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Chapter 1

The blond-headed youth of nineteen looked down at his much younger but larger friend of seventeen from his perch on the limb of a tree.

"I heard my fadra tell my madra that pockets of Amailites have been raiding wagons and whole villages in the Jethrik-held territories of the Amalite. That the Jethrik has sent forces in to find them and kill them out but have not found this Amalite horde."

"My madra has said nothing of it," Jabone said, pulling a face. "But she did come back from the council meeting complaining about how stupid people could be."

"They aren't going to tell us are they? Our parents want to keep us here as children forever," Tarius said in a disgusted tone. "They had all these great adventures and fought in all these great battles, but they want to chew our food for us 'til we are old and grey."

"My madra says there is nothing glorious about war, "Jabone said.

"Then tells all these wonderful stories. My fadra and madra do the same thing, but with no where close to the ability of your madra or your father Dustan," Tarius said. He pulled a face and jumped out of the tree.

"Damn . . . here comes trouble." Trouble appeared in the guise of Tarius's younger sister Ufalla. She had just turned seventeen and had just the week before gone through her sword-making ritual. Having her finger cut off had slowed her down very little and she wore her sword on her back just like they did. Tarius's younger sister was bigger than he was and colored like their mother instead of like their father which caused no end of resentment toward her from him. She looked like everyone else and she was a normal size for a Kartik which meant she was six feet tall. Tarius was only five four and had finally admitted even to himself that at nineteen he wasn't going to grow any more. He had been born premature and the Great Leader herself had saved him only by breathing her own life into him. Had it not been for the greatness of his birth and the fact that he'd been named for the Great Leader and was treated throughout the packs as a good omen he very easily could have grown up resenting the whole world. As it was he just heaped his resentment onto his sister.

"Hey Jabone," Ufalla said, making sure that they could see her sword with her finger in the hilt and her healing hand. "You think your madra could give me a sword lesson?"

"You sprout!" Tarius spat back. "You think you deserve lessons from Tarius the Black?" He had to call her "the black" because otherwise people thought he was talking about himself.

Ufalla looked at him like he had a cat growing out of his head. "She has always trained us and Fadra says it is time I had some one-on-one time with her."

"Who are you trying to kid? Fadra doesn't want you to fight until your wound is completely healed; he said so last night. I swear, Ufalla, you are such a little liar."

"I'm not so little," she said with a sadistic grin.

"Why I oughtah . . ."

"That's enough!" Jabone thundered. He smiled at Ufalla. As much as she bothered her brother was how much she didn't bother Jabone at all. He liked Ufalla. In fact it was his feelings for her that had made him first realize—to his horror—that he was not queer. "I'm sure my madra would be pleased to give you a lesson. Can I see your hand?"

She proudly showed it to him.

"I think it's healed enough. Come on." He started leading the way and Tarius followed them grumbling all the way.

They found his madra lying with her head in his mother's lap under a tree, sleeping.

Jena looked up at them and smiled knowing what the girl wanted.

"Madra!" Jabone screamed.

Tarius the Black jerked into a sitting position. She glared at him when she saw they weren't under siege.

"Madra, could you give Ufalla a lesson?"

"Son . . . Could you not see that I was sleeping?"

"That's why I screamed. Please?" he asked with his best smile.

"Oh all right." Tarius jumped to her feet. In her younger days this had been an easy trick for her, now that she was over fifty years old it was quite a bit harder. If she had been human it would have been impossible. "Let's see the hand."

The sword binding was a custom of Tarius's pack, a pack which had been mostly destroyed when she was a child. But now she had a new pack and she wanted to continue the practice of lopping off the little finger of the right hand and putting it into the handle of your sword. But only her son and Harris's two children—her god children—had done it. Jabone, who had been named for a famous grandfather he had never met, could remember the giant row that had erupted in his household when the time of the sword building had begun. His madra had carefully forged his sword herself, working on it for months, folding and refolding the metal. The whole time the rest of his parents had insisted that their son was not going to be disfigured in such a way; that it was just crazy. In the end it was only Jabone's own insistence that he wanted it done that tipped the scale in Tarius's favor.

Tarius looked at the girl's hand and nodded.

As he watched the girl spar with his madra his heart leapt in his chest. Ufalla was if possible even more beautiful when she was fighting. She was good; she'd always been good. Madra said she was born for the sword.

"Honey . . . Don't set your sights there," Jena said in his ear.


"Honey, look at how she looks at your madra,," Jena said gently.

He did and his heart sank. Like every young queer girl he'd grown up with, Ufalla obviously had a crush on his madra. "I was sure . . . Since her parents and her brother were all like me. Since she wasn't Katabull. Mother . . . I think I love her, how can I just turn that off?"
"True love only comes when both people feel it. You don't have to turn off your feelings for Ufalla, just change them a little. She could be as good a friend to you as your madra's name sake, maybe even better."

He nodded looking like a cart had just rolled over his favorite dog.

"Jabone," his madra barked. "Come here."

Jabone's expression changed instantly and he trotted over to his birth mother knowing that he was about to get a sword lesson. He loved to fight as much as his madra did, and at least for now heartbreak could be forgotten simply by putting a weapon in his hand.

Jabone took his sword off his back, took the practice weapon of bamboo from Ufalla, and faced off against his mother. The older woman had obviously worn the youngster out and was still in the mood for a fight, which was no doubt why she was calling for a new opponent. She called for him instead of Young Tarius because Jabone was a far better fighter than his friend and his madra wanted at least one good fight. Someone who made her work and think.

Now his weapon had occasionally struck his madra but he had never come close to besting her in a fight which was why he was more than a little surprised when the sweep she'd been trying to teach him for months and he had never quite been able to master worked and he sent his madra flying backwards and splattering into the dust. She looked up at him, obviously as surprised as he was. Jena actually reached her side before he did.

"Honey are you all right?" Jena asked in a concerned tone.

Jabone reached down and helped Tarius to her feet, leaning down to help her to her feet even as Jena did.

"I'm fine, Jena. Quit dithering around me. I'm not some old woman who can't take a blow," she said in an agitated voice.

"I'm very sorry Madra," Jabone said.

Tarius just laughed then and slapped him hard on the back. "Jabone . . . You just kicked my ass."

"I didn't mean to, Madra, I swear it."

She hugged him and kissed his cheek. "I'm so proud of you. Come on, let's try it again."

He held back afraid he was going to hurt his madra again.

"Son," she said, stopping and clicking her tongue. "You cut me to the quick. Do you think me so feeble that you have to pull your blows? Do you believe that I can't hold my own against you? They are just practice blades. Go ahead, don't be afraid to fight me."

Five minutes later he sent her sprawling again, and this time as she sat on the ground. She just started laughing and crowing. Jena and Jabone once again rushed to her side to help her up, and Jabone now warmed inwardly at the look of pride on his madra's face.

"Well," she said, "I think it's fair to say that you've managed to perfect that move. Young Tarius, would you like your lesson as well?" she asked, brushing herself off. The boy eagerly walked over to her. Jabone, Ufalla and Jena watched as Tarius trained the young man. In the same way that Tarius had trained Harris to fight around his club foot she taught his son to fight around his size. Young Tarius was a good fighter and brave to the point of being reckless, so she punished his aggression and hoped he learned his lessons.

* * *

Tarius was Katabull and the Katabull didn't age as quickly as humans did but she was still feeling her age as she limped towards their bed. She lay down and wrapped herself around Jena.

"Are you sure you're all right?" Jena asked with concern.

"Fine just a little stiff. He got me clean, Jena, and before you ask no I wasn't going easy on him. He's just that good. He's too good."

"What do you mean?"

"Only that it's only a matter of time before he wants to go and try his skill out." She shook her head. "I don't want to think about that right now." She rolled in Jena's arms to look at her.

Jena recognized the look on her face and grinned. "What about your leg?"

"What about it?" She kissed Jena, Jena kissed her back, and neither of them worried about the leg.

* * *

Jabone couldn't sleep. Their, house like most Katabull houses, was really just four little round huts connected with covered hallways. The largest was their kitchen and living area and the three smaller ones were separate bedrooms all of which opened to the common room. Jabone's room was in the middle. The cub's room was always in the middle in cross-paired households so that all the parents were close to tend, and if need be, defend the young. He should have been sharing this room with siblings, at least one. Now when he would have liked to have someone to talk to about what was on his mind he missed having a brother or sister more than ever. He frowned. His brother was in the dirt of the Jethrik.

He heard the sound of his mothers pleasuring each other and wondered if he'd ever know the kind of love they shared. He felt bad about hurting his madra especially when he'd seen her limping and felt a little relieved to hear them doing what he knew they were doing. It meant he couldn't have hurt her very badly.

He had bested Jena and Dustan two years ago and had bested Arvon last spring and Harris just three short weeks ago, but he had never in a billion years dreamed that he might someday best his madra. Oh she was still much better than he was, but he had gotten her clean twice.

But none of this by itself would have kept him up. Ufalla was queer. Just his luck the only person he had ever felt anything for was as queer as he was straight. He had told his mother that he thought he loved Ufalla, but now lying there listening to his mothers go at it in their room he knew he hadn't really. It was attraction and liking, but it wasn't what his parents had.

As his mothers wound down his fathers started up and he realized he was going to have to move away from home soon.


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