Get Rid of Stray Cats in Your Yard

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)

18. How do I get rid of cats from roaming my yard and pooping in my yard?

  1. Motion-sensitive sprinklers, which you can obtain at Amazon. Set them up along the fence line so they’ll squirt the cat or any other critter (hm . . . burglars included) that tries to get in.
  2. Bird spikes or carpet tack strips affixed to the top of the wall around your yard, if you have one.
  3. Mouse traps, unbaited but set, placed in all the places the cat likes to pee, poop, sit around, or stalk birds.
  4. Mothballs sprinkled around the perimeter of the property and in any places where the cat hangs out and around any objects the cat marks by spraying on them.

Another option: find a way to lure in a barn owl. One of my friends who has a cat-lady neighbor actually watched a barn owl catch and carry away one of her neighbor’s nuisance cats.

Or bait in the local urban coyotes. There’s nothing like a coyote to get rid of a stray cat.

My backyard is surrounded by a block wall that has a row of decorative, perforated cinderblocks at the top. I went over to Home Depot and bought a boxful of carpet tack strips and a large bag of UV-resistant zip-ties. Then I laid two rows of tack strips, side by side, along the top of the wall and zip-tied the things down. At the top of the support columns, which are solid (no decorative holes to secure stuff with zip-ties), I attached pieces of tack strips with heavy-duty double-sided tape.

The cats hate it and no longer jump into my yard to use it as their private toilet.

Managing the Creative Workload

The Complete Writer

Section IX: Creative Strategies

This book is a work in progress. A new chapter appears here each week, usually on Fridays. You can buy a copy of the entire book, right now, in PDF format, or, if you like, as a paperback. You also can find links to the chapters that have appeared so far at our special page for The Complete Writer. For details, visit our Books page or send a request through our Contact form.

[46]

Managing the Creative Workload

Creative workers, especially those of us who are self-employed, often find ourselves trying to cope with a workload that entails tackling too darned many things at once. Managing this workload can be a real challenge.

Normally, I organize my workdays and keep more or less on track by using to-do lists posted on white-boards, one hanging in the office and the other on the door that leads out to where the car awaits.

Sometimes, though, these may serve more to discourage than to help get work done.

Listing all the tasks that need to be done today leads one to try to accomplish 87 gerjillion things on deadline. And that is untenable.

Overload and the to-do list

One day I happened upon another approach.

What if you didn’t set yourself a slew of tasks, an endless to-do list, but instead aimed to get just one important thing done during any given day? That would free up the day to do things you would like to do (as opposed to have to do). And accomplishing one thing a day would mean five goals would get done during a week.

Five things accomplished in a week is a whole lot more than zero things accomplished in a week.

So on a Monday I set out to do the following:

  • Start building a Goodreads presence, somehow
  • Proofread 30 Pounds page proofs; order twenty hard copies to fulfill orders
  • Meet with client; work on his book
  • Post another Camptown Races book
  • Plug the latest Fire-Rider collection; update websites accordingly.

Five chores. By Thursday, I’d accomplished four of them.

I resisted listing any daily to-do chores. The goal was to get through five projects in a week.

Amazing results

Without the nagging pressure of a horde of tasks waiting in the wings, I found myself focusing on a given project for longer periods and with fewer self-imposed interruptions. The result: I got through a lot of work, including some unplanned extra chores for a client. This spun off quite a few other small chores that also got done . . . so in fact, more than five tasks were accomplished that week—before Friday rolled around.

Effectively what had happened is that setting fewer goals meant more things got done! Many, many more things.

The take-away message

Focusing on the bigger picture makes it easier to get moving, and five things to do in a week are less discouraging than ten in a day.

And if one strategy isn’t working, try something different. Even if it’s a tried-and-true strategy, sometimes changing gears (or getting a little help!) can make a big difference.

Will a Dog Chase Stray Cats Out of My Yard?

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)

17. Will getting a dog keep the stray cats out of my yard?

Not in my experience, no. The accursed cat doesn’t care whether the dog chases it out of the yard. It wants to eat those birds. It wants to kill those geckos. It loves to watch those mosquitoes and ants chew on the humans after the birds and lizards that keep the bugs under control are dead, dead, and dead. And no place other than your vegetable garden will do as its toilet.

Seriously, I have trained one of my corgis to chase my charming neighbor’s destructive and stinking cats out of the yard (the other corgi loves cats and would never terrorize her little friends). But when the dog’s away, the cats will play.

Fire-Rider, Part VI: Rik Kubna of Puns

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

Chapter 27
Rik Kubna of Puns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I see’d him there,” Tavi ventured.

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

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

“Good.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh?” Kay said.

“Yeah.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You shouldn’t have to be.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re kidding,” said Bova.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 28
Two Conversations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I dunno. Some stupid crack he made.”

“He can be a jerk,” said Fallon.

“Sometimes.”

“How was he a jerk today?”

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

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

“Oh, yeah?” he said.

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

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

“Damn right.”

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

“We’ve had this conversation before.”

“Yep.”

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

“I suppose.”

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

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

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

“A lot of guys do,” Fallon agreed.

“You?”

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

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

“Well, Duarto is something else.”

“That he is.”

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

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

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

“Feeble,” said Kaybrel.

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

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

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

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

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

“The breeze is cool, así,” said Tavi.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What would happen if you ran off?”

“Nothing.”

“Wouldn’t they come after you?”

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

“What would they do to you?”

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

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

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

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

“Good choice of campsites,” Tavi remarked.

“Like this rock here, do you?”

“It sure blocks the breeze.”

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

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

“Always,” Kay agreed.

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

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

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

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

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

“Ah,” said Kaybrel. “That’s too bad.”

“I have a wife, but….”

“What?”

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

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

“She’s only twelve years old.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” Tavi said.

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

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

“If you think so,” Kay replied.

“No?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 29
The Third Deception

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Would Moor Lek agree?” Lhored asked.

“Moor Lek seconds the brez,” Kaybrel said.

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

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

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

Turning Failure into Success

The Complete Writer
Section VIII: The Writing Life:
Sittin’ by the Dock of the Bay?

This book is a work in progress. A new chapter appears here each week, usually on Fridays. You can buy a copy of the entire book, right now, in PDF format, or, if you like, as a paperback. You also can find links to the chapters that have appeared so far at our special page for The Complete Writer. For details, visit our Books page or send a request through our Contact form.

[45]

Turning Failure into Success

They say failure can help turn your losing experience into a successful endeavor. That became evident from the erotica publishing enterprise, which after a couple of years appeared to have joined the 50 percent of small business start-ups that fail within five years.[3]

On the surface, what I learned from that is not to try to sell anything unless you have some very strong marketing skills and are willing to spend uncountable hours using them. However, something far more positive is coming out of it.

These days, I have more work than I can handle. People are lined up at the door trying to get me to edit their golden words or advise on publishing them. And one of my clients hired me to help him self-publish a memoir that he intends not for the public but for family and friends.

By way of saving money on design for him, I mocked up three draft covers for his delectation. One of them turned out looking pretty darned nice. Another would be even better if the quality of the image were better—it has a couple of flaws, one of which probably resulted from dirt on the lens and the other of which appears to be a data issue. We used his images, taken with a variety of cameras over forty years.

As I remarked in Chapter 33, there are any number of good reasons to use print-on-demand or e-book technology other than trying to trying to publish a best-seller. In fact, trying to publish the Great American Novel is the worst of all possible reasons.

One of several things I learned a-sailing the Amazon is how to create a nice-looking paperback through print-on-demand technology. As a result, I now have the skills and tools to take a book all the way from manuscript to print. And that process can be modestly lucrative.

Three projects like the client’s private memoir would recover all the losses I’ve enjoyed in the book publishing enterprise.

I’ve also learned of a Mac app that allows you to create really attractive .mobi, ePub, and iBook e-books fairly simply. I may try this on the client’s MS just to see what happens. If it can handle images (not an easy trick), then I would be able to offer e-book formatting of fairly complex documents, too. This would further enlarge the opportunities to make a profit helping other people publish their projects.

I would never advise a client to spend a vast pile of money self-publishing what he or she imagines is the Great American Novel. But if the person has a good reason to create a book-length document for a business, for a nonprofit organization, for patients or customers, or for family and friends, self-publishing can be an economical and relatively easy way to fulfill certain specific needs. And if you’re just a hobbyist—and you know you’re a hobbyist—writing a book because you get a kick out of writing and would like to see your results in print or on Amazon is surely no more expensive than skiing or four-wheeling. As long as you understand what you’re doing and don’t imagine you’re going to get rich (or, probably, even to make a profit), I’ll even help you publish your novel.

Does this experience generalize?

Evidently so; otherwise we wouldn’t have those chestnuts to the effect that you have to fail before you can succeed.

In learning how to lose money, you learn how not to lose money. With any luck at all, you may learn how to make money. This is an underlying principle of all the personal finance advice dispensed in popular media: if you get into debt, you can learn not to get into debt; if a bank screws you, you can learn to use a credit union; if you’re not earning enough, you can learn ways to earn more.

Some errors, of course, are not so easily rectified: fail to save enough for retirement and you won’t have a second chance. Text your way up the wrong way of a freeway off-ramp and your next success will be a Darwin Award.

But most of the time you do have a chance to learn something—and profit from it.

Trying (& Failing) to Get Back into the Writing Swing…

So some weeks back (make that months?) I decided to give myself a little break from the Ella story. That break morphed into a brake…as in dead stop. How can I express how much I’d like to and yet would not like to get back into the writing swing of things?

Today, for example…. Okay, said I, Let us create a SCHEDULE. There’s nothing like a list, nothing like a scheduled set of tasks, to make yourself do things, right?

Lordie! I can’t even work up the energy to start making any such schedule. So tired am I, at 11:31 a.m., that I can hardly hold my head up. All I want to do is bolt down lunch and go back to bed.

What have I done today?

Well…

  • Up at 4 a.m..
  • Read incoming email, social media notices, national & local news
  • Out the door at 5 for a two-mile walk with the dog
  • Fed the dog
  • Fed the birds
  • Fixed breakfast; ate same while watching dove feeding frenzy and reading The Economist
  • Washed two weeks’ worth of laundry
  • Cleaned and did chemical balance maintenance on the pool.
  • Watered all the plants in prep for today’s predicted 114-degree heat.
  • Caught up with email correspondence.
  • And now am waiting for the frozen shrimp to defrost so I can fix the mid-day meal, after which I will probably crash into the sack for a lengthy siesta — about the only way anyone can survive a low-desert July afternoon, even with the AC and a roomful of fans running at full blast.

The best I’ve done so far is to reflect that part of my problem with Ella is that the Ella story has no plot. It was, after all, enough of a challenge to present two stories running in tandem, one in real time in one as flashback. The matter, however, is much complicated by the fact that one of these story lines does have a plot (sort of) and one is pretty amorphous.

What IS a plot? Let us discuss that in another post: I’m too tired just now to build a reasonably clear explanation of what plot is and how it works. So…later, with that. As with all things in my life just now, apparently.

So yes: I do know approximately how the 12 stages of plot direct Ella’s experience on the alien moon of Zaitaf. Except that her story is rather more complicated than Vogler’s formula for genre story.

Therein may lay the problem: possibly the plot is too complex. Possibly I need to rethink it and simplify the action. Maybe progress is being blocked because the brain just does NOT want to do the work required to choreograph the characters through that dance.

What I need to do, I guess, is fit the amorphous into the…morphous: into a plot outline that can direct the action. This will relieve me of having to think so hard about where things are going and how the story unfolds. All that will left to do is…well…unfold.

Videlicet:

Arrrghh! Lunch-time!!!!

Fire-Rider, Part V: Kay’s Ghosts

Chapter 22
The Siege of Moor Lek

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

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

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

“I hope not,” Tavi said.

They both smiled, each in his own private way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Consayo y Ribera, his name was.”

“Ah,” Tavi said softly.

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

“Don Consayo is still alacaldo of Roksan.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 23
Kaybrel’s Ghosts

But things went far differently than he expected.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You never saw him again?” he asked.

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

“I’m sorry.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Your people call it ‘Ellaya.’”

“Nobody lives there.”

“They do.”

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

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

“I never saw anyone like that.”

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

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

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

“I didn’t know that,” Tavi said.

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 24
Habier and Kay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

§

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did he believe you?” Tavi asked.

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

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

Chapter 25
A’o’s Ghosts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 26
A Journey Home

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

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

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

“Turned out that was a bad bet.”

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

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

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

“Of what?”

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

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

“So you weren’t scared.”

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

“Did you have a weapon?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did you feel funny about killing a guy?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Your daughters must be grown, then.”

“Those two daughters died, actually.”

“Oh.”

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

“She must be glad to have more children.”

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

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

“Not then, I wasn’t.”

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

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

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

“It’s a bad way to go.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You must hate my people,” said Tavi.

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

“You must hate me.”

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

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

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

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

How much do Pembroke Welsh Corgis Bark?

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)

16. Just how much do Pembroke Corgis tend to bark even if well trained, challenged and exercised?

Depends on the individual. I have two corgis right now.

The older dog came from the Humane Society. She was dumped there at the age of two years, the reason given being “Barks.”

And yes. Yes, she DOES bark. And bark. And bark. And, well, bark . . . In short, she’s very vocal. I can see how this could get on a person’s nerves. Doesn’t bother me most of the time: I live on a large piece of property with plenty of room between me and the neighbors, and I never leave my dog outside. When I got her, I did tell my neighbors that the dog was supposedly a barker and asked them to please let me know if they heard her or were bothered. Made it a point to ask several times over a period of weeks. They repeatedly claimed they were not disturbed.

The other dog, I got as a puppy. She very rarely barks. If she barks, she barks for a clear reason: someone is around, a weird noise can be heard nearby, or something bothers her. She is a watchdog. But she’s not a conversationalist.

Fire-Rider, Part IV: Ghosts

Chapter 17
Fight

 Chill air, as usual, sifted down off the flanks of the Achpis, and a few low clouds galloped before a breeze aloft, brilliant white against a deep summer-blue sky. Warm noon sun made the snow-cooled day feel comfortably crisp. Tavio, as he trotted forward to the place in line where Duarto, Porfi, and Guelito were lollygagging, felt the fresh air as a kind of balm on his sunburned cheeks. It was as cold as the streamwater that murmured in the riverbed alongside the trail. He hated getting wet. But, if he were forced to it, he would have to admit that it felt good to be clean.

Mercifully, no one was forcing him to do anything just now. The Okan alacaldo had shown him nothing but kindness after what had happened, and, although he handled Tavio freely, he’d never touched him in a scary way. At night, they slept together like brothers. Maybe that would be all of it, Tavio thought.

He hoped so. But bending over for the Englo fighters seemed to be the lot of most of the Socaliniero boys. Tavio had heard them joke about one or the other of the men, always in their own tongues and out of the Englos’ hearing. None of them seemed to mind very much. Duarto actually seemed to like it. He spoke of nights beside Kay, among others, with remembered pleasure, and he had perfected a funny dance step that was hilariously dirty. It even made Tavio laugh, and Tavio didn’t find anything about the prospect very funny. How could anyone enjoy being made to do that? Every time he thought of it, he could see his sisters pinioned on the table and feel the hard thrusts ripping into him. He tried not to think of it.

Duarto spotted Tavio approaching and waved him over. He was tossing a ball back and forth with Guelito and Porfi as they walked. Guelito threw a long pass to Tavio, who missed the ball and had to chase it. He ran after it and then, before he caught up with the three, tossed it back to Duarto. The other three were speaking together in Hengliss, which was more mutually intelligible than their respective Espanyo dialects, but when Tavio joined them Duarto and Guelito addressed him in their own languages.

Guelito, a reed-like, dusty-haired kid with big, white teeth that made his face look a little horsey, greeted Tavi as though he were happy to see a newcomer. Meanwhile, Duarto threw the ball to Porfi. Guelito asked Tavi if he slept well, how he liked the party, whether he really saw a bear and did the bear chase them, and how was the fish he’d caught. Tavi was amazed: how did these guys know all that? Had they followed along behind him and Kay?

Porfi tossed the rock-like hide ball into the air and caught it a few times. There was no hurry to pass it, not while Duarto and Guelito were chattering with Tavio. After a few moments, he said, “Hey Roksando—catch!”

With just that warning, he shot the ball whistling through the air straight at Tavio. Startled, Tavi didn’t even have time to duck before the missile struck him, hard, in the ribs below his right arm. The blow knocked the breath out of him and almost threw him off his feet.

“What’s wrong with you, baby Roksandero?” Porfi taunted him. “You’re such a pansy, you can’t even catch a ball when it’s coming right at you. Are all Roksandos weak sisters like you?”

“Knock it off, Porfi,” said Guelito. He was ignored.

“What a dainty little sweetheart.” Porfi picked up the ball from where it had fallen near Tavi’s feet. “Here, darlin’. Maybe you can get it if it’s closer to you. Catch!” He shoved it in Tavi’s face.

Tavi felt his cheeks burn. He pushed Porfi’s arm aside. Porfi grabbed his hand and gave him a sharp shove. “What’cha got in there?” he said. He grabbed at Tavio’s makeshift pack. “Let me see, babe.” Tavi pushed him back. Porfi punched a swift right to the belly, and then tried to shove Tavi to the ground.

“Enough, Porfi!” said Duarto. He started toward the two, but Binsen, who usually kept a casual eye on Guelito, caught his arm.

“Let’s see how he handles it,” Binsen said, and he held Duarto back.

Porfi, a chunky red-head with twenty pounds on Tavi, made another grab at the pack. This time he dug his fingers into the fabric. He jerked his target around and attacked the laces while Tavio tried, without success, to pull away.

“Kick him, Tavi!” Guelito shouted.

“Watch his feet, Porf’!” yelled one of the other boys, who had come running at the first whisper of a fight. Their voices were almost lost in the din that rose from the onlookers.

Tavi struggled to escape, but Porfi’s yanks on the heavy pack kept him off balance. Then he saw the answer: he pulled loose the leather thong that secured the pack around his waist, slipped free, and turned to face his tormenter. Porfi, now caught with thirty pounds of dead weight in hand, laughed and heaved it at Tavio. He missed.

“Go get him, Tavi,” said Guelito.

Tisha screamed. The sky shimmered. The roar of distant flames filled Tavio’s ears, and then all he knew was Tisha’s cries and the fire and a man’s shape coming at him, slow, his motion impossibly slow in the shuddering air, and the cold thing that entered him—so cold, but once it got into him it seemed to burn. All his insides burned with icy heat. He ran. He ran at Porfi. So slow, so slow it was, he felt like he was running under water. He slammed into Porfi, his body a missile that took Porfi as his wicked grin was shifting to surprise and then slow jumped to fast and the two fell to the ground and Tavio was tattooing his fists against Porfi’s head and chest. A clamor of boos and cheers went up from the crowd, but Tavio heard only the crackle and roar of the gathering fire. Tears ran down his face unnoticed. He was inside a tunnel, and it ended at Porfi. He did hit him, and hit and hit.

Porfi, caught unprepared for anything like a come-back, took the worst of it for a moment or two. He soon recovered, though. A street-smart fighter, he rolled to his feet while Tavio flailed and, once upright, he kicked. Two booted blows and he was on top of his opponent, delivering first a hard right and then a left.

By now Kay had joined the circle of spectators around the brawl. He gave a high sign to Devey, who was also watching to see how the fight would play itself out. Devey stepped into the ring, grabbed Porfi by the shirt collar just as he was about throw a fistful of dust in Tavio’s face, and shook him hard.

“Quit that, you little thug!” Devey boxed Porfi’s ear and shook him again. “I thought I told you to lay off this kind of crap.”

Howls of laughter broke from the encircling boys. “He told him so!” a young voice hooted. “Right! Better mind what you’re told, Porf’!” “Now you’re gonna get it!” The chorus rose into a hilarious chant on that note: “Porfi’s gonna get it!”

And so he was. The men lost interest and went back to the trek, but the boys followed as Devey hauled Porfi, fighting to break free, over to the nearest willow, where he cut off a switch and in almost the same move pinned the boy against a tree. Devey laid on the licks with exuberance. More hoots and whistles accompanied Porfi’s yelps of rage and pain.

Chapter 18
Tavi and Luse

 
Kay took Tavi by the arm and lifted him to his feet. “You’re a little tougher than you look,” he said quietly. “Are you hurt?” he asked. Unable to speak while he stifled a sob, Tavi shook his head.

Duarto, who hung back from the cheering section, spoke up. “Porfi nicked him good with the ball,” he said. “In the side, about here.” He pointed to his own ribs.

“Let’s take a look.” Kay lifted the loose tunic so he could inspect.

“Am I going to get a whipping, too?” Tavi asked, distracted by the circus taking place off the road.

“No, of course not. Hold still.” The blow had raised a storm-dark lump the size of a baby’s fist. Kay wondered whether a rib was broken. Though he couldn’t see any distortion of the bones, the black, red, and blue bruise worried him. He laid his fingers along the suspect rib. Nothing seemed loose, but it was impossible to feel much around the swelling. Since he couldn’t see an obvious fracture, he figured it wasn’t very serious. But it looked sore.

“Well, I guess you’ve carried this far enough today,” he said. He picked up the pack with one hand. “We’ll let it take a ride with the cook, hm? Let’s go.”

Tavi sniffled and then sobbed. “Stop that,” Kay said. “You’re all right.” He put the bag down again and laid his arm over the boy’s shoulder. “You did just fine.”

“Fine? That guy kicked the shit out of me!” Tavi wailed.

“Well, yes, he did.” Kay grinned. “But that’s not the point, is it? You didn’t back down. And everyone could see you didn’t.”

“What did he hit me for?”

“Who knows? Who knows why Porfi does anything? Now come on, and quit bawling before I give you something real to bawl about.”

“They all think I’m a sissy.”

“After that, I doubt it. But they will if you keep on sniveling.”

Tavi followed Kay back down the line to the mess wagon, where they deposited the pack. Luse, still privileged to ride by his injured leg, sat beside Bayder and drove the ambling four-horse team. Word of the dust-up had already reached them.

“Want to put him up here?” Bayder offered.

“No,” Kay said. “I think he can walk.”

“It won’t hurt to give him a rest,” Bayder said. “How about it, boy? Do you want to ride?”

Tavio was already beginning to piece out some Hengliss, and he caught the gist of this. He glanced hopefully at Kay.

“All right,” Kay agreed. “But you’re not going to sit on your butt all day long, understand? You can ride for a little while, and then you can come take care of these nags of mine.” Tavi ran a few paces to catch the moving wagon and jumped up into the seat beside Bayder.

After some jockeying, he settled between Bayder and Luse behind the four-horse team. Luse’s raven hair dangled free around his shoulders and a shadow of nascent beard darkened his jaw and upper lip. He welcomed Tavio with a fleeting smile and then, all business, slapped the reins across the horses’ rumps and took his attention back to the road. By day, Tavi observed, Luse’s eyes were as dark as they had been by firelight, liquid black as a midnight pond.

Bayder smelled of smoke and grease and rotting teeth, a stench rank and friendly at once. Lolling across the wagon’s wooden bench, he was enjoying the opportunity to sit back and relax while Luse worked the horses. Occasionally he climbed into the back and brought forward some snack—pieces of the stolen fruit, jerky, pickled chilis, honeyed figs—which he shared as the mood moved him.

The freight wagon bumped and creaked and complained its way over the stony, rutted road. Okan and Socaliniero vehicles, built without springs to speak of, let their occupants feel the road in every detail. Luse took care to steer around the largest rocks, but the riders regularly got a sharp thump as a wheel climbed over an obstacle or dropped into a pothole. Not given to chatter, Luse spoke quietly between stretches of silence. The many-hued tapestry of languages had started to sort itself out for Tavio, and even as the hours passed he found he could make more sense of what others said.

A twisting jerk wrenched a grunt out of him, and Luse snapped his whip over the lead horse’s head. The team strained briefly to pull the wagon out of an erosion rut.

“You all right?” Luse asked.

“Sure,” said Tavi.

“If you have a lot of aches and bruises, riding on one of these things isn’t much better than walking,” Luse observed.

“No,” Tavio agreed. “But I’d rather ride.”

“Me, too.” He eyed Tavio speculatively. “How’d you come out of that fight? I heard you gave Porfi some of what for.”

“Not really,” said Tavio. “He gave a lot more than he got.”

Luse fell silent again. They rode over a few more bumps without speaking. Then Tavio added, “I don’t know what set him off. I wasn’t even talking to him.”

“Don’t mind Porfi,” said Luse. “He’s kind of crazy. A bully one minute and your best pal the next. He’ll be your friend by dinnertime.”

“Bet he’s not. That guy he belongs to… ?”

“Devey.”

“Yeah, Devey, he gave him a real walloping.”

Luse smiled. “Porfi gets walloped all the time. And Devey didn’t hurt him. Never does. I heard he didn’t even pull his pants down.”

“He sure squalled like it hurt.”

“Well. Porfi dramatizes,” Luse remarked.

Tavi considered the incident while they rode over another patch of ruts. “Why would he hit me?” he wondered aloud.

“He doesn’t like Roksanderos,” said Luse.

“He doesn’t?”

“No. Of course not.”

Luse’s attention focused on urging the lead horse on. The trail began to rise. Seasons of rain, snow, and ice ate more of the road as the grade grew steeper. The coarse stone and dirt paving turned to scree and water-ruts, more like gullies than rivulets. Bayder took the reins and horsewhip from Luse and told Tavio to jump down. “Climb off the back end, boy—keep clear of the wheels.”

Tavio scurried across piles of gear and hauled himself over the wagon’s rear gate. As soon as his feet hit the ground, he could hear Bayder shout at the animals. A mighty crack of the whip ripped through the air like lightning at close range, followed by another bellow and a virtuoso riff of snaps. The wagon lurched uphill. He was, he thought, just as glad to be on foot.

19.
Riding the Raider

 Days slipped past night like prayer beads through the fingers. The company of fighters, combined forces of Okan and A’oan warriors and tradesman-farmer conscripts nourished as much by hatred as by greed, followed the ancient Mercan road south along the Mendo Ribba. Local residents, if there were any, fled the rumor of their coming, and so the army met no one on its march into the long, wide valley.

Tavio learned to hone a knife blade until it was so sharp it would shave the hair off Kaybrel’s forearm. He learned to clean and polish armor, to scrub clothes and dishes in streamwater, to cook a stew over a campfire, to feed and groom the massive warhorses, to speak many words of Hengliss, and to hear the Espanyo patter of the Socaliniero boys as a melodic take on Roksando. He managed to evade deep pools of water.

Porfi, as Luse had predicted, behaved as though nothing much had happened. He apparently regarded their fistfight as no more than a friendly wrestling match, and the licking he had taken afterward as routine. Tavio, though, remained puzzled and wary. He couldn’t understand what brought on Porfi’s sudden rage, or how Porfi could turn it off and go coolly on his way. Maybe it hadn’t been an outburst of passion but some kind of test—an experiment to see what Tavi would do. If that was so, then he didn’t understand how he was supposed to respond, or why.

One thing he did understand was that he liked Duarto, the tall, slender young man with the fast wit and the nonstop patter. Duarto’s company made it easier to avoid thinking hard about distances, to hear the screams or see the knives. When he could, Tavi walked with him or at least near him, in the group that gathered about him. This clique—a small, select elite, in its members’ eyes—included Guelito, Luse, and Porfi. Various hangers-on—Nando, who spent most of his time near Robin of O’a, Bayder’s two assistants Iami and Eberto, Lhored’s Hengliss pages Alber and Lonneh, and Fredi, a younger boy attached to Herre of Elmo—came and went with the passage of the hours and the days.

Sometimes Duarto preferred to walk with the men, and he seemed as welcome in that company as with the Espanyo crew. Tavi noticed that Duarto talked less around Mitchel and the cousins of Cham Fos; still, he never ran short of words.

Now and again Tavio would hike with Kay, particularly when the kubna was alone. Although he was picking up Hengliss quickly and could even express himself a little, at least to Kay and Fal, the Socaliniero boys’ conversation was easier to follow than that of the Okan and A’oan men, whose words rattled along like wind through leaves. Often, though, the chachos spoke Hengliss among themselves. It was easier for them all to understand than the various dialects of Espanyo, which varied radically in sound and meaning. When he had Kay to himself, he could at least ask what things meant.

As for Kay, he amused himself on the long march by working at the language with this brown foreign boy. He usually refrained, though, in his friends’ and cousins’ presence.

“It’s like trying to teach a bird to talk,” Herre had scoffed, when Kay paused from some exchange to tell Tavi the word for a wagon tongue. “Pretty bird!”

Jode of Avi laughed, and Fol of Miduhm performed an elaborate riff of bird whistles: two types of lark, a wood warbler, a mockingbird and a goldfinch. This inspired a great guffawing and flapping of wings. Kay joined in the laughter, but he saw Tavi blush. After that, he confined the Hengliss lessons to moments when they were more or less alone.

Nevertheless, Kay and Fal were both impressed by how quickly Tavi picked up the language. He was soon piecing together responses to the two men’s remarks, and he wasn’t shy about asking questions.

Occasionally, Fallon let Tavio tag along with him. A spirited and imaginative improvisor of sign language, Fal had little trouble making himself understood, and Tavio liked hanging around with him not only for that but because Fal had two fine horses, one even more splendid than Demon.

Tavio had never seen an animal like the Raider, Fallon’s gelding war horse, whose deep red coat was smooth and shiny, unlike the shaggy pelts of most domestic horses. Abundant water and rich, fast-growing summer grass made Cheyne Wells Okan’s northernmost center of horse breeding. As the county’s mayr, Fallon had his choice of the best of his people’s product. Raider’s forebears had been stolen far to the south, where the weather was still warm enough to allow a few short-haired breeds to survive. There weren’t many like him anywhere. In Okan he had to be pampered carefully all fall and winter and into the early spring, sheltered from the cold that blew in off the northern ice fields.

Fal watched Tavio’s fascination with the animals. A man who could talk to horses, Fal thought, had something right with him. It showed that he would have a way with others who couldn’t speak for themselves. As a boy, he had found the company of his father’s horses more comfortable than human companionship. When he reached Tavio’s age, he took notice of girls, but even then he sometimes preferred to spend time with a hunter or a race horse—the faster and wilder, the better.

They camped early one evening, while the afternoon sun still washed the grass and hills in flaxen light. “Would you like to ride the Raider?” Fallon asked. He punctuated the question with a couple of gestures that made his meaning clear.

Tavi’s expression said he would. He glanced at Kay, who raised an eyebrow in Fal’s direction. Kay wouldn’t think of letting the brat get on his own horse. “He throw me, no?” Tavio returned.

“Probably,” said Fallon. “The ground is soft here—it won’t hurt you. Just roll out of the way of his feet, if he does.”

He helped Tavi climb atop Raider’s tall, bare back. Kay liked an animal whose character bordered on the stolid; Fallon preferred bold high spirits. Where Demon was calm, Raider was skittish, and he invariably shied away from anyone trying to mount him. Insistent, however, Fal set Tavi in place. “Hold on with this part,” he slapped Tavi’s thigh. “Not with your hands. You look like a shoe monger’s maid, with your fingers in his mane.”

“Sit so your backbone is right on top of his, and keep it there. When he moves, you move—you understand?” Tavi followed most of Fal’s words, and he had ridden smaller horses before, always with a saddle, so he got the idea.

Fallon twisted a long lead into the bridle, handed Tavi the reins, and then snapped the end of the rope across the horse’s rump to get him moving in a circle. Raider jumped into his favorite gait, a lope just below a trot. Startled, Tavi had to grab onto the horse’s mane and neck to keep from falling off, but he managed to keep his seat. Fal let him ride the circle a couple of times. Then he pulled the horse to him and released the lead.

“Let me show you something,” he said—“Ho!” he told the horse, whose suspicions were not calmed by the brief exercise. He braced himself by putting one hand in front of Tavio and one behind, and then leapt smoothly onto Raider’s back. The horse reared and did a rebellious little dance, but Fallon had read its mind; he held on to Tavio while he steadied the animal. Fal slid up behind Tavio so their bodies fit together.

“Look,” he said. “Take your hands and put them right here.” He lifted Tavi’s hands off the horse’s neck and set them on his thighs. “I’m not going to let you fall.”

“You me teach ride Raider?” Tavio asked.

“Sure, I you teach ride Raider,” said Fallon. “If you can stay on this horse, you can ride anything. See this part of your leg?” He ran a finger down Tavi’s thigh. “You hold on with this, not with your hands. Keep your hands here,” he slapped Tavi’s hands gently, “and when you feel like grabbing on, they’ll make you grab with your legs. Here, you see? Not here,” he indicated Tavi’s lower leg.

“You can talk to him with your feet, but not hold on with them. Watch.” He kicked Raider into a walk. “We’re going to go left—this way.” He tapped the horse’s right flank with his heel, and they turned left. “Now let’s go the other way—right.” A nudge on the other side turned them in the opposite direction. “When you want to stop, or when you know the horse is going to stop whether you want to or not, you kind of brace yourself, like this.” Tavi could feel him tense his legs and lean back against their forward momentum. Raider stopped abruptly. “If you’re not ready when the horse is moving out, you’ll go flying over his head when he stops.” Tavi laughed. “You understand?” said Fallon.

“F’shua,” he said: what the Hengliss said when they meant así.

Fal dropped the knotted reins over the animal’s withers—he hardly ever used them, except to insist on a sudden halt or to take control in restive moments—and set his hands on his own legs, as he’d shown Tavio. Kay waved as they paced off down the trail.

The river braided itself through the age-polished rocks that filled its wide, sandy bed. Fal nudged Raider off the roadway, and they wandered into the brush beside the water. A flash of yellow flickered nearby: two small brown birds with brilliant chests chased each other through the scrub.

“Meddaloks,” said Fal, pointing them out. Tavi looked puzzled at the unfamiliar name. Fal whistled a fair imitation of the bird’s flute-like song.

“Ah! Alondra!” Tavi exclaimed.

“Yeah, I suppose.” Fallon smiled. “Say it in Hengliss: meddalok.”

The cinnamon-colored war horse picked his way through the brush, ears flicking at gnats, flies, and noises inaudible to humans. Fallon silently relished the salty scent of Tavi’s hair and the smoke he’d picked up from campfires. He wondered about Kay, sometimes. He wondered why Kay had chosen to keep this boy, who seemed generally pretty useless, and yet he liked Tavio. He was a sweet-natured kid, quiet and gentle. Maybe those traits reminded Kay of a woman. Maybe not, too.

That taste, he had never managed to develop in himself. He knew it looked odd. Not many warriors of either side hesitated to take anything that came their way, and most of the Hengliss men liked to have a boy around. Jag Bova of Rozebek was the only other guy he knew who would openly say he couldn’t get it up for a sweet young lad. Sometimes he wondered if he had something wrong with him, something missing in his character.

“Can you tell what he’s going to do?” Tavi asked.

Fal turned his mind from the thoughts that briefly preoccupied him. “Sure, most of the time,” he said. “Horses talk with their ears, you know. When a horse’s ears go up like that, it means she hears something or is paying attention real close, or maybe that she’s worried. When she lays her ears back, that usually means she’s annoyed about something. Or scared.”

“Raider is ‘she’?”

“No. But most horses are ‘she.’ Did you understand all that, what I just said?”

“Yeah, f’shua. His ears go up now.”

“Mm hm. He hears something.”

“What he hears? I no hear nothing.”

“Horses hear lots of things you and I can’t hear. They see things we can’t see, too.”

“Like what?”

“Like real soft noises, or maybe noises that aren’t there at all, for you and me. They’re like dogs that hear sounds from far off. Their ears are bigger than ours, so they hear better than we do.”

“They see things we don’t.”

“Yeah, they do. Horse’ll spook and run off when there’s nothin’ there—at least, it looks like nothin’ to you.”

“He see ghosts?”

“Umh, yeah. Spirits, more like it. The spirit world is all around us, shimmering out there in colors we can’t see and motion we can’t hear. You know that.”

“Yes.”

“I think horses can see into it. No question horses sense things we can’t. You can tell it when you watch them, that they’re listening to sounds or seeing visions that just aren’t there for us.”

“Kay, he say be no spirits. No night ghosts.”

“Right, sure,” Fallon scoffed. “Is Kay or is Kay not tocha? Where do you think he gets the power to heal?”

“Is gorandero? He say yes, he say no. I no can tell what he means.”

“That guy is a gorandero in a big way. He just doesn’t want you to know how he does it.”

Tavio smiled. “My people, we say a gorandero speak to God. Is God—or a saint—that heals through him, the gorandero.”

“Yeah? Well, in Okan, the only one who speaks to God is the brez. That’s because he gives his life to speak to God. Healing, that’s more like witchcraft.”

“Okan gorandero is witch?”

“Sort of. Magician, eh? They know how to tap into the powers of the other world for good, to make sickness or hurt better. Kay does it with herbs and potions and things. We call that tocha. It’s a special gift. I mean, you can study to do it, but you have to have the gift to start with.”

“Kay have gift.”

“Yes, Kay has that gift.”

Chapter 20
Night Ghost

Bored with the riverbottom, Fal steered Raider up the dry bank; the animal jumped up the four-foot drop and broke into a slow trot. He wanted to run, and Fal never felt averse to running. On the level, fairly clear ground above the riverbed, he took the reins loosely in his hands. He didn’t need to kick or swat this horse to put it into a dead run; when Raider felt Fallon seat himself firmly, he shot off across the grassy meadowland.

Hoof-thunder, ear-wind: somewhere between terror and ecstasy, the soul breaks free of mortal mud and flies. The heart pounds, the chest fills, colors grow bright and sounds sharp, life itself takes on a taste. Fallon felt this every time he pushed a horse to a full gallop. Now Tavi felt it, too.

“Hold on like I showed you,” Fal reminded him, “and move with the horse. Make your body move along with his.” He exaggerated the circular swing of his seat, so Tavio could follow his posting.

Then he spotted a gully, wide enough for Raider to jump. “Hang on!” he said. With no urging, the stallion sailed enthusiastically over the ditch.

“You’re not doing half bad,” Fallon remarked after he pulled the Raider to a stop.

“Is good horse.”

“He’s a great horse. Maybe the best I’ve ever had.”

Fal held Raider back to a walk, because he didn’t much feel in the mood for a long cooling-off period. It was getting on toward sunset, and dinner occupied his mind more than grooming chores.

They circled back across the grassy fields in the direction where Fal could see the campfires burning. “Wonder if Kay will have started some food for us,” he said.

“He make me get every things ready,” said Tavio. “I no work, he no cook.”

Fallon chuckled. This meant he’d likely have to fix his own dinner if he wanted to eat before bedtime. That was all right with him, although any day he’d rather share with Kay than eat his own mess. Maybe, he thought, he could sponge something from Bayder and his crew, if whatever they were fixing for the men was edible tonight.

They dropped down the steep side of a runoff-excavated arroyo. The floors of these gashes in the landscape were thick with brush, watered by intermittent seeps of rain and snowmelt and occasionally scoured by flash floods. Inside an arroyo was not Fallon’s favorite place to be; it made him feel penned in. Besides, it was closer to dark below the rims of the small canyon than it was on the open plain. A cricket called from somewhere in the scrub. Like tule fog, a chill rose from the sandy bottom. Shadows closed around them.

The horse strode into the brush, intent on the feedbag, now fighting the reins in a great hunger to get back to camp. In the duskiest part of the slot in the earth, they passed through a thicket of chaparral.

There something spoke, and Raider heard it. Fallon, as attuned to the animal as it was to him, caught his breath and tightened his grip on the reins at a delicate shudder of muscle beneath him, a twitch of the ear, a roll of the eye. He clamped his legs hard against the horse’s broad flanks and grabbed the boy.

“Damn!” Fallon swore aloud in the same instant Raider snorted, dodged to the side, and leaped in the direction they came from. Shoved into a tangle of branches, Fallon was almost swept off the animal’s back. As Fal fought to keep control with one hand while he hung onto Tavi with the other, Raider reared, dropped onto his feet, twisted, and kicked.

“Get up, get up!” Fallon insisted. He never raised his voice.

The horse refused to go back into the brush between them and the other side of the arroyo. Fallon kicked; the horse danced a stiff-legged waltz of hysteria. As Raider turned in a tight circle, the whites of his eyes shone like phosphor in the blue-green gloaming.

“C’mon, up up up,” the man urged. Tavio wrapped his fingers into the animal’s mane, determined not to be jerked into the fearful dark beneath them. Raider circled again and then allowed himself to be directed down the wash a few yards. At a break in the chaparral, he burst across the streambed, charged up the opposite bank, and exploded onto the open ground above them.

“Wow!” Fallon exclaimed, once he had pulled the foaming horse to a walk again. “We should have kept our mouths shut about that spirit world! Speak of the devil and he appears.”

“You think he see spirit? Isburdo de noda, this is when they come out. He see isburdo de noda.

“What’s that?” asked Fal.

“He come out at night. Is the dead who has no home to rest in, you know?”

“You mean the unburied?”

“F’shua, they no get buried. They no have home to go, where is place for them to be safe, with their people. You understand?”

“I guess so. You mean, like a cemetery.”

“What is ‘cemetery’?”

“Burying ground.”

“No. At home. A place where you remember li muerti, the ones who die. They have place to be, where they all right. Their home, too, no?”

“Inside your house.”

“Yes.”

Fallon considered this. Did they bury their dead inside their homes? Under the floor, maybe? They’d have to rip up the floorboards every time someone passed through the veil. On the other hand, a lot of them had dirt floors. It would be convenient, in a way, when the ground was frozen in winter. But what if you buried two people who didn’t get along too well under the same floor? You’d have their spirits fighting in the kitchen. Bumping and howling and banging around every time you turned your back—it could make for a noisy house. To say nothing of how it would smell in the summertime, if you didn’t dig the graves deep enough.

“The dead live in the other world,” he said, tentatively. “That’s where their home is.”

“In spirit world—in heaven or hell or burgadorio, if they first go to place where home is. Angels know where to find them, to call them to where they go after die. You have place for them, candles, you know? Pictures. Their favorite things, little toys for baby, pretty hair thing for mama, knife for papa? They have no home, they have no way to find way from earth—angels no can find them. They lost. They wander around, all over. They follow people in life world, try to take you with them.”

“Well, now, Tavio, they can’t take you into the spirit world. They’d have to kill you to do that.”

“That’s how they get you. They touch you, you feel cold touch, no? Like the cold down in that arroyo. And then you get sick—you get the fever, you die. You go with them. Then you be isburdo de noda, too.”

“Hm.” A shiver crept down Fallon’s back.

“Alone, lost—they follow you. They want you go with them.”

“Best be quiet about that now, lad. I don’t know if Raider saw any iziberto-day-nodas down there, but if he did, we don’t need to bring ourselves to their attention some more by chattering about them. Let’s get out of here.”

He gave Raider his head and they rode into camp at a fast trot.

Chapter 21
Where Ghosts Come From

Contrary to Tavio’s expectations, Kay had done all the early evening chores and put a salt venison cut to stew in a kettle of beans. Fallon, relieved to find this domestic scene under way, brought a sack of ground corn and a pot of pickled chilis liberated some weeks earlier from a farmhouse. While the beans simmered, he built a spiced griddlebread of respectable dimensions. Tavi was sent off to walk Raider, lathered by his scare and the fast return to camp, and then to groom Kay’s stock as well as Fallon’s.

“Something spooked my horse while we were out there,” Fal remarked to Kay as they sat watching their food cook. “I couldn’t see what it was.”

“Probably nothing,” Kay said. “That animal will spook at his own shadow.”

“He’s not that skittish.”

“It’s like trying to ride a cat.”

Fal laughed. “C’mon! You’re getting too fat and old to ride a decent horse.”

“Give me a real horse over a cat any day.”

“I think he saw a presence,” Fal spoke seriously. “We couldn’t see anything, but whatever was there, it was real. And that boy, he seemed to understand what it was, too.”

“Oh?” Here it comes, Kay thought. He should have told Tavio to keep quiet about his haunts.

“Yeah, he said there was some kind of ghost out there, something that gives you a cold chill at night—and it did get cold all of a sudden, right when this happened.”

“Mm hm.”

“These things make you sick—they give you the fever with their icy touch.”

“Fal. I don’t know how you get the fever, but I don’t think you catch it from spooks.”

“I don’t know. It makes some sense. You get that cold chill. People get sick from getting chilled.”

“Maybe so.”

“I think maybe they bury their dead inside their houses somehow.”

“What, Roksanderos?”

“He said they have to bring their dead home in order to keep them from coming back as these spirits that make you sick.”

“Well, I don’t know what that’s about, but I can tell you, they don’t bury the bodies under the bedroom floor. They have cemeteries, just like we do, except that about half the time you can actually bury someone in winter, because the ground isn’t frozen solid from fall to spring.

“Roksandos, all these Spanyo people, they’re stump-dumb superstitious. They have all sorts of crazy ideas, Fal. You’ve heard Duarto carry on about some of the silly stories he tells. But we know the truth, don’t we—the ancient writings from the Old Ones tell us what’s true. Hm?”

“They don’t deny that there are spirits,” Fal said.

“The Spirit is in the Father, and the Spirit comes to earth in the brez, and the Brez is the Son of the Father on earth. That’s the only spirit that matters,” Kay insisted. He really didn’t want to be put through an exorcism, and he could see that coming if Fal started in on this stuff.

“You really think so?”

“I’m sure of it,” Kay said. “It works for me. All the time. You know the Father’s Spirit is the only one I can call on.”

To the contrary, Fallon wasn’t so sure of that.

Neither was Kay, for different reasons. He had no more faith in the brez’s sanctity than in anyone else’s.

It annoyed him, it annoyed him deeply to have to jockey around these beliefs. Every bunch had its own theory, he thought, and none of them explained much of anything. He had run into a lot of superstitions in his travels, and only thing they had in common was belief. If faith worked any miracles, it was because something inside the believer was working—not because some spirit or ghost or god or sorcerer did anything to change the world. And that theory, as Kay well knew, was the rankest form of heresy.

Fal, reflecting silently that the old writings were said to speak of demons and angels, let the matter rest. By the time Tavio finished his chores, the two were enjoying a pipe of Kay’s best harvest, sweet musky smoke floating on the still night air where it blended companionably with pitchy aroma of the wood fire. Jane, the gentle evening herb, did a great deal to calm Fallon’s unease, which of course was why Kay offered it. He invited Tavio to share a toke or two before they pulled the hot bread off the fire and dished up the stew.

The crisp summer evening, warmed by the chemistry of fellowship, good food, and hemp, passed comfortably. They parted to turn in shortly after eating.

The earlier exchange with Fal had left Kay with a residual sense of annoyance, and now Tavi reminded him of his irritation by dragging his feet. Still afraid of whatever might be out in the dark, Tavi resisted carrying the dishes down to wash them in the river, nor did he want to haul the food bag away from the lodge—outside the campfire’s ring of light—to hoist it into a tree, beyond scavenger’s reach. Kay spoke sharply. Tavi sulked.

Inside the lodge, Tavi asked Kay not to put out the lantern.

“We need to go to sleep,” Kay said. The obviousness of this statement and the foolishness of having to utter it put an edge on his voice.

“But Senyó Kay, the night ghosts—they’re here. They touched us when we were out there. They’ll come and get us.”

“Night ghosts, for God’s sake! Tavi, I’ve heard about enough of that.”

“They’ve come,” Tavi insisted. “They’re here. They’re nearby, senyó.”

“You told that garbage to Fallon, didn’t you?” Kay replied. “I wish you’d keep your mouth shut about that around other people. No one wants to hear it.”

“He knows there are spirits. He said so. And he knows there’s night ghosts, too. We saw one out there, tonight.”

“Tavi, you didn’t see anything. And Fal doesn’t know a thing about any damn-fool night ghosts.”

“How do you know what we saw?” Tavi protested. “Who are you to tell me what I saw and what I didn’t, anyway?”

Kay glared at him. “I’m the boss man here, chacho, that’s who I am. And if I say you didn’t see it, then by God, you didn’t see it.”

“I’m not afraid of you,” Tavi said.

“That’s not a sign of anything you should brag about, boy,” Kay said acidly.

Tavi rolled forward undaunted: “You don’t know what I see. You don’t know anything about me. You don’t know anything!”

“You don’t think so?” Kay said. The quiet tone carried a certain nuance.

Tavi, however, failed to catch it. “You say there’s no izburdos when I can hear them, and Fal’s horse, that Raider, he sees them. And you say you know how I feel, you know this, you know that….”

“Fal’s antsy horse hears a rabbit twitch its ear in the brush, and you think you’ve seen a ghost. Quit acting like a fool, boy. Get under the covers before I put you under them myself.”

“You don’t know nothing about how I feel. You people, you come and kill everyone, you burn down our city, you…you rape our mothers and sisters, you murder everybody, and then you say, ‘Ai, be quiet, we know how it feels!’ Que merdas!”

“Bullshit, hm?” Kay looked inside himself for patience and found his reserves running low. “Tell me something, will you, Tavi?”

“What?”

“How do you think I came to speak your language?” In the moment of silence that followed, Kay added, “Don’t you ever ask yourself things like that?”

Tavi looked at him through the dim light, puzzled. “I don’t know,” he said. “How would I know? Who cares, anyway?”

“Maybe you ought to think about it. Thinking doesn’t seem to be something you waste much time with.”

“You think I’m stupid, don’t you?”

“You’re acting that way.”

Tavi got up to go outside.

“Go out there and the izburdo will get you,” Kay reminded him.

“Good!” Tavi snapped.

“Shut the door tight,” Kay said as Tavi crawled outdoors. “Keep them ghosts out there, along with the cold air.”

Tavi left the tent flap hanging. Kay could hear him stalk off. He laced the tent door shut, lay back among the stuffed sacks that lined the lodge walls, and waited, the light still burning.

§

The candle hadn’t burned down far before Kay heard Tavi shuffle back toward the campfire. Kay listened to him as he stood before the fire pit, shifting his weight from foot to foot. He heard him pace around, return to the fireside, poke the fire for a little extra warmth, sigh. After a few minutes of this, he heard Tavi’s feet crunch toward the lodge.

Senyó Kay?”

“Hm.”

“Can I come back in?”

Kay got up and unlashed the door. “What’s the matter? Wouldn’t they have you in the other world tonight?”

Tavi climbed inside. “It’s cold out there.”

“You should have taken a sweater.”

Tavi took his shoes off and set them by the door, next to Kay’s boots. He lashed the doorway shut. Then he sat down on the bed and pulled the blankets over his legs. He looked at Kay, who was watching him silently.

“So,” Tavi said, “how did you learn to speak Espanyo?”

“How did I learn to speak Roksando?”

“That is what your Espanyo sounds like.”

“Yes. It is.”

“Will you tell me?”

“You might think it was just so much merdas,” Kay said.

Tavi rolled his eyes. “All right,” he said. “All right. I’m sorry. I’m sorry I said that.”

“You should be careful what you say, Tavi. So that you don’t have to be sorry.”

Tavi gave him a lectured look, and Kay knew about how long his words would stick.

“Hand me that flask hanging over there,” Kay said.

Tavi lifted the skin off a strut and passed it across to Kay. Then he sat down again on the bedding and wrapped the blanket around his shoulders. Kay settled back deeper into the shadows.

Making Time for Writing

The Complete Writer
Section VIII: The Writing Life:
Sittin’ by the Dock of the Bay?

This book is a work in progress. A new chapter appears here each week, usually on Fridays. You can buy a copy of the entire book, right now, in PDF format, or, if you like, as a paperback. You also can find links to the chapters that have appeared so far at our special page for The Complete Writer. For details, visit our Books page or send a request through our Contact form.

[44]

Making Time for Writing

A while back, New York Times editorialist David Brooks held forth on the daily habits of famous writers,[2] the implication being that if you want to be a famous writer (or even an infamous writer), you would be well advised to establish a regular schedule that devotes a set period to the work. Or, if you prefer, to The Work.

Plumbing the depths of Mason Currey’s book, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, Brooks reports that Maya Angelou arose each morning at 5:30, had coffee at 6:00, and then would set off at 6:30 to a hotel room she rented as a kind of office. There she would write from 7:00 a.m. to 12:30 or 2:00 p.m.

Anthony Trollope, on the other hand, would set a goal of 2,500 words a day, to be accomplished at the rate of 250 words every 15 minutes.

The examples are a little extreme. But the fact is, if you want to become a Writer with a Capital W, the number-one thing you have to do is apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair. And you can’t do that when you’re trying to accommodate other people’s schedules or working around all the “I’d better get this done first” demands you set for yourself.

Some years ago, my department at Arizona State University brought a speaker to advise about strategies to help crank out the articles and books required to achieve tenure and, once tenured, to manage promotion to full professor.

He suggested we carve out a small window of time three times a week in which all we would do is work on the writing project. We did not have to write. We could research. We could plan. We could outline. We could just think. But whatever it was, it had to be related to the project at hand.

The time didn’t have to be long: even fifteen or twenty minutes. A half an hour would be good. An hour at most. Over time, you might extend it to a couple of hours. But don’t overdo it, he said. In any event, limit the time to a specific period, scheduled for a limited number of days per week.

This strategy has several advantages:

  1. It allows you to keep the spouse and the kids at bay. If they know that at a certain time you’ll be at their beck and call, they’re more likely to leave you alone for the time you’ve set aside.
  2. Three hours a week, while not much, is three hours more than you would work on your project otherwise.
  3. You can work up from a half-hour or an hour to an hour or two, giving yourself six or more hours a week—again, time you wouldn’t otherwise spend on writing.
  4. Working regularly on creative work primes the creative pump. When you work a short time on a creative project, set it aside, and come back to it, you find yourself coming up with all sorts of new ideas. As Brooks puts it, “order and discipline are the prerequisites for creativity and daring.”

All of it is easier said than done, especially if you’re self-employed.

Obviously, if you have a regular job, you can find regular times in which to work: 5:30 to 6:30 a.m., before you have to get the kids out of the sack and yourself ready to go; or 10:30 to 11:30 p.m., after the kiddies are put to bed and the dishes are washed.

By contrast, when you’re self-employed work comes in irregularly and deadlines can be erratic. Sometimes you need to put in 14+ hours a day to get the job done. New tasks come in, clients get squirrelly, new business must be hustled, meetings must be met.

When on earth do you find time to do your own thing?

Well, you don’t find it. You have to make it. Got a fourteen-hour day? Either add another hour or two for your writing schemes, or make Tuesday a sixteen-hour workday so as to break free an hour or two on Wednesday.

Personally, as contract editor, I tend to prioritize my creative work over my clients’ work. At some point, I decided I get to have some time of my own to do what I want to do. Selfish, yes. But creativity demands a certain degree of ego.

The only way I know to make broad priorities stick is to create a schedule. You may have a strategy that works better for you. For me, unless I’m following a list of to-do’s that need to be accomplished on a given day, a typical seventeen-hour day looks like this:

Up at 5:30 a.m.: answer the e-mail.

6:00 to 7:30: Write. Or at least think through the project.

or

6:30 or 7:30: Walk one to two miles with dogs, if weather permits. If not, continue writing.

7:30 to 8:30: Breakfast, coffee, read paper.

8:30 to around 2:00 p.m.: paying work.

2:00 to 3:00 p.m.: Prepare and enjoy full dinner-type meal.

3:00 to 4:00 p.m.: Rest and regroup. Take time to think about creative work, characterization, action, or organization and approach to nonfiction or editing projects in hand.

4:00 p.m. to 6:00 or 7:00 p.m.: Write. Answer e-mail.

7:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m.: Paying work (or, as time permits, writing). Spend part of this time blogging (Funny about Money, Plain & Simple Press News) while ogling Netflix.

10:00 or 11:00 p.m.: Walk dogs, if it was too hot to take them out in the morning.

What it boils down to? If you wanna be a Writer, you’ve gotta work. If you’re gonna work, you need to make time to work.