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

    XXIII Deep Wounds

    COWARD, coward, coward, T'esh's hooves seemed to beat on the sand of the gorge. Perkar bit down on his lip until he tasted blood.

    “Where are we going? ” Harka asked.

    “To get something that was stolen from me. To kill a thief.”

    “That's a riddle, not an answer. ”

    “You're my sword. I don't owe you any answers.”

    “You just spent five days sleeping on the threshold of Deaths damakuta. Whatever you are about, you should wait until your head is clearer. ”

    “I don't think my head is likely to get any clearer,” he snarled. “It's too much for me. I just want to be home, with my father, with my mother, tending cows. Why mel What did I do?”

    “Loosed your blood in the Stream Goddess. Swore an oath. Killed Esharu, who guarded me. Betrayed the Kapaka and your people—”

    “Stop, stop,” Perkar cried. Tears coursed down his face and streamed back toward his ears. “I know all that. I only meant…” He kicked T'esh harder, and the horse stumbled violently. Perkar's stiff legs almost failed to maintain their grip, as they jolted to a confused halt on recovery.

    “Easy, ” Harka cautioned. I can help you see in the dark, but not your horse. ”

    “She had a name!” Perkar gasped.

    “Of course she had a name. ”

    “And you know it?”

    “She was my guardian. ”

    “You never told me.”

    “ You didn Y want to know. You still don Y. ”

    “That's right,” Perkar whispered furiously. “I don't. Don't ever tell me anything else about her.”

    Reluctantly, Perkar returned T'esh to a walk, at least until they were back to more open, level ground. Soon. The eastern sky was pinkening, as well, and so, shortly, T'esh would be able to see.

    “ Where are we going? ”

    Perkar collected himself before he answered. “I'm on some sort of edge,” he answered at last. “If I fall one way, I become an animal, hiding from the sun, afraid of everything. I have to fall the other way.”

    “ Where do you fall if you fall the other way? ”

    “I don't know. But if I let my terror overtake me, I'll be worthless for anything.”

    “So, where are we going? ”

    “It's death I'm terrified of. The last men to hurt me so, to defeat me, are down there following us. If I defeat them, I defeat my fear.”

    “I doubt that. Many who bore me thought that by killing, they themselves could conquer Death. As if Death would be so pleased at them for feeding her that she would never swallow them. ”

    “I didn't say I would defeat Death, only my fear of her.”

    “This is not a rational decision. And you should know, because you made this same decision before, when you charged down upon the Huntress. You build up so much debt in your heart—and then try to discharge it by dying. But I won't let you die, and so it just builds up again. Anyway, you know that when a man dies in debt, his family must pay the balance. ”

    “Shut up. Shut up.”

    “Not rational. ”

    “Listen,” he said savagely, “it is. First of all, this is not the Huntress and an army of gods. These are five Human Beings, nothing more, and you and I have defeated twice that number. We have a long way to go to reach the mountain, and we can't worry about pursuit the whole way. We don't have enough horses to keep the pace ahead of them. Better to deal with them now before they come upon us one night.”

    “But if you happen to die in the endeavor, you will die a hero, and no one will blame you for not solving the larger problems you have created. ”

    Perkar did not answer, nor did he respond to any more of Harka's overtures, until the sword—glumly, it seemed—warned him.

    “There.”

    Without Harka Perkar might not have seen them, camped in a wash and shadowed by cottonwoods. Now, however, he caught the motion of horses and men. Probably they heard him already, and he had no intention of being coy. If he did, if he hesitated, he would never do it. Terror beat in his breast, a black bat with clawed wings, and for a moment his fingers were entirely nerveless. He drew Harka anyway.

    I'm going to die, he suddenly knew.

    “No!” he shrieked, and rode down into the wash in dim but waxing light. An arrow and then another flew by, and his fingers ached to tug on the reins, to ride out and away. But the arrows were terribly wide of their mark, and his shriek became a whoop that pretended, at least, to sound brave.

    “Something wrong here, “ Harka said.

    Perkar sensed it, too. He counted five Mang bodies, sure enough, but only one of them was moving. That one was Chuuzek, leaning heavily against the bole of a tree, bow raised awkwardly. Perkar leapt from his horse and rushed toward the thickset warrior, splashing through the shallow water of the wash. He suspected that at least some of the bodies he saw were merely bundles of clothes and the other Mang were hiding in ambush.

    Chuuzek fired once more, missed, and drew his sword barely in time to meet Perkar's attack. It was a weak parry; the Mang weapon was flung back by the force of the blow, and Harka plunged into the warrior's lower chest. Perkar withdrew the sanguine blade and quickly stepped back.

    “That for our game of Slap,” he snarled.

    “You be damned.” Chuuzek coughed raggedly. His knees folded, but oddly, he did not fall. He seemed to balance on his toes, one arm draped against the cottonwood. Perkar searched for other attackers.

    “No others, ” Harka assured him.

    “What?”

    “He was the only one, the only danger to you. ”

    Chuuzek was trying to gasp something else out. The sword fell from his fingers, and he tried to reach for it. His hand seemed to be stopped by some invisible barrier that would only allow him to reach down so far. With a sudden shock, Perkar realized that Chuuzek was lashed to the tree. He could see the cords now.

    He could also see that the man had numerous wounds other than the one Perkar had just given him. They were crudely bandaged, but the blood soaking them seemed fresh.

    “Chuuzek?” Perkar asked. “What happened here?” He moved up to cut the man's bonds.

    “No!” Chuuzek roared. He almost seemed on the verge of tears. Blood flowed freely and formed the largest pool amongst several already in the sand. “No. I deserve to die on my feet, you hear me? I deserve it.”

    “What happened?” Perkar repeated. “Are the others all dead?”

    “All dead, all but me. Knew you would come. Go away, let me die among my own, without some shez around.”

    “Why do you call me that?”

    “You are an abomination,” Chuuzek whispered. “You are the doom of us all.”

    “Who told you this? This gaan I have heard about?”

    “A drink of water. A drink of water and I will tell you.”

    Perkar found a waterskin near the remains of a fire that had not been fed in several hours. He brought the skin over to the dying man.

    Harka warned him, but he did not move quickly enough. Chuuzek's knife slid in, cold as an icicle. He felt it scrape his ribs. Perkar sucked for air and fell back onto the sand, clawing at the offending steel. He got it out with considerable pain, then lay there gasping as the day came fully to life around them.

    “We are still weak, both of us, “ Harka apologized. ”I should have known more quickly.”

    The wound had stopped bleeding, though it still hurt mightily.

    “Chuuzek …” He rolled over, so that he could see the other man. Chuuzek's eyes were already glazed. The knife, coated in Perkar's blood, stood point first in the sand.

    I murdered him, Perkar thought grimly.

    He had just managed, shakily, to stand, when he heard horses arriving. He retrieved Harka, lying an armspan from where he fell.

    “Not enemies, ” the sword soothed him. His hand was shaking.

    Harka, of course, was right. The riders who came down into the wash were Ngangata and Yuu'han.

    PERKAR was not greatly surprised to find that Chuuzek had either lied or been wrong. Three of the other Mang were dead, their throats torn open. One remained alive, however; the young man, Moss. He wasn't even bleeding, though there was a nasty bruise just beginning to purple on his forehead. He was spattered with a black fluid that Perkar recognized.

    “That's godblood,” he told Ngangata. “Godblood is either black or gold, in my experience.”

    “Something attacked them,” Yuu'han muttered. He was staring suspiciously at Chuuzek.

    “I killed him,” Perkar admitted. “He had a bow. I didn't know he was wounded already.”

    Yuu'han shrugged. “He was brave, but his notions of honor were twisted. And at least he got to stab you.”

    Perkar almost retorted, but then he took Yuu'han's meaning. When he stabbed Chuuzek, it had been murder, plain and straight. The Mang had been in no condition to fight him. But he probably would have died anyway; he had strapped himself to the tree so that he would die standing up, with some slight chance to kill another enemy. Perkar—unintentionally—had given him that last opportunity. Perhaps Chuuzek had even died believing he had killed Perkar. Perkar felt a brief smile play on his lips.

    His humor was short-lived. He had proved nothing to himself. There had been no battle, no real test of his courage. Indeed, he had killed an already dying man and then been duped into being stabbed. If the knife had been witched as the Slap paddle had been, he might be dead now despite it all.

    Ngangata shot Yuu'han an irritated glance but did not speak to the Mang's comment. Instead, the half man followed the speckles of black blood across the wash.

    “They wounded this, too, whatever it was. Perhaps that explains why two of them survived.”

    “Chuuzek must have wounded it before it could kill Moss. The others died in their sleep, I think.”

    Perkar joined Ngangata and stared intently at the trail himself. “What sort of footprints?”

    “They look Human.”

    Perkar nodded. “That's no surprise. Gods take their mortal forms from the blood and bone of mortal beings. Most are said to appear Human, more or less.”

    “Should we follow?”

    It took Perkar a moment to register that Ngangata was actually asking him what to do. “Maybe,” he answered. “It could be the Blackgod, couldn't it? 'Helping' us?”

    “It could,” Ngangata replied, his voice empty of inflection.

    Perkar followed the trail of dark fluid with his gaze, thinking.He remembered the hideous strength of the Crow God, the casually summoned lightning. He remembered Good Thief's doom, and how easily the fickle Blackgod might have chosen Ngangata instead. “Whatever it was—the Blackgod or some local spirit—it has done us a favor,” Perkar finally said, trying to keep his voice even. It felt shaky, and he seemed to have trouble backing it with breath. “I think we should leave here now, before whatever it is turns on us.”

    “Good,” Ngangata replied, heat creeping into his voice. “I wanted to see if you had even that much sense. If you had chosen otherwise, I would have clubbed you unconscious, magic sword or no. What kind of stupid idea came into your head and sent you down here alone? Playing the hero again? Haven't you learned your lesson by now?”

    Perkar knew he couldn't explain to his friend, but he owed him something. He raised his hands—almost as if in defense—and tried to think of something to say.

    “No,” Ngangata snapped. “I don't want to hear it. You always think you're right, think you know exactly what you should do. Challenge me to a fistfight because I didn't know my place. Attack the Huntress. Leave me on the island with Brother Horse, because you knew it would be better for me—”

    “You were dying,'” Perkar said, faltering beneath the rush of Ngangata's words.

    “Always you know what to do, and always you are wrong. Then you say ‘I surely was wrong that time, but now I know better, and next time I'll be right.’ You stupid cowherd.”

    Perkar flushed with shame. He wanted to tell Ngangata that it wasn't at all like that this time, that he hadn't thought he was right, he had just wanted not to be terrified. He had needed to do something. But he couldn't say that. What came out instead was quavering, uncertain sounding.

    “I just… you've all been fighting my fights for me while I lay on my back. I wanted to do something myself.” Not a lie, not as unspeakable as the truth. He might have been able to tell Ngangata, but Yuu'han was there, judging him with that hard Mang judgment, and he simply could not.

    Ngangata just frowned and started for his horse, his ration of words apparently spent for the day.

    “Wait,” Perkar said. “I wasn't wrong about leaving you on the island. I was right about that. You would have died on the River. If you hadn't, you would have died when the soldiers attacked me in Nhol. I didn't want you dead.”

    “ You don yt want, ” Ngangata snarled, spinning on his heel. “You don't want this, you don't want that. Maybe I don't want to see you killed doing some damn stupid thing like this, did you ever, ever consider that? And maybe Hezhi and Brother Horse don't want you killed, or they wouldn't have risked their lives in the otherworld to get your stupid ass back.”

    He strode violently over to Perkar and, quick as a snake striking, slapped him so hard that he rocked back on his heels and sat down, violently, his teeth snapping with the impact.

    “Now get on your damn horse and ride back up the hill with us and start using your head for more than a battering ram.”

    So saying, he leapt upon his stallion, gave heel to it, and in a flurry of dust was gone, leaving Perkar, blinking, on the ground watching him depart.

    Yuu'han regarded him placidly, then offered him a hand up.

    “If it's any comfort,” Yuu'han confided, “I don't much care if you five or die. I say you should feel free to ride down on our enemies anytime the mood strikes you.”

    “Thanks,” Perkar said, spitting blood onto the warming sand.

    “We should take Moss with us,” Yuu'han added. “Could you help me tie him to one of these horses?”

    “Yes, of course.” Perkar went to get one of the horses standing about.

    “You didn't warn me that he was going to hit me,” Perkar complained to Harka.

    No, I most certainly did not, ” the sword replied.

    THEY broke camp when Ngangata and Yuu'han returned with Perkar and Moss. The latter was unconscious, tied unceremoniously across the saddle of a horse Hezhi had never seen before. When she saw this, she expected to behold Perkar strutting about, full of his brave deed, and she was prepared to give him the tongue-lashing he deserved. Instead, she saw him looking more ashamed and uncertain than ever.

    He wouldn't speak to her, other than to mumble a few apologies and to make certain she understood he was thankful to her for saving him from the Breath Feasting. After a few moments of strained silence, she kneed her horse up ahead to where Ngangata rode vanguard. There she pried the story from the half man, who doled it out in short, clipped phrases.

    “What's wrong with him, though?“ Hezhi asked. ”Wasn't it better that he didn't have to fight?”

    Ngangata lifted his odd, square shoulders. “I don't know. Sometimes I despair of ever understanding him.”

    “You've known him for a long time.”

    “No. Only just over a year.”

    “Really?” Hezhi thought she understood the general outline of Perkar's story—what Ngangata jokingly called the “Song of Perkar.” But this part of the tale she did not know.

    “How did you meet?”

    “We were both members of the expedition to Balat. Of the five of us, only we two survived.”

    “It must have made you close. You seem like brothers.”

    That seemed to amuse Ngangata. “The first time we met we insulted each other. It may have been my fault. Later on we fought—with our fists, not with swords. That was his fault. After that…” He trailed off, but after a moment's thought picked up the thread and sewed it a bit further. ”There is some good in him, you know, of a peculiar kind. Being as I am, I act as a sort of sieve that most people flow through, if you know what I mean. Perkar nearly went through, but in the end, he stayed. Whenever that happens, I count the person a friend, because it happens so rarely that I can't afford to ignore it.”

    “You mean most people are repelled by your appearance.”

    He shrugged. I am repelled by it. There is nothing I hate more than a mirror or a clear pool of water. Well… maybe there are things I hate more, but I dislike seeing myself.”

    “I don't find you ugly,” Hezhi said.

    “You stopped in a different sieve long ago—your friend Tsem. So I would count you a friend, were we to know each other better. But you would never marry me, or bear my children.”

    That startled her. “I haven't—”

    He waved with the back of his hand. “I only wanted to show you how alien the thought is to you. I have never given any thought to courting you.”

    Hezhi bit her lip. “Or anyone, I guess.”

    “Or anyone,” he confirmed.

    “Then you should, because I think someone would marry you, Ngangata. You are a good man, thoughtful. There must be a woman who wouldn't fall through the sieve.”

    He smiled. “Show me this woman and I will court her,” he allowed. “I am not as fatalistic as Perkar. I take what opportunities come my way and do not spend time regretting those that do not. Show me such a woman, and I will take my opportunity.”

    “I'll keep my eyes open,” Hezhi said. “But you should, too.” She glanced at him and then away to the increasingly hilly land. “We haven't spoken very often,” she said.

    “No.”

    “I must ask you a question. I must ask you to answer it truly or not at all.”

    Ngangata raised his thick brows and waited.

    “Can I trust Perkar?”

    The half man pursed his lips and rode silently for so long that Hezhi believed he had taken the offered option not to answer at all. But finally he nodded.

    “It depends on what you mean. You can trust Perkar to always try to do the right thing. That doesn't mean that you yourself can trust him. In the end perhaps you can, because the people he knows are dearer to him than Perkar himself comprehends. He believes, for instance, that it is the failure of the expedition to Balat that gnaws most at him—the fact that he let his people down. And he does feel that. But what strikes him most deeply is that the actual people who trusted him died: Apad, Eruka, his king. Now he struggles to right those wrongs, and it may blind him to certain things. Do you understand the distinction? Perkar believes in the pursuit of higher causes. That is why I call him a 'hero.' But when he focuses his vision too narrowly on saving the world, he can make terrible mistakes, and it is usually those close to him who suffer for it. In that way he is very dangerous, Hezhi. You should be careful of Perkar. He means no harm, but people die in his wake, nevertheless.”

    “I think I knew that. His rescue of me was for some 'higher purpose.' ”

    “Yes.”

    Hezhi shifted uncomfortably in her saddle. That seemed to be the end of the discussion about Perkar, though it only served to confirm what she already suspected. Unexpectedly, she found that she enjoyed speaking with the halfling—and was not yet ready to end their conversation. “What do you know about dreams?” she was surprised to hear herself ask.

    “Not much. I do not have them. If I do, I do not remember them.”

    “How odd. I thought everyone dreamed.”

    “I have had hallucinations, when I was fevered. But I've never had a dream or a vision.”

    “My father has dreams,” Hezhi said. “All of those of Royal Blood have them. The River sends them so that we may know his will.”

    “Have you had such a dream?”

    “Something like that,” she replied cautiously.

    “You should speak to Brother Horse. He knows more of this than anyone here—as I'm sure you are aware.”

    “Yes, and I'll speak to him eventually. But I want you to know, too. In time it may become important.”

    “I'm flattered,” the half man said, and he did not sound sarcastic.

    “First of all, I don't think I got the dream from the River—not directly. I believe that if he could send me a dream, he would do more than that. I believe that I really am beyond his reach. But I think he sent his message through someone else.”

    “Who?”

    “This Mang gaan the Blackgod told you about, the one who sent Moss and Chuuzek, whose men attacked you and Perkar earlier. He has found a way into my dreams. He tells me lies.”

    “What lies?”

    “That part isn't important. I just thought… if he can send dreams to me, he might be able to do more. I know just enough about sorcery to suspect that.” She looked down uncomfortably. “What I'm saying is, perhaps I can't be trusted, either. Perkar nearly slew me once, and for good reason. A dreadful power sleeps in me, Ngangata. I just want you to know that I should be watched, that's all.”

    Ngangata smiled. “I trust very little about the world,” he said. “Perkar is perhaps my best—if only—friend, and as you know, I don't trust him. Inside of you, however, there is a—I'm not good with words—a kind of glimmer. Or maybe a truth. Something I trust, anyway.” He looked away, plainly embarrassed.

    “I hope you're right,” Hezhi said.

    “Well, I have been wrong before,” Ngangata admitted. “And believe me, I never rely entirely upon such instincts. I will watch you—even more closely than I have.”

    “Thank you.”

    “No need for that,” Ngangata assured her.

    THEY traveled steadily until noon, and then the men conferred and called a halt. Brother Horse and the other Mang were essentially convinced that whatever creature had dispatched Chuuzek's party was not following them, guessing that it was a territorial rather than a roaming god. Perkar diffidently agreed. Moss had awakened, and everyone wanted to question him.

    But it was Moss who asked the first question. “Chuuzek? What has become of my cousins?”

    Moss sat on the ground, weaponless, hands tied in front of him. His feet were hobbled with a length of rope that would not hinder him much walking but that would prove inconvenient if he attempted to run. Brother Horse, Perkar, and Ngangata stood over him.

    “Don't you know?”

    “I don't remember anything much. Something struck my head as I was waking—” He fingered the bruise tentatively.

    “Your cousins are dead. Something bleeding black blood killed them. Do you know what it was?”

    “No,” he replied, but his eyes flicked to Hezhi, and she saw something there that made her doubt his answer.

    “Why were you following us?” Perkar demanded.

    “You know,” Moss answered sullenly.

    “I know only that some shaman sent you to kidnap Hezhi. I don't know any more than that.”

    “That is the only thing you have need to know.”

    Brother Horse crouched, creakily, before the boy. “Moss, we want to know this thing your cousins died for. They died well; one tied himself to a tree, and whatever god they battled, they sent it away wounded.”

    Moss looked a bit triumphant at that but said nothing. Nor did he reply to any of their other questions. Hezhi was afraid they would strike or torture him, but after a time, they merely stopped in frustration; Ngangata, Perkar, and Raincaster went to hunt, Brother Horse retreated to tend the fire, Yuu'han watched Moss from where he whittled at a cottonwood branch. After a moment, Hezhi stood, brushed at her dress, and walked over to the green-eyed Mang. Heen roused himself to accompany her—the old dog seemed to have appointed himself her guardian as well as Brother Horse's.

    “May I talk to you, Moss?”

    “You may.”

    “You tried to convince me to go with you before. You said I could bring peace.”

    “I did tell you that.”

    She nodded. “I know you believe that to be true. There is much I don't know about you, Moss. I know even less about this gaan who sent you to gather me up. I only know that you aren't much older than I am and you can't be much wiser.”

    He started to interrupt her, but she held up her hand. “Listen to me, please. I want to say something to you, while I am not too angry to say it.”

    He subsided then and she continued. “When I was younger than I am now, back in Nhol, my best friend vanished. I looked everywhere for him, but I knew where he was all along. The priests took him away and put him in a dark place. They did this because he bore the blood of the River—the one you call the Changeling—and because that blood had marked him. I understood then that if his blood marked me, I would be taken away, too.”

    “That would have been a shame,” Moss said. “A shame to put such a lovely woman somewhere dark.”

    Hezhi felt some bitterness creep into her voice and wished she could keep it out somehow. She really wanted Moss to understand her, not to raise his hackles. “Some have called me pretty—some, perhaps, because they thought it, others merely to flatter me. But if the Royal Blood had worked long in me, no one would have thought me pretty. My relatives so marked all became monsters. Do you want to see my mark?”

    “Very much.”

    She pushed up her sleeve and revealed the single iridescent scale. “That was only the beginning. When I knew for sure that the change was coming to me, I ran. All of these people you see around me helped me run. They have all suffered for it, and many died because of my selfish desire to live. Now your gaan sends people after me, and more men are dying, and I want it to stop. But I will never go back to the River, because no matter what you have been told, I have felt his blood working in me. I know what I would do should he fill me up. He is tricking your shaman, trying to bring me to him. Your shaman in turn tricks you, and he sends me dreams, pretending to offer me my heart's desire. But I know what is best, because the River has been in me. People die now, but it is as nothing compared to what will happen if you return me to the Changeling. I will be forced to end my own life, if that happens, and I don't want to do that. But if men like you—good men, I believe, in your hearts—continue to die because of me …” Now she was weeping. ”Why doesn't it stop? Why don't you all just stop it?”

    Moss spoke very gently, and his eyes were kind. “The world can be seen from so many different angles. Each of us is born seeing the world in a different way, and each moment we live shapes our eyes and hearts differently. I believe everything you say, Princess. You have my sympathy, and I am sorry to have caused you pain. But I still must place my duty first, and now I have the blood of my cousins to avenge, as well. I will think on what you told me, but I will not lie to you; my way is clear.”

    Hezhi felt anger spark, but she pushed an acrimonious retort away.

    “I don't expect anything from you,” she said evenly. “I just wanted you to know”

    Moss sighed. “And now I know.”

    As far as Hezhi could tell, there was nothing left to say. She felt tired, drained. Her vision had robbed her of most of the night's rest, and she wished she could take a nap, at least.

    But there were two things she still needed to do. She had to speak to Brother Horse about her dream—but not now. Her talk with Moss had worn her out on that subject. There was something else, a nagging in her heart. She needed to talk to Tsem.

    He had been moping for days. It troubled her that they had not spoken, but she was embarrassed, both by the Giant's morose self-pity and by her own reaction to it. Was this what growing up consisted of? Discovering that what you had always believed to be towers of eternal stone were really only shoddy fa?ades? She had believed that her childhood had nurtured few illusions, but the feeling that Tsem was as unbreakable—in spirit, at least—as the iron he was named for had always been with her.

    Now it had been swept away in wind, and what was left for her was someone who needed her comfort.

    In all of her life, she had never been the one to give comfort. She had always sought it. It seemed a chore that she was probably not capable of. But she loved Tsem, and she had to try.

    Making certain that Yuu'han was still watching Moss, she went to find her old servant, unhappy at how much she dreaded finding him.

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