Chapter 1: When the Fox met the Hound
The first time you meet you are sitting outside your hive. You are barely three sweeps old. There is no one else for miles around, and there is only the sound of wind in the coarse dune grass and the lap of waves. You are knee deep in the incoming tide, your leggings pulled up and tied above your knees. Your lusus looms above you, head curled as he watches you with intelligent eyes. Now and then he slaps his tail against the water and showers you with the salty sea spray. When you tire of trying to catch drops of water turned prismatic by the two moons you retreat up the shore and sprawl in the sand and dune grass. The night breeze is chilly on your narrow chest, and you stare at the deep mauve abyss of the sky raptly.
It is then that you hear the slow shuffle of footsteps and sit up. Your lusus gives a low moaning bleat and attempts to pull himself further up the shore with his flippers. You are to your feet in a second, racing down the beach in a flash of wild hair and spread arms. You duck behind the long, thickly muscled neck of your lusus to hide. Above you, your lusus tosses his great head in warning.
You have encountered adults and vicious animals a few times in your young life. You know that they will kill you if your lusus can not protect you. Despite the danger you are curious, and you are perhaps a little foolhardy. You press against your lusus' neck, feeling the corded muscles flex as he tosses his head again. You peer around him at the interloper with wide, cautious eyes. What you find is not terrifying, nor the least bit threatening.
What you find is no better than a piece of beach trash, washed up in long ropey green clumps that taste of too much salt and stick on your tongue. It is a troll like yourself, small and barely even starting to grow. He is wrapped in a heavy mud colored cloak that is tattered at the edges and threadbare at the middle. He observes the two of you from beneath the makeshift hood of his cloak with hollow eyes that are circled darkly beneath with shadows. When he tilts his head up to look at your lusus you can see the small, rounded point of his chin.
The sea breeze plucks at his cloak and shows you his feet, they are bare and a pair of scuffed mud spattered boots hang from one of his hands.
You do not think this creature is a danger to you.
You clamber over your lusus' fin to get out from behind him, and move toward the waif that has blown up on your beach. You are immediately the center of attention and you walk forward despite the low protesting bleat. When you are within a few paces more, the other troll backs away.
"Stay." The word is rough and sharp, even in your high pitched child's voice, and he drops his boots. It is the voice you have learned makes even some adults listen to you. You have even had a blueblood kneel before you on one occasion before he begged mercy for his trespass and left. The troll cowers, but stays put as you advance. Eventually you stand right in front of him, you are nearly nose to nose. He carries with him the scent of the inland world—heavy with earthy musk. His face is smudged and dirty; dirt clings to his cheek and nose. It turns the ashen shade of his skin dusty. "You will stay." This time, you almost manage to make it a request.
There is a little more life in his eyes as he watches you, still wary. "For a little, I guess," he says after a short pause. "Then I have to go."
It is not a satisfactory answer, but it will do for now. You have never had anyone remain, nor have you ever asked. It has always been you and your lusus and the wind in your hair and the sea around your ankles. Now than you have someone here, and you are not afraid for your life you do not know what to do with him. You stare at him without a sound between you, and watch him fidget. He hunches his shoulders, curling in on himself and grinds the hem of his cloak between two fingers. His toes have buried themselves in the sand.
Eventually you reach out and catch his hand in yours. He flinches, but you do not release him. Instead you turn and tow him toward the incoming waves. The sand goes from dry and loose to wet and packed beneath your feet and he stops abruptly. You look back over your shoulder through the flyaway mess of your hair. His lips are pressed thinly together, and his hood is beginning to shift. A little more and you will be able to see more than the soft curves of his cheeks.
"Don't wanna," he says. You can see those dark little eyes flicker to take in the incoming waves. You're close enough to feel the fine soft spray. You give his hand another tug, and his body rocks from the force but he refuses to budge.
"Come on! It'll be fun."
You can see his nose wrinkle in the floppy shadow of his hood. His words are sullen when he speaks, "S'water. S'not fun."
"Don't be telling lies." You yank on his hand again, a little more forcefully and he smacks into you when he stumbles forward. You laugh at the way his face scrunches up, the way his lip protrudes, and the way your lusus drags himself anxiously after you. His grumbles make the air and the earth tremble beneath your feet.
"M'not," the other troll says. "Don't like water."
You ignore him and tug him the rest of the way down to the tide line. The incoming wave wets the tips of your toes and you grin wildly. Beside you he pulls in a sharp little gasp. Your lusus plunges into the water nearby sending a wave toward you that swamps both of your legs up to your knees. You can feel the futile way he tries to pull his hand from yours and pull him forward a few more steps. When you look over at him, he stands in the surf looking stricken.
You laugh and swipe your hand through the water, tossing it at him the way the sea tosses itself against the rocks outside your safe little inlet. He flinches away from it, eyes screwed shut as droplets patter against his face. You release his hand so that you can crouch down in the shallow water and sift through the soft sand at your feet. You are pleased when you hear no movement, and after a few seconds you straighten with a smooth stone in each hand. You bounce one on your open palm, and after a few moments of consideration, throw it as hard as you can. It sails out over the open bay and hits the water with an audible plunk. The distance is satisfying, and a moment later the smooth curve of your lusus' back surfaces for a brief moment. He inspects you, and dives again in a swirl of water.
You turn to the other troll and hold out your second stone. "You can't throw farther." You know it's true. He looks nothing but weak and helpless. A scrawny little nothing washed ashore for your amusement. His eyes flicker from your face to the stone and back again, and after a moment he releases the clutching hold he has on his tattered cloak and tentatively takes the stone.
There is something slightly mutinous in his expression.
"Bet I can."
The stone arcs out over the glittering moonlit waves and maybe it was as far, or further, or maybe not. It's hard to tell anyway, but it's a good throw and close enough that you must fish out another rock and try again. If you take a few steps forward to extend your throw then so be it. He mirrors you, and soon the two of you are wading deeper into the water to see who's willing to go further to win your game. The water is up to your waists and his cloak is floating in the ebb and flow a few steps ahead of you. You are surprised he has gone from so meek and reluctant to this. His latest throw hits the water and your lusus surfaces again, a white and gleaming curve against the dark water. The other troll looks back at you, a challenging smile making the tips of his teeth protrude.
And then an incoming wave, higher than the rest swamps him and he goes down in a tumble of fabric and and waving arms. You catch the end of his cloak just before he's pulled out into the deeper water, and your lusus rises in a cascading torrent, and snorts alarm at his terrified squalls.
You tow him in like the nets you use—like the catch of the day. Only this time it isn't a school of silvery fish your lusus chased into the shallows for you. It's easy enough work, and when he hits the sandy bottom and sticks you haul him, sputtering, over your shoulder and carry him the rest of the way.
He lands in a heap in the sand when you dump him, and you watch as he rolls over, coughing and gagging. His back and side are plastered with wet sand, but more than that his make-shift hood has fallen away. His hair is wild and short, sticking up in clumps of salt and sand, and his horns are tiny, rounded nubs which strike you as amusing. Everyone else you've ever seen has had far grander ones, yourself included.
As he's spattering the sand with the water he'd swallowed your lusus arrives in a rush of cool water against your back. Warm and wet, his great nose nudges you lightly between the shoulder blades. Your lusus croons at you in concern, but doesn't make the slightest move for the other troll.
When the last of the water has been expelled he staggers to his feet and up the beach. You follow after him, admiring the sloppy trail he cuts in the sand. Behind you, your lusus gives a low, bone rattling sound, unable to follow.
You stop when the other troll does, and watch as he tilts his head to take in the whimsical, rambling hive you occupy. The sight of it sparks a curiosity in you. You ask, "Where do you live?"
You wonder if it's far or close, small or big, and if he has come here specifically to find you. It's an idea you like. No one has come to see you before, except for your lusus. His shoulders hunch again, and he seems to shrink. "Nowhere," he says. It seems strange to you as one simply can not live nowhere.
"Stay here," you decide. "You'll live here."
He looks at you guardedly, but you think it's as simple as that. You have made your decision, and so be it. In the end he says nothing, and you go about shucking off your wet pants as the cool night breeze breathes on you. The other troll trembles in his sodden clothes. You hold your hands out to him expectantly, and he merely huddles more, drawing the threadbare edges of his cloak around himself.
"It won't dry that way. Your clothes too," you say.
He grunts and looks mutinous again before he claws his cloak off over the top of his head and dumps it into your waiting grip. His shirt follows after, and then his pants as well. You leave him huddling against the wall of your hive and shamble to the drying racks sitting out in the sand. One has the night's catch hanging from it, glistening wet and silver, the other sits dark and empty. You toss most of the clothes over your shoulder and wring out one item at a time until the sand at your feet is heavy and damp.
You shake them out and hang them neatly on the lowest rail—the only one you can easily reach. To hang the fish you must climb the sidebars, but that is not necessary here. They will grow stiff with salt, you know, but this is something you are still learning about. It is then that you notice it. There is no emblem sewn into any of his clothing. The muddy colored cloak is now more gray than dirt colored from the salt water washing. You examine his shirt with extra care, but still you find nothing.
"There's no sign." He doesn't answer, and you hang it on the wooden rail with only a little effort to get it just right. You turn and clamber back up the beach and join him against the wall of your hive. This close together the air between you is warm. You have never experienced such a sensation and you lean closer until your shoulders bump and the lines of your arms press together. Your lusus is warm, but always wet, and while the both of you are damp you are drying quickly. "Why don't you have a sign?"
He shrugs his shoulders, and hunkers down a little more, but he doesn't answer your question. You watch him clutch his knees and stare out over the cove with wide shiny eyes. The sky is dark and still speckled with stars. Your lusus is settled in the middle of the cove, white pale against the inky dark expanse of the water.
"Where's your lusus?" you ask. You can feel him shrug once more beside you.
"Don't have one."
You consider this, turn it over in your head. It seems as strange and impossible as living nowhere, so you offer, "You can share mine." Even though your lusus does not seem the least bit interested in him, you think it will be alright. You want him to stay here because it is new, and it is interesting.
He does not answer, and you do not speak again. The two of you sit side by side out of the wind and watch the ocean creep up the shore, and your lusus paddle and roll in the bay. The clouds scoot across the sky at a mind blanking pace. Too fast and too slow all at once. It is when you are beginning to yawn, after your clothes have dried, salt stiff, and you've both dressed again against the chill, when you know that daylight is only a stone's throw away and the two of your are huddled together beneath the threadbare cloak, that your lusus puts up a racket again.
In the silence of the night another visitor has appeared on your beach. She is as ethereal as figment, draped all in vivid jade green, and quite clearly an adult. She walks with ease and grace, and as she nears the signless troll beside you stirs.
She stops several yards away back stiff and face blank, but when your companion disentangles himself from you a soft smile tilts the edges of her lips. "There you are," she says in a voice that is gentle and soft as the sand can be. "You have wandered quite far tonight. Come now." She holds out her hand, and he leaves your side in a hurry. You watch him catch her hand in his and together they turn and begin to leave, walking away down the sandy slope of the beach toward somewhere else.
Their retreating voices float back to you.
"We really must find a replacement for that cloak. It is unbecoming."
"Don't wanna. S'mine."
For a moment you are angry that he would leave, and for a moment you are merely confused. You stand and follow them a few paces but no further. Your lusus' bleats low, calling you back.
Before you go, the Signless looks back at you, just a fleeting glimpse during which he falls behind a pace or two and is tugged along by the hand in his. Then he is hurrying his steps to catch up again, and you are left standing alone on the beach with the crash of waves in your ears and the night breeze against your cheeks.
The next time the two of you meet is a mere two perigrees later. He appears, staring at your lusus from a safe distance, on the pale expanse of the beach just as you emerge for the evening. Your lusus is laying in the sand, vibrations of his low warning noises rising up your legs, but you are pleased. You dart down the beach and tackle the Signless from behind in your excitement, your arms going around his shoulders from behind. He staggers, and you laugh into the fabric on his shoulder.
“You came back,” you say.
“Wasn’t s’posed to.” He shrugs you off and turns to you, puffy cheeked and mutinous looking. That look on his face amuses you. It’s as if he is trying to take on the entire world.
With authority you say, “Yes you were.”
Because you already decided he should have stayed, but that’s fine. So long as he comes back like he’s supposed to. Just like your lusus goes away sometimes, but never for long, and usually only just for the span of time it takes for the moons to move a little bit across the sky.
He gives you a slight smile that shows the tiny tips of his fangs over his lower lip and turns to look out over the ocean again. You stand with him. Your lusus has gone quiet. “Thought I’d say hullo,” he says. “Before I gotta go.”
You frown, your fingers caught in the edges of his cloak. There’s two holes near the edge that are the perfect size and you’re able to hook your fingers in them. The wind tousles his short messy hair and makes strands of yours flip into your face. You step forward, tugging him toward the sea. You want to play the rock throwing game, or stand in the shallows and flick salt water at him again. You want to have fun and show him how nice staying here is. Then he will listen to you just like he should and won’t go. He digs his heels in and shakes his head at you when you try harder.
Then his hand catches yours and he tugs you back up toward the top of the beach. “C’mon,” he says and pulls at you. When you don’t move he releases you and keeps going. He picks up the pace as he goes, and you chase after him.
He leads you at a run up to where your hive sits, where the loose sand hardens into dirt and the dune grass grows in arched clusters and further beyond. He leads you passed clusters of dark bleak rock, and behind you your lusus’ melancholy honk echoes into the night in an attempt to call you back. It fades away as you chase after the flutter of the Signless’ cloak in the moonlight.
He stops suddenly at the top of the rise behind your hive and you nearly barrel into him. You have never ventured this far inland. The sand and the sea have been your entire life for as long as you can remember, though the fuzzy memories of your grubhood sometimes tickle at your senses. The Signless waves you forward, short, chubby fingers sticking out of the end of a too big sleeve, and you stand side by side with him.
He shows you an ocean of an entirely different kind. An ocean of thick tall stalks standing in chaotic rows. It’s more green than dune grass and it rustles like whispering waves rather than roars. The moonlight plays across the backs of the grass like waves when the wind blows across it.
You curl your fingers into the holes in his cloak again, curious and enchanted by this world you never knew was beyond your home. “Is this where you be coming from?” you ask him, watching his soft, solemn face from the corner of your eye. Your hair flips in your face again, tickling against your cheeks and nose.
“From over there,” he says, lifting a hand and waving those stubby fingers toward the distant horizon. “Had t’walk through here to get to t’ocean. Gonna head off that way next.” It’s the most you’ve ever heard him say, and to you it is enthralling. You have never thought about going anywhere but along the sandy shore.
“Is it all nice over there?”
He smiles at you again, small and full of dimples and tiny immature teeth. “Gonna show you something.” The Signless tugs his cloak free of your loose grasp. “We’re gonna play a game I dreamed of, and then I’ll show you. You gotta catch me, then I gotta catch you.”
Then he’s off and running again, quick as a beach mouse or a little silver fish. He’s in among the grassy sea even as you start off after him, and you dive right in as well. The stalks whip at your arms and face, and catch at your clothes and horns and hair. Just ahead of you, you can see the flicker of his cloak in the thick, heavy shadows. More than that you can hear the sound of his boots as they thump against the dirt.
He’s faster than you even if you’re a little taller than he is, and he darts in and out of the thick grass like it’s the simplest thing in the world. Three times you get close enough that you can feel the whisk of his cloak against the tips of your fingers, and then he is gone again, pulling ahead and diving between clumps of green grass. A sharp sound ahead puts an extra burst of speed in your step. You catch up in time to see him scrambling up the side of an immense fallen log, boots kicking at the rough bark.
You move fast and grab a handful of his cloak, balling it among your fingers and yank. He stops and peers back at you over his shoulder, wild hair and round cheeks and eyes that glint beast green in the dark. You grin, all fangs and wrinkled nose, and yank again. Hard. He lets out a sound like a squeak and fails to cling tightly enough. He ends in a pile at your feet, all ragged cloak and stubby limbs. You watch as he rolls onto his front, pushing himself up with his forearms.
When he looks up at you, you’re still grinning and you say, “Gotcha.”
He smiles back at you, a grim little thing that’s all determination and a few poking fangs. “Gonna getcha back.”
You turn and you run, and behind you you can hear him scrambling up to give chase. You loop around the end of the trunk, and clamber quickly up the stump it used to stand on. From there you make it onto the trunk itself. You can hear the scrape of bark as he follows after you.
You’re fast to drop off the other end and crouch in the hollowed out space beneath. It’s dank and musty, and your horns scrape the ceiling and shower you with bits of debris. The sound of his steps on the top of the log echo in your ears, hollow and resolute. When he reaches the end he leans over it, his head dangling upside down. The hood of his cloak falls down behind his head casting him in further shadow. He peers at you for a moment, then sticks his hand out to you, fingers spread wide.
You accept victory by yanking him down again in a shower of bark and grub eaten wood pulp.
And then he’s off with a soft breathy laugh, and it’s you chasing again. His pace is purposeful now, winding away in the grass ocean like a fish in the reefs. You follow, intent on catching him before he can get where ever it is he’s going, but it looms ahead of you sudden as a mountain, and you kind of think it is one. To you it might as well be, but in reality it’s a pile of black glistening rocks picked out with strands of grass that have nestled in the cracks.
The Signless clambers up them ahead of you, using hands and feet to propel himself with surprising speed. You don’t even hesitate, but in this he is much quicker than you. You have never climbed like this before, and it’s hard to figure out where to put your hands as you haul yourself over the shiny-sharp rocks. They bite into your palms, and bring little indigo spots to the surface.
When you reach the top he’s already there and looking down at you. Before you can begin pulling yourself up, annoyed at his ability to beat you in this, he reaches out his hand to you. His smile is as quick as his feet, and his large round eyes are as bright as his expression kind.
You give him a wrinkle nosed grin and grab his hand. Together the two of you are able to get you to the top which is flat and nothing but dirt and a few weeds. The sea of grass spreads out around you in silvery sheets that you could swear go on forever and encompass the entire world. He drops down to sit, short legs out in front of him, and you join him in the dirt. You lean back to look at the sky with your hands gripping your knees to keep you from falling over.
Above you the sky is sprinkled with too many stars for the two of you to count, but you try. He counts on the left and you on the right. You lose track when his counting overlaps yours and you both forget what number you were on.
“This what you wanted to be showing me?” you ask after your snickers have died down and he’s gone silent again, picking at a scuffed patch on his boot.
“No,” he says. He tilts his head up and counts a couple of stars with glances of his eyes. The nubby buttons of his horns are bright against the dark swirl of his hair. You reach over and poke his shoulder and he looks at you all serious round face and eyes. “I learned a word. Dreamed it up.”
“What kind of word?”
He blinks slow and looks down, and his claw goes scritch scritch scratch on his boot. “A good word.”
You reach forward and shove his hand away from his boot since the noise is annoying. He curls his fingers into his cloak instead and pulls it close. “You going to be telling me?”
“Friends,” he says. The word is a sound that is entirely foreign in your ears, and when you try to repeat it it’s just as foreign on your tongue. You’ve never heard anything like it.
“What’s that all meaning?” you wonder.
He’s quiet for a long moment, wide bright eyes trained on you until finally he says, “S’what we are. Me and you.”
You like the sound of that, you like it a lot and it makes you grin again. You do not know that you will, one day, redefine this miraculous word to mean both friend and enemy, and that the feeling it causes in you will be labeled a disease. For now your world is bright and the two of you are brilliant in your innocence.
The two of you stay there while you get the hang of this new word, this thing that the two of you are, and try to count stars again. The horizon grows brighter as the two moons descend toward it together, chasing after one another like the two of you just did and you wonder if the two of you will keep chasing each other forever like the moons. You wonder if the moons are friends too. Eventually you both lean against each other as you begin to grow sleepy. He shares his cloak with you so that you both may stay warm.
You are startled out of your doze by the sound of rock crunching and straighten to see the lady from his last visit coming along. You do not like her entirely too much as she took him away, and you feel she is here to do it again. She climbs the rocks with easy, stately steps and the silky swish of her skirts. When she reaches the two of you she kneels down and reaches out. She smooths the hair out of the Signless’ face and leans forward to press her lips against his forehead. He gives a drowsy grumble and clutches the translucent material that falls around him.
You watch as she gathers him up into her arms, presses him to her chest then looks at you. For a long moment her veiled gold, bright eyes watch you and you feel stirrings of fear. You want your lusus there with you suddenly. When she reaches out again and you flinch, but there is only the soft weight of her hand resting on your head between your horns. “Come, little one. I will see you safely back to your custodian.”
She rises, and offers her hand, and you hesitantly climb to your feet and take it as you saw the Signless do a perigree ago. Her hand is warm around yours, and the curve of her long, slim fingers is soft. She leads you back through the thick sea of grass to where the dune grass grows and the sea roars restlessly into the sand. Once you are there you run to your lusus and press your face against his neck so that you do not have to watch your friend leave again.
Chapter 3: Forever
Chapter by White Mage Koorii (WHM_Koorii)
This has been up on the meme for over a week now, figured I'd better post it here.
The two of you meet off and on among rock pools and tidal inlets. You teach him how you fish with net and line, and he talks to you about the places he's seen as he travels with his lady custodian—the Dolorosa. You are enthralled with how he speaks when he speaks: even so young every word is low and intense. He is choosy about his every word, careful in a way you can't quite understand at this age. He is as ever changing as the ocean you've lived with your entire life, and every meeting seems to bring something new. He seems as deep as the dark ocean where even seadweller's won't venture.
Now you are just over four sweeps old and you are growing more and more restless with the passing of every season. Something hot and wild and dark settles in you and grows as slow and steady as the erosion of the beach you live on. You have begun to wander further from the safety of your hive, always close to the water so that your lusus can follow along, but this night it is not enough. It is one of those nights where you want to go on forever and never stop and sink your hands into endlessness and arrange it to your liking. It's a tick against the back of your mind that just won't go away.
Tonight the waves lap at your legs as you sit astride your lusus' back. You can feel his muscles work as he glides up the coast. The moonlight glints off the wave tops all around you, and edges the dark rocky rise of the sea cliffs to your side in pink-lime and shadow. The sound of your blood throbs in your ears alongside the rush of wind and water. The roar of the waves against the cliff face is like an ever crashing lullaby. You lean forward, hands braced against the base of your lusus neck. You revel in the wind in your hair, the salt spray on your face, and the wildness in your heart.
You'd almost dare call it a little miraculous.
Your lusus comes to a slow stop and lifts his head. He looks toward the open ocean and gives a low sound that travels up your spine and shakes you apart inside. It tickles as it vibrates through your lungs and you have to press your face against his wet, smooth neck to keep the sound inside. When you turn your head just a little bit to see what he’s looking at you can see the pale bright footprint left by something big slipping beneath the waves. The water around your ankles stirs as he works his fins to keep in place. The tide tries to force the both of you toward the spiny rocks at the base of the nearby cliffs.
For a long time nothing moves but the clouds scudding across the dark red sky. Your lusus gives a snort and stretches his neck. You can feel the coil and pull of his muscles as he propels himself forward with effortless grace. The two of you don’t make it that much further up the coast when something catches you’re attention. You can see a small figure walking along the clifftop. They’re nothing but a small dark silhouette strolling slowly up the coast the same way you’re headed. You can make out nothing about them, and with a squeeze of your legs and a slap against the side of his neck, you direct your lusus closer to the cliffs.
He doesn’t go in far, and you don’t push him. You know he is more in tune with the way of the water than you ever will be. He knows the dangers on an intimate level you can’t ever fathom. The figure on the clifftops continues along, arms spread out and so close to the edge that it could be dangerous. In the stiff breeze rising off the water you can see the flap of fabric billowing out behind them. It’s a familiar enough sight that you’re pretty sure you know who it is.
You pat the side of your lusus neck and say, “Get his attention.” The body beneath you vibrates with a low bass grumble, rattling straight up through your bones, and you smack the side of his neck again. “You’d best be doing it. He’s not been about in awhile, and he’s even heading all along the other way.” You are angry and bleak and black minded for a moment at this knowledge, but then your lusus rears up and you have to hang on tight lest you fall into the water.
Your lusus lets out a cacophonous, honking bleat that shatters the quiet night air and echos off the cliff face. It leaves your ears ringing and your heart hammering wildly in your chest while you laugh softly into the night. Up on the clifftop the little figure stops and turns, you can see the dark shape change as he does, see the difference in the flutter of his cloak.
Then he raises an arm, tiny looking as a piece of twig, and waves it back and forth. You lift one of your own arms in greeting. You wave further down the coast to where you know there is a small inlet, and he turns to look, arm dropping. You wait a moment and he raises his arm again in brief indication, and then he is off and running. He’s fast on land, but as you urge your lusus to give chase, you know your lusus is faster.
While you keep pace with him, you turn your head at intervals to watch him lope along the clifftop. He runs like some sort of prey beast and it gives you a wild, wonderful, terrible thrill somewhere in the black part of your head that you don’t fully understand yet. You lean low over your lusus’ neck, a guard of long horns to either side of you. Salty spray paints your face as the waves part before his nose, and you grin a wild grin.
A grin that is ripped from your face by surprise as the water to your side explodes upward. The massive arrow shaped head of a sea serpent rises among the hills and troughs of sea water before crashing back down toward you and your lusus with mouth gaping and teeth shining. You lusus’ bellows so loudly you can’t breathe and rolls to the side. You nearly fall off, but you’re so terrified in that moment that you’re clutching his hide as tightly as you can.
You look back at the splash and watch as coils of white scales and fins arc over the boiling surface and disappear beneath it before coming back up. The serpent’s head cuts through the water after you at an alarming pace, a V of spray edging it like horns. There is nothing you can do but cling to your lusus’ back, weak and powerless in the face of danger. Your lusus can not dive to hide with you here, and you would surely die if you lost your grip, but you trust him. You trust your lusus to see you well, and protect you and look after you just as he has since you won your way out of the brooding caverns.
The serpent’s massive jaws snap so close you can hear the squeak of tendon, can feel the splash as it hits the water again and your lusus bellows irately. He can not stop and fight, can only run—your safety is his first priority.
And then the cliffs are there. The two of you have been herded to them, and all around you are the great coils of the beast boiling in the frothing water. The tide yanks you and your lusus right up against the jagged rocks. Your lusus screams in painrage, and you give a shrill cry too as jagged black rock scrapes against your leg and side through the fabric of your clothing. Both sounds go on forever echoing in and out and back and forth through your head and in your body as the tide keeps you there. The serpent rears up out of the water above the two of you. You squint through the indigo tint of your teary eyes and you bare your immature teeth, feral and wild, as the blackness in you heats.
You can hear the long hiss of air as the serpent breathes, feel the contract and pull of muscles as your lusus fights to get loose, and you feel terror but all you want is to turn the terror back on the beast who dares.
A shrill shout breaks through the rush of tide and the rush of blood in your ears, and something strikes against the serpent’s head as it dives for you. It jerks to the side, crashing headlong into the rocks just above you. A shower of small bits of stone and tiny shellcreatures is broken free and rains down upon you. As the serpent rears back there’s another shout and you look up in time to see a fair sized chunk of rock smack it’s snout. You can’t see the cliff top, but you recognize the voice that floats down to you as it yells at the beast to leave off.
Your lusus all but roars and manages to wrench free of the rocks and tide, and you barely have a moment to realize what’s going to happen before the water is over your head. You squeeze your eyes tight shut, and hold your breath. The water rushes and roars around you, through your hair and your clothes, and across your skin. You cling to your lusus and feel the cool drag of liquid across your body. Air bubbles at your lips. You do not know if the world is up or down, or if you’re in the belly of the beast. There is no sound but the rush, and no feeling in your numbing fingers. You are sightless, helpless, lost in an unending torrent. Soon your lungs burn and ache and you can not hold your breath in for much longer.
Just when the blackness at the back of your closed eyes threatens to grow dimmer still there is a change, and that change eventually breaks across you. Cool night air touches your face, and you choke it into your lungs. Your eyes are water clogged and blurry, and you’ve barely managed to gulp down a breath when your lusus rolls suddenly, and something slams against him.
You are unable to hold on, and you plunge back into roiling water. Something strikes your back, driving you deeper. You expel bubbles from your mouth and inhale water. It’s instinct that drives you to flail, to kick and pull and stretch and swim. An instinct that you have acquired and built since you were just out of the brooding caverns and new to the shore, since a time you can barely remember when your lusus would fish you out of the water or let you lay on his fins, supported but bouyant.
Your head bobs above the water again, and you cough and splash toward the hazy image of the shore. By the time you hit the shallows and stumble toward dry sand your lungs ache, and you can’t stop coughing. You are sodden to the bone, dripping salt water and brine. Water dribbles out the corners of your mouth leaving your tongue foul tasting. Your foot catches in the thick, wet sand, and you fall to your knees among the incoming wash. You cough, body heaving wretchedly, and spit up bile and salt water and saliva that tints the ground the faintest indigo. Your arms shake and the incoming wavelets lap at your wrists. For a moment you want nothing more than to fall face first into the sand and stay there.
The air is blown apart by the painrage scream of your lusus, and you force yourself to your feet in a second. When you turn it is to find you lusus rearing out of the water, head tossing as he faces down the massive serpent. The water of the tiny bay boils from thrashing coils and fins and indigo blood runs off your lusus to swirl in the waves.
You lusus headbutts the serpent under the jaw, and the head snaps back. When it returns, whip like, it sinks its fangs in you lusus’ side and all you can do is shout and watch the two of them thrash in the water. There is a sound behind you—the crumbling clatter of rocks falling—and you look back. The Signless clambers down the rockfall toward you, wide eyed and cloak catching on the sharp edges.
He doesn’t say a word as he lopes down the beach to join you at the oceans edge. His eyes are trained on your lusus, and his arms are clutched around his middle. You look back to your lusus in time to see him get shoved close enough to shore that his belly is grinding into the sand and you can see his flippers in the water. It’s too close, and you know he can not maneuver as well as a serpent can under such circumstances. You watch as your lusus drags himself heavily further up and realize he is putting himself between you and the beast.
A hand clutches your shoulder, but you do not turn even when the Signless tugs at you rough enough that he’s almost shaking you. “Come on,” he says, and you wrench away from him. His hand is back almost immediately, but you still can not pry your gaze away from the battle your lusus is locked in. “We’ve got to help.” That catches your attention at last and you look away. You barely realize your teeth are bared, and the Signless doesn’t seem to either. All of your muscles are locked and stiff, and your body aches and creaks from it.
“And how are we going to be doing that?” you ask, voice guttural. He blinks at you, and then smiles calm and soft. It makes you rage a little more, but also catches you off guard. You are drawn and repulsed. You want to rage at him for his solemnity and beg him to sink you in it and clear away the clamor in your head and stomach. “I don’t all know about you, but I’ve not got a weapon on me.”
The Signless lifts his arm, pointing down along the beach. “There’s plenty of rocks. It’ll be just like our game.”
You take in a quick glance of the beach, not wanting to look away from your embattled lusus. Sharp black stones of various sizes litter the sand and accumulate beneath the curved trunks of shore trees. The thick fronds bow low, some nearly touching the sand. In that moment you grin in wicked delight, and something wakes in you that you hadn’t known was there. “Yeah,” you say. “Yeah, we can play a new game.”
“I don’t—” he begins to say, but you’re already loping down the beach toward the first dark shards of glassy rocks. He shuts up and follows after you. You scoop them up, barely noticing the way the jagged edges of the rocks slice into your hands and snag at your clothes. You can hear the clatter of more rocks behind you as the Signless joins you in collecting them. Side by side, arms full of stones, you jog down to the ocean. The two of you skid to a halt in the sand, and it is you who throws the first rock. After years of this game—at first for distance and then aiming at your lusus watery footprint for accuracy—you are good at it. The rock hits the serpent’s scaled jaw and bounces off.
The rock disappears the waves, and the beast hisses irately. You have barely annoyed it. Another rock, thrown from beside you, bounces off it’s snout. It remains barely phased other to shake away the sting before it goes for your lusus again. You are screaming, howling your rage and it sounds high pitched among the thunderous bellow of your lusus and the slosh of water. You hurl another stone at the serpent, and beside you, calm and quiet, the Signless takes aim and throws too.
One of your—whether you threw it or the Signless did doesn’t matter—rocks hits the the tender area around the eye, and at last the beast rears back. It zeroes in on the two of you in all your clamor and bravery, and in a second it calculates. You are smaller, weaker, easier prey.
It comes for the two of you in a rush of water and predatory hunger. Your lusus bawls, and the two of you make to scramble out of the way. You don’t have the chance as the air erupts with a roaring, whirring, whine and dark teal blood suddenly spatters across the sand in ropey lines. The serpent’s head hits the ground with a thump a few inches away from you, mouth agape and the cut at the neck ragged. It rolls slightly, and you turn to see long flowing jade green and black clothing, translucent veils a-flutter, and short cropped dark hair. Her horns are a spiny crown at the top of her head, and the weapon in her hands sings gory demise.
She settles from her battle stance, a soft, haughty snort leaving her delicately. You can see the side of her face, the grim set of her brows and lips and the way she looks veiled death at the massive body coiling in its death throws. Primly, the Dolorosa says, “I think not.”
You have not been as terrified of her as you are now since you first met her. She is no longer the soft seeming troll, strange and lusus like in her infrequent visits to reclaim her charge. You see her now for a warrior, a viable threat and you aren’t sure how to handle the change. She turns those bright, veiled eyes on you and you await the rip and tear and failure of your body, but a pattering of footsteps on sand draw her attention from you and to the Signless.
“Are you unhurt?” she asks him, but your attention is directed beyond them to where your lusus is dragging himself laboriously closer to shore. Without a second though you run toward him. Indigo blood is sluicing down the side of his neck and from the shredded end of one fin. There are bite marks all over his muzzle. When you reach him, you can hear the snorting, huffing shudder of his every breath. The exertion has so worn him that when you reach his side he just lets himself fall and his head hits the shallow water with a splash. You reach out and press your hands to his nose and watch indigo mixed with salt water pool between your fingers. Each and every breath your lusus takes rolls across your sodden clothing like a hot breeze.
He lets out a low groan that vibrates through the water, through you, and into the air around you. It seems to stretch on into forever. His eyes close, heavy lids over the slight bulge of his eyes, and there is nothing to reassure you that he yet lives but for his gusty breathing.
A splash of water sounds behind you, and you whirl immediately to find the Dolorosa striding toward you. Her long gown trails into the water, and her weapon is nowhere in sight but it does not stop the immature growl from vibrating in your chest out of fear. You do not move, you have no where to go. You lusus lies injured, and you are helpless. Her brow creases, lips puckering briefly. Behind you, your lusus attempts to rise, and she sighs soft as an evening breeze.
“Step aside.” Her voice is smooth and only makes your growls ratchet up. You are a cornered animal with nothing left to lose.
Another series of splashes sounds, approaching you fast and in moments the Signless is before you. He gives you that smile, the one that curls his lips upward and make his eyes glint like the reflection of stars on the ocean. He holds his hand out to you, palm up, and fingers curled gently toward the sky. “She’ll help,” he says, and he looks over his shoulder at her. “She will make it better.” His words are so soft, and yet so firm that you can not help but let the tension seep from your shoulders like water on rock. There is something about the way he says everything that makes you believe him. You wonder if there is anything he could say that would be falsehood.
You look beyond him at the towering figure of the Dolorosa. She stands poised in the water as easily as she would on land. She reminds you of the trees standing in clumps along the beach. Her arms are crossed, the gossamer fabric of her veils draping down to the water like folded wings. She’s still so much bigger than you that you almost imagine she could contain entire constellations in the fabric of her gown like the ocean reflecting the sky. She unfurls her arms as you stare, and for a moment you think she may just take flight, but her dark lips are pressed thin and she holds her arms wide to the side. Her hands are empty of weapon and malice.
You look away from her, unnerved in the steady fall of her gaze, and to the Signless. He is as he was before, his hand outstretched to you in patient beckoning. When you reach out in response, it is slow enough that you can watch your fingers unfurl, and realize that you will have to trust in his words. His hand is as warm in yours as it was sweeps ago, and he curls his fingers among yours like interweaving strands of braiding, binding you together fast. His smile inches wider and he gives you a tug.
You allow him to lead you back to the beach, but you still glance over your shoulder when your lusus’ bleats raspy and hollowed out.
You will trust him, but you will not trust her.
The two of you stumble out of the surf and onto the sand together, but the Signless doesn’t stop there. He leads you further inland, away from the ragged gasping of your lusus and the churning sea water. The two of you step in among the rocks clustered at the bases of the trees where the night shadows are thicker, and grow thickest toward the cove’s cliff wall. He looks back at you over his shoulder, his eyes glowing like moons in the dark.
He stops, shadows falling across him in thick bands. Above the two of you the fronds dangling from the trees rustle in the wind off the ocean. It’s just the two of you, sequestered in this shadowy, murmuring world. Over the whisper of the trees you can hear the sound of your lusus when he gives a great snort, and are reminded that your world is not this small. When you jerk, the Signless tightens his grip on your hand and tugs you further into the rocks and greenery.
He seems to be searching for something, though you have no idea what. As you walk, he speaks, “We make a good team.” His voice is as solemn and level as it always is, untouchable, you think, and it washes over you like waves. You step closer until your shoulder presses against his. The trailing edges of his cloak—not the one he used to wear, newer, but getting just as worn—tickle your arm and sides.
“We always been a good team,” you say.
He releases his hold on you suddenly, and moves forward to collect splintered chunks of bark and fronds from among the glassy rocks. He turns to you with them and dumps them into your arms before you can protest. You curl your lip, and set them aside as he goes back to gathering more with industrious attention. “S'not true," he says and looks back at you with a small smile. "There was that time you wouldn't listen to me. Nearly got eaten."
"That was all your fault," you reply. "If we hadn't been up in them rocks we wouldn't have run into the beast. We got away in the end."
He dumps more detritus into your arms, and adds the stuff you put down as well. His hands rest weightily atop it all, pressing it into your hold. The Signless meets your gaze through a miniature forest of twigs and sharp bark edges. His face is still round and soft, his eyes still large, and his horns still tiny in the swath of his hair. It hardly feels like time is passing for the two of you at all. If it weren't for his long absences from your life you'd think it wasn't. You would think the entire world had stopped at your command to allow you to keep your friend with you.
You spend nights on the beach sometimes, trying to figure out a way to do this.
"We should keep on being a good team," he says, and you nod. You are both on the same page now, you think. He understands his place at last, even if you know he will wander out of your life again he will always come back. You are certain of this. It is what you demand of the world, and you are sure that it will fall in line. He pats the pile of things in your arms once, firm. "Keep hold of this, we gotta take it back to her."
You wrinkle your nose at the command, but tighten your grip. "What for?"
"T'help with fixing up your lusus."
You do not understand how this will help, but the thought makes you clutch the mess tighter to your chest. The Signless turns and heads off among the trees and rocks, collecting more as he goes and you follow without a word, tracing his footsteps across the sandy ground.
The two of you return to the beach laden with the Signless' finds. Your lusus has beached himself and lays placid on the sand. His fur sticks to him, wet and shining in the pale moon glow. There are patches of his fur dyed indigo, and scales have gone missing all along his tail. The only thing that holds you back from running to him is the way he breathes easy, and how she hovers so near.
The Signless trots to her side while you hang back, wary and cautious. She turns from your lusus and bends at the waist, a whispering shower of veils and cloth, to bring herself closer to the Signless. Her hand moves to rest on the crown of his head, but hesitates and falls away. You can see slick indigo painting her palm, and it makes you growl low in your throat.
Her eyes slide to you, then drift away just as swiftly. "Thank you, small one," she says to the Signless. "Arrange them and start the fire for me?" She dips her hand in a small pouch and produces a fire starter which the Signless takes in one hand. He tucks it between his teeth like a knife blade and turns to you. He jerks his chin up, eyes alight with determination in the face of his new duty. Not far from your lusus he drops his bundle of twigs in the dry sand, and waves for you to do the same. You have barely complied before he races off up the beach and begins pawing through the glassy stones.
You wait where you are watching the ends of his cloak flutter in the sand and listen to the clatter of rocks. He straightens and turns, and beckons you once more. When you join him you are immediately handed several large stones, and lead back to where you were. You do not see the point in this exercise, and find it even more annoying when he scuffs aside sand in a small depression and rings it with the stones you helped him bring back. When your hands are free, you direct more attention to watching the Dolorosa. She stands beside your lusus, hands painted with his blood and stroking the base of one horn. Her eyes stare into the distance of the ocean horizon.
Somehow, you feel as if she can see far more than you ever will.
A snap beside you draws your attention back to the Signless. He's arranged the bark in the depression like a bowl. Atop of them he scatters broken twigs and grasses. With a deft hand he removes the fire starter from his teeth and coaxes flames onto a bundle of beach grass.
It isn't long before the dry kindling blazes with life, though you can not fathom why. Instead you watch the play of flame across the Signless' face. His pupils contract from the brightness, though he looks as solemn as ever. The golden light highlights the whorls of his messy hair, and turns the gold of his eyes more orange. He watches the flicker of the flames much as you watch him. Curious, intent, and wondering.
The heavy rustle of fabric makes you snap your head around. The Dolorosa leaves your lusus' side and strides toward you, skirts brushing across the sand like snake bellies. She crouches beside the fire and dips a blood stained hand into the pouch at her hip. From within she draws a lengthy silver needle and a spool of black thread.
"S'not nearly enough," the Signless says. His eyes follow the movement of her hands just as they followed the leap of the flames.
The Dolorosa lets the fire lick over the needle, unafraid of how close the flames come to her fingers. "It will do for the worst." She turns the needle slowly, watching it heat with pursed lips until it glows cherry red. The Signless' eyes follow it, narrowed. She lifts it away and calmly blows upon it. When she stands and strides away, you can see how she flicks her wrist to continue the cooling.
You watch, teeth bared unconsciously, as she threads the needle. Your lusus barely moves, utters nothing more than a groan, and does not even open his eyes when the needle dips into his flesh. She threads it through his hide in neat stitches that pull the wound closed. It worries you still, and you would have moved toward her had a hand not fallen to rest on your arm.
You look back and meet the Signless' gaze. "Stay here. S'for the better."
"The better for what?" You don't get an answer, but he drags you down into the sand to sit beside him. "What's all up and wrong with him?" Your shoulders touch and the two of you watch sparks pop and jump out of the fire like upward shooting stars. The only sound is the crackle of burning wood, the waves, and the great gusty sighs of your lusus.
The Signless drops a few more broken twigs into the fire and sends a couple bigger sparks flying up. "She probably fed'em something to make'em sleep."
You want to ask when he'll wake up, but you don't. Instead you watch the heart of the fire and around you the night wears on in increments. Nothing happens but for the Dolorosa returning to the fire to clean and heat her needle. At some point the air gains a quality that feels like lightening. At this time you know that you should return home, to the safety of your hive and out of the sun's reaches.
You realize that you are stranded, and you have no way to return home.
Just then the Dolorosa straightens from stitching closed another gash on your lusus. She wipes a hand across the front of her dress, smearing indigo blood in a wide swath. Her head is tilted up, her brows drawn as she observes the lightening of air and sky. She turns, strides toward you purposefully and kneels across from the pair of you. The fire is between you and her, turning the pale gray of her face to an eerie pallidness. She cleans her fingers on the hem of her dress, and cleans her needle too.
"It will be dawn soon," she says softly.
"I can stay," the Signless says. He sounds stubborn, and when you look at his face he looks just as he sounds. His jaw is set, the muscles tight, and his brow furrowed.
"Hmm. Perhaps you could, small one. Your friend can not."
The Signless looks at you and you look back, baffled by their coded conversation. His lips twist, mulish and discontent, but he stands. You watch him bat sand and grit from his clothing before he offers a hand to you. You take it after a moment and let yourself be dragged up. He leads you a few steps up the beach, but no further. He looks back. You do not.
"What about the fire?"
"I will manage."
This placates him and he leads you away, back into the thicket of trees and rocks and into the low growing ferns. You are confused as he shoves them aside, burrowing under the broad leaves as natural as a beach crab. He holds it up and smiles his small, solemn smile at you. He beckons you to join him, and you think of it as another adventure the two of you will share. You settle on your knees and crawl in amongst the fronds to join him. He lets go of the fern he holds aloft and it bobs down to trap the two of you in green twilight. Your horns brush against it's underside, so you duck down a little further. You can feel his shoulder rubbing up against yours, and see his eyes gleam in the half-light.
"You ever sleep outside your hive?" he asks. His voice is a low whisper near your head, and you can feel his breath hot on your cheek. It sounds like a secret more than a question.
"No," you say. "It's not being a thing you're supposed to be doing."
He laughs lightly, and then you hear a rush of fabric and a rustle of plants. The fabric comes down over your head and an arm settles across the back of your neck and shoulders. You find yourself dragged down, and you let yourself be after a moment of refusal. The cloak he has thrown over the both of you turns the twilight into midnight again.
"Well, s'what we got to do now."
You don't want to sleep, and it's hard in this strange place, this strange situation and with your lusus so near but unreachable. You can feel weariness creeping on you, pressing down like the weight of the Signless' arm over your shoulders, but you cling to wakefulness until sleep steals you.
In your sleep the red hot nightmares of your blood rake across your mind like coals, but you are not alone. You are curled with another who shares in your suffering and in the evening the Dolorosa will find the two of you, and you will once more part ways.
The Dolorosa will instruct you how to care for your lusus' injuries, and you will return to your hive like a proper troll.
You will wonder how the Signless knows the things he does, and decide that he is not a proper troll at all.
You will not care, and you will discard the notion as useless.
The important part is that he belongs to you as you decided when you first met him. It never occurs to you that he might have a choice in the matter.