Fire-Rider, Part VI: Rik Kubna of Puns

See the earlier chapters via our Fire-Rider page, which has links to the table of contents…so far.

Chapter 27
Rik Kubna of Puns

The summer was growing old, and so, Kay thought, was he. They had been in the field now for more than three months and the only significant engagement they’d had was at Roksan, although it was true they’d taken out the big town just to the north, Vareio. It wasn’t as though leveling Roksan weren’t enough for a summer’s work. And, Kaybrel reflected, they had a good three-week trek, probably more, to make their way back to Okan—the A’oans had further to go than that—and three weeks was a fair-weather estimate. If they ran into snow or heavy rain or landslides across the mountain trails, it would take longer.

Fire-Rider Rik Kubna of PunsMitch was beginning to lobby for heading home, too. Kay took care not to influence his cousin obviously, although everyone recognized that the two operated out of the same camp. On this issue, though, they weren’t the first to speak. Eddo of Bose, chief among the A’oans, had remarked that he’d like to reach home before first snowfall. If they could persuade Rik of Puns or Fol of Miduhm to agree, they might turn the band north, the direction in which Kay much desired to move.

Others, Fal among them, were for continuing south another couple of weeks. Binsen and Devey, the wild-assed A’oan from Metet, would keep going forever, given the chance.

Kristof, however, suggested that they might consider a week or two of rest and recreation at Lek Doe. They’d have to change direction—Lek Doe stood on the east face of the Serra Muns—but it would take them generally north. That, Kay, thought, amounted to the best plan any of them had offered so far: entertain the young studs, who as far as he was concerned had done enough blood-letting on this trek, and direct them all toward home. When he passed Kristof’s thoughts along to Lhored, the brez called for a meeting of his gonsa, where the kubnas and their closest mayrs could discuss the possibilities in a sanctified setting.

So they came to a halt for a day or two beside the River Mendo, where a string of grassy meadows gone to gold offered an inviting campsite. The company stopped about mid-morning and spread out along the riverbanks.

Lhored would not be ready to meet until late in the day, if indeed he met that day at all. The brez and his field priest would have to pray over the site where the gonsa would gather, unpack and set up the symbolic luggage, and probably make another sacrifice. These preparations took time. Once Kaybrel had made sure his camp was set up and everything pretty much in order, he left Tavio to contend with a laundry list of chores while he went off to socialize and check on his men. He found Don’O involved in a project.

Don’O usually managed to keep himself busy, and when he was busy, everyone around him was busy. The chronic lice infestation in the barracks-lodges, he decided, had gone too far, and today he had the men engaged in pulling all the fittings apart, scrubbing each small piece, and slinging the hide-and-canvas walls over lines to beat them before they could reassemble the lodges. After that, he announced, they would rub hot oil into each others’ hair. This caused an infestation of belly-aching among the troops, for whom an occasional louse was part of the landscape and nothing to shed so much sweat over.

Kay greeted Don’O’s enterprise with cheer. He had long since given up trying to proselytize cleanliness to the Okan. It had to be part of one’s religion, he realized, and the Okan faith overlooked daily grooming in favor of a few taboos having to do with specific rites. As for Don’O, Kay knew he was less interested in hygiene than in itching.

“Take some powdered mum blossoms,” Kaybrel said. “Once they get the lodges back together, have them close everything up and burn the stuff inside, like incense. Bugs don’t like it—that’ll help get rid of some of them.”

“I spotted a whole field full of marigolds up there,” said Don’O. “That’s what gave me the idea.”

“Yeah, marigolds will work, too. Try mixing them together. Or else have the boys boil up the marigolds—use the leaves, too—and wipe everything down with that before they smoke the place.”

As part of his traveling pharmacy, Kay carried dried cultivated chrysanthemum, the most effective insecticide he knew. Marigolds grew wild, but they repelled bugs to a lesser degree. This evening, he decided in a moment of inspiration, he would mix a palmful of mum powder into some warm grease and apply it to that kid and himself. Then they could wash it off with a marigold boil. It was a good habit to beat the lice back whenever you thought of it.

He sent one of the men to tell Tavi to fetch the bag where he kept his various potions. By now, Tavio could make out enough Hengliss to get the gist of this message, or so Kay hoped.

Meanwhile, he continued downriver, chatting with the men and making his way toward the next encampment. There he found the men of Puns and Rozebek, the latter the domain of Rikad’s senior mayr, Jag Bova.

Rik, a short, dessicated-looking man with a build as wiry as a jockey’s, was remotely related to Kaybrel through Maire, who was kubnath of her own house, Silba Lek. Puns and Silba Lek both stood in the direct line of the ancient House of Oane, as did Oane Lek. Several generations before, the three were mayrships of one huge cowndee under the House of Oane. Conflict between brothers and cousins, however, had led to a local war, and the land was partitioned among the winning parties. The House of Oane was no more, replaced by three younger houses, Puns, Silba Lek, and Oane Lek.

Although the old resentments were no longer raw or even near the surface, when Kay made the match with Maire he felt his standing with Rik shift slightly. He never knew exactly where he stood with the man. Binz—Binsen of Oane Lek—gave him no problems, for he was younger and easier to read, and of course he was also second cousin to Kaybrel: Kay’s uncle’s grandson. Kay wondered, sometimes, how Binz stood with Rik. It put Binz in an ambiguous position when Moor Lek disagreed with Puns, which happened now and again.

On the other hand, he reflected, Moor Lek was an ancient house, far older than any of the House of Oane’s pups. It should command more respect from the likes of Binsen, by virtue of its age and tradition.

“Rik—hey!” Kaybrel greeted the kubna of Puns, who was seated near his lodge.

“Moor Lek,” Rik replied. “How’s your morning, Kay?”

“Good,” said Kay. Something about Rik reminded him of a dried apricot. Maybe it was the sparse reddish hair, thin when he was young and now just a wash of color on the wrinkled pate, and the close-cropped beard, almost as spare, a fading shade of henna. Or maybe the overall parched look of the man created that impression.

Steel and platinum clouds rolled ahead of a stiff breeze that whistled off the foothills and dropped into the valley, bringing the kiss of glacial ice to everything it brushed. “Looks like it’s not going to get much warmer,” Rik said.

“Nope. Little late in the summer to expect warm days now,” Kay remarked.

“Gettin’ on toward fall, that’s so. Be nice if the snow would hold off for a while.” Rik handed Kay the opening he needed. Kay wondered if it was deliberate.

“Never does,” he agreed. “We ought to be thinking about heading back north, see if we can get there ahead of the worst of it.”

“Yeah. Bose would like to get headed home, I guess.”

“Mm hm.” Kay waited to see where Rik would take the conversation.

“What do you think?” Rik asked him, declining the card.

“Some of my boys have talked about going to Doe,” Kay said.

“Yeah. I’d heard Kristo’ had something to say along those lines. Take us out of our way, though, by a couple of weeks.”

“The men would enjoy it,” Kay replied. “And it’d start us heading in the general direction of home.”

“If we’re going to spend an extra two, three weeks in the field, we might as well keep moving south—the way we said we would in the first place,” said Rik. “There’s that boy of yours,” he added. They both saw Tavi looking for Kay in the crowd.

As soon as Tavi came over, Kay took the medicine bag from him and dug out a small sack and a carved wooden scoop.

“Take this to Don’O, back up that way, you understand?”

“I see’d him there,” Tavi ventured.

“You saw him,” Kay corrected. “Use this,” he held up the measure, “and give him one scoop of it. No more than that. No más.”

Prendo,” Tavi said—understood. “I go right away.”

“Good.”

Rik watched Tavio walk away. “Pretty lad,” he remarked.

Kay had to agree—now that the black eye had faded and he had quit limping, Tavio was a good-looking youngster. His skin was smooth, his teeth reasonably straight, his eyes large and dark. Despite his habitually melancholy expression, he had a lively curiosity and a ready smile.

“When are you going to give me a taste of him?” Rik asked.

“Later.” Surprised by Rik’s blunt demand, Kay tried to laugh this off in a good-natured way. “He’s not ready yet.”

“Never will be, if you don’t get him started soon.”

Kay thought he could live with that. “Maybe not,” he said. “He’s going to take some care. He had a bad time back there, during the fighting.”

“So I’ve heard.” Rik spat into his campfire. “Couple of my boys were doin’ some of the dealing,” he remarked.

“Oh?” Kay said.

“Yeah.”

“Are they the ones who pulled him out of there?”

“I reckon. They said they sold him to your guy Willeo, along with a couple other Spanyo brats.”

Kay heard an inner voice telling him to keep his mouth shut. He ignored it. “You need to kick some ass, Rik,” he said. “Your boys are out of control.”

“Hey!” Rik shrugged his shoulders with half a laugh.

“Tell your bastards to keep their pricks inside their pants while they’re supposed to be out there killing. They’re fucking everything they see, and they leave it to the rest of us to get the job done.”

“Easy, man! I wasn’t there,” Rik protested.

“You shouldn’t have to be.”

“Lighten your load, buddy!” Rik’s voice took on some heat. “Grabbing some tail when you can get it is part of the game, and you know it. Besides, if you want to tell us all how to behave, you’d better do the same yourself. Half the company heard that brat bawling on his first night in your camp.”

Kay’s fists balled themselves into clubs. Rik had gotten to his feet and now he stood facing Kay square on, his legs braced apart and his arms flared out at his sides. Kay was about to take a step toward Rik when he felt a big hand settle on his shoulder.

“Hello,” said Jag Bova. “Good to see you! How’s it goin’?”

Bova, a bear-sized man, stood tall enough to look down into Kay’s face. This did nothing to intimidate Kay, but his cheerful greeting defused the tension.

What Jag Bova saw in the instant before he interrupted the exchange alarmed him: the calculated blankness of expression Kaybrel assumed on the battlefield, empty as an ice sheet. He stepped halfway into the space between the other two and extended his paw, a study in innocent cordiality.

“You know,” Bova offered, “some of our guys are talking about getting up a game of football. You figure your boys can round up a team?” It was the first time anyone had heard of this idea, pure improvisation, but he knew he could rely on his own monja to stir up the desired enthusiasm.

Kay flushed, his color shifting from white to red. A second or two passed before he took Jag Bova’s hand. “I expect they could,” he said. “Don’O has them pretty busy just now, though. Maybe closer to sundown—before dinnertime?”

“Let’s see what we can do. Either of you gentlemen care to referee?”

Rik, who had taken the opportunity to step back out of Kay’s reach, picked up a metal cup. “We have to go to gonsa,” he reminded them. The meeting, once it got underway, would occupy the rest of the afternoon and all the evening, although there was a chance that Lhored and his attendants wouldn’t be ready in time for a confab that day.

“Maybe tomorrow,” Kay suggested. “Don’O has got them up to quite a project, delousing the camp.”

“You’re kidding,” said Bova.

“No. You know how he is—if you run out of work, he’ll find something new for you to do.”

Bova laughed. Don’O had a name as the most ambitious and the most organized of the band’s monjas. Most concerned themselves with collecting their own booty and maintaining something that looked only vaguely like order; as long as nothing too spectacular happened, they let the men fend for themselves. The best had personalities that demanded a certain loyalty to their mayrs or kubnas, whether by example or by force.

Kay knew his ability to lead and to hold his own with the men who were his equals worked about the same way. His power rested as much in his character and apparent strength as in his birthright. He worried this thought, like a terrier shaking a rag, as he headed back toward his own camp.

He could imagine the conversation between Bova and Rik, and in fact, he conjured up a pretty accurate rendition of what they said to each other after he left. Getting old, getting touchy, acting a little funny now and then. Maybe it was time for him to spend his summers by the hearth, making new babies on his wife. Time for Maire to choose a second wife and keep him busy for a while. Fal could lead Moor Lek’s men, and he could even take Kaybrel’s place on the brez’s gonsa. Half the time those two sounded like an echo, anyway.

There was something to be said, Kay thought, for serving as brez—knowing when you would meet death, and knowing it would take you before you lost your manhood to age. In just a little over six years, Lhored would leave this world for the next, if no accident or sickness took him there sooner. If there was such a place.

Still, it wasn’t the way Kay would choose to move on: drifting up to heaven in a cloud of smoke. When Bron had reached his time, Kay was traveling, deep in his long journey through Galifone, Socalia, Vada, Udah. He regretted, then, having missed the ceremony that sent Bron to God’s side; but later, when he participated in the ascension of Rojja, the next brez, he was glad Bron had gone his way without his help. For weeks after Rojja’s departure, he could scarcely stomach the sight of grilled meat. Kaybrel hoped—sincerely he hoped—that he would be resting in his grave before the end of Lhored’s time.

A tocha, though, could stand to look a bit eccentric. Indeed, it could work to his advantage. All that contact with the spirits might drive a man a little nuts. His reputation as a healer protected Kaybrel whenever he passed through his moments of doubt. Trouble was, those moments were coming more often. He knew he needed to keep a lid on his feelings. Too much strangeness, and you’d be seen as weak. Kay could afford “strange,” but “soft,” he could not.

Chapter 28
Two Conversations

At the Moor Lek encampment, Fallon, who never over-concerned himself with comfort, had tossed his lodge together, grabbed a net and line, and gone fishing. This part of the river teemed with trout and dollivars, and as Kay approached, Fallon had already returned with a bagful of trophies, some of which he was handing out to his men.

“Hullo, Kay,” he said when he spotted his friend. “I saved one of these for you.” Fallon offered up a trout big enough to feed both Kay and Tavio. “Would you like another?” He still had two smaller but respectable fish.

“Keep something for yourself!” Kay said. “Thanks—this will make a fine dinner.”

“Plenty more out there,” said Fal. “They’re biting like crazy.”

Kay considered the prospect and rejected it: the fresh breeze promised a chilly session on the riverbank. He accompanied Fal back to his campsite and sat down on a rock.

“I almost brained that clown Rikad,” he remarked.

“Oh, yeah? What for?” Fal took the two fish he’d kept for himself out of his bag and lifted the third from Kay’s hands. Standing over the freshly dug pit where he planned to start a fire, he began slitting bellies and tossing guts on the ground.

“I dunno. Some stupid crack he made.”

“He can be a jerk,” said Fallon.

“Sometimes.”

“How was he a jerk today?”

Kay grunted and spat on the ground, a dismissive gesture. After a moment of silence, Kay said, “Looks like it was some of his guys who raped that boy’s women and slit their throats.”

Fal slipped his knife smoothly into a fish belly. He wondered if he should let Kay see that he knew this.

“Oh, yeah?” he said.

“Bastard seems to think that’s the thing to do.”

“Well. You’d like your men to stick to business, I guess.” When, Fal asked himself, did it get to be not the thing to do?

“Damn right.”

“Kay.” Fallon set the cleaned fish on a rock next to the other two. He rinsed his hands in a pail of water and wiped them half-dry on his pants. Then he stepped over and sat on the ground next to Kaybrel. “Better let it go. None of our guys are going to act like angels, ’cause they’re not. And besides, they’re just giving as good as they got. You know what these people did in A’o. You know what they’ve done in Okan, too. You’re not going to come up with a good reason why we shouldn’t hand the same thing back to them, in spades.”

“We’ve had this conversation before.”

“Yep.”

“Look. When your men are completely out of control and you don’t know or care what they’re doing, you’ve got trouble. You can’t call them off when you have to; and if they don’t have any discipline inside a town, they don’t have any on the field, either.”

“I suppose.”

“You know it. I ought to tell Lhored to get on that chucklehead.”

“If I were you, I’d drop it,” said Fallon.

Kay looked at him in silence. He knew Fallon was right. It didn’t ease his overall sense of annoyance. “He wants a pass at Tavio,” he said, changing the subject to another burr under his blanket.

“A lot of guys do,” Fallon agreed.

“You?”

Fallon laughed. “No, thanks. I’m not crazy about boys.”

Entertained, Kay returned: “You’ve enjoyed a time or two with Duarto.”

“Well, Duarto is something else.”

“That he is.”

“If you don’t want to hand him around, don’t do it. There’s no law says you have to,” Fallon said.

“It wouldn’t be very good for him. Not now, anyway.”

“Then don’t do it. But Kay—truly—let the business with Rik go. You don’t want to start some sort of quarrel with him. Especially now with gonsa about to meet. People will think that’s kind of, well, off the mark.”

“Feeble,” said Kaybrel.

“Whoa! That’s not my word,” Fallon said. “Listen,” he wanted to bring this line of inquiry to an end before it led him into trouble, “I’m going to take one of these babies to Arden and give the rest to Bayder. Want to come along?”

Kaybrel declined. He let Fallon go his way and headed for his own campsite, which he’d set up near a large granite boulder.

The wind blew steadily off the hills, and although the sun shone between the scudding clouds, the moving air felt snowy. He sat down in the rock’s lee to shelter from the breeze. The white-flecked stone had absorbed the sun’s warmth and, when he leaned back against it, he felt it comfortable between his shoulders.

Tavio, about done with the chores, came over to say hello. He had buttoned his jacket high around his neck, and he stood with his arms folded tight across his chest.

“Cold?” Kay asked. He’d have to get the kid a decent coat in Doe, he thought, and he hoped it didn’t snow before then.

“The breeze is cool, así,” said Tavi.

“Come here and sit down.” Kay beckoned to a place at his side, and in a single liquid motion, Tavio folded himself onto the ground next to Kay. In the lee of the boulder, the sun felt sweetly warm. Kay clasped his fingers over his chest and sighed, his eyes closed in pleasure. Tavio, stretched out beside him, without thinking about it copied the older man’s pose. So they lay, a picture of contentment, beyond the wind’s chilly reach.

Sunsong, a radiant lullaby, eased their weary bodies and sent the cold on its way. Kay luxuriated in heat that soaked through his dark clothes everywhere the light touched him. Tavi shifted so the sun’s warmth would hit him where he wanted it, somewhere north of his knees. Kay thought about rather little: a daydream of home passed through his mind, echoes of the words he’d just had with Rik and with Fal, vague memories of other sunlit rocks and other days on the road.

Tavi considered a conversation he’d had earlier in the day with Duarto. He’d mentioned to Duarto what Kay had told him some nights before, the story that Tavi had turned over and over in his mind. It had come as nothing new to Duarto; he had heard the story long ago and more than once.

“Why couldn’t we do that? Take off and head back where we came from,” Tavi had asked Duarto.

“We could. There’s nothing to stop you,” Duarto said.

“Think it’s very far to Roksan?” Tavi wondered.

“As many days as we’ve been hiking,” Duarto reminded him. “Only you wouldn’t have a lodge. Or a horse to carry your gear.

“What would happen if you ran off?”

“Nothing.”

“Wouldn’t they come after you?”

“Probably not. Unless you took a horse. Then they’d come and get you. Wouldn’t take them very long.”

“What would they do to you?”

“For running away? I don’t know. For stealing a horse? String you from a tree limb, likely. Or cut your balls off and shove them down your throat.”

It entered his mind that lying next to Kaybrel was somehow comforting. But how odd that seemed. He should be afraid of this man and the demons that haunted him. Surely Kay must hate him.

Yet by and large Kay treated him kindly. Maybe it wasn’t Kay that was comfortable but just being warm and a little weary. Working his muscles hard, the way he did out here, stretched him until he felt pleasantly tired about half the time. He liked the feeling, although by nightfall, fatigue could overtake him.

Tavi laid his face against Kaybrel’s rough shirt. The man smelled of woodsmoke and leather and sweat and horse and outdoor air.

“Good choice of campsites,” Tavi remarked.

“Like this rock here, do you?”

“It sure blocks the breeze.”

“Yeah. Blows from the west a lot this time of year—carries the cold air down from the Achpies, right off those hanging glaciers.”

“Lots of snow up there,” Tavi observed sleepily.

“Always,” Kay agreed.

Tavi thought about how he might get away. He’d have to gather a lot of food, hide it in his day pack. But would it carry him all the way back up the Mendo to Roksan? He’d need much more than he could fit into his pack. Tavi knew that, unlike Kay as a boy, he would catch little to fill his belly on his own.

And he would have to go fast. He’d have to run most of the way. Summer would be over soon. He’d have to find shelter before the snow started. Before the fall rains came, even.

Who would be there to help him? Where would he stay? Would Don Consayo’s men be back by the time he got to the ruins of Roksan? Were any farmsteads still standing…and if there were, would they take him in?

“Have you ever been with a girl?” Kay asked out of the blue.

“Well, no,” Tavi said. The question interrupted his reverie so violently he wondered if Kay knew what he was thinking and was trying to deflect him.

“Ah,” said Kaybrel. “That’s too bad.”

“I have a wife, but….”

“What?”

“We weren’t supposed to be together until she was fourteen. That’d be another two years.”

“I don’t understand,” Kay said. “You mean…you married a girl but you haven’t been with her?”

“She’s only twelve years old.”

“That’s not old enough to be married,” Kay agreed. Arranged marriages were customary among Hengliss as well as Espanyo tribes, but Kay had never heard of anyone actually wedded as a child. He had found his own first wife with the old Brez Bron’s advice, and “advice” meant something more like “instruction” when it came from a man who stood in as one’s father. But Sellie was a grown woman, and ultimately she was the one who would do the choosing. “You couldn’t have really been married to her,” he said.

“Yes. Last year. In the cathedral, they pledged us together.”

“But Tavi. That’s not the same as marriage. Marriage is when a man and a woman get together. So they can have children.”

Tavi laughed. “You don’t have to be married to do that,” he said.

“No.” Kay laughed, too. “I don’t suppose so.”

Maire had chosen him, of course. That she had come his way amazed him still. She could have negotiated an alliance with any household she wished. People considered Moor Lek a good house, he knew. But its widowed kubna had a reputation as a dark-mooded man, and so he was surprised when she sent an emissary to arrange a meeting.

Maire. He missed her when he was in the field. Before she came, it had been a long time since he had wanted to be home, hadn’t preferred the bush to the town. She brought a lot of light into his life. Sunlight made him think of Maire, as once it had made him think of Sellie.

Tavi remembered Laora, the girl he had been wedded to that day in the cathedral. What had happened to her? Had she died the way his sisters had, like Rina and Tisha, some Englo animal on top of her first, before they ended her terror with more agony? He had to force himself to think of something else.

His uncle Emilio came to mind, Emilio who had arranged the match. It had been his idea, or maybe, Tavi reflected, maybe it had come from Laora’s grandmother. That old lady knew everyone in town, and she made every decision that had to do with her clan, a family of wagonwrights and freighters. Could Emilio possibly have escaped? If he went back to Roksan, would he find his uncle somewhere near the ruins, maybe hiding or across the river at some farm the Englos had missed?

Duarto told him all he would find back there was ghosts. He asked Duarto if he had ever thought of running away, of trying to make his way back to Mosarín. “No,” Duarto said, and he laughed drily. “I’ve had my fill of sleeping out in the cold.”

“How far is it to Mendo?” Tavi asked Kay.

“Quite a ways,” Kay replied. “About three and a half weeks’ march.”

“Bet you could get there faster without an army.”

“Probably. Why? Figuring to take a stroll?”

“No,” Tavi said.

Kay turned this over in his mind. “You might make it before the first snow,” he said. “If you didn’t get lost.”

“You’d just follow the main road along the river,” Tavi said.

“If you think so,” Kay replied.

“No?”

“Between Roksan and Mendo there are four forks in the road. You get further south, the roads are wider and better traveled. Can’t tell which is the main trail and which isn’t, unless you know which way to go—they’re all main trails, I guess.”

“I thought it was right on the Mendo Ribba. Why couldn’t you just follow the river south until you come to the town?”

“Well, because there’s three big confluences before you get to Mendo Town. And you have to ford Stone Creek, which I myself wouldn’t call a creek, hm? It’s a river, too. You have to know where to find the ford, and if you’re on the wrong road, you’re just not going to cross that little stream. Not alive, anyway.”

This didn’t sound very promising to Tavi. But then maybe Kay intended it that way. What would he find if he tried it?

“You have people there, in Mendo?” Kay asked.

“Laora…my wife has cousins there,” Tavi said. “But I don’t know how I’d find them.”

Kay stirred. “Well, chacho,” he said as he hauled himself to his feet so that he could go to the gonsa meeting. “I won’t stop you from looking. But before you go—start the dinner cooking, will you?”

Chapter 29
The Third Deception

By the time the meeting got under way, dusk was beginning to gather. Bayder had prepared a hot feast for the gonsers, and most of them looked forward to a good dinner and some time together around the bonfire, watching their words puff into the chilly evening air. The talk likely would continue into the night, especially if the various factions engaged themselves in contests of will. A few among them would argue in favor of any damn-fool thing just for the sake of arguing.

Kay wanted to turn the bands around. If he spoke too fast, though, he could accomplish exactly the opposite. Very probably, he expected, Rik of Puns would try to keep them headed south, and, after their recent exchange, Rik would almost certainly insist on that if he saw that Kay was committed to moving north.

Lhored called the kubnas and mayrs to order, and, as was their custom, they stood around him in a circle to discuss the agenda and survey the issues at hand. First, he led them in the requisite prayer and ceremony of wine and bread. Then he posed the question to his gonsa members and asked for their advice.

Eddo spoke first. The A’oan chieftain said his men favored turning the trek toward home. A’o’s winters were colder and harsher than Okan’s, snows came earlier, and his people would like to reach Bose, Metet, and waypoints before the serious weather set in. The Okan gonsers appreciated this, and many thought privately about the chores they could accomplish if they had a few weeks before snow cut off all commerce.

Mitch suggested they should ford the Mendo at the next low spot and head north up the other side of the long valley. They might find better pickings on that side, especially if news of their coming could be controlled. At any rate, the scenery would be slightly different.

Fallon said he wanted to continue down the Mendo for another week, but he supported Mitch’s plan as a homeward route—after they’d seen what lay to the south. Kay hoped Rikad would see this as an expression of Moor Lek’s sentiment and oppose it, but Rik, too, kept quiet. Neither kubna wanted to speak first. Unsure to what extent word of his quarrel with Rik had spread through the camp, Kay decided to let Mitch take the lead. Mitch’s plan would carry them home almost as quick as Eddo’s, and it would let the others feel they still had a chance at some fresh booty.

They had dawdled too long on the west bank of the Mendo. It made them vulnerable, to say nothing of wasting time. The season was way too far gone for them to take up another serious assault on the enemy. If they weren’t going to strike quickly and hard, they should go home. So Kay thought.

But when Lhored called upon him, he passed. Binsen Kubna of Oane Lek spoke next, in support of Fallon. This brought regrettable attention to Kaybrel’s silence. Declining to back his mayr suggested he disagreed. He did, but he wished not to make it obvious so soon.

Seeing that Kay apparently had something else in mind, Kristof spoke up. He put his idea on the table: that they trek to Lek Doe directly and north from there. He looked a little surprised when his kubna still made no comment.

Now two of Kaybrel’s mayrs had offered opposing plans and neither seemed to have their kubna’s support.

Rik, knowing he would be called to speak soon, considered. Kaybrel had talked up Kristof’s Lek Doe plan, but if he wanted to do that, it was strange that his spiritual twin Fallon was proposing something else. Fal seemed to be with Mitch for a change. Maybe it wasn’t such a change: Mitch and Kay sometimes seemed to speak from the same womb. Chances were, Mitchel spoke Moor Lek’s mind. On the other hand, Kaybrel was full of wile. What he’d said about Doe earlier—was that some kind of ruse? A shadow of a scowl crossed Rik’s face.

The brez, annoyed at Kaybrel’s stand-offishness, called on him again, more pointedly than before.

Pressed for an opinion, Kay equivocated. “We should probably try to head in the direction of the best pickings,” he said.

“But which way do you think that is?” asked Lhored.

Kaybrel let a strategic second or two pass. “South,” he said. True, richer plunder was to be had toward the south—the far south; but “should probably try” meant something other than “ought” or “must.”

In the murmur of surprise that followed, Dom of Wichin spoke out of turn. “Wait a minute,” he said. “It’s starting to get cold. We’ve only got a few weeks of summer, and if the weather turns to winter early, we’ll have to trek north through snow. We took so long in front of Roksan, we don’t have enough time left to go much further south. It’s time to think about heading north.”

“That’s right,” said Eddo. “If we cross the river here and head up the east side of the valley, we should find more farms and stock. We can head north and still pick up a little more action.”

“We already have enough horses to herd back across the mountains,” Fol of Miduhm replied. “A trip to Doe would still take us generally homeward. Once we’re there, we can trade for the provisions and sweets we haven’t taken in the field. And we could spend some of this silver and gold on a little fun.”

“My men need a break,” Kristof agreed, “and they’ve earned it. At Doe, they can relax for a week, buy some goods, and we’ll still have time to beat the snow back to Okan.”

“Maybe,” said Mitch. “That’s a north wind blowing those clouds down here. And it’s a longer reach to A’o than to anyplace in Okan. I expect most of the A’oans would like to head home pretty quick.”

“Not all of them,” said Devey. He spoke to contradict the Kubna of Bose. “None of us is going to freeze to death in an early snow. And it’s not that far. My guys want to keep pressing south for at least a week or two. We think there must be another town coming up here pretty soon.”

“The scouts say not,” said Lhored. “The next city on the Mendo is three weeks’ trek from here.”

“And so what if we get there?” said Fol. “We lay siege for how many weeks? Your guys may not mind hiking home in snow up to their asses, but mine sure do.”

Rik finally spoke up. “That’s so,” he said, seconding Fol of Miduhm. “If any cold comes in to stay, we’ll hit snow either way we go, on the way up to Lek Doe or around Shazdi. That’s enough for my taste. I don’t want my men wading through it all the way back to Puns.”

“Oh, come on! It’s not going to snow that much at this time of year,” Devey returned. “Are you ladies afraid to get cold? South is where the excitement is. North is for fat old guys who want to sleep in soft beds.”

A round of laughter at Rik and Fol’s expense rippled through the group.

“Depends on who’s in the bed with you,” said Dom. “I reckon my guys can find someone to help melt the ice off their boots—at Lek Doe. That’s where we should go. Kristof is right.” More laughter followed.

“Would Moor Lek agree?” Lhored asked.

“Moor Lek seconds the brez,” Kaybrel said.

“The brez has said nothing to be seconded,” Lhored pointed out.

“Then I agree with Miduhm and my cousin of Puns,” said Kay. “There’s no point in driving the men through snow. We’ve gathered enough stock and booty—there probably wasn’t any point in pushing south from Roksan, since we haven’t found much down here. We did what we came to do.”

So it was that Moor Lek and Puns came to concur. Kaybrel was pleased, Rik thought he himself had somehow come out on top, and when the final prayers and sacrifice were made, God whispered “Lek Doe” into the ear of His Son on Earth.

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