First Came Trust (E2)

Story Content Notes: suicidal character, dubious consent (nonsexual situation)

Bethania left the siblings for eir people to deal with. Once the pair recovered enough to travel, they would be no concern of Bethania’s. Though Bethania did plan to offer the siblings a place if they wished it. It wasn’t, ey thought, very likely that the siblings would want to stay here, after all.

But the noble left orders to be informed as soon as the cub was lucid. That was a problem ey had to address, and soon.

Eir people put together a rough trail meal for an early dinner, and just as Bethania finished eating, eir healer reported that the cub had awakened.

As Bethania walked up, the cub was sitting on a cot, shivering in the slight breeze. Eir eyes locked on Bethania with a familiar sharpness that warned something more than human lurked behind that gaze.

Bethania met the cub’s eyes until ey looked down, probably not even realizing why. Then ey took up a light blanket that had fallen off the cub and wrapped it around eir shoulders. The irony of sun poisoning was how easily one could take chill once cooled a bit.

“What is your name, stranger?” Bethania asked as the cub grabbed the corners of the blanket and pulled it tighter.

“Lilah, nobility.”

“Lilah. I am Bethânia of Aelland. I have been acting as the ambassador for Royal Jennie of Balule and was returning home when one of my people found you and your siblings. Your siblings are safe. They are free to do as they wish, including enter my service and return home with me.

“You are a more difficult matter.”

Now, Lilah was still confused and disoriented but thinking much more clearly. And this time ey caught the implication.

Ey closed eir eyes and whispered, “You know what I am…”

The quick wits, especially after such an ordeal, pleased Bethania. “Yes.” Bethania paused a moment to order eir thoughts, but before ey could Lilah slid off the cot and crouched down at the nobility’s feet.

“Kill me, nobility,” ey pleaded. “Before I hurt anyone else.”

Bethania was stunned, of course. Ey knew how much hate the Pack folk faced in this land, but it had never occurred to em that Lilah would rather die. Or… did the cub know anything about the Pack folk at all? Did ey believe the madness was inevitable?

Bethania should have refused the plea, should have explained. Ey knew that. But ey felt the pressure of time, the need to return home and to the full pack. Ey feared ey wouldn’t be able to convince Lilah that the cub would do emself harm. If Bethania refused the plea, would the cub even kill emself, believing ey had no other choice?

And, truth be told, Bethania was no mensch. Ey tried to be a good noble, a good person. But ey could be selfish, and ey could be manipulative. And Lilah was zaftig, with short feathery hair, and the line of eir bowed neck made Bethania want to lick eir way up. Then ey would nibble on the jawline until ey felt the tips of that hair tickling eir lips…

So instead of refusing and teaching, Bethania twisted the cub’s words to eir own purposes.

“Are you saying you give your life to me?”

“Yes, nobility. I should have killed myself, but I went to the guard, hoping they would be able to hunt down the monster that attacked me so it wouldn’t turn anyone else. But they left us…” ey waved eir hand out towards the beach. “I came so close to losing to the beast, to ripping free and then turning on my siblings. I beg you, take my life, nobility, so no one else is at risk.”

It was enough — not the traditional pledge but it satisfied the forms.

That the cub had already thought of taking eir own life silenced the last of Bethania’s doubts — or was it eir conscious that was silenced? Regardless, all hesitation ended.

Most of Bethania’s belongings had not been unpacked, of course. But a small chest had been set in the corner of the pavilion, one that was always to be available whenever ey might need it. Tucked into a corner of the chest was a leather slave collar like was used in that land. A momento, for such things were never used in Balule, of one Bethania couldn’t save. And perhaps that memory was one more spur to eir decision.

Lilah had kept eir head down and did not look up as Bethania approached em again. In truth, Lilah was battling the beast again. The beast had been quiet since ey woke in the pavilion and got quieter still when Bethania faced em down. But it did not want to die and knew Lilah meant to see them both dead.

“I accept your life and promise you will never be a danger to your siblings.” As ey spoke, Bethania wrapped the collar around Lilah’s neck, tightly enough there was barely room to slip a finger between leather and skin, and locked it in place.

Lilah looked up at Bethania, shock and fear written on eir face. Whether ey feared more that Bethania would not kill em or the slave collar, perhaps not even Lilah could say. “What–”

Bethania cut them off, tipping up Lilah’s chin so the cub looked them in the face again. “By your pledge, your life is mine to do with as I will. The collar will stand as temporary pledge necklace until we return home, and I present you a proper necklace. My people will understand the intent, and yours will assume you are my property and not interfere until we are out of this benighted land.

“As one pledged to me, you have the right to address me informally, by name and gender. I am referred to as ‘she’.”

Lilah was stunned. But in only a few moments, anger began to replace shock. “You–”

“I have done as you asked, cub. I have taken your life and ensured the safety of your siblings. It was not well done of me, but we do not have time to do things properly.” Bethania tapped a finger on the collar. “While you wear this, you cannot transform. That buys us time. Time to do all the things we cannot do now.

“I know you do not understand. And I know you have no reason to trust me. But I believe you do not want to die. And I know you do not need to die.”

Lilah stared into Bethania’s eyes. For the first time since ey felt the beast stirring within em, ey felt a spark of hope. That spark terrified em, as hope often does. Nothing is more frightening than hope when one has given in to despair. But with the nobility holding eir eyes again, the beast within Lilah quieted, and Lilah dared to hope, dared to trust. Ey tried to swallow, then rasped, “I will try, nobility.”

“Bethania, Lilah,” the noble said with a relieved grin. “Or if you must use a title, ‘lady’.”

Lilah would have shaken eir head in confusion, but a wave of exhaustion swept over em. Ey swayed for a moment, and Bethania reached out to help em back onto the cot.

“Now drink, eat something, and sleep. We will not stay here much longer, but we can wait long enough for that.”

“Yes… lady,” Lilah managed to say before a huge yawn overtook them.

Bethania sent one of eir people for food and water and stepped out of the pavilion. An hour, two at most. Then the siblings would need to decide, and the small caravan get back on the road.

First Came Trust (E1)

First Came Trust is the, well, first, in a trilogy about three siblings surviving and rebuilding among strange people in a strange land.

Lilah knew ey was dead the moment ey met the creature in the woods. Ey never expected eir doom to overtake eir siblings as well. A stranger on the road may offer salvation, but is it worth the price?

Story Content Notes: Story Content Notes: suicidal character, dubious consent (nonsexual situation)

Lilah had expected the guards to come. Had been expecting them for over a day, in fact. But ey hadn’t expected how the guard had come. No quiet knock to escort em away. No apologies or sympathy for what must be.

The door burst open, broken down by a battering ram, though it had not been latched or locked. Guards poured into the small home Lilah shared with their siblings. They swarmed over Lilah, knocking em to the floor. Lilah didn’t resist, didn’t protest. Not until ey heard Sherzod and Dalma, saw eir siblings thrown down on the floor beside em. Then Lilah protested. But eir protests were short-lived. The beast within em, the beast that had been growing stronger ever since that night in the woods, nearly slipped eir control.

Almost, ey let it. Almost ey let the beast rip through em and seize control, tear through the guards who had betrayed em. Who ey had gone to for help.

But ey was afraid. Afraid that the beast would turn on Sherzod and Dalma. That the beast would kill and kill and not stop, as the stories all said. So ey didn’t fight back. Ey let the guards bind em, followed them silently, and turned all eir will to fighting the beast within em.

The guards loaded them in a cart and drove out of the village along the shore road. Dalma and Sherzod fought and cursed the guards, frantic not just with fear but with ignorance. They had no idea why the guards had broken down their doors and dragged them from bed. No more than they knew why their sibling had been so secretive, so anxious, the past few days.

It wasn’t until they had been in the cart several minutes that fear overwhelmed ignorant anger. That they noticed Lilah looked sick and road in silence, realized ey had not once fought back. Then Dalma and Sherzod moved as one, bracketing their sibling, standing between em and the guard, offering em what little protection they could.

A few miles down the coast road, the guards stopped and pulled them out of the cart. The sun was peeking over the horizon when the guards forced them down onto the stand and staked them out spread-eagle above the high tide line.

All the siblings knew what would come. Not because they had ever heard of the guard doing such a thing, but because they lived in a seaside town. Every few years, a boat’s mast broke or a child was lost, and, sooner or later, they died from the sun and sea. The salt spray would suck the water from their bodies, the sun heat them to delirium, and in a day or three, it would be over.

Sherzod and Dalma were surprised when the guards all left, not one on watch to be sure they did not find some way to escape. But Lilah understood, and ey started laughing. Laughing and laughing, hysterical now, tears seeping down eir face.

Ey could escape in an instant, release the beast, and it would snap the ropes that bound em. But only if ey was willing to kill eir siblings. The guards did not dare kill Lilah themselves, though ey had begged them to. Afraid of what ey could become, they had left em to die in a prison made of love.

Dalma yelled at Lilah, begging em to settle, to explain. Sherzod tried to soothe, to calm. Both fought the ropes, hoping for enough slack, enough leverage, to fight themselves free.

Lilah was snapped out of her hysteria not by eir siblings but by the beast within em, lunging for freedom. It knew it could snap these ropes in a moment. Snap them, and then…

No. They may be doomed, and Lilah may be damned, but Lilah would hold off the beast until eir last breath. While Dalma and Sherzod lived there was a chance they could survive this.

“I’m sorry,” was all Lilah could spare a breath to say. Ey threw emself into the most important battle of eir life.

By the time the sun started creeping west, Lilah and the beast had both given up the fight, too exhausted and worn out to continue. Lilah’s skin prickled and burned from the sun, and eir mouth was parched. Sometimes Dalma’s voice would float over them, or Sherzod’s. But the words had long ago stopped making sense.

A sudden coolness washed over em, and ey blinked, trying to make eir dry eyes focus. A dark shape stood over em, blocking the sun. Though Lilah did not yet know it, salvation had come in a most unlikely form.

Bethania, the noble of Aelland in the royalty of Balule, had been returning home from a trade mission. Eir travels were interrupted when an outrider had brought word of the three siblings trapped on the beach, one of them a new cub. Not being from this barbarous land, Bethania immediately ordered a halt to give aid to the trio. Ey thought wryly, that had ey been foolish enough to try to ride by, the half of eir guards and a handful of servants who were Pack would have rebelled the moment ey gave the order.

Now Bethania crouched over the barely conscious cub. “Why are you here?” Ey asked. Bethania thought ey knew — the locals’ hatred of Pack had been a thorn in their people’s side the entire time they’d been at court. But Bethania had to hear the cub’s answer for emself, to know if the stranger had given into the madness. Without the support of a pack, new cubs could lose themselves to their second nature and its fear.

The cub blinked at her a moment, then ey said, “My fault, nobility.” Ey coughed, and the two staked out next to them stirred, realizing they were no longer alone. Bethania waved eir people forward to help the two humans. “Save my siblings, please. They don’t… they don’t…”

Bethania sighed with relief. The cub was still emself — whoever that had been.

“Why didn’t you free yourself?”

If Lilah hadn’t been near delirious from sun poisoning and exhaustion, the question would likely have terrified em. But ey was too mind-fogged to recognize that Bethania knew of ‘the beast’ and simply answered with the truth. “Would have killed… them… please save them… from me.”

The effort to speak was too much. Lilah realized that eir siblings were already on their feet, freed by the strange noble’s people, then darkness closed in.

Bethania stepped back to allow eir people to work. They wet down the three sufferers with seawater to cool them. The siblings were able to walk with support and were led to sit in the shade of a wagon, brought honey water, and urged to drink slowly. The cub was carried to a quickly erected shelter, Bethania’s pavilion — it was larger than needed but easiest to get out of the wagons. A servant stayed with the now unconscious cub, dripping water into eir mouth.

Satisfied the strangers were getting the needed care, Bethania gave orders for a longer halt and increased security. Whoever had tortured and tried to kill the three might be near. They needed to stay at least a short time. Best be prepared.