Kindness of Strangers
Tavio awoke inside the lodge, alone. He was wrapped tight and warm in layered fur blankets. Outside, he heard the contentious brrr-rak of a scavenger jay. In the near distance, metal pots clanked and men’s voices exchanged words he didn’t understand. Closer by, a leathery rattle of hide and hair: a horse shook itself. Resinous wood snapped in a slow fire.
He sat up in the cool air and wiped cobwebs of sleep from his face. Not thinking, he rubbed his eyes; a jolt of pain from his bruised cheek reminded him that he was sore all over. He needed to pee. He looked around for a chamber pot but found none.
He poked his head out the door into cloudless daylight. Laden with the smell of smoke and horse, a light breeze barely moved the leaves in the oak that, come afternoon, would shade Kaybrel’s camp. Tavio saw Kaybrel, the Englo alacaldo, on the other side of the fire ring, packing gear into an oblong sack. His coarse grey woolen shirt, the sleeves rolled above the elbow, hung free over a pair of cambric leggings, and he wore his silver-streaked hair tied back with a leather thong.
“Good morning,” Kay said in Espanyo when he noticed he was being watched: “Bwe’ di.”
Tavio regarded him silently. Kay walked over to the lodge. “Did you sleep all right?” he asked. “You didn’t seem to move the whole night.”
The boy nodded.
“How about something to eat,” Kay suggested.
“Senyó,” Tavi replied, “where do I go to the toilet?”
The Englo smiled, seemed amused. “Well,” he said, “you can pee behind that twig over there. Don’t do it next to my lodge. And if you have to do anything else, go off a ways from everybody’s lodges, hm? I’ve been going down there.” He pointed toward some brush on the far side of the designated fir sapling.
Tavi climbed outside and limped barefoot toward the outdoor pissoire. Kay was reminded that he had to find some shoes for the boy.
By the time Tavi came back, Kay had dished up another bowlful of hot porridge, freshly made at sunrise. “Sorry, chacho, I don’t have any cream to pour on this. Got no cows out here, you know.” Puzzled, Tavi shrugged. His people weren’t in the habit of pouring cream on their daily food. He wondered if the Englo was being sarcastic. But then Kay offered him a bunch of fat, sweet grapes, and he imagined maybe the man seriously thought he expected cream. “With a boy around here, we’ll need to get some honey for our mush, hm?”
Tavi ate silently. Warm cereal went down well and soothed his stomach, which, he realized, was vaguely queasy. As his belly filled, he began to feel more alert. The juicy grapes burst cool, crunchy wet into his mouth, and the seeds stuck between his teeth. He worked at the seeds with his tongue.
Kay took his empty dish from him, as he had the night before. He handed him an eathenware cup full of steaming mint-flavored water. “Don’O brought over a pair of pants for you,” he said. “I stitched up the pair you had on, but they’re wet—I washed them. And we’d better wash this thing,” he added. The long, coarse cotton shirt Kay had put on him was wadded with sleep and sweat. “Don’O found you a tunic, too. You can wear that until we get something more for you.” He lifted some clothing from where it lay across a log and dropped it in Tavi’s lap.
The trousers looked like workman’s dungarees, Tavi thought, the brown fabric sturdy but worn in spots. A tiestring ran through the waist, a good thing, since the garment was built for someone heavier and taller than Tavio. The pullover tunic was made of coarse napped wool, and although it, too, was a little large, it would fit him better than the shirt Kay had put on him the night before. He glanced up at Kaybrel. “Grati,” he said.
“You’re welcome,” said Kay.
Around them, various audible activities went on. A neighbor threw a tarp over a line and, using a handy stick, beat the dirt out of it. A couple hundreds yards away, several youths rough-housed in a game of keep-away until a man called one of them to work. At most of the lodges, some kind of business was taking place: weapons were being scoured, sharpened, and stored; horses groomed; gear cleaned and stowed; loot packed or cooked or otherwise prepared for transport.
A raven, intrigued by the camp jays’ successes, glided across the meadow and lit nearby. It inspected the pickings in Kaybrel’s camp. Kay tossed a stone at the bird, which shifted to fly lazily to a tree branch. It sat watching them.
Kay picked up the dishes and carried them to the stream, where, Tavi could see, he squatted to scrub them clean. In a moment, though, Tavi’s attention was distracted by the approach of two young men. One carried a small canvas sack; the other, a light-skinned youth with a nascent mustache darkening his upper lip, waved at Kay at the same time he greeted Tavi in an Espanyo that sounded strange to a Roksando ear.
“Hello,” he said. “We heard Kay had a new chacho. What’s your name? Mine’s Duarto, and this is Guelito. We brought some things for you. Or Guel’ did, from Binsen, his old man.”
Tavi had a hard time following this. He caught their names, but the rest escaped him. Suddenly self-conscious, he pulled the clothes Kay had left across his lap to hide his naked legs.
“Binz thought you’d need something to put on,” Guelito said. “So he said to bring over some of my stuff. And some things he got from a guy down there by the town.”
“Hey, gentlemen,” Kay greeted them as he walked up. He deposited the dishes in the same place he’d left them the night before, gave Guelito a quick hug and slapped Duarto on the shoulder. “You meet Tavi?”
“Así, is that his name?” Guelito asked. “How’s it going, Tavi?”
Tavio smiled shyly. “Does he speak?” Duarto asked in Englo.
“Now and again,” said Kay.
“Binz sent a few things over,” Duarto remarked.
“That’s good of him,” Kay replied. Binsen was kubna of Oane Lek, the cowndee neighboring Moor Lek directly to the west, and he also was a cousin of Kay’s. While he was not required to share incidental goods with another kubna, it was a customary gesture that Binsen knew would be well received. In return, Kay would eventually give him some other gift. “Is Mitch up?” Kay asked.
“Yeah,” said Duarto. “He said he’d see you at the brez’s gonsa this noon. If not before.”
Guelito sat on the ground next to Tavi and dumped the bag’s contents between them. A long-sleeved cotton flannel undershirt came out, an outer shirt, and a woolen scarf. Guelito was taller than Tavi, fuller in build, and his clothes fit him. After two years with Binsen, he had collected a comfortable wardrobe. The things were a little large for Tavi. “This is one of my favorite shirts,” Guelito said. “You’ll like it.”
Tavi fingered the tan and grey striped fabric. It was tightly woven, a little worn—enough to make it feel soft. “Thank you,” he said. “But you shouldn’t give me your good clothes.” He blushed, a subtle coloring invisible behind the bruises that smudged his face.
“Sure I should,” said Guelito. “You need it more than I do. And besides, it makes us friends, sí?”
Tavi found it harder to follow Guelito’s words than Guelito did Tavi’s, for Guelito had grown accustomed to the various dialects the orphaned Espanyo boys spoke. But Tavi recognized the word for “friend.”
“Así,” he agreed.
Kay offered Duarto and Guelito each a handful of the grapes that Fal’s monja, Arden, had brought over earlier that morning. In the custom known as “splits,” Arden gave half his men’s pooled loot to Fal, and Fal passed half of his share to Kay. A kubna and his mayrs, then, would redistribute fresh food that had to be eaten quickly.
“Let’s go, Guel’,” Duarto said in Englo, after a few minutes. “They’re waiting for us.”
Guelito extended his hand to Tavi. “Buen’,” he said. “We’ll see you later.”
Duarto grinned. “Whenever Kay gets tired and lets you put your pants on, come join us,” he said. “We’re down at Luse’s camp.”
Guelito laughed. “A’i va!” he exclaimed. Duarto ground out a pelvis-twitch that made Guelito hoot and launch a burlesque sashay.
“Get out of here, you clowns,” Kay said. He laughed, too.
Tavi blushed a deeper shade, terra-cotta red under his coppery skin. “Did he say what it sounded like?” he said.
“I expect,” Kay said. “He has his moments as a wild man.”
Kay suggested that Tavi needed another bath. Tavi protested —“You’re not going to throw me in the river again, are you?” He sounded so dismayed at the prospect that Kay handed him a chunk of soap and a rag and told him to go down to the streamside and wipe himself down. Tavi plodded off, carrying some of the new clothes with him.
While he was washing, Zeb the blacksmith showed up with two pairs of shoes—sandals and boots—and pockets stuffed full of socks. Tavi returned to find the two men sharing another fistful of grapes and passing the boda. He vaguely recognized Zeb by his bushy, reddish beard and eyebrows, as though the events of the previous day had happened half a lifetime before. Kay made Tavi sit down, and Zeb slipped a pair of the socks on his feet.
“If you need more of these,” he said in words Tavi couldn’t understand, “just let me know. Veera makes so many of them.” Kay recognized the signature lightning-shaped pattern Zeb’s junior wife knitted into her socks.
“This boy isn’t used to going barefoot,” Zeb remarked. He handled Tavi’s feet gently. “No calluses.”
“Apparently hasn’t hiked much,” Kay agreed.
The boots were a bit large for Tavi, like all the donated items, but Kay and Zeb estimated they would work if padded with a couple pair of Veera’s thick hose. The sandals, too, when strapped tight would stay on his feet.
“These guys are bringing me all this stuff,” Tavi marveled after Zeb had left.
“Yes,” Kay said. “They’re my friends. That’s what we do.”
Kay puttered while Tavi sat in the sun. Tavi still felt very tired, and the haze in the air stung his eyes.
“Don alacaldo,” he said, to get Kay’s attention.
Kay looked at him in surprise; he had never heard himself addressed that way. It was a routine Espanyo courtesy, but it sounded strange. “Actually, lad, I’m kubna. That’s a little different from alacaldo. Why don’t you call me Kay? Or Mister Kay, if you like.”
“Senyó is closer to it.”
“Lots of smoke,” Tavi said.
“I expect the breeze is blowing it back up this way,” Kay said. “Though there doesn’t seem to be much wind this morning.”
“It’s coming from Roksan, huh?” Tavi murmured.
“I’m afraid so.”
“The whole city’s burning?”
“There won’t be much left, by the time those fires get done.”
“I wonder if very many people got away.”
Kaybrel supposed not. He considered what to say, since he saw where this was leading. He disliked crushing whatever hope the boy might have conceived. On the other hand, he knew it would become clear, quick enough, what being left with no shelter, no food, no tools, and inadequate clothing meant to survivors of a sacked city. What had happened to Tavio’s sisters and mother, Kay privately thought, was much preferable. Usually, though, these events didn’t leave enough survivors to count. At that moment, Okan and A’oan raiding parties were scouring the hills, finishing off any remaining enemy they came upon.
“Maybe my father made it out of there,” Tavi speculated.
“Where was he when the gates fell?” Kay asked.
“I don’t know. He went to fight at the walls.”
“All the men did. And a few women, too. And one old guy who was blind.”
Kay pictured the scene inside the fortified city with allied, vengeance-parched Hengliss forces gathered around all four walls. The final charge had been ferocious, the A’oans a mob of insane furies pounding their way through the massive iron-banded gates while others tried to overrun the rear battlements. In the moments before those doors gave way, what must they have said to each other, the sick certainty of defeat in their mouths?
“He probably died in the fighting, Tavio,” Kay said. “That’s not a bad thing, to die with honor. Defending your people.”
“I don’t know,” said Tavi. “I’ll never know, will I?”
Under his breath, Kay sighed. “Maybe not,” he said.
A few minutes later, Tavi lay his head in his arms, folded over his knees. Kay looked up from his chores to see him dozing.
“Why don’t you try to sleep some more?” he suggested. “We won’t get out of here for several days, and you need to be rested up before then. It’s warm inside the lodge.”
Tavio climbed back inside and lay atop the tossed bedding. When he closed his eyes, he tried not to think about the screaming. What was he doing here? Could he possibly get away? The countryside was saturated with Englos—take off, and he’d surely be caught again. Whether they killed him was immaterial. He wouldn’t mind dying, he’d welcome it, but the other thing, he didn’t want to go through that again. At least this one was feeding him, and he put a blanket over him at night.
If he did get away, where would he go? Was anybody else out there? He’d heard they’d destroyed Vareio. What if Novalinda was gone, too? He wasn’t sure how far away Novalinda was, only that it was upriver from Roksan. He had no food, and even if he did, he had nothing to carry it in. He didn’t even have a jacket. It was cold at night. Everyone he knew was dead. Everything he knew was gone.
The Okan brez, Lhored Kubna of Grisham Lekvel, called his gonsa, a council composed of his kubnas and their mayrs, whenever he wanted to make or announce a decision. A’o’s leaders, Eddo Kubna of Bose and Devey Mayr of Metet, joined them; as allies, honorary members of Lhored’s gonsa. Sometimes, but not always, Lhored framed a pronouncement as one taken by mutual assent; sometimes, but not always, it actually was. Today he wanted advice on where the army should go next.
The defeat of Roksan was the current expedition’s main goal, and after their unequivocal victory over the walled city, the men had a sated sense about them. Lhored guessed they wouldn’t engage another major siege or battle with much enthusiasm—as far as most of the men were concerned, they had accomplished what they came out to do. On their way down the Mendo Ribba toward Roksan, they had also taken out the towns of Novalinda and Vareio, plus a number of farming settlements. And they had trashed as much farmland as they could, whenever they came upon it.
With the fall of Roksan, the enemy likely would not recover enough to raid Okan or A’oan territory for a good five years or more. This respite presented two significant opportunities: for the northern Hengliss tribes, time to gather booty and store their own bounty; for Lhored, a chance to consolidate his strength.
He was a man of middling stature, neither tall nor short, with a full, walnut-brown beard and a hairline just beginning to recede. He had no taste for show; the only difference between his plain gray woolen robe and his men’s clothing was in the slightly finer weave of the fabric, a southern import. When he stepped out of the lodge, followed by Mitchel and Fol Kubna of Miduhm, conversation fell off. The gonsers attended to hear what he would say. Everyone stood, as they always did, for the entire meeting.
From a pocket Lhored fished a four-inch-long gold and garnet cross, the mark of his office, and hung it around his neck on its heavy-linked chain. He nodded amenably to the assembled kubnas and mayrs, and then he spoke.
“We’ve done well,” he said. “This alliance between us, between A’o and Okan, has been a good thing. Bose,” he addressed Eddo Kubna of Bose directly, “your men fought like they had the fire of God Himself inside them.”
“Or the devil behind them,” someone in the crowd remarked. Friendly laughter murmured through the company. The crack fit the A’oans’ fighting style: they charged like angry wolverines into a fight, seemed to relish combat, and once they got started, virtually nothing could call them off. They had been first at the walls, first through the gates, and conveniently at hand in almost every skirmish. Considering how few there were of them, compared to the number of Okan, it was amazing how they managed to show up everywhere in any given battle.
Eddo smiled, tolerant. “Your people know how we feel about the Roksan scum,” he said. “We’ve suffered as much as Okan has. It’s a sweet thing, what we’ve done here—just as sweet for our men as for yours.
“Moor Lek,” he said to Kaybrel, “this must be especially good for you.”
Kay looked up when he was addressed, his face graver than his companions might have expected. “It is good,” he said, and his tone was serious. “I wish your cousin of Ham’l could have lived to see this.”
“He sees it from where he is in the other world,” Lhored reminded them. The honored dead saw plenty of valor in this siege, he said, and he recited the names of those who stood out: Mitchel of Cham Fos, Devey of Metet, Dom of Wichin, Kaybrel of Moor Lek, Rikad of Puns. He could have listed every man in the combined company, but at some point he had to stop.
“We think we engaged most of their fighting men here,” Lhored continued. “Though Bilhem and Terro”—Okan’s premiere scouts—“say two or three parties left before we got here. They probably crossed the Serras by the Dona Paz Road, to raid Vada or southern A’o. I hope they haven’t done any damage in your part of the country,” he said to Bose.
“My brother was waiting for them,” Eddo replied. “They won’t find any easy pickings up there.”
“No. And they’ll have a cold homecoming when they get back, too.”
Laughter greeted this remark.
“We won’t see them in Okan or A’o for a while, even if they get through the winter,” said Mitch.
“That we won’t!”
Now Lhored turned to the question at hand: where to go next. He surveyed the possibilities. They could turn north and retrace their way up the Mendo River, heading directly back to Hengliss territory. Or they could continue south down the Mendo into the Wakeen Val, where they would probably come across a few more towns; but as late as it was in the summer, they wouldn’t get all the way to the stronghold city of Mendo, nor was anyone interested in laying another major siege. They could go east to Lek Doe, where the men could relax and enjoy a well-earned week or two of fun. Or, if anyone felt in the mood for more adventuring, they could press west across the coastal range and march to the ocean, which few of them had ever seen.
The mayr of Metet brightened at the prospect. “Now there’s an idea,” he said. “It’d be a reach, but we still have time this summer.”
“Whoa!” said Dom Kubna of Wichin. “One high pass is enough for a season, eh? We’d have to climb the Achpis, and then we’d have to come back over them and either cross the Serras at Dona Paz or go back up past Soja Mun. Enough’s enough.” Soja flanked the pass below the huge, active volcano known as Shazdi, which overlooked the boundary between Espanyo and Okan territory.
“Could be worth it,” Devey persisted. “Those coast people have a lot of stuff. I’ve heard they have good horses, better than the Valley stock. They feed them fish from the sea. It makes them really big, super strong. And they’re supposed to have good crops, too.”
The greed appeal always kindled a fire. Kay groaned inwardly. He didn’t want to cross the coastal range. It would put three more uphill hauls between the band and home. He was, he thought for about the fiftieth time, getting too old for this.
“Metet could use some new breeding stock,” Devey added.
“So could we,” said Rikad, the leathery-looking Kubna of Puns. “I wouldn’t mind going over to see what they have.”
“Have they got any guns?” one of the younger mayrs asked.
“No,” Kay snorted. “No, they don’t have guns. Those people are poor as grasshoppers. They’re too busy trying to scrounge a living from the sea to work metal. They’re not any better than. . .well, than Sand Dwellers. “
“That’s not what I’ve heard,” said Rik.
“I’ve never seen a decent horse on the coast,” Kay returned. Everyone recognized that he knew what he was talking about. “Not as far south as Hamun Bay. They eat their horses.”
“What would you do instead?” Lhored asked Kay.
“If it were up to me, I’d head for Lek Doe. Do some trading. Give the men a chance to rest up.”
This advice drew some murmured assent. Lhored left the subject open for more discussion.
“Well, I’ll tell you, my boys didn’t get enough out of Roksan to do much trading,” said Rik.
“They would have,” another voice commented, “if they hadn’t had their dongs up every skirt they found!”
A ripple of laughter followed this. Rik grinned, too. “They can’t take that home with them,” he said. “I expect they’d appreciate a little more time in the field, to see what’s to be had around here.”
Mitchel seconded him. “If horses are what we’re after, we couldn’t do better than to head south into the Wakeen.”
“Yeah,” Dom agreed. “It’s a sure thing down the valley; a gamble on the coast. Besides, suppose the coast is richer than heaven’s roads. We’d have to haul a lot of stuff and drive our stock over the mountains. Whatever we take from the Wakeen only has to be toted over one pass.”
What Dom said coincided roughly with Lhored’s opinion. The brez had heard about as much as he needed or wanted to hear. He knew Moor Lek, the grayest head among them, would just as soon head north after Roksan. He also knew the others weren’t quite done yet. They all wanted to collect as much as they could to enrich their houses.
Lek Doe had its appeal: as the great neutral trading center of the northern Serras, it offered every kind of luxury item and utilitarian implement known to humankind. Everyone’s wives and children expected some kind of gew-gaw to be had from a place like that. In fact, Lhored’s senior wife Leah had instructed him minutely on the specific types of silver and stoneware she wished to receive.
On the other hand, Rik was right in observing that the men hadn’t taken enough out of Roksan for much serious trading. The place was already burning when the Hengliss breached the gates. They didn’t have much time to clean out houses before the fire took hold.
“All right,” Lhored said, his mind made up. “Let’s pray.”
Only an angry god could account for the capricious cruelty of life in Hengliss times. Divine wrath was as reasonable an explanation as any for the condition to which humanity had fallen over the previous few centuries. In the absence of the written word, which had disappeared from general use shortly before the ancient Mercans had gone extinct, no one living knew much of the history that defined the nature of the Hengliss god. What they did know was that winter was long and cold, war harsh, food hard to come by, disease fast and deadly. Those elements alone spoke of God’s displeasure with Man.
All the northern Hengliss tribes, uniformly Resurrectionists, spoke to their god through rites that seemed to reflect the divine mood. Blood was the preferred medium, followed closely by smoke.
The gonsers bowed their heads while Lhored’s two pages, Alber and Lonneh, assembled the ceremonial necessaries on a small folding table next to Lhored: a broad, shallow bowl with a long razor-sharp spike sticking up from its center, a crystal attached to a silver chain, a small white candle taper, a sparrow in a cage. Into the bowl, they packed an aromatic blend of finely shaved pine and bay leaves; they sprinkled a clear liquid over this, almost pure alcohol. They lit the candle and, when Lhored nodded his approval, brought forth an earthenware jar of wine, a gilded chalice, and a plateful of unleavened bread.
Lhored moved his hands over the bread and wine.
“God sheds His Blood for us,” he began. “For us He gives the Flesh of His Loins. Share now in my Father’s Spirit. This is the Blood.” He poured the wine into the large goblet and stepped back while Lonneh, the oldest boy, offered it to Mitchel, the gonser who stood the closest. Mitch took a sip from it and passed it to his neighbor. “This is the Flesh,” Lhored continued. He gestured over the bread and let Alber pass it to the men.
“In the Blood and the Flesh is the Spirit. The Spirit is wisdom. The Spirit is holiness. The Spirit is redemption. Blessed are the Blood and the Flesh.”
Kaybrel’s mind wandered while this was going on, although the brez’s words reached him clearly. He had heard the Ceremony of the Crossroads at least two hundred times, and in his heart he doubted whether God cared what humans chose to do with themselves. Also in his heart he wondered what he would do with that boy, the Roksando whose tears filled the night even after their flow had stopped.
Fal was right, he supposed. You get what you give. And, if you have any sense at all, you give what you get. It probably didn’t do anyone any good to set too fine an edge on that. The chalice came to Kay. He sipped from it and passed it to Fallon. A moment later the plate of bread arrived. He chewed the stale wheat bread and realized he was hungry.
Too much pain in this world, he thought.
While the cup and the server were passing from man to man, Lhored opened the cage, grasped the sparrow, and pulled it out. He held it up toward the sun. “Holy Lord God, Maker of heaven and earth and Man, accept this gift, our offering of thanks for all You have given us. Guide us on our way, direct us to the path of safety, keep us in your care.” With those words he jammed the bird onto the sharp spike, impaling it back to chest. The creature fluttered, wings flailing and feet twitching. Lhored raised the candle and touched it to the kindling in the bowl. Instantly scented wood and leaves took flame, and within seconds the bird’s feathers were burning.
Lhored lifted the crystal and suspended it over the bird as it was consumed in the sanctified fire. While the oily smoke from the dying creature’s flesh drifted toward heaven, and, presumably, toward a gratified god, Lhored raised his face and prophesied.
“Lek Doe. Before that, three towns, one engagement on the field….in Wakeen. We should trek down Wakeen, but turn east after following the Mendo River some distance. So it shall be.”
Yes, Kay thought. So it shall be. A great deal of malarkey for a very small decision.
Still, the brez’s direct connection to God kept the troops in line. Belief, as Kaybrel knew, counted for almost everything in this world. Lhored’s power—solely dependent on his people’s loyalty—stemmed specifically from their belief in him as a manifestation of the deity. Every time the brez staged one of these small sacrifices, he reminded his followers of his own divine nature.
Kay and Fallon walked back toward their camps. They were joined by Devey Mayr of Metet, a tough A’oan who, though Kaybrel thought he looked too young to sit a horse, had led his party of fifty men straight through Roksan’s main gate in the minutes after the barriers fell. Devey affected a little strut that made him attractive to women, and sometimes made other men wonder what he was trying to prove.
“So you think the pickings are pretty slim on the coast?” he asked Kay.
“I know they are,” Kay replied. “Well, actually—they say the people in the far south are better off. But about ten years ago Hef of Aber’—you remember him, Fal? He died at the battle of Pakta.”
“Vaguely,” Fal said.
Of course, Kay thought. Fal would have been about twelve or fourteen at the time. “Hef and I crossed the Wammets and reached the coast about as far north as Bose. We damn near starved out there. Didn’t find many people—a few ruins poking out of old silt flats, nobody living in ’em. They don’t have much food, and truly, we didn’t see any decent stock as far as we went. We made it down into Galifone, to a place the locals called Hamun Bay. The ocean is something to see, but it’s not worth driving a whole army over a mountain range.”
“A few. Not many. Doesn’t rain there much. Most of the seacoast is desert. We ended up having to live off the land most of the way—and believe me, there’s not enough to support twelve hundred men.”
Devey looked disappointed. “I’d like to see that ocean,” he said.
“Yeah, it’s almost worth the trip,” Kaybrel agreed. “But go there on your own. No point in taking a big party. Just go check it out.”
“Maybe next summer,” Devey said. “I’d have to get leave from Bose. And Lhored, I expect.”
“You’ve done your job,” said Fal. “They won’t mind.”
“Wonder if he’d let me and a couple of my guys run over there now. We could probably get ourselves back to A’o before first snowfall.”
Kay laughed. “I wouldn’t, if I were him.”
“Somebody’d have to take my men while we were gone. How’s about you, Fal?”
“Not likely!” Fallon countered. “I’ve got enough chuckleheads to ride herd on—I don’t need more trouble.”
Devey smiled and scratched absently at a half-healed rash on his arm.
“Wait till next summer,” Kaybrel said. “If I come into the field, I’ll take your men with mine.”
“What ‘if’? You planning to stay home next year?”
“We need you out here.”
“Well, I’m not so young any more, Devey. Three or four months in the bush gets a little tired, you know, after a while.”
Devey considered this for a moment but couldn’t let it rest. “You’re no older than the brez,” he remarked.
“I’m four years older than Lhored,” Kaybrel said. “Our mothers were the same age. We were both first-born.”
“Lhored is still going strong,” Fallon said.
“Yes. But his time is coming to an end. Just seven more years.”
“Long enough,” said Devey. “You must be forty-two, then?”
“That’s right,” Kaybrel admitted.
Fallon rarely contemplated the possibility that his friend was past the middle of his life. Kaybrel always struck him as vigorous, and Fallon thought of him as somehow near his own age. In truth, Kaybrel had come to the time when six and a half years looks hardly more than a day in the future; to Fallon and Devey, it still seemed a long time.
They passed in the direction of the A’oan campsites. A round, red-headed lad emerged from that crowd and waved at Devey.
“Hey,” he said. Devey gave him a rough hug and a playful shove. “Duarto and Guel’ say you brought us a new chacho,” he said to Kay.
“That’s so, Porfi,” Kay replied.
“Are we gonna see him?” Before Kay could respond, he continued, to Deve: “You said we were gonna catch some fish. When are we going?”
“Whenever you’re done cleaning my tack,” Devey said.
“And sharpening my sword and dagger.”
“Did you brush the horses and pick up the camp?”
“I don’t suppose you would have cleaned that old cooking pot?”
“I got all the fishing gear out. Everything’s ready to go.”
“Well. Guess I’ve been summoned.” He said good-bye to the two Okans and ambled off with Porfi.
Kay and Fal returned to their own campsite, where they settled in the shade of a tall pine. Fal had thrown together a slumgullion of venison jerky and some things he’d taken from the stores looted from the sacked city: potatoes, carrots, leek, and garlic. The mess was simmering in a broth of ale and water; Fallon was pretty proud of it. Kaybrel advised him to let it cook longer, but said it was good.
He liked Fallon’s friendship. It was easy. Neither man felt a need to prove anything to the other, and that was comfortable. A lot was left unsaid, because it didn’t need to be said. Yet Fal was easy to talk to: frank and generally commonsensical. Kay got up and brought the kettle of mint tea over from his fire ring, where it had been steeping for hours. Fal sometimes thought only God knew what was in Kay’s hot decoctions; they usually tasted of mint, but Kay would toss just about anything in. Fal took out his pipe and filled it with a serving of imp. They sat and shared the tea and smoked the herb.
“What do you think I ought to do about that boy?” Kay asked, as much by way of an opening as a request for advice.
“Pretty bad off, is he?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, either he’ll make it or he won’t,” Fal said. “But if you really don’t think he can keep up with us, put him down now.”
“I hate to do that.”
“It’s not very pleasant,” Fal agreed. “He’s just a kid.”
“Yeah. I almost lost track of that last night.”
“Mm. I’ll bet.”
“The bastards,” Kay said.
Fal sucked on the pipe and let that lay. He assumed Kay meant the Roksandos, and that his friend’s mind was on things that had happened a quarter-century before. At length, he said, “Comes under the heading of getting yours back.”
“Goes round and round, doesn’t it?” Kay replied. “They raid us and kill our women and steal our crops and we raid them and kill their women and steal their crops. So they come back and so we go on and on. The last two men on this earth will be an Englo and a Spanyo, trying to kill each other.”
“Maybe.” Fal passed the pipe to Kay. They poured themselves another mug apiece of the hot tea. “But it’s nice to have a boy,” Fal added. “Why don’t you just put all that behind you and enjoy him for what he is?”
“It’s not that easy. I have to tell you, something about it just doesn’t feel right, Fal.”
“What’s not to feel right? He’s booty, Kay. You have a right to him. We took the city after a hell of a fight, and we had good reason to take it. Everything in it belongs to us. Including their pretty little boys.”
“Maybe we’re all booty, Fal. Ever think of that?”
Fal shrugged. Now and again Kaybrel said things no one could answer. Fal felt vaguely exasperated. Maybe Kay was right: time for him to retire. And no, he reflected, he’d never thought of that. If he had, he wouldn’t let it bother him. “What the hell,” he replied. “Might as well take advantage of it while we can.”
Fal glanced at Kay and then looked away, so that his eyes did not meet his friend’s. Kay took his meaning. In the field, introspection of this sort rang of weakness. Thinking too hard about what you were doing could give you pause. And while you wavered, the enemy would not. “Yes,” he said. “We might as well.”
Before the east began to pale, Kaybrel shook Tavio awake. Then he went outside, kicked the fire to life, and went off to find his horses. By the time he came back, leading his chestnut stallion and a scruffy roan mare, the boy had stumbled outside to stand by the campfire, which was still too sleepy to cut the dawn chill.
“Throw some kindling on there,” Kaybrel said. He occupied himself with harnessing the animals. “Come on boy. Look like you’re alive!”
Around the camp, similar orders were issued, gear rattled, pots clanged, morning greetings exchanged. Overhead, the Milky Way still trailed across the black sky. The Great and Little Dippers wheeled silently around the North Star, and the Hunter’s Belt hung over the southern horizon. A bat whispered overhead, pinging for moths suspended in the amber air above the fire.
“Are we going to leave before it’s light?” Tavio asked.
“It’ll be past dawn before everyone gets their gear together,” Kaybrel replied. “While this fire gets going,” he interrupted himself to toss a chunk of wood on it, “take that pot of water and hang it on the hook, will you?”
The evening before, Kay had explained how they would organize their departure. He made Tavio unhappy by demanding that he bathe again, and then he taught him to wash dishes in the stream.
The boys the Hengliss bands carried with them served as all-around valets, scullery labor, and pack mules, as well as a convenient outlet for passing lust. Kay had decided to excuse Tavio from the last, temporarily, but he had no intention of letting him out of the work. When he saw Tavi standing idle again, watching the fire start, he set him to hauling the rest of the gear out of the lodge. “Leaf-picking,” he called Tavi’s empty-handed moments: a favorite phrase among the Okan men.
He had also begun to teach Tavi a few words of Hengliss, starting with the crucial phrase, “What is that called?” In his travels, Kay had come to realize that the various languages and dialects spoken throughout the huge territory west of the Rogga Muns fell into just two groups: generally Hengliss and generally Espanyo. If you spoke one of the ten or twelve Hengliss tongues, you could usually figure out most of what a speaker of another dialect was saying. So it was, he concluded, with the southern tongues. Knowing the language of Roksan well, he had found it fairly easy to learn the other Spanyo dialects. He also knew how to teach language to others, when he felt inclined. He had already made Tavio repeat the names of every tree in sight and got him using ordinary housekeeping words like fire (var), pot (ba’), knife (neff), and cord (gore).
The lodge empty—bedding rolled tight and packed inside waxed canvas bags and gear arrayed on the ground outside—Kaybrel and Tavio set to breaking it down. The system that created a rough dome-shaped structure was simple, a design that dated from Mercan times: a set of struts made of flexible willow or birch whips ran through pockets sewn in the hide and canvas walls. Disassembly was a matter of releasing a few guy ropes and metal catches, pulling out the struts, and folding or rolling the parts into a loadable package.
The eastern sky turned periwinkle while they were at this, then a few low clouds caught fire and burned in streaks of rose and orange and green. A mockingbird crowed his multi-hued melody into the rising sun. When the water on the fire came to a slow boil, Kaybrel used it to make a hot grain porridge, which they ate standing beneath the chilly, brightening sky.
Tavio admired Kay’s big war horse. It was the first time he’d seen such an animal up close. “What’s his name?” he asked.
“He’s known as the Demon Lover of Cheyne Wells,” Kaybrel said. “I call him Demon.”
“Why is he called that? Is he mean?”
“Hardly!” Kaybrel laughed at the idea.
Hengliss battle horses descended from an ancient breed of huge warm-blooded draft animals. Kindly and steady, they possessed agility along with their obvious strength. Demon could carry a heavily armed rider over a five-foot barrier, and charging a man on foot, he looked convincing. He sniffed Tavio amiably, investigating the trace of his rider’s scent on this new human. “He has quite a few sons and daughters back home,” Kaybrel said. “He’s hell on the girls.
“When he was a foal, they called him Korin’s Little Devil. Korin lives on Fallon’s land. She and her husband raise and train horses. You know, there’s a lot of irrigated pastureland up around Cheyne Wells. That’s where he came from.
“Korin used to say he was a little devil because he was a pretty lively colt—always getting into things. So when he grew up and he kept getting into things, we just naturally called him the Demon Lover.”
At the shoulder, Demon stood a foot or more taller than Tavio. His feet were the size of a harvest moon, and his cropped mane stood up in a crest as high as a man’s hand is wide.
“He’s a better lover than he is a demon,” Kaybrel added. “But watch out for that one,” he indicated the mare. “She bites.” The roan, shorter by several hands than Demon, canted her ears about thirty degrees to the rear and regarded them with a baleful expression. Tavi was sure she understood Kay’s words and was annoyed by them.
Kaybrel threw his saddle over Demon’s broad back, cinched it, and then began to hang various gear from it. Meanwhile, he told Tavio to load the packs on the roan, which he called Mist.
Tavio struggled to lift the first of three heavy bags. He managed to get it off the ground, but hoisting it onto the mare was another matter. Kaybrel watched out of the corner of his eye as the boy heaved the weight chest-high, staggered, and slung it atop Mist’s back, halfway to her rump.
“Don’t you want to put the pack with the latigo on first?” Kaybrel suggested. The base pack was heavier still.
Tavio looked puzzled. “You need something to tie that bag onto the horse,” Kay said. “Take that one off and put on the one that has the straps.” The boy pulled the sack off and dropped it on the ground with a thump.
“Ever hear of setting something down?” Kay grumbled.
“Sorry doesn’t make it, boy. Do it right so you don’t have to say you’re sorry.”
Stung, Tavio examined the other bags. When he found the right one, he tried to pick it up by its broad leather strap. Kaybrel sighed. He should have expected as much of a Spanyo brat that had probably never poked his nose outside his burrow. “Wait until I’m finished with this,” he said, “and then I’ll show you how.”
“Can’t we ride them?” asked Tavio.
“Nope. They carry the gear. We walk.”
“So you make this big war horse pack stuff.”
“See anyone around who’d rather do it?”
Kaybrel hefted the big base pack onto Mist, who turned to nip at his flank and got a reflexive elbow in the teeth. He showed Tavio where to position the load and why, then made Tavio cinch the latigo straps. On the third try, the boy got it right.
“How come you don’t have an extra pack horse?” Tavio asked. “Then you could ride Demon.”
“Horses are expensive, boy. And they’re a lot of hassle. You have to feed them and take care of them all winter, you know—not just when they’re out in the grass on a pretty day.” The portable lodge and all its contents, from bedrolls to earthenware cups, now balanced on the backs of the two horses. What wouldn’t fit conveniently in the saddlepacks was jammed into bags that Kaybrel and Tavio would carry. After Kay inspected the fit of Tavio’s boots and socks, which worried him some, he poured the last of the simmering water on the fire and tied the dented metal pail atop Mist’s packs.
Breaking camp was so routine that Kaybrel no longer thought much about it. Where once he kept a mental checklist of tasks to perform and details to double-check, now he paced through the steps mechanically, one after another. He glanced over the space where he had laid his camp, saw nothing he wanted among the debris, and accounted himself ready.
Then he strode off to help marshal the troops, leaving the horses tethered. Tavio followed him across the campground.
A hectic haze stung their eyes and deepened the blue of the early shadows. Feet and hooves churned dust and the stink of manure into the air, and pungent smoke rose from half-extinguished campfires. The detritus of a weeks-long encampment littered the ground: uneaten food, discarded loot, bits and pieces of broken armor and weaponry, a pile of worn-out horseshoes. Here and there, a collapsed lodge lay in a heap, waiting for its occupant to roll and stow it. Above, a pair of hawks rode a cold column of air and watched for early prey. A feral dog, occasionally visible between the trees and brush, skulked on the fringes of the commotion. Jays dodged men and boys to fight over the garbage as the sun mounted the hills and caught the scene on a golden canvas.
Downstream from Kaybrel and Fallon’s campsites, men were hitching teams of draft horses to a half-dozen large wooden wagons. Beyond them stood an encampment of long communal lodges, each occupied by a thirty- to fifty-man squad of impressed soldiers. The lodges belonged to Kaybrel or to one or another of his chieftains, as in effect did the men. Each of Kay’s retainers—Fallon; Kristof Mayr of Oshin; Fil, Mayr of Honey Hame; Robin Mayr of O’a; and Herre Mayr of Elmo—brought upwards of eighty to a hundred men who worked and lived on lands granted to the mayrs by Kaybrel, properties attached to the clan of Moor Lek.
Although many of the men were experienced in war, a perpetual state in these times, none were professional soldiers. That calling was reserved for mayrs and kubnas. The troops consisted of range-hardened farmers and herdsmen who worked the vast ranchlands belonging to overlords like Kaybrel and managed by their followers, plus craftsmen and tradesmen who lived in villages near the kubnas’ and mayrs’ fortifications. Thus, most men in Kay’s band were indirectly attached to him through Fallon, Kristof, Fil, Robin, and Herre. In addition, he had brought about one hundred followers who owed their allegiance directly to him.
Similarly, the army, an aggregation of bands like Kaybrel’s gathered from across Okan and southern A’o, owed a kind of third-hand loyalty to Brez Lhored, whom they followed because their kubnas chose to follow him. A powerful religious belief in the brez as a direct intermediary with God cemented what would otherwise be a tenuous bond: In earthly terms, the kubnas supported a single brez out of self-interest, and their retainers supported him because they were told to. In spiritual terms, all followed Lhored because Lhored was guided by God—he was God’s chosen representative on earth. In just a few years, he would be called upon to prove it.
“Good morning, Kay,” came a greeting from a tall, slab-sided man. His yellow hair stuck out in all directions, and a shaggy, multi-colored beard framed a soft-lipped mouth with broken teeth. Kay smiled and shook his hand.
“How’s it going, Herre?”
“Good. We’re ready to load the lodges, if those clowns would ever get the wagons over here.”
“I think they’re about on the way. Saw them harnessing the horses.”
“About time,” Herre groused.
“Otherwise, are your guys good for the road?”
“Pret’ near.” He looked at Tavio, who stayed close to Kay. “What’s this you’ve got? I heard you’d found yourself another boy.”
“Looks like it,” said Kay. He drew Tavio forward, introduced him, and instructed him on how to exchange pleasantries in Okan.
“Kind of a scrapper, isn’t he?” Herre remarked. He touched Tavio near the bruise on his cheek. “Nice-looking kid, though. Would you trade him off a night for Fredi?”
“What would I do with that little puppy?” Kay said. He laughed. Fredi was a runt-like kid, in Kay’s opinion too small to be of much use for anything. Nor did anyone believe that Fredi, who generally acted spoiled, was used for much of anything.
“Well,” Herre said, “you put him at the foot of your bed and let him warm your toes.”
“I don’t think so,” Kay said.
The first of the band’s wagons rumbled across the meadow toward them. “All right,” said Herre. “Let’s go!” He shouted at the men who were already laboring with the cumbersome lodge braces. “Let’s get this stuff out of here.”
Kaybrel moved on down the line, where quickly enough he found Don’O engaged in much the same activity. As Kay’s monja, Don’O supervised the men who were directly attached to Kay, and he tended to drive a bit harder than Herre’s monja. His barracks lodges were down and strapped into long, log-shaped packets ready to be loaded on a wagon, which Don’O had sent a young man after. All the men had their gear packed, and most were standing around waiting to move. “What’s the hold-up?” he was asking the freshly returned courier as Kay approached.
“Hullo, Kay,” he said. “How’s that boy doing?”
“Better, I think,” Kay replied. “We’ll see how Zeb’s boots work on him today.”
“He’s gonna have sore feet tonight,” Don’O remarked. “We’re ready to go, as soon as we get the lodges loaded. Where the hell have the damn wagons been? Somebody needs to tell those guys to get the lead out of their asses.”
“Looks like you’re first to get your boys set,” Kay said. “Good job.”
“Robin and I have a bet going, who can round them up first,” Don’O said. “Hope he’s had to wait for the wagons, too.”
“He sent one of his guys up there,” said the young courier, who had been standing nearby.
“Oh, yeah? Did you get them to bring our wagon first?”
“Actually, I think this one is for both of us. It’ll go over to Robin’s camp next.”
“Aw, what a shame!” Don’O grinned.
A couple hundred yards downstream, Robin, whose bushy black beard and mustache parted to reveal a youthful and friendly smile, showed no sign of perturbation. He and his monja, Mel, were swigging hot drinks as they oversaw the activity in their adjacent camps. Mel had managed to waylay a wagon headed for Miduhm’s camp, and Robin ordered his men to load their lodges on that one. The race went to the wiliest.
“That guy, Herre, he said something about me,” Tavio remarked as they walked along.
“He said you look like a tough guy with that black eye,” Kaybrel said.
At Kristof’s camp, next to Robin’s at the end of the meadow, away from the river, they found a small crisis in progress. A couple of men were tending a young Espanyo whose lower leg was bleeding from a deep cut.
“Kay! I was just about to send for you,” Kristof said. Kristof, a heavyset man with blue eyes and thick, almost black beard and hair, stood half a head taller than most of the other Hengliss. He had blood on his hands from trying to stanch the wound.
“What happened here?” asked Kaybrel.
“Luse hit himself with an ax.”
“That was smart.” Kay knelt beside the patient, whose normally brown face was pale but expressionless. “What possessed you to do that, Luse-o?”
“It bounced funny and slipped out of my hand,” the young man replied. His voice sounded calmer than Kristof looked. Luse was a veteran of the field; in three summers with Kristof, he had grown to the cusp of manhood. Wiry and taut, he was probably a little older than Duarto, although no one, himself included, knew his exact age. Overlapping sprays of dark hairs and pimples stippled his chin like pinfeathers.
Kay turned to Tavio and told him to go to where the horses were tethered, find his medicine bag, and bring it back. “Today, boy. Not next week,” he snapped as Tavi, hesitant, walked off slower than he liked. Kay more than half-expected him to get lost before he found his way to Demon and Mist; he was mildly surprised when Tavi returned a few moments later, bearing the desired gear. By that time, one of Kristof’s men had produced a bucket of hot water and a metal cup, and Kaybrel had wiped the dirt off Luse’s calf.
“Let’s take him over to the fire,” Kristof said. “We’ve got a blade heating there.”
“That may not be necessary.” Kay disliked cauterizing open wounds; he didn’t think it prevented rot, at least not to the extent that it was worth the added injury. “But put this water on the fire and make it boil hard.” He dropped a needle threaded on the loose end a ball of cotton thread into the pail, after dipping up a cup of the water.
He pulled a small leather sack and a chunk of the hard lye soap he favored out of the suede bag. First he washed the wound, from which blood still coursed freely. Then he sprinkled a palmful of the little sack’s contents—mostly lady’s mantle and a variety of fern—into the remaining warm water to make an almost syrupy poultice. This he applied to a square of cotton lint, which he held firmly to Luse’s leg for the fifteen or twenty minutes it took to boil the other water over an open fire. When Kristof’s man returned with the simmering pail, he used his knife to pick the threaded needle out of the water. The bleeding had almost stopped.
Luse, his face a study in cool, watched closely. So did everyone else. Kristof, a half-dozen of his followers, and Tavio sat or stood in a half-circle around the open-air operating theater.
“Let him be, Kristo’,” Kay waved away a move to hold Luse down.
He explained to Luse how he would sew the wound together and guessed at how many stitches it would require. Solemn, Luse told him to go ahead. Only when Kay shoved his needle through the skin for the third time did the dark eyes narrow for a fraction of an instant. Luse glanced at Kay briefly and then watched his hands work.
In a few minutes, the procedure was done and Kay’s razor-sharp blade had neatly snipped the thread near the skin. A sweat slick waxed the long, symmetrical planes of Luse’s face. He sat unmoving while Kay wrapped a length of unbleached bandage around his shank. Finally, when everything was finished and Kay turned to wash his hands in the bucket of still-hot water, he smiled thinly and leaned back against Kristof, who squatted close behind him.
“Good, chacho.” Kay wiped his hands on his pants. “I think you’ll be all right.”
Kristof and Luse thanked Kay and called him tocha. “Hold the thanks until we see how that heals, hm?” Kay said. “It’s up to you to get better now, Luse. Eat well, keep yourself clean. And take it easy—no jumping around. Here,” he groped in the bag until he found a small silver amulet, a cross in a circle, on a rawhide strip. “Wear this around your neck. If you hurt, rub it between your fingers until you feel better. It has a special blessing on it.”
“I feel fine now,” Luse said. He slipped the charm over his head and grinned.
Fine or not, he was in no shape to walk. He would ride beside one of the wagoneers, a decision that pleased him immensely. Kaybrel expected, given all the young chachos’ delight at riding on things—horses, wagons, even winnowing boards—that Luse would find himself too incapacitated to hike until the gash was well on the way to healed.
“That guy is really mato,” Tavi said as they headed back toward Kay’s camp.
“Yeah, he does know how to act zonado,” said Kay.
“What does that mean?” Tavi asked. Though it was one of the camp boys’ favorite words, it had never been heard inside Roksan.
“Well, it means . . . extremely excellent. When it’s about a person, it means you’re so far above things that nothing can get to you, hm? Muy mato. More manly than God himself.”
“Perfect in every way.”
Upstream hundred yards, Fallon’s men awaited the order to move out. Kaybrel walked back toward the brez’s camp, where he found Lhored and reported that his band was ready to go. Lhored told the A’oan contingent to lead, a privileged position, for the foremost marchers avoided most of the dust kicked up and manure laid down by the marching army. It was a small payoff for the heavy action they had seen before and within the fortified town.
So Moor Lek’s troops had to wait until the A’oans finished their preparations and got on the road.
“Are you really a healer?” Tavio asked, while they sat idly in the morning sun. Gorandero was the term he used, an ancient word with magical overtones: someone who healed through the power of sorcery. The Hengliss healer, tocha, was less unequivocally a shaman, although his—or, more usually, her—success might be attributed to divine favor.
“Sort of,” Kay said. “But not exactly.”
“You made that guy stop bleeding,” Tavio observed.
“He made himself stop bleeding. I didn’t do it.”
“But you put something on him, a potion. And you gave me something that made me go to sleep.”
“Maybe. There was nothing out of the ordinary in that.”
“It takes a gorandero to do those things.”
“What did you do?” Tavio was not about to let it go.
“Nothing occult,” Kay said. “What I gave you the other night and what I put on Luse were just herbs that grow everywhere—things anyone can find and use. There are no spirits at work in my healing. Except what’s inside the person.”
Tavio thought about this for a moment. “They say a gorandero talks to the saints. Maybe even to God, sometimes.”
“Sometimes,” Kay agreed.
“What was in that stuff you gave me?” Tavio persisted.
“The spirit of God, hm?”
“You just said not.”
“You believed me?”
Tavio looked up at Kaybrel, perplexed. “Is it one way, or is it the other?”
“I don’t know, Tavi. Nothing ever is altogether one way or altogether the other, is it? If you think a healer talks to God, then maybe he does. If I tell you that I don’t but you think I do, then maybe I do.”
At last, the A’oans managed to get themselves packed and on the road. As the hindmost hauled past, Kaybrel stood and shouted to his own lieutenants, “Moor Lek! Let’s go!” Don’O didn’t need to be told: his men were already pouring onto the road. Before long, the rest followed, in no particular order.
The command seemed to bounce off the trees as it was repeated on down the line. Men’s boots and horses’ hooves clumped over the wide road, a remnant of an old Mercan highway once traveled by marvelous machines that flew by magic over sheets of asphalt. Chunks of the ancient paving still lay, here and there, among the rocks and pebbles along the road. Noting that the stones appeared only along roads and in abandoned cities, people called them ra’stane—roadrocks. No one had ever seen one of the magic machines, of course—they were the stuff of myth, imagined as winged devices or chariots animated by spirits. Now, people walked the highways. A few, the wealthy, rode horses or carts.
The air was still crisp beneath a warming sun that by now had released the pines’ sweet pitch perfume. A light breeze rose. Unfazed by the commotion, a mockingbird trilled from a branch overhead until it spotted a grasshopper on the wing. It shot after the bug, which, alarmed, shrieked into the brush with the bird hot on its trail. The rumble of men’s talk and laughter rose above the footfall; ahead, Porfi tossed a ball back and forth with several A’oan men while they walked. Kaybrel smiled and pulled his wide-brimmed hat down to shield his eyes. For trekking, he liked this kind of day.
The road led to the edge of the bluff and down into the valley of the Mendo Riba. The band, now miles below the Lil Ku Riba, would follow the Mendo until they reached the abandoned city of Redton. Continuing south, they would travel into the Wakeen Val along the west side of the Mendo, where tributaries to the river were few and usually fordable. The Mendo’s watershed poured off the high mountains to the east, which received enough summer rain to melt some of the perpetual snowcover. That range, the Serra—known further south as the Sihueri—reared above the river’s green and yellow floodplain, a monolith whose white peaks were distanced to violet and blue. The Achpi Renj formed the long valley’s western wall. To the north, the Serras joined the Achpis and met where the volcanoes of the Shazdi Muns simmered and fumed. Ice-cooled air falling from the Shazdis and the Serras held a brown haze close to the ground, but despite it, the eye could see down what looked like a hundred-mile corridor leading south and west.
On the valley floor, the ruined city still smoldered. From the foothills’ elevation, surrounding farmlands and villages, also torched or trashed, looked muddy and trampled. The scene caught Tavio the moment it came into sight. He gazed at the devastation in silence. His pace slowed, and soon he stopped and stood looking down at what remained of Roksan.
A few blackened fragments of the city’s ramparts yet stood. Everything within was burned to the ground, except for the stone walls that represented the cathedral, the big warehouses of the trading and storage centers, and the main public buildings. Their roofs were absent and all their contents—what hadn’t been stolen—had gone to ashes. Private dwellings, shops, the marketplace—all built of wood, mud, and thatch—were reduced to dirt. The outbuildings that had surrounded the city, suburbs whose inhabitants took shelter behind the walls when the enemy approached, were virtually gone. All that remained were some broken mud walls in a field of smoldering debris. The wind buzzed a devil’s hymn in Tavio’s ears. It drowned out the noise of the march, and he was altogether alone.
He had never seen his home from this vantage, looking down on it from above. He wondered where his house had been. Where had the family’s shop stood? He recognized the church where he had spent so many hours in worship, the marketplace where he had gone with his father and uncles to sell their staples or with his mother and sisters for food and toys and goods. All the brilliant colors, the bright banners and strips of cloth set to waving in the breeze, the awnings in orange and red and white and blue and green and yellow that shaded the merchants’ stalls, all black. Black cinders and ashes. The sounds of children playing, donkey carts clattering through the stone-paved streets, roosters crowing, dogs barking, merchants shouting, bells ringing, holy men chanting: silenced. But silence was not what he heard, nor was it the screaming of the isburdos. He heard a subdued roar in his ears, the sound of his own blood coursing through his veins, the sound of nausea, and it seemed to him that neither the sound nor the sight made much sense. He listened to the howl of the absurd.
A weight on his shoulder drew his attention away from the vision below. It was the Englo alacaldo. He put his hand on Tavio. “Let’s go,” he said. “It’s time to move on.”
The road dropped out of the thin pine forest. Below the bluff, it joined a wider highway heading south out of Roksan and flanked the river through rolling grasslands. Yellow bunchgrass mixed with feral alfalfa, bermuda, rye, and wheat grew as high as the war horses’ knees. Here and there the green expanse was punctuated by dwarfish scrub oak, solitary or in small clumps. Once they passed an ancient fig tree. Its branches spread in a wide circle that cast deep, bare shade around the trunk. Two jackrabbits huddled in the dark beneath the fig; they stuck there until the A’oan contingent passed and then, as if at some unheard rodent signal, they bolted. A series of dazzling leaps carried them to a new refuge.
Tavi walked silently, lost somewhere inside himself. Kay studied him surreptitiously from time to time. If he could heal, Kay thought, he would work some kind of magic on this boy’s pain. But he knew of no such sorcery.
After a while, he ventured to call the Spanyo’s name. “Come over here,” he said. Tavio, who had drifted back from Kay a few dozen yards, caught up with him.
“Here,” Kay said. He offered the rope lead attached to Demon’s bridle. “You take the horses for a while.” Tavi looked at him doubtfully. “All you have to do is hold the tether.” Kay handed it to him. “Demon will follow you, and Mist will follow him. Couldn’t be easier.” The stallion, confused by the stops and starts, almost bumped into Tavio’s shoulder before he pulled up. Tavio stroked the big nose. Then he spoke one word, “Buen”: “All right.”
The sun climbed higher, the day grew warmer. For a long time, Tavio walked to the two-note harmony of the horses’ gait, the lazy syncopation about all he heard and all he thought of. The marchers pulled off the light jackets or vests they had worn to start the trek and carried them over back packs or tossed them onto wagons or horses. They hiked steadily, fast enough to cover about three miles an hour over the level ground. Occasionally one or the other of Kaybrel’s men would join them. Fallon was never far away, and for a while Devey, the A’oan mayr of Metet, fell back to walk and chat with Kay. When the company paused to rest, late in the morning, Kay’s cousin Mitchel was at his side.
Fal spotted a thicket of elderberries at the riverside and proposed an expedition. Tavio, already weary, was left at the roadside with the horses while the three climbed down to the water’s edge. Duarto, who was walking near Mitch, tied his animals to a small tree and flopped onto the ground near Tavio.
“How’s it going?” he asked. “You holding up all right?” Duarto’s dialect sounded to Tavi’s ear like a broad foreign accent; Tavi had to listen closely to follow what he said.
“Yeah, I’m all right,” Tavio said. “It’s a long walk.”
“We’re not halfway there,” Duarto said, and Tavi wondered where “there” might be.
A minute later, Duarto’s friend Guelito joined them. He squatted on the ground next to Duarto; asked Tavi the same question and got the same answer.
The three young Espanyos chatted quietly. Tavi guessed that Guelito was closer to his own age than Duarto’s, although it was hard to tell. Duarto said his home was a place called Mosarín, which Tavio had never heard of—it was deep in Socalio, far to the south. Duarto hadn’t been near the place in more than three years, but he had spent the previous winter in Okan, where, he remarked, the weather was “too cold to wear your balls outdoors.”
Guelito said nothing about himself. “You’re lucky to be with Kay,” he remarked in passing.
“Yeah,” Duarto agreed. “He’s pretty good. Kind all the time. He does nice things for you.”
Tavi almost asked what the others were like, then, but thought better of it.
“Good in bed, too, isn’t he?” Guelito remarked.
“Better than Binsen,” Duarto returned, commenting on Guelito’s old man.
Tavi shied from contemplating this. “I asked him if he was gorandero this morning, after he fixed that guy’s leg.”
“Luse?” Guelito said.
“I heard he almost cut his foot off,” Guelito said.
“Nah,” Duarto said. “Just nicked himself some.”
“Well, now he doesn’t have to walk, anyway.”
“So is he?” Tavi asked, coming back to Kay. “First he said he isn’t, then maybe he is.”
“Is he what?”
“Oh, Kay. Así.” Guelito waved his hands in the air, prestidigitating. “He’s a great magician! Woo-ooo-oo!”
Tavi looked puzzled. Duarto smirked. He had been on the receiving end of Kay’s ambiguities, too. “Yeah,” he said, “he is a healer. He’s a lot of things. He speaks languages, many languages. You know, he speaks for the Okan before cities, to their alacaldos.”
“He said he’s an alacaldo,” said Tavi.
“He’s that, too—kubna, that’s their word for it. A real warrior. Every time they go into battle, he comes back with more coups and more kills. He’s killed a lot of men.”
“Dangerous,” said Guelito.
“Sometimes,” Duarto agreed.
Before long, the dangerous alacaldo and his friends returned with hatsful of tart fruit, which they offered to Tavi, Duarto, and Guelito. The snack was gratefully accepted.
“Tired?” Kay inquired.
“Not very,” said Tavi, averse to admitting weakness, particularly in front of the other two.
“How are your feet?”
“A little sore.”
“Maybe we’d better take a look.”
“I’m all right,” Tavio said.
As the sun reached for the zenith, the band covered ground rapidly over the broad, dusty road. The widening valley sloped to the south, a drop so gentle only the veterans who had hiked it before knew they would feel an uphill pull on the return trip. Kay led the horses for a while and let Tavio walk with Duarto and Guelito. The sky stayed deep blue far into the day. To their left and just behind them, a high-altitude gale lifted a mane of snow off a volcanic peak. Kay recalled that once at a seashore he had seen a woman, her back round with age, whose long, fine white hair flew loose in the salty wind. In the valley the morning breeze died and the sun grew hot.
Kay, Mitch, and Fallon chatted idly. If you asked them, an hour later, what they spoke about, none of them could remember. Off and on, Kaybrel listened in on the boys’ conversation. Tavio said almost nothing about himself. Duarto held forth at great length about everything that entered his head—about Mitchel’s importance and the domain of Cham Fos and the broad waterfalls the place was named after and the kind of trees they saw and the game that lived in the valley and what marvels they could expect to find at Lek Doe. Kay noticed Tavio favoring his right foot.
When the road wandered close enough to the river that the climb to the bank wasn’t far, Kay excused himself and called Tavi to him. “You look like your feet hurt,” he remarked.
Tavi nodded. “Think I have a blister or something,” he said.
“Want to let me take a look now?”
They sat down by the roadside and removed the scuffed leather boots and woolen socks Don’O and Zeb had provided. Most of the others kept moving, although a few, seeing a leader stop, took the opportunity to pause or dawdle. Tavio winced as they pulled off the footwear.
“You told me you were just fine,” Kay said.
“It didn’t seem that bad,” said Tavi.
His heels were rubbed raw; the right was bleeding, and his left ankle had a couple of open sores. On the ball of his right foot a soft blister ballooned hotly. “I’ll bet,” said Kay. He took Tavi down to the riverside and left him sitting on a rock up to his ankles in icy water. “Stay put,” he said, and climbed back up toward the horses.
Duarto followed them to the water and sat down next to Tavi to admire the war wounds. “Ai, that must smart,” he said.
“Not much,” Tavi lied for Duarto’s benefit.
“What a guy,” said Duarto, and he grinned. Then he launched into a narrative of his own worst hiking fiasco, something that involved blackened toes and life-threatening shin splints. He was still talking when Kay returned, carrying his medicine bag and followed by his cousin.
“Beanhead!” Mitch grabbed Duarto by the arm. “You left those nags ground-tied up there. Did you think they’d stand around forever?” Duarto scrambled to his feet as best he could while Mitch gave him a sharp shake. The mock rough stuff put little fear of God into him.
“They’re not going anywhere,” he said.
“Neither are you, eh?” Mitch swatted him on the side of the head, without much sting. “Leave my horses standing on the road like that again, and I’ll knock you into the middle of next week.” Duarto pulled away and darted up the riverbank, headed for his errant charges. Mitch laughed and stretched out on the riverbank near Kay, the better to supervise and lounge in the sun.
“Put some baz on that raw spot,” he advised, referring to a favorite skin oil and lubricant. Kay ignored this and wrapped Tavio’s feet in lengths of unbleached cotton bandaging. “All he needs is some extra padding,” he said. “A lot of grease will just collect lint and dirt.”
As Kay was finishing up and lecturing Tavio about giving a straight answer to a straight question, Robin of O’a came up the line from the direction of Lhored’s troup. He spoke briefly with Fallon, and the two headed down the bank toward Mitch and Kaybrel.
“What’s goin’ on?” Robin greeted them.
Mitch smiled and shrugged. Kay looked up briefly and said he’d be ready to go soon.
“Good,” said Robin. “One of the scouts came back—that guy Bilhem?—he said they found some kind of village or something up ahead. Says they have a bunch of buildings and stores of stuff.” Robin’s habit of making asides sound like questions annoyed Kay. Occasionally a sharp comeback would cross his mind—aren’t you sure?—and that intruding thought always silenced him. Lacking a rejoinder, Robin continued. “Lhored wants to take the place. He wants to go in there this afternoon. Bilhem thinks it’ll take us about two hours to get there.”
“What kind of ‘village’ is this place?” Kay asked.
“Don’t know. That’s all I heard.”
“Lhored thinks we can take it in half a day?” said Mitch. “Can’t be much.”
“I guess not,” said Robin.
Kaybrel released another of his private, almost inaudible sighs. A good fight: not the way he’d hoped to spend this day. He spoke to Tavio in Espanyo:
“Do you know of any towns or forts down this way?”
“I’ve never been out of the city this far, senyó.”
“Did I ask you that?”
“What have you heard about places where people live around here?”
“Not very much. There’s farmsteads all up and down the river. People grow grain and vegetables to trade at Roksan. And to live. But I don’t know what they’re called—or even if they have names. You know, the nearest town is Vareio, and it’s upstream, on the Lil Ku.”
“It was,” said Kay. “There’s not much left there now.”
Tavio didn’t venture a response. Kay tightened the bootlaces and then, rising, took Tavi’s hand and pulled him to his feet. “You should be all right for a while,” he said. “We’ll walk a couple more hours, and then you’ll get a break. But you tell me if those blisters hurt too much, understand?”
When he had dropped the heavy rucksack to let Kaybrel minister to him, the sudden relief from the thirty-five-pound load made Tavio feel like he was floating. The dreamlike sensation disoriented him for a moment, and he actually had to look down to confirm that he was standing on the ground and not hovering a few inches above it. Now as he picked up the pack and swung it onto his shoulders he felt a pang in his gut, so sharp with despair it stung his eyes.
Ahead, the road led on.
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.