Fire-Rider, Part II: The Spoils of War *FREE READ*

Chapter 5
Kindness of Strangers

Tavio awoke inside the lodge, alone. He was wrapped tight and warm in layered fur blankets. Outside, he heard the contentious brrr-rak of a scavenger jay. In the near distance, metal pots clanked and men’s voices exchanged words he didn’t understand. Closer by, a leathery rattle of hide and hair: a horse shook itself. Resinous wood snapped in a slow fire.

He sat up in the cool air and wiped cobwebs of sleep from his face. Not thinking, he rubbed his eyes; a jolt of pain from his bruised cheek reminded him that he was sore all over. He needed to pee. He looked around for a chamber pot but found none.

He poked his head out the door into cloudless daylight. Laden with the smell of smoke and horse, a light breeze barely moved the leaves in the oak that, come afternoon, would shade Kaybrel’s camp. Tavio saw Kaybrel, the Englo alacaldo, on the other side of the fire ring, packing gear into an oblong sack. His coarse grey woolen shirt, the sleeves rolled above the elbow, hung free over a pair of cambric leggings, and he wore his silver-streaked hair tied back with a leather thong.

“Good morning,” Kay said in Espanyo when he noticed he was being watched: “Bwe’ di.”

Tavio regarded him silently. Kay walked over to the lodge. “Did you sleep all right?” he asked. “You didn’t seem to move the whole night.”

The boy nodded.

“How about something to eat,” Kay suggested.

Senyó,” Tavi replied, “where do I go to the toilet?”

The Englo smiled, seemed amused. “Well,” he said, “you can pee behind that twig over there. Don’t do it next to my lodge. And if you have to do anything else, go off a ways from everybody’s lodges, hm? I’ve been going down there.” He pointed toward some brush on the far side of the designated fir sapling.

Tavi climbed outside and limped barefoot toward the outdoor pissoire. Kay was reminded that he had to find some shoes for the boy.

By the time Tavi came back, Kay had dished up another bowlful of hot porridge, freshly made at sunrise. “Sorry, chacho, I don’t have any cream to pour on this. Got no cows out here, you know.” Puzzled, Tavi shrugged. His people weren’t in the habit of pouring cream on their daily food. He wondered if the Englo was being sarcastic. But then Kay offered him a bunch of fat, sweet grapes, and he imagined maybe the man seriously thought he expected cream. “With a boy around here, we’ll need to get some honey for our mush, hm?”

Tavi ate silently. Warm cereal went down well and soothed his stomach, which, he realized, was vaguely queasy. As his belly filled, he began to feel more alert. The juicy grapes burst cool, crunchy wet into his mouth, and the seeds stuck between his teeth. He worked at the seeds with his tongue.

Kay took his empty dish from him, as he had the night before. He handed him an eathenware cup full of steaming mint-flavored water. “Don’O brought over a pair of pants for you,” he said. “I stitched up the pair you had on, but they’re wet—I washed them. And we’d better wash this thing,” he added. The long, coarse cotton shirt Kay had put on him was wadded with sleep and sweat. “Don’O found you a tunic, too. You can wear that until we get something more for you.” He lifted some clothing from where it lay across a log and dropped it in Tavi’s lap.

The trousers looked like workman’s dungarees, Tavi thought, the brown fabric sturdy but worn in spots. A tiestring ran through the waist, a good thing, since the garment was built for someone heavier and taller than Tavio. The pullover tunic was made of coarse napped wool, and although it, too, was a little large, it would fit him better than the shirt Kay had put on him the night before. He glanced up at Kaybrel. “Grati,” he said.

“You’re welcome,” said Kay.

Around them, various audible activities went on. A neighbor threw a tarp over a line and, using a handy stick, beat the dirt out of it. A couple hundreds yards away, several youths rough-housed in a game of keep-away until a man called one of them to work. At most of the lodges, some kind of business was taking place: weapons were being scoured, sharpened, and stored; horses groomed; gear cleaned and stowed; loot packed or cooked or otherwise prepared for transport.

A raven, intrigued by the camp jays’ successes, glided across the meadow and lit nearby. It inspected the pickings in Kaybrel’s camp. Kay tossed a stone at the bird, which shifted to fly lazily to a tree branch. It sat watching them.

Kay picked up the dishes and carried them to the stream, where, Tavi could see, he squatted to scrub them clean. In a moment, though, Tavi’s attention was distracted by the approach of two young men. One carried a small canvas sack; the other, a light-skinned youth with a nascent mustache darkening his upper lip, waved at Kay at the same time he greeted Tavi in an Espanyo that sounded strange to a Roksando ear.

“Hello,” he said. “We heard Kay had a new chacho. What’s your name? Mine’s Duarto, and this is Guelito. We brought some things for you. Or Guel’ did, from Binsen, his old man.”

Tavi had a hard time following this. He caught their names, but the rest escaped him. Suddenly self-conscious, he pulled the clothes Kay had left across his lap to hide his naked legs.

“Binz thought you’d need something to put on,” Guelito said. “So he said to bring over some of my stuff. And some things he got from a guy down there by the town.”

“Hey, gentlemen,” Kay greeted them as he walked up. He deposited the dishes in the same place he’d left them the night before, gave Guelito a quick hug and slapped Duarto on the shoulder. “You meet Tavi?”

Así, is that his name?” Guelito asked. “How’s it going, Tavi?”

Tavio smiled shyly. “Does he speak?” Duarto asked in Englo.

“Now and again,” said Kay.

“Binz sent a few things over,” Duarto remarked.

“That’s good of him,” Kay replied. Binsen was kubna of Oane Lek, the cowndee neighboring Moor Lek directly to the west, and he also was a cousin of Kay’s. While he was not required to share incidental goods with another kubna, it was a customary gesture that Binsen knew would be well received. In return, Kay would eventually give him some other gift. “Is Mitch up?” Kay asked.

“Yeah,” said Duarto. “He said he’d see you at the brez’s gonsa this noon. If not before.”

Guelito sat on the ground next to Tavi and dumped the bag’s contents between them. A long-sleeved cotton flannel undershirt came out, an outer shirt, and a woolen scarf. Guelito was taller than Tavi, fuller in build, and his clothes fit him. After two years with Binsen, he had collected a comfortable wardrobe. The things were a little large for Tavi. “This is one of my favorite shirts,” Guelito said. “You’ll like it.”

Tavi fingered the tan and grey striped fabric. It was tightly woven, a little worn—enough to make it feel soft. “Thank you,” he said. “But you shouldn’t give me your good clothes.” He blushed, a subtle coloring invisible behind the bruises that smudged his face.

“Sure I should,” said Guelito. “You need it more than I do. And besides, it makes us friends, sí?”

Tavi found it harder to follow Guelito’s words than Guelito did Tavi’s, for Guelito had grown accustomed to the various dialects the orphaned Espanyo boys spoke. But Tavi recognized the word for “friend.”

“Así,” he agreed.

Kay offered Duarto and Guelito each a handful of the grapes that Fal’s monja, Arden, had brought over earlier that morning. In the custom known as “splits,” Arden gave half his men’s pooled loot to Fal, and Fal passed half of his share to Kay. A kubna and his mayrs, then, would redistribute fresh food that had to be eaten quickly.

“Let’s go, Guel’,” Duarto said in Englo, after a few minutes. “They’re waiting for us.”

Guelito extended his hand to Tavi. “Buen’,” he said. “We’ll see you later.”

Duarto grinned. “Whenever Kay gets tired and lets you put your pants on, come join us,” he said. “We’re down at Luse’s camp.”

Guelito laughed. “A’i va!” he exclaimed. Duarto ground out a pelvis-twitch that made Guelito hoot and launch a burlesque sashay.

“Get out of here, you clowns,” Kay said. He laughed, too.

Tavi blushed a deeper shade, terra-cotta red under his coppery skin. “Did he say what it sounded like?” he said.

“I expect,” Kay said. “He has his moments as a wild man.”

Kay suggested that Tavi needed another bath. Tavi protested —“You’re not going to throw me in the river again, are you?” He sounded so dismayed at the prospect that Kay handed him a chunk of soap and a rag and told him to go down to the streamside and wipe himself down. Tavi plodded off, carrying some of the new clothes with him.

While he was washing, Zeb the blacksmith showed up with two pairs of shoes—sandals and boots—and pockets stuffed full of socks. Tavi returned to find the two men sharing another fistful of grapes and passing the boda. He vaguely recognized Zeb by his bushy, reddish beard and eyebrows, as though the events of the previous day had happened half a lifetime before. Kay made Tavi sit down, and Zeb slipped a pair of the socks on his feet.

“If you need more of these,” he said in words Tavi couldn’t understand, “just let me know. Veera makes so many of them.” Kay recognized the signature lightning-shaped pattern Zeb’s junior wife knitted into her socks.

“This boy isn’t used to going barefoot,” Zeb remarked. He handled Tavi’s feet gently. “No calluses.”

“Apparently hasn’t hiked much,” Kay agreed.

The boots were a bit large for Tavi, like all the donated items, but Kay and Zeb estimated they would work if padded with a couple pair of Veera’s thick hose. The sandals, too, when strapped tight would stay on his feet.

“These guys are bringing me all this stuff,” Tavi marveled after Zeb had left.

“Yes,” Kay said. “They’re my friends. That’s what we do.”

Kay puttered while Tavi sat in the sun. Tavi still felt very tired, and the haze in the air stung his eyes.

“Don alacaldo,” he said, to get Kay’s attention.

Kay looked at him in surprise; he had never heard himself addressed that way. It was a routine Espanyo courtesy, but it sounded strange. “Actually, lad, I’m kubna. That’s a little different from alacaldo. Why don’t you call me Kay? Or Mister Kay, if you like.”

“‘Mis-teh?’ Don?”

Senyó is closer to it.”

“Lots of smoke,” Tavi said.

“I expect the breeze is blowing it back up this way,” Kay said. “Though there doesn’t seem to be much wind this morning.”

“It’s coming from Roksan, huh?” Tavi murmured.

“I’m afraid so.”

“The whole city’s burning?”

“There won’t be much left, by the time those fires get done.”

“I wonder if very many people got away.”

Kaybrel supposed not. He considered what to say, since he saw where this was leading. He disliked crushing whatever hope the boy might have conceived. On the other hand, he knew it would become clear, quick enough, what being left with no shelter, no food, no tools, and inadequate clothing meant to survivors of a sacked city. What had happened to Tavio’s sisters and mother, Kay privately thought, was much preferable. Usually, though, these events didn’t leave enough survivors to count. At that moment, Okan and A’oan raiding parties were scouring the hills, finishing off any remaining enemy they came upon.

“Maybe my father made it out of there,” Tavi speculated.

“Where was he when the gates fell?” Kay asked.

“I don’t know. He went to fight at the walls.”

“Ah.”

“All the men did. And a few women, too. And one old guy who was blind.”

Kay pictured the scene inside the fortified city with allied, vengeance-parched Hengliss forces gathered around all four walls. The final charge had been ferocious, the A’oans a mob of insane furies pounding their way through the massive iron-banded gates while others tried to overrun the rear battlements. In the moments before those doors gave way, what must they have said to each other, the sick certainty of defeat in their mouths?

“He probably died in the fighting, Tavio,” Kay said. “That’s not a bad thing, to die with honor. Defending your people.”

“I don’t know,” said Tavi. “I’ll never know, will I?”

Under his breath, Kay sighed. “Maybe not,” he said.

A few minutes later, Tavi lay his head in his arms, folded over his knees. Kay looked up from his chores to see him dozing.

“Why don’t you try to sleep some more?” he suggested. “We won’t get out of here for several days, and you need to be rested up before then. It’s warm inside the lodge.”

Tavio climbed back inside and lay atop the tossed bedding. When he closed his eyes, he tried not to think about the screaming. What was he doing here? Could he possibly get away? The countryside was saturated with Englos—take off, and he’d surely be caught again. Whether they killed him was immaterial. He wouldn’t mind dying, he’d welcome it, but the other thing, he didn’t want to go through that again. At least this one was feeding him, and he put a blanket over him at night.

If he did get away, where would he go? Was anybody else out there? He’d heard they’d destroyed Vareio. What if Novalinda was gone, too? He wasn’t sure how far away Novalinda was, only that it was upriver from Roksan. He had no food, and even if he did, he had nothing to carry it in. He didn’t even have a jacket. It was cold at night. Everyone he knew was dead. Everything he knew was gone.

Chapter 6
Taking Counsel

The Okan brez, Lhored Kubna of Grisham Lekvel, called his gonsa, a council composed of his kubnas and their mayrs, whenever he wanted to make or announce a decision. A’o’s leaders, Eddo Kubna of Bose and Devey Mayr of Metet, joined them; as allies, honorary members of Lhored’s gonsa. Sometimes, but not always, Lhored framed a pronouncement as one taken by mutual assent; sometimes, but not always, it actually was. Today he wanted advice on where the army should go next.

The defeat of Roksan was the current expedition’s main goal, and after their unequivocal victory over the walled city, the men had a sated sense about them. Lhored guessed they wouldn’t engage another major siege or battle with much enthusiasm—as far as most of the men were concerned, they had accomplished what they came out to do. On their way down the Mendo Ribba toward Roksan, they had also taken out the towns of Novalinda and Vareio, plus a number of farming settlements. And they had trashed as much farmland as they could, whenever they came upon it.

With the fall of Roksan, the enemy likely would not recover enough to raid Okan or A’oan territory for a good five years or more. This respite presented two significant opportunities: for the northern Hengliss tribes, time to gather booty and store their own bounty; for Lhored, a chance to consolidate his strength.

He was a man of middling stature, neither tall nor short, with a full, walnut-brown beard and a hairline just beginning to recede. He had no taste for show; the only difference between his plain gray woolen robe and his men’s clothing was in the slightly finer weave of the fabric, a southern import. When he stepped out of the lodge, followed by Mitchel and Fol Kubna of Miduhm, conversation fell off. The gonsers attended to hear what he would say. Everyone stood, as they always did, for the entire meeting.

From a pocket Lhored fished a four-inch-long gold and garnet cross, the mark of his office, and hung it around his neck on its heavy-linked chain. He nodded amenably to the assembled kubnas and mayrs, and then he spoke.

“We’ve done well,” he said. “This alliance between us, between A’o and Okan, has been a good thing. Bose,” he addressed Eddo Kubna of Bose directly, “your men fought like they had the fire of God Himself inside them.”

“Or the devil behind them,” someone in the crowd remarked. Friendly laughter murmured through the company. The crack fit the A’oans’ fighting style: they charged like angry wolverines into a fight, seemed to relish combat, and once they got started, virtually nothing could call them off. They had been first at the walls, first through the gates, and conveniently at hand in almost every skirmish. Considering how few there were of them, compared to the number of Okan, it was amazing how they managed to show up everywhere in any given battle.

Eddo smiled, tolerant. “Your people know how we feel about the Roksan scum,” he said. “We’ve suffered as much as Okan has. It’s a sweet thing, what we’ve done here—just as sweet for our men as for yours.

“Moor Lek,” he said to Kaybrel, “this must be especially good for you.”

Kay looked up when he was addressed, his face graver than his companions might have expected. “It is good,” he said, and his tone was serious. “I wish your cousin of Ham’l could have lived to see this.”

Bose nodded.

“He sees it from where he is in the other world,” Lhored reminded them. The honored dead saw plenty of valor in this siege, he said, and he recited the names of those who stood out: Mitchel of Cham Fos, Devey of Metet, Dom of Wichin, Kaybrel of Moor Lek, Rikad of Puns. He could have listed every man in the combined company, but at some point he had to stop.

“We think we engaged most of their fighting men here,” Lhored continued. “Though Bilhem and Terro”—Okan’s premiere scouts—“say two or three parties left before we got here. They probably crossed the Serras by the Dona Paz Road, to raid Vada or southern A’o. I hope they haven’t done any damage in your part of the country,” he said to Bose.

“My brother was waiting for them,” Eddo replied. “They won’t find any easy pickings up there.”

“No. And they’ll have a cold homecoming when they get back, too.”

Laughter greeted this remark.

“We won’t see them in Okan or A’o for a while, even if they get through the winter,” said Mitch.

“That we won’t!”

Now Lhored turned to the question at hand: where to go next. He surveyed the possibilities. They could turn north and retrace their way up the Mendo River, heading directly back to Hengliss territory. Or they could continue south down the Mendo into the Wakeen Val, where they would probably come across a few more towns; but as late as it was in the summer, they wouldn’t get all the way to the stronghold city of Mendo, nor was anyone interested in laying another major siege. They could go east to Lek Doe, where the men could relax and enjoy a well-earned week or two of fun. Or, if anyone felt in the mood for more adventuring, they could press west across the coastal range and march to the ocean, which few of them had ever seen.

The mayr of Metet brightened at the prospect. “Now there’s an idea,” he said. “It’d be a reach, but we still have time this summer.”

“Whoa!” said Dom Kubna of Wichin. “One high pass is enough for a season, eh? We’d have to climb the Achpis, and then we’d have to come back over them and either cross the Serras at Dona Paz or go back up past Soja Mun. Enough’s enough.” Soja flanked the pass below the huge, active volcano known as Shazdi, which overlooked the boundary between Espanyo and Okan territory.

“Could be worth it,” Devey persisted. “Those coast people have a lot of stuff. I’ve heard they have good horses, better than the Valley stock. They feed them fish from the sea. It makes them really big, super strong. And they’re supposed to have good crops, too.”

The greed appeal always kindled a fire. Kay groaned inwardly. He didn’t want to cross the coastal range. It would put three more uphill hauls between the band and home. He was, he thought for about the fiftieth time, getting too old for this.

“Metet could use some new breeding stock,” Devey added.

“So could we,” said Rikad, the leathery-looking Kubna of Puns. “I wouldn’t mind going over to see what they have.”

“Have they got any guns?” one of the younger mayrs asked.

“No,” Kay snorted. “No, they don’t have guns. Those people are poor as grasshoppers. They’re too busy trying to scrounge a living from the sea to work metal. They’re not any better than. . .well, than Sand Dwellers. “

“That’s not what I’ve heard,” said Rik.

“I’ve never seen a decent horse on the coast,” Kay returned. Everyone recognized that he knew what he was talking about. “Not as far south as Hamun Bay. They eat their horses.”

“What would you do instead?” Lhored asked Kay.

“If it were up to me, I’d head for Lek Doe. Do some trading. Give the men a chance to rest up.”

This advice drew some murmured assent. Lhored left the subject open for more discussion.

“Well, I’ll tell you, my boys didn’t get enough out of Roksan to do much trading,” said Rik.

“They would have,” another voice commented, “if they hadn’t had their dongs up every skirt they found!”

A ripple of laughter followed this. Rik grinned, too. “They can’t take that home with them,” he said. “I expect they’d appreciate a little more time in the field, to see what’s to be had around here.”

Mitchel seconded him. “If horses are what we’re after, we couldn’t do better than to head south into the Wakeen.”

“Yeah,” Dom agreed. “It’s a sure thing down the valley; a gamble on the coast. Besides, suppose the coast is richer than heaven’s roads. We’d have to haul a lot of stuff and drive our stock over the mountains. Whatever we take from the Wakeen only has to be toted over one pass.”

What Dom said coincided roughly with Lhored’s opinion. The brez had heard about as much as he needed or wanted to hear. He knew Moor Lek, the grayest head among them, would just as soon head north after Roksan. He also knew the others weren’t quite done yet. They all wanted to collect as much as they could to enrich their houses.

Lek Doe had its appeal: as the great neutral trading center of the northern Serras, it offered every kind of luxury item and utilitarian implement known to humankind. Everyone’s wives and children expected some kind of gew-gaw to be had from a place like that. In fact, Lhored’s senior wife Leah had instructed him minutely on the specific types of silver and stoneware she wished to receive.

On the other hand, Rik was right in observing that the men hadn’t taken enough out of Roksan for much serious trading. The place was already burning when the Hengliss breached the gates. They didn’t have much time to clean out houses before the fire took hold.

“All right,” Lhored said, his mind made up. “Let’s pray.”

Only an angry god could account for the capricious cruelty of life in Hengliss times. Divine wrath was as reasonable an explanation as any for the condition to which humanity had fallen over the previous few centuries. In the absence of the written word, which had disappeared from general use shortly before the ancient Mercans had gone extinct, no one living knew much of the history that defined the nature of the Hengliss god. What they did know was that winter was long and cold, war harsh, food hard to come by, disease fast and deadly. Those elements alone spoke of God’s displeasure with Man.

All the northern Hengliss tribes, uniformly Resurrectionists, spoke to their god through rites that seemed to reflect the divine mood. Blood was the preferred medium, followed closely by smoke.

The gonsers bowed their heads while Lhored’s two pages, Alber and Lonneh, assembled the ceremonial necessaries on a small folding table next to Lhored: a broad, shallow bowl with a long razor-sharp spike sticking up from its center, a crystal attached to a silver chain, a small white candle taper, a sparrow in a cage. Into the bowl, they packed an aromatic blend of finely shaved pine and bay leaves; they sprinkled a clear liquid over this, almost pure alcohol. They lit the candle and, when Lhored nodded his approval, brought forth an earthenware jar of wine, a gilded chalice, and a plateful of unleavened bread.

Lhored moved his hands over the bread and wine.

“God sheds His Blood for us,” he began. “For us He gives the Flesh of His Loins. Share now in my Father’s Spirit. This is the Blood.” He poured the wine into the large goblet and stepped back while Lonneh, the oldest boy, offered it to Mitchel, the gonser who stood the closest. Mitch took a sip from it and passed it to his neighbor. “This is the Flesh,” Lhored continued. He gestured over the bread and let Alber pass it to the men.

“In the Blood and the Flesh is the Spirit. The Spirit is wisdom. The Spirit is holiness. The Spirit is redemption. Blessed are the Blood and the Flesh.”

Kaybrel’s mind wandered while this was going on, although the brez’s words reached him clearly. He had heard the Ceremony of the Crossroads at least two hundred times, and in his heart he doubted whether God cared what humans chose to do with themselves. Also in his heart he wondered what he would do with that boy, the Roksando whose tears filled the night even after their flow had stopped.

Fal was right, he supposed. You get what you give. And, if you have any sense at all, you give what you get. It probably didn’t do anyone any good to set too fine an edge on that. The chalice came to Kay. He sipped from it and passed it to Fallon. A moment later the plate of bread arrived. He chewed the stale wheat bread and realized he was hungry.

Too much pain in this world, he thought.

While the cup and the server were passing from man to man, Lhored opened the cage, grasped the sparrow, and pulled it out. He held it up toward the sun. “Holy Lord God, Maker of heaven and earth and Man, accept this gift, our offering of thanks for all You have given us. Guide us on our way, direct us to the path of safety, keep us in your care.” With those words he jammed the bird onto the sharp spike, impaling it back to chest. The creature fluttered, wings flailing and feet twitching. Lhored raised the candle and touched it to the kindling in the bowl. Instantly scented wood and leaves took flame, and within seconds the bird’s feathers were burning.

Lhored lifted the crystal and suspended it over the bird as it was consumed in the sanctified fire. While the oily smoke from the dying creature’s flesh drifted toward heaven, and, presumably, toward a gratified god, Lhored raised his face and prophesied.

“Lek Doe. Before that, three towns, one engagement on the field….in Wakeen. We should trek down Wakeen, but turn east after following the Mendo River some distance. So it shall be.”

Yes, Kay thought. So it shall be. A great deal of malarkey for a very small decision.

Still, the brez’s direct connection to God kept the troops in line. Belief, as Kaybrel knew, counted for almost everything in this world. Lhored’s power—solely dependent on his people’s loyalty—stemmed specifically from their belief in him as a manifestation of the deity. Every time the brez staged one of these small sacrifices, he reminded his followers of his own divine nature.

§

Kay and Fallon walked back toward their camps. They were joined by Devey Mayr of Metet, a tough A’oan who, though Kaybrel thought he looked too young to sit a horse, had led his party of fifty men straight through Roksan’s main gate in the minutes after the barriers fell. Devey affected a little strut that made him attractive to women, and sometimes made other men wonder what he was trying to prove.

“So you think the pickings are pretty slim on the coast?” he asked Kay.

“I know they are,” Kay replied. “Well, actually—they say the people in the far south are better off. But about ten years ago Hef of Aber’—you remember him, Fal? He died at the battle of Pakta.”

“Vaguely,” Fal said.

Of course, Kay thought. Fal would have been about twelve or fourteen at the time. “Hef and I crossed the Wammets and reached the coast about as far north as Bose. We damn near starved out there. Didn’t find many people—a few ruins poking out of old silt flats, nobody living in ’em. They don’t have much food, and truly, we didn’t see any decent stock as far as we went. We made it down into Galifone, to a place the locals called Hamun Bay. The ocean is something to see, but it’s not worth driving a whole army over a mountain range.”

“No farms?”

“A few. Not many. Doesn’t rain there much. Most of the seacoast is desert. We ended up having to live off the land most of the way—and believe me, there’s not enough to support twelve hundred men.”

Devey looked disappointed. “I’d like to see that ocean,” he said.

“Yeah, it’s almost worth the trip,” Kaybrel agreed. “But go there on your own. No point in taking a big party. Just go check it out.”

“Maybe next summer,” Devey said. “I’d have to get leave from Bose. And Lhored, I expect.”

“You’ve done your job,” said Fal. “They won’t mind.”

“Wonder if he’d let me and a couple of my guys run over there now. We could probably get ourselves back to A’o before first snowfall.”

Kay laughed. “I wouldn’t, if I were him.”

“Somebody’d have to take my men while we were gone. How’s about you, Fal?”

“Not likely!” Fallon countered. “I’ve got enough chuckleheads to ride herd on—I don’t need more trouble.”

Devey smiled and scratched absently at a half-healed rash on his arm.

“Wait till next summer,” Kaybrel said. “If I come into the field, I’ll take your men with mine.”

“What ‘if’? You planning to stay home next year?”

“Maybe.”

“We need you out here.”

“Well, I’m not so young any more, Devey. Three or four months in the bush gets a little tired, you know, after a while.”

Devey considered this for a moment but couldn’t let it rest. “You’re no older than the brez,” he remarked.

“I’m four years older than Lhored,” Kaybrel said. “Our mothers were the same age. We were both first-born.”

“Lhored is still going strong,” Fallon said.

“Yes. But his time is coming to an end. Just seven more years.”

“Seven springs?”

“Six.”

“Long enough,” said Devey. “You must be forty-two, then?”

“That’s right,” Kaybrel admitted.

Fallon rarely contemplated the possibility that his friend was past the middle of his life. Kaybrel always struck him as vigorous, and Fallon thought of him as somehow near his own age. In truth, Kaybrel had come to the time when six and a half years looks hardly more than a day in the future; to Fallon and Devey, it still seemed a long time.

They passed in the direction of the A’oan campsites. A round, red-headed lad emerged from that crowd and waved at Devey.

“Hey,” he said. Devey gave him a rough hug and a playful shove. “Duarto and Guel’ say you brought us a new chacho,” he said to Kay.

“That’s so, Porfi,” Kay replied.

“Are we gonna see him?” Before Kay could respond, he continued, to Deve: “You said we were gonna catch some fish. When are we going?”

“Whenever you’re done cleaning my tack,” Devey said.

“It’s done.”

“And sharpening my sword and dagger.”

“Yeah.”

“Did you brush the horses and pick up the camp?”

“O’course!”

“I don’t suppose you would have cleaned that old cooking pot?”

“I got all the fishing gear out. Everything’s ready to go.”

“Well. Guess I’ve been summoned.” He said good-bye to the two Okans and ambled off with Porfi.

§

Kay and Fal returned to their own campsite, where they settled in the shade of a tall pine. Fal had thrown together a slumgullion of venison jerky and some things he’d taken from the stores looted from the sacked city: potatoes, carrots, leek, and garlic. The mess was simmering in a broth of ale and water; Fallon was pretty proud of it. Kaybrel advised him to let it cook longer, but said it was good.

He liked Fallon’s friendship. It was easy. Neither man felt a need to prove anything to the other, and that was comfortable. A lot was left unsaid, because it didn’t need to be said. Yet Fal was easy to talk to: frank and generally commonsensical. Kay got up and brought the kettle of mint tea over from his fire ring, where it had been steeping for hours. Fal sometimes thought only God knew what was in Kay’s hot decoctions; they usually tasted of mint, but Kay would toss just about anything in. Fal took out his pipe and filled it with a serving of imp. They sat and shared the tea and smoked the herb.

“What do you think I ought to do about that boy?” Kay asked, as much by way of an opening as a request for advice.

“Pretty bad off, is he?”

“I don’t know.”

“Well, either he’ll make it or he won’t,” Fal said. “But if you really don’t think he can keep up with us, put him down now.”

“I hate to do that.”

“It’s not very pleasant,” Fal agreed. “He’s just a kid.”

“Yeah. I almost lost track of that last night.”

“Mm. I’ll bet.”

“The bastards,” Kay said.

Fal sucked on the pipe and let that lay. He assumed Kay meant the Roksandos, and that his friend’s mind was on things that had happened a quarter-century before. At length, he said, “Comes under the heading of getting yours back.”

“Goes round and round, doesn’t it?” Kay replied. “They raid us and kill our women and steal our crops and we raid them and kill their women and steal their crops. So they come back and so we go on and on. The last two men on this earth will be an Englo and a Spanyo, trying to kill each other.”

“Maybe.” Fal passed the pipe to Kay. They poured themselves another mug apiece of the hot tea. “But it’s nice to have a boy,” Fal added. “Why don’t you just put all that behind you and enjoy him for what he is?”

“It’s not that easy. I have to tell you, something about it just doesn’t feel right, Fal.”

“What’s not to feel right? He’s booty, Kay. You have a right to him. We took the city after a hell of a fight, and we had good reason to take it. Everything in it belongs to us. Including their pretty little boys.”

“Maybe we’re all booty, Fal. Ever think of that?”

Fal shrugged. Now and again Kaybrel said things no one could answer. Fal felt vaguely exasperated. Maybe Kay was right: time for him to retire. And no, he reflected, he’d never thought of that. If he had, he wouldn’t let it bother him. “What the hell,” he replied. “Might as well take advantage of it while we can.”

Fal glanced at Kay and then looked away, so that his eyes did not meet his friend’s. Kay took his meaning. In the field, introspection of this sort rang of weakness. Thinking too hard about what you were doing could give you pause. And while you wavered, the enemy would not. “Yes,” he said. “We might as well.”

Chapter 7
Breaking Camp

Before the east began to pale, Kaybrel shook Tavio awake. Then he went outside, kicked the fire to life, and went off to find his horses. By the time he came back, leading his chestnut stallion and a scruffy roan mare, the boy had stumbled outside to stand by the campfire, which was still too sleepy to cut the dawn chill.

“Throw some kindling on there,” Kaybrel said. He occupied himself with harnessing the animals. “Come on boy. Look like you’re alive!”

Around the camp, similar orders were issued, gear rattled, pots clanged, morning greetings exchanged. Overhead, the Milky Way still trailed across the black sky. The Great and Little Dippers wheeled silently around the North Star, and the Hunter’s Belt hung over the southern horizon. A bat whispered overhead, pinging for moths suspended in the amber air above the fire.

“Are we going to leave before it’s light?” Tavio asked.

“It’ll be past dawn before everyone gets their gear together,” Kaybrel replied. “While this fire gets going,” he interrupted himself to toss a chunk of wood on it, “take that pot of water and hang it on the hook, will you?”

The evening before, Kay had explained how they would organize their departure. He made Tavio unhappy by demanding that he bathe again, and then he taught him to wash dishes in the stream.

The boys the Hengliss bands carried with them served as all-around valets, scullery labor, and pack mules, as well as a convenient outlet for passing lust. Kay had decided to excuse Tavio from the last, temporarily, but he had no intention of letting him out of the work. When he saw Tavi standing idle again, watching the fire start, he set him to hauling the rest of the gear out of the lodge. “Leaf-picking,” he called Tavi’s empty-handed moments: a favorite phrase among the Okan men.

He had also begun to teach Tavi a few words of Hengliss, starting with the crucial phrase, “What is that called?” In his travels, Kay had come to realize that the various languages and dialects spoken throughout the huge territory west of the Rogga Muns fell into just two groups: generally Hengliss and generally Espanyo. If you spoke one of the ten or twelve Hengliss tongues, you could usually figure out most of what a speaker of another dialect was saying. So it was, he concluded, with the southern tongues. Knowing the language of Roksan well, he had found it fairly easy to learn the other Spanyo dialects. He also knew how to teach language to others, when he felt inclined. He had already made Tavio repeat the names of every tree in sight and got him using ordinary housekeeping words like fire (var), pot (ba’), knife (neff), and cord (gore).

The lodge empty—bedding rolled tight and packed inside waxed canvas bags and gear arrayed on the ground outside—Kaybrel and Tavio set to breaking it down. The system that created a rough dome-shaped structure was simple, a design that dated from Mercan times: a set of struts made of flexible willow or birch whips ran through pockets sewn in the hide and canvas walls. Disassembly was a matter of releasing a few guy ropes and metal catches, pulling out the struts, and folding or rolling the parts into a loadable package.

The eastern sky turned periwinkle while they were at this, then a few low clouds caught fire and burned in streaks of rose and orange and green. A mockingbird crowed his multi-hued melody into the rising sun. When the water on the fire came to a slow boil, Kaybrel used it to make a hot grain porridge, which they ate standing beneath the chilly, brightening sky.

Tavio admired Kay’s big war horse. It was the first time he’d seen such an animal up close. “What’s his name?” he asked.

“He’s known as the Demon Lover of Cheyne Wells,” Kaybrel said. “I call him Demon.”

“Why is he called that? Is he mean?”

“Hardly!” Kaybrel laughed at the idea.

Hengliss battle horses descended from an ancient breed of huge warm-blooded draft animals. Kindly and steady, they possessed agility along with their obvious strength. Demon could carry a heavily armed rider over a five-foot barrier, and charging a man on foot, he looked convincing. He sniffed Tavio amiably, investigating the trace of his rider’s scent on this new human. “He has quite a few sons and daughters back home,” Kaybrel said. “He’s hell on the girls.

“When he was a foal, they called him Korin’s Little Devil. Korin lives on Fallon’s land. She and her husband raise and train horses. You know, there’s a lot of irrigated pastureland up around Cheyne Wells. That’s where he came from.

“Korin used to say he was a little devil because he was a pretty lively colt—always getting into things. So when he grew up and he kept getting into things, we just naturally called him the Demon Lover.”

At the shoulder, Demon stood a foot or more taller than Tavio. His feet were the size of a harvest moon, and his cropped mane stood up in a crest as high as a man’s hand is wide.

“He’s a better lover than he is a demon,” Kaybrel added. “But watch out for that one,” he indicated the mare. “She bites.” The roan, shorter by several hands than Demon, canted her ears about thirty degrees to the rear and regarded them with a baleful expression. Tavi was sure she understood Kay’s words and was annoyed by them.

Kaybrel threw his saddle over Demon’s broad back, cinched it, and then began to hang various gear from it. Meanwhile, he told Tavio to load the packs on the roan, which he called Mist.

Tavio struggled to lift the first of three heavy bags. He managed to get it off the ground, but hoisting it onto the mare was another matter. Kaybrel watched out of the corner of his eye as the boy heaved the weight chest-high, staggered, and slung it atop Mist’s back, halfway to her rump.

“Don’t you want to put the pack with the latigo on first?” Kaybrel suggested. The base pack was heavier still.

Tavio looked puzzled. “You need something to tie that bag onto the horse,” Kay said. “Take that one off and put on the one that has the straps.” The boy pulled the sack off and dropped it on the ground with a thump.

“Ever hear of setting something down?” Kay grumbled.

“Sorry.”

“Sorry doesn’t make it, boy. Do it right so you don’t have to say you’re sorry.”

Stung, Tavio examined the other bags. When he found the right one, he tried to pick it up by its broad leather strap. Kaybrel sighed. He should have expected as much of a Spanyo brat that had probably never poked his nose outside his burrow. “Wait until I’m finished with this,” he said, “and then I’ll show you how.”

“Can’t we ride them?” asked Tavio.

“Nope. They carry the gear. We walk.”

“So you make this big war horse pack stuff.”

“See anyone around who’d rather do it?”

Kaybrel hefted the big base pack onto Mist, who turned to nip at his flank and got a reflexive elbow in the teeth. He showed Tavio where to position the load and why, then made Tavio cinch the latigo straps. On the third try, the boy got it right.

“How come you don’t have an extra pack horse?” Tavio asked. “Then you could ride Demon.”

“Horses are expensive, boy. And they’re a lot of hassle. You have to feed them and take care of them all winter, you know—not just when they’re out in the grass on a pretty day.” The portable lodge and all its contents, from bedrolls to earthenware cups, now balanced on the backs of the two horses. What wouldn’t fit conveniently in the saddlepacks was jammed into bags that Kaybrel and Tavio would carry. After Kay inspected the fit of Tavio’s boots and socks, which worried him some, he poured the last of the simmering water on the fire and tied the dented metal pail atop Mist’s packs.

Breaking camp was so routine that Kaybrel no longer thought much about it. Where once he kept a mental checklist of tasks to perform and details to double-check, now he paced through the steps mechanically, one after another. He glanced over the space where he had laid his camp, saw nothing he wanted among the debris, and accounted himself ready.

Then he strode off to help marshal the troops, leaving the horses tethered. Tavio followed him across the campground.

A hectic haze stung their eyes and deepened the blue of the early shadows. Feet and hooves churned dust and the stink of manure into the air, and pungent smoke rose from half-extinguished campfires. The detritus of a weeks-long encampment littered the ground: uneaten food, discarded loot, bits and pieces of broken armor and weaponry, a pile of worn-out horseshoes. Here and there, a collapsed lodge lay in a heap, waiting for its occupant to roll and stow it. Above, a pair of hawks rode a cold column of air and watched for early prey. A feral dog, occasionally visible between the trees and brush, skulked on the fringes of the commotion. Jays dodged men and boys to fight over the garbage as the sun mounted the hills and caught the scene on a golden canvas.

Downstream from Kaybrel and Fallon’s campsites, men were hitching teams of draft horses to a half-dozen large wooden wagons. Beyond them stood an encampment of long communal lodges, each occupied by a thirty- to fifty-man squad of impressed soldiers. The lodges belonged to Kaybrel or to one or another of his chieftains, as in effect did the men. Each of Kay’s retainers—Fallon; Kristof Mayr of Oshin; Fil, Mayr of Honey Hame; Robin Mayr of O’a; and Herre Mayr of Elmo—brought upwards of eighty to a hundred men who worked and lived on lands granted to the mayrs by Kaybrel, properties attached to the clan of Moor Lek.

Although many of the men were experienced in war, a perpetual state in these times, none were professional soldiers. That calling was reserved for mayrs and kubnas. The troops consisted of range-hardened farmers and herdsmen who worked the vast ranchlands belonging to overlords like Kaybrel and managed by their followers, plus craftsmen and tradesmen who lived in villages near the kubnas’ and mayrs’ fortifications. Thus, most men in Kay’s band were indirectly attached to him through Fallon, Kristof, Fil, Robin, and Herre. In addition, he had brought about one hundred followers who owed their allegiance directly to him.

Similarly, the army, an aggregation of bands like Kaybrel’s gathered from across Okan and southern A’o, owed a kind of third-hand loyalty to Brez Lhored, whom they followed because their kubnas chose to follow him. A powerful religious belief in the brez as a direct intermediary with God cemented what would otherwise be a tenuous bond: In earthly terms, the kubnas supported a single brez out of self-interest, and their retainers supported him because they were told to. In spiritual terms, all followed Lhored because Lhored was guided by God—he was God’s chosen representative on earth. In just a few years, he would be called upon to prove it.

“Good morning, Kay,” came a greeting from a tall, slab-sided man. His yellow hair stuck out in all directions, and a shaggy, multi-colored beard framed a soft-lipped mouth with broken teeth. Kay smiled and shook his hand.

“How’s it going, Herre?”

“Good. We’re ready to load the lodges, if those clowns would ever get the wagons over here.”

“I think they’re about on the way. Saw them harnessing the horses.”

“About time,” Herre groused.

“Otherwise, are your guys good for the road?”

“Pret’ near.” He looked at Tavio, who stayed close to Kay. “What’s this you’ve got? I heard you’d found yourself another boy.”

“Looks like it,” said Kay. He drew Tavio forward, introduced him, and instructed him on how to exchange pleasantries in Okan.

“Kind of a scrapper, isn’t he?” Herre remarked. He touched Tavio near the bruise on his cheek. “Nice-looking kid, though. Would you trade him off a night for Fredi?”

“What would I do with that little puppy?” Kay said. He laughed. Fredi was a runt-like kid, in Kay’s opinion too small to be of much use for anything. Nor did anyone believe that Fredi, who generally acted spoiled, was used for much of anything.

“Well,” Herre said, “you put him at the foot of your bed and let him warm your toes.”

“I don’t think so,” Kay said.

The first of the band’s wagons rumbled across the meadow toward them. “All right,” said Herre. “Let’s go!” He shouted at the men who were already laboring with the cumbersome lodge braces. “Let’s get this stuff out of here.”

Kaybrel moved on down the line, where quickly enough he found Don’O engaged in much the same activity. As Kay’s monja, Don’O supervised the men who were directly attached to Kay, and he tended to drive a bit harder than Herre’s monja. His barracks lodges were down and strapped into long, log-shaped packets ready to be loaded on a wagon, which Don’O had sent a young man after. All the men had their gear packed, and most were standing around waiting to move. “What’s the hold-up?” he was asking the freshly returned courier as Kay approached.

“Hullo, Kay,” he said. “How’s that boy doing?”

“Better, I think,” Kay replied. “We’ll see how Zeb’s boots work on him today.”

“He’s gonna have sore feet tonight,” Don’O remarked. “We’re ready to go, as soon as we get the lodges loaded. Where the hell have the damn wagons been? Somebody needs to tell those guys to get the lead out of their asses.”

“Looks like you’re first to get your boys set,” Kay said. “Good job.”

“Robin and I have a bet going, who can round them up first,” Don’O said. “Hope he’s had to wait for the wagons, too.”

“He sent one of his guys up there,” said the young courier, who had been standing nearby.

“Oh, yeah? Did you get them to bring our wagon first?”

“Actually, I think this one is for both of us. It’ll go over to Robin’s camp next.”

“Aw, what a shame!” Don’O grinned.

A couple hundred yards downstream, Robin, whose bushy black beard and mustache parted to reveal a youthful and friendly smile, showed no sign of perturbation. He and his monja, Mel, were swigging hot drinks as they oversaw the activity in their adjacent camps. Mel had managed to waylay a wagon headed for Miduhm’s camp, and Robin ordered his men to load their lodges on that one. The race went to the wiliest.

“That guy, Herre, he said something about me,” Tavio remarked as they walked along.

“He said you look like a tough guy with that black eye,” Kaybrel said.

Chapter 8
The Healer

At Kristof’s camp, next to Robin’s at the end of the meadow, away from the river, they found a small crisis in progress. A couple of men were tending a young Espanyo whose lower leg was bleeding from a deep cut.

“Kay! I was just about to send for you,” Kristof said. Kristof, a heavyset man with blue eyes and thick, almost black beard and hair, stood half a head taller than most of the other Hengliss. He had blood on his hands from trying to stanch the wound.

“What happened here?” asked Kaybrel.

“Luse hit himself with an ax.”

“That was smart.” Kay knelt beside the patient, whose normally brown face was pale but expressionless. “What possessed you to do that, Luse-o?”

“It bounced funny and slipped out of my hand,” the young man replied. His voice sounded calmer than Kristof looked. Luse was a veteran of the field; in three summers with Kristof, he had grown to the cusp of manhood. Wiry and taut, he was probably a little older than Duarto, although no one, himself included, knew his exact age. Overlapping sprays of dark hairs and pimples stippled his chin like pinfeathers.

Kay turned to Tavio and told him to go to where the horses were tethered, find his medicine bag, and bring it back. “Today, boy. Not next week,” he snapped as Tavi, hesitant, walked off slower than he liked. Kay more than half-expected him to get lost before he found his way to Demon and Mist; he was mildly surprised when Tavi returned a few moments later, bearing the desired gear. By that time, one of Kristof’s men had produced a bucket of hot water and a metal cup, and Kaybrel had wiped the dirt off Luse’s calf.

“Let’s take him over to the fire,” Kristof said. “We’ve got a blade heating there.”

“That may not be necessary.” Kay disliked cauterizing open wounds; he didn’t think it prevented rot, at least not to the extent that it was worth the added injury. “But put this water on the fire and make it boil hard.” He dropped a needle threaded on the loose end a ball of cotton thread into the pail, after dipping up a cup of the water.

He pulled a small leather sack and a chunk of the hard lye soap he favored out of the suede bag. First he washed the wound, from which blood still coursed freely. Then he sprinkled a palmful of the little sack’s contents—mostly lady’s mantle and a variety of fern—into the remaining warm water to make an almost syrupy poultice. This he applied to a square of cotton lint, which he held firmly to Luse’s leg for the fifteen or twenty minutes it took to boil the other water over an open fire. When Kristof’s man returned with the simmering pail, he used his knife to pick the threaded needle out of the water. The bleeding had almost stopped.

Luse, his face a study in cool, watched closely. So did everyone else. Kristof, a half-dozen of his followers, and Tavio sat or stood in a half-circle around the open-air operating theater.

“Let him be, Kristo’,” Kay waved away a move to hold Luse down.

He explained to Luse how he would sew the wound together and guessed at how many stitches it would require. Solemn, Luse told him to go ahead. Only when Kay shoved his needle through the skin for the third time did the dark eyes narrow for a fraction of an instant. Luse glanced at Kay briefly and then watched his hands work.

In a few minutes, the procedure was done and Kay’s razor-sharp blade had neatly snipped the thread near the skin. A sweat slick waxed the long, symmetrical planes of Luse’s face. He sat unmoving while Kay wrapped a length of unbleached bandage around his shank. Finally, when everything was finished and Kay turned to wash his hands in the bucket of still-hot water, he smiled thinly and leaned back against Kristof, who squatted close behind him.

“Good, chacho.” Kay wiped his hands on his pants. “I think you’ll be all right.”

Kristof and Luse thanked Kay and called him tocha. “Hold the thanks until we see how that heals, hm?” Kay said. “It’s up to you to get better now, Luse. Eat well, keep yourself clean. And take it easy—no jumping around. Here,” he groped in the bag until he found a small silver amulet, a cross in a circle, on a rawhide strip. “Wear this around your neck. If you hurt, rub it between your fingers until you feel better. It has a special blessing on it.”

“I feel fine now,” Luse said. He slipped the charm over his head and grinned.

Fine or not, he was in no shape to walk. He would ride beside one of the wagoneers, a decision that pleased him immensely. Kaybrel expected, given all the young chachos’ delight at riding on things—horses, wagons, even winnowing boards—that Luse would find himself too incapacitated to hike until the gash was well on the way to healed.

“That guy is really mato,” Tavi said as they headed back toward Kay’s camp.

“Yeah, he does know how to act zonado,” said Kay.

“What does that mean?” Tavi asked. Though it was one of the camp boys’ favorite words, it had never been heard inside Roksan.

“Well, it means . . . extremely excellent. When it’s about a person, it means you’re so far above things that nothing can get to you, hm? Muy mato. More manly than God himself.”

“Accomplished?”

“Perfect in every way.”

Upstream hundred yards, Fallon’s men awaited the order to move out. Kaybrel walked back toward the brez’s camp, where he found Lhored and reported that his band was ready to go. Lhored told the A’oan contingent to lead, a privileged position, for the foremost marchers avoided most of the dust kicked up and manure laid down by the marching army. It was a small payoff for the heavy action they had seen before and within the fortified town.

So Moor Lek’s troops had to wait until the A’oans finished their preparations and got on the road.

“Are you really a healer?” Tavio asked, while they sat idly in the morning sun. Gorandero was the term he used, an ancient word with magical overtones: someone who healed through the power of sorcery. The Hengliss healer, tocha, was less unequivocally a shaman, although his—or, more usually, her—success might be attributed to divine favor.

“Sort of,” Kay said. “But not exactly.”

“You made that guy stop bleeding,” Tavio observed.

“He made himself stop bleeding. I didn’t do it.”

“But you put something on him, a potion. And you gave me something that made me go to sleep.”

“Maybe. There was nothing out of the ordinary in that.”

“It takes a gorandero to do those things.”

“Hardly.”

“What did you do?” Tavio was not about to let it go.

“Nothing occult,” Kay said. “What I gave you the other night and what I put on Luse were just herbs that grow everywhere—things anyone can find and use. There are no spirits at work in my healing. Except what’s inside the person.”

Tavio thought about this for a moment. “They say a gorandero talks to the saints. Maybe even to God, sometimes.”

“Sometimes,” Kay agreed.

“What was in that stuff you gave me?” Tavio persisted.

“The spirit of God, hm?”

“You just said not.”

“You believed me?”

Tavio looked up at Kaybrel, perplexed. “Is it one way, or is it the other?”

“I don’t know, Tavi. Nothing ever is altogether one way or altogether the other, is it? If you think a healer talks to God, then maybe he does. If I tell you that I don’t but you think I do, then maybe I do.”

Chapter 9
The Road

At last, the A’oans managed to get themselves packed and on the road. As the hindmost hauled past, Kaybrel stood and shouted to his own lieutenants, “Moor Lek! Let’s go!” Don’O didn’t need to be told: his men were already pouring onto the road. Before long, the rest followed, in no particular order.

The command seemed to bounce off the trees as it was repeated on down the line. Men’s boots and horses’ hooves clumped over the wide road, a remnant of an old Mercan highway once traveled by marvelous machines that flew by magic over sheets of asphalt. Chunks of the ancient paving still lay, here and there, among the rocks and pebbles along the road. Noting that the stones appeared only along roads and in abandoned cities, people called them ra’stane—roadrocks. No one had ever seen one of the magic machines, of course—they were the stuff of myth, imagined as winged devices or chariots animated by spirits. Now, people walked the highways. A few, the wealthy, rode horses or carts.

The air was still crisp beneath a warming sun that by now had released the pines’ sweet pitch perfume. A light breeze rose. Unfazed by the commotion, a mockingbird trilled from a branch overhead until it spotted a grasshopper on the wing. It shot after the bug, which, alarmed, shrieked into the brush with the bird hot on its trail. The rumble of men’s talk and laughter rose above the footfall; ahead, Porfi tossed a ball back and forth with several A’oan men while they walked. Kaybrel smiled and pulled his wide-brimmed hat down to shield his eyes. For trekking, he liked this kind of day.

The road led to the edge of the bluff and down into the valley of the Mendo Riba. The band, now miles below the Lil Ku Riba, would follow the Mendo until they reached the abandoned city of Redton. Continuing south, they would travel into the Wakeen Val along the west side of the Mendo, where tributaries to the river were few and usually fordable. The Mendo’s watershed poured off the high mountains to the east, which received enough summer rain to melt some of the perpetual snowcover. That range, the Serra—known further south as the Sihueri—reared above the river’s green and yellow floodplain, a monolith whose white peaks were distanced to violet and blue. The Achpi Renj formed the long valley’s western wall. To the north, the Serras joined the Achpis and met where the volcanoes of the Shazdi Muns simmered and fumed. Ice-cooled air falling from the Shazdis and the Serras held a brown haze close to the ground, but despite it, the eye could see down what looked like a hundred-mile corridor leading south and west.

On the valley floor, the ruined city still smoldered. From the foothills’ elevation, surrounding farmlands and villages, also torched or trashed, looked muddy and trampled. The scene caught Tavio the moment it came into sight. He gazed at the devastation in silence. His pace slowed, and soon he stopped and stood looking down at what remained of Roksan.

A few blackened fragments of the city’s ramparts yet stood. Everything within was burned to the ground, except for the stone walls that represented the cathedral, the big warehouses of the trading and storage centers, and the main public buildings. Their roofs were absent and all their contents—what hadn’t been stolen—had gone to ashes. Private dwellings, shops, the marketplace—all built of wood, mud, and thatch—were reduced to dirt. The outbuildings that had surrounded the city, suburbs whose inhabitants took shelter behind the walls when the enemy approached, were virtually gone. All that remained were some broken mud walls in a field of smoldering debris. The wind buzzed a devil’s hymn in Tavio’s ears. It drowned out the noise of the march, and he was altogether alone.

He had never seen his home from this vantage, looking down on it from above. He wondered where his house had been. Where had the family’s shop stood? He recognized the church where he had spent so many hours in worship, the marketplace where he had gone with his father and uncles to sell their staples or with his mother and sisters for food and toys and goods. All the brilliant colors, the bright banners and strips of cloth set to waving in the breeze, the awnings in orange and red and white and blue and green and yellow that shaded the merchants’ stalls, all black. Black cinders and ashes. The sounds of children playing, donkey carts clattering through the stone-paved streets, roosters crowing, dogs barking, merchants shouting, bells ringing, holy men chanting: silenced. But silence was not what he heard, nor was it the screaming of the isburdos. He heard a subdued roar in his ears, the sound of his own blood coursing through his veins, the sound of nausea, and it seemed to him that neither the sound nor the sight made much sense. He listened to the howl of the absurd.

A weight on his shoulder drew his attention away from the vision below. It was the Englo alacaldo. He put his hand on Tavio. “Let’s go,” he said. “It’s time to move on.”

§

The road dropped out of the thin pine forest. Below the bluff, it joined a wider highway heading south out of Roksan and flanked the river through rolling grasslands. Yellow bunchgrass mixed with feral alfalfa, bermuda, rye, and wheat grew as high as the war horses’ knees. Here and there the green expanse was punctuated by dwarfish scrub oak, solitary or in small clumps. Once they passed an ancient fig tree. Its branches spread in a wide circle that cast deep, bare shade around the trunk. Two jackrabbits huddled in the dark beneath the fig; they stuck there until the A’oan contingent passed and then, as if at some unheard rodent signal, they bolted. A series of dazzling leaps carried them to a new refuge.

Tavi walked silently, lost somewhere inside himself. Kay studied him surreptitiously from time to time. If he could heal, Kay thought, he would work some kind of magic on this boy’s pain. But he knew of no such sorcery.

After a while, he ventured to call the Spanyo’s name. “Come over here,” he said. Tavio, who had drifted back from Kay a few dozen yards, caught up with him.

“Here,” Kay said. He offered the rope lead attached to Demon’s bridle. “You take the horses for a while.” Tavi looked at him doubtfully. “All you have to do is hold the tether.” Kay handed it to him. “Demon will follow you, and Mist will follow him. Couldn’t be easier.” The stallion, confused by the stops and starts, almost bumped into Tavio’s shoulder before he pulled up. Tavio stroked the big nose. Then he spoke one word, “Buen”: “All right.”

The sun climbed higher, the day grew warmer. For a long time, Tavio walked to the two-note harmony of the horses’ gait, the lazy syncopation about all he heard and all he thought of. The marchers pulled off the light jackets or vests they had worn to start the trek and carried them over back packs or tossed them onto wagons or horses. They hiked steadily, fast enough to cover about three miles an hour over the level ground. Occasionally one or the other of Kaybrel’s men would join them. Fallon was never far away, and for a while Devey, the A’oan mayr of Metet, fell back to walk and chat with Kay. When the company paused to rest, late in the morning, Kay’s cousin Mitchel was at his side.

Fal spotted a thicket of elderberries at the riverside and proposed an expedition. Tavio, already weary, was left at the roadside with the horses while the three climbed down to the water’s edge. Duarto, who was walking near Mitch, tied his animals to a small tree and flopped onto the ground near Tavio.

“How’s it going?” he asked. “You holding up all right?” Duarto’s dialect sounded to Tavi’s ear like a broad foreign accent; Tavi had to listen closely to follow what he said.

“Yeah, I’m all right,” Tavio said. “It’s a long walk.”

“We’re not halfway there,” Duarto said, and Tavi wondered where “there” might be.

A minute later, Duarto’s friend Guelito joined them. He squatted on the ground next to Duarto; asked Tavi the same question and got the same answer.

The three young Espanyos chatted quietly. Tavi guessed that Guelito was closer to his own age than Duarto’s, although it was hard to tell. Duarto said his home was a place called Mosarín, which Tavio had never heard of—it was deep in Socalio, far to the south. Duarto hadn’t been near the place in more than three years, but he had spent the previous winter in Okan, where, he remarked, the weather was “too cold to wear your balls outdoors.”

Guelito said nothing about himself. “You’re lucky to be with Kay,” he remarked in passing.

“Yeah,” Duarto agreed. “He’s pretty good. Kind all the time. He does nice things for you.”

Tavi almost asked what the others were like, then, but thought better of it.

“Good in bed, too, isn’t he?” Guelito remarked.

“Better than Binsen,” Duarto returned, commenting on Guelito’s old man.

“Hey!”

Tavi shied from contemplating this. “I asked him if he was gorandero this morning, after he fixed that guy’s leg.”

“Luse?” Guelito said.

“I guess.”

“I heard he almost cut his foot off,” Guelito said.

“Nah,” Duarto said. “Just nicked himself some.”

“Well, now he doesn’t have to walk, anyway.”

“So is he?” Tavi asked, coming back to Kay. “First he said he isn’t, then maybe he is.”

“Is he what?”

Gorandero.

“Oh, Kay. Así.” Guelito waved his hands in the air, prestidigitating. “He’s a great magician! Woo-ooo-oo!”

Tavi looked puzzled. Duarto smirked. He had been on the receiving end of Kay’s ambiguities, too. “Yeah,” he said, “he is a healer. He’s a lot of things. He speaks languages, many languages. You know, he speaks for the Okan before cities, to their alacaldos.”

“He said he’s an alacaldo,” said Tavi.

“He’s that, too—kubna, that’s their word for it. A real warrior. Every time they go into battle, he comes back with more coups and more kills. He’s killed a lot of men.”

“Dangerous,” said Guelito.

“Sometimes,” Duarto agreed.

Before long, the dangerous alacaldo and his friends returned with hatsful of tart fruit, which they offered to Tavi, Duarto, and Guelito. The snack was gratefully accepted.

“Tired?” Kay inquired.

“Not very,” said Tavi, averse to admitting weakness, particularly in front of the other two.

“How are your feet?”

“A little sore.”

“Maybe we’d better take a look.”

“I’m all right,” Tavio said.

As the sun reached for the zenith, the band covered ground rapidly over the broad, dusty road. The widening valley sloped to the south, a drop so gentle only the veterans who had hiked it before knew they would feel an uphill pull on the return trip. Kay led the horses for a while and let Tavio walk with Duarto and Guelito. The sky stayed deep blue far into the day. To their left and just behind them, a high-altitude gale lifted a mane of snow off a volcanic peak. Kay recalled that once at a seashore he had seen a woman, her back round with age, whose long, fine white hair flew loose in the salty wind. In the valley the morning breeze died and the sun grew hot.

Kay, Mitch, and Fallon chatted idly. If you asked them, an hour later, what they spoke about, none of them could remember. Off and on, Kaybrel listened in on the boys’ conversation. Tavio said almost nothing about himself. Duarto held forth at great length about everything that entered his head—about Mitchel’s importance and the domain of Cham Fos and the broad waterfalls the place was named after and the kind of trees they saw and the game that lived in the valley and what marvels they could expect to find at Lek Doe. Kay noticed Tavio favoring his right foot.

When the road wandered close enough to the river that the climb to the bank wasn’t far, Kay excused himself and called Tavi to him. “You look like your feet hurt,” he remarked.

Tavi nodded. “Think I have a blister or something,” he said.

“Want to let me take a look now?”

They sat down by the roadside and removed the scuffed leather boots and woolen socks Don’O and Zeb had provided. Most of the others kept moving, although a few, seeing a leader stop, took the opportunity to pause or dawdle. Tavio winced as they pulled off the footwear.

“You told me you were just fine,” Kay said.

“It didn’t seem that bad,” said Tavi.

His heels were rubbed raw; the right was bleeding, and his left ankle had a couple of open sores. On the ball of his right foot a soft blister ballooned hotly. “I’ll bet,” said Kay. He took Tavi down to the riverside and left him sitting on a rock up to his ankles in icy water. “Stay put,” he said, and climbed back up toward the horses.

Duarto followed them to the water and sat down next to Tavi to admire the war wounds. “Ai, that must smart,” he said.

“Not much,” Tavi lied for Duarto’s benefit.

“What a guy,” said Duarto, and he grinned. Then he launched into a narrative of his own worst hiking fiasco, something that involved blackened toes and life-threatening shin splints. He was still talking when Kay returned, carrying his medicine bag and followed by his cousin.

“Beanhead!” Mitch grabbed Duarto by the arm. “You left those nags ground-tied up there. Did you think they’d stand around forever?” Duarto scrambled to his feet as best he could while Mitch gave him a sharp shake. The mock rough stuff put little fear of God into him.

“They’re not going anywhere,” he said.

“Neither are you, eh?” Mitch swatted him on the side of the head, without much sting. “Leave my horses standing on the road like that again, and I’ll knock you into the middle of next week.” Duarto pulled away and darted up the riverbank, headed for his errant charges. Mitch laughed and stretched out on the riverbank near Kay, the better to supervise and lounge in the sun.

“Put some baz on that raw spot,” he advised, referring to a favorite skin oil and lubricant. Kay ignored this and wrapped Tavio’s feet in lengths of unbleached cotton bandaging. “All he needs is some extra padding,” he said. “A lot of grease will just collect lint and dirt.”

As Kay was finishing up and lecturing Tavio about giving a straight answer to a straight question, Robin of O’a came up the line from the direction of Lhored’s troup. He spoke briefly with Fallon, and the two headed down the bank toward Mitch and Kaybrel.

“What’s goin’ on?” Robin greeted them.

Mitch smiled and shrugged. Kay looked up briefly and said he’d be ready to go soon.

“Good,” said Robin. “One of the scouts came back—that guy Bilhem?—he said they found some kind of village or something up ahead. Says they have a bunch of buildings and stores of stuff.” Robin’s habit of making asides sound like questions annoyed Kay. Occasionally a sharp comeback would cross his mind—aren’t you sure?—and that intruding thought always silenced him. Lacking a rejoinder, Robin continued. “Lhored wants to take the place. He wants to go in there this afternoon. Bilhem thinks it’ll take us about two hours to get there.”

“What kind of ‘village’ is this place?” Kay asked.

“Don’t know. That’s all I heard.”

“Lhored thinks we can take it in half a day?” said Mitch. “Can’t be much.”

“I guess not,” said Robin.

Kaybrel released another of his private, almost inaudible sighs. A good fight: not the way he’d hoped to spend this day. He spoke to Tavio in Espanyo:

“Do you know of any towns or forts down this way?”

“I’ve never been out of the city this far, senyó.”

“Did I ask you that?”

“No, but….”

“What have you heard about places where people live around here?”

“Not very much. There’s farmsteads all up and down the river. People grow grain and vegetables to trade at Roksan. And to live. But I don’t know what they’re called—or even if they have names. You know, the nearest town is Vareio, and it’s upstream, on the Lil Ku.”

“It was,” said Kay. “There’s not much left there now.”

Tavio didn’t venture a response. Kay tightened the bootlaces and then, rising, took Tavi’s hand and pulled him to his feet. “You should be all right for a while,” he said. “We’ll walk a couple more hours, and then you’ll get a break. But you tell me if those blisters hurt too much, understand?”

When he had dropped the heavy rucksack to let Kaybrel minister to him, the sudden relief from the thirty-five-pound load made Tavio feel like he was floating. The dreamlike sensation disoriented him for a moment, and he actually had to look down to confirm that he was standing on the ground and not hovering a few inches above it. Now as he picked up the pack and swung it onto his shoulders he felt a pang in his gut, so sharp with despair it stung his eyes.

Ahead, the road led on.

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How Much Should You Pay for a German Shepherd Puppy?

Just for you: a chapter from If You’d Asked Me…the ultimate collection of bathroom or waiting room reading, A new chapter appears here every three weeks, usually by Friday. You can get a complete copy, right now, in PDF format, or, if you like, as a paperback. For details, visit our Books page or send a request through our Contact form.

Section II: Going to the Dogs
(Or Cats)

15. How much should a high quality German Shepherd puppy cost?

I paid $1,000 for my last GerShep, about twenty years ago. I’m sure they cost more than that today.

But . . . there is no chance in heaven that I would pay that kind of money again. German shepherd rescues are overflowing with German shepherd dogs, some of them well trained and some not; some healthy and some not. Look into German shepherd rescues in your area. Do yourself and a dog a favor.

Patience, Gimme Patience!

So…one reason such slow progress is being made in cranking out Ella’s Story is elucidated by the task of posting 18 sections of Fire-Rider here at P&S Press and scheduling them to go online once a week. It’s this: I have no patience with ditz.

I am a writer. I am not a page designer. I am not a graphic artist. I am not a computer programmer.

What I want to do is write, dammit. Not design pages, not come up with and manipulate images, and (believe me!) not fiddle with code.

But for today’s writer — especially the DIY variety, but in fact (because of the need for every author to market, market, market) for everyone who writes books and publishes through any venue — page design, graphics, and (barf!) computer design are part of the game. You have no choice but to engage in these activities. And they are complicated, ditzy, annoying, and time-consuming.

Case in point: the deceptively simple-looking task of copying and pasting the several chapters of any given section into a post in the series that will go up weekly.

Seems like all you ought to have to do is highlight the chapters, copy, and paste, no?

Well. No.

The Word file I’m copying from was formatted for print publication. That means, among other things, that first lines of chapters and major subsections begin with drop caps. For example, the T in “The two armies” here is a drop cap.

WordPress can’t do a drop cap. Nothing you try to do will insert or ape a credible drop cap in a WordPress page. Well: if there is any such thing I don’t know what it is and haven’t the patience to spend an hour or two trying to figure out what a computer programmer would call a drop cap, finding instructions for how to do it, learning such instructions (if they exist), and applying them.

When I paste copy that contains a drop cap into a WordPress post or page, what you see in “Visual” view is this:

See that box with the dashed line around it? You can’t delete it. You have to go into the text view and delete all the code. Turns out it’s some kind of table. This is what you see in “text” view:

Now you have to figure out what part of this is doing what behind the scenes, delete all the junk down to the first line of the paragraph, and then go back to the “visual” view. If you’ve done it right, then “all you have to do” is pull up a passel of blank line spaces And type a capital letter in the first word.

Like…I have nothing else to do with my time?

Anything that you put into a WordPress post, no matter how plain-vanilla you think it ought to be, is fraught with this kind of crap. Endlessly time-consuming ditzy crap.

This is not what I think of as creative work.

And it is not at all how I want to spend the creative time I have left in my life. It wastes my time and sucks my creative energy. By the time I’m finished putting up a post, I’m clenching my teeth with annoyance and frustration, I feel like I’ve accomplished nothing very constructive, and…what energy I had for the writing projects has been consumed.

Hence, the writing that I want to do doesn’t get done. How, exactly, is this an improvement over the typewriter? Or over the manuscript sent off to a printer to set in hot type?

Really?

Done! …as done is gonna get today

Wow! THAT was a job. The new copy for Fire-Rider is up, and posted approximately in the correct order. Links to the chapters are now installed on the Fire-Rider page: go there to navigate to whatever you’d like to read in this series.

Yet to come: a widget for the right-hand sidebar, linking to that page. That will have to wait: I am all computered out for the morning. It’s 11 in the morning, I’ve been at this since about 7 a.m., and by damn! I’m ready for a glass of wine.

Projects like this remind me that I grow less and less techie the older I get. As time passes, I find I just don’t want to fart around with computer stuff anymore. How sick of it am I? Lemme count the ways…

I forget how to do the widgets in WordPress. As I recall, it’s not very hard, but it does require building a thumbnail-sized image, installing it in the widget function, and then coding the thing so it will link to the correct page. Because this was something I did not want to know when I learned it and something I have avoided doing for quite some time, the task will require finding the instructions somewhere out there on the Web, learning how to do it again, and struggling through getting it right. Ugh! I can hardly wait.

Tomorrow.

The next installment for Fire-Rider will go up about this time next week: Wednesday morning. Tune in then: same time, same place.

Oh, goodie! Another complication…

Hmmm… I see that if I’m going to post three to five Fire-Rider chapters at a time (that’s how many are in most of the “books”), they’ll have to go up in reverse chronological order, so that they appear to the reader in normal order.

Didn’t think of that at 10 o’clock last night!

Techno-hassle: never ceases to amuse…

I’ll fix that after all these things go up.

Think the posts will need some images, too. Will add those this morning (after breakfast, dammit!) and remember to include pix in future posts.

Fire-Rider, Foreword * FREE READ *

Foreword:
A Word about the Translation and Interpretation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fire-Rider, Part I: A Gift for the Kubna * FREE READ *

Chapter 1
Roksan

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

Fallon Mayr of Chene Wells

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Come look what I found,” he begged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“They got kubnas?” Robin asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, yeah,” Fal said. “That it is.”

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

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

“You bet,” Kay said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 2
A Gift for the Kuba

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

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

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

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

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

Fal examined the knife closely and then set it aside.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, just take a look at them.”

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

“Mister Kaybrel,” said Don’O. They clapped each other on the shoulder and Kay shook hands with Zeb and the A’oan. Don’O was Moor Lek’s monja—Kay’s lieutenant in charge of his foot troops.

“How’s it going?” Kay asked.

“Good. Sweet, isn’t it?” Don’O said.

“Like honey in milk,” Kay agreed.

“Kay said he’d look at our property,” said Willeo.

“I’m glad you came by,” said Don’O. “We’d like to sell these piglets, but a couple of ’em are in a bad way. We don’t know whether they’re worth anything or not.”

Nearby, they had three young Espanyos tied together with stout rope. One clearly had no need to be bound. He lay on the dirt, barely conscious. A second sat beside him, and the third stood and watched the men approach, expressionless.

“Where’d you get them?” Kay asked. “Pull them out of the city?”

“No. A couple of those bums from Bose had ’em. We traded some junk for them—but that was before we realized they were kind of bad off.”

Kay knelt next to the prone youth. The closest thing to a healer among his people, he had no idea what the problem was, but he could see this one was on his way out. “Won’t make it,” he said. “He probably won’t live the night.”

“Come here, chacho,” Kay said in Espanyo to the second lad. He was the only man in the combined bands who spoke more than a few words of the southern languages. “Let’s take a look at you.” When he put his hand on the boy’s arm, he could feel heat radiating through the ragged shirt. Alight with fever, the kid was breathing in short pants. His face glowed pink and his eyes were glazed. “It’s all right. I’m not going to hurt you.” The boy didn’t resist, but neither did he seem to hear. Kay pulled his shirt up and saw a delicate, veiny red rash stippling the flushed torso.

“This one has red fever,” he said. “He’ll be dead in three days.”

“Shit,” said Zeb.

“Yeah. You need to get rid of him. If one of you has had it, he should do the honors. Otherwise, I’d stay away from him, if I were you.”

Kay regarded the brat unhappily. Did this mean they’d have his contagion in their ranks? He’d just as soon not lose Zeb, and he certainly couldn’t afford to lose Don’O, his oldest and most trusted follower. “Take him out in the bush and let him go. He’ll die out there on his own, and you’ll be less likely to take the fever if you don’t get his blood on you.”

“Poor little guy,” Don’O said.

“Right. Let him grow to be a man and he’ll cut your throat. Just like his daddy did your daddy’s.” Don’O winced.

“I’ll take him,” said the hatchet-faced A’oan. He knelt to slice the ropes free from the other two, then pulled the sick boy to his feet and led him off.

“Let’s see what else we have here,” Kay said. The third boy stood about a head and a half shorter than Kaybrel. His skin and curly short-cropped hair were almost the same shade of bronze, and he had light brown eyes fixed in the distance as though he were unaware of what was happening near him. “‘Poor little guy,’” Kay scoffed. “Let me look at you, amiho,” he said in Spanyo.

Kay laid his hand on the Spanyo’s cheek. His face was battered, his left eye swollen almost shut under a purple bruise. But he felt cool. No fever yet, anyway. Kay wondered if the cheekbone was fractured and how many teeth he’d lost. None, as far as he could see—he pushed the lips aside to inspect. The youth was filthy, covered with grime, dust, and, here and there, dried blood. Kay probed around his neck and under his ears, looking for swelling; he didn’t find any.

His hands were bruised, the knuckles skinned. Kay lifted this one’s shirt, too, to check for a rash, although he knew the fever usually came first. All he found were more bruises, more dirt, and a smear he thought was probably dried semen.

“That’s a shiner you have there,” Kay said. “Are you hurt anywhere else?”

The boy didn’t respond. Kay doubted if he understood.

“You speak Espanyo?” Kay asked. “Answer me.” He gave the boy a shake. “Tell me where you’re hurt.”

Nothing. Maybe he was deaf, Kay thought. “What’s your name?”

Again the response was silence.

“Do I have to teach you to answer my questions?” Kay said. “You won’t like it.”

The Spanyo gave him such a tired and mournful look that even Kay softened a little. “Tell me what your name is, chacho. Otherwise I’ll have to make one up for you.”

“Tavio,” the boy said.

“Tavio? Is that all? Is that your whole name?”

“Ottavio Ombertín i Boleda do Gansoliz i Corruedo.”

The damned southerners freighted their children with more weight in names than they had in food, Kay thought. This one was fairly modest. “Ottavio Ombertín, hm? Of the House of Gansoliz, then?”

“You could say it that way.”

“Well, Ottavio Ombertín. My name is Kaybrel Kubna of Moor Lek. People call me Kay. We’ll call you Tavio, if that’s what you like. Now, tell me if you’re hurting any place. Maybe we can give you something to make it better.”

“My eye hurts,” this Tavio said.

“Yeah, I’ll bet it does.” Kay expected a black eye to heal on its own. He knew of nothing that would speed the process. “It’ll get better,” he said. “Where else are you sore?”

“They kicked me.”

Kay lifted the torn shirt again. A black and blue mark spread over the area of the right kidney and merged with another that spanned the upper backbone. Kay looked for broken ribs but couldn’t see any.

“You’ll likely be all right,” he said.

Now he spoke in Hengliss to Zeb, Will, and Don’O: “This one seems better off. He might be bleeding inside—looks like he put up a little fight. But if he’s not, he’ll probably live.”

“How old do you think he is?” Will asked.

“Hard to tell, he’s so grimy.” In Espanyo, Kay asked the question of Tavio.

“Fourteen summers,” the boy said.

“When? When were you born?”

“At Eastfest. On Resurrection Day.”

The Espanyo day of resurrection was less than a month past, Kay knew. “He’s fourteen years old,” he said. “Just.”

Zeb, Don’O, and Will assessed this detail. “Good age, almost grown,” said one of them. “Ought to be able to take care of himself.”

“Not very big for that age, though,” said another. They conferred. Kay nodded good-bye to them all and started back toward camp.

He got about a hundred yards before he heard his name again. “Kay, wait a minute!” It was Don’O. Now what?

Heavyset, big in the bones, and red of face, Don’O lumbered after him.

“Would you like to have the boy?” he asked after he caught up.

“That kid?” Kay looked at him, surprised. “I don’t know. Hadn’t thought about it. What would I do with a Roksandero whelp?”

“Well—the same thing anybody else would, I expect,” Don’O said.

Kay smiled coolly.

“It would bring things full circle, wouldn’t it?” Don’O added.

Kay looked at his friend briefly. It did have some appeal, he thought, a kind of remote justice. And, he supposed, the men must expect him to take back what was his, in every way. Some things, he wished not everyone in his world knew about. “I don’t know, Don’O,” he repeated. “He’s worth something to you. I wouldn’t want to take him away from you.”

“We’d like to offer him to you, kubna,” said Don’O. “He’s yours, if you want him.”

Put that way, it was a generous gesture that Kay couldn’t very gracefully turn down. He breathed a sigh, inaudible to anyone more than a foot or two away. “Let’s have another look at him, then,” he said. They returned to the others.

A pestilential brat, the Roksando. His hair was sticky, his skin so grimy you couldn’t tell just what color he really was. What remaining clothes he had—a light shirt and pants—were ripped, and he was barefoot. He stank of sweat and other things best left unidentified. And, Kay thought, he was Roksando. That fact alone raised a stench. Skinny kid, too. He looked like he hadn’t enough weight to keep himself alive more than a week on the road.

“He’ll need a few rags to put on his body,” Don’O said.

“It’s just like getting a puppy,” Zeb observed, sentimental. “You’ve got to get everything they need, and then you have to break ’em.”

“Pretty little fella—he’ll be real nice, once you get him bed-broke,” Willeo remarked. A randy smirk mirrored the scene he saw in his head.

“Look, men…,” Kay started.

“I’ve got a whole pile of shirts and pants back at camp,” Don’O continued. “A nice flannel shirt, and a fleece thing that’ll keep him warm. Expect we can find some dungarees that’ll stay on him, too, if you tie them up.”

“Needs a pair of shoes,” said Will. “Old Jemmy over there has enough boots to throw around. Reckon he’ll give us some.”

“Will, I can’t take this kid from you,” Kay protested.

Three faces fell. Was their gift not good enough? Had they offended?

Kay backed water. “Tell you what,” he said. “I brought down a nice doe just the other morning. Let me give you guys a quarter—a hindquarter—for him. I just don’t feel right, letting you give him away. You take the rump and split the meat any way you like.”

“A rump for a rump, eh?” Zeb cracked. The others guffawed, and Kay, half-expecting it, laughed as politely as he could manage.

Zeb passed his boda to Kay, took out his knife, whose blade was every bit as fine as Kay’s even if the hilt was less exotic, and sliced Tavio free of his bonds. The four men toasted the Okan and A’oan allies’ victory. Then Kay took the captive, bedraggled spoils of war, and shepherded him toward the camp.

Chapter 3
The First Deception

Ottavio Ombertín had never seen so many tents as filled the glen where the raiding bands were based. Shoved along by the Englo man, he passed several tunnel-like affairs covered in hide and waxed canvas. Here and there stood smaller dome-shaped shelters, six or eight feet across. Horses grazed complacently, hobbled or penned inside a circle of parked wagons. A few men lounged or puttered near smoldering campfires. Some greeted the Englo with calls that sounded like musta qué or ku’na. Pine needles sighed. A pair of jays commented on their passage. Somewhere far off young voices shouted and bantered as a group of friends threw a ball around a makeshift ha-lo court.

Tavio scarcely noticed these things. It didn’t occur to him to remark on the gathering of tents. He no longer registered much, except for the screaming.

They stopped before one of the domes. The Englo said it was his lodge and sat Tavio down on a flat rock near the fire ring, which flanked a second lodge nearby.

Then he turned away, picked up a pot, filled it from a bucket, and hung it off an iron hook staked over the fire, to which he added some more fuel. From a canvas sack, he pulled a couple fistfuls of grain, which he sifted through his fingers into the heating water.

None of this, either, was observed very closely by Tavio. He huddled on the stone, his eyes cast down. He saw that his right foot was bleeding, but oddly, he felt no pain. He put his hands over his ears to block out the sound of the screams. Yet when he did, he could still hear them, Tisha especially, her voice shrilling a note he had never heard before and then shrieking for her mama. A shadow fell across the ground. The Hengliss was standing over him.

§

“Let’s get you washed up, boy,” Kay said. “You need a bath.” The kid looked like he was gazing into the other world. Unsure whether Tavi even heard him, Kay reached down and pulled him up by the arm. “Come on. Let’s go.”

Chamois skin and an old shirt in hand, he pushed Tavio toward the stream. The current had chewed out a cove in the bank, where a slow backwater formed a convenient, shallow swimming hole. He dipped the chamois skin in the cold water, wrung it almost dry, and folded it to form a soft, cool pad. Tavi winced away when the man held it up to the bruised eye.

“Hold still,” Kay said. “This’ll help the swelling.” He took Tavi’s hand and made him hold the pad in place. Then he dropped his own clothes and lay them in the branches of a shrub. Naked, he pulled a rough cake of lard soap from a pants pocket and set it on a stone near the water.

He took the pad away from Tavi, twisted it again, unwrapped it, and hung it in the bush, too. “We’ll need this,” he said. “Now take those things off.”

Again Tavi looked at him as though he couldn’t comprehend. “Take your shirt off,” Kay said. When he reached out to pull the torn cotton over Tavi’s head, Tavi tried to squirm away. Kay grabbed him and gave him a swat. “Quit that,” Kay said quietly.

“This thing isn’t good for much more than washing dishes,” he continued, talking as he disrobed Tavio. “Maybe we can sew these pants up, though.” Tavio’s weak struggle got nowhere. Kay easily pinned his hands and subdued his resistance.

“Look at this!” Kay peered at him and laughed. “By the three-headed god, he wears underpants! Mighty dirty, too.” The plain cotton shorts, which Tavio’s mother had made, were blood-stained and stiff with half-dried fluids. Kay yanked them off and dropped them in the stream. The current bore them away.

Then he pulled Tavio toward the water.

“No!” Tavi cried. “No, I can’t swim!”

“Hallelujah! He talks!” Kay laughed. “It’s not deep enough to drown you, boy.” With a shove, he dumped Tavi into the icy pool. Then he waded in after him, soap chunk in hand. “Now c’mere and get yourself washed,” he said. He grabbed Tavi by the arm just as Tavi gained his footing on the soft, muddy bottom.

§

Frigid water came halfway up Tavi’s chest, so cold it ached.

He gasped, a deep shuddering intake like the gulp of air a hurt infant takes before it starts to squall, and in sudden clarity saw the Hengliss as if for the first time, his broad shoulders and chest matted with dark, wet hair, the clean-carved muscles working his arms, drops of water beading a thick, salty-looking beard. Calloused hands rubbed soap over Tavi’s body, into his hair, down his back and arms and belly, between his legs and the smooth tight cheeks of his buttocks. “God,” the man grumbled. “Only thing that’s dirtier than an Espanyo is two Espanyos. At least your hair’s cut short; that’s a little easier, anyway. We’ll have to teach you to keep yourself clean after this.”

The man scrubbed hard with his fingers. Despite the water’s icy sting, each time the scouring hands hit a bruise or an open sore, it felt like a fresh jab. Tavi yelped when a cut on his side tore open. The Englo told him to keep quiet.

A vigorous massage lathered the soap in Tavi’s hair. “No nits,” the man observed. He sounded surprised. “Stink too much for bugs, do you?” He dunked Tavi underwater to rinse him and then let him flounder out onto the bank.

Now the deerskin chamois served as a towel. When the man rubbed it over Tavi’s skin, it soaked up most of the water. He wrung it again, wiped himself down, and wrapped a large shirt over Tavi. It smelled of wood smoke and fresh air. In the fading afternoon sun, the air felt even colder than the stream. By the time the Hengliss pulled on his own trousers and laced his shirt, they were both shivering. The man led Tavi back to his camp, parked him by the fire, and threw on some more wood.

§

Fal was getting a snootful, Kay noticed. Fallon had brought Fil Mayr of Honey Hame up to the camp, and they were lounging around outside Fal’s lodge, adjacent to Kay’s. The two of them busied themselves draining another boda—they’d both have a head in the morning. They hollered over to him when they spotted him shepherding the kid back to the fire.

When they realized Kay had a new attachment, they hauled themselves to their feet and staggered over. Kay swore silently to himself. The last thing he needed as the afternoon faded was a cold dunk in the river followed by two shit-faced mayrs. What happened to that nap he had in mind?

Heat flared out of the campfire. Kay stood close enough to let it warm him, rubbing his hands together over the flames.

“Hey!” Fallon greeted him. “What is this you’ve got?” He offered the flask to Kay.

“A gift from Willeo. And Don’O,” Kay said around a swig.

“Well, dayum,” Fal said. “How’re we supposed to outdo that one?”

Kay laughed quietly. “Please. Don’t try.”

“Don’t you want him?”

“Couldn’t very well turn him down.” Kay handed the boda back to Fallon and stirred the hot porridge he had put on the fire before the bathing episode. It was starting to look done.

“Put it to you that way, did they?”

“’Fraid so,” Kay said.

He dished up a tin bowlful of the steaming grain and squatted beside the Roksandero brat.

“Here,” he said in Espanyo. “Some hot chow is good for what ails you. Eat this.”

Fallon and Fil appraised the new arrival. “Not a bad-looking kid,” Fil observed.

“Hard to tell, don’t you think?” Kay said.

“He’s beat up a little,” Fal agreed. “But when they’re that young, they heal fast.”

“If you don’t want him, I’ll take him,” Fil offered.

“That’d go over real well,” Kay returned. Fil was already deeper into his cups than Fallon. Don’O would take profound offense if Kay passed his gift along to one of his underlings, as anyone vaguely sober would recognize.

The kid showed no inclination to eat. He stared at the food as it cooled between his hands.

“Mm hmm!” Fallon sang with his lips closed. “You’re gonna have some fun tonight!”

“Whoo!” Fil, beyond inarticulate, seconded this.

“Soon’s you’re done, I’m next,” Fal added.

“Firsts, seconds, and thirds,” said Fil, putting in his bid for a turn.

“Get outta here,” Kay growled.

“O-o-h, yeah!” Fal hooted. “He wants to get right down to business.” Fil twitched his pelvis like a fox flips its tail.

“Assholes,” said Kay. “Gone. Both of you—now.”

“Remember now—don’t forget your friends.”

“Good-bye.”

“Show us how it’s done, will you?”

Kay gave Fil a glance that expressed his sentiment: surpassing annoyed.

How to get rid of this pair? Kay stood up and studied Fallon, wondering if he still possessed an inkling of his wits. “I heard Mitch’s boys were getting up a game of craps with Bose and Metet’s men. Now, you two aren’t going to let those A’oans get the best of a bunch of good Okan lads, are you?”

“You think they’re gonna do that?”

“Well, now. I wouldn’t want to see Cham Fos come up against them all alone.”

“I think he’s trying to tell us something, bud’,” Fallon said to Fil.

“Na-a-ah. You think so?”

“I’ll tell you two sweethearts how the honeymoon went in the morning, hm? That’s when I’ll see you next.” He set one friendly hand on each man’s shoulder and directed them away from his campfire.

§

The two other Englos, the ones who came up on them, they thought something was funny. They laughed a lot, unreined like the tough street urchins who hung out in the plaza all day and through the evening hours, those boys his father wouldn’t let him have anything to do with—when did they work, anyway? The dark-haired one, his ebony beard smooth and shiny as if he had polished it, that one looked almost like one of them. The third one, shorter and stockier, had odd coloring, like dust in the road. His father said they didn’t work, they were thieves and lazy bums, not decent people. But the other one, the first one, he didn’t seem to laugh with them much. Sometimes he did. But not so often as they.

Despite their laughter, their talk made a harsh sound, coarse as the first one’s hard hands scrubbing over his body, only scrubbing over his ears instead. Like rocks came out of their mouths, he thought. Their noise rattled on and on, like a hard rain on cobbles or stones tumbling down a streambed, and, behind it, off in the distance, he could hear the screaming. The shriek, high-pitched and shrill, of his little sister’s voice, and other screams, other screams.

The first one squatted beside him and handed him a bowlful of steamy yellow porridge, an old bent metal spoon sticking out of it. The man told him to eat it, and his words sounded foreign, as though he spoke from somewhere deep in his throat. Then the man stood up and went back to rattling stones with the others.

Tavio stared at the hot, gummy-looking mush. He sat unmoving. Although he did not listen, the sounds flowed through him as though he had no substance, as though he were air and the sound itself his substance. Somehow the screams had become a part of him. No, they were him, and he was them. They had come to take him and make them part of their cold, transparent selves. The screams, the screams.

“What’s the matter, chacho? Aren’t you hungry?” The man sat on his heels nearby, watching him. He held a second bowl from which he began to eat.

The other two were gone. Tavio had neither seen nor heard them leave.

“No, senyó,” he said.

“You’ve already eaten today?”

Tavio didn’t know. He wasn’t sure how many days had passed since he last ate. He couldn’t remember what had happened an hour before, much less a day or two. He shrugged.

“You need to get something in your belly, amiho,” the other said. His foreign voice rang of the tumbling rocks, yet his words sounded not so hard. “Eat anyway, even if you don’t feel like it. It’ll make things better.” He took the spoon from Tavi’s hand, scooped up some porridge, and handed it back. Tavio took it and put it in his mouth. He ate without tasting the food, as he stared at the ground without seeing. He ate until the bowl was empty, and then the man took it from him.

Tavi sat while the man carried the dirty dishes toward the stream. The sun was going down. It touched the purple cutout mountains in the west and shot its last yellow streaks into the dimming sky. Among the trees chilly shadows had already gathered like watching spirits. The man returned. He shook water off the dishes and stacked them neatly with his other gear.

§

He supposed he was going to have to do this. Better now, probably, than later. The kid looked pretty stunned. Might put up less of a fight now than he would after a night’s sleep.

Those two clowns were still going strong at Fal’s campfire. Now and again, one of them shouted an encouraging obscenity in Kay’s direction. When he was done, maybe he’d give the Spanyo to Fal. Or Fil, since Fal didn’t really make much of boys, despite the ragging. At least that would get the boy out of his hair for the night. Get all three of them out of his hair.

But then, that would mean he’d have to do it. He studied the target of this rumination, still huddled where Kay had sat him down. Wretched brat. How the hell had this one gotten out of the city alive? And why bother to keep him alive? The world improved vastly with each Roksando disappearance. Feeding such an animal was counterproductive.

And yet, yes: a Roksandero boy. Like closing a ring, it was. Don’O must have seen it that way, when he thought of this gift. A gift of perfect vengeance, to fill the bitter cup. Or empty it. Would such a thing empty it? Kay wondered.

§

The man unlaced the lashings on the tent’s entrance. “Come in here now,” he said to Tavio.

Tavi heard rock-words over the screams, but he couldn’t make out what they meant. He sat still, listening to the ululating dark. The man came over and took him by the arm, yanked him to his feet. “Inside,” he said.

The borrowed shirt’s hem dropped to Tavi’s bare knees. The man guided him into the tent. It was black. The man struck a flint to a small candle’s oily wick and hung the light from one of the lodge’s struts.

A pile of blankets topped with a pieced-together fur cover lay in one corner of the heavy, waxed floor. Bags and clothing lined the outside walls. “Sit down,” the man said, and indicated the bedding. “Make yourself comfortable. It’s a little warmer in here.” A small leather boda hung near the door. The man uncorked it. “Have some,” he offered.

Tavio took a mouthful. It tasted hot. It burned as it went down. He choked.

“New for you, is it?” The man spoke gently. “It’s all right. It won’t hurt you. Drink a little more. It’s like medicine—makes life go easier.” He picked up some stray clothing, stuffed it into a half-full canvas sack, and set the plump bag near the center of the floor. With some coaxing, Tavio—by habit generally obedient—took a fair amount of the liquor.

He held the boda between his hands while he watched the man undress. His head felt a little odd, like when he swung from the long rope hanging from the big courtyard tree. The man unlaced his fly and started to drop his grimy trousers and then he remembered.

“No,” Tavi said. “No!” He bolted for the tent’s opening. The man grabbed at him but he dodged away and shot outside. He ran for the darkness beyond the firelight. Behind him, he heard a low laugh.

§

Kay laughed when the boy slipped out of his grip and fled into the night. Good riddance. Let him run off. That would be the end of him, and no one could fault Kay for it. Sorry, Don’O—great idea, but it just wasn’t meant to be

He kicked off his pants, dropped his woolen tunic, and climbed under the covers.

§

His bare feet scrabbled over stabbing pine needles, his heart pounded, he raced blindly into the shrill darkness. The screaming night opened to consume him.

Hands closed around his body and held him tight. He squirmed to get free, but the one who held him dragged him back to the campfire. A man’s voice laughed merrily.

His captor, the tall young man with black hair and black beard, spoke to the older man and his face lit with roguish affability. The other pulled his loose trousers up around his waist. He laughed, too, more quietly. Tavi struggled, but the dark-haired man pinned his hands behind him and pushed him toward the tent. The two men exchanged a few more words and then Tavi was handed over to the older man, who with practiced efficiency forced him back inside the lodge.

Tisha screamed. She screamed until the air shivered with her screaming.

Chapter 4
Gorandero

The kid wailed in the dark as though Kay had beaten him. Kay re-lit the lantern and sat down on the cold lodge floor beside the boy. He watched for a few minutes, letting Tavio carry on for the benefit of the eavesdroppers outside. But he had already made up his mind.

“Quit that!” Kay protested, after he had listened to it as long as he could bear. “I haven’t hurt you. You want me to give you something real to bawl about?” Tavio sobbed and ducked into the hide floor as if he thought he could burrow through it and into the earth.

Weary, Kay grunted softly. He got up and knelt beside the prostrate figure. When he stroked Tavio’s back, his hand covered an entire shoulder blade. “Tavi, that’s your name, hm? Be quiet now. You’re all right,” he said. “I’m not going to hurt you. I’m not going to do anything to you, and no one else is going to touch you, either. You understand?”

Tavio moaned. He mumbled something that Kay didn’t catch.

“What?” Kay asked, pointlessly, he realized. “Sit up here and settle down. Quiet.” Kay pulled him upright and brushed his hair, wet with river water, sweat, and tears, back off his bruised face. Soft and thick, his hair was. “Now knock it off. Get ahold of yourself. You should be ashamed, blubbering like a little baby.”

“Make it stop,” the boy moaned.

“It is stopped. You’re not hurt. I’m not going to mess with you and I won’t let anything else happen to you. It’ll be all right.”

“Please. Please, make them stop. Make it stop!” He clapped his hands over his ears and rocked himself back and forth.

“Make what stop?” Kay said. “What are you talking about? You’re all right now. Those two clowns out there won’t hurt you, and neither will I.”

“They’re screaming. They keep on screaming.” Tavi put his hands back over his ears when Kay tried to pull them away. “Can’t you hear them?” He sobbed again.

Kay recoiled, though he was not a man easily put off by foolishness or others’ fears. The boy curled into a sweaty ball and wailed, a long keening misery like some godforsaken wind howling through a high mountain pass. The skin behind Kay’s ears prickled so he felt as though they twitched, cat-like, in search of a sound. If the night air carried any screams, Kay couldn’t make them out behind the moan that filled the lodge.

Was this brat mad? What could he be hearing? Some crazy squeal inside his head, or something else? Maybe he could hear into the other world, where the screams of the massacred might very well echo down through days and nights into all of eternity. Or maybe something had him, some horror like the wild, vicious water-hating spirit of rabies—a possessor that would kill him. Could kill everyone around him, too.

Rabid, insane, or something worse? Kay felt his heartbeat start to race. He thought first to reach for his blade and then to leave, to get out the door. Then, as always when the adrenalin rose like whiskey fumes into his head, he felt himself slow down and look deliberately at everything around him. What he saw was just a boy, sobbing so he could scarcely draw a breath.

He made himself grasp Tavio by the shoulders and hold him still. “Stop it,” he said, and he heard a tremor in his own voice. “Be quiet. Tell me who’s screaming—what do you hear?”

Held firmly by Kay’s hands, the Espanyo boy gasped out a few words. “They’re screaming,” he said. “The isburdos. My sister, Tisha, she’s screaming. She keeps screaming. And Rina. And my mother. Mi mamita. They’re still screaming!”

Again Kay felt the hair on his neck rise. Keep a grip on yourself, he thought. This was a superstitious Espanyo. Isburdos de noda were southern haunts, not something that bothered a respectable man. “No one’s screaming, boy. There’s no night ghosts here.”

“They are. They’re screaming. I can hear them.” Tavio choked, recovered, and went back to weeping. He squeezed his fists against his ears.

Kay studied him for a moment, taken aback. If he just left the kid alone, would this racket quit sooner or later? Surely the boy couldn’t keep it up forever—he’d have to wear himself out before much longer. But…the shrieks were not so far from Kay. He could almost hear the cries himself, and somewhere in the mirrored tunnel of time and memory another boy’s tears soaked into the earth. Damn them! A man on foot raised his ax to Kay; the horse lunged, Kay’s sword blurred, the arm hit the ground, a red arc pulsed through the air. Damn them straight to hell and let them all roast there for eternity. Let their brats bleed for what they do. The boy whimpered. Damn them.

“Listen, chacho,” Kay said. “I know something that might help. Do you want to try?”

This made little impression.

“We can talk to them,” Kay added. “I know how. Because I am…I’m gorandero,” he used a Spanyo term that straddled “healer” and “magician.”

Tavio glanced at him, briefly arrested by the charged word, but then clenched his eyes shut, his hands tight over his ears. “We can help them,” Kay said, “and maybe make things better for them so they’ll be quiet. But you’ll have to help, too.”

Gently, he took Tavio’s hands away from his ears, surprised to meet no resistance this time. “Do you understand? I can make them listen to us, but you’ll have to help them, because they don’t know me. They know you.”

The boy stared at him. He stopped moaning, but his breath still came in sobs.

“Do you want to try this?” Kay asked. “You’ll have to speak for them.”

Tavio nodded.

“Good,” Kay said. He kept his voice quiet. “We need to do this together. So pay attention, hm?”

Still holding Tavi’s hands, he spread his arms in front of him in the traditional Okan gesture of prayer. He thought it was a pose a Spanyo would recognize, too—at least, he hoped so. The urchin held his hands palm upward, as Kay did.

Kay closed his eyes—or seemed to, though he watched Tavio from behind the veil of his eyelashes—and tilted his face heavenward. “O spirits of the night,” he began. What would night ghosts like to hear? The Spanyos probably had all sorts of formulas. With any luck, though, this kid wouldn’t know them. The boy had quieted a little, and he seemed to be listening. “We know that you can hear us and so we speak to you. Leave us in peace. Peace, I say. We send our blessing to God for you, and we ask the angels to open the way to the other world, to take you into the presence of God. We will talk your story, but you must be still so that we can tell the words. I who am gorandero tell you to be silent.”

Tavio regarded him in what looked like astonishment. Kay held his pose a minute or two longer, communing with whatever was out there. Then he broke it off, sighed, and looked up. “Is that better?” he asked.

Tavio nodded, tentatively.

“They’ll let you speak for them now,” Kay said. “Tell their story for them, and then they’ll have peace. Tell me what you’re hearing, boy. Who’s screaming, hm?”

Tavio struggled to catch his breath. “They. . . They wouldn’t stop,” he said. He sobbed again. “I can’t. . .I don’t feel good. I’m going to throw up.”

“Not in here, you’re not!” said Kay. He jumped to his feet, pulled Tavio up, and hauled him outside just as the contents of his stomach bubbled out and spilled on the ground in a liquor-fumed puddle. Tavi retched until everything he had been fed came up, and then some. When it ended, he looked, by the dim light of the dwindling campfire, like he expected to be struck.

Kay put his arm around the shivering youth and led him over to the fire. He scooped a dipperful of water from a pail and offered it. Tavio drank, tears still flowing down his wet cheeks.

A woolen throw had been left outside, Kay recalled. He groped for it in the dark, found it, and wrapped it around Tavio’s shoulders. Then he stirred the fire and added another piece of wood. Heat and light flared. Kay sat Tavio near the warmth and knelt beside him.

“What’s happened to them, Tavi? Tell me about it. Tell me so that you can speak for them.”

After a moment, the Espanyo spoke, barely above a whisper. “They came in our house, the Englos,” he said. He used the Spanyo term, Englos. “We were hiding. My mother hid us all. She told us to stay there. But they found us. They found my sister Rina, she was in the storage closet. Mamita and I put clothes and things on top of her, to hide her so no one would see her if they pulled back the curtain, but they found her anyway.

“I could hear her, she was crying and yelling, begging them, ‘No, don’t hurt me, leave me alone,’ and then I heard my mamita, I could hear her out there with them. She must have come out to help Rina, to try to help her, but they had her and they did something that made her scream.

“That’s when I climbed out. She put me in the cellar under the kitchen, and she threw the ladder down in there with me. When she yelled, I got out of there, because. . . to stop them, you know? To stop them. There was a bunch of them. Five or six. And they were big and mean and they caught me, the way you did, the way that other guy did, they held me down and I couldn’t fight them off.”

“Looks like you tried,” Kay said.

Tavi gulped back another sob and nodded. “They found Tisha, too, where my mother left her when she came out, under the bed.”

Pretty obvious, Kay thought. He wondered why she hadn’t looked for some better hiding places, and then realized she probably never expected to have Hengliss raiders in her house. Not in a city as well fortified as Roksan.

“Tisha screamed when they. . . . They took us one at a time, we had this big table, you know? Where we all ate together, and we would work there sometimes, or play games, like checkers? And they pulled off their clothes, my sisters and mi mamita, they tore their clothes, and they made us watch, one at a time, they. . .they. . . .” The boy groped for a term, and finally choked out the most vulgar Espanyo word for rape, a word that itself sounded like an unutterable violation.

Kay felt this coming but couldn’t help flinching at it. He knew how things happened. But hearing it from this boy, seeing it through his eyes now, it felt as though he had been punched somewhere inside himself. I’m sorry, he almost said, but no words would come out.

“When they put them on the table like that, they didn’t have to…they could do it standing up, they didn’t even have to take their pants off, and they all did it. They all did it over and over. They put me on there, too, and…and they did me like that, the same way.

“Tisha screamed when they did it. She was so little, just a little girl, my baby sister, just eight summers. She screamed. They couldn’t stop her from screaming.

“Finally, they took her, when they were done, one of them took her and he took his knife and he cut her. He cut her across her throat.

“And my mother screamed. She started to scream like Tisha. Then they cut Rina, they held us there and made us watch. And after that, after that they killed her. Mi mamita. They cut her throat, too.” He started to sob again.

Kay put his hand on Tavi’s shoulder and held it there until Tavi could speak.

“I thought they were going to cut me then,” he continued. “But they didn’t. They carried me outside. Everything was on fire. The buildings across the plaza were burning, our house was starting to burn, the roof had smoke coming from it. And . . . I don’t remember after that. Except the screaming.

“They keep screaming. They’re isburdos now, and they’re screaming.”

Kay felt Tavi’s words as he spoke them, each one like a small wound inflicted with a whispering blade, sor-sorro-sorry. For a moment after the boy had finished speaking, he sat in silence. Then he said, “They’ll be quieter now. Now that you’ve told what happened to them. You free them, by telling it. They’ll find their way to the other world now.”

“They didn’t die right away,” Tavi said. He wiped his face, an almost useless gesture. “They. . . .”

“I know,” said Kay. “I know.” He had seen people die with their throats slit.

He got up and poured some water from a pail into a small pot, which he hung over the fire. He stepped inside the lodge and pulled forth a sueded leather bag. From it, he fished out several smaller bags, some of whose contents he measured into the warming water. Then he returned to Tavi’s side and knelt next to him again.

“Why didn’t they kill me?” Tavi asked.

“Why?” Kay considered his response and decided against softening it. “Because you were worth something to them. Women are not.”

“What?” The boy looked at once confused and stricken.

“Sometimes we take boys into the field with us. We don’t take women, because…well, some people think they bring bad luck. But the truth is, it’s that boys don’t bleed and they don’t get pregnant. And most men are less likely to fight over a boy than over a woman.”

“Are you going to do that to me?” the boy asked.

“No,” Kay said.

“I want to be with them.”

“No, you don’t.”

Tavi buried his face in the crook of his arm. Kay wrapped the blanket tighter around the huddled figure and went back to check the liquid simmering over the fire. The herbs he had put in had turned the water a deep, clear green. He poured some into a small earthenware cup.

“Here,” he said. “Drink some of this.”

“What is it?”

“It’s hot, be a little careful. It’ll make you feel better.”

Tavi cradled the cup in his hand. Its warmth soaked into his fingers. He sipped a little of the liquid. Gently, Kay urged him to take it all.

“Now listen, boy,” Kay said, after Tavi had begun to look like he would drink the tea without further pushing. “You can’t hear the others screaming, because they’re not screaming, hm? They’re resting now. Where they are, no one can hurt them. Do you understand?”

Tavio looked at him dumbly.

“There are no isburdos, Tavi. What happened, happened once. It doesn’t go on happening. Now it’s done. Put it behind you, and the past will take care of the past.”

“I can hear them,” Tavi said.

“They’re quiet now,” Kay replied.

And Tavi was quiet. Kay took the cup, refilled it, and handed it back to him. The boy sipped some more. After a few minutes, he asked, “What’s in this?”

“It’s just a tea I make with plants that grow in my garden back home. It relaxes you. Helps you sleep.”

“It tastes good.”

“It’s a little sweet,” Kay agreed. And then, “Did you understand what I said?”

Tavi shrugged.

“They don’t want you with them, chacho.”

“They’ll come and get me,” Tavi said. “They’ll come in the night and touch me. They make you sick with their touch, and then you die. Because they want to take you with them.”

“No. Your mother doesn’t want you with her. Believe me. She wants you to live.”

“But. . . .”

“Believe what I’m saying to you. I know. I am gorandero.

Tavi gazed at Kay over the rim of the cup. He drank the brew while they sat in silence for a few minutes. Then he spoke:

“What is this place?” he asked.

“Here?” Kay wondered at the question. “This is the camp of Brez Lhored’s army. You mean here, this spot?”

Tavi nodded.

“This is my camp, and that’s my lodge.” Tavi looked around the circle of the campfire’s light like someone who wakes from a sound sleep in the afternoon and confuses early dusk with late dawn. “Don’t you remember coming here with me?” Kay asked.

Tavi didn’t answer.

“Do you remember my name?”

“No, senyó,” Tavi said.

“My name is Kaybrel. I’m called Kubna of Moor Lek.” He used the Espanyo term alacaldo, a rank roughly equivalent to kubna.

“Really?” the boy asked. His tone sounded surprised, and Kay wondered if he recognized the name.

“So,” said Kay.

“I’ve never known an alacaldo,” Tavi said.

Kay smiled at this odd remark. “Now you do,” he said.

Tavi said nothing. He stared into his cup.

“Take the rest of this,” Kay said. He poured the remaining brew, very strong by now, into the stoneware. Three draughts of the stuff, Kay figured, would put a horse to sleep. The mint and tarragon would settle his stomach, and if the wanna didn’t put him down, the touch of obeh Kay had added surely would.

“Tavio,” Kay said. “You’re all right now. You’re safe. I’m sorry our men hurt you. I won’t hurt you again, you understand? And I won’t let anyone else hurt you.”

Tavi looked at him: incomprehending? Curious? Kay couldn’t guess. The boy’s eyes seemed as black as the sky behind him. Laughter and bits of conversation carried over from other campsites, and nearby a night insect trilled.

Kay wondered if his words sounded as hollow to the other as they did to him. Did he believe him, this Tavio? And whether or not he did, could Kay make good on those words? Silently, he vowed to himself that he would, and in the same moment he wondered if a vow made in silence was a vow at all.

“I’m really tired,” Tavio murmured.

“Let’s put you to bed, then.”

Inside the lodge Kay settled him between the layered blankets. Tavio was almost out when Kaybrel stroked his hair and told him to sleep well. By the light of a fresh candle, Kay watched him sink into sleep, his bronzy hair a halo around the bruised and swollen face. Once he stopped bawling and that black-and-blue marks cleared up, he wouldn’t be a bad-looking kid. He seemed smaller than he was, huddled beneath the fur. He had the high cheeks that Indian admixture brought to the Mediterranean stock of the southern people, and the generous lips and wide nose of distant African forebears—pretty enough, taken together.

Some enemy, Kaybrel thought.

He lifted the boda off the door frame on the way out. The night grew black and cold while he watched the fire burn down to coals.

 

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And the rest of the thing…

Place Names of the Cottrite Chronicles

Map of Western Methgoa during the Great Lacuna

The degree to which a given habitation could be called a “settlement,” a “town,” or a “city” is largely unknown; most of the sites mentioned in the Cottrite Codex await discovery and excavation. It is believed that cowndees—districts overseen by a kubna—each possessed a relatively large town, with populations on the order of five hundred to as many as three thousand people; usually an Okan cowndee and its main town bore the same name. A mayr, on the other hand, apparently presided over a settlement or smaller town with substantial tracts of land attached to it, which were considered to be part of and politically subordinate to a cowndee.

Some Socaliniero habitations seem to have been larger than those found in the northern regions of Okan, A’o, and Foshinden. Archaeological excavations at Mendo, for example, suggest that during the Interhistorical Era the town may have reached populations of 10,000 or 12,000 people, some of them scattered in farming settlements near the walled city.

  • A’o: mountainous stae’ to the east of Okan
  • Achpie Muns: coastal mountain range
  • Aleio: Socaliniero town south of Roksan, situated on the Wakeen River
  • Arn Mun: settlement in the Okan cowndee of Cham Fos
  • Avi: settlement in the Okan cowndee of Cham Fos
  • Bose: city and cowndee of A’o
  • Bwayblo Muns: mountains between southern Okan and southern A’o
  • Cham Fos: town and cowndee of Okan
  • Cham Lek: lake above the falls of Cham Fos
  • Cheyne Wells: settlement in the Okan cowndee of Moor Lek
  • Cumat Way: trail in Okan
  • Dona Paz: a high pass in the Sehrra Muns; Dona Paz Road: trail leading through this pass
  • Ellaya: ruin of an ancient Socalio city, called the City of Lost Angels by northern tribes
  • Elmo: settlement in the Okan cowndee of Moor Lek
  • Fo’rokvel: settlement in the Okan cowndee of Grisham Lekvel
  • Foshinden: northernmost autonomous region west of the Coastal Range
  • Freeman Mun: mountain in northernmost Galifone, near the boundary with Okan; site of hot springs
  • Galifone: Espanyo territory north of Socalia.
  • Ganbeh Donjon: ruins in northwestern Vada
  • Goze Lek: waterhole on the eastern side of the SehrraMountains, in northwestern Vada
  • Grisham Lekvel: town and cowndee of Okan
  • Guidad Mendo: Socaliniero town south of Roksan
  • Ham’l: city of A’o
  • Hanny’s Lek: small lake on the eastern side of the SehrraMountains, in western Vada
  • Honey Hame: settlement in the Okan cowndee of Moor Lek
  • Huam Prinz: town and cowndee of Okan
  • Kren: settlement in the Okan cowndee of Cham Fos
  • Lek Doe: trading center in the Sehrramountains
  • Lil Ku: tributary of the Mendo River
  • Loma Alda: ruined Socaliniero townsite on the east side of the Mendo River
  • Lost Angels: ruin of an ancient Socalio city; in Espanyo, Ellaya
  • Mazen: city of A’o
  • Mendo: city on the Mendo Ribba in the Wakeen Val
  • Mendo Ribba: major river in the Wakeen Val
  • Mercan: extinct civilization formerly occupying the northernmost continent of the western hemisphere
  • Metet: cowndee of A’o
  • Mezgo: large Espanyo-occupied region to the south of Socalia and Zoni, extending eastward beyond the Rogga Muns (Sehrra Máderes)
  • Miduhm: town and cowndee of Okan
  • Moor Lek: town and cowndee of Okan; after a lake of the same name
  • Moor Ribba: River flowing from the Snek out of A’o into Okan
  • Mosarín: a town in Socalio
  • Novalinda: town north of Roksan
  • Nusyaddle: coastal city in northern stae’ of Foshinden
  • O’a: settlement in the Okan cowndee of Moor Lek
  • Okan: autonomous stae’ west of the coastal range and north of Galifone
  • Oane Lek: town and cowndee of Okan; after a lake of the same name
  • Oshin: settlement in the Okan cowndee of Moor Lek
  • Puns: town and cowndee of Okan
  • Puns Donjon: town in southernmost Okan, believed to be in decline during Cottrite’s time
  • Rawley: settlement in the Okan cowndee of Puns
  • Rayno: ruins in western Vada
  • Rittamun: settlement and cowndee of Okan
  • Rogga Muns: the SehrraMádere range; eastern limit of Hengliss and Espanyo cultures described in the Cottrite Codex
  • Roksan: major city of the south
  • Rozebek: town in the Okan cowndee of Puns
  • Sa’Lek: saline lake inside the walled province of Uda
  • Sayjunill: settlement in the Okan cowndee of Puns
  • Sehrra Muns (northern): mountain range to the west of the Wakeen Val
  • Shazdi: active volcano on the border between Okan and Espanyo territories
  • Sihueri Vada Muns (southern): southern end of the Sehrra mountains
  • Silba Lek: town and cowndee of Okan; after a lake of the same name
  • Silba Ribba: a river in Okan
  • Socalia: Espanyo region between the western coastal range and the SehrraMuns, south of Galifone
  • Snek Ribba: river extending from the Rogga Muns through A’o and into Foshinden
  • Soja Mun: mountain on the north end of the inland valleys, near the Okan border
  • Syadle: ruins of an ancient Mercan city, overtaken by advance of polar ice following the Climate Reversal
  • Truth Mun: Mountain in southern Okan
  • Uda: a walled state on the eastern end of Vada and Zoni
  • Vada: desert territory to the south of Okan and east of Galifone and Socalia, partially organized as a stae’ but sparsely occupied
  • Vareio: town near Roksan
  • Vrezgo: site of ancient Mercan coastal city, now located some miles inland; mostly ruins
  • Waiya Ribba: river in A’o
  • Wakeen Ribba: river in the central Socalio valley
  • Wakeen Val: inland valley bounded by the Sehrraand the Achpi mountains
  • Wammet Muns: northern stretch of the Coastal Range; so called by natives of Foshinden and Okan
  • Wichin: town and cowndee in Okan
  • Zoni: largely unoccupied desert territory sandwiched between southern Vada and Mezgo
  • Zonorenza: Espanyo territory south of Socalia

Historical Persons Mentioned in the Cottrite Chronicles * FREE READ *

Hapa Cottrite, compiler of the Cottrite Chronicles

Editor’s Note: Individual names Cottrite mentions are spelled in a variety of ways; there was precious little literacy and no standardization during the Interhistorical Era. Spellings have been standardized for this edition by the translator. It is assumed that the people described in Cottrite Codex 1.1 – 18.7 were living, historical persons, although of course there is no way to confirm that. We present them as Hapa Cottrite presented them, writing in ancient Espanyo informed by the Hengliss tongue in which he also was fluent.

  • Albar Dieho Conzessión do Riogrez i Zan Andona do la Torrenda: Roksando alacaldo; captor of Kaybrel of Moor Lek
  • Alber: page in the service of Brez Lhored of Grisham Lekvel
  • Aniel: former camp boy of Kaybrel Kubna of Moor Lek, now his retainer
  • Arden: monja in the service of Fallon Mayr of Cheyne Wells
  • Babra Puehkenz of Rayno: seeyo (elected leader) of Lek Doe
  • Bayder: camp cook for Moor Lek band
  • Bett Kubnath of Huam Prinz and Cham Fos: Okan leader, espoused to Rik Kubna of Puns
  • Bilhem: Okan scout
  • Binsen (Binz) Kubna of Oane Lek: Okan leader, allied with Kaybrel Kubna of Moor Lek
  • Brikas: monja in the service of the deceased Evard Kubna of Moor Lek
  • Bron Brez of Miduhm: Okan brez predating Lhored of Grisham Lekvel
  • Cam Gadah: miller’s son from Moor Lek
  • Consayo i Ribera: Roksando alacaldo (full name not known); an elder and a junior are reported
  • Cook: servant to the House of Puns
  • Da’eld Kubna of Ham’l: A’oan leader defeated and overrun by Roksandero forces
  • Del Mayr of Rittamun: follower of Mitchel Kubna of Cham Fos
  • Demon: Kaybrel Kubna of Moor Lek’s war horse
  • Deodorho Escodare i Boleda do Gansoliz i Corruedo: Tavio Ombertín’s father
  • Derrenz Kubna of Grisham Lekvel: Brez Lhored of Grisham Lekvel’s father
  • Devey Mayr of Metet: A’oan allied with Lhored of Grisham Lekvel; Follower of Eddo Kubna of Bose
  • Dodi: sister wife to Larel, Kubnath of Puns
  • Dom Kubna of Wichin: Okan war lord
  • Don’O: monja in the service of Kaybrel Kubna of Moor Lek
  • Duarto Escodero i Minyos do Portalez en Mosarín, a.k.a. Duarto of Cham Fos: companion to Mitchel Kubna of Cham Fos
  • Eberto: camp boy to Okan camp cook Bayder
  • Eddo Kubna of Bose: A’oan allied to Brez Lhored of Grishem Lekvel
  • Elroy: monja in the service of Rik of Puns
  • Emilio Escodare i Boleda do Gansoliz i Corruedo: Tavio Ombertín’s uncle
  • Emma: sister wife of Kubnath of Huam Prinz and Cham Fos
  • Evard Kubna of Moor Lek: Kaybrel of Moor Lek’s father
  • Evard Steel-Thrower, Kubna of Moor Lek: Kaybrel’s father
  • Fallon Mayr of Cheyne Wells (sometimes called Fal): follower and friend of Kaybrel Kubna of Moor Lek
  • Fil Mayr of Honey Hame: follower of Kaybrel Kubna of Moor Lek
  • Fol Mayr of Miduhm: follower Mitchel Kubna of Cham Fos
  • Fraim Jon Mayr of Sayjunill: follower of Rikad Kubna of Puns’s father
  • Fredi Diz do Gampo: camp boy to Okan camp cook Bayder
  • Guelito: camp boy to Binsen Kubna of Oane Lek
  • Habier Esparanza: ally of Albar Dieho (full name unknown)
  • Hapa Cottrite: Public intellectual living in Lek Doe; later exiled to Okan
  • Herre Mayr of Elmo: follower of Kaybrel Kubna of Moor Lek
  • Iami: Bayder’s camp boy to Okan camp cook Bayder
  • Jag Bova Mayr of Rozebek: follower of Rikad Kubna of Puns
  • Jayarr Mayr of Rawley: follower of Mitchel Kubna of Cham Fos
  • Jenna: Aniel’s wife
  • Jode Mayr of Avi: follower of Mitchel Kubna of Cham Fos
  • Kaybrel Kubna of Moor Lek, often called Kay: warlord and reputed healer
  • Kristof Mayr of Oshin, sometimes called Kristo’: follower of Kaybrel Kubna of Moor Lek
  • Laora: Tavio Ombertín’s wife by an arranged, unconsummated marriage
  • Larel, Kubnath of Puns: Rik Kubna of Puns’s senior wife
  • Laudellio Viciente do Inez i Modesto Pinya: Master weaver at Lake Doe
  • Leah, Kubnath of Grisham Lekvel: Lhored’s senior wife
  • Lenn: son of Mitchel Kubna of Cham Fos
  • Lhored Brez of Grisham Lekvel: warlord and chosen Okan leader
  • Lonneh: Brez Lhored of Grisham Lekvel’s page
  • Luse: camp boy to Kristof Mayr of Oshin
  • Maire, Kubnath of Silba Lek and Moor Lek; wife to Kaybrel
  • Mak Mayr of Kren: follower of Mitchel Kubna of Cham Fos
  • Meji: sister wife of Bett Kubnath of Huam Prinz and Cham Fos
  • Mel: monja for Robin Mayr of O’a
  • Mist: Kaybrel’s pack horse
  • Mitchel Kubna of Cham Fos: Okan warlord; Kaybrel of Moor Lek’s cousin
  • Nando: camp boy to Robin of O’a; later turned over to Binsen Kubna of Oane Lek, and later to the A’oan warloard Devey of Metet
  • Nelli: servant to the House of Puns; wife of Cook
  • Nett: Moor Lek boy sacrificed to save the young Kaybrel
  • Nik, Niklas: monja in the service of Mitchel of Cham Fos
  • Ottavio Ombertín i Boleda do Gansoliz i Corruedo, called Tavi or Tavio: camp boy in the service of Kaybrel Kubna of Moor Lek; son of Roksan’s most prominent master weaver
  • Pazgal: camp boy to Habier Esperanza
  • Porfi: camp boy to Devey Mayr of Metet
  • Raider: Fallon’s war horse
  • Raina Kubnath of Oane Lek: Kaybrel Kubna of Moor Lek’s mother and senior wife to Evard Kubna of Moor Lek
  • Raol Escodare i Boleda do Gansoliz i Corruedo: Tavio Ombertín’s uncle
  • Red Kubna of Cham Fos: Kay Kubna of Moor Lek’s uncle; Mitchel Kubna of Cham Fos’s father
  • Rikad (Rik) Kubna of Puns: Okan warlord; rival to Kaybrel Kubna of Moor Lek
  • Rina: Ottavio Ombertín’s sister (full name unknown)
  • Robin Mayr of O’a: follower of Kaybrel Kubna of Moor Lek
  • Roja mayr of Arn Mun: follower of Mitchel Kubna of Cham Fos
  • Shaerne: Okan seer and survivor of the sack of Moor Lek (full name unknown)
  • Stayvn: monja for Kristof Mayr of Oshin
  • Sten Mayr of Fo’rokvel: follower of Brez Lhored Kubna of Grisham Lekvel
  • Tavio (Tavi): see Ottavio Ombertín i Boleda do Gansoliz i Corruedo
  • Teeg Maghell: archer in the service of Evard Kubna of Moor Lek
  • Terro: Okan scout
  • Tish: Ottavio Ombertín’s sister (full name unknown)
  • Treese: sister wife to Larel, Kubnath of Puns (full name and rank unknown)
  • Veera: wife to Moor Lek blacksmith identified as “Zeb”
  • Vrenglin Mayr of Cheyne Wells: Fallon Mayr of Cheyne Wells’s grandfather
  • Willeo: cask-maker of Moor Lek
  • Zeb: blacksmith of Moor Lek

Fire-Rider: Glossary

Glossary of Hengliss and Espanyo terms of the Great Lacuna

Terms of southern or Espanyo derivation are marked with a letter (S); those with northern or Hengliss derivation with a letter (N).

‘ glottal stop. This indicates a specific unvoiced sound, created by an abrupt, brief closure of the glottis. Cf. the apostrophe (’), which may mark a dropped letter or consonant (as in aren’t) but does not add a phoneme. In Hengliss dialects, the glottal stop appears to have functioned as an allophone for –t, -d, -v, and –f. Its use in ancient Espanyo is not presently known. The Cottrite Codex signifies the glottal stop with a raised caret: ^

a’i va! (S): go for it~
alacaldo (S): hereditary leader, warlord; approx the same as a kubna
amiho (S): friend
así (S): yes
badrón (S): chief follower of an alacaldo
bezo (S): Socaliniero unit of currency
boda’ drectahs (N? provenance unknown): group of officials in charge of Lek Doe government affairs
brez (N): king
brezidiente (S): brez (northern term meaning, approx., “king”)
bwe’ di (S): good morning
buelo (S): term of respect for an elderly man
buen’ (S): good, OK
chacho (S): boy, lad, youthful companion
cowndee (N): political unit, smaller than a stae’ and larger than a town
def-slip (N): coma (“death sleep”)
don (S): lord
ejizo (S): karma, fate
Englo (S): people of the northern realms; also their language
Espanyo (N): people of the southern realms; language of the south. Also Spanyo (pejor.) and Espanyorin
gitter
(N): small six-stringed musical instrument, designed for portability
gonsa (N): council, composed of kubnas, mayrs, and select religious leaders
gonser (N): councilor
gorandero (S): healer (overtones of witchcraft; cf. tocha)
grati (S): thanks
guitat (S): large town, city
ha-lo (S): a racket game
Hengliss (N): people of the northern realms; also, their language
imp (N): mild variety of marijuana
isburdo de noda (S): ghost, night-walker
jane (N): a variety of marijuana
knower (N): a seer or prophet, usually female
kubna (N): ruler of several cowndees
lek (N): lake
m’hijito (S): son
mato (S): manly
mayr (N): ruler of a cowndee
Metias (S): a deity; in the south, a supernatural being representing a facet of godhead
monja (N): roughly equivalent of a lieutenant; in charge of a kubna’s troops
muns (N): mountains
obeh (S): opium
onerho: dark-skinned; possibly an ethnic designation
ozo bardo (S): grizzly bear
patgai (N): thug, enemy, renegade
pricha (N): priest of the Resurrectionist faith; of the priestly caste
ra’stanes (N): “road rocks”: broken-up chunks of asphalt or concrete from ancient road paving
reader (N and S): individual (usually a religious votary) legally authorized to learn and practice reading
renj (N): range (of mountains)
Resurrectionism (N): fundamentalist religious theory positing that certain elected political leaders are one with the deity
Resurrector (N): follower of a Resurrectionist religious sect
Roksandero, Roksando: residents of the town of Roksan
Roksando: Espanyo dialect spoken in and around the Socalio town of Roksan
seefo (N? provenance unknown): Lek Doe government official in charge of financial affairs
seeyo (N? provenance unknown): elected head of Lek Doe government
senyó (S): sir; mister.
Socaliniero (S): resident of the Socalia region
stae‘ (N): the largest political unit, sometimes coexistent with an ethnic group
stokhed (N): walled compound; stockade
tocha (N): Healer, doctor
tola (N): Okan unit of currency
val (N): valley
vipi (N? provenance unknown): official in charge of Lek Doe civic affairs
wanna (N): a potent variety of marijuana; (S) juana
zayshun (N): congratulatory thanks
zonado (S): cool, swell, awe-inspiring; of an individual: stylishly self-possessed