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.

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