Tag Archives: conquest of Roksan

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

Chapter 1
Roksan

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

Fallon Mayr of Chene Wells

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Come look what I found,” he begged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“They got kubnas?” Robin asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, yeah,” Fal said. “That it is.”

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

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

“You bet,” Kay said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 2
A Gift for the Kuba

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

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

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

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

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

Fal examined the knife closely and then set it aside.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, just take a look at them.”

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

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

“How’s it going?” Kay asked.

“Good. Sweet, isn’t it?” Don’O said.

“Like honey in milk,” Kay agreed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Shit,” said Zeb.

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

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

“Poor little guy,” Don’O said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Again the response was silence.

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

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

“Tavio,” the boy said.

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

“Ottavio Ombertín i Boleda do Gansoliz i Corruedo.”

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

“You could say it that way.”

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

“My eye hurts,” this Tavio said.

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

“They kicked me.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Fourteen summers,” the boy said.

“When? When were you born?”

“At Eastfest. On Resurrection Day.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kay smiled coolly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Look, men…,” Kay started.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 3
The First Deception

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

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

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

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

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

§

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then he pulled Tavio toward the water.

“No!” Tavi cried. “No, I can’t swim!”

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

§

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

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

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

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

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

§

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t you want him?”

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

“Put it to you that way, did they?”

“’Fraid so,” Kay said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Get outta here,” Kay growled.

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

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

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

“Good-bye.”

“Show us how it’s done, will you?”

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

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

“You think they’re gonna do that?”

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

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

“Na-a-ah. You think so?”

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

§

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, senyó,” he said.

“You’ve already eaten today?”

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

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

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

§

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

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

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

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

§

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

§

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

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

§

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

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

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

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

Chapter 4
Gorandero

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

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

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

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

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

“Make it stop,” the boy moaned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This made little impression.

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

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

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

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

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

Tavio nodded.

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

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

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

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

Tavio nodded, tentatively.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Looks like you tried,” Kay said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” Kay said.

“I want to be with them.”

“No, you don’t.”

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

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

“What is it?”

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

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

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

Tavio looked at him dumbly.

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

“I can hear them,” Tavi said.

“They’re quiet now,” Kay replied.

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

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

“It tastes good.”

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

Tavi shrugged.

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

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

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

“But. . . .”

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

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

“What is this place?” he asked.

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

Tavi nodded.

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

Tavi didn’t answer.

“Do you remember my name?”

“No, senyó,” Tavi said.

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

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

“So,” said Kay.

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

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

Tavi said nothing. He stared into his cup.

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

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

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

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

“I’m really tired,” Tavio murmured.

“Let’s put you to bed, then.”

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

Some enemy, Kaybrel thought.

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

 

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