she’d need them flexible.
Although, she mused, trying not to snort as Joori’s voice rose
again, and the sound of the dray’s wheels on the road ceased
abruptly, perhaps any trouble that might come wouldn’t be from
anything lurking out there in the dark.
“Yori, look sharp!” Malick snapped as he
flew past her, sword drawn and stalking ahead, a hot welter of
power like she’d never felt in her life nearly swatting her
aside when he brushed her arm. Had that come from Malick?
Body moving before she even told it to,
Yori swung her bow around and nocked an arrow, feet planting
themselves into an offensive stance, even as she squinted ahead
in the direction Malick was striding. Trees and more trees,
shadows and more shadows, and she’d been looking right at them
only a second ago, but now… well, bloody damn. Now they were
moving. And not in any way people moved—at least not people
with bones beneath their skin. Vague man-shapes then hunched…
somethings. It was fascinating and revolting all at the same
time, and she hadn’t even got a good look yet. She wished for a
flash of lightning, just so she could see what the hell they
were dealing with.
She spared a quick glance behind her,
taking in the configurations, so she’d know if things got messy.
Fen had shoved all of his siblings behind him. Morin and Caidi
both huddled in the cart with Joori between them and his
brother. Samin still stood behind the dray, sword drawn,
watching Malick, and Shig had turned to face the rear, bright
head atilt in the way it did when she let her own magic loose,
seeking. Satisfied, Yori turned back, eyes flicking back and
forth between the smoky curls of… whatever they were farther up
the road and Malick as he stalked up to them, planted himself
mere paces away, and drew himself straight. Threatening.
Frightening in a way she’d never seen him before. Powerful.
“Three of you?” he taunted, swinging his
sword lazily in a figure eight about his shoulders, smirking.
Rolling hisses gathered from the writhing
murk as it wound into three distinct shapes then fanned out
“No,” Shig called from behind. “There’s
Yori glanced back again, just long enough
to see more of them pooling to either side of the dray, like
twisting pieces of the stormy sky, thrashing themselves into
shapes she almost recognized but couldn’t quite settle in her
“Fucking Husao,” Malick muttered, jaw
clenched. “Manipulative prick. Whatever you see,” he called,
voice deep and resonant, almost eager, like he was looking
forward to whatever was coming, “remember that it’s all glamour.
They’re only maijin. They bleed and die just like everything
Yori thought sourly, good to know, then sucked in a long
breath and sighted down.