Doves & Wolves by Kaas Baichtal

     Snow whirled down thickly now, muffling the flap of the pigeons' wings. They passed overhead as hushed as owls.
     Garlen and Jesha stood facing each other atop the battlement, knee deep in new snow, their clothes rimed with it. Her attention remained upon him, alert yet calm. Her body was still. She perceived all that lay around them, but her thought, her being, lived in the moment of her connection to him.
     "Good," he whispered. "Very good."
----

     "Oh, for shen's sake!"
     Her stepmother's angry words startled Elette out of her studies. She scrambled up from the floor, clutching her textbook to her chest.
     "Mother...?"
      "Out of my way, you." The disgust and disapproval were like a slap. Elette stood cowed as her stepmother pushed past her to the door of the sitting room.
      "Your daughter," she said severely to the man before the fire, "is no more."
      "What!"
      "Come zlin for yourself."
      A sound of shifting cloth, then his firm stride on the polished floor. Her father's tall, forbidding shape loomed in the doorway in silhouette. He took one look at Elette, tentacles flicking, and then turned away sharply, scowling his disappointment.
      "You've only one left," said her stepmother, accusingly. "If Hadar doesn't change over, you'll have no heir."
      "He will," snapped her father. "Lock... that... up. I must decide what to do. Alone." He closed the double-doors to the sitting room, shutting off his second, as yet childless wife's resentful nager.

     A stunned moment, and then Elette's stepmother rounded on her, a dozen angry and ugly emotions in her face and stance. "Come here."
      Elette backed off, horror clutching at her throat.
      "I've Established? I'm Gen?"
      "Yes, you are, you worthless chit." Her stepmother grabbed her arm, painfully rough, punishing her. "Now silence. You are an animal."

----

      A sob wrenched itself from his throat as another breakout contraction came. He was a proud boy, dignified beyond his years, and Old Tethie knew he hated to be so helpless. She gripped his hands harder, speaking to the top of his bowed head.
      "I'm here, Arat. Just as I've always been."
      "I'm going to kill you," he whispered, agonized.
      "Shhh... let us pray."

----

      Garlen moved down the stairs inside of the wall, shaking the snow from his hair and clothes. His movements seemed random, but they were another test. Jesha glided at his side, her eyes devouring the subtle signals of his body's intent: the tilt of his jaw, his leading shoulder, his center of gravity. Her body became the extension of her observations, moving effortlessly in an intricate dance that followed every rule he had ever taught her regarding the distances and angles she should maintain in relation to him.
      When they reached the bottom he said again, "very good".

----

      Elette crouched weeping on the hearth.
      "Don't cry," said the man. He sat behind her, still, quiet, very Sime.
      How could she not cry? Her family had sold her. She'd spent six weeks in a cage on the back of a mule wagon to reach this place. The wagon had been stalked by wolves for the latter half of their journey. Each night, their howling had prevented her sleep.
      The man rose, Sime-quick, and knelt beside her. His sure hands touched her shoulders, and a tentacle tipped her chin toward him. She looked tearily into his eyes, then stiffened: they were the somber gray eyes of the wolf.
      "Jesha, you will not cry. Not in my presence. Only when you are alone."
      It was the first lesson Garlen taught her.

----

      "Of my heart, I will feed you," they whispered in unison.
      "And of my milk I will give you suck.
      All of my strength I shall give to you.
      My pain shall be your pain.
      Under my wings I will shelter you
      For I came wrong onto this earth
      And only in self-sacrifice
      Can I be redeemed."

      Their soft chanting broke off as Arat gasped. Old Tethie let go of his hands and grasped his shoulders to steady him. He was so thin, his shoulders all in knots. He drew in a shuddering breath, and she could feel him try to relax as she'd taught him.
      "I served your father's need," she said gently, "and his father's before him, and his father's before that. It is my desire and my duty to serve you."
      "But," he said hopelessly, "They were not channels."

----

      Garlen stopped for a moment, poised underneath an arch. Carved into the keystone, a pigeon spread its wings in a gesture of protection. Above it were carved the words "Sacrifice" and "Salvation".
      Jesha looked up at them, then immediately bowed her head.
      Garlen zlinned her, and she knew he could sense her respect, commitment and undying belief in his teachings.
      This time he only nodded, but she knew he would be thinking: Very, very good.

----

      His slap stunned her.
      Caught by surprise, Elette fell back. Then she lunged upright, filled with the pride and fury of the nobly born. How dare he strike her?
      But Garlen circled out of her reach, his eyes locked upon hers. "Let it go. Don't let emotion control you. Step through it, let it fall aside. Otherwise, you fail."
      It was just another of his tests. Tears and frustration threatened to overwhelm her, and she hated him. And she felt hunger, and thirst, and weariness, and longing, and sadness, and loneliness and fear and emptiness as well, strong emotions that had been too much to bear even before the slap.
      She was near exhaustion.

      But like the wolf pacing its quarry, Garlen would drive her until she had nothing left. And she had no protection from him because she belonged to him. She was nothing but a Gen, discarded by her family. And if she wanted anything to eat, and anything to drink, and a chance to sleep, she must obey.
      "Not shame," warned Garlen. "never feel shame."
      "What, then?" she cried.
      "Contrition, Jesha. This is not your punishment, but the path to your redemption. Kneel before me now."
      Elette fell to her knees before him. She knew that before she was allowed to rest, she would have to set aside every emotion she felt, one by one, with Garlen zlinning her and his voice and hands guiding her.
      And then they would do it again, over and over while her feelings sprang up again like weeds, each time a little more stunted and a little slower to return.
      She wondered if she had the strength to make it to the end, to reach the goal he'd set. She looked up at him in pleading, and saw the expression on his face as he zlinned her: neither disapproval or approval, but instead a thoughtfulness, as if he pondered the next brush-stroke in a work of art.

----

      In the darkness nearby, a wolf howled at the stars.
      Arat's panting and Old Tethie's prayer were cut in two by the sound.
      They listened, but it did not come again.
      "If I kill you..." he began.
      "If you do," said Tethie, "Then I will know: it was for your sake that I've lived this long."

----

      "You have been sold," said Garlen.
      Jesha's eyes widened. Her heart thudded harder as she stared at him. Garlen watched and zlinned her carefully, and then nodded when she betrayed no emotion other than interest and surprise.
      "They are at the gate to pick you up. I will take you there now."
      It was an ending as brutally sudden as the end of her life in her parents' home.
      But though she had not known when it would happen, she had known it would. It was time for her to go forth into the world and do the good and wise work that Garlen had taught her.

----

      They stood in an alley between two towering stone walls. The sky was a blue strip buffeted by flights of homing pigeons and their clattering returns. Elette kept her eyes on it as she recited by memory from the book of teachings:

      "Those who would come to harm you,
      I shall accept unto my own arms,
      And those who would neglect you
      I shall replace.
      Anything that you need
      I shall give you of my own hands.
      Know that you can trust me
      For I am given entirely unto you."

      "Given to whom?" asked Garlen.
      His back was to the alley wall. He carried a pigeon clasped to his breast. She knew that if she looked, its tiny red eye would be on her. It made her uncomfortable to see the bird entrapped so; though it seemed calm, she knew it to be helpless.
      "The one I am being trained to care for. The one whose life I shall protect," she said.
      "Yes," said Garlen. "But who?"
      A silence fell, like a missed heartbeat. The wind itself seemed to hold its breath.
      "Will you tell me?" she asked.
      "Look at me, Jesha."
      She turned her head and met his lupine gaze. The pigeon watched her too, its alien stare unnerving.
      "In this world," he said softly, "there are many things that seem they cannot be changed. War, famine, poverty, death, the kill. And yet, the very hope we have against those evils is daily cast aside out of ignorance. So long as parent fears child and child fears parent, death will tear our families apart. And so long as our families are torn apart, no nation, or village, or person can hold together long."
      Elette felt her loss of her own family trying to rise up. She took hold of it and set it aside without examining it, as he had taught her.
      "And we...?"
      "We stand between our world and death itself. We take upon ourselves the suffering of the children, the suffering of the parents, that families may be whole and loving, that tomorrow's people may grow up straight and strong and far-seeing. One day, many generations from now, there will be peace at last. This is our secret, our pledge, our sacrifice."
      He stroked the pigeon, and then offered it up in his hands. It stood upon his palms for a moment, then launched itself in an explosion of wingstrokes, russet and cream. A tiny capsule dangled from its leg. They watched it climb against the blue, angling not toward the others, but away into the open sky.
      "It will be a hard life, and your path a lonely one. Learn the prayers well and make firm your beliefs, Jesha, for they will be your only comforts."
      She looked him again. "Why do you call me Jesha?"
      Garlen's tentacle-tip touched her lips, stilling them.
      "It doesn't matter what you are called, Jesha. Only what you carry."

----

      At the moment of his breakout, he let out a cry that temporarily silenced the sounds of the main camp some hundred yards off. Nobody would come to investigate. It had been Tethie's job to raise Arat, and now it was her job to serve his First Need. His parents would want to inspect their only son and heir afterward, and they would want a full report from him. She knew he would do her proud.

----

      Outside the gate, five riders were waiting. Five riders, and an extra horse stamping and blowing in the intensifying snowfall.
      Their leader dismounted, a tall lean young Sime with thick braided black hair and a beautiful, angry face. Jesha's new owner.
      She could not hide her shock.
      It was her brother Hadar, become a man.

----

      His breathing was quick, light. She could smell his skin and hair, heated by the sun.
      It was unusual for him to be outside of the walls. She'd seen it in their surreptitious concerned glances at him as they opened the gates. She saw it in the number of the people on the walls, fifty or more watching the fields and the valley slopes for any sign of danger.
      She remembered when it had been the same for her. One time, she had been pre-Sime, her family's heir and as precious as anything in their world. For the sake of their future, they guarded her as treasure. The fields, the great estate, the servants would be nothing without her to give them meaning.

      Garlen was not a large man, nor a powerful one. Within the shelter of the walls he held strength, but out here in the great open of the world he became only mortal. As she followed him through the hot and dusty grass, she realized she towered over him, her Audnes blood and Gen larity combining to make her big and strong. For the first time she felt as if she were actually his protector.
      It was an unsettling, but strangely attractive sensation. It was the first time she had felt like anything good and helpful in many months.

      To the people watching from the walls, Garlen was father and teacher and healer and literally life itself. He had saved them from death as kills or berserkers and taken them on as disciples, giving them not only second lives, but a chance to undo the mistake that had felled them all: the mistake of wrong birth.
     And that is what he was to her too.

      She reached out and put her hand on his back. She could feel his heat through the wool of his sweater. She moved her hand under his hair, grasped the nape of his neck. It felt right, like her hand was meant to be there.
      But his skin and hair were damp with perspiration. The mountains' shadows had crept nearer to them in the late afternoon sun, as they'd paced endlessly through the fields, practicing how she should move when walking with the one she was to protect. It had tired him more than it had tired her.
      She pulled him gently to a halt, and he turned to look up at her. His gray eyes seemed curiously gentle now, framed by feathery dark hair.
      In that moment, she thought, she might have given her life for his.
      He spoke, his soft voice caught and nearly stolen by the wind.
      "When you can feel that upon command, your training will be complete."

----

      The great gates closed, and she was left alone with Hadar Audnes and his servants. Once, he had been her brother. But she was no longer Elette; she was no longer even Jesha. Instead she was to be Tethie, the Gen whose papers Garlen had given Hadar.
      This was the one she had been left on earth to protect, the one whose need and whose children's needs she would serve.
      She perceived the vastness of the wilderness surrounding them, the falling snow and white close-set sky. In all of that, there was only one thing that mattered, and as she had been taught, she turned her attention forever away from Garlen and placed it instead upon this man.
      And Hadar just stared at her, as if he had zlinned for an moment the open eye of God upon him.

----

      It had been hours, it seemed, or perhaps a day. Elette no longer knew. The repetitions and the quiet chanting had drawn her finally into a state of intensely perceptive serenity Garlen called "readiness".
      She and Garlen knelt facing each other, knee to knee, in the center of a prayer-room. His eyes were made dusky by the darkness. He, too, had been gradually relaxed by the extended ritual. He was in hard need.

      "Of my heart, I will feed you," they said in unison, once again.
      "And of my milk I will give you suck.
      All of my strength I shall give to you.
      All of my pain shall be your pain.
      Under my wings I will shelter you
      For I came wrong onto this earth
      And only in self-sacrifice
      Can I be redeemed."

      As he'd taught her, Elette reached for his forearms. He allowed her to take him in transfer position. As before, his handling tentacles gripped her firmly, enforcing her trust. But this time, his laterals slipped out hot and wet to press against her skin. They made her arms tingle.

      "Like the dove, heaven sent," they continued,
      "I bear a message greater than myself
      And upon its delivery,
      So will my soul find its deliverance."

      She leaned forward and touched her open lips to his. She felt a tiny shock, as if something had leapt between them. And then, in one swift act, all that was in her was ripped forth.

      Afterward, tears came from his eyes, turning them an eerie silver.
      "Remember this carefully," he whispered, "because the day will come when you must teach it to a child."
      "I still live," she said, tears in her own eyes. Before, entranced, she had not questioned. Now, it seemed a wonder.
      "Your work is not yet complete," Garlen told her. "The message you carry was meant for another."

----

      Arat's need lashed at Tethie, searing every nerve in her body with a blinding fire. As her hold upon that body loosened, she knew a deep peace. In sacrifice, lies salvation.

----

      Hundreds of them soared in an ever-widening spiral, whirring over the stubbled fields. Gray wings, blue, red, black-barred, white-tipped, they climbed into the blue sky in a mad race of tumbling and chasing and arrow-swift dives.
      Garlen stood atop the stony wall, watching. His keen wolfish gaze picked out another, far beyond: a single bird laboring against the mountain winds. It had had a hard journey, but now at last it was coming home.

----

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