The Heretics on the Hill
Despite being an herbalist, I wouldnât consider myself much of an expert on botany in general. Itâs an interesting field of study, Iâll admit Iâve dabbled out of sheer curiosity, and I can name most of the flora in the valley Iâve chosen to reside of late. That being said, I canât say I have the fervor for it that some of the marten tapper tribes have. I could point to a tree and potentially name it and one or two uses for its bark or leaves or whatnot, but I couldnât tell you how to raise one from a sapling, exactly when the leaves will fall and what conditions are right for its growth.
All of that being said, I do have a favorite tree. For . . . much less intellectual reasons.
Itâs because at some point over the last few years, it became our favorite tree. Itâs broad, the bark is worn smooth to the touch, (save a few of the claw marks Iâve put in it) and itâs got this perfect little notch about half a foot over the top of my head that I can hold on to . . . .
I donât know when Ransom and I first started making a habit of fucking in the woods. Okay, no, thatâs a lie. I remember the exact day. The season, the weather, the meal weâd had for dinner, the smell of him. . . . But what I meant to say is, we have a house now. A beautiful little cabin Iâm immensely proud of, nicely wedged onto our small parcel of land, surrounded on one side by my gardens and the other by a sheer hill Ransom likes for neurotic, paranoid reasons that involve visibility and his rifle. We have a straw-stuffed mattress and goose down blankets and pillows, and a wonderfully warm hearth. The whole place smells of dried herbs, leather, tea and Ransomâs fur, and every time I come home to it, Iâm indescribably happy to be there. Sometimes I even close my eyes just to take the place in as I used to perceive the world.
But despite this, so often, we end up outside against our favorite tree. Thereâs always some excuse. We were busy with chores and it got late, and we just canât seem to make it inside. Or we were out stargazing, and we just canât seem to make it inside. Or we want to look at the stars while we â well you get the point.
Really, I think itâs just because no matter how comfortable we are inside our cabin, Ransom and I became accustomed to doing this outside. Or at the very least, in a tent. Which is essentially outside. Weâve also become very accustomed to the, eh. . . to this particular position, as it were. Weâve tried the walls inside the cabin, but they just arenât the same. . . .
So, itâs dusk, Ransom had been out all day checking traps and came home with a nice fat hare for dinner. Iâd been losing track of time in my garden, intermittently grinding, mixing and bottling. And heâd come home, set the hare down on his butchering stump, had leaned just so against the wiry birch tree near the garden and watched me for a time with that coyote smile and his aging golden eyes. Iâd looked up and seen him â yes, seen him, sometimes I still canât get over that â with his hip cocked just so, his lanky frame belying the strength I knew resided inside him, his long cotton sleeves shoved up along his biceps. The wind had caught his scent and brought it to me, and he smelled like pine and dirt and coyote musk, and all at once I knew I wanted him right then and there. And the tree was just. . . waiting.
So thatâs how we found ourselves repeating the same old same old, one of his strong, rough hands digging into the fresh winter coat that had grown in around my hips, my arms braced against the tree, gripping the little notch I knew was there, while he pounded into me from behind. While it did make me nostalgic in some ways for the days of old, when we were younger and every encounter like this was harried and wanton, I was glad for many other reasons that we were older now â and more experienced. Ransom and I had discovered some years ago a mixture of oils that were both good for oiling his bow, and for other, more carnal uses. So now he always had them on him, and that meant no more days I spent sore and regretting that we hadnât taken the time to prepare properly.
He was also far more careful and purposeful now than heâd ever been with me. Sure, some of that had to do with love and empathy, and all that good stuff. But he was also just far more experienced now and knew how to get me where we were both hoping to end up.
My own paw stroked my cock in a well-practiced rhythm, in time with his thrusts, a guttural groan escaping me as he once again brushed up against that spot deep inside me that I could never seem to reach on my own. The coyote chuckled and patted my rear, his knot pushing up against me with his thrusts, a reminder that he was growing close, as well. The promise of being knotted in and of itself was almost enough to push me over the edge, but when he released the hand on my hip to instead sink his fingers around my tail and pull on it just so, I knew I was done for. He gripped it close to the base and tugged me just so, into each thrust, right on the edge of being too rough, exactly how he knew I wanted it.
I cried out and came half into my hand, half in the dirt our footpaws were digging in to. And he redoubled his pace at that, fucking me hard through my climax, until he too was at his peak. He didnât let me brace for the knot, and that was probably for the best. He slid it into me in one solid thrust, and I cried out again. It was always more than I anticipated, I canât say Iâd ever really gotten used to it. But it was always worth it. The feeling of being so full afterwards, leaving my body nearly numb and shaking, Ransomâs chest against my back, his grip on me the only thing keeping me upright.
Well that, and the tree. I told you. Great tree.
Half an hour and a good scrub at the wash basin later, we were settling in for the night. I had a wooden bowl of peeled potatoes and carrots to cut, and Ransom was preparing the hare for the pot of water we were bringing to a boil. We usually preferred stew for dinner, it was easy and allowed us to use whatever we had on hand at the end of the day.
âHe was supposed to arrive earlier today,â Ransom noted from across the room, lowering the readied carcass into the boiling water. âI kept my trappinâ along the east road, soâs Iâd see âim before he made it to you. But no sign of âim yet.â
âMaybe he died on the road,â I muttered, chopping a potato firmly in half before turning it to do the same to the other side.
Ransom barked a laugh. âWouldnâ that be nice? I donât think we got that kindaâ luck, though.â
âYou never know,â I sighed. âPredators this time of year get hungry. Heâs one man.â
âOne very well-armed man, Iâd âmagine,â Ransom said.
âShivahâs sure about this, hm?â I hummed, moving on to the next potato.
âI trust âer info,â Ransom said. âShe was movinâ through town last month, think she ended up talkinâ to that Mayor fella of hers. He knows his people. Heâs city folk originally, âparently.â
âThis man wonât be from the city,â I said, darkly. âMen like him are only able to operate the way they do where the law is loose. The otherwolves. . . even the ones from this country, theyâve got laws in place for things like this. âProceduresâ. I talked with the Admiral about them, a bit,â I saw the coyoteâs ears go back at the mention of the cattle dog from so long ago. Still holding a grudge, apparently. âHe dealt with something like this, but it was in Amuresca, and it was a lot more formal. And he got out of it fine, but to be fair, he had a wife.â
âItâs the perfect damn cover,â the coyote sniffed, then glanced at me, smiling. âNot that I have any regrets.â
I looked up and smiled back at him. âNor do I.â
A sharp knock on the door startled me enough that I nearly cut my finger, and Ransomâs muzzle snapped towards the door, his lip peeling back to reveal his canines. We both looked at each other again for a moment, before he stood and slung his rifle over his shoulder, moving slowly towards the door.
âAh donât like that we didnâ hear âim approachinâ on the road,â he growled.
I didnât either, but I kept my mouth shut on the matter. The last thing I wanted to do was rile Ransom up further.
The coyote opened the door a crack, and I closed my eyes for a moment, letting my other senses take over. I couldnât see the man from here, and Iâd get a better feel for him perceiving the world as I used to. I gathered a few things right off the bat. He was feline â a mountain lion perhaps, that would explain the quiet approach. He smelled older, perhaps around the same age as Ransom. He also smelled somewhat sour, like whiskey, tobacco and the road. I was accustomed to that sort of cocktail with the traders and trappers that moved in and out, but for some reason Iâd expected he would be more fastidious. Most of the Preachers Iâd met in the area were. And most of them didnât drink.
More and more, the picture Shivah had painted for us of this man was proving true.
âThisâs private property,â Ransom said in a low tone. âWhat dâyou want at this ungodly hour?â
âI think we both know full well you was warned Iâd be makinâ a stop here tonight,â the man replied in a rough voice, like someone whoâd been on the pipe too long. There was a shuffling noise, like hands against rough cloth, and I opened my eyes in time to see a sliver of the man on the other side of the door, holding something up that caught the firelight from our hearth. âFederal Inquisitor,â he said, spitting on the stoop. âI was hopinâ we could all have a sit-down.â
He caught sight of me at that point, and I crossed my arms neatly over my lap, staring right back at him. He smiled a little, but it was a hollow, vile thing. Like heâd seen something that made him happy, but it wasnât for anyone elseâs good. âThat yer. . . partner back thar?â
âWe can talk,â Ransom said, his tone firm but thusfar not aggressive. âOn the porch. You ainât cominâ intâmy home, and no law says I have tâlet you.â
âWell now,â the man nodded, âI sâpose thatâs true. Then step outside with me, will you?â
Ransom opened the door further, and I stood, moving to join them. The cougar stood back as the two of us exited the cabin and took a moment to look us over. I did the same. He wasnât quite so tall as Ransom, but wider-set. Not very overweight, just barrel-chested, and with the slight paunch that came from drinking too much. Despite that, he knew his game, because heâd gotten to our porch without Ransom hearing him, and that was no mean feat, even with the night insects trilling and chirping as they were.
I saw no horse either, which explained why we hadnât heard him approaching on the road. He probably had one, or at least a donkey, but he mustâve left it in town. He wore a hunting knife on his belt and a rifle much like Ransomâs over his shoulder. Except his looked newer, and in far better condition than Ransomâs. Much too expensive a weapon for a man of his trappings. Stolen, probably.
The cougar looked between us for a few moments before turning his attention exclusively to Ransom. âHonestly, you kin tell the little missus there tâstep back inside, I think this a conversation best had bâtween men.â
âIâm a man,â I spoke up, my tone just as steady as Iâd hoped itâd be. âAnd since this concerns me, I feel I should hear it.â
âWell now, if you werenât a man, I guess I wouldnât be here, now would I?â The cougar chuckled, but there was no real mirth in his town. âYou got it then fox. You kin stay.â
âBegginâ your pardon, but this is our land,â Ransom interjected, coldly. âIf anyone should be tellinâ someone who is or isnât welcome âround here-â
âLetâs cut to the chase,â the feline glared once more at me, as if he thought heâd intimidate me this time when he hadnât the first. âYou know why ahâm here. Word got âround about you two anâ yer. . . domestic bliss. You know they got a name fer you at Crossroads, right?â
âThe heretics on the hill,â I said. âCanât imagine how we earned such an auspicious title.â
âOh you canât, canât you?â The feline snarled back, derisively.
âLook fella,â Ransom said, his tone adopting a friendlier air Iâd seen him put on before when he was dealing with difficult traders or trying to get out of a scrape. It didnât fool me, of course. But then Ransom wasnât really âfriendlyâ, in the real way, with many folks in the world. It was a rare soul that earnestly heard his more compassionate side. âI donât know what an âInquisitorâ is, let alone what the hell makes you âFederalâ-â
âAhâm Federally licensed, thatâs what the hell that means,â the cougar spat again, this time very close to Ransomâs feet. âLike a Marshall, âcept Iâm out here protectinâ society from ungodly behavior.â
Ransom got a dark look at that. âYou ainât no Marshall, and donât you go comparinâ yourself to one.â
âBoy, you donât have to believe me for it tâbe true,â the cougar curled back his nose. âAnd I wouldnât be here if I didnât already know what you boys is up to on this here mountain-â
âWeâve broken no laws,â I spoke up. âWe bought this property outright, we deal in legal goods, and we donât encroach on anyone elseâs land or bother anyone in town. In fact, I treat most of the people that live within fifty miles of here.â
âThereâs the law of man,â the cougar said, drawing out his words, with a paw pointed heavenwards. âAnd then thereâs the law. . . of God. And the law of God states that if two men are sharinâ a property, sharinâ in each otherâs business, fer this long, without beinâ kin?â He shook his head slowly. âSomethinâ ungodly is goinâ on there. And there are a few folk sayinâ so, or I wouldnât be here.â
I saw Ransomâs jaw tighten at that, and I felt his pain. We couldnât, and would never know who it was who had reported on us. Inquisitors in general were rare in Carvecia, the Amurescan religion here was fractured and changed from what it had been in its motherland, partially by cultural necessity, but also because many of the people whoâd settled here had been those on the lowest rungs of their caste society, either because of species or breeding. Hell, in Amuresca, a feline would barely be allowed to practice, let alone hold any position within the church.
That being said, this man was a fraud. When weâd heard one was in the area, and had been warned by a local man â we suspected a friend or relative of whomever had reported on us â that we would be getting a visit from him, Shivah had looked into the whole thing for us. Inquisitions in Amuresca were highly ritualized and complex, and primarily reserved for the upper class who might be falling from grace. The practice here in Carvecia had been bastardized into something more akin to a witch hunter, a vigilante who took it upon themselves to remove unwanteds and punish âcriminalsâ, seize their land and rob them blind in the process.
In short, he was here to kill us. Why heâd gone through the trouble of meeting with us first, I couldnât say. Probably to assure himself that we were in fact irredeemable flaming homosexuals that no one would miss. If he accidentally murdered an innocent, the law might actually catch up with him.
Ransom and I enjoyed the freedom that came with living on the frontier, in the mountainous land that neither tribe nor Carvecian could yet tame. But you had to be strong to make it out here, for many reasons. And not all of them had to do with the weather or the terrain.
Of course, that was a double-edged sword. A fact which Ransom soon pointed out to him.
âThis is our land,â he repeated, his tone rougher now, with more of a growl in it. âIt ainât yours, it ainât the Churchâs. . . it ainât even Godâs. And itâs no oneâs damn business what happens on it.â
âAll land is Godâs Kingdom,â the cougar said, with the sort of twisted serenity you hear in the voices of the truly delusional, who use their faith to be at peace with whatever theyâve done with their lives. âHe sees all and knows all. Iâm but a vassal of his righteousness.â
I glared at him, barely avoiding rolling my eyes. âI think you mean âvesselâ,â I muttered.
âAh know what ah said!â He belted out.
âLook here,â Ransom interjected. âWe all know yer just a thief with a tin badge you had some smith punch out for you. And you think no oneâs gonna give a shit what happens to two flaming homosexuals, âspecially once you pay off whatever informant you got and most of the law âround here. But youâre sniffinâ up the wrong fuckinâ tree this time.â
He took a step towards the man, and perhaps out of revulsion, or earnestly because Ransom could be pretty intimidating when he tried, the cougar stepped back.
âWe ainât just two lone âhereticsâ,â he growled. âWeâre two heretics with friends. We made good in this area, we got comrades a-plenty and good connections at thâlocal trade posts, my man over thereâs saved more lives with his healinâ than we could ever make in enemies.â
He took another step forward, and the cougar nearly stumbled as he stepped backwards, having hit the edge of the porch.
âThis is our land and itâs good land,â the coyote showed his fangs, dropping his voice to a near inaudible low. âAnd I ainât lettinâ some dickless thief spoutinâ religious garbage take it away from us. Youâre in back country now, boy. If you want somethinâ âround here, you best be able to take it. I donât know what yer experienceâs been previous. . . but you ainât scarinâ these two flaming homosexuals off their land. And if itâs blood you want, well. . . .â
At that, the coyote rested a paw on the hilt of his large skinning knife. The blade rested unsheathed on his belt. The cougar eyed it, and my fur prickled as I watched the stand-off. I hadnât wanted it to come to this, but Iâd known it was a possibility. Iâd honestly been hoping either weâd hear the man coming on the road and Ransom could scare him off with a few shots, or that heâd be little more than a bully we could frighten off with some intimidation of our own. Ransom had definitely put in a good showing there, but the cougar wasnât budging.
He had a knife nearly the size of Ransomâs, and he looked like the sort of man who might know how to use it. He had a rifle too, which meant if he left. . . .
The cougarâs stance slackened, and he chuckled. âAlright, calm down there son,â he said, putting his hands up in a placating gesture. âBest not tâkill a man over a misunderstandinâ. And thatâs what this is, it seems. A misundersandinâ.â
âThat so?â Ransom replied, with a flat affect.
âSeems so,â the cougar said, the edge in his voice still there, and no kindness in his eyes. âSo, beinâ as you wonât be havinâ me in for supper, Iâm guessinâ-â
âYou guessed right, there,â the coyote replied.
âIâll make my way on off your property, and leave you gents to enjoy your eveninâ.â He tipped his hat, stepping off the stoop with far more sure footing, now.
He shot me one last look as he turned to leave, and I knew disgust when I saw it. This wouldnât be the first, or the last time Iâd gotten that look.
I watched Ransom as the man began making his way back down the dark road into the woods. He never once went for his rifle, but then, that didnât surprise me. The cougar kept glancing in our direction, but Ransom wasnât one to shoot a man in the back. Out here, the murder of a traveler like this âInquisitorâ would be easy to hide, but it wasnât just about consequence. Ransom had his own brand of honor.
It was one of the few things we didnât share.
âHeâll be back to kill us in our sleep,â I stated, evenly. âYou know that.â
â. . . yeah,â the coyote admitted, at length. He gave a long, weary sigh. âAlright. Light the lantern.â
It was later that night, in fact, that we heard the gunshots.
I was woken from a dead sleep, but by the look of his sharp eyes and the fact that he hadnât undressed, Ransom had never gone to sleep at all. I reached over to the bedside table for my spectacles, blinking blearily. âHow far off dâyou think-â I began.
âSounded close,â he said, grabbing his rifle from the wall. âIâd say out near the creek. Câmon.â
I pulled on a simple shirt and britches, and we made our way out into the night, the forest alive with the sounds of the late fall insects and frogs, singing their last cacophony of song before the freeze came. Ransom marched down his trails, as sure-footed as ever, and I followed in his wake. Ironically, I had more trouble making my way around at night now than I had when Iâd been blind. Sight can be a crutch, sometimes.
As we drew closer towards the stream, Ransomâs pace slowed and he measured his footfalls, growing silent. I did the same, having far less trouble with it than he was. With so many leaves fallen already, it wasnât the best time of year to be stalking through the woods at night, but Iâd grown up learning to stalk through crunching snow, so I was a little more practiced at it. Ransom had always been more of a trapper than a hunter.
Fortunately for us, she had us both beat.
The dark figure snaked an arm out and grabbed Ransom roughly by the shirt, yanking him with a clipped noise behind a cluster of birch trees. He gave a muffled grunt of surprise and nearly went for his knife until I grabbed at his arm.
âRansom!â I whispered fiercely. âNo.â
The bobcat stared at us in the darkness, her eyes catching the dim starlight in an iridescent green. Ransom relaxed, albeit not very much, and seemed about to say something when another shot rang out in the dark, clipping the tree not immediately to the right of us, but nearby.
âI have him pinned down,â Shivah whispered. âAcross the stream, near the Magnolia.â
Ransom nodded. âIs he-â
âCaught him at least once, I think,â she replied. âBeen watching him since yesterday. He has a camp downstream. Scouted the area out all of yesterday, found one of your game trails I think he planned to move in on to come up the east side of your cabin.â
âShit, I didnât see none of that when I was out checkinâ traps,â Ransom cursed.
Shivah smiled a bit, nocking another arrow. âWell,â she said, âthatâs why youâve got me.â
âThanks for being here,â I said, earnestly.
âAlways,â she replied sincerely, then looked to Ransom. âYou go east, Iâll go west. Puck-â
I put my hands up. âYou two have got this. I had the root ready if dinner ended up being an option, but. . . things got unpleasant first. He wouldâve realized something was amiss if weâd fed him.â
Shivah picked up a nearby rock and threw it towards the direction of the stream. Another shot rang out, and then Ransom and Shivah both bolted. And I stayed put and waited. And waited. It seemed like an eternity, as it so often did when I was waiting on my more adventurous comrades.
I shuddered as another shot rang out, but this one sounded farther away and was followed by an unfamiliar yell. Likely the cougar, by the pitch of it. The far softer sound of an arrow singing through the trees followed suit, and then another shot. And then nothing.
I gave ânothingâ all of a few seconds before I left my hiding spot, bounding down the nearby slope and leaping the stream, heading towards the direction Iâd heard the yell from. By the time I got there, it seemed to be over. Or very nearly so.
Shivah was standing at the edge of the clearing near the magnolia, and Ransom was partially beneath its branches, leg out, pinning the mass of a man I expected was the cougar to the ground, rifle drawn on him. I could smell blood in the air, but fortunately, none of it was my comradesâ blood. I knew the scent of that well enough by now to tell the difference.
The cougar was struggling to breathe, he had an arrow in his thigh and had clearly taken a rifle shot center mass. It looked like heâd been hit in the lung, probably past the point of saving, but itâd take him awhile to drown on his own blood.
I calmly walked into the clearing, and looked down on him, dispassionately.
Iâm not a bad person. At least, I donât consider myself one. But this man was planning to murder us in our sleep and parcel out our land and belongings to the highest bidder, because Ransom and I had the nerve to live together and be happy. And he was planning to do so, knowing heâd likely get away with it, because of who we were. People like us werenât generally well-like or wanted. Heâd probably done this many times before.
This time, heâd made a mistake.
âYou couldâve just left,â Ransom said, reloading his rifle slowly, meticulously. âI tried tâwarn you.â
He raised the re-loaded gun, leveling it at the manâs head.
âI told you,â he sighed. âWe have friends out here.â