Keren Rhinn, Knight of Ozem and Vigilant Defender of Lastwall, stood sputtering in the doorway, her face turning fascinating shades of crimson.
"Hello, darling!" Zae looked up from her work to greet her favorite human with a smile. "Long day?"
Keren had many talents, but the one that impressed Zae most was her unnatural sense of timing. Without fail, Keren always seemed to be able to walk in on a situation at the precise moment that would confound, annoy, or disarm her the most.
Case in point: there was a perfectly good explanation for the bloody, unconscious dog currently staining the floorboards of Keren's kitchen. If the crusader had looked beyond her initial confusion and anger, she would no doubt have seen Zae's surgical kit by her side and the needle and suturing thread in the gnome's nimble hands. But humans were quick to emote, and even quicker to jump to conclusions. It was one of the things Zae loved about them, and about this one in particular.
Since Keren seemed lost for words, Zae took it upon herself to fill in the conversational gap while she resumed her work. "He followed me home," she said. "Can I keep him?"
The hardened warrior made a strangled little sound. That particular set to her jaw meant she was reciting her oath to herself. Zae clicked her shiny bronze lip-ring quietly against her lower teeth and savored the countdown in her head. 3...2...1...
"You're lucky you're oathbound, pixie," Keren said, right on cue. The oaths sworn by all who wished to be citizens of Lastwall included a vow not to harm other oathbound residents. But Zae wasn't afraid of real violence, even though Keren was significantly larger than her own three-foot-three, and carried a sword that weighed more than Zae did. The use of the pet name told Zae that she was already forgiven, even if only on some deep subconscious level. Before Zae had taken the oaths to Vigil and Lastwall, it had been, "You're lucky you're cute."
She had it on assurance that her oath had not robbed her of cuteness, so the update to Keren's ultimatum didn't bother her in the slightest, especially when she accompanied it with some playful epithet. When Keren was truly angry, she was cold and silent, and her hand twitched for the weight of her sword hilt.
Zae thanked her by not squealing in delight at Keren's predictability. For some reason, big, tough warriors didn't like being giggled at. Even ones who thought you were cute.
Keren came to kneel by Zae's side, stroking gentle fingers through the healer's indigo curls. She observed a moment, then rose and stepped past the gnome to swing the kettle over the fire, as if resigned to the fact that dog surgery in her kitchen wasn't the strangest thing she was likely to encounter this week.
In fairness, it probably wasn't.
"Seriously." Zae knotted off the thread and snipped it carefully. "I want to keep him. He's obviously lost his person in battle, and we've got good rapport. Just look at him."
"He's unconscious," Keren pointed out.
Zae grinned. "But he wasn't unconscious when I brought him here. He was wounded and scared, and he still nuzzled my hand and followed me home. It's not like I'd have been able to carry him."
Keren poured boiled water into a bowl and brought it to Zae's side, along with some clean cloths. Zae poured in a packet of herbs, and together they washed the blood from Zae's instruments. And, when the water had cooled a bit, from the patient.
"Maybe he thought you were a snack. He's a big one."
Zae laughed. "I'm not very tasty."
Keren raised an eyebrow, glancing at her sidelong.
"All right, then: I'm not very filling. Is that more accurate?"
Under the dirt and blood, the dog's coat was a gorgeous white, and he had a cute black nose. Zae had guessed that he was a cold-weather sled dog from the shape of his ears and muzzle, his barrel chest and sturdy legs, but now she was certain of it. And a gorgeous one, at that.
"So," Keren said. "He was wounded on the front, and you brought him here because it's closer than your infirmary—or your own kitchen?"
"Am I so predictable? I'll have to try harder. Oh! And I was hoping you'd help me train him as a mount, once he's well."
"And you also promise you'll clean my floor?"
Zae grinned. She had won. "Every drop."
∗ ∗ ∗
Zae typically woke before Keren and took the small hours of the morning for her meditation and prayer. Brigh had no temples in the city of Vigil, but Zae always kept a traveling shrine with her. Polishing her treasured brass gears kept her hands busy and her mind free. She had crafted a special gear with a feminine mask engraved on its face, and she wore this on a leather string around her neck, using it to keep her morning worship on track. She ticked her thumb down the teeth one at a time as she prepared her spells for the day.
Warm breath washed across her cheek, followed by a very large, very wet nose, and something hard and wet landed in her lap. She opened her eyes into the dog's pale blue gaze. Something in there shone with intelligence, but before she had time to contemplate it, he dipped his muzzle to indicate the gift he'd just brought her.
Atop her gears and polishing cloths sat a very well-chewed apple, most of its red skin nearly gone, with a tooth pattern that suggested gnawing rather than eating.
Zae ruffled his rounded ears and scratched under his jaw with both her hands. "Good boy! Thank you!" His tail started to wag at that. She suspected the apple was thanks for healing him, and the gesture touched her. Presents stolen from your host's kitchen were still presents, after all. It was the intent that mattered.
She cleaned sweet juice from her gears and folded them back into their pouch. It wasn't just the one apple, she noticed as she rose—the entire basket of apples from the kitchen table had been systematically destroyed, all over the floor she had just cleaned to spotlessness the night before.
"You fierce apple-slayer," she praised the dog, giving his ears another rub. "You'd better help me clean this up, or Keren won't be pleased with us."
As if the improbability of the situation had summoned her, there was the crusader, rising from bed and padding barefooted toward the commotion. She halted at the door, but for once, her words were quiet and unexpected.
"When did this come?"
Zae turned to see beautifully disheveled brown hair, a jade silk robe hanging askew to frame the lime-sized metal medallion she always wore around her neck, and an ornately carved wooden box cradled in Keren's strong hands. The crusader's face was unusually ashen.
She hadn't even noticed the apples. Zae wasn't sure whether to be relieved or concerned. She supposed that rushing to clean them up would only draw attention to them, so she left the dog to finish off his prey and approached Keren instead, pulling out a chair for her.
"Oh! Right. It came yesterday, in the middle of dog surgery. A messenger brought it. I put it aside where it wouldn't get bled on, and then I must have forgotten all about it. Is it important?"
Keren sank into the chair, letting her hands ease onto the table, the box still between them. "It means my father is dead." She exhaled a slow, shuddering breath, staring at the box as if it was a nightmare made solid. "Do we have anything stronger than ale?"
Knowing Keren's high tolerance for drink, Zae took the liberty of choosing a supplement from her healer's kit instead of the pantry. Soothe syrup was a bit cloying on its own, but it added a pleasant flavor to strong tea. "Your father? You've never spoken of him." She rolled a light coating of syrup around the inside of an earthenware mug, then filled it with the tea she'd already brewed with her breakfast.
"He retired from the front, and was teaching up at the War College. I joined the Knights of Ozem in his footsteps, but Vigil is all we have in common now. We haven't spoken in a while."
Zae set the tea in front of Keren and climbed up into the chair beside her. The dog sprawled on the floor under the table, gnawing on a stray shoe and soaking up comfort from their proximity.
Keren turned the box toward Zae and cupped her hands around the tea, clinging to it and bringing the mug to her face to inhale the steam. Like Keren's medallion, the box was carved with painstakingly detailed castles and clouds and rolling waves. The seam of its lid disappeared into the carvings, and its hinges looked to be internal. On one side, two round concave impressions stared side by side like abstract eyes.
"It's beautiful," Zae said, because she felt she ought to say something. Loss didn't visit the knight's face often, and it looked interesting on her. While Zae supposed she shouldn't just watch the mesmerizing sight of Keren, half dressed and drinking her tea, she wasn't sure how to address that sentiment. Most of what she knew about human family structures had been gleaned from her patients. Which was to say, she knew that family was where you got your corpse sent when you died.
Keren tugged the medallion on its leather thong around her throat. It was etched with the same sorts of carvings, giving it an abstract quality unless one examined it closely, as Zae often had. But she had always assumed it to be a religious thing, like her own gear pendant, and never thought to ask about its purpose. "This fits in one of the locks. Ennis has the other key. If we force it, we destroy the contents."
Zae darted her hands innocently back to her lap. "Ennis?"
"My brother." Keren released the medallion and returned her attention to her tea. With half the brew gone, she already seemed to have shed her anxious edge. Now she was merely subdued. "He's up at the Worldwound. Or was. Iomedae keeps her own counsel where he's concerned—he could be demon food and fertilizer twice over by now, for all I know."
Zae sat silently for a few moments, integrating this new information into her mental portrait of Keren. "Do you know what's in the box?"
"No idea. He said it was our inheritance, but that's all he said, and that was years ago. Before Ennis left for the Worldwound and split the family apart."
Zae frowned, puzzled. "But aren't a lot of the Worldwound crusaders from here?"
Keren made a dismissive noise into her mug, then set it down, empty. She sighed. "Fine for other families, but not for mine. My father disowned Ennis—he raised us here, to fight this fight. He said our purpose was to defend Lastwall against the return of the Whispering Tyrant. Ennis said his purpose was to defend against the greatest threat, wherever it might be." She nudged the box, picked it up, and shook it gently. Nothing rattled. "I was finished with my father, for being finished with Ennis. Father put cause before kin. I say you have no cause when you forget the people you're fighting for. But there's no reasoning with my father."
Zae rested her hand on Keren's back, feeling the shift of powerful muscle and the faint shudder of emotion. "And now you have his inheritance, all the same. Do you still want it?"
Keren slumped forward, sighing, until her forehead rested on the wood with a faint thud. She lifted it an inch and thudded it down again.
Zae gently sifted her fingers through Keren's hair."We're going to the Worldwound, aren't we?"
Keren turned to look at Zae, amber eyes calm from the tea. "We?" She leaned sideways until her cheek rested on Zae's shoulder.
Zae brushed unruly brown hair aside and kissed her head. "Of course I'm coming with you. Me and Appleslayer both."
"Oh, pixie. You don't have to come."
"It'll be an adventure," Zae said. Under the table, the dog's tail wagged an eager beat against the floor.
Coming Next Week: A ride north for the Worldwound in Chapter Two of Gabrielle Harbowy's "Inheritance"!
Gabrielle Harbowy is an editor for such SF publishers as Pyr, Seven Realms Publishing, and Dragon Moon Press, as well as co-editor of the When the Hero Comes Home anthology series with Ed Greenwood. Her short fiction has been a finalist for the Parsec award, and has appeared in such anthologies as The Beast Within 2, Metastasis, Cthulhurotica, and more. For more information, visit gabrielle-edits.com.
Illustration by Kelly Perry