Actions

Work Header

Wildfire

Work Text:

It was after the murder, and all that had followed it, when everything became clear in a most painful manner.

He was in Cold Run's hall, as he so often was these days. Here the villagers of Cold Run came for justice or commands or comfort. Here the Baron of Cold Run decided the fate of his villagers and of any man who threatened the peace of his village.

Not so long ago it had been Griffith's father, rather than Griffith himself, who made these decisions.

Griffith sat in his great chair, looking at the missive in his hand from Blackwood, demanding to know the latest about Cold Run's blood feud with Mountside. The letter would have to be answered. But what could Griffith say? That the very thought of the feud made him so sick he was sure he would vomit? These were not words appropriate to a fighting man, much less a wild boy grown up.

He had acquired a reputation in this part of Koretia, early on, of being more wild, more daring, more of a trickster than any other boy, save his blood brother, his co-conspirator in all mischief and pranks. When had that wild boy died?

Sighing, Griffith stood up, setting the wax tablet aside as he glanced at the mask of the Jackal God, which he had placed upon the wall when he became baron. He tried not to think how the god would regard his recent thoughts. Instead, he turned away from the mask. He felt sixty years old, rather than twenty. He must go now and select the villager who would creep off to Mountside and hunt and kill a victim, since Mountside's baron resolutely refused to admit that his own young heir had lost that village the blood feud, through his cowardice.

Griffith couldn't help wishing that it was he, not Adrian, who was fleeing at this moment, racing as hard as he could from the villages' blood feuds.

And so he was standing there, lethargy in his limbs, as the warm autumn sun slanted its light through the windows. It was then that his world changed.

He did not know it yet. All he knew was that he heard Siward cry, "Griffith! Griffith, come quickly!"

That call was enough to cause him to snatch up his naked sword from where he had laid it, close at hand. He knew that Siward would not call out of fear of a hunter – his younger brother was not that much of a coward. But for all Griffith knew, the vengeful Baron of Mountside might have changed the rules again and decided to burn down every hut in Cold Run.

Griffith burst out of the hall to find that the villagers of Cold Run – normally busy at this time of day with their various trades – were motionless, staring at the edge of the village.

A young man stood there, wearing a gold-threaded tunic. He was smiling. He wore no dagger at his belt, which was odd to see of any Koretian man not pledged to the priesthood, but he seemed unaware of his vulnerability to danger, much less to any taunts concerning his missing manhood. There was something about how he held himself, light on his feet, that suggested a wild creature, ready to pounce or dodge at any moment.

"Griffith," the young man said.

"Emlyn," he replied in a broken voice. "Oh, gods, Emlyn." With tears trailing down his face, Griffith stepped forward and embraced his blood brother, who had finally come home after nine years.

o—o—o

There was no privacy to be had in the village, save in the sanctuary of Cold Run's priest, Felix, and so, after Emlyn had exchanged greetings with the other villagers, Griffith and his blood brother climbed a nearby mountain.

Not Mountside, of course. Mountside's baron would have cut Emlyn's throat at sight of him.

It was a hard trek, taking them above the flatlands where Cold Run was located. Despite the ballads about the Sea of Koretia – the many miles of forest that lay at the heart of their nation – this part of Koretia, in the northwest borderland, was more rocky than green. When they reached the top of the mountain, Griffith turned his back on the mountains behind him, which led north into the Empire of Emor, and sat on a rock that faced Koretia.

Griffith knew what was taking place in the land below him. Crafting and trading and farming and beast-hunting. Housekeeping, child-watching, and lovemaking. Priests prayed in their sanctuaries, barons kept the King's peace, and amidst it all, like dozens of brushfires, scarcely noticed, villagers crept into rival villages and cut the throats of the hunted.

There were demon-stonings too. He had almost forgotten about that.

Sick once more, Griffith covered his face. When he finally looked up, he saw that Emlyn, who had not seated himself, seemed more interested in contemplating Griffith than in watching the landscape.

Emlyn had become a handsome young man. After all his years living in the south, his skin had turned much darker than Griffith's light brown hue, complementing his lively, golden-brown eyes. He had made no mention in his letters of courting women . . . but then, until four years ago, Emlyn had dwelt as an orphan in the priests' house near the capital. There had been some talk, for a few years, of his becoming a celibate priest. Griffith had been glad when that talk died down. He could not imagine his blood brother, the great prankster, living a quiet, pious life in a sanctuary. At some point, inevitably, the High Priest would have opened his door and found a bucket of water gushing down upon him.

Despite the gold tunic and cloak – a sign, not of his rank, but of his trade as a goldsmith – Emlyn appeared to be the same unassuming boy he had been when he left Cold Run at age eleven. Then he had been sickly; he had been sent south in the company of Mountside's young priest Fenton in hopes that the priests at the capital could cure his occasional spells of mind-withdrawal. Fenton had returned to the north in due time, but Emlyn had stayed in the priests' house.

Now Emlyn had acquired the strong limbs of a craftsman. The smile remained, though, as did the watchful eyes Griffith remembered so well.

"Where did you get that dagger?" asked Griffith. The sheathed dagger that now hung from Emlyn's belt was tickling at his mind, though he could not remember where he had seen it before. It was an exceedingly handsome dagger: curved like a claw, with a jewel-studded sheath.

"Siward gave it to me." Emlyn continued to smile. "He said it was a gift to me from Fenton, by way of Adrian."

He felt it all come back to him, then, like a punch in the stomach – only worse, because he would have to tell Emlyn. He could not blame Siward for leaving the tale-telling to him. Siward's part in the tale was hard enough to bear without confessing his ill deed to a man who must be a stranger to him, since Emlyn had left Cold Run when Siward was only six years old.

Griffith was not sure what his face held, but something about Emlyn's smile changed. It was like Fenton's smile, when he was encouraging a reluctant confession from one of the boys he ministered to.

Fenton. Gods. Where could Griffith begin?

"I don't understand why the gods require this of us," he said.

"This?" Emlyn's voice was light.

"That we should kill. . . . Oh, I know my catechism. We bring murderers outside our village to justice by hunting them or their kin. And if we believe that someone in our own village who is being hunted has been accused unjustly of murder, we send our own hunters back to the hunters' village to make our own killings. I can understand the idea, when spoken as a catechism. But the reality . . ."

He faltered, wondering how to speak further. Emlyn's parents had not died during the blood feud, which had started only this year. Had Emlyn ever witnessed a blood feud? He had lived in the priests' house for five years, and then in Koretia's capital, where the King's soldiers kept the peace. Griffith doubted that even Blackwood, who was the closest man that the King possessed to a rival, would dare to send his hunters into the capital.

Griffith tried again. "Do you remember how the five of us used to play hunter and hunted in Cold Run? You and your cousins Hamar and Adrian, who came to visit us from Mountside. And me, because I was your pledged blood brother, and Siward, of course, because he would not be left out of anything fun. We used to dodge back and forth between the huts, trying to sight the hunted . . ."

"Until the day when we witnessed the demon-stoning, and we couldn't bear to hunt where we had seen a man's blood shed, and so we moved our hunting to Mountside."

Griffith stared at Emlyn, who was no longer smiling, but who continued to stand, framed by the woods and mountain-ranges of Koretia. Griffith had not expected Emlyn to recall that long-ago episode . . . but now he recalled that this was one of the days when Emlyn had been ill, withdrawing into himself and babbling. Griffith couldn't remember what words had been spoken; Fenton always kept the other boys away at such times, protecting Emlyn, even though that was Felix's duty, as priest of Cold Run. No doubt Emlyn had spoken words of nonsense, touched lightly by mind-illness. But if Felix had mistaken Emlyn's harmless ravings for the blasphemous ravings of a boy possessed by a demon . . .

A cold shard sliced through Griffith then. He had not grasped the danger, as a young boy. Fenton had; no wonder he had escorted Emlyn south to the priests' house. Emlyn would be in danger anywhere in Koretia, but at least in the priests' house, Fenton could guard Emlyn as best he could and draw from him the poisonous barb of his illness. Felix, for all his good qualities, was far too inclined to encourage the use of stone and blade to resolve all conflicts with evil.

Which was part of the reason why matters had reached the point they had in Cold Run. Griffith took a deep breath. "You. Me. Siward. Adrian. Hamar. We were all the closest of companions, bound, not only by friendship, but by our kinship, for you had ties of kinship to your Mountside cousins, and I was kin to you, through my blood vow of friendship. We would have died for each other, I think."

Emlyn simply waited. A cloud, moving over the mountain, had dulled the gold in his eyes, turning them as black as a jackal's coat.

Griffith looked down at the scar on his wrist. He and Emlyn had been seven years old when they vowed their blood to each other – just old enough to know how to hold a dagger. They had nicked their wrists – a bit too deep, for they were still young – and joined their blood in a rapid oath, and then gone in search of Felix to tell them how to stop their wrists from bleeding. Griffith's mother had still been alive then; he remembered that she had berated both the boys for being so careless with their blades. Griffith's father had simply taught the two of them to improve their blade skills. "You'll need to know how to do this," he had said, smiling, "if ever you are sent on a hunt."

A hunt. A blood feud. If there was a blood feud, it would be with Mountside, Cold Run's rival, because the Baron of Mountside bore kinship with the King, while Cold Run's baron was kin to Blackwood. How could Griffith's father have smiled, knowing that some day Emlyn might be sent to hunt his own cousins?

"Five of us," said Griffith, too wrapped in his misery now to feel the chill from the cloud-shadow and the growing wind. "You, me, Siward, Adrian, Hamar, with Fenton and Felix watching our play, along with the two barons who were fathers to us all – all except you, and my father treated you like his son. You and I were closest together, because we'd pledged to follow the trickster god, the Jackal. We'd somehow decided that playing pranks was dutiful to the god. Well, we were only boys. We didn't understand. We didn't know—"

The words choked him. Finally he looked up, his arms tight against his chest, as though shielding himself against the coldest ice that the northern mainland could bring against him. "Nine of us," he said. "Four adults, five children. Hamar is dead. We waged a fire feud with Mountside earlier this year; Siward burned down the Baron of Mountside's hall, not realizing till it was too late that Hamar was inside. That began our blood feud with Mountside. My father is dead. One of Mountside's hunters killed him. Siward nearly died; Adrian was sent as a hunter against him, but decided at the last minute to flee rather than kill Siward. Now Adrian's father has sent hunters to find and kill Adrian for breaking his blood oath of murder. Siward remains in danger from hunters."

And Griffith was in the greatest danger of all, as the new Baron of Cold Run, but Emlyn would know that without being told. Griffith groped for the final words, struggling to reveal the hardest news. "Fenton is dead. Siward killed him."

There was no surprise on Emlyn's face. Perhaps Siward had found the courage to tell him after all. "By accident," Emlyn suggested.

Griffith shook his head. "Not entirely. He attacked Fenton by mistake, in dim light; he would never have hunted a bladeless priest deliberately. But once he had bound Fenton and recognized who he was . . . He thought his blood vow as a hunter required him to kill the first man he bound, even if it was Mountside's priest. Siward thought his god required this of him. Of course, Felix has punished him since then."

"And you?" Emlyn's voice was as quiet as the hush of the wind upon the mountain.

"I forgave him." Then, defensively: "He is my brother, Emlyn! I know how dearly you loved Fenton. We all did; he was a gentle man who did not deserve so terrible an end. But Siward struggles to understand how he should best follow his god. . . . That is the only reason, I'm sure."

"Only reason?" Still Emlyn's voice remained quiet. The wind was louder now, picking up from the east.

It was hard to say this too. Family pride was involved. But Emlyn was kin; he must be told. "Siward let Adrian go. Even when he realized that Adrian was going to break his blood vow of murder, Siward let him go. Siward hid knowledge of Adrian's flight for days from all of us, even Felix. . . . Adrian gave Fenton's dagger to Siward, to give to you. Adrian wanted you to have it."

And that was all: the whole bloody, degrading tale. The battle between neighboring villages, the spilling of kinsmen's blood, the murder of a gentle priest, and most of all, Siward's repeated breaking of the gods' law . . . not just by accident, but deliberately.

Griffith covered his face again. The wind moaned. He found himself hoping, in a vague sort of way, that no nearby villages were carrying on a fire feud. The entire Sea of Koretia might burn ablaze in such heavy wind.

"I don't understand," he heard himself say.

"Understand?" Emlyn's voice was so soft now that Griffith could barely hear him under the wind.

"Why the Jackal asks this of us." The words he had spoken before, grown more specific now, for the Jackal was their pledged god. "The tricks we played as boys – the water-dousing and honey-smearing and other such pranks . . . They harmed no one. They made people angry, but they shed no blood. But this . . . What has been happening to our villages cannot be right. It cannot be. If the Jackal requires this of us, if all the seven gods and goddesses of Koretia require it . . . then I must find a foreign god to serve."

And there it was. The words he had been hiding from himself for days. His law-breaking against the Koretian gods, far worse than Siward's, for Siward only fumbled to find the best way to serve the gods, whereas Griffith . . . Griffith had broken allegiance to his god.

He removed his hands from his face, wondering what he would see when he looked up. Emlyn's anger? His shock? Could he hope that Emlyn, who had witnessed none of this, could understand why Griffith had betrayed the oath they had once pledged together, to serve the Jackal God?

He raised his face, and saw the Jackal.

o—o—o

For a moment, that was all he saw. He recognized the god at once, from the pictures he had seen in Felix's sanctuary. The golden eyes of flame, the whiskers as sharp as blades, the terrible teeth in the grinning mouth, the fire upon the golden fur . . .

And then he realized that the god was standing upon two legs, and the golden fur was the cloak of a gold tunic.

"Emlyn!" he gasped. He was on his feet now, and his legs shook. He could feel the fire, and he could see it, trembling in the wind. The Jackal's fire, which eats the bodies of the dead, cleansing them of all remaining evil. The Jackal's fire, which consumes men who break the gods' law, enfolding them in flames of unending agony.

The Jackal, wearing the body of Emlyn.

"Do you not recognize me, son of Roderick?" The Jackal's smile, baring those deadly teeth, did not change. Just so, the stories said, had he greeted his enemies before tricking them and binding them to his will.

"God," he whispered. Emlyn's body. Had his blood brother ever existed? Or was Emlyn merely another trick of the Jackal, his disguise as he spent patient years luring yet another victim into confessing his enmity to the god?

"Say again what you said before, Baron of Cold Run." There was a current of amusement in the god's voice as the flames flickered upon his body, and his eyes burned within his dark face. "Say again whether you follow the gods' ways."

He was dead. Whatever Griffith said, he would die here, consumed on this mountain by a vengeful god.

The thought was oddly freeing. He realized, in that moment, what Siward must have felt, knowing that, after all his unintentional blasphemies, he had the opportunity finally to deliberately break the gods' law – to stay silent long enough to allow Adrian to flee to safety.

Griffith could save no one. He had already condemned Siward to the gods' anger, which he bitterly regretted. Perhaps he had condemned Adrian as well. But whatever he had done, Griffith could at least toss away cowardice, realizing as he did now that two of his childhood companions were brave young men.

"I denounce you, Jackal." He kept his voice quiet; he had never been one for dramatic flourishes. "I denounce anyone who leads the Koretians to commit such evil acts as blood feuds and demon-stonings."

He waited, sweating in the heat of the fire, but feeling calm as he awaited his doom. His only regret was that the blood brother he had loved so well had never existed.

The flames were dying down, though the body still glowed gold. So did the eyes. The smile remained, though the teeth could no longer be seen. The whiskers . . .

And then he realized that he was looking again at Emlyn.

"Do you, blood brother?" Emlyn's voice was as quiet as Griffith's had been. "Then thank all goodness for that, for I made the same denunciation myself, long ago."

o—o—o

Children laughed and shouted and tumbled their way across the village square where long ago a man had been stoned to death. Too young to know this, and not quite old enough to understand why village men were dying and killing, the children played in the square, watched over by the Baron of Cold Run and his blood brother.

Tossing back a ball that had rolled up to his feet, Griffith asked quietly, "Is he inside you? Or are you inside the god?"

"It is hard to explain," replied Emlyn, which Griffith thought was very likely an understatement. "Let us say that, for the moment, the god is hidden within me, as he was throughout my childhood . . . except at certain moments."

The moments when Griffith had thought madness touched Emlyn. The moments that Felix might have mistaken for the presence of a demon. How frighteningly wrong they both would have been. How close, Griffith wondered, had Felix come to stoning a god-man?

If Felix had been wrong about that, then everything he taught Griffith about the gods' ways might have been wrong. Griffith felt suddenly adrift, as though he had lost the steering of his boat.

"What shall I say I believe?" he asked. He did not ask, as he knew he ought to ask, "Tell me what I should believe." Never again could he give his conscience over to a god and let the god dictate how he should act.

Emlyn smiled at him. It was the Jackal's smile, but in a human form that could easily be mistaken for that of a mischievous boy. "What did we believe as boys?" he asked.

That it was best to wait until the last minute before setting up the water pail, Griffith thought. Then his mind stopped on that thought.

A mischievous boy. Pranksters. The trickster god.

"Why are you here, Jackal?" he breathed. "Why have you come from the Land Beyond to live with us?"

Emlyn said nothing; he simply smiled.

Griffith hooted suddenly, drawing the attention of Siward, who had emerged from an earlier private conversation with Emlyn looking more at ease than he had been since the feud began. Griffith waved Siward back to his task, which was tossing the ball to the young children. Then Griffith asked in a quiet voice, "Who do we fight, trickster god? The demon-stoners?" He jerked his head in the direction of Felix, who was by the village's whetstone, watching Cold Run's hunters hone their blades.

"And the blood feuders," agreed the god-man, turning his gaze that way. For the briefest of seconds, a flame sparked in Emlyn's eyes; then the eyes were golden-brown again. "We fight all who turn the gods' law to their own evil ends."

"But how are men to know what the gods' law is, if no one tells them but the priests?" asked Griffith, curious.

Emlyn turned his smile toward Griffith. "How did you know, up there on the mountain, ready to die for what you knew was right? We gave men minds and consciences for a reason, you know."

He thought about this for a time as the children laughed nearby and the hunters muttered their plans for killing. Then he thought of the upturned pail, and Felix's furious expression, and Fenton – just as much a victim of the water pail – laughing with delight at the boys' trick.

One man following his own dark heart, the other man following the god. An upturned pail had revealed the difference.

"Oh, Jackal my blood brother," said Griffith, leaning forward with a smile on his face, "I am so looking forward to playing tricks with you again."