Other Words for Human — Four
Chapter Four: In Which Two Teenagers Perform Field Cautery
Kyrokh was getting time in bits and pieces, watching the world spin around him like shards of glass. He saw horses rearing and screaming, and the jagged shapes of flames that were being quickly tamped down. His shoulder throbbed with a pain he had not expected, a draining pain that siphoned his energy mercilessly as he felt blood seep through his borrowed tunic and his grasping fingers.
The ground vibrated around him, but he could not piece together why until he was aware of people standing above him. They dragged him up by his hair and he went because it hurt.
Hroz was behind Sul, and Kyrokh thought, detached, that this was the first time he truly believed the man was a Khan. His face was dark with thunder, and he stood above the chaos with command and fury.
“You are a traitor to your own people,” the Khan hissed. “Your death will be slow.”
Sul shoved Kyrokh at another man to hold up, and with no ceremony pulled out a knife. Kyrokh shivered hard but had no more time to panic, sure that the Khan was to fulfil his promise of the winnowing. Instead, Sul’s face shoved close to Kyrokh’s.
“You will not die as a mockery of our people, of our kind. You do not deserve your braid,” he warned him, and began to slice Kyrokh’s clan braid from his scalp, catching skin.
Kyrokh’s world was only the hands on him and the blade against his skin. The braid that denoted him the eldest male of his family line, and a freeman of Nazva, was removed. The morning air was harshly cold against his bared skin. It had not been this cold when he had awoken. Even the warm blood running down the side of his face did not do much to dissuade the profound chill of the air around him.
Sul’s face was in his, the guard yanking him up by the right arm. Kyrokh scrambled to his feet, but it was hard to stand when he could not breathe for screaming.
More was said to him, anger and abuse. Kyrokh stared through it, the sound of his heartbeat absurdly steady in his ears, and regretted none of it.
It was less the feeling of wanting to die than knowing it was inevitable and wanting it to mean something. Men died every day, most of more import than Kyrokh could ever hope for. If it was a choice between protecting his people and his own life, it was only fair and right than Kyrokh choose the others every time.
He was selfish in this case though. His thoughts were less for the people of Nazva than they were for the wonder of the Long before him. Sigur Toth herself, and the others flanking her — truly, it was fine to die for some creature so magnificent.
It was only a matter of waiting, now. Kyrokh’s pain was only tempered by the knowledge he did not have long left to wait.
It was a feeling, more than a sound, that shook Kyrokh’s tenuous balance, and when he tumbled over, Sul left him to drop back to the ground. Kyrokh hit the earth with a worryingly flat sound, but his mind was still somehow focused on the crack of air and the blast of heat that had buzzed past his cheek, singeing his skin and causing it to throb in warning. The yelling of the mob surrounding him took on a hysterical pitch, and Kyrokh tried to close his eyes against what might be coming for him.
Before he could, however, his vision was filled with the singular image of wickedly-clawed feet, the toes flexing in the sod and slicing fine furrows in it as the muscles covered in shining, leathery skin, contracted. There was so much violet, the stunning purple of irises, that Kyrokh’s eyes unfocused with strain.
The air cracked and there was no more air around him; Kyrokh gasped into nothing —
— and then all was silent and dark.
He was not unconscious. Surely, if he had passed out, the incredible, incomprehensible pain would have stopped. But his freezing, shaking body was enveloped by a rush of warmth and the screaming around him didn’t stop, but it was muffled by whatever had blocked out the sun.
The hurting had stopped, but the reprieve was the moment Kyrokh began to panic, desperate for one last glimpse of the sun, desperate not to go out in darkness but in the full light of day, with the steppe as his witness if no one else would be. Adrenaline giving him momentum that his own strength would not, he forced open his eyes and tried to sit up —
Curled around him was a Long.
Kyrokh was so shocked that he crashed to the ground once again, letting out a crushed breath and lying still. From his curled position, he caught fragments of what was around him.
He could see sky — thank the Horse gods. Sky, a painful, cutting blue. There was fire in the sky, too, the rush of igniting air loud in his ears.
There was another Long, rampant, in view. It was from her maw that the fire roared. She was alone, the humans and their hoses scattering in the face of her incredible aggression. The dark violet of her scales was shocking against the cold cleanness of the sky
A groan of language grumbled around him, and Kyrokh let the vibration soothe him until he was floating in the strange warmth and the pulsing pain.
“…there is blood, Jiaen.” The rumble manifested itself into words as the volume grew louder. There was a shuffle behind Kyrokh as the Long behind him lifted his head. His scales were a lighter violet, like lavender blossoms, less shocking but no less vibrant than the first. “More than I think there should be.” The voice dropped again to the private volume of before. Kyrokh tried to listen, to understand.
“You are safe, you are hurt but safe, but you must get up and we must go. We will protect you.”
Kyrokh believed that voice, because Jiaen was above him, the fiercest monster he had ever seen, and she of all must keep the Khan at bay.
“They’re gone, they’re gone,” Jiaen promised, dropping her face down to touch noses with Drei, who Kyrok finally realized was the Long curled around him on the ground.
Lingering heat rolled off her in waves, searing now that she was close. Kyrokh tried to smile in her direction, but he wasn’t sure if his face was obeying him.
“We need to go,” she said urgently. “They will regroup soon and come to retake their camp.”
Kyrokh knew she was right, and the strain in her words was evident. Kyrokh wanted to soothe it, wanted to obey. He got as far as pushing upright —
— or he thought he had, but when he opened his eyes, surprised that he had closed them at all, he found he had not moved.
“Jiaen. The blood.”
It did smell of blood. Right. His.
“Drei, I can’t. These huu’in — -they burn.”
Behind him, Drei made a noise of frustration, shifting as though to stand. Kyrokh didn’t want him to go. If he did, he would be exposed to the wind and the cold and the arrows.
“Shh, no, soft one. We will — “ Jiaen spoke quickly, deeply, leaning her head down to Kyrokh’s wavering line of vision. “I’ll make the blood stop.”
She jerked away fast enough to briefly bewilder Kyrokh.
“Your teeth,” came Drei’s voice. “You need not blaze again, just use your teeth.”
“Do it,” he snapped, then Kyrokh felt the sensation of being rolled. In a moment he was flat on his back. Then his vision was filled with magnificent talons descending on him. Kyrokh cried out in instinctual fear, but the claws that settled, splayed out across his abdomen were gentl. Nevertheless, they were heavy, and Kyrokh found himself immobile with his arms and belly pinned.
The sense of the Long above him was briefly comforting as Drei laid his long neck beside Kyrokh, his cheek pressed tightly against the top of Kyrokh’s shorn skull.
Jiaen was in his vision once again, eyes dark, expression inscruitable. She smelled of ammonia and lye and burning.
Her head ducked, and then Kyrokh’s skin ignited.
What happened was this:
Jiaen used the flats of her eye-teeth, still scorched and heated, to lay along Kyrokh’s skin and burned closed his wound.
He was rolled to his stomach, where the same was done to the other side where the arrowhead had passed all the way through.
Kyrokh remembered nothing of this but the ache of his screams, the taste of sod and silt as his face pressed into the ground and his teeth gripped mouthfuls of dirt. The weight of the claws on him held him immobile, but he would not have moved anyway, his body a rictus.
What happened was this:
Jiaen pressed her tongue to Kyrokh’s stinking wounds, bathing them in saliva.
What happened was this:
Somehow, Kyrokh felt himself draped across the broad, flat back of a swaying body.
There was no more after that.