The Shifting Highlands, northeast of Central Isle
Apata was tired. Down to her bones and the roots of her hair. Her hands shook, and her vision blurred with fatigue. The animal hide field tent only came into sight with muted colors and fuzzy outlines. The blue and pink-white whorls of her skin seemed strangely blended. Her balance was off, even in her seat. The black, ash-ink lifeknots tataued onto her arms seemed to be writhing…
Sure and that has to be a trick of the light. She grimaced, forcing her sight back into clarity. Her skin and the markings across it—given by her gods and her tribe both—were separated once more. The colors of the tent returned full force; bright golden wolf furs draped from the poles, rich brown-grey cave bear skin on the floors and in the cots. The full, bloodied cots.
Abrugaels were a constantly warring folk, but even by Apata’s standards—and she’d been learning to heal stabbings and viciously broken bones from six years old—this feud was a stupid conflict. She was surrounded by the sights and smells of wounded men. Some cried for poppy extract. Some cried for their mothers. Some simply cried. The fecal aroma of a man’s final voiding compounded several times over hit her nostrils, and mingled with the sparked copper scent of blood. The end result was a wave of nausea that coursed through her stomach and down to her toes. All this, and it’s only high-sun, so it’ll get worse when the tides come in and smash anyone who isn’t in one of the passes to ragged bits. These blood feuds are such a waste, the black shame of it. She looked at the dead man under her hands. There hadn’t been much for it—pulling the bones and muscles and organs in a man’s chest together with anam was dangerous and difficult. Closing the wounds before he died was nigh impossible.
She looked the dead man in his pale eyes, overcome by a hysterical mix of giddiness and anguish. Jon-boy had been a friend of hers from the days they had shirked milking aurox to galavant about the meadows playing hide and fetch. Now she would have to tell his mother the news. The parted flesh of the wound on his chest wriggled, but did not close. Apata sighed away a bout of laughter that would be impossible to stop once started. She brushed a hand over the man—Jon-boy’s—eyelids, holding them in place for a few moments…
And there, you look like you’d just layed down for a nap, sir, were it not for the gaping holes in your chest. It’s sorry I am, and it’s a damned fool our chief is. May you speak kindly to the gods of my effort, and may they take you into their fold to heal all the hurt that bloody idiot brought on you. Apata had every right to think that way. All of this—the pain, confusion, stink, and exhaustion—could be traced back to four sheep that had managed to wander across Clan Brannaw’s borders, through the shifting shores, and into Dun Kannach.
Well, Kannach can have his sheep, and shag them too. I’ll tell Chief Brannaw exactly that when I see him next. The old man, Brannaw the Elder, had certainly been wise. A fair ruler if there ever was one. Up until the end, he’d been the first one near with a strong hand to help and a healing word to salve, but he’d gone so sick two years past that even the best medicine women of Clan Brannaw couldn’t save him…
…and his soul-forsaken son is a natural born dolt to end all dolts, so. Apata was yanked out of her self-righteous reverie when a woman swathed from head to toe in baggy linsey-woolsey fabric snapped her fingers at her.
The woman was old, and tataued with so many knots that Apata could hardly make out the blue markings and pale fairness of her face. Some of the young ones in Dun Brannaw—her home village—joked that she had been around to see the last of the fae scamper off into the forests. That was long and long ago now, though. Rumor had it that the fae liked the other isles in Bakkaj, but no one had seen a faerie in the Shifting Highlands for centuries. Certainly not the Soulmistress. No matter how old she was. Apata found herself shaking her head to clear it when the Soulmistress shouted her name across the ward.
“Do you have a brain in that head, lass, or are you just going to sit there while Chief Brannaw bleeds his stupid arse to death all over my other tent?” The Soulmistress spoke with the soft high-low lilt that Apata had grown up hearing and using. All Abrugaels spoke that way. Barring skin naturally marked with one soft color and one startlingly bright, it was the fastest way to tell if a person had spent their youth in the valleys of the Shifting Highlands.
“Sorry, I’m a bit woozy the now,” Apata said, hastily. Her words were slurred.
“You wouldn’t be a good healer if you weren’t anam-drunk in a place like this, girl. Come along.” As the two stepped out of the tent and into the brisk cold of early spring, Apata pulled the wool lining of her arsaid closer to her body, yanking a few of its folds over her blue-streaked, red-blond hair to serve as a hood. The walk to the second soul-healer’s ward was short, but felt unbearably long. Her feet—which were the least of her troubles—refused to move in a straight line without the Soulmistress holding her elbow. She’d never been quite this far in the spirits before.
Apata had learned from the past two years under Brannaw the Younger just exactly how much horror and death a bad leader meant, but this was a whole new level of bloodshed.
The sandy path that ran between the valleys holding Duns Kannach and Brannaw was strewn with the corpses of men from both fortresses. Waves crashed onto the beachhead, drawing closer together with each passing break…
…and soon, the men will be wading in their armor, and after that it’s but a skipping step to drowning in it. All for the stone-headed idiocy of the Younger’s pride. The Soulmistress kept a grim expression on her face, as if stupid feuds between less-than-intelligent men were a normal life occurrence. Apata thought about it for a moment, and realized they were. So then how did Brannaw the Elder come to be wise and fair at all, at all?
“Wouldn’t it be better for all involved, Soulmistress, if the Younger were to drain himself like a slaughtered sow?” Apata asked. The twosome kept a brisk pace across the scrub and brush path, but there was still a short time for privacy.
The Soulmistress snorted. “If he had an heir, sure and it would. It’s the sorrow of the world that him dying now means plunging our clan into chaos and blood.” Then a rare smile deepened the lines on the elder healer’s face and made her seem younger all at once. “It’s sad so, that he feels the need to spend this much time fighting, and so little time breeding.”
Apata let go a short burst of laughter. They neared the other tent, a lizard-wolf skin affair, made from the leather acquired by the hunting parties of Brannaw the Elder. He had always called the annual hunt “the culling of the idjits.” They were a few feet short of the entrance when cries of “Clear the ward!” and “The Chief needs space!” were heard.
“To the shade with his wants!” the Soulmistress cried back as they entered the warmth and firelight. Her voice was high and hawkish, full of rage and authority. This tent—laid out roughly the same as Apata’s own—was full of men bedded by more gruesome injuries. Some had lost limbs, or had their faces broiled off by cling-fire…
…and all this giving and taking of pain over four lost sheep, the which could’ve been replaced by the time the last leaves fell. There’s no other word but disgusting, there isn’t.
“These men were wounded for the same,” the Soulmistress hissed, gesturing at the burned and broken soldiers populating her tent. “So our mighty chieftain can at least leave them to their beds.”
Brannaw the Younger was a burly man. He had a beard like a bed of piss-darkened hay, and a head of hair to match. He was wearing a linsey-woolsey great kilt and nought else, and his thigh was split from pelvis to knee. The cut was long and relatively shallow. Apata estimated it had missed the life-giving artery there by less than the width of her little finger.
The Younger loosed an angry roar at the Soulmistress. “You curmudgeonly minge! Who are you to tell my men what to do?” The two guards flanking him scowled. Apata didn’t know if the expression was in reaction to the Soulmistress or the Chieftain’s curse.
“Minge, eh? It’s that I may be, boy, but by the state of that leg and the way you’ve gone whiter than a bowl of clotted cream, I’d say you need me to continue wasting the air by drawing breath the now. So you’ll do as I say or die not doing it.”
Brannaw the Younger’s face regained some of its color, going from half blue and half white to half purple and red. “You threaten me?”
“Not so much a threat, as the promise of a well deserved break for the two of us, my apprentice and I, so.” The Soulmistress returned Brannaw the Younger’s hateful glare with an expression of calm indifference. The man’s face got so red that Apata thought he was going to start leaking what little blood he had left from his ears. His men did nothing. Forbye, I could swear one of them is trying not to laugh the now—which, for the sake of tact and his own darling head, is probably a good thing. In fact, Apata knew the man by looks. “Caradoc? What are you doing at the front? How did you get that cut on your face?”
Caradoc was a little above average height, but that was where his similarities to Clan Brannaw ended. His god-markings—the swirls and spirals that all Abrugaels had lacing their skin: blue on clan Brannaw folk—were a bright shade of crimson, almost the color of blood. As it stood, blood was mingling with those marks on the superficial cuts marring his wrists and face, making them just a tinge darker for it. He was brown of hair and eye both, and his face was shaved clean of hair, barring a long mustache that trailed down his jaw and off of his chin. Blood was flowing from a gash above his left eye. More of it was congealing in sticky gobs on his war-axe, which he was currently using as a cane to bear his weight. He was a warrior, tried and true. You couldn’t be heir to a Dun and not face combat. That had never been seen nor heard of.
Caradoc was the son of a chief, and an Oathing apprentice, sent by his father Mad-man MacDowell to learn chief craft under Brannaw—both the Elder, and then, after his illness, his son. It had been the thing to do, since Brannaw the Younger had taken his Oathing at Dun Macdowell, and had still been a timid, reserved boy when he left to make his way there on the shifting shores. Of the eight duns Apata knew of, MacDowell was far and away the largest and most powerful. She had been just a girl in her own right when Brannaw left for its shores…
…the sorrow of it is, he came back a barking mad man himself, and it’s none other than I—well, I and the Soulmistress—who keep the clan from being destroyed by his lunacy.
Apata was so lost in her own thoughts that she almost missed Caradoc’s response. Her half-brother smiled, which was a startling expression given all the blood on his face. “Avoiding death, I’d hope, Apata MacDowell-Brannaw. Else my idjit of a half-sister inherits the Dun when my fool father falls off a cliff drowned in drink, and I swear the girl knows nought about war and ruling but campcraft and a bit of healing.”
“Better her than the son of a mad old he-goat who ruts with any willing tart, I’d think. At the very least, she’d be able to keep troops in order, instead of drooling on her shirt to try gnawing at a venison bone, and getting her hands slashed up in stupid feuds.” Apata retorted. Caradoc MacDowell—for that was his surname—grinned.
The half-siblings had grown out of their childhood rivalry early in youth—a byproduct of separation, wisdom, and desperate hardship all three—and the remarks had the type of loving sarcasm that only siblings could share. Forbye, it’s not for no reason at all that my dear father is called Mad-man MacDowell instead of MacDowell the Elder; and it’s not by less than massive effort that Caradoc escaped with his wits and soul intact.
“Aye, and now that we’ve established it’s related you two are, would it be at all possible to try and close the gods-damned bloody hole in my thigh?”
The Soulmistress started toward the chieftain, but Apata looked Brannaw dead in the eye and said a single word: “No.”
“What was that?” the Younger responded. His voice was full of a chilly anger bordering on hate. Caradoc gave no indication of panic aside from a slight tremor in his bloodied hands and a widening of his eyes.
The Soulmistress waited calmly, a small disdainful smile returning to her face at Apata’s response. “Such a terrible time for a young one to be anam-drunk, I think,” she whispered. Apata disregarded her chiding. She was focused entirely on the Younger now.
“I said no. I’ll not use my skills and my spirit on a fool who’s just going to return to battle, blunder the whole thing up, and get the men of my clan killed at the blade or the wrath of the sea both.” She had started speaking calmly, but Apata’s voice had risen to a furious shriek. She was tilting and swaying as if the tent were at sea, instead of on shore. Her tirade continued: “Especially, if one of the men risking himself is the only family I’ve left to me! Call the men back to the passes. Call your stupid pissing match with Kannach off. Only then will I make sure the blood and bone stays in your leg.”
Brannaw howled again. “And this from the apprentice of a two-bit healer! I’ll take mouth from the daft old tit, but not from you, girl. You’ll pay you will. Blood. For. Blood.” The Younger finished his tirade spitting the words. His face crinkled nastily with a wide, battle-maddened grin. They locked eyes again.
Apata had a sensitive spirit. You couldn’t be an anamri if you weren’t able to feel the workings of the world in your heart. In those moments, when her eyes locked with Brannaw’s, Apata felt something…
…other. As if the Younger’s whole heart has shifted itself from madness to regret, to fear and hate and back to being a gibbering, gods-damned loon again. As she watched, the world shivered around him. The air wriggled in just the slightest way; enough that it could easily be considered a trick of the light to anyone who wasn’t at least a journeyman in the ways of the anamri. But it’s not, it isn’t. It’s as if all the space within an arm’s length of the man is infested with invisible maggots and worms. Brannaw was unhinged. That much, at least, was obvious.
In less than the span of a single breath, the chieftain pulled a simple iron dirk from the folds of his great kilt and jabbed it into Caradoc’s stomach.
Apata’s scream of “No!” came out on the tail end of Caradoc’s snarl of rage, confusion, and pain. The two men fell to the floor, Caradoc grasping at the Younger’s fist and the handle of the dirk it was wrapped around while his own weapon clattered to the ground underneath them. Brannaw’s other guard ran for the tent flaps.
The inside of the tent dissolved into chaos. Apata screamed for her brother; Caradoc snarled, matching his strength of limb and will against Brannaw’s. The conscious wounded scrabbled in their beds for handholds or to get up. Voices seethed from the gangling heap of limbs and blood that was her brother and Brannaw the Younger.
“You mad bastard!” Caradoc screamed, smashing his fist into Brannaw’s wounded thigh again and again.
“You worthless pile of meat and shite!” the Younger howled back, clutching at Caradoc’s face and not reacting to his blows.
The words devolved into the crazed, ululating battle cries of their people just as quickly as they came. The final cry was Caradoc’s. He’d managed to overcome Brannaw by flexibility, taking advantage of his onset weakness. Caradoc straddled Brannaw the Younger, raised the dirk high above his head in his right hand, his thumb resting on the handle in an expert’s grip, and stabbed downward with a series of sharp, savage blows. Skull. Sternum. Eye. Throat. Nothing would have survived the onslaught.
Brannaw’s death rattle cracked the world. Apata felt the hissing vibration of his lungs in her bones. Her ears roared with pain, and all of her nails felt like they were being ripped out of her fingers. She felt something seething from his milk-pale corpse. The air moving in the same way it had before, but spreading; the waver lessened in intensity, seeping upward, outward, around. Something wrong was leaving the man. Whatever it was, it was going somewhere.
Apata shuddered at the thought.
Caradoc shouted into the dead man’s face. “My da the Mad-man MacDowell will not have this Dun boyo! Not if I’ve got anything to say about it!” and then he collapsed with limp finality.
Is he? Oh, thank mother sun and father earth, he’s breathing, and after a fight like that!
The Soulmistress clutched Apata’s arm hard enough for the elder healer’s fingers to break the younger’s skin. “Come, girl,” she snapped. “We’ve a job to do, and fast, the which is only slightly more savory than having to heal that daft idjit Brannaw raised. There is some hope, at least, that your brother will lead this clan without using his bollocks to think.” Apata blanched was she was led towards the living man. Caradoc lead Clan Brannaw? It’d be a warm day on the Planes of Shade before they accepted him without drawing blood. What mattered to her was that her brother still drew breath. That he was alive, and had won the fight with… whatever had been inside Brannaw to begin with. They would take the journey as it came, one disaster at a time. Just as they always had. Her tired bones filled with a steely resolve. This shan’t be the end of me, nor this farce of a fight the end of him. Her swaying knees stiffened, and she fell to them, resting her weight on her heels. Her shaking hands stilled. The two healers chained their palms, one above the other, to amplify the force of the life-bearing energy flowing into Apata’s brother. They set their hands on her brother’s deep, running wound, the Soulmistress’s palm in direct contact with the marred flesh. She was the more experienced of the two, and would know better how to direct the force as they knitted the meat and veins, skin and capillaries in Caradoc’s wounded abdomen closed. The women closed their eyes, nary a variance in the timing of their movements. Their breathing. Their pulses.
The two healers began to chant.