oun D’jir took up the sack cloth full of dried curatives. He strode into aun Sjir’phal’s hut and paused. aun Sjir’phal slept on his pallet while oun Belihe sat against wall, sound asleep.
oun D’jir expelled a frustrated sigh. He was surrounded by incompetents.
He strode up to oun Belihe and gave him a vicious kick in the leg.
oun Belihe snorted awake and blinked owlishly for a few seconds.
oun D’jir watched as comprehension dawned in his eyes. His ears flattened out.
oun D’jir would have laughed mockingly, had he not felt fed up with all of this.
He turned without a word and went to the firepit, where the fire had begun to die. Setting the herbs to one side, he built up the fire and put a clay pot on the cooking stone.
“Please send oun Satishe to me,” he growled over his shoulder.
“Ye, High Priest!” oun Belihe replied and hurried out.
oun D’jir poured fresh water into the clay pot and dug into the cloth bag to retrieve several herbs. He dropped the dessicated leaves into the rapidly heating water. A pungent smell arose with the steam. The tea would have to boil and cool before being consumed.
He heard a sigh from behind him and turned.
aun Sjir’phal rubbed his eye.
oun D’jir rose and strode to the pallet, dropping down to sit at its edge. He took aun Sjir’phal’s hand in both of his.
aun Sjir’phal’s face was thin and worn. He looked older, although he did not smell sick now.
oun D’jir wrinkled his nose. “We should bathe you.”
aun Sjir’phal’s eyes danced. “Do not make such a promise and then withdraw it, my heart would not survive such a thing.”
oun D’jir pursed his lips to keep from hissing in laughter. He shook his head.
“You are an idiot,” he said, aware that it sounded fond.
aun Sjir’phal squeezed his hand. “I know I am idiot. I have been since I laid eyes on the beautiful High Priest.who sits before me now.”
oun D’jir preened a little, his laughter escaping. “You are a flatterer.”
aun Sjir’phal sobered. “I am serious. You are beautiful and quite capable, strong and enigmatic. I am in awe of you.”
oun D’jir’s heart gave a lurch. “Why are you telling me these things?”
aun Sjir’phal sighed. “Because I have begun to bleed. Down there. I think I am beyond curatives, High Priest.”
A feeling of despair filled oun D’jir. The second emotion he felt was anger, at the Goddess. He scrabbled to contain his emotions. It would not do to blame the deity. He sent a prayer to Her, asking forgiveness.
aun Sjir’phal watched him fondly. “You make a good High Priest; a good leader for our people.”
oun D’jir swallowed down a mewl. He let go of aun Sjir’phal’s hands and rose, walking to the firepit and pouring the tea into a clay mug. He brought it back to the pallet and sat down.
“I will not drink that,” his patient stated firmly.
oun D’jir frowned. “I will not give up and neither will you.” He set the mug down and lifted aun Sjir’phal’s head. Picking up the mug, he fed the tea to the aun Deuil.
oun Satishe rushed into the hut. “Forgive me, High Priests. One of the kits had a stomach ache. He is well now.”
oun D’jir relaxed. “That is good.”
oun Satishe walked to the end of aun Sjir’phal’s pallet and knelt. “How is he?”
oun D’jir sighed. “He is not well. Leave two priests with the kits and the rest come here. We will do a prayer circle.”
oun Satishe sucked in a breath. “He fares so badly?”
“Ye,” oun D’jir said, swallowing down panic and sorrow.
“I will do as you say, High Priest.”
oun Satishe hurried out.
oun D’jir turned back to his patient and continued to feed him the tea.
When aun Sjir’phal finished the tea, oun D’jir set aun Sjir’phal’s head back on the pallet and sat back, setting the clay mug on the floor. He took up aun Sjir’phal’s hand. They sat quietly with one another, oun D’jir watching his patient closely.
aun Sjir’phal sighed impatiently.
“What is it?” oun D’jir asked.
“I have been praying to the wrong deity. The deity of the oun Shi’ehli is not the deity of the aun Deuilli.”
oun D’jir felt a surge of hope. “You speak truth. You must pray.”
aun Sjir’phal looked at him. “I think it’s too late.”
The fur at oun D’jir’s scruff rose in ire. “I told you, you stupid aun Deuil. I am not giving up and neither are you. Pray.”
oun D’jir rose, stretching his lower back with a groan. He needed to rest, but he was afraid to. He was afraid aun Sjir’phal would succumb to the poison.
He paced as aun Sjir’phal prayed. At some point, he added more wood to the fire and made a second batch of antidote.
oun Satishe sat quietly praying. They would pray in tandem.
By then, aun Sjir’phal had fallen asleep once more.
It was at that moment that a scream tore the quiet afternoon.
oun D’jir turned to oun Satishe. “See what has happened.”
“Right away, High Priest.”
The oun Shi’ehl ran from the hut into the overcast late afternoon.
oun D’jir turned to aun Sjir’phal, but the aun Sjir’phal slept undisturbed. It said something to the state of his health. He made to move to his side when the doorflap was pushed to one side and oun Satishe ran inside, ieh Desja in his arms, limp.
oun D’jir went cold inside. “What has happened?”
oun Satishe’s eyes were fevered with emotion. “Poisoned.”
It took an inordinate amount of effort for oun D’jir to remain on his feet.
His voice came from far away. “Is the kit dead?”
“Ne, High Priest.”
“Bring him here,” he said. “And bring me the rest of my kits.”
oun Satishe gently laid the kit in oun D’jir’s arms. He then ran out of the hut once more.
“Give me the little one,” aun Sjir’phal murmured from the pallet.
oun D’jir turned to him. “I must feed him the antidote.”
“And you shall,” aun Sjir’phal replied. “But I will pray over him.”
oun D’jir–who had not looked at the kit–laid the limp little body along aun Sjir’phal’s thighs.
aun Sjir’phal bent his knees, raising the kit up. He tsked sadly caressing the little face.
oun D’jir hurried to the firepit, where he poured some tea into the mug. He heard aun Sjir’phal’s voice droning a prayer. Turning, he returned to the pallet, sat down at its edge and took the kit again.
aun Sjir’phal kept a hand on the little one as he prayed.
Slowly, with the kits glazed eyes watching him listlessly, oun D’jir fed him mouthfuls of antidote. The kit swallowed reflexively. He saw aun Sjir’phal had taken up the kit’s small hand and was caressing it as he prayed. A mewl of distress and mourning filled his mouth like a bitter drink. He swallowed it down with a shudder.
oun Satishe, oun Belihe and oun Kelzi hurried in with the remaining five kits. The rambunctious little ones were quiet for once.
oun Kelzi approached, arms cradling a kit. “How it the ieh kit?”
“We are trying to save it,” oun D’jir replied cooly. “Please sit over there and take care of my litter.”
oun Kelzi bowed. “Ye, High Priest.”
When he finished feeding ieh Desja the tea, he handed the kit back to aun Sjir’phal. He then went across the hut to the other kits and examined each one carefully. Their eyes were clear and focused. He sighed his relief and turned his ire on the priests.
“How did this happen?” he demanded.
They firdgetted under his glare.
“We have not left the kits alone,” oun Satishe pronounced. “There has been at least one of us with them.”
“They are too young to eat meat,” oun Belihe piped up nervously.
“But they drink water,” oun Kelzi said with some reluctance.
oun D’jir sighed. “Go bring aun P’ata’lyh, oun Kelzi.”
The oun Shi’ehl set the kit he was holding on the ground and rose, bowing. “Right away, High Priest.”
oun Satishe stared at oun D’jir as the High Priest picked up the kit oun Kelzi had set down. He gently bounced aun Perisan, but the tiny kit only laid his head on oun D’jir’s shoulder..
“They just woke up from a nap,” oun Belihe explained.
oun D’jir walked to aun Sjir’phal’s pallet and laid aun Perisan gently on the bedclothes. He clapped his hands. The kit started and blinked, then reached up his tiny hands to oun D’jir”s, bringing one of oun D’jir’s hands to his mouth. He suckled, his tiny sharp teeth scraping the skin at the end of oun D’jir’s finger.
oun D’jir opened his robes and brought the kit to his chest. aun Perisan fastened on the nipple and nursed.
His remaining priests looked scandalized.
oun D’jir did not care. He did not care that aun Sjir’phal was there. He did not care he broke one of the most sacred mores of the Sha’jeen.
“Listen to me,” he stated coldly.
The three priests jumped.
“aun Sjir’phal is a priest–“
oun Belihe frowned. “He is another gender!”
Careful of the kit, oun D’jir rose. “You forget yourself.”
oun Belihe rose as well. “As do you, High Priest.”
oun Belihe stalked from the hut into the downpour outside.
oun D’jir sighed. He gazed down at the kit in his arms, which continued to suckle, his little hands fisted to oun D’jir’s robe.
He glanced at the remaining two priests. “You may go as well.”
“Ne,” oun Satishe replied evenly. “You are changing our ways. I am shocked almost daily, but I am not leaving my post.”
The kits had begun to crawl and fight, hissing.
“Can two of you care for four kits?”
“Ye, oun Kelzi pronounced with a firm nod. It will be a challenge, but we willl prevail.”
oun D’jir sat down once more and finished nursing aun Perisan. When the kit was done nursing, he immediately crawled towards the firepit and was intercepted by a chuckling oun Satishe.
oun D’jir turned to aun Sjir’phal, who slept soundly, the kit on his chest. The ieh boueli kit lay limp still, but his eyes were focused and its mouth turned up in one corner, showing small, sharp little teeth.
There was a knock on the doorjamb and them aun P’ata’lyh stepped through, running his eyes along the gathering with interest and some surprise.
oun D’jir laid aun Parisan on the pallet and rose, tucking the robes around his body.
“aun P’ata’lyh,” he said. “Someone has tried to poison my kits. Can you investigate?”
The aun Deuil looked shocked. “Of course, High Priest. At once.” He glanced aun Sjir’phal’s way.
oun D’jir swallowed. “He lingers periously close to death.”
aun P’ata’lyh’s feature subsumed with sorrow. “I see.” He squared his shoulders. “I will begin my investigation into the matter of your kits.”
aun P’ata’lyh bowed and stalked into the early evening.
oun D’jir looked at his remaining priests. “Please have ieh boueli bring our pallets and bedclothes.”
oun Satishe rose and bowed. “At once, High Priest.”
oun D’jir made more antidote and fed it to aun Sjir’phal and then, when it was cool, to the kit.
When the ieh boueli arrived with the pallets, he had one assist him in cleaning up aun Sjir’phal and removing the bloody robes and bedclothes. New bedclothes and a robe were brought.
They watched quietly as the ieh boueli curtained off a corner of the small hut. There, weak and trembling, aun Sjir’phal bathed, refusing assistance. When he was done, he lay back on the fresh pallet, the little poisoned kit on his chest.
oun D’jir was charmed by the aun Deuil’s affections for the little kit. The little kit, of course, often neglected by the other priests, lapped up every ounce of affection given it.
oun D’jir dragged his pallet next to aun Sjir’phal and he lay the four remaining kits between them and lay down.
oun Satishe watched from the firepit. He rose and tied the door flaps ties to the wall, securing the door against intrusion. If someone wanted to come in, they would have to make a racket.
oun D’jir thanked him and he bowed to the High Priest before laying down near oun Kelzi.
He lingered awake for a time while around him others slumbered. His eyes ached. Next to him one of the kits mewled softly and he placed his hand on his tiny stomach and dandled him gently until he settled down.
He must have fallen asleep, for he dreamed:
oun D’jir stood on a rise of land. Below him was a valley, flat and filled with grass. The air was warm and redolent of the smell of wet earth, although the skies were clear of clouds. There were copses of trees here and there and a river in the distance. The jagged teeth of mountains rose around the valley and behind him.
Your kits’ kits will find this land and it is here that the Sha’jeen will flourish.
“What is this land?”
It has never been named, so it will be called Sha’j. Teach your kits and let them know the land is in the east of the world.
Your kits roles in the future of your people are most important. Keenly so. So I demand a sacrifice of you, Priest.
“I am listening.”
You must renounce your role of High Priest. Your people will not attain greatness here, among old mores and beliefs. Your kits’ kits will take the future with them.
oun D’jir fell upon his knees, feeling shocked and betrayed.
You will teach, oun D’jir. That will be your role. Teach your kits and their kits and those who would listen. Let the rest of your people fall by the wayside. They will kill your offspring if you push them too far.
oun D’jir felt his distress and horror as a distant thing. Rising quickly was rage.
He lifted his face to the bright blue sky. “I have done everything you asked! You promised I could be High Priest!”
Aah. The capricious nature of mortals. The voice had grown cold and distant. Listen to me, although I am not obliged to explain myself to you, oun Shi’ehl The Dark One grows in power daily, in the very midst of your village. He has surprised us. Although he is a small thing right now, the priests left behind by oun Ei’dhar’s departure are more clever and cunning than he thought himself to be.
“Tell me who they are and I shall excise them from our midst!”
It doesn’t work that way, oun Shi’ehl. Do as I have asked you to do and watch. Keep your kits safe and teach them the Way. When they are old enough, I will guide them.
oun D’jir suddenly saw the years stretched ahead of him indefinitely, wearily and full of peril for his family. Suddenly, contrition filled him with a bittersweet humiliation and he bent his head to the ground.
“Oh Blessed Deity!” he murmured. “Forgive me! I will do as you say.”
He blinked awake and turned his head to where aun Sjir’phal and the kits lay quiescent, the kits sometimes sighing and gently mewling in their slumber. Without waking the little one, oun D’jir reached out and touched the nearest hand. The kit’s hand wrapped around his finger. He hissed softly, pleasure coursing through him.
He disengaged his finger from the kit’s hand and rose.
oun Kilze and oun Satishe sat at the firepit.
“Good morning, High Priest,” they murmured in unison.
Did oun D’jir detect a mocking undertone?
He squared his shoulders.
“Have two ieh boueili bring my chest of belongings,” he ordered.
The priests shared a look of disbelief before turning to him once more.
“Here, High Priest?” oun Kelzi asked.
oun D’jir nodded once. “Please. Do as I say.”
He waited until the priests had dispersed before turning back to the firepit. His sack of antidotes lay under his pallet, but the water in the wooden bucket? Was it safe?
When the priests returned with two ieh boueli in tow, a chest between them, oun D’jir asked the priests to gather the people together. After a shared look, they hurried to do his bidding.
The ieh boueli bowed before him.
“Do you require ought more, High Priest?” the one on the left asked.
“Yes. I ask that you serve me now, so bring your pallets and return those pallets to the Prayer House,” he said, indicating oun Satishe and oun Kelzi’s pallets.
The ieh boueili bowed and did as he asked.
“What are you up to, I wonder?” aun Sjir’phal murmured from his pallet.
oun D’jir clasped his hands before him and turned. “I am ensuring my kits’ survival, as well as your own.”
aun Sjir’phal’s eyes widened. “Will you tell me?”
“As soon as it is safe to do so. Be patient.”
“I can be patient.”
The two priests returned in time to watch the ieh boueili roll up the pallets and carry them away.
“What’s this?” oun Kelzi demanded.
“You will be informed shortly. Are the people gathered?”
oun Kelzi’s eyes flashed resentment. “Ye.”
“Good. I’ll be right out.”
The priests scowled but did as he asked.
When the ieh boueili returned with their own pallets and rolled them out on the other side of the hut, oun D’jir told one to fetch clean water and another to remain to watch his family.
Then oun D’jir changed his robes for fresh ones, leaving the used one to be cleaned, and made his way into the early morning.
The people were gathered to the west of the village, clumped in groups and chatting excitedly about what the High Priest was going to annouced.
As oun D’jir strode up, bright eyes turned to him. The conversations died until there was absolutely silence, save for the sounds emanating from the jungle, and the occassional call of a bird.
A guard stepped forward. “We have come, just as you asked, High Priest.”
“Thank you,” he replied. “I appreciate that you are so quick to do as I ask.” He sighed, running his eyes over the gathering, noting that the ieh boueili had been pushed to the back and the sides. He frowned.
“The Goddess has demanded that I step down as your High Priest–“
Mewls of distress filled the quiet. Already the priests’ eyes filled with stories they told themselves. So many were avaricious. He should have stripped them of their priesthood when he had the chance.
“Why is this, High Priest?” the same guard shouted.
“I do not demand answers from the Deity!” he lied, swallowing his shame. “I do as She says. Am I to disobey Her?”
Silence fell once more upon the congregation.
“Then what are we to do?” the guard asked.
“Here is what I recommend: have a competition between your priests and choose one that is worthy. Have the Council guide you in this.”
They threw out questions at him: what kind of competition? How do we choose?
“Have the Council decide this,” he told them a tad impatiently. “And here is my recommendation: Have the Council rule, not the High Priest. Never one person.”
He gathered his robes around him while before him, the morning erupted into a cacophy of conversations.
He returned to the hut and at once glanced towards aun Sjir’phal. The kits were awaking slowly, their mouths showing pink around yawns. oun D’jir was gratified to see ieh Desja sitting up, aun Sjir’phal’s large hand holding both of its tiny ones.
oun D’jir went to the firepit, where the ieh boueil had set a fresh pale of water. He boiled the water with herbs and filled the small space with the green smell of medicinals. When the medicinals had steeped enough, he fished the leaves out and poured a bit of fresh water into the mug to cool the tea. He then took the tea to aun Sjir’phal, who was sitting up, the kits playing sleepily on his lap. He handed the mug to his mate.
“Give ieh Desja a mouthful or two, won’t you?” he asked.
“Of course,” aun Sjir’phal murmured around a sip of the tea.
While his mate sipped his concoction, oun D’jir fed the kits. Each kit clamped onto the nipple with his sharp little teeth and fisted the robe in his tiny hand. It was always both a painful and pleasurable event to feed the kits. But it wouldn’t last long. Already they neared the time when they would consume their first bit of fresh meat.
aun Sjir’phal watched with awe as he fed the kits at his chest. He paid the aun Deuil no mind, but kept his eyes trained on each kit as it nursed. As soon as he released a kit, it would begin to crawl away. The ieh boueli would have their hands full.
As was its wont, little ieh Desja kept close to aun Sjir’phal.
oun D’jir finished with the last kit and arranged his robes. He then took up the nearly empty mug and sat ieh Desja on his lap, feeding him the antidote. The kit minded well and swallowed each mouthful without fuss.
“Tell me what has occurred,” aun Sjir’phal demanded softly when oun D’jir handed him the ieh boueili kit.
oun D’jir sighed. “The Goddess demanded that I step down from the role of High Priest. Someone will poisoning my brood. They must survive above all else.”
aun Sjir’phal made a sign to avert evil. “He is here again.”
oun D’jir frowned. “She called him the Dark One.”
“He was the darkest,” aun Sjir’phal replied.
All of oun D’jir’s down stood at attention, a strange prickly feeling along his skin. He shuddered and reached for aun Sjir’phal’s hand.
“We will lie low, aun D’jir,” aun Sjir’phal murmured. “We will not make scenes or challenge anyone. We will lead quiet lives and wait for more guidance.”
oun D’jir bent his head. He shuddered.
He glanced up once more. “They poisoned a kit!”
“I know,” aun Sjir’phal soothed. “But we must keep your kits’ wellbeing at the fore of our minds.”
oun D’jir looked into aun Sjir’phal’s eyes. “Our kits.”
aun Sjir’phal brought oun D’jir’s hand to his mouth and pressed a kiss to it. “Our kits. Now we will plan, oun D’jir. We will survive this.”
oun D’jir said nothing. He lay his head on aun Sjir’phal’s shoulder and watched quietly as the ieh boueili played with the kits. The future stretched ahead of them, fraught with danger. He would resign from the Council, even if the Goddess did not ask that of him. The less politics he involved himself in, the safer his family would be.
He shifted against aun Sjir’phal. “Will you remain a priest?”
aun Sjir’phal sighed. “I will see how it goes. But my family takes priority over my duties.”
“Ye,” oun D’jir agreed.
He draped his arm over aun Sjir’phal’s waist and snugged against him.
aun Sjir’phal pressed a kiss to oun D’jir’s head.
“Have you stopped bleeding?” he asked.
aun Sjir’phal nodded. “Ye. I feel stronger, too. I am cautiously optimistic that I will survive this.”
“I shall see to it!” oun D’jir promised sharply.
aun Sjir’phal hissed with laughter.
ieh Dasja crawled between oun D’jir and aun Sjir’phal and settled there. The kits’ bright eyes studied them solemnly.
oun D’jir reached up and caressed the kit’s soft cheek.
His heart filled with love for the tiny ieh boueili and he was not even surprised by that.