By the time I was sure that Gerit was okay, Aiden stood in dragon-man shape in the stream with us. Tank, still wolf man shaped, was dragging the corpses of our hunters into a pile.
"Don't change yet," Aiden told me. "Nod or shake your head. Are you hurt?"
I started to shake my head, but realized my wings felt tender. I stretched them out to examine them. Aiden followed my head to the sore spots. Most were along the front edge of my wing where there was bone. I had a few holes in the membrane of my wings, but they didn't really hurt and they closed while Aiden examined my sore places.
"Gerit, report," he ordered while making a tactile examination of the rest of my wings.
Gerit fell into a half and half shape like Aiden's, without the fins along his arms but with wings and stinger tail. His voice in this shape was deeper than baritone, but nowhere near as deep as Aiden's dragon-man voice. "The two ogres that threw stones at you looked around after you left. They started toward the tree Zoeshine climbed, so I made a grab for one of them. The wind was with me, and I was able to get her up to a killing height before I let her go. I was taunting them from up there when the male roused."
He pointed to his perch in the tree opposite mine. "He saw one of his harem attacking my tree, but kept looking. When he headed for Zoeshine's tree, I attacked him. The aggressive female jumped me before I could get back in the air. Then Zoeshine ripped her from my back and killed her. The water gave us mists, the male charged us, and we were in close combat. One of the docile females came to the male's aid. I wasn't able to intercept her before she bit Zoeshine. She gutted the female, and the male fell to Rage. I was circling for a neck blow when Zoeshine wrapped him, gutted him and pushed her venom into his neck. Then, you returned."
As Gerit recited the events of the fight, and gave genders to the creatures we killed, I got shocky. That switch that had clicked and turned off my fear, turned off everything but this implacable resolve that no one was going to hurt my drake, didn't quite click back, but it was like now that the danger was passed, the reality that I had just killed not one, but three other mortal beings rolled over me.
My lovers caught the shift in my emotions. Aiden stepped up and caught my head in his hands, one above my nostrils the other below my chin. "Their death was necessary as soon as they attacked. Ogre don't stop once they begin a hunt. You defended. You guarded. This is what it means to be vradin. To be guardians. You did no more than what was necessary."
I pulled away from Aiden and drew in my scales and my wings. I had some spectacular bruising on my very naked flesh.
"Tanak," Aiden called, and Tank the wolf man was sweeping me up out of the water, holding me against his fuzzy, furry chest.
"I'll take her back to the den," Tank said, heading for shore.
"No!" Aiden and I said.
"No, please," I said. "I need, I need-- I don't know what I need, but don't leave me alone!"
Aiden said, "Luna need to grieve their kills. I will show you the rites my brother used to restore his Peace. But, Zoe Elan, my Sun Fall, you saved Gerit's life by joining the fight. You did no less and no more than what the ogres made necessary. I swear my gratta to this."
I believed him; he pretty much swamped me with his sincerity, and Gerit and Tank's emotions held agreement. So, I believed him, which helped. But that didn't take away the shock of killing. "Just don't leave me," I said, softer voiced, into Tank's fur.
He squeeze me and said, "Never, little bit. But someone will have to go see to Byorn. Aiden left him at your den."
Gerit said, "I'll go and tend him. I don't know the Luna rites, and I am not first in Zoeshine's heart to give her the most comfort."
Tank's emotions bobbled, his uncertainty of that last bit coming through, and so I clung tighter to him. "Okay by me. But I'm not frenching you while you're furry, Tank. I probably won't even bite you."
That startled a laugh out of him and Aiden. Gerit felt puzzled. Duh, I'd been talking in English.
He shifted back to full drake form and took flight. Tank held me, Aiden taking over gathering the bodies.
"Why aren't you guys going back to man shape? Why this, this half and half?" I asked.
Tank said, "This half and half is our fighting form. You need to master your vradin form before we start trying to show you how to balance in between."
"Is that like when Aiden has me change part way and come back?" I asked.
Tank wiggled his head. "Kind of. Fighting form is a balance point. Slow changes and aborted changes are more about control."
"So why are you guys still in fighting form?"
"Because ogres usually run in family packs. This one was a male with four females, no young. They are induced ovulators, like a lot of the big cats, so it's possible he just took over the harem and killed off the last male's cubs, but ogres also get territorial when their females start breeding. They were traveling. Where are the cubs?"
"You think there are more around?" I asked.
Aiden laid out the last of the ogres in time to rock his hand side to side and say, "They could have also been driven off their land by another group of ogres. Killing a rival's young is common among them. None of the females are pregnant."
He beckoned us with a hand gesture. "Come, and I will show you my brother's way of honoring the lives he took."
The rites were fairly simple. Tank's curiosity made it obvious that this was not something common among the ulf clans. Aiden led me through the words and motions with sombre dignity, and by the end, I felt sad at the killing, but not shocky anymore.
Standing over the corpses, facing into the wind, we said, "Before the wind, I honor the fallen. Their breath is our breath."
Pouring water through our hands, our faces turned to the sky, we said, "In water and under sun, I honor the fallen. Their blood returns their warmth to the world."
Kneeling on the rocky beach beside the corpses, we said, "Over earth, I honor the fallen. I take their life that we may live."
Then we skinned the ogres. Aiden took the male's tusks. The furs, my guys told me, were highly valued, and not just because ogres were hard to kill. Once cleaned and properly preserved, they stayed supple for decades. The fur was naturally water repellent and didn't frost up the way sheep fur did.
The tusks Aiden would whittle later, probably into beads and other decorative items. Beads were a form of currency among the vradin, like they had been for the Native Americans, and for much the same reason. When each bead is hand carved, bored, smoothed and polished, it takes time.
The last step we took was to crack up their skulls and scoop out their brains, to use when tanning their furs.
Ogre meat, Aiden said, could make people sick, so once we finished processing an ogre, he took the carcass away to lay it out for scavengers to clean up, far enough away from my home that we wouldn't be bothered by them.
Tank and I washed up in the stream after we finished skinning the last ogre. It was a much more subdued cleaning up than this morning's, with Tank finally feeling safe enough to fall back into his man shape. He had packed one of my sari skirts for me in the carry sack he gave me earlier, and I tied that around me. Then I stuffed the shorts and shirt from this morning back into the sack.
Aiden returned while we were preparing the skins for transport. He made a growly sound and Tank made an obeisance. Then Aiden picked up the last two carcasses and took flight again.
We picked up the skins and more gruesome bits and went home, careful of the trail we left.
Byorn was curled up in the middle of Zoeshine's furs, his back purple and welted. Gerit gave a silent gratitude that the Sky Fang was breathing well enough.
Most physical injuries vradin could heal by Changing from one shape to the other, but sometimes, when a vradin Changed while still in shock from taking an injury, they brought the injury with them. At that point, they needed to heal completely before trying to shift again.
Byorn appeared to have taken just the pain of the injury with him, and not an actual broken bone.
Gerit, having been in Byorn's position before, didn't waste time asking what the green drake wanted. He found one of the cloths that Zoeshine had used to bath him and the basin she had used. He filled the basin from the blue 'faucet' and let the cloth soak up the chill water.
"I'm laying a cold cloth on your bruising. Cuss if it hurts," he told Byorn, suiting actions to words.
The green drake hissed and his skin rippled with scales. Then he started saying every foul phrase he knew.
"Can you take sustenance from the wind?" Gerit asked after a moment.
Byorn, golden eyed, growled at him.
"I can't share healing directly, but I can give to the wind. If you can take from the wind, then I can help you heal."
"Don't bother," the Sky Fang said around a pain snarl. "The bruising will ease by sun fall. How did you all know to scatter? I didn't even know the ogres were there until the boar hit me."
Gerit sat on his heels beside the bed. "You didn't feel the quishine's alert? Zoe's panic threw me into the air before I knew what I was doing. I was well over the trees before I realized it was her panic and not my own, and the Montang was in the air with you by that time."
Byorn grimaced. "Perhaps if she had lain with me I would have felt it as you did."
Gerit held up his hand in negation. "We all felt her lust and her shame for our watching her and the ulfgart, and then none of us had been favored by the quishine."
Byorn looked away, hunching farther into himself. Gerit got the sense that the elder qui knew something he wasn't sharing. Gerit checked the temperature of the cloth and found it warm, so he chilled it again, wringing out the extra dampness and reapplied.
After a moment, Byorn relaxed from his hunching and asked, "What happened?"
Gerit gave him the report of the fight, and what he knew of the after math.
"If she could fight that well, why did she run?" Byorn asked.
Gerit showed him open palms and dropped shoulders. "When was your first ogre fight?"
Byorn frowned and hunched into himself again.
"Mine," Gerit said. "Was the last time I lived among the Long Talons. I had fought before. I had killed before. I was still very scared. I don't think the quishine knew she could fight. You heard her last night. She hasn't even hunted before. Never killed before. And she's terribly, terribly young."
Gerit left him to his thoughts, happy to think his own.
Aiden wasn't wrong. Grounded, held there by the female where the male could break his wings, Gerit had been in a desperate position. Zoeshine joining the fight had tipped the balance, not least because she had taken out the last aggressive female. Her resolve had filled him, both calming his Rage to make him more clear headed, and granting him the greater speed, strength and endurance of Enragement.
There wasn't any question that the boar ogre would focus on her. She was the larger drake, and the one more likely capable of damaging them. She had done an excellent job of keeping the boar focused on her, giving Gerit openings to sting and bleed him without having to worry about getting knocked senseless by the bruiser. Ogres were just unfortunately used to hunting drakes, so it took a lot of venom to slow them down.
But then, after the fight, despite having drawn the majority of the boar ogre's blows, she had looked to his health, been concerned enough to scent him for injury.
She had guarded him.