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Zero Plus One

by Daniel Horowitz Garcia

Now

Peliru avoided the road and walked through the forest. The forest was faster and had less people. They were complicated, people. They said something but did the opposite. Humans especially. Humans were an unsolvable riddle. At least Sungura had a tradition, one Peliru understood. Humans changed with the winds. They hated him until he healed them. Then they gave him shiny coins instead of information. He needed to know about the slavers, but all the humans said was avoid the forest. It took days before he realized that’s where the slavers traveled. All he needed was a straight answer.

Before he heard the camp he smelled the smoke. Loosening the sword at his side, he approached then paused when he heard a roar. He then heard laughter. Minotaur roars and human laughter didn’t mix. He blended into the shadows of the late afternoon and moved closer.

Hiding behind a tent Peliru saw the entirety of the camp. A dozen humans surrounded a naked minotaur tied to a post. The beastman roared again and the humans laughed. They drank from bottles and jugs while piling wood around the minotaur. Peliru felt good. These were slavers, and that meant he was on the right track. Time for answers.

Peliru closed his eyes a moment. Although he was a skilled fighter, twelve was a lot. One lucky hit and he’d never find his answers. His spells cast, Peliru stepped into the camp. He kept a hand on his sword but left it sheathed. No reason not to start friendly.

“Hello slaver humans,” he shouted. “I have some questions. Answer them and I promise you a quick death.”

This should have gotten their attention, but it didn’t. The humans kept laughing and drinking. Finally, two men, human gender was so confusing Peliru couldn’t be sure, on the opposite side of the fire saw him and shouted. Peliru waited until all looked his way.

“Yes. Good. As I said, I have some questions. I promise you a quick death if you answer truthfully.”

“Well this one’s got a pair on him doesn’t he?” said a small human close to Peliru. “Didn’t think the rabbit men grew ‘em that big.”

Peliru’s ear twitched. Talking was difficult, but he needed answers. “I don’t know what two things you’re talking about, but that doesn’t matter. Tell me where you take the captives. Be as precise as you can. I also need to know how many slavers will be there and how well armed they will be. If you know any secret ways in, that will also be useful.”

The minotaur roared again, but none of the humans laughed. Peliru took his eyes off the small human just long enough to look at the minotaur. Based on experience, he didn’t think he had much time.

The small human dropped his bottle and faced Peliru. “Maybe I can draw you a map. Would that be better?”

Peliru thought on this. “As long as it doesn’t take too much time. I cannot grant pardon to a slaver, but I guarantee your death will be quick if you do.”

None of the humans looked like they were going to draw a map. None had paper or charcoal. In fact, most were holding their weapons. Peliru sighed. “Fine,” he said. “I will kill the others first. Then you can draw me a map.”

Vines burst from the ground at every slaver’s feet. The vegetation wrapped itself around their legs, their torso and arms, and finally their throat. Every slaver, except for the small one, was pulled to the ground, choking. Vines immobilized the small human but did not choke him. Peliru walked up to him and removed his weapons. “I will find paper and charcoal,” he told the human, “then you will draw me that map. You will have a quick death, unlike the others.”

The minotaur roared again. This time his hands came out as the beastman broke the bindings. Peliru had underestimated the power of this one’s blood rage. “Correction. I will take care of the creature first,” he said. “Then we will work on the map.” As the Sungura turned to the minotaur he noticed something odd.

The minotaur had four breasts.

Things were getting complicated.

Then

A rich Sungura family is still poor by human standards. Sungura lands are not mineral rich so metal is gained through trade. Swords are not easily obtained, but that isn’t why they are so valued. A sword represents a tradition of protection and responsibility going back generations up to and including the liberation of the people from slavery under the minotaurs. The Gambitfoot sword, a finely crafted longsword built solely for function and aesthetically pleasing because of it, represented a large portion of the family’s wealth. Yet, to the Sungura, the responsibility it symbolized is much more valued.

Peliru never touched the blade, not even on accident. His father wore the sword everywhere. It sat next to his bed at night. It hung by his side while he ate. It was within reach while he bathed. At least, it had been. One day Peliru came home and saw his father without the sword. Peliru asked no questions, it could be in only one place. It was buried, laid with one of his ancestors. The spirit would cleanse the blade and make it ready for the next generation. This day was inevitable, and it was inconceivable. Peliru wasn’t ready. His father, standing without a sword, had acknowledged his mortality and passed his responsibilities to a new generation. The elder Sungura was not dead, but he was less alive than he had been. It was too much to take in, so Peliru left the house and wandered.

The reality could not be denied, but it could be ignored. For a little while. A day later his father came to him.

“We have never solved a difficulty by ignoring it,” his father said. His voice patient and kind, making the moment even harder. “Come with me.” His father took a cloak and staff and walked out the door.

Peliru thought of going back to his room. Instead he grabbed his cloak and followed his father. They walked in silence to the burial ground, Peliru’s anxiety climbing with each step. He took glimpses at his father’s face hoping to gain insight but knowing he couldn’t. Every face was unreadable to Peliru. Laughing, crying, anguish, or ecstasy didn’t matter. He couldn’t tell what people felt, and he couldn’t fathom what they thought.

They stopped in front of the gate. Many Sungura burned their dead to insure the soul’s freedom. The Gambitfoots, guardians of the Burrow for generations, buried theirs as an act of defiance. Even in death they stood guard. Peliru and his father looked on lineage of warriors, shamans, and Wardens. Protectors all. Peliru’s father spoke, “It’s in here. Find it but don’t touch it.”

Peliru walked into the cemetery and immediately felt pulled to his left. He followed the urge without thinking, he let his feet go where they will. The living were incomprehensible but not the ancestors. They spoke directly, without subtext or obfuscation. He knew how to communicate with his ancestors, and he knew they loved him and wanted him to succeed. He walked to the grave of one of his great, great aunts. He stood there, looked down, and whispered thanks.

“Now, claim the sword,” his father said. He stood opposite Peliru by the grave. Peliru didn’t look up. He stared at the grave and focused on his breath. Eventually he knelt and reached out a hand.

Digging in the dirt, Peliru pushed until his elbow disappeared in the soil. Then he felt the hilt, grabbed, and pulled. The sword came free with ease. It shown as if newly polished, clean of all dirt. He marveled at the blade. Then he felt, truly felt, the sword. He knew this was his. His father’s sword had been buried. This weapon was his.

“You will need to attune to it,” Peliru’s father said. “It will take some time before you can use its full power, but there is no rush. Or is there?”

Peliru stared at his father and struggled to understand the question. He failed. “I’m leaving for the border at the next moon. You know this.”

His father’s shoulders sagged. “You can do so much good here. For the family, for the Burrow.”

“I will have to marry.”

“Of course. We can still arrange something with the caravaners. The union would be a good one. It would help us all prosper.”

“I don’t…I cannot do that father. I will keep the family vow and protect the Burrow but not that way.” Peliru continued looking at his father who continued looking at the grave.

“Tell me this isn’t about love.” His father didn’t ask a question. “We do not choose our marriages based on love. We choose based on what is good for the Burrow.”

Peliru thought on the subject. “In part I think it is.”

“You think so? How can you not know? It is love or it isn’t.”

“How long have I been your son? How long before you see me as I am?”

“Don’t play victim with me. Your ‘condition’ doesn’t factor here.”

“Of course it does. It always does because it’s not a condition. It is who I am. You ask me a question, I answer it. I don’t dissemble. I cannot. If you don’t like my answer, don’t ask me questions. Better to have silence between us than mockery.”

His father looked up then. Peliru saw the elder’s face change but didn’t know what it meant. “Mockery? You believe I stand here and mock you?”

“You ask me how I cannot know emotions. How could I? What have you seen in my life that leads you to believe I could? The only thing more confusing than figuring out how I feel is attempting to figure out how others feel.”

Holding Peliru’s gaze, his father remained silent for a time. “Do you understand his feelings?”

“Gavin. His name is Gavin.”

“My question.”

“No. I ask him all the time.”

“Then why is he so special you refuse to marry? Why choose to wander alone in the woods away from your family?”

“I don’t refuse to marry because of Gavin.”

“Then why?”

“Gavin is special. I ask him how he feels, and he tells me. No matter how often. He tells me the truth, always the truth. No one does that. I don’t have to struggle so much around him because I can just ask. I can relax. I will not marry, I’ll be a Warden, because I can’t live with that constant struggle. I’d rather be alone.”

Peliru’s father continued looking at him. His face moved, but it meant nothing to Peliru. He saw a tear slowly make its way down his father’s face. “I will miss you,” he said. “You will make your ancestors proud. You already have.”

The elder Sungura walked away. Peliru stayed at the site, waiting for his father to make his way back. Peliru would walk alone.

Now

Peliru cleaned and sharpened his sword to calm himself. The weapon could not be stained, the ancestor’s bound to it wouldn’t allow it to dirty or dull. Yet, he sat on a stump and meticulously wiped the blade with an oiled rag, but he was still furious.

The map was useless. The slaver either lied about his knowledge or was particularly stupid for his species. Peliru had promised the man a quick death and had given him one, but instead of answers he had corpses.

And then there was the minotaur. She lay sleeping and wrapped in vines. Intellectually he knew females existed, he just never thought he would see one. It also surprised him that the women were capable of the blood rage. More than capable, she was strong enough to break the slavers’ bindings and even resist his sleep spell, for a time. He didn’t want to kill her, at least not until she answered some questions. He continued cleaning a clean sword.

She woke up more than an hour later. Peliru still sat on the stump cleaning the weapon. He stopped when he noticed her wake.

“I have questions,” he said.

“And I have a headache,” she responded. Her voice sounded as deep as any minotaur, not that he was a great judge. This was the longest conversation he had ever had with one of the beastmen.

“You speak Common. Good. It will make this easier.”

“Untie me, rabbit. I need water and food,” she said. Her voice rose as she came to wakefulness. “Get me my pack while you’re at it.”

Peliru sat on the stump. “Yelling will be bad for your headache. Why are you here? With the slavers?”

“Why do you think? Because the forest is lovely in spring and slaver tours are so affordable.”

“I do not believe you were on vacation. Tell me the truth.”

She turned her head and stared at Peliru. He held her gaze and saw nothing that made sense to him. “You are serious,” she said. Her mouth opened and then shut once before she found her voice again. “Don’t the rabbit people have sarcasm?”

Peliru nodded. “We are no more rabbits than you are cows. And yes, we have sarcasm. I don’t know why though.” He broke his stare and looked into the forest. If only a face were as easy to read as a path.

The minotaur sighed. “I am Liriope. I have been a captive of the slavers for some days. You have freed me.”

“Why were you traveling alone? I thought minotaur females were not allowed in public.”

“We are not. I left my home a few months ago and been traveling east.” She looked at Peliru until he met her eyes. “What will you do now?”

“I have questions, about the slavers.”

“Yes, I will answer them as best I can. I mean what will you do after that.”

Peliru stared at Liriope. She said nothing, and when he didn’t respond she nodded. “So be it. I will not die on my back. I will sit up. And put a sword in my hand.”

“You expect a duel?”

“No, I will not fight you. You have freed me, and I owe you a life debt. I will not harm you, but I will die with a weapon in my hand as a true warrior.”

“I thought minotaur women were not allowed to be warriors.”

“I decide what I am,” she said. Then, in a softer voice, she added, “A warrior’s battles are fought on many fields.”

Peliru leaned back on the stump and thought about what she said. “I suppose so. Where do the slavers take captives?”

“They have a way station further to the west. Maybe three days hard walking. They drop off captives there and prepare them for the markets.”

“You have been inside?”

“Yes. I was held there myself for a time,” Liriope looked away for the first time. Even Peliru couldn’t miss the gesture.

“You said you would tell me. Tell me.”

The minotaur sighed. “I walked into that encampment by accident. I am not comfortable in the woods and didn’t know what it was. They overpowered me.”

“Was that when you escaped? They were you held captive here?”

Again the minotaur sighed. “These humans caught me when I was sleeping.”

Peliru looked at the minotaur a moment, then he chuckled.

“I will not be mocked,” yelled Liriope. “No one can stand against me in honorable combat.”

“That may be so, but slavers don’t fight honorably.”

Liriope looked at Peliru, stunned. Then she tilted her head back and roared laughter. “Well said rabbit warrior.”

Peliru continued chuckling while the minotaur laughed. Eventually he continued his questions. “How are you a warrior?”

Liriope ceased laughing and stared at the Sungura a moment. “I was visited by a Valkyrie. She said she saw my heart. If I stay true, she will bring me to Valhalla where I can join my sisters.”

“The Valkyrie taught you combat?”

“No. She gave me a message. I’ve spent my life gathering information where I could. From stolen books or from secretly studying men train. I hoped to gain formal training after escaping from the males, but that is not to be so. No matter. I will die a warrior.”

“But not a trained warrior.”

“I only need to show the Valkyries my heart is true, that I have done what I could. My soul will join them. Once I am with my sisters, I will never be alone again.”

Peliru turned away. The idea of never being alone disturbed him, but not as much as the thought of always being alone. “You believe them?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“Faith.”

The conversation stopped. Peliru was stalling. There was only one real question left, and it was his to answer. He wasn’t ready.

“What is a life debt? I’ve never heard of it among the minotaurs.”

“It is not from our culture. You saved my life, so it is yours. I will honor that.”

“You’re saying you just made it up.”

Liriope furrowed her brows. “I’m saying I recognize the honorable thing to do.”

Peliru walked to the minotaur, his mind made up. He waved a hand and the vines fell. Liriope sat up and rubbed her arms but otherwise did not move. She was still naked, the brown fur from her head ending at her shoulders. Her torso and waist were human, but her legs ended in hooves and bent backward.

“You should find some clothes first. The slavers may have something you can make fit,” he said.

“I need only a sword. Will you allow me to be on my feet? That is the best way to die.”

“You can get on your feet. Then you should find clothes as well as a sword, some water, food, and other supplies. We have some days of hard travel ahead.”

Liriope tilted her head. “I don’t understand.”

“You said your life belongs to me. I accept it. You will travel with me to the encampment so I can kill the slavers.”

Liriope stood but didn’t move. “There is no love between our kind. Minotaurs kept your people for food, still do in many places. Why let me live? You take a great risk.”

“Why would you stand there and not fight me?”

“That is about honor.”

“Then so is this.” Peliru stood and watched Liriope look at him. She was right. This was stupid. He had no way of knowing what she would do, but he knew he couldn’t kill a slave in cold blood.

Liriope looked at Peliru, but he didn’t understand what he saw. She stared at him and then looked at the sky. Walking away she said over her shoulder, “I will need an hour. Maybe two.”

Peliru watched her sort through the slavers’ weapons for a while. Finally, he started looking for food. He hoped they had honey cakes but doubted it.

Then

Peliru couldn’t stop staring. Even he knew it was rude, but he couldn’t stop. He would force himself to focus on something else, anything else. He tried admiring the jugglers. He looked at clothes. But his gaze always turned back to the bowyer. Peliru studied his face, then realized he was staring again. The cycle repeated.

It was too much. He turned away and decided to walk in the woods for a while. His father’s meeting with the merchants could last for days. Even if everything concluded immediately, they would still stay the night. This village was larger than home and far away. The market square was bigger than any Peliru had seen before, with people moving back and forth in a giant, stressful horde. Perhaps that stress was why he needed to focus on something, or someone. Like the bowyer, who bent carefully over his work. It was fascinating. The way the scar over his left eye scrunched up when he concentrated on a difficult section. Looking at the bowyer helped Peliru block out the crowd. But it was rude. So he looked away. He needed to get to the woods, but he didn’t move.

The tap on Peliru’s shoulder scared him witless. Sungura generally aren’t surprised by anything. The least observant can usually see and/or hear whatever can be seen or heard. Peliru was more observant than most. As long as it didn’t have to do with how other people felt, he noticed details. But the tap came as a complete surprise. He gave a little jump and turned around. It was the bowyer.

Peliru stared at the Sungura and did nothing.

“Name’s Gavin,” said the bowyer. His voice was rough, hoarse even. The words were clear but Gavin sounded like he’d been talking all day. Yet Peliru hadn’t seen him talk to anyone all morning. “It’s time for midday meal. I’m going to go eat a bowl or two of soup. I’d rather you share some with me than stare.”

Peliru stared. Gavin’s fur was gray, unusual but not unknown. The bowyer’s leather vest was worn but serviceable, and so were the pants. Peliru still said nothing. Gavin snapped his fingers in front of Peliru’s nose.

“I see I may have lead with too much,” said the bowyer. “I’ll start slow. What is your name?”

“Peliru. Peliru Gambitfoot.”

Gavin nodded. “Good. This is working. Will you share midday meal with me Peliru Gambitfoot?” Peliru nodded. “That’s also good. Follow me.”

Gavin started walking through the market, past his now closed stall. As they walked Gavin spoke, “How long has your family had a name?”

“I’m the sixth generation.”

Gavin nodded. “That’s impressive.”

“We’re mostly Wardens. My ancestors fought the minotaurs.”

“You a Warden?”

“No, not yet. I mean, I don’t know. I make the decision this season, but I don’t know.”

“What’s not to know?” Gavin maintained his stride and didn’t turn as he talked. Peliru found it easier to talk if he matched the pace and looked straight ahead.

“I like the forest. I’m good on patrols, have some ability with mana. It’s also good to have a clear purpose. Wardens help those in need and kill whatever threatens our home. It’s simple.”

“Sounds like you do know then.”

“Yeah, but it’s so…I don’t know. Being a Warden is for life. It’s living in the forest for life. That’s a big decision.”

Gavin stay silent as they made their way to the end of the market. They got to a small building that smelled wonderful. Gavin stopped and turned to Peliru. “Is it the idea of doing it for the rest of your life that bothers you? Or something else?”

Peliru couldn’t look Gavin in the eye and he couldn’t look away. “What do you mean?”

“That answer makes me think it’s something else then.”

“It’s just…Wardens live alone. They’re alone all the time.”

“You don’t like to be alone?”

“That’s just it. I do like it. If I become a Warden, I don’t think I would do anything other than be alone. I want to do something I like, something I’m good at, but I don’t want to be trapped.”

Gavin nodded and stared. Peliru didn’t know what it meant. He hadn’t intended to say so much to someone he just met. It seemed strange to be so open, but it felt stranger to hold back.

“You need a honey cake. Maybe a few.”

“What?”

“Honey cake. It’s a specialty of Gurmier, the baker. This is the only place that makes them. They’re delicious and will help you think.”

“How can a pastry help me think?”

“Damned if I know, I just know it’s good. I also need bread. You got the family name so you’re buying. I’ve got the soup.” Then Gavin walked into the shop. Peliru stood in front of the door trying to process everything. A second later Gavin came out.

“You’ll need to come inside to pay.”

Peliru went inside. He bought bread and a dozen honey cakes. Afterward they walked back to Gavin’s home, a small house with a garden in the front and workshop on the side. The soup was simple but flavorful. They ate and talked about everything and nothing. Peliru tried the honey cakes.

They were delicious.

Now

Liriope was ready within an hour, but Peliru told her to take a little longer. Yes, they were in a hurry, but it meant they needed to spend their time wisely. There would be no stopping. The duo planned to walk until they found people they would kill.

While Liriope scrounged for better equipment, especially a shield, Peliru looked for honey cakes. Gavin had been wrong. Every village in or near the forest made them, even the humans. None tasted as good as those from Gurmier, but a bad honey cake was still lovely. Of course, he didn’t find any. The idea of raiding slavers maintaining a secret stash of pastries did seem odd, but one could hope. He did find what he needed to finish the job himself. Within two finger spans of the sun he had the ingredients together. Laying them out on a semi-clean cloth, he concentrated on them and spoke a few words in the casting language. In moments he had a batch of honey cakes, and he couldn’t resist eating just one. He had meant to save them all, but it would be bad form if the spell hadn’t worked properly and he arrived with something awful. They were thoroughly average, but, proving his theory, the mediocre pastry was still delicious.

Peliru wrapped the cakes and put them in his pack before looking for Liriope. The minotaur had scrounged a good sword and shield. She had even pieced together sufficient armor. Peliru found her packing bits and pieces of supplies into a scavenged pack. He noticed blood on her mouth and arms. “Are you injured?” he asked.

“Of course not. Why do you ask?”

“The blood.”

Liriope wiped her mouth and looked at her hand. Seeing the blood, she licked it off before replying. “Sorry. Always was a messy eater.”

“Do I want to know what you’re talking about?”

“Relax. Unless you’re acquainted with these slavers, this is no one you know. You rabbit folk can live on grass and twigs, but a minotaur needs meat.”

Peliru said nothing, only turning around and pretending to study the path ahead. He knew about the minotaur diet. They didn’t need just meat but also the brains of sentients or they turned into feral beasts. He knew this like all Sungura knew the habits of their enemies, but he had never seen a minotaur eat before. The idea of eating meat disgusted him, but the idea of eating a corpse was too much. Peliru focused on his breath to calm his stomach. Liriope sat behind him, loudly smacking her lips and chuckling to herself.

“It’s time to go,” he said. He hadn’t turned from the forest. “I hope you can run on a full belly.”

“Don’t worry,” she said as she stood and shouldered her pack. “It was only a light snack. I’m hoping to find someone truly tasty at the encampment.” The minotaur jogged into the forest, chuckling under her breath. Peliru followed, thankful that running took his mind off food. Even an underwhelming honey cake deserved to be kept down.

They found the slavers in less than two days but waited until nightfall to scout. Despite her size Liriope scarcely made a sound and the pair got close enough to easily map the camp, count their foes, as well as determine where the captives were being held. It helped that the slavers were profoundly sloppy. Guards were more interested in dice than looking out for trouble. Within two hands of sunset most of the slavers drank themselves unconscious. Peliru and Liriope retreated to plan their assault.

“I don’t see how this can be difficult,” said Peliru once they were back to their own bivouac. “I should be able to get in, free the slaves, and fight out. The most dangerous part will be the moment the pens are open but before all the captives are armed. I’ll save my mana to summon some support.”

“What will you need me to do then?” asked Liriope as she sat across from him.

“Your part is done,” said Peliru. “Thank you for the help. The blood debt is paid.”

“It’s amusing you think yourself competent to judge a blood debt.” She then tilted her head. “But you don’t make jokes, do you? You were speaking out of a sense of honor?”

“I am. There’s no need to risk yourself. You can go.”

“I see. The odds are overwhelming and so you wish to show mercy. Noble, but unnecessary.”

Peliru grew frustrated. “I mean I can do this myself.”

“Oh, I know. You and I together greatly outnumber these fools. By sending me away you hope to reduce the number of dead slavers, yes? As I said, you are being noble but unrealistic. I not only have a blood debt to you, I must avenge the slight on my honor. The slavers must die. That means an unfair fight, but that is their fault.” Liriope could no longer maintain a straight face and began quietly laughing to herself.

Peliru stared at her, their faces less than two feet apart. “You are joking with me?”

Still chuckling, Liriope replied. “You are learning Sungura. Although I am serious when I say I will kill them all. Come. We have to create a real plan now.”

Then

He sensed the call but didn’t understand it. Peliru knelt by a tree, slowing his breathing slowed and expanding his awareness of the forest. But the call came from the sword not the physical world. He understood the message from his father, “You must come. There has been an attack.”

Through the message he knew the location of the skirmish. He knew it was over. He also knew his father was hurt.

Peliru put his hand on the tree and asked it for help. The complex spell took time to cast but was well worth the extra effort. He disappeared into the tree, then its roots, and then passed through the hidden network of nutrients and water connecting all plant life in the forest. In half a day he traveled farther than a week’s worth of walking and exited out of a different tree near the site of the attack. He took a moment to thank the forest and gain his bearings before heading out.

Blood, sacks, and other items covered the path of the trade caravan. Bodies, human bodies, lay scattered as well. Peliru noticed hoof prints crossing over the path and disappearing into the woods. Cautiously, with his hand on his sword, he moved forward looking for danger or survivors. He found a group of injured Sungura gathered around a fire. His father walked from one individual to another speaking words of encouragement and looking at wounds. Every person eased back on their bedroll after the attention.

“Father, I heard your call although I don’t know how,” he said. “Does anyone need attention?”

Peliru’s father looked up. He embraced his son who, as usual, awkwardly reciprocated. “The sword bonds you to your ancestors, all of them, in physical ways,” said the elder. “Anyone who has wielded it can contact you if the need is great.” His father took a step back.

“Thank you father. What of the injured?”

“I may not be a Warden, but I can heal. Those here will recover.”

“What do you mean ‘those here’? What has happened?”

“Raiders. Human slavers. None of them looked well nourished, and they didn’t fight well. But what they lacked in quality they made up for in numbers. We were able to fight them off. Mostly.”

“Tell me everything. How many? Which direction did they come from, and which way did they run?”

“It was a sudden raid with most of the attackers on horseback. They probably thought to quickly overwhelm us then go through the spoils at their leisure. They weren’t able to take much, but they got a few people.”

“They have captives? How many?”

“A dozen or so were taken. They headed south, likely to the river and on to human lands.” His father shifted his feet and took a deep breath.

“There is something else. Gavin was here. He was on his way to deliver some bows. He fought like a demon, Peliru, saving many lives. But one of the slavers hit him from behind, pulled him onto a horse, and took him.”

Peliru felt cold, then hot, and then cold again. “Was he alive?” he whispered.

“They wouldn’t take him unless he was alive. They are slavers. He and the others won’t be treated well, but they won’t be killed as long as there’s profit to be made.”

Peliru looked south as if by will alone he could see Gavin across the distance. He turned back to his father. “Why are you here? This isn’t a normal business area.”

His father nodded his head. “No it’s not, but I’m hoping it will be.” The elder Sungura sighed heavily and then clutched his side, wincing in pain. Peliru rushed to offer assistance but his father waved him off. “It’s nothing,” he said. “One of the humans got in a lucky hit, but I healed it. This is a cramp. It happens when you get old.”

The merchant, patriarch of his family, turned toward a different wound. Still holding his side, he spoke in a whisper so soft Peliru had to strain to hear. “Other things happen when you get old. Things like worry. Not worry for yourself but for those around you. You worry about the safety of the people you love. Worry if they’re making the right choices. Worry they’ll make the same mistakes you did.”

His father turned to Peliru. “Sometimes this worry takes over. You can’t listen or trust when the worry takes over because you’re afraid. I didn’t want you to be a Warden because I was afraid you’d be alone. I was afraid the family would be alone. That I would be alone. But the day you took the sword showed me I was wrong. Being a Warden means you’re away, but you’re never alone. We are family and always will be.”

Peliru’s father took a step closer and put his hand on Peliru’s shoulder. “I came to see Gavin. He was going on a delivery so I came with him, to set up some trade but really to see him. You are a good son. If you love him, he must be special. I have walked with him, fought with him, and you are right. He is special. So are you. Go find him and the rest of our people. Be the Warden our ancestors saw in you.”

Peliru looked at his father. “Thank you.”

“I love you.”

Then Peliru ran south. Despite his forest skills he couldn’t catch up to the mounted slavers. He lost them at the river. It took days but he tracked them to a new forest. He made his way through the woods until he found a camp. It wasn’t the group that attacked his father and took Gavin, but it showed he was on the right track. In that camp he met a minotaur.

Now

Peliru and Liriope made final preparations in the hours before dawn. Their plan relied on surprise and superior fighting skill as well as Liriope’s strength. When they had done all they could Peliru sat on the ground sharpening his sword, worrying.

“How strong are you?” he asked Liriope.

“I have never met anyone stronger than I am.”

“Victory could depend on how many people you’ve met.”

Liriope didn’t answer. She looked down at the camp and planned her route to the gate. The biggest danger was being surrounded and then overwhelmed, but Liriope turned risk into advantage. They planned a series of surprise attacks. She would charge the gate while Peliru slipped inside and freed the captives. Anyone capable of fighting would be armed and then the force would attack the slavers from behind after Liriope drew them outside the encampment. She argued her strength could open the gate so Peliru didn’t need to accompany her. The truth was she wanted to be alone. With no allies nearby she could focus solely on killing. Peliru worried about being swarmed by slavers. Liriope counted on it.

Just before dawn Peliru slipped out to his position and Liriope began a slow count. At the 100 mark she charged the gate, trusting the Sungura was at the fence nearest the captives. She stayed as silent as she could while running in full armor. The duo had wagered the slavers’ lackadaisical attitude regarding camp security would get her at least partway unnoticed. She ran the entire distance unchallenged. She stood by the closed entrance shaking her head. Either the slavers were supremely arrogant or monumentally incompetent. She put her shoulder to the gate and watched in shock as it swung open. Not locked, not barred, not even guarded. This was just too much.

Liriope’s roar was Peliru’s signal. He leapt the fence. Expecting to see a flood of slavers running to the gate, he instead saw a few humans wandering to water barrels and horse troughs where they dunked their heads. Most of two score of slavers, however, were sprawled on the ground still sleeping. Peliru threw himself into the pre-dawn shadows. Eventually he heard a voice rally the humans. The conscious grabbed whatever weapons lay nearby and kicked the unconscious into action.

He made his way to the slave pens. Although he longed to shout for Gavin, he stayed focused on the plan. He would take care of any remaining guards, arm whatever captives could fight, and then come to Liriope’s aid. But there weren’t any guards. All the slavers had run to the gate, meaning Liriope faced much greater odds than originally thought.

Peliru’s sword made quick work of the lock. Soon he had a group of able-bodied captives ready to fight. The slaves, mostly Sungura but with a significant number of humans, grabbed what they could as the troop of about 15 made their way to the gate. Most had poles and sticks serving as makeshift quarterstaffs and clubs. A few had blades. Peliru hoped they wouldn’t have to fight. The slavers were incompetent and hungover, but they were also better fed, rested, and armed.

The fight was almost over by the time the group arrived. Liriope stood just inside the gate. She held a sword and shield, hacking her way through what little opposition remained. The slavers had apparently put up stronger resistance earlier because the minotaur was surrounded by the dead and dying. She roared and then charged parts of the semi-circle around her. At each charge one or two slavers fell. Liriope then leapt back into position, preventing anyone from running through the gate. Alone she surrounded the entire camp.

One of the slavers turned and saw the coming reinforcements. He yelled a warning to the others then threw down his weapon and raised his hands. His brethren took in the situation and soon all the slavers surrendered. It was less than a finger span after dawn.

Peliru cast a quick spell the new prisoners. He walked to Liriope cautiously. The blood rage blinded minotaurs to allies, and if she were still under its influence the troop may yet face a fight. With the battle over so quickly it was possible Liriope hadn’t had time to quiet her battle lust.

“How are you?” asked Peliru. “Liriope, can you hear me?”

“Of course I can hear you,” she shouted. Peliru stopped and put a hand to his sword. “I am greatly disappointed. Cooks preparing a midday snack have faced greater threats. These are no warriors. These are vermin.”

“Do you see me, Liriope? I am your ally. Peliru.”

She turned her gaze to the Sungura. “Do you think I used my blood rage? With this filth? I’m just angry. I had hoped to prove myself in honorable combat. Instead I faced idiots.” She snorted her disgust.

“Oh, I see. Sorry for that, I guess. Maybe next time.” Turning back to the troop, Peliru noticed the former slaves had not relaxed. The Sungura especially were picking up fallen weapons and facing the minotaur.

“Don’t turn your back on it,” yelled a brown-furred woman in the front. “Are there more Warden? We should close the gate.”

Peliru didn’t understand. More what? The battle was over. Why all the tension?

“She means me,” said Liriope. “She sees me as a threat, and I can understand that. She shows honor though. Ready to meet it head on. Good to see that.”

Peliru nodded his understanding. He sympathized with the group’s reaction since it had been his own, but his patience wore thin. He wanted to finally find Gavin. “Yes,” he said, “about that. This is Liriope. She and I are….” He paused while searching for the right word. He could only think of the one he already used. “We are allies. She helped me free you all.”

“I ‘helped’?” Liriope said from behind him, and not quietly. She snorted again. “Minotaur or rabbit, a male is a male.”

Peliru ignored her and continued. The crowd still held their weapons, and he was out of patience. “You recognize me as a Warden? Would a Warden put you in danger? No, you don’t understand, but your understanding isn’t necessary. There are injured to care for, supplies to gather, and prisoners to deal with. Go. Now.”

They relaxed, but the troop didn’t break up. He had raised doubts about the minotaur threat, but they weren’t convinced.

“You know me,” said a human woman. She walked to the front of the group. “We have been in the pens together. You all know my abilities. The minotaur is no threat. I would know, just as your Warden knows. He is right. There is much to do. Let’s do it.”

That was enough. The humans walked off to take care of tasks. The Sungura joined them, but not one turned their back on Liriope. If she noticed, she didn’t say anything.

The human walked to Peliru. She stood in front of him and spoke. “I thought you were coming at night,” she said.

“Pardon?” Peliru asked.

“I must have read my vision wrong,” the human said. “I thought you were coming at night.”

“We scouted last night,” answered Liriope. She stood in the same spot wiping down her sword.

“That explains it then,” said the human. “Visions are hard to understand, especially those of the future. No matter. I am Vladina, and I understand you are looking for someone.”

“Gavin,” said Peliru, so relieved and anxious to start his search he never thought to ask how Vladina knew. “He has gray fur and a scar over one eye. Do you know where he is?”

“I know he was in the pens, at least until a few days ago. He was hurt, and I healed him. He kept fighting the guards. I don’t know where he is now. I will help you search after I’ve tended to the injured. I will ask about Gavin.”

Peliru nodded his thanks. He barely acknowledged Liriope closing the gate and moving outside as he ran off. He searched the camp twice. He asked every captive, but they all said they hadn’t seen Gavin in days. He questioned the slavers, beating more than one more severely than intended, but they were useless. Finally, after hours of searching, he decided to turn to his ancestors.

He found a quiet spot in the camp away from the others and took out his sword. Closing his eyes, Peliru meditated. First he focused on his breath until his conscious mind filled with nothing else. Then, when he had full awareness of his surroundings, he asked his ancestors to take him to Gavin. Just like that day in the cemetery, Peliru let himself be pulled. He walked to the gate, pausing only to open it. Liriope asked him a question, but he shook his head and walked on. He walked away from camp about 100 yards off the main path. There the sword pulled him to a large patch of dirt. The sword plunged into the earth.

Peliru realized what this meant. He screamed and began digging. He didn’t notice Liriope digging with him. He just screamed. He yelled Gavin’s name over and over even though a part of him knew it was fruitless. He found Gavin buried with five others.

Then

The walk to Gavin’s village always seemed long. Peliru never could make the journey fast enough, but this trip seemed especially long. He thought about what he would say. He practiced his speech and then realized it sounded silly. He started again. When he finally arrived at the cabin he still didn’t know what to say. And he realized he forgot the honey cakes.

Gavin, as usual, opened the door before Peliru had a chance to announce himself. Peliru smiled and Gavin smiled back before saying, “You forgot the honey cakes again.”

Peliru said nothing. He broke eye contact and looked down. Gavin sighed a reply. “It’s a good thing you’re cute.”

They went inside. Gavin got the tea ready while Peliru put his stuff down. They sat at the table.

“I have something to tell you,” Peliru began. Then he stopped. He stared at his tea and said nothing.

“Take your time,” said Gavin.

Peliru still looked down. He fought to hold back tears and failed. Gavin knew how to give him space. He knew what he needed, and he enjoyed, honestly loved, providing it. In that moment Peliru understood what he was giving up.

“It’s OK, Peli,” said Gavin as he grabbed his hand. “Whatever it is will be OK.”

“This is a tough one, Gav.” Peliru wiped his eyes and looked at Gavin. Still holding hands Peliru took a deep breath and began

“My family won’t sanction the marriage. We performed the rites, and the ancestors said this bond wouldn’t help protect the Burrow. It’s been interpreted as breaking the family vow.”

“Who interpreted it?”

“My father. And the shaman.”

Gavin looked at his tea. “Is it because I’m a craftsman?”

“Maybe. Probably not though.” Peliru took another deep breath as the tears came again. “I’m sorry. It’s our vow. I can’t…I can’t forsake…I can’t….”

“Of course you can’t,” said Gavin. His head whipped up, and his eyes grew hard. “You don’t just leave family or walk away from an oath. That’s a type of suicide. You don’t give up on those bonds, Peli. Especially not you.”

“But then I’ll have to give up on this. On you.”

“No, it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Ancestors said marriage to me breaks the vow. Did they say anything else? You need to marry someone else?”

“No. My father wants me to marry into another merchant family. But that’s his idea, not the ancestors.”

Gavin sat up a little straighter. “Is it that caravaner’s kid? The one with the skinny ass?”

Peliru looked down again. “I don’t know. Never really noticed.”

“Sadly, you’re telling the truth.” Gavin rubbed the other’s hand. “Do you want to marry someone else?”

Peliru’s head shot back up. “No! If we can’t be married, then I won’t marry at all.”

“Why’s that? Why would you give up the happiness of a family just because it’s not the exact happiness you want?”

Peliru knew that none of the words he practiced would help. Only the truth would answer this question, but it was a truth he never told anyone. A thought he never spoke aloud. Every time he thought this thought he promised he would never speak of it because to say the words would give them too much weight. The mass of the thought would crush him. But that promise didn’t mean anything in this moment. The thought was already crushing him.

“Do you know about zero?” he asked Gavin.

The other Sungura’s face changed. A moment later Gavin replied. “Sorry about the face thing. I was trying to say I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I’m talking about the concept of zero, the number. I learned the history from a tutor when I was much younger. Zero means emptiness. It makes it possible to calculate all kinds of things. Because of zero we can represent all the numbers we can think of using only ten symbols. It’s a placeholder making other numbers more meaningful.

“I thought about that for a long time. I came to believe it applies to people as well as numbers. Some people are not here to do much. Some are here to fulfill one job and nothing else. I thought that was me. I thought my purpose was to fill a spot so that others wouldn’t have to. So that others could be more meaningful. I thought of myself as an emptiness. That’s why I can’t understand people. I’m not supposed to understand because I don’t need to.” Peliru stopped, closed his eyes, and bowed his head.

“By the gods that’s awful,” whispered Gavin. “It means you’re barely even alive. Peli please tell me you don’t believe this anymore.”

“Not exactly,” he replied. He raised his head and looked at Gavin. “I love you. You love me. That’s not possible if I’m zero. I won’t marry someone else because I don’t have to. I know you exist. I know the love exists, and that means I’m not empty.”

Gavin looked at Peliru. “You move in small steps, don’t you? You aren’t empty. And love doesn’t have to be in just one place. You can build it everywhere and anywhere you want.”

“This, what we have, is a lot for me, Gav. It’s wonderful, it is, but it takes a lot.”

“I know. Everything wonderful takes a lot.” Gavin refilled their tea even though it didn’t need refilling. “Let’s focus on one thing. Let’s just try to add one thing at a time. That may work.”

They stayed together all that day. They cried a little but laughed a lot more. Eventually, they got the honey cakes.

Now

Peliru woke up in a tent. He had no idea how he got there or even when he fell asleep. He looked out the flap into the night. Then he thought of Gavin. Gavin was here, and Peliru needed to find him. Only when standing did he remember he had found Gavin. He remembered the rotting corpse buried in a pit alongside other Sungura.

The memory consumed him. A tide rose, steady and unstoppable. It swallowed his heart, it swamped his brain leaving nothing but loss and guilt and fear. Gavin was gone because Peliru wasn’t fast enough to save him. Gavin was gone because Peliru wasn’t strong enough to save him. Gavin was gone because Peliru left.

I left him alone, Peliru thought. I left him alone and now he’s dead. I have killed the only one who thought he could love me.

Peliru didn’t realize he was shouting. Hands, human hands, gripped his shoulders. A human voice yelled at him over and over until Peliru focused on it.

“Hear me Warden,” the voice said. “Hear me! You must be here. Focus on my voice and come back here.”

“Why?” he asked in a whisper. “What is here? My failure? What is there to come back to?”

“That question must always be asked.” The voice belonged to Vladina. She looked tired, and some part of Peliru was surprised he knew that. After a moment she continued, “Now is a good time to ask those questions but not a time to think of answers. The shock of grief must be lived through before meaning can come.”

“Don’t talk to me of grief or meaning. Don’t talk to me at all.”

Vladina stood. “We will talk later then. There is something we must discuss. It will wait.” She left the tent, and Peliru was alone.

Some hours later he still sat in the tent. He hadn’t left to eat or drink although he needed both. The effort to move was greater than the discomfort, so he sat. He thought if he was still enough, if he was silent enough, perhaps existence would forget and move on without him. Vladina interrupted the experiment.

She came into the tent holding a jug of water, bread, and cheese. These she put in front of Peliru and then sat on the floor. She wore a tunic, breeches, and sandals. Her black hair tied into a tail behind her head. She was older, or at least he thought so. Humans were difficult to judge, but her eyes had lines creasing her brown skin. Dangling from her neck he saw a leather strip holding a wooden swan.

“You’re a priest?” he asked.

“A little more than that. At least I think so. Priests are not required to do much of what I do.”

“What is it you do?”

“Like you, Warden, I go where I am required when I am needed there.”

Tears came to Peliru. “Don’t. Don’t pretend or patronize. I was needed here, but I wasn’t. He is dead because I wasn’t here.”

“There’s nothing I can say that will change your mind, so I won’t try. I don’t need to say anything to you other than this offer. Please, let me tell you everything before you answer. Can you do that?” Peliru looked at her and nodded, unsure and uncaring of what she meant.

Vladina continued, “My goddess wanted me in this forest. While here I was captured by the slavers. Originally I thought my purpose was to fight them. Then I had visions, ones where I saw you. Just before you came the goddess told me what I needed to do. I am here to offer you a chance at a conversation. It will be short. I’m sorry but the power required is enormous. But it may help you.”

Peliru shook his head. “Your offer is to talk with me? Or do you want me to speak with your goddess? Neither of those proposals interest me.”

“No,” she answered in a patient, almost monotone voice. “The conversation I offer is with your mate, Gavin.”

He was silent. Vladina didn’t move, and Peliru studied her. “If you are tricking or toying with me, I will kill you.”

“I do neither. This is a single offer. I have been given the ability to do this ritual once and only for you.”

He studied her face and remained confused. “Why?”

“I honestly don’t know. All I’ve been told is that you are needed, and this will help you do what you must do. The gods are not allowed to act directly in our affairs, but they can nudge and assist. They can also make deals with others. I believe the forest you defend is important to us all, and my goddess wants to make sure this loss you suffer doesn’t stop you from doing your duty.”

“I don’t know what goddess you worship, and I don’t care. Why would she care about me?”

“As I said, the gods make deals. She needs the forest protected, or she needs you to do something only you can do. I don’t know. Whatever the reason, it is important. That is why I am here.”

He couldn’t think of a good reason to say yes. If she was lying, the crush of disappointment would be too much to bear. Yet, he knew he would accept. The odds were against him, but if there was any chance to say goodbye he had to take it.

“Yes,” he said without feeling or conviction.

Vladina cocked her head and nodded. “Would you like to be in the tent or somewhere else?” Peliru shrugged a reply. “We will stay here. I will need an hour. Do not move once I begin. Let me know when you’re ready.” Again he shrugged.

Taking that as a yes Vladina lit a candle and placed it between her and Peliru. She closed her eyes and chanted. He sat looking at her and the candle and trying not to think or feel. Time passed and it meant nothing. The touch on his shoulder scared him witless.

“Hello Pelli.” Seated next to him was Gavin with the scar over his left eye. Gavin sat on the ground, not in the dirt. His skin wasn’t rotting off and vermin didn’t eat his flesh. Peliru said nothing.

“I’m proud of you,” Gavin said. “You did so well. Even made a friend with a minotaur. That was really something. Unconventional but effective.”

“How can you say that?” muttered Peliru as the tears fell again. “How can you be proud of me? I killed you.”

“Stop Pelli. Stop this. It’s not fitting for you. Self-pity is unattractive.”

“I wasn’t there. I wasn’t there when they took you. I didn’t get here fast enough.”

Gavin grabbed Peliru’s hand, hard. “Listen to me. You are here. You defeated the slavers. You saved scores of people. You didn’t kill me, the slavers did. I knew it was a risk, and I chose to take it.”

“What? What are you saying?”

“I knew you would come. But it wouldn’t be enough to rescue me if the slavers escaped or if others were sold instead of me. You needed to end the threat. So I had to make sure the threat stayed in one place. I did everything I could to sabotage the camp. I broke the gate lock as well as the one on the liquor stash. I provoked the guards so they would focus on me and leave a larger fighting force for you. I drove away their horses so they couldn’t leave.”

Peliru was furious. “You could’ve escaped. You could have left here and met me. You could be alive now. We could be together. You unbelievable asshole.”

Gavin slouched a bit. “That was my plan. I was going to meet you, but they caught me. I got cocky I guess, and it cost me. Cost you too. I’m sorry.”

“It’s just…It’s hard enough being a Warden and away from you. At least I knew you were there…How will I…Now you’re…I….” And he cried again.

Gavin embraced him, and they both cried. Peliru thought the crying would never stop. The ache a hole in his soul with tears pouring out for the rest of his life.

“Please,” Peliru begged, “let me go instead. You stay and I’ll take your place. It’ll be better. You’re better than me. No one will miss me. Please.”

“It doesn’t work like that, even if I would agree to it. I don’t like the idea of being apart any more than you, but I’m done now. I did well. I want you to know you did too.”

Gavin grabbed Peliru’s head in his hands. “You did well. Please, don’t give up. You’ve opened yourself up a little, and it was the right thing to do. You’re better for it. I need to know you won’t go back to being alone. You aren’t zero, Pelli. You never were. I see it. Others do too.”

“This hurts so much, Gav. I can’t risk this again. It’s so much.”

“It is. But being zero hurt too, remember? Just add one, Pelli. When you’re ready, just add one.”

Gavin kissed him. It wasn’t long. It wasn’t enough. When Peliru opened his eyes, Gavin was gone.

“Good bye, Pelli,” said the disembodied voice of someone who loved Peliru Gambitfoot. “I love you.”

He didn’t yell or shout, and that was progress. He lay down on the floor of the tent and cried himself to sleep.

 

 

Morning came and Peliru walked out of the tent. Vladina kept a respectful distance. He wondered if she had witnessed his conversation or not but decided it didn’t matter. He had nothing to be ashamed of. He awkwardly made eye contact, walked over, and thanked her.

Vladina was the only human Peliru could see. The other Sungura moved around the camp making food, taking care of the injured, and getting ready for the long journey home. He was wondering about Liriope when he saw her leave a tent and head his way. She held two bowls, her shield strapped to her back and her sword at her side. Peliru noticed how all the Sungura stopped their activities and turned toward the minotaur. None grabbed weapons, although all had them close, but they focused their full attention on Liriope as she made her way to him. She stopped in front of him and gave him a bowl.

“You should eat,” she said. “Then have a bath. Maybe two, your stench is quite intense.”

Peliru took the bowl and began slowly eating the stew. “I just woke up. How did you know I’d be here?”

“I didn’t. Both of these bowls were for me, but when I saw you I figured you needed one.”

Peliru froze. He stared at the stew and wondered what he just put into his mouth. Then he wondered if he really wanted to know.

Liriope laughed and more than a few Sungura jumped at the sound. “Don’t worry warrior Warden, the stew is all vegetable. Your brethren made it. I tried it out of curiosity and can tell you it is good. The hot peppers add great flavor, but it does need something to be more filling. I have not added my ‘special ingredient’ so you are safe.” She went back to eating, chuckling all the while.

Peliru stared at his bowl a moment and then took a spoonful. The stew was quite spicy, but the peppers enveloped and enhanced rather than overwhelmed the other ingredients. Soon he was done.

“Let’s go get some more,” she said. “Then walk the perimeter with me.” She turned and Peliru followed.

They refilled their bowls and ate as they walked out the gate. When they finished they placed the utensils by the fence and continued around the encampment.

“I thought you said I needed a bath,” said Peliru.

“You do, but I thought you may need to talk more. Or, if you don’t want to chat, then a nice walk in the sun is also good.”

“Is this supposed to make me feel better?”

“No, nothing will make you feel better. You have suffered a great loss and that will always be with you. There is no better, there is only learning to live with it all.”

“You are almost as bad at talking with people as I am.”

“Maybe so. You and I do not coat our words with honey. We say what we see and expect others to do the same. The truth can be difficult to face but lying to oneself doesn’t make meeting the challenge any easier.” She stopped walking and turned to face Peliru. “Everything I ever knew was in the minotaur empire. I was taken care of. Life was not easy, but it was a life I understood. I could have stayed, but I knew if I did I would never be a warrior. I knew I would never be true to myself. I refused to lie to myself and that made the choice clearer. I chose, and I regret nothing. Even if I die because of my choice, I regret nothing. I am who I wish to be.”

“And how does that help me?” he spat. He knew it was ungrateful, but he said it anyway. His anger felt comfortable, like a thick cloak guarding him against the weather.

“My experience is my own,” she answered. “What is yours?”

“Gavin is dead!” Peliru shouted. “That’s my experience! They killed him, and now he’s dead!”

“He fought, didn’t he?”

“Yes,” said Peliru, at a much lower volume. “He…he…yes. He fought them.” The cloak around his anger loosened some.

“He didn’t have to fight. He could have accepted his fate as a slave, but he didn’t. His choice cost him his life with you. You should mourn that, but only that. The slavers took that future, but they couldn’t take him. When he chose to fight them, he kept himself.”

Peliru stood next to a slavers’ encampment in front of a minotaur, an enemy of his people for as long as his family had existed, and felt his heartache.

“Tell me,” continued Liriope, “do you think your mate, Gavin, would regret his choice?”

“No,” he answered without hesitation. “I spoke with him last night thanks to Vladina. He doesn’t.”

The minotaur nodded. “What else did he tell you?”

“He told me not to give up.”

The minotaur nodded again. “Will you?”

To his surprise Peliru considered the question. “I honestly don’t know. I don’t think I will, but I want to. It would be easier if I did. Does that make me a coward? Am I betraying him?”

“I think it makes you honest,” she answered. Liriope turned and started walking again. “Come. Let’s finish our patrol.”

He followed her. They were silent for two finger spans of the sun, then he asked her a question. “Have you ever loved anyone?”

“No,” answer Liriope without hesitation.

“Never? Not anyone?”

“I am female. Love wasn’t an option. Not offered, not given.”

“What about your parents? They loved you, yes?”

She pondered her answer. “Female minotaurs serve one main function: to produce males. We also run the household, some of the bureaucracy, and a thousand other duties that make the empire possible. None of that matters. Until we give birth to a male, we have not served our purpose.

“My mother wanted me to serve my purpose. She prepared me as best she could. I believe she did that out of a kind of love. I have refused that purpose, however, so I guess I have also refused that kind of love.”

They walked on a bit. After a time Peliru spoke again. “What will you do now?”

“I continue east. There will be more slavers, and I will kill them. I have heard of a city, Halraah, where minotaurs live. I will go there and see if I can find a place.”

“So our blood debt is paid then?”

“No Warden warrior. That will always exist. If you need me, I will aid you.” Liriope turned to Peliru. She pulled a dagger from her belt and slit her palm. Holding her bleeding fist in front of her, she continued. “I swear I will not hurt you or your people. I swear this on my blood and on my honor.”

He looked at her and didn’t know how to process this information. “Why?”

“I have learned much walking with you. Although I was ready to die, you taught me to be ready to live. A lesson on mercy. I sought my own freedom, but I watched you risk all for others. A great lesson on honor. Most of all, I saw you mourn with all your being. I have never known love like you have known, and I mourn that loss. Having seen this other kind of love, I wish to know what it’s like. That is a lesson on hope.”

Peliru nodded, not knowing what to say. They continued walking around the camp and came back to the main gate. They walked back to the tent and Peliru asked Liriope to wait outside. He went into his pack and removed the honey cakes. Returning to the minotaur he opened the wrapping. “I don’t know if the minotaurs have these,” he said. “If they don’t, they should.” He gave her one.

Liriope bit into the pastry and her eyes widened. “This is fantastic.”

“Yes it is. Gavin taught me to enjoy them.” He silently ate one of the cakes himself. “I don’t have a concept of a blood debt, but I’ll still make a promise. If you ever need dessert, I will help you find it.”

Liriope looked at Peliru a second before bursting into laughter. The surrounding Sungura fled at the sound but the duo never noticed. They sat outside a slaver’s tent and ate all the honey cakes.

They were delicious.

 

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