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?


  • 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.


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.”


“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

 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… ?”


“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.

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.”


“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.”


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?”


“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?”


“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.


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.


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.

Fire-Rider, Part III: The Journey Begins *FREE READ*

Chapter 10
The Farm

Back on the road, Tavio and Duarto fell in together. Guelito, Duarto’s almost constant companion, had gone off to hike with his Hengliss protector, Binsen. The prospect of a fight made him nervous, and though Duarto laughed at the idea of sticking close to the Kubna of Oane Lek when a battle was pending, Guelito felt better in Binz’s company. Kay joined Robin, Fal, and Mitch in visiting the brez, whose party was now fairly close by, since Kay’s contingent had fallen back in the ranks when they stopped, despite the moment of general idling.

Lhored, as it developed, knew nothing more than Robin had reported: the village or whatever it was had a few buildings and no serious fortifications. Undoubtedly an outlying farm town of Roksan, with the mother city in flames it would be fairly easy to take. They all knew better, though, than to lay a bet on this: many Socaliniero farmers, like their Okan counterparts, were armed and experienced fighters, having been pressed into duty with their alacaldos for generations.

Duarto’s cheerful prattle lifted Tavio’s heart in a superficial way. Though the cadence was foreign, it was easy to listen to. Duarto inclined to the bright side of life, and his remarks often made his friends laugh.

“Ai, the brez was right,” Duarto said. “This way will make us rich. Mitchel will bring things back for me—he always does. Maybe Kay will give you something, too.”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know. Something good to eat, maybe. A chicken, no? Or a gadget, or some clothes. Last summer Mitch gave me this. He got it in Oravella.” Duarto pulled a silver lavaliere from beneath his tunic. Tavio recognized the figure, finely wrought in the Roksandero manner, as a high-born lady’s votary piece; it hung around Duarto’s neck on an intricately woven silver rope.

“That’s very pretty,” Tavio said He had never been so close to anything as valuable in his life. “He must think a lot of you.”

“He gave it to me on my oathing day. In the church, in front of everyone.”

“You converted to their religion?” Tavio realized with a start that this was what Duarto meant. Okans were heathens—worse, heretics. He had heard the Okan god demanded human sacrifice, and it was even said the Okans practiced cannibalism in their grotesque rites.

“Why not? It keeps the peace. And it put me in Mitchel’s clan. I’m Duarto of Cham Fos. Nobody can undo that.”


The sun had started to trace its arc westward to the horizon when the allies reached the outlying settlement Bilhem had reported. The A’oan commanders sent back an order to stop before the men crested a low hill that would bring the place into view—and them into the residents’ sight. Kay caught up with Tavio to retrieve his charger. A couple yanks on the ties released the packs, which Kay stacked on the ground beside the road, leaving his empty saddle ready to use. Mitchel arrived a few minutes later and did the same.

“You two clowns start a fire,” Mitch said to Duarto. “I want something to eat when I get back, and I’m sure Kay will, too.”

Kay and Mitch mounted their horses and joined their comrades, some of whom had bows at the ready, others with swords, rifles, and shields in place. Lhored stood at their head. His large, copper-burnished shield bore the symbols of each of the allied kubnas, enameled in bright colors: in the center, linked, a stylized gold sun stood for Okan and a red cougar for A’o. The shield was partly supported by an attachment on his saddle; as weapons, he carried a light, agile sword and a heavy dagger that he wore at his belt. At Lhored’s side, two flag carriers displayed the banners of Okan and A’o.

Mitchel took his place among the brez’s personal guard, and Kaybrel joined the loose assembly of kubnas and mayrs who surrounded them. Fallon fell into position as Kay’s second, riding slightly behind and to his left. Over many months of riding and fighting together, they had developed a routine: Fal, left-handed, watched their rear and left flank, while Kay put most of his attention into the right and forward edges. It was a method that had yet to fail, and it had earned them an enviable renown.

Down the road, they could see a cluster of roofs, a granary tower, a pond, a grove of cultivated trees. Cottonwoods and pecans shaded the stone structures. A few cows and goats cropping grass in enclosed pastures looked up curiously at the visitors’ approach. A thin stream of smoke rose from a chimney from the main house, but no one came forth to greet them.

When they drew near the cowshed, they met the welcoming committee: a huge brown and white hound charged out, hackles on end, stiff-legged and furious. Horses shied at its deep-throated, baying rage, and at that hint of weakness, the dog roared forward.

It went after Robin of O’a’s mount, jaws snapping at hooves. Robin took a swing at the dog with his long sword, but his horse kicked and he missed the mark. Annoyed, he reined the horse around and circled to dispense the hound. Before he could raise his hand, though, an arrow buzzed past the horse’s flank and sank into the dog’s chest. With a yelp, the farm’s defender dropped cold.

Robin was not amused. Amid the hoots and general laughter, Herre saluted him with a raised, empty crossbow and a jagged-toothed grin. Robin leaned down from his saddle, yanked the arrow from the corpse, and handed it back to Herre.

The riders pulled up before the largest of the rock-walled buildings. Its latilla-shaded porch made it look more substantial than it was; in fact, all the houses were small and windowless, the easier to keep warm in winter.

“Kay!” Lhored called. “Hail them out here.”

Kaybrel shouted an Espanyo greeting and asked for a parley. Cicada song and bird chatter deepened the ensuing silence.

“They don’t seem to want to be friends,” one of the kubnas observed.

“They’re not inviting us in, that’s for sure,” said Lhored. “Let’s pay them a visit, anyway. Dom, Rik, Binz, Fol—go inside and talk to them. Take a few of your men. Kay, you wait a minute and then go in after them.”

The four kubnas selected one or two companions apiece and dismounted, swords in hand. Boots stomped across the stone porch. Without a pause, Binsen delivered a hefty kick to the wooden door. It slammed open, whacked against the wall, and fell half off its hinges.

The party surged through the opening. Outside, the men could hear some crashing as their comrades rummaged through the house. Pretty quick, Dom appeared at the doorway.

“No one’s home,” he said to Lhored. “They left their meal on the table—must’ve been in a hurry to go somewhere.”

“You check for a cellar?”

“Yeah. It ain’t much. There’s not enough room for anyone to hide in it, and it’s easy to find.”

“Look around some more. The rest of you, let’s see what’s inside these other buildings.” He directed Fol and Mitch to investigate the two other dwellings, and sent Kay and a couple of others to search the barn, silo, and storage sheds.

The barn, a spare, economically maintained structure, had hayloft space to store enough feed to carry the cows and goats through the winter. A dusty smell of straw and alfalfa overlaid companion scents of manure and horse sweat in the dark, cool interior. Above the two men, the ten-foot-high loft threatened—plenty of room to hide, and bales of hay and wool made convenient cover.

Fal waited at the foot of the ladder while Kay ran his sword through a stack of hay on the ground floor and checked inside the stalls, where he found no one. Then Kay stood guard at the bottom while Fal scrambled up the ladder with his own weapon at the ready. Upstairs, Fallon spooked a couple of chickens and a small flock of pigeons. A mouse scurried across the loft floor when he kicked at a mound of straw. That was the extent of life up there.

Downstairs, they could see signs of three horses: hoofprints showed in the dirt, and tack hung near open stalls. The residents had either taken their horses with them or chased them off into the open range. It occurred to Kay that they might have ridden somewhere to spread the alarm. Fal helped himself to some leather harnesses while Kay examined the tools. Most were crudely made—someone did his own blacksmithing—but Kay found a decent wrench and an awl, which he liberated for himself. He also spotted an old fishing net, a handy device to carry along.

Lhored rode up to the door and peered in. “No one there, either?” he asked.

“Long gone,” said Kaybrel. “Didn’t leave anything worth having—but it doesn’t look like they ever had much.”

“Well, let the men look around and take what they want. Then I want you to torch this thing. Let’s get going.”

Kay gathered some straw from a stack near the big doors and made several brands for himself and Fallon. “Let’s go see what’s to be had in those houses,” he suggested.

The floor of the main house was littered with broken pottery. The men had bolted the food left on the broad plank table and thrown the dishes on the floor. Someone had made off with the pot from the stove. Ransacked storage chests lay open and emptied, and a hand-hewn pine cupboard was overturned, its contents shattered and cast across the room. A small, dirt-lined storage pit, empty, was visible through a hole in the floor beside the stove. Must have been just such a cellar, Kay thought in passing, where Tavio’s mother hid her son as the Hengliss broached the gates of Roksan.

“Those chuckleheads didn’t leave much for the rest of us,” Fal remarked.

“Thorough, very thorough,” Kay said. “But…maybe not.” He kicked aside some of the rubble and pulled up a braided rug that had lain beneath the table. “Here we go.” Under it, set perfectly flush into the pounded dirt floor, was a pine trapdoor. A rope handle beckoned.

“Careful,” Fallon said. He drew his sword.

“You want to call the others?”

“I guess we can handle a few farmers.”

“You’re on!” Kay took his own sword in his right hand and with his left ripped open the lid.

Dim interior light sifted down into the cellar. The two men, poised like cats above a gopher hole, watched motes of dust float in the space between dark and light. Nothing stirred.

Kay spoke again in Espanyo. “Come on out,” he said. “We won’t hurt you.” Not much, anyway. But there was no response.

“I don’t think there’s anyone down there,” said Fallon.

“Maybe not. Light one of those things, will you? Let’s take a look before we stick our heads in.”

Fallon picked up one of the straw torches they had fashioned and carried with them, opened the iron stove, and shoved one end into the coals. It flared instantly, and he held it into the dark cave. By its yellow light, they could see a pile of potatoes, several stuffed burlap bags, and neatly stacked rows of earthenware jugs, their lids sealed shut with wax. Although there was room for several people to hide, not a single human being appeared.

“Well,” said Kay. “This looks interesting.” He jumped down into the hole. The jugs bore pictures, clumsily painted with ochre. One looked unmistakably like a beehive. “Here’s something I’ll bet we’d like.” He prized the top off with his dagger. “Yeah—honey! Want some?” He handed the jar up to Fallon, whose firebrand smile lit his face.

“Got any more of that? What else is down there?”

The cellar held enough food stores to tide the farm family over the winter: preserves of fruit, tomatoes, potatoes, salted meat, green beans, pumpkin, carrots, beets, squash. The sacks held dried beans, wheat flour, corn meal, amaranth grain, and more potatoes; behind them on racks hung jerked beef and venison in thin, crisp strips and, from the supporting beams, chains of garlic, onions, and chilies. Combined scents of earth and food, rich and musty, held the two men in a momentary spell. Outside, a voice called.

“Kaybrel! Come out here!” It was Herre.

Kay tucked one of the honey jars inside his tunic and passed another to Fallon. “Let’s go,” he said. “Half to the brez. I’ll pass out the rest later on.” When he stepped outside, he reminded Herre that the contents of the cellar belonged to him.

Brilliant afternoon sun stung his eyes for a moment. Lhored and several other mounted men were looking across the east meadow toward the woods that flanked the river. Through the grass and wildflowers came an old man. A fringe of gray hair framed his bald skull and fell almost to his shoulders. He wore homespun clothes, a plain robe unembellished by embroidery, jewelry, or weapons, and he held his hands open and out at his sides as if to show he was unarmed.

Chapter 11
The Second Deception

Buelo,” Kay used an Espanyo term of respect for the elderly. “This is no place for an old man.”

“Nor for any man of peace,” came the reply. Kaybrel’s response, a grim, tight smile, led him on. “We are poor people, senyó. We’re not fighters. We have nothing else and no place to go. Spare our lands and buildings. Let our babies live.”

“He’s asking for mercy,” Kay reported to the Okan men. “He wants us to leave the place for his family to winter.”

“Tell him to send his young studs down here, and then we’ll think about it,” Lhored said.

Kay again spoke in Espanyo. “Our brezidiente asks to see the young men of your house. Give them to us, and in exchange we’ll leave you enough to get by.”

A jay crowed while the old man took this in. “We have no young men here. They went to Roksan, and they haven’t returned.”

“And they won’t,” Kaybrel remarked. The old man was lying, he thought.

“Just women and children, that’s all that’s here. And one old codger who can’t harm you. Leave us a roof and a little food, senyó. It’s not much to ask.”

To Lhored, Kay said, “He says their men died at Roksan. Apparently a few women and kids are up there in the hills. He wants us to leave them enough to make it through the winter.”

“They might have done us the same favor. It’s their turn to watch their children starve. Tell him we take what we want and burn the rest. But if he’d like to shorten the suffering, bring his clan to us and we’ll end their misery now. We’ll make it quick and I’ll guarantee his women’s virtue—if they have any. That’s as much as we’ll grant.”

Kay turned to the old man. Behind the aged figure the flower-strewn meadow lay in the afternoon sun. A breeze washed across blossom-tinted grasses like a wave across the surface of the lake behind Kay’s home.

“Listen, Grandfather,” Kay said in Espanyo. “Take your people into the hills as far as they can go. But do it quietly, so no one can see or hear you. If you can’t move them in silence, keep them under cover. Because if our men catch them, they’ll die now instead of later. My brezidiente will finish this place—there’s no help for that. Tell any Socalinieros who come this way that we came to pay back Roksan’s raids on Okan and A’o. Whenever your people come after ours, we’ll come right back after yours. Do you understand?”

“We had nothing to do with those things.”

“Now you do,” said Kaybrel. “Go. And be sure your Socaliniero friends hear what I say.”

“He says he’ll discuss it with the women,” Kaybrel reported to Lhored. “I told him to bring them down here before the day ends.”

“Good,” said Lhored. “Let him go.”

Kay watched the old man walk away. An unhappy, cold sensation gripped his gut. He had never lied to another kubna before.

Chapter 12
Kay and Tavi

Within an hour, the barn was burning and other buildings were in pieces or in flames. Fallon had his men liberate the food cellar for Kaybrel. Half its contents went as splits—tribute, in effect—to Brez Lhored. The rest, Kay dispensed more or less evenly among his mayrs, who passed the goods out to their men. Mindful of Don’O’s kindness, Kay saved an extra share for him. Fil raided a chicken coop, where he found a cache of fresh eggs and several fine, fat hens, half of which went to Moor Lek. Those of Kay’s men who shared in the slaughter of the cows and goats also split their spoils with him, which he redistributed between the brez (to whom he owed half of anything he took) and his own followers.

Lhored decided the farm’s grassy east meadow, which bordered the riverbank, was as good a place to set down for the evening as any, although the sun hadn’t yet passed mid-afternoon. Fallon was sent back to retrieve Duarto, Tavio, and the pack horses while Mitch and Kay reserved a choice site by the river. A couple of Fallon’s men piled stores from the cellar near the place where Kaybrel planned to pitch his lodge, and before Fallon returned Fil had brought a live chicken and a small sack of eggs, followed shortly by three men from Kristof’s and Robin’s bands, who hauled over some roughly butchered segments of cow. Kay was ordering a couple of his men to cut the meat into manageable chunks when Fal rode up with Tavio on the back of his saddle and their two massively-laden pack horses in tow.

“Gone lame, have you?” Kay lifted Tavio down and set him on his feet. “There’s an orchard full of apples down the way,” he said to Fal, “and a vineyard with a few ripe grapes. Let’s get over there and grab what we can while the grabbing’s good. We’ll really eat tonight.”

“You ought to do something about that boy’s feet first,” said Fal.

“He’ll live.” Kay told Tavio to unload both horses and tether the stock, and he ordered his men to haul the fresh food to the Moor Lek cook’s wagon. “I’ll help you, whenever Fal and I get back,” he said to Tavio. “I packed that pair of sandals for you in the gray bag. Put them on, and we’ll tend to you later.”

At the orchard, the foot soldiers had already swarmed the trees. Men were gorging themselves on fruit. What they couldn’t stuff into their faces, they ripped off the branches and threw to the ground.

“These guys are out of control,” Kay said. The scene irritated him, though he couldn’t say why. Maybe it was the waste that got on his nerves.

“Nah. They’re just having a good time,” Fallon replied.

“The hell! Get off your butt, Fal. Call your boys to heel.”

He strode into the orchard. “All right! Knock that off!” A searing string of invective spread a circle of silence twenty yards around Kaybrel. “Haul your pointed heads out of your assholes, get your tails out of those trees, and pick this shit up. Get it into bags and bring it to your mayrs.

“Fallon, damn it! Get after that bunch down there.” Another band, out of earshot, continued to celebrate. Fal, who couldn’t see any reason to spoil anyone’s fun, plodded down the irrigation furrow to call the rest of the men to order. Subdued, the looters began to climb out of the trees.

“Kay!” A young voice spoke from above. It was Cam Gadah, the miller’s son from the village of Moor Lek. This was his first summer in the field, and the freshness of his thinly bearded face and puppyish manner showed it. “Catch!” He tossed a green apple to Kay, who snapped it handily out of the air. Kay grinned, saluted Cam with it, and took a bite.

The tart fruit bit back, but Kay relished its sour tang. “You nitwits are going to have the runs tonight,” he said “This has a ways to go before it’s ripe.”

“Not hardly worth bagging up for splits, is it? The brez said to just pull the stuff off the trees.”

“He did, huh?” Of course. It was Lhored’s rule to leave nothing for the enemy to subsist on. And obviously, the unripe fruit was scarcely edible. Little point in taking it along.

“Well,” Kay said, “if that’s what we’re doing, it’d be a lot easier to burn the orchard.”

“Aw, let’s not do that. Maybe we’ll pass this way next year—these apples will be waiting for us then.”

“Yeah? And if we don’t, they can feed someone else. Burn it!”

He gave that order again to one of the men who had his feet on the ground, picked up a half-dozen apples for himself, and headed back to his campsite. He could see that Fal was puzzled, and now he felt a bit mystified himself.

What had possessed him, he wondered, to send that old fart and his clan packing out of reach? There was a limit, after all, to how much Lhored would put up with. Well, it was unlikely the brez would figure it out—except for himself, none of the Okan gonsa, the council around Lhored, spoke enough Espanyo to ask for a piece of tail, much less to follow what was said back there.


When he reached the pasture where he, Mitch, and Fallon planned to camp, he found Tavio sitting under a tree with his knees drawn up and his head in his arms. Tired boy, he thought. Tavi didn’t look up until Kaybrel was standing over him. He rubbed his face on his shirtsleeve.

“Does it hurt that much?” Kay asked, kneeling beside him. “Come on, now. You’ll feel better soon.” Tavi had unloaded the horses and then curled up in the shade. He hadn’t even pulled off the bone-crushing boots. He let Kay handle him but didn’t make a sound.

“Let’s get these off you,” said Kay. “Maybe another soak in the stream will help. Did you forget we brought some sandals for you?” He unlaced the leather uppers and helped Tavio out of the boots. The bandages he had layered under the socks unwrapped, he saw things were little worse than they had been three hours earlier. “Well, that’s not so bad,” he said. “Your feet will toughen up pretty quick. Before you know it, you’ll have calluses where those blisters are, and you’ll walk all day without noticing it.”

“You think so?” Tavio murmured.

“I know so. Sit still for a minute.” Kay went over to the packs and dug out some flatbread and the sandals, and then he picked up one of the new-found earthenware jugs. Back under the tree, he dipped a piece of bread into the honey. “Like this?” he asked. Tavio’s face warmed with pleasure, and Kay noticed that his mocha-colored nose was sunburned cinnamon.

Down by the river, they both sat with their feet in the cold mud. Tavi finished off the honeyed bread with relish and rinsed his hands in the water. “You need another bath,” Kay observed.

“Not right now,” Tavi said.

“Maybe not. Maybe so.” Kay made as if to push him in. “You’re filthy with road dust.”

“I guess. Will you get in, too?”

“Sure. Later.”

Tavi laughed softly. “I thought you liked cold water.”

“Yeah. When I’m hot.”

They sat and watched leaves float in the stream for a moment.

“Those people who live here,” Tavi said. “Did they kill them?”

“No, they’re long gone. They headed for the hills before we got here.”

“They knew the Englos were coming?”

“Apparently. They left their supper on the table.”


Black skipper bugs circled in a backwater. Their stick-like feet made dimples in the surface tension. Kaybrel laid a dry leaf in their midst and watched it draw water like a little ship, find its place, and float, half under and half above.

“Why did you burn their houses? And kill their stock—they can’t live all winter without any shelter or anything to eat.”

Kaybrel pulled his gaze from the world afloat on the river. “No one can live without shelter, boy, not through a winter. That’s the whole idea, hm?”

“Killing them one way or the other.”

“More or less.”


“Why?” What a question. Why do you have to ask? Permutations of whydom trickled over the rocks. The why of the river, the why of the blue mountains, the why of the sun in the sky. The why of a woman whose yellow hair fills her grave. The why of her children, gone to earth with her. The why of Maire, soft and smoke-scented, the smell of home and comfort. Sometimes the sound of streamwater playing in its bed echoes the laughter of small girls. “I don’t know. Because they ran off. Cowards die a coward’s death.”

“So, they should die because they’re afraid?”

“No, not exactly. We’re all about to die, Tavio. Better to die fighting—to look your enemy in the face—than to slink away and hide. That way you go alone, hungry and cold. Stand firm and you go fast.”

“Is that better?”

“I think so. The pain is short, anyway.”

“And the glory great?”

Kaybrel looked sharply at Tavio, wondering what that was supposed to mean. Nothing, he decided: just a boy. “There’s no glory in war,” he said. “Not anyplace you look.”

Not here, that’s for sure, Tavio thought. “They’re farmers,” he said. “Not soldiers. They can’t fight your men. Why would you expect them to?”

“Everyone has a choice: to stand or run. We make our choices and we live or die by the consequences. That’s all it adds up to.”

“That doesn’t make any sense.”

“Sure it does.”

“Those people didn’t want to be here when your people came along. There’s no point in it. What point could there be in it?”

“Don’t look too hard for sense in things, Tavio. You’ll just make your head ache, and you’ll never find the answer. Things don’t make sense in this world. Never have.”

“Do you believe God made a world that doesn’t make sense?”

“I don’t ask God what kind of world He made. Or why. And I haven’t heard Him ask me lately for my opinion on His world.” This line of inquiry, Kaybrel thought, was veering too close to questions whose answers he didn’t like and he didn’t share with anyone. “Look,” he said. “We’re going to have a nice feast tonight. Are you hungry?”

Tavio shrugged.

“Let’s see if we can add to it. I’ll bet if we go up this river a little way, we’ll find a place where some fine, fat fish are hiding. Want to go see?”

“Don’t we need to raise the lodge?”

“Later. Come on.” They put on their shoes—the jury-rigged sandals, in Tavio’s case—and went back to Kaybrel’s pile of booty, where he pulled out the ragged fishnet he’d found in the barn. He also brought his own fishing gear, packed in a gray sack.

Chapter 13
Fishing in Company

Tavio followed Kay up the sandy, rocky riverbank. Freed from the boots, his feet hurt a little less, although given a choice he would have stayed under the tree where he had settled himself before Kay returned from wherever he had gone. The round, water-polished stones made an uncertain paving, inclined to tip, to twist an ankle, to turn grease-slick under damp sandy leather soles.

About twenty minutes upstream, they came to a place where the river forked around a mound of rocks. Kay examined the shrubs that grew out over the water and declared the place “perfect.” He pulled the net out of his bag, unrolled it, and handed one end to Tavi. Then he took the other end and waded across to the islet, where he secured the net by its various thongs to the rocks. Tavi watched him and marveled at how he didn’t seem to mind getting wet, the water tooth-grinding cold despite the full afternoon sun. He must, Tavi thought, be mad. Maybe he was possessed by the prophet’s madness, the shimmering insanity that made a priest magic and gave a healer his curing powers.

When Kay finished fiddling with the strings and the stones in midstream, he splashed back to where Tavi waited. Together they tied Tavi’s end of the net to branches of waterside shrubbery, and Kay showed Tavi how to anchor the thing so it would billow almost invisibly underwater.

“If we don’t catch anything on a line,” Kay said, “we’ll pretty sure have something waiting for us here.” He sounded positive of this.

They hiked another hundred yards upstream, until they came to second place that pleased Kay’s eye. In a cut by the bank, Kay said, and near the center where the current had carved a deep pool around some clustered boulders, that’s where the fish lived. Tavi peered into the water, but all he could see was a sunny glare, sky and leaves bouncing off the mirrored surface.

Kay selected a fur-and-feather fly from a small box he carried in his sack and tied it to a long single hair plucked from Demon’s tail. He carried a simple rod into the field, with a single ring at the tip and a small metal winch that held a length of braided horsehair line. Tavi watched Kay’s concentration, the attention held perfectly by fine details of knotting and testing. After a few moments of this, Kay glanced up, satisfied. “Would you like the first cast?” he asked. He offered the rod to Tavi.

Tavi took the fishing rod and held it tentatively. He had no idea what to do with it, but he figured it couldn’t be very difficult: just pitch the lure into the water. That was literally what he did.

“Hey, hey, wait a minute!” Kay exclaimed. “You’ll scare all the fish away with that stuff. Don’t you know how to cast?”

“I guess not,” Tavi said.

Kay looked at him, eyebrows pitched in surprise. “I guess not,” he agreed. He took the rod back. “Let me show you how it’s done.”

In Kay’s hands, the rod flickered and the long, thin line took flight. It swam through the air, slow, lazy and graceful, figure-eighting back on itself in long undulating loops, and at its tip like a wandering insect the lure skimmed the water and rose again and dipped and rose, sweet, innocent, idle. The beauty of the motion caught Tavi’s breath. He watched in amazement.

“Like that,” Kay said quietly after the bug came to rest on the stream’s surface.

He pulled the line in and showed Tavi how to flip it into the air and guide it back and forth.

“I don’t think I can do that,” Tavi said.

“Sure you can,” said Kay. “It’s easy.” He handed the rod back to Tavi and told him to try.

Tavi copied what he had seen Kay do, and in a moment the lure went airborne. He smiled. “This is fun,” he said.

“Of course it is,” Kay said.

Tavi was quick with his hands, and Kay said so. Encouraged, he tangled the line in the shrubs only twice and managed never to snag himself or Kay. When Kay made him climb into the brush to retrieve the caught line, he learned some care.

“How could you get to be half-grown without learning to fish?” Kay asked.

“I don’t know. We just never did that.”

“Didn’t you do things with your father?”

“Well, yeah. We worked in the shop.”

Kay laughed. “That must have been exciting,” he said.

Shadows deepened on the foothills as the sun crept closer to the western mountains. Across the river, some animals stirred in the brush. A gathering of bees hummed around a nearby laurel. At each cast, the fly floated on the barely moving air and came to rest atop the water, where it skimmed along for a while, like a living thing on the living river. Kay lounged on the riverbank while Tavi practiced. The time felt like a nap in a field of clover, like sun on rust-red rocks, like a sweet slow melody sung by a woman contented at her work.

Something moved in the water. Tavi saw it at the same time that Kay said, “Hey,” and something hit the lure hard. “Hang on, man,” Kay jumped to his feet. “Set the hook, like I told you. Give it a little jerk. Yeah—you got him!”

A silvery rainbow leapt out of the water and Tavio yelped in startled joy. “What do I do now?” he cried. He had no idea how to land a fish. Kay came up behind him and guided his hands to the right position and, with a quick demonstration, showed him how to play the line. Then he let him have at it.

A few minutes of spirited fight brought the fish to hand. Tavi was so involved in drawing the fish in he didn’t notice Kay retrieve a net from his bag, but he was happy when Kay lifted the flopping burden out of the water.

“That,” Kay said, “is a dollifar. Quite a prize—not bad for your first time, hm? And big enough to fill a pan, too!”

“He’s so beautiful,” Tavio said. He admired the speckled, golden-brown glow from its flanks, light captured in water on the creature’s shimmering scales.

“Isn’t he? Mighty good eating, too.”

Kay tethered the fish through the gills, tied it to a waterside stake, and then took his own turn at casting. “Wouldn’t mind having another of those,” he said.

Tavi sat in the sun for a while. After a bit, he wandered up the river and left Kay to relax into the settling afternoon. He watched water play over rocks, studied a cobalt dragonfly hovering on transparent veined wings, wondered at a pair of tiny waterbugs standing on dimples of surface tension. He found some red berries, tasted them, judged them good. Such a beautiful place, he thought; he wished his older sister Rina could see it. A few times they had come away from Roksan, up the Rio Mendo with his uncle Emilio, who was a bit of an adventurer. Now and again Emilio would organize a day-long expedition into the country. He would take his older children and his nephews and some of his nieces, and they would pack a picnic lunch and other food into a little wagon, and then pack themselves into it and ride up to a grassy meadow that Tio Emilio knew about. It wasn’t quite like this, not so wild, for other people knew of it and usually they would see someone else from the city there.

Rina. If only he could have died instead of her. Why couldn’t the Englo alacaldo have Rina instead of him? Tavi wouldn’t want her in his bed, he supposed, but he’d rather have her there than where she was, with her throat cut and her red blood spurting across the table, dripping onto the floor. He tried to look away from that, to think of how Kay might have brought her here and how she would have liked this place, and he gazed up the side of the hill across the river, where the slope was covered with coarse green brush that looked a lot like the berry plants he had just raided, elderberries, he guessed. The hillside swam for an instant, until he blinked his eyes.

About two hundred yards away, halfway up the incline, he could see a big tan lump. It was moving around, slowly. Nearby were two smaller figures, and those, he recognized, were animals. At first he thought they were big dogs—wolves?—and then he realized they were bears. He headed back to Kay, at the trot.

“Kay!” he called.

“Quiet, boy. You’ll scare the fish,” Kay said.

“Look up there!”

“Yeah, I know. I saw them.”

“They’re bears, no?”

“They look a lot like it.” Kay drew his lure across the water, pulled it in, and sent it out again over a long swooping arc. When he placed the fly where he wanted it, he said, “We call them grizzlies. Ozo bardo.

Tavio had seen bears in town. Traveling performers often came through with various kinds of trained animals, tame black bears among them. In the arena, captured grizzlies were sometimes matched with fighting bulls, and their reputation was fierce. Everyone knew the ozo bardo was not something you wanted to meet on its home turf.

“Should we stay here, with those cubs so close?” Tavi asked.

“Probably not,” Kay said. He didn’t seem in any hurry to leave.

“She might like to eat our fish,” Tavi worried.

“That she would. But she’s foraging for berries just now. Those are bearberries up on that hill. They love them. And she’s not going to leave her babies just to steal one fish from us.”

“I think she sees us.”

“Not likely. She can’t see this far. But she can smell us. She’s downwind from us. Probably hears us, too, the way we’re yakking.”

As though to second Kay’s remark, the mother bear suddenly stood on her hind legs and peered in their direction, her round ears perked out from her massive head. Even at a distance, Tavi could see she would tower over Demon’s tall shoulder. The cubs frolicked nearby. One chased the other down, and they collapsed in a wrestling mass.

“Well,” Kay sighed, “I reckon it’s getting on to dinnertime, don’t you? Why don’t we go check that net, hm?” He drew his line across the water, slowly and deliberately, and, in no apparent rush, assembled his gear and repacked his tackle bag. He pulled the fish out of the water and dropped it, thrashing, into an extra sack. “Let’s go.”

Tavi hurried to accommodate. “Walk, please,” Kay said firmly. “Keep it slow, and stay next to me.” He had his dagger—not the small fishknife he had been using—in his hand.

“You figure to stop her with that?” Tavi asked.

“Not likely.” Kaybrel grinned as though Tavi’s nervousness entertained him. “But it’s like I said—if I have to go, I’m going out face to face.”

Downstream, the net had trapped two small trout. Kay threw one back, after gently releasing it from the snare. The other he judged big enough to cook.


 It was coming on to dark by the time they got back to the campsite. Although Tavio was tired, Kay could see he was enough rested and cheered to help pitch the lodge and unpack a night’s gear. With the two of them working, it didn’t take long to hook the lodgepoles together and secure the overlapping walls and floor. Before many stars had come to life in the deepening sky, they were ready to join the crowd gathered around a big bonfire on the north end of the pasture. The wrecked farmhouses supplied plenty of kindling and fuel, so no one had to search the forest for firewood to get things started. The party was well under way.

Kay presented himself first to his camp cook, Bayder, who with his two young sidekicks was laboring over a huge portable metal stove. Behind them, two sides of goat and several spitted chickens roasted over open pits. Bayder cooked for more than Kay’s men; tonight his moveable kitchen would serve up food for the better part of the A’oan and Okan company. Everyone had thrown in a share of their spoils, to be redistributed that night in a grand feast. Kay and Fallon had donated a chunk of salt venison, the beef and goat meat their men had gathered, two live hens, a jar of the honey, and as much of the farmers’ grain as they could spare.

The fresh trout Kay gave for Don’O, with instructions to Bayder to prepare it nicely. The dollifar, Kaybrel held back for Tavio, since it was the boy’s first catch. Bayder promised to make it special, too.

In the gentian dusk, they entered the orange globe of firelight where the party was going on.

“Don’t you ever pray at sunset?” Tavio asked.

“No,” Kay said. “I don’t believe that’ll keep the bedbugs away. Do you?”

“The night ghosts. . . .”

“If the night ghosts want to get you, Tavi, they’ll come for you—and no amount of mumbling to your god or mine will stop them.” Dusk and dawn prayers against the various spirits believed to bring disease in the night or in times of bad air were customary all over Socalio and Mezgo. Hengliss tribes held off their demons by other methods which, Kay privately thought, seemed no more effective.

Where, Kay wondered, did that question come from at a time like this? The last thing a party would put him in mind of was prayer. Possibly the scene before them, where shapes moved in silhouette against the yellow firelight, suggested spirits and spooks to a superstitious kid.

The noisy, boisterous men didn’t strike Kay as the ghostly sort. Four fires burned nearby: a big one in the center of the party and three smaller cooking fires in pits near the wagon that supplied the cook and his apprentices. The savory smell of fat sizzling in the wood fires permeated the sounds of laughter and half-drunken shouts and the complementary odors of sweat and horse.

Here and there across the flattened pasture other bonfires glowed. Clots of men gathered around them; some shuffled gregariously from one group to the next. A half-dozen boys, Duarto among them, played a round of ha-lo, a ball game that involved a bat and a set of hand-held throwing nets. Tavio knew it as a street game that required skill and fast footwork, neither of which he possessed.

Nearby a man roared with laughter. His broad mouth revealed three teeth in his upper jaw and two in the lower, and a spray of pockmarks stippled his cheeks above his faded brown beard. He handed off a blue jug to a wide-chested, bandy-legged character, who said something that brought on another gale of mirth. Three other men shared their own pot of brew and laughed with them.

Greetings met Kaybrel and hands extended ale bottles to him as he and Tavio passed through the crowd. Kay selected an empty spot on the ground close to the big fire ring and dropped the three blankets he’d brought. Before they could sit down, though, Dom of Wichin hailed them over to where he, Robin, and Fil were holding court, attended by six or eight of their retainers. Yellow of hair and brow—even his eyelashes were blond—Dom had a bluff manner and a wet smile. He ran a sportive hand through Tavio’s hair and said something that made Kay grin. Tavi couldn’t understand the men’s words, but he sensed they were about him and he didn’t like it. Fil offered Kay the pot, which was accepted with a casual toast.

Englo conversation unintelligible, Tavio parked himself on the far side of Kaybrel from Dom and let his attention wander back to the ball game. The pitcher threw a fast ball overhand to Porfi, who swung and missed. The next swing connected, though, and sent the fist-sized ball sailing into the blackness above the firelight.

One of the receivers ran back a few steps, held up his snowshoe-shaped rope net, and snatched the ball as it stooped earthward like a hawk after prey. The batter tossed his paddle aside and charged him; before he could make contact, the netter whirled his arm and snapped the ball back into the air.

Duarto and another boy lunged for it, but Duarto was quicker. He blurred over the field, caught the ball on the tip of his net, and flipped it in before it could bounce off the rim. Now Porfi, evidently on Duarto’s team, moved to block the other netter who had tried to snare the ball. A riot of shouts and whistles burst from the players as Duarto maneuvered for a shot through the tree crotch that was their goal.

Beyond the ball game, a party drifted across the meadow following the brez, who was proceeding through the crowd slowly, surrounded by a swarm of hangers-on. Among them, Tavi recognized Mitch, who had been introduced to him as Kay’s cousin, and two other alacaldos whose names he couldn’t recall.

Closer to the fire, a group of men in woolen leggings and leather jackets sat on rocks warming themselves by the fire. They passed a large carved pipe from hand to hand while one of them strummed—tunelessly, Tavio thought—a small stringed instrument.

“Why don’t you go get in that game?” Kay suggested.

“I don’t play it very well,” Tavi said.

“Ahh! They’ll let you play anyway. Your buddy Duarto will get you in.”

“He’s good, no?”

“Always fast on his feet, yes.”

They watched as the game continued without a pause. It would run with no time out until one side scored ten points.

“Go on over there, boy,” said Kay.

“I don’t understand what they’re saying,” Tavi replied. “They all speak Englo.”

“No, they don’t. Every one of them speaks some kind of Espanyo. If you pay attention and listen, you can figure it out.”

“I don’t want to,” Tavio protested.

“When did I ask you if you wanted to?” Kaybrel, accustomed to being obeyed, felt himself get a little short. “Don’t whine, Tavi.”

Tavio fell silent. In a lifetime of hard work, no one had ever accused him of whining. He studied the alacaldo briefly and saw no sign of sympathy—although in fact, Kay sensed the reasons for Tavi’s reticence even as he pushed him out into the crowd. Tavio let enough time pass to suit his own sense of propriety and then headed toward the game. He had no intention of playing and declined when Duarto tried to draft him. Instead, he sat down next to the sidelined Luse, who very much desired to be on the field.

“How’s it going?” he said and then realized that was pretty silly, because even if the greeting was understood, he couldn’t follow the answer.

But Luse returned with something that Tavio realized must mean “better,” because he caught a couple of blurry syllables that sounded vaguely familiar. Luse showed off the little fetish that Kaybrel had given him. “This has good magic,” he said, and Tavio recognized the word for “good.” Luse’s attention turned back to the game, and he hollered for his team. Luse would have been playing against Duarto’s side and, he fully believed, leading his gang to a win if he were just on his feet.

Now that he had a chance to sit quietly for a few minutes, Tavio began to register that he was dead tired, so tired he no longer felt hungry, although he had been aware of how empty his belly was for quite some time. As soon as the sun set, the evening chill came up, and with the dark the air was turning cold. He wished he could go inside somewhere—home. But there was no home. Just a pile of ashes. And the spirits, they had no place to go either, no home in the earth, no images to dwell in at the place where they had lived in flesh. They had no place to go and neither did he. What happens to spirits, he wondered, when the place they came from goes away? They must wander and wander. They probably follow the ones they knew in life, and for sure he was the only one still living. So they must be here with him, watching and crying. How Tisha had screamed! It must have hurt her so much, what they did to her. It hurt when they did it to him. It hurt more than he could even remember now. She was so little, only eight years old. She screamed. One of them hit her when she screamed but that made her scream more. She screamed through the rag they stuffed in her mouth. She was still screaming. Her screams bounced off the stars and spread through the night sky so that the air cringed with echoes of her screams that would never stop, not through all eternity; in all of time she would go on screaming, for now Tisha and Rina and Mamita were night ghosts whose agony would come back to the ones left living in the flesh and bring pain and then death, first maybe to these wild men who didn’t even ask for God’s deliverance. He hoped Mamita would take him soon, and then he would be an isburdo, too. Her touch would graze his cheek or brush his back as he slept and he would take a fever and die and be with them. Tisha’s screams rang through the world and diffused up toward a black heaven.


“Hey, Tavio.” Kaybrel’s hand grasped his shoulder with a gentle squeeze. “Are you awake? You look like you’re freezing.”

Tavi jumped. He hadn’t heard Kay call him across the field, nor had he been aware of the man’s approach. He realized he’d hunched himself up and wrapped his arms around his knees, and yes, he was cold.

“Cook says the chow is hot. Let’s go get some, hm? That’ll warm you up,” Kay said. He had brought a couple of metal dishes and pottery cups.

Tavio got to his feet silently and followed Kaybrel to the far side of the bonfire, to where Bayder was holding forth. Quite a few Hengliss were gathered there. As Kaybrel approached, men stood aside to let him go to the front, which he did as a matter of course.

Bayder was a hefty fellow with a thick, black bramble of whiskers, surprising blue eyes, and a broad grin that revealed crooked teeth. A copious knit cap covered his bald pate, and he looked like eating was his life.

At the time he sent word to the kubna that the food was about ready to eat—no one in the Moor Lek company got served before Kaybrel—Bayder had put Tavi’s dollivar, which he had filleted, in a flat basket and set it over the fire to grill. His timing was exactly right, and as the two approached, he pulled the pink-fleshed meat off and greeted them with a remark that Kay translated for Tavi.

“He says you’re a great fisherman. He likes your catch.”

“Grati,” Tavi said. His smile looked shy.

“Next time he goes fishing, he’ll take you with him, so you can catch one of these for him.”

Uncertain how to respond to this second-hand conversation, or even what to say had it been first-hand, Tavio wished it would get over with. “Am I allowed to do that?” he asked.

“Of course. You’re allowed to do anything you want—just about.” Bayder placed the tender fish on Tavio’s plate while one of his assistants wrestled a roasted joint off the fire and began slicing chunks. “It would be good to offer him some,” Kay prompted. “That’s a courtesy, you understand?”

Así.” He held the dish up and invited Bayder to take some. Kaybrel didn’t need to translate; if Bayder hadn’t half-expected it, Tavio’s meaning would have been clear.

“No, that’s yours, chacho,” said Bayder. “Well, maybe a taste.” He reached over to Tavio’s dish and with his broad, stubby fingers broke off enough to fill his capacious mouth. “Very good,” he spoke around the food. “Grati,” he added, and Tavio smiled more convincingly.

There was plenty to stuff a hungry belly: in addition to the various roasted meats, Bayder offered potatoes, beets, and turnips wrapped in leaves and roasted in the coals; boiled carrots, celery, onions, and leafy greens; green tomatoes fried in fat and red ones sliced or stewed. The corn was not ripe, nor were the apricots and peaches, but the peas were, and every one that could be eaten had been stripped from the vines. There was broccoli and kale, lettuces of various kinds, grapes, green apples. The clan who lived in this place gardened well and ate well, when there was no one to teach them any better. Bayder saw to it that Kaybrel and his boy’s plates were piled high.

Kay had picked the spot where they threw down because he recognized his friends’ gear on the ground. Fallon was already parked nearby, next to Fil. They were debating whether to get up and go after food or to continue drinking; with Kay’s arrival, they chose to keep drinking. A few moments later, Don’O joined them, his plate overflowing, and before long Robin and Kristof appeared, with Luse and Robin’s boy Nando in tow. Mitchel took another place for himself and Duarto. Binsen and Guelito soon joined the group, too.

Duarto, his color high, walked up with a cheerful swagger. “We won,” he said, as he dropped to the ground next to Tavio. “Porfi tried to block me on the last goal, but I passed it to Hernan and he swung it around like he was going to pass to Rod, but I’d sort of slid back, you know? behind Guel’—he was watching the ball and he didn’t see where I was, and quick as a snake Hernan shot to me and I just dropped it right in.”

“That was a lucky shot, farm boy,” Luse cracked in Hengliss.

“Lucky I’m so good,” said Duarto.

“Lucky I wasn’t playing, you mean.”

“Hey!” Duarto laughed. “Get yourself back in the game and we’ll see what’s luck, eh?” He translated the gist of this exchange for Tavio, who smiled politely. Tavi, never much of a sportsman, had little taste for brags or challenges. He’d like, he thought, to make other guys feel he was one of them, but sometimes he wondered how. Just now, though, he was too tired to care.

Duarto launched into a blow-by-blow for the Hengliss men’s benefit, and whatever he was saying caused ripples of laughter. Fallon and Fil raised the jug to Duarto’s cause and then offered him a swig, which he gladly accepted. He passed the bottle to Tavio. Tavio wondered how Duarto could talk so much and still eat. He took a sip from the jug: it was the same burning liquid Kay had poured down his throat a week earlier. He passed it quickly to Luse.

The rise and fall of conversation washed around Tavio, like water eddying in the river’s bend. When he said he had eaten as much as he could, Kay took his plate and handed it to someone else, who took some and passed it along. Each helped himself to what he wanted. Tavio pulled the blanket Kay had given him around his shoulders and looked up to the stars that studded the black bowl over the fire’s orange glow and thought again of his sister but Duarto laughed and Guelito, bundled now close to Binsen, echoed the joke and their two half-grown voices blended with the men’s and all the voices rushed like tumbling water over the sound of the screams.

Someone pulled out a pair of dice and Kay and Fal said something that made the others laugh again, the two of them bantering together. Four of the men threw the dice, one after the other, and three times out of five Kay’s came up low and he grinned and collected a handful of coins. He gave one to Tavi and one each to Luse, Duarto, Guelito, and Nando and pocketed the rest.

The dice gave way to a story-telling session, which Tavio couldn’t follow. To the Hengliss stories were nothing without music, and before long someone offered Kay a gitter, a small stringed instrument like a lute, highly portable, with just six strings and a short neck. He took it and fingered out a melody from his heart, slow and complex, something that no one had ever heard before and everyone thought they knew from childhood.

When he ended, the company sat quietly for a moment, a brief moment. Then a voice from the other side of the campfire spoke up. “C’mon, Kay. Can’t you play anything cheerful?”

He shrugged and offered the gitter to Tavio. “Play us a tune, boy,” he said. “It’s just like un’itaretto.”

“I don’t know how,” said Tavio.


“No. I can’t play it.”

Kay gave him a puzzled look, but his pause was brief. He moved on quickly.

“Guelito!” he said. “Give those clowns a laugh.” Guelito took the gitter cheerfully. The song he played swept up and down like a swallow in the wind below a cliff, and everyone rode with it. By the time he finished, Kaybrel’s wistful melody was forgotten, and one of the two smokers who had sat by the big fire earlier joined them. Then he and Guelito picked their music-makers opposite each other, one competing with the other to go faster and higher.

While this went on, Kay saw Tavi nest his head in his arms again. The blanket slid clumsily off the boy’s shoulders.

“Cold, chacho?” Kay asked.

“Así, alacaldo,” came the reply.

“Come here,” Kay said. “Get under this blanket, hm?” Kay beckoned, opened the tent he’d made over his own shoulders. Tavi, chilly and sleepy, thought he’d take him up and moved under Kay’s arm and let himself be wrapped in the brown and red striped wool. “Your feet are still bare. You must be freezing.” Kay wrapped both blankets around Tavi and pulled him close and leaned back against a small pile of rocks his friends had stacked up as seating. Under the two wool wraps, it was warm and dark. Kay pulled the top blanket around Tavi’s neck and up around his nose, and saw that it was tight around his feet. Not a whisper of cold night air could seep in, and the warmth of Kaybrel’s arm around him locked out even the night ghosts.

The voices grew distant, a dwindling hum shifting deeper into a cave. Later, Tavio didn’t remember that Kay asked Duarto to wash their dishes in the river, or that Mitch laughed when he heard about the bears, but that he sent a couple of chachos to help heft all the food out of reach, or that when Duarto came back he climbed under Mitch’s blanket and then ducked his head underneath and did something there that made Mitch grin. Tavio didn’t remember when Kaybrel woke him and led him to the lodge and put him to bed.

Chapter 15
Morning After

The two armies slept late the next morning. Some of the men moved slowly when they emerged, and many looked a bit shabby. Kay was up early, though he knew before he went to bed that there would be no hurry to pack up. Only Don’O was shifting about, and Don’O showed no inclination to roust anyone out of the sack. Don’O padded groggily around camp, his careful motions crying out for quiet. Kay decided to let Tavio sleep.

After he got the campfire going, he set a bucket of water over the heat and got out the fixings for a mint tea and an amaranth-grain cereal, which he preferred hot and thick. He shaved some soap into a mug and shortly ladled some of the hot water over it. This, along with his chamois towel and a change of clothing, he carried over to the river, where, a few dozen yards downstream, he found a deep eddy in the stream’s elbow. He dropped his pants and shirt on the bank and entered the water with a smooth, flat dive, so clean he scarcely made a sound as he cut the surface.

Milky with glacier-melt, the frigid water made him ache all over. He could feel his testicles cringe up into his body, and his head started to hurt before his face broke out of the water. He gasped as he found his footing. In another couple of seconds he was back on the riverbank, soaping himself in the sunlight, whose faint early-morning warmth did nothing to change the sense that the water would soon form a sheet of ice on his skin.

Up the way, Fallon, who had crawled out of his lodge with a mighty head, saw Kay strolling downstream. He followed to watch the spectacle.

He sat down by the stream on a log that had fallen half-in, half-out of the water. “Freezing your dong won’t turn it to gold,” he remarked.

Kay rubbed the soap into his hair and beard. “Keeps a man good and tough,” he said. “Helps your hangover, too.”

“Sure. Freeze yourself to death, and you don’t feel any more pain.”

Kay laughed. “Cranky this morning, hm?”

“Naah. Just flabbergasted.”

Kay jumped back into the water and dived to rinse the soap off. Back on the bank in seconds, he swore softly under his breath and rubbed his shivering body hard with the chamois.

“Why do you do that?” Fal asked, for what was no doubt the hundredth time. “An oil rub would do the job without turning your balls to ice. Or else sweat the dirt off.”

“Right! I’m going to build a sweathouse for an overnight stop?”

“I wouldn’t mind a good sweat myself just now,” Fallon said.

“I’ll bet!” Kay pulled his clothes and boots on. “I dunno,” he added. “Grease never makes me feel as clean as water. Besides, how else could I prove what a man I am?”

“And it feels so good when it stops.”

“Yeah, you got that right.” Kay invited Fallon to join him for breakfast, and the two trailed back to his camp. They sat by the fire long enough to take off the chill and sip mugs of the hot tea, and then Kay, who could see that Fallon needed a stronger tonic to perk him up, suggested they raid the cook’s leftover stores.

Bayder was also up by the time they got there, cleaning and stowing gear and keeping an eye on the very booty the two had in mind. Iami, his youngest sidekick, was scrubbing out a big sheet-metal bin; the other, Eberto, had worked very late the previous night and was still in bed. A ten-gallon pot of beef and sheep bones simmered over the fire; had been there since the night before, when Bayder threw a load of picked-over remains into some water and left them to stew.

Mister Kay! Mister Fallon!” he greeted the two cheerfully.

“Oh, Lord,” Fal mumbled a mock prayer. “Spare us this day this happy fool.” Only Kay heard him, and whatever god was listening.

A moment or two of small talk led to Kay’s inquiry about a medicinal morning brew. Ready to accommodate—because he knew what sunrise would bring—Bayder poured a big ladle-full of the meat broth through a metal strainer into a bowl. He added a dollop of something thick and dark, redolent of hot pepper, vinegar, honey, onion, garlic, and ripe fish oil. From the wagon he brought forth a basket of eggs, one of which he split neatly between his fingers and dropped, whole and raw, into the brew. “Here you go,” he offered it to the invalid.

Fallon peered into the bowl’s murky depths, his piratical features a study in despair. The egg began to congeal in the hot liquid. He glanced at Kay, who smirked, and at Bayder, who looked expectant.

“Down the hatch,” said Kay.

“Nothing better for you,” said Bayder.

“Ugh,” said Fallon. His gut lurched. The other two were watching. He put the bowl to his lips, held his breath, shut his eyes, and bolted the gunk down. The slimy, burning concoction went straight to his belly without taking much notice of his taste buds; he felt it heat his gullet all the way to his stomach. He wiped his beard and mustache on his shirtsleeve, opened his eyes, and grinned. “Great stuff,” he said, and let go a satisfied belch that brought forth a skeptical laugh from Kay and a slap on the shoulder from Bayder.

The cook was willing to part with a few more eggs, some leftover meat, some baked beans, and a small portion of precious butter, liberated the day before from the farmhouses. Before Kay and Fal could get away, they had heard five folk remedies for the morning after (of which three were most recommended by the quantities of liquor they contained) and two ancient saws that had something to do with why a young man should cleave to the straight and narrow path, preferably the path that contained a wife or two.

They escaped to Kay’s camp, where Kay stirred the thick grain potage he had put on the fire and, seeing the wooden paddle stand straight up in it, declared it adequate. Fallon retired to the fireside log, rested his head on his hands, and tried not to think of his queasy gut. He watched while Kay sliced a few of the green apples and threw them, with a dollop of butter, a slop of honey, and half a mug of water, into a small iron pot, which he balanced over a pair of rocks placed in the hot coals. Once the fruit was stewing, Kay chopped the slices of meat into small chunks, melted the rest of the butter in a cast-iron frying pan, and scrambled the eggs and meat together.

By the time Kay’s breakfast mess was ready, Fal’s appetite had begun to return. He didn’t turn up his nose at a bowl of honeyed mush topped with tangy apples, nor at the egg slumgullion.

Inside the lodge, the sounds of activity and the bass exchange of the men’s voices woke Tavio. He noticed he hadn’t been turned out of bed before dawn, and that made him feel good. Maybe there would be no trek today. He wondered why Kay hadn’t roused him, and then he burrowed into the warm blankets and hoped it was because Kay had forgotten him.

The hot cereal revived Fallon’s will to live, and, at ease beside the fire, he took a moment to listen to the dove hoot and the meadowlark trill, to watch white clouds march toward the western peaks, to smell the fragrance of last night’s hemp that still clung to his clothing.

“That old man never came back with his women,” he reflected.

“Why should he? He knew what would come of it.”

“I suppose. Nice spot they have here.”

“It was,” said Kay

“Does it bother you?”


“Taking the place down.”

“No. Should it?”

“I don’t know.”

Kay regarded Fallon silently. He knew he was giving that impression—that he was going soft—and while he didn’t much want to have to answer for it, he realized he needed to come up with some response. So he said what he thought.

“It’s just that there’s not much point in it. You understand?”

“I suppose. No more point in it than in what they do to our farms and towns.”

“We should do pointless things because they do?”

Fallon shrugged.

“We ought to be spending our time and our energy going after targets that count,” Kay continued. “We need to march toward the towns, track down and take on their armed men. This was a waste of time.”

“It was fun. It made the men happy.”


“Besides, we took Roksan. What more do you want?”

“I want to whip those bastards’ tails, Fal, so that none of them ever even thinks about setting foot north of the Shazdi again. And I can tell you one thing: we didn’t do that at Roksan. A good part of their army is out in the field somewhere. If they’d all been in or near the city, we’d have had one hell of a lot harder fight than we did, taking the place.”

“We didn’t have what you’d call an easy time of it,” Fallon remarked with understatement.


“I think we got them. We nailed their hides to the wall.”

“Not by a long shot.”

“You don’t think so?”

“I’m sure of it. We’re sitting around on our duffs partying when we ought to be going after the rest of them. By that I don’t mean people who live on little farms down by the river. We need to go after the big towns—guitats, they call them. Where there’s lots of fortifications and lots of people to fight.”

“So? Roksan, eh?”

“Roksan isn’t their only city, Fal.”

“It’s got to be the biggest.”

“I doubt it.”

“How do you know?”

“Because I know the way they live. They’re insects. They don’t live like we do, in normal villages. They swarm together in hives, like termites in a dirt mound. The more of them, the better. Aleio, down on the Wakeen, is bigger than Roksan. Mendo is at least as big.”

“We could never make it all the way to Aleio in a summer,” said Fallon.

“Not at this rate,” Kay agreed.

Fallon emptied the mug of tea and dangled the cup between his knees. “Here’s a little termite now,” he observed. Tavio crawled out of the lodge and stood in the sun rubbing sleep out of his eyes. He wore a homespun robe that Kay had put on him to keep him warm at night, and in his bare feet he looked child-like.

“Good morning,” Kay said to him in Hengliss. This elicited a woozy nod. “Did you sleep all right?” in Espanyo.

Tavio murmured a wordless sound of assent. “Come over here,” Kay said. He made an open-armed gesture that invited the boy to sit down. Tavio dropped to the ground, and Kay settled him between his legs, facing the slowly burning fire. Tavi kept his eyes closed as Kay rubbed and scratched his back to wake him up. Fallon stood and walked over to the kettle to refill his mug, and while he was there he rummaged in the mound of camp dishes, found a tin cup, and poured some tea into that, too.

He handed it to Tavio. “Here you go, lad,” he said.

Tavi glanced up at Fal and took the cup. “Thank you,” he said in distinct, clear Hengliss.

Surprised, Fallon flashed his startling bright smile and said, “You’re welcome.” He looked at Kay, who lifted an eyebrow amicably. It was the first time Tavio had spoken a Hengliss phrase without prompting. He soon reverted to Espanyo, though.

“Is Duarto up?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” Kay said. “I haven’t been over there.”

“Can I go see?”


Tavio subsided. “You need some breakfast,” Kay added. “But before that, you have to take a bath. You’re starting to stink again.”

“In the water?”

“Right over there.”

“But it’s cold.”

“It’s halfway to noon! The sun’s warm—you won’t freeze. There’s a nice swimming hole down there where you can take a dip. You’ll enjoy it.”

“I can’t swim.”

“Ah,” Kay said. “You did say that, didn’t you?” Now it seemed like part of a pattern. “All right. Go over there to where the water’s shallow, and stay where I can see you.” He pointed out the soap, the still-damp chamois towel, and the location of some almost clean clothes, and then brooked no further resistance. Dejected, Tavio got up and headed for the river bank.

“That boy will catch his death,” Fal said. “Do you think it’s a good idea to make him get wet like that?”

“It won’t hurt him,” Kay said. The concept of cleanliness was something Kay had picked up in his travels, an Udan custom. It was foreign to the Hengliss as to the city-dwelling Socalinieros: an acceptable side-effect of some amusement like swimming or the sweat lodge, but never an end in itself. Fallon believed water was not very healthy, and taking a chill was a fair way to bring on a fever.

Before Tavio could finish bolting the food Kay put in front of him after he returned from the riverside, the order to move came down from Lhored. Fallon heaved himself to his feet and went off to rally his men. Tavi was disappointed at missing the chance to socialize with Duarto and his friends. Kay observed that he’d have the rest of the day to hike with whomever he pleased, which served the purpose of reminding Tavi that his feet hurt.

Chapter 16
Kay and Tavi

In less than an hour, the camp was packed aboard horses, the long barracks-tents were stowed in the wagons, and the assorted company began to pour back onto the road, one band after another. It was just before midday.

Kay had wrapped Tavio’s feet well and fitted him with a fresh pair of socks, so he was reasonably comfortable. They soon fell into a smooth rhythm, side by side. Fallon and Mitch had taken up with a couple of the others, and once they were under way, Tavio showed no inclination to run off and join his new friends. The two walked quietly for a while. Kay wondered many things about Tavio, and he turned them over in his mind as he went along.

“So,” he said eventually. “You don’t swim.”

“No, sir,” Tavio replied.

“You don’t play a musical instrument?”


“You don’t play ball.”

“Not very well.”

“You’ve never hiked before this.”

“No. We always rode in a wagon. Or a carriage.”

“I’ll bet you’ve never climbed a mountain, either, hm?”

Tavio shrugged.

“And yesterday was the first time you’ve fished this river.”

“Uh huh.”

“Tell me something, boy.”


“What have you been doing all your life, while you’ve been growing up?”

Tavio didn’t know how to answer this. Was Kay trying to insult him? Why? He hadn’t done anything to bring on a confrontation. At length he replied: “Working.”


“Yeah. In my father’s shop.”

“What kind of work did you do?” Kay asked.

“My father’s a weaver,” Tavio said. “He’s…well, he was—the master weaver in the city.”

“Hm. That’s something,” Kay remarked. He examined this silently. Roksan had produced the finest woven goods in the south, and southern textiles were far superior to anything made by the Hengliss tribes. Was this boy saying what he seemed to be saying? Surely not.

“I suppose,” Tavio agreed.

“You were his apprentice, then?”

“Yeah, I got to be. In the past couple of years.”

“So….what were you doing before then?”


“You worked, but you weren’t apprenticed?”

“Well, no. It takes a long time to get to where you can apprentice. You have to have done it for a while.”

“You apprentice to be an apprentice.”

Tavio laughed. “Yeah, you could say that.”

Kay let this rest, waiting to see what Tavio would say next. And shortly, the boy continued. “My father started me working in the shop when…it was my fifth summer, I think. About five.”

“Five years old? What kind of work can you get from five summers?”

Kay saw Tavi glance at him sidewise and thought his look said there was something obvious or stupid in the question. “It’s the small hands, you know?” Tavi said. “When you’re little, you can reach through the threads better. We used to help work the looms, and we had to set them up for the weavers, and sometimes we’d do some of the weaving, too.”

“Sounds like enough to keep you busy.”

“I suppose. They don’t make you work all day at first. Plus our shop was right next to our house. We’d go back and forth. At first, anyway. It takes a while to get into it, a year or two before you’re working all the time.”

“All the time? All day, from dawn to dusk?” Kay found it hard to conceive of a small boy working a man’s hours. Although Hengliss farm boys helped to work the land from an early age, it was never that early, and in the villages the sons of craftsmen and laborers weren’t set to a trade much before they were ten or twelve.

“Sure,” Tavio said, as though he couldn’t imagine anything else.

“When did you play with your friends?” Kay asked.

“After church, sometimes. If there wasn’t anything else to be done.”

It explained some things, Kay thought, though it seemed unlikely. How a person could make a kid sit still for a full day’s work baffled him. Yet, he reflected, he had heard that the Socalinieri regarded children as short adults. They certainly treated Hengliss boys, when they had them, like something other than children, no question of that. And some of the Socaliniero boys had un-boyish habits. Duarto, in particular; but then what Duarto had gone through would take the boy—if not the life—out of anyone. Duarto was no boy. But Porfi surely was, and Guelito; and Luse had changed before their eyes from lad to young man in just the past few weeks, or so it seemed to Kay. Nando played the child more often than not. Except for Duarto and maybe Luse, they were all somewhere in between boy and man.

“Your people were churchgoers, then.”

“Sure. Twice a week.”

An ironic smile crept across Kay’s lips before he suppressed it. Lot of good it did them, he thought. They sent themselves to heaven and left behind a kid who believes in spooks. On the other hand, he reflected, so did most everyone else. If Mitch or Fallon or (God forfend) Lhored caught any of that palaver about night ghosts, the whole company would have to sit through half a day of exorcisms. Kay didn’t care to hear about the Socalinieros’ God in Three Parts any more than he looked forward to that procedure, so he directed the conversation elsewhere.

“What kind of fabric did you make in this shop?” he asked.

“Every kind. We worked silk, wool, cotton, linen—whatever we could buy, we worked into cloth. But my father and my uncle were known mostly as master silk weavers.”

“You know how to make silk?” Kay’s interest rose.

“No. Worms make silk.” Tavio grinned, but quickly saw from Kay’s expression that he’d better not act smart. “Yeah, I can weave some kinds of silk cloth, if I have the right loom. Silk broadcloth and crêpe, and I’ve made a kind of satin a few times. But, you know, not like my uncle Raol or my father. They’re really good. My uncle could make a thick colored brocade, like a sculpture, with pictures and designs in it that look they’re alive.”

Kay had to put a rein on himself, to consciously tell himself not to get too excited about this. He had thought the boy was some fat merchant’s son, altogether absent the kind of practical skills he would need to make a living in the north. If what Tavi seemed to be saying was true—that he could make fine staples—then he had a value far beyond passing convenience. Moor Lek had never seen a weaver who could make much other than coarse wool and cotton homespun. On the other hand, the kid could be exaggerating. Or Kay might have misunderstood.

“So,” he said, “your family made a lot of luxury goods, hm? It’s not the sort of thing people wear around all the time.”

“We made silks for the summer trade in Doe,” Tavio replied. “For winter, and for the customers who came to our store, we made a lot of woolens and cotton goods. I can make a cotton twill that looks just like it was made of silk. And cambric and muslin, and crepe out of cotton and wool, too. And heavy wool blanketing for your coats and jackets.”

“That’s quite a variety.” Maybe there is a god, Kay thought. “Your brothers worked as apprentices?” he asked.

“No, I don’t have any brothers.”

“Your sisters.”

“No.” Tavi grinned at the silliness of this idea. “Girls don’t have to weave. They get to be wives. When they got bigger they worked in the house or the store with my mother.”

“So, these apprentices were…who?”

“My cousins, mostly. And a young guy whose father worked a deal with my uncle, to apprentice him. They had farmland, but they didn’t have enough for all their sons, so this kid was supposed to learn something else. They paid my uncle to teach the guy to weave.”

“Do you know how to build the looms a person needs to make these fabrics?”

“Well, I know how they’re made. Sure, I guess I could put one together, if I had to. That’s what loomboys do—set up the looms for the weavers. And get whacked when you get it wrong,” he added.

“You get whacked a lot?” Kay said.

“No, not any more.”

“Well,” Kay said. “There’s a weaver in Moor Lek, and another over at Cham Fos. Maybe we can apprentice you to one of them. We’d have to put you up with Mitch, I suppose, if we sent you to Cham Fos.”

“You’ll put me to work?”

“I certainly will.”

“Maybe I could work with Duarto.”

“Not likely. He’s a miller. He works at the mill below Cham Fos, when he’s not following Mitch around. Anyway, you’ve got a lot to learn between now and the fall.”

“I do? Like what?”

“Like how to speak Hengliss. And how to be a boy,” Kay remarked. “First thing we’ll do is teach you to swim.”

“But I don’t want to go in the water!”

“And the next thing is to teach you to quit whining.” He gave Tavio a playful swat on the arm. The boy skipped out of reach and laughed.

After Tavio had drifted away to walk with the chachos, Kay reflected on this unexpected development. The Spanyo brat was altogether a different kind of asset than he had imagined, worth more than expected. A weaver’s boy, one who already knew how to make at least some of the fine stuffs that came out of Roksan—imagine that!

Normally, a foreign youth brought into an Okan household, at least one of Moor Lek’s rank, would grow into some kind of trade or craft whose income would help support the house. Aniel, Kay’s one surviving former camp boy, was a great help. A farmer’s son, he cultivated the lands around the stokhed, cared for the stock, gardened, and helped the women run the place when Kay was in the field. Aniel had been a good investment, Kay mused, a strong, handy young man and a fine addition to his clan. Aniel’s wife, Jenna, made a nice companion for Maire, next best thing to a sister wife, and the children were, well, what one wanted in children. Aniel didn’t bring in much cash, but he created wealth of a better kind: food and decency and family.

This one, though, if he could actually build the equipment needed to weave better fabrics and could use it, he might be worth something. Earnings from sales of good silks and fine woolens would enrich the House. In time, his income could go a way toward restoring Moor Lek’s wealth, lost thirty years ago in the fall of the stokhed and village. Even when Tavio was old enough to go out on his own, his splits with Kay would still flow in. They could be substantial, too—by then he’d be a journeyman, or maybe even a master weaver. If that wasn’t enough to rebuild Moor Lek’s fortune, it would at least take some of the weight off Kay’s shoulders, which, he felt from time to time, were tiring.

Wine-sweet, that: a Roksando craft restoring the house of Moor Lek. At the thought, Kay smiled, tight and hard but not without humor. It was, he noted, another splendid, clear day.


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Chapter 5
Kindness of Strangers

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

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

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

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

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

The boy nodded.

“How about something to eat,” Kay suggested.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re welcome,” said Kay.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Now and again,” said Kay.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Así,” he agreed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“‘Mis-teh?’ Don?”

Senyó is closer to it.”

“Lots of smoke,” Tavi said.

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

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

“I’m afraid so.”

“The whole city’s burning?”

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

“I wonder if very many people got away.”

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 6
Taking Counsel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bose nodded.

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

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

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

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

Laughter greeted this remark.

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

“That we won’t!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lhored moved his hands over the bread and wine.

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

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

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

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

Too much pain in this world, he thought.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

“Vaguely,” Fal said.

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

“No farms?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


“We need you out here.”

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

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

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

“Lhored is still going strong,” Fallon said.

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

“Seven springs?”


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

“That’s right,” Kaybrel admitted.

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

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

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

“That’s so, Porfi,” Kay replied.

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

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

“It’s done.”

“And sharpening my sword and dagger.”


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


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

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

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


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

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

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

“Pretty bad off, is he?”

“I don’t know.”

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

“I hate to do that.”

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

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

“Mm. I’ll bet.”

“The bastards,” Kay said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 7
Breaking Camp

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why is he called that? Is he mean?”

“Hardly!” Kaybrel laughed at the idea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

“Can’t we ride them?” asked Tavio.

“Nope. They carry the gear. We walk.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How’s it going, Herre?”

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

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

“About time,” Herre groused.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t think so,” Kay said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Aw, what a shame!” Don’O grinned.

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

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

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

Chapter 8
The Healer

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

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

“What happened here?” asked Kaybrel.

“Luse hit himself with an ax.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


“Perfect in every way.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It takes a gorandero to do those things.”


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

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

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

“Sometimes,” Kay agreed.

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

“The spirit of God, hm?”

“You just said not.”

“You believed me?”

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

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

Chapter 9
The Road

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

“Luse?” Guelito said.

“I guess.”

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

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

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

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

“Is he what?”


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

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

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

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

“Dangerous,” said Guelito.

“Sometimes,” Duarto agreed.

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

“Tired?” Kay inquired.

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

“How are your feet?”

“A little sore.”

“Maybe we’d better take a look.”

“I’m all right,” Tavio said.

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

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

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

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

“Want to let me take a look now?”

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

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

“It didn’t seem that bad,” said Tavi.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t know. That’s all I heard.”

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

“I guess not,” said Robin.

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

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

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

“Did I ask you that?”

“No, but….”

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

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

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

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

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

Ahead, the road led on.

Want to get the whole set, beginning to end, for your very own?  The first six books are available at Amazon in Kindle “boxed set”…click on the image below to find it.

And the rest of the thing…

How Much Should You Pay for a German Shepherd Puppy?

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

Section II: Going to the Dogs
(Or Cats)

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

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

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

Patience, Gimme Patience!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well. No.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is not what I think of as creative work.

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

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


Done! …as done is gonna get today

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

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

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

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


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