A MINOR PRINCE
The boy knelt beside the white-covered pallet and slowly held out the wooden spoon to his father's lips.
"Come, father," he said in a voice as gentle as his agitation would permit. "Take a little. You can't regain your strength without food." For days Selnos had stayed, almost without a break, beside the low-pallet, offering his father broth, offering him water, trying to massage the pain from his limbs, and watching, with increasing dread, the progress of his wounds. Barely sentien, his father turned his head from the spoon. Desperation grew in Selnos's soul. How long could he last like this?
Insa, came to the door, "Brother," she said quietly. "The surgeon is here."
The tall old man moved past her, the hem of his brown cloak sweeping around his legs as he moved. He was a busy man, and grim, not given to sociable conversation. "How is he today, Selnos?" A shudder went through Selnos. It wasn't that he disliked the surgeon. Surely he was a nice enough man, and had never given Selnos cause to fear him. But he carried with him an unmistakable association with death. The surgeon was called when all other remedies, old wives and witching women, had failed.
"He won't take any nourishment, and I can only just get him to take a little water now and again. I think his fever is higher, too." Selnos shifted aside to let the surgeon in. The man smelled of his own bitter concoctions, and Selnos put the back of his hand against his nostrils to keep the stench at bay.
"Hmm. That's not good." The surgeon knelt beside the pallet and pulled the sheet back. He glanced quickly at the several small wounds on Father's legs and shoulders and then untied the bandage that covered his chest, opened it gingerly and peered inside. Selnos moved his head around behind the surgeon's so he, too, could see the wound. He grimaced at the sight. It was still open, festering badly, faintly maloderous, the area around it deep red with inflammation. "Get some more water, and we'll try to clean it up," the surgeon said, his voice deep with concern. "I have some herbs here, but..." He clucked sympathetically. "If only they had gotten back here sooner." He glanced at Selnos as Insa summoned the servants to heat more water. His voice was softer, warmer when he spoke again. "Selnos, I will do everything I can."
Anger boiled up inside Selnos. How could they have done this to Father? How, in the name of the gods, could he have been attacked and nearly killed for something that by rights belonged to him? Father moaned a little, and Selnos slipped behind him, holding his head gently, blinking quickly. This was not the time to express emotion. He was too old to cry, even under these circumstances. The gods willed these things. He should not seek to alter their will or even question it.
The surgeon worked quickly and deftly. When he had finished, he straightened up and dipped his blood-stained hands in the water bowl. Insa, who had been standing in the doorway, stepped forward with a towel. Wordlessly, the surgeon wiped his hands on it and handed it back with a sharp nod, then turned back to Selnos and shrugged. "Keep him as quiet as possible. When he will, let him take a little broth. I have given him something for the pain. Perhaps he'll feel a little more comfortable. Meanwhile, we can only wait and pray." He patted Selnos's shoulder and smiled at Insa, then quickly disappeared through the house.
Selnos sat down again at the head of the pallet. "Can you take something?" he asked, picking up the bowl again. "You heard him. Try." Father stretched his head up and Selnos tipped the spoon toward him. The warrior smiled apologetically as Selnos wiped up the drips from the sheet.
"I have become a baby again," Father said, attempting a laugh that ended in a painful cough. Still, it was his first attempt at conversation in too long. Selnos glanced around the whitewashed mud walls of the house his father had built with his own hands when he had taken Selnos's mother as a young bride and moved away from his own father's house. The long, deep windows let in a merciful sea breeze, and the boy sighed and dipped the spoon into the wooden bowl.
"You will be well soon, Father," he said.
"You are a good son. But a bad liar. I know better. These wounds are not the kind a man recovers from. I am resigned to die." He smiled faintly and paused. "Where are the women?"
"Gone, except for Insa who is seeing the surgeon out. To the market. The rest have gone to the market. A ship came in this morning in with vegetables from somewhere off the coast of Lindear and they have all gone to the dock to buy."
"Good," Father sighed. "Help me sit up." Selnos slipped his arm under his father's back and pulled him to a sitting position. He adjusted the sheet around his father's lap, appalled at how small the once-powerful man had become, and how quickly. A look of sorrow crossed his face, but his father raised his hand and gestured Selnos away. "Bring me paper, pen and ink. We must talk about what happened. But I must be brief."
Selnos complied. He scraped a few ebony-colored flakes and curls from the inkblock, and dropped them in the tiny bowl. Having added a few drops of water, he ground it with the small pestle until it was fluid enough for writing, then dipped the pen into the bowl and placed it in his father's trembling hand. For a few minutes the older man drew laboriously, Selnos restocking the pen as he needed it. Finally, Father dropped the pen only the bed. Selnos plucked it up quickly and laid it across the top of the inkbowl, but the drop of ink that had fallen from the tip left a dark stain that slowly spread on the white fabric. His father's head sank back on the pillow and he was silent. Selnos left the parchment where it lay under his thin hand and waited. In a few minutes, his father roused himself. "Several years ago, when you were yet a small boy, the men of this village were dismayed by the poverty that we were forced to live in since the Vapeks overtook the land and began extracting heavy tribute and taxes. We had little to pay them anyway, but soon they were demanding more and more."
Father's breath was ragged and short. He stopped speaking and drew a long, painful breath. In a moment, he began again. "Everyone knew of the ancient treasure of Hitaru far to the north where our ancestors came from. But one day, while digging in his garden, Charitos found a map to the treasure. At first none of us believed it. It had lost for, oh, hundreds of years. Some of our men, myself and my cousin Crinon, joined the expedition. We knew it would be dangerous because the Vapeks also knew of the treasure, though I think after so much time, that nobody believed it was anything but an old legend. We kept it secret from everyone, even our wives. They believed we were going to look for new land to settle in where we could farm instead of mining salt. But we persevered. It took months to get to the place, but once we were there, it took little time to get it from its hiding place, so detailed were the maps. It was a vast treasure, so vast in fact that we couldn't possibly take it all.
"But on the way back, while still in a mountainous place, we saw the Vapeks coming toward us. There was only enough time to hide the treasure before we were attacked by them. Some of the men were killed outright. Others were unwilling to reveal the location of the treasure and perished. My cousin and I, working together, managed to escape. I fear by the time we returned home, he was worse off than I."
Selnos nodded. "It is said he is close to death."
His father nodded weakly. "The treasure belongs then to you and his son, if you should be able to retrieve it."
"What of the sons of the other men?"
"Don't be foolish," Father sighed. "Their sons don't know where it is. This is a map to the place where we left the treasure. When my cousin is no more, and I have gone to meet my ancestors, you take his eldest son and go to this place. Not the younger son, for he is an extraordinarily foolish boy, but the elder." He pointed a trembling finger to the parchment. "Retrieve the treasure and bring it back. You two, Crinon the Younger and you, use it to leave this country, to take your mothers and sisters to another land and start anew. You can live like kings on that treasure. It is great." His eyes showed the first spark they had since he had been brought home on the litter. It faded quickly.
"Do not speak of it to anyone. And you must swear, my only son and comfort, that you will not leave me until my time is gone." Selnos guided his father's head to the pillow and smoothed the sheets.
"Good. When the women return, go and find my cousin's son. His father will have told him this, so you must make preparations with him." Father fell silent, and within minutes, Selnos knew he was asleep. He took the map and studied it. He saw with relief that it was an amazingly simple route--straight to the northwest, along the snaking river and then up into the mountains. Father had drawn in three of them, two shorter ones and a taller one about half-way through the range. It seemed that on the westernmost mountain, there was a chasm. Father had marked the cave where the treasure lay with an X.
Selnos folded the parchment carefully and slipped it in his tunic. He touched it gently, almost reverentially. Regardless of the miseries that had come before, the generation of servitude and poverty, this would be their answer. Through this he would find a way to free, perhaps not all of his people, but those that mattered most. Throughout the hours, he put his fingers inside his tunic to touch the parchment, which had almost taken on the same qualities as a sacred relic. His dreams were filled that night with thoughts of a new life in a new place, with enough for everyone he loved.
The following morning at dawn, the village was awakened by a great wailing. Selnos and Insa started out of the house, looking down the path that led sharply down the hill. The women of Calmos the Elder's house were running into the street, rending their garments and crying out loudly.
"He's gone. Our father's cousin is gone," Selnos said sadly.
"Yes," Insa said quietly. They couldn't look at one another, knowing that the scene in the street below, the women mourning loudly, the men covering their heads and rending their garments, would be repeated at their own house soon enough. The will of the gods. If only...surely there was some way to appease the gods, to circumvent their inexorible, inescapable will.
Sadly, they went down in the crowd of other people drawn out of their homes and away from their morning labors, from feeding the animals and drawing water from the fountain, to join the misery at Calmos the Elder's house. Calmos the Elder, his head covered with ashes, his face drawn, his shoulders almost limp, stood outside in the brilliant sun, his pale garments the same color as the houses, the road, the whitish sky. Selnos greeted him gently, taking him in his arms and kissing his cheek. Calmos the Younger, a head taller than Selnos, barely lifted his hands to touch Selnos's forearms lightly.
"My cousin," Selnos said with genuine affection, stemming his tears. "I grieve for you and for you father."
The young man said nothing. As if stunned he did not change postures when Selnos pulled back from him. His dark eyes were cold in his slack face, though, when Selnos looked at him.
"They will pay," he said shortly, shaking a head full of short, tight curls.
"Yes. Yes," Selnos agreed quickly, looking up at his cousin. Calmos was handsome. Everyone said so, and even in this moment, Selnos felt considerably inferior. Selnos had short hair, too, nearly as dark as Calmos's night-colored, glistening curls, but Selnos's merely lay limp against his head. Girls liked curls far better. Calmos had skin the color of a perfectly baked biscuit, warm and brown. Salnos's complexion tended toward the sallow. Calmos had muscles that bulged under his tunic, a broad chest, hair on his body like a man's and he was proud of it. Salnos was as hairless as a girl with arms barely distinguishable from his sister's. He had always felt small and puny next to Calmos, and it was his punishment from the gods to have to live so close to such a perfect man. Nobody doubted that when Calmos the Younger took his place in the world, he would be the headman of the entire gens. It was an illegitimate honor, of course, since the Vapeks had forbidden headmen. They wanted everyone to bow to only them, to ask their council on all matters and put all disputes before them. They didn't want the people to be autonomous, to run their own affairs as they had for generations without counting. "My father bid me speak to you about the things that happened when they were on their quest."
"Tell me what things?"
"Dear cousin. I don't want to burden you with this now. When you are more settled". For a moment Selnos felt s flush of pride, of superiority. He did know something important that Calmos, the Perfect, did not. An instant later, he felt small and childish, ashamed of his own hubris.
"This came as nothing of a surprise," Calmos the Younger said bitterly. "I am quite settled with it. But I will have blood for blood. Say what you have to say."
"Let me wait a few days, my cousin. Until your father has been laid to rest"
"I will not sleep until he is avenged."
"Vengeance may take a long time to obtain, my cousin. You must not take a vow that would kill you. Your father would not want it that way."
Calmos laughed shortly. "You're right, of course. I spoke foolishly. But I say this to you, my cousin. I vow to you right here, I will not touch my wife again until I have settled my father's soul, until the men responsible for his death have paid the fullest measure."
"Yes," Selnos bowed a little. Only a man lucky enough to have a fine wife can afford the luxury of taking a vow to neglect his pleasure with her, he thought bitterly. Even in that, Calmos was superior to him. Calmos's eyes were still hard, and Selnos was a little afraid of him. It was a scene from a nightmare, everything swirling around them, the women beating their breasts and tearing their hair, everyone packed tightly together in the street, overflowing out of the house. He stood for a moment, paralyzed and yet somehow electrified by the misery and agitation around him.
He looked around, hoping to get away from the sullen Calmos without being offensive. Insa had gone inside among the other women relatives to help clean, anoint and dress the body. He couldn't very well go in and find her, though she was always convenient to hide behind. She was five years older than Selnos. A famine had carried away the three children born between the two of them. They had always been close, and Insa had spent her childhood carrying him on her hip when he was little and caring for him as diligently as any mother might. She was strong and honest and warm, without the slightest hint of the duplicity and shallowness of the other girls in town. She had been engaged to be married at seven, had married at eleven but before she could go and live with her husband, a cloth merchant from West Chlinea, he died, leaving her a virgin widow. Many households would have rejected her, but Selnos's people were not so callous and she remained at home, forbidden by custom to marry again. It would be his duty to care for her for the rest of her life, which pleased him mightily. He wandered away from Calmos, commiserated with the other male relatives, listened to the stories of Calmos the Elder's life and heroic exploits.
By nightfall, they had placed the deceased man in a tomb carved into the stone in the bluffs along the eastern edge of the city. There was a great complex of tombs, along with magnificent statues of the gods carved into the rock. For generations, the wisdom had been to situated the dead so that they might, while overlooking the people whom they had sheltered in life, continue their task.
Two days later, Calmos, no longer the Younger, but only Calmos, came upon Selnos in the road by the public stables. Selnos was returning from the surgeon's house where he had gotten another salve for his father. He could have sent a servant, but he needed any excuse to get out of the stuffy house and the stench of illness. They walked together along the white stone street for a few minutes, talking about the events of the last few days, and Calmos's plans for the household. Suddenly, Calmos turned to Selnos.
"Did your father tell you what their mission was?"
"Yes," he said, a little taken aback at the abruptness of the change in the subject. "To find the ancient treasure of the prince who died trying to take possession of the northern territory with his father, the great Taru."
"And that they found it?"
"Yes, in the mountains, and that when they were attacked they hid it again."
Selnos almost laughed. "Yes. It's all true. Look," he reached into his long vest and drew out the map. "My father drew this, showing how to reach the place. He wishes that you and I should join forces and retrieve that treasure, and then take the families to a place beyond the sea where the Vapek's have no power and there begin a new life."
Calmos nodded. "You will forgive me, young cousin. I am distracted from grief. Come, let me look at your map more closely. Selnos handed him the map and he looked at it quietly for a few minutes. He hailed a passing drink-seller, and fished a coin from his bag. The drink-seller, his great cylindrical urn slung over his shoulder, loosed the nozzle from the side of it, handed Calmos a cup and then, leaning over, poured the lemon-colored fluid into the cup. Calmos drank while the man stood attentively waiting, and the refilled the cup. Calmos handed the eathenware vessel to Selnos and he drank deeply, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. He returned the cup to the vendor, who bowed and went away.
"Well." Calmos went back to looking at the map. "I'm not comprehending this." He sighed. "Come to my house. We will go over it with Bulnis." Bulnis was Calmos's brother-in-law, and a navigator. "Come along. He'll be able to match it with other maps."
"I can't," Selnos said, his stomach contracted with disappointment. "My father is in pain. I have to get this salve to him."
Calmos looked at the map sadly. "My father did not have the time left in his life to draw one out, but he told me the course." He looked up, his eyes bright with tears. "Let me take it and show it to Bulnis.
"Of course," Selnos said evenly, but inside he felt as if something precious was being torn from him. Childish. He must not behave like a child. "Of course. Will you join me, then?" Selnos asked eagerly. There was something wonderful that was happening. For almost the first time in his life, Calmos was speaking to him as if he were an equal, a man talking to a man. They were about to become partners on a great quest. Calmos had spent his youth chasing Selnos, pinching and buffetting him, teasing him and driving him off from games and sport with the other boys in town with his insults and taunts. But that was when they were only boys. Now they were men, and Calmos was the headman of his gens. He would rise to the nobility of his place. Selnos, too, sadly enough was about to become head of his branch of the gens. They would, of course, all be subservient to Calmos and his will, but he seemed so changed. Two years ago, before he went to fight the Tristerios at the Straits of Pergosos, he had still seemed like a vile, reckless boy. But he came back an honorable, strong man, had taken up the wife to whom he had been married at thirteen and now had a son of his own.
"Naturally. We are of the same blood, my friend. We must set out soon, though, because it will take months to arrive at the place. It's the fifth month now. The snows will begin by the tenth. We must be there are back before winter sets in."
"True, but I have sworn to my father that I will stay here and care for him until he is well or has passed into the other world."
Calmos smiled a little, almost bitterly. "You're a good son. You serve your father well and do him honor."
"Will you wait?"
"Of course, he scoffed gently. Such a quest is not arranged so quickly. It will take some time to gather the provisions and weapons we need to make such a journey. We'll talk again soon about it. But for now, there are so many business matters to settle related to my father's death. I will have Bulnis draw up a better map and have a boy bring a copy to your house along with your father's drawing." He clasped arms with Selnos, a firm manly clasp and it filled Selnos with pride. He smiled and Calmos returned the smile, and Selnos walked home, feeling years older and inches taller.
* * *
The next morning, Insa roused him early. He had been up late ministering to his father and it felt as though he had only laid down ten minutes earlier. "Come," she said, shaking him hard. "Look. There are sails on the river. Our father's cousin's son has left the village. He has taken his brother and they say hired a mercenary from a waterfront tavern to guide them."
The light hurt Selnos's eyes. "What are you saying?" he asked, bewildered.
"Calmos. He's gone. He took his brother and a soldier and servants and hired men to go find the treasure." She shook him again, her usual soft voice replaced with one that bit. AGet up.
"But father said you knew nothing of the treasure, Selnos whined.
Insa pulled the sheets off him and pinched his legs. Her voice crackled with irritation. "Oh, for the love of the gods, you goose. Everyone knows about that treasure. His father told everyone before he died. But he didn't tell him exactly where it was. Now they have a map. Get up," she chided. "Do something."
"What would you have me do?" he said, tying a cord around the waist of his flopping shirt.
"Well, something. Where did he get a map?"
Salmos scarcely knew how to answer. "From me?" he said sheepishly.
"You gave him a map?" She faced him with arms akimbo.
"Father drew it. He told me to take Calmos and go find the treasure when he was either well or dead. Calmos was so distracted when I ran into him in the street. He said he needed to study it more, and to have Bulmis look at it. He's a navigator, you know."
AHe's a thief and a liar. You gave it to him? You fool!"
"No, I didn't give it to him, Selnos protested. "I only let him keep it overnight."
"Well, good. It's morning and there he goes." She swept her arm out past him. With horror and chagrin he confirmed her words. There was the ship, going up out of the sea into the river. The black and white sails were unmistakeably the Calmos's fishing boat fishing boat.
"At first we thought they were just going out fishing early. But then they turned the ship and went inland. I knew there was something wrong." His sister glared at him.
"What can I do?" he asked. It was a genuine query. He didn't know.
"Go after them." She hissed. It was a small house. She didn't wish to wake Father. But the tone was as unmistakable as if she had shouted it.
"No. I can't. Father asked me to stay with him. He says I am the only one who can massage his limbs and give him any relief from the pain. I sit for hours at his feet, telling him stories and rubbing his legs and arms. He's in so much pain. I can't leave him. What can I do?"
Insa sighed. "Oh, nothing." She looked down at her hands and the flash of anger he had felt seconds before turned to pity for her and contempt for himself. He was a boy, and not prepared for this responsibility. He had erred, and their loss was all his doing. "We're doomed." Her eyes shone as she looked upward into the white sky.
"We are no worse off than we were yesterday," Selnos said stoutly, recovering himself. "We had no treasure then either." But the anger against her was only a shadow of his anger against his cousin. He would be avenged.
He couldn't bring himself to tell his father that Calmos had left to seek the treasure. Mostly, he couldn't bear to say, much less think, that he had given over the only map to the treasure to such a traitorous wretch as Calmos. Ah, he thought ruefully, Calmos wasn't the wretch, was he? He had the map and the ship and the companions and was sailing off to take the treasure for his own. Selnos was the wretch.
Sitting with Insa in the dimming light of evening, he tried to draw out the map again. There were details he couldn't remember, but for the most part, it was all there, the snaking river running diagonally across the bottom of the page, three mountains, the third one, furthest to the east a little taller, and the treasure located with an x halfway up the first of the three, the westernmost one.
It was close enough. When the ink was dry, he folded it carefully and thrust it into his tunic, feeling the cool parchment warm to his temperature. It felt almost like the one he had lost. Insa smiled at him gently, hugging her knees. She had faith in him. Strangely enough, for a moment, the map against his breast, he felt faith in himself.
As the days passed, many came to wish his father well, to sit beside his bed and give Selnos a few minutes of much-needed relief. They were not so sensitive either to Father's feelings or to Selnos's fear. After all, he had lost the map and his father had lost the ability to handle his own fingers, much less a pen. In the moments he felt well enough he talked, sometimes even excitedly about the treasure and the place they had left it.
"Tell me," he said one evening, eyes glittering from fever in the dim room. "Tell me how the treasure came to lie in the cave."
Selnos smiled. When he was a young boy, he loved hearing this one, and his father told it to him, time after time, as he lay on his pallet awaiting sleep. Now it was the father who begged for the story, and the boy who told it. The gods in their wisdom turn the wheel of fortune, and that which is high is brought low in time, and that which is old becomes young once again.
The tale was as familiar to every child as their own name. In Pergosos, as in all of Albanus, the hero stories from ancient times were deeply revered, told in the temples in a pristine form on the feast days. But there were thousands of variations, some suitable for ladies, others designed to arouse passion in young lovers, or bravery in warriors. Some were humorous, others tragic. This was one of the tragic ones but so deliciously tragic that every right-thinking boy longed to be the hero.
"When the Great Prince, Hitaru, god of the temple of () and consort of the goddess of Death, was a young man, he and his sister were given to one another in marriage and in her time, she bore a son, who was the handsomest, noblest and most valiant youth who ever walked. This was when he was but a young man, and had not yet saved Albanus from the hoards that swept down from the Wind Country."
"I wonder if they were like the Vapeks," his father interrupted idly. "What do you think, Selnos?"
"I don't know. There's so little that remains of their culture. The Albans left only a few place names. They were wild and barbarous. That's all I know."
"And yet, he took one of them to wife?"
"One wonders if he lived to regret it," Selnos said, thinking of how the hero had died only a few months after his marriage, leaving a wife yet to bear his son. That boy would become the first true emperor of the new Albanus, which, through his deceased father's efforts had grown seven-fold. "But that isn't this story. The son grew up to be a great warrior, like his father."
Father leaned forward, began coughing, that horrible racking cough that filled Salnos with dread. He reached out quickly and held the man's withered body against him to support him. It was too painful to watch him try to cough from a reclined position, but he was far too weak to sit up on his own. When his body was still, Selnos guided him back down, and he sighed as Selnos wiped his chin with a cloth, and tried not to think of what he was doing.
"I am weary, my son," his father said miserably. "Tell me the rest later?"
The man closed his eyes. "How have I grown so old so quickly?" he murmured. "Oh, my son. Remember me as I was, not as I am."
He put his head down, against his father's hand. "Yes. I swear." And for a moment, he did. He remembered the great swaggering form, turning in the marketplace during the fair to give him a nod and a wink when the boys were all preparing for contests of strength and he knew how hesitant Selnos was. Selnos had been born in the last year of the Great Famine and had never been robust. His mother and father had prayed constantly, burned incense, made sacrifices of oil and wine in hopes that he would survive. Their prayers had been answered, while the prayers of their neighbors had not reached the gods or been as sweet. There were few boys his age, and even for a year or two afterwards, they couldn't thrive. He had been lucky. There were great huge boys, years older than him, and there were smaller boys, but he always seemed to be taken up to be among the bigger ones, though he couldn't compete with them.
He sighed, wiping his father's grey and bony forehead with a damp cloth. He remembered his father lifting him onto his shoulders when he was little so that he could see things, remembered walking hand-in-hand out to the fields. He remembered days without number when he watched his father work. Everything he did was interesting, exciting and Selnos wanted to learn to do everything that his father did. He could build a house, grow crops, coax a reluctant calf from its mother's womb, carve wood, make tools. He could make shoes for the horse with his own handmade tools in blazing heat and sing while he did it. He was afraid of nothing, trembled at nothing. They said on campaign, not a man was braver than he, or more single-minded. He could go for hours without stopping, or eating or even drinking. His body was completely under his command, and it was a body that was as strong as any of the best men in Pergosos. Yet he was completely humble, almost as if he was unaware of how magnificent he was. Even when he was angry, he was the picture of humility and perfection, acknowledging first that he had failed in some way to teach Selnos properly. Under such circumstances, Selnos took his punishments with a contrite spirit and usually felt sorrier for having disappointed his father than for the deed itself.
The days blended seamlessly, one into the next. Selnos sat with his father, bathed him as the days grew hotter, and fanned him with fans made of large leaves, interwoven with fragrant leaves of healing herbs. He rubbed his father's limbs and fed him. But each day, the father grew fainter and fainter until one day, when the leaves had begun to fly, he was no more. It was silent in the house for a few minutes. The older women squatted near the fireplace, smearing their faces with ash. Then they covered their heads with their shawls, went into the street and wailed.
The neighbors came--everyone came from as far away as the women's voices could be heard. Selnos, who had cared so closely for his father in the last weeks, was numbed, pushed aside by those who came to help. They washed, perfumed and dressed the body, and laid it on a silk-covered bier. Everyone who came bore late-blooming flowers and placed them on the bier and near sunset, the neighbors and kinsmen lifted the bier and carried it to the cave where members of the family had been laid for hundreds of years. There, Selnos knew, it would lay until the gods of nature had returned everything but the bone to the womb of the earth. Then, the bones would be bundled with red silk ribbons and placed with the ancestors.
* * *
Suddenly, it was over. After months of his father's suffering, of suffering with his father, it was over. The usual almost unvaried daily routine was suddenly plucked away. There wasn't a reason to boil water, or steep bandages in herbal mixtures or rub limbs that grew less and less capable of feeling the ministrations. He couldn't remember what he had done with his days before these intense weeks during which he had cared for his father. For a few moments after the funeral, as they were walking home, he had an unsettled feeling of being somehow separated from his body, terrified by the loss of the mind-numbing, ceaseless work that had kept him sane during this time.
But the following morning, Selnos awoke with a sense of urgency that drove him instantly from his bed with a pounding heart. He pulled the curtain aside and shook his sister awake. "Up," he said. "Quickly."
Insa opened her eyes. "What is it?" she whispered.
"Come outside," he said. "Quickly."
"Shh. Don't speak. You'll wake mother and the others. Come outside."
She rose quickly and pulled a sheet around her white cotton shift. Despite her age and greater height, she knew he was the man of the family now and followed him out. Affection had always caused her to be considerate of him, but now, he realized it was her duty. He smiled at her and touched her arm gently.
The sky was only beginning to turn from black to the blue that presages dawn. There was a warming wind coming in off the sea, but they both stood shivering, watching the gauze-thin clouds slip over the face of the gibbous moon. He led her a little way from the house.
"It is my time now," he said. "I must go."
"For the treasure?" She already knew, of course.
"Yes." But therein lay the problem. He had never searched for a treasure before. He had never read a map, or lived off the land. He looked at her searchingly. A moment passed. "Insa, how do I do this?"
Her eyes filled and she smiled slowly. "Oh, my brother," she said. "You will know. When the time comes, you will know."
He scowled a little. "No, I mean, there are things beyond philosophy and spirit--yes, yes, I will know when the time comes and all things are revealed to those whose spirits are pure--oh, I've heard that at the temple since I was a child. But, sister. This isn't a spirit story. I have to have food and shelter and weapons. Where am I to find all these things?"
Insa shrugged, not without sympathy. "I don't know. Everyone gave what they could to our cousin before he left. But you are a clever young man, and I know you will rise to this and find a way to do your duty. I have great confidence in you." She pulled the sheet closer to her. "But, brother, it is cold. I must go back in." He nodded. "When will you leave?"
"Soon." He looked back at the paling sky and listened to the sound of her feet on the graveled path as she returned to the house. He glanced upward to the hills, to the cave where his father's body lay. He knew all the old stories. This was the time that his father's voice should come to him and give him sage advice. He steeled himself and strained to hear the words carried on the rising wind. But there was nothing but the wind itself. His shoulders sank and he turned back toward home.
* * *
The preparations were embarrassingly easy. Selnos strapped on his father's old sword and brought the old horse up to the gate. His mother and grandmother came to him with two bundles, wrapped in sackcloth. "It isn't much," his mother sighed. "But it will get you started on the road. I'm sure there will still be plenty to eat this time of year, and besides, there will be generous people along the way who will help you." Her mouth formed a smile, but Selnos knew it was only her mouth. Her eyes did not smile, and he knew she was afraid for him.
"If you need anything, stop at the temples. Temple-keepers will always help." Grandmother's smile was much more confident. But then, she didn't know there would be fewer and fewer temples as he progressed north. The Vapeks had done all they could to wipe out the old religion in this part of the world. It only persisted in small pockets in the urban areas.
"If only it wasn't so late in the year," Insa sighed. "I wish we could wait until spring for you to leave."
"No," Selnos said. "By mid-winter the taxes are due again, and if we have no way to pay them, there will be no house, and I will be in prison until you can pay them. I must go now."
Tears sprang into her eyes. "I know. I know."
The gate rattled, and everyone stopped. These were dangerous times. It could be anyone--a soldier or a tax collector who felt he could squeeze a little more out. The gate creaked open. Cousin (), leading his father's horse, grinned at the tense faces of the company. "Nothing to worry about," he said cheerfully. "Just thought you might need a little help, that's all."
"On your quest. After all, my brother did leave you behind when he went. He said it was his intention that you would catch up with him as soon as possible."
"Oh?" This was good news. The women exchanged genuine and knowing smiles. After all, blood is thicker than water. Cousin I really didn't mean to be unkind.
"But we all knew it was a lie." Cousin II continued quickly, smiling blandly. "He's not to be trusted. Hurry up, Selnos. The light's getting away from us."
"Cousin, it's just after dawn."
"See what I mean? Hurry up." He gestured impatiently, a motion offset by his grin. Selnos sighed. He gently embraced his grandmother, and then firmer with his mother. He swung into the saddle. His sister reached up, touching his arm gently. "Be careful," she whispered.
"Enough, enough!" Cousin II scoffed, turning his horse's head to the gate and spurring it through. The horse danced forward, as eager as its rider to be on the road.
Selnos followed, irritated. "What's your hurry?"
"Hate long goodbyes. I got up this morning, said, "Ma. I'm leaving. She said, 'Where to' and I said something about finding my brother and she said goodbye and that was it. I packed my own food. None of this huggy-kissy stuff."
Selnos glaced over his shoulder mournfully. The house appeared smaller. He sighed. How long would it be until he saw his home and loved ones again?
"What an adventure," Cousin II chuckled. "Isn't it great?"
"No." Selnos said flatly. "It's my duty."
"Duty? Duty? Poo. Where's your map?"
"Your brother has it," Selnos said ruefully.
"Bad news." He digested this momentarily. "And how did he get it?"
"I gave it to him."
"Oh. Worse news. Ha. Well. That wasn't brilliant, cousin. Why did you trust him?" Selnos tried quickly to formulate an answer but Cousin II continued instead. "Well, doesn't matter. You did, and it's gone. Do you remember it?"
"Sort of. I drew another one."
"Let's see it."
Selnos looked at his cousin's bright face, his cheeks tinged with a dark flush from the excitement. He shook his head. "I don't think so, Cousin," he said. He would not risk the same loss twice. "It's in the mountains of (), in a small cave in a chasm between half way up the first of three mountains in a line that runs along the great river."
"Hmm. Shouldn't be too hard to find. A little cave in a big mountain in a big mountain range. Sure. We'll just walk right up to it. Better yet, we'll just get to the mountains and ask directions, 'Excuse me, we're looking for an ancestral treasure. Can you tell us where it is? Oh, thank you.'"
Selnos felt irritation growing in him again. After all, the map wasn't all that detailed anyway. Even the first one wasn't. He had never thought about it before, but mountains are very big, and most look just like the rest, at least from a distance. He furrowed his brow. How did he know that? He had never been to the mountains. He had never known anyone who had been to the mountains. Still, the gods were with him. He had a righteous cause and he would succeed. "Listen," he snapped. "I didn't ask you to come along. No one said this was going to be easy, or even that we were going to be successful. But if we don't try, there's no hope." As he spoke, he was impressed at how the words brought a feeling of nobility to his breast.
"Oh, there's hope. You see, my brother has the map, and the money, and a crew of men and horses and packmules and bedding and a two week head start." Cousin II shot him a sidelong glance. It wasn't unkind, or even sarcastic, just chiding enough.
"So, are you saying it's only hopeless for me to find it?" Selnos's irritation was quickly turning to anger.
"Tut." Cousin II shushed him like a small child, which only enraged Selnos more. "All I'm saying is..." He paused to formulate his words tactfully, then sighed, his shoulders dropping visibly. "We've got no chance."
Selnos reigned in his horse. "No one," he said through gritted teeth, "Asked you to come."
"True." the other boy smiled broadly. "And that's what makes my presence even more special. Now, instead of having this lovely chit-chat, why don't we figure out what to do. You need some help, cousin."
"I know that," Selnos said flatly. They rode in silence for a few minutes. "All right. The fact is, I have no idea what I'm doing or how I'm going to do it. Satisfied?"
"No," Cousin II said lightly. "Not really. But I know of a man who is said to live about () from here to the northeast. He's a brilliant fellow--knows everything and invents things. It is said that if you can impress him with whatever you're trying to do and you have enough money, he can provide all sorts of magical tools to assist."
"Like what? Like magical tools. How would I know?"
"You're the one with the story," Selnos said petulantly.
"Well, only insofar as I've heard that there's a man who does this. I think we should go see him."
"It's out of our way. We're going northwest."
"Northwest. Northwest is good, too."
"That's where the treasure is," Selnos said through grit teeth.
"Yes, but if you don't have a map, or anything to help you, it may as well be on the moon." Cousin began chanting in a sing-song voice, "Maps and finders, and invisibility potions and strengtheners and love elixers and..."
"Love elixers? What is he, an old woman? I don't believe you."
They had reached a fork in the road, one to the northwest and the other to the northeast. "Come, cousin," Cousin II said, turnind the head of his horse toward the eastern branch. "Are you coming with me? It would be a shame if I made it to the master and then caught up with my brother and we were able to get the treasure before you. We would greet you on the way back, dripping with pearls and playing tiddley-winks with gold coins. We would say, 'Ah, Cousin Stupid. Good to see you.' And then..."
Selnos's shoulder's dropped. "Yes, yes. I understand."
"Terrific!" Cousin II crowed, kicking his heels against his horse's flanks. The horse sprang forward, and Cousin was a () away with a cloud of dust trailing him. Selnos followed more slowly in the dust. This was going to be horrible. A good distance ahead, Cousin reigned in his horse and wheeled it around. "Come on!" he shouted. "Hurry up. We've got things to do."
"I never liked you," Selnos said under his breath. "You and your whole family. I hate you all." He pressed his heels into his horse and jolted forwards. He touched the map and felt both vindicated and calm and smiled inwardly. If Cousin wasn't careful, when the time came for to gather the treasure, he would find himself with nothing. Selnos was not under any obligation to him, and it would serve him right to lose every chance of success.
Night fell. They stopped near a grove of tall trees and lit a small fire, and laid down wrapped in their blankets. Selnos could still feel the motion of the horse, and his legs ached miserably. Still, as he laid on the ground, almost savoring its unyeilding hardness, his fingers found the corner of the parchment map and he felt as if a flame was coursing through his body. This was salvation, and he knew it. Through these few lines of ink, he and his people would be saved. He imagined Insa coming toward him in a beautiful gown, the kind he'd seen the Vapek women wearing, only much more splendid. Her cheeks would be full and tinged with pink, not sunken and pale as they were now. And his mother, he would have a girl for her, just to brush out her long hair, dress it with gold coins and silks. She would smile again. Tears started in his eyes. He couldn't remember the last time he had seen her smile any more than that sad little line that sometimes came over her face.
But what chance did they have of success? For a moment, his stomach churned, but he flopped onto his back, his arm behind his head, and drove the thought out. Every chance. After all, this was the treasure of Taru. Taru fought his entire life to make the Alban people lords over the whole of the world. These were his people that the Vapeks had broken down and cast into servitude, the seed of his seed.
True enough, it was the grave goods of his beloved son that Selnos was after. Still, knowing as much of Taru as he did, how could one so loving and so determined to have the best for his people, disapprove of one who was trying to free them? The body of his son had gone back to earth in all this time. Surely Taru would understand that he didn't need the grave goods anymore and that the living did. He sighed, somewhat consoled, and finally fell asleep. He dreamed of an altar with offerings burning on it, and a calm and loving voice urging him on. He would make it and when he did, he would make great offerings to Taru in recompense.
In the morning, they set out again. Selnos had never been on a horse for so long as he had been the previous day. His seat burned every time his mount took a jolting step forward. His thighs ached from the unfamiliar position. All that consoled him in his physical pain and the distress of leaving home and loved ones, was that he had a quest that he now felt was blessed by the god Taru, who understood the need and accepted it. Cousin seemed none the worse for the jaunt, chattering incessantly. Selnos tried to ignore him, all the while wondering how he could extract revenge from his elder cousin with his younger cousin staring over his shoulder.
Shortly after they resumed riding after lunch, they came upon a man leading a donkey along the road. He was dressed like a soldier and wore a sword at his waist. His shield was strapped to his back. He hallooed them.
"You!" he called. "Strangers. And friends, I hope. Hold up."
"Be wary," Selnos said softly to cousin. "He may be dangerous."
"Oh, certainly. What do you suppose he could steal from us? Our toiletries? Your toothbrush? You did bring one, didn't you? I forgot mine. You can lend me yours later---if you brought one that is---"
"Shh." Selnos straightened in his saddle. "How is it with you, good man?"
"Not as well as I'd like, thank you just the same." The man laughed. He was unshaven, his hair wild, hanging in tangled curls around the shoulders of his leather jerkin. It was obvious he was powerfully built. "You are just boys." He laughed again. "Out on an afternoon's adventure? You live around here?"
"Sir, we are no boys..." Selnos retorted. The man caught Selnos's bridle. "What are you doing?"
"Come down. Are you runaway servants? Have you stolen your masters' horses?" He looked at the mounts and laughed again. "No. I think not. You were bad servants, and your master drove you away from home, forcing you to take these two insufferable nags with you, is that it? Mayhaps you can eat them later."
Selnos scowled. He fingered the hilt of his sword and slipped a sidelong glance at Cousin. Cousin suddenly began laughing as well and slid out of his saddle onto the ground. He reached out and clasped the man's hand. "Well met!" he said. They clapped each other's shoulders. "And well said. Who are you?"
"A soldier, and a bad one. Most soldiers come away from their battles with booty galore--silver and gold and" he rubbed his hands together and kissed the tips of his fingers. "Women. Oh, glorious women. Me? Nothing. Not a tittle. Not a farthing. You know what the problem is?"
"No, what," asked Cousin walking around the dusty donkey who dropped her head with a coy look. Selnos glanced off into the hills. When would this stupidity end?
"I'm too nice."
Selnos snorted but the man continued. "No, truly. I tell you, young Master. I'm too nice. In fact. I take booty from the rich and then I see people who need it more than I do and I give it to them. Can you believe it?"
"Frankly, no." Selnos said.
"Didn't think you would," the man muttered, and turned back to the more receptive Cousin. "But you. Tell me about you."
"We're on our way to find..." Selnos blanched. If Cousin said "a treasure" they would be sunk.
"...an emetic for my sick grandmother," he finished.
"Oh. Well." The man paused. "That's very interesting. An emetic."
A sudden smirk erupted on Selnos's face and he quickly raised his hand to hide it. Crestfallen, the man looked from one face to the other to ascertain the truth of what had been said. Then he shrugged.
"Well, that's a good thing," he continued cheerfully. "Because where I come from, one of the names I am known by is Gontherium, Procurer of Emetics--sometimes, Gontherium, Procurer of Emetics for Grandmothers. I feel for you in your quest. I had a grandmother once. In fact, I was most fortunate. I had two. One from each of my parents..."
Cousin roared with laughter. "Where are you bound, oh, Procurer of Emetics?"
"Wherever," he shrugged again. "I'll join you. You're just boys and bad liars, to boot. You need the assistance of an older guide and a good liar."
"Gontherium, is it?" Selnos asked, touching the map.
"No. Actually. It isn't. Most people call me Big Mouth. I have a gift for persuasion." He flourished his hand and bowed. He straightened up suddenly and spoke in a different tone. "But night will be coming on before we can reach an inn, and these autumn nights can be treacherous. We must find a place to camp for the night."
"We?" Cousin stammered.
"Yes, we. I have decided to let you accompany me on my journey. Now, you must be sure to obey me in all things. We will work together. "Do you know of a wise man who lives in a walled palace--not a nobleman but one who came to his riches by selling magic implements?"
Without hestitation Big Mouth laughed. "Oh, of course. What do you want him for? Is he now a keeper of old women's digestive systems?"
"Perhaps. We must find him. Can you lead us to him?"
"Of course..." They walked a while in silence. Suddenly, Big Mouth burst forth with a laugh. "I do feel I owe you some explanation for myself."
At last, Selnos thought. Big Mouth began speaking.
"When I was a child, I went to a fine school. There were about twelve of us, in ages from five to ten years old. I was about seven and a very quiet child. The master was a mean and selfish man, who was also very lazy. He loved to snack as much as he hated to teach. Every day he brought a basket of treats from home and while we were doing our lessons, he would go off into another small room and eat the contents of his basket. When we asked him about what was in the basket, he said it was poison for children and only wise men who were favored by the gods could eat it without suffering harm.
"One day, he was called away from the school on some emergency business--his pigs had gotten out or something. Naturally, we were very curious about the basket he had left behind. We sneaked into his little room and lifted the cover. As far as we could tell, there were plum cakes and dried permissons, apples and other treats. The oldest boys tasted the food first, and it was delicious. Finally, even the younger ones, who were most afraid of being poisoned, tucked into the basket and before long all the delectable foods had been gobbled up. It was only then that we realized what we had done. We went back to our seats in the classroom and wondered what would be our fate. He was a cruel man, absolutely comfortable with beating a small child for even the slightest infraction. We were terrified. Suddenly, I had an idea. I went up to his desk--he was very particular about his things. I picked up his ancient inkwell and smashed it against the ground. Then, with the help of some other boys, we turned over the desk and broke a leg off his chair. We scattered his scrolls and papers everywhere. I told them that when he came in I would do the talking--they should all follow my lead.
"Before long, the master returned, and all the students were laying near their desks, moaning. He saw the broken inkwell, the overturned desk and the chair and roared, 'What has been happening here?" Then he saw the empty basket, which I had placed on the floor beside the desk and he roared even louder, 'What have you bad boys been doing?'
"I stood up. 'Oh, master', I said, 'Forgive us. When you left, we began to play and it became too rough. We overturned your desk and the inkwell was broken. We all knew how important the inkwell was to you. When we saw we had broken it, we were ashamed and resolved to die, and so we took your basket of fruit, divided it equally and ate all the fruit. Now we shall die. He sent us home and said no more about it. Before long, we had a new teacher, though."
Selnos had to admit, the stories, unbelievable as they were, made the time go faster.
* * *
After a few hours of slow progress, Selnos spotted whisps of smoke in the trees.
"Night is coming soon," he said. "We'll make for that place. It must be a village." Soon they came upon a little street with brightly colored houses and a small temple. Each chimney had smoke coming from it and fat chickens ran in and out over the doorsteps. Dogs barked from inside the courtyards, and there were some people strolling in the street.
"Where can we spend the night?" Cousin asked a passing old woman who was carrying a bundle of sticks on her back. She said nothing. A young boy, about twelve was following her, carrying another bundle. "She can't speak, nor can she hear," the boy said. "But if you go to the yellow house at the end of the lane, you will find food and shelter."
"Thank you, boy," Selnos said, turning his horse's head back toward the street. He expected the others to follow, but Big Mouth suddenly turned and went back.
"What's he doing?" Cousin asked, and turned back as well. Sighing, Selnos returned to the little group.
"Hey, boy, come here a minute," Big Mouth began. "Is that your grandmother?"
The boy shook his head. "No, it is the mother of a friend of my father."
"Are you sure she's deaf?"
"Good, then." Big Mouth straightened up and stopped whispering. "Where are the women?"
The boy was taken aback. "What?"
"The women. You know, women," he traced a profile in the air with his hands. "Women. Don't look so blank, son. You're a little young but surely you know about women."
"Yes, of course I do. But..."
Big Mouth laid his hands on the boy's shoulders. "Let me make this simple for you. We're men. I'm a soldier and they're, well, just adventurers--we've come from afar and we're traveling afar. Sometimes, men like us want to visit with women. You know. Women."
The boy shrugged off Big Mouth's hands. "Yes, I know all about that. Well, we haven't any, so that's that."
"You haven't any?" Cousin chimed in. "What does that mean?"
"We haven't any," the boy said petulantly. "We're fresh out. Sorry. Try the next village." He picked his bundle up, returned it to his back, and strode defiantly away.
"That boy's strange," Big Mouth returned to the road, looking back every few seconds.
"Never mind him, and if you're going to travel with us, don't try to find women. It's disgusting," Selnos fumbled in the pouch that hung from him belt.
"Oh, well," Big Mouth shrugged. "More for me."
"On a more practical subject, do you have any money?"
"A pittance, why?"
"Because surely the innkeeper will want something in recompense for his hospitality," Selnos sulked. "Just don't ask him if he has any daughters, alright?"
"Hmmm. That's a good idea. I think I'll try it."
Dinner was filling and warm. Selnos and Cousin retired to a bedchamber, but Big Mouth disappeared.
"What do you make of him?" Cousin asked.
Selnos realized it was the first time they had had a chance to talk about him. "He's vulgar. I don't like him."
"Well," Cousin laughed. "I think it's providential that we met him. After all, my brother hired a mercentary, and here, we've got one for free."
"Yes, but look what we've got."
"You think they're all not vulgar and stupid? You don't hire mercenaries for their..."
"For their what?" Selnos looked over at Cousin. He had fallen asleep. Selnos leaned against the headboard of the bed. But he hurt too much to sleep. He roused himself and went down the stairs that led out of the upstairs window and into the street. There were several chairs up against the wall with pots of herbs on them. Selnos moved the pots to the ground and sat down gingerly.
It was a beautiful little village. Chrysanthemums were still in bloom in pots along the streets. The common fields had just been cleared again, and lay long and brown against the woods beyond where auburn leaves mingled with still-green ones.
"There you are," a voice behind him said. Selnos whirled around to find the boy from the road. "Remember me?"
"Of course. We saw you only a few hours ago. You haven't changed much." The boy laughed lightly. "Guess not. Where are your friends?"
"My cousin is upstairs asleep and the soldier, Big Mouth, has disappeared."
The boy moved more pots to the ground and sat down backwards on the chair. "Listen, I wanted to talk to you. We don't get many strangers in this town, so..."
"So. Tell me about you and where you're going."
Selnos furrowed his brow. Was this just a talkative boy, or was he some sort of spy for Cousin I? Would anything get back to Cousin I? He felt instantly shamed by his suspicions. After all, this wasn't the route that Cousin I had taken.
"It's a long story, really. But the truth is we're going...to..." He looked at the boy's eager face. To what, he thought. Find a treasure that we know already exists? Avenge the death of his father? "It's a quest. We're searching for...work."
"What!" The boy was incredulous.
"Well, you know, that one fellow is a soldier and we thought maybe we could be soldiers too, and hire out as guides and things."
"You aren't very big," the boy said pointedly.
"Me? No. I'm not. But then, we aren't talking about being soldier soldiers, you know. Just to guide people and help them find things and like that."
"Oh, so if someone lost a cow, you could help them find it?" There was a decidedly sarcastic tone.
"Maybe." He nodded at the boy and smiled. "Anyway. It's just an adventure. Away from home. You know. Away from women. Just a chance for men to be out being men."
"Hmm." They sat in silence for a minute, looking in opposite directions. Suddenly, the boy spoke again. "Take me with you."
"What! No. Forget it. How old are you?"
"Never mind. Take me anyway. I'm old enough. Older than I look. I can do all sorts of things."
"Oh, I can guide people. I can look for lost cows. I can do all sorts of things. I can even do archery and some sword-fighting."
Selnos stifled a laugh. "Sure you can. Your sword must be the size of a butter knife."
The boy flushed, and Selnos felt instantly ashamed. "Look, I'm sorry. I didn't mean that. I just sometimes forget not to...say...stupid things. I don't know anything about you. Maybe your father has taught you well, and maybe you will be a worthy soldier in time, but we are on a dangerous path, my friend. Even though you may be brave, and you look hardy, I can't trust that you wouldn't be put into great danger."
"Like I'm not here?" the boy muttered.
"Look," Selnos said pleadingly. But the boy stood up, turned away and shook a hand at him. He started walking up the street.
"Never mind," he said. "Maybe someone else will be able to help."
"Help what?" Selnos asked. But the boy was out of hearing.
* * *
Selnos had only just climbed into bed with Cousin when Big Mouth came in the door, banging it shut behind him. Muttering noisily, he pulled off his boots and approached the bed.
"Scoot over," he ordered good naturedly. He smelled of strong drink. "What a night. What a town."
"What do you mean?" Selnos asked.
"Well, it's the oddest thing." Big Mouth pulled the blanket back, got into the bed and yanked the blanket over himself, leaving Cousin, on the outside, completely uncovered. Big Mouth yawned luxuriously. "No women."
"Well, not no women. There are some old women--we saw one in the road this afternoon. The rest of the ladies in town are about on that level. There are no young women--from twelve up to the married ones they're all gone."
"Where are they?"
"Taken away. To be servants at the palace of the (). He was recently married to a woman from a rival village and decided to take all the young women to be his new wife's servants. Some, it is said, have been pressed into marriage."
"It certainly is. I was hoping to have some company. Just a little--a nice conversation and a drink or two with someone pretty and sweet. Nothing that would offend your sensibilities." He snorted. "I can tell you don't think much of my affection for women."
Selnos was speechless. "No, it isn't that. It's that I don't think it's nice to...toy with them. You should respectfully engage a young woman who appeals to your household."
"Oh, now there's a good idea. Have to try that sometime." Big Mouth snorted, and soon was snoring.
* * *
As they left the wise man's compound, the weather turned decidedly colder. There were flakes of snow in the air. The map took them through one of the last villages of any size in the north.
They came upon it as the sun was setting. Things didn't look right. The houses were in ill repair, but most significant, there were no chickens running in the streets, and no dogs barked to greet them.
Selnos slid off his horse, handed the reins to Cousin and knocked at the door of one of the houses. "Where might some poor travellers get some food and shelter for the night?" he asked the old pinch-faced man who answered the door.
"Well, shelter there is aplenty. But food you'll not get here." He said.
"Well, if not here, where? At the next house do you think we could get a meal? We can pay." He jingled his bag.
"Oh, my boy," the young man said slowly. "It isn't your money that's the problem. We would gladly give you a meal, especially for your money, but we have no food. Nor do our neighbors."
"That explains the lack of chickens," Cousin whispered.
"And dogs," Big Mouth replied.
"You are soldiers?" the old man said hopefully, catching sight of Big Mouth.
"Yes," Big Mouth strode forward. "At your service. What has happened here? Why do you suffer so?"
"Well, come in. It's getting cold outside. You can tie your horses out back, but we have nothing to feed them. You should see my poor horse, nothing but skin and bones. Come in, come in."
The house was simply furnished, and lit only with two candles. The family crowded about. It pained Selnos to look at their faces, all pinched with the same want that showed on the father's face.
"We have nothing," the old man said as they sat. "We live year to year. We do not save seed. We grow rice and flax and give it to the landlord. He sells it and from it takes our rent and returns to us what small amount of profit we make. The next season, we get our seed from him and the cycle begins again. It has been this way as long as any of us can remember."
He sighed and stroked the hair of the young child at his knee. "But this year, the landlord wanted more. He gave us next to no money back, and what he gave us, the tax collectors took right away. We are in desperate need of food. We begged him for food, but he would not give us any. His servants tell us that his grainery is overflowing and swarming with maggots--he has so much he can let it rot." He shook his head. "The young ones and the old ones--they go more quickly." He paused and looked at the three visitors at his empty table. "Can you help?"
"No," Selnos said quickly. "I wish there was something we could do, but we can't. And we must be going in the morning."
"Why?" Big Mouth said. "We've nothing so pressing to attend to. Besides, I like the looks of this place. Gather up your neighbors, we will talk."
The man's countenance brightened instantly, and he sent his children scurrying to the houses of his neighbors.
"Just what do you plan to do?" Selnos hissed.
"Hmm. Good question. Let's listen to them first, then we'll think of something."
"We?" Selnos retorted.
"You don't have to. You can just leave me here. Don't worry about me. Or yourself."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
Quickly, the house filled with the poor neighbors. They were in terrible shape. Most were unnaturally thin, many coughed and all had stories of loved ones who had died from the privations. "It will be a long winter with no food and no fuel," the man said. "Help us."
Big Mouth listened to the stories for a long time. Then he stood up and rubbed his chin. "I have a plan. Old man, let me see that horse of yours."
"It is a sorry excuse for a horse, my Lord. But you would take my horse?"
"No. But I would see him." They brought the horse to the door and Big Mouth inspected him in the dim light. His bones stuck out all around. His back was swayed and his eyes dull.
"He's perfect," Big Mouth pronounced. "Now, does anyone have any money? I need some silver coins and a wad of cotton." He looked from one face to the next. "Not much, and you shall have it back, and so much more. Come, now." Several villagers left the house. To the rest, he said, "My friends and I must have appropriate robes. We will dress them as servants. But for me, I must have robes that will make me look like a wise and powerful magician. Do your best."
Several of the men and some of the women slipped out. When they returned, they laid five small pieces of silver on the table. "This is all?" Big Mouth asked. "Good. It is enough. Now. You go to bed and sleep well. Dream of full stomachs and warm houses, for they shall be yours soon."
Selnos slept fitfully under the eaves in the loft of the old man's house. There was plenty of company--the old man, his wife, their four youngest children and the two children of their eldest daughter, who had died in the famine. The son-in-law was imprisoned at the landlord's compound for not paying the tribute. Plus Cousin and Big Mouth. They were jammed together on a single pallet.
Big Mouth was not a considerate sleeper. His snores rumbled through the cold little loft, and every so often, he shifted position, throwing an arm, or worse a leg over his neighbors. Poor Cousin was immediately next to him on the pallet, and received the brunt of the blows. But Selnos caught a foot now and again. Morning would be a long time coming.
In his sleep, Big Mouth belched, following it with a giggle. Selnos sat bolt upright. "You awake?" came the muffled voice of Cousin.
"Yes. I haven't been able to sleep yet."
"This is stupid," Selnos whispered. "I'm getting up. Surely standing up all night in quiet would be more restful than laying in here."
"I'd join you," Cousin replied. "Happily. If I could."
"Well, this damned lummox is on me. I can't get him off. I'm afraid to wake him."
"Well, look on the other side."
Selnos glanced on the other side of the bed. Even in the dim light, the sword in Big Mouth's hand glinted. "Don't wake him," Cousin pleaded. "I don't know what his reflexes are like."
Selnos shook his head, reached over the bed and gently picked up Big Mouth's heavy foot. He moved it timidly to Big Mouth's side of the bed and then went to work strategizing how to move the muscular arm. "Just up a little," Cousin advised. Selnos picked up the hand and elbow and Cousin rolled free. He was out of the bed in a flash, while Big Mouth murmered something tenderly.
Selnos shuddered. Cousin was already down the ladder and Selnos followed him quickly. They went out into the night air. Only when that first clear blast of cold, sweet air hit them, did they realize how oppressive it had been in the loft--the choking smell of old hay, dirty bedding, sickness and sweat. They drank in the freshness.
"I'm not going back in there," Cousin said definitively. "What do you think that maniac has planned for us tomorrow?"
"I don't know," Selnos replied. "It's a little frightening. Let's walk."
They started out of the village on one of the small dirt roads, not the one they had come in on. The sky was filled with only wispy clouds and the light of the moon sparked on the glossy leaves of trees. "I'm exhausted," Selnos moaned. "I can't remember what it was to sleep a full night and we've only been gone a few days."
"Me, too." They fell silent and walked mechanically--too tired to actually think about where they were putting their feet. They came to clearing where a small pool was fed by a spring that came from a rock overhang. They stood in the trees, wondering at the sight in the dim light. Suddenly there was a sound.
"Shh. What was that?" Selnos said. In response, Cousin put one finger to his lips and pointed with the other hand toward the water's edge. There was a woman in the darkness, in a long robe, her hair loose about her shoulders, its shiny blackness encircled with light. Her delicate feet were bare and she gently dipped a toe into the water. "She's not from the village," Selnos whispered. "She's too well-fed."
"Shh." Cousin motioned. "She's a spirit." Selnos stepped back quickly into a bramble bush. He stifled a yelp, but the girl heard. She swung around, dashed away from the pool, picked up a sword and brandished it. Then, sensing the danger was not as immenant as she had thought, she slipped into the thicket and was gone.
Cousin whirled on him. "Good. Very good."
"What? I couldn't help it."
"Of course not. Spirits don't let themselves be seen very often, don't you know? Why did you do that? If we'd caught her, we could have married her."
"We?" Selnos scoffed. "How could 'we' marry her? You have her three days of the week and I have her three days of the week and on the last day she gets to rest?"
"Or the first, that would be fine with me." Selnos elbowed him seriously. "But listen, don't you know about spirit brides?"
"No, I don't. My father was a realist. He didn't allow such lunacy in the house."
"Well, my father was a realist too." Even in the dark, Selnos could tell Cousin was grinning. "Enough so that he knew we should know what to do if a spirit bride presented herself."
"And what is that?"
Cousin rocked back on his heels. "Come on, let's start back. I'll tell you on the way. There's no reason to stay here. Once two men went into the forest--a master and his apprentice. They were very fond of each other. The apprentice loved and respected his master like a father, and the master treated the apprentice like a valued son. The master was an older man and had accumulated great wealth and property. They were on their way to the wedding of the master's nephew in a town a day's journey from their village. They set out early on a brisk day, but as the hours wore on, it grew cold and they were anxious to get to the inn and get a good supper and sleep in a warm bed. But as dusk fell they came upon the shimmering river. It was wide and deep and impossible to cross without a boat. The ferryman's hut was on the other side of the river, and there was his boat, pushed up onto the far shore.
"They found an abandoned little hovel by the river, and pushed the door open. There were holes in the ceiling, and no paper on the windows, but they were happy to be inside, as it had begun to snow. The wind howled through the tall pines, whining like a dog who has lost his master. They had brought no food, for they expected to dine at the inn, and they brought no good blankets or quilts, as they expected to sleep in luxury.
"They laid down, and quickly the master was asleep. But the apprentice could not sleep right away. He lay awake and listened to the cry of the wind and the hiss of the snow blowing against the door. Finally, sleep came to him. But soon, a cold blast of wind and snow hit his face and he awoke. The door was open and by the light from ouside, he could see a beautiful woman, of the palest skin in a glowing white robe. She came and bent over the master, placing her long, smooth fingers near his face. Her breath came out of her body like white smoke and enveloped the master's face. When she had thus treated the master, she straighened up and turned to the apprentice. She leaned over him, and placed her ivory hands near his head. She did not touch him, but he could feel the coldness eminating from her fingertips. She breathed her icy breath on his face. Her face was exquisite, her lips like pale silk and her breath cold but as fragrant as fine perfume--but not flowery. He was stirred in his soul by her great beauty. Still, he blanched and tried to cry out. 'No,' she said in a voice as soft and gentle as the first snowflakes that fall onto an upturned face. 'Do not move. I will not harm you.' She leaned back and looked carefully at him. 'It was my intention,' she said, 'to do to you as I have done to your master. But I will forebear, on account of your youth and your extreme beauty.' But she warned him, if he ever mentioned this to anyone, she would instantly return and kill him--and then, her white robes enveloped her, and she was gone. The apprentice started up and called out, 'Master, master! You must rise! Something fearful has happened!' He reached out to touch his master's hand, but found it was as ice."
Cousin drew a long breath and looked significantly at Selnos. "No bride," Selnos reminded him.
"Well, I'm not done yet," Cousin retorted. "The following winter, the apprentice, now almost twenty and a master on his own, was returning home on the road toward dusk. There was already snow in the hills beyond, and the first small flakes were beginning to fall around him. He saw a beautiful, white-skinned young woman walking toward his village. As she approached him, he bowed and she returned the bow. When he asked, she said she was coming to the village to look for a position as a maid. He was so stunned by her beauty, by the porcelein glow of her skin, the delicacy of her long fingers and the shapeliness of her feet. He asked if she was betrothed. She said no, and so he took her into his own home. Within time, they were married.
"She was an excellent wife, and bore him ten children. She was a splendid manager of the house, beloved of her mother-in-law, and an ardent and faithful lover of her husband. One evening, while she was sewing by the light of a lamp, he recalled the night in the hovel. 'Oh, beloved wife,' he said. 'It's the strangest thing, but just now, in that light, I was reminded of something that happened many years ago. My master and I were sleeping in a hovel by the river, when a woman came in. She was the most beautiful creature I had ever seen. She bent over my master and killed him with her breath. She was a spirit, I'm sure of it, but in this light, you look just like her.'
"His wife got a look of terror and anger on her face. She threw her sewing away from her and grasped up her husband--pushing him down and pressing her face close to his. 'Faithless wretch,' she shrieked. 'How could you have broken your promise! Yes, yes, it was I, the Snow Lady, who came to you in the night in that hovel so long ago. It was I who killed your master and would have killed you had you not been so beautifully formed and desirable. Yes, it was I! And were it not for our beloved children sleeping in the next room, I would kill you now. But you and I can no longer live as husband and wife. Remember, you wretch, that if my children have any complaint against you, I will hear it, and come with the snow and kill you.' And with that, she shuddered into a stream of smoke and with a shriek went up the chimney and never returned." Cousin closed his eyes and bowed his head.
Selnos was silent for a few moments. They had reached the house again, and they stood outside the lintel pondering. "It's a beautiful story," Selnos said at last. "I wish things like that could be true."
"Oh, but I'm sure they are." Cousin sighed. "They happen. Otherwise, why would people tell the stories over and over."
But Selnos could not answer. He was thinking of the woman in the robe leaning over him, breathing fragrant breath into his face with her hands cupped around him. He slipped down onto the dusty ground beside the door lintel and leaned against it. He sighed and closed his eyes. The exhaustion lapped him like warm water, and his limbs felt heavy. His lips parted and for a moment, he could almost feel the maiden's silky lips.
"You still awake?" Cousin jostled him.
"Look, it's beginning to get lighter." Cousin's voice grated.
"Well. That's really news I needed to hear. I was almost asleep." Selnos grumbled. "Wonder what's for breakfast." No sooner were the words out of his mouth than he realized the error. There was nothing for breakfast. Yet inside, he smelled something cooking--something spicy.
Cousin and Selnos went in the door. In the little kitchen the women were working over a steaming pot. "What's this?" asked Cousin.
"It isn't much," the old mother said sadly. "Just some bark we gathered in the woods. The trees nearby are almost stripped of it. We have little, but you are welcome to share."
"No, no," Selnos said. "We're fine."
Big Mouth started down the ladder and bounded to the floor. "Ah, my boys. You're up early. Did you sleep well?" Without waiting for a response, he stretched and went on. "Hmph. I had the best sleep ever, and a dream--it was delicious. I dreamed I was being lifted by nymphs, one limb at a time, into a lovely bower of flowers where others were awaiting me..."
Selnos shook his head in disgust. "Don't talk like that," he muttered.
"Well, I hope you all work up an appetite today, for this evening, you shall dine like kings." Big Mouth patted his stomach and smelled the broth.
"You will have some with us?" one of the women said eagerly.
"Oh, just a taste." She proffered the spoon to him and he slurped it. "You know, that's good. If you can do this with..."
"Roots and bark," she said, a glow coming to her sunken cheeks.
"Roots and bark," he continued. "I can't imagine what magic you can work with rice and beans." He squeezed her and, without looking back at her, walked away. Selnos couldn't help noticing how she hid a smile behind her hand, and raised her head to gave at him with a new admiration. He rolled his eyes.
"And you boys? Are you ready for the day?" Without waiting for an answer, he turned to the men who were mingled at the table. "You have appropriate attire for us?" They nodded, and before long, Big Mouth was draped in bright multi-colored clothing. They put a bright yellow turban on his head and gave both Cousin and Selnos grey homespun trousers and tunics.
"Why?" Selnos asked, pulling off his better clothing and putting on the rougher.
"Oh, you'll see." Big Mouth said. "Is the magic horse ready?" The man of the house nodded. "Oh good. And he has his magical bridle?"
The man held up a silken rope made of two twisted ropes of yellow and red. Big Mouth nodded his approval. "Then we are ready. Here, Selnos, you put the bridle on." While Selnos worked at the front of the horse, Big Mouth was muttering and working at the tail end. At last he stood up. "Now," he said. "We are ready."
They started out on the road to the landlord's house. It wasn't hard to find it, large and nestled against a hill. It was surrounded by a wall higher than a man's head, but there was a small gate in the center of the south wall. As they approached the gate, Selnos said, "Don't you think we should know what we are to do?"
"You're my servants," Big Mouth said nonchalantly. "Just act like servants. Humble but not stupid. Agree with everything I say. And above all, don't act surprised, no matter what happens."
With that, he led the poor, emaciated horse into the courtyard. Inside the walls, it was an entirely different world. The courtyard itself was almost as big as the village. There was a beautiful fountain, three tiers tall, in the center, surrounded by roses that still flourished, thanks to the wall. Around the periphery there were poplars growing in the dirt, but the rest of the courtyard was paved in immaculate white tile. The house itself was white, with a dark red tile roof and green door lintels. A servant was sweeping the paving stones while another trimmed the plants. "Nice place," Big Mouth said loudly, nodding his approval. He began to sing, "Oh, I come from afar, many wonders I've seen--If you give me a chance, I'll tell where I've been. Oh, I have many secrets, I'll tell them to you, if you will just..."
Suddenly, a large man in deep red robes appeared behind them. He was wearing a brilliant red tunic and a dark scapular embroidered with dark silk in figures of mythological animals. "You, there," he said angrily. "What are you doing in my courtyard? And what is that walking piece of rubbish?" He barked, pointing to the horse.
"That?" Big Mouth pointed in the same general direction. "Why, that is my servant. He is but a boy still. His name is Aldeberon, but don't let his name or his size put you off. He's really quite efficient."
"Not him," the man fumed. "That. That filthy, disease-infested, starving horse."
"Oh, that. That's my filthy, disease-infested starving horse." He laughed jovially. "But really, all joking aside. I know you can see what a fine animal this is."
"No, I can't. Now get off my land before I have all four of you beaten."
"Oh," Big Mouth said with feigned surprise. "So you are the owner of this fine palace? It is truly fine. Almost as fine..." he drew the words out deliciously. "As my own palace at home. Well, actually, almost as fine as the servants' quarters."
"What are you talking about?" The man, though still angry, was obviously interested.
"Oh, back home, my servants live in quarters like these, don't you boys?" They nodded obediently. "My house is...well," he lowered his eyes humbly. "I shouldn't want to brag."
The man grunted, fingering his scapular and Big Mouth continued quickly. "I tell you. Once I was just a man of modest means, like you. But then, something wonderful happened. I fell asleep one night and dreamed of an old man. He told me to go into a nearby valley and capture this horse. He said it was one of the packhorses of the god of wealth. The poor horse had gone lame and was no longer of use to the god and so was being put out to pasture."
The rich man walked around the horse. "What? What is this rubbish? This horse looks like..."
"Oh, I know. It's nothing to look at." Big Mouth leaned over and whispered. "It's really sort of in disguise. The old man told me not to be dissuaded by its dejected looks, for they were necessary in order to protect the poor beast."
"Well, he has a very unusual talent."
"I hardly can express it, but when he moves his--well, has a movement, gold and silver come out instead of--you know, what usually comes out." Big Mouth shifted the tail from side to side and then patted the horse's rump solicitously.
"No." The man, now curious, fingered his scapular. Big Mouth eyed it hungrily.
"Yes, truly. I tell you, it is remarkable. But that isn't all the story. You see, as soon as I dreamed that the old man had said these things, I dreamed he pushed me out of bed. I woke up on the floor, but of course, I thought it was just a silly dream. So I went back to sleep. No sooner had sleep come than the old man appeared again. 'Fool!' he said. 'Did I not tell you to find the horse? If you don't hurry someone else will get him.' This time when he pushed me and I awoke, I got up and went to the hillside that he had told me of. The moon was shining on the grass and it all very beautiful--the water was glistening and..." The old man was shifting from one foot to another. "But you aren't interested in that, are you? Well, a fireball flashed through the sky, and fell right near where I was standing. When I could see again, there was the horse, happily grazing. So I brought him home. I didn't believe it myself the first time I saw it happening." Big Mouth put the silk rope into Selnos's hand and winked at him.
The rich man was now behind the horse, fondling its straggly tail. "Gold and silver," he said musingly.
"Hm. Here. Let me walk him around a little and you can see for yourself. Boy, take him a turn around this area right here. Stay close, I want our new friend to see this amazing sight."
By now, the man's expression had lifted considerably. He bent down and watched the space between the horse's back feet. Cousin led the horse in a few tight circles.
"Oh, I almost forgot. He likes incense. You must light some incense for him." The rich man called for a burner and incense and lit a stick. Meanwhile, Big Mouth quickly walked to the horse's tail and pocketed the wad of cotton, then motioned Cousin to continue walking the horse around. Suddenly they stopped. A look of deep concentration passed over the horse's face and, in a moment, there was a pile of small silver coins on the immaculate tile floor.
The man rushed to them. He hesitated for a moment and then gingerly picked them up. "They're real!" he said in amazement. "They're real! You have a horse that passes legal tender!"
"Yes, yes." Big Mouth smiled broadly. "Amazing, isn't it? He's a little under the weather, so I haven't gotten any gold in several days, but I'm sure he'll be back up to form in no time."
"How much a day?"
"Hmm?" Big Mouth intoned idly.
"How much does he produce a day?" the rich man's voice was insistant.
"Oh, I don't know exactly. Some days only a few pieces of gold. Other days, a load of silver. Depends on what he's had to eat, I suppose. The old man said that it had something to do with the luck of the person involved. Oh, he said another thing. He said that the dear horse will only produce for someone who is kind, generous and pure of heart. You are, aren't you? Because, otherwise, the horse is worthless."
The man gesticulated wildly, pacing back and forth, studying the coins and then addressing the heavens. "This is stupendous." Suddenly, he whirled on Big Mouth. "I must have that horse."
"Oh, well, you think that now, but..."
"No." He grasped Big Mouth by the robe. "You must sell me your wonderful horse. I must have him. What would you take for him?"
"Oh, my. Nothing. Really. I couldn't sell him. Why, he's so dear to me, like...like...a horse that passes coin."
"Nonsense. You have a much larger palace than mine--your clothes are fine--you have no need for more. To accumulate more than you already have would be...selfish....greedy. But me, look at me. All I have is this little place and a few servants. Come, you must sell me your horse."
"Well. Perhaps. But what need have I for money? No. I think if I was to sell you this horse, it would have to be for something else."
"Anything," the man panted.
"Well. I'll need another horse, naturally."
"Any in my stable."
"And tack and all that."
"And, oh, I don't know. Three wagons of grain, a hundred chickens, fifteen pigs, and oh, two carts of preserved foods. Sound good?"
"Yes, yes. Anything."
"Your embroidered thing, then," Big Mouth said eagerly, pointing to the figured scapular.
"This?" The man touched it.
The man hesitated for a moment. "Done," he shouted suddenly, and ripped it from around his neck, pushing it eagerly into Big Mouth's hands. He then beckoned his servants and they began assembling the goods. "Run," he chided them and turned back to Big Mouth who slipped the scapular around his own neck with a grin at the two boys. "Just let me hold the bridle," the rich man pleaded.
Big Mouth smiled broadly and handed it to him with a flourish. Then he went to the horse's head and kissed it tenderly on the muzzle. "I will be sad to part with you, my dear friend. You and I have been so close these last years. I will carry this sorrow in my heart forever."
The rich man was already tugging on the bridle. "Take whatever you want," he said over his shoulder. Big Mouth walked to one of the red rose bushes, took out his knife and cut several. He put his knife back in his belt, and wrapped the roses in one of the pieces of silk that made up his costume.
Within the hour, the wagons were loaded, and Big Mouth, Selnos and Cousin led the way. Big Mouth had chosen a three year old stallion, dark brown with a fine glossy black mane and green silk tack. He took a string of little brass bells and hung them over the ornate saddle horn. He mounted up and led the procession like a general.
When they reached the village, the rich man's servants helped unload the carts and then hastened back to the palace. The villagers were beside themselves with joy. "Rejoice," he said, handing a rose to each of the women who simpered and blushed like teenaged coquettes. "Rejoice, but hide the food. Put it all away where it cannot be found. In caves or cellars or locked closets. Let the chickens and pigs run free, but do not advertise that you have this food. Do you understand?" They did, and the women went to work cooking while the men hid the balance of the food. Some was packed into the saddle bags for the party to take with them. When the bell sounded for dinner, the tables were ladened with rice and dried meats and fish, pickles and tea.
"A good day's work, boys," Big Mouth said happily after eating his fill. He leaned back, smiling deeply, fondling his new scapular. It was magnificent.
"What if he changes his mind?" Selnos said. "What if he realizes the horse is just a horse."
"Nonsense. He has had a demonstration of the horse's powers. After all, I did tell him that one must be generous and pure of heart in order to make it work. Do you think that he would dare admit that he wasn't? He really didn't lose much. A horse and some food. That's all. Besides, maybe he will work to make himself worthy of the horse's gifts."
An old man brought out a (stringed musical instrument) and quickly others ran to get flutes and drums. They shoved the furniture to the edges of the room, and played music. Big Mouth danced with all the women, young and old, toothed and toothless, and charmed them all the same.
Cousin pressed into Selnos. "He's something, isn't he?"
"Yes, but I don't know what," Selnos said, reluctant to admire him.
* * *
In the morning they set off, this time turning a little to the northwest. The roads were smaller now, no longer lined with rocks. Only the most serious travelers and solitary residents ventured this far out of the civilized world.
They were making good time. Big Mouth went ahead to seek out the best path and Cousin and Selnos straggled behind, looking for a place to set up camp. "How will you know where we are?" Selnos said.
"Your smoke. Start a fire. I'll come to you. " With that, Big Mouth rode off. The sun was lower in the sky. They were approaching a clearing, when a man with a fine cloak over leather armor and a dagger hanging from his belt, stepped out into the road.
"Dismount, young lords," he said politely, boldy taking hold of Selnos's bridle. A second man, came up behind him and stood in front of Cousin's horse.
"Why, my good man?" Selnos said, hoping his sudden terror didn't show on his face. He could have bolted the horse right then, but that would have been impolite. It might have hurt the man and perhaps he bore them no ill will.
"For your lordships have the honor of being robbed, and if your lordships are not very careful, murdered in the process."
Cousin, still not catching on, looked around. "By whom, sir?"
Still holding Selnos's bridle, the man swept a bow. "Don't be alarmed, but by me and my men. We are ever at your service." He drew a long dagger from the sash at his waist. Selnos heard Cousin let his breath out in a rush.
"Oh, thank you," Selnos said sarcastically, jerking at his bridle in the hope of pulling away. But the man was exceedingly strong. His face was adamite, his beard of several days' growth and his eyes were narrow and fierce, like an animal on a hunt. But his voice was smooth and obsequious.
"Now, little lord, don't be like that. I have men in the woods lining this road as far back as that () tree." he pointed with his now-drawn dagger, "And as far up as that () tree. On both sides, so be a good little man, hop off your horse and give us all your money." He gesticulated to Cousin. "You too."
Selnos and Cousin exchanged glances. Cousin sat motionless on his horse. Selnos cocked his head to signify that they should obey. At this point, he reasoned, all the men were demanding was material goods. They could be replenished somehow. Their lives were not so easily replaced. He slid to the ground. "Fine. You may have our money. There isn't much."
"Down, boy," the second man said to Cousin, shaking his bridle.
"Don't worry yourselves about the scarcity of money. I know these are hard times," the first thief said smoothly. "I wouldn't want you to feel bad about that. We feel the pinch as well. But your horses will comfort us while we ride away contemplating the sorrow of your poverty."
"What? You would take our horses, too?" Selnos's anger was beginning to overwhelm his fear. Without horses they would be at the mercy of fate even more than they were now. They were making fairly good progress, but walking would let them cover only about a fifth of the distance per day, and expose them to so many more hazards.
"Oh," the man swept another low bow. "I'm sorry. Does that idea displease the young lord? What a pity." He whistled and two more men came from the woods. They engulfed the horses and jostled Cousin from his saddle. He fell on the ground with a thud, but rose with his sword drawn.
"You are fools," he said, "If you think I would give up my horse and my goods to you so that I could die in this god-forsaken forest."
"God-forsaken?" the leader feigned indignation. "Boy, this is our forest. We are gods." He rested a hand piously on his own breast.
"Your forest, your forest," Cousin spat. "You'll have to take whatever you get from me. I'll not give it up."
"Oh, well, have it your way," the man said, affecting boredom. "Boys?"
Selnos ripped his sword from its sheath, and rushed to Cousin's defense. There was no time to calculate. There were four large men, and they were but two. Cousin had both sword and knife and was plying them energetically. Selnos had only a sword, and it was heavy. He grasped it with both hands, closed his eyes tight and hacked. The men were armed with knives and sticks, and when he raised his sword above his head to get the requisite strength to bring it down with any force, he felt the rain of blows on his chest and shoulders without knowing where they came from. Someone was yelling. Everyone was yelling. He felt warmth on his arm, looked down. His shirt torn from its sleeve and blood rolling toward his hand. Shocked by the sight, he would not assimilate it all fast enough. Whose blood is it? he thought incredulously, and felt another blow to his ear. He ducked and plunged upward with his sword.
Cousin had fought his way free, and Selnos rushed to him. They stood panting, side by side, their swords pointed at the men. There were only three left standing. One was lying on the ground, face-down, his arm flung up over his head.
"Well, the little lords are plucky at that," the leader said grimly.
"You've winged one of ours." He shook his head. "Too bad for you, for now we'll be obliged to punish you." Selnos looked at the man on the ground again. The leader saw his gaze had turned. "Oh, don't worry about him. He's just tired. Needed a nap." He picked up a handful of rocks and dirt off the ground and hurled it into Selnos's face. "Come on," he shouted. "I think you're really just city girls!" Selnos instinctively stepped back, tripped over Cousin's foot and caught the dirt in his mouth and eyes. He blinked and spat.
Where was Big Mouth? Surely he should be coming back. Why couldn't he hear this? He was a soldier. He was mighty. He could have whipped these men. The sudden weakness of Selnos's thoughts shamed him, spurred him to even more anger. He rose up with his sword and yelled. It was a strange sound as it filled his belly and mouth and escaped in the air--ferocious, like the cry of an injured animal. His body was suddenly hot inside and he yelled again, raising his sword above his head and bringing it down hard. It caught the leader a glancing blow. "Oh, little boy is angry now," he taunted. Selnos rushed at him and they grappled. He couldn't get the sword free to slice and the man seized his wrist and squeezed. Selnos felt the crushing pain and his hand fell open. "You shouldn't have fought me," he said, his breath hot and fetid on Selnos's face. "Now, I..." The man lunged forward, his head jerking down onto Selnos's chest. His hand released and grasped upwards, his breath coming in horrid gasps. He slid away, and as Selnos watched his body slip toward earth, he could see the white shaft of an arrow, tipped with blue silk tassles in the man's back. He blinked in amazement. He had never seen an arrow imbedded in flesh. It was unnatural, bizarre. He looked to see if his eyes were really playing tricks on him, like those wonder workers he had seen at carnival. There was no head to it, only a shaft rising from bleeding flesh. He shook his own head and pushed the man away.
Selnos had no time to wonder from whence the beneficent arrow had come. He turned to Cousin, who was engaged with both men. Almost instinctively, Selnos reached out and grasped the shoulder of one, turning the man to him. The man whirled and faced him, brandishing his cudgel. He slipped his booted foot behind Selnos's leg and Selnos went down into the dirt. He laughed maliciously and raised his stick. Selnos was struggling to his feet when he heard a shout ring out over the sounds of fighting, "Get down!" He remembered the arrow and dropped to the ground again. The shaft whizzed past, striking the man in the shoulder. He gasped, and fell backwards.
Selnos leaped up and grabbed the last man. Cousin fell back, obviously exhausted, but rallied quickly. He threw his sword aside and picked up one of the fallen men's daggers and whirled on the man Selnos was holding. "You," he spat, his face contorted with a wild look, the dagger poised to strike. "You..." But the man twisted out of Selnos's hands and ran away into the woods.
Cousin threw down the dagger. "I don't ever want to do anything like that again," he screamed at Selnos. "Do you hear me?"
"Yes," Selnos said, trying to be calm. "Yes." He looked quickly around the periphery of the woods. "Listen, shut up. There's someone else here."
"What? More of them? By the gods, why don't we just kill ourselves, and save them the trouble." Cousin's shoulders dropped. "Wait a minute. Selnos, there are arrows in these men."
"Indeed. That's the someone else."
There was a noise in the woods, a yelp and a shout. Branches crackled and suddenly, Big Mouth burst from the thicket. He was holding a boy by the back of the shirt, the young one's arms and legs flailing impotently as he spit invectives.
"What in name of all that's unholy have you youngsters been doing all afternoon?" he said, looking around quickly. Selnos and Cousin stood motionless, panting in the road, their faces lined with blood, sweat and dirt, their clothed ripped, and bared limbs abraded. Selnos's arms hung down limply, his sword a mighty weight dragging against the dirt. Three men lay motionless on the road. Suddenly the query that Big Mouth held began to writhe anew. He pulled his head upward and bit Big Mouth's hand. The man yelped, dropping him. "You cur!" He shouted, raising his free hand to strike the boy, who rolled away into the space on the ground between Selnos, Cousin and Big Mouth.
"I wouldn't if I were you!" the boy said angrily. "Let me just get my arrows..."
"Wait a minute," Selnos said. Big Mouth, incensed, was advancing on the boy. "Big Mouth, stop...Are those your arrows?"
"Yes." The boy didn't even deign to turn and look at them.
"And you shot these men?"
"Yes, if it's all the same to you. Some gratitude." He was crawling to the man with the arrow in his shoulder. "Lie still," he ordered, and pulled it straight out. "It didn't go in too far."
"He's alive?" Selnos said incredulously.
"Well, yes, it would appear so." The boy looked up for a split second. "He's breathing...that's usually a positive sign of life."
It hadn't occurred to him that they would live. After all, in all the stories, the enemies are killed off almost instantly. What were they to do with wounded brigands?
"Here, let me help," Selnos said, kneeling by the boy. They exchanged glances.
"You're hurt," the boy said faintly.
"Hey...you're that boy from the village--the one..."
"Yes. Well. How about that?" The boy blinked. His face was grimy, but his eyes were large, deep brown and luminous, like a highly polished stone. "Is there a problem?"
"No. I just...no. I'm sorry. You were right. You are an archer, aren't you? I'm sorry I doubted you."
The boy stood up and straightened his tunic. "Come on," he said with an imperious tone. "Don't just stand around. We've got a lot to do." With the air of someone who knew how to give orders he began directing everyone. "What's your name, lummox?" he said, approaching Big Mouth.
"Big Mouth," he replied with a look of incredulity.
"Well-named, Big Mouth. Pick up these men and lay them side-by-side. Get the arrow out of that one. And, good man," he said, his arms akimbo. "If you ever touch me like that again, I will hunt you down and you will be the sorriest man who ever trod in shoe leather. Do you understand?" Big Mouth nodded sheepishly. "You," the boy said, whirling on Cousin.
"Cousin," he volunteered.
"There's a stream nearby. Go and fill your skins with water. And you," he turned on Selnos. "Go with him and both of you wash your wounds. Bring back wood and start a fire." He drew a bag from his belt. "I'll be back. I need some things to make medicines. These men won't last the night if we don't do something."
Selnos and Cousin headed off into the woods. "I'm just curious," Cousin said. "But why are we going to take care of these brigands, first of all, and secondly, who by the gods is that boy and why does he think he can order us around?"
"I don't know. He was the boy we met with the old woman carrying wood at the village where there were no women, remember?"
"Oh, yes. But that doesn't explain his behavior."
"I must have misjudged him. Maybe he's really the son of a lord or a prince in disguise. He said he knew archery and sword-fighting." Selnos was hesitant. He didn't want to say they wouldn't have survived without the boy's help and therefore maybe he did have a right to give them orders. But it was true and he could tell that Cousin sensed it as well.
* * *
When they returned to the clearing, boy was coming out of the woods on the other side of the road. Big Mouth had finished his task.
"Ah, I see the patients are ready," the boy said with a smug air of satisfaction. "You got the arrow out all right?"
"Yes, it really wasn't in very far."
"Pity," the boy said distractedly. "I'll have to work on that."
"But this one's bleeding pretty heavily," Big Mouth said. "By the way, I took the precaution of tying them up."
The boy knelt beside the leader. He groaned. "Don't talk," the boy commanded. "I'm sure you have plenty of explaining to do, but for now, apologies aren't necessary. You, Cousin," he beckoned the nearby youth. "Come over here and hold these leaves hard against this wound. We've got to stop the bleeding." Cousin moved quickly to comply while the boy mused out loud. "We haven't much in the way of bandaging materials, and I would be hesitant to put filthy cloth on these wounds." A look of consternation passed over Selnos's face. His cheek ached. His elbow and wrist were beginning to hurt and he was sure there was a sizable wound on his back. The boy, as if reading Selnos's mind, started up. "Listen, we take care of the most seriously wounded first. You can wait a while. You'll be fine."
Big Mouth held up his hand with a scowl. "Oh? Well, I've got a nasty bite here," he said, glowering.
The boy glanced at it for a second. He snorted. "How'd you get that?" he asked.
"Ran into a wild beast, I guess." Big Mouth growled.
The boy snorted. "Serves you right," he said, turning back to the man on the ground. "If I'm going to stitch you up, you'll have to stop bleeding first. See to it." The man looked confused and began to protest but the boy held up his hand. "It's stitch you up or string you up. You choose. Stitch?" He pulled a needle and strong thick thread from his bag. "Good choice." He whipped the thread into the eye of the needle, then looked up. "You three," he barked. "Hold him down." The man's protests began again. He was tied hand and foot with strong vines, but he bucked with his body. "Now," the boy yelled. "Enough. You," he pointed at Selnos. "Sit on his legs."
The next minutes passed with painful and sickening slowness. The cries of the man were pitiful, and Selnos had a difficult time hating the man as he had only a few minutes before. The boy sputtered and cursed as he tried to get each stitch in place. "You will die," he screamed at last. "If you don't let me do this." Hand shaking, he went back to the work.
Selnos glanced at Big Mouth, who shook his head. There was sweat running down his cheek along his hairline. Finally, the boy jumped up. "Enough for him," he said. The next one had several wounds that were fairly large, but the third was mostly stunned. "He doesn't need any stitching," the boy said.
"I need to let water," the man said.
"Cousin, take him into the woods," the boy ordered. "Untie his feet and help him."
"I'll need my hands, too," the man said bitterly. Boy looked around quizzically.
Cousin shrugged. "He does. He needs his hands. I'm not helping him. I don't care who you are, or who he is. In this, he's on his own." The boy's brow furrowed.
"Do the best you can, but bring him back. Figure it out yourself. Tie one of his hands to you."
"Then he could hit me with the other," Cousin whispered.
"I won't. I promise. But I have to go."
Cousin's shoulders sank. "Come on. It's worse than having a dog."
* * *
"We can't move them," the boy said.
"Then we have to leave them here," Selnos argued. "We have a task to do, Boy. It didn't include playing nursemaid to a bunch of brigands..."
The boy crossed his arms over his chest defiantly. "We have an obligation."
"To ourselves and our mission," Selnos grumbled. "What's the matter with you?"
"Well, as far as I can tell your mission was something about finding stray cows..."
He turned back to the fire and poked it with a glowing stick. "That was just what I told you. We do have a mission." He looked up expectantly, half-hoping the boy would demand to know what it was.
"Oh, well.." the boy shrugged. "Well, we can't move them." The boy turned and walked away from the fire glow into the darkness and Selnos, without turning to look, heard him settle against the trunk of a tree.
He tossed and turned for a few minutes. The little bastard. He'd get that creature yet, sitting smugly against the tree. Anger welled up in him so hot that it was like a poker in his flesh and he sat up, glared at the darkness he knew concealed the boy and wrapped his arms tightly about his knees.
Cousin stirred in his sleep and groaned, fumbling for a cover that he wouldn't find, except perhaps in his dreams. Selnos heard a noise from the boy, and in the dim light, realized the boy's eyes were open and staring at him.
He started across the breach between them on his hands and knees. The boy shifted his legs a little, rolled on his hip so that Selnos could sit with his back against the tree.
"Can't sleep?" the boy asked softly, totally disarming Selnos.
"Ummmm," Selnos waffled. "Not really. Same for you?"
The boy shrugged. "I thought it best to keep watch."
"Ah. Yes..." Damn. He'd bested Selnos again.
"You can watch after me," the boy went on. "I'm getting pretty tired myself."
"Well," Selnos affected a self-important tone. "I thought as much."
There was a long pause. "So tell me about your home," the boy whispered.
Again, Selnos was taken aback. "My home?
"Where you're from."
Didn't the pup realize they were rivals? For what, Selnos was sure, but he knew they were rivals. The boy had a way about him that everyone else seemed to like. Selnos stopped for a moment to consider. He had set out on this quest alone, or had intended to. He had lost the map to Cousin I, and it was his duty to recoup what he could from it. Cousin II was happy to accept his leadership, but once Big Mouth had joined them, half the time Selnos was in charge and the other half of the time, or so it seemed, Big Mouth simply took over. Now this boy, younger and smaller than any of them, had come, and in an instant, everyone was taking orders from him. To make matters even worse, the boy didn't seem aware of the fact that he had usurped what little had remained of Selnos's authority. Damn. It wasn't fair.
There was no point in fighting it, though. At least not at this point. The night was growing more chilled and the cold dampness seeped into Selnos's body through his hips. The boy, on the other hand, was a pool of warmth, and he found himself leaning toward him until their thighs touched in the darkness. "I'm from a small village by the sea," he said. "Nothing like this country...all dark and full of trees and dark rocks. Where I come from, the sky is brilliant blue all the time, or white, and the clouds pile up in great white mountains over the sea, and the sand and the dirt are all brilliant white, and the birds..."
"Hmmmmm," the boy sighed. "It sounds beautiful. I traveled once to the sea, at Purgosis. It was wonderful."
So far away from your home?" Selnos said with wonder. "That's odd. Why would you go so far away?"
"Oh," the boy answered shortly. "I just...I don't know...I was very young."
"Ahhh." They sat silently for a few minutes. He felt the boy's head slip down sleepily but he jolted back awake in a second.
"Tell me more," the boy said slowly, thickly with a little wave of his bird-boned hand, and Selnos almost smiled. He began to tell story after story of how he had grown up, of his father mostly, and the things they had done together. He had not spoken of the man in any depth since he had passed on, and it made Selnos both happy and miserable to remember him as a real person. He found himself speaking more and more slowly, until finally, when he opened his eyes, it was almost fully light, and the boy's head was resting against his shoulder.
Cousin's shouts broke through the last of his sleep.
"Damn," he said, fists clenched, his body almost doubled over.
"They're gone. Your damned brigands are gone, you clever little bastard."
"What?" the boy roused himself quickly, stared incredulously at Selnos. He was obviously as surprised to find himself laying on Selnos as Selnos had been to find the boy resting on him. "I fell asleep," he said hoarsely, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. Selnos glared at him and then looked away.
"Well, just don't have a fit," the boy said shortly, recovering himself. "What exactly do we know..."
"They're gone, you imbecile," Cousin fairly screamed.
"Enough," the boy help up a pre-emptive hand, his voice sharp enough that they all took note. Big Mouth had joined them, returning from the woods. He dropped his small bundle on the ground.
"Where have you been?" Cousin whirled on Big Mouth.
"When did you leave camp?
"Maybe a half hour ago."
"Were they here?"
"Sleeping like little innocent woodland creatures, yes."
"Well they're gone now," Cousin shouted. "And so are our horses and most of our provisions." He stormed up to the boy, who stared coolly at him. "What do we do now, genius?"
The boy considered for a moment and then shrugged. "We walk."
Cousin howled with frustration and turned away.
The boy picked up his bag and slung it over his shoulder. "I think, under the circumstances, we should start out now."
"By the gods," Selnos sputtered. "If I meet those bastards again..."
"Selnos," the boy interrupted sharply. "They're just like us."
"Nothing...nothing like us," Selnos argued hotly.
"Oh, but they are. You haven't any idea what drove them away from their homes and villages, from their loved ones to live this life in the woods." The boy had obviously picked the path and was walking energetically in the direction from whence they had come.
"Where are you going?" Selnos demanded.
"Back to the nearest village. We need provisions..."
"Yes, indeed. And we had them, and if it hadn't been for you and your ill-placed mercy, we'd still have them."
Big Mouth scoffed. "Let the boy be, Selnos. It isn't his fault."
"What?" Selnos turned to Big Mouth. "It certainly was."
"Listen, Selnos. You could have fallen in the river and lost all the provisions. You could have opened up your food and found it infested with weevils. The horses could have fallen down a chasm and been lost. This way we have, perhaps, some chance of recovering our belongings or procuring new ones."
Selnos's shoulders dropped. "You're a fool."
The boy shot him a withering look. "Perhaps. But I am a moral fool."
Cousin fell in with them, his anger having abated somewhat. "That'll keep you full and warm," he laughed. "Or maybe not."
"Listen, those men were driven to poverty just as we all were by the Vapeks..."
"Yes, but we don't all resort to brigandry," Selnos retorted.
"You're right. By the grace of the gods, you know better..."
"Though we might be in the long run," Big Mouth grinned.
"The gods will give us what we need," the boy said. "And if we don't have it, we don't need it."
Selnos groaned. Piety was one thing, stupidity quite another. He fumed at the boy, glaring at the side of the boy's face for a good distance. The boy studiously avoided looking at him, even when he longed almost viscerally for the boy to turn and catch him glaring. He would say something ignorant and then Selnos could pounce on him and pummel him good. But he wouldn't look for the longest time, and when he finally did, his eyes were gentle and he smiled almost as if he was enjoying all this. Selnos was at once awash in fury and shame.
They rode in stilted silence. Big Mouth and Cousin entertained themselves and each other with endless stories and variations on stories. The general format seemed to be for one to tell a story and the other, without a moment's hesitation at the close of it, to say, "You think that's something? Well, one time, I..." And so they passed the afternoon. Selnos and Boy studiously and angrily avoided each other.
They stopped toward evening at a stream to water the horses, eat a poor meal and rest. Big Mouth rose jovially and bowed to Boy. "Compliments and great thanks to the cook," he said graciously. A thin smile passed over the boy's face. "Come on, scrawny one. Let's explore this place a little before the sun is completely gone." Boy nodded and stood up unsteadily.
"You alright?" Big Mouth asked. Boy nodded.
"Just a little tired and sore. These days have been too long," he said almost sadly, and for a moment Selnos felt petty and small. The boy was far younger than he was, and had left his home and loved ones to follow them. Surely it was uncomfortable for him, too. Plus, he was trying to do the right thing, misguided as it was.
"Coming, Selnos?" Big Mouth asked.
He nodded. "Certainly."
"You?" he pointed at Cousin, who shook his head.
"I'm exhausted," he said. "Done for. I've got to sleep." He unceremoniously curled up on the ground without another word.
They walked along the stream bed. The water was like molten bronze in the evening light, flowing with tiny waves around the rounded stones that rose up out of the water. Selnos was struck at the beauty of it, the dark rocks rising up on one side of the stream and the flat autumn-colored grassy plain that emanated from it. The color of the water was incredible, beautiful and he was, for a moment, struck with awe by it.
"Oh my god," Boy gasped, pointing.
"You're right," Big Mouth answered quickly, suddenly bolting forward. Selnos turned his head sharply to see what was going on. Just around a small bend, there was a heavily armored body lying face down in the water. Big Mouth reached him in seconds and turned him over. The sight was grisly enough that even Big Mouth, experienced as he was in the ways of soldiery, was obviously shocked. "Stay back," he barked quickly, and Boy froze in his tracks.
"Is he..." Boy asked hoarsely.
"You can't do anything for this one, Boy. All your poultices and fine words will mean nothing to him. Been here a while to," he said waving his hand in front of his face. "By the Gods, what a disreputable thing a man becomes when death takes him." He stood staring at the body. "You two go back."
Boy slowly came by Selnos's side. "I wonder who he is," he said sadly. "Or was."
Selnos shook his head. They turned and started back to the campsite. "Hey," Big Mouth said. "Wait a minute. You can help carry his gear." He pulled off the helmet and threw it across the stream to dry land. Boy hung back, but Selnos went forward, trying to avoid looking directly at the body. Still, compelling as it was, he dared not do it. He would pay for his curiosity with nightmares, and they were to be avoided. He picked up the helmet and looked at it. It was finely wrought, with images of fighting birds and snakes. He returned to Boy. "What do you think," he said, twirling it a little.
Boy shook his head. "Poor man."
Selnos snorted. "He's a Vapek, Boy. Who else would have something as fine as this?" He gathered up the other pieces as Big Mouth threw them over the water. Finally, he returned to Selnos and Boy.
"Hey, he even had a bit of money on him," Big Mouth said cheerfully, pouring out the contents of a little pouch into his hand. "The gods smile."
Boy nodded. "What do you think happened?" he asked.
Big Mouth shrugged. "I'd say he came from up there," he pointed to the ridge above the stream. Probably got in a fight or something and tumbled down here and broke his neck. Or got too drunk to stay on his horse. We could use the horse, but it's been gone for weeks, I'd wager."
He tossed the coins up from the palm of this hand and let them fall back down. "Come on. The helmet is mine. And the breastplate. You can have the rest."
They camped throughout the rest of the night and set off again in the morning. There were few houses and farms in this region. Even though they now had a few coins, it was impossible to buy a meal, and Selnos was miserable with hunger.
It took until sunset to reach the village, and when they arrived, they were all obviously exhausted and famished. They stopped at the small tavern and spent almost half of the dead warrior's coins on the first hot meal they had been offered in weeks. There was, for a change, an abundance of food, but Selnos was almost too tired to eat. They found a barn and hollowed nests out of the fairly clean straw. Selnos laid on his back and waited for the sleep he so desperately desired to come to him. Big Mouth's snoring was thunderous, almost as if a full stomach had given him the strength to shake the rafters with his noise. Cousin was deeply asleep in a matter of a few minutes and Selnos lay staring into the darkness above. He knew, by reason, that there had to be beams and rafters above, but it was too dark to see anything. A great bird suddenly swooped down from the darkness and Selnos heard a small noise from the direction of the boy. Good enough, he thought. He was awake. He crawled over to where the boy was. For a moment, they regarded each other miserably, like two animals unsure if they were going to do battle or not.
Stiffly, Selnos shrugged. "So, what about where you're from?" he asked, and the boy visibly relaxed and began to tell stories from his home until they both fell asleep.
In the morning, when they rose, Selnos was famished. They took the few remaining coins and went out to buy bread while Cousin and Big Mouth made inquiries after their belongings.
Cousin was holding forth exuberantly about the state of insect life in the barn when they heard a great commotion behind them. Turning quickly, Selnos caught sight of Big Mouth, his arms pumping hard as he ran hard toward the two boys. Behind him was a horse, it's nostrils flared, its head writhing against the bit in its mouth, its formidible rider leaning from the saddle to catch Big Mouth a great blow on the side of the head. Everything slowed down to a miserable, almost eery pace. Selnos was at once terrified and enervated and reached out toward his companion, but almost as instantaneously, he felt Cousin's hand on his arm, jerking him back. Big Mouth's head jerked back, hair flying and his body tumbled forward onto the ground.
"They've got him, fool," Cousin hissed. "Don't get yourself killed over him."
"Who..." Selnos's mind raced, horrified as the rider slowly dismounted. His head still on the ground, Big Mouth attempted to raise his hindquarters from the ground, preparatory to trying to stand. His knee slid forward on the ground, and Selnos's breath caught in his throat. Get up, he thought. Get up and fight. But the man was over him in a minute and with little delicacy, pushed Big Mouth back onto the ground with a booted foot. Unable to contain himself, Selnos tried to wrench away from Cousin, but his fingers bit into Selnos's flesh.
"Let him go."
Selnos, eyes burning, whirled on Cousin. "He is our companion, our brother in arms."
"He is a dead man," Cousin's voice was uncharacteristically cold. "I would hesitate to jump up and join him."
The man motioned to his companions and they pulled the obviously dazed Big Mouth from the ground, bound his hands, and set him on unsteady feet. A new terror seized Selnos as the crowd grew. Where was Boy?
"Did they get Boy, too?" he whispered, raking the crowd.
Cousin was silent for a moment and they scanned in opposite directions. "There he is," Cousin started to point, but dropped his hand quickly. "By the fountain."
Selnos looked up and saw the small, now-familiar figure moving in and out between the larger people of the village. He caught their eyes almost in the same instant and gave a pre-emptive shake of the head, but began working his way to them. The men fasted the tether to the saddle of one of the horses and Selnos watched, sickened, as the slack was taken up on the tether and Big Mouth was jerked forward. He fell to his knees, but one of the now-mounted guards struck him across the shoulders and he struggled to raise up. When he turned and looked back into the sea of faces, Selnos could scarcely contain a cry. Blood had dripped down Big Mouth's neck and it wetted his throat now and the front of his tunic. He was looking for them, but could not see them, and Selnos was too frightened to make any move that might reveal their position. Still, he found Boy. His expression remained unchanged but the boy, sudeenly overwhelmed dropped his head back, his face contorted with a mixture of emphathy and terror. In an instant it was over, and the riders had dragged Big Mouth from the town, and the sea of peasants closed the view of the road out of town.
Boy was at their side in a matter of minutes. "What happened," Selnos said, his stomach burning with an icy horror.
"I don't know. I don't know..." the boy doubled up, his hands grasping his legs just above the knee. "Oh, by the gods. We went into a tavern to make inquiries and there were these soldiers. They recognized him from a broadside. Something about selling a rich man a horse that was supposed to make money in its soil. We swore it wasn't him, that we had come from (), that he was my father and we were going to that village to apprentice me to a cobbler but they recognized that damned embroidered surplus that he wouldn't be parted with, and took him up. I was just lucky to elude them, and they didn't give a damn about me any way." He shuddered as if he could somehow shake off the events of the last few minutes like a dog shakes off water.
Selnos stood staring at the road. "What will they do to him?"
"Don't ask," Cousin said.
"Let's get off the street," Boy said.
Something overwhelming welled up inside Selnos. "We're done for. We've lost the horses, the luggage, provisiosn and now Big Mouth. Cousin," he spoke with difficulty. "It's time to go home."
The boy shot him a look that withered him where he stood. "Are you a fool? Let's get the rest of what we have left and figure out what to do from there."
"They'll take him back to that rich man's town." Cousin mused.
"Yes." Boy took off, nearly running, back to the barn. They had little to gather up. "They're on horseback, but they'll be kept to the speed he can travel if they try to lead him like a dog. If they were clever enough to put him on a horse, they'd be miles ahead of us in little time at all. If we're lucky, they'll prefer to humiliate him to being efficient."
The boy swung out of the barn. "Alright. Let's find somebody going to that city and get a ride."
"What then?" Selnos said relunctantly. "After all, we can do nothing."
"Well, isn't that nice?" the boy turned on Selnos. "What a fine, loyal friend you are."
"What?" Selnos asked, genuinely bewildered.
"At the very least we should be there when they kill him. At the very least we should be there so that the last faces he sees are those who care for him." The boy's voice was sharp and Selnos smarted under it.
"I was the one who wanted to fight them now," he argued, his cheeks growin hot. "But Cousin here held me back."
The boy waved his hand dismissively. "Whatever you say, Selnos."
"I do say," he protested.
"Enough," the boy's eyes were dark and cold when they touched him and he swallowed hard.
"Fine," he said softly. They walked into the open country. A few wagons passed and they waved them down. One wagoneer gave them a ride to a crossroads a few miles away, another to the edge of a great wood, and a third took them to a small village that lay along the route. They continued walking and by mid-afternoon on the following day, were on a rise above the rich man's city.
"Now what," Cousin asked as they balefully stared down into the walled town.
"Now we wait," the boy said.
"For what?" Selnos asked irritably.
"For night to come," the boy said, slipping down onto the ground. "We can do nothing now, and I'm exhausted." Cousin squatted down beside the boy.
"You rest, too, Selnos," he said. "I'll keep watch."
Selnos threw himself down beside the boy, glaring at him. He missed talking to the boy, missed falling asleep in spite of himself in the middle of one of the boy's stories, missed hearing that low, soft voice floating through his dreams. He missed the warmth of the body next to him, the weight of it when the boy would throw an arm across him or rest his head on his shoulder or chest. It was a physical desire, as familiar as laying in the same bed with his sister, and yet somehow different. It was a pure yearning, though, and if it were night already, he would crawl closer to the boy, rest his head against the boy's upper arm but Cousin was watching and the west was still brilliant enough for all to be seen. If the boy was similarly effected, he betrayed nothing. Selnos felt his body grow heavier despite the pins and needles that shot through his limbs and the seasick feeling whenever he closed his eyes, and, before long, was also asleep.
His eyes flickered open. It was deep night, with a bright moon overhead. He caught the glittering of the boy's eyes. "You're awake," he whispered, looking up at the boy.
"Yes. It's about time."
"For what?" he asked, a little dully.
"We have to go." The boy's voice was a little sharp, edged with something that presaged fear. Silently, Selnos rose and followed the boy to the small fire.
"Do you have a plan?" Selnos asked quickly. The boy knelt on the ground and fumbled in a small bundle.
"Yes." He pulled something from the pile. "Here, put these on."
"What are they?"
"Where did you get them?"
"A farm not far from here. I sent Cousin a bit ago and he came back with these."
"You should have awakened me," Selnos said, disgruntled.
"You needed to sleep."
"So did you," he retorted.
"Indeed." A little smile flickered on the boy's face. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand as if to disguise the uncharacteristic expression of emotion. "Well. Enough. Put these on."
Selnos accepted the clothing and moved away from the fire to a place a little removed and private. He let the fabric slip down through his fingers, holding a piece up. Bewildered, he returned to the fire. "These are women's clothes," he said sheepishly. "You've given me the wrong thing."
Cousin, standing beside the kneeling boy, snickered, and Boy fetched him a quick blow on the leg. "Enough, Cousin." The boy chastened. "Yes, Selnos. You're quite right. Those are women's clothing."
"Well.." he held them out, but the boy refused to accept them.
"Put them on, Selnos," the boy said firmly. "Look, I have some myself."
"Nothing to it," Cousin laughed.
"I don't see you getting all done up like a girl," Selnos retorted.
"We decided you would make a better girl than me." Cousin snickered behind his hand. The boy slapped him again.
"Enough," the boy said, in a voice far angrier than his looked implied. "Selnos, be reasonable. Big Mouth is in there..."
"Well, if what you said was true and you think they'll kill him, and you think we should be there for his comfort, he sure as hell won't recognize us dressed up like girls."
"He'll look at the girls first," Cousin laughed. "Oh, by the gods," he said wiping his eyes. "I'm so sorry. I haven't laughed in so long, my poor cousin." He choked a little. "Really. I mean..."
"Shut up," Selnos snapped.
"Selnos. I am going in there."
"Oh, by the gods, boy," he suddenly felt sick. "What if they catch you?"
"I mean it. You said yourself we can do nothing for Big Mouth. We'd best leave him to the gods and his fate."
"I am going in," the boy said firmly, but not unkindly. "I have a duty."
"Your duty is fairly expensive," Cousin said churlishly. "For us..."
"Enough,' the boy raised his hand. "I don't require you to come, Selnos. But I am going in, and I'm going in as a girl seeking work in the kitchen. It's a reasonable ploy."
"True enough. But then you're smaller and more delicate..."
"Are you coming or not?" the voice was anything but small and delicate.
"Yes." Selnos said. He returned to the darkness and put the clothing on, and when he returned to the fireside, the boy was similarly dressed. They eyed each other critically, and the boy reached up and made an adjustment to the neck of Selnos's tunic and jacket.
"Cover your hair with this," the boy said, handing him a long scarf. Selnos looked at it impotently.
"What do I do with this?"
"Sit," the boy said shortly, and Selnos complied. The boy wound the highly patterned fabric first around his hand, then around Selnos's head. "Good enough," he said. "You're my idiot sister, alright? You're deaf or dumb or both. Both. I'll make gestures to you when I want you to do or know something, do you understand? Otherwise, don't respond to anything anyone says..."
"Why do I have to be an idiot."
"Your voice. You sound to much like a boy," Boy said quickly. "And besides, I don't want them to separate us. Never are you to leave me, do you understand?"
"Let's go," the boy slung the even-smaller bundle over his shoulder and headed down the hill toward the road. Selnos followed him, turning back for a moment. Cousin raised a hand in farewell. What if they never saw him again?
"Boy, are you sure?"
"Yes. Let's go."
They approached the gate and rang the great bell. The gatekeeper gazed curiously over the wall. "Night has come," he shouted down to them. "The gates are closed for the night. Come back in the morning."
"Yes, my Lord," the boy said softly, stepping back and cursetying as he looked up. "I know, my Lord."
He craned down as if to see what he thought was a girl better. "Eh?" he said. "What manner of creature are you?"
"Just two girls," boy said sweetly. "We've come to see employment in this city. We're from miles away, and we would have been here before the gates closed except...except there was a wolf in the woods and he worried us so that we hid in a little cave until he finally ran away, but by that time it was growing so late..." Boy daubed his eyes. "Oh, please, good man, couldn't you let me and my poor sister come in..."
"Well, let's see your sister," the man grumbled. "You're a fair enough little wench. Let's see if your mother did as well on the other.."
Smiling, Boy pulled on Selnos's arm. He pulled away and glared up at the man. The man scowled and shook his head.
"She's a fright," he scoffed. "A regular fright. How'd such a pretty thing as you get such a horror for a sister, eh?"
Boy dropped another curtsy. "You are so kind, flattering me this way, but really, good man, if you don't let us in, I don't know whatever we can do, because it's so cold tonight, and my poor sister will surely fall ill from the damp."
"Is she alright?" the man asked warily.
"She has been touched by the gods," the boy said demurely. "And can neither speak nor hear."
"I'll be. But you're alright, aren't you, eh?
"Yes, quite," the boy simpered.
"Will you give me a kiss if I let you in?"
Back in the shadows, Selnos's mouth dropped open in horror.
"Well, if you like..." the boy's voice was honeyed and Selnos felt his own stomach, empty as it was, revolt. The man disappeared from the high window and reappeared a few minutes later with a large basket, which he dropped over the side of the wall. "The door is far too heavy for me to open alone," he said. "And there will be nobody to aid me until morning. Step into the basket, though, and I'll pull you up."
"You first," boy turned back to Selnos and spoke in his regular voice. It was almost a shock to hear it.
"Yes. If he gets me first, he might forget about you."
Selnos put his leg into the tall basket. "What if..."
"He wants me, not you. Go on."
Selnos, his blood pounding, scrambled into the basket and looked up. "Don't forget," Boy said, leaning into the basket as if to adjust Selnos's gown. "You can't speak or hear."
"Oh gods," Selnos moaned. The man slipped the thick chording over a wheel and began hoisting the basket up. It jerked and swayed, slowly rising up the tall dark stone wall. When he reached the top, the man anchored the chord around a flanged piece of metal anchored in the stone and offered his hand to Selnos. At first he refused but then put his own hand timidly out. The man grasped it eager and swept an arm around Selnos's waist. "Ah. A rough little hand at that. You are an ugly creature," he purred with the hubris of one who thinks his words are not being heard or comprehended. "Ugliest wench I ever saw, even in the dark. Usually night and a few drinks improves all but the most monstrous of girls, but you, my sweet, are the worst I've ever laid eyes on. Think your pretty little sister will give me anything of value tonight, hmmm?"
Selnos furrowed his brow in horror as the man's hand crept around the back of his gown and squeezed the flesh. "Bony assed, to boot. Your mother should have been flogged for ever letting you loose on the world." He laughed and let the basket back down. "Come on, my sweet one," he said, leaning over the wall. "Come to your sweet old lover..."
Selnos felt his stomach churn again. Boy was clever at that, but how did he intend to put this filthy monster off? The basket again rose slowly and Selnos hurriedly reached over and offered his arms to the boy, all but pushing the man out of the way. The boy practically leaped into Selnos's open hands, and Selnos pulled him quickly over the top of the wall.
The man, not put off by the exuberance of the two sisters, pushed a little forward. "Come, now, girl. Where's my kiss?"
"I like to kiss," the boy said, almost eagerly, approaching the man with his arms wide. "I used to like it a lot more before I started getting these deep, running sores in my mouth. They don't feel too bad most of the time, but I have the same thing down there." He pointed to the front of his gown and the man took a little step back. "Come, we'll have a good time..."
The boy took another step toward the man, but he recoiled. "Thanks just the same," he said quickly. "Why didn't you tell me you were unclean?"
"Well, isn't everyone? I mean, in our village, everybody..."
"Enough, enough. You're pretty enough, but a murderous little bitch. Go on, get you down and leave me in peace," he said quickly, motioning them to the stairs. Without waiting to be asked twice, Selnos slipped down them quickly, but the boy turned back.
"Are you sure?' he said quickly. "I mean...you're such a nice...and handsome..."
"I'm sure," the man said quickly, backing away. "Go on with you. But don't tell anyone I let you in after the gates were closed, understand?"
"Thank you, good man," Boy said sweetly and tore down the steps after Selnos.
"You fool," Selnos hissed.
"I was only worried when it occurred to me he might have the same thing, and so not care if I was afflicted.
"Are you diseased?" Selnos asked quickly. The boy shot him a withering look and he shrugged. "Happens to a lot of people," he said sheepishly.
"Shut up. You're deaf and dumb, remember?" the boy snarled. "Act like it."
They made their way, almost by instinct, through the village to a long low building with several chimneys puffing pale smoke into the cool night air. "This is the place. Let me do the talking..."
Selnos nodded. The boy put his hand out to grasp the handle of the door, but it swung open suddenly and several young boys scurried out with buckets full of slop. They headed for the hog pens adjacent to the building. With only a brief backward look, the boy stepped into the bright and smoky building. "Pardon," he said to one of the young men while dropping a perfect curtsey. The boy looked up from plucking a limp chicken. "Can you tell me where to find the cook?"
"Over there," the boy leered. He was scrawny, dirty and missing one of his top front teeth, but he straightened up as if he was a handsome your knight and wiped his hand on his jerkin. "Hey, you new around here..."
"Yes, thank you," boy said, moving quickly. The leering boy turned his eyes on Selnos and nodded significantly. As Selnos turned away, he was almost positive the boy winked. He shuddered. The boy stopped abruptly, and Selnos nearly ran into him. The boy's hand was instnatly behind his back and in the press, Selnos grasped it. It was small, moist, bony. He squeezed it, felt the fingers squeeze back, and then, as if both overwhelmed by the closeness of some emotion, pulled back simultaneously without looking at each other.
The cook was standing beside a great vat hanging from three hooks in the fireplace. He turned slowly, his face great and shining from fat and sweat. "What's this," he growled.
The boy dropped yet another perfect curtsy. How had he learned this, Selnos wondered. "My Lord Cook," the boy began in that same soft voice, while the cook stood upright, towering over them both. He roared with laughter.
"My Lord Cook," he scoffed. "Get off with you chit. What's your business here?"
"We were told we might find employment here," Boy said. "For myself and my sister. Our father has passed onto the other world and we are left alone to fend for ourselves. If we might have some work in exchange for a bed and some food..."
"I'll be giving you a bed, my pretty one," the cook laughed. "You and your...sister...Say, what's wrong with this one?" Selnos's eyes were hard on the cook's face, his fury almost completely unmasked. Every male they had come into contact with, young and old, treated Boy as if he was nothing more than a plaything, and Selnos burned with anger. How dare they? And worst of all, Boy
Boy turned and laid his hand softly on Selnos's shoulder. "My sister is touched by the gods with an affliction that leaves her unable to hear or speak."
"Can she work?"
"Yes, my Lord Cook," Boy replied. "She is a very good worker, but we can't be separated. Only I can communicate with her."
"Really?" the cook turned from Selnos almost instantly. "You're a pretty little thing, aren't you."
Boy dropped his head a little, and the ribbons from his headwrapping fell down daintily on his chest. The cook reached out greasy fingers and moved them of his shoulder. Selnos grit his teeth. Boy merely moved back a little, pressing into Selnos. The hand was there again, and Selnos grasped it.
"Will you tell us what we are to do?" Boy asked evenly.
"Oh, certainly. Go see the old hag over by the wash buckets.. That's my wife. Be nice to her or things won't go well for you here. Listen, we'll get you a place fixed up to sleep. I'll even see that you get a few extra blankets if you're extra nice."
"We'll work just as hard as we can," Boy said slowly. "I think you'll find our work to be above reproach."
"Above reproach...what kind of language is that? You some sort of nobility?" he threw his head back and laughed. A boy scurried behind him, chasing one of the surviving chickens. With a deft move he cuffed the boy in the back of the head. "Little bastards..."
While he was abusing the boy, Boy grasped Selnos firmly and sped across the kitchen to the washing area. Again, he curtseyed and introduced himself. The woman looked tired and haggard. "Get yourselves aprons," she said. "Keep your clothes dry, and then get on in here." Within minutes, Selnos and the boys were washing mountains of dishes. The hour was extremely late, but the kitchen showed little if any signs of slowing down. Finally, the cook's wife came along side them. "Girls, put up your aprons," she said with labored cheerfulness. She was obviously overworked "Come on, now. Let's get you to bed. Four o'clock will come awfully early." She lifted up a small lamp and led them up some rickety stairs to a narrow loft, open to the kitchen area. There were pallets lined up against the wall and some were already filled with youngsters, both boys and girls, and of all ages and sizes. They laid down together on one of the narrow pallets and pulled the rough blanket over them without undressing. The boy turned his body away, so that his back was against Selnos's and Selnos wiped his forehead. The boy turned back over slowly, so that his face was next to Selnos's. There was a bony firmness to him, and yet at the same time he was soft, like his sister.
'I'm exhausted," Boy said softly, his breath soft on Selnos's face. "I didn't sleep this afternoon at all. I thought I could, but I couldn't..." He closed his eyes. "Let me sleep for a few minutes, but then we have to go find Big Mouth." He rolled again and yawned, the back of his hand over his mouth. "We really didn't come here to be kitchen girls after all, did we?"
In a moment, the boy had fallen asleep, rolling back a little and pressing against Selnos. He had equal urges to push the boy away and to hold him closer and he found himself energized with something akin to anger. He laid very still, very stiff, until at last, he couldn't stand it any more.
"Boy," he whispered. "It's time. Do you want to get up now?"
The boy sat up a little, wiping his face. "Yes," he said hoarsely. "You stay here. I'll go..."
He pulled himself stiffly from the bed. "I'll go with you," he said faintly.
"Not now. One girl they won't question, but two may attract notice.."
Selnos sat up as well. "I'm going with you," he whispered firmly. "I don't trust these men."
"Fine," Boy said shortly. "But be quiet." They slipped down the stairs and through the kitchen out the door near the washing area. The boy took a deep gulp of the fresh cold air. "Ugh. Smoke and fat and chickens and sweat. It's disgusting." He motioned Selnos quickly. "Come on. They'll keep him over here, unless I missed my mark."
They moved across the dirt yard to another building. Guards were strolling up and down outside it. "This is the place," the boy whispered. They slipped around the back and scanned the wall. Selnos looked up and pointed out a small aperture in the bricks. "Give me a boost," the boy said, and Selnos madea stirrup with his hands. The boy lightly put his foot into Selnos's hands and Selnos lifted him. He grunted almost painfully and lifted himself up toward the small hole. "I can't make it," he said, crumbling to the ground. For a moment he sat huddled against the wall. "Again," he said suddenly, and they tried it again. He fell a second time, his arms shaking visible. "Try one more time," Selnos encouraged. "Come on.." But it availed nothing and the boy picked up a handful of dirt and pebbled and dashed them against the ground. "Damn," he spat. "Damn. I'm so damned weak..."
"It's nothing," Selnos said. "Really."
"It is," he retorted hotly. Selnos looked down the wall, fumbling with the bricks. One a little above his head began crumbling when he touched it and encouraged, he took a stick and began to pry pieces of it out. "They must have mixed it wrong, or baked it too long or something," he said, feigning cheerfulness. "Come on. I've almost got it out."
The boy was right at his hand, and his fingers pushed in alongside Selnos's. In a few minutes, they had hollowed out a place and both stood on tiptoe, their heads pressed together, trying to get a view inside.
It was a yard, the floor of which was far below the level they were standing on. For a moment is seemed all was dark. The boy gave a low whistle and after a few minutes, they saw something shifting. The figure rose and came into the dim moonlight.
"Big Mouth," the boy breathed, obviously relieved. "Big Mouth..."
"Boy," he came slowly toward the wall. He had been stripped to his light under tunic and his pain was evident by the hunch of his body. "Yes..and Selnos is with me," Boy said eagerly. "Cousin is waiting just outside the gates for you, as well. Oh, Big Mouth, are you well?"
"Well enough," he looked up at them. "Well enough, my little friends." He looked around in near despair and then wrapped his arms around himself. "They're going to kill me..."
"Big Mouth, we'll do whatever we can for you. But if we fail, we'll stay here and be with you at the end," Boy said, his voice charged with emotion.
"You're a good boy," Big Mouth said. "But stay. You should run away as fast as you can from this place. I wouldn't have you remain and be caught as well."
"Tell us what to do, Big Mouth," Selnos said. "How can we help you escape?"
"I don't know," he said. "Listen, can you get me something to eat? They haven't fed me at all.
"Yes, of course," Boy said. "I should have thought to bring something. But we weren't even sure where to find you. Selnos, you stay with him, and I'll go back to the kitchen and get some food."
"I can't leave you," Selnos gasped. "What about those men?"
"I can handle them," the boy said. Be of comfort to him. Talk to him. You know how he gets when he isn't allowed to talk."
Selnos felt despair growing in his bosom. He had a duty to protect the boy, but he also had a duty to give solace to Big Mouth in what might be his final hours. The boy fixed him with a firm stare and he nodded and listened to the boy's steps recede toward the kitchen. "Big Mouth," he whispered, suddenly unaware what to say to this man which whom he had spent so many days and nights. "Big Mouth, is there anyone we should contact, if the...worst happens?"
There was a long pause. "There's nobody," he said softly. "Oh, Selnos. I've lost everything. I used to be a regular man. I really was. A farmer, in fact. Can't get much more regular than that. I had a wife and children, a nice place. But damn it, I couldn't stand it. I ran away, coward that I am. Scared to live a normal average life. I wanted to be a warrior, and so, by the gods, I was one. I saw the world, saw some great battles. But I lost everything, home, and name, everything that matters. A few years ago, I felt bad about it all. I went back to my village. I saw my wife. She had given me up for dead and married again. One of my cousins, in fact. A nice fellow. My children called him their father and there were more, many more. I went away without speaking to them, without letting them know who I was, and I've wandered ever since. There's nobody to tell of my death, Selnos. They all think I'm dead anyway. My old mother and my blessed father. He's a priest, you know."
Selnos shook his head. "I didn't know."
"Well, he is. I was training to be one." He slapped his hands against his arms. "It's cold, Selnos."
"Yes, I know. Maybe I can get something for you. A blanket..."
"Don't trouble yourself. They would know someone was here helping me, then and it wouldn't go well for you." Selnos sucked in his breath and closed his eyes. There was really nothing for him to do. Moments later, he heard the steps behind him and almost with relief realized Boy was back. He stuffed a loaf of bread and a chicken through the hole and Selnos caught them eagerly, tearing into the bread with his teeth while pulling the chicken apart with his hands.
"Blessings on you, boy," he said with a full mouth. "I can't ever think clearly when my stomach is empty. You two go on, now. Back to whatever you were doing before. What was it?
"We hired on as kitchen girls," boy said softly.
"Well, get out of this town as soon as they open the gates in the morning, do you hear me?"
They nodded silently.
"Yes," boy said.
"Yes," Selnos chimed.
"Good. May the gods bless both you little ones," he said. "And that little cousin of yours. You were good companions. Don't ever forget your Big Mouth, alright? Now go."
Boy turned from the wall and they walked away together in silence. They returned to the kithcen, climbed the stairs again and laid back down on the pallet. This time, the boy pressed himself against Selnos, his face in Selnos's shoulder. Selnos, unsure of himself, lay still for a moment, and then suddenly, he felt the boy's body shudder with sobs. He closed his arms around the thin form and held him until they both were asleep.
At first light they slipped from the city and made their way to the hill where they had left Cousin. He looked haggard, as if he hasn't slept since they left. "Are you alright?" he asked.
"Yes," Boy answered shortly. "But we failed."
"Oh, by the gods," Cousin gasped. "He's..."
"He was alive when we left him," Selnos said.
"Surely they will want to have a public display of it all," the boy said. "They surely haven't done anything to him yet." He sat against the tree and delicately arranged the folds of his gown. "Well. I've made a mess of it, haven't I?"
"It wasn't you," Selnos admitted reluctantly. Yesterday, maybe, he would have been happy to blame the boy. But today, it seemed pointless, more the will of the gods than anything else.
"Oh go on and say it. It's my fault. If I hadn't been so stupid about the bandits..."
"It's fate," Selnos said quietly. "It's just fate. It's his time, boy." He looked at the side of the boy's face and it disturbed him. He sighed. What bothered him so much? That he lay down with another boy and gave him comfort? That it felt good to be near him, to share warmth and companionship? He sighed. Surely they could be good friends. He sighed.
"Rest," the boy said.
He closed his eyes, resolved to rest only for a minute, but when he awoke to a shout, the sun was well overhead.
"Big Mouth," the boy said, and instantly, Selnos felt the body disengage from him and leap up. As his eyes opened, he saw the small boyish form throw itself into the great arms of the older man, who growled and jostled him.
"You little bastard," Big Mouth said jovially. It was suddenly like a dream. Big Mouth was standing before them, clean, wearing finer clothes than he had on before, wearing the dark embroidered scapular, and leading three horses ladened with goods.
"What happened?" the boy nearly shouted. 'Big Mouth, what happened?"
"Ahhh, a miracle. Are my boys hungry?" he said with a teasing lilt to his voice.
"Yes," Cousin said quickly. "Absolutely."
"Then come," he said with a flourish. He nodded at Selnos and boy. "You know, you two make very pretty girls. I never noticed before..."
Selnos felt himself blush deeply, but Boy merely laughed and slapped Big Mouth on the chest. "You're the one all prettied up," he said, still laughing. "You look better than us." They both nearly collapsed in paroxysm of hysterical laughter. Big Mouth drew a package from one of the horse's packs and tossed it to Selnos. "Look in there, pretty little one and see if you like it."
Glaring, Selnos undid the string and opened it. There was fresh bread and meat and a small bit of cheese and they tore into it greedily. Boy looked up from the bundle. "Big Mouth...what about you?"
"Ah...they fed me at the Lord's table, as a matter of fact."
"Shouldn't we be running about now?" Cousin asked between bites.
"Nonsense. They were quite sad to see me go. Wanted me to stay on, and maybe even marry the daughter of the Lord...who can tell?"
"Really, Big Mouth, what happened?" Selnos asked, alive with curiousity.
"Ah, well, mount up, my friends and I will tell you a wonderful story while we get the hell out of here." He laughed again and swung up into the saddle. "Quickly now. Gather up your sorry little possessions and mount up." He paused. "Wait." He pointed to Selnos and Boy. "You want to change first?"
"Yes," Boy said quickly. "Give me a minute." He grasped up his clothing and headed into the woods, returning in a few minutes in his old familiar clothing. Selnos followed at a little distance and pulled the gown over his head, having left his boyish clothes on under the women's clothing.
"You will notice there are but three horses," Big Mouth said. "I didn't want to push my luck. Come, boy, I'll take you on mine," He extended his hand and the boy reached up. Big Mouth grasped him firmly by the wrist and pulled him up in front of him.
"Now," he guided the horse to the path. "My story. After I ate, thanks to your bravery, and cunning, I stood wondering what I should do. Once my hunger had abated, the cold seemed even worse, and so I found myself walking up and down, slapping myself to stay warm. I thought, 'Big Mouth, what makes a man hot?' And I thought...hmmmm....and then I remembered work. So I reached down and picked up the biggest rock I could from the floor of the yard they were holding me in. It was a huge thing, very heavy. And I walked up and down, carrying this rock. Up and down and down and up until I was sweating like a...well, like a man carrying a gigantic rock up and down a yard." He looked down at the boy and then over at Selnos and Cousin. He grinned.
"Well, morning came, and I was covered in sweat and panting. The guards who came to get me were amazed. 'Why are you sweating in this cold?' they asked.
'Why,' and here I said the first thing that came to my mind. 'It's my fireshirt.' 'Your what?' they asked. 'My fireshirt. It's so hot, it's making me sweat like this. I would take it off, but modesty forbids.' Well, naturally they were quite curious. I was taken to a room where the Lord was waiting, and he saw me sweating and panting. 'What is it with this man?' he asked his guards and they told him about the fireshirt. He scofffed at first and said, 'Another trick, like the business with the money-letting horse.' I shook my head and finally he told me I could speak. 'Nothing like that,' I said. 'That was a fraud, pure and simple. And for that I should be punished. But this is entirely different.' Well, he leaned forward and squinted at me. 'So what about this?' he asked. 'Well, one day, I was traveling along the road and I saw an old man in need of some assistance. He had lost his horse and all his belongings when the horse ran off and he was hungry and tired. I gave him food and some clothing and put him on my own horse and took him to an inn and there got lodgings for him. 'Thank you, young man,' he said. 'Let me give you a present in thanks for your goodness.' He gave me a shirt. It was an ordinary looking shirt, but he said it was a magical shirt, that in the winter would keep even the slightest hint of cold away from your body.' He jumped up. 'I have to have that shirt,' he said and in a twinkling, he was offering me treasures and horses and food. It was a delight."
They rode throughout the day trying to make up for the time lost through their ill-fortune. It was only with difficulty that Selnos was able to watch the path ahead instead of constantly turning to keep a lookout behing in the event that Big Mouth's plan had backfire.
At length, though he relaxed and found comfort in the fact that they were making good speed toward the mountains and the completion of their original question.
By nightfall of the fourth day, the terrain had changed dramatically from what it had been even that morning. They had been traveling upward for two days, but now the horses tired more quickly since there were fewer flat places to walk. The rocks were sharper, taller. The vegetation grew sparse and what there was seemed to be stunted and darker from the difficulties it encountered from the cold and poor soils.
It was colder, as well, and the companions were hard pressed to be comfortable with what little they had. Even the warmer clothing procured by Big Mouth as his reward for the Fire Coat seemed inadequate.
They stopped for the night under some crags and lit a fire. "At least that's cheerful," the Boys said, watching the red flames lick and dance along the dark rock.
Selnos nodded quietly and poked the fire with his stick.
"Come now, Selnos, my boy," Big Mouth threw himself down alongside them and took up a small stick of his own, poking Selnos instead of the fire. Selnos furrowed his brow and batted the stick away.
"Enough," he said shortly.
"Come now. A boy your age should have a sense of humor," Big Mouth said. "You all are so serious. Nothing like boys of my generation. We had a sense of play, of playfulness. You're all business."
"Times are different now," Selnos said. Cousin, returning from the woods, shrugged and spit into the fire. It cackled.
"Our Cousin here is the only one with any sort of personality at all," Big Mouth said approvingly. "You two are miserable. If you were my servants, I'd sell the both of you. Far away. To row the galleys." He laughed, and poked at Cousin. Cousin grasped the stick from him and struck him repeatedly, albeit lightly, with it, laughing and yelling insults.
Selnos watched, for a moment in shock. Then he laughed. He caught himself quickly and looked over at Boy. He wasn't even looking at the group, but off into the night sky, where is was visible in only a slip above, between the huge rocks of the mountains.
He looked at the Boy closely, but the boy didn't notice his glance. Funny, he thought, after all this time together, he would have thought they would have grown closer, at least enough that the boy would look at him when he looked at the boy. He poked the stick down between his feet, and drew tiny patterns in the soft dirt.
"Hey, boy," Big Mouth said. "Maybe we're close enough now to talk a look at your mysterious map."
"It's not mysterious," Selnos said.
"Well, let's see it." He put out a big hand. Selnos glanced at cousin, who gave him a nod.
He put his hand into his tunic and when his fingers touched the parchment, he felt that same feeling of excitement, as if was touching the savior of his people. He drew it out and handed it to Big Mouth, suddenly embarrassed by the warmth it had drawn from his body, almost like a living thing in its own right. Big Mouth opened it carefully, held it so the light of the fire fell on it and studied it quietly. He turned and looked out over the vista to the west. Quietly, he refolded the map and shook his head. He held the folded map between two fingers.
"My young friend," he said with a heavy sadness in his voice. "Look out here with me. On your map, there are three mountains. There aren't three mountains here that are easily distinguishable. There are ten, twelve, fifteen mountains here." He swept one hand around Selnos's sagging shoulders, and the other out over the vista, pointing them out with the folded map. "Selnos. Look."
Below them, the river snaked off, a dark silver color, reflecting the moon's light. There were a lot of mountains, it was true.
"Does this look anything like your map?"
Selnos shook his head.
Big Mouth shook his head. "Well, without more information, Selnos, this is impossible. If his wounds deprived him of reason, how do you know he found the treasure at all?" He slipped the map haphazardly back into Selnos's tunic. "My boy..."
Selnos turned away, suddenly angry. "What do you mean?"
"Have you ever read a map before, Selnos?" Big Mouth said in a voice that was so gentle it felt to Selnos as if he was being slapped violently.
"What do you mean?" Selnos snapped. The others, alerted by the tone of both Selnos's and Big Mouth's voices were now attending closely. Selnos burned with humiliation. "I've seen maps." Seen, true enough. But he hadn't read one. He knew nothing of maps.
"Well, Selnos, I'm an old soldier. I know these things. A good map has some reference that you hang onto. For example, where do we pick this river up? We have no point that we know with absolutely certainty we're at.."
"What?" Selnos said.
Big Mouth shook his head and laughed. "That didn't make much sense, did it. Alright. You have nothing here that's a landmark. If there was a village on the map we could track it from there."
"There's the river..." Selnos argued.
"There's a wiggly line that starts nowhere and ends nowhere. I can't tell what we're looking at. It could be anything including a worm that got in your inkwell and walked across the parchment. These mountains mean nothing. They haven't got names or anything to distinguish them from all the other mountains."
"It's the mountain that they buried the Prince in," he argued. The moment the words had escaped his lips, he knew he had erred. But then, why bother to dissemble any more? Big Mouth would know everything soon enough.
"Well, I see that. That's what you're after isn't it?" Big Mouth threw back his head and laughed. "Oh, Selnos," he recovered a few seconds later, wiping his eyes. "Oh, Selnos. Is this what that's all about?"
Selnos, hot with embarrassment, nodded.
"Do you think that you could find that treasure with so poor a map? Do you not think that for generations better, bigger, stronger men than you have sought it? And do you think that the great Taru, in his grief for his beloved son, would leave it all out in the open for you to come and pluck up like you were stripping a field of grain?"
"I thought..." Tears burned in Selnos's eyes. "I thought..."
"Where did you get it?"
"My father drew it but my cousin, Calmos, cousin's brother, stole it from me. I drew it as best I could."
Big Mouth sighed. "Try to remember. Were there names on the first ones? Or co-ordinates? Maybe the names of stars or anything we could use to navigate more closely? Did you leave anything out?"
Selnos shook his head. "I don't think so," he said, defeated. "My father wasn't an explorer, or a sailor. He was just a laborer. He couldn't write. This was the best he could do." Suddenly, the futility of the whole quest began to seep in. It was just a continuation of the evil fortune that had befallen them years ago. He put his face in his hands. "Oh, how could I have been so foolish? My father was dying, Big Mouth. He scarcely had his wits about him half the day at that point. He said they had taken it from its original resting place and moved it to this place. It isn't even where they buried the prince anymore." He turned to Cousin "Tell me, your father told you about finding the treasure, didn't he? And moving it to another cave?"
Cousin shook his head. "He didn't mention it."
Something cold crept through Selnos's stomach. "What do you mean?"
Cousin shrugged. "I don't think they made it to the treasure. I think they were attacked somewhere south of here, maybe a full day's ride from where we are now."
"Never mind it, boy," Big Mouth said, tightening his grip around Selnos's shoulder. He held the boy's head against his chest. "Never mind it, son. You'll be fine." But Selnos knew better.
In the morning, they set off again, down the mountain path back toward the flatlands and a life, Selnos knew, that would include nothing of any more value than it had before. They had not only done nothing, they had lost ground. Before they were just under the thrall of the Vapeks. But they had hope. When he returned they would be hopeless. In the back of his mind, though, Selnos nursed the sick fear that Calmos had been successful, that he had recovered the treasure and was making his way back with his boat ladened with the prince's grave goods.
The rode for several days. Selnos felt more and more miserable. The food was scarce, which accounted for some of his distress, and he found rest elusive. Mostly he was plagued with thoughts of his own failure and not only his failure, but his childish stupidity. How could he have believed anything? It wasn't that he had been mislead. He had misled himself. He had convinced himself, based on his father's feverish words that there was a treasure, and it was obtainable. He had risked his own life and the lives of others. He had kept secrets that, had he only spoke them, he would have learned the futility of his quest.
It was the afternoon of the second day of traveling south when they heard the noise of a mounted party close by. Almost before Selnos could formulate coherent thoughts, riders crashed through the brush onto the road and they were enveloped in hostile men on great horses. In a wash of horror, he realized they were Vapeks, without a doubt members of the same band that had attacked his father and cousin. He fought from his horse, but was quickly unseated. He could see cousin, flailing his sword angrily, teeth bared, and he could still hear Big Mouth's furious shouts. Boy's horse careened past him, reins loose and trailing behind him, but Boy was not to be seen.
He waded toward a knot of men, but before he reached them, he heard Boy's hoarse shout. "Selnos," he yelled. "I'm here."
"Stay close to me," Selnos shouted. Boy backed up to him, brandishing his sword,turning to face another onslaught of blows. Selnos turned to face his new opponent. It was impossible. There was no place to go. On one side was a high bluff and on the other, a cliff. It wasn't a particularly big cliff, but only if one wasn't thinking of going over it unaided.
"How long can we hold out?" he shouted to the boy.
"A while," Boy replied, panting. The man fell at his feet, downed by Boy's lucky blow to his midsection. "Help me, here," Boy panted. They pushed the man off the path. Selnos looked quizicaly into the boy's face, dropped the man's heavy arm and letting him roll noisily down the embankment. It was actually a fairly deep chasm with a stream at the bottom of it. The enemy rolled over and over, stopping halfway down the rocking slope. It was an absurd sight and they both stared at his descent. "Maybe that was it."
"Maybe." But suddenly, they heard the sounds of shouting and a group of men pounded up over the hillock. They were fast approaching and quickly came into view. "There's too many," the boy shouted from the edge of the embankment. "We're finished."
"No!" Selnos yelled. "We're not finished yet. Jump."
"Jump," he said, poising himself.
"Won't!--Can't!" the boy protested, but Selnos grasped him under the arms around the chest. His fingers found soft flesh, and he tightened his grip and pulled. They both went over the side. The transit through the air was short-lived. Selnos hit back first on a patch of dirt and they rolled repeatedly until they reached the valley. Without hesitation and unmindful of his pain, Selnos jumped up, grabbing Boy by the back of the shirt. He dragged him along, the boy crying out in protest, splashing through the water down the stream, so that they couldn't be tracked by dogs, if the enemy had any.
Panting, he pushed the dazed boy into a cave in the rocks. "I'm sorry," he said when they came to rest.
"Really. Are you hurt?"
"No. Shut up."
"I didn't mean to..."
"Shut up anyway." The boy was adjusting his tunic. "Well, now you know."
"Now I know what?"
"You don't know?"
"Know what?" He searched the boy's face. The boy blushed deeply and closed his eyes with a quick and bitter sigh.
"Then never mind," he said shortly.
Selnos felt swollen with fury. "What are you talking about? You are the most exasperating little piece of...you better tell me what you're talking about."
The boy sat quiet, momentarily sullen. His luminous eyes filled with tears. "You just want to make me say it don't you?"
Defeated Selnos sighed. "You are so...you are worse than a woman."
"Oh, worse than one. Well, thank you and shut up."
Selnos processed slowly what had happened. They had been fighting. More enemies came. They jumped off...no, wait, he thought. Before they jumped off, he had grabbed the boy--grabbed him around the chest. Slowly it dawned on him. "Oh. Oh." he scooted away. "Oh, I'm sorry."
"Truly. I am. You're...oh my god."
"Shut up. And if you ever tell Big Mouth, I'll personally kill you." She pulled her jacket close about her and turned her face away.
He came closer again, and touched her knee. She pulled it away. "Listen, I'm so sorry. I didn't mean. I hope I didn't embarrass you, or..."
"Shut up," she snarled. "I hate you."
Suddenly, Selnos was angry again. "Listen, you. I didn't do anything to you. I don't know who you are or why you're acting like this--either like you've been acting for the last three weeks or like you're acting now." He sighed. "Alright, look. Let's just start over. What's your name?"
There was a long silence. "Girl," she said quietly.
"Well," Selnos said brightly. "It's very nice to meet you."
She folded her arms around herself. "Now what?"
"Well, now, nothing. We just try to stay alive until morning and then get out of here and go get the treasure."
She drew her knees up to her chest and hugged them. "So that's it? You aren't even curious about me? Or why I did this?"
Selnos spread his hands helplessly. "Of course I am. I don't know. What, are you a princess?"
"It's always princesses, isn't it? Regular girls aren't good enough for you, huh?" She turned her head away.
Selnos sighed. "Since we have nothing to eat, we should at least try to sleep. I'm sorry about everything that happened today." He laid down on the cold stones, but every time he closed his eyes, he felt dizzy.
There was silence for a long time, and then he felt the warm of her body next to his, as they had slept together each night since she had appeared. "Are you still awake," she asked. Her voice was husky, as if she had been crying.
"Hmm," he said.
"Do you want to know about me?"
There was another silence and then a long and heavy sigh. "My namne is Girl. I am the daughter of a laborer. He fell in love with my mother, who returned his affection, though she came from a far better family than his. My mother's father was a warrior. For a long time they were estranged, but in a few years, he realized his longing to have a happy family, with his daughter and her children outweighed his shame at her improvident marriage. He thought it amusing to teach his little grand-daughters archery and sword play. I was the best at it. Our village had developed a rivalry with another. The lord at that place wanted to assimilate our land into his own. We resisted. When a prince fell in love with the landlord's daughter, she demanded that all our girls of marriagable age be taken to her new palace to be her servants. We had no notice. Guards of the prince came and called everyone to the crossroads and read the edict. I was home, sick in bed, and never went to the crossroads. I didn't know until I heard the screaming and wailing outside that something was wrong and until my mother and father came back, heartbroken, what it was. But I was safe, at least for the time being. From that moment onward, I was dressed in the clothing of a boy, and my hair cut and tied back like a boy. But we knew it was just a matter of time before I would be betrayed and the guards would come back and fulfill their threat to slaughter anyone who dared to hide a girl. I knew I had to leave, but I was afraid to set out on my own. We have no other family anywhere else that I could turn to. So when I saw you I realized you might be my only chance to escape the village. If I could travel south, I could go to one of the bigger cities, change my clothing and get employment as a maid. But you were going north. I followed you, thinking that perhaps I would be able to reveal myself. I was very afraid--I hid in the woods. You saw me..."
"By night. In the clearing, by the spring. Alongside the river. There were several times."
"That was you?" He started.
"I thought you were a spirit." He remembered the delicate hands, the beautiful luminous ivory skin, the delicate feet and the lapping of the silk robe against her ankles.
She dropped her head and laughed lightly. "No. No spirit. Then I saw you were in trouble and I had to help you."
Selnos was thoughtful. "Dear girl," he said, "You're wrong. You are a spirit--to me, you were the beautiful spirit of the wood--of the spring." He rolled over and took her hand into his. It was begrimed and flecked with blood. She smiled sadly and pulled her hand gently from his. "No..." she breathed.
"I thought you were a nymph--a goddess, and I swear now to you, by everything in me, that I will continue to think of you that way." He laughed. "I thought I was going insane, you know. You bothered me a lot. At night I thought of the beautiful spirit and during the day I was--well, there was something about Boy that was pretty disturbing. In a way, I'm relieved."
In the near-dark, he could still tell she was smiling. "I know...but it can't change anything between us."
"Why? It changes everything."
She shook her head sadly. "No, Selnos. You see, I have almost reached my twentieth year, and you are much younger. I was betrothed to a young warrior when I was in my early teens. He courted me tenderly with beautiful gifts and poetry. I loved him beyond measure."
"Where is he now?"
"We were to be married when I reached my sixteenth birthday. But he was killed in a skirmish with (). I am like a widow, and I will never give my love to any other. So you see, no matter how fond I am of you, or you of me, my vow is to my ().
"But he is dead. He has no hold over you. You are completely free to choose anyone you would have."
"But I have chosen him. Now sleep," she said, laying her head against a rock.
He could not close his eyes. "I wish I had been killed back there on the path. I wish I had died fighting back-to-back with my brave young friend--the archer, the swordsman, the surgeon, instead of knowing that you feel nothing for me--that all this time you knew me--and you knew who you were, and yet no feeling for me grew up inside you. I have known for only an hour that you are a woman and I am beside myself with adoration for you..."
"Shh. Sleep. You are exhausted. Tomorrow you'll feel better."
But he knew better. Tomorrow he would have to try to pretend that he didn't care. But he did. Hot tears flooded his eyes, and he blinked them away. If he sniffed, he thought, it would be all over. She would know he was crying. He stiffened and tried to breathe smoothly, rhythmically, quietly.
Time passed. How long? It was impossible to tell. The cold had long ago seeped into his bones. The rocks were hard, yet he was still afaid to leave the safety of the cave. His stomach had gone beyond aching. He sat up restlessly and stared at Girl. He scooted closer until he was touching her arm with his leg. She moved and, in her sleep, drew her arm over his leg. It rested there, long and graceful, her hand draped along the side of his thigh. She stirred and pulled a little closer, like a mother would pull a child closer to her in sleep. He lifted her head off the rock and onto his lap and laid his hand gently in her hair. For now, it would have to be good enough.
* * *
...He looked down and saw the blood--it ran through the fingers he clasped to his side. Without comprehending, he looked up again and caught girl's eye. She caught his look, ran to him and dropped down on her knees cradling his head in her arms.
"Oh, no," she cried. "Oh, no. You're wounded. Oh, Selnos," she began pulling his shirt open.
Big Mouth appeared over her shoulder and winced at the sight of the wound. "It's bad. There's no hope. Say what you have to say to each other. I'll hold them off."
Girl frantically began wadding fabric and stuffing it into the wound. "You won't die," she said angrily. "I won't let you. You've gone through too much already to give up at this point. You can't die here."
"No," Selnos said faintly. "It's alright. Girl, stop. Just hold me."
"Oh," she grasped his head and held it to her chest, rocking him gently back and forth. A warm tear dropped onto his upturned face.
"Girl," the words came slowly, painfully. "I have never been happier than I am at this moment."
She let out a faint, terrible wail, like a cat, and stroked his hair, her breath coming in gasps. "No," she said. "No, you're a fool."
The rhythm of the rocking and the warmth of her body made Selnos sleepy. He suddenly couldn't remember why they were like this, nor could he see her face well. But it didn't matter any more. "Now," he said, "I have become your warrior. Can't you love me?"
A moment passed and then he felt her face very close to his, her gentle fingers touching his face, and felt her warm, petal-fragrant breath on his lips. He breathed it in with unimaginable ecstacy, then felt her silken lips on his own. And then there was no more.
* * *
"You gave us quite a scare," Big Mouth said, daubing Selnos's forehead with a damp cloth.
Selnos struggled to move his head. "Where is she?" he croaked. His mouth was parched, the skin dried together so that it was painful to move his tongue. His side hurt.
"Hush. Cousin is here, and we're all safe. You're going to be fine." Selnos opened his eyes. Big Mouth's face was close to his, his hand stroking Selnos's hair, like a father would a sick child's. But it was like a vision--a dream. Big Mouth was cleanly shaven. His neckpiece was pure white and his hair was clean and brushed. The only smell that exuded from him was warm and woody.
"Where is she?" he repeated.
"Well, it was the oddest thing." Big Mouth pulled up an ornate stool and sat down. "I assume the 'she' you're referring to is Boy. Or Girl. We were all a little worried about what was going on there until you fainted away and she told us everything. She stayed and nursed your for days. You were failing miserably and we knew you were close to death. Then, one morning, she disappeared."
"Why?" Selnos asked bitterly, trying to rise on one arm. "Why did she leave?"
"Are you hungry?" Big Mouth said, suddenly changing the subject. "Because I can get you something--rice, tea, broth, anything."
"No. Tell me."
Big Mouth sighed like a man about to set down a heavy burden. "We learned that the mighty war lord () from () was only about five miles from where we were camped. Up she jumped and went off and two days later his soldiers arrived with a surgeon. They cleaned you and Cousin up and gave us all clothing and weapons and food and brought us here. Meanwhile, his armies set about scouring the countryside, driving out the ()s."
"Is she here?"
"No. She's gone with the lord back to ()."
Selnos was incredulous. "Why?"
"Because...oh, my little friend. She has given herself to him in marriage."
Selnos writhed to sit up, but Big Mouth laid his hand on his shoulder. "Stay," he said gently. "Stay. I don't know why there's all this interest in what I thought was a scruffy little boy, but you and the war lord must know something I don't."
"Oh, Big Mouth." Selnos's mind instantly went to a brocaded bower with yellow and red silk hanging over the bed--he could see her face, as perfect as a pale pink blossom, her lips the color of coral, her shiny hair spread out on the bedsheets like an ebon halo. He could see her eyes closing gently to receive the war lord's kiss. He bolted up. "No," he shouted. "No."
"Calm down." Big Mouth cautioned. A young woman appeared at Big Mouth's shoulders. She had a pleasant, moon-shaped face, a silk gown and small white flowers woven through her braided hair. She bowed. "You are awake," she said. "That's good. Master Big Mouth, if you will excuse me, I must see to Selnos's needs." She laid a tray on the little table beside the bed. Her voice was like warm honey and melodic, her movements small, patient and graceful.
Selnos turned his face to the wall. Big Mouth squeezed his shoulder. "Be of good cheer, Selnos," he said quietly. "All is for the best. You'll see." He turned and walked away, his boots clicking on the tile floor as he receded. The girl reached up and opened the window over Selnos's bed, and propped it with a stick. The breeze was moist, warm.
"Where are we?" Selnos asked, trying to control his tears.
"(). You have been here several weeks." Her gown rustled as she sat on the edge of the bed and slowly took a bowl from the tray. "This is a rich broth," she said. "I made it myself from an ancient recipe that Lady (Girl) sent with me. It was said to give strength to the arm of wounded warriors who were deemed to be beyond hope." She offered it to him. He hesitated. Why eat? There was no hope.
"I have no desire for food. Tell me, is she really married?"
"Sip this. I will tell you nothing as long as you refuse to cooperate." She leaned close to him. She was fragrant, like a garden on a warm morning. He closed his eyes and breathed in the clean luxuriousness of her.
But she was not Girl. He ached to see her--even to see her as that dirty-faced skinny boy--to hear that imperious crackling voice, ordering everyone around, and yet everything she asked seemed now to be so reasonable, so right. It was too painful to think of her as that pool of warmth that lay beside him, night after night in the darkness.
"No," he said. "No. Let me alone. She should have let me die. I would rather have died than live to know she was taken by another."
"Why?" the girl said, gently. "Eat, and I will tell you a story. Stop eating and I will stop."
Reluctantly, he took a sip and she began to speak as if telling a story to an intractable child. "Yes. She is married. And there was cause for much rejoicing all over the land. It is a tale that will be told over and over again--mothers will tell their children for generations to come. She came to the camp of (), arriving at nightfall, dressed as a boy and carrying a sword in her hand. She demanded to see the war lord. Of course, the men, thinking she was a young boy, laughed at her. But the lord's chamberlain, knowing him to be a melancholy man, thought it might provide amusement to the Lord to see what they thought was a pompous little urchin.
"The Lord was seated at a table, in his gown preparing to go to bed and really in no mood even to be amused when she was brought into his presence. He did not even bother to look up, for his melancholy was heavy on him. For a moment she said nothing, as if in shock. And then she said, "()". His head went up, and he stared at her for a moment. Then he jumped up from the table and crossed to her. He demanded to know why she called him that. 'Do you not know me?' she said, pulling the dirty cap from her head. 'I am Girl.' A moment passed and then he sank to his knees before her and covered her feet with kisses and tears. She, too, sank to her knees and covered him, and they were together thus for a great many minutes. There was no need to speak further. He called for a priest and they were married before she had even changed into clean clothing or washed her face, for they could not bear to be parted even for a few minutes. She had been lost to him and he to her for a great many years. He had waged wars all over the world, never believing he would ever see his lady again."
"Why didn't he come back? She believed him to be dead for all those years. He should have..." Selnos said petulantly.
"Shh. He had taken a blood oath to his father that if he could not free this country he would never return, either to his homeland or to the woman he worshipped. When he was vanquished and wounded in battle, he withdrew into (), never to return."
"So what was he doing here?"
"He didn't come here. He was actually over the border in () and she found him there. He vowed to her that he would give her whatever she desired for her wedding present and she asked that he free this country from () and restore the prosperity it had enjoyed when she was a child. He agreed, having been told in a dream that he would be the leader of the mightiest army of the world and his soldiers have been marching ever since.
"They sent for women to tend to her. She asked that they be taken from the Lord ()'s palace, and the next day, his soldiers arrived and we were all taken away, except for three, who had fallen in love with men from the palace and wished to stay with their husbands. We were offered the choice of returning to our village or serving her. I chose to be with her, for ever since I was a small child, she was as kind and sweet as any sister could have been. I asked her to give me any task she wished to show my gratitude for saving us, and she kissed my cheek and told me to come here and care for you."
"Tell me how she looked." Selnos asked.
The girl smiled slowly. "She glowed. She told me to tell you that you must not be sad in this time. She is happy. The one she thought was dead has been given back to her. They will share great joy and have many children."
"I love her," he said bitterly.
"I know. But you must tell no one else, for the honor of the lady. In time, like all sorrows, you will see the wisdom of what has happened." She gently placed the spoon in the empty bowl. "You will grow stronger, and see that life is full of beauty and wonder again."
* * *
Several months passed before either Cousin or Selnos could travel. When they were well enough, they were summoned to the War Lord's palace. She did not receive them right away.
She was seated on a dias, next to a tall and stately man. Selnos didn't know who to look at first, or more. She rose and moved toward them as if conveyed on a cloud. She was in a pink gown fashioned of many layers of diaphanous material, over a white robe with embroidering around the edges and neck. He could see, without needing to study her, that the curve of her belly and the loving way she laid her hand against it bespoke motherhood within a few weeks. The tears leaped to his eyes, burning. "Oh," said. "It isn't you!"
She nodded slowly and smiled sweetly. "No, it is me. It is what I was born to be."
He looked at the man, who rose and followed her. He greeted them each as old friends. Selnos bowed to him, but he returned the bow as well. He was marvelously built, with a kind face and large, expressive eyes. He was gracious beyond anything Selnos had expected. I hate him, Selnos thought. I hate him.
"I have a favor to ask of you," Girl said, and beckoned to a young woman who had been standing beside her chair. The girl came and bowed gracefully. When she raised her face, Selnos was stunned at her beauty. Her eyes fluttered and she dropped her face modestly, while he found himself with a lopsided grin.
"Dear Selnos," she said. "You were so kind and protective of me when we were on our adventures..."
What? he thought. It was you who protected me."
"So I know that I can trust you with one more delicate task." Her hand fluttered toward the girl. "This is (). She is in need of a kind and good man to care for her. I promised that I would find her a suitable husband and, of course, you were the only person I could think of that could be worthy of her. She is beautiful, kind and industrious." She took Selnos's hand in one of hers, and ()'s hand in the other. She placed them together, and laid her hands over their joined ones.
Selnos bridled, jerking his hand, but hers was firm on his and he could not withdraw. "But, Girl," he whispered. "You cannot command me to love another."
Her eyes closed softly, and her lips curved into the slightest smile. "No, I can't. But, Selnos, I can guarantee that you will be happy if you do. She knows all about you. I have told her everything, so that she knows you almost as well as I ever did." His face showed reluctance. The girl's countenance dropped.
"Oh, now see, Selnos, what you have done. Please, you must do this for me, for you see, () is an orphan. She has no one to look after her, no home to go to, and so you must care for her, just as you have cared for others." She smiled, and in a cloud of perfume, floated to him and kissed his cheek, then kissed ()'s cheek. She drew her hand away. He was about to protest, but, to his amazement, he found he could not withdraw his hand. The small, warm hand inside his gave a little squeeze.
* * *
He stood in the dark garden staring up at the ribbon of stars in the velvet sky. There was a deep hole in his soul. And yet, there was a small voice in the back of his head, 'It's for the best.' How can that be? he raged. The facts are, he thought, that she was never with him. He met her only as a woman for a brief time. He had seen her first as a boy, then as a spirit, then, at last, as a woman playing a boy. It was true, he hardly knew her. How could he love her? What she was now was a creature so different from all the others "hers" he had known. She was graceful but stiff, like a porcelein doll--perfumed and coifed and perfectly gowned. He missed Boy--missed his company and his consternation at things that seemed so normal to everyone else. He missed teasing him, eating with him--the easy companionship they seemed to have. And yet, that wasn't her at all. She was right. What had she said, "This is me" or something like that, maybe, "This is the real me."
The fact is, maybe it was. Maybe that arrow-shooting, independent, ferocious creature was just a protection--just the armor she put on to survive. Maybe it was true--this sleek, delicate vision of fashion and manners was another creature entirely. "Damn!" he gasped. Had he been in love with Boy? As Boy? Surely not.
And what of her? Wouldn't she miss running through the woods, shooting arrows? Sleeping out of doors? Eating off the land? He kicked a stone. Probably not.
Something rustled behind him and he whirled to meet it. Little Susami was there, covering her lips with the sleeve of her gown. She was laughing. "You are not in battle now, Lord Selnos," she bowed. "I have brought you something."
"Oh?" he was flat. She opened her hand and in her palm she held a small currant and seseme candy. "For me?"
She nodded. "They're my favorite," he said, almost reluctantly. "How did you know?"
She giggled again, and he knew how she knew. "So did Lady () tell you everything about me as she said." The girl nodded and giggled again. "Oh, by the gods," he said. "Do you ever do anything but giggle?"
She shook her head coquettishly, gazing at him with rapt admiration. "Oh, by the gods," he repeated, but found himself smiling nonetheless.
Q: Why did Anthony cross the road?
A: To get to the OtherSide