A/N: For three years I have been meaning to write this story. It has changed, evolved, and changed some more. I'm going to say this once, and only once. Despite the name, despite any preconceived ideas on your part or mine, the Behemoths are no more.
With slow, careful strokes Hunter brushed the lather onto his face, hesitant to smother the stubble that spotted his cheek while leaving the remains of his graying beard untouched. He reached for the razor, the cut throat razor he'd been issued before he even needed to shave.
With the same timid care he ran the straight razor back and forth over the strop, giving it a sharper edge with every pass. God knows how uncomfortable shaving with a dull blade was. He needed it sharp.
Hunter looked at himself in the tarnished mirror. The hollow, beaten man he saw wasn't kind to him. The once burning passion in his eyes had been dimmed by defeat and failure. It was the first time he'd seen his reflection in nearly six months. Mirrors were luxuries not befitting a military base the likes of Sven.
He set the razor down and washed the lather off his face, his hands bristling the rough hairs he was determined to be rid of. But they weren't enough. He picked up the scissors and trimmed away the thin beard he'd grown through negligence. Hunter'd built his military career on the way he showed himself to the world. He wasn't ready to let that go just yet.
Again with the lather, the sharpening of the razor. He did it automatically. His thoughts lay in the past, in Sven. In failure.
A soft yelp echoed through his washroom as the razor skipped the strop and bit into his arm.
Hunter swore and went about fixing the cut the best he could. He cleaned the blade and started sharpening it again, his skin had taken away some of the edge.
He swore again at the memory of Sven. That's what they wanted to talk to him about. Hunter wanted to head out to the field again and fight the damn Canines but they wouldn't let him. They wanted to talk to him about his failure.
His mind automatically flinched away from the word, but it always came back to it.
Sven was a failure no matter how he wanted to think of it.
The razor was sharp enough to split a hair. Hunter stared at it dumbly for a few minutes, trying to work his way around an idea that was just beyond his reach.
With a will of its own the razor moved by itself. He could feel the fine edge of the thing shaving off the hair, layer by layer, shaving away the man, layer by layer.
He looked in the mirror. It seemed so unnatural to him. The blade was pressed against his throat. It seemed so natural to him.
The blade slipped from his hands, it fell into the bowl of warm, murky water littered with the shavings of a lesser man.
Hunter didn't swear as he picked it up, as was usual. Solemnly he retrieved the razor. It was warm from the water.
He hadn't had time to shave in Sven. The siege had taken all of his time.
And now they wanted to hang him for it.
Unconsciously he felt the warm blade rest against his wrist. He looked down. It seemed so natural to him.
They wanted to hang him for Sven, because he'd failed. But in a thought, he could take that away from them. He could hang himself, so to speak.
All it'd take was. Just. One. Cut.
Hunter finished shaving and put the razor away. With a savage growl he told them he wasn't hanged yet.
A small entourage followed him to the council's chamber. Most of them had been involved in the siege. The ones that weren't knew Hunter of old. Hund said he wanted to be there but the council was keeping him outside the city until they'd decided what they wanted to do with his brother.
Flast fidgeted. "Get rid of them."
One or two of the men behind him tried to stay but a pair of Blueface guards escorted them out with that quietly menacing posture they were famous for.
The five men before Hunter looked him down, trying to get the measure of the man. It wasn't the first time they'd done it and it always made Hunter feel like an object, as if they were dehumanizing him.
That's what they were doing. Trying to see him as a tool that had finally worn out, or broken, when they needed it most.
They gestured for him to have a seat, examining him like they did.
Shesten sighed. "How have you been, Hunter?"
"Well enough," Hunter said evenly. "I'd feel a lot better if this wasn't happening."
Flast said drolly, "Wouldn't we all." Two of the council members tried to smile but couldn't fake it well enough. Old man Graylin looked like an executioner.
Shesten started it off. "We'd like to review what happened at Sven."
"It's in the report," Hunter said stoically.
"Don't be stupid," Shesten said, warning. "We've read the report. We want to hear it how you saw it."
Hunter felt a glimmer of hope. Maybe they weren't looking for an excuse to lay him out. Maybe they were looking for a chance to forgive.
Graylin still looked like he wanted to take his head, though.
"The Canines arrived at Sven a little over six months ago," Hunter began. "We knew they were coming ahead of time. By time the Canines arrived Sven was well manned, our stores were full. We should have been able to out last them for years."
"How many Canine soldiers were there?"
Hunter responded, "We had them marked at around ten thousand with another few thousand from the Saber Ranks. But as I said, Sven was well manned and we should have been able to hold them off for years. We didn't know they'd hired the Weeper at the time, though."
A murmur arose among the councilmen. Thol Garden the Weeper had been a surprise that had stopped armies in the region for months before they finally figured out who was responsible. The Feline lords wouldn't have guessed their enemies had hired an esteemed member of the Rito Shaef, the Ten Assassin Kings, until long after the damage had been done.
Halkin and Graylin were weighing what Hunter said, one trying to give credit while other, with executioner's eyes, tried to find fault.
Graylin said, "Why didn't you alert us of the Weeper's presence earlier?"
"When?" Hunter asked, irritated. "Before or after they cut off our communication?" It was four months into the siege before a messenger had finally broken through.
"Preferably before," Shesten said delicately. "The Weeper's involvement was ultimately ended, could have been ended long before the situation got out of hand if you hadn't tried to deal with him yourself." Most of the others agreed with him. Flast didn't say anything.
"The Weeper didn't show himself until the Canines had us surrounded," Hunter said scornfully. The Canines were nothing if not tenacious.
Shesten said, "We sent you assistance as soon as we learned of your plight."
Graylin agreed. "The man you sent before the siege said you thought you could handle the Canines and Saber Ranks without reinforcements."
Hunter damned them for listening to him. He'd damned them the entire time he'd been trapped in Sven. Finally he asked the question he'd been wanted to ask since he arrived in Onnos. "Where's Shase Kezren?"
The council stirred at the name. "Shase is tending to other responsibilities, now," Shesten said quietly.
Hope blossomed in Hunter's heart. The council didn't sound too happy with Shase. Maybe he could add fuel to that fire to help get himself out of trouble.
Graylin read his thoughts. He said, "If it wasn't for Kezren you wouldn't have made it out of Sven alive."
"Shase is the reason we lost," Hunter lied. It was mostly true as far as he was concerned. The assassin had sacrificed nearly a thousand men to get to the Weeper. Testament to the Weeper's magic and the assassin's ruthlessness. Those men could have been crucial in turning the siege. If Kezren hadn't…
If Kezren hadn't sacrificed them the Weeper would still be alive, Hunter thought gloomily. The Rito Shaef mage's death had startled the Canines long enough for Hunter to order a retreat. The thousand men he'd lost to Kezren would have made it easier to break through the Canine defense. Maybe more men could have escaped rather the few hundred who did.
"Kezren isn't an issue," Shesten said briskly. "He got rid of the Weeper and that'll probably keep the Rito Shaef from signing on with the Canines for the time being."
"Why not hire our own Rito Shaef?" Hunter asked. "I hear the Dreaming One is accepting contracts."
Shesten spoke slowly, as if to an idiot. "The Shaef don't fight against the Saber Ranks. Part of their charter, as Mister Kezren was so kind as to inform us. The Canines have the Ranks, so we can't have the Shaef."
"We still have Kezren," Hunter said darkly.
"We can't have Kezren, either." Hunter gazed quizzically at the man but Shesten waved it off.
"Sven was an epic failure," Shesten said. "The stronghold rests in Canine hands, they have a foothold into Feline. If we don't get it back soon we'll have Canines in sight of the city by next spring."
"So send me back out there," Hunter said determinedly.
Shesten appeared to consider it for a moment. He shook his head. "We're giving it to Bluefaces to take care of. You're being reassigned."
Hunter exploded. "Egan! Egan's a bloody watchtower in the middle of a river! You're sending me to Egan?! It's two hundred miles from the front!"
"You can't do any harm there," Graylin said with a savage smile. That was his axe-fall.
"I can't do any good, either," Hunter growled. "Even if the Canines reach Onnos Egan's not in their way. They can pass right by it without slowing down."
"The Bluefaces will take care of it," Shesten said. "The Canines don't have the Weeper at their beck and call, anymore. Sven will be back in the fold within a month."
"Don't send the Bluefaces. Let me take my Skullgrins to reclaim it if its so easily," Hunter begged.
"There's no reason to send the Skullgrins off to Egan. Lander will lead the Grinners to Kimbal to fight in the north. The Dragon Clan's not giving us the support we'd wish for up there and we'll need their manpower unless we want a break up there as well."
"Egan," Hunter whispered harshly. He had nothing but contempt for the men there. It was a place you sent a commander to get him out of the way. Where he couldn't cause any more damage.
As a tool, the council saw him as broken.