Again and again, as powerful as the churning waves that hurl themselves against the frigid
strand. Again and once again, an infinite dozen poundings of arunic tides that his lover had
learned so deftly to navigate, the near-sole adventurer to chart a course in his grasping waters.
The visions were blissfully vague, mere phantoms held at bay as they shared breath, filling Kelp
to bursting with pewter dawn and thorns. Blackspur gripped his hands as he thrust deeply into
Kelp; Kelp writhed, clenching his muscles to draw Blackspur in as deeply as possible. Kelp had
liked boys before; he'd been out to the monument and fucked other men back when he was human,
but now, this…
Blackspur was voracious, feeding on Kelp's neck as though he were starving. He kissed and sucked at the skin before sharing breath again: he shared a torrent of thoughts and feelings, desire and lust and solidarity pouring into Kelp like water from a broken levee. Kelp throbbed; he could taste his completion, tingling at the base of his feet and roiling upward until it was a heavy, molten ache.
Blackspur, he begged via mind-touch, another new ability Kelp had discovered since shedding his human skin.
Then it happened — the flare snapping deep within Kelp's body from Blackspur's ouana-lim, tonguing the coal that insistently burned. Kelp cried out as jolts of pleasure wracked his body, spreading out in waves from deep within himself to his fingertips that tingled in his sated afterglow. Blackspur shouted, his stocattoed adulations punctuating the cold air, echoing in the room of their small cottage. He was buried in Kelp's body, Kelp's ankles locked together over the small of Blackspur's narrow waist. Kelp let out a deep breath he'd not known he'd been holding, easing his legs apart and sliding them down the bed.
Blackspur seemed troubled, so Kelp rubbed his back and send him reassuring thoughts via mind-touch.
What's the matter? he asked, smoothing away the tendrils plastered to his lover's skin, his freckles gleaming despite the dim light.
Blackspur shrugged, then drew up his legs, hugging himself in a foetal position, his forehead pressed to his knees. "What are we?" he asked mournfully. "We're so alone. D'you think we should try to go to the mainland? I'm sure there are boats," he went on, raising his head and running slender fingers through his auburn hair. Olive eyes gazed at Kelp, begging him for reassurance.
"We're Wraeththu now," Kelp murmured against Blackspur's clammy skin, trying to pull him close. "And yes, we should row across and get off this island. Maybe we can find a boat with a motor and petrol; everyone left so quickly, or died, so I bet if we make a methodical search, we'll find a motorboat. There are bound to be other hara over the waters."
There had only ever been a few thousand people, out in what had been the outer islands of Scotland. Most humans had fled, or died from a plague, and then two Wraeththu had appeared, terrifying and compelling. Kelp and Blackspur had been incepted through tears and paralyzing walls of fear. The pain had been less than Kelp's vivid imagination had promised, and then there was aruna, sealing his bond to Wraeththu-dom in a manner he could never before have contemplated. But they seemed to be alone, and Kelp knew that they needed to find others of their kind.
"Let's go south," Blackspur suggested, spooning next to him like a snake on a warmed rock. "We should find guns, too. We'll be considered freaks, until we're with our own kind. We may need to defend ourselves."
Kelp took a deep breath, running his fingers along the angular planes of Blackspur's back. "You're right," he said, massaging at the knots he found under his skin. "But I've never used a gun before."
"Hopefully we won't need them."
"I wouldn't count on that."
With a last embrace, Kelp moved away from his lover. They reclothed themselves and began to pack their bags; they were canvas, army-issue looking things that Kelp had found; they would do the trick.
"Just the necessities," he said, though it was a given. Both he and Blackspur knew they weren't infallible; the world could reach out at any moment and snag them, hence the guns they needed to procure. Quietly they got their meagre belongings together and began walking to the southern part of the island, a tenacious drizzle and stormy clouds their relentless company, step after step.
* * * * *
Their journey to the mainland was thankfully uneventful; their island, which had never been densely populated, was void of life— that didn't walk on four legs, anyway. The many sheep continued on as they always had, apparently not missing their former human caretakers at all. Blackspur took them to a deserted town and, amazingly, there were still a few motorboats, and petrol. The waters were rough, and the rain was a relentless, malevolent force. Still, they endured, not feeling the discomfort they might have in their former human forms.
As soon as Kelp stepped onto the slippery rocks, he felt a change; they weren't going to be alone anymore. He glanced over at Blackspur, and saw the same recognition in his eyes.
"There are others— others like us," he said, excitement thrumming in his voice.
"We don't know that they'll take kindly to outsiders," Kelp reminded him, "but hopefully they will," he went on, trying to sound optimistic.
"We have to find them, first," Blackspur said.
"If they want to be found."
They had climbed the hill up from the jetty and were faced with a landscape similar to the one they'd left; rolling green hills and drizzle.
"Wouldn't you want to be found?" Blackspur asked, his face glowing with anticipation.
"Yes, of course. I'm sorry I seemed negative."
Blackspur threw an arm around his shoulders and jostled him into an embrace. "I'll forgive you, this once," he said, grinning.
Kelp couldn't help but smile in return. "Thanks." More seriously, he said, "I'm glad I'm not alone in this. And that you're the one with me."
Blackspur leaned over so their foreheads touched. We're meant to be together, he said via mind-touch.
Don't you go getting sentimental on me.
Too late! Blackspur replied before he laughed aloud. "I don't know about you, but I'm famished. Let's find some shelter and get something out of our pack."
After a quick meal they walked and walked; every small hamlet was empty, quiet decaying evidence of humanity returning slowly to nature. For five days they traipsed the countryside, their only companions the constant drizzle and sheep that crossed their path.
"Alba Sulh," Blackspur said one night, rather out of the blue.
"This land. The hara we'll meet."
Kelp looked at him in confusion. "How do you know that?"
He shrugged. "I just do."
The clouds slowly moved apart like a tearing seam, letting the light of a brilliant moon illuminate the landscape with shifting quicksilver. Kelp felt the heavy fog of magic that emanated from the land and wondered if it was trying to help or hinder them. Just before Kelp could make a comment about seeing the stars that night, he sensed them; it wasn't a rush of knowledge, more like a trickle of awareness, creeping along his spine. "We're getting close," he said, and Blackspur nodded his agreement.
All at once, they were surrounded. Kelp let out a squawk of fear, holding up his hands. The Wraeththu were armed, pointing guns at them, then lowering them when they saw he and Blackspur weren't immediately going to shoot back.
"Name yourselves," one har said, obviously their leader, clad in tight leggings and a flowing, slate-colored tunic. Blue runes decorated his forehead and down the side of his neck; fanciful silver figures of deer and dragons hung from leather thongs and lay on his chest.
Blackspur glanced at Kelp, who nodded.
"Blackspur." He paused. "We're so glad to see you! We were alone before," he rushed on, relief saturated in his words.
The hint of a smile flitted across the other har's thin lips. "Where did you come from? We thought we were all of the hara in this part of the land."
"From over sea," Kelp said, his gaze sliding over to an exquisitely beautiful har. He wore his river of black hair like a royal robe and radiated powerful knowledge. Kelp marveled at his long-limbed body, the embodiment of a bleached, sinewy piece of driftwood.
The leader noticed Kelp's attention had wavered and glanced over to the har, who held himself with regal defiance. He returned his glacier green eyes back to Kelp and Blackspur, who seemed in a state of desperate agitation.
"I'm Cairn, the Warloch for our tribe," the primary har stated boldly. "You may join our company, but all hara here have proven their ability. There is a ritual you must perform before I will allow you to journey with us beyond our domain."
He stared at them, one eyebrow lifted as though Kelp or Blackspur would opt out and… do what, Kelp wondered? Return to their island? Cairn was both benevolent and fierce— Kelp had no doubt he would kill them if he felt they'd be a threat to his kinshar.
"Of course," Kelp retorted, filled with fascination more than fear. He skimmed over the faces of the small entourage of hara, these kindred creatures of such a new race. Again, pulled irrevocably as by an undertow, he found his eyes trained on the pale, lissome har.
"And you, fiery one?"
"Yes! What's beyond your realm? Are you killing any remaining humans?" Blackspur asked earnestly. Kelp heard the faintest quiver of anxiety as he asked the question, though he suspected only he could pick up on it, knowing Blackspur as well as he did.
"We only kill as needed; we've incepted when we can. We're seeking the rest of our kind, further south. And acquiring horses."
The magnetizing har had spoken, his voice a clear gull cry.
"Cobweb is correct," the Warloch said, bemused. "And I'm pleased to add you to our tribe— soon. You'll obviously need caste instruction, though I can tell you will have much to offer us."
At that, all of the hara reshouldered their guns, apparently waiting for Cairn's instructions. He introduced his followers, and each har nodded or raised a gloved hand across the chest when his name was called.
"Thistle. Sanweryn. Ferngarn. Petrichor. And Cobweb," Cairn said almost reverently. "Meet your new potential kinshar."
There, under the inky sky in which a few brave stars struggled to blaze through intermittent clouds, Kelp found himself sharing breath with each of them, one after the other. It was overwhelming, a dizzying surf of tastes and images, so powerful that he stumbled and fell when at last released.
Blackspur was scrabbling over the ground to find him. I thought I'd drowned, he babbled; Kelp could feel his clutching fingers like a starfish to a rock.
"You've got to be stronger than that to help us," Ferngarn said as he hauled them up, his voice betraying no small amount of disgust.
"We need to discover how deep their connection is to the land," Cairn said cryptically. "Follow me."
Blackspur tried to linger back at Kelp's side, but Ferngarn tugged him along to match his long strides, his silver hair not quite a compliment to his flinty eyes. He began speaking to Blackspur in quiet tones so that Kelp couldn't hear. The clouds had mostly dissipated, so Kelp could see the other hara more clearly. Despite that, he felt an incessant breath of magic on his neck, elusive whispers of messages he thought he heard— or were they just the sussurative snaps of their woolen capes as they strode with quickened paces to this destination known only to these hara?
"Here," Petrichor said, handing Kelp an amulet of bronze with a stone whose colour Kelp couldn't be sure under the tricksy moonlight.
"Thank you," Kelp said, uncertain as to why this particular har was being kind to him. He pulled the silver chain over his head and tugged his hair out over it, his boots sliding on a slippery patch of mud as he did. They were not quite running; it felt as though they were being pursued by something. He glanced over at Petrichor, his darkly multicoloured hair festooned with thin plaits that bounced with each stride.
"You're welcome." Petrichor's dark eyes were kind; he looked very young despite having wider shoulders than the other tall and slender hara of the group. "Don't worry, you and your companion are far safer now with us than you were on your own."
"I believe that," Kelp said with fervour.
That was the last of their conversation; they journeyed for a couple of hours until they crested a low hill and Kelp saw a long valley stretching away from them, a swath of flat ground that seemed to glow with ancient secrets that might well not wish to be disturbed. And yet, that was exactly where Carin led them, down to the entryway of the flat corridor marked by low mounds and tall stones of varying shapes that stretched upward mysteriously to the heavens. They were in small sets, on and on as though revealing a sentence of stone readable only from the perspective of the stars.
The Warloch slowed their pace at last, allowing Kelp and Blackspur to marvel at the standing stones scattered in small groups or in a line, and at the barrows. Kelp instinctively drew away from them, though he found them compelling at the same time. He approached a monolith whose craggy shape appealed to him when a har with a hawkish nose — Sanweryn? — jerked on his arm.
"Not yet," he chastened, though his voice didn't harbour any true antagonism.
Looking around, Kelp saw Blackspur similarly held by Ferngarn, though with his haughty features, pale skin and hair, Ferngarn appeared more like a disdainful marble statue come to life. Cobweb looked intently at Kelp, evaluating him as the others gathered closer.
"We are among the first Sulh," Cairn intoned, his tattoos gleaming a luminous vermillion under the moon's light. His voice was rich, flowing like the tones from a wooden flute. "Here are some of the stones of power; here we will witness your sacrifice to them, in turn to draw from the forces deep within this earth. To the ground you will also make a sacrifice, a pouring of arunic energy to replace what you take from the stone."
Blackspur stared wild-eyed at Kelp. Sacrifice?
"Please speak out loud until we've raised your caste enough to project more clearly. We can all hear your private commentary," Cobweb said sardonically.
Blackspur blanched but then regained his composure. "How or what do we sacrifice?"
"You will know," Sanweryn promised.
A melodious chant began softly somewhere within the circle; Kelp closed his eyes, letting the sound wash over him as it slowly, so slowly grew in volume, but never became more than a hypnotic murmur of encouragement. Somewhere a drum sounded, the throbbing pulse of a heartbeat; Kelp's blood roared in his ears. Deep magic rustled with unspoken energy, permeating the soles of his feet to travel up his legs to churn in his groin. Not yet— that sacrifice was yet to come.
The stone beckoned to him, craving his warmth, a liquid guerdon. On and on the rhythmic chanting went; Kelp's senses were saturated with pounding beats: blood, waves, drums. His eyes may have opened without him knowing; sightless, he offered his arms, ecstasy coursing up from deep within his pelvis when the cuts were made.
Yes, the stone murmured, the entreaty a lover's tongue on his skin. Kelp was outside of himself and yet present, smearing sticky blood on the rock, the rapture of viridian power pouring out of the monolith, glowing and pulsing as Kelp caressed it with his slippery arms. He wiped at his face, drawing his palms on the warm surface of the stone, offering life and tears. He felt the ancient energy flow back through his fingers, every vein in his harish body like molten knowledge, hot and potent and desired.
You are Sulh, the stone whispered, the sound like pounding surf and yet, a lover's erotic promise. Lie against me, child of the new ones, then sprinkle your seed on my earth.
Oh, wretched clothes! Kelp struggled, tore at them, his shaking fingers fumbling with the frantic need for aruna, to join with his clan on this hallowed ground. Naked, trembling in hazy rapture, he stood against the warm monolith that pulsed with lambent energy behind him. One by one, each of the hara except Blackspur approached and shared breath before filling him with arunic fire. He had only the vaguest of conscious thoughts, of noting the vibrant ouana-lims and shining limbs of his new kinshar. Again and again his soume-lam was ploughed; sacred passion and cries of sacrificial pleasure cascaded on him like rain as the slick, opalescent fluids of their couplings began to slide down the inside of his legs to seep into the thirsty ground.
At last, utterly spent, still vibrating with emeraldine arunic power, he collapsed onto his hands and knees, his shoulders and thighs quaking with the exertion his body had endured. Trance-like, he let somehar dress him and managed to put one foot in front of the other until they reached a set of stone buildings. The last thing his exhausted mind recognised was a piney scent as somehar washed his face.
"Welcome, Kelp," the reedy, gentle voice said. It chimed in Kelp's head, a homecoming. He was beloved. "Rest now."
Like a stone sinking into the ocean, Kelp fell soundly to sleep.
* * * * *
The scent of potent coffee woke Kelp, though he felt he was having to struggle through a lingering web of dreams before he surfaced to true wakefulness. He flexed his fingers and toes, stretched, hitting his hands against the cold stone of an interior wall.
"Fuck!" he muttered, still languishing in the misty area between being fully asleep or awake. With the force of a cold, smacking wave, he jolted into full consciousness, his eyes staring wide-eyed at the ceiling. One hand clawed at his long hair, the other slithered between his legs. For a brief moment of terror, he fingered the unfamiliar organ until recognition and memory shifted around him, soft grains of sand to remind him of who and what he'd become several weeks ago.
"I can't imagine that you'd want to take aruna so soon again after last night," a kindly voice said. It belonged to the har who had cleaned him up and tenderly put Kelp to bed last night. He sat up slowly, newly aware of a low ache within his soume-lam and a lingering feeling of being drained. It had seemed like he'd been outside of himself for the rituals; Kelp couldn't even conjure clear images. They were shadowy, but compelling.
A har Kelp knew to be with Cairn's tribe but who had hung more in the background during their introductions handed Kelp a mug of coffee before sitting next to him on the bed. Like all but Ferngarn and Blackspur, the har had long, dark hair and pale skin, though like Petrichor, kindness shone in his eyes. Oddly, to Kelp's observations, he wore a human woolen jumper, heavy with cables in a deep indigo colour. Several thin necklaces hung about his neck, made of braided leather with bits of shiny black stone woven in.
"I'm Thistle," he said, blowing across his own tin of coffee. "Some of the others are a bit more memorable, at first, anyway. But I'm going to work with you on your caste training, at least for a short time. Cairn's really itching to head further south in Alba, but I've convinced him to take a small party up north for a few days while you and your companion recover."
Kelp clutched at the mug in his hands, now assaulted by imagery that he simply couldn't reconcile with his usual, rational self. "The stone," he murmured, looking to Thistle for affirmation.
"Yes. You're definitely Sulh; you heard the monolith speak to you. That was the primary test. The rest was sacrifice, but as a har, you'll find that you recover from any injury with a speed inconceivable as a human. Look at your arms."
Kelp did, recollecting with ghostly clarity a knife cutting into his forearms. There were only the faintest traceries of pale white, one on each arm. The stone had spoken to him. He'd defiled it, smearing blood all over its surface—
"Kelp. Slow down," Thistle said, patting him on the thigh. "You were projecting your thoughts; nothing was defiled. You gave to one of the stones of power; it beckoned to you. And in return, it infused you with tremendous energy. That's why I'm here, to help you harness some of that, to help raise you as quickly as possible to a higher caste. We're going to find others, and I'll need you to help me. You're gifted with the power of teaching, of communicating with those who are usually mute." He tilted his head, quirking his mouth to the side, a strangely enticing expression on his face. "I'm envious."
Kelp took a few sips of coffee. It was strong and bitter and warmed his blood. "How did you learn what you'll teach me?" he asked, easing out a hand to intertwine his fingers with Thistle's, still on his leg.
"I'm not entirely sure," he admitted, rearranging their hands so that they were palm to palm.
"Is Blackspur okay?"
Warm, brown eyes gazed affectionately at him as Thistle nodded. "Yes. He's more of a seer— Cobweb's territory."
Kelp's alarm must have shown on his face because Thistle let out a low laugh.
"He'll be fine. Cairn is very pleased; only two of you from the outer island there and both with exceptional skill. Potential skill," he went on, bringing Kelp's hand to rest against his strong jaw. "Drink your coffee, then it's a quick wash up and you're my dedicated pupil for several days. You have so much wild energy; I'm going to help you tame it."
His voice and mannerisms were so reassuring Kelp didn't need to be told twice.
"Petrichor gave me this," he said later, through a mouthful of scrambled eggs and mushrooms, lifting the amulet from his chest.
Thistle raised one dark eyebrow, stirring a small pot of something non-breakfast-like as he ate some smoked bacon and stewed tomatoes. "Did he, now?"
Kelp suddenly worried he'd gotten his new kinshar in trouble.
Okay, bright eyes, Thistle's voice sounded in Kelps head via mind-touch. First lesson: how to channel and focus your thoughts so that they're not heard from here to Keltoi.
The next several days were a blur; Kelp was keenly aware of the comings and goings of his new clanshar as Thistle patiently taught him to create levees of thought, as he called them. There was also general instruction about Alba: the earth, trees, stones, messages from hawks and dancing rivers; how to taste starlight and praise the sun, to shoot a rifle and send out his thoughts, like creeping fog, to find out whether or not there were any appropriate young humans who would be worthy Wraeththu.
He cut out and sewed his own leather trousers, saving some of the buttery mahogany to braid a wide wrist circlet for Blackspur. Kelp had been granted leave to see him for an afternoon while most of the rest of the clan was in a private consultation of sorts. The rain was falling in torrents on the thatched roof, so the sound was far more muffled than either he or Blackspur was used to, but it still smelled of home. Kelp stood behind Blackspur in front of a ridiculously ornate standing mirror— Blackspur had been quick to note it was Cobweb's. They both had been taking aruna with their respective mages, but it was still passionate and a homecoming for Kelp to be able to visit. He teased and pleasured Blackspur with his achingly hard ouana-lim, egging Blackspur on, forcing him to look at himself while Kelp stood behind him. With skilled fingers, he stroked and massaged the sensitive petals at the base of Blackspur's mostly retracted ouana-lim, feeling his soume-lam clench tightly as Kelp repeatedly buried himself in his lover's body.
Earlier, Blackspur had told him that Cobweb had been instructing him in how to filter his thoughts, but also how intentionally to project them; it was obvious Cobweb was skilled in harish sensibilities, and that he'd also manipulated Blackspur in his teachings of aruna. The waves of their combined pleasure crescendoed; Kelp draped an arm across the front of Blackspur's chest as he looked in the mirror, gauging how close he was to his completion by the buffeting currents and rising timbre to his cries. Their climax was surprisingly gentle, though it went on and on, like tireless waters lapping at the shore. Exhausted and invigorated at the same time, Kelp eased out of his companion. Blackspur lit a fire while Kelp found a washcloth to clean them up. They lay down on some soft furs in front of the fire and Blackspur spooned behind him; Kelp watched the rosy flames dance and crackle as he let himself rest in Blackspur's embrace.
"We're not alone any more," he said quietly, pulling Blackspur's freckled arm closer to his ribs. "What's it like, spending so much time with Cobweb? He seemed so distant, so— apart."
Blackspur made an amused sound against Kelp's neck, his warm breath causing chills to flare on Kelp's skin before they subsided.
"He's quite the taskmaster, actually," Blackspur murmured before placing a short row of kisses across his shoulder blade. "But very enigmatic. You, I feel I really know; I could spend years with Cobweb and I don't think he'd ever really let me know what's really going on in that beautiful head of his. He's a puzzle, but he doesn't want anyone to put the pieces together."
He snuggled against Kelp's back, warm and alive and so familiar. Kelp stretched out, trying to get more contact, to ground himself in his companion, so dear and yet they were so different. The amulet from Petrichor still hung on his chest; it seemed it would be sacrilege to take it off, and Thistle hadn't said that he should.
"We're both Acanthalids now," Blackspur said quietly. "I've learned so much, and yet, compared to our new kinshar, I feel like a child."
Kelp nodded; he'd felt the same once he'd realised just how much Thistle knew about their new race, and the lands they'd soon be travelling. "We may incept others," he said. "It will be our privilege to bring them into this life we now live, and see more of Alba. It's so different from what we were before."
"Before is the dreamworld," Blackspur said against Kelp's back. "This is our reality. The stones called out to me, and I can see our place in the world. We have meaning and purpose," he said more vehemently. "Wraeththu is the land. We respect her, and she will reveal her secrets to us."
Kelp pulled Blackspur's fingers to his lips, breathing on them before he clutched them to his chest. "I'd like to give my blood to another, to someone who will bring new gifts to our clan. To be with him through the few days of suffering "
"You and I were delirious," Blackspur reminded him. "The pain passes. And then you're on the other side of it."
Kelp stared into the fire, watching the flames lick at the logs, imagining himself at the side of another as he made the transformation from human to har. "Thistle says I'm a born teacher."
"You also guided us," Blackspur reminded him. "And I have no doubt that you'll be able to lead other, new hara down paths of knowledge in your own unique way when we do incept new kinshar to our tribe."
Kelp smiled ruefully. "I still have so much to learn."
"Hopefully we'll have long, long lives to discover as much as we can about our new abilities."
They lay in a companionable silence for a time until at last Kelp's stomach began to rumble.
"I guess we should go and see if Ferngarn wants some help with our evening meal," Blackspur said with a short laugh, running his fingers over Kelp's belly.
"Indeed. Being with you worked up my appetite!" he turned his head and shared breath with Blackspur, reveling in his familiar taste of dawn and thorns.
* * * *
Three days later Cairn called for a tribe meeting. It had been decided that they would leave their enclave; they would ride the horses they had stabled in a nearby paddock, heading down south, further away from the highlands to lower Alba Sulh.
"I believe there are more Wraeththu," he said, standing at the head of a long wooden table. "We're a small group, though very powerful. Still, I think it would be prudent at least to meet them, wherever they may be, however many groups there are. There may also be some humans as well, unless they all succumbed to plague or insanity."
"There were large cities," Sanweryn said, drawing his finger down a map he and Ferngarn had been making from memory. "We may meet up with some violent human confrontation unless we keep our presence a secret."
"Do you think we were all incepted by the same first few Wraeththu?" Blackspur asked, toying with the sleeve of his tunic. "And where do you believe they went?"
"I think they went across the waters, over to the east," Cobweb said, a dreamy look on his face. "We'll have our turn to bring new humans into our fold, but we should be choosy. Only those who have strength, or beauty, or both."
"We'll pack lightly, as I'd like to return to these lands, near the valley of stones," Cairn stated, drawing the map to him. "We'll take this route south, down to where the larger former human cities were. There are bound to be villages along the way, where we can find ammunition and more horses, if we're lucky."
"I'd never left the outer island until we came across to find you," Kelp said. "I guess I was pretty sheltered until the world fell apart and then we two were transformed."
A warm smile bloomed on Petrichor's face. "Some of us had traveled quite a bit as humans; it's beautiful country, or was. Many cities and villages were burned nearly to the ground. There was fighting, and humans dying in the streets, crazed, mad with fear and incomprehension." He shook his head. "We'll need to be cautious as we go, especially since we don't yet know how much resistance to disease our new bodies have. There could be air-borne illness still lingering."
"I've been studying up on herbal lore," Ferngarn said, his demeanour less standoff-ish since Kelp and Blackspur had shown they wouldn't shirk from hard work and were dedicated to their caste training. "There are useful books here, and in my meditations, the earth has offered up more knowledge to me."
Cairn nodded his approval. "Tonight we'll make a gift to this space— Kelp, I charge you and Petrichor to take aruna near the birch trees; it will be a sacred rite and then some of your mingled seed will be gifted to the ground. This is Grissecon, profound aruna. A small phial of your combined essence will be kept with us, in case we find we need the strength of your energies to attack potential enemies with more than guns and knives."
"It would be an honour," Kelp said earnestly.
"You'll need to focus and climb to a higher plane; Petrichor will guide you," Thistle said, his gaze fixed intently on Kelp's face. "You should go and sit in meditation for a time. I'll come and get you for the meal."
Kelp's stomach buzzed with excitement. Aruna was necessary to harish life, he knew that innately. But he'd not truly realised how much controlled power there could be in the act and the potency of the pearly fluids that spilled forth at the moment of orgasm. He wasn't certain, but he suspected they had healing powers, and from what Cairn implied, they could be contained and somehow the energy could be unleashed to protect and even assault. Kelp felt humbled and in awe of his body's new abilities; after the meeting was disbanded he went to the home he'd been sharing with Thistle, drawing on all he'd learned until the meal was served.
Rain continued to fall, so once it came time for the Grissecon to take place, Cobweb suggested both a ground covering for their aruna as well as a tarp of sorts to shelter Kelp and Petrichor. As on the night when Kelp and Blackspur had been initiated into the Sulh tribe, Cairn led the group in chant and low drumming, though the patterns and words were different.
"You'll be ouana," Petrichor murmured as they sank to the ground, lying side by side at first on the cloth and blankets. "Swim in my waters; follow me as I take us on a path of light and strength. Don't fear if you have visions, it's to be expected."
He moved his lips to Kelp's, sharing breath with images of deep forests. With expert fingers he brought Kelp's ouana-lim to full hardness, the petals opening as the chanting buoyed him up, filling him with purpose and the grounding spirit of the earth. Petrichor was passionate and commanding, moving to lie on his back before guiding him into the slick warm folds of his soume-lam. His powerful muscles drew Kelp in; he could sense Petrichor's adoration, feel him reach to Kelp's soul and rise into a realm of azure shadows and luminous, viridian lights that danced and leapt as their bodies moved together in an ancient rhythm. Kelp was drowning in the colours and growing waves of pleasure, but always Petrichor's spirit was there, delighting him mercilessly as Kelp rocked against him, half-delirious with ecstasy and the sound of his blood roaring in his ears.
Now, Kelp, surrender yourself! Petrichor's voice sounded somewhere in this foreign land of arunic bliss. Kelp's cries punctuated the air as he tumbled into a powerful climax, still held safely in Petrichor's arms and also in the realm of emerald flames that didn't burn. Petrichor thrashed underneath him as the tongue flickered out from Kelp's ouana-lim, snapping to touch the burning star deep in Petrichor's body. He visualized the prismatic vigour of their commingled release, thundering through them both as the drumming reached a fevered pitch and then ceased. He was too boneless to move himself once it was over; Kelp felt like a rag doll as he was rolled off Petrichor. Despite the exertions of body and spirit, he was aware enough to see the handsome har wince as Cairn stooped between Petrichor's legs, gathering the shimmering results of their aruna. Coruscating violet-gold lit up the small glass jar, vivid and seeming to possess a spirit of its own.
"For this land of Alba, for we Sulh, and for our protection and safety, receive this gift of thanks," Cairn spoke into the ensuing quiet. He drizzled a few drops onto the base of one of the birch trees, making a gesture of power with his hand from his forehead to lips to heart. He handed the phial to Cobweb, who incanted something in a soft voice before placing a stopper in it and tucking it away in his robes.
Petrichor and Kelp slowly got dressed— their Grissecon seemed to have been a success. The next day, not an hour after a weak sun rose above the valley's shelter, their small group saddled up. Each har had fastened their few belongings and a load of provisions on their respective horse before they left the mysterious stones of power. More changes were coming, at a quick pace. Another new chapter in Kelp's life stretched out before him and he sat straighter in his saddle, breathing deeply of the chilled air, bright and brisk with anticipation.
* * * * *
Several days later they stopped for the night beside a large lake, a disintegrating castle perched bravely at its head. The ground shimmered with unseen magic; Kelp felt drunk on it, and in looking at Ferngarn and Petrichor as they gazed at the wind-whipped surface of the lake, they were similarly affected. The day had been sunny but with powerful winds blowing against them, so Cairn had suggested an earlier stopping time in a place with true shelter, both for them and to let their horses rest. Kelp brushed down his horse, which he had yet to give a proper name, and then took off for a solo walk around the lake, which he found irresistible. The others were more interested in exploring the ruins of the ancient human castle which, despite crumbling upper walls and towers, was solid at its base. Missing chunks of stone and archer's windows gaped open, allowing the glow of the setting sun to blaze through, the walls riddled with the fierce orange of the gloaming.
A low murmuring sound seemed to come from the lake, but Kelp wasn't afraid of the sounds. Maybe the others couldn't hear them; perhaps whatever she or they were, the message was solely for him. As he walked, pulling his cloak tightly against the prying fingers of the wind, he went into a trance-like state. He stayed close to the shore, making his way toward a forest edge that clung to the side of the lake opposite the castle. Through his enhanced vision and perception, mists of mysterious shapes spun and swayed above the waters and crept out over the surrounding land. Kelp was dazzled, swaying himself when he saw it, a stunning, powerful horse, and yet&8212; not.
The kelpie walked toward him, and with soundless singsong, told Kelp he was welcome, but this was her lake. Kelp found her both compelling and malevolent, despite her reassurances that she had no issues with him or his kind. The singing in his head grew louder; a crazed thought tumbled through Kelp's mind at the watery music. As a human child he'd been told all sorts of stories and myths; was the kelpie protecting mer-people who lived at the bottom of the lake? Anything seemed possible as the kelpie's lips curled back from her teeth to give him an unfriendly, horsey smile.
We're not alone, she said, the sound a coltish snicker.
I know! There are other hara&8212;
Kelp's arms were grabbed from behind, a knife pressed to his throat. The kelpie was gone. He thrashed against his attackers until there was a pain of icy glass tearing at his stomach as one of them stabbed across his middle.
"He's one of those freaks!" the one in front of him said, his baritone voice cracking with hostile fear.
"You're not even human, are you?" the other crooned in his ear, handing the blood-slicked knife to the skinny youth, his brown hair matted and revulsion gleaming in his eyes.
Kelp's thoughts were a maelstrom of panic, muddled by the meditative state he'd been in mere seconds ago and doubtless further troubled by the kelpie's influence. His gut ached where the knife had jabbed into his flesh; his leather pants were undone with an annoyed growl by the human behind him; they were tugged down just far enough for the predictable deed to be done.
"Gonna have some fun with you first before we kill you, alien freak," he breathed against Kelp's neck, yanking on his hair. Kelp heard a rustle of clothes and a spitting sound; the human was tall and wiry, stroking himself in his palm to get himself ready.
This he remembered from before; he yelled in pain as he was breached with no preparation, split in two by a sizeable cock, his arse burning at the terrible friction as he tried to resist his attacker. Were it another har, he knew it would be considered pelki, but this was something quite human and it revolted his harish senses even more.
"So fucking tight," the human said, pulling back on Kelp's head.
"Fuck, Ian!" the brown-haired human yelped, pointing to Kelp's groin as horror branded itself on his face. "His cock's gone!"
Kelp finally gained control of his wild anguish, sending a clear call to Blackspur and Cairn. I'm being attacked, two humans, at the woods. They have knives, he mustered, his teeth gritted against the raw pain in his arse. He had the dawning realisation that, thankfully, though he was bleeding profusely from the knife wounds at his belly, they'd not gutted him. Yet.
"What'd they do to you?" the young man in front of him babbled, protecting his own crotch with his hand as the other one, Ian, grunted, ramming himself into Kelp's body, fast and brutal.
"I'm a freak," Kelp ground out, tasting the metallic tang of blood in his mouth. "Unlike you," he gasped, then cried out as Ian yanked his torso back. Kelp felt a tearing of muscle, searing, red pain flashing as though a hot poker had been dragged across his abdomen. "Aaaaaaaagh! Fuck!"
Kelp had to stay within himself, to drawn on his superior harish qualities, but he was being battered. Furious and writhing with what he desperately hoped was temporary agony, he yelled, "I'm Wraeththu! My body's protecting my ouana-lim."
And then he felt it: he sensed his attackers had seen his rescuers. The humans' fear rose around them like a cloud of sulfur, pungent and choking.
"We've got to get the fuck out of here!" the one in front of Kelp screamed, but Cairn, Ferngarn and Petrichor were there on horseback, rifles leveled at them. There would be no escape. The human, Ian, who'd been raping Kelp, had savagely pulled away and Kelp fell forward, crashing to the ground, his pants trapped partway down his thighs.
"Get dressed," Cairn roared at him. "You two are coming with us."
Kelp moaned on the ground, covering his stomach as he gazed at Ferngarn, who'd practically jumped off of his horse to kneel by his side. Through the grinding maw of pain and relief, Kelp tried to smile. Wraeththu had such terrible beauty, especially compared to the brutish fragility he could now see in the two humans. Cairn could snap them to pieces like twigs for a fire.
"I need to get you to the castle," Ferngarn said urgently. "Do you think you can ride?"
Kelp nodded. "It looks worse than it is."
"I hope so. I'll examine you as soon as we get back. I want to get you out of here and cleaned up."
There had been shouting and some scuffling; Kelp assumed the humans had been subdued, and he really didn't care what measures Cairn and Petrichor had used. Gingerly Kelp let himself be lifted from the ground, his leathers eased up enough so he could ride Ferngarn's horse. Petrichor helped him until he was in front of Ferngarn, leaning back dazedly against his chest as his healer held the reins.
"I saw a kelpie," Kelp said, the words thick on his tongue. His body throbbed with the abuse he'd suffered; he couldn't imagine what Ferngarn could possibly to do repair his torn flesh out in the middle of such dangerous and isolated lands.
"Did you?" Ferngarn said, obviously distracted. "Maybe that explains why Cobweb didn't pick up on the presence of these two."
The sensation of barbed wire grating on his stomach made Kelp moan. He drew on his anger to stay conscious until he'd been carried inside and a draught of something powerful had been poured slowly but insistently into his mouth. The last thing he heard was Petrichor chanting him to a place of rest and Thistle's dark comments.
"They can stew for two days. Then they're being incepted. They deserve death, but Cairn's insistent. I hope they suffer."
* * * * *
"It's not right," Blackspur growled, his face glowering with righteous anger as he paced the room.
"They'll change once they're har," Kelp insisted. He was sitting up in bed, drinking the hot chicken broth Cobweb had brought. The beautiful har stood against the wall closest to Kelp, watching Blackspur's path from one side of the room to the other and back again.
"I could kill them," Cobweb said dispassionately. Blackspur stopped and stared. "Well, I could find out how," he continued. "I can read Ferngarn's thoughts without his realising it, but more importantly, I know where his book on poisons and remedies is."
With wide, gleaming eyes, Blackspur's expression took on a hungry look. "You would do that?"
"I said I could. Not that I'm willing to sacrifice myself to get revenge. That would be your business." He took to cleaning his nails with his white, even teeth.
"They're being punished now," Kelp said, drinking down the last of his broth from the bowl. "They'll act differently once they're Wraeththu. Probably be apologising for weeks, and grateful to be alive, and given such a gift&8212;"
"Quit being a fucking martyr!" Blackspur seethed, picking up Kelp's bowl and throwing it against the far wall with a howl of rage. It shattered into pieces. "They hurt you!" he yelled before hurling himself onto the bed at Kelp's side, his anger morphing into dry heaves and sobs. "I saw you all bloodied, and how the one had violated you by force."
He laid his tear-stained face in Kelp's lap. Kelp gently carded his fingers through his dear friend's auburn hair, wishing he could console him. "I was roughed up," he admitted. "For a while I wanted to kill them, too, in self-defense. It wasn't smart of me to have just gone out on my own like that, either. I have to believe the Warloch has a reason for incepting them."
"Some kind of bizarre plan?" Cobweb suggested blithely, though Kelp could tell he questionned Cairn's decision. "Maybe it goes along with not having you punished for your potential murder, Blackspur."
Kelp's hand gripped the hair he was holding. "What did you do?"
"Nothing permanent," Blackspur grumbled against Kelp's thigh.
Kelp gave Cobweb a searching look.
"He went in to where they're being kept, beat up on the one, Ian, and told him what would happen, the liquefying of his internal organs, if and when he did the same thing to him that Ian had been doing to you. He told them how an ouana-lim would be a deadly weapon, and was pretty intent on an actual demonstration when Sanweryn walked in."
Kelp was shocked, even though he felt a warmth bloom in his chest at Blackspur's loyalty. "Liquefy how?" he asked, baffled that Blackspur had learned something like that that he himself didn't know about.
"Well, you've experienced how powerful aruna can be," Cobweb noted. "But even a quick tryst would kill a human, so I've been told. Our blood either makes a young human male har, or if they're not strong enough, it kills them. And what comes out from our ouana-lim at the climax of pleasure, that would erode their body, and they would die, for sure."
Kelp couldn't imagine any har wanting to try having sex with a human after his transformation, but evidently somehar had, with disastrous results. The thought filled him with revulsion, so he turned his thoughts back to his comrade and the situation with the two humans held captive.
"Look. I'm not going to take aruna with them or anything after they're incepted; I don't like them, believe me. But I'll be the first to make the cuts and force my blood in them," Kelp said. "They'll be useful hara. If they'd done what they did to me and were Wraeththu, I'm sure Cairn would have shot them on sight. I don't know what it takes to kill a har," he said more thoughtfully. He knew his knife wounds had been healed and the other, inner tears had also mended themselves by the time he'd awoken from his two-day stasis.
"I don't want you to find out," Blackspur murmured. "But I also don't want those two in our clan. They don't deserve it."
"They'll have to endure a trial and succeed like we did, I'd assume." Kelp looked to Cobweb for affirmation, and he looked down his elegant nose before nodding.
"The standing stones may be different where we're going, but I'm certain Cairn won't simply bring them into the fold. Especially after their initial abuse of you."
"I'm feeling well enough to get up and go see them," Kelp said, patting Blackspur so he'd move out of his lap.
"I still don't understand why you don't want to take a knife and cut their throats, not give them our gift!" Blackspur's voice quaked as he spoke. He'd obviously been very traumatised in seeing Kelp in the state he'd been in when returned to their shelter.
"I don't know!" Kelp said helplessly, pulling his cloak off of a chair and cocooning himself in its warmth. "They don't seem like a threat now. I've done cruel things in my past I'm not proud of," he said, staring at his hands as they clutched the dark grey of his woolen cloak.
"As humans, in those black, tumultuous days, I think we all did," Cobweb said after a time.
His comment eased Kelp out of his reverie of forcing a youth not much older than himself. They'd not had sex; Kelp had forced him to do other things he'd known the other boy hadn't wanted to do. The boy had run away afterwards; Kelp had never seen him again.
"Guess I'll clean up the mess I made," Blackspur said, chagrinned. "I sure as hell don't want to go see those two."
Cobweb stayed close to Kelp's side, but he really did feel much better and he didn't falter as they walked down a set of crumbling stone stairs to the main floor, which had been reclaimed aeons ago by grass.
"You should see Ferngarn first and get his approval," Cobweb said, guiding Kelp by the arm past a makeshift divider of a hanging saddlecloth.
"Where is everyone?" Kelp asked as they ducked past the fabric to see Ferngarn puttering around a small fire.
Much of the ceiling was open, so the room wasn't at all smoky. Ferngarn looked over at them and Kelp presented himself to the pale har's scrutiny.
"Lift your shirt," Ferngarn said briskly and Kelp did, seeing the rosy scars and feeling an internal twinge where the skin had been knitted together. "Not bad," the healer said, tracing the jagged lines with his fingers. To himself, Kelp thought with a smile, Ferngarn was admiring his own work. With his nearly white hair pulled back in a rare plait that went down his back, Ferngarn's features stood out. To Kelp's eyes he seemed aristocratic more than haughty anymore, perhaps because they'd developed a rapport in addition to their new experience of healer and patient.
"You'll want to bathe," he suggested. "Not in the kelpie's lake, but there's a small stream over the rise. Petrichor can take you. I think we're incepting the humans this evening," he said, his voice taking on a harsher tone. "You'll pick the one you wish to change. They'll go through althaia out in the woods, so we don't have to listen to their cries day and night. At least not as loudly."
"Won't someone need to watch them?" Kelp asked, holding his hands over the small fire to warm his fingers.
Cobweb arched a delicately shaped eyebrow. "When you were in that place between human and har, were you thinking about anything other than the pain, and wishing to God it was over?" He pursed his lips; Kelp had the distinct feeling he was trying to keep from making an undignified laugh.
"Good point," Kelp said, his thoughts dour. "Still, given how aggressive they were, if my input has any value, I'd suggest that they not be left completely alone for three days or however long it takes."
"Thistle will go and check up on them, not to worry," Ferngarn said, running his hand tenderly down the side of Kelp's face to rest on the cage of bones above Kelp's heart. "Go get cleaned up. You can borrow some leggings and a tunic from me so you can wash your clothes. I think we're close enough in size."
The rest of the day passed in haste and Kelp gratefully was welcomed back into the tribe. Sanweryn had made a delicious lamb stew which Kelp ate with great zeal. At last it was time to confront his abusers and to give one of them his Wraeththu gift. Only the Warloch accompanied him, but he was mostly silent.
"I know you have questions, wondering why I'm allowing this," he said, his voice low and solid like the standing stones themselves. His viridian markings were muted in the murky dark of this part of the castle ruins where he'd kept the humans, giving them only water and a few strips of dried meat in preparation for their inception. "The reasons are shadowy, even to me, but I had a dream and I trust the vision as my guide."
Kelp nodded; of course he wondered why in Alba they hadn't just maimed the two and left them to die or survive on their own, even though he wasn't nearly as full of bloodlust for vengeance as Blackspur seemed to be. Kelp had more of a forgiving nature, perhaps. He hoped for more information from Cairn, but apparently he'd offered up all he cared to.
There was no noise as they approached what had obviously been a small gaol or keep, even in ancient times.
"Are they dead?" Kelp whispered despite himself.
"No. They're just weakened."
With a wave of his hand, Cairn caused a torch to spring to life with flame. He took it from its sconce on the damp wall, and unbolted an old, rusty latch to open the heavy door. Kelp wasn't ashamed to fall behind; he let Cairn lead into the dank room where his attacker and accomplice were shackled to the wall by their ankles. The one who had knifed Kelp in the gut lay on his side, a skinny arm droped over his head. Ian, the one who'd felt Kelp was sport, was curled against the wall in a seated position, his forehead plastered to his knees. Cairn swept the torch in front of him, moving it closer and closer until the one on his side whimpered, shooing vaguely at it as though to make it go away, like it was part of a dream, or nightmare.
"Him," Kelp said, dropping to his knees. "I want him."
"Up you get," Cairn said authoritatively.
The brown-haired human Kelp had chosen to incept slowly opened his eyes. He seemed resigned, beaten down; the fight had gone out of him. Ian gave them a malevolent glare, and then got swiftly to his feet, his arms crossed defiantly across his chest. The other human pushed himself up from the floor to cower against the wall.
"Kelp and I are here to incept you, to make you one of us," Cairn said as he took a dagger out of its holder on its belt.
"What if we don't want to become freaks like you?" Ian challenged, resolutely looking Cairn in the face and ignoring the knife.
"Becoming Wraeththu is a gift, a tremendous one," Cairn said, and Kelp thought he heard a shadow of entreaty in his tone. The Warloch didn't want to kill them, but that was the only option if they didn't opt to become har. Cairn was struggling with his dream and the reality of how these two had injured someone in his clan. "Either you join us, or I execute you. Your choice."
Ian barked a harsh laugh. "Some choice."
"What do you have to live for, being human?" Kelp asked, honestly perplexed at why, especially given their situations, either of them wasn't jumping at the opportunity to become a part of their group. "Barely living, hiding in an abandoned castle, probably most or all of your friends dead— you should be thanking us. Begging us," Kelp said darkly.
"What are you?" the brown-haired youth asked. "You seem human, sort of. Are you mutants? Do you drink blood? And your bits!" His gaze snaked down to Kelp's groin before returning to his face. "I don't want to die, so do what you have to, but I don't know what the fuck you even are."
"We're har, Sulh to be precise," Cairn answered, twisting the knife slowly in his hand. "It's easier simply to be rather than explain. We were human before we were incepted. And trust me, your new organs will make any sex you had before seem flat and boring." He turned his attentions to Ian. "Hold out your arm, unless you've decided I should kill you instead."
"No." His eyes blazed with lambent hate. Ian jerked up the sleeve on his shirt, revealing a thin arm corded with muscle and a tapestry of tattoos. "Do your worst."
With a steady hand, Cairn cut into his own forearm so that blood welled up, dark and potent. Next he made a deep slice into Ian's arm through some inked words and handed Kelp the knife.
"From stone and blood, walk the path of Wraeththu forever," Cairn intoned, rubbing their wounds together so that his blood would infect him.
Kelp decided it was time for him to do the same. "What's your name?" he asked. "You'll get a new one, after, but what is it now?"
Cautiously, with trembling fingers, David undid the buttons on his tattered coat and wrestled his left arm out of the sleeve. He pushed up the filthy hem of his jumper and put his pale forearm out for Kelp to cut him.
Kelp made a thin cut, deep enough for blood to slide down his arm, and then he cut his own wrist. He'd been scared to death at his inception, but the har had been so hypnotic and beautiful he doubted such thoughts were in David's head. He pressed his wrist to the cut, making small circles to ensure his blood was in the wound. He didn't know how much it took, but after a few seconds he stilled, and repeated what Cairn had said. "From stone and blood, walk the path of Wraeththu forever."
Just then Petrichor arrived in the doorway. Cairn nodded at him as Ian made disgusted noises and wiped his bloody arm on his jeans.
"I'll unlock them and go with you for the first watch," Cairn said, pulling out a rusty key and removing the shackles from around the prisoners' ankles.
"How long does it take?" David asked, panic etched on his features.
"It depends on the person, but usually three to four days," Petrichor answered. "You're going to the woods for your althaia; hara here need to get their sleep."
"What all will happen?" David said, his voice shaky and full of fear.
"You'll find out. Come on."
Kelp was left alone in the dungeon, his thoughts scattered and tossed like autumn leaves on a blustery day. The humans would be har soon, and this had been his first inception. They had wanted to kill him, and Ian was still unrepentant; he'd not apologised for forcing himself on Kelp, or for knifing him.
"He'd better change a lot," Kelp thought bitterly, the magic of inception turning to ash on his tongue. He knew he should be with somehar, to be held and comforted, but his defiant, rebellious streak had been shoved into prominence with Ian's insolence. He made his way to his pallet on the upper level, covered himself with blankets and looked at the stone ceiling as he stewed, waiting angrily for sleep.
* * * * *
Two days later he was going through a caste training exercise with Blackspur when he heard David yelling. He was screaming something about Ian and horses and how he was being turned inside out and the pain and Ian was dead.
"What's he doing here at all?" Blackspur asked, his forehead wrinkling. "His althaia can't be over yet. Where's Petrichor?"
Kelp hurriedly got up from the side of the stream and they ran the short distance over the rise to the outside of the decaying castle. David was in quite a state; his clothes were half torn off, agonies and laments pouring out of him, pulling his hair and groaning things that might have been in English.
"She took him!" he wailed, clutching at his abdomen. "Fucking hell, when does this end?" he moaned.
"She who?" Ferngarn asked, trying to soothe him with a gentle pat to the arm. David, in the painful netherworld between human and har, flinched from his touch.
"A horse! She possessed him! Showed up on the shore when we were alone, and offered to take Ian away, away from you and the horrible pain of turning into whatever this is. He climbed on her back and I begged him not to, but he was mad! She took him into the lake and he never came out. She killed him! Now I'm all alone and my guts are being torn out, so alone, fuck, fuck," he moaned, collapsing into a heap and trying to make himself as small as possible. He sobbed against his knees, groans punctuating the syrupy dirge that rose up from him, a despondency so real that Kelp thought it was draped on him like a heavy cloak.
"Keep an eye on him," Ferngarn muttered as he stalked into the castle. "I'm getting some dramswort. At least he'll sleep."
"Bloody kelpie," Kelp swore. "As soon as he's changed and somehar's taken aruna with him, I think we should get out of here."
"The only reason we're still here is due to him," Blackspur groused. "Well, Ian, too. I say good riddance, given what he did to you."
A few minutes later Ferngarn returned and gave David the draught. Eventually he calmed down enough to be helped to a pallet where he could be monitored. His change was complete by nightfall of the next day. Kelp sat in one of the large rooms where a fire had been lit, studying the map that showed the locations of former human cities that might still have inhabitants. He heard a shuffling noise and saw David in the doorway, looking uncertain but more confident than he ever had since Kelp had laid eyes on him. His transformation was stunning— it was still him, but his features seemed refined, a more feminine beauty revealed so that he glowed with the shifting duality of masculine and feminine, a truly magnificent har.
"Kelp?" he asked, need and confusion warring for dominance in his expression. "I feel like— well, I'm pretty certain I'm not human anymore."
"I can assure you that you're not, and in the best way." David gave him a wide smile. "Was there anyhar with you when you woke up?" Kelp asked, getting up from the makeshift bench.
"No, that's why I'm here. There's this discomfort, though. Some of the new parts to me, they're going crazy," he said, clenching his fists at his side as thought o keep himself from reaching out. "Or I'm going crazy. Crazier."
Kelp cradled his hand on David's jaw, running his thumb on his cheekbone. The luminous creature in front of him didn't at all resemble the half-starved human from the forest, but he still felt that another har in the tribe should take aruna with him. Kelp needed some time to think of him as har only, to let the memory of his attack to fade. David had been only an accomplice, but that didn't mean he wouldn't have tried to kill Kelp if he'd become desperate.
"You need aruna," he said gently. "I suspect it's been decided who you'll be with your first time, but I don't know who it is. Let's go see if Cairn is around, as I'm sure he knows."
"Aruna?" David asked, allowing himself to be guided across the large grass-covered courtyard to a set of stairs that clung to an exposed stone wall.
"Impossible to explain. All hara need it, and you're not completely done with your transformation until you've experienced it. Some is instinct, but you'll also be guided."
Kelp knocked on one of the few remaining wooden doors, pushing it open after Cairn called for them to come in.
"Ah!" he said, his mannerisms revealing his enthusiasm and approval. "So, 'tis done, then."
"Who's to take aruna with him?" Kelp asked, feeling the new har's impatient, growing hunger for something he couldn't define.
"Ferngarn offered. I'd like for them to have your room, as it's relatively cosy. Do you mind sharing with Blackspur for the night?"
"Of course not."
"We'll be leaving in the morning," Cairn said, the decisive words a balm to Kelp's spirit.
"I want to make a monument for Ian," David blurted out. "I know he did awful things, but he was my best friend. I don't want his death to go unmarked."
Cairn gave him a measured gaze, but David continued to look straight at him. "Well, I doubt you'll get much sleep tonight anyway; do it before dawn. Then put your past behind you. Leave it with the memorial."
David nodded, letting out a low sigh. He seemed bereft, but then he gathered himself together, his new harish organs doubtless clamouring to be tended to with an ever more urgent pitch as the minutes went on. Kelp had only passing memories of that time, though he remembered clearly the look of rapture on the Wraeththu's face as Kelp sank down on him, his body greedy for the ouana-lim that had gleamed, copper and garnet.
"Do you know the way to Kelp's room?" Cairn asked, and David nodded. "Go there. Ferngarn will be with you shortly. Welcome," he said more softly, walking over and taking David's face in his hands and sharing breath. David could barely stand when Cairn released him, and he groped at the wall until he could again stand straight. "Welcome, Lochenfex."
Kelp could tell the new har was trying out the name on his tongue, and evidently found it pleasing as a smile bloomed on his lips.
"I'll tell Ferngarn your new name, as well as the rest of the tribe. Right now, go and get comfortable. This will be a memorable night," the Warloch promised.
After Lochenfex left, Cairn looked at Kelp, who fidgeted a bit. "It's okay if you feel uncomfortable in that you no longer harbour resentment toward him," Cairn said. "The other, Ian, I'm of two minds about myself. I thought he was an integral part of our future, and now his half-harish body is part of the spoils of that kelpie. We're far superior to humankind, Kelp, but we're not immortal, and Alba has magic which goes further back than any of us can imagine."
"It can be a wild place," Kelp agreed. "Untamed, breathing secrets with each mist. Will the land reject us?"
After a pause, Cairn shook his head. "No, I don't believe so. We have so much more awareness, more respect— the land hasn't felt that, hasn't been gifted with regular sacrifice in a long, long time." He gave Kelp a kindly smile. "Go enjoy your companion's company. I know Petrichor has some wine; go and ask for his wineskin. I'm sure he won't mind, and you could use it."
Kelp gratefully thanked him, and did just as had been recommended.
They left in the morning after a hearty breakfast of porridge, eggs and cured bacon. Lochenfex ate with gusto, and Kelp wondered if he really had gone over to the forest to make the monument to his former friend. As the new har was shown his horse, his un-ease around the animal vibrated from him with an intensity Kelp found disconcerting. Ferngarn passed by and spoke with him via mind-touch.
He did go. He's leaving everything human behind; I made sure to demonstrate in as many ways as I could how preferable it is to be har. I'm exhausted.
Looking over his shoulder, Kelp caught Ferngarn's attentions, and the elegant har winked at him. A flush crept up Kelp's neck, hidden by his cloak. For having taken aruna all night with a har newly through his althaia, Ferngarn looked as dashing as ever.
"You've never ridden a horse?" Petrichor asked Lochenfex, who violently shook his head. He did seem momentarily captivated by the silver and green colours that striped through Petrichor's black hair. Even Kelp had no idea how he'd done that, but Petrichor had been pretty young when incepted and may have dyed his hair as human. "I'll tie your horse to mine. At least on this first day, you'll ride with me."
"Thank you," Lochenfex said, his relief stamped on his comely features.
Ready to go even further away from home? Blackspur asked Kelp via mind-touch, canting his horse closer to him.
Wherever our clan is, that's home.
* * * * *
They rode for two days, skirting a large forest. On the third day, Cairn led them into the woods.
"I can sense other Wraeththu," Kelp said, "but they seem different somehow."
"That's awfully vague," Blackspur commented.
A set of rope ladders dropped suddenly from a few trees near them.
"Halt!" Cairn yelled. He stopped his horse, and the rest of the clan pulled rank behind him. "We are Sulh," he said, his blue markings shining in the sun that dappled the ground. "Who are you?"
"Other Sulh. Wraeththu. Welcome."
Despite himself, Kelp let out a deep sigh.
A har in drifting robes coloured brown and sienna to blend in with the trees walked around the nearest tree to reveal his presence. "We live in the trees," he said as others appeared out of the shadows. "You're welcome to visit our homes. We call them Telani."
Kelp gave Blackspur a rogue smile. Told you they're a bit different.
After they all dismounted, Cairn went up the closest ladder once the har gestured to it, and one by one, the others followed. Kelp found himself on a large, flat board, sheltered by a tarp decorated in muted colours with patterns of a heritage which seemed familiar. They were a shadowy ancient force to which he was still an inheritor, despite his departure from humanity. Other platforms led up and out with similarly decorated canvas walls which seemed to denote homes for individual hara. Like Kelp's own adopted tribe, there didn't appear to be all that many of them, and a few gathered to gaze curiously at their new visitors. One appeared to be quite young, almost a feral child with wide, brown eyes; luminous in them was the same kind of quixotic defiance he'd seen in Cobweb. Kelp's affections were ensnared.
Lochenfex, still so new to his own harish sensibilities, looked stunned. "Why on earth do you live up here?"
"Lochenfex is our most recent har, incepted only days ago. He means no disrespect," Cairn rumbled with a gesture of peace.
"None taken," the first har said, amusement in his voice. "You had no idea that we were here, nor that we were drawn here individually by the trees themselves. From your surprise, I gather you don't share that same closeness— don't you hear their murmurings? I assumed you did and that was why you entered our realm."
Kelp looked around at his kindred; like himself, they were all shaking their heads.
"Our sacrifice and union is with the standing stones, further north," Petrichor explained. "It may be that there are stones further south as well that we'll have communion with."
"Stones?" the doe-eyed creature exclaimed, wrinkling his forehead. "Why would you talk to them?"
"Because they talked to us first," Cobweb said, an edge to his voice.
"Well, we're all Sulh, and you're here, so I think that calls for a celebration," a different har of the telani said, his hand on a tree trunk and another on his hip in a saucy gesture. "I'm Arbor, by the way."
"A party sounds great!" Petrichor enthused.
Arbor turned a knowing eye on him and winked. A list of names followed as the hara of the trees introduced themselves. The boy-har was Hunt, the one they'd first met, Leegan. Valecho and Perifen next bowed their heads.
"Others are further up the telani, but we needed to make sure you were friends, not foe," Leegan explained. "Each har here will pick one or two of you and guide you to a home where you can stay for a time." He gave a beaming smile, which accentuated his beauty, stronger and piney, less like the willowy Cobweb.
"Come with me," Arbor said to Petrichor, reaching out his hand.
Cairn let out a resigned sigh. "Wonderful. He's found a kindred spirit." Petrichor bounded up the stairs in Arbor's wake as Cairn spoke to Leegan about their horses.
"There's a glade not far from here, but we don't have stables," Leegan said. "We could help you build a temporary shelter for them."
Cairn thanked him as Valecho motioned to Kelp. He was still captivated by Hunt, and a bit disappointed that he'd not selected him, but Valecho seemed nice enough. There would be the festivities later; perhaps he'd be able to spend some one on one time with the tantalysing har who'd captured his attention.
* * * * *
"You seem awfully young," Kelp said to Hunt after a few days. He'd had to muster his courage to ask, but the curiosity was burning him with an unquenchable fire from the inside out. The two of them had gone out on horseback to a favourite stream of Hunt's; Kelp had invited him out and had been surprised to discover that Hunt loved horses and was quite the equestrian.
Hunt gave him a hard look, resembling a puffed up small bird defending its territory.
"Sorry for asking," Kelp said, backpedaling immediately and focussing his attentions on his bare feet in the water.
Thick silence continued on for a time, broken only by the rustling sounds of their horses walking on the undergrowth. Eventually Hunt let out a sigh and Kelp turned to look at him. "I'm ageless now, or close enough," he said, leaning forward to wave his delicate fingers in the clear stream. "Yeah, I was barely fourteen. But I wanted it," he said fiercely, tilting his head to glare at Kelp.
Kelp felt the need to share some of his initial tremblings of excitement and desire. "I wanted it, too," he said fervently, pulling his knees up to his chin. "I was scared to death, though. Blackspur and I were singled out, somehow, isolated, and teeth chattering, but this being was beyond us. He seemed to glow with a terrible beauty, and we couldn't get away, so I focussed on hoping with everything I had that I'd end up being something like him."
Hunt's expression softened, and he changed position, one leg bent on the ground and the other pulled to his narrow ribcage.
"What was your first aruna like?" he asked, his brown doe-eyes shining with presumed remembrance. "I'll never forget mine. The part before was pretty awful, but the one who incepted me was unforgettable. He was—" he paused, a lascivious smile sneaking onto his youthful features, "like an unbelievably sexy angel. Without wings."
Kelp raised an eyebrow, smiling crookedly. "Mine was memorable. He wasn't gentle, but he was definitely passionate." Feeling brazen, he reached out and feathered his fingers over Hunt's thin calf, covered in the woven leggings the tree-hara wore under their robes. "I bet you are, too."
Hunt looked at him, eyes fringed with long lashes which only made him an even more irresistible ingénue. His gaze smouldered and he let his other leg drop to the ground.
"Oh, I am."
Everything about Hunt now vibrated with sensuality. He eased up onto his hands and knees, prowling the short distance to crawl into Kelp's lap. Kelp's heart thundered in his ribs as Hunt cradled his hands around Kelp's jaw. In a light voice that sent lust sizzling to Kelp's groin, Hunt whispered against his lips, "And I'm ouana."
A whimper escaped Kelp's mouth at the thought of drawing this wanton, bold creature into his body. "Yes," he moaned as they kissed, their tongues spearing and dancing as they began to share breath.
Kelp inhaled the current of images: windswept hills and deep grasses to hide and take self-pleasure, the lilac scent of freedom, and verdant, leafy passion Hunt felt for Kelp in this moment, sheltered by his beloved trees. Greedily Kelp feasted on Hunt's mouth, arching into his slender, deft touch, stoking his own arunic fire. As he was laid to the soft pine forest floor, he broke from the kiss, admiring how dilated Hunt's eyes had become, the pupils barely ringed with brown.
"Horse blanket, to lie on?" he suggested, canting his hips against Hunt's surprisingly prominent erection.
"I'll get it."
Hunt pressed a searing kiss to Kelp's mouth before pushing up from the ground. Moments later they were both undressed, Kelp feeling rather dazed at the speed of how things were progressing. He couldn't keep his hands off of the beautiful har, his pale skin and slender, nearly childlike body with an inspiring ouana-lim, fully flowered and pulsing with dark aqua and pine. Hunt experimentally snaked his hand between them to comb through the curls between Kelp's legs before sliding to the slick skin of his soume-lam.
"I've wanted you since you arrived," Hunt whispered as he replaced his fingers with the crown of his erect stem. "I'm no child."
He thrust into Kelp, who let out a cry of pleasure, hooking his feet over the narrow plane of Hunt's back. He threw his arms back beside his head and Hunt held them, fingers intertwined, kissing, gnawing at Kelp's neck before returning to his mouth to share breath. He was untamed and predatory, making feral growls as he sank into Kelp over and over, kissing him deeply until Kelp thought he'd become an animal himself. Kelp struggled, but managed to wrest some control in their frenzied aruna. He clenched his inner muscles, wrenching a hedonistic groan from Hunt's throat.
"You're passionate all right," Kelp rasped, loosing his fingers so he could run his hands down the papery skin of Hunt's back, "but I don't want this over so quickly. Let me guide us, build up the ecstasy."
Hunt's face, rosy with exertion, took on an expression of hurt. "Weren't you enjoying it?"
"Yes, yes," Kelp murmured, squeezing his soume-lam for emphasis and causing Hunt's wide eyes to flutter closed. "So much so I want even more," he breathed hotly into his lover's ear. "Go deep and slow."
With more measured rocking motions, Hunt began thrusting again. Kelp focussed his energies in his soume-lam, clenching around Hunt's length and visualizing viridian heat glowing between them, bathing them with emeraldine radiance. He sensed Hunt's temporary resistance fall away as he surrendered to the forceful pulse of Kelp's arunic energy. The light around them danced and grew in intensity; the tension of impending release sparked and pulled them with relentless strength.
"Kelp!" Hunt gasped before letting out a wounded cry.
The tongue flicked out, a velvet firebolt to strike at Kelp's core. Kelp was beyond speech or sound; he held onto Hunt's delicate frame, shuddering and delirious as their release thundered through them. Over time, Kelp's heart slowed to its usual comfortable beat; the shimmering auroras of their aruna faded and Hunt sighed, collapsing against Kelp's chest.
The silence felt sacred, so Kelp remained quiet for a few moments. Hunt eventually uncoupled them but didn't roll off. Instead, he tenderly drew a symbol Kelp didn't recognize in the middle of his sweaty forehead, and then murmured against his lips what sounded like a prayer in a language Kelp didn't understand. He gave Kelp an unhurried, intimate smile that filled him with an unexpected melancholy.
"What did you just say to me?" he asked, feeling his ouana-lim ease back out of its cavity.
Hunt scooted over to lie at Kelp's side, draping a thin arm over Kelp's ribs. "Words of thanks," he said, nuzzling his nose against Kelp's. "My dehar taught them to me."
The word, like the drawings on the telani roofs, rang in him like a clear bell tone, but he didn't have an understanding he could articulate.
Hunt's fingers splayed across Kelp's back, a warm starfish against his skin. "A dehar is a deity of sorts. I think there are a few primary ones that only the elder knows of, but since I was incepted, I've had one of my own. His name is Gwynswyth, and he shows up in dreams, or on occasion when Leegan gets on me to do some meditations. He's from the heath and I feel his presence when I take aruna. He likes to be thanked."
Kelp's heart seemed to stumble in its beat; bereft feelings settled in his chest like thick fog. He didn't have a dehar— wasn't he an advanced enough har for that? He and Blackspur both had been diligent and dedicated in their caste work, and just now he'd been the one to serve as instructor of sorts to show Hunt how multi-faceted aruna could be, incorporating spirit and energy beyond just the physical pleasures. Evidently his consternation showed on his face, because Hunt's brows furrowed, concern etched in his expression.
"What did I say that made you look so troubled?" he asked, sounding far older than his years, though Kelp acknowledged he needed to stop thinking of Hunt as young. They were har, now; age at inception was irrelevant.
"I don't have a dehar," Kelp said, knowing he sounded petulant. "I don't know why not. It sounds like a marvelous thing to have, like a best friend, and guardian, all wrapped up in one."
Hunt gave him a sympathetic smile. "Nohar else in our clan seems to have one. I don't know why I do, to be honest. Don't feel badly. Leegan said he's going to be instructing us about the Wraeththu deities who've come into being, and then we'll all be able to call on them, or make altars, or something."
Kelp knew Hunt was placating him, and it was working, a little bit. He pulled Hunt flush to his body, relishing the feel of his soft skin. "Do you have any other secrets?" he asked, running one hand down to the small swell of Hunt's backside. "When I first met you, you reminded me of Cobweb, who has a lot of magic in him, a lot of foresight and insight."
He possessively cupped Hunt's arse, though he wasn't fully recovered from their aruna and wasn't ready for another round. Hunt wriggled suggestively against him to play along, but then stilled and drew back so he could look Kelp in the eye.
"Leegan says I do, but I'm not sure in what way." He shrugged and placed a gentle chaste kiss on Kelp's lips. "Maybe I'll spend some time with your warloch. He seems to have a lot of knowledge; maybe he can guide me even though I'm not in your clan and I've not had an experience with stones as you all seem to."
"It was pretty unreal," Kelp admitted, moving his hand to twirl some of Hunt's wavy hair around his finger. "If there are more standing stones to the south, we'll sacrifice to them as well. I wonder if we'll have incepted more hara by then," he mused, feeling Hunt stiffen imperceptibly.
"I don't want you all to go," Hunt said into the side of Kelp's neck. "You just got here! We all get along, and have so much to teach each other." He wrapped his leg around the outside of Kelp's thigh as though trying to burrow into Kelp's body.
"I don't think we're going anytime soon," Kelp said, planting a swath of light kisses on Hunt's forehead. "But I could move into your telan if you wanted; I don't think Valecho will care if I move out. We've become friends, but I think he likes his space."
Hunt looked at him with his wide doe-eyes in his elfin face and slowly nodded. "I like my space too, but there's something about you " His voice faded. "What about Blackspur? Aren't you two together?"
Kelp thought about it. Certainly at first they'd clung to each other, but since joining Cairn and his tribe of Sulh, they'd become more independent, though of course they had shared history. "We have a bond of sorts," he said, shifting on his side to get more comfortable given the uneven ground beneath the horse blanket. "Mostly history. He'll always be a close friend, but we're not exclusive. No hara are, that's part of the deal, as I understand it. We all need aruna, and we shouldn't get jealous or worry about being exclusive. Those are human ways of thinking."
Hunt made a discontented noise. "I know. But we all started out human, didn't we?"
Kelp couldn't think of an answer to that truism, so he remained silent for a time. Despite Hunt's being draped on him, Kelp realised he was getting cold. "We did, but we're beyond that now. Come on, let's get dressed and go back. Taking aruna with you, getting to know you better, it's been amazing," he murmured into the delicate shell of Hunt's ear. "Let's not get bogged down. If you'll let me, I'll share your telan and we can see how things go."
He roused himself from Hunt's grasp and they got dressed in a companionable silence. Once back on their horses and about halfway to the tree-lodgings, Hunt blurted out, "I don't want to share you. I want to get to know you from the inside out, all of it, even the parts you want to hide. I don't even really know why," he spluttered, "but I do. I've rooned a lot, and really liked it, but then you showed up and it's like I've become obsessed."
Kelp felt a flush rise along his neck to his face. Nobody had ever said anything like that about him; not when he was human, and not since he'd become har. "I'm flattered," he said, turning to look at Hunt, now seeing him through different eyes thanks to Hunt's admissions. "You stood out to me from the first time I saw you, you just seemed distant at first. And so young. Now I know better," he went on hurriedly. "This is new to me, though, you should know that. When I was human " his voice faltered, but the solidifying motion of the horse underneath him spurned him on. "I liked men, even back then. It was just sex, though. No relationships, just fucking. I loved it. Then the plagues came, and then the Wraeththu, and it was just the two of us, Blackspur and me. I'm not exactly an expert on anything to do with relationships," he said, laughing weakly.
Hunt's gaze was challenging, yet full of entreaty. "Neither am I. We'll go down this road together." His words and tone were decisive, and Kelp found he'd leaned toward his companion even as he'd spoken aloud.
When they got back to the makeshift stables, they both brushed down their horses and made sure they were watered and fed. Kelp went first up the primary rope to the telani, heading straight for the room he'd been sharing with Valecho. He was there, repairing a hole that had appeared in his woolen leggings. He peered keenly at Kelp, who felt the other har could see into him. He was almost unsurprised when at last Velacho stated, "You're moving to another telan."
Kelp shrugged his apology. "I'm going to move in with Hunt, if you don't mind."
Valecho's mouth quirked to the side. "No, I don't mind. You don't know how long you're staying, do you?"
Kelp knelt down, starting to refold his small pile of clothing. "No. I have no idea how anxious Cairn is to continue heading south, but I think he's intrigued by you all and wants to spend some time sharing knowledge with your warloch. It could be through winter, or maybe much less time."
Valecho paused in his mending. "Leegan isn't a warloch, or at least we don't call him that. He's a phylarch. And he is quite knowledgeable, so I can see why your clan leader would want to stay."
Defensiveness uncoiled in Kelp's chest like a snake. "No doubt Leegan knows he can learn a lot from Cairn as well. We don't have your ability to commune with the trees, but we do possess skills your tribe might well find useful, and advanced." His words tasted bitter on his tongue, and he regretted how they sounded as soon as he'd uttered them. "I'm sorry," Kelp apologised, sitting back on his feels, a pair of woolen socks in his hands. "I just sounded like a real pompous idiot."
A warm smile crept onto Valecho's lips. "It's okay. We're all pretty new to this, you know? We're not better than you, you're not better than us. We're all Sulh, and Hunt is a lucky har to have snagged you. Come here and share breath and we'll call it even."
Kelp never tired of sharing breath with anyhar. He was continually dazzled at how kissing was utterly transformed to an intimate exchange of images and heat, even as lips suckled and nipped and tongues delved into warm caverns of hungry mouths. Kelp saw mists on a lake, felt heady with the approach of sunrise and a low thrum of desire; passion carried on the wind. When they drew apart, Kelp looked quizzically at Valecho. His colouring was like most Sulh: pale skin and dark hair, though he had light, mysterious eyes, almost stormy, which seemed to change with his moods. Now they were a misty grey, verging on lilac. But Kelp had no sense that he wanted to roon; he'd really just wanted to share breath.
"I wouldn't say no to aruna with you," Valecho said brashly, having obviously heard Kelp's thoughts loud and clear. "But I can tell you're not interested. It's fine— I've noticed Sanweryn giving me a look or two. You get your stuff together and I can help you up to Hunt's telan. He's always chosen to be a bit apart, maybe because he was so young when he was incepted. "
Kelp gratefully accepted Valecho's assistance, debating whether or not to plumb him for more information about the wild youngling with whom he'd become smitten. Perhaps it would be best just to spend time with him. All at once Kelp was terribly nervous; Blackspur was the only har who really knew him well. What was he doing, suddenly moving in with a har he'd only just met, and outside of his own clan? He tried to quiet his mind, resolving to trust his instincts. When he saw Hunt's beaming expression greeting him at the entrance to his home, Kelp's fears dissipated like fog burning away with morning sun.
* * * * *
Cairn's clan stayed through the winter, much to Kelp's surprise— and great pleasure. The tree-hara and those from further north became well acquainted through the months with only a few minor disagreements and skirmishes. Certainly nothing like what had happened at the lake with the kelpie occurred, only some differences of opinion and one or two fights to do with defensive loyalty that were sparked by hara who'd had a tremendous amount to drink. Kelp had endured growing resentment from Blackspur about his rather spontaneous move into Hunt's telan until at last he'd confronted him about it. They cleared the air during a long and teary conversation; the tears came from anger and eventually from contrition, not sadness. In the end, Kelp had felt that their close friendship could be healed with time. He had desperately hoped so after the conversation, as he'd headed back to the home he shared with Hunt up near the top edge of the telani, nursing a bruised heart.
Kelp had opened the flap, appreciating the warmth from a small brazier that stood across the room.
"Hunt?" he'd said, brows furrowed when he didn't sense his lover's presence. Now his feelings were hurt in addition to the emotional wringing he'd been through. Hunt knew exactly where Kelp had gone, supporting him through his own fear that Kelp's longtime companion would try and snag him back for himself, despite all of Kelp's reassurances to the contrary. Sighing, Kelp had pulled off his woolen robe and sank into a bowl-like wooden chair Hunt had carved. It was surprisingly comfortable. He'd kicked off his moccasins and had half a glass of wine when he saw the decorated canvas of their door flap fling wide as Hunt flew in, rushing straight to Kelp's side.
"I'm so sorry," he'd exclaimed, taking Kelp's hand and kissing the palm. "I wanted to be here when you got back, but Lochenfex dawdled the whole way from the sacred grove. After a month you'd think he'd have gotten used to the energy of the trees, but no." He sounded disgusted; Kelp knew their newest har wasn't Hunt's favourite to be around, but Cairn had insisted he share some of his knowledge to assist him in his caste training.
"It's okay. You're here now." Kelp pressed his palm to Hunt's deceptively fragile features. "And things went all right. Brutally honest and painful, but I think eventually he'll come around."
Loving concern emanated from Hunt like glowing embers. "As long as you're not broken, only bruised," he said gently. "I'm so glad you're back. I worried."
"I knew you would. Thank you for caring so much about how I feel."
Some of the weight of his conversation was already lifting from him; Kelp suspected that Hunt was discreetly using some of his healing abilities to comfort Kelp's agitation of spirit.
"Caring for you is like breathing," Hunt said before screwing up his face in a fleeting grimace. "You've turned me into a bloody romantic."
"It wasn't intentional!" Kelp said forcefully, though he knew Hunt was trying to be light-hearted and cheer him up.
Since then they'd grown ever closer, in ways both similar and wholly different from the intimacies he'd known with Blackspur. There was desperation at first, borne of a fear that Kelp and his kinshar would leave at any time. That faded once Cairn held a meeting as they approached the equinox and stated that they would remain at least until winter released its hold on the land. Kelp and Blackspur had also been desperate at first; its source, however, had come from the fear of isolation and the anxiety of their tenuous survival.
Hunt's passion hadn't diminished since their first aruna, though as time went on, they engaged in it with more intent, taking time to learn the deeper fires to be set aflame in stimulating sensitive pleasure points they'd discovered could be aroused in their soume-lams. So much energy could be generated when they were together, like the sun rising on a summer morning. It bloomed when they invoked the presence of Hunt's dehar, or consciously brought their harish powers above and beyond just the physical.
Kelp realised that while exclusivity wasn't a part of being Wraeththu, perhaps despite himself he was growing to see Hunt as a lifetime partner. This worried him in some ways, especially since while they were both Sulh, they were in different tribes, and one day Kelp's group would move on. One day when Hunt was out with Arbor and Leegan searching for wild game, Kelp found himself seeking out Cobweb, of all hara, for advice. Cobweb was in the communal kitchen, kneading a large lump of dough to make the week's bread supply. Kelp stumbled through the words of his fears, grateful that his kinshar didn't immediately ridicule or chastise him.
"Have you told Hunt any of this?" he asked, still elegant even with flour on his hands and smock, his tendons standing out as he kneaded the wheat dough.
"Not really," Kelp admitted, chewing on a piece of dried meat. "But we open our minds so much during aruna, I feel he must have a sense of it."
"Doubtless he does," Cobweb affirmed. "Wraeththu, like humans, will probably develop strong partner bonds, sealed by ceremony, or maybe even blood ritual. You could be blazing a new trail," he said, looking coyly at Kelp through the fringe of his long black lashes.
"Yes, but we'll move on," Kelp said, hearing the urgency in his own voice. "I don't know that I want to stay, but what if Hunt doesn't want to go?"
"Well, you'd have to do some deep searching within yourself," Cobweb said slowly. "And Hunt as well. But I think you're underestimating each other. I've kept an eye on you both since you chose to live with him. Maybe you should go to the grove and meditate on it. But then talk to each other," he murmured, using his elbow to nudge some hair out of his eyes.
Kelp nodded, feeling far more hopeful than he had when he'd left their telan, though his thoughts continued to churn like the frigid seas he'd left behind.
"Just borrow my cape and go on," Cobweb said, inclining his head toward the far side of the room. "And don't forget to bring it back. I'm quite partial to it."
"Of course. Thanks."
Kelp was surprised at how warm the cape was, given how light the fabric seemed. There was a pair of leather gloves in the exterior pockets, supple and luxurious. He flexed his fingers, enjoying seeing how his hands looked in their borrowed black casings.
I should find out if he made these, or if they're from when Cobweb was human, he thought as he rode to the sacred grove, his breath and that of his horse coming out in misty huffs. Once there, he built a small fire, berating himself for not having thought to bring a sprig of dried sage to help purify his thoughts. As he quieted his mind and offered up a petition for clarity to Lunil, the dehar of the Moon who represented love and spirituality, he found that an image of Gwynswyth, Hunt's dehar, appeared in his mind's eye instead, surrounded by a luminous mist. The dehar didn't say anything, but Kelp felt awash in waves of welcome and invitation. He remained in the dehar's presence for a time, basking in the gift of his calm and affection. When Gwynswyth began to fade, Kelp made the dehar's symbol over his heart. It was, of course, familiar to him now. He came out of his mindful state renewed, his hopes soaring as he found his horse, which had wandered off, and rode back to the tree-hara.
That evening after supper, once Kelp and Hunt had returned to their home, Hunt gave him a look of intrigue. "You've been up to something," he observed, lying down on their bed and pulling Kelp down to him.
Kelp nodded his affirmation and leaned in to kiss Hunt deeply, his tongue delving hungrily into Hunt's mouth before the kiss transformed into a sharing of breath. Kelp sent over the images from his meditation, including that of the visit from Hunt's dehar. When at last they broke apart, Hunt looked dazedly at him, his brown eyes filled with wonderment.
"I actually got Cobweb's advice," Kelp said in a low voice, his heart beating a fast tattoo in his chest as he brought up the topic that filled him with both anticipation and apprehension.
"Advice? For?" Hunt asked, his light baritone huskier than usual.
"I want us to be bonded," Kelp said rather spontaneously. "We'll go sometime in spring, but I don't want to leave you. But the call of the stones and my kinshar is so strong," he lamented, a hand rubbing Hunt's back. "Would you go with us?"
To Kelp's surprise, Hunt gazed back steadily at him; he'd obviously been pondering that situation already.
"I care about you so much," he said, weaving his fingers into Kelp's hair and beginning to rub his scalp, an intimate act that Kelp loved nearly as much as taking aruna. "But I don't know that I can leave. I would be bound to you in a heartbeat— and we could visit each other. That would be hard on us both, though."
He paused to kiss Kelp before a it eased into a tender sharing of breath that caused tears to prick behind Kelp's eyelids and his ouana-lim to stir slightly.
"I've talked with Leegan about it a couple of times, and he said to heed the messages in my dreams, and also my heart," Hunt went on softly.
"What do they say?"
Kelp worried his lower lip until he realised he was doing so. He was regressing to his human habits in the face of losing or gaining what he considered to be a part of himself.
Hunt's face was a mask of regret. "I wish I knew. They're conflicted. I can't bear to leave you. We haven't been together long, but already I know without you, I'd feel as though part of me had been amputated."
"Then come with me! Say you will," Kelp begged. "Even your dehar visited me. He was so reassuring. It must have been a message for you, too," he said, planting dry kisses all along the refined architecture of Hunt's jaw.
"I can't assume that!" Hunt choked out. "This is so hard, Kelp. You're not leaving tomorrow; please don't try and force an answer one way or another from me right now. Either just hold me, or go away for a while. Maybe some time apart would give us both some clarity."
The words weren't said in anger or hurt, but Kelp felt a rush of panic and helplessness. It was like being held captive again, his world clothed in the mantle of a graveyard.
"Why is this so hard?" he croaked. "I'd give anything—"
"Kelp. Stop it."
Hunt's eyes were red, but his voice was steady. "Go to Blackspur or Ferngarn for the night. I need some time alone. If you would give me anything, then give me the solitude to think."
He kissed Kelp on the cheek and then drew back from him on the bed, removing his arm from Kelp's back to hold it curled up against his own chest. In silence Kelp got up from their bed, his limbs moving through the necessary motions to put on his cloak. After picking up a scarf and gloves, he exited their room without a backward glance. He headed for Ferngarn's telan, near the bottom of the path of homes and platform steps, off to the side a bit as it had been built new for him since their clan had arrived. Numbly Kelp sent out an energy feeler of sorts to find out whether or not his kinshar was there.
Kelp? Ferngarn said via mind-touch, his inner voice full of concern. Come in, please. What's wrong?
Kelp hung his head as he paused at the heavy canvas flap, sensing the heat and invitation from within. He was desperate to let out his anger and fear; a ride was what he needed, a long, hard gallop once out of the forest to exhaust both his horse and himself. He heard a rustling behind the door and wondered if Ferngarn had tied a knot in the bindings that held it shut. With a snap like a sail caught by the wind, Ferngarn whipped open his door, standing in the dim light and dressed for a nighttime ride. His platinum hair gleamed even though the dense growth above them kept out most moonlight; not only that, but the night was cloudy.
"I'm going with you," he said simply, clapping a hand to Kelp's shoulder before kneading it with his strong fingers. I can tell you're troubled, but you don't want to talk. That's fine. Should you change your mind, I'll be there at your side.
Nodding, Kelp looked into Ferngarn's eyes, grateful for the wisdom and kindness he saw there. It didn't stop him from being pissed off in general, though, so he turned and led the way to the woven ladder en route to the ground and the stables. They readied their horses and took a path not often used in recent weeks, the one which led out of the vast woods and to the valley beyond, the plains whence Cairn and his tribe had been travelling south a few months prior.
The night was shrouded in mystery; cold with dense shapes of mist wandering across the scrub. Heavy clouds resolutely hid the stars and moon, dampening all sources of light except those that played tricks on Kelp's eyes as he peered through the deceptive, shifting fog. As the woods began to thin, Kelp felt gooseflesh rise on his skin and the hairs on his neck prickled. He glanced over at Ferngarn and saw wariness in his grey eyes.
There's something — someone — out beyond the forest, Ferngarn said, confirming Kelp's suspicions.
They stopped, each straining to listen for any sounds they could recognise that would help them figure out who was encroaching on their woods. It was the scent which caught Kelp's attentions first: smoke. Seconds later, the focussed hatred and terror of a group of humans hurtled at him like a crashing wave. They didn't know what was in the forest, but they thought it was evil and should be burned to the ground.
"They're burning the woods!" Kelp yelled, fearful wrath scalding his throat like bile.
"I'll alert Cairn," Ferngarn said with deadly calm. "I think we'll need to use the fruits of your Grissecon to battle both fire and humans."
Kelp's stomach flipped as they urged their horses around and began as fast a gallop as they could back into the dense forest. Things had been so peaceful, he'd forgotten about the mysterious commingling of his seed with Petrichor's and what power it could unleash. Frankly, he didn't even know who had the phial; Cairn, probably, or Cobweb. He was newly thankful that Cairn and Leegan could work together to combat this unexpected assault on their home.
The ominous crackling of a widespread fire haunted him as they rode quickly back to the telani where he knew all the hara by now would be up and alert, awaiting any possible orders from their Warloch and Phylarch, respectively. They rode straight there, not bothering to stable their horses in case they would turn back around to go meet their attackers. Cairn must have heard Kelp's stampeding thoughts, because as he and Ferngarn slowed to a halt at the base of the largest tree, the Warloch shook his head.
"We'll engage our part of the battle from here," he said as Kelp threw his leg over and jumped down to dismount, his heart racing. "Cobweb, I need you to lead the chant, but get the phial from the Grissecon. You know where it is. Petrichor and Arbor, raise a brazier over there in that clearing. Put cedar chips and holly on top of embers out of my hearth. Get a small shovel to carry them. Hunt, you're good with fire; get one going in the brazier as soon as the supports are set in the ground. Time is not on our side."
Everyhar did as they were told. Those not given direct instruction stood out of the way, talking in hushed voices in groups of two or three. Soon the brazier was lit, the symbolic sacrificial greenery tossed on after the shovelful of whatever meaningful wood burned in Cairn's fireplace. Without being told, Kelp knew to join in the circle that formed organically around the crackling fire and the leaders of the ceremony, Cairn and Leegan. Cobweb's flutey voice began the chant, raising up into the high bower above them like potent incense. One by one the other hara joined in, Kelp reaching out to hold Hunt's hand as he added his voice to the growing chorus. Cairn and Leegan had their hands outstretched toward one another, the opalescent fluid now in an egg-shaped glass suspended in air, haloed in shimmering light which poured from the clan leaders' hands. Kelp felt he was one cell in a larger organism; one pebble on a stretch of beach.
Their voices rose as the colours of the Grissecon offering glowed blazingly white and then transformed to a velvety cerulean, the very essence of deep lake water. Up and out it gushed, an airborne, roiling, determined wave that flowed with intent toward the encroaching fire. Kelp wanted to laugh and cry with amazement; he could feel the strength in their combined power and intent. He knew not only would the waters quench the malevolent forest fire, but also the qualities infused in the water would rust the weapons of the humans who stood in wait, planning to enter as soon as they could bear the heat and kill any survivors.
An anguished cry tore his attentions away from the euphoria he could tell each har was also experiencing. Lochenfex had fallen backwards into an awkward heap and lay, trembling, his limbs jerking at odd angles as though he were a marionette being toyed with by a mad puppeteer. Thistle dropped to his knees beside him, his narrow hands hovering over the twitching har as he made soothing sounds. His dark brows furrowed while he evaluated what had happened to their newest kinshar who suddenly became motionless, only the fast rise and fall of his chest revealing the life still within him. Cairn and Leegan leaned upon each other, both looking drained and haggard from their outpouring of focussed energy.
"It was too much for him," Thistle bit out, trying to smooth Lochenfex's sweaty hair from his forehead. "He hadn't advanced enough in his caste training for something that intense."
All at once Kelp could tell that some kind of bond existed between them and he went to squeeze Hunt's hand for reassurance— but Hunt had moved away, his face inscrutable. He stood near Cobweb, who still harboured an inner radiance from the power of their chanting. The rapture that had swelled in Kelp drew away from him, a wave sinking back to be absorbed by the ocean.
"I'll go make sure the humans aren't going to give us any trouble," he said, trying to control the bewildering gyrations of his feelings. Not knowing Hunt's thoughts made Kelp feel as though there was nothing solid beneath his feet, it was all shifting sand.
"You're not going alone," Valecho declared, looking squarely at him, but pausing before he approached.
Kelp was certain that there were several conversations racing via mind-touch, but he was too out of sorts even to try and intercept any of them.
"You're not going at all," Cairn said sternly, though Kelp could see the compassion in his expression. "You're needed here to help Lochenfex onto a stretcher and raise up him to the telani. Petrichor, you and Perifen go and make a sweep of the area at the edge of the forest. If you feel you need to keep watch, do so and send word."
He straightened up and began speaking to Leegan in low tones that nohar else could hear. Kelp was momentarily insulted; flashes of anger bursting in him like small explosions, when he caught himself playing with the amulet Petrichor had given him in his first days with the tribe. Its smooth cabochon surface soothed him, and he allowed himself to be swept up into the flurry of concentrated activity and engineering involved to get Lochenfex safely lifted up to the tree-dwellings. There the most skilled healer from each clan would work together hopefully to find a way for the poor har's full recovery.
Lochenfex looked terrible; ashen skin, his breath coming in short gasps; otherwise he was as still as a piece of dusty marble lying on the ground. Thistle continued to try and comfort him, his long legs folded up underneath him as he laid his hands on Lochenfex's chest, almost oblivious to the whirlwind of activity in which Kelp found himself. He made himself useful by assisting in hoisting Lochenfex up to the main floor of the bottom telan. Soon he was no longer needed, and out of habit his feet took him up to the room he shared with Hunt. It was cold and dark; he couldn't bear it. They were on the threshold of a lifetime together, or, unbelievably, a last period of daily, beloved companionship before this was only another current flowing away in the rushing waters of his life.
Kelp resolved to get roaring drunk; Arbor would have plenty of the strong liquor they distilled, and he was understanding without having a history with Kelp, so he was objective. In a fit of romanticism, he took off the silver chain and amulet which he always wore and placed it on Hunt's pillow. If he returned and put it on, it would mean that Hunt had decided to bind himself to Kelp. If he returned it, Kelp could count on moving on with his kinshar, on his own. With a last, hasty plea to Gwynswyth to beg Hunt's dehar for a positive outcome, he left the room and plodded down the winding steps to Arbor and drunken solace.
* * * * *
Days and then weeks went by; Lochenfex remained in a coma-like state for nearly a week, Thistle keeping vigil at his side while the two healers did what they could. Cobweb suggested a ritual of rebirth, vague in his perception of what it should entail, but the ceremony was heartily endorsed by Cairn and Ferngarn. They made a paste of holly berries and acorns, applying it to Lochenfex's palms and the soles of his feet while Leegan performed other rituals over him. The three hara had done this behind the knotted flap to the telan where Lochenfex was being cared for, so Kelp hadn't been entirely sure what all had transpired. Their potent combination of knowledge and harish energy manipulation achieved the desired end; Lochenfex came to, and though he was weak in body and spirit for several days, Thistle cared for him and he was able at last to rejoin the community. Caste studies were pursued in earnest for those newest to Wraeththudom, including Lochenfex, Blackspur and Kelp. Arbor and Perifen also engaged in studies and energy work; amongst the Acanthalids there was also the occasional taking of aruna to garner power and strength from the experience— as well as pleasure and companionship.
The community as a whole engaged in its own winter routines, but each har also developed his own responsibilities and pursuits to fill the short days and long nights. Some wrote, others read; cooking, baking, hunting and water retrieving chores were rotated in sets of twos and threes, allowing their small populace to function as a mostly harmonious whole. Eventually the days grew longer and each day, Kelp looked to Hunt's throat to see whether or not he was wearing the amulet he'd offered. Hunt's neck remained bare, but neither had he returned it. Kelp, with tremendous willpower, had not brought up the subject of their bonding or eventual departure, brutally squelching his desires to know one way or another what Hunt's thoughts and feelings were on the topic. They continued to share a bed and telan, gifting each other with their profound affections even though that one unspoken subject remained ever present, lurking under the calm surface of their conjoined lives.
Kelp began having vivid dreams, night after night; the imagery and powerful emotional responses he had to the events that transpired lingered in his mind when he awoke, sometimes to his consternation. Oftentimes he would be in the middle of a mundane act — mucking out the horse stalls, or sitting in front of their rectangular looking-glass, plaiting thin braids in his hair in a style he knew Hunt found appealing — when sudden flashes of memory of a recent dream would spring to life in his inner vision. It was disconcerting, even though the dreams weren't themselves at all troubling. It was more that they were so detailed, involving discrete hara on ground he knew as well as the back of his hand: they all took place in his former home, out on the island he and Blackspur had abandoned. For the first time since his inception, Kelp had an ache in his heart that didn't have to do with another har; there was a gnawing at his spirit, but he couldn't find the words to express the tumbling emotions that resurfaced each time he dreamed of having been returned to the island of his human birth and harish rebirth.
One day Kelp had been particularly out of sorts, even though he'd consciously reminded himself while doing his various chores that the fluttering wings of dream memory weren't based in his reality. He was on the verge of going to Arbor and Petrichor to see if they'd brewed up something strong enough to allow him a dreamless sleep that night when he sensed Hunt reaching to him in mind-touch. His voice was particularly gentle and cautious, not easygoing and familiar as it had resumed once they'd stopped talking about the future.
Kelp, will you meet me in the library? he asked.
The request caused Kelp to stop in his tracks partway up the circular steps to Arbor and Petrichor's rooms, which included their makeshift distillery and experimental organic lab.
Sure, he replied as a thought struck him. Should I bring some firewood?
Thanks for thinking about it, but it's well stocked. Valecho's been doing a lot of writing here recently, so there's a pile of logs, Hunt replied. Are you busy?
Not really. I'll be there shortly.
Subconsciously, Kelp found himself straightening out his tunic and pulling his hair back; it had grown quite long and he'd become a bit vain about how his hair looked. There had been an undercurrent of seriousness in the timbre of Hunt's voice, even mind to mind, that caused a stirring of nervous energy in Kelp, settling unpleasantly in his stomach. He'd resigned himself to accepting whatever outcome took place once the Equinox came and went, but that was still several weeks away. As he made his way to one of the lowest telani where the small library was housed near the kitchen, he twisted one of his braids in his fingers. He couldn't help but wonder if Hunt had, at last, decided one way or another about his future. Kelp didn't dare get his hopes up; since the night they'd retaliated against the humans and their fire he'd consciously become more aloof, more focussed on being har and forcing away the more human emotions of possessiveness, jealousy, envy and fear. In these moments, however, he realised that those feelings, like an encroaching tide, were building up the closer he got to the library.
He paused outside of the wooden door to the enclosed room, placed his hand on the latch and took a couple of deep, cleansing breaths before entering. Hunt stood at the makeshift window, his tawny hair hanging below his shoulders in thick waves. He turned when Kelp came in and latched the door behind him, walking over to be held in Kelp's arms, not saying a word.
Kelp instinctively wrapped Hunt in an embrace, letting his fingertips knead slightly against his back, nosing at Hunt's scalp to smell the faint apple scent of the shampoo he made and used. After a short while, Hunt eased away from him, a wary smile settling on his lips.
"Let's sit down. Wine?"
Kelp's nerves were still buzzing with anticipation for whatever his lover had to say; euphoria and despair battled off in a subdued arena while he tried to force himself to be in the present and to wait for Hunt to speak, not intuit or guess his agenda by his gestures and summons. In front of the fire were two wooden chairs, their designs so organic in nature that they seemed to grow up from the floor. Kelp sat in one, stretching out his legs toward the warmth of the fire, carefully engineered in stone so as not to spread outside of the confines of the diminutive fireplace. He turned when Hunt brought a full chalice of wine to him; the goblets were heavy silver and while the metalwork was of ivy and oak, beautifully decorative, it was also obviously the work of human, not harish, hands. Kelp took two large sips of the rich wine before resting the base of the cup on his knee. Hunt shifted the second chair so he could look at Kelp without having to twist his head.
"This may sound crazy," Hunt said, his index finger tapping at his chalice as he stared at his wine, "but I've been having these dreams. They're so vivid, but then I mostly forget them after I've woken up."
Kelp sat up straight in his chair, pulling his feet along the floor. Dozens of thoughts careened in his head like a flock of startled birds. "Dreams about what?" he asked urgently. "I've been having dreams, too, night after night."
Hunt took a long draught, his gaze fixed on Kelp. While Hunt still looked young, Kelp had finally become used to the discord of his lover's elfin, youthful appearance and the maturity inherent within him. Hunt seemed world weary for a moment, but then a low burning fervour flared to life, reflected in his movements and the quiet zeal of his words.
"Dreams of starting another colony, of several of us returning to your island. There are plenty of resources there— we could study, test our harish sensibilities and see just how far we can progress, how skilled we can become in every realm imaginable. We'd be left alone and if somehar wanted to join our community, he could write and ask, or send a message through the channels of thought."
His brown eyes shone, a fire smouldering with the passion for his harish utopia out on the isolated, somewhat desolate lands Kelp and Blackspur had once called home. Kelp's mouth was suddenly dry; he'd had the same visions. Were they both being manipulated by some force beyond their clans? Were hara capable of being possessed or commandeered through the landscape of dreams or nightmares?
"I've been dreaming about my old home too," Kelp said in a low voice, fingering his chalice and staring at Hunt. "I never did before do you think maybe I've been subconsciously picking up on your thoughts? Or that some other force is trying to convince us to go? But who or what could do that, or would?" he asked, eddies of unease rippling through him.
A confident smile bloomed on Hunt's lips, banishing Kelp's fears. "I can't say whether or not these visions are coming from outside of ourselves, but I know we should heed them. You and me, and Blackspur, Perifen and Ferngarn, if he'll come with us, and maybe even your enigmatic Thistle."
"I don't think he'll go anywhere without Lochenfex," Kelp said ruefully, his eyes downcast into his ever-decreasing amount of wine.
"Speaking of that," Hunt said in a creamy voice, "I hope you don't mind, but I asked Valecho to transform the amulet."
"Transform?" Kelp said, incredulity morphing to sour confusion as he tried to decipher what Hunt meant. "I don't understand."
Hunt's expression was beatific; he looked like a serene mage about to gift Kelp with knowledge that would first shatter and then crystallise his perception of the universe. After placing his chalice on the floor, Hunt reached under the woolen gauze of his overtunic and retrieved a simple leather pouch. He pulled it open and snuck in his fingers, raising them with a muted sound of triumph as Kelp stared. There, perched on his top knuckles, were two rings fashioned in silver scrollwork, uneven and compelling shapes of amber set in their centres. Valecho apparently was an artisan and Kelp had never realised it. He'd broken the honey-coloured stone at Hunt's request and transformed the amulet into two unique creations. In gazing at them, Kelp could see that they were symbolic of their very different personalities, yet similar enough in style and origin to express the intertwining of their lives as a whole. Hunt was giddy as he beamed at Kelp and motioned him over.
"Come sit on my lap," he bade, and Kelp felt a jolt of heat between his legs.
He desperately hoped nohar would decide he wanted a book in the next short while. Kelp could read Hunt's face quite well and knew that the need to take aruna had surged into his thoughts. Kelp straddled his legs, wrapping his arms around his lover's neck under his hair while Hunt dropped the rings into the palm of his left hand. The wolfish quality to his demeanour faded as he closed his hand into a loose fist, placing it first against his heart, and then atop Kelp's, which had sped up as more and more understanding crept into his cautiously hopeful spirit.
"They're both for us," Hunt murmured, rubbing his soft cheek against the harsher planes of Kelp's jaw. "We don't have to pick one exclusively; when I asked Valecho if he could make the amulet into two pieces of jewellery, he suggested that they not be identical. It's my bond to you, whichever one you wish to wear, and I'll wear the other. Will you have me?" The last words were a harsh whisper.
Kelp was so full with relief and a lusty euphoria that he grabbed Hunt on both sides of his head and pressed his lips hard against Hunt's sensual mouth, groaning when the kiss erupted into a sharing of breath. Hunt was a torrent of lilac and adventure; Kelp couldn't help rutting against him as he breathed heated desire, any inhibitions sloughing away like melting wax. Hunt wanted to be his; they would found their own community back on the island, back where the ocean beckoned with her unceasing waves and craggy rocks that held rigidly to their secrets.
"Be soume for me," Hunt said, his voice both dreamy and yet aggressive.
"I am already." Kelp moved a trembling hand to gently prise open the cage of Hunt's hand, picking up the rings and looking at his own slender fingers. "Which one?" he asked, captivated more by Hunt's succulent lips than the rings, at least for the moment.
"Which ring? Or which finger?"
Hunt arched his pelvis, his arousal sliding along Kelp's sensitised body, even through their clothes.
"Both. Either," Kelp panted, rubbing against the trapped hardness as Hunt chuckled, his light voice so in contrast with the power of his ouana side which so often dominated him. Kelp continued to rock his groin slowly as they each tried one ring apiece on each other's fingers until they both had one fitting snugly on their respective right hands.
"My chesnari," Hunt breathed, sliding his hands to cup Kelp's backside, the wonder in his voice as irrepressible as the wild colours of vivid autumn leaves. "Let me take you."
Hunt was rough at first. He became more gentle as the first thirsts of their passion were slaked, joined skin to skin, Hunt's impressive ouana-lim buried in Kelp's depths. This was not a time for teasing or languor; the tension built with fierce intensity, Kelp clawing at Hunt's narrow shoulders as he sank down on Hunt over and over. Occasionally he rolled Hunt's earlobe in his teeth to make him buck, gasping and swearing with an accent that lilted to Kelp's ear.
Kelp felt like a tightly wound spring. All of the worries and uncertainty he'd buried were corkscrewing their way up through the earth of his being. His feelings buffeted the sacred aruna space they'd created, but Hunt guided the two of them along, using the compass of his own devotion to steer them to the precipice of their release.
Hunt cried out hoarsely as he summoned the end, the lightning whipcrack flashing to reach for Kelp's core like a comet. The climax pulsed in him, ricocheting from the clenched muscles of his soume-lam to the backs of his knees, vibrating in the charged air encircling them as they were freed to soar like kites on the wind.
Eventually their arunic chorus waned and Kelp draped over Hunt, pressing his damp chest against Hunt's as he combed through the thick, sandy waves of hair with his fingers. There was so much he wanted to say and yet, the words themselves seemed unnecessary. He'd revealed everything to his doe-eyed lover, surrendered to and ensnared this untamed har with willing chesna bonds.
His legs felt weak and shaky as he eased up from Hunt's lap, his gaze caught by the pearly fluid gleaming along the dark jade of Hunt's ouana-lim. Hunt knew Kelp very well in matters of aruna, and was intentionally provocative as he smeared some of Kelp's seed onto his fingers and then licked it off, making contented purring sounds as he did.
"What am I going to do with you?" Kelp moaned, looking around in vain for a towel or cloth.
"Keep me, of course," Hunt replied, rummaging through his overtunic to find a handkerchief of sorts, enough to offer to Kelp so that he could clean himself up. "We should go before our clans and let them know," he stated, rearranging his clothes and tying up his leggings so that he appeared as he usually did: competent, self-assured, and enticing.
"I can't just walk up to Cairn and tell him I'm going back to my island and hoping certain hara will follow me," Kelp said, apprehension rising in him. "It's one thing to dream about it, and even feel it's a message, but to just storm in and say, 'We're leaving '"
Hunt gazed at him, stalwart and confident. In the fireplace, the logs popped and crackled; Kelp felt a twinge in his left thigh where he'd exerted himself too much on his chesnari's lap. He felt poised on the cusp of another life-altering event, contemplating an uncertain future with somehar he loved, hoping others would follow them to a faraway land. Doubtless he wasn't the first to travel down roads of seeming folly such as this.
"Well," Hunt said, taking Kelp's hand and squeezing it, "we can be more diplomatic than that. I'd be surprised, actually, if our Phylarch and Warloch don't already have a sense of our plans. They're pretty perceptive and seem to be attuned to disturbances or troubles affecting anyhar here."
"True enough," Kelp conceded, squeezing back before releasing Hunt's hand. He was sure his face shone with the happiness that welled in him at seeing the new ring on Hunt's finger. Maybe they could get blessings from their clan leaders before they left, and of course they needed to consult with everyhar and see who all might feel a similar calling to start a new community, away from the trees and this valley on the mainland.
"Let's start with Blackspur," Hunt suggested, picking up his goblet and draining the last of the wine in it.
"I'm not sure what he'll think," Kelp said, using his thumb to twist the ring on his right middle finger. "Not about going back, but also about us. It might take him a little while to get used to the idea that we've pledged ourselves to each other."
"Well, he'll always know that your friendship and inception came first, long before I showed up," he said with a small shrug. "And hara aren't exclusive when it comes to taking aruna, especially not if there aren't that many of us. We can't afford it."
"I wonder if there were more humans, still on the island, hiding down in the southern parts," Kelp said, offering his chalice to Hunt, who shook his head. Kelp felt faintly queasy with nervous anticipation of announcing their plans, and their official chesna status.
"Maybe so. It'd be good to incept more hara, if possible," Hunt mused, heading for the door. "One day we may figure out how to reproduce. We'll need to if we're going to survive as a race."
"That's " Kelp began, pulling his cloak around him as they left the warmth of the library. "That's a very strange concept. We're all male. I mean, we're not, we can be both roles. But reproduce?"
He couldn't fathom himself in a bizarre pregnant state, or anyhar else in their group. A few hara did tend more to their soume side, but the label of 'mother' was nonsense.
"I don't know how it would work," Hunt said, leading the way up the telani stairs toward Blackspur and Perifen's room. "There's so much for us to discover about ourselves, and our race." Awed excitement rang in his voice, rekindling Kelp's enthusiasm. "I want you to tell me everything about your island," he went on. "I know some hara pretend they were never human, but you don't seem like one of those. If you're willing, I'd ask you to tell me about your childhood, or what it was like before your inception."
"There's not much to tell, honestly," Kelp said, looking up to see the unique deep indigo symbols painted on the sturdy canvas which identified this residence as Perifen and Blackspur's. "He's an integral part, that's for sure," he went on, tilting his head toward the telan and intertwining his fingers with Hunt's. It felt as natural as breathing, their hands clasped as they stood on the precipice of the unknown, staring into the murky dazzle of tremendous change. Kelp squeezed his lover's hand, feeling a current of support course through him.
The flap rustled and was pulled back, revealing Blackspur. He stood, one arm holding up the canvas entryway. Kelp was struck by his strength and composure; he felt he was looking at a leader. It was as though a lioness had come to life in Blackspur: protective, fierce, and ready to face head on whatever confronted him. He grinned and ran his fingers through the wilds of his copper hair, transforming the regal appearance he'd had for a few seconds. Kelp grinned in return.
"Come in," Blackspur said, stepping back to let the two hara into the warmth of the telan. "What's on your mind?"
Hunt glanced at Kelp, then over to Blackspur, who'd gone over to a small cabinet to fetch a bottle of wine.
"Let's share breath," Hunt said, walking the few steps to take Blackspur's hand. "It'll be easier if I show you."
Blackspur stepped back and raised his eyebrows in surprise, though he allowed himself to be led over to a woven rug near his brazier. There was quite a height difference between the two, so Blackspur suggested they sit on his bed. Kelp padded over and took Blackspur's hand, placing his other hand on Hunt's shoulder blade. With clear eyes, the fiery haired har gazed keenly at Kelp and then Hunt.
"You two." He let out a small sigh and gave Kelp's hand a quick squeeze. "You've committed to each other, I can see it. Well, I'm happy for you. Now show me this vision and you'd better believe you'll get my honest opinion."
As Hunt and Blackspur shared breath, Kelp half-expected jealousy to heat and fester in him. Instead, he found that they looked natural, lips pressed together, sharing images and ideas in the most direct manner hara had. The two of them were starkly different, and yet both were beautiful, not that Kelp saw them through an erotic light in this act. When Hunt drew back, Blackspur licked at his lower lip, his expression contemplative.
"Well," he said, giving both Hunt and Kelp's hands reassuring squeezes before heading once again for his cabinet. "This kind of plan definitely calls for some alcohol."
"So you'll go back? With only a few of us?" Kelp clarified, going to help Blackspur pour and distribute the genvir distilled by the tree-hara.
"For a while. Why not?" He raised his glass to Kelp and Hunt. "It's only the dawn of our kind. Cairn and Leegan and those who stay will make their own paths. Now that we know we're not alone, I'm all for returning to our former shores. I've missed the ocean," he said wistfully.
As he did, Kelp felt a similar, undeniable pull as the moon has on the tides. "Here's to facing into the wild winds of the future!" he cheered, a melodious chime of glass sounding in the telan as Blackspur and Hunt joined his toast.
* * * * *
Hand in hand, Kelp and Hunt walked along the blustery shore. It was so windy they'd taken to braiding and pinning their hair before getting near the dunes, much less the actual ocean. Both wore tanned and treated leather capes to keep off the occasional burst of stinging rain. The weather could be glorious, but for these winter months, it tended to be changeable, steely grey, wet and frigid. For all of that, Kelp was glad to be able to walk on the strand with his chesnari.
"Are you about ready to go back?" Hunt asked, hope in his voice.
Kelp wriggled his fingers in Hunt's, both of them wearing gloves Kelp had fashioned and sewn himself. He gave Hunt a sympathetic look, pleased when an answering smile drifted briefly across Hunt's lips.
It won't be winter forever, Kelp said into Hunt's mind, hoping he sounded reassuring.
I don't regret coming, if that's what you're getting at, Hunt replied, plodding across the hard, wet sand toward the path through the dunes.
Kelp knew Hunt often missed his former kinshar and moors and forest. There was also the way their small band had split off, words said in anger and hurt that Kelp suspected still echoed in sequestered realms in Hunt's heart. Hunt ultimately had been the one to drive onward, believing in his visions and trying to convince any har who thought he was possessed that he was quite sane. Cairn had said he'd send a volunteer to visit within the year, but given winter's hold on Alba Sulh, Kelp didn't think it very likely they'd see anyhar until spring.
Once back in their stone house, Kelp busily stoked the embers back to a proper fire. Hunt poured himself a glass of the peaty liquor they'd found during their extensive excursions around the north island, and then sat down with a knitting project.
"Any news from Lochenfex or Thistle?" Kelp asked, stirring some dried beans that had been soaking for a day. Hunt's spinning and knitting had turned into periods of a profound trance-like period when he sent his thoughts far out into the aethers. It could be hard to rouse him once in that state, like pulling a spoon from chilled honey.
"No," he replied, his tone brittle. "It's been weeks since their rebuff. I think I've nearly found Leegan, though." He curled up in his chair cross-legged, his delicate form girding an ironclad will and intractable heart.
"If you are able to touch minds with our two, let them know " Kelp paused. "Tell them I hope they return soon."
Hunt shrugged, and Kelp could no better read that gesture than the books in the native human tongue he'd found but had never learned himself. Those two hara from their group had felt singled out, called to pursue a similar exploration on the south island as had been instigated on Kelp and Blackspur's former home. Having grown up on the isolated lands, they both thought it was insane for Thistle and Lochenfex to go out on their own, due not just to the weather but also out of fear of the possibility of plague and remaining humans. Spurned, they'd gone anyway, leaving the small community fractured and struggling with their sense of purpose. For all of that, Kelp cared for his clanshar; he worried for their safety and about other, more potentially violent hara who might have banded together while the other Sulh were tentatively meeting on the mainland. The uncertainty of their community, down to only five now, was always in his mind. It was inescapable and fickle, just like the turbulent seasons on the island itself.
After snagging a piece of dried meat and putting it in his vest pocket, Kelp put his cape back on to go and visit Blackspur. Once outside but still in the relative shelter of their house, he took out a cigarette and match, similar treasures found in the abandoned houses they'd plundered upon their return. He took a deep drag before letting out the smoke through his teeth with a hiss. As he walked the short trail over to his friend's home, he thought about how old he felt, and yet how ridiculous that was in so many ways. He'd not even been har for two full years, but he had been through a lot. For all of that, the world and his harish life continued to surprise him, sometimes with pleasant repercussions.
Glancing ahead, he saw Blackspur's distinctive slender form coming outside and shutting the door behind him. He waved in greeting, and then cupped his hand around his mouth, evidently lighting his own cigarette.
"Is Hunt off on another of his mind journeys?" he asked kindly when Kelp approached.
"Yes. We'll all have gorgeous knitted blankets by the time this winter's over, and he'll have travelled from here to southern Alba Sulh in the aethers," Kelp said, resigned.
"I wouldn't worry. It's a skill we all could stand to learn."
Blackspur gave him a lopsided smile, taking a puff on his cigarette before letting his arm drop to his side and blowing the smoke away from Kelp's face.
"How's Perifen's weaving?"
"Just fine. I've been delving into some amazing aruna practises, too," Blackspur said, placing his hand on Kelp's upper arm. "You should let Hunt do his next couple of mind jaunts over here where Perifen can keep an eye on him, and I'll come to your place. There's such intense energy that can be generated with taking aruna— I know you know about some," he hastened to add, raising his hand to fend off Kelp's intended interruption. "But this is different even from what we studied before, and grissecon. It's a positive force that can be sent out for the betterment of each other, for our group, maybe even the earth itself."
His olivine eyes glittered, lit with zeal or anticipation, Kelp wasn't sure. Certainly their small commune needed protection, and he hoped they would serve as a beacon for any peaceful hara who wished to join them. More than that, however, Kelp wished their other comrades would return.
"I think they'll come back, and with all sorts of information that will help us in the future," Blackspur murmured, reading the expressions on Kelp's face as easily as though he'd said the words aloud. "It's contrary to your nature right now," he went on, taking another drag off his cigarette, "but stop worrying."
Kelp rested his head against his oldest friend's shoulder, took a deep breath, and sent a silent prayer to his chesnari's dehar and Lunil. After imagining that his plea had been heard, he lifted his head and placed a chaste kiss on Blackspur's chapped, freckled skin.
"I'll try," he whispered, the wind greedily snatching the words away.
Blackspur nodded, putting his arms around Kelp and kissing his forehead. Kelp melted against him, finding sanctuary in Blackspur's embrace from the relentless buffeting of his own thoughts.
"Chesnari or no, for as long as I live, I won't let you face this earth alone."
Kelp let out a shuddering sigh. I don't mean to be at all disloyal to Hunt, but I needed to hear that, he said mind to mind.
I know you did. His voice was warm and comforting, a scented bath Kelp could sink into, leaving his anxieties to dissipate like steam. Our adventures as hara have only just begun.
That doesn't sound so intimidating anymore.
Glad to hear it. Blackspur rubbed gently at Kelp's back. "I'm freezing," he said aloud. "Let me get my cape and I'll come over to your house for a bit. You have some of the good stuff, right?"
Kelp snorted. "Yes, of course." He reached over for Blackspur's cigarette and took a final drag from it before tossing it recklessly into the wind. "If you ask nicely, that is!"
Blackspur only rolled his eyes. "Right. I'll be over in a few minutes," he said, shooing Kelp away. "Quit brooding or I'll start drawing lewd pictures. Of you!" he threatened with a grin.
"You wouldn't dare. Okay, yes you would," Kelp replied, smiling as he turned to make his way back over to the stone house he shared with Hunt. Hugging his arms around his waist, Kelp couldn't stop smiling. The future was a dense fog of the unknown, it was true. At least in this moment, however, between his chesnari's love and Blackspur's loyalty, he felt invincible, a gull carried on a zephyr of change.
It was time to spread his wings.