This Hollow Body by Dave Riley

The brand is a focus.

On nights like these, when sleep refuses to come, Rowena whiles away her insomnia staring at the silver sigil inlaid into her upper right arm—the brand, the old way mark—which blares her curse to the world.
This Hollow Body
This Hollow Body by Dave Riley
The air is heavy with the smell of gunpowder and sweat. Work burns through the night, and the sounds of metal and human effort ringing through the thick canvas of her tent would’ve kept Rowena awake even if the tension of the oncoming battle did not. She shifts aimlessly. Her bedroll is thin and beaten, providing hardly any barrier between her body and the pebble-strewn ground beneath. Sleep won’t find her, and let the noisy camp or the discomfort of a tired body atop hard ground be the reason for it. Either’s a good enough excuse to pass muster. Concentrate on the brand. Spend enough time tracing the angular, runic patterns with her eyes and, eventually, she’ll lose herself in them. Eventually, her concentration will buy space where she can forget. Rowena fans her tank top against her chest, a meager breeze hardly worth the effort. Dawn is still hours off, but sweat rises from her skin almost as fast as she can wipe it away. A bestial thought comes to mind and her skin ripples with the promise of tomorrow’s battle, and her imminent change. She digs her fingers under the waist of her trousers, providing precious clearance for the skin beneath to breathe. The heat in this place is even worse, once sun climbs sky. You’d think the discomfort of thick fur in dank summer would ward against allowing the change to take hold. But with the change comes a luxuriating speed. Find an open field and, once you’re up to motion, the wind whistling over your ears and through your fur cools the body and, eventually, the mind. Find a big enough field, big enough to run without stopping, and that wind might convince you that you’re comfortable. Run long enough, it might even convince you that you’re free. Few fields like that in places like these. She rolls onto her side. Hair falls into eyes and she swipes it away. No matter how tightly she binds it, it always comes loose. Bothersome. She doesn’t have any affection for her hair, she only keeps it this length because it’s a special dispensation allowed to soldiers like her—it’d be a crime to throw away a privilege, wouldn’t it? They’d make her chop it off if she were anyone else. Smaller in that form, with fur blacker than this long night, she could tiptoe unseen from this tent. She could change her body into that compact, lupine shape and tread through the lacing web of shadows just outside the campfire light. In ten minutes she’d be away from the camp; in thirty, gone from the theatre of war; in sixty, perhaps in another country entirely—their purviews morph with each passing week, their borders intersecting and overlapping, shifting on whims. Run far enough, she might find somewhere quiet, somewhere like the farms, and fields, and small houses of her childhood—idyllic in her memory, but only through nostalgia’s gloss—and there, far away from the vengeful bodies resting beneath the battlefield mud, she might approach peace. It could be that a bestial body need not have a bestial mind. It could be that it’s not the curse that makes her a beast, but her proximity to the soldiers and leaders and countries that would twist it to their purpose. A tink-tink-tink alerts Rowena to the tent’s new occupant. She looks towards her oil lantern and the errant moth that hurls itself against the glass, seeking the weak flame within. Beyond that, on the other side of the small tent, her crisp blue uniform is cast in deep shadow by the straining lantern light. An ominous portent of what tomorrow will bring. If her mother heard her say that, she’d belt her across the lips—“Poetry’s for those who don’t have to fret on hungry mouths going hungry,” she’d say, or something like it, urging Rowena to commit to a life of hard effort tiling an uncooperative, rocky field—not so different from this one, less the blood. What’s the point in uniforms for a woman like her? They only ever shred to pieces when the change comes. Yet, no matter how many she destroys, there’s always a fresh one waiting for her on return to the camp. Worth the cost in cloth and buttons? She must be; but what a strange way to tabulate the value of a life. The wings of the moth flutter in irritated buzz as it continues its futile assault on the lantern. Rowena pillows an arm beneath her cheek, watching. Does it injure itself against the glass? Does it even know what it’s after? And what would it do, if it ever got it? Such a life there is for insects. With a shudder, she recalls the red bites that covered her throughout the Ceratara campaign; better moths than mosquitos any day. Her fingers trace over the small clump of scar tissue at her left shoulder. The fiery lance of the silver bullet, she took it conquering a machinegun nest, is more distant in her memory than the legion of bug bites she suffered in the weeks before the city fell. The wound was searing, instant. She’d never felt anything like it, pain so deep it stripped away senses, struck her blind. Truly terrifying, she supposes. The pain was brief, in retrospect, and it got her sent away from the front, to a hospital, for a several day reprieve from the scourge of hungry mosquitos and the squelching feel of muddy trench water in her boots. Firm bed in the hospital, good food too. The smell was wretched, but what can you do? All in all, it would’ve been a nice vacation, if she hadn’t spent the whole time worrying over Malak. The tent flap rustles and Rowena startles to sitting. Malak enters, letting the flap fall behind her. She dips her body in obsequious bow. “Lieutenant Sted.” It’s only a ceremonial title. She didn’t earn it. “Corporal Yata.” Rowena replies to the bow with a curt nod, playing out this game of theirs, pretending as if this woman is somehow below her station, or that deference is required, or that there could be any true difference between the two of them, who spent their childhood bathing in the same rickety wooden tub, and all the years since at each others side in one way or another. Malak’s lips spread wide in toothy grin. She raises a bulging leather flask and sloshes its contents with a flick of her wrist. “Wanted someone to share the spoils with, saw your light.” “You would’ve come even if you didn’t.” “You’ve never slept a night before a battle in your life, so we’ve got no way to test that theory.” Malak drops herself onto the hard dirt by Rowena’s bedroll. She offers the flask. “Here, have a taste.” Rowena unclasps the stopper and steals a gulp from the flask before the smell of its contents wards her away. Too quick. The bitter rotgut, flecked with the acrid aroma of residual machine oil, bends her forward at the waist, choking and gagging. Malak cackles, leaning in to slap Rowena between her flexing shoulder blades, grabbing back the flask as she does and taking an eager chug. “Hoo!” She exhales sharply, undoing the buttons of her stiff uniform coat. “That’s nice.” Rowena’s nose wrinkles. She shakes her head to clear her sinuses. “Next time have them wash the flask. It reeks of oil.” “Oh, it’s just a whiff.” “Some of us have sensitive noses, Malak.” “Have another swig, then I’ll apologize.” Despite her aborted first attempt, Rowena nerves herself up for another. Her second swallow is slower, more careful, and she draws a stiff breath through her nose to cool the sear of liquor burning down her throat. “Good, eh?” Malak asks. The question’s rhetorical, of course; Rowena’s given no time to answer. “Perfect to loosen you up before a battle. Mother’s remedy.” Pressing the crook of her elbow against her mouth, speaking between her coughing fit, Rowena asks, “Who’d you steal it from?” “You trying to get me pilloried?” Malak laughs. “Didn’t steal, traded a hank of salt pork for it.” Rowena lifts an eyebrow. “Where’d you get the salt pork?” That broad smile widens—feeds—on Rowena’s disbelief. “Filched from the mess after chow.” “Thought so.” In the dim lantern light, Rowena can hardly see the thin, diagonal scar that bisects Malak’s face from jaw to hairline, cutting a pale line through her dark skin across the bridge of her thick nose. Survived a bayonet slash, she did. By her telling, she turned that pig sticker right around and put it into the gut of the one who dealt it to her, but it was always hard to separate fact from fiction, where stories told by Malak Yata were concerned. Rowena leans back on one hand, stares back up at the steepled blackness of the tent above. The moonshine sloshes in her empty stomach, burns with a particular warmth, soothing and fearsome both—like placing your hands against a wood stove in the morning after the fire’s gone out, testing how long you can hold it there until you scream and pull away. Malak always won that game. Malak had a will like an angry badger (still does) and the face to match (but that’s grown more handsome, with age). Truth or myth, Malak became the talk of the company for a week thanks to her heroic injury—though even a full month of praise wouldn’t be enough for a woman like her. A year, that’s what Malak said she deserved. Malak? Corporal Yata now, let’s try to remember that. Titles, ranks. These things have meaning, she knows, but Rowena’s never seen the value in it. This is the peril of being granted rank without having earned it; that’s what many of the women and men in the camp would say regarding her apparent indifference to her role. Strange thought, where Rowena is concerned. To her, it seems she very well did earn it—only by a more imminently painful route. At the age of fifteen, Rowena was turned. The law on her particular curse being what it is, she found herself pressed into service, shown how to fire a rifle and pull a pin, elevated immediately to the rank of “Lieutenant,” and nothing was ever in question, and no choices were ever made. Whereas Malak made many choices, didn’t she? She chose to follow Rowena into this life, when she easily could’ve shirked the draft. She chose to grind against this machine, to throw herself into its cogs over years, and emerge each time to a modestly improved station—Recruit, Private, Private First Class. And now? And finally? Two years on, she’s Corporal Malak, and she burnishes the chevrons of her station with bulging pride, where Rowena can only think to spit on her own—and has done exactly that, once or twice. The alcohol bridles in her gut, struggling to consume a troublesome memory before it breaks the surface of her stomach. It’s powerful stuff, this ‘shine. Bolstered by it, what thoughts come seem less like recollections, more reflections. She could view them as something external to her self, like in a mirror, helpfully smudged by the passage of time… Perceptive Malak takes another gulp of the moonshine, leans forward, and snares her fingers around Rowena’s hand, dragging her friend away from barbarous thoughts of the terrible past with a gentle tug. “Neh, Wren.” She puts on a look of greedy curiosity to occlude the concern darkening her eyes. “Tell me a story about the dead.” *** The dead tell their stories to the wolves, but the wolves only know the words when they speak them aloud. So Rowena plucks one from the whispers in the air around her, and her mind finds a way to transmute it into speech without much of her input on the matter. She and Malak pass the flask back and forth until it’s nearly empty—have a few swigs and the tang and smell of leftover oil don’t bother so much. Dead drunk, Rowena weaves together the tale of a young girl and a young boy. Long ago, this land was farm and field, not mud and trenches, and they were neighbors. Her family raised sheep. His family grew wheat. ‘No they didn’t have a sheep spotted like a cow’ Malak shoves Rowena’s shoulder in disbelief. ‘Yes they did, it’s true’ ‘Impossible.’ Another swig at the flask. ‘Who’s ever heard of such a thing?’ Malak has shucked her coat. She sits cross-legged, fanning her tank top against her chest. Her skin glistens with the sheen of ever-present sweat. Her lip curls upwards, just a touch, where the scar traces it on the downswing towards her jaw. She has a strong jaw, good for taking a punch, for all those years when she put herself between Rowena’s body and a bully’s fists. The girl and the boy became the woman and the man, and from there they became wife and husband, and from there they had many children. Most were terrible, as children often are, but who’s to say they shouldn’t be? They were loved all the same. As the story goes on, Malak draws Rowena’s head into her lap. Rough fingers stroke tender patterns through her hair, and Rowena’s shoulders grow slack. The fingers undo the loose tie of her ponytail. Her brow unfurrows, her head begins to drift. They massage firmly against her scalp. Her chin dips, and she loses herself in half a stammer before giving her head a firm shake to ward away the tethers of sleep. There’s still more story to tell. They grew old. Their bones grew tired. First the man passed, then the woman, and some of their children were swept away in tears and some of them weren’t. Either way it was a happy sadness, wasn’t it? One that comes at the end of a full life. Maybe that’s why it’s so simple for Rowena to pull this particular tale into her mind—she wants to believe, amid all the grief of all the souls that rest in this place, there are happy bodies lying there beneath the earth, ones who lived whole lives instead of wasting short ones on war. It gives her hope that she might be one of them, someday, somewhere. Still and inert; peaceful and at rest. As the story comes to a close, she finds herself back in the real world, where Malak has laid them down atop that thin, beaten bedroll with no mind to the pebbles hidden underneath. Her nails trail against Rowena’s arm and Rowena’s cheek, quite naturally, has found the place against Malak’s chest that has always been the most comfortable. Malak’s fingers rove upwards, underneath Rowena’s shirt, tickling over her bellybutton and further on. The cautious touches edge a forgetful sigh through the air. Dazed beneath the quilt of drink, it’s not until those searching fingers find the edges of the scars across her abdomen that Rowena pushes them away. Malak says, “It doesn’t bother me.” Rowena shakes her head. “It bothers me.” And that’s always been the problem, hasn’t it? Rowena’s palm presses down upon her stomach. The scars are rigid, the arcing stripes of the claws that long ago inlaid the infection—the curse—into her body. When she touches at them she can feel the bristle of his fur against her skin, painful as needles, stripping away everything she was, converting her to something worse. Her eyes cloud up, even as she tells herself the memory is as distant, as powerless, as the memory of a thousand mosquito bites as she lingered in the trenches of Cerataran fields, crouching in the mud, waiting for the order to be given. Change your body, Lieutenant Sted. Become a beast, rip a gash of claw and fang across the enemy lines. Kill the opposition, save the day, and add more screaming souls to the legion of dead that cloud out your thoughts in moments like these, in the still before battle comes. We’ve no care for your pain, only your purpose. A wolf’s a tool just as much as a tank or a rifle or a bayonet. Who asks how a hammer is forged? Who asks if a hammer wanted to be a hammer in the first place? *** She lies on the bedroll, counting her blinks and rolling her tongue against the fuzzy feel of the alcohol, while Malak sits beside her, digging stones from the ground and flicking them at the wall of the tent. “I heard a rumor,” Rowena says. “They’re planning a tremendous push, bringing in tanks against us.” A stutter seizes Malak’s muscles. “Good, then you won’t have to change,” she says. Her tone flexes with surety, plastering over the hesitation of her body. “They won’t risk you on tanks.” “Tanks have infantry,” Rowena says. “And that falls to me.” “Or Carak, or Gaster, or that foul-faced, fat-mouthed Reta, any of them. Why does it have to be you? You’re hardly the only wolf—” When Rowena flinches at the word, Malak melds a sharp inhale with an muttered swear. “Didn’t mean it, Wren—” “—I know—” “—Slip of the tongue—” “—Absolutely—” Brown eyes dart away. “Hate me?” “Never.” A hesitant nip of a smile washes over Malak’s lips, crooked. Her fingers sweep the ground. “Forgive me, then?” Rowena’s gaze follows those fingers, watches as they worry at a pebble moored in the dirt. She rests her hand atop them, before they can pluck it free. “Always,” she says. “After all, it’s only a word.” Words won’t fill bellies. It may’ve taken several instructions with the belt, but Rowena eventually did take that lesson to heart. What still puzzles her is its corollary: if words lack the shape to fill stomachs, how do they possess the substance to stab them so deeply? “Anyway,” Malak says, “I’m more worried about fleshers.” “There won’t be fleshers.” “There might be.” “This far from center? They wouldn’t waste them on us.” “Won’t waste fleshers, but they’ll bring tanks, eh Wren?” Rowena hears gears and smells grease. Her skin tightens. Her heart swells. A heavy chain sneaks its way around her neck like the probing tentacle of some dark ocean spawn. A breath holds in her chest. Malak takes her by the chin, lifts her face. “I won’t let them make you,” she says. Her eyes are limpid and cool by the lamplight. “You won’t need to change this time, I promise.” Rowena breathes and smiles in the same motion. “You always say that.” She dips in, shoulders hunched, face close enough to smell breath, for noses to touch. “I mean it.” “I know.” Malak’s fingers squeeze around the base of her neck to reel her close, but why? She wouldn’t run away, not now, and never from her. Rowena’s lips part. She accepts Malak’s quiet kiss, and returns it. She sinks herself into this dance they’ve done a half-dozen times, in situations just like this, when the press of bodies is only thing left to do in the face of all that fear, all that dread, and all that life. They could run; together, that’s a different matter. She could leave this place, find one where being a beast did not require her to be bestial. She could take Malak with her and, perhaps, they could have a farm and raise sheep with spots like cows. And wouldn’t that be a fine life? It’d be a life, and that’s more than nothing. Breaking the kiss, Malak seems lost for a time, eyes drowned in some deep sensation, as she silently beholds this woman (this beast) that is Rowena. Rowena’s shoulders shift. She twists her body, only a touch—just enough to hide her brand from sight. Could they run? Pleasant thought to have, while Malak lies herself down with you, spoons her body behind yours. Say you ran, bore that risk, became a fugitive and made her one too. How long would it take before you ruined it? These kisses, these embraces, these moments of unquestioned, unspoken need: divorced from the terror of impending battle, what would they become? Would they be tender? Would they be romantic? Would they be kind? Would you know these things if they came? Would you deserve them if you did? Tink-tink-tink. How long before Malak’s eternal, gregarious, and giving laughter only served to remind of what you are and ever will be, of the twisted purpose fate wrenched into your body? The army found you quickly, Rowena, and so you never had chance to know whether they forced this violence upon you or if they merely blossomed a trait inherent inside you. Lacking the human prey that combat provides, would you feel the need to seek it yourself? Ignorant of these thoughts, Malak molds her shape against Rowena’s back and lists an arm over her stomach, keeping her close as close can. Rowena’s hand wraps over it in kind. Pressing down her palm, she explores the lazy progression of Malak’s pulse beneath her skin. This close, she almost believes she can know a person’s—that is to say: a living person’s—thoughts. Then again, Malak’s thoughts have always been easy to know, at least to Rowena, who has sussed out, catalogued, and classified them across the entirety of their young lives. Then why do things always feel so uncertain? *** *** Time moves slowly on nights like these, and so do they. Malak stifles a yawn, poorly, spilling a soft sigh over Rowena’s skin. Her nose drifts against the soft hair at the nape of Rowena’s neck as a flutter of sleep sneaks through the door the rotgut opened. Her breath is warm like easy comfort, like spiced tea on cold nights when you’ve built a big enough fire to enjoy how the windows frost. Rowena makes herself still, enjoying the silence, and the unerring comfort of Malak’s dozing weight encumbering her. The muggy night air blooms sweat between the shared space of their bodies. Closing her eyes, she indulges, focusing on the feel of Malak’s stomach as it rises and falls against her spine. Imagine how many different sorts of lives a person like Malak might have, someone bold, and brave, and so unquestionably kind it beggars belief. Imagine how unthinkably lucky, Rowena, a slop of a girl like you might be to share in even one of those possibilities. What would you do? What could you provide? You’ve no idea how to raise sheep, that’s for starters. What kind of life is that, to fritter away on a woman who can’t rear animals, who never learned how to properly till soil, who can’t even write poetry, and who wouldn’t even try, how deeply her mother’s forcible wisdom carved that notch inside impressionable young Rowena? No way to eat words and now, in an army that feeds you, how pertinently you remember the fitful pangs of the hungry stomach that carried you, barely, through childhood. The army has food, you can say that for it. What’s more, it has Malak. But it only has Malak because it has you. Fingertips touch her brand; eyes follow. As the lamplight slowly dies, the silver etchings almost seem to glimmer. So question this: is what terrifies you on running away that you might be caught? Why worry about that? There are half a dozen different countries you could flee to, places distant enough, or crowded enough, that they’d know where to start or never even think to look in the first place. With each thought, her heart beats a little faster. All the tension Malak lovingly worked out of her forehead, it storms back twice as hard. Her nose loses the scent of Malak, attunes to the smell of gunpowder. Her skin goes tight in response. Distracted, she doesn’t notice until it’s become a problem. Here’s what’s truly terrifying, then: that a Malak freed from her conscription might soon desire to be free of her Wren too. Right now, when the army tells her where to go, she goes, and blessed are you, Rowena, that this coincides with your personal need. In absence of orders, Malak could go wherever she pleases. What if where she pleases is somewhere other than where you might be? What kind of life is there to be had with a woman who can’t even bear to look at herself in an unclouded mirror? Oh, that’s a bad memory. Don’t dwell on that one. The dead chatter all around her. She shushes them away as best she can—in places like this, few voices are soft and sweet as farmers and sheepherders, and rarely, once you’ve opened the gates of your perception, are you allowed to choose what flows through them. Box them away, cloister them off, bury this part of you. Breathe Rowena, easy and still. Tink-tink-tink. Hair spills over her face as her head, unbearably heavy with drink, lists to the side. Her gaze falls upon the lantern once more. Though its light is almost out, the moth remains unceasing in its attack. Good, something to concentrate on. She rivets her attention to the assailing insect. She stills her breathing, so she can better hear the flutter of wings. She watches it cycle through each rebound and riposte, using the mechanical, instinctual motion as a talisman to force away her own instinct bubbling towards the surface. It’s too late. She’s borderline. The whispers build pressure against her skull. Her molars grind. Her shoulders stiffen. Her neck locks. A chain slinks around her throat—click, click, click—and her breathing goes so thin she sees spots. She can no longer focus on the moth, her vision blooms and fades between each heartbeat. Growing dizzy. Wants to scream. You always want to scream, when the change starts. You have to make a sound, have to make it external, what brews inside you, for fear of exploding if you don’t. How ‘bout a scream? Just one. It’ll help. It’ll certainly help. She clamps down on the thought by jamming her teeth into the skin between her thumb and forefinger. They can’t be caught. Not a sound; not a sound. A clatter of falling cargo sounds from outside. Something large and metal hits dirt and Malak startles awake with a groan. Voices of soldiers clamor against each other, everyone blaming everyone else for the mishap. The anger anchors to Rowena’s bones, spurring that torrent of rage inside her to breakneck speed. The hair on her arms goes stiff and her skin pebbles with goose bumps. It could happen. It could happen at any moment. Furtive fingers grip at Malak’s leg. “Help,” she whispers. “Please, help.” Malak drags her into a hasty embrace. An arm crushes around her shoulders, strong as iron, and her head sockets beneath Malak’s chin. The illusory chain—no less present, for being imaginary—winds another measure around her throat. She narrows her vision and takes in a straggling breath. Fingers clench into her hair, denying any possibility of escape, no matter what rebellious throes her body might bring. It’s a fighter, her body, decoupled from the binding of rational thought. It thrashes in Malak’s embrace, resentful of its binding. Teeth snap out, finding Malak’s neck, and claiming it for their own. “Careful,” Malak says. “Gentle.” But Rowena is a beast and beasts have no capacity for “gentle.” So her teeth dig down, dig deep, and dig hard, drawing a cry from Malak loud enough to rouse a village. Loud enough to force even the frantic heart of a wolf to skip a beat. In the space of that heartbeat, Rowena snaps herself to senses, forces her body to remember its place. She is the mind and it is only so much meat. That’s how she claims this thing, that’s how she controls it, for it is she. However baneful that thought might be, there are worse things than thoughts. Her body goes slack. The chain around her neck cracks open. And she is free. Just like that, it’s over, finished, forestalled for another day. (today?) Shoulders rustle against Malak’s grip and Malak, sensing the moment has passed, releases, letting Rowena roll onto her back. They’re apart for all of a single blink before Malak spills atop her. Heartbeats come rapid and thick. Malak plants rough, worried kisses against the top of Rowena’s head, the sort of brazen, dauntless affection that is her hallmark. It’s a shame Rowena has no mind for it. The thrill of regaining control fires through her in supple wave, erasing conscious thought, combining with the intoxication of the sour hooch still roiling in her stomach and creating, for those few blissful seconds, a place in her mind untouched by the utterances of the dead or the roar of her past. As she watches the darkness pulse above her, Rowena heaves hoarse breaths into the still, humid air. Her skin loosens. Her vision regains its focus, bit by wonderful bit. In her stupor, she sees the tension evaporating from her. It sparkles in the darkness like emerald fireflies. Terrible as the change may be, no sensation is so sweet as the oblivion that follows a successful resistance. She is her own again, beholden to nothing, no rebellious body, no burdensome army, not even the storming blush that tends to follow the assault of Malak’s kisses. She feels as if she is floating in a great, white void. She is giddy. She starts to laugh. “Hey, hey, quiet now.” Touching fingers to either side of her face, Malak draws Rowena’s gaze to hers, voice almost brusque enough to conceal her anxiety. “You gave me a scare there…” Being caught due to a laughing fit would draw the same punishment as for any other reason, so Rowena clamps down on her laughing fit with tight lips, but that only explodes the sound through her nose in a sharp snort. The absurd, ebullient sensation in her chest winds down like a great, tensing coil. Tears spring up into her eyes. “Must feel awfully good, that change of yours.” Malak shakes her head, releasing an exasperated sound. “Haven’t heard you laugh like that in a long time.” Rowena emits an unrestrained cackle. “Better’n an evening rut!” “And how would you know? If you’ve got that to compare it to, I’m about to be awfully jealous.” It’s all Rowena can do to curtail herself to a string of long giggles. Stifling herself, clenching her teeth until they hurt, she decides she must be terribly, terribly drunk. Malak rolls her eyes, waiting for the fit to subside—which it does in short order, as weeping, snickering Rowena watches Malak’s fingers rock against the deep, red welt on her neck. Rowena’s cheeks pale. The sense blinks back into her head. “Don’t worry,” Malak says, glancing away. “No one will notice.” Rowena finds her mouth has opened—to apologize, she assumes. But how do you apologize for what you are? She sidles away an inch or two, manic relief quelled by this wave of sudden, striking shame. Malak does not abide shirking. She pulls Rowena back against her, comfort overwhelms concern, and Rowena melts into the loose hold. Again she luxuriates in the pulse of Malak’s heart, muffled through the thick, full flesh of her breasts. Shaking fingers drift over the firm abdomen pressed against her, exploring the ridges of muscle made hard first by labor, then by war. Shaking out her head, to clear away the cobwebs of bad booze and passing mania, Rowena extracts herself from the embrace and props herself up on her elbow. Looking down, she takes a moment to lose herself in the dark browns of Malak’s eyes, bright and beautiful, even with the lantern light all but gone. Cocking an eyebrow, flush of her own building nice and quick, Malak rubs the back of her hand against her nose and feigns a lack of care. “What?” Her eyes search the tent, eager for anywhere to look but Rowena’s placid, appreciative gaze. “Would you want to?” “Would I want to what?” Malak gives a hesitant cough. “Rut?” “Sure, that.” A sly smile scrawls across Rowena’s lips. “But all the rest, too: build a farm, raise spotted sheep, have children, grow old.” “What, children? Plan to grow them on beanstalks?” Rowena cants her head from side to side, enjoying the last wisps of weightlessness that buoy her brain. “Why not? I’m sure I’d do as well at that as I would raising sheep.” Allowing a small chuckle to roll through her chest, Malak drafts fingers over Rowena’s arm. “Either way, I’d like to see you try.” Rowena responds with a sharp, soldierly nod. “Good, then it’s settled.” Her smile claims her in full, big and broad as she hopes their barn will be. “Sheep or children first?” “Sheep.” “A whole flock.” “You’ll have to prove you can raise one before I’ll trust you with a flock of them.” Rowena feigns a cross look. “Have some faith!” Malak volleys back with a smile, worn and frayed around the edges, but no less appealing, cast upon her handsome face. “In you? Always.” “Well…” A smirk dimples Rowena’s cheeks. “Fine then, one—but only to start. I expect a whole flock, come spring.” “Spring? Bit too soon, isn’t it?” “Careful Malak. People waste away their whole lives worrying about things like too soon.” “Lucky we’re still young, then. We’ve got plenty of time to sort it out.” The camp is quiet for the space of a few seconds, quiet enough to hear each measure of their breaths. “And this war can’t last forever, can it?” Rowena asks. Although, for wolves, it very easily could. Always a pragmatist, even Malak has enough sense not to spread truth—they both know wolves don’t age out of army, and they don’t retire, that there’s only one way for women like Rowena free themselves. There’s nothing to be gained from saying it out loud, so why shatter the moment? Instead, she leans forward, nudging Rowena’s shoulder. “What would it take for you to share a few more of those smiles from time to time? I’d almost forgotten how precious they were.” Words like that are how young Malak Yata stole a younger Rowena Sted’s heart, in a time before the latter knew she had a heart to steal. So who’s to say words don’t have substance? Not her, not never. Eyes crossed, Rowena takes the time to think, to memorize this moment, to spin it over in her head and encase it in gold, so she can bury it safely in her chest for a later time. The smell of the air, the oppressive feel of the humidity, the tenderness of Malak’s touch, and the warm wash of her breath, all these sensations combine inside her, transmute into something different, something better. Malak gives her a jostle. “You little slag, quit drawing it out.” Rowena flops her head to attention, observing Malak with comfort-drenched eyes and a drowsy smile. She drinks in the line of Malak’s scar, the pleasing furrow of her brow, and how her lips purse with growing concern lacquered over by a thin veneer of impatience. There’s a sense of pride in that, that of all the people in the world a woman like Malak might make that face for, it’s someone like her. So it’s not a crime to make her wait, is it? Rowena’s earned this bit of gentle sadism. She must have. Finally, she says, “Bring more of that ‘shine next time and I’ll do more than smile.” Malak heaves an exasperated sigh into the air, just for show. “You’re a lousy drunk.” “The absolute, absolute worst.” A hand finds a hand and fingers lace, resting atop Malak’s stomach. Their smiles endure, easy and cool as morning dew. Rowena glances over to the lantern; the moth appears to have fluttered off, bored of selfish lanterns, or out in search of nectar. Well, godspeed, little moth, and here’s hope you’ll find your way. The dead murmur softly to her in the silence. As long as she doesn’t speak their stories aloud, they can’t enter her mind, but that does nothing to stave off the blunt sensation of their emotions, ragged and raw, enough to make you dizzy. Still, she does not shoo them away. As the moments pass, she touches each one in kind, even the terrifying ones—they deserve to be heard just as much as any other. A shouted order blooms in the air outside and Malak rolls her head to look, observing the scant glimmers of dawn fading in beneath the tent flap. A sigh finds her. “Reveille soon.” At the thought of battle ahead, Rowena’s body heaves out a final tremor, unconsciously preparing itself to crack its bones and change its shape, eager to have what it was denied, to sprout fur and fang and slake its murderous thirst on human bodies. A ponderous wetness buds in the corners of her eyes. She curves her fingers around Malak’s hip, applies the softest pull. At this silent appeal, Malak squeezes her hand atop Rowena’s. “We could run,” she says, as she always does on nights like these. “I’d protect you, make sure they never find you.” When they were young, Malak had no patience for the airy games of imagination Rowena would beg to play. Malak liked King of the Hill and fighting with sticks, preferring bloody noses to pretending at princesses. And yet, here she was: the woman who’d protect the beast. Isn’t that something of a fairy tale? But the rising sun has a way of shooing off the foolish inkling that there exists somewhere where someone can be something other than a beast. Rowena cups a hand around her upper arm, covering her brand. “Tomorrow,” she replies, as she always does on nights like these. “Tomorrow.” Malak nods. “Tomorrow, then.”


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