This excerpt is from A Cast of Shadows, Araneae Nation, Book 2.5
An old folksong welled in my throat as I mended my net from last night’s casting, and I sang a tune about Kwaku Ananse and the time he tried to trick a Deinopidae fisherman into doing his work for him. As I sang, I spun thick silk from the spinnerets in my fingertips and began the task of weaving the new silk where the old had been torn by salmo struggling to swim upstream. This time of year, they were so frantic to spawn I could walk through the river and pluck them by hand if I chose. But I enjoyed the craft of weaving, the precision of casting, and so I used my net.
Moonlight made the silver mesh spread over my lap glitter. My ankles were crossed, and my legs were becoming numb from sitting in this position for too long. Soon I would have to stretch. For now, I paid tribute with my song and let experience guide my hands as my mind drifted.
“I don’t recognize the hero of your tune,” a low voice murmured. “Who is Kwaku Ananse?”
I started at the sound of a male behind me, but forced my fingers to keep their rhythm. “Ananse is the trickster god of my people.” I kept my tone casual. “My clan is Deinopidae. And yours?”
“I have no clan.” Pain laced his words. “But once I would have declared myself Mimetidae.”
I expected his answer. I had, after all, wandered onto Mimetidae land by virtue of following the river. That he claimed to be without a clan piqued my curiosity. “How did you manage that?”
I loved a good story. Perhaps in exchange for a salmo dinner I could coax his tale from him.
“You camp in a dangerous place,” he said, ignoring my question. “Why are you here?”
I clicked my tongue. I would hear no stories from this surly male. “I’m following the river.”
I drew a slim knife from the sheath in my boot in case my answer found me trouble. “This is the thirtieth summer of my life. Clan tradition demands I follow the river until I find my heart.”
He scoffed. “You have no heart?”
“If I did, I would be heading home with him to build a house and start a family.”
His exhale whistled through his teeth. “You mean you have no husband.”
I frowned. “That’s what I said.”
“No,” he answered slowly, as if doubting my intelligence. “You said you have no heart.”
I waved aside his confusion. I knew what I meant. “What is a husband if not my heart?”
He remained quiet for so long I wondered if he had left.
I could turn to check, but it had become a sort of game. I didn’t want to be the one who caved to curiosity and faced him. If he was content to stare at my back, then I should be content to let him. After all, what use did I have for his kind? Mimetidae were cannibals, and no male was taking a bite out of me. Let him look his fill. If he bared his fangs, well then, I had a knife, didn’t I? Mimetidae might be fearsome warriors, but they bled the same red as I did. There was no gain without risk, I understood that. Part of the journey was triumphing over the dangers it presented.
With this male’s arrival, it appeared my first true test had begun.
“Do you have a name?” he asked.
I chuckled to cover my sigh of relief at hearing his voice. I had been following the river for too long if such a blunt male made for the most stimulating company I had kept in months.
“My name is Daraja.” It was a good name. It belonged to my greatmother. “And yours?”
He gave no response, though I waited until I mended three more rows in my net. Perhaps his name was one I might recognize, one with a vile reputation or an enticing scandal attached. With a curse, I admitted defeat and twisted around to see what required such deep thought on his part.
No one was there.
I set my net aside and stood, then canvassed the area. I found no footprints or indications that the ground had been disturbed by another’s presence. Interesting. If I didn’t know better, I would swear Kwaku Ananse had heard me singing his song and decided to play one of his tricks on me.
Pointing at the starry sky, I shook my finger. “See if I sing your songs again, Trickster.”
And because I was no fool, I slid the knife into my belt. If my visitor traveled on such gentle feet, I had no way of knowing if he had truly gone, or if he was in hiding, waiting. But for what?
After debating on the wisest course of action, I decided if I wanted a meal in my belly, then I had best set to my task. I folded my net, snagged my spear and headed out to find a good spot to cast.
Halfway to the river, a chorus of mournful howls filled the air and I tightened my grip on my spear. I had never hunted canis, but the prospect tempted me. They had thick pelts worth a bit of gold. I would wear the fur myself, but it was too bloody hot in the southlands for such luxury. The teeth and claws of canis were used in charms to ward against sickness, though I had no use for those either. I had less use for those who peddled false hope to those in need of miracles.
The southland was rife with plague, and anyone who had heard the stories of cities littered with corpses of the infected would do anything to avoid becoming a victim themselves, including spending a hefty sum for some poor animal’s dried-out paws in exchange for mystical protection.
Rumor had it that Cathis, the Mimetidae clan home, was struck by the plague, making it more dangerous than ever to venture inside the legendary city. Even skirting its borders gave me chills.
Still, nothing ventured, nothing gained.
Following the river also tested my resourcefulness, and if I returned home flush with profits from my wanderings, I would be considered an asset rather than a liability to my clan and family.
As the youngest of nine children, and the only daughter, I had much to prove to my siblings, and our father. I had told my guest an untruth. Tradition dictated only the males of my clan spend the requisite months combing the banks for wealth and brides. Females were expected to remain at home and wed those who followed the river to us. But I grew weary of sitting at home waiting.
Who was to say I would desire the male who flowed to me?
I would rather catch my own.
Brynmor crouched on the riverbank with his elbow propped on his knee and his fist beneath his chin, watching Daraja cast. Her voice rang clear across the water as she sang to the salmo and asked them to swim into her net. Lured by her song, spurred by their frenzy to mate, salmo leapt into her silvery trap, and Daraja reeled in her catch with a fierce grin that made his chest tighten.
Strange how he expected his pulse to race when he had none. The dead had no use for hearts.
And Brynmor’s heart had been dead to him long before he drew his final breath.
Still, it cost him nothing to admire a pretty female, and Daraja was lovely. Her heart-shaped face was accented by full pink lips and wide gray eyes. She was tall, and lean muscles defined her arms. Her black hair was worn in a knot atop her head. Her short pants and sleeveless shirt were a deep gray color and appeared to be made of coarse silk. They were clothes meant for traveling.
They were also threadbare. Dirt stained her knees. How long had she been on her journey?
A chuff on his right made him turn in time to see a black canis sit beside him. It swiveled its ears toward Daraja’s song, and Brynmor scratched its head. “Did you enjoy the hunt?” he asked.
Pressure built behind his eyes as the mental bond he shared with the canis began to vibrate.
“Did you not hear our songs?” Errol asked. “Or were you too busy listening to hers?”
The base of Brynmor’s neck heated. “I admit the songstress enchanted me for a while.”
“She holds a spear, brother,” Errol pointed out. “She is not a songstress, but a hunter.”
“We are all hunters here.” Brynmor shrugged. “She claims to be following the river.”
“You spoke with her?” Errol cocked his head to one side. “Was that wise?”
“I haven’t spoken to another Araneaean in some time.” Brynmor admitted, “I was curious.”
“You wanted to know if she could hear you.” Errol nodded. “Could she see you as well?”
“I’m not sure.” He cleared his throat. “I chose not to reveal myself.”
Graveled laughter rose from the canis’s throat. “She’s young, pretty for a two-legs.”
“She is.” Brynmor amended, “Young, I mean.”
More snorted laughter. “You are not.”
“I am dead.” He grimaced. “My age is irrelevant.” After a final glance at Daraja, Brynmor stood.
“Let’s see what the songstress keeps at her camp.” He began walking and waited for Errol to follow. “She hunts and sleeps on Mimetidae land without permission. If she had petitioned the paladin for his blessing to travel here, then she would wear a black band of cloth tied around her upper arm as a protection from any who encountered—or threatened to harm her—on this land. Willful trespassing can’t be tolerated lightly. We must ensure she follows the river elsewhere.”
“These lands belong to us. Our dens are here. This forest is our home.” Errol trotted behind him, snapping at his heels. “The Mimetidae live in their city, behind their walls. Let them remain there. We are the keepers of this land. If this female trespasses, then she trespasses against us.”
“You are no longer Mimetidae. You have no clan. You are pack now. Remember that.”
A pang of acceptance stiffened Brynmor’s stride.
Even now, here with Errol, his past life strove to eclipse his present existence.
Brynmor had been the Mimetidae leader, their paladin, while he lived. But leaving his clan, his beloved city of Cathis, upon his death had proven impossible. Instead, he chose to remain in the Second World rather than ascend to the spiritlands. There was the matter of his son, who ruled their clan in his stead, and whose forgiveness lingered forever outside of Brynmor’s reach.
There was also the issue of Brynmor’s wife…
He shut down thoughts of Isolde before the familiar shame overtook him.
All ties to his clan should have broken upon his death. But he had clung to his old life, to his old relationships. Though his body had died, his soul remained. If the gods opposed his decision, if they existed at all, they hadn’t met him on the precipice of death or approached him since then.
He preferred their indifference. He was enjoying his afterlife onSecond World.
Since stumbling across Daraja, he was enjoying himself more than he had in a long while.
“It’s unusual for a female to travel alone,” Brynmor said to distract the canis. It was unheard of in most clans and yet another reason he meant to glean more information from her belongings.
“There is safety for anyone in numbers. Female or not, it is unwise to travel in unfamiliar territory alone.”Errol’s pace slowed. “She is a hunter. Do you think she means the pack harm?”
“I can’t say. She might catch and eat her fill of salmo during their run and then leave. But if she stays, we should prepare for the possibility she might also catch one of us.”
Whipping his bristled tail against Brynmor’s leg, Errol growled. “Let us do as you said. We will examine her belongings and determine her purpose in our woods. If she means to hunt us…” Errol locked eyes with him, and Brynmor’s gut twisted into knots, “…we will run her to ground, feast upon her flesh and gnaw her bones.”Errol’s lips peeled from his teeth. “Scipio and I will drag her carcass to the edge of the woods and leave it as a warning to all the other two-legs.”
Scipio was Errol’s beta, which begged the question, “Why not ask for my help?”
The canis snorted. “You have her scent in your nose. You are tracking her even now.”
Denial pursed Brynmor’s lips, but he chose to ignore Errol instead.
Despite his fascination with Daraja, she was a transient interest, here and then forgotten. His bond with Errol, that was permanent. Their souls were intermingled, inseparable, except perhaps in the case of Errol’s death. Binding his spirit to a mortal creature meant Brynmor’s grasp on life was tenuous at best. By using Errol’s body to house his essence, Brynmor created a new state of existence. As his ability to touch the living world increased, so did his presence within it. No longer was he cursed to an existence without substance. He could now manifest flesh, touch and taste, savor and enjoy the world around him. He could live. And he had Errol to thank for his second chance.
No matter how enchanting he found Daraja, she was not worth losing such a precious gift.
“You are quiet.” Errol nudged Brynmor’s leg. “Are you angry with me?”
“No.” Brynmor had approached Daraja and had incited Errol. “I’m angry with—”
Errol paused, lifted his head and scented the air. A vicious rumble poured from his throat.
In a flash of black fur, Errol bolted into the trees and disappeared.
Tipping his head back, Brynmor inhaled rapidly, filling his lungs with a sharp copper smell. Beneath that, he caught a faint whiff of pine and musk hard to distinguish from the other scents. He was a tracker by trade, all those of his line were, so he caught the scent trail and followed it to where he first heard Daraja sing. There they found a tent and the snuffed-out remains of a fire.
A crossed pair of hind legs extended past the neatly folded bedroll. Brynmor’s blood ran cold as he skimmed their length, his gaze snagging past the hocks, where the paws should be.
Fisting Errol’s scruff, Brynmor tugged to slow him down. “Wait here.”
“No.” Errol snapped at Brynmor’s hand, drawing blood on his knuckles. “You wait here if you like.”
He tightened his grip. “We don’t know for certain the female is traveling alone.”
“Then we find out.”
Brynmor’s hand slid down the length of Errol’s spine when the canis darted past him. He rounded the tent as Errol leapt the bedroll and approached the body. Lowering his head, Errol sniffed at the blood matting the fur until it became more rusted brown than gray.
“It can’t be.” Errol tossed his head. “I saw Scipio only hours ago.”
The kill was recent, but the familiar scent of death made Brynmor’s gorge rise. The corpse’s head and all four paws were missing, but a thin white ring around the right foreleg identified the mutilated canis. Brynmor swallowed past a tight throat. “Scipio is the only pack member with those markings.”
Errol choked on an anguished cry, and Brynmor collapsed as sorrow saturated their bond.
When Errol threw back his head and sang for their departed brother, the chorus was lifted by the voices of the pack. Howls pierced the night sky as canis rushed from their den to the clearing.
“She will pay for this,” Errol swore. “Tonight we will hunt the huntress.”
“We can’t be sure—” Brynmor began.
“—she won’t kill another of us?” Errol circled him. “You came to me as a spirit, as nothing. You asked that I use my body to give your soul shelter. I agreed. All I asked for in return was your vow that you would protect the pack as if they were your own, that you honor my rule and never endanger those under my protection. Yet here you are, eager to lead us to slaughter.”
“I have kept my word,” Brynmor grated past tight lips.
“But will you continue to do so?” Errol asked. “Something has changed. You are no longer the restless soul I offered asylum to. In the past few weeks, you have begun leaching my essence, using my life force to manifest in the flesh. I did not begrudge you this use of my strength. Your triumph was my own. I know how it pained you to be…insubstantial. But it worries me how fast you leapt to the defense of a female you met tonight, when we have been bonded for far longer.”
No ready excuse for his actions sprang to his lips. Through Errol, he all but lived once more.
He was a fool to risk that for anything. He was a fool to risk that for anyone.
Flicking his tail against Brynmor’s leg, Errol asked, “Where do your loyalties lie, brother?”
“With the pack,” Brynmor answered by rote.
Errol was right. They were his family now.
Copyright © 2013 Hailey Edwards
All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication