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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.”

“Ah.”

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?”

“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.

14.
Partying

 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.

“Really?”

“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?”

“What?”

“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.”

“Hm.”

“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.

“Nope.”

“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?”

“No.”

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?”

“No.”

“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.”

“Senyó?”

“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.”

“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?”

“Working.”

“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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