Category Archives: Fire-Rider

Fire-Rider, Part V: Kay’s Ghosts

Chapter 22
The Siege of Moor Lek

A cricket chirped outside. The fire snapped. Guelito laughed, his voice muffled. He was inside Binsen’s lodge; he and Binsen had been on their way to bed when Tavi walked past their camp, just a few yards down the way.

Kay’s face was hidden in the shadows, and so Tavi could not tell whether he was angry; exactly how Kay felt often escaped Tavi, even when he tried hard to read the man, but he suspected when Kay pitched his voice low and spoke softly he was more dangerous than one who shouted and threatened.

“Think I’m going to bite, do you?” Kay asked.

“I hope not,” Tavi said.

They both smiled, each in his own private way.

“You know when Willeo and Don’O gave you to me…. Do you remember that?” Kay began.

“Not very well,” Tavi admitted. By the time he had fallen into their hands, a fog had closed around him. Vaguely, he recalled the two other boys, but only enough to know they were strangers. How they came into the possession of those particular men, he couldn’t have said.

“You remember what happened at Roksan, though. To you, and to the town.”

Tavi nodded. That, he did remember. In detail.

“All right,” Kay said. “The same thing happened at Moor Lek, where my people lived. Twenty-eight years ago this summer, it happened. And I remember everything that happened to me. Don’O knows about those things. So does Willeo, and so do the men in all these companies. All the cowndees that are friends of Moor Lek, even the A’oans, they all know just about every bit of what happened to me.

“I don’t like that very much. Do you understand?”

Tavi shrugged defensively. “I don’t know those things,” he observed.

“No, you don’t,” Kay said. Again the quiet in his voice made him dangerous. “But you’re about to.”

Kay thought about how he might tell his story to this boy, how he might find the words to bring the sounds back to life, the things his father said, the doomed men and women crying outside the walls, the battering ram crashing against the gates. He could never forget those sounds, no more than Tavi could forget the screams of his night ghosts.

He drew a sharp breath, felt it shudder inside his chest. Even after all these years, thinking about those events made him tense. The muscles in his arms, shoulders and jaw went tight.

“I was about your age,” he said. “Maybe half a year younger, hm? My father—his name was Evard. Evard Steel-Thrower, they called him. He was the best of Bron’s men, they said. Bron of Miduhm was brez at the time, and my father was Kubna of Moor Lek. Of course. He was chosen-man of Raina Kubnath of Oane Lek—she was my mother, his senior wife. And that was quite an honor for him, you understand, to be chosen by a woman like that.

“Well, anyway, this particular spring my father had decided not to take the field with Bron. That was his privilege. He’d been out for five years running, and after so many campaigns, he got to take a break. The men who were closest to him, the ones who went with him all the time—the way Don’O does with me, hm?—they also stayed home that year. So that meant the best of his followers were at Moor Lek.

“Most of the other men in the village and cowndee of Moor Lek had been called up. Bron had left earlier than normal, just after the ice broke on the Silba Ribba. He’d gone south to raid an area below Shazdi.

“So it seemed pretty quiet, with most of the men gone. No one expected a Socaliniero force to come that far north so early in the spring. They would have had to pass Bron’s men, or so we thought.

“You’d never believe they could do that, but they did. Bron had no idea any enemy had come around behind him as he marched south. They approached so quietly and so fast, no one knew they were in the area until they hit the village of Moor Lek, just at dawn. A lot of people were still sleeping. First thing they knew, it was just barely light and here come all these patgais, hell-bent to kill everyone they could catch.

“They were Roksandero, those guys.” Kay fell silent briefly. Remembered images flickered through his mind, like candle-shadows in a darkened mirror. He made himself continue: “They did a quick raid on the town, killed just about anyone who couldn’t run off. But they moved through there fast and headed straight for the walled stokhed.

“One thing you have to hand to the Roksan commander: he kept his men in line. He didn’t let them screw around in the village till after they’d finished the job. Kept them moving forward.

“Consayo y Ribera, his name was.”

“Ah,” Tavi said softly.

“Thought you might know the name,” said Kay.

“Don Consayo is still alacaldo of Roksan.”

“No. That’s his son. The one I knew would be older than the trees by now.”

Tavi wondered what Kay thought about the don but decided against asking. The alacaldo and his army had been away from Roksan when the Hengliss came, had been gone for weeks. If any messengers had reached him, they hadn’t found him in time. When the alacaldo finally did get there, he wouldn’t find much, the city in ashes and the murderers gone. But he owned the farmland all around, too, probably that farm the Englos had raided, everything around there. He would have someplace to go, along with his badróns. Most of his men would not, though.

“They killed anyone who got in their way,” Kay continued. “But mostly they charged through and marched right on the stokhed, where we lived—my family and our closest people. They cut the ropes to the village bells, so we didn’t hear the alarm from there. By the time we realized what was happening, they were charging up the road toward the manor.

“A bunch of villagers were running ahead of them, trying to get in, you see—trying to get shelter behind the walls. But the Roksanderos were right on their heels. A few of them made it inside, but then we had to shut the gates, and most of the people…well, they couldn’t get in, you understand.”

“Your people don’t live behind the walls?” Tavi asked. He couldn’t conceive this: most Espanyo settlements larger than a farmstead were fully enclosed.

“No,” Kay replied. “In Okan, our towns are outside the keep. Only the chieftains—the mayr or the kubna—live inside the walls, with a few of their workers or family. If there’s a raid, the people come inside. If they can.

“On this day, the people who ran for the hills, into the forest, some of them had a chance. A few found their way to Oane Lek or Cheyne Wells and the outposts around there. But everyone who headed for the stokhed at Moor Lek died.”

Kay took a pull on the boda and sat in silence for a moment. His face was still in the shadows; Tavi couldn’t see his expression. The lines between dark and light danced as the candle flickered in the guttering wax. Outside, it was quiet. Most everyone had gone to bed. A feral, camp-following dog barked once.

“They were trapped between the wall and the raiders. So just about the first thing we heard that morning was the sound of people dying outside our gate. You could hear them screaming, begging for us to let them inside or crying for their lives, trying to get the enemy to…mostly women and children, they were.

“My father took to the walls, but there wasn’t much he could do. Most of his fighting men had gone with Bron. Nobody expected a raid at that time of year. He just didn’t have what we needed to hold off an enemy for long. Two riflemen had stayed behind—but most of the powder and shells were in the field with Bron. We had a handful of archers. They had a little more gear, but there weren’t many of them.”

The scene still replayed in Kay’s mind now and again, and when he retold it, he found himself recalling, again and again, the screams of the people outside as the Roksanderos axed and hacked away, the confusion and panic inside the walls, the helplessness Evard Steel-Thrower must have felt but never admitted.

“Teeg Maghel went up on the wall with him. He was my father’s best bowman, an old friend.

“Teeg took a slug to the face early on, when for some damn reason he stepped out from behind the bulwark. I don’t know why. Doesn’t make any difference why—one mistake and the bastards take you out.”

Kay recalled that one of the villagers trapped outside between the walls and the raiders, a young man who’d stayed behind in the village that spring, waved a white rag at the enemy. “Teeg pulled out a single arrow, without anybody telling him to, and shot the cowardly son of a bitch. Just dropped him where he stood. The guy didn’t even twitch.”

After that, the fight was on. Moor Lek held the Roksanderos off the walls for hours, although the archers could do little. “All your targets are moving fast and kind of zig-zagging around,” Kay reflected. “If you hit anything, it’s pure luck. Might as well just toss your arrows over the side.”

Evard ordered every kind of debris in the compound dumped onto the attackers: boiling water, burning fat, garbage, sewage from the outhouse sumps. His only hope was to delay the enemy until after dark, when he might manage to smuggle out a courier to run for help.

By mid-afternoon, though, Moor Lek began to run short of things to pour off the walls. Consayo’s men were lobbing burning pitch and arrows into the compound, which kept the Hengliss busy trying to put out fires. Teeg Maghell was dead, the riflemen had exhausted their powder, and the few remaining crossbow archers had spent almost all their arrows.

“Of course,” Kay explained, “the whole idea was to get us to throw everything we had at them. When Consayo saw the flow of junk slowing down, he backed off for a while and let his foot troops take a break.

“He’d already set a team to cutting down a tree to build a battering ram. Didn’t take them long to put that thing together. Then he gathered his men for another charge.

“We could see what they were doing, so my father took most of his men off the ramparts—they weren’t doing any good there, anyway—and mustered them around the gates.”

“Where were you during all this?” Tavi asked.

“Me? Up on the walls, mostly. For a time I stayed with my mothers and my sisters and brothers. But I was the oldest boy. And we were kubna, you know: that’s what I was brought up for, to fight. I got my sword and shield and went to find my father.”

Kay was ready to fight and ready to die at the gate. Every man and woman who could hold a weapon—or an ax or a hoe or a pitchfork—gathered around the stokhed’s entrance. They all knew the game was lost. “As soon as they breached the gates,” Kay said, “we’d be finished. But it didn’t matter. We were going to fight anyway.”

Chapter 23
Kaybrel’s Ghosts

But things went far differently than he expected.

After Evard led his people to the gate and spoke a few words to them, he left them—and his eldest son—in the charge of his monja, a man named Brikas. Then he disappeared into the chaos. When Kay asked where Evard had gone, Brikas, preoccupied with the moment, told him to take a position near the gate, where he’d have a chance to take a few Espanyos with him. Fear’s exhilarating brass note rose in each Hengliss heart, with the sounds of the Roksanderos massing outside the gate.

The sentries were shouting out the enemy’s moves when Evard reappeared and took his son in hand. He had blood on his clothes, but Kay didn’t think much about it, for Evard’s urgency distracted him. Not for several years did he learn, from his uncle, Red of Cham Fos, about the pact Evard and Raina had made in anticipation of a catastrophe like this, and how they had carried it out. Kay did not tell Tavi of this. He had never spoken of it with anyone other than his uncle.

Evard hurried Kay through the street that led toward the keep’s back wall, where the stables stood. There he called for his livery master, Joze. But of course, as Kaybrel knew, Joze was at the gate. The liveryman’s wife answered, and obedient to the kubna’s order, sent out her son, Nett.

Nett, a year younger than Kay, stood taller than the kubna’s son and outweighed him by a dozen pounds. “We used to ride up into the hills,” Kay said, “and hunt and fish. I could hunt better than him, but he could outride me any day.”

Evard ordered the two young men to exchange clothes. He refused to explain why. As soon as Kay had Nett’s clothes on and Nett was dressed in Kay’s, Evard put his arm around the livery master’s son, as though to hug him. Then he took his dagger and shoved it into the boy’s chest.

“It’s real quick, that move,” Kay said. “It’s the fastest way you can kill a person, short of cutting off his head. And it’s easy—beheading a man takes some strength.”

In the darkness, Tavi wondered at the cool way Kaybrel spoke these words. It was as though the kubna were describing some abstract fighting practice, and not the death of someone who, Tavi guessed, must have been a childhood friend.

Kay was hearing his father’s words. The scene played out inside his head, and the only way he could deal with it was to distance himself from it: to make it theoretical. But he couldn’t, not altogether.

“His mom, her name was Deyann, she about goes out of her mind,” he said, narrating the action he still saw in front of him. “She starts to hit my father, beating on him with her fists, screaming crazy, and then he catches her, she’s fighting him and flailing around, and in an instant she falls dead, too. He killed her the same way. One fast stab to the heart.”

Kay’s hand moved the boda through the dim light into the darkness from which he spoke. Tavi thought the motion itself spoke as much as Kay’s voice.

“It was the first time I’d ever seen anyone die by the blade,” Kay said, after he drank from the leather bottle. “You know, it’s not like the fever, like a sickness. Then you know what to expect. But that other way, it’s always a surprise, you feel sort of startled when it happens. Even when you’re in battle. I guess it must be a surprise for the guy on the other end, too. When you put a blade in a man on the field, he’ll get a look on his face like he…like it was the last thing in the world he figured would happen.”

Evard took his son’s battle gear and threw it on the ground near the stable boy’s body. Kay, speechless, listened to his words:

“You’re not my son,” Evard had said, and still the words echoed in Kay’s mind. “You look like the stabler’s kid. Act like it. When those Espanyos come in here, I want them to think you’re a fine young village boy. Do you understand?”

Kay, the boy, did not. Evard explained exactly what would be required. Kay protested. “I didn’t want to put up with that, no more than you do—not without a fight. So I say there’s no way some Espanyo bastard is going to jump me without getting a blade in his gut. But he says no. ‘Do what you can to stay alive. Watch and wait. If God stays with you, you’ll have plenty of time to make them pay later.’

“He made me swear I’d do it. It was the first oath I’d ever given to a man, to someone other than God. Because I was too young to swear an oath to the brez, you understand.

“Then he had to leave. That was the last time I saw him alive.”

Tavi felt himself shivering, though he wasn’t cold. His jaw muscles felt sore, as though he’d had his teeth clamped for a long time. He shifted and pulled the blanket tighter around himself.

“You never saw him again?” he asked.

“Well, I saw his body,” Kay said. “He died at the gates.”

“I’m sorry.”

“There’s worse ways to go,” Kay replied. His tone was softer than the words.

“You know how lightning sounds when it strikes real close to you?” he continued. “Kind of that crack mixed in with a sharp boom? That’s how the first blow to the gates sounded. Like a roar from the guts of hell. You could hear the wood splinter.

“Everyone who was yelling and running around, they all stopped and stood stock still. Everybody stood right where they were and listened.

“They rammed the gate again, and then I thought I heard one woman scream. A single voice cried out, or so it seemed, like a signal, and then they all lost their minds. Everyone started to yell or howl or cry, and most people ran away from the gates, as far as they could get toward the far end of the stokhed.

“That made things easy for the Roksanderos, once they got through the band who stood at the gates. Consayo set his men loose on Moor Lek, and they just butchered those people, mostly old men and women and kids.

“The blood.” Kay paused, as though he were seeing it again. “So much blood flowed it ran out on the paving and puddled like rainwater.”

Amid the mêlée, Kay stayed put as his father had told him to. His impulse was to run toward the gates, where at least there was still some fighting. But he remembered his word, and he had given his oath, after all, to a kubna. Kay picked up a stave, not knowing what to do with it other than to defend himself if someone tried to kill him.

Before long, a mounted man approached. Kay took a look at him and went after him with the stick.

“He must have thought that was real funny,” Kay said. “One flick of his sword and that pole of mine went flying across the courtyard.” Almost before Kay knew it, the rider had him across his saddle with his hands tied behind his back. Kay tried to bite the man’s leg. In return, the Espanyorin laid his quirt across Kay’s back till the blood dripped. Then he brought a stop to the biting with a bandanna gag.

With Kay slung over his saddle and tied up like a sack of wheat, the Espanyo raider explored the keep. He didn’t have to fight any more. All the armed Hengliss at the gates had been taken care of. When he could corner a stray to cut up without having to dismount, he would do so. Eventually, though, he ambled out of the compound and back down the road to the village, almost a mile distant.

“Albar Dieho Conzessión do Riogrez i Zan Andona do la Torrenda,” Kay said. “That was his name. He was an alacaldo, like Consayo i Ribera, but he came from somewhere way south, someplace called Zonorenza. His people had a trade deal going with Roksan, so their troops had come north to raid with Consayo. Never learned much more than that about him, but I’ll tell you, you couldn’t make a nastier piece of work. Not if you tried.”

In the town square, the Roksanderos had roped down several Hengliss captives, mostly young girls, although a couple of boys were among them. Kay recognized them all; he noticed Robbet, the potter’s apprentice, lying still and whimpering. “He died during the night,” Kay continued. “The Roksanderos left them out there in the cold, no clothes on them, tied to stakes in the ground. The frost fell, of course, that time of year. Guess Robbet bled to death, from what they did to him, the ones who’d rather do a boy than a girl, hm? There’s always some like that. He died before morning.”

Albar Dieho pulled his horse up in the square, and then he got off and took his pleasure from the young woman who struck his fancy. Kay knew her family, a leather-working clan, knew her as a nice girl that everyone liked without noticing too much. He tried not to watch, but it was impossible not to hear. Her name was Galla.

Others were spread-eagled on the ground or tied by the hands to a stake or sapling. Kay saw Allie and Suze, both from the village, and Shaerne, the daughter of Verannik, a holy woman who sat on Bron’s gonsa of priests. “Knowers, both of them, mother and daughter,” he recalled. “Maybe they really could see into the other world. Some people say they could order up changes, that they knew how to make things happen, not just see them coming.

“Anyway, when Dieho gets done with Galla, he stands up, puts it back in his pants, and Shaerne looks right at him, stares him in the face and catches his eye, and in this voice like you’ve never heard in your life she lays a curse on him.

“She laid a curse on him and all of Roksan and all the children of Roksan. She started out slow and kept on going like it was some kind of song, and by the time she finished she was keening this curse to heaven like a wild glacier-peeling wind brought down from the mountains in a cage, howling to get loose.

“Course, Dieho, he couldn’t understand a word she said. And it was a good thing, because he probably would have killed her if he had, right then and there. He looked at her funny—must have given him the creeps—but then he shrugged it off, walked away. Left her there for his buddies to enjoy.”

Kay paused again and in the moment of silence took another pull from the boda. Tavi shivered.

“So, boy,” he reflected. “Maybe that’s what happened to you, hm? Shaerne’s curse finally fell on the sons of the Roksanderos, on Consayo and all his people.”

Quiet shrouded them again, for Tavi had no answer to this, nor could he have spoken it if he had. After what seemed like a long while, Kay took up the story again.

He told Tavi what Dieho did to him, back at his camp, and he pointed out that it was not a one-time thing but something that happened over and over, every day he was in Dieho’s possession. “He was the kind of guy who liked to make it hurt,” Kay said. “He liked to watch you wait for it, knowing what was coming. He liked…,” Kay’s voice fell off again. “Well, hell,” he said. “Enough is enough. He was a mean bastard. He’d pass me around to his friends now and then, and they’d get whatever they were in the mood for. But none of them had Dieho’s mean streak.”

By dawn the next morning, the Roksan bands moved on, pushing hard to the east, toward A’o. The House of Puns, which was well fortified, now knew Consayo was in the vicinity. But Puns’s kubna had gone with the Brez Bron, taking as many men as Evard had sent, and then some. Puns’s second-in-command, Fraim Jon Mayr of Sayjunill, took a small party out to engage the Roksanderos, but when he spotted Consayo’s men, he decided there were too many for him to take on. He watched as the enemy moved away from Puns and then pulled back to defend the town, in case Consayo turned around.

Dieho roped Kay behind one of the horses, to force him to keep up. The band took only one other village boy, a distant relative of the cook Bayder, but he was hurt and soon fell back. Kay watched when they shoved the youth off a ridge and threw rocks down on him to finish him off.

“They left the rest of them behind,” Kay said, “tied down the way they were. Allie, Suze, and Galla died there. Shaerne, who was pretty strong, managed to get away. She actually chewed through the leather bindings and then untied the other two who were still living, a guy and one other woman, and they got away.

“Shaerne and the young fellow, Ollo Casson, he was the smith’s third son, they reached Puns across-country. The woman couldn’t make it—she fell behind and died somewhere in the bush.

“You know Zeb—he gave you those shoes and sandals?”

Tavi nodded, not sure Kay could see him in the half-light.

“Ollo is Zeb’s half-brother. Their father remarried a year or two later—Ollo’s mother was killed at Moor Lek, of course—and Zeb is their second child. The second son of that woman, the old man’s fourth wife.”

Everyone in Kay’s company, Tavi realized—surely every man who belonged to Moor Lek—must have had someone, some relative or friend, who had died in this raid.

“They both lived, Shaerne and Ollo,” Kay continued. “But Shaerne was never right after that. She’d have crazy spells. Eventually she killed herself. She lived long enough to be a priest, though, a priestess. Not one of the brez’s gonsa, like her mother, she never got old enough for that, but she was a seer, she used to have these visions—and you can imagine what she saw, hm? I guess she couldn’t stand the thought of watching those visions forever, so she brought them to an end.”

Tavi did not know what to say in the silences that Kay let fall as he spoke. He did not know if he was expected to say anything. But if his initial fear of the man had faded, the story Kay was telling him now, with its bitter asides and the cold distance Kay put between himself and the worst of it, frightened him deeply.

“So that’s how I learned to speak Espanyo. Dieho beat it into me. Whatever he wanted to get across—if you didn’t understand an order, you got a beating. If you got something wrong, Dieho would beat you until you did it right. Not the kind of light lick you give a kid to get his attention, either. Dieho hit with his fists, or with anything he could get his hands on. And he wouldn’t let me speak Hengliss. He’d belt me one if he heard a Hengliss word come out of me. Makes you kind of a quick study, hm?

“The only half-way decent thing in all this was a guy named Habier Esparanza. Far as I could tell, he was another alacaldo, came from someplace down south, too. I’m pretty sure he wasn’t one of Dieho’s followers, because he didn’t take any of the shit Dieho would deal out to his badróns, but they were buddies, more or less. He used to teach me words, and he wasn’t so inclined to hit.

“And he had a young guy with him, name of Pazgal. This Pazgal, he came from down the Socaliniero coast, from somewhere around the Lost Angels.”

“‘Lost Angels?’” Tavi asked. “What’s that?”

“Your people call it ‘Ellaya.’”

“Nobody lives there.”

“They do.”

“You’ll die if you go there. It’s cursed. You get sick if you go into that place.”

“Nonsense. Bands of black people live there, they have dark skin, like they were cooked over charcoal.”

“I never saw anyone like that.”

“It’s true. He was as black as Binsen’s war horse, like obsidian or the dark part of polished granite. He called himself ‘onerho.’ He had tight, curly hair, like Nando’s, only even curlier. When he smiled, his teeth—he had good teeth—they stood out against his face, they looked so white.

“Anyway, Pazgal took pity on me, I guess because there weren’t very many young guys on this trek. Not as young as him and me, at any rate. He got Habier to talk Dieho into untying me from his horse, and we would hike together, Pazgal and me. Learned a lot of Espanyo from him.

“He’d been with Habier for several years. He was like Porfi, you know? A refugee from the fighting between Espanyo bands. Except Porf’ came from the area up around Roksan—it was Roksan that took after his people.”

“I didn’t know that,” Tavi said.

“You didn’t?” Kay sounded surprised. “Well, you should. Devey found him out in the sticks last year, by the side of the road, half-dead with fever. Personally, I expected he’d die—didn’t think he’d live the night. But he did. Turns out his people came from a village that was raided by Roksan, some kind of punishment action.”

“Must have been one of the Traitor Provinces,” Tavi remarked. Occasionally, subject tribes would rise up in rebellion against Roksan. They were invariably put down.

“I don’t know. There was a lot of unrest down where we were, and we weren’t helping it, you understand. We’d put ourselves in the middle of it, sometimes fighting both sides, sometimes supplying or backing up some poor pathetic ragtag mob. Mostly we watched them get creamed.

“Porfi’s clan was on the run, chased off their lands, not their land really but the fields they worked. He got separated from them and he was left alone out in the wilderness. We just happened along before he gave up the ghost.”

Tavi thought back over Luse’s remark, that Porfi didn’t much care for Roksanderos. It explained a lot.

Chapter 24
Habier and Kay

 Kay continued the story: Consayo’s band crossed the Snek Ribba into A’o, where they raided two cities, Ham’l and Mazen. Because those towns were feuding at the time, Mazen expected no help from its neighbors, nor did it receive any. After a month’s siege, the city’s leaders waved the white rag and tried to make a truce with Consayo.

“The way I understand it,” Kay said, “Consayo made a deal with them, offered to let the town stand in exchange for tribute and the sacrifice of a few men of fighting age. And they took him up on it.

“Soon as they got in the gates, though, the Roksandi sacked the place. Just as they’d done at Moor Lek—killed everybody they could lay hands on, stole whatever was worth carrying, and set fire to the rest of it.

“They had this stuff, I don’t know what it was—lumps of stuff—that they threw in the ponds around there, right when they were ready to leave. They made sure to keep their own stock away from the water after that.

“They knew what they were doing. At Moor Lek, it was three years before anything could drink the water, after they got done with it.”

From Mazen, Consayo’s band moved north along the river to Ham’l.

That town’s kubna, Da’eld, was ready for him. He marched his men out to meet Consayo, and from morning until late afternoon, they had at it. The fight stayed hot during the entire engagement. Finally, though, the Roksandi broke through the A’oans’ middle line and scattered the main body of Da’eld’s riflemen. Consayo’s men drove the one group that held together into the river; when that happened, he ordered his archers to slightly higher ground, and a slaughter of the Hengliss ensued.

From Kay’s point of view, only one good thing came out of it: Dieho was killed.

§

Two of Consayo’s young retainers were leading Kay back to Dieho’s campsite, where they intended to distribute him along with the rest of Dieho’s worldly goods, when Kay spotted Habier dragging back from the battle. Pazgal ran out to meet him. Kay yelled at them—“Hey, Pazgal, Habier! Sogorr’me!” But his call for help was redundant, because Pazgal was already lobbying the weary-looking Habier Esparanza to rescue Kay.

Habier and Pazgal intercepted the men who had Kay, though Habier showed little enthusiasm. He pointed out that he could barely feed himself and Pazgal, and wondered how the boys expected him to take fill a third mouth.

Kay narrated the story to Tavi: “Habier had treated me all right, and I could see Pazgal made out pretty well with him. I was so anxious to get him to take me in and not to get stuck with another of those guys like Dieho, I just blurted out, ‘Well, I can hunt. If what you need is food, I can bring you plenty of game. Or fish. Whatever you like.’

“That was dumb, but he didn’t seem to notice. He just laughed, said something like ‘right, I’m sure.’

“By the time I got a leash on my mouth, it dawned on me that once he saw what I could do with a bow, he’d have a fair idea I was no stableboy. I didn’t trust him, but still, he was the best of the lot. At least he didn’t waste his time figuring out new ways to make me miserable. So I threw the dice.”

Kay begged Habier to give him a chance to show what he could do. He claimed his father was a hunter who had taught him woodsman’s skills. Habier’s skepticism showed in his face, but somehow Kay managed to talk him into letting his bow be used for a demonstration.

“Once I had that bow in my hands,” Kay said, “I knew I was more than halfway there.

“Habier carried good gear into the field with him. His bow was finer than anything I’d ever seen, better than my father’s best bow, lots better fashioned. It was balanced as well as Teeg’s hunter, which was very sleek, and it had a hell of a heavy draw. Habier was a big guy, built a lot like…oh, I don’t know. Like Bayder, if he didn’t have so much fat on him, hm?

“But Teeg was strong, and thank God I’d learned the bow with him. He’d let me use all his bows, and just a couple of weeks before the Roksanderos showed up, I’d reached the point where I could pull his heaviest. Which was a big deal—I had to work at it for a long while to build up enough strength in my shoulders to draw that thing.

“You know Habier must have been surprised that I could draw his bow at all. So was I, a little, but I didn’t let it bother me. When I called a mark on a tree about thirty feet away and then hit it dead on, he looked at me like he’d seen God.

“I said, ‘Let’s go into the forest and I’ll show you what else I can do,’ and he just left Pazgo standing there with his hands full of horse reins and bloody cutlery.

“Out in the woods, I managed to keep up the show, and when he saw I could hit a moving target as well as a knot on the side of a tree, he said he’d try to get me from Consayo.

“I don’t know what he said to Consayo, but he must not have had to argue much. By nightfall, I was in his camp.”

The next morning, the Roksanderos ensconced themselves before Ham’l, intending to starve out the A’oans. With little to do but wait, Habier left his men in the charge of one of his lieutenants and took off with Kay to go hunting.

“I’ll tell you the truth,” Kay recalled. “When it got to be late afternoon and we hadn’t seen so much as a coyote, I was starting to feel nervous.” Kay had laid some rabbit snares at dawn, so he figured they’d have rodent for dinner, if nothing else. Otherwise, the day was long and frustrating.

“Finally, along about the time the sun was getting ready to squat down on the hills, we came across a water hole, and I spotted a small herd of white-tails—just three or four does—up the side of a hill and, mighty miracle, upwind of us.

“Habier wanted one of us to go around the hill and chase them in the other one’s direction, but it was getting late enough in the day that I guessed they’d come in for water pretty quick. Besides, Habier wasn’t real quiet in the bush—if he tried to circle around them, he’d more than likely spook them off in the other direction. He wasn’t a very good hunter, for a guy who had to live off the land half the year.

“I didn’t have any intention of going myself and letting him get the shot at them. So I said no, let’s just hunker down here and wait. He let himself be talked into that—I think he wanted to see what I could do.

“Sure enough, before long, those deer came ambling down to the water. We were real quiet, hiding in the chaparral, and they didn’t even guess we were there. I was just sitting there with my first arrow notched, and when they got within about eight yards of us, zing! I let fly at the biggest mama. She went down and then the others realized they had troubles. Before they could pivot and take off, though, I got another shot at one of her friends. Hit her, but the arrow didn’t take her down. So I pulled a third arrow and whipped that into her, and she fell dead before she got halfway up the hill.

“So we had two nice white-tails—not very big, but more meat than the three of us could eat in one meal. Habier had enough to fill our bellies and hand out plenty to his mayrs—his badróns—which he knew was going to make him smell just fine with the troops.

“Meanwhile, though, I’d got off three arrows before you could take a breath, and he was no fool. He looked at me and said, ‘You didn’t learn that shoveling manure, did you, hermano?’”

And I said, “It’s like I told you, my father was a hunter.”

“Did he believe you?” Tavi asked.

He could hear Kay laugh softly. “Nah, of course not. Would you? But he didn’t say anything more. I asked him, then, if he’d keep it quiet, what we’d done out there, and he said we’d tell them back at the camp that he’d shot the deer. That’s when I knew I’d get by for a while, anyway.

“Habier and I got on just fine after that. He didn’t ask any questions, and he usually left me alone. He’d make me put out for him now and again, but not too often. He had Pazgal to keep him warm. He was pretty easy-going. Hell, though—compared to Dieho, a wildcat would’ve seemed easy-going in the sack.”

Chapter 25
A’o’s Ghosts

A month passed before the town of Ham’l. A week into the siege, the A’oan Kubna Da’eld called for a parley. When Consayo and his councillors came forward, Da’eld invited them to within a few dozen yards of the town’s walls. Once the talks were going on peacefully, half a dozen A’oan sharpshooters stood up on the ramparts and fired at the Roksan chiefs.

“Killed two of them and wounded another three,” Kay recalled.

He chuckled again. Before he took another drink, he offered the boda to Tavi, who passed.

Consayo settled in for a long fight, but it didn’t take as long as anyone expected. Ham’l fell in little more than two more weeks. “For some reason,” Kay said, “Da’eld wasn’t killed. I can’t imagine why not.”

It was then that Don Consayo i Ribera committed an atrocity that burned itself into the memory of even those for whom rape, murder, and pillage were routine.

Instead of letting his men loose in the town right away, Consayo held them back. He collected all the A’oan men and lined them up in the entry plaza, so he could get a good look at them. Then he selected about thirty or forty of the best, young and strong ones, and especially those that appeared to have some substance. When he did that, he picked the better part of Ham’l’s mayrs, and even another kubna from one of the neighboring cowndees.

Kay tried to tell Tavi about it. Where he wanted words to come, something else tried to take their place. Holding one back kept both from coming.

“He tied Da’eld in the square,” Kay said, in due time, “and he took the rest of them up on the rampart, where they could watch. Then he let his lustiest boys have at Da’eld.” Kay hadn’t seen it himself, because Habier wouldn’t let either him or Pazgal anywhere near the place. But he’d heard it all in detail around the evening campfires. Even some of the Espanyos had been given pause. The stories were grim, and just thinking about the pictures they conjured wearied him. “I’m not going to go over all that again, Tavi,” he said finally, “because to tell you the truth, I’m getting tired of talking about this stuff.

“Anyway, Consayo called them off before they could kill him. Then they took the men on the ramparts and tied their hands together and lowered each one off the side, one after another, hung them there by the wrists like so many sides of beef. That’s where they left them. And they left Da’eld tied to a stake down below, so he could watch them die. It took a few days, hm?”

Tavi’s eyes grew wide. He had never heard such a thing. “Did you see that?” he asked.

“No, I did not,” Kay said. “I didn’t have to. It wasn’t any secret in the camp. I heard all about it. And I heard about how he set his men to work inside the town—gave orders that they should bring the women they wanted into the square, where those guys hanging on the wall could see the fun.

“Nothing new there. What was new was those bodies swinging like meat from the walls, left there to die nice and slow.

“They say that at first Consayo ordered his men to give the A’oans water, so they’d last longer—he tried to keep them alive so they’d hang out there for a good long time, shitting and pissing themselves and cursing their god and wailing into the wind.

“If that’s what they did. I don’t know.”

It was this incident, combined with the sneak attack on Moor Lek—and the barbarity of Consayo’s acts, unprecedented even in a rapacious time—that set the edge on the Hengliss’s hitherto vague desire for vengeance against Socalia and targeted it at Roksan. More than two decades passed before A’o and Okan found their strength in unity, but the remembrance of Ham’l and Moor Lek smoldered in the hearts of both peoples until the time came that the fire could burn freely.

From Ham’l, Consayo marched toward the town of Boze, on the other side of the Snek Ribba. The Snek, a mighty river, formed a natural barrier between A’o’s easterly provinces and Espanyo raiders who ventured that far north. Sammel Kubna of Bose thought he was reasonably safe; of this misapprehension, he was soon to be disabused.

Even as a youngster, Kay knew of a crossing above Ham’l, and he knew that if Consayo’s scouts failed to discover it, the Roksandero band would have to go about 110 miles out of its way, to the ford below Munhame. To his disappointment, the scouts quickly found the nearby crossing, which had been abandoned as news of the raids on Mazen and Ham’l reached the ferry operators.

Kay realized that if he was to escape, he’d have to make his move before he was taken across the Snek. He felt certain he could not cross the torrent on his own, and with no ferry at Ham’l (the ferrymen had sunk their rafts and cut the cables across the river), he would have to journey all the way to Munhame, across-country, to make his way back to Okan from eastern A’o. Surreptitiously, he began stashing gear in his back-bag, so that by the time they reached the ford, he had most of what he needed.

“We got there fairly late in the day,” he said to Tavi, describing the company’s arrival at the destroyed crossing. “So we camped on the west bank for the night.

“After we set up the lodge, I told Habier I wanted to hike a little upstream to fish. He said that was fine, and he let me go by myself—which was a relief. I’d figured Consayo would call a meeting of his gonsa, and I was right. Otherwise, Habier would have wanted to tag along. Then I would’ve had to brain him. He liked to fish.

“I grabbed his fishing sack and that heavy pack—luck was with me all the way, I guess, because Habier wasn’t paying enough attention to see how full the thing was—and I strolled on upstream. Soon as I got to where no one could see me, I cut into the bush and took off running across-country.”

Chapter 26
A Journey Home

Kay hoped Habier wouldn’t notice he’d gone missing until after dark. That would give him two or three hours’ head start. Because no one would try to track him by dark, he planned to keep pushing west all night. Luck stood by him again, for it was just half-moon: enough light to make his way through the brush, but not enough to follow a faint trail.

“I kept to the rocks best as I could,” he explained. “Tried to stay off the grass and ground soft enough to show my tracks. That’s not so easy up there—you get into lots of open space and low gorse in that part of the country. If someone’s looking for you by day, you stand right out. So does your trail.”

If no one noticed his absence until after sunset, Kay guessed he could put twenty miles between himself and the Espanyos before dawn. “I was betting that Consayo was more interested in crossing the Snek than in sending after a raggedy Okan kid—one of those guys could have caught up with me by noon the next day, on horseback.

“Turned out that was a bad bet.”

The first part of the night went well enough, cold but clear and dry. Kay made good progress until he came to a fast-moving stream. Unsure of the depth by dark, he took a couple of hours to find a place where he thought he could cross, and then he got dunked when he slipped on some rocks and fell into a pothole.

“Only thing I could do to keep from freezing to death was to move along as fast as I could,” Kay said. “After that, the night got a little…well, long.”

“Weren’t you afraid out there?” Tavi asked.

“Of what?”

“Of animals. Bears. Wild dogs. And the spirits that come out at night.”

“Ah. Well, I didn’t run into any ghosts that night, Tav’. And a man is a long sight more dangerous than a dog or a bear.”

“So you weren’t scared.”

“No. More like ‘alert.’ I didn’t like getting wet. The cold will get to you when you’re soaked all the way though.”

“Did you have a weapon?”

“A fishing knife. Nothing fancy. But it held a good edge.”

Before long, Kay had a chance to use it. By early light, he pushed on in what he thought was the direction of the Cumat Way, one of the main north-south trails out of Okan. Evard had told him that Bron’s men took this route. Although it was harder going and Kay was getting tired, he chose to stay off the open country as much as he could, moving between the wooded copses that dot the A’oan landscape.

About noon, a small herd of deer shot past Kay as he made his way through some brushy woods.

“They were really charging,” Kay said. “Something had spooked them so bad they didn’t even see me standing there. I figured I’d better run off myself or hunker down. Whatever they were running from, I didn’t much want it to catch me instead of them.”

He ducked into a thicket of scrub oak and sumac and waited.

“The woods seemed to get real quiet, like even the wind was holding its breath, though I suppose it wasn’t any different than before. It just seems that way when you sit still and listen.”

At first he heard nothing. After a while, though, came the sound of a horse moving along at a fast walk. Kay felt a moment of panic. Yet he realized that as long as he couldn’t see the rider, the other couldn’t see him. Briefly, he thought of climbing a tree, but common sense told him a pursuer would find him there quicker than anyplace.

“Since anyone that close was going to find me if he was looking, I realized the trick was to let him see me. On my terms.”

He took a long length of braided fishline from Habier’s fishing pack and strung it between two saplings, close to the ground. Then he walked a conspicuous trail from the direction from which he’d heard the horse, hopped the line, and hid in the brush on the other side.

“Just a minute or two later—it was that close—the rider hove into view. It was one of Consayo’s scouts. They must have figured I’d give the alarm, maybe bring some fighters down on them. Couldn’t see anyone else, though. He appeared to be alone, so I was lucky again.

“I let him get a little closer, to where I knew he’d see me and think he had a sure thing. When he got within forty or fifty feet, I jumped up and took off running like a jackrabbit with a bobcat on his heels.

“Naturally, the instant he spotted me, he spurred his horse and came barreling after me. He was dumb, thank God, because my trap was pretty weak, too. He kept on coming and never spotted that fishline, and neither did his horse, he was flailing it so hard. The animal ran right into that thing and ker-wham! Down they went, horse and man.”

Kay saw the scene again, and took the same delight in telling it as he did when it happened. Tavi actually laughed, the first time since Kay had begun his story.

“I skidded to a stop and turned around and ran right back at him, that fishing knife I told you about in my hand. The guy had the wind knocked out of him, but when he saw me coming, he got on his feet. Before he could take a step, though, I was all over him.

“It was the first time I seriously fought a grown man, not as practice but for a kill. He didn’t realize I was groomed as kubna—how could he?—so he probably wasn’t as alert as he should have been. Before you could blink, I kicked his blade out of his hand.

“The poor dumb prick didn’t have a chance. Soon as I got on top of him—which was right away—I grabbed him by the beard and rammed Habier’s old knife into his neck. Cut those two big blood vessels in there, the ones on either side of the person’s windpipe, and he was a dead man. I left him to gurgle and kick while I went after his horse.”

Tavi winced at the sudden memory of his mother and sisters, but, carried away by the recalled action, Kay didn’t notice in the dim candlight.

“She was done for, too,” he continued. “Broke her leg when she went down. That was too bad. I would’ve liked to have had a horse just then. So I retrieved the guy’s dagger from the ground, took his water boda off his saddle, and collected what remained of the fishline. It broke when the horse tripped on it, but enough was left to catch a dinner later on.”

“I wonder if he looked surprised,” Tavi speculated. And how, he left the question unsaid, can you tell the difference between surprise and horror, in a doomed man’s face?

“He was surprised. He expected to catch a kid. Last thing he figured to run into was a trained fighter.”

“Did you feel funny about killing a guy?”

“No! Are you kidding? I felt damn good about it. He’d have done the same to me, if I’d let him.”

“I don’t know if I could kill a man,” Tavi reflected.

“Then you probably couldn’t,” Kay said.

Kay fled, pushing on until way after dark. He did what he could to hide his trail; walked across rocky stretches and up or down the streams he came to, up to his knees in snowmelt. If other Roksandos came after him, they lost his trail, for he never saw them.

For several days, he headed southwest as best as he could, threading his way through the canyons and hills. When he came to an A’oan farm, he hid until after dark and then made off with a small horse. He stole a bridle and a length of rope of the barn and rode bareback all night.

With the pony under him, he crossed the fast-moving Waiya Ribba before dawn. A week and a day of hard riding took him to the Cumat Way. By then, the weather had begun to turn.

“Some mighty ugly weather was moving in from the north,” Kay said. “A big build-up of nasty-looking storm clouds decided me, whether to go north or south. I knew the Roksandos hadn’t hit either Puns or Cheyne Wells, so I elected to set out for the closest Okan settlement, which should have been Puns, or, depending on how far south I’d hit the Cumat Way, maybe Puns Donjon, but there’s nothing there. I started to push north as fast as I could drive the pony without killing her, really moving.

“After about a day and a half of this, what should I run into but our guys! Bron was ahead of me on the trail, and I caught up with his band—just about in time. Damn good thing it was! That night those clouds dumped a load of snow and ice like you wouldn’t believe. It was four inches deep the next morning.

“So you can imagine how glad I was to get inside Bron’s lodge that night. And to get some dry socks on my feet, and a blanket over my little horse!”

“Do you still have her?” Tavi thought he’d like to see this heroic animal.

“No, chacho!” Kay said. “Of course not. She lived about ten years more, though. My oldest daughter used to ride her. She took over that pony and made it hers.”

“Your daughters must be grown, then.”

“Those two daughters died, actually.”

“Oh.”

“I have two more now. They’re very little. Two and three years old. And by now there should be another one—Maire was seven months along when I left.”

“She must be glad to have more children.”

Tavi had no sense of how much time had passed. Kay smiled at the way youth skewed one’s perception of the years. “She’s young,” he said. “My first wives died, too, at the same time as the children. The girls were born to my senior wife, her name was Sellie. She had yellow hair, color of sunlight, and so did her babies. The second one, she was named Lise. She was only about 17, and she’d just joined with us a few months before. The red fever came. It took them all. Lise was…well, we didn’t even know for sure if she was pregnant.”

“You couldn’t cure them? You’re a healer, no?”

“Not then, I wasn’t.”

Tavi heard the rue in Kay’s voice. “That must have been terrible,” he said, thinking it a weak thing to say.

“It seemed so at the time,” Kay replied.

“My little brother died of the red fever,” Tavi said. “I got it, too, but I lived through it.”

“It’s a bad way to go.”

“What happened to you after that?” Tavi asked. “I mean, after you found your people again?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” said Kay. “I just lived.”

Nothing was left of Moor Lek. The neighboring villagers had buried the dead, as many as they could find. When they found a piece of clothing or something on a body to identify the dead, they left it tied to the grave marker, so the few returning men of Moor Lek could tell who lay beneath the ground.

The Roksanderos had poisoned the wells and lake. Three years passed before anything would grow near the water, and another year or two before anyone could move back into the area.

Bron decided to send Kaybrel to the House of Grisham Lekvel, which controlled the cowndee just west of Oane Lek.

“It was a big house, strong,” Kay explained. “Lhored’s father, Derranz, was kubna of Grisham Lekvel then, and he agreed to take me in until I was grown.”

“So Lhored is like your brother, then,” Tavi concluded.

“Sort of,” said Kay. “Lhored was about ten or twelve years old. And I only stayed there a couple years. My uncle, Red of Cham Fos, put me up for a while.

“As soon as people started thinking about moving back into Moor Lek—by then I was eighteen or nineteen, you understand, and ready to take over as kubna—I went with the farmers and tradesmen to help put the village back together. Red sent some of his people to help with the rebuilding. So did Vrenglin, Fal’s grandfather, who was mayr at Cheyne Wells at the time.

“Fal, he wasn’t even born then. It’s hard to believe, sometimes, he’s a grown man in the field now.”

Kay stretched sleepily and shifted so that the light caught the planes of his face. By the candle, his coarsely combed beard appeared darker, less grey than it really was.

“I guess the worst time of it all was going back into Moor Lek with Bron and his men. Everything gone, nothing familiar left to see or touch. So many people dead. So much grief and pain. It was worse than the time with Dieho, and that was something I wouldn’t want to live through again.

“See these scars?” Kay lifted the hem of his robe to reveal a web of white lines criss-crossing his thigh. “Dieho put those there. After all these years, I’m still carrying something from him. I suppose I carry around a lot, from him.”

“You must hate my people,” said Tavi.

Kay’s right eyebrow flicked upward in the half-dark, an unconscious acquiescence in spite of himself.

“You must hate me.”

Kaybrel looked up from his scarred leg to Tavio, who seemed small, even tiny, his arms wrapped tight around knees pulled up to his chin.

“I don’t much care for Roksandos, boy, that’s so. But of course I don’t hate you. No one could know you and not like you, Tavi.”

Tavio did not look reassured. Kaybrel reached out and stroked his hair. “It all happened a long time ago,” he said. “It’s in the past now, hm? Let’s leave it there and hit the sack.”

Together they climbed under the woolen and fur covers that made up the kubna’s bed. Inside the chill lodge, their breath spun pale clouds, hard to see by the dim yellow candlelight. The heat of each body felt good to the other, and although they kept their arms to themselves, they silently welcomed the contact of flank against flank.

Fire-Rider, Part IV: Ghosts

Chapter 17
Fight

 Chill air, as usual, sifted down off the flanks of the Achpis, and a few low clouds galloped before a breeze aloft, brilliant white against a deep summer-blue sky. Warm noon sun made the snow-cooled day feel comfortably crisp. Tavio, as he trotted forward to the place in line where Duarto, Porfi, and Guelito were lollygagging, felt the fresh air as a kind of balm on his sunburned cheeks. It was as cold as the streamwater that murmured in the riverbed alongside the trail. He hated getting wet. But, if he were forced to it, he would have to admit that it felt good to be clean.

Mercifully, no one was forcing him to do anything just now. The Okan alacaldo had shown him nothing but kindness after what had happened, and, although he handled Tavio freely, he’d never touched him in a scary way. At night, they slept together like brothers. Maybe that would be all of it, Tavio thought.

He hoped so. But bending over for the Englo fighters seemed to be the lot of most of the Socaliniero boys. Tavio had heard them joke about one or the other of the men, always in their own tongues and out of the Englos’ hearing. None of them seemed to mind very much. Duarto actually seemed to like it. He spoke of nights beside Kay, among others, with remembered pleasure, and he had perfected a funny dance step that was hilariously dirty. It even made Tavio laugh, and Tavio didn’t find anything about the prospect very funny. How could anyone enjoy being made to do that? Every time he thought of it, he could see his sisters pinioned on the table and feel the hard thrusts ripping into him. He tried not to think of it.

Duarto spotted Tavio approaching and waved him over. He was tossing a ball back and forth with Guelito and Porfi as they walked. Guelito threw a long pass to Tavio, who missed the ball and had to chase it. He ran after it and then, before he caught up with the three, tossed it back to Duarto. The other three were speaking together in Hengliss, which was more mutually intelligible than their respective Espanyo dialects, but when Tavio joined them Duarto and Guelito addressed him in their own languages.

Guelito, a reed-like, dusty-haired kid with big, white teeth that made his face look a little horsey, greeted Tavi as though he were happy to see a newcomer. Meanwhile, Duarto threw the ball to Porfi. Guelito asked Tavi if he slept well, how he liked the party, whether he really saw a bear and did the bear chase them, and how was the fish he’d caught. Tavi was amazed: how did these guys know all that? Had they followed along behind him and Kay?

Porfi tossed the rock-like hide ball into the air and caught it a few times. There was no hurry to pass it, not while Duarto and Guelito were chattering with Tavio. After a few moments, he said, “Hey Roksando—catch!”

With just that warning, he shot the ball whistling through the air straight at Tavio. Startled, Tavi didn’t even have time to duck before the missile struck him, hard, in the ribs below his right arm. The blow knocked the breath out of him and almost threw him off his feet.

“What’s wrong with you, baby Roksandero?” Porfi taunted him. “You’re such a pansy, you can’t even catch a ball when it’s coming right at you. Are all Roksandos weak sisters like you?”

“Knock it off, Porfi,” said Guelito. He was ignored.

“What a dainty little sweetheart.” Porfi picked up the ball from where it had fallen near Tavi’s feet. “Here, darlin’. Maybe you can get it if it’s closer to you. Catch!” He shoved it in Tavi’s face.

Tavi felt his cheeks burn. He pushed Porfi’s arm aside. Porfi grabbed his hand and gave him a sharp shove. “What’cha got in there?” he said. He grabbed at Tavio’s makeshift pack. “Let me see, babe.” Tavi pushed him back. Porfi punched a swift right to the belly, and then tried to shove Tavi to the ground.

“Enough, Porfi!” said Duarto. He started toward the two, but Binsen, who usually kept a casual eye on Guelito, caught his arm.

“Let’s see how he handles it,” Binsen said, and he held Duarto back.

Porfi, a chunky red-head with twenty pounds on Tavi, made another grab at the pack. This time he dug his fingers into the fabric. He jerked his target around and attacked the laces while Tavio tried, without success, to pull away.

“Kick him, Tavi!” Guelito shouted.

“Watch his feet, Porf’!” yelled one of the other boys, who had come running at the first whisper of a fight. Their voices were almost lost in the din that rose from the onlookers.

Tavi struggled to escape, but Porfi’s yanks on the heavy pack kept him off balance. Then he saw the answer: he pulled loose the leather thong that secured the pack around his waist, slipped free, and turned to face his tormenter. Porfi, now caught with thirty pounds of dead weight in hand, laughed and heaved it at Tavio. He missed.

“Go get him, Tavi,” said Guelito.

Tisha screamed. The sky shimmered. The roar of distant flames filled Tavio’s ears, and then all he knew was Tisha’s cries and the fire and a man’s shape coming at him, slow, his motion impossibly slow in the shuddering air, and the cold thing that entered him—so cold, but once it got into him it seemed to burn. All his insides burned with icy heat. He ran. He ran at Porfi. So slow, so slow it was, he felt like he was running under water. He slammed into Porfi, his body a missile that took Porfi as his wicked grin was shifting to surprise and then slow jumped to fast and the two fell to the ground and Tavio was tattooing his fists against Porfi’s head and chest. A clamor of boos and cheers went up from the crowd, but Tavio heard only the crackle and roar of the gathering fire. Tears ran down his face unnoticed. He was inside a tunnel, and it ended at Porfi. He did hit him, and hit and hit.

Porfi, caught unprepared for anything like a come-back, took the worst of it for a moment or two. He soon recovered, though. A street-smart fighter, he rolled to his feet while Tavio flailed and, once upright, he kicked. Two booted blows and he was on top of his opponent, delivering first a hard right and then a left.

By now Kay had joined the circle of spectators around the brawl. He gave a high sign to Devey, who was also watching to see how the fight would play itself out. Devey stepped into the ring, grabbed Porfi by the shirt collar just as he was about throw a fistful of dust in Tavio’s face, and shook him hard.

“Quit that, you little thug!” Devey boxed Porfi’s ear and shook him again. “I thought I told you to lay off this kind of crap.”

Howls of laughter broke from the encircling boys. “He told him so!” a young voice hooted. “Right! Better mind what you’re told, Porf’!” “Now you’re gonna get it!” The chorus rose into a hilarious chant on that note: “Porfi’s gonna get it!”

And so he was. The men lost interest and went back to the trek, but the boys followed as Devey hauled Porfi, fighting to break free, over to the nearest willow, where he cut off a switch and in almost the same move pinned the boy against a tree. Devey laid on the licks with exuberance. More hoots and whistles accompanied Porfi’s yelps of rage and pain.

Chapter 18
Tavi and Luse

 
Kay took Tavi by the arm and lifted him to his feet. “You’re a little tougher than you look,” he said quietly. “Are you hurt?” he asked. Unable to speak while he stifled a sob, Tavi shook his head.

Duarto, who hung back from the cheering section, spoke up. “Porfi nicked him good with the ball,” he said. “In the side, about here.” He pointed to his own ribs.

“Let’s take a look.” Kay lifted the loose tunic so he could inspect.

“Am I going to get a whipping, too?” Tavi asked, distracted by the circus taking place off the road.

“No, of course not. Hold still.” The blow had raised a storm-dark lump the size of a baby’s fist. Kay wondered whether a rib was broken. Though he couldn’t see any distortion of the bones, the black, red, and blue bruise worried him. He laid his fingers along the suspect rib. Nothing seemed loose, but it was impossible to feel much around the swelling. Since he couldn’t see an obvious fracture, he figured it wasn’t very serious. But it looked sore.

“Well, I guess you’ve carried this far enough today,” he said. He picked up the pack with one hand. “We’ll let it take a ride with the cook, hm? Let’s go.”

Tavi sniffled and then sobbed. “Stop that,” Kay said. “You’re all right.” He put the bag down again and laid his arm over the boy’s shoulder. “You did just fine.”

“Fine? That guy kicked the shit out of me!” Tavi wailed.

“Well, yes, he did.” Kay grinned. “But that’s not the point, is it? You didn’t back down. And everyone could see you didn’t.”

“What did he hit me for?”

“Who knows? Who knows why Porfi does anything? Now come on, and quit bawling before I give you something real to bawl about.”

“They all think I’m a sissy.”

“After that, I doubt it. But they will if you keep on sniveling.”

Tavi followed Kay back down the line to the mess wagon, where they deposited the pack. Luse, still privileged to ride by his injured leg, sat beside Bayder and drove the ambling four-horse team. Word of the dust-up had already reached them.

“Want to put him up here?” Bayder offered.

“No,” Kay said. “I think he can walk.”

“It won’t hurt to give him a rest,” Bayder said. “How about it, boy? Do you want to ride?”

Tavio was already beginning to piece out some Hengliss, and he caught the gist of this. He glanced hopefully at Kay.

“All right,” Kay agreed. “But you’re not going to sit on your butt all day long, understand? You can ride for a little while, and then you can come take care of these nags of mine.” Tavi ran a few paces to catch the moving wagon and jumped up into the seat beside Bayder.

After some jockeying, he settled between Bayder and Luse behind the four-horse team. Luse’s raven hair dangled free around his shoulders and a shadow of nascent beard darkened his jaw and upper lip. He welcomed Tavio with a fleeting smile and then, all business, slapped the reins across the horses’ rumps and took his attention back to the road. By day, Tavi observed, Luse’s eyes were as dark as they had been by firelight, liquid black as a midnight pond.

Bayder smelled of smoke and grease and rotting teeth, a stench rank and friendly at once. Lolling across the wagon’s wooden bench, he was enjoying the opportunity to sit back and relax while Luse worked the horses. Occasionally he climbed into the back and brought forward some snack—pieces of the stolen fruit, jerky, pickled chilis, honeyed figs—which he shared as the mood moved him.

The freight wagon bumped and creaked and complained its way over the stony, rutted road. Okan and Socaliniero vehicles, built without springs to speak of, let their occupants feel the road in every detail. Luse took care to steer around the largest rocks, but the riders regularly got a sharp thump as a wheel climbed over an obstacle or dropped into a pothole. Not given to chatter, Luse spoke quietly between stretches of silence. The many-hued tapestry of languages had started to sort itself out for Tavio, and even as the hours passed he found he could make more sense of what others said.

A twisting jerk wrenched a grunt out of him, and Luse snapped his whip over the lead horse’s head. The team strained briefly to pull the wagon out of an erosion rut.

“You all right?” Luse asked.

“Sure,” said Tavi.

“If you have a lot of aches and bruises, riding on one of these things isn’t much better than walking,” Luse observed.

“No,” Tavio agreed. “But I’d rather ride.”

“Me, too.” He eyed Tavio speculatively. “How’d you come out of that fight? I heard you gave Porfi some of what for.”

“Not really,” said Tavio. “He gave a lot more than he got.”

Luse fell silent again. They rode over a few more bumps without speaking. Then Tavio added, “I don’t know what set him off. I wasn’t even talking to him.”

“Don’t mind Porfi,” said Luse. “He’s kind of crazy. A bully one minute and your best pal the next. He’ll be your friend by dinnertime.”

“Bet he’s not. That guy he belongs to… ?”

“Devey.”

“Yeah, Devey, he gave him a real walloping.”

Luse smiled. “Porfi gets walloped all the time. And Devey didn’t hurt him. Never does. I heard he didn’t even pull his pants down.”

“He sure squalled like it hurt.”

“Well. Porfi dramatizes,” Luse remarked.

Tavi considered the incident while they rode over another patch of ruts. “Why would he hit me?” he wondered aloud.

“He doesn’t like Roksanderos,” said Luse.

“He doesn’t?”

“No. Of course not.”

Luse’s attention focused on urging the lead horse on. The trail began to rise. Seasons of rain, snow, and ice ate more of the road as the grade grew steeper. The coarse stone and dirt paving turned to scree and water-ruts, more like gullies than rivulets. Bayder took the reins and horsewhip from Luse and told Tavio to jump down. “Climb off the back end, boy—keep clear of the wheels.”

Tavio scurried across piles of gear and hauled himself over the wagon’s rear gate. As soon as his feet hit the ground, he could hear Bayder shout at the animals. A mighty crack of the whip ripped through the air like lightning at close range, followed by another bellow and a virtuoso riff of snaps. The wagon lurched uphill. He was, he thought, just as glad to be on foot.

19.
Riding the Raider

 Days slipped past night like prayer beads through the fingers. The company of fighters, combined forces of Okan and A’oan warriors and tradesman-farmer conscripts nourished as much by hatred as by greed, followed the ancient Mercan road south along the Mendo Ribba. Local residents, if there were any, fled the rumor of their coming, and so the army met no one on its march into the long, wide valley.

Tavio learned to hone a knife blade until it was so sharp it would shave the hair off Kaybrel’s forearm. He learned to clean and polish armor, to scrub clothes and dishes in streamwater, to cook a stew over a campfire, to feed and groom the massive warhorses, to speak many words of Hengliss, and to hear the Espanyo patter of the Socaliniero boys as a melodic take on Roksando. He managed to evade deep pools of water.

Porfi, as Luse had predicted, behaved as though nothing much had happened. He apparently regarded their fistfight as no more than a friendly wrestling match, and the licking he had taken afterward as routine. Tavio, though, remained puzzled and wary. He couldn’t understand what brought on Porfi’s sudden rage, or how Porfi could turn it off and go coolly on his way. Maybe it hadn’t been an outburst of passion but some kind of test—an experiment to see what Tavi would do. If that was so, then he didn’t understand how he was supposed to respond, or why.

One thing he did understand was that he liked Duarto, the tall, slender young man with the fast wit and the nonstop patter. Duarto’s company made it easier to avoid thinking hard about distances, to hear the screams or see the knives. When he could, Tavi walked with him or at least near him, in the group that gathered about him. This clique—a small, select elite, in its members’ eyes—included Guelito, Luse, and Porfi. Various hangers-on—Nando, who spent most of his time near Robin of O’a, Bayder’s two assistants Iami and Eberto, Lhored’s Hengliss pages Alber and Lonneh, and Fredi, a younger boy attached to Herre of Elmo—came and went with the passage of the hours and the days.

Sometimes Duarto preferred to walk with the men, and he seemed as welcome in that company as with the Espanyo crew. Tavi noticed that Duarto talked less around Mitchel and the cousins of Cham Fos; still, he never ran short of words.

Now and again Tavio would hike with Kay, particularly when the kubna was alone. Although he was picking up Hengliss quickly and could even express himself a little, at least to Kay and Fal, the Socaliniero boys’ conversation was easier to follow than that of the Okan and A’oan men, whose words rattled along like wind through leaves. Often, though, the chachos spoke Hengliss among themselves. It was easier for them all to understand than the various dialects of Espanyo, which varied radically in sound and meaning. When he had Kay to himself, he could at least ask what things meant.

As for Kay, he amused himself on the long march by working at the language with this brown foreign boy. He usually refrained, though, in his friends’ and cousins’ presence.

“It’s like trying to teach a bird to talk,” Herre had scoffed, when Kay paused from some exchange to tell Tavi the word for a wagon tongue. “Pretty bird!”

Jode of Avi laughed, and Fol of Miduhm performed an elaborate riff of bird whistles: two types of lark, a wood warbler, a mockingbird and a goldfinch. This inspired a great guffawing and flapping of wings. Kay joined in the laughter, but he saw Tavi blush. After that, he confined the Hengliss lessons to moments when they were more or less alone.

Nevertheless, Kay and Fal were both impressed by how quickly Tavi picked up the language. He was soon piecing together responses to the two men’s remarks, and he wasn’t shy about asking questions.

Occasionally, Fallon let Tavio tag along with him. A spirited and imaginative improvisor of sign language, Fal had little trouble making himself understood, and Tavio liked hanging around with him not only for that but because Fal had two fine horses, one even more splendid than Demon.

Tavio had never seen an animal like the Raider, Fallon’s gelding war horse, whose deep red coat was smooth and shiny, unlike the shaggy pelts of most domestic horses. Abundant water and rich, fast-growing summer grass made Cheyne Wells Okan’s northernmost center of horse breeding. As the county’s mayr, Fallon had his choice of the best of his people’s product. Raider’s forebears had been stolen far to the south, where the weather was still warm enough to allow a few short-haired breeds to survive. There weren’t many like him anywhere. In Okan he had to be pampered carefully all fall and winter and into the early spring, sheltered from the cold that blew in off the northern ice fields.

Fal watched Tavio’s fascination with the animals. A man who could talk to horses, Fal thought, had something right with him. It showed that he would have a way with others who couldn’t speak for themselves. As a boy, he had found the company of his father’s horses more comfortable than human companionship. When he reached Tavio’s age, he took notice of girls, but even then he sometimes preferred to spend time with a hunter or a race horse—the faster and wilder, the better.

They camped early one evening, while the afternoon sun still washed the grass and hills in flaxen light. “Would you like to ride the Raider?” Fallon asked. He punctuated the question with a couple of gestures that made his meaning clear.

Tavi’s expression said he would. He glanced at Kay, who raised an eyebrow in Fal’s direction. Kay wouldn’t think of letting the brat get on his own horse. “He throw me, no?” Tavio returned.

“Probably,” said Fallon. “The ground is soft here—it won’t hurt you. Just roll out of the way of his feet, if he does.”

He helped Tavi climb atop Raider’s tall, bare back. Kay liked an animal whose character bordered on the stolid; Fallon preferred bold high spirits. Where Demon was calm, Raider was skittish, and he invariably shied away from anyone trying to mount him. Insistent, however, Fal set Tavi in place. “Hold on with this part,” he slapped Tavi’s thigh. “Not with your hands. You look like a shoe monger’s maid, with your fingers in his mane.”

“Sit so your backbone is right on top of his, and keep it there. When he moves, you move—you understand?” Tavi followed most of Fal’s words, and he had ridden smaller horses before, always with a saddle, so he got the idea.

Fallon twisted a long lead into the bridle, handed Tavi the reins, and then snapped the end of the rope across the horse’s rump to get him moving in a circle. Raider jumped into his favorite gait, a lope just below a trot. Startled, Tavi had to grab onto the horse’s mane and neck to keep from falling off, but he managed to keep his seat. Fal let him ride the circle a couple of times. Then he pulled the horse to him and released the lead.

“Let me show you something,” he said—“Ho!” he told the horse, whose suspicions were not calmed by the brief exercise. He braced himself by putting one hand in front of Tavio and one behind, and then leapt smoothly onto Raider’s back. The horse reared and did a rebellious little dance, but Fallon had read its mind; he held on to Tavio while he steadied the animal. Fal slid up behind Tavio so their bodies fit together.

“Look,” he said. “Take your hands and put them right here.” He lifted Tavi’s hands off the horse’s neck and set them on his thighs. “I’m not going to let you fall.”

“You me teach ride Raider?” Tavio asked.

“Sure, I you teach ride Raider,” said Fallon. “If you can stay on this horse, you can ride anything. See this part of your leg?” He ran a finger down Tavi’s thigh. “You hold on with this, not with your hands. Keep your hands here,” he slapped Tavi’s hands gently, “and when you feel like grabbing on, they’ll make you grab with your legs. Here, you see? Not here,” he indicated Tavi’s lower leg.

“You can talk to him with your feet, but not hold on with them. Watch.” He kicked Raider into a walk. “We’re going to go left—this way.” He tapped the horse’s right flank with his heel, and they turned left. “Now let’s go the other way—right.” A nudge on the other side turned them in the opposite direction. “When you want to stop, or when you know the horse is going to stop whether you want to or not, you kind of brace yourself, like this.” Tavi could feel him tense his legs and lean back against their forward momentum. Raider stopped abruptly. “If you’re not ready when the horse is moving out, you’ll go flying over his head when he stops.” Tavi laughed. “You understand?” said Fallon.

“F’shua,” he said: what the Hengliss said when they meant así.

Fal dropped the knotted reins over the animal’s withers—he hardly ever used them, except to insist on a sudden halt or to take control in restive moments—and set his hands on his own legs, as he’d shown Tavio. Kay waved as they paced off down the trail.

The river braided itself through the age-polished rocks that filled its wide, sandy bed. Fal nudged Raider off the roadway, and they wandered into the brush beside the water. A flash of yellow flickered nearby: two small brown birds with brilliant chests chased each other through the scrub.

“Meddaloks,” said Fal, pointing them out. Tavi looked puzzled at the unfamiliar name. Fal whistled a fair imitation of the bird’s flute-like song.

“Ah! Alondra!” Tavi exclaimed.

“Yeah, I suppose.” Fallon smiled. “Say it in Hengliss: meddalok.”

The cinnamon-colored war horse picked his way through the brush, ears flicking at gnats, flies, and noises inaudible to humans. Fallon silently relished the salty scent of Tavi’s hair and the smoke he’d picked up from campfires. He wondered about Kay, sometimes. He wondered why Kay had chosen to keep this boy, who seemed generally pretty useless, and yet he liked Tavio. He was a sweet-natured kid, quiet and gentle. Maybe those traits reminded Kay of a woman. Maybe not, too.

That taste, he had never managed to develop in himself. He knew it looked odd. Not many warriors of either side hesitated to take anything that came their way, and most of the Hengliss men liked to have a boy around. Jag Bova of Rozebek was the only other guy he knew who would openly say he couldn’t get it up for a sweet young lad. Sometimes he wondered if he had something wrong with him, something missing in his character.

“Can you tell what he’s going to do?” Tavi asked.

Fal turned his mind from the thoughts that briefly preoccupied him. “Sure, most of the time,” he said. “Horses talk with their ears, you know. When a horse’s ears go up like that, it means she hears something or is paying attention real close, or maybe that she’s worried. When she lays her ears back, that usually means she’s annoyed about something. Or scared.”

“Raider is ‘she’?”

“No. But most horses are ‘she.’ Did you understand all that, what I just said?”

“Yeah, f’shua. His ears go up now.”

“Mm hm. He hears something.”

“What he hears? I no hear nothing.”

“Horses hear lots of things you and I can’t hear. They see things we can’t see, too.”

“Like what?”

“Like real soft noises, or maybe noises that aren’t there at all, for you and me. They’re like dogs that hear sounds from far off. Their ears are bigger than ours, so they hear better than we do.”

“They see things we don’t.”

“Yeah, they do. Horse’ll spook and run off when there’s nothin’ there—at least, it looks like nothin’ to you.”

“He see ghosts?”

“Umh, yeah. Spirits, more like it. The spirit world is all around us, shimmering out there in colors we can’t see and motion we can’t hear. You know that.”

“Yes.”

“I think horses can see into it. No question horses sense things we can’t. You can tell it when you watch them, that they’re listening to sounds or seeing visions that just aren’t there for us.”

“Kay, he say be no spirits. No night ghosts.”

“Right, sure,” Fallon scoffed. “Is Kay or is Kay not tocha? Where do you think he gets the power to heal?”

“Is gorandero? He say yes, he say no. I no can tell what he means.”

“That guy is a gorandero in a big way. He just doesn’t want you to know how he does it.”

Tavio smiled. “My people, we say a gorandero speak to God. Is God—or a saint—that heals through him, the gorandero.”

“Yeah? Well, in Okan, the only one who speaks to God is the brez. That’s because he gives his life to speak to God. Healing, that’s more like witchcraft.”

“Okan gorandero is witch?”

“Sort of. Magician, eh? They know how to tap into the powers of the other world for good, to make sickness or hurt better. Kay does it with herbs and potions and things. We call that tocha. It’s a special gift. I mean, you can study to do it, but you have to have the gift to start with.”

“Kay have gift.”

“Yes, Kay has that gift.”

Chapter 20
Night Ghost

Bored with the riverbottom, Fal steered Raider up the dry bank; the animal jumped up the four-foot drop and broke into a slow trot. He wanted to run, and Fal never felt averse to running. On the level, fairly clear ground above the riverbed, he took the reins loosely in his hands. He didn’t need to kick or swat this horse to put it into a dead run; when Raider felt Fallon seat himself firmly, he shot off across the grassy meadowland.

Hoof-thunder, ear-wind: somewhere between terror and ecstasy, the soul breaks free of mortal mud and flies. The heart pounds, the chest fills, colors grow bright and sounds sharp, life itself takes on a taste. Fallon felt this every time he pushed a horse to a full gallop. Now Tavi felt it, too.

“Hold on like I showed you,” Fal reminded him, “and move with the horse. Make your body move along with his.” He exaggerated the circular swing of his seat, so Tavio could follow his posting.

Then he spotted a gully, wide enough for Raider to jump. “Hang on!” he said. With no urging, the stallion sailed enthusiastically over the ditch.

“You’re not doing half bad,” Fallon remarked after he pulled the Raider to a stop.

“Is good horse.”

“He’s a great horse. Maybe the best I’ve ever had.”

Fal held Raider back to a walk, because he didn’t much feel in the mood for a long cooling-off period. It was getting on toward sunset, and dinner occupied his mind more than grooming chores.

They circled back across the grassy fields in the direction where Fal could see the campfires burning. “Wonder if Kay will have started some food for us,” he said.

“He make me get every things ready,” said Tavio. “I no work, he no cook.”

Fallon chuckled. This meant he’d likely have to fix his own dinner if he wanted to eat before bedtime. That was all right with him, although any day he’d rather share with Kay than eat his own mess. Maybe, he thought, he could sponge something from Bayder and his crew, if whatever they were fixing for the men was edible tonight.

They dropped down the steep side of a runoff-excavated arroyo. The floors of these gashes in the landscape were thick with brush, watered by intermittent seeps of rain and snowmelt and occasionally scoured by flash floods. Inside an arroyo was not Fallon’s favorite place to be; it made him feel penned in. Besides, it was closer to dark below the rims of the small canyon than it was on the open plain. A cricket called from somewhere in the scrub. Like tule fog, a chill rose from the sandy bottom. Shadows closed around them.

The horse strode into the brush, intent on the feedbag, now fighting the reins in a great hunger to get back to camp. In the duskiest part of the slot in the earth, they passed through a thicket of chaparral.

There something spoke, and Raider heard it. Fallon, as attuned to the animal as it was to him, caught his breath and tightened his grip on the reins at a delicate shudder of muscle beneath him, a twitch of the ear, a roll of the eye. He clamped his legs hard against the horse’s broad flanks and grabbed the boy.

“Damn!” Fallon swore aloud in the same instant Raider snorted, dodged to the side, and leaped in the direction they came from. Shoved into a tangle of branches, Fallon was almost swept off the animal’s back. As Fal fought to keep control with one hand while he hung onto Tavi with the other, Raider reared, dropped onto his feet, twisted, and kicked.

“Get up, get up!” Fallon insisted. He never raised his voice.

The horse refused to go back into the brush between them and the other side of the arroyo. Fallon kicked; the horse danced a stiff-legged waltz of hysteria. As Raider turned in a tight circle, the whites of his eyes shone like phosphor in the blue-green gloaming.

“C’mon, up up up,” the man urged. Tavio wrapped his fingers into the animal’s mane, determined not to be jerked into the fearful dark beneath them. Raider circled again and then allowed himself to be directed down the wash a few yards. At a break in the chaparral, he burst across the streambed, charged up the opposite bank, and exploded onto the open ground above them.

“Wow!” Fallon exclaimed, once he had pulled the foaming horse to a walk again. “We should have kept our mouths shut about that spirit world! Speak of the devil and he appears.”

“You think he see spirit? Isburdo de noda, this is when they come out. He see isburdo de noda.

“What’s that?” asked Fal.

“He come out at night. Is the dead who has no home to rest in, you know?”

“You mean the unburied?”

“F’shua, they no get buried. They no have home to go, where is place for them to be safe, with their people. You understand?”

“I guess so. You mean, like a cemetery.”

“What is ‘cemetery’?”

“Burying ground.”

“No. At home. A place where you remember li muerti, the ones who die. They have place to be, where they all right. Their home, too, no?”

“Inside your house.”

“Yes.”

Fallon considered this. Did they bury their dead inside their homes? Under the floor, maybe? They’d have to rip up the floorboards every time someone passed through the veil. On the other hand, a lot of them had dirt floors. It would be convenient, in a way, when the ground was frozen in winter. But what if you buried two people who didn’t get along too well under the same floor? You’d have their spirits fighting in the kitchen. Bumping and howling and banging around every time you turned your back—it could make for a noisy house. To say nothing of how it would smell in the summertime, if you didn’t dig the graves deep enough.

“The dead live in the other world,” he said, tentatively. “That’s where their home is.”

“In spirit world—in heaven or hell or burgadorio, if they first go to place where home is. Angels know where to find them, to call them to where they go after die. You have place for them, candles, you know? Pictures. Their favorite things, little toys for baby, pretty hair thing for mama, knife for papa? They have no home, they have no way to find way from earth—angels no can find them. They lost. They wander around, all over. They follow people in life world, try to take you with them.”

“Well, now, Tavio, they can’t take you into the spirit world. They’d have to kill you to do that.”

“That’s how they get you. They touch you, you feel cold touch, no? Like the cold down in that arroyo. And then you get sick—you get the fever, you die. You go with them. Then you be isburdo de noda, too.”

“Hm.” A shiver crept down Fallon’s back.

“Alone, lost—they follow you. They want you go with them.”

“Best be quiet about that now, lad. I don’t know if Raider saw any iziberto-day-nodas down there, but if he did, we don’t need to bring ourselves to their attention some more by chattering about them. Let’s get out of here.”

He gave Raider his head and they rode into camp at a fast trot.

Chapter 21
Where Ghosts Come From

Contrary to Tavio’s expectations, Kay had done all the early evening chores and put a salt venison cut to stew in a kettle of beans. Fallon, relieved to find this domestic scene under way, brought a sack of ground corn and a pot of pickled chilis liberated some weeks earlier from a farmhouse. While the beans simmered, he built a spiced griddlebread of respectable dimensions. Tavi was sent off to walk Raider, lathered by his scare and the fast return to camp, and then to groom Kay’s stock as well as Fallon’s.

“Something spooked my horse while we were out there,” Fal remarked to Kay as they sat watching their food cook. “I couldn’t see what it was.”

“Probably nothing,” Kay said. “That animal will spook at his own shadow.”

“He’s not that skittish.”

“It’s like trying to ride a cat.”

Fal laughed. “C’mon! You’re getting too fat and old to ride a decent horse.”

“Give me a real horse over a cat any day.”

“I think he saw a presence,” Fal spoke seriously. “We couldn’t see anything, but whatever was there, it was real. And that boy, he seemed to understand what it was, too.”

“Oh?” Here it comes, Kay thought. He should have told Tavio to keep quiet about his haunts.

“Yeah, he said there was some kind of ghost out there, something that gives you a cold chill at night—and it did get cold all of a sudden, right when this happened.”

“Mm hm.”

“These things make you sick—they give you the fever with their icy touch.”

“Fal. I don’t know how you get the fever, but I don’t think you catch it from spooks.”

“I don’t know. It makes some sense. You get that cold chill. People get sick from getting chilled.”

“Maybe so.”

“I think maybe they bury their dead inside their houses somehow.”

“What, Roksanderos?”

“He said they have to bring their dead home in order to keep them from coming back as these spirits that make you sick.”

“Well, I don’t know what that’s about, but I can tell you, they don’t bury the bodies under the bedroom floor. They have cemeteries, just like we do, except that about half the time you can actually bury someone in winter, because the ground isn’t frozen solid from fall to spring.

“Roksandos, all these Spanyo people, they’re stump-dumb superstitious. They have all sorts of crazy ideas, Fal. You’ve heard Duarto carry on about some of the silly stories he tells. But we know the truth, don’t we—the ancient writings from the Old Ones tell us what’s true. Hm?”

“They don’t deny that there are spirits,” Fal said.

“The Spirit is in the Father, and the Spirit comes to earth in the brez, and the Brez is the Son of the Father on earth. That’s the only spirit that matters,” Kay insisted. He really didn’t want to be put through an exorcism, and he could see that coming if Fal started in on this stuff.

“You really think so?”

“I’m sure of it,” Kay said. “It works for me. All the time. You know the Father’s Spirit is the only one I can call on.”

To the contrary, Fallon wasn’t so sure of that.

Neither was Kay, for different reasons. He had no more faith in the brez’s sanctity than in anyone else’s.

It annoyed him, it annoyed him deeply to have to jockey around these beliefs. Every bunch had its own theory, he thought, and none of them explained much of anything. He had run into a lot of superstitions in his travels, and only thing they had in common was belief. If faith worked any miracles, it was because something inside the believer was working—not because some spirit or ghost or god or sorcerer did anything to change the world. And that theory, as Kay well knew, was the rankest form of heresy.

Fal, reflecting silently that the old writings were said to speak of demons and angels, let the matter rest. By the time Tavio finished his chores, the two were enjoying a pipe of Kay’s best harvest, sweet musky smoke floating on the still night air where it blended companionably with pitchy aroma of the wood fire. Jane, the gentle evening herb, did a great deal to calm Fallon’s unease, which of course was why Kay offered it. He invited Tavio to share a toke or two before they pulled the hot bread off the fire and dished up the stew.

The crisp summer evening, warmed by the chemistry of fellowship, good food, and hemp, passed comfortably. They parted to turn in shortly after eating.

The earlier exchange with Fal had left Kay with a residual sense of annoyance, and now Tavi reminded him of his irritation by dragging his feet. Still afraid of whatever might be out in the dark, Tavi resisted carrying the dishes down to wash them in the river, nor did he want to haul the food bag away from the lodge—outside the campfire’s ring of light—to hoist it into a tree, beyond scavenger’s reach. Kay spoke sharply. Tavi sulked.

Inside the lodge, Tavi asked Kay not to put out the lantern.

“We need to go to sleep,” Kay said. The obviousness of this statement and the foolishness of having to utter it put an edge on his voice.

“But Senyó Kay, the night ghosts—they’re here. They touched us when we were out there. They’ll come and get us.”

“Night ghosts, for God’s sake! Tavi, I’ve heard about enough of that.”

“They’ve come,” Tavi insisted. “They’re here. They’re nearby, senyó.”

“You told that garbage to Fallon, didn’t you?” Kay replied. “I wish you’d keep your mouth shut about that around other people. No one wants to hear it.”

“He knows there are spirits. He said so. And he knows there’s night ghosts, too. We saw one out there, tonight.”

“Tavi, you didn’t see anything. And Fal doesn’t know a thing about any damn-fool night ghosts.”

“How do you know what we saw?” Tavi protested. “Who are you to tell me what I saw and what I didn’t, anyway?”

Kay glared at him. “I’m the boss man here, chacho, that’s who I am. And if I say you didn’t see it, then by God, you didn’t see it.”

“I’m not afraid of you,” Tavi said.

“That’s not a sign of anything you should brag about, boy,” Kay said acidly.

Tavi rolled forward undaunted: “You don’t know what I see. You don’t know anything about me. You don’t know anything!”

“You don’t think so?” Kay said. The quiet tone carried a certain nuance.

Tavi, however, failed to catch it. “You say there’s no izburdos when I can hear them, and Fal’s horse, that Raider, he sees them. And you say you know how I feel, you know this, you know that….”

“Fal’s antsy horse hears a rabbit twitch its ear in the brush, and you think you’ve seen a ghost. Quit acting like a fool, boy. Get under the covers before I put you under them myself.”

“You don’t know nothing about how I feel. You people, you come and kill everyone, you burn down our city, you…you rape our mothers and sisters, you murder everybody, and then you say, ‘Ai, be quiet, we know how it feels!’ Que merdas!”

“Bullshit, hm?” Kay looked inside himself for patience and found his reserves running low. “Tell me something, will you, Tavi?”

“What?”

“How do you think I came to speak your language?” In the moment of silence that followed, Kay added, “Don’t you ever ask yourself things like that?”

Tavi looked at him through the dim light, puzzled. “I don’t know,” he said. “How would I know? Who cares, anyway?”

“Maybe you ought to think about it. Thinking doesn’t seem to be something you waste much time with.”

“You think I’m stupid, don’t you?”

“You’re acting that way.”

Tavi got up to go outside.

“Go out there and the izburdo will get you,” Kay reminded him.

“Good!” Tavi snapped.

“Shut the door tight,” Kay said as Tavi crawled outdoors. “Keep them ghosts out there, along with the cold air.”

Tavi left the tent flap hanging. Kay could hear him stalk off. He laced the tent door shut, lay back among the stuffed sacks that lined the lodge walls, and waited, the light still burning.

§

The candle hadn’t burned down far before Kay heard Tavi shuffle back toward the campfire. Kay listened to him as he stood before the fire pit, shifting his weight from foot to foot. He heard him pace around, return to the fireside, poke the fire for a little extra warmth, sigh. After a few minutes of this, he heard Tavi’s feet crunch toward the lodge.

Senyó Kay?”

“Hm.”

“Can I come back in?”

Kay got up and unlashed the door. “What’s the matter? Wouldn’t they have you in the other world tonight?”

Tavi climbed inside. “It’s cold out there.”

“You should have taken a sweater.”

Tavi took his shoes off and set them by the door, next to Kay’s boots. He lashed the doorway shut. Then he sat down on the bed and pulled the blankets over his legs. He looked at Kay, who was watching him silently.

“So,” Tavi said, “how did you learn to speak Espanyo?”

“How did I learn to speak Roksando?”

“That is what your Espanyo sounds like.”

“Yes. It is.”

“Will you tell me?”

“You might think it was just so much merdas,” Kay said.

Tavi rolled his eyes. “All right,” he said. “All right. I’m sorry. I’m sorry I said that.”

“You should be careful what you say, Tavi. So that you don’t have to be sorry.”

Tavi gave him a lectured look, and Kay knew about how long his words would stick.

“Hand me that flask hanging over there,” Kay said.

Tavi lifted the skin off a strut and passed it across to Kay. Then he sat down again on the bedding and wrapped the blanket around his shoulders. Kay settled back deeper into the shadows.

Fire-Rider, Part III: The Journey Begins *FREE READ*

Chapter 10
The Farm

Back on the road, Tavio and Duarto fell in together. Guelito, Duarto’s almost constant companion, had gone off to hike with his Hengliss protector, Binsen. The prospect of a fight made him nervous, and though Duarto laughed at the idea of sticking close to the Kubna of Oane Lek when a battle was pending, Guelito felt better in Binz’s company. Kay joined Robin, Fal, and Mitch in visiting the brez, whose party was now fairly close by, since Kay’s contingent had fallen back in the ranks when they stopped, despite the moment of general idling.

Lhored, as it developed, knew nothing more than Robin had reported: the village or whatever it was had a few buildings and no serious fortifications. Undoubtedly an outlying farm town of Roksan, with the mother city in flames it would be fairly easy to take. They all knew better, though, than to lay a bet on this: many Socaliniero farmers, like their Okan counterparts, were armed and experienced fighters, having been pressed into duty with their alacaldos for generations.

Duarto’s cheerful prattle lifted Tavio’s heart in a superficial way. Though the cadence was foreign, it was easy to listen to. Duarto inclined to the bright side of life, and his remarks often made his friends laugh.

“Ai, the brez was right,” Duarto said. “This way will make us rich. Mitchel will bring things back for me—he always does. Maybe Kay will give you something, too.”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know. Something good to eat, maybe. A chicken, no? Or a gadget, or some clothes. Last summer Mitch gave me this. He got it in Oravella.” Duarto pulled a silver lavaliere from beneath his tunic. Tavio recognized the figure, finely wrought in the Roksandero manner, as a high-born lady’s votary piece; it hung around Duarto’s neck on an intricately woven silver rope.

“That’s very pretty,” Tavio said He had never been so close to anything as valuable in his life. “He must think a lot of you.”

“He gave it to me on my oathing day. In the church, in front of everyone.”

“You converted to their religion?” Tavio realized with a start that this was what Duarto meant. Okans were heathens—worse, heretics. He had heard the Okan god demanded human sacrifice, and it was even said the Okans practiced cannibalism in their grotesque rites.

“Why not? It keeps the peace. And it put me in Mitchel’s clan. I’m Duarto of Cham Fos. Nobody can undo that.”

§

The sun had started to trace its arc westward to the horizon when the allies reached the outlying settlement Bilhem had reported. The A’oan commanders sent back an order to stop before the men crested a low hill that would bring the place into view—and them into the residents’ sight. Kay caught up with Tavio to retrieve his charger. A couple yanks on the ties released the packs, which Kay stacked on the ground beside the road, leaving his empty saddle ready to use. Mitchel arrived a few minutes later and did the same.

“You two clowns start a fire,” Mitch said to Duarto. “I want something to eat when I get back, and I’m sure Kay will, too.”

Kay and Mitch mounted their horses and joined their comrades, some of whom had bows at the ready, others with swords, rifles, and shields in place. Lhored stood at their head. His large, copper-burnished shield bore the symbols of each of the allied kubnas, enameled in bright colors: in the center, linked, a stylized gold sun stood for Okan and a red cougar for A’o. The shield was partly supported by an attachment on his saddle; as weapons, he carried a light, agile sword and a heavy dagger that he wore at his belt. At Lhored’s side, two flag carriers displayed the banners of Okan and A’o.

Mitchel took his place among the brez’s personal guard, and Kaybrel joined the loose assembly of kubnas and mayrs who surrounded them. Fallon fell into position as Kay’s second, riding slightly behind and to his left. Over many months of riding and fighting together, they had developed a routine: Fal, left-handed, watched their rear and left flank, while Kay put most of his attention into the right and forward edges. It was a method that had yet to fail, and it had earned them an enviable renown.

Down the road, they could see a cluster of roofs, a granary tower, a pond, a grove of cultivated trees. Cottonwoods and pecans shaded the stone structures. A few cows and goats cropping grass in enclosed pastures looked up curiously at the visitors’ approach. A thin stream of smoke rose from a chimney from the main house, but no one came forth to greet them.

When they drew near the cowshed, they met the welcoming committee: a huge brown and white hound charged out, hackles on end, stiff-legged and furious. Horses shied at its deep-throated, baying rage, and at that hint of weakness, the dog roared forward.

It went after Robin of O’a’s mount, jaws snapping at hooves. Robin took a swing at the dog with his long sword, but his horse kicked and he missed the mark. Annoyed, he reined the horse around and circled to dispense the hound. Before he could raise his hand, though, an arrow buzzed past the horse’s flank and sank into the dog’s chest. With a yelp, the farm’s defender dropped cold.

Robin was not amused. Amid the hoots and general laughter, Herre saluted him with a raised, empty crossbow and a jagged-toothed grin. Robin leaned down from his saddle, yanked the arrow from the corpse, and handed it back to Herre.

The riders pulled up before the largest of the rock-walled buildings. Its latilla-shaded porch made it look more substantial than it was; in fact, all the houses were small and windowless, the easier to keep warm in winter.

“Kay!” Lhored called. “Hail them out here.”

Kaybrel shouted an Espanyo greeting and asked for a parley. Cicada song and bird chatter deepened the ensuing silence.

“They don’t seem to want to be friends,” one of the kubnas observed.

“They’re not inviting us in, that’s for sure,” said Lhored. “Let’s pay them a visit, anyway. Dom, Rik, Binz, Fol—go inside and talk to them. Take a few of your men. Kay, you wait a minute and then go in after them.”

The four kubnas selected one or two companions apiece and dismounted, swords in hand. Boots stomped across the stone porch. Without a pause, Binsen delivered a hefty kick to the wooden door. It slammed open, whacked against the wall, and fell half off its hinges.

The party surged through the opening. Outside, the men could hear some crashing as their comrades rummaged through the house. Pretty quick, Dom appeared at the doorway.

“No one’s home,” he said to Lhored. “They left their meal on the table—must’ve been in a hurry to go somewhere.”

“You check for a cellar?”

“Yeah. It ain’t much. There’s not enough room for anyone to hide in it, and it’s easy to find.”

“Look around some more. The rest of you, let’s see what’s inside these other buildings.” He directed Fol and Mitch to investigate the two other dwellings, and sent Kay and a couple of others to search the barn, silo, and storage sheds.

The barn, a spare, economically maintained structure, had hayloft space to store enough feed to carry the cows and goats through the winter. A dusty smell of straw and alfalfa overlaid companion scents of manure and horse sweat in the dark, cool interior. Above the two men, the ten-foot-high loft threatened—plenty of room to hide, and bales of hay and wool made convenient cover.

Fal waited at the foot of the ladder while Kay ran his sword through a stack of hay on the ground floor and checked inside the stalls, where he found no one. Then Kay stood guard at the bottom while Fal scrambled up the ladder with his own weapon at the ready. Upstairs, Fallon spooked a couple of chickens and a small flock of pigeons. A mouse scurried across the loft floor when he kicked at a mound of straw. That was the extent of life up there.

Downstairs, they could see signs of three horses: hoofprints showed in the dirt, and tack hung near open stalls. The residents had either taken their horses with them or chased them off into the open range. It occurred to Kay that they might have ridden somewhere to spread the alarm. Fal helped himself to some leather harnesses while Kay examined the tools. Most were crudely made—someone did his own blacksmithing—but Kay found a decent wrench and an awl, which he liberated for himself. He also spotted an old fishing net, a handy device to carry along.

Lhored rode up to the door and peered in. “No one there, either?” he asked.

“Long gone,” said Kaybrel. “Didn’t leave anything worth having—but it doesn’t look like they ever had much.”

“Well, let the men look around and take what they want. Then I want you to torch this thing. Let’s get going.”

Kay gathered some straw from a stack near the big doors and made several brands for himself and Fallon. “Let’s go see what’s to be had in those houses,” he suggested.

The floor of the main house was littered with broken pottery. The men had bolted the food left on the broad plank table and thrown the dishes on the floor. Someone had made off with the pot from the stove. Ransacked storage chests lay open and emptied, and a hand-hewn pine cupboard was overturned, its contents shattered and cast across the room. A small, dirt-lined storage pit, empty, was visible through a hole in the floor beside the stove. Must have been just such a cellar, Kay thought in passing, where Tavio’s mother hid her son as the Hengliss broached the gates of Roksan.

“Those chuckleheads didn’t leave much for the rest of us,” Fal remarked.

“Thorough, very thorough,” Kay said. “But…maybe not.” He kicked aside some of the rubble and pulled up a braided rug that had lain beneath the table. “Here we go.” Under it, set perfectly flush into the pounded dirt floor, was a pine trapdoor. A rope handle beckoned.

“Careful,” Fallon said. He drew his sword.

“You want to call the others?”

“I guess we can handle a few farmers.”

“You’re on!” Kay took his own sword in his right hand and with his left ripped open the lid.

Dim interior light sifted down into the cellar. The two men, poised like cats above a gopher hole, watched motes of dust float in the space between dark and light. Nothing stirred.

Kay spoke again in Espanyo. “Come on out,” he said. “We won’t hurt you.” Not much, anyway. But there was no response.

“I don’t think there’s anyone down there,” said Fallon.

“Maybe not. Light one of those things, will you? Let’s take a look before we stick our heads in.”

Fallon picked up one of the straw torches they had fashioned and carried with them, opened the iron stove, and shoved one end into the coals. It flared instantly, and he held it into the dark cave. By its yellow light, they could see a pile of potatoes, several stuffed burlap bags, and neatly stacked rows of earthenware jugs, their lids sealed shut with wax. Although there was room for several people to hide, not a single human being appeared.

“Well,” said Kay. “This looks interesting.” He jumped down into the hole. The jugs bore pictures, clumsily painted with ochre. One looked unmistakably like a beehive. “Here’s something I’ll bet we’d like.” He prized the top off with his dagger. “Yeah—honey! Want some?” He handed the jar up to Fallon, whose firebrand smile lit his face.

“Got any more of that? What else is down there?”

The cellar held enough food stores to tide the farm family over the winter: preserves of fruit, tomatoes, potatoes, salted meat, green beans, pumpkin, carrots, beets, squash. The sacks held dried beans, wheat flour, corn meal, amaranth grain, and more potatoes; behind them on racks hung jerked beef and venison in thin, crisp strips and, from the supporting beams, chains of garlic, onions, and chilies. Combined scents of earth and food, rich and musty, held the two men in a momentary spell. Outside, a voice called.

“Kaybrel! Come out here!” It was Herre.

Kay tucked one of the honey jars inside his tunic and passed another to Fallon. “Let’s go,” he said. “Half to the brez. I’ll pass out the rest later on.” When he stepped outside, he reminded Herre that the contents of the cellar belonged to him.

Brilliant afternoon sun stung his eyes for a moment. Lhored and several other mounted men were looking across the east meadow toward the woods that flanked the river. Through the grass and wildflowers came an old man. A fringe of gray hair framed his bald skull and fell almost to his shoulders. He wore homespun clothes, a plain robe unembellished by embroidery, jewelry, or weapons, and he held his hands open and out at his sides as if to show he was unarmed.

Chapter 11
The Second Deception

Buelo,” Kay used an Espanyo term of respect for the elderly. “This is no place for an old man.”

“Nor for any man of peace,” came the reply. Kaybrel’s response, a grim, tight smile, led him on. “We are poor people, senyó. We’re not fighters. We have nothing else and no place to go. Spare our lands and buildings. Let our babies live.”

“He’s asking for mercy,” Kay reported to the Okan men. “He wants us to leave the place for his family to winter.”

“Tell him to send his young studs down here, and then we’ll think about it,” Lhored said.

Kay again spoke in Espanyo. “Our brezidiente asks to see the young men of your house. Give them to us, and in exchange we’ll leave you enough to get by.”

A jay crowed while the old man took this in. “We have no young men here. They went to Roksan, and they haven’t returned.”

“And they won’t,” Kaybrel remarked. The old man was lying, he thought.

“Just women and children, that’s all that’s here. And one old codger who can’t harm you. Leave us a roof and a little food, senyó. It’s not much to ask.”

To Lhored, Kay said, “He says their men died at Roksan. Apparently a few women and kids are up there in the hills. He wants us to leave them enough to make it through the winter.”

“They might have done us the same favor. It’s their turn to watch their children starve. Tell him we take what we want and burn the rest. But if he’d like to shorten the suffering, bring his clan to us and we’ll end their misery now. We’ll make it quick and I’ll guarantee his women’s virtue—if they have any. That’s as much as we’ll grant.”

Kay turned to the old man. Behind the aged figure the flower-strewn meadow lay in the afternoon sun. A breeze washed across blossom-tinted grasses like a wave across the surface of the lake behind Kay’s home.

“Listen, Grandfather,” Kay said in Espanyo. “Take your people into the hills as far as they can go. But do it quietly, so no one can see or hear you. If you can’t move them in silence, keep them under cover. Because if our men catch them, they’ll die now instead of later. My brezidiente will finish this place—there’s no help for that. Tell any Socalinieros who come this way that we came to pay back Roksan’s raids on Okan and A’o. Whenever your people come after ours, we’ll come right back after yours. Do you understand?”

“We had nothing to do with those things.”

“Now you do,” said Kaybrel. “Go. And be sure your Socaliniero friends hear what I say.”

“He says he’ll discuss it with the women,” Kaybrel reported to Lhored. “I told him to bring them down here before the day ends.”

“Good,” said Lhored. “Let him go.”

Kay watched the old man walk away. An unhappy, cold sensation gripped his gut. He had never lied to another kubna before.

Chapter 12
Kay and Tavi

Within an hour, the barn was burning and other buildings were in pieces or in flames. Fallon had his men liberate the food cellar for Kaybrel. Half its contents went as splits—tribute, in effect—to Brez Lhored. The rest, Kay dispensed more or less evenly among his mayrs, who passed the goods out to their men. Mindful of Don’O’s kindness, Kay saved an extra share for him. Fil raided a chicken coop, where he found a cache of fresh eggs and several fine, fat hens, half of which went to Moor Lek. Those of Kay’s men who shared in the slaughter of the cows and goats also split their spoils with him, which he redistributed between the brez (to whom he owed half of anything he took) and his own followers.

Lhored decided the farm’s grassy east meadow, which bordered the riverbank, was as good a place to set down for the evening as any, although the sun hadn’t yet passed mid-afternoon. Fallon was sent back to retrieve Duarto, Tavio, and the pack horses while Mitch and Kay reserved a choice site by the river. A couple of Fallon’s men piled stores from the cellar near the place where Kaybrel planned to pitch his lodge, and before Fallon returned Fil had brought a live chicken and a small sack of eggs, followed shortly by three men from Kristof’s and Robin’s bands, who hauled over some roughly butchered segments of cow. Kay was ordering a couple of his men to cut the meat into manageable chunks when Fal rode up with Tavio on the back of his saddle and their two massively-laden pack horses in tow.

“Gone lame, have you?” Kay lifted Tavio down and set him on his feet. “There’s an orchard full of apples down the way,” he said to Fal, “and a vineyard with a few ripe grapes. Let’s get over there and grab what we can while the grabbing’s good. We’ll really eat tonight.”

“You ought to do something about that boy’s feet first,” said Fal.

“He’ll live.” Kay told Tavio to unload both horses and tether the stock, and he ordered his men to haul the fresh food to the Moor Lek cook’s wagon. “I’ll help you, whenever Fal and I get back,” he said to Tavio. “I packed that pair of sandals for you in the gray bag. Put them on, and we’ll tend to you later.”

At the orchard, the foot soldiers had already swarmed the trees. Men were gorging themselves on fruit. What they couldn’t stuff into their faces, they ripped off the branches and threw to the ground.

“These guys are out of control,” Kay said. The scene irritated him, though he couldn’t say why. Maybe it was the waste that got on his nerves.

“Nah. They’re just having a good time,” Fallon replied.

“The hell! Get off your butt, Fal. Call your boys to heel.”

He strode into the orchard. “All right! Knock that off!” A searing string of invective spread a circle of silence twenty yards around Kaybrel. “Haul your pointed heads out of your assholes, get your tails out of those trees, and pick this shit up. Get it into bags and bring it to your mayrs.

“Fallon, damn it! Get after that bunch down there.” Another band, out of earshot, continued to celebrate. Fal, who couldn’t see any reason to spoil anyone’s fun, plodded down the irrigation furrow to call the rest of the men to order. Subdued, the looters began to climb out of the trees.

“Kay!” A young voice spoke from above. It was Cam Gadah, the miller’s son from the village of Moor Lek. This was his first summer in the field, and the freshness of his thinly bearded face and puppyish manner showed it. “Catch!” He tossed a green apple to Kay, who snapped it handily out of the air. Kay grinned, saluted Cam with it, and took a bite.

The tart fruit bit back, but Kay relished its sour tang. “You nitwits are going to have the runs tonight,” he said “This has a ways to go before it’s ripe.”

“Not hardly worth bagging up for splits, is it? The brez said to just pull the stuff off the trees.”

“He did, huh?” Of course. It was Lhored’s rule to leave nothing for the enemy to subsist on. And obviously, the unripe fruit was scarcely edible. Little point in taking it along.

“Well,” Kay said, “if that’s what we’re doing, it’d be a lot easier to burn the orchard.”

“Aw, let’s not do that. Maybe we’ll pass this way next year—these apples will be waiting for us then.”

“Yeah? And if we don’t, they can feed someone else. Burn it!”

He gave that order again to one of the men who had his feet on the ground, picked up a half-dozen apples for himself, and headed back to his campsite. He could see that Fal was puzzled, and now he felt a bit mystified himself.

What had possessed him, he wondered, to send that old fart and his clan packing out of reach? There was a limit, after all, to how much Lhored would put up with. Well, it was unlikely the brez would figure it out—except for himself, none of the Okan gonsa, the council around Lhored, spoke enough Espanyo to ask for a piece of tail, much less to follow what was said back there.

§

When he reached the pasture where he, Mitch, and Fallon planned to camp, he found Tavio sitting under a tree with his knees drawn up and his head in his arms. Tired boy, he thought. Tavi didn’t look up until Kaybrel was standing over him. He rubbed his face on his shirtsleeve.

“Does it hurt that much?” Kay asked, kneeling beside him. “Come on, now. You’ll feel better soon.” Tavi had unloaded the horses and then curled up in the shade. He hadn’t even pulled off the bone-crushing boots. He let Kay handle him but didn’t make a sound.

“Let’s get these off you,” said Kay. “Maybe another soak in the stream will help. Did you forget we brought some sandals for you?” He unlaced the leather uppers and helped Tavio out of the boots. The bandages he had layered under the socks unwrapped, he saw things were little worse than they had been three hours earlier. “Well, that’s not so bad,” he said. “Your feet will toughen up pretty quick. Before you know it, you’ll have calluses where those blisters are, and you’ll walk all day without noticing it.”

“You think so?” Tavio murmured.

“I know so. Sit still for a minute.” Kay went over to the packs and dug out some flatbread and the sandals, and then he picked up one of the new-found earthenware jugs. Back under the tree, he dipped a piece of bread into the honey. “Like this?” he asked. Tavio’s face warmed with pleasure, and Kay noticed that his mocha-colored nose was sunburned cinnamon.

Down by the river, they both sat with their feet in the cold mud. Tavi finished off the honeyed bread with relish and rinsed his hands in the water. “You need another bath,” Kay observed.

“Not right now,” Tavi said.

“Maybe not. Maybe so.” Kay made as if to push him in. “You’re filthy with road dust.”

“I guess. Will you get in, too?”

“Sure. Later.”

Tavi laughed softly. “I thought you liked cold water.”

“Yeah. When I’m hot.”

They sat and watched leaves float in the stream for a moment.

“Those people who live here,” Tavi said. “Did they kill them?”

“No, they’re long gone. They headed for the hills before we got here.”

“They knew the Englos were coming?”

“Apparently. They left their supper on the table.”

“Ah.”

Black skipper bugs circled in a backwater. Their stick-like feet made dimples in the surface tension. Kaybrel laid a dry leaf in their midst and watched it draw water like a little ship, find its place, and float, half under and half above.

“Why did you burn their houses? And kill their stock—they can’t live all winter without any shelter or anything to eat.”

Kaybrel pulled his gaze from the world afloat on the river. “No one can live without shelter, boy, not through a winter. That’s the whole idea, hm?”

“Killing them one way or the other.”

“More or less.”

“Why?”

“Why?” What a question. Why do you have to ask? Permutations of whydom trickled over the rocks. The why of the river, the why of the blue mountains, the why of the sun in the sky. The why of a woman whose yellow hair fills her grave. The why of her children, gone to earth with her. The why of Maire, soft and smoke-scented, the smell of home and comfort. Sometimes the sound of streamwater playing in its bed echoes the laughter of small girls. “I don’t know. Because they ran off. Cowards die a coward’s death.”

“So, they should die because they’re afraid?”

“No, not exactly. We’re all about to die, Tavio. Better to die fighting—to look your enemy in the face—than to slink away and hide. That way you go alone, hungry and cold. Stand firm and you go fast.”

“Is that better?”

“I think so. The pain is short, anyway.”

“And the glory great?”

Kaybrel looked sharply at Tavio, wondering what that was supposed to mean. Nothing, he decided: just a boy. “There’s no glory in war,” he said. “Not anyplace you look.”

Not here, that’s for sure, Tavio thought. “They’re farmers,” he said. “Not soldiers. They can’t fight your men. Why would you expect them to?”

“Everyone has a choice: to stand or run. We make our choices and we live or die by the consequences. That’s all it adds up to.”

“That doesn’t make any sense.”

“Sure it does.”

“Those people didn’t want to be here when your people came along. There’s no point in it. What point could there be in it?”

“Don’t look too hard for sense in things, Tavio. You’ll just make your head ache, and you’ll never find the answer. Things don’t make sense in this world. Never have.”

“Do you believe God made a world that doesn’t make sense?”

“I don’t ask God what kind of world He made. Or why. And I haven’t heard Him ask me lately for my opinion on His world.” This line of inquiry, Kaybrel thought, was veering too close to questions whose answers he didn’t like and he didn’t share with anyone. “Look,” he said. “We’re going to have a nice feast tonight. Are you hungry?”

Tavio shrugged.

“Let’s see if we can add to it. I’ll bet if we go up this river a little way, we’ll find a place where some fine, fat fish are hiding. Want to go see?”

“Don’t we need to raise the lodge?”

“Later. Come on.” They put on their shoes—the jury-rigged sandals, in Tavio’s case—and went back to Kaybrel’s pile of booty, where he pulled out the ragged fishnet he’d found in the barn. He also brought his own fishing gear, packed in a gray sack.

Chapter 13
Fishing in Company

Tavio followed Kay up the sandy, rocky riverbank. Freed from the boots, his feet hurt a little less, although given a choice he would have stayed under the tree where he had settled himself before Kay returned from wherever he had gone. The round, water-polished stones made an uncertain paving, inclined to tip, to twist an ankle, to turn grease-slick under damp sandy leather soles.

About twenty minutes upstream, they came to a place where the river forked around a mound of rocks. Kay examined the shrubs that grew out over the water and declared the place “perfect.” He pulled the net out of his bag, unrolled it, and handed one end to Tavi. Then he took the other end and waded across to the islet, where he secured the net by its various thongs to the rocks. Tavi watched him and marveled at how he didn’t seem to mind getting wet, the water tooth-grinding cold despite the full afternoon sun. He must, Tavi thought, be mad. Maybe he was possessed by the prophet’s madness, the shimmering insanity that made a priest magic and gave a healer his curing powers.

When Kay finished fiddling with the strings and the stones in midstream, he splashed back to where Tavi waited. Together they tied Tavi’s end of the net to branches of waterside shrubbery, and Kay showed Tavi how to anchor the thing so it would billow almost invisibly underwater.

“If we don’t catch anything on a line,” Kay said, “we’ll pretty sure have something waiting for us here.” He sounded positive of this.

They hiked another hundred yards upstream, until they came to second place that pleased Kay’s eye. In a cut by the bank, Kay said, and near the center where the current had carved a deep pool around some clustered boulders, that’s where the fish lived. Tavi peered into the water, but all he could see was a sunny glare, sky and leaves bouncing off the mirrored surface.

Kay selected a fur-and-feather fly from a small box he carried in his sack and tied it to a long single hair plucked from Demon’s tail. He carried a simple rod into the field, with a single ring at the tip and a small metal winch that held a length of braided horsehair line. Tavi watched Kay’s concentration, the attention held perfectly by fine details of knotting and testing. After a few moments of this, Kay glanced up, satisfied. “Would you like the first cast?” he asked. He offered the rod to Tavi.

Tavi took the fishing rod and held it tentatively. He had no idea what to do with it, but he figured it couldn’t be very difficult: just pitch the lure into the water. That was literally what he did.

“Hey, hey, wait a minute!” Kay exclaimed. “You’ll scare all the fish away with that stuff. Don’t you know how to cast?”

“I guess not,” Tavi said.

Kay looked at him, eyebrows pitched in surprise. “I guess not,” he agreed. He took the rod back. “Let me show you how it’s done.”

In Kay’s hands, the rod flickered and the long, thin line took flight. It swam through the air, slow, lazy and graceful, figure-eighting back on itself in long undulating loops, and at its tip like a wandering insect the lure skimmed the water and rose again and dipped and rose, sweet, innocent, idle. The beauty of the motion caught Tavi’s breath. He watched in amazement.

“Like that,” Kay said quietly after the bug came to rest on the stream’s surface.

He pulled the line in and showed Tavi how to flip it into the air and guide it back and forth.

“I don’t think I can do that,” Tavi said.

“Sure you can,” said Kay. “It’s easy.” He handed the rod back to Tavi and told him to try.

Tavi copied what he had seen Kay do, and in a moment the lure went airborne. He smiled. “This is fun,” he said.

“Of course it is,” Kay said.

Tavi was quick with his hands, and Kay said so. Encouraged, he tangled the line in the shrubs only twice and managed never to snag himself or Kay. When Kay made him climb into the brush to retrieve the caught line, he learned some care.

“How could you get to be half-grown without learning to fish?” Kay asked.

“I don’t know. We just never did that.”

“Didn’t you do things with your father?”

“Well, yeah. We worked in the shop.”

Kay laughed. “That must have been exciting,” he said.

Shadows deepened on the foothills as the sun crept closer to the western mountains. Across the river, some animals stirred in the brush. A gathering of bees hummed around a nearby laurel. At each cast, the fly floated on the barely moving air and came to rest atop the water, where it skimmed along for a while, like a living thing on the living river. Kay lounged on the riverbank while Tavi practiced. The time felt like a nap in a field of clover, like sun on rust-red rocks, like a sweet slow melody sung by a woman contented at her work.

Something moved in the water. Tavi saw it at the same time that Kay said, “Hey,” and something hit the lure hard. “Hang on, man,” Kay jumped to his feet. “Set the hook, like I told you. Give it a little jerk. Yeah—you got him!”

A silvery rainbow leapt out of the water and Tavio yelped in startled joy. “What do I do now?” he cried. He had no idea how to land a fish. Kay came up behind him and guided his hands to the right position and, with a quick demonstration, showed him how to play the line. Then he let him have at it.

A few minutes of spirited fight brought the fish to hand. Tavi was so involved in drawing the fish in he didn’t notice Kay retrieve a net from his bag, but he was happy when Kay lifted the flopping burden out of the water.

“That,” Kay said, “is a dollifar. Quite a prize—not bad for your first time, hm? And big enough to fill a pan, too!”

“He’s so beautiful,” Tavio said. He admired the speckled, golden-brown glow from its flanks, light captured in water on the creature’s shimmering scales.

“Isn’t he? Mighty good eating, too.”

Kay tethered the fish through the gills, tied it to a waterside stake, and then took his own turn at casting. “Wouldn’t mind having another of those,” he said.

Tavi sat in the sun for a while. After a bit, he wandered up the river and left Kay to relax into the settling afternoon. He watched water play over rocks, studied a cobalt dragonfly hovering on transparent veined wings, wondered at a pair of tiny waterbugs standing on dimples of surface tension. He found some red berries, tasted them, judged them good. Such a beautiful place, he thought; he wished his older sister Rina could see it. A few times they had come away from Roksan, up the Rio Mendo with his uncle Emilio, who was a bit of an adventurer. Now and again Emilio would organize a day-long expedition into the country. He would take his older children and his nephews and some of his nieces, and they would pack a picnic lunch and other food into a little wagon, and then pack themselves into it and ride up to a grassy meadow that Tio Emilio knew about. It wasn’t quite like this, not so wild, for other people knew of it and usually they would see someone else from the city there.

Rina. If only he could have died instead of her. Why couldn’t the Englo alacaldo have Rina instead of him? Tavi wouldn’t want her in his bed, he supposed, but he’d rather have her there than where she was, with her throat cut and her red blood spurting across the table, dripping onto the floor. He tried to look away from that, to think of how Kay might have brought her here and how she would have liked this place, and he gazed up the side of the hill across the river, where the slope was covered with coarse green brush that looked a lot like the berry plants he had just raided, elderberries, he guessed. The hillside swam for an instant, until he blinked his eyes.

About two hundred yards away, halfway up the incline, he could see a big tan lump. It was moving around, slowly. Nearby were two smaller figures, and those, he recognized, were animals. At first he thought they were big dogs—wolves?—and then he realized they were bears. He headed back to Kay, at the trot.

“Kay!” he called.

“Quiet, boy. You’ll scare the fish,” Kay said.

“Look up there!”

“Yeah, I know. I saw them.”

“They’re bears, no?”

“They look a lot like it.” Kay drew his lure across the water, pulled it in, and sent it out again over a long swooping arc. When he placed the fly where he wanted it, he said, “We call them grizzlies. Ozo bardo.

Tavio had seen bears in town. Traveling performers often came through with various kinds of trained animals, tame black bears among them. In the arena, captured grizzlies were sometimes matched with fighting bulls, and their reputation was fierce. Everyone knew the ozo bardo was not something you wanted to meet on its home turf.

“Should we stay here, with those cubs so close?” Tavi asked.

“Probably not,” Kay said. He didn’t seem in any hurry to leave.

“She might like to eat our fish,” Tavi worried.

“That she would. But she’s foraging for berries just now. Those are bearberries up on that hill. They love them. And she’s not going to leave her babies just to steal one fish from us.”

“I think she sees us.”

“Not likely. She can’t see this far. But she can smell us. She’s downwind from us. Probably hears us, too, the way we’re yakking.”

As though to second Kay’s remark, the mother bear suddenly stood on her hind legs and peered in their direction, her round ears perked out from her massive head. Even at a distance, Tavi could see she would tower over Demon’s tall shoulder. The cubs frolicked nearby. One chased the other down, and they collapsed in a wrestling mass.

“Well,” Kay sighed, “I reckon it’s getting on to dinnertime, don’t you? Why don’t we go check that net, hm?” He drew his line across the water, slowly and deliberately, and, in no apparent rush, assembled his gear and repacked his tackle bag. He pulled the fish out of the water and dropped it, thrashing, into an extra sack. “Let’s go.”

Tavi hurried to accommodate. “Walk, please,” Kay said firmly. “Keep it slow, and stay next to me.” He had his dagger—not the small fishknife he had been using—in his hand.

“You figure to stop her with that?” Tavi asked.

“Not likely.” Kaybrel grinned as though Tavi’s nervousness entertained him. “But it’s like I said—if I have to go, I’m going out face to face.”

Downstream, the net had trapped two small trout. Kay threw one back, after gently releasing it from the snare. The other he judged big enough to cook.

14.
Partying

 It was coming on to dark by the time they got back to the campsite. Although Tavio was tired, Kay could see he was enough rested and cheered to help pitch the lodge and unpack a night’s gear. With the two of them working, it didn’t take long to hook the lodgepoles together and secure the overlapping walls and floor. Before many stars had come to life in the deepening sky, they were ready to join the crowd gathered around a big bonfire on the north end of the pasture. The wrecked farmhouses supplied plenty of kindling and fuel, so no one had to search the forest for firewood to get things started. The party was well under way.

Kay presented himself first to his camp cook, Bayder, who with his two young sidekicks was laboring over a huge portable metal stove. Behind them, two sides of goat and several spitted chickens roasted over open pits. Bayder cooked for more than Kay’s men; tonight his moveable kitchen would serve up food for the better part of the A’oan and Okan company. Everyone had thrown in a share of their spoils, to be redistributed that night in a grand feast. Kay and Fallon had donated a chunk of salt venison, the beef and goat meat their men had gathered, two live hens, a jar of the honey, and as much of the farmers’ grain as they could spare.

The fresh trout Kay gave for Don’O, with instructions to Bayder to prepare it nicely. The dollifar, Kaybrel held back for Tavio, since it was the boy’s first catch. Bayder promised to make it special, too.

In the gentian dusk, they entered the orange globe of firelight where the party was going on.

“Don’t you ever pray at sunset?” Tavio asked.

“No,” Kay said. “I don’t believe that’ll keep the bedbugs away. Do you?”

“The night ghosts. . . .”

“If the night ghosts want to get you, Tavi, they’ll come for you—and no amount of mumbling to your god or mine will stop them.” Dusk and dawn prayers against the various spirits believed to bring disease in the night or in times of bad air were customary all over Socalio and Mezgo. Hengliss tribes held off their demons by other methods which, Kay privately thought, seemed no more effective.

Where, Kay wondered, did that question come from at a time like this? The last thing a party would put him in mind of was prayer. Possibly the scene before them, where shapes moved in silhouette against the yellow firelight, suggested spirits and spooks to a superstitious kid.

The noisy, boisterous men didn’t strike Kay as the ghostly sort. Four fires burned nearby: a big one in the center of the party and three smaller cooking fires in pits near the wagon that supplied the cook and his apprentices. The savory smell of fat sizzling in the wood fires permeated the sounds of laughter and half-drunken shouts and the complementary odors of sweat and horse.

Here and there across the flattened pasture other bonfires glowed. Clots of men gathered around them; some shuffled gregariously from one group to the next. A half-dozen boys, Duarto among them, played a round of ha-lo, a ball game that involved a bat and a set of hand-held throwing nets. Tavio knew it as a street game that required skill and fast footwork, neither of which he possessed.

Nearby a man roared with laughter. His broad mouth revealed three teeth in his upper jaw and two in the lower, and a spray of pockmarks stippled his cheeks above his faded brown beard. He handed off a blue jug to a wide-chested, bandy-legged character, who said something that brought on another gale of mirth. Three other men shared their own pot of brew and laughed with them.

Greetings met Kaybrel and hands extended ale bottles to him as he and Tavio passed through the crowd. Kay selected an empty spot on the ground close to the big fire ring and dropped the three blankets he’d brought. Before they could sit down, though, Dom of Wichin hailed them over to where he, Robin, and Fil were holding court, attended by six or eight of their retainers. Yellow of hair and brow—even his eyelashes were blond—Dom had a bluff manner and a wet smile. He ran a sportive hand through Tavio’s hair and said something that made Kay grin. Tavi couldn’t understand the men’s words, but he sensed they were about him and he didn’t like it. Fil offered Kay the pot, which was accepted with a casual toast.

Englo conversation unintelligible, Tavio parked himself on the far side of Kaybrel from Dom and let his attention wander back to the ball game. The pitcher threw a fast ball overhand to Porfi, who swung and missed. The next swing connected, though, and sent the fist-sized ball sailing into the blackness above the firelight.

One of the receivers ran back a few steps, held up his snowshoe-shaped rope net, and snatched the ball as it stooped earthward like a hawk after prey. The batter tossed his paddle aside and charged him; before he could make contact, the netter whirled his arm and snapped the ball back into the air.

Duarto and another boy lunged for it, but Duarto was quicker. He blurred over the field, caught the ball on the tip of his net, and flipped it in before it could bounce off the rim. Now Porfi, evidently on Duarto’s team, moved to block the other netter who had tried to snare the ball. A riot of shouts and whistles burst from the players as Duarto maneuvered for a shot through the tree crotch that was their goal.

Beyond the ball game, a party drifted across the meadow following the brez, who was proceeding through the crowd slowly, surrounded by a swarm of hangers-on. Among them, Tavi recognized Mitch, who had been introduced to him as Kay’s cousin, and two other alacaldos whose names he couldn’t recall.

Closer to the fire, a group of men in woolen leggings and leather jackets sat on rocks warming themselves by the fire. They passed a large carved pipe from hand to hand while one of them strummed—tunelessly, Tavio thought—a small stringed instrument.

“Why don’t you go get in that game?” Kay suggested.

“I don’t play it very well,” Tavi said.

“Ahh! They’ll let you play anyway. Your buddy Duarto will get you in.”

“He’s good, no?”

“Always fast on his feet, yes.”

They watched as the game continued without a pause. It would run with no time out until one side scored ten points.

“Go on over there, boy,” said Kay.

“I don’t understand what they’re saying,” Tavi replied. “They all speak Englo.”

“No, they don’t. Every one of them speaks some kind of Espanyo. If you pay attention and listen, you can figure it out.”

“I don’t want to,” Tavio protested.

“When did I ask you if you wanted to?” Kaybrel, accustomed to being obeyed, felt himself get a little short. “Don’t whine, Tavi.”

Tavio fell silent. In a lifetime of hard work, no one had ever accused him of whining. He studied the alacaldo briefly and saw no sign of sympathy—although in fact, Kay sensed the reasons for Tavi’s reticence even as he pushed him out into the crowd. Tavio let enough time pass to suit his own sense of propriety and then headed toward the game. He had no intention of playing and declined when Duarto tried to draft him. Instead, he sat down next to the sidelined Luse, who very much desired to be on the field.

“How’s it going?” he said and then realized that was pretty silly, because even if the greeting was understood, he couldn’t follow the answer.

But Luse returned with something that Tavio realized must mean “better,” because he caught a couple of blurry syllables that sounded vaguely familiar. Luse showed off the little fetish that Kaybrel had given him. “This has good magic,” he said, and Tavio recognized the word for “good.” Luse’s attention turned back to the game, and he hollered for his team. Luse would have been playing against Duarto’s side and, he fully believed, leading his gang to a win if he were just on his feet.

Now that he had a chance to sit quietly for a few minutes, Tavio began to register that he was dead tired, so tired he no longer felt hungry, although he had been aware of how empty his belly was for quite some time. As soon as the sun set, the evening chill came up, and with the dark the air was turning cold. He wished he could go inside somewhere—home. But there was no home. Just a pile of ashes. And the spirits, they had no place to go either, no home in the earth, no images to dwell in at the place where they had lived in flesh. They had no place to go and neither did he. What happens to spirits, he wondered, when the place they came from goes away? They must wander and wander. They probably follow the ones they knew in life, and for sure he was the only one still living. So they must be here with him, watching and crying. How Tisha had screamed! It must have hurt her so much, what they did to her. It hurt when they did it to him. It hurt more than he could even remember now. She was so little, only eight years old. She screamed. One of them hit her when she screamed but that made her scream more. She screamed through the rag they stuffed in her mouth. She was still screaming. Her screams bounced off the stars and spread through the night sky so that the air cringed with echoes of her screams that would never stop, not through all eternity; in all of time she would go on screaming, for now Tisha and Rina and Mamita were night ghosts whose agony would come back to the ones left living in the flesh and bring pain and then death, first maybe to these wild men who didn’t even ask for God’s deliverance. He hoped Mamita would take him soon, and then he would be an isburdo, too. Her touch would graze his cheek or brush his back as he slept and he would take a fever and die and be with them. Tisha’s screams rang through the world and diffused up toward a black heaven.

§

“Hey, Tavio.” Kaybrel’s hand grasped his shoulder with a gentle squeeze. “Are you awake? You look like you’re freezing.”

Tavi jumped. He hadn’t heard Kay call him across the field, nor had he been aware of the man’s approach. He realized he’d hunched himself up and wrapped his arms around his knees, and yes, he was cold.

“Cook says the chow is hot. Let’s go get some, hm? That’ll warm you up,” Kay said. He had brought a couple of metal dishes and pottery cups.

Tavio got to his feet silently and followed Kaybrel to the far side of the bonfire, to where Bayder was holding forth. Quite a few Hengliss were gathered there. As Kaybrel approached, men stood aside to let him go to the front, which he did as a matter of course.

Bayder was a hefty fellow with a thick, black bramble of whiskers, surprising blue eyes, and a broad grin that revealed crooked teeth. A copious knit cap covered his bald pate, and he looked like eating was his life.

At the time he sent word to the kubna that the food was about ready to eat—no one in the Moor Lek company got served before Kaybrel—Bayder had put Tavi’s dollivar, which he had filleted, in a flat basket and set it over the fire to grill. His timing was exactly right, and as the two approached, he pulled the pink-fleshed meat off and greeted them with a remark that Kay translated for Tavi.

“He says you’re a great fisherman. He likes your catch.”

“Grati,” Tavi said. His smile looked shy.

“Next time he goes fishing, he’ll take you with him, so you can catch one of these for him.”

Uncertain how to respond to this second-hand conversation, or even what to say had it been first-hand, Tavio wished it would get over with. “Am I allowed to do that?” he asked.

“Of course. You’re allowed to do anything you want—just about.” Bayder placed the tender fish on Tavio’s plate while one of his assistants wrestled a roasted joint off the fire and began slicing chunks. “It would be good to offer him some,” Kay prompted. “That’s a courtesy, you understand?”

Así.” He held the dish up and invited Bayder to take some. Kaybrel didn’t need to translate; if Bayder hadn’t half-expected it, Tavio’s meaning would have been clear.

“No, that’s yours, chacho,” said Bayder. “Well, maybe a taste.” He reached over to Tavio’s dish and with his broad, stubby fingers broke off enough to fill his capacious mouth. “Very good,” he spoke around the food. “Grati,” he added, and Tavio smiled more convincingly.

There was plenty to stuff a hungry belly: in addition to the various roasted meats, Bayder offered potatoes, beets, and turnips wrapped in leaves and roasted in the coals; boiled carrots, celery, onions, and leafy greens; green tomatoes fried in fat and red ones sliced or stewed. The corn was not ripe, nor were the apricots and peaches, but the peas were, and every one that could be eaten had been stripped from the vines. There was broccoli and kale, lettuces of various kinds, grapes, green apples. The clan who lived in this place gardened well and ate well, when there was no one to teach them any better. Bayder saw to it that Kaybrel and his boy’s plates were piled high.

Kay had picked the spot where they threw down because he recognized his friends’ gear on the ground. Fallon was already parked nearby, next to Fil. They were debating whether to get up and go after food or to continue drinking; with Kay’s arrival, they chose to keep drinking. A few moments later, Don’O joined them, his plate overflowing, and before long Robin and Kristof appeared, with Luse and Robin’s boy Nando in tow. Mitchel took another place for himself and Duarto. Binsen and Guelito soon joined the group, too.

Duarto, his color high, walked up with a cheerful swagger. “We won,” he said, as he dropped to the ground next to Tavio. “Porfi tried to block me on the last goal, but I passed it to Hernan and he swung it around like he was going to pass to Rod, but I’d sort of slid back, you know? behind Guel’—he was watching the ball and he didn’t see where I was, and quick as a snake Hernan shot to me and I just dropped it right in.”

“That was a lucky shot, farm boy,” Luse cracked in Hengliss.

“Lucky I’m so good,” said Duarto.

“Lucky I wasn’t playing, you mean.”

“Hey!” Duarto laughed. “Get yourself back in the game and we’ll see what’s luck, eh?” He translated the gist of this exchange for Tavio, who smiled politely. Tavi, never much of a sportsman, had little taste for brags or challenges. He’d like, he thought, to make other guys feel he was one of them, but sometimes he wondered how. Just now, though, he was too tired to care.

Duarto launched into a blow-by-blow for the Hengliss men’s benefit, and whatever he was saying caused ripples of laughter. Fallon and Fil raised the jug to Duarto’s cause and then offered him a swig, which he gladly accepted. He passed the bottle to Tavio. Tavio wondered how Duarto could talk so much and still eat. He took a sip from the jug: it was the same burning liquid Kay had poured down his throat a week earlier. He passed it quickly to Luse.

The rise and fall of conversation washed around Tavio, like water eddying in the river’s bend. When he said he had eaten as much as he could, Kay took his plate and handed it to someone else, who took some and passed it along. Each helped himself to what he wanted. Tavio pulled the blanket Kay had given him around his shoulders and looked up to the stars that studded the black bowl over the fire’s orange glow and thought again of his sister but Duarto laughed and Guelito, bundled now close to Binsen, echoed the joke and their two half-grown voices blended with the men’s and all the voices rushed like tumbling water over the sound of the screams.

Someone pulled out a pair of dice and Kay and Fal said something that made the others laugh again, the two of them bantering together. Four of the men threw the dice, one after the other, and three times out of five Kay’s came up low and he grinned and collected a handful of coins. He gave one to Tavi and one each to Luse, Duarto, Guelito, and Nando and pocketed the rest.

The dice gave way to a story-telling session, which Tavio couldn’t follow. To the Hengliss stories were nothing without music, and before long someone offered Kay a gitter, a small stringed instrument like a lute, highly portable, with just six strings and a short neck. He took it and fingered out a melody from his heart, slow and complex, something that no one had ever heard before and everyone thought they knew from childhood.

When he ended, the company sat quietly for a moment, a brief moment. Then a voice from the other side of the campfire spoke up. “C’mon, Kay. Can’t you play anything cheerful?”

He shrugged and offered the gitter to Tavio. “Play us a tune, boy,” he said. “It’s just like un’itaretto.”

“I don’t know how,” said Tavio.

“Really?”

“No. I can’t play it.”

Kay gave him a puzzled look, but his pause was brief. He moved on quickly.

“Guelito!” he said. “Give those clowns a laugh.” Guelito took the gitter cheerfully. The song he played swept up and down like a swallow in the wind below a cliff, and everyone rode with it. By the time he finished, Kaybrel’s wistful melody was forgotten, and one of the two smokers who had sat by the big fire earlier joined them. Then he and Guelito picked their music-makers opposite each other, one competing with the other to go faster and higher.

While this went on, Kay saw Tavi nest his head in his arms again. The blanket slid clumsily off the boy’s shoulders.

“Cold, chacho?” Kay asked.

“Así, alacaldo,” came the reply.

“Come here,” Kay said. “Get under this blanket, hm?” Kay beckoned, opened the tent he’d made over his own shoulders. Tavi, chilly and sleepy, thought he’d take him up and moved under Kay’s arm and let himself be wrapped in the brown and red striped wool. “Your feet are still bare. You must be freezing.” Kay wrapped both blankets around Tavi and pulled him close and leaned back against a small pile of rocks his friends had stacked up as seating. Under the two wool wraps, it was warm and dark. Kay pulled the top blanket around Tavi’s neck and up around his nose, and saw that it was tight around his feet. Not a whisper of cold night air could seep in, and the warmth of Kaybrel’s arm around him locked out even the night ghosts.

The voices grew distant, a dwindling hum shifting deeper into a cave. Later, Tavio didn’t remember that Kay asked Duarto to wash their dishes in the river, or that Mitch laughed when he heard about the bears, but that he sent a couple of chachos to help heft all the food out of reach, or that when Duarto came back he climbed under Mitch’s blanket and then ducked his head underneath and did something there that made Mitch grin. Tavio didn’t remember when Kaybrel woke him and led him to the lodge and put him to bed.

Chapter 15
Morning After

The two armies slept late the next morning. Some of the men moved slowly when they emerged, and many looked a bit shabby. Kay was up early, though he knew before he went to bed that there would be no hurry to pack up. Only Don’O was shifting about, and Don’O showed no inclination to roust anyone out of the sack. Don’O padded groggily around camp, his careful motions crying out for quiet. Kay decided to let Tavio sleep.

After he got the campfire going, he set a bucket of water over the heat and got out the fixings for a mint tea and an amaranth-grain cereal, which he preferred hot and thick. He shaved some soap into a mug and shortly ladled some of the hot water over it. This, along with his chamois towel and a change of clothing, he carried over to the river, where, a few dozen yards downstream, he found a deep eddy in the stream’s elbow. He dropped his pants and shirt on the bank and entered the water with a smooth, flat dive, so clean he scarcely made a sound as he cut the surface.

Milky with glacier-melt, the frigid water made him ache all over. He could feel his testicles cringe up into his body, and his head started to hurt before his face broke out of the water. He gasped as he found his footing. In another couple of seconds he was back on the riverbank, soaping himself in the sunlight, whose faint early-morning warmth did nothing to change the sense that the water would soon form a sheet of ice on his skin.

Up the way, Fallon, who had crawled out of his lodge with a mighty head, saw Kay strolling downstream. He followed to watch the spectacle.

He sat down by the stream on a log that had fallen half-in, half-out of the water. “Freezing your dong won’t turn it to gold,” he remarked.

Kay rubbed the soap into his hair and beard. “Keeps a man good and tough,” he said. “Helps your hangover, too.”

“Sure. Freeze yourself to death, and you don’t feel any more pain.”

Kay laughed. “Cranky this morning, hm?”

“Naah. Just flabbergasted.”

Kay jumped back into the water and dived to rinse the soap off. Back on the bank in seconds, he swore softly under his breath and rubbed his shivering body hard with the chamois.

“Why do you do that?” Fal asked, for what was no doubt the hundredth time. “An oil rub would do the job without turning your balls to ice. Or else sweat the dirt off.”

“Right! I’m going to build a sweathouse for an overnight stop?”

“I wouldn’t mind a good sweat myself just now,” Fallon said.

“I’ll bet!” Kay pulled his clothes and boots on. “I dunno,” he added. “Grease never makes me feel as clean as water. Besides, how else could I prove what a man I am?”

“And it feels so good when it stops.”

“Yeah, you got that right.” Kay invited Fallon to join him for breakfast, and the two trailed back to his camp. They sat by the fire long enough to take off the chill and sip mugs of the hot tea, and then Kay, who could see that Fallon needed a stronger tonic to perk him up, suggested they raid the cook’s leftover stores.

Bayder was also up by the time they got there, cleaning and stowing gear and keeping an eye on the very booty the two had in mind. Iami, his youngest sidekick, was scrubbing out a big sheet-metal bin; the other, Eberto, had worked very late the previous night and was still in bed. A ten-gallon pot of beef and sheep bones simmered over the fire; had been there since the night before, when Bayder threw a load of picked-over remains into some water and left them to stew.

Mister Kay! Mister Fallon!” he greeted the two cheerfully.

“Oh, Lord,” Fal mumbled a mock prayer. “Spare us this day this happy fool.” Only Kay heard him, and whatever god was listening.

A moment or two of small talk led to Kay’s inquiry about a medicinal morning brew. Ready to accommodate—because he knew what sunrise would bring—Bayder poured a big ladle-full of the meat broth through a metal strainer into a bowl. He added a dollop of something thick and dark, redolent of hot pepper, vinegar, honey, onion, garlic, and ripe fish oil. From the wagon he brought forth a basket of eggs, one of which he split neatly between his fingers and dropped, whole and raw, into the brew. “Here you go,” he offered it to the invalid.

Fallon peered into the bowl’s murky depths, his piratical features a study in despair. The egg began to congeal in the hot liquid. He glanced at Kay, who smirked, and at Bayder, who looked expectant.

“Down the hatch,” said Kay.

“Nothing better for you,” said Bayder.

“Ugh,” said Fallon. His gut lurched. The other two were watching. He put the bowl to his lips, held his breath, shut his eyes, and bolted the gunk down. The slimy, burning concoction went straight to his belly without taking much notice of his taste buds; he felt it heat his gullet all the way to his stomach. He wiped his beard and mustache on his shirtsleeve, opened his eyes, and grinned. “Great stuff,” he said, and let go a satisfied belch that brought forth a skeptical laugh from Kay and a slap on the shoulder from Bayder.

The cook was willing to part with a few more eggs, some leftover meat, some baked beans, and a small portion of precious butter, liberated the day before from the farmhouses. Before Kay and Fal could get away, they had heard five folk remedies for the morning after (of which three were most recommended by the quantities of liquor they contained) and two ancient saws that had something to do with why a young man should cleave to the straight and narrow path, preferably the path that contained a wife or two.

They escaped to Kay’s camp, where Kay stirred the thick grain potage he had put on the fire and, seeing the wooden paddle stand straight up in it, declared it adequate. Fallon retired to the fireside log, rested his head on his hands, and tried not to think of his queasy gut. He watched while Kay sliced a few of the green apples and threw them, with a dollop of butter, a slop of honey, and half a mug of water, into a small iron pot, which he balanced over a pair of rocks placed in the hot coals. Once the fruit was stewing, Kay chopped the slices of meat into small chunks, melted the rest of the butter in a cast-iron frying pan, and scrambled the eggs and meat together.

By the time Kay’s breakfast mess was ready, Fal’s appetite had begun to return. He didn’t turn up his nose at a bowl of honeyed mush topped with tangy apples, nor at the egg slumgullion.

Inside the lodge, the sounds of activity and the bass exchange of the men’s voices woke Tavio. He noticed he hadn’t been turned out of bed before dawn, and that made him feel good. Maybe there would be no trek today. He wondered why Kay hadn’t roused him, and then he burrowed into the warm blankets and hoped it was because Kay had forgotten him.

The hot cereal revived Fallon’s will to live, and, at ease beside the fire, he took a moment to listen to the dove hoot and the meadowlark trill, to watch white clouds march toward the western peaks, to smell the fragrance of last night’s hemp that still clung to his clothing.

“That old man never came back with his women,” he reflected.

“Why should he? He knew what would come of it.”

“I suppose. Nice spot they have here.”

“It was,” said Kay

“Does it bother you?”

“What?”

“Taking the place down.”

“No. Should it?”

“I don’t know.”

Kay regarded Fallon silently. He knew he was giving that impression—that he was going soft—and while he didn’t much want to have to answer for it, he realized he needed to come up with some response. So he said what he thought.

“It’s just that there’s not much point in it. You understand?”

“I suppose. No more point in it than in what they do to our farms and towns.”

“We should do pointless things because they do?”

Fallon shrugged.

“We ought to be spending our time and our energy going after targets that count,” Kay continued. “We need to march toward the towns, track down and take on their armed men. This was a waste of time.”

“It was fun. It made the men happy.”

“Hm.”

“Besides, we took Roksan. What more do you want?”

“I want to whip those bastards’ tails, Fal, so that none of them ever even thinks about setting foot north of the Shazdi again. And I can tell you one thing: we didn’t do that at Roksan. A good part of their army is out in the field somewhere. If they’d all been in or near the city, we’d have had one hell of a lot harder fight than we did, taking the place.”

“We didn’t have what you’d call an easy time of it,” Fallon remarked with understatement.

“Nope.”

“I think we got them. We nailed their hides to the wall.”

“Not by a long shot.”

“You don’t think so?”

“I’m sure of it. We’re sitting around on our duffs partying when we ought to be going after the rest of them. By that I don’t mean people who live on little farms down by the river. We need to go after the big towns—guitats, they call them. Where there’s lots of fortifications and lots of people to fight.”

“So? Roksan, eh?”

“Roksan isn’t their only city, Fal.”

“It’s got to be the biggest.”

“I doubt it.”

“How do you know?”

“Because I know the way they live. They’re insects. They don’t live like we do, in normal villages. They swarm together in hives, like termites in a dirt mound. The more of them, the better. Aleio, down on the Wakeen, is bigger than Roksan. Mendo is at least as big.”

“We could never make it all the way to Aleio in a summer,” said Fallon.

“Not at this rate,” Kay agreed.

Fallon emptied the mug of tea and dangled the cup between his knees. “Here’s a little termite now,” he observed. Tavio crawled out of the lodge and stood in the sun rubbing sleep out of his eyes. He wore a homespun robe that Kay had put on him to keep him warm at night, and in his bare feet he looked child-like.

“Good morning,” Kay said to him in Hengliss. This elicited a woozy nod. “Did you sleep all right?” in Espanyo.

Tavio murmured a wordless sound of assent. “Come over here,” Kay said. He made an open-armed gesture that invited the boy to sit down. Tavio dropped to the ground, and Kay settled him between his legs, facing the slowly burning fire. Tavi kept his eyes closed as Kay rubbed and scratched his back to wake him up. Fallon stood and walked over to the kettle to refill his mug, and while he was there he rummaged in the mound of camp dishes, found a tin cup, and poured some tea into that, too.

He handed it to Tavio. “Here you go, lad,” he said.

Tavi glanced up at Fal and took the cup. “Thank you,” he said in distinct, clear Hengliss.

Surprised, Fallon flashed his startling bright smile and said, “You’re welcome.” He looked at Kay, who lifted an eyebrow amicably. It was the first time Tavio had spoken a Hengliss phrase without prompting. He soon reverted to Espanyo, though.

“Is Duarto up?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” Kay said. “I haven’t been over there.”

“Can I go see?”

“No.”

Tavio subsided. “You need some breakfast,” Kay added. “But before that, you have to take a bath. You’re starting to stink again.”

“In the water?”

“Right over there.”

“But it’s cold.”

“It’s halfway to noon! The sun’s warm—you won’t freeze. There’s a nice swimming hole down there where you can take a dip. You’ll enjoy it.”

“I can’t swim.”

“Ah,” Kay said. “You did say that, didn’t you?” Now it seemed like part of a pattern. “All right. Go over there to where the water’s shallow, and stay where I can see you.” He pointed out the soap, the still-damp chamois towel, and the location of some almost clean clothes, and then brooked no further resistance. Dejected, Tavio got up and headed for the river bank.

“That boy will catch his death,” Fal said. “Do you think it’s a good idea to make him get wet like that?”

“It won’t hurt him,” Kay said. The concept of cleanliness was something Kay had picked up in his travels, an Udan custom. It was foreign to the Hengliss as to the city-dwelling Socalinieros: an acceptable side-effect of some amusement like swimming or the sweat lodge, but never an end in itself. Fallon believed water was not very healthy, and taking a chill was a fair way to bring on a fever.

Before Tavio could finish bolting the food Kay put in front of him after he returned from the riverside, the order to move came down from Lhored. Fallon heaved himself to his feet and went off to rally his men. Tavi was disappointed at missing the chance to socialize with Duarto and his friends. Kay observed that he’d have the rest of the day to hike with whomever he pleased, which served the purpose of reminding Tavi that his feet hurt.

Chapter 16
Kay and Tavi

In less than an hour, the camp was packed aboard horses, the long barracks-tents were stowed in the wagons, and the assorted company began to pour back onto the road, one band after another. It was just before midday.

Kay had wrapped Tavio’s feet well and fitted him with a fresh pair of socks, so he was reasonably comfortable. They soon fell into a smooth rhythm, side by side. Fallon and Mitch had taken up with a couple of the others, and once they were under way, Tavio showed no inclination to run off and join his new friends. The two walked quietly for a while. Kay wondered many things about Tavio, and he turned them over in his mind as he went along.

“So,” he said eventually. “You don’t swim.”

“No, sir,” Tavio replied.

“You don’t play a musical instrument?”

“No.”

“You don’t play ball.”

“Not very well.”

“You’ve never hiked before this.”

“No. We always rode in a wagon. Or a carriage.”

“I’ll bet you’ve never climbed a mountain, either, hm?”

Tavio shrugged.

“And yesterday was the first time you’ve fished this river.”

“Uh huh.”

“Tell me something, boy.”

“Senyó?”

“What have you been doing all your life, while you’ve been growing up?”

Tavio didn’t know how to answer this. Was Kay trying to insult him? Why? He hadn’t done anything to bring on a confrontation. At length he replied: “Working.”

“Working?”

“Yeah. In my father’s shop.”

“What kind of work did you do?” Kay asked.

“My father’s a weaver,” Tavio said. “He’s…well, he was—the master weaver in the city.”

“Hm. That’s something,” Kay remarked. He examined this silently. Roksan had produced the finest woven goods in the south, and southern textiles were far superior to anything made by the Hengliss tribes. Was this boy saying what he seemed to be saying? Surely not.

“I suppose,” Tavio agreed.

“You were his apprentice, then?”

“Yeah, I got to be. In the past couple of years.”

“So….what were you doing before then?”

“Working.”

“You worked, but you weren’t apprenticed?”

“Well, no. It takes a long time to get to where you can apprentice. You have to have done it for a while.”

“You apprentice to be an apprentice.”

Tavio laughed. “Yeah, you could say that.”

Kay let this rest, waiting to see what Tavio would say next. And shortly, the boy continued. “My father started me working in the shop when…it was my fifth summer, I think. About five.”

“Five years old? What kind of work can you get from five summers?”

Kay saw Tavi glance at him sidewise and thought his look said there was something obvious or stupid in the question. “It’s the small hands, you know?” Tavi said. “When you’re little, you can reach through the threads better. We used to help work the looms, and we had to set them up for the weavers, and sometimes we’d do some of the weaving, too.”

“Sounds like enough to keep you busy.”

“I suppose. They don’t make you work all day at first. Plus our shop was right next to our house. We’d go back and forth. At first, anyway. It takes a while to get into it, a year or two before you’re working all the time.”

“All the time? All day, from dawn to dusk?” Kay found it hard to conceive of a small boy working a man’s hours. Although Hengliss farm boys helped to work the land from an early age, it was never that early, and in the villages the sons of craftsmen and laborers weren’t set to a trade much before they were ten or twelve.

“Sure,” Tavio said, as though he couldn’t imagine anything else.

“When did you play with your friends?” Kay asked.

“After church, sometimes. If there wasn’t anything else to be done.”

It explained some things, Kay thought, though it seemed unlikely. How a person could make a kid sit still for a full day’s work baffled him. Yet, he reflected, he had heard that the Socalinieri regarded children as short adults. They certainly treated Hengliss boys, when they had them, like something other than children, no question of that. And some of the Socaliniero boys had un-boyish habits. Duarto, in particular; but then what Duarto had gone through would take the boy—if not the life—out of anyone. Duarto was no boy. But Porfi surely was, and Guelito; and Luse had changed before their eyes from lad to young man in just the past few weeks, or so it seemed to Kay. Nando played the child more often than not. Except for Duarto and maybe Luse, they were all somewhere in between boy and man.

“Your people were churchgoers, then.”

“Sure. Twice a week.”

An ironic smile crept across Kay’s lips before he suppressed it. Lot of good it did them, he thought. They sent themselves to heaven and left behind a kid who believes in spooks. On the other hand, he reflected, so did most everyone else. If Mitch or Fallon or (God forfend) Lhored caught any of that palaver about night ghosts, the whole company would have to sit through half a day of exorcisms. Kay didn’t care to hear about the Socalinieros’ God in Three Parts any more than he looked forward to that procedure, so he directed the conversation elsewhere.

“What kind of fabric did you make in this shop?” he asked.

“Every kind. We worked silk, wool, cotton, linen—whatever we could buy, we worked into cloth. But my father and my uncle were known mostly as master silk weavers.”

“You know how to make silk?” Kay’s interest rose.

“No. Worms make silk.” Tavio grinned, but quickly saw from Kay’s expression that he’d better not act smart. “Yeah, I can weave some kinds of silk cloth, if I have the right loom. Silk broadcloth and crêpe, and I’ve made a kind of satin a few times. But, you know, not like my uncle Raol or my father. They’re really good. My uncle could make a thick colored brocade, like a sculpture, with pictures and designs in it that look they’re alive.”

Kay had to put a rein on himself, to consciously tell himself not to get too excited about this. He had thought the boy was some fat merchant’s son, altogether absent the kind of practical skills he would need to make a living in the north. If what Tavi seemed to be saying was true—that he could make fine staples—then he had a value far beyond passing convenience. Moor Lek had never seen a weaver who could make much other than coarse wool and cotton homespun. On the other hand, the kid could be exaggerating. Or Kay might have misunderstood.

“So,” he said, “your family made a lot of luxury goods, hm? It’s not the sort of thing people wear around all the time.”

“We made silks for the summer trade in Doe,” Tavio replied. “For winter, and for the customers who came to our store, we made a lot of woolens and cotton goods. I can make a cotton twill that looks just like it was made of silk. And cambric and muslin, and crepe out of cotton and wool, too. And heavy wool blanketing for your coats and jackets.”

“That’s quite a variety.” Maybe there is a god, Kay thought. “Your brothers worked as apprentices?” he asked.

“No, I don’t have any brothers.”

“Your sisters.”

“No.” Tavi grinned at the silliness of this idea. “Girls don’t have to weave. They get to be wives. When they got bigger they worked in the house or the store with my mother.”

“So, these apprentices were…who?”

“My cousins, mostly. And a young guy whose father worked a deal with my uncle, to apprentice him. They had farmland, but they didn’t have enough for all their sons, so this kid was supposed to learn something else. They paid my uncle to teach the guy to weave.”

“Do you know how to build the looms a person needs to make these fabrics?”

“Well, I know how they’re made. Sure, I guess I could put one together, if I had to. That’s what loomboys do—set up the looms for the weavers. And get whacked when you get it wrong,” he added.

“You get whacked a lot?” Kay said.

“No, not any more.”

“Well,” Kay said. “There’s a weaver in Moor Lek, and another over at Cham Fos. Maybe we can apprentice you to one of them. We’d have to put you up with Mitch, I suppose, if we sent you to Cham Fos.”

“You’ll put me to work?”

“I certainly will.”

“Maybe I could work with Duarto.”

“Not likely. He’s a miller. He works at the mill below Cham Fos, when he’s not following Mitch around. Anyway, you’ve got a lot to learn between now and the fall.”

“I do? Like what?”

“Like how to speak Hengliss. And how to be a boy,” Kay remarked. “First thing we’ll do is teach you to swim.”

“But I don’t want to go in the water!”

“And the next thing is to teach you to quit whining.” He gave Tavio a playful swat on the arm. The boy skipped out of reach and laughed.

After Tavio had drifted away to walk with the chachos, Kay reflected on this unexpected development. The Spanyo brat was altogether a different kind of asset than he had imagined, worth more than expected. A weaver’s boy, one who already knew how to make at least some of the fine stuffs that came out of Roksan—imagine that!

Normally, a foreign youth brought into an Okan household, at least one of Moor Lek’s rank, would grow into some kind of trade or craft whose income would help support the house. Aniel, Kay’s one surviving former camp boy, was a great help. A farmer’s son, he cultivated the lands around the stokhed, cared for the stock, gardened, and helped the women run the place when Kay was in the field. Aniel had been a good investment, Kay mused, a strong, handy young man and a fine addition to his clan. Aniel’s wife, Jenna, made a nice companion for Maire, next best thing to a sister wife, and the children were, well, what one wanted in children. Aniel didn’t bring in much cash, but he created wealth of a better kind: food and decency and family.

This one, though, if he could actually build the equipment needed to weave better fabrics and could use it, he might be worth something. Earnings from sales of good silks and fine woolens would enrich the House. In time, his income could go a way toward restoring Moor Lek’s wealth, lost thirty years ago in the fall of the stokhed and village. Even when Tavio was old enough to go out on his own, his splits with Kay would still flow in. They could be substantial, too—by then he’d be a journeyman, or maybe even a master weaver. If that wasn’t enough to rebuild Moor Lek’s fortune, it would at least take some of the weight off Kay’s shoulders, which, he felt from time to time, were tiring.

Wine-sweet, that: a Roksando craft restoring the house of Moor Lek. At the thought, Kay smiled, tight and hard but not without humor. It was, he noted, another splendid, clear day.

§

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Foreword:
A Word about the Translation and Interpretation

When the Cottrite Chronicles (Cottrite Codex 1.1–18.7) were recovered from a remote northern Vada cave in 2782 P.E., few researchers understood the extent to which they would forever change our understanding of the history and prehistory of our predecessors on this continent. As we have seen over the past three decades, these fragmentary journals, some of whose precious pages were lost in their very discovery, proved to be the key that unlocked the door to a remote past and revealed details of the lost civilization of the ancient Mercans, a culture whose complexity and sophistication had been hitherto unimagined. Perhaps as startling, the manuscripts provide an intimate view of the ice-age Espanyo and Hengliss cultures of the Great Lacuna, those tribal peoples who are our immediate ancestors.

The definitive translation of the Cottrite Codex appeared late last year under the direction of scholar and author Fontano do Caz Eviatád. The sponsors of that edition, the Western Regional Council of Research Sciences and the Institute for Theory of Intuitional Dissemination (TID) Studies, recognized early on that a direct, line-by-line rendering of Cottrite’s archaic language would be less than accessible to the general public. Given the wide interest in the discovery and its profound importance to our understanding of Methgoan culture and history, it was decided that a popular rendition should be produced, incorporating the best of current story-telling techniques. The Council announced an official competition to select the individual who would bring Hapa Cottrite’s narratives to the people.

Several outstanding story tellers received nominations for this challenging and prestigious role. Ultimately, Master Story Teller Estabanya Marcanda do Tilár i Robintál do Nomanto Berdo, of the Methgoan Academy of Written and Oral Performance, was selected. Marcanda do Tilár’s extraordinary output of realist and fantasist historical tales, including her acclaimed Forty Days of Holiár do Cortazín, recommended her highly. We believe the result of her seven-year collaboration with Fontana do Caz Eviatád fulfills all the promise of the heady excitement that characterized the early days of the Cottrite discovery.

The present volume, Fire-Rider, relates the events preceding and following Cottrite’s departure from Lek Doe with the Hengliss bands under Brez Lhored Kubna of Grisham Lekvel. Designed to show what life was like for men in the field, the narrative follows Kaybrel Kubna of Moor Lek, his associates, and his cousins through a summer’s campaign. It begins with the fall of Roksan, a crux in Kaybrel’s biography, and proceeds through events that, in the long run, were to determine the Hengliss tribes’ fate. The narrative’s details are based on Cottrite’s explicit relation of events he observed and stories he learned while among the Hengliss, and on intuitive-disseminative understanding of Hengliss history as deduced by the various scholars whose efforts are cited with Fontana do Caz Eviatád’s afterword.

Fontana do Caz Eviatád’s scholarly discussion of the Codex, which follows Marcanda do Tilár’s interpretive narrative, should not be missed by the serious reader. This important companion piece is the first article to discuss the manuscripts’ provenance, to provide an overview of the ancient Mercan culture, and to describe Espanyo and Hengliss life in the late Inter-Historical Era in a single document. What the Cottrite Chronicles tell us casts light on the events that led to the beginning of the Present Era, and they suggest that Hapa Cottrite himself may have played a role in those events.

The kubna Kaybrel of Moor Lek, dubbed Fire-Rider, was selected as a central figure for this first volume for several reasons. First, Cottrite seems to have felt a particular affinity for him, perhaps because they were both widely traveled and, for their time, learned men. Kaybrel of Moor Lek returned from his youthful journeys with a headful of pharmaco-herbal lore that earned him the title of tocha (“healer”), a shamanistic position whose considerable prestige and influence added to his already powerful status as tribal warlord. Of the many individuals Cottrite describes in his journals, the kubna Kaybrel stands out as the most nuanced, complex, and multidimensional figure. Second, the House of Moor Lek had an almost totemic significance for the Okan Hengliss, whose long-standing hatred of the Espanyo was fired to a vindictive pitch by the town’s destruction, approximately three decades earlier, at the hands of Roksando raiders. And finally, the kubna of Moor Lek clearly played a central role in the politics of the entire Okan stae’: cousin and councilor to Brez Lhored; cousin to Mitchel Kubna of Cham Fos; comrade and advisor to the future Brez Fallon Mayr of Cheyne Wells; friend to Jag Bova Mayr of Rozebek (destined to become the future Brez Fallon’s father-in-law and his most trusted aide); and chosen man to the powerful and influential Maire Kubnath of Silba Lek. In any of these roles, an Okan leader was positioned to make his wishes and opinions heard; occupying all of them, Kaybrel Fire-Rider Kubna of Moor Lek must have been a formidable presence.

Marcanda do Tilár’s interpretation of the Cottrite Codex attempts to communicate the loves and hates, hardships and joys, successes and losses of a distant people, and to show how their humanity touches us. The historical importance of the individuals depicted here is beyond question: had they not made the choices they did, innocent of their ultimate effect, the outcome of the Wars of Occupation might have been entirely different. The Espanyo-Mezgoan Unification from which the early Methgoan Polity grew might never have happened. Upon so little does so much depend.

The Board of Trustees of the Institute for Theoretical Intuitive Dissemination Studies
The Western Regional Council of Research Sciences
Seaside, Bahagalifone
2812 P.E.

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Chapter 1
Roksan

Fallon Mayr of Cheyne Wells rarely gave himself over to speculation. If on this good day you had asked him how the Hengliss tribes came to see themselves as one being, a living organism whose limbs and body and soul formed a single piece—or even if they did—he would have laughed. He would direct your attention to the pillar of smoke twisting skyward where Roksan burned, and he would turn your question obliquely around. He would ask you, then, had they not, the bands of Okan and A’o fighting as one under the Brez Lhored Kubna of Grisham Lekvel, had they not done a fine thing?

Fallon Mayr of Chene Wells

He passed the flask that was making the rounds among several companions to Jag Bova Mayr of Rozebek. Bova, a chunky flaxen-bearded northerner whose heft made Fal’s long, wiry frame look slight by comparison, lifted the boda in a friendly salute, swigged its unrefined contents as though he were taking a deep drink of water, and passed it to Kristof Mayr of Oshin.

“That was one hot maneuver you two pulled inside them gates,” Robin Mayr of O’a remarked to Fal. A slender, muscular young man with a smooth chestnut-colored beard, he accepted the boda from Kristof and lifted it vaguely in Fal’s direction.

“Mostly Kay’s idea,” Fal said. He shrugged as though he’d had little to do with the swath they’d ripped through the defenders in the long chaos after the Hengliss had breached the enemy city’s entrance.

“Bull!” said Jag Bova. “He couldn’t have done it by himself. And I’ll tell you—when he takes them kind of ideas into his head, I’m sure as hell glad I’m not the one who has to fight on his flank.”

Fallon laughed with the others. But he was glad, too, that it wasn’t Bova. He wouldn’t have traded his place at Kay’s side for any honor the brez could dream up.

“He had his reasons for going after the bastards like that,” Kristof remarked.

“Must have felt damned good,” Robin added. “If it’d been me, I’d have tried to squash every cockroach I could catch.”

“Yeah. Well, we just about did that,” Fal said. “Not too many of ’em left in there.”

Fire-rider siegeEven where they were standing, a mile away, heat from the fires burning the sacked Espanyo city reached them. It took the chill off the cool air that drifted down the distant snow-covered Achpie and Serra peaks flanking the wide bottomland along the Wakeen Ribba.

“Ain’t none of ’em gonna crawl out of that place no more, no how,” Robin agreed. He passed the drink back to Rozebek.

Bova raised the flask to that, and they all murmured their appreciation of Robin’s whiskey-laced profundity.

“There goes your kubna with his cousin now,” said Bova. “Looks like they want to get a view of the doings.”

By “your kubna” he meant Kaybrel Kubna of Moor Lek, the man to whom Fal, Robin, and Kristof owed their first loyalty. The cowndee of Rozebek belonged to the house of Puns, and Jag Bova served its kubna, Rikad of Puns.

They watched Kaybrel and Mitchel Kubna of Cham Fos stride through the festive troops gathered on the plain before the burning city. Kay was carrying his leather helmet in one hand, his silver-streaked hair flowing loose around his shoulders. To Fal’s eye, he looked tired, but the others didn’t see that. The two kubnas cleared the mob and headed toward a low butte that rose above what had a few hours earlier been a battlefield. They disappeared around the side of the promontory, seeking the gentle rise up the hill’s backside.

“How long has it been for him?” Robin asked.

“What? Since Moor Lek fell?” Fallon read meaning into Robin’s question. “I think he said…no, it was the kubnath who said that. Maire said it was twenty-eight years ago this spring.”

“Twenty-eight years! She wasn’t even born then, eh?”

“Neither were the rest of us,” Fal replied, and what he said applied to everyone there but Jag Bova, the only man among them to have reached his early thirties.

Fal and Maire, Kay’s only current wife, were about the same age. Fal believed he was a little older than Maire, although it would have taken some doing to prove it. No Okan would ever mark a birthing day too conspicuously. It brought bad luck, making a big fuss over a baby before you knew it would live to childhood. Be that as it may, though, neither one had reached this world until several years after the fall of Moor Lek to Espanyo warriors from Roksan, the city that lay in flaming ruins on this good day.

Jag Bova said he wanted to see what his boys were peddling to each other, and he strolled away. The men had organized—if that word can be used to describe it—a casual open-air bazaar. Drunken, cheerful, and giddy with success, they offered their loot to each other, barter or sell. Spread on the ground were all manner of goods: clothing, jewelry, household utensils, farm and garden tools, pots and pans, knives, weapons of all description, sticks of furniture, carvings and small statues, soaps, perfumes, creams, sticks for walking and magical stones for healing, food of every variety. Shouts and bargain-making banter rose on the air. The place lacked only the cries of cozening women and roving bakers to sound like the Sunday market in some big town like Oane Lek or Cham Fos.

Fire-rider bodaThe three Moor Lek retainers lingered over the boda awhile longer, until Robin’s camp boy Nando appeared. He beamed cherub-like at Robin.

“Come look what I found,” he begged.

Robin suppressed his own smile. “Why would I want to do that?” he said skeptically.

Nando’s curly hair and apple-round cheeks made him look younger than he was, and in many of Robin’s peers’ opinion, he was way too young to take into the field. But he had no one else to care for him, and Robin had developed a fondness for the Espanyo orphan that kept them together, even during the summer campaign.

“Because,” Nando said with sterling logic. Seeing his friend unmoved, he added, “There’s this thing, like a white rock? Only it’s not a rock—that guy over there,” he pointed vaguely into the crowd, “he says it’s made of something that comes from the ocean. And it’s all carved! Like a weird wrinkly little woman, with this big ole fish over her back. Could we get it?”

“Sounds like it might be a piece of tusk,” Kristof speculated.

“Yeah, right,” said Robin. “More like a chunk of chalk.”

The men chuckled. “You never know,” Fal said. “Some of those Espanyo kubnas are richer than Heaven’s roads.”

“They got kubnas?” Robin asked.

“Sure,” said Kristof. “What’s a kubna called in Spanyo talk, boy?” he said to Nando.

“A kubna? He’s like an alacaldo,” came the answer.

“Them all-caldos are all cold now,” Robin joked.

“Don’t look too chilly in there right at the moment,” said Kristof. He lifted the boda to toast that observation and emptied it.

After Robin and Kristof wandered off to view Nando’s find, Fallon took his boda back to the freight wagon that had been hauled onto the field of victory, where he refilled it from a large oaken cask. Then he headed for the little bluff he had seen Kay and Mitchel climb, still wearing his leather chest armor unlaced and hanging loose from his shoulders.

When Fal reached the cousins, he shook Kay’s hand, punched Mitch on the shoulder, congratulated them on a fine day’s work. Wiry and saturnine, his dark beard and mustache trimmed as if to cut down wind resistance, he offered the boda to the two older men. They accepted the liquor cheerfully. The drink passed between them while they gazed at the scene below.

“Beautiful sight, isn’t it?” Mitchel remarked.

“Oh, yeah,” Fal said. “That it is.”

They stood taking in the view, the torched city a roaring, gaudy backdrop to the activity on the plain before it.

“Must do your heart good,” Fal said to Kay.

“You bet,” Kay said.

But his eyes said something else, Fal saw, the expression gray and pensive, far from the unrestrained joy Fallon would have felt had he stood in Kay’s boots. Tired, maybe: the fight was hard-won, and Kay and Fal had put themselves at the front line.

As for Kay, the man of the moment: What was he feeling? The smoky breeze combed his grizzled beard and hair like the hand of a woman who had been working by the kitchen hearth. He thought of Maire and the child. When he looked at the devastation below him, he did not, could not think of bygone sorrow or of the years spread out between past loss and present victory. Instead, he thought of going home.

“You been down there to check out all the stuff those guys pulled out of there?” Mitch asked.

“Nah, not much,” Fal said. “Just got done in that lower field downriver. We had my boys and O’a’s getting ready to fire the crops. They found a vineyard, though, with some grapes they wanted before they got back down to work.”

“How about yourself, Kay?” The boda began a second round; Mitch passed it to Kay.

“I expect I’ll get everything I need from my men, when they give me their share.” He tipped the container and then passed it back to Fal.

“You need some kind of souvenir from this,” Mitch said. “This is a big one. I mean, this isn’t just any little Spanyo village full of mud huts we’ve taken out here.”

“Yeah,” Fal agreed. “Something to remember it by.”

Kay needed nothing to help him remember the events associated with Roksan and the Roksanderos. To the contrary, he’d rather forget them. But when his cousin and Fal headed back down the hill to check into the festivities, he went with them.

Chapter 2
A Gift for the Kuba

The blazes consuming the city by now had come together into one firestorm that roared like a tornado or, Kay thought, like a frenzied beast fresh-sprung from its cage. It howled an angry counterpoint to the genial chaos in the foreground, where the Hengliss victors, all of them filthy and some still blood-spattered from the fighting, partied and traded goods in a noisy, smelly, jostling crowd. Stink of dust, blood, and horse still filled his nose, though by now it surely should have cleared from his head. Maybe it was smoke and sweat and whiskey and broiling fat he smelled, and the rest imagined from memory.

The three allies wound their way among the various piles of stuff. “Look at this,” Fal said. He held up an ivory-handled dagger.

“That came from the north coast,” said Kay. The carving was cruder than the intricate scrimshaw on the hilt of the blade he wore on his belt, though in these parts it still was a rare piece.

“Blade’s not as good as yours,” Fal observed.

“No. That’s because I had Zeb make a new one for me. Foshinden metalwork’s never very good. He’ll put a new one on that for you, too, if you ask him nice enough.”

Fal examined the knife closely and then set it aside.

A store of dried fruit—peaches, apricots, apples—lay on a groundcloth. Mitchel offered a coin for half of them. Further along, a length of finely woven silken fabric, pure cream with the texture of a baby’s cheek, caught his attention. He showed it to his companions, wanting their opinion.

“Pretty,” Fal said. “Nice thing to take to the kubnath. She’d like it.”

“It’s one of the things the Roksandos do best, make textiles like this,” Kay remarked. “Or they did, anyway.”

Mitch took it for his senior wife, Bett. Bett Kubnath of Huam Prinz, she was styled, and Kubnath of Cham Fos, too. She was probably the most powerful woman in Okan, more so even than the brez’s wife, Leah, the cowndee she gained by marriage to Mitch incidental to the large and wealthy cowndee of Huam Prinz. Leah, after all, was kubnath only of Grisham Lekvel. He told the man who handed the fabric over that he would give him something in return later.

They ambled around the crowded field. Men greeted them or came up to congratulate them on their leadership. Mitch in particular got thanks and admiration, for Cham Fos had been right up at the front with A’o, leading the way through the breach in the gates. He fought in Kay’s style, seasoned, agile, and quick, the way the kubna of Moor Lek used to fight when he was younger. Not that Kay begrudged him the compliments: he and Fal together formed a killing machine that wouldn’t stop. But, Kay reflected, when he was Mitch’s age, ten years earlier, he had no need for a sidekick.

Noonday sun began to feel hot to Kay. The noise was getting on his nerves, too, men yelling over the rumbling inferno behind the town’s broken walls. An incipient headache wanted to make itself felt: it crawled around the nape of his neck and pressed on his temples. Time to go back to camp, maybe take a nap. He’d pitched his lodge beneath an old oak, a choice site in the campground the Hengliss had made a mile up into the hills, where a cool stream trickled past on its way to feed the Mendo Ribba. It seemed a better place to pass the afternoon than this. That stream, he expected, would have some trout in it.

He took leave of his friends and walked back toward the campground.

Before he got far, though, one of his men hailed him. Willeo, the village cask-builder (he made small tools, too), came up only to Kay’s shoulder, but he was a husky young man with a disposition so calm that Kay had never seen him annoyed, upset, drunk, or visibly frightened. They exchanged greetings—Kay congratulated Willeo on his conduct in the fighting, and Willeo returned the compliment.

“Would you come see what we’ve found?” Willeo asked.

“Actually, I was on my way back to camp, Will,” Kay said.

“We got these three kids,” Willeo persisted. “A couple of them look pretty sick, and we were wondering if there was anything to be done for them.”

“Roksandos? You know what I think can be done for them.”

“Come on, Kay.” Will was impervious. “They’re just youngsters. Hardly more than children.”

Kay shrugged. “I don’t have my bag with me,” he said.

“Well, just take a look at them.”

They made their way through the crowd to a place where Moor Lek’s blacksmith Zeb, Don’O, and an A’oan footsoldier whom Kay didn’t know were sitting on the ground and passing the boda. They all stood when they saw Kay coming.

“Mister Kaybrel,” said Don’O. They clapped each other on the shoulder and Kay shook hands with Zeb and the A’oan. Don’O was Moor Lek’s monja—Kay’s lieutenant in charge of his foot troops.

“How’s it going?” Kay asked.

“Good. Sweet, isn’t it?” Don’O said.

“Like honey in milk,” Kay agreed.

“Kay said he’d look at our property,” said Willeo.

“I’m glad you came by,” said Don’O. “We’d like to sell these piglets, but a couple of ’em are in a bad way. We don’t know whether they’re worth anything or not.”

Nearby, they had three young Espanyos tied together with stout rope. One clearly had no need to be bound. He lay on the dirt, barely conscious. A second sat beside him, and the third stood and watched the men approach, expressionless.

“Where’d you get them?” Kay asked. “Pull them out of the city?”

“No. A couple of those bums from Bose had ’em. We traded some junk for them—but that was before we realized they were kind of bad off.”

Kay knelt next to the prone youth. The closest thing to a healer among his people, he had no idea what the problem was, but he could see this one was on his way out. “Won’t make it,” he said. “He probably won’t live the night.”

“Come here, chacho,” Kay said in Espanyo to the second lad. He was the only man in the combined bands who spoke more than a few words of the southern languages. “Let’s take a look at you.” When he put his hand on the boy’s arm, he could feel heat radiating through the ragged shirt. Alight with fever, the kid was breathing in short pants. His face glowed pink and his eyes were glazed. “It’s all right. I’m not going to hurt you.” The boy didn’t resist, but neither did he seem to hear. Kay pulled his shirt up and saw a delicate, veiny red rash stippling the flushed torso.

“This one has red fever,” he said. “He’ll be dead in three days.”

“Shit,” said Zeb.

“Yeah. You need to get rid of him. If one of you has had it, he should do the honors. Otherwise, I’d stay away from him, if I were you.”

Kay regarded the brat unhappily. Did this mean they’d have his contagion in their ranks? He’d just as soon not lose Zeb, and he certainly couldn’t afford to lose Don’O, his oldest and most trusted follower. “Take him out in the bush and let him go. He’ll die out there on his own, and you’ll be less likely to take the fever if you don’t get his blood on you.”

“Poor little guy,” Don’O said.

“Right. Let him grow to be a man and he’ll cut your throat. Just like his daddy did your daddy’s.” Don’O winced.

“I’ll take him,” said the hatchet-faced A’oan. He knelt to slice the ropes free from the other two, then pulled the sick boy to his feet and led him off.

“Let’s see what else we have here,” Kay said. The third boy stood about a head and a half shorter than Kaybrel. His skin and curly short-cropped hair were almost the same shade of bronze, and he had light brown eyes fixed in the distance as though he were unaware of what was happening near him. “‘Poor little guy,’” Kay scoffed. “Let me look at you, amiho,” he said in Spanyo.

Kay laid his hand on the Spanyo’s cheek. His face was battered, his left eye swollen almost shut under a purple bruise. But he felt cool. No fever yet, anyway. Kay wondered if the cheekbone was fractured and how many teeth he’d lost. None, as far as he could see—he pushed the lips aside to inspect. The youth was filthy, covered with grime, dust, and, here and there, dried blood. Kay probed around his neck and under his ears, looking for swelling; he didn’t find any.

His hands were bruised, the knuckles skinned. Kay lifted this one’s shirt, too, to check for a rash, although he knew the fever usually came first. All he found were more bruises, more dirt, and a smear he thought was probably dried semen.

“That’s a shiner you have there,” Kay said. “Are you hurt anywhere else?”

The boy didn’t respond. Kay doubted if he understood.

“You speak Espanyo?” Kay asked. “Answer me.” He gave the boy a shake. “Tell me where you’re hurt.”

Nothing. Maybe he was deaf, Kay thought. “What’s your name?”

Again the response was silence.

“Do I have to teach you to answer my questions?” Kay said. “You won’t like it.”

The Spanyo gave him such a tired and mournful look that even Kay softened a little. “Tell me what your name is, chacho. Otherwise I’ll have to make one up for you.”

“Tavio,” the boy said.

“Tavio? Is that all? Is that your whole name?”

“Ottavio Ombertín i Boleda do Gansoliz i Corruedo.”

The damned southerners freighted their children with more weight in names than they had in food, Kay thought. This one was fairly modest. “Ottavio Ombertín, hm? Of the House of Gansoliz, then?”

“You could say it that way.”

“Well, Ottavio Ombertín. My name is Kaybrel Kubna of Moor Lek. People call me Kay. We’ll call you Tavio, if that’s what you like. Now, tell me if you’re hurting any place. Maybe we can give you something to make it better.”

“My eye hurts,” this Tavio said.

“Yeah, I’ll bet it does.” Kay expected a black eye to heal on its own. He knew of nothing that would speed the process. “It’ll get better,” he said. “Where else are you sore?”

“They kicked me.”

Kay lifted the torn shirt again. A black and blue mark spread over the area of the right kidney and merged with another that spanned the upper backbone. Kay looked for broken ribs but couldn’t see any.

“You’ll likely be all right,” he said.

Now he spoke in Hengliss to Zeb, Will, and Don’O: “This one seems better off. He might be bleeding inside—looks like he put up a little fight. But if he’s not, he’ll probably live.”

“How old do you think he is?” Will asked.

“Hard to tell, he’s so grimy.” In Espanyo, Kay asked the question of Tavio.

“Fourteen summers,” the boy said.

“When? When were you born?”

“At Eastfest. On Resurrection Day.”

The Espanyo day of resurrection was less than a month past, Kay knew. “He’s fourteen years old,” he said. “Just.”

Zeb, Don’O, and Will assessed this detail. “Good age, almost grown,” said one of them. “Ought to be able to take care of himself.”

“Not very big for that age, though,” said another. They conferred. Kay nodded good-bye to them all and started back toward camp.

He got about a hundred yards before he heard his name again. “Kay, wait a minute!” It was Don’O. Now what?

Heavyset, big in the bones, and red of face, Don’O lumbered after him.

“Would you like to have the boy?” he asked after he caught up.

“That kid?” Kay looked at him, surprised. “I don’t know. Hadn’t thought about it. What would I do with a Roksandero whelp?”

“Well—the same thing anybody else would, I expect,” Don’O said.

Kay smiled coolly.

“It would bring things full circle, wouldn’t it?” Don’O added.

Kay looked at his friend briefly. It did have some appeal, he thought, a kind of remote justice. And, he supposed, the men must expect him to take back what was his, in every way. Some things, he wished not everyone in his world knew about. “I don’t know, Don’O,” he repeated. “He’s worth something to you. I wouldn’t want to take him away from you.”

“We’d like to offer him to you, kubna,” said Don’O. “He’s yours, if you want him.”

Put that way, it was a generous gesture that Kay couldn’t very gracefully turn down. He breathed a sigh, inaudible to anyone more than a foot or two away. “Let’s have another look at him, then,” he said. They returned to the others.

A pestilential brat, the Roksando. His hair was sticky, his skin so grimy you couldn’t tell just what color he really was. What remaining clothes he had—a light shirt and pants—were ripped, and he was barefoot. He stank of sweat and other things best left unidentified. And, Kay thought, he was Roksando. That fact alone raised a stench. Skinny kid, too. He looked like he hadn’t enough weight to keep himself alive more than a week on the road.

“He’ll need a few rags to put on his body,” Don’O said.

“It’s just like getting a puppy,” Zeb observed, sentimental. “You’ve got to get everything they need, and then you have to break ’em.”

“Pretty little fella—he’ll be real nice, once you get him bed-broke,” Willeo remarked. A randy smirk mirrored the scene he saw in his head.

“Look, men…,” Kay started.

“I’ve got a whole pile of shirts and pants back at camp,” Don’O continued. “A nice flannel shirt, and a fleece thing that’ll keep him warm. Expect we can find some dungarees that’ll stay on him, too, if you tie them up.”

“Needs a pair of shoes,” said Will. “Old Jemmy over there has enough boots to throw around. Reckon he’ll give us some.”

“Will, I can’t take this kid from you,” Kay protested.

Three faces fell. Was their gift not good enough? Had they offended?

Kay backed water. “Tell you what,” he said. “I brought down a nice doe just the other morning. Let me give you guys a quarter—a hindquarter—for him. I just don’t feel right, letting you give him away. You take the rump and split the meat any way you like.”

“A rump for a rump, eh?” Zeb cracked. The others guffawed, and Kay, half-expecting it, laughed as politely as he could manage.

Zeb passed his boda to Kay, took out his knife, whose blade was every bit as fine as Kay’s even if the hilt was less exotic, and sliced Tavio free of his bonds. The four men toasted the Okan and A’oan allies’ victory. Then Kay took the captive, bedraggled spoils of war, and shepherded him toward the camp.

Chapter 3
The First Deception

Ottavio Ombertín had never seen so many tents as filled the glen where the raiding bands were based. Shoved along by the Englo man, he passed several tunnel-like affairs covered in hide and waxed canvas. Here and there stood smaller dome-shaped shelters, six or eight feet across. Horses grazed complacently, hobbled or penned inside a circle of parked wagons. A few men lounged or puttered near smoldering campfires. Some greeted the Englo with calls that sounded like musta qué or ku’na. Pine needles sighed. A pair of jays commented on their passage. Somewhere far off young voices shouted and bantered as a group of friends threw a ball around a makeshift ha-lo court.

Tavio scarcely noticed these things. It didn’t occur to him to remark on the gathering of tents. He no longer registered much, except for the screaming.

They stopped before one of the domes. The Englo said it was his lodge and sat Tavio down on a flat rock near the fire ring, which flanked a second lodge nearby.

Then he turned away, picked up a pot, filled it from a bucket, and hung it off an iron hook staked over the fire, to which he added some more fuel. From a canvas sack, he pulled a couple fistfuls of grain, which he sifted through his fingers into the heating water.

None of this, either, was observed very closely by Tavio. He huddled on the stone, his eyes cast down. He saw that his right foot was bleeding, but oddly, he felt no pain. He put his hands over his ears to block out the sound of the screams. Yet when he did, he could still hear them, Tisha especially, her voice shrilling a note he had never heard before and then shrieking for her mama. A shadow fell across the ground. The Hengliss was standing over him.

§

“Let’s get you washed up, boy,” Kay said. “You need a bath.” The kid looked like he was gazing into the other world. Unsure whether Tavi even heard him, Kay reached down and pulled him up by the arm. “Come on. Let’s go.”

Chamois skin and an old shirt in hand, he pushed Tavio toward the stream. The current had chewed out a cove in the bank, where a slow backwater formed a convenient, shallow swimming hole. He dipped the chamois skin in the cold water, wrung it almost dry, and folded it to form a soft, cool pad. Tavi winced away when the man held it up to the bruised eye.

“Hold still,” Kay said. “This’ll help the swelling.” He took Tavi’s hand and made him hold the pad in place. Then he dropped his own clothes and lay them in the branches of a shrub. Naked, he pulled a rough cake of lard soap from a pants pocket and set it on a stone near the water.

He took the pad away from Tavi, twisted it again, unwrapped it, and hung it in the bush, too. “We’ll need this,” he said. “Now take those things off.”

Again Tavi looked at him as though he couldn’t comprehend. “Take your shirt off,” Kay said. When he reached out to pull the torn cotton over Tavi’s head, Tavi tried to squirm away. Kay grabbed him and gave him a swat. “Quit that,” Kay said quietly.

“This thing isn’t good for much more than washing dishes,” he continued, talking as he disrobed Tavio. “Maybe we can sew these pants up, though.” Tavio’s weak struggle got nowhere. Kay easily pinned his hands and subdued his resistance.

“Look at this!” Kay peered at him and laughed. “By the three-headed god, he wears underpants! Mighty dirty, too.” The plain cotton shorts, which Tavio’s mother had made, were blood-stained and stiff with half-dried fluids. Kay yanked them off and dropped them in the stream. The current bore them away.

Then he pulled Tavio toward the water.

“No!” Tavi cried. “No, I can’t swim!”

“Hallelujah! He talks!” Kay laughed. “It’s not deep enough to drown you, boy.” With a shove, he dumped Tavi into the icy pool. Then he waded in after him, soap chunk in hand. “Now c’mere and get yourself washed,” he said. He grabbed Tavi by the arm just as Tavi gained his footing on the soft, muddy bottom.

§

Frigid water came halfway up Tavi’s chest, so cold it ached.

He gasped, a deep shuddering intake like the gulp of air a hurt infant takes before it starts to squall, and in sudden clarity saw the Hengliss as if for the first time, his broad shoulders and chest matted with dark, wet hair, the clean-carved muscles working his arms, drops of water beading a thick, salty-looking beard. Calloused hands rubbed soap over Tavi’s body, into his hair, down his back and arms and belly, between his legs and the smooth tight cheeks of his buttocks. “God,” the man grumbled. “Only thing that’s dirtier than an Espanyo is two Espanyos. At least your hair’s cut short; that’s a little easier, anyway. We’ll have to teach you to keep yourself clean after this.”

The man scrubbed hard with his fingers. Despite the water’s icy sting, each time the scouring hands hit a bruise or an open sore, it felt like a fresh jab. Tavi yelped when a cut on his side tore open. The Englo told him to keep quiet.

A vigorous massage lathered the soap in Tavi’s hair. “No nits,” the man observed. He sounded surprised. “Stink too much for bugs, do you?” He dunked Tavi underwater to rinse him and then let him flounder out onto the bank.

Now the deerskin chamois served as a towel. When the man rubbed it over Tavi’s skin, it soaked up most of the water. He wrung it again, wiped himself down, and wrapped a large shirt over Tavi. It smelled of wood smoke and fresh air. In the fading afternoon sun, the air felt even colder than the stream. By the time the Hengliss pulled on his own trousers and laced his shirt, they were both shivering. The man led Tavi back to his camp, parked him by the fire, and threw on some more wood.

§

Fal was getting a snootful, Kay noticed. Fallon had brought Fil Mayr of Honey Hame up to the camp, and they were lounging around outside Fal’s lodge, adjacent to Kay’s. The two of them busied themselves draining another boda—they’d both have a head in the morning. They hollered over to him when they spotted him shepherding the kid back to the fire.

When they realized Kay had a new attachment, they hauled themselves to their feet and staggered over. Kay swore silently to himself. The last thing he needed as the afternoon faded was a cold dunk in the river followed by two shit-faced mayrs. What happened to that nap he had in mind?

Heat flared out of the campfire. Kay stood close enough to let it warm him, rubbing his hands together over the flames.

“Hey!” Fallon greeted him. “What is this you’ve got?” He offered the flask to Kay.

“A gift from Willeo. And Don’O,” Kay said around a swig.

“Well, dayum,” Fal said. “How’re we supposed to outdo that one?”

Kay laughed quietly. “Please. Don’t try.”

“Don’t you want him?”

“Couldn’t very well turn him down.” Kay handed the boda back to Fallon and stirred the hot porridge he had put on the fire before the bathing episode. It was starting to look done.

“Put it to you that way, did they?”

“’Fraid so,” Kay said.

He dished up a tin bowlful of the steaming grain and squatted beside the Roksandero brat.

“Here,” he said in Espanyo. “Some hot chow is good for what ails you. Eat this.”

Fallon and Fil appraised the new arrival. “Not a bad-looking kid,” Fil observed.

“Hard to tell, don’t you think?” Kay said.

“He’s beat up a little,” Fal agreed. “But when they’re that young, they heal fast.”

“If you don’t want him, I’ll take him,” Fil offered.

“That’d go over real well,” Kay returned. Fil was already deeper into his cups than Fallon. Don’O would take profound offense if Kay passed his gift along to one of his underlings, as anyone vaguely sober would recognize.

The kid showed no inclination to eat. He stared at the food as it cooled between his hands.

“Mm hmm!” Fallon sang with his lips closed. “You’re gonna have some fun tonight!”

“Whoo!” Fil, beyond inarticulate, seconded this.

“Soon’s you’re done, I’m next,” Fal added.

“Firsts, seconds, and thirds,” said Fil, putting in his bid for a turn.

“Get outta here,” Kay growled.

“O-o-h, yeah!” Fal hooted. “He wants to get right down to business.” Fil twitched his pelvis like a fox flips its tail.

“Assholes,” said Kay. “Gone. Both of you—now.”

“Remember now—don’t forget your friends.”

“Good-bye.”

“Show us how it’s done, will you?”

Kay gave Fil a glance that expressed his sentiment: surpassing annoyed.

How to get rid of this pair? Kay stood up and studied Fallon, wondering if he still possessed an inkling of his wits. “I heard Mitch’s boys were getting up a game of craps with Bose and Metet’s men. Now, you two aren’t going to let those A’oans get the best of a bunch of good Okan lads, are you?”

“You think they’re gonna do that?”

“Well, now. I wouldn’t want to see Cham Fos come up against them all alone.”

“I think he’s trying to tell us something, bud’,” Fallon said to Fil.

“Na-a-ah. You think so?”

“I’ll tell you two sweethearts how the honeymoon went in the morning, hm? That’s when I’ll see you next.” He set one friendly hand on each man’s shoulder and directed them away from his campfire.

§

The two other Englos, the ones who came up on them, they thought something was funny. They laughed a lot, unreined like the tough street urchins who hung out in the plaza all day and through the evening hours, those boys his father wouldn’t let him have anything to do with—when did they work, anyway? The dark-haired one, his ebony beard smooth and shiny as if he had polished it, that one looked almost like one of them. The third one, shorter and stockier, had odd coloring, like dust in the road. His father said they didn’t work, they were thieves and lazy bums, not decent people. But the other one, the first one, he didn’t seem to laugh with them much. Sometimes he did. But not so often as they.

Despite their laughter, their talk made a harsh sound, coarse as the first one’s hard hands scrubbing over his body, only scrubbing over his ears instead. Like rocks came out of their mouths, he thought. Their noise rattled on and on, like a hard rain on cobbles or stones tumbling down a streambed, and, behind it, off in the distance, he could hear the screaming. The shriek, high-pitched and shrill, of his little sister’s voice, and other screams, other screams.

The first one squatted beside him and handed him a bowlful of steamy yellow porridge, an old bent metal spoon sticking out of it. The man told him to eat it, and his words sounded foreign, as though he spoke from somewhere deep in his throat. Then the man stood up and went back to rattling stones with the others.

Tavio stared at the hot, gummy-looking mush. He sat unmoving. Although he did not listen, the sounds flowed through him as though he had no substance, as though he were air and the sound itself his substance. Somehow the screams had become a part of him. No, they were him, and he was them. They had come to take him and make them part of their cold, transparent selves. The screams, the screams.

“What’s the matter, chacho? Aren’t you hungry?” The man sat on his heels nearby, watching him. He held a second bowl from which he began to eat.

The other two were gone. Tavio had neither seen nor heard them leave.

“No, senyó,” he said.

“You’ve already eaten today?”

Tavio didn’t know. He wasn’t sure how many days had passed since he last ate. He couldn’t remember what had happened an hour before, much less a day or two. He shrugged.

“You need to get something in your belly, amiho,” the other said. His foreign voice rang of the tumbling rocks, yet his words sounded not so hard. “Eat anyway, even if you don’t feel like it. It’ll make things better.” He took the spoon from Tavi’s hand, scooped up some porridge, and handed it back. Tavio took it and put it in his mouth. He ate without tasting the food, as he stared at the ground without seeing. He ate until the bowl was empty, and then the man took it from him.

Tavi sat while the man carried the dirty dishes toward the stream. The sun was going down. It touched the purple cutout mountains in the west and shot its last yellow streaks into the dimming sky. Among the trees chilly shadows had already gathered like watching spirits. The man returned. He shook water off the dishes and stacked them neatly with his other gear.

§

He supposed he was going to have to do this. Better now, probably, than later. The kid looked pretty stunned. Might put up less of a fight now than he would after a night’s sleep.

Those two clowns were still going strong at Fal’s campfire. Now and again, one of them shouted an encouraging obscenity in Kay’s direction. When he was done, maybe he’d give the Spanyo to Fal. Or Fil, since Fal didn’t really make much of boys, despite the ragging. At least that would get the boy out of his hair for the night. Get all three of them out of his hair.

But then, that would mean he’d have to do it. He studied the target of this rumination, still huddled where Kay had sat him down. Wretched brat. How the hell had this one gotten out of the city alive? And why bother to keep him alive? The world improved vastly with each Roksando disappearance. Feeding such an animal was counterproductive.

And yet, yes: a Roksandero boy. Like closing a ring, it was. Don’O must have seen it that way, when he thought of this gift. A gift of perfect vengeance, to fill the bitter cup. Or empty it. Would such a thing empty it? Kay wondered.

§

The man unlaced the lashings on the tent’s entrance. “Come in here now,” he said to Tavio.

Tavi heard rock-words over the screams, but he couldn’t make out what they meant. He sat still, listening to the ululating dark. The man came over and took him by the arm, yanked him to his feet. “Inside,” he said.

The borrowed shirt’s hem dropped to Tavi’s bare knees. The man guided him into the tent. It was black. The man struck a flint to a small candle’s oily wick and hung the light from one of the lodge’s struts.

A pile of blankets topped with a pieced-together fur cover lay in one corner of the heavy, waxed floor. Bags and clothing lined the outside walls. “Sit down,” the man said, and indicated the bedding. “Make yourself comfortable. It’s a little warmer in here.” A small leather boda hung near the door. The man uncorked it. “Have some,” he offered.

Tavio took a mouthful. It tasted hot. It burned as it went down. He choked.

“New for you, is it?” The man spoke gently. “It’s all right. It won’t hurt you. Drink a little more. It’s like medicine—makes life go easier.” He picked up some stray clothing, stuffed it into a half-full canvas sack, and set the plump bag near the center of the floor. With some coaxing, Tavio—by habit generally obedient—took a fair amount of the liquor.

He held the boda between his hands while he watched the man undress. His head felt a little odd, like when he swung from the long rope hanging from the big courtyard tree. The man unlaced his fly and started to drop his grimy trousers and then he remembered.

“No,” Tavi said. “No!” He bolted for the tent’s opening. The man grabbed at him but he dodged away and shot outside. He ran for the darkness beyond the firelight. Behind him, he heard a low laugh.

§

Kay laughed when the boy slipped out of his grip and fled into the night. Good riddance. Let him run off. That would be the end of him, and no one could fault Kay for it. Sorry, Don’O—great idea, but it just wasn’t meant to be

He kicked off his pants, dropped his woolen tunic, and climbed under the covers.

§

His bare feet scrabbled over stabbing pine needles, his heart pounded, he raced blindly into the shrill darkness. The screaming night opened to consume him.

Hands closed around his body and held him tight. He squirmed to get free, but the one who held him dragged him back to the campfire. A man’s voice laughed merrily.

His captor, the tall young man with black hair and black beard, spoke to the older man and his face lit with roguish affability. The other pulled his loose trousers up around his waist. He laughed, too, more quietly. Tavi struggled, but the dark-haired man pinned his hands behind him and pushed him toward the tent. The two men exchanged a few more words and then Tavi was handed over to the older man, who with practiced efficiency forced him back inside the lodge.

Tisha screamed. She screamed until the air shivered with her screaming.

Chapter 4
Gorandero

The kid wailed in the dark as though Kay had beaten him. Kay re-lit the lantern and sat down on the cold lodge floor beside the boy. He watched for a few minutes, letting Tavio carry on for the benefit of the eavesdroppers outside. But he had already made up his mind.

“Quit that!” Kay protested, after he had listened to it as long as he could bear. “I haven’t hurt you. You want me to give you something real to bawl about?” Tavio sobbed and ducked into the hide floor as if he thought he could burrow through it and into the earth.

Weary, Kay grunted softly. He got up and knelt beside the prostrate figure. When he stroked Tavio’s back, his hand covered an entire shoulder blade. “Tavi, that’s your name, hm? Be quiet now. You’re all right,” he said. “I’m not going to hurt you. I’m not going to do anything to you, and no one else is going to touch you, either. You understand?”

Tavio moaned. He mumbled something that Kay didn’t catch.

“What?” Kay asked, pointlessly, he realized. “Sit up here and settle down. Quiet.” Kay pulled him upright and brushed his hair, wet with river water, sweat, and tears, back off his bruised face. Soft and thick, his hair was. “Now knock it off. Get ahold of yourself. You should be ashamed, blubbering like a little baby.”

“Make it stop,” the boy moaned.

“It is stopped. You’re not hurt. I’m not going to mess with you and I won’t let anything else happen to you. It’ll be all right.”

“Please. Please, make them stop. Make it stop!” He clapped his hands over his ears and rocked himself back and forth.

“Make what stop?” Kay said. “What are you talking about? You’re all right now. Those two clowns out there won’t hurt you, and neither will I.”

“They’re screaming. They keep on screaming.” Tavi put his hands back over his ears when Kay tried to pull them away. “Can’t you hear them?” He sobbed again.

Kay recoiled, though he was not a man easily put off by foolishness or others’ fears. The boy curled into a sweaty ball and wailed, a long keening misery like some godforsaken wind howling through a high mountain pass. The skin behind Kay’s ears prickled so he felt as though they twitched, cat-like, in search of a sound. If the night air carried any screams, Kay couldn’t make them out behind the moan that filled the lodge.

Was this brat mad? What could he be hearing? Some crazy squeal inside his head, or something else? Maybe he could hear into the other world, where the screams of the massacred might very well echo down through days and nights into all of eternity. Or maybe something had him, some horror like the wild, vicious water-hating spirit of rabies—a possessor that would kill him. Could kill everyone around him, too.

Rabid, insane, or something worse? Kay felt his heartbeat start to race. He thought first to reach for his blade and then to leave, to get out the door. Then, as always when the adrenalin rose like whiskey fumes into his head, he felt himself slow down and look deliberately at everything around him. What he saw was just a boy, sobbing so he could scarcely draw a breath.

He made himself grasp Tavio by the shoulders and hold him still. “Stop it,” he said, and he heard a tremor in his own voice. “Be quiet. Tell me who’s screaming—what do you hear?”

Held firmly by Kay’s hands, the Espanyo boy gasped out a few words. “They’re screaming,” he said. “The isburdos. My sister, Tisha, she’s screaming. She keeps screaming. And Rina. And my mother. Mi mamita. They’re still screaming!”

Again Kay felt the hair on his neck rise. Keep a grip on yourself, he thought. This was a superstitious Espanyo. Isburdos de noda were southern haunts, not something that bothered a respectable man. “No one’s screaming, boy. There’s no night ghosts here.”

“They are. They’re screaming. I can hear them.” Tavio choked, recovered, and went back to weeping. He squeezed his fists against his ears.

Kay studied him for a moment, taken aback. If he just left the kid alone, would this racket quit sooner or later? Surely the boy couldn’t keep it up forever—he’d have to wear himself out before much longer. But…the shrieks were not so far from Kay. He could almost hear the cries himself, and somewhere in the mirrored tunnel of time and memory another boy’s tears soaked into the earth. Damn them! A man on foot raised his ax to Kay; the horse lunged, Kay’s sword blurred, the arm hit the ground, a red arc pulsed through the air. Damn them straight to hell and let them all roast there for eternity. Let their brats bleed for what they do. The boy whimpered. Damn them.

“Listen, chacho,” Kay said. “I know something that might help. Do you want to try?”

This made little impression.

“We can talk to them,” Kay added. “I know how. Because I am…I’m gorandero,” he used a Spanyo term that straddled “healer” and “magician.”

Tavio glanced at him, briefly arrested by the charged word, but then clenched his eyes shut, his hands tight over his ears. “We can help them,” Kay said, “and maybe make things better for them so they’ll be quiet. But you’ll have to help, too.”

Gently, he took Tavio’s hands away from his ears, surprised to meet no resistance this time. “Do you understand? I can make them listen to us, but you’ll have to help them, because they don’t know me. They know you.”

The boy stared at him. He stopped moaning, but his breath still came in sobs.

“Do you want to try this?” Kay asked. “You’ll have to speak for them.”

Tavio nodded.

“Good,” Kay said. He kept his voice quiet. “We need to do this together. So pay attention, hm?”

Still holding Tavi’s hands, he spread his arms in front of him in the traditional Okan gesture of prayer. He thought it was a pose a Spanyo would recognize, too—at least, he hoped so. The urchin held his hands palm upward, as Kay did.

Kay closed his eyes—or seemed to, though he watched Tavio from behind the veil of his eyelashes—and tilted his face heavenward. “O spirits of the night,” he began. What would night ghosts like to hear? The Spanyos probably had all sorts of formulas. With any luck, though, this kid wouldn’t know them. The boy had quieted a little, and he seemed to be listening. “We know that you can hear us and so we speak to you. Leave us in peace. Peace, I say. We send our blessing to God for you, and we ask the angels to open the way to the other world, to take you into the presence of God. We will talk your story, but you must be still so that we can tell the words. I who am gorandero tell you to be silent.”

Tavio regarded him in what looked like astonishment. Kay held his pose a minute or two longer, communing with whatever was out there. Then he broke it off, sighed, and looked up. “Is that better?” he asked.

Tavio nodded, tentatively.

“They’ll let you speak for them now,” Kay said. “Tell their story for them, and then they’ll have peace. Tell me what you’re hearing, boy. Who’s screaming, hm?”

Tavio struggled to catch his breath. “They. . . They wouldn’t stop,” he said. He sobbed again. “I can’t. . .I don’t feel good. I’m going to throw up.”

“Not in here, you’re not!” said Kay. He jumped to his feet, pulled Tavio up, and hauled him outside just as the contents of his stomach bubbled out and spilled on the ground in a liquor-fumed puddle. Tavi retched until everything he had been fed came up, and then some. When it ended, he looked, by the dim light of the dwindling campfire, like he expected to be struck.

Kay put his arm around the shivering youth and led him over to the fire. He scooped a dipperful of water from a pail and offered it. Tavio drank, tears still flowing down his wet cheeks.

A woolen throw had been left outside, Kay recalled. He groped for it in the dark, found it, and wrapped it around Tavio’s shoulders. Then he stirred the fire and added another piece of wood. Heat and light flared. Kay sat Tavio near the warmth and knelt beside him.

“What’s happened to them, Tavi? Tell me about it. Tell me so that you can speak for them.”

After a moment, the Espanyo spoke, barely above a whisper. “They came in our house, the Englos,” he said. He used the Spanyo term, Englos. “We were hiding. My mother hid us all. She told us to stay there. But they found us. They found my sister Rina, she was in the storage closet. Mamita and I put clothes and things on top of her, to hide her so no one would see her if they pulled back the curtain, but they found her anyway.

“I could hear her, she was crying and yelling, begging them, ‘No, don’t hurt me, leave me alone,’ and then I heard my mamita, I could hear her out there with them. She must have come out to help Rina, to try to help her, but they had her and they did something that made her scream.

“That’s when I climbed out. She put me in the cellar under the kitchen, and she threw the ladder down in there with me. When she yelled, I got out of there, because. . . to stop them, you know? To stop them. There was a bunch of them. Five or six. And they were big and mean and they caught me, the way you did, the way that other guy did, they held me down and I couldn’t fight them off.”

“Looks like you tried,” Kay said.

Tavi gulped back another sob and nodded. “They found Tisha, too, where my mother left her when she came out, under the bed.”

Pretty obvious, Kay thought. He wondered why she hadn’t looked for some better hiding places, and then realized she probably never expected to have Hengliss raiders in her house. Not in a city as well fortified as Roksan.

“Tisha screamed when they. . . . They took us one at a time, we had this big table, you know? Where we all ate together, and we would work there sometimes, or play games, like checkers? And they pulled off their clothes, my sisters and mi mamita, they tore their clothes, and they made us watch, one at a time, they. . .they. . . .” The boy groped for a term, and finally choked out the most vulgar Espanyo word for rape, a word that itself sounded like an unutterable violation.

Kay felt this coming but couldn’t help flinching at it. He knew how things happened. But hearing it from this boy, seeing it through his eyes now, it felt as though he had been punched somewhere inside himself. I’m sorry, he almost said, but no words would come out.

“When they put them on the table like that, they didn’t have to…they could do it standing up, they didn’t even have to take their pants off, and they all did it. They all did it over and over. They put me on there, too, and…and they did me like that, the same way.

“Tisha screamed when they did it. She was so little, just a little girl, my baby sister, just eight summers. She screamed. They couldn’t stop her from screaming.

“Finally, they took her, when they were done, one of them took her and he took his knife and he cut her. He cut her across her throat.

“And my mother screamed. She started to scream like Tisha. Then they cut Rina, they held us there and made us watch. And after that, after that they killed her. Mi mamita. They cut her throat, too.” He started to sob again.

Kay put his hand on Tavi’s shoulder and held it there until Tavi could speak.

“I thought they were going to cut me then,” he continued. “But they didn’t. They carried me outside. Everything was on fire. The buildings across the plaza were burning, our house was starting to burn, the roof had smoke coming from it. And . . . I don’t remember after that. Except the screaming.

“They keep screaming. They’re isburdos now, and they’re screaming.”

Kay felt Tavi’s words as he spoke them, each one like a small wound inflicted with a whispering blade, sor-sorro-sorry. For a moment after the boy had finished speaking, he sat in silence. Then he said, “They’ll be quieter now. Now that you’ve told what happened to them. You free them, by telling it. They’ll find their way to the other world now.”

“They didn’t die right away,” Tavi said. He wiped his face, an almost useless gesture. “They. . . .”

“I know,” said Kay. “I know.” He had seen people die with their throats slit.

He got up and poured some water from a pail into a small pot, which he hung over the fire. He stepped inside the lodge and pulled forth a sueded leather bag. From it, he fished out several smaller bags, some of whose contents he measured into the warming water. Then he returned to Tavi’s side and knelt next to him again.

“Why didn’t they kill me?” Tavi asked.

“Why?” Kay considered his response and decided against softening it. “Because you were worth something to them. Women are not.”

“What?” The boy looked at once confused and stricken.

“Sometimes we take boys into the field with us. We don’t take women, because…well, some people think they bring bad luck. But the truth is, it’s that boys don’t bleed and they don’t get pregnant. And most men are less likely to fight over a boy than over a woman.”

“Are you going to do that to me?” the boy asked.

“No,” Kay said.

“I want to be with them.”

“No, you don’t.”

Tavi buried his face in the crook of his arm. Kay wrapped the blanket tighter around the huddled figure and went back to check the liquid simmering over the fire. The herbs he had put in had turned the water a deep, clear green. He poured some into a small earthenware cup.

“Here,” he said. “Drink some of this.”

“What is it?”

“It’s hot, be a little careful. It’ll make you feel better.”

Tavi cradled the cup in his hand. Its warmth soaked into his fingers. He sipped a little of the liquid. Gently, Kay urged him to take it all.

“Now listen, boy,” Kay said, after Tavi had begun to look like he would drink the tea without further pushing. “You can’t hear the others screaming, because they’re not screaming, hm? They’re resting now. Where they are, no one can hurt them. Do you understand?”

Tavio looked at him dumbly.

“There are no isburdos, Tavi. What happened, happened once. It doesn’t go on happening. Now it’s done. Put it behind you, and the past will take care of the past.”

“I can hear them,” Tavi said.

“They’re quiet now,” Kay replied.

And Tavi was quiet. Kay took the cup, refilled it, and handed it back to him. The boy sipped some more. After a few minutes, he asked, “What’s in this?”

“It’s just a tea I make with plants that grow in my garden back home. It relaxes you. Helps you sleep.”

“It tastes good.”

“It’s a little sweet,” Kay agreed. And then, “Did you understand what I said?”

Tavi shrugged.

“They don’t want you with them, chacho.”

“They’ll come and get me,” Tavi said. “They’ll come in the night and touch me. They make you sick with their touch, and then you die. Because they want to take you with them.”

“No. Your mother doesn’t want you with her. Believe me. She wants you to live.”

“But. . . .”

“Believe what I’m saying to you. I know. I am gorandero.

Tavi gazed at Kay over the rim of the cup. He drank the brew while they sat in silence for a few minutes. Then he spoke:

“What is this place?” he asked.

“Here?” Kay wondered at the question. “This is the camp of Brez Lhored’s army. You mean here, this spot?”

Tavi nodded.

“This is my camp, and that’s my lodge.” Tavi looked around the circle of the campfire’s light like someone who wakes from a sound sleep in the afternoon and confuses early dusk with late dawn. “Don’t you remember coming here with me?” Kay asked.

Tavi didn’t answer.

“Do you remember my name?”

“No, senyó,” Tavi said.

“My name is Kaybrel. I’m called Kubna of Moor Lek.” He used the Espanyo term alacaldo, a rank roughly equivalent to kubna.

“Really?” the boy asked. His tone sounded surprised, and Kay wondered if he recognized the name.

“So,” said Kay.

“I’ve never known an alacaldo,” Tavi said.

Kay smiled at this odd remark. “Now you do,” he said.

Tavi said nothing. He stared into his cup.

“Take the rest of this,” Kay said. He poured the remaining brew, very strong by now, into the stoneware. Three draughts of the stuff, Kay figured, would put a horse to sleep. The mint and tarragon would settle his stomach, and if the wanna didn’t put him down, the touch of obeh Kay had added surely would.

“Tavio,” Kay said. “You’re all right now. You’re safe. I’m sorry our men hurt you. I won’t hurt you again, you understand? And I won’t let anyone else hurt you.”

Tavi looked at him: incomprehending? Curious? Kay couldn’t guess. The boy’s eyes seemed as black as the sky behind him. Laughter and bits of conversation carried over from other campsites, and nearby a night insect trilled.

Kay wondered if his words sounded as hollow to the other as they did to him. Did he believe him, this Tavio? And whether or not he did, could Kay make good on those words? Silently, he vowed to himself that he would, and in the same moment he wondered if a vow made in silence was a vow at all.

“I’m really tired,” Tavio murmured.

“Let’s put you to bed, then.”

Inside the lodge Kay settled him between the layered blankets. Tavio was almost out when Kaybrel stroked his hair and told him to sleep well. By the light of a fresh candle, Kay watched him sink into sleep, his bronzy hair a halo around the bruised and swollen face. Once he stopped bawling and that black-and-blue marks cleared up, he wouldn’t be a bad-looking kid. He seemed smaller than he was, huddled beneath the fur. He had the high cheeks that Indian admixture brought to the Mediterranean stock of the southern people, and the generous lips and wide nose of distant African forebears—pretty enough, taken together.

Some enemy, Kaybrel thought.

He lifted the boda off the door frame on the way out. The night grew black and cold while he watched the fire burn down to coals.

 

Want to get the whole set, beginning to end, for your very own? The first six books are available at Amazon in Kindle “boxed set”…click on the image below to find it.

And the rest of the thing…

Place Names of the Cottrite Chronicles

Map of Western Methgoa during the Great Lacuna

The degree to which a given habitation could be called a “settlement,” a “town,” or a “city” is largely unknown; most of the sites mentioned in the Cottrite Codex await discovery and excavation. It is believed that cowndees—districts overseen by a kubna—each possessed a relatively large town, with populations on the order of five hundred to as many as three thousand people; usually an Okan cowndee and its main town bore the same name. A mayr, on the other hand, apparently presided over a settlement or smaller town with substantial tracts of land attached to it, which were considered to be part of and politically subordinate to a cowndee.

Some Socaliniero habitations seem to have been larger than those found in the northern regions of Okan, A’o, and Foshinden. Archaeological excavations at Mendo, for example, suggest that during the Interhistorical Era the town may have reached populations of 10,000 or 12,000 people, some of them scattered in farming settlements near the walled city.

  • A’o: mountainous stae’ to the east of Okan
  • Achpie Muns: coastal mountain range
  • Aleio: Socaliniero town south of Roksan, situated on the Wakeen River
  • Arn Mun: settlement in the Okan cowndee of Cham Fos
  • Avi: settlement in the Okan cowndee of Cham Fos
  • Bose: city and cowndee of A’o
  • Bwayblo Muns: mountains between southern Okan and southern A’o
  • Cham Fos: town and cowndee of Okan
  • Cham Lek: lake above the falls of Cham Fos
  • Cheyne Wells: settlement in the Okan cowndee of Moor Lek
  • Cumat Way: trail in Okan
  • Dona Paz: a high pass in the Sehrra Muns; Dona Paz Road: trail leading through this pass
  • Ellaya: ruin of an ancient Socalio city, called the City of Lost Angels by northern tribes
  • Elmo: settlement in the Okan cowndee of Moor Lek
  • Fo’rokvel: settlement in the Okan cowndee of Grisham Lekvel
  • Foshinden: northernmost autonomous region west of the Coastal Range
  • Freeman Mun: mountain in northernmost Galifone, near the boundary with Okan; site of hot springs
  • Galifone: Espanyo territory north of Socalia.
  • Ganbeh Donjon: ruins in northwestern Vada
  • Goze Lek: waterhole on the eastern side of the SehrraMountains, in northwestern Vada
  • Grisham Lekvel: town and cowndee of Okan
  • Guidad Mendo: Socaliniero town south of Roksan
  • Ham’l: city of A’o
  • Hanny’s Lek: small lake on the eastern side of the SehrraMountains, in western Vada
  • Honey Hame: settlement in the Okan cowndee of Moor Lek
  • Huam Prinz: town and cowndee of Okan
  • Kren: settlement in the Okan cowndee of Cham Fos
  • Lek Doe: trading center in the Sehrramountains
  • Lil Ku: tributary of the Mendo River
  • Loma Alda: ruined Socaliniero townsite on the east side of the Mendo River
  • Lost Angels: ruin of an ancient Socalio city; in Espanyo, Ellaya
  • Mazen: city of A’o
  • Mendo: city on the Mendo Ribba in the Wakeen Val
  • Mendo Ribba: major river in the Wakeen Val
  • Mercan: extinct civilization formerly occupying the northernmost continent of the western hemisphere
  • Metet: cowndee of A’o
  • Mezgo: large Espanyo-occupied region to the south of Socalia and Zoni, extending eastward beyond the Rogga Muns (Sehrra Máderes)
  • Miduhm: town and cowndee of Okan
  • Moor Lek: town and cowndee of Okan; after a lake of the same name
  • Moor Ribba: River flowing from the Snek out of A’o into Okan
  • Mosarín: a town in Socalio
  • Novalinda: town north of Roksan
  • Nusyaddle: coastal city in northern stae’ of Foshinden
  • O’a: settlement in the Okan cowndee of Moor Lek
  • Okan: autonomous stae’ west of the coastal range and north of Galifone
  • Oane Lek: town and cowndee of Okan; after a lake of the same name
  • Oshin: settlement in the Okan cowndee of Moor Lek
  • Puns: town and cowndee of Okan
  • Puns Donjon: town in southernmost Okan, believed to be in decline during Cottrite’s time
  • Rawley: settlement in the Okan cowndee of Puns
  • Rayno: ruins in western Vada
  • Rittamun: settlement and cowndee of Okan
  • Rogga Muns: the SehrraMádere range; eastern limit of Hengliss and Espanyo cultures described in the Cottrite Codex
  • Roksan: major city of the south
  • Rozebek: town in the Okan cowndee of Puns
  • Sa’Lek: saline lake inside the walled province of Uda
  • Sayjunill: settlement in the Okan cowndee of Puns
  • Sehrra Muns (northern): mountain range to the west of the Wakeen Val
  • Shazdi: active volcano on the border between Okan and Espanyo territories
  • Sihueri Vada Muns (southern): southern end of the Sehrra mountains
  • Silba Lek: town and cowndee of Okan; after a lake of the same name
  • Silba Ribba: a river in Okan
  • Socalia: Espanyo region between the western coastal range and the SehrraMuns, south of Galifone
  • Snek Ribba: river extending from the Rogga Muns through A’o and into Foshinden
  • Soja Mun: mountain on the north end of the inland valleys, near the Okan border
  • Syadle: ruins of an ancient Mercan city, overtaken by advance of polar ice following the Climate Reversal
  • Truth Mun: Mountain in southern Okan
  • Uda: a walled state on the eastern end of Vada and Zoni
  • Vada: desert territory to the south of Okan and east of Galifone and Socalia, partially organized as a stae’ but sparsely occupied
  • Vareio: town near Roksan
  • Vrezgo: site of ancient Mercan coastal city, now located some miles inland; mostly ruins
  • Waiya Ribba: river in A’o
  • Wakeen Ribba: river in the central Socalio valley
  • Wakeen Val: inland valley bounded by the Sehrraand the Achpi mountains
  • Wammet Muns: northern stretch of the Coastal Range; so called by natives of Foshinden and Okan
  • Wichin: town and cowndee in Okan
  • Zoni: largely unoccupied desert territory sandwiched between southern Vada and Mezgo
  • Zonorenza: Espanyo territory south of Socalia

Historical Persons Mentioned in the Cottrite Chronicles * FREE READ *

Hapa Cottrite, compiler of the Cottrite Chronicles

Editor’s Note: Individual names Cottrite mentions are spelled in a variety of ways; there was precious little literacy and no standardization during the Interhistorical Era. Spellings have been standardized for this edition by the translator. It is assumed that the people described in Cottrite Codex 1.1 – 18.7 were living, historical persons, although of course there is no way to confirm that. We present them as Hapa Cottrite presented them, writing in ancient Espanyo informed by the Hengliss tongue in which he also was fluent.

  • Albar Dieho Conzessión do Riogrez i Zan Andona do la Torrenda: Roksando alacaldo; captor of Kaybrel of Moor Lek
  • Alber: page in the service of Brez Lhored of Grisham Lekvel
  • Aniel: former camp boy of Kaybrel Kubna of Moor Lek, now his retainer
  • Arden: monja in the service of Fallon Mayr of Cheyne Wells
  • Babra Puehkenz of Rayno: seeyo (elected leader) of Lek Doe
  • Bayder: camp cook for Moor Lek band
  • Bett Kubnath of Huam Prinz and Cham Fos: Okan leader, espoused to Rik Kubna of Puns
  • Bilhem: Okan scout
  • Binsen (Binz) Kubna of Oane Lek: Okan leader, allied with Kaybrel Kubna of Moor Lek
  • Brikas: monja in the service of the deceased Evard Kubna of Moor Lek
  • Bron Brez of Miduhm: Okan brez predating Lhored of Grisham Lekvel
  • Cam Gadah: miller’s son from Moor Lek
  • Consayo i Ribera: Roksando alacaldo (full name not known); an elder and a junior are reported
  • Cook: servant to the House of Puns
  • Da’eld Kubna of Ham’l: A’oan leader defeated and overrun by Roksandero forces
  • Del Mayr of Rittamun: follower of Mitchel Kubna of Cham Fos
  • Demon: Kaybrel Kubna of Moor Lek’s war horse
  • Deodorho Escodare i Boleda do Gansoliz i Corruedo: Tavio Ombertín’s father
  • Derrenz Kubna of Grisham Lekvel: Brez Lhored of Grisham Lekvel’s father
  • Devey Mayr of Metet: A’oan allied with Lhored of Grisham Lekvel; Follower of Eddo Kubna of Bose
  • Dodi: sister wife to Larel, Kubnath of Puns
  • Dom Kubna of Wichin: Okan war lord
  • Don’O: monja in the service of Kaybrel Kubna of Moor Lek
  • Duarto Escodero i Minyos do Portalez en Mosarín, a.k.a. Duarto of Cham Fos: companion to Mitchel Kubna of Cham Fos
  • Eberto: camp boy to Okan camp cook Bayder
  • Eddo Kubna of Bose: A’oan allied to Brez Lhored of Grishem Lekvel
  • Elroy: monja in the service of Rik of Puns
  • Emilio Escodare i Boleda do Gansoliz i Corruedo: Tavio Ombertín’s uncle
  • Emma: sister wife of Kubnath of Huam Prinz and Cham Fos
  • Evard Kubna of Moor Lek: Kaybrel of Moor Lek’s father
  • Evard Steel-Thrower, Kubna of Moor Lek: Kaybrel’s father
  • Fallon Mayr of Cheyne Wells (sometimes called Fal): follower and friend of Kaybrel Kubna of Moor Lek
  • Fil Mayr of Honey Hame: follower of Kaybrel Kubna of Moor Lek
  • Fol Mayr of Miduhm: follower Mitchel Kubna of Cham Fos
  • Fraim Jon Mayr of Sayjunill: follower of Rikad Kubna of Puns’s father
  • Fredi Diz do Gampo: camp boy to Okan camp cook Bayder
  • Guelito: camp boy to Binsen Kubna of Oane Lek
  • Habier Esparanza: ally of Albar Dieho (full name unknown)
  • Hapa Cottrite: Public intellectual living in Lek Doe; later exiled to Okan
  • Herre Mayr of Elmo: follower of Kaybrel Kubna of Moor Lek
  • Iami: Bayder’s camp boy to Okan camp cook Bayder
  • Jag Bova Mayr of Rozebek: follower of Rikad Kubna of Puns
  • Jayarr Mayr of Rawley: follower of Mitchel Kubna of Cham Fos
  • Jenna: Aniel’s wife
  • Jode Mayr of Avi: follower of Mitchel Kubna of Cham Fos
  • Kaybrel Kubna of Moor Lek, often called Kay: warlord and reputed healer
  • Kristof Mayr of Oshin, sometimes called Kristo’: follower of Kaybrel Kubna of Moor Lek
  • Laora: Tavio Ombertín’s wife by an arranged, unconsummated marriage
  • Larel, Kubnath of Puns: Rik Kubna of Puns’s senior wife
  • Laudellio Viciente do Inez i Modesto Pinya: Master weaver at Lake Doe
  • Leah, Kubnath of Grisham Lekvel: Lhored’s senior wife
  • Lenn: son of Mitchel Kubna of Cham Fos
  • Lhored Brez of Grisham Lekvel: warlord and chosen Okan leader
  • Lonneh: Brez Lhored of Grisham Lekvel’s page
  • Luse: camp boy to Kristof Mayr of Oshin
  • Maire, Kubnath of Silba Lek and Moor Lek; wife to Kaybrel
  • Mak Mayr of Kren: follower of Mitchel Kubna of Cham Fos
  • Meji: sister wife of Bett Kubnath of Huam Prinz and Cham Fos
  • Mel: monja for Robin Mayr of O’a
  • Mist: Kaybrel’s pack horse
  • Mitchel Kubna of Cham Fos: Okan warlord; Kaybrel of Moor Lek’s cousin
  • Nando: camp boy to Robin of O’a; later turned over to Binsen Kubna of Oane Lek, and later to the A’oan warloard Devey of Metet
  • Nelli: servant to the House of Puns; wife of Cook
  • Nett: Moor Lek boy sacrificed to save the young Kaybrel
  • Nik, Niklas: monja in the service of Mitchel of Cham Fos
  • Ottavio Ombertín i Boleda do Gansoliz i Corruedo, called Tavi or Tavio: camp boy in the service of Kaybrel Kubna of Moor Lek; son of Roksan’s most prominent master weaver
  • Pazgal: camp boy to Habier Esperanza
  • Porfi: camp boy to Devey Mayr of Metet
  • Raider: Fallon’s war horse
  • Raina Kubnath of Oane Lek: Kaybrel Kubna of Moor Lek’s mother and senior wife to Evard Kubna of Moor Lek
  • Raol Escodare i Boleda do Gansoliz i Corruedo: Tavio Ombertín’s uncle
  • Red Kubna of Cham Fos: Kay Kubna of Moor Lek’s uncle; Mitchel Kubna of Cham Fos’s father
  • Rikad (Rik) Kubna of Puns: Okan warlord; rival to Kaybrel Kubna of Moor Lek
  • Rina: Ottavio Ombertín’s sister (full name unknown)
  • Robin Mayr of O’a: follower of Kaybrel Kubna of Moor Lek
  • Roja mayr of Arn Mun: follower of Mitchel Kubna of Cham Fos
  • Shaerne: Okan seer and survivor of the sack of Moor Lek (full name unknown)
  • Stayvn: monja for Kristof Mayr of Oshin
  • Sten Mayr of Fo’rokvel: follower of Brez Lhored Kubna of Grisham Lekvel
  • Tavio (Tavi): see Ottavio Ombertín i Boleda do Gansoliz i Corruedo
  • Teeg Maghell: archer in the service of Evard Kubna of Moor Lek
  • Terro: Okan scout
  • Tish: Ottavio Ombertín’s sister (full name unknown)
  • Treese: sister wife to Larel, Kubnath of Puns (full name and rank unknown)
  • Veera: wife to Moor Lek blacksmith identified as “Zeb”
  • Vrenglin Mayr of Cheyne Wells: Fallon Mayr of Cheyne Wells’s grandfather
  • Willeo: cask-maker of Moor Lek
  • Zeb: blacksmith of Moor Lek

Fire-Rider: Glossary

Glossary of Hengliss and Espanyo terms of the Great Lacuna

Terms of southern or Espanyo derivation are marked with a letter (S); those with northern or Hengliss derivation with a letter (N).

‘ glottal stop. This indicates a specific unvoiced sound, created by an abrupt, brief closure of the glottis. Cf. the apostrophe (’), which may mark a dropped letter or consonant (as in aren’t) but does not add a phoneme. In Hengliss dialects, the glottal stop appears to have functioned as an allophone for –t, -d, -v, and –f. Its use in ancient Espanyo is not presently known. The Cottrite Codex signifies the glottal stop with a raised caret: ^

a’i va! (S): go for it~
alacaldo (S): hereditary leader, warlord; approx the same as a kubna
amiho (S): friend
así (S): yes
badrón (S): chief follower of an alacaldo
bezo (S): Socaliniero unit of currency
boda’ drectahs (N? provenance unknown): group of officials in charge of Lek Doe government affairs
brez (N): king
brezidiente (S): brez (northern term meaning, approx., “king”)
bwe’ di (S): good morning
buelo (S): term of respect for an elderly man
buen’ (S): good, OK
chacho (S): boy, lad, youthful companion
cowndee (N): political unit, smaller than a stae’ and larger than a town
def-slip (N): coma (“death sleep”)
don (S): lord
ejizo (S): karma, fate
Englo (S): people of the northern realms; also their language
Espanyo (N): people of the southern realms; language of the south. Also Spanyo (pejor.) and Espanyorin
gitter
(N): small six-stringed musical instrument, designed for portability
gonsa (N): council, composed of kubnas, mayrs, and select religious leaders
gonser (N): councilor
gorandero (S): healer (overtones of witchcraft; cf. tocha)
grati (S): thanks
guitat (S): large town, city
ha-lo (S): a racket game
Hengliss (N): people of the northern realms; also, their language
imp (N): mild variety of marijuana
isburdo de noda (S): ghost, night-walker
jane (N): a variety of marijuana
knower (N): a seer or prophet, usually female
kubna (N): ruler of several cowndees
lek (N): lake
m’hijito (S): son
mato (S): manly
mayr (N): ruler of a cowndee
Metias (S): a deity; in the south, a supernatural being representing a facet of godhead
monja (N): roughly equivalent of a lieutenant; in charge of a kubna’s troops
muns (N): mountains
obeh (S): opium
onerho: dark-skinned; possibly an ethnic designation
ozo bardo (S): grizzly bear
patgai (N): thug, enemy, renegade
pricha (N): priest of the Resurrectionist faith; of the priestly caste
ra’stanes (N): “road rocks”: broken-up chunks of asphalt or concrete from ancient road paving
reader (N and S): individual (usually a religious votary) legally authorized to learn and practice reading
renj (N): range (of mountains)
Resurrectionism (N): fundamentalist religious theory positing that certain elected political leaders are one with the deity
Resurrector (N): follower of a Resurrectionist religious sect
Roksandero, Roksando: residents of the town of Roksan
Roksando: Espanyo dialect spoken in and around the Socalio town of Roksan
seefo (N? provenance unknown): Lek Doe government official in charge of financial affairs
seeyo (N? provenance unknown): elected head of Lek Doe government
senyó (S): sir; mister.
Socaliniero (S): resident of the Socalia region
stae‘ (N): the largest political unit, sometimes coexistent with an ethnic group
stokhed (N): walled compound; stockade
tocha (N): Healer, doctor
tola (N): Okan unit of currency
val (N): valley
vipi (N? provenance unknown): official in charge of Lek Doe civic affairs
wanna (N): a potent variety of marijuana; (S) juana
zayshun (N): congratulatory thanks
zonado (S): cool, swell, awe-inspiring; of an individual: stylishly self-possessed

Fire-Rider: Its History and Its People * FREE READ *

Afterword:
The Cottrite Chronicles: Provenance, Historical Context, and Significance of the Cottrite Codex

 by Hano Fontana do Caz Eviatád ne Val Mara i Elarcon Danya

The Cottrite Chronicles (Cottrite Codex 1.1–18.7) provide a window to life in the long, dark interhistorical period of the Great Lacuna. The Espanyo and Hengliss peoples who inherited the Methgoan continent after the global population collapse that ended the Ante-Lacunar Era (approximately 2900 B.P.E.) were by and large nonliterate. Thus, until the Cottrite Codex appeared, little was known directly about these tribal cultures. And, although written messages from the Mercan period abound, in the absence of Cottrite’s translations of documents in the Mercans’ dominant languages (“English” and “Spanish”) into Espanyo, no one could read them.

 Provenance

As most of our readers will recall, the manuscripts were serendipitously discovered in the far reaches of northern Vada by two itinerant sheepherders who, forced to take shelter in a cave by a sudden, violent desert storm, came upon a well preserved wooden box full of papers bearing writing which, of course, they were unable to decipher. Intending to use their find as kindling and fuel for warmth, they dismantled the box and burned it and an unknown number of the codex’s manuscript pages. After the storm passed, however, one of the shepherds, curious about the nature of the unusual-looking documents, stuffed a few of the remaining pages into his pack and carried them to his employer, Nayugi Vuchahara Filyo do Tenebra i Ca Endreha do Gapellira.

Vuchahara Filyo, one of the largest land managers and food suppliers in the Vada region, recognized them as of possible historical or archaeological value. She had them transported to the Southern Oda Institute of Research and Learning, where, by even greater serendipity, Professor Labano Barenes lo Chorradas do Keyte ne Morezes i Ca Filyo Haras held a temporary appointment to the Aide-Helmikka Endowed Chair of Western Anthropological Studies. Barenes lo Chorradas, at this early point in her career already gaining recognition (not to say fame) for her now celebrated Theory of Intuitive Dissemination (TID), instantly recognized the writing that covered the crumbling shreds of crudely made paper as an example of Early Classic Espanyo cursive. Although, as she reports in a retrospective monograph dedicated to her teacher, Harmodias do Filoza (B lo C, “Discovery” 283), Early Classic documents were and remain somewhat unusual, she did not at first ascribe much importance to the find. The fragile sheets were filed in the Institute’s preservation room and forgotten for several months.

It was not until Barenes lo Chorradas’s student Tesa Rablín do Meghina i Abranzala do Ghitta Laia, now a leading exponent in TID studies and Director of the Seaside (Bahagalifone) Institute of Oceanic and Desert Cultures, needed a project to complete his final research thesis that the fragmentary pages were recovered from storage and studied with some care. Rablín do Meghina agreed to lead an expedition to the cave to further investigate the site, little knowing the significance that his neophyte research project would have for the advancement of historical and archaeological knowledge (R do M, Interview 54–62).

The events that followed are so generally known they need not be rehearsed here. For detailed discussion of the studies that identified the author, see Rablín do Meghina, Cottrite Codex: A Chronological Review (Lower Galifone City: Institute Brezidentiale, 2793, 4 vol.); Barenes lo Chorradas, Report to the Archaeological Commission of Western Region 3 (Mendo: A.F. Government Publications, 2788, 6 folios); and Howze Rennom lo Menhoro do Sudamen Beltrase ne Delzinto i Zkenaya, “A New Perspective on Cottrite Codex 3.2,” in Memorial Essays in Honor of Harmodias do Filoza, ed. Rablín do Meghina, Seaside: Publications of the Institute of TID Studies, 2795). Reports in popular broadsides should be regarded skeptically, for they contain many misconceptions and errors in fact.

How the papers came to be stored in the cave above Lago Arni, where Rablín do Meghina and his research crew found them, remains an unresolved question. Under the direction of Barenes lo Chorradas and Rablín do Meghina, extensive archaeological excavations of the Sand Digger ruins around the lake were conducted. No evidence has been uncovered to indicate that any pre-Present Era culture more advanced than the subsistence-level hunter-gatherer Sand Diggers ever inhabited the region. Whether Hapa Cottrite himself visited the area and hid his manuscripts in the cave is unknown. Nor, indeed, do we know whether Cottrite lived out his life in Okan, or whether he left the northern regions and returned to his home in Lek Doe some time after he had spread the seeds of literacy among the Hengliss tribes. It is possible that Cottrite, for reasons unclear at this time, dispatched an emissary carrying the papers into the wilderness. More likely, a descendant of Brez Fallon Mayr of Cheyne Wells or of Representative Duarto Escodero y Minyos do Portalez en Mosarín rescued the documents during the unrest that followed the Uprising of Cham Fos (ca. 895 B.P.E.; for discussion of this speculative conclusion, see the virtuoso monograph by Research Specialist Kala do Recchez la Ca Raino i Tammur do Eztavan Gayo, Cottrite Codex 2.9: An Application of Intuitive Dissemination to Deductive Historical Reasoning, Seaside: Publications of the Institute of TID Studies, 2798).

Whatever the explanation, Rablín do Meghina collected the documents, which were scattered around the cave’s floor, and transported them from Lago Arni to the Southern Oda Institute of Research and Learning, where they were preserved and prepared for further study. When Barenes lo Chorradas and Rablín do Meghina formed a partnership to found the Institute for TID Studies, controversy erupted over the Cottrite Codex. The TID Institute claimed possession of the documents on the grounds that its senior scholar, Barenes lo Chorradas, had discovered them and directed the in-depth research which continued and showed no sign of abating. TID argued that the documents rightfully belonged in the immediate proximity of the researchers who were conducting studies that promised to reveal hitherto unknown secrets of the Interhistorical Period and Mercan Antehistory. Southern Oda responded that the codex was best kept in its preservation vaults, where the crumbling paper would be protected from further deterioration. A regional court ruled that the codex should go with Barenes lo Chorradas and her research team, on condition that TID first build a new preservation room adequate to the job of storing the documents (Proceedings, CFGRC, 437). After a vigorous fund-raising campaign, the Institute for TID Studies constructed its justifiably celebrated Archive for Historic and Archaeological Preservation, a wing of the Cottrite Museum of Hengliss Research, where the Cottrite Codex now resides.

Significance

Hapa Cottrite wrote primarily in Middle Espanyo, although he created and wrote in a system for transcribing contemporary Hengliss as well. Cottrite was a man of wide erudition. An indefatigable chronicler of the fireside stories that comprised Espanyo and Hengliss oral history, he apparently had an antiquarian bent that led him to collect and transcribe scraps of ancient documents which, Cottrite reports, were preserved as holy writings by the few and far-flung religious votaries who could, after a fashion, read them.

The Cottrite Codex consists of a series of stories describing events that occurred among the Hengliss tribes of Okan and, to a lesser extent, southwestern A’o during the times of the Okan rulers (the Hengliss term was brez) Bron Kubna of Miduhm, Rojja Kubna of Oane Lek, Lhored Kubna of Grisham Lekvel, and Fallon Mayr of Cheyne Wells. Scholarly estimates of this period’s duration range from fifty to seventy-five years (R do M, History; BP do G, “Note”; R la C R, “Dating”; B i B, “Internal Evidence”; B lo C and R do M, Period). In addition, the eighteen-segment codex contains word-for-word transcriptions and translations of the following documents:

  1. A late Mercan religious tract called “The New Age Bible,” in English, the predecessor language to Hengliss (Codex 17.1-18.53)
  2. A one-page document, with illustration, describing an alcoholic beverage known as pepsi generation, in English (Codex 16.2)
  3. An illustrated fragment in Spanish, the immediate ancestor of Espanyo, demonstrating the use of incense sticks called marlboro, apparently thought to have medicinal or aphrodisiac properties
  4. Several small fragments, in English, which scholars believe to form parts of a guide to personal conduct, called “Empl.y.e Man..l” (Codex 10.4)
  5. Three sets of prayers in Spanish begging divine redress of wrongs committed by enemies (Codex 11.6-9)
  6. A fragment of a recipe, in English, titled “M..ro.aving Y..r Pi..sbur. .evil. .ood C.ke” ( 16.3)
  7. A fragment of a moral/hygiene tract, in English, titled “Airb.rne AIDS: Prot..ct.ng ..ur L.v.d On.s” (Codex 15.4)
  8. A booklet in Spanish titled “Instrucciones Para Votar,” whose purpose is unknown (Codex 15.5).
  9. Five small, apparently related fragments in ancient English and Spanish containing survival instructions, for members of displaced populations (Codex 15.6–11)

Of these, the most important is of course the last, because the juxtaposition of material in the ancient English and Spanish languages, together with Cottrite’s transcription into Middle Espanyo, allows us to decipher much about the two extinct tongues. Clues gleaned from these fragments have made possible ongoing translation of the very lengthy Codex 15.4 tract, which was written in English, and the written prayers in Spanish. These documents, plus the personal conduct guide, are providing priceless insight into the nature of the Mercan culture, whose ethos and organization were virtually unknown prior to the discovery of the Codex. Scholars are beginning to form a clear idea of who the ancient Mercans were, what they accomplished, and why their culture abruptly disappeared.

Life among the Ancient Mercans

The arts of archaeology and geology had already revealed, long before the discovery of the codex, that the continent of Methgoa was once occupied from sea to sea by a civilization of considerable technological sophistication, undoubtedly the basis of folkloric tales about a golden age dominated by mythical Mercans who could fly through the air in enchanted chariots.

Remarkable as this society may have been, most scholars agree that its members did not fly about. They lived in large cities scattered across their empire and linked by an extensive system of paved roads, over which they traveled in vehicles powered by refined derivatives of oil (petroleum). Probably the speed with which their vehicles moved made them seem to fly; hence the exaggerated metaphor that has come down to us in folk tales. Their highways were engineering marvels, spanning rivers and soaring over deep canyons, crossing vast stretches of empty prairies and deserts, and leading through even the Sehrra Máderes with seeming ease. Today, many of our modern roads follow the original Mercan routes, whose construction was so lasting that they continued to be used long after the paving had crumbled into pebbles.

Most of the continent was also crisscrossed with electrical power grids, allowing even the humblest home the comforts of light and heat. Many of their cities were extremely large, housing several million inhabitants in dwellings that ranged from sturdy block structures to far less permanent mud-composite and wood-chip-composite affairs. Mercan cities sprawled across the landscape, consuming enormous tracts of ground that might have been used for farming or forestry, necessitating imports of food and other goods from distant sites; thus the need for an extensive, well maintained highway system. Because of the obvious difficulties of providing services for such a vast population, the Mercan megalopoli were dotted with satellite government office complexes known as malls. These regional municipal centers evidently functioned as local marketplaces as well, surrounded as they were by large, flat open spaces appropriate for trade booths.

Arts and Games

The ancient Mercans enjoyed an active cultural life. Almost every excavation has uncovered more than one stadium, many theaters, and centers called skools believed to be dedicated to the training of young athletes and actors. Other, often larger cultural centers associated with the word university appear to have been used to teach children the engineering and organizational skills required to maintain the complex technological basis of the electric- and petroleum-driven infrastructure. Every university that scientists have found to date also has an associated stadium, leading to the conclusion that even very young children were tutored in athletic skills. The presence of theaters in virtually every skool and university suggests the ancients were obsessed with dramatic arts and music, although some scholars have suggested the structures were used less for performances than as town halls for political meetings.

It is clear, from the prevalence of stadiums in every part of the Mercan empire, that athletic prowess and display formed a central fascination for these people. The nature of the games played out in these huge centers, some of them capable of holding tens of thousands of spectators, is unclear. Given the ferocity of the Mercans’ Hengliss descendants, it is probable that they had a taste for blood sports. Indeed, Recchez la Ca Raino has argued convincingly that the stadiums served as gathering places for religious rites involving human sacrifice; she notes that the ancient Mercans routinely put to death certain classes of criminals, and proposes that the stadiums were used for public executions of malefactors, who were kept caged in separate complexes called prisones (R la C R, “Functions”). Her thesis is given credibility by the Cottrite Codex’s explicit and blood-curdling description of the ritual sacrifice of a Hengliss brez (Codex 8.11).

Public visual art held a prominent and respected place in Mercan culture. Roadways everywhere were lined with huge wooden and steel frames that displayed enormous paintings. Parisque do Scottarla has shown that these were often quite colorful, undoubtedly designed to elevate aesthetic taste among the common people. Exquisite sculptures survive to demonstrate highly developed three-dimensional techniques of representation, rendering men, women, children, and animals in painstaking and vivid detail. A few examples of tile murals have also come down to us, depicting interesting scenes of daily and public life. Toward the end of the empire, the skills of the ancient artists deteriorated, ultimately extinguishing themselves in chaotic and nonsensical constructions that seem to represent nothing more than the chaos that was fast overcoming the Mercan civilization.

Religious Life

For the ancient Mercans, religion had an element of theater, as did their ubiquitous and undoubtedly violent sports. Edifices marked with the words chirch or cathedral, evidently religious gathering places, have as their focal points stages similar to those found in the many theaters uncovered at virtually every archaeological site. One can only wonder at the mentality of a people for whom so many crucial messages were communicated as performance, rather than as story. Evidently literacy was not widespread, despite Hengliss myths to the contrary (see Codex 2.17, in which Hapa Cottrite records a myth attributing the end of the Golden Age to the malign effects of the written word on the Mercan populace).

Almost nothing was known of Mercan religion until Cottrite’s transcription and translation of the tract designated “The New Age Bible” appeared (Codex 17 and 18). If this document is to be taken literally (Higaso i Dretar has argued that it is in many respects allegorical; see H i D, “Allegory”), the Mercans conceived of divinity as a vast, feminine presence emanating from the earth itself and permeating all forms of life. In other words, their faith was pantheistic. They apparently believed certain stones contained particularly distilled essences of the divine and thus had curative or psychological powers. The human psyche was seen as intimately linked to physiology and geology. After death, this psyche was reincorporated into the divine presence from which it sprang at birth. Disseminative thinkers have diverged from both literal and allegorical interpretations of Codex 17 and 18, noting that a careful study extrapolating backward from Hengliss and Espanyo practices as described in Cottrite’s journals reveals a quite different picture.

Badero Vinanha do Riho Adayo Zur i Wahanurin abayo Enriczén, a leading exponent of the burgeoning school of disseminative religious history, points out that Hengliss beliefs in a male, anthropomorphic deity who dwells in a quite concrete, visible world to which the chosen are said, in no abstract terms, to migrate after death, could hardly have been invented out of whole cloth. In a dazzling philosophical tour de force, Vinanha do Riho Adayo Zur convincingly demonstrates that Hengliss theology, such as it was, could have originated nowhere else than in Mercan belief (V do R A Z, “Origins”), and he questions the authenticity of “The New Age Bible.” Vinanha do Riho Adayo Zur posits a theology in which three male deities oversaw a creation that consisted of three dimensions, one on the temporal plane and two in the afterlife. The chief deity, who reigned over the paradisaical afterlife world of the righteous, dispatched one undergod to communicate directly with humanity and the second to punish the wicked by inflicting disease and suffering in the temporal world and by subjecting them to painful harassment in the afterlife (V do R A Z, “Received”).

Technology

The realm in which the Mercans truly excelled was technology. As we have noted, they constructed a vast web of paved highways interconnecting every inhabited site on the entire continent of Methgoa. This road system enabled the Mercans to deliver food and other raw materials in regions remote from their population centers, and to return finished goods from manufacturing centers to scattered towns and cities in agricultural areas.

Over these roads they sent vehicles fashioned of metal, glass, and lightweight materials unfamiliar to us (called in ancient Spanish “plástico,” possibly a type of reinforced paper). Evidently the vehicles were powered by small, light motors that ran on refined petroleum and were capable of great speed. As we have noted, it is from this velocity that Espanyo and Hengliss myths of flying machines derive.

The Mercans mined petroleum and ore of all kinds from sites scattered widely across the continent. They had a sophisticated metallurgy and were capable of fashioning virtually anything of iron, steel, copper, brass, and aluminum. They used large quantities of steel in construction, which enabled them to reinforce masonry and concrete to form buildings that rose hundreds of feet in the air. Large vertical structures, necessitated by the enormous size of the Mercan populace, housed thousands in crowded, box-like individual shelters, whose main virtue must have been a commanding view of the cluttered cities below them. Copper, iron, and steel (as well as concrete and plástico) went into enormous centralized plumbing systems, capable of delivering water to and draining waste from virtually every occupied dwelling.

As noted above, they also had a sophisticated system for delivering electricity from generating stations that ran variously on water, coal combustion, or enhanced heavy-metal radiation. Apparently, they developed a communication technology that allowed them to transmit voice, visual, and written messages in tandem with the electricity. This enabled leaders in the highly centralized Mercan government to oversee activities in distant farming districts, as well as coordinating administration of their far-flung empire.

Perhaps nowhere is the Mercans’ technological prowess more evident than in the stunning engineering feats they performed in pursuit of water in the arid regions west of the Sehrra Máderes. Archaeological evidence suggests they dammed most, if not all, of the major rivers in the western part of the continent, diverting vast quantities of water into a canal system whose remnants are still used today, in some areas. Ervay Umanas-Balamo i Verduna do Vaya Reya imagines, given the amount of free water available prior to the present ice age, bleak deserts turned green with food and fiber crops as far as the human eye might see. She argues that most of the culture’s sustenance depended on this complex irrigation system and that, as changing climate caused widespread drought and disrupted weather patterns, the ancient Mercans could no longer feed their bloated population, which collapsed in widespread famine (U-B i V, 349ff).

As we shall see, it was in their technology that the seeds of the ancient Mercans’ demise resided.

Who Were the Mercans and Why Did They Disappear?

For most of the empire’s lifetime, the Mercans appear to have been culturally and ethnically distinct from the Espanyo peoples who are our direct ancestors. Physically, they were distinctive in appearance: long-headed, rather tall, with yellow or pale brown hair. Barenas lo Charradas has suggested that today’s Udan aborigines, with their pale complexions and often blue or greenish eyes, are direct descendants of the Mercans (B lo C, “Children”); this hypothesis has attracted support from W. Eva do Keranha i Padrigiól ne Ghitta Dov i do Garo i Mardeana and other linguists, who speculate that the Udan language, unrelated to any contemporary Methgoan dialect, is actually a debased form of ancient English (E do K, “Linguistic Relic”). The Udan, of course, suffer many congenital abnormalities resulting from centuries of isolation and inbreeding; other scholars note that their odd coloration may have more to do with this than with any imagined connection to the ancient Mercans (see, for example, Gilomu do Robbinya, “Fraternity”).

Whatever the reality of this issue, there is no question that throughout most of the empire’s existence, the dominant language was English. This changed during the late empire, when migration from the Spanish-speaking southerly regions began to displace the aboriginal Mercan people. By the final century of the empire, English-speaking peoples had retreated to the northerly provinces which eventually became what we know as Hengliss territory, and Spanish speakers, who apparently resembled modern Methgoans more than they did their contemporary Mercan rivals, occupied most of the continent.

For some time (possibly as long as two centuries), this situation prevailed; despite a tendency for English-speaking Mercans to concentrate themselves in the northern provinces, living standards remained relatively stable. However, a period of global warming began about 3250 B.P.E., altering the climate in ways that affected agricultural production across the entire continent (for a summary of geological evidence establishing this early date, see Aderi do Dridda’s survey, volume one, chapters four and five). As this warming trend intensified, economies were disrupted, coastal cities submerged, inland deserts that had been reclaimed by the Mercans’ vast irrigation systems were rendered uninhabitable, and intermontane plains formerly used for food production turned to fields of dust.

These changes were not restricted to the Methgoan continent; they affected the entire planet. By approximately 3100 B.P.E., steeply rising temperatures world-wide led to widespread social unrest, the collapse of economies everywhere, famine, and constant warfare. Within a century, the planet’s population began to collapse. Starting about 3000 B.P.E., a series of plagues spread across the globe. Some global ante-historians have posed the horrifying possibility that these diseases were engineered microbes spread among various target populations as acts of war. The leading exponent of this theory, Kadi Magour do Nilalin i Ramoz do Agazár ne Val Jagrin, paints a grim picture of the aftermath. In the absence of an economic infrastructure, faced with famine, and decimated by disease, survivors lost their grip on civilization. Simply put, no one survived who had the expertise required to operate electrical plants, maintain complex communications and transportation equipment, mine and refine metals and petroleum, or conduct large-scale agricultural operations. This failure to maintain the culture’s technological structure created a cascade of calamities that ensured continuing starvation, disease, and conflict. Thus, in the last half of the twenty-ninth century before the present era, global famine and plague led to an abrupt world-wide population collapse. By 2900 B.P.E., human populations had dropped to about one-tenth of the planet’s 3000 B.P.E. population. In other words, over a span of less than a century, 90 percent of humanity was exterminated. The Mercan empire disappeared because most of its citizens were dead (M do N, 2:434-689).

Humanity entered the tribal period of the Great Lacuna, the inter-historical era that stretches from about 2950 B.P.E. to the beginning of the present era.

Espanyo and Hengliss

 Ironically, the Cottrite Codex has made it possible for us to know more about the remote Mercan civilization than about our immediate ancestors, the Espanyo of the inter-historical era, among whom writing was not widespread until near the end of the Great Lacuna. It appears that the Espanyo tribes descended from once-populous Spanish-speaking peoples who occupied the southern reaches of the Methgoan continent (a region known by both Espanyos and Hengliss as “Mezgo”) as well as the entire Ajentían continent all the way to its southernmost tip, Gabo do Ornas. These peoples were anything but homogeneous, however. Some tribes, such as those occupying the region of present-day Ghitta Laia, were dark-skinned, long-headed people known as “Nehro” or Onerho whose physiognomy differed markedly from the surrounding populations and from that of present-day Methgoa; another variety of Espanyo resembled some present-day peoples of northern Hezha. Whether these extinct types were indigenous to the continent is today unknown; some ante-historical documents suggest that the Nehro descended from dark-skinned immigrants from the continent of O Vreha, whose present Zemidico populations are, of course, little different in appearance from today’s Methgoans (Luco do Sobin, “Ethnic Groups”).

Hengliss Society

 The Hengliss peoples, to the contrary, were rather distinctive, with pale skin, blue or gray eyes, and light brown hair (frozen mummies found in Vazhindano districts and in northerly parts of the Sehrra Máderes actually have yellow hair like that of a golden sheepdog). As Magour do Nalalin explains (M do N 2: 707-26), the Hengliss represented the ragged remnants of the once-great Mercans’ dominant ethnic stock, identified in ancient English as the “Anglo.” When the empire collapsed and global warming spread, these Anglo groups retreated northward before advancing populations of Espanyos, who themselves were migrating north in search of cooler, more habitable climates. Isolated and, after the Worldwide Climate Reversal occurred midway through the Great Lacuna (ca. 1450 B.P.E.), pinned between glacial fields to the north and hostile tribes to the south, the Hengliss lived a precarious existence. The Espanyos, enriched by trade with Mezgo and the peoples to the far south, regarded the Hengliss as backward and primitive. (Although marked by intermittent, extremely violent conflict, Espanyo and Mezgoan tribes and city-states experienced periods of relative peace).

Rivalry between these two groups, Hengliss and Espanyo, was vicious. Their tribes existed in a state of constant warfare, which further curtailed their populations and, along with increasingly harsh climatic conditions, prevented the expansion of either society. Blocked from growth by the climate as well as by human enemies, Hengliss culture remained static and remarkably stable for an estimated 1,700 years. The body politick, such as it was, revolved around loyalty to a two-tiered hierarchy of hereditary warlords, kubnas and mayrs, of whom the kubna was the higher-ranking. A kubna or kubnath (the latter being the word’s feminine form) controlled a set of cowndees under the protection of his house, a term that designated his physical home as well as his own cowndee’s political identity. Thus, for example, under the kubna Kaybrel Fire-Rider, the House of Moor Lek commanded allegiance from the townships of Moor Lek, Oshin, Cheyne Wells, Honey Hame, O’a, and Elmo. The mayrs and mayreths administered their own home townships (in effect functioning, like their kubnas, as regional dictators, since the agrarian townships comprised large tracts of agricultural fields and woodlands).

In the Hengliss stae’ (territory claimed by a loose alliance of cowndees) called Okan, and, to a far lesser degree, in A’o, mayrs and kubnas pledged their collective loyalty to a single elected leader designated brez. The Okan Hengliss, according to Hapa Cottrite, believed their brez was literally the son of God, who cyclically returned to Earth to inhabit the body of a specific kubna or mayr. Thus, election was less a democratic process than a search by a group of religious wise women and men for an appropriate vessel to house the godhead. This was the status of the body politick during the final millenium of the Great Lacuna; virtually nothing concrete is known of earlier Hengliss social organization other than what can be intuitionally deduced from the oral histories and folktales Cottrite recorded in his journals.

The Cottrite Codex confirms a peculiarity of Hengliss society which had hitherto been a matter of confused speculation: that the Okan and A’oans, at least among the warrior classes, practiced polygamy (Codex 1.9, et passim), and that Espanyo cultures—those with which Hapa Cottrite was familiar—did not. Cottrite expresses amazement at the custom, perhaps more at the fact that decisions about who would marry whom were left to the women than at the practice itself. Evidently single or widowed men formed a kind of pool available to women who desired to make an alliance; the man was said to be “chosen” by his first (senior) wife. Subsequent wives were selected by the senior wife, in consultation with the husband (if he was lucky) and the junior wives. Spousal abuse evidently was unknown to Cottrite, who remarks that any of the wives of the warrior class could choose to live independently; quarrels between spouses were settled by local religious leaders, or, as appropriate, by the kubnath. Many of these women, particularly the senior wives, were mayreths or kubnaths in their own right; alliances between houses consolidated power and created an efficient ruling class. Very probably, this arrangement came into being as a result of conditions brought on by the Ice Age, which naturally were harsher in the north than in the southerly latitudes occupied by the Espanyos. Disease and privation took many Hengliss; the addition of war as another killer undoubtedly ensured a surplus of women and an imperative to produce as many offspring as possible (see, for further discussion, B lo C, “Hengliss Marriage” and R do M, History, chapter 12).

It is clear that, by the time of Brez Lhored Kubna of Grisham Lekvel, the Okan Hengliss enjoyed the highest standard of living and the most sophisticated politico-religious administration of any northwestern tribes. Cottrite’s journals indicate that the A’oans were regarded, even by their Okan cousins, as little better than savages. The Foshinden tribes barely eked out a subsistence clinging to the edges of the frozen wasteland that was their territory. The Hengliss tribes who existed east of the Sehrra Máderes (which they called the Rogga Muns) were unknown to the Okan, A’oans, and Foshindenites. Brez Lhored flourished about 935 B.P.E.; under his leadership, the Okan forged an alliance with the A’oans that continued through the times of several succeeding brezes, certainly until well after the Uprising of Cham Fos. It is known that they were no longer solidly allied at the time of the first Espanyo occupation of Okan, and of course by the beginning of the Present Era, those Hengliss who had not been extirpated in the Wars of Expansion either scattered and died in exile or were absorbed by the dominant Methgoan culture.

Espanyo Society

 Except for facts that have been deduced through intuitional reasoning, little is known about Espanyo culture until near the end of the Great Lacuna, when written records begin to reappear. Most of Cottrite’s observations pertain to Hengliss culture and customs, which for him must have seemed exotic enough to be worthy of note.

Like all inter-historical Methgoan peoples, the Espanyos were quickly reduced to a tribal state after the population collapse of 2900 B.P.E. Warfare between Espanyo and Hengliss tribes soon became a normal part of life. Espanyo warlords battled for ascendancy over their brothers, and once united in ephemeral alliances produced under the dominance of one or another powerful individual, they had to fight off incursions from the Hengliss, who routinely raided the southern provinces, where more food was produced than the harsh northerly climates would allow.

The Espanyos, probably under the impetus of these repeated raids, tended to gather in larger cities than did the Hengliss. At the height of its power, for example, the city-state of Roksan, on the Rio Mendo, may have counted as many as 15,000 men, women, and children within its walls and in surrounding hamlets. That Brez Lhored of Grisham Lekvel’s army probably did not number more than about 5,000 (some believe it was much smaller; see R do M, History, 226–29) is a measure of the enormity of his accomplishment in subduing this formidable enemy. Espanyo territory, taken in its totality, was also much larger than the Hengliss’s: Espanyos occupied all of Socalia down to the Gulf of Socalia, all of Zoni, and most of Galifone, and they laid claim to (although could not occupy) the desert region called Vada. Much of the time, too, relations with neighbors in Mezgo, to the south and east, were conditionally friendly. This gave the Espanyo an enormous trade advantage over the Hengliss; archaeological studies have traced artifacts found at Roksan and Lek Doe to Mezgoan sites east of the Sehrra Máderes and to cultures prevalent in northern Ajentía, half a continent to the south (Aerubavelo do Zando Karlor, Trade Routes)!

Thus during Cottrite’s lifetime the Espanyos were far more developed culturally than the northern tribes of Okan, A’o, and (certainly) Foshinden. Residents of Espanyo cities and towns had access to more and better material goods, food, and community support, although they were subject to the same Ice Age winters and waves of disease that afflicted their Hengliss rivals. An Espanyo city was part of a province ruled by an alacaldo, a warlord who likely obtained his power through inheritance and kept it by force. Cities and towns were governed by badróns, who were the alacaldo’s appointees, and by often bloated bureaucracies of underlings. Like a Hengliss kubna, an alacaldo commanded a train of influential local leaders who were expected to muster their followers into armies for the skirmishes and outright warfare that filled the summer months. These leaders united under a single regional brezidiente, who in some provinces was elected by the alacaldos and in others took power by main force (Bedro do Gindinor, Espanyo Military Origanization).

Ethnically, the Espanyos were related to the surrounding Mezgoan tribes, and of course it is from the unification of those two groups, during the early part of the present historical era, that our own people springs. They were similar in appearance to modern Methgoans, although possibly not as homogeneous: round-headed, often compact in build, with attractive dark hair and eyes—altogether rather handsome stock (Conelle-Dawen do Zan Varezgo, “Ethnology”). A sophisticated trade system, a tendency to form powerful centralized governments, and, late in the inter-historical period, an impetus to build and import elaborate gunpowder-driven weapons gave the Espanyo a cultural advantage over the Hengliss. After the Okan-A’oan alliance dissolved, it was only a matter of time before the inevitable occupation of all Western Methgoa. If the legendary Holiár do Cortazín had not appeared, a similar warlord would have taken his place in this process (B do G, 539-699).

Lek Doe

 Situated in vaguely claimed territory on the eastern slopes of the Sehrra Orendal (in Hengliss, the Serra Muns), Lek Doe was universally regarded as a neutral city-state. By long-standing custom, hostilities ceased the moment opposing parties reached the town limits. This tradition allowed the town, located on the shores of a deep clear-water lake, to develop into the largest trading center west of the Sehrra Máderes and north of Ghitta Rado (then called Guitat Gorado). Because neither Socalia, on the western side of the Orendals, nor Vada, mostly desert wasteland, exercised much influence on the eastern slope, Lek Doe existed as an independent sovereignty. It was governed by an elected official called a seeyo, who appointed a seefo and a five-person council called the boda’ drectahs.

Populated by trade and mercantile workers from all over Socalia, Galifone, Vada, and Mezgo and visited (at least through the spring, summer, and fall) by a constant stream of merchants and freighters, Lek Doe enjoyed an affluent and cosmopolitan culture. Recent archaeological excavations have shown that the region has been occupied since early Mercan times. The present-day lakeside habitation, Lag Othoa, rests atop a mound of detritus that has been accruing for centuries, and some observers believe its inhabitants daily walk atop the hidden remains of Hapa Cottrite’s Lek Doe (Ezabella do Loncon, “Late Lacunar”).

Hapa Cottrite and His Time

 Hapa Cottrite dwelled in Okan during the time of Brez Lhored Kubna of Grisham Lekvel and Brez Fallon Mayr of Cheyne Wells. Cottrite joined the Hengliss when a band of Okan and A’oan raiders, allied under Brez Lhored, passed through Lek Doe, where Cottrite happened to be at the time. The reign of Brez Lhored took place around 935 B.P.E.; his successor, Brez Fallon, is believed to have survived to 915 B.P.E. and perhaps as late as 910 B.P.E.

During this period, the latter third of the Great Lacuna, the Okan as well as everyone else on earth were locked in the ice age that began with the Worldwide Climate Reversal, which set in about 1450 B.P.E. By Cottrite’s time, the Hengliss were highly adapted to the frigid conditions that prevailed throughout their territory. As we have noted, their practice of polygamy is believed to have been one such adaptation. Housing and clothing were designed to protect against cold, and with human numbers perennially depleted following the global population collapse of 2900 B.P.E., reforestation permitted enough fuel to warm most homes even in the northerly latitudes. Cottrite describes Okan architecture in detail, and from his journals we have a picture of thick-walled structures of stone or fired block, huddled together to create as many common walls, unexposed to ice and snow, as possible.

Hapa Cottrite is believed to have come from somewhere in northern Galifone. Although the codex is written in Espanyo, internal evidence suggests he was a native speaker of a Hengliss dialect (for a detailed discussion of these hints, see Robintar do Zepada-Evo, “Languages”). He was not a native of Lek Doe, nor does he seem to have been an ethnic Espanyo; he describes himself as stocky, with pale brown (perhaps gray?) hair and a ruddy complexion (Codex 2.2). He may have guessed the Espanyos would prevail; or possibly he wished not to have the documents read by the Hengliss, about whom he may have felt some ambivalence. Possibly he expected to return to the south, where he may already have cultivated a circle of readers who spoke Espanyo.

Cottrite learned to read and write from his mother, an approved reader and therefore probably a religious votary; Espanyo and Hengliss tradition concurred in recognizing the dangers of the written word and in blaming the spread of uncontrolled literacy for the self-destruction of the vaguely remembered Mercans. Cottrite, ever an iconoclast, showed rather little fear of the written word. Indeed, the “indiscretions” of which Cottrite speaks (Codex 1.1) evidently had something to do with his habit of teaching his acolytes to read and write, both illegal activities. Whatever their nature, it appears that Lek Doe’s seeyo, Babra Puehkenz of Raino, seized an opportunity when she “invited” him to leave her town with the Okan bands. Cottrite indicates the invitation was in fact an order.

Duarto Escodero i Minyos do Portalez en Mosarín, who became Representative of the House of Cham Fos some years after the events depicted in the present volume, was one of the young men and women whom Cottrite taught. A letter attributed to him appears among Cottrite’s papers (Codex 4.2), in which he describes his mentor as patient, learned, and even more widely traveled than the reknowned sojourner, Kaybrel Kubna of Moor Lek. Escodero i Minyos, a fluent writer, makes it clear that exile from Lek Doe did nothing to dissuade Cottrite from spreading the literacy virus. It is known that Cottrite taught Escodero i Minyos; several daughters of the House of Cham Fos (including one who became kubnath); a step-daughter of the House of Moor Lek who later was senior wife to Duarto Escodero y Minyos; a mayreth of Rozebek who became senior wife and mayreth of Cheyne Wells; and possibly Ottavio Ombertín i Boleda do Gansoliz i Corruedo, a Roksando refugee who became one of the most prominent craftsmen in the Okan region. The consequences of these acts resonated through the generations. Rablín do Meghina has argued convincingly that the spread of literacy destabilized the Hengliss cultures, setting the stage for the Uprising of Cham Fos (ca. 895 B.P.E.) and subsequent unrest that made possible the Espanyo occupation of the northern territories (R do M, “Power”).

Cottrite wrote relatively little about himself. Higaso i Dretar has used intuitive extrapolation to deduce that Cottrite probably sprang from a midwestern district of Galifone, and that he had traveled through Galifone, Socalia, Vada, and Mezgo before he arrived at Lek Doe (H i D, “Cottrite’s”). After his initial time at Cham Fos, he spent at least two winters at Moor Lek (Codex 2.6-3.3; 4.1-5.2), and he visited Grisham Lekvel, Oane Lek, Puns, Cheyne Wells, and Miduhm over the course of several summers. Whether his journals break off because he died, because he left the region, or because circumstances forced him to quit writing is unknown. Nor is anything known about what became of Cottrite after the decade he records of his life in Okan. He appears from nowhere, inserts a tiny, scintillating shard of history into the vast darkness of the Great Lacuna, and then fades away.

That small twinkle of light cast a long beam.

—Hano Fontana do Caz Eviatád ne Val Mara i Elarcon Danya
Ghitta Hetachepi dol Sud
2812 P.E.

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PRESENTING… Another Free Read! Fire-Rider!

Well! Having discovered that the “Free Reads” hobby here at Plain & Simple Press apparently generates sales over at Amazon, I decided to add the current Fire-Rider tome to the serial publications.

As I mentioned yesterday, getting the thing online will be a large project. It has 79 chapters, f’rhevvinsake. About 87 berzillion images are scattered hither and yon, on WordPress, on Facebook,, on Pinterest, and on my hard drive…finding a specific one is a challenge.

Rather than dribble these things out at the rate of one squib a week over a year and a half (will I even live that much longer??), I’ve decided to publish a section a week. Fire-Rider has 18 sections (published at Amazon as short “books”), so if I keep to the schedule (good luck with that!), the whole thing should be online in 18 weeks.

That assumes I get my act that much together and keep it together.

The first four chapters will go online tomorrow, along with a foreword and a parody scholarly article on the life and times of Kaybrel and his cohort (I think it’s pretty deadpan funny…but maybe you have to read and write scholarly papers to realize what it’s poking fun at). Wednesdays and Thursdays are rumored to be the best days to publish blog posts — supposedly readers are bored with their jobs along about then and so tune in to tune out. So I will try to post weekly on Wednesday mornings.

This little project has absorbed the entire day. But if, as I’ve done with the other serialized books, I can get the entire thing scheduled for publication in upcoming days, it will be pretty self-sufficient. Then the only real challenge is to remember to plug each new appearance on Facebook and Twitter…a chore that has been slipping my mind of late.

Really…computer stuff flummoxes me! 😀

At any rate, a start is made. Watch this space: links to the first four chapters, the front matter, and the back matter will go up tomorrow morning. You can find a link to the Fire-Rider saga at the top of any page or post at Plain & Simple Press. Whenever the chapters go live, I’ll insert links in the table of contents in the Fire-Rider page.

C’mon by…it’s SO much better than working.