3376 words (13 minute read)
by Pretty aror Em

Chapter 23

 

            “Do they think of us?”

            His ears twitched at her question, eyes rising from the sticky layer that had formed over previously broken skin. It was healing, he thought. Len’s tail flicked behind him, landing with a quiet pat in the snow.

            “Who?” he asked.

            “Them.”

            She extended a single claw, pointing across the camp and into the trees far beyond where any huts huddled.

            “Why?”

            “We think of them,” Fala growled. “Do they think of us?”

            Len’s expression fell, ears flattening and lips curling upward for a moment and Fala only let out a grumble in response. He tapped a paw over her wrist, the place where a small pad had been. Fala hissed.

            “Pain?”

            “Yes.”

            The sap had cracked some from the cold, but the wound smelled clean even beneath the layer that had formed. Len reached for the scrap of a fur beside him, binding both of her wrists and tying them off carefully.

            “Leave them alone,” he warned. “They will heal if you let them.”

            Fala growled softly. “It hurts.”

            “You decided,” Len joked, knocking his head into hers gently. “Warriors should be brave, yes?”

            “Healers should be smart,” Fala huffed, batting at his ears, “and not bother them.”

            Len hissed falsely. “I have cubs that behave better.”

            “You are still a cub,” she reminded, standing slowly.

            “You are too-“

            A paw was shoved in front of his muzzle. “Not anymore.”

            Shaking his head, he reached up to tap a claw between her ears. “A cub here,” he paused, prodding her chest, “and here.”

            Fala swatted him away. “Have you hunted?”

            “No,” Len answered, tapping his paws together in front of him. “Has the clan eaten?”

            “I have traps,” she declared, motioning to the treeline again with her tail, “bring your doe.”

            “Where?”

            The question didn’t fully leave his mouth before she was off, bounding across the camp and disappearing behind the cover of a hut. Len clicked his jaw, teeth clacking together as he reached down to collect his things and slip them into the small bag at his side. Tiek, a small and gangly looking doe, was nearby and he reached for the whistle, watching her head snap up from the grazing group across the camp.

            The doe came forward, head bowed and hooves crunching steadily over ice covered ground. Len extended a clawed hand, letting it rest on her muzzle as she approached and cupping beneath her head to share a breath, forehead against hers. The doe snorted, stamping an impatient hoof.

            “Are you coming?” Fala called, already atop her own stag. “Or will you stay with your doe?”

            “Tiek,” he corrected.

            “Tiek,” she sang back at him, a mockery.

            Len pinned his ears, climbing onto the back of the doe and following as Fala and her stag darted off across camp. He didn’t understand the need for the quick pace, something that would likely frighten off anything they could possibly consider hunting. Traps, he thought, would likely have caught something after being left overnight, but prey tended not to flourish near the Rift itself.

            It seemed even the forest avoided getting too close.

            Fala chirped and Len’s ears perked as he scented the air, mouth dropping open and tongue sliding across a sharp canine. Blood, something nearby, and for once, the smell wasn’t attached to a clan mate. Instead, it was prey, earthy and rugged, and the thought of food sent his stomach growling.

            They pulled to a halt and Fala dismounted, stag dancing sideways as she dove through the brush and Len heard a frightened squeak of some small creature before the sound was cut short. She returned a short time later, the limp form of a rabbit hanging from her jaws and paws holding the tangled remains of a broken snare.

            “You are clumsy.”

            Fala growled, dropping the rabbit from her mouth and setting the unsalvageable scraps of the trap aside. “It was an accident. The trap was too close to where I landed.”

            “Clumsy,” Len repeated.

            The rabbit was tossed to him and tucked away into his bag, wrapped in a skin to keep it from what supplies he carried with him. Removing many things from Wren’s hut was dangerous when the snow kept their stores low. He carried herbs, dried things collected during the short growing seasons and others that still grew despite the cold. He carried leaves that, when mixed with others, calmed squalling cubs or others that were chewed and pressed into cracked paw pads. They were small, and yet, they were just as useful for his clan mates.

            Len was far from fully capable as a healer, but he did what he could.

            He did what the clan needed.

            “This way,” Fala called to him.

            They rode again, checking traps and snares that had been set out along animal paths, places where tracks converged, highways that formed over fallen logs and down in gullies where pools of water never fully froze over. The air was cold, but the trees kept the wind from their faces, shielding them until they broke from the forest for a short while to clearer land. He thought it strange there were no other parties, no hunters out in search of larger prey or warriors stalking through trees desperately hoping they would catch no sight of their banners.

            The sound of their horses, the stamp of booted feet and the thunder that was belched from the barrels of their guns has always been enough to keep him from straying too far from camp. He wasn’t brave, not like Fala, and his size, his gentleness, made the prospect of ever having to defend his clan all the more intimidating.

            The Dravara were loud, frightening in every possible way.

            Len did his best not to think about what horrors lay over the Rift.

            His eyes rose then, pelt standing on end the moment he caught sight of the expanse before them. The clearing was short and, rather than returning to the safety of the trees, the land simply dropped away completely, tumbling down until it met the ice choked river between the two sharp cliffs. It was the same river that flowed through their land, his clan’s territory, and yet the growl of it far below was horribly menacing.

            “Why-“
            “There are traps,” Fala called, dismounting from the back of her stag.

            His ears flattened, teeth baring fearfully. “Across?”

            “Yes.”

            “Who put them there?” Len quaked.

            Fala didn’t answer, only reaching for her bow and starting forward.

            “No,” Len cautioned, scrambling down to follow, “there is danger over-“

            She turned, silencing him with a warning hiss.

            “You stay. Wait,” she said, straightening, “I will get them.”

            Len whined, ears still pressed flat against his head and tail lashing behind him. He glanced behind him, mouth dropping open to drink in the scent around him. Theirs was distinct, melding with the other smells of the forests, the trees and what creatures scuttled for cover, but it was stale. It had been many hours, likely close to a day, since any Dravara had been even remotely close to the Rift.

            “Fala,” he hissed, skulking closer and shuffling his way onto the land bridge after her.

            “Stay.”

            Huffing, he scrambled forward, stepping in front of her and clenching his paws to pat them together nervously. “What if the clan sees?”

            “The clan is far,” Fala pointed out, tail flicking lazily in the direction of camp.

            “They will know we were here. Our scent is here,” he argued, reaching out to grab for her arm. “You are healing. This will get us killed. Traps can be abandoned-“

            Fala reached to cup his face, tugging him forward and dragging a rough tongue across the top of his head. “Your fur stands on end.”

            He shrank away, swiping a clawed hand over his ears, flattening them against his head in embarrassment. Len only let out a grumble, mouth twitching and tail lashing anxiously behind him.

            “If you are afraid, stay.”

            His paws curled inward, digits tapping together gently. “I will go.”

            A rumble sounded from Fala. “You will?”

            “Do I have a choice?”

            Fala snorted. “If you are-“

            “I will go,” he repeated more firmly.

            She chirped then, looking pleased as the stags were sent away and her eyes flickered forward. For a moment she stood there, still and slightly crouched, body taut and lowered, and the next they were flying off across the snow. The trees felt different, rougher against his fur, and somehow he felt lost the moment the two of them made it to the other side of the clearing. The land was foreign, unmarked by any clanmate, and the trees carried no markings that any faeloren had been there at all.

            It reeked of them, of their horses and of the smoke that plumed from their weapons.

            Len’s nose wrinkled and he reached up to swipe his arm across his muzzle, waiting for the scent to fade. But it was everywhere, covering anything else that could have been around them until he was choking on it.

            “Here,” said Fala.

            He paused, dropping to all fours in a crouch as she searched the area for traps. His fur stood off from his shoulders, tail lashing anxiously behind him the longer he waited. They would have to return, he thought. Being close to the Rift at all was dangerous, but being over it would surely spell death for the both of them.

            “Will they know?” he hissed once she returned.

            “They will see our tracks,” Fala answered plainly.

            “Wolves,” he suggested, reaching down to blur the trail behind him with flick of his tail. “Will they know-“

            Fala hissed. “They will know.”

            His head lowered. “Why are we here? The traps mean nothing.”

            “The Dravara expect many, not few. We can reach the walls before they-“

            “No,” Len snarled.

            Fala’s expression fell. “The clan will be safe.”

            “We will die.”

            “And the clan will be safe.”

            Her voice broke, faltering and Len could hear the hitch of a cry in her throat. She stifled a wail, sitting down heavily in the snow and closing her paws over her eyes.

            “Fala,” Len called, crouching down beside her. “We should go.”

            “Safe,” she repeated softly, whining. “They will have no fear. Cubs will grow without being afraid.” Her paws came away then and she was blinking up at him. “The clan will be happy, yes?”

            “And if we fail,” Len answered. “They will die too.”

            She seemed to think for a moment, ears falling flat against her head. Len stood slowly, reaching a clawed hand out towards her, but she only shrugged him away. For a while, he waited for her to say something else, argue or in some way prove him wrong.

            Fala was silent.

            “Come,” Len suggested, reaching for her arm gently. “We will go back.”

            “I-“

            Voices.

            Len shrank down, tugging Fala with him and into the nearest cluster of underbrush. He couldn’t see them, but the scent was stronger, smothering everything suddenly until it dripped from the leaves around them. A shiver passed through him and his fur rose, mane prickling with a fear that crackled in the air around them.

            “Where are they?” Fala hissed.
            “Near.”

            The horses came into view first, spindly and smaller than a stag, darker too, but somehow they were still terrifying. He waited for one of them to notice him, to turn and stare into the place they were hidden, but the animals walked blindly by. Their masters continued on, itchy fingers trailing to holstered pistols.

            It was calm; he was afraid.  

            Fala’s mouth dropped open, drinking in the scent of the horses and their riders.

            “Three,” she growled.

            “No.”

            He could hear them speaking, but their words came too quickly for him to understand completely. One spoke of home, of a family or something akin to a clanmate. The others joined him, laughing while one sat silently atop his horse. It was idle, nothing of importance and certainly nothing sinister, nothing cruel.

            Len held tightly to Fala, willing them to go away, to ride off and never be seen by either of them. He thought of that often, the departure of every single Dravara until the stronghold stood barren and empty. It was the dream of many, most in his clan, and yet each of them knew of its impossibility. The Dravara would never leave, not entirely, and instead they grew larger every day while the clan shriveled and shrunk.

            A river against a puddle.

            “We should go,” Len called once they were gone.

            Fala didn’t answer.

            “Home,” he suggested.

            “The skies are dying. Scry has seen it. I was told to have hope, but,” Fala croaked, “we are dying.”

            Len flinched, swallowing at the mention of the old seer. She was a self-made outcast, banished for reasons of her own choosing. He never dared to ask her, the few times he had actually seen her within the borders of the camp, but he knew of her connection to the other clans. Though theirs was the only to remain, Scry was the lone survivor of the others, a ghost still walking the ground while all others had faded.

            A friend to all still living and a friend to Allikeo.

            And yet, despite his promise, Allikeo had never come back. It made him think of Aurora and just what had been said between them, what promises had been made. Aurora would come back, he told himself often, and yet there had been no sign of him. He wondered if the clans had finally been abandoned, left for the very last time, but he couldn’t bring himself to believe it.

            However, the thought was never fully banished from his mind.

            He rose slowly to his feet, pulling Fala with him.

            “They could be safe.”

            Len swallowed. “There is no safe.”

            Nothing.

            He stood on his toes, nudging his head gently against hers and rumbling reassuringly. Fala was quiet, only blinking.

            Their trek back was in silence.

            The bridge still looked the same, marked with only the trails of their tracks that were quickly scattered once they ran back over them again. It wasn’t long before they reached their side of the Rift, returning once more to the closest thing to safety they knew. It was the closest they could come.

            “The clan will eat,” he reminded, patting the bag slung over his shoulder.

            “A cub will eat,” Fala answered bitterly.

            Camp was the same when they arrived, quiet as it always was save for the young cubs that raced between huts, somehow unaware of the uneasiness around them. But there were no cubs that day, nothing but the silence in the air that hung beside the all too familiar scent of blood.

            “Do you-“

            Fala didn’t get the chance to finish before Len had dashed around a corner and towards the scent, hearing a pained groan and an angry huff. He spotted them, one white as the snow around him and the other with a pelt that seemed permanently stained with the ash of a never present fire. Yet, they shared the same color then, the same smear of crimson across otherwise undisturbed fur.

            Fights happened, he thought, but this was no simple squabble.

            Shaah rose slowly to face Bantrem, teeth still bared and blood drooling from his open maw. There was a staleness about him, a listlessness carried in his scent, something that reminded him of sickness, but it was different somehow. There was madness in his eyes, beyond a simple rage and the crimson foaming in his mouth and dripping down onto his newly sliced chest made him all the more frightening.

            Len had never been afraid of his clan leader, not until then.

            “Who has fought?”

            Wren.

            He spotted her, eyes flickering to where she tapped along, staff at her side and ears pinned back against her head. She too was growling, teeth exposed to the cold air around them and Len watched as Bantrem’s expression softened. He too was hurt, that much Len could smell, but his wounds were defensive.

            Hopefully minor.

            For a moment, Len thought the fight would resume until Shaah’s head dipped in a wordlessly admitted defeat. Bantrem’s arms crossed in front of his chest, claws sliding in and back out again in annoyance. Len noticed his eye for the first time, or rather the bloody gashes where it should’ve been. He couldn’t tell, not from a distance, if it was fully gone.

            “It is nothing.”

            “Not of your concern,” Shaah snarled.

            The clan leader twisted with a snarl, teeth gnashing together harshly before he turned and limped off across the campsite, gone without another word. Len swallowed, moving forward carefully and watching as Wren’s blind eyes turned towards him.

            “You smell-“

            “Bantrem is hurt,” Len cut in sharply.

            A snort. “Shaah should be tended to. My wounds are not-”

            The staff came down onto his head with a crack and Bantrem fell backwards with a surprised yelp. Wren reached for him, scrabbling to grab onto one of the hide straps across his chest.

            “You did harm to him,” Wren scolded. “Why did you fight?”

            “Shaah is upset,” Bantrem answered in a hiss, rubbing between his ears. “I will handle it. Stay,” he paused, turning towards the others and Len winced when he saw the faeloren’s nostrils flare, “I will come back.”

            “Be kind,” Wren warned, but her tone dropped then. “Be safe.”

            Bantrem leaned forward, touching his head to hers and sharing a sigh before he began to back away, lanky body hunched even if Wren couldn’t see. He too was gone then, disappearing behind a hut and Len was left staring at the bloody trail left in the snow. Swallowing, his attention rose to Wren who only stared off after them.

            “Did you see?”

            “No,” he answered truthfully. “Fala and I-“

            “The Rift,” Wren growled, tapping a claw in the center of his chest. “You reek of it, of their side.”

            “I-I was-“

            Wren silenced him, lips curling into a silent snarl. “There are other problems worse than that. Bring me my things. I will find my mate.”

            Len dipped his eyes, eyes rising in a silent goodbye to Fala before he hunched off towards the healer’s hut. He stopped, hearing a growl from behind him.

            “Do not cross again.”

            He rumbled in answer.

            “We must be patient, trust they will return.”

            “You sound like Scry,” Fala cut in for the first time.

            Wren turned to her, breathing out a sigh. “She holds a hope I wish we all did. For now, she holds the hope for all of us.”

            “For all of us,” Len repeated.

            He had hope too.

            He had dreams of a time when the Dravara would be gone.

            He knew it wasn’t enough.

Next Chapter: Chapter 24