The Blackgod-2#(10)
Author:J.Gregory Keyes

    XXX The Roadmark

    PERKAR drew a sharp breath and stiffened when Harka suddenly hailed.

    “What?”

    “Fifteen men at least in the rocks ahead, ” the weapon replied.

    “Within earshot?” he whispered.

    “Shouring, I would think. ”

    “Mang?”

    “How should I know? I only know they haven't certainly decided to attack you. They are waiting for someone or perhaps guarding something. ”

    Perkar noticed Hezhi staring at him. He flashed her a little smile.

    “Just pretend we're talking about something innocuous,” he said softly.

    “I thought we were,” Hezhi answered, recalling the conversation Harka had interrupted, about the merits of red cattle as opposed to brown ones.

    “There are warriors up ahead of us.”

    “They weren't there last night,” she assured him.

    “Well, now they are. Ngangata, do you hear all of this?”

    “Yes. I say we go back the way we came.”

    “Too late for that,” Perkar said. “They surely know we're here. When I give the word, all of you bolt for the cover of those trees. I don't think we're in line-of-sight for bows yet, anyway—”

    “You aren't going to fight them all by yourself,” Hezhi hissed.

    Perkar smiled weakly and reached over to touch her hand. “I don't intend to fight them at all, unless I have no choice. These are most likely my people, considering where we are. But in times of war, rash, unplanned things can happen. If they shoot too hastily at one of you, it might kill you. If they make the same mistake with me …”

    He said this with confidence he certainly did not feel. They rode in a gorge so narrow that only the merest sliver of sky lay above them. Would he heal if a boulder were pushed onto him? What if his legs were broken by some snare and they simply hacked him to pieces?

    “If they make the same mistake with me,” he went on, “the results won't be as dire. If they attack me, you can all feel free to come to my aid, though some of you should stay back to protect Hezhi.”

    “I'm not helpless,” she reminded him, not quite sharply but with considerable insistence.

    Since their time alone on the peak five days before, the two of them had gotten along well. Very well, in fact. And so he answered that with a little smile, leaning close, so that only she could easily hear him. “Is that the only stupid thing I've said lately?”

    “More or less,” she replied. “In the last few days, at least.”

    “Then you should be proud of me.”

    “Oh, I am. And be careful.”

    He nodded assurance of that, then looked over his shoulder at the others in time to catch Ngangata rolling his eyes.

    “What?” he called back at the half man.

    “They could decide to come this way at any moment. You two had better save your courting for some other time.”

    Perkar clamped his mouth on an indignant protest and dismounted. Trying not to think about what he was doing, he strode forward. The others clopped quickly into the trees.

    Despite his efforts, he felt as if he were walking through quicksand. Only the gentle pressure of his friends' surely watchful gazes kept the appearance of confidence and spring in his step.

    Fifty paces he went before a rock clattered nearby. He slowed up.

    “I've come to talk, not to fight,” he shouted.

    A pause then, and he heard some whispering in the rocks above and to his right.

    “Name yourself,” someone shouted—in his own language.

    “I am Perkar of the Clan Barku,” he returned.

    More scrambling then, and suddenly a stocky, auburn-haired man emerged from the fallen pile of rubble that leaned against the cliff face.

    “Well, then, you've got some explaining to do, for you ought to be a ghost, from what I hear.” He shook his nearly round head, and it opened into a broad grin. ”Instead you've turned Mang, it seems.”

    “You have the advantage on me,” Perkar answered. “Do I know you?”

    “No, but I've heard tell of you. My name is Morama, of the Clan Kwereshkan.”

    Perkar lifted his brows in amazement. “My mother's clan.”

    “Indeed, if you are who you say you are. And even if you aren't—” He shrugged. “—you are certainly a Cattle Person, despite those clothes, so we will welcome you.”

    “I have companions,” Perkar said.

    “Them, too, then.”

    “Two of them are Mang; the others are from farther off still.”

    To his surprise, the man nodded easily. “If you are Perkar—and I believe you to be—then we were told to expect that. You have my word and Piraku that they will not be harmed unless they attack us first.”

    “I'll bring your promise back to them, then.” He started to go but suddenly understood the full import of the man's remarks.

    “What do you mean, you were ‘told to expect that’? Who told you?”

    “My lord. He said to tell you, lama roadmark.' ” Perkar did turn back then, a faint chill troubling his spine. Karak.

    HEZHI lifted her small shoulders in a helpless shrug. “I'm not sure what I pictured,” she told Perkar. “Something like this. It looks very nice.”

    Perkar chewed his lip. She knew he was probably trying to suppress a scowl with a show of good humor. “I know it isn't your palace in Nhol. But it has to be better than a Mang yekt.” He said this last low enough that Brother Horse and Yuu'han wouldn't hear; the two warriors were nervously walking about the bare dirt of the compound.

    “That is certainly true,” Hezhi said. “I'm anxious to see the inside.”

    “That will be soon enough,” Perkar told her, dismounting. “Here comes the lord.”

    The “lord” was a rough-seeming man, tall almost to the point of being gangly, dark-haired, and as fair-skinned as Perkar. Nothing in the way he dressed signified his station to Hezhi, but she reminded herself that these were strange people with strange ways.

    Perkar's people. It was the weirdest thing to see so many men—and women—who looked like him. Though she had always understood that somewhere there were whole villages and towns full of his tribe, she had always imagined that Perkar himself was somehow extreme, the strangest of even his kind. The Mang, after all, were the only other foreign people she had met, and aside from their odd dress, they much resembled the people she had grown up among. Unconsciously, she had thought of Perkar as she thought of Tsem and Ngangata—as another singular aberration.

    These implicit notions of hers now vanished. Amongst the people of this damakuta she saw hair the light brown of Perkar's and some as black as her own. But two people had hair the same shocking white color as Ngangata's, and another had strands of what looked to be spun copper growing from his scalp. Eyes could be blue, green, or even amber in the case of the “lord” and two others she noted.

    The damakuta—well, Perkar was right; she was disappointed. When he spoke of it in Nholish, he called it a “hall.” And so she had imagined something like a hall, or a court, like the ones in the palace. But this damakuta—first of all, it was wooden. For a wooden structure it was undoubtedly grand, and it certainly had a primitive charm with its peaked roof, hand-hewn shingles, and weirdly carved posts. To be fair, she realized that Perkar had described all of this—her mind had merely translated it into her own conceptions.

    Of course, he had never mentioned the red-gold and black chickens poking about the yard, the dogs sleeping on the threshold of the damakuta, the curious and dirt-smudged children who played, more or less naked, amongst the chickens.

    But Perkar was right; for all of that, it was certainly grander than a Mang yekt.

    The “lord” approached and said something to Perkar that Hezhi did not understand. Perkar looked tired; the seams on his brow were deep with trouble, and whatever response he gave to the other man seemed uneasily given. He added something, as an afterthought, and then waved her and the rest to his side. Hezhi complied with a reluctance she didn't entirely understand. There was some quality about the tall man's eyes she found disquieting. When they arrived, however, he bowed to them slightly.

    “Pardon the thickness of Mang speech on my tongue,” he told them. “It has been more than a day since I have spoken it.”

    To Hezhi's ear there was nothing wrong with his Mang at all. Probably Brother Horse and Yuu'han could tell he was no native speaker, but she could not.

    “In any event, I am known as Sheldu Kar Kwereshkan, and welcome to my damakuta. Its rooms, its wine, its food are yours for the taking, and if aught else calls a need to you, do not hesitate to pass that request on to me or mine.” He turned to her. ”Princess, I am told you have traveled far and far to be here. Be welcome.” His amber eyes lingered on her uncomfortably, but Hezhi smiled and nodded. It was probably, after all, only the alien color of his orbs that distracted her. “Brother Horse, once known as Yushnene, your name is well known to my family. You and your nephew understand that you are under our protection here, and no harm shall come to you.”

    “Very generous,” Brother Horse replied, perhaps a bit stiffly.

    The tall lord greeted everyone else. Hezhi gazed back around the compound, wondering what the building might be like inside. She wondered if there might be a bath.

    SHE sighed, ladling more water onto the steaming rocks. The liquid danced frenetically on the porous, glowing stones, and the next breath she drew was almost unbearably hot, though delicious. Heat gripped through her muscles to her bone, and soreness seemed to ooze out of her with her sweat.

    It was like no bath she had ever known, but it would certainly serve.

    Several other women shared the sauna with her; unclothed they were more ghostly than ever, white as alabaster tinged here and there with pink. They were polite, but Hezhi suspected that they were inspecting her with the same bemused regard. Men used a separate steamhouse, she was told, and likely that was where Tsem and the rest were. Perkar and the lord had gone off to talk alone; Hezhi suspected that he would ask for more men to escort them to the mountain.

    The mountain. She'leng. She closed her eyes against the heat as another steam tornado writhed into the air. She drew up the images of her journey through the lake to that other She'leng, which she understood was in most ways the same as the one she was moving so steadily toward.

    Why must she go there corporeally? She had already been there as a spirit, but Karak insisted that she must make the journey in the flesh. She ran her finger over her scale absently. It was quiet, untroubled, and yet still it had the power to trouble her. Someone was not telling her something. She hoped it was not Perkar, and even at that thought her heart sank, a tightening in otherwise relaxed muscles. Perkar had been so good to her these past few days. She still did not know what she felt for him, exactly, but his arms around her that night had been good, comfortable. Not disgusting as with Wezh, not full of trembling, silly excitement as with Yen, but quiet, and warm, and good. If Perkar were betraying her, too…

    Unfortunately, she was forced to admit, he might be—if he thought his reason was good enough. She remembered her conversation with Ngangata. But that was before—well, she knew Perkar had some sort of feelings for her.

    Or he wanted something, very badly indeed.

    She frowned and threw more water on the rocks, reveling this time more in the sting of pain from the cloudy effervescence than in its more soothing results. No, she wouldn't think that way. She would trust Perkar, as much as she could. She had to trust someone.

    And if Perkar were plotting against her, what chance did she have?

    What a silly thought that was, she admonished herself. As if she were without power. She had never been in the habit of trusting those around her with her life; why should she start now, when she had more resources within her than ever before? Had refusing her heritage from the River broken some self-reliant part of her? These past months she had counted on people more than she ever had in her life. Yet back in Nhol, when her very existence had been in danger, it had been she who found the answers in the library, in the tunnels beneath the city. Ghan and Tsem had helped, but it been her own initiative and hunger that saved her. Her only moment of weakness had been in summoning Perkar, in wishing for a hero. She had not known that her blood would mingle with the River and bring that about. She had not consciously been at fault. But her sin had been in wishing for someone else to help her, when real experience proved again and again that she could rely only on herself, in the end.

    But Perkar had saved her then. Without him, Yen would have murdered her.

    She tried to relax back into the steam, reclaim her peace in long-deserved luxury, but it was gone. Once again, she did not know enough about her own destiny. In Nhol, the library had given her the key to surviving, a golden key of information better than any lockpick.

    Here books were of no use to her, but tonight she would invoke other ways of learning. She would have some answers before taking another step toward She'leng.

    WHEN they were alone, Perkar waited an instant, clenching and unclenching his fist—to calm down, to manage his temper, to let memory counsel him rather than stir him to useless stupidity.

    “I know you, Karak,” he snapped at last. “You cannot fool me, hiding behind the skin of a relative.”

    The seeming of Sheldu Kar Kwereshkan merely smiled and gestured for him to sit. Nearby, ajar of woti sat in a warm pot of water; for the first time in over a year, Perkar's nostrils and lungs were pleasured by its sweet scent, and his throat ached to feel the warm drink coursing down it. He almost salivated when his host poured two cups and handed one to him.

    “Piraku,” the man said simply, raising his cup. Perkar raised his own, brought the fuming drink below his nostrils, and let the warm scent of fermented barley linger there. It was woti kera, black woti, the finest and most expensive form of the beverage.

    “Please, drink,” his host insisted. “Why do you only inhale it? Drink!”

    Perkar regarded the dark fluid once more and then carefully put the cup on the floor. “I am like a ghost, Karak,” he said. “You have made me like a ghost. The things of my people are no longer real to me, only shadows that I do not deserve. Woti is the drink of a man and a warrior, and I deserve only what a ghost enjoys of woti; its vapor. Only that for the man I might have been. I will never drink woti again, not until I have corrected my past mistakes.”

    The man sighed, sipped his own woti, and sighed again. “It is a drink, Perkar,” he said. ”A thing to be savored, enjoyed—not agonized over.”

    “It is a drink for those with Piraku, and I have none. Nor, I suspect, have you.”

    “Pretty thing, I was winging through the skies above this mountain long before any thought had been given to Piraku—or to your kind at all. I probably invented woti, though I don't remember for certain.”

    “You are Karak.”

    The man took another sip of woti before answering. “If you accused the real Sheldu of having no Piraku, the two of you would be stabbing at one another with swords by now. Yes, yes, I have come to point your way. It is more than I thought would be allowed, but less than I had hoped for.”

    Perkar sucked in a retort, and when he had the control, asked, as humbly as he could, “Will you tell me now how the Changeling can be destroyed by Hezhi?”

    Karak cocked his head appraisingly. “You are learning, pretty thing. Perhaps my despair over you has been unwarranted. What an irony that would be, since it has kept me sleepless.”

    Perkar worried that he would grit his teeth into grains of salt. His anger was dissolving—or at least mixing with a bottomless terror as he remembered that Raven gone white, holding him helpless off the ground. He wanted to retort, to singe the god with his words, but he could not. And he knew—as Karak seemed to know, from the mocking sarcasm in his tone—that it was fear and not wisdom that stayed his hand and tongue.

    “Please,” he said. “We have come too far to fail. If you don't tell me what we should do—”

    “Never fear, Perkar. Some of the burden I have lifted from your shoulders. The thing I foresaw marching out from Nhol has come, and it gathers power and terror about it. It is a demon of sorts, what your folk call a Tiskawa.”

    “Life-Devourer,” Perkar muttered. “That lifts no burden from me, Karak. If such a thing stalks us—”

    “Well, you trade for this and you get that,” Karak allowed. “When the time comes, I am confident that you and Harka can stand against such a creature. What eases your load is that because of this thing and the stink of Changeling about it, its power—I may now escort you to the mountain. With such a blemish crawling through Balat, the Forest Lord will scarce take notice of us, unless we give him excessive cause to. So you see, your fears that you will not know what to do once we reach his source are unfounded. I will be along, in this guise, to help you.” He leaned up, and his voice became lighter in tone but heavier with threat. ”And only you and I are to know this, of course. The others need only know that a distant kinsman of yours and thirty of his men will ride with you on your quest.

    “What of Hezhi? She does not know that she is the crucial one. What if she refuses to go, fearing the Changeling as she does?”

    “She will go,” Karak assured him.

    “And what of my feelings on this matter?” he snarled, forcing strength into his voice despite the quivering in his limbs. “Suppose I will not help you lead her there without her consent?”

    “You have had many months to tell her if you were going to. You have not; you will not. You, too, desperately wish to have your lost Piraku back, to end the war with the Mang, to set your part in your people's affairs to rights. And if that isn't enough—” He smiled. “Draw out your blade.”

    Perkar hung his head. “I have made no move to do so. I have not threatened you.”

    “You misunderstand me,” Karak said softly. “I said draw—out—your—blade.” His command was like knife thrusts through a silk shirt.

    Numbly, Perkar took Harka out. He doesn't need me now to get her to the mountain, he realized. He can take my form. No one will know. He held his weapon up, saw with dismay the way the firelight quivered upon the metal—or, rather, the way the blade shivered in his grip.

    Karak reached out laconically and pressed his palm against Harka's tip. He pressed until a faint, golden drop of blood started. Perkar felt sweat beading on his brow. What was the Blackgod doing?

    “Close your eyes,” Karak intoned.

    “If you are to kill me, I wish to die with them open,” he answered.

    Karak rolled his own yellow orbs. “Stop being so melodramatic, you fool, and close your eyes. I only want to show you something.”

    Perkar breathed deeply, captured a breath, and held it for an instant. As he released it, he allowed his lids to meet.

    He saw a boat, broken by dying dragons. His vision was odd, as if he stood far away and high above the things he observed; yet they were all clear to him. Hiere was no doubt of what he saw. But what was happening? He watched in confusion as the great serpents became steam and vanished, as countless men and horses died in the water, from impact, from boiling alive.

    Now he saw two men he knew. One was Ghan, the old man who had contracted with him to rescue Hezhi, back in Nhol. The other was familiar, sharply so, and yet he could not precisely place from where he knew that face. And where they were seemed familiar, as well, a small river…

    Then she emerged. And as he watched what transpired then, he shrieked and he wept, and that night he did not sleep at all, but rode round and round on that same black nightmare, a mount with no mercy, that squeezed and squeezed his heart until anger crushed into fear, despair into hope, joy into pain. Crushed together until they became, at last, something different from all of those emotions, something that gleamed like the fangs of a beast or the edge of a butchers blade.

    HEZHI lay awake in bed, muffled in the lush folds of a down-batted quilt, surrounded by the faint gleam of polished wood in moonlight from a half-slatted window. She felt, now, that she had misjudged the damakuta. It was, indeed, a place of comfort and, more to the point, a place of warmth. She shared her room with three other girls, all within a few years of her own age. Though they spoke no common language, they had been kind enough to her, saw that she had plenty to eat and warm covers, and gave her a long thick woolen shirt that, though it itched and scratched, kept away the mountain chill. The food was odd: bread boiled into dumplings, a thick stew of curd and pungent cheese, some kind of roasted bird—but it was cooked and filling and warm.

    That and the sauna almost convinced her to put away her fears and sleep, and when she struggled out of the nightshirt and slipped into the enveloping softness of quilt and mattress, she very nearly surrendered. Almost asleep, drifting languidly from one terrace of cloud to the next…

    And then she awoke, to a falling terror, to the call of some nightbird strange to her.

    After that, her heart would not stop thudding, but instead picked up her earlier worries, pumped them round and round her body so that they pulsed in her throat, at her wrists, until finally she could bear it no longer and slipped from the bed into the cool night air. She paused at her shadow, cast by moonlight, turned slowly so that the Queen of Night could cast more angles of her on the floor. Her body had changed since leaving the River. Grown more … awkward, somehow. She could see the same thing in her roommates, before they fell asleep. Sisters, they were like images of each other at different ages—and in her own mind, of herself. The youngest was all smallness, limbs smooth and uniform, balanced and beautiful. The eldest girl—Numa? Perhaps fifteen years old, she looked like a woman; sweetly curved hips, breasts, symmetry. The middle girl, though, that was her. Feet, like a puppy's, too big for her body. Bumps that could not yet be called breasts but that ruined the younger harmony of her body.

    And all of that happening without any interference from gods or spirits or anything else. She shook her head at the clumsy outline on the floor and wished she had a mirror.

    And then she smiled at that. What a silly time to discover vanity.

    She found her discarded nightshirt and donned it. Unpacking her drum, she took it by the rim and, with its beater, stepped softly through the wide vertical slats of the window onto the slope of the roof. There she took in her bearings with a breath of night breeze and turned to absorb the high beauty of moonlit mountain slopes and silver-chased clouds. She padded slowly and carefully up to the roofbeam, thinking how much the cedar shingles, in this darkness, resembled the baked clay tiles she had trod so often in Nhol. Except that they smelled better, like the sauna, like the woods.

    The nightbird called again, sounding less alien now—Perkar had named it for her, a few nights ago: some sort of owl.

    Sitting on the roofbeam, she tapped softly on her drum, on the rippling surface of the lake, and ripples parted upon darkness and night as she went first into the otherworld of her heart.

    There they all awaited her: the mare, the swan, and the bull.

    “This time, you all come with me,” she said. And the bull stamped and rolled his eyes.

    TOGETHER they rushed beneath the surface of the lake, sometimes three and sometimes four figures limned in flame bruising the otherearth with the thunder of their passage. She rode with the mare, half horse as before, and she flew on the wings of the swan, and finally, when he offered for a third time, she joined the bull, felt the uncanny furnace that raged in his chest fill her with fury and unholy joy. She cackled with glee as stone shattered beneath their hooves, as they reached the edge of a precipice and flung out into space to write a line of lightning across the mauve sky.

    The instinct of the beasts drove them toward She'leng; they were born there and returned there to be reclothed, and this near they were always able to find it. In the shadows of the air, Hezhi saw what she had not seen before: the dark forms like serpents and wolves that lay in wait for the unwary, for the weak; the thousand thousand jaws and eyes of the otherworld that dared not open to her and her companions. Beyond fear and worry, she knew only fierce elation at such power, at such untouchability. She only barely remembered the concerns that had driven her to seek the mountain with her ghost self, but they all seemed unimportant now.

    Perhaps she would visit the River himself and see how he lay here. Perhaps she would challenge him here and now and have an ending to it all.

    She understood, distantly, that these were the sentiments of the bull, but she did not care; it did not trouble her.

    They struck back to earth from the sky, for solidity gave more pleasure to run upon; the mountain loomed and the lands rose, but it caused them no pause; there was no fatigue here.

    But in the midst of seeming omnipotence, something shattered the earth; it twisted beneath them and dashed them, scattered them. A sharp jolt of ecstatic fear burnt through the quicksilver joy, and Hezhi scrambled back to her feet, the bull, mare, and swan forming a rank of protection before her as something dark rose looming.

    A black lion, she was, whose mouth parted to reveal the shadows of dagger-teeth against the red soul that burned in her shell, that illumined her eyes from behind, as well, slits of flame with no pupils. A black lion the size of the bull. He lowered his horns to meet her.

    “Call back your beast,” the lioness said. “The others will not aid you.”

    Indeed, Hezhi saw with a thrill of dismay that the mare and the swan were kneeling, after their fashion. The bull himself trembled, trepidation mixed with fury.

    “Who are you?” Hezhi asked, her godlike confidence quickly evaporating.

    “We have met, you and I,” the lioness said, and she seemed to grin—at least she showed the full range of her teeth and switched her great tail behind. She spoke then, to the bull.

    “Kneel down, Hukwosha. I know you, and you know me. You know I cannot be challenged here. Be wise for your new mistress.”

    The bull regarded the lioness steadily, but Hezhi sensed a frustrated easing of muscles, as if the bull agreed, however reluctantly, with the pronouncement of the great clawed beast.

    As easily as that, lam without protectors, she thought.

    “You should remember me, and it pains me that you do not,” the lioness growled, padding closer, pausing to run her tongue on the fur of the mare—whether grooming or tasting, Hezhi could not tell. She advanced until the twin coals of her eyes were inches from Hezhi's own.

    “Let me introduce myself,” the lioness went on. “I am Paker, Apa, Bari—I have many names, but most often I am called Huntress.”

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