Fire-Rider, Part V: Kay’s Ghosts

Chapter 22
The Siege of Moor Lek

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

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

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

“I hope not,” Tavi said.

They both smiled, each in his own private way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Consayo y Ribera, his name was.”

“Ah,” Tavi said softly.

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

“Don Consayo is still alacaldo of Roksan.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 23
Kaybrel’s Ghosts

But things went far differently than he expected.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You never saw him again?” he asked.

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

“I’m sorry.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Your people call it ‘Ellaya.’”

“Nobody lives there.”

“They do.”

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

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

“I never saw anyone like that.”

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

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

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

“I didn’t know that,” Tavi said.

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 24
Habier and Kay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

§

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did he believe you?” Tavi asked.

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

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

Chapter 25
A’o’s Ghosts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 26
A Journey Home

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

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

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

“Turned out that was a bad bet.”

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

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

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

“Of what?”

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

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

“So you weren’t scared.”

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

“Did you have a weapon?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did you feel funny about killing a guy?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Your daughters must be grown, then.”

“Those two daughters died, actually.”

“Oh.”

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

“She must be glad to have more children.”

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

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

“Not then, I wasn’t.”

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

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

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

“It’s a bad way to go.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You must hate my people,” said Tavi.

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

“You must hate me.”

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

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

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

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

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