The Blackgod-2#(4)
Author:J.Gregory Keyes

    XXV Falling Skye

    THE shadow surprised Perkar when it settled upon him. Not because he hadn't heard the methodical progress of someone climbing up the broken, stony face of the mesa; he had known for some time someone was coming up, presumably to see him. What amazed him was that the abundant silhouette could be cast only by Tsem, even with the cooperation of the westering light to lengthen it. Tsem, or perhaps some gigantic beast—but then, Harka would warn him of the latter.

    Then again, remembering that Harka had been less than perfectly reliable of late, he turned to see from what shoulders the dark umbra fell.

    It was, in fact, Tsem. Perkar's face must have registered his amazement, for Tsem held out a hand signaling that, once he ceased wheezing and panting, he would explain what he wanted.

    That took a few moments. Despite the coolness of the afternoon, the half Giant was sweating profusely; a faint breeze mingled pungent man-smell with the desiccated tang of juniper, sage, and yarrow.

    “My mother's people,” the half Giant finally managed to gasp, “Giants must live on soft, flat land. Surely we were not made for climbing up and down mountains.”

    Perkar stretched his lips in a grin he did not feel. He had volunteered for the watch up on the mesa to be alone; he had much thinking to do, and he knew he was poor company. Still, he had a guarded respect—admiration even—for the half Giant, although time and circumstances had allowed them only the most cursory of relationships. If this were some overture on Tsem's part, it couldn't hurt to appear a bit brighter, though he would much prefer to sulk. His father always said that a friendship missed was like an important trail passed by, and Perkar felt that he had already passed by many such trails in his short life. Of late, his friends had shown a tendency to die, and he was left, really, with only Ngangata and perhaps Hezhi, neither of whom seemed to be speaking to him at the moment—with reason. He could use another friend.

    So he smiled his difficult smile and waved at the mesa edge, and said, to be social, “This isn't much of a mountain, either. Really just a ridge.” He turned his gesture beyond, jabbing an index finger toward a high line of peaks to the northeast. 'Those are mountains. Be happy we skirted around them.”

    “I am,” Tsem assured him, mopping his brow and looking around. “Nice up here, though. It reminds me of a place Hezhi and I used to go.”

    “It does?” Perkar could hardly imagine that. What he had seen of Nhol had been impressive, and from a sufficient distance its hills and high walls of stone had a certain recondite beauty; but there was nothing of the Nhol he had seen that suggested the crumbling stone slope of the plateau they sat upon or the verdant, stream-etched plain five hundred paces below where Hezhi and the others were camped.

    “In a way,” Tsem clarified. “It's like being up on the roof of the palace, looking out over the city. The way the light shines, the smell. And there was a courtyard with flowers like this.” He waved a sausage-fingered hand at the white yarrow that blazed over the plateau, blushed pink by the sunset—an ethereal carpet of blossoms ruffling knee-high in an imperceptible breeze. They shone in vivid contrast to the stark black skeletons of ancient hills that bounded the tableland on its south and west.

    “I never saw any sights like that in Nhol,” Perkar confessed. “My time there was short.”

    “And spent mostly on the docks. I know.” Tsem's massive features crushed themselves into a thoughtful frown. “I came up to ask you a favor,” he blurted suddenly.

    “Ask,” Perkar said. “Although at the moment, I wonder what use I can be to you.”

    “Oh, but you can,” Tsem said. He stopped, grinned. “It is so good that you ken my language. Even Hezhi speaks it only when we are alone, and lately not even then. She wants me to learn Mang.” He looked embarrassed. ”I'm not very good at it.”

    Perkar nodded understanding. “Neither am I, friend. I speak your language because the River taught it to me somehow. Or maybe Hezhi did, without knowing. But my Mang is at least as bad as yours.”

    “Me bet we talk to each other good in Mang,” Tsem stammered in his broken version of the tongue.

    “Yes. We speak good together,” Perkar answered in kind, and they both smiled. Perkar felt, once again, a warmness for the Giant that was difficult to explain; Tsem had threatened his life when they first met and had been at best brusque since then. But something about the quality of his loyalty to Hezhi, his genuine selfless love, demanded affection from Perkar. When the River transformed her, only Tsem had prevented Perkar from killing Hezhi, not by stopping him physically but merely by being there, by protecting her with his own wounded body. To kill Hezhi, Perkar would have had to kill Tsem—and he had been unable to do it. Perhaps because, in so many ways, the Giant was like Ngangata. Not just because they were both only half Human, but because they shared fiercely good hearts.

    He had never gotten to know Tsem, though. Injured in the escape from Nhol, the half Giant had been unable to accompany the Mang to the high country for autumn and winter hunting. And of course Perkar himself had been injured immediately on his return to the lowland camp.

    “You almost made me laugh,” he said, still grinning from their exchange of garbled Mang. “That's more than anyone else has done for my mood lately. Ask your favor.”

    “I think you should know something first,” Tsem said solemnly, and the smile fled from his face. “Something that shames me. When you were ill, I advised Hezhi to let you be, to give you up for dead.”

    Perkar nodded slowly, narrowing his eyes, but did not interrupt as Tsem pushed on with his admission, eyes focused firmly on a yarrow plant two handspans away.

    “She's already been through so much,” he explained. “I understood that she would have to do this thing with the drum—this thing I don't understand, only I understand how dangerous it is. I couldn't bear the thought that she would—”

    “I understand,” Perkar said. “You have nothing to explain. She didn't owe me anything.”

    “She thinks she does. Maybe she does. But that's beside the point, because I owe you. You saved her when I couldn't. You saved us both.” He frowned again, chewed his lip. ”That really made me mad.”

    Perkar did chuckle then, though it was a bitter humor. “I think I understand that, too.”

    “I haven't said the worst,” the half Giant growled. “After I got hurt, I just lay there, surrounded by these people speaking nonsense. I guess I had fun with a few of the women—” He shrugged. “That's nothing. But Hezhi left, went off with you. I thought T can't save her anymore and I can't keep her company.' And I figured you two would get married and that it would only get worse. And I couldn't tell Hezhi any of this, you see?”

    “Married?” Perkar said, incredulous. “Whatever gave you the idea we were courting?”

    Tsem shrugged his mammoth shoulders helplessly. “I don't know. Nothing. But she cares for you, the way she has never cared for anyone except me and Qey and Ghan. It scared me. And when I thought she might risk her life for you, that scared me more than anything.”

    “Because you love her.”

    “No, that's the worst thing—the very worst. Because I thought 'What will I do out here without herT Not 'What will she do without meT ”

    Perkar regarded the Giant's agonized face for a long moment. “Does she know any of this?” he asked quietly.

    “She knows I'm useless out here. She thinks I'm pathetic. She tries hard to talk her way around it, but she does. She looks to the rest of you for help and strength, but for me she only feels pity. And she's right. I am no use to any of you out here. Anywhere but in Nhol—in the palace. Such a little place; it was easy to be strong there, Perkar.”

    Perkar honestly did not believe he had ever seen such a doleful expression. Like everything about him, the Giant's sorrow was huge.

    “And so what can I do for you, my friend?” Perkar asked gently.

    “Teach me to fight with something other than my fists. Teach me to be useful again. Teach me about this country.”

    “What? I don't know this country. It isn't my home. And I'm no great warrior.”

    “I've seen you fight,” Tsem said. “If you don't want to help…”

    “Wait, wait, I just want you to understand. I fight well because I carry a godblade, not because of my own skill.”

    “I don't understand. It's your hands that carry it.”

    “True enough. But Harka cuts through ordinary steel, helps me know where to strike—and if I make a mistake and get stabbed, Harka heals me.”

    “But you know how to use a sword, or none of that would do you much good.”

    “True enough. I'm not a bad swordsman, Tsem, just not as good as you think. And as a teacher … well, I've never done that at all”

    “But you could teach me,” Tsem persevered.

    “Why me?” Perkar asked, suddenly suspicious. “Why me and not Ngangata, Yuu'han, or Raincaster? Because I'm the killer! Because Perkar is the one you just point toward the enemy and say 'kill that,' like some kind o?houndV He tried to keep his frustration in check, but it was spilling out. Tsem thought of himself as useless. Was that better than being thought of as having only one use? And what good to be a killer if one were suddenly afraid of even that?

    Tsem didn't answer the outburst, but his brows rose high on his forehead.

    “Answer me,” Perkar demanded again. “Why me?”

    Tsem made a strange face—Perkar could not tell whether it was anger, frustration, or hopelessness—but then the wide lips parted from champed white teeth in what seemed a furious snarl. But it wasn't; Tsem was urgently suppressing a smile. A giggle! Perkar's anger evaporated as quickly as it had come.

    “What? What are you laughing at?”

    “I shouldn't laugh,” Tsem said, hand across his chest, trying to hold in a series of deep, growling snickers. “But you looked so serious …”

    Perkar watched him in absolute befuddlement, but the Giant's laughter, however inexplicable, made him feel foolish, and more, he found himself smiling, as well. “What?” he demanded again.

    “Well, it's only that I chose you because you speak Nholish, that's all.” And then he interrupted himself with a real guffaw. It sounded ridiculous coming from the man-mountain, and then Perkar could help himself no longer, joining Tsem in his laughter.

    “WELL, a sword isn't for you,” Perkar said later, when they began discussing the matter again.

    “No?”

    “No. First of all, we don't have one to spare, certainly not one that would fit your grip. Second, with your strength, you would probably break any blade you used. No, you would be an axe-man.”

    “My mother carried an axe.”

    “Your mother was a warrior?”

    “She was one of the emperor's guards. He usually has full-blooded Giants in his elite.”

    “But you weren't trained to fight?”

    “Just with my hands. Wrestling and boxing. I think they were afraid to teach me to use steel.”

    “I can see why. I would hate to have a slave three times my size that was armed.”

    “No, that wasn't it. My mother was larger than I, and the men of her people are larger still. But they aren't… they aren't very bright. It would never occur to them to try to fight or run away, as long as they are well fed and treated with some respect. But I was an experiment. The emperor ordered my mother to mate with a Human man. I'm told that it had been done fairly often, but that I was the first successful cross. The emperor thought I might be more intelligent than my mother's folk, and so he never had me trained in weapons. He kept me at court for many years, as a curiosity, but then I suppose he grew bored with me and sent me to guard his daughter.”

    “They crossed your parents like cattle? That's disgusting.”

    Tsem looked thoughtful. “It's no different from an arranged marriage, is it? Your folk do that, I'm told.”

    “Well, occasionally, but that's different,” Perkar said, taken aback by the comparison.

    “Why?”

    “Well, because marriages are arranged for property, inheritance, or alliance. Not to create hybrid stock!”

    Tsem grunted. “I am not as smart as a full-blooded Human, so you will pardon me if I don't see an enormous difference. Anyway, in Nhol, marriages are arranged to concentrate the Blood Royal.”

    “I…” Perkar frowned, shook his head. “Anyway, to get back to our real problem: we don't have an axe, either. No, I think for someone with your size and strength, and given our situation, we shall have to find a club for you.”

    “You mean a big stick?”

    “I mean a wooden mace. A good, heavy branch or sapling with a solid, hard knot on one end. We can work it down with a knife until it's right.” He nodded thoughtfully. ”We could make a spear, too. And a shield!”

    “Do I really need a shield?”

    Perkar reached over and poked him in the ugly scar across his belly, where the assassin's sword had nearly gutted him. “Yes. You can hold the shield in front of you thus—” He hopped to his feet and turned so that only his left side faced Tsem, left arm crooked as if bearing a shield. “—and you strike over it, thus” And he cocked an imaginary club back to his shoulder, then swung it down past his ear and over the equally fictitious shield. “With your reach, no one could get close enough to you to fight around your shield or through it. With a shield and a club, you will be more than a match for most warriors, even without a lot of training.”

    “But you will train me?”

    Perkar nodded, oddly elated. “Yes.”

    “Good. I will never counsel Hezhi to leave you for dead again. When do we make my club?”

    “First we have to find one. I think I know what to look for.”

    “Can we look now?”

    Perkar shook his head. “Too late. We should either start a fire up here or go down. There are wolves in this country.”

    “You can start a fire?”

    “Sure. Go collect firewood for me. We'll keep watch together.”

    He watched the Giant lumber off, happy to see him enthusiastic about something—he had never seen that in Tsem before. This development did nothing to solve his own problem, but neither did thinking about it. The distraction was welcome.

    “WHO is that singing, Heen?“ Hezhi whispered, reaching to scratch the yellow-and-brown mutt where he lay near her feet, nestled against the sprawling cedar she rested upon. Above, a few stars glittered, jewels in a murky sea. Heen nuzzled her hand indifferently. Whatever the chanting was, it did not worry him. Curious, Hezhi smoothed her riding coat and stood. Though the days were warmer now, nights were still murderously cold, and even in the tents they all slept fully clothed—she never took the heavy wool garment off. She felt a fleeting worry for Tsem; she had seen him climbing up the mesa and wondered what business her former servant could have with Perkar. Whatever it was, the two of them were likely to spend the night together up on the plateau—it would soon be too dark and chill to descend safely.

    Her soft boots made little sound as she walked around the steep projection of the slope to where she heard the faint music—a man's voice, a lovely tenor lilting in a haunting minor mode. It suddenly occurred to her that she might be going into danger; gaan were also known as huuneli, “singers.” What if this were her enemy, the Mang shaman, following more closely than any of them realized, even now invoking some god against her?

    A hushed padding alerted her that Heen was accompanying her, and though she wasn't certain what such a tired old dog might do in her defense, it gave her the courage she needed to round the prominence.

    The singer knelt on a flat stone, eyes closed, face rapt. Nearby stood his mount, a familiar tawny mare. The song itself was in Mang, and she caught the sense of a single verse before the young man opened his eyes and noticed her.

    “Hard Wind

    Sister with iron hooves

    Together we shall travel steppes

    That no man nor mount has seen

    Courage will be my saddle

    And your bridle shall be my faith in you …”

    That was when Raincaster became aware of her and stopped, his dark blush visible even in the twilight.

    “I'm sorry to interrupt you,” she apologized. “That was beautiful.”

    “Ah,” he murmured, looking down at the sand. “Thank you.”

    “I have heard your people sing to their mounts before, but never with such silvery throats.”

    “You flatter me,” Raincaster demurred.

    Hezhi lifted her hand in farewell. “I will leave you,” she said.

    “No—please, I was finished.”

    “I just heard you singing and wondered who it was, that's all.”

    Raincaster nodded again, and Hezhi hesitantly took that as an invitation to stay for a moment.

    “I still do not fully understand the bond between you and your mounts,” she went on cautiously. “I love Dark; she is a wonderful horse, but I can't say that I feel she is kin.”

    “That's because she isn't,” Raincaster told her. “She can't be.” She knew immediately he meant no offense but was only stating a simple fact. Still, she pursued it.

    “Could you explain?”

    He shrugged. “In the beginning the Horse Mother gave birth to two children, a horse and a man. Both were Mang, and neither of us ever forgets. Our lines have been separate, of course, but the kinship is always reckoned, always kept track of. We share our souls; in some lives we are born as horses and in others as Humans. But inside we are the same.” He looked at her curiously. “Do you not feel kinship with the goddess who dwells within you?”

    Hezhi remembered the wild ride back from the mountain, the sensation of being joined to the mare. “Yes,” she admitted. “But I still do not think it is the same.”

    “No,” Raincaster said, his voice very soft. “The old people say that when the perfect rider and mount are joined, they are not reborn amongst us. They go on to another place, where they become a single being. That must be more what you feel.” His voice had a wistful tone.

    “Maybe,” Hezhi allowed. “We are as one at times, but mostly I do not notice her.”

    “It is a rare gift, to be a gaan. You should be proud.”

    “I am,” Hezhi assured him. “Have you never considered—” She paused. “You are such a fine singer. Are you not a gaan?”

    Raincaster turned to his mount and began brushing at her coat. “There are two sorts of singers. There are two sorts of songs. I do not have the sort of mansion that gods can live in.” He could not hide the disappointment in his tone.

    “Oh.” She searched for something else to say. “You have the gift to make beauty,” she offered finally.

    “It is a small gift,” he replied, still not facing her.

    “No, it isn't. I may have power—I may be a gaan—but it seems that all I ever do is destroy, never create. I could never sing so wonderfully as you.” And then she did stop, for she had embarrassed herself.

    Raincaster turned toward her then, and a faint smile graced his handsome face. “Songs need not reach the ear to be heard and understood. Such music is not made, it simply is.” Then he turned back to Hard Wind, his horse. Hezhi waited another moment, then turned quietly to leave.

    “But thank you for your praise,” Raincaster called after her. “It is important to me, though it shames me to show it.”

    The night was growing colder, so Hezhi made her way back to the fire, though her heart felt warmer already. Finally, she seemed to have said the right thing to someone.

    THREE days later, Perkar found Tsem's war club when they stopped to hunt. It was nearly perfect without finishing, a natural cudgel of black gum that rose almost to Perkar's waist when stood on end. That night, around the fire, he showed the half Giant how to shape wood by charring it in the fire and scraping off the burnt part.

    “It hardens the wood, as well,” Ngangata put in, watching over their shoulders. He had just returned from hunting, and instead of a piece of wood, he had returned with an antelope. Tsem nodded at them both. It was just dark, and the wolves Perkar had warned of were singing in the distance, accompanied by the occasional skirl of a tiger owl. The sky was cloudless, the air crisp enough that the fire felt good. A pattering of twin drums a hundred steps or so from camp were Brother Horse and Hezhi, teacher and pupil at their arcane studies, Perkar gathered that Hezhi was making rapid progress in her study of the world of gods—not surprising, since the blood of the most powerful god on earth flowed in her veins.

    Tsem scraped enthusiastically at his club. He was clumsy, but the wood and the method of working it were forgiving. A simple but deadly weapon was taking shape in his hands.

    “I remember my first sword,” Perkar told them. He felt quiet tonight. Not happy, but not crushed by the weight of the world, either. For once, he felt no older than his age. “Oh, I crowed about it. It was such a beautiful thing.”

    “What became of it?” Tsem inquired.

    “I … traded it for Harka.” He didn't mention that the blade his father gave him, the blade made by the little Steel God Ko, now lay near the corpse of the first person he was responsible for killing. But at least his father's blade had never itself been sullied by murder.

    Perkar looked up in time to catch the warning glance Ngangata shot Tsem. Ngangata, trying to protect him again. Did they all think him so fragile?

    Why shouldn't they? His tantrums and sulking had given them ample cause to think so. He resolved to be stronger, take a more forceful role in the journey. After all, it was him the Crow God entrusted with the knowledge of what should be done.

    “How much longer, Ngangata? Until we reach the mountain?”

    Ngangata considered that. “If we keep this pace, don't lose any horses, and all else goes well—two more months.”

    “Two months!” Tsem asked incredulously, looking up from his work. “Won't we walk off the edge of the world?”

    Perkar and Ngangata grinned at that. “No. We could ride another ninety days beyond the mountain and still not find the end of the world.”

    “What would we find?”

    “I don't know. Ngangata?”

    “Balat, for many of those days. Balat is a very large forest indeed. Beyond that—Mor, the sweet-water sea. Mountains, forest, plains—finally, I hear, the great ocean. Beyond that, perhaps, the edge of the world, I don't know.”

    “How far have you been that way? I never asked.” Perkar drew his knife and began helping Ngangata dress his kill. The hard knot of anger in the half Alwa seemed to have smoothed somewhat. He seemed willing to speak casually to Perkar again, which had not been the case since his “raid” on the Mang camp.

    “I've been to Mor, no farther.”

    “I should like to see that someday,” Perkar said.

    Ngangata didn't look up from his task; his hands were bloody to the wrist as his knife worked efficiently at the carcass. “I would like to see Mor again,” he agreed, and Perkar smiled as the strain between them loosened further.

    “Such a large world.” Tsem sighed.

    “Yes, but two months gives us plenty of time to teach you how to be a warrior in it.”

    “Two months until what!” Tsem asked suspiciously.

    Perkar stopped what he was doing, raised his eyes to meet those of the Giant. “I… well, until we reach the mountain.”

    “And we will have to fight there?”

    Perkar spread his hands. “I honestly don't know. But probably.”

    “Why?”

    Perkar felt a bit of his old confidence return, so that his words seemed only somewhat ridiculous rather than absolutely absurd.

    “Well, Tsem, we're going to kill a god, and they rarely take that lightly.”

    Tsem's enormous jaw worked furiously for a moment before he suddenly threw down the club and gazed fiercely at them. “Why haven't I heard about this? What are you talking about? I thought we were trying to reach your people, Perkar, that we might live with them. I have heard nothing of slaying gods.”

    Perkar realized his mistake, realized also that he needed badly to speak with Hezhi. Since his illness, he had been so occupied with his own fears and desires he had completely lost touch with the status of the group. Perhaps plans had even changed since he and Hezhi last talked; she was more firmly in charge than he was, more aware in some ways of what was going on. Perhaps the plans should change. Trusting Karak was a perilous thing, and though he had been convinced, at first, that what the Raven had laid out for them was possible, he was now skeptical again. Furthermore, what he had told no one—not even Ngangata—was that Hezhi was the essential ingredient in the scheme. At the headwaters of the Changeling, she—and only she—could slay the god: that was all he knew. But Karak had made it seem a simple thing, easily accomplished. All they had to do was get there.

    That still wouldn't be easy. The high plateau and mountains were dangerous, prowled by Mang and even more dangerous predators. And ahead of them was the war, where his own people fought and died against those of Brother Horse. How would the old man and his nephews react when they reached that point?

    And Hezhi was willful. She might not agree to help, once he explained. But the longer he put off his explanation, the angrier she would be that he had kept it from her.

    And there was Tsem, glaring at him, the consequence of his talking without thinking, of another stupid blunder.

    “We haven't talked this over yet, Tsem. Hezhi and I haven't really discussed it, so as far as she knows, what she told you is true.”

    “No. No, I remember her saying something about a mountain now, back in the yekt. That she chose that destination because of something you said. Yet she told me nothing about why”

    “She doesn't know, perhaps.”

    “I think she does,” Tsem muttered. “I think she's trying to protect me again.”

    Before Perkar could protest further, Ngangata softly replied. “Probably. These two have a habit of 'protecting' us, don't they?”

    “If you mean leaving us in the dark about their intentions, yes,” Tsem agreed. “Though that's never made me feel very safe.”

    Ngangata snorted and coughed a bitter chuckle. “No, me, either. Perkar, maybe you should talk to her. You are, after all, her kind.”

    Perkar flushed scarlet. “You don't have to remind me of how I once treated you. You know my opinion of the Alwat has changed.”

    “We aren't talking about that,” Tsem said softly. “You are two of a kind because you both think you bear the world on your shoulders.”

    “You're a fine one to talk about that.”

    “No, I've never borne the world on my shoulders. Only Hezhi. That was the only burden I ever wanted, and I want it back.”

    Ngangata had never looked up from what he was doing. Perkar understood what the Giant was saying—he had heard Ngangata say the same thing in different words. And Ngangata had steered the conversation on this bent. To remind him? Perkar resolved that he would tell Ngangata, at least, the whole truth as he knew it, next time he had a chance.

    “I will talk to her,” Perkar said. “Together we'll decide what todo.”

    “I worry about decisions the two of you make.”

    “By together I meant all of us,” Perkar clarified. ”But I must speak to her first. Meanwhile, finish that club! No matter what we do, trouble seems to find us, and now that you've brought it up, I want to see you armed. Some enemies will flee us just at the sight of you, mark my words.”

    He shot a glance at Moss when he said that and realized with a bare shock that their captive was awake, hearing everything they said. How long had he been awake? Had he heard Perkar's ill-considered remark about godslaying?

    Probably. The more reason not to let him go. When they reached the pastures of his people, they could give Moss into the keeping of someone else. Perhaps he could be traded to the Mang for captives. But he must not be allowed to return to the Mang gaan who sought Hezhi and report what he knew. Perkar would kill him first.

    Moss smiled thinly, as if he understood that thought. Perhaps he saw something in Perkar's eyes; but rather than fear, the smile held a hint of mockery.

    “I'm going on watch,” Perkar said softly. “I'll see the two of you in the morning.” Then, in Nholish, to Tsem: “Watch this prisoner, Giant. I don't know what Hezhi has told you of him, but he is a terrible threat to her.”

    “I know he sought her,” Tsem growled darkly. “I think I should blood my club on him when I'm done making it.”

    “No.” Perkar sighed. “We've killed more than enough, and we'll probably kill more before it's done. No reason to do so when it isn't really necessary.”

    “I suppose.”

    “Good night, Tsem. Be careful not to let the fire eat too deeply.”

    Tsem looked up, black eyes caging bits of flame. “Just deep enough, I hope,” he replied.

    PERKAR put off his talk with Hezhi until the next morning. They were ascending onto the high plains the Mang named the Falling Sky, and the going alternated between troublesome and dangerous; not a good time for what might become a heated discussion. When questioned about the name, Brother Horse explained how legend held that a chunk of heaven had cracked loose and plunged to earth. If so, their horses now climbed the eroded edges of that shard, beveled by time and wind into a stepped slope of banded sandstone. The going was easiest in the trenched furrows dug by long-dead streams, but it was midday before they found one of these broad enough and long enough to ease the constant upward stumbling into some semblance of normal traveling. Brother Horse explained that there were other, more established paths farther north but that they would risk meeting other Mang traveling there, especially now that news of the war was widespread; young, unproven warriors from every part of the Mang country would be streaming to earn honors for themselves in the mountains.

    So they clattered up the dry streambed for another few leagues, until it broadened to vanishing, until dense black soil crept to cover the stone again, and they entered onto the spacious back of the Falling Sky.

    “We will never be out of the shadows of mountains now,” Brother Horse told them, and it was true; they could see mighty ones on the north and west. Behind them a few trailed off, but it was the vastness of the lower steppes that struck Perkar. Though the last few days of their travel had been in hills, distance and scale crushed die most rugged of them into the imperial, awesome flatness that sheeted out and beyond the horizon, where sky and earth met in a confused haze of blue-green and brown.

    Brother Horse reined his mount to a halt. “We'll offer at this cairn to the lord of the Falling Sky,” he told them. Perkar nodded as he took in the vista they had just arrived upon. Despite the bordering giants, the high plains were, if anything, flatter than anywhere below them. It seemed not so much a piece of the sky as a place where the sky had lain for a time and crushed everything level. In fact, going back over what Brother Horse told him, that might have been what the old man meant. He had not lied to Tsem in claiming his Mang was less than perfect.

    Brother Horse began chanting behind him, and pungent incense seasoned the wind. He thought about joining, but he didn't know the song or the gods of this country. But soon! Despite it all, despite the dread he felt at facing his people with his crimes against them, the thought of his father's pasture and the little, unambitious gods he knew—knew the songs for, the lineages of—sixty days, and he could be there. He would not be; actually going by his father's damakuta would put them many days later getting to the mountain, days he somehow believed they could not afford. Still, the thought stirred him, not only with trepidation and sadness but also with joy.

    He noticed that Hezhi had ridden out away from the rest, had her eye fixed somewhere westward. He urged T'esh toward her. To his vast surprise, Sharp Tiger followed. Since the time Perkar had adopted him, the horse had shown him, at best, disdain. When Yuu'han or Brother Horse led him, he would follow, but none was able to get upon his back. But now, as he trotted to join Hezhi, there was Sharp Tiger, two horse lengths behind—as if he wanted to hear what the two of them would say. Perkar wondered himself.

    “What is that?” Hezhi asked, arm thrust out toward where the wind whipped a wall of dust along before it.

    “That's wind coming down from the mountains. It may have some rain in it. See the darkness behind?”

    “I don't like it,” Hezhi murmured. “It seems …” She trailed off. “Well. You rode over here for a reason, I know. You haven't spoken to me in days.”

    “I know. I've been thinking a lot, feeling sorry for myself.”

    “What a surprise. You feeling sorry for yourself.”

    “You're angry.”

    She flung her hair back over her shoulder and set her little mouth in a scowl. “What do you think you are doing with Tsem?”

    “Tsem? He asked me to teach him—”

    “How to fight, I know. But you shouldn't have done it without asking me.”

    “And why is that, Princess! It seems to me that you told Tsem he was no longer your servant. That he was free.”

    “Maybe I did. I did. But that doesn't mean I shouldn't have anything to say about him. I've known him since I was born. You barely know him at all.”

    “I'm only doing what he asked. He wants to feel useful, Princess. He knows that you pity him, and it eats at his heart. Do you want to stop him from doing the one thing that might give him a sense of worth?”

    “He said that? He thinks I pity him?”

    “You say you have known him since you were born. What do you think? That he is so stupid he can't sense disdain?”

    She looked down at her saddle pommel. “I didn't know it was so obvious,” she said. “I just don't want him to get killed.”

    “Out here, he'll get killed a lot faster if he is unarmed than if he has some kind of weapon. And you saw him carrying his club today. Couldn't you see the pride in his shoulders?”

    “It's false confidence,” she hissed. “We both know that branch is nothing more than a toy.”

    “Princess, that—”

    “Stop calling me that. You only call me that when you think I'm being stupid.”

    “That's true, Princess,” Perkar snapped. “What do you know of fighting? That 'toy' of his is capable of being a very deadly weapon indeed. A weapon doesn't need an edge when it's wielded by a man the size and strength of Tsem. One blow from that thing would crush a man in full armor. Hauberks are made to turn edges, but they are no defense at all against impact. Do you honestly think I would trick him into thinking he had a real weapon when he didn't?”

    Hezhi looked away unhappily. He thought she was about to reply when he heard the sudden thuttering of hooves. For a moment he paid them no mind, thinking them to be Yuu'han or Raincaster, stretching his horse's legs on the welcome flat. But then a shout went up from Yuu'han, and it did not sound like a shout of jubilation but instead one of warning. In the same instant, Heen began barking frantically.

    Jump! Harka fairly shrieked in his ear, and so he did, rolling from T'esh's back as something whistled past his face. He hit the ground and rolled, coming up in time to see the collision of three horses. Sharp Tiger was not one of them; he danced nimbly aside as Moss and his mount barreled into T'esh and Dark. Hezhi shrieked and fell from Dark's back, but Moss, completely in control of his mount, caught her neatly in the crook of his arm. With an earsplitting shriek of triumph, he tore out across the plain toward the fast-approaching wind and its skirt of dust.

    Harka was already in his hand. The something that sped by was returning, and he was forced to gaze at it. He had the urge to blink, but Harka wouldn't let him.

    It was a black thing, like a bird, larger than most. Even at first glance, he knew it wasn't a raven—or any other normal, living creature. In Harka's vision it was yellowed bones wrapped in a tarry blackness. It whirred past Perkar, who shouted a warning. Raincaster, just mounting to chase Moss, looked up too late. Caught weaponless and with no time to dismount, he attacked in the only way possible, by punching at the thing. It struck him and he snapped back in the saddle, his face and neck drenched scarlet. The bird banked and began another pass.

    An arrow intersected its flight but sailed on, though a second shaft from Ngangata hit something solid—probably a bone—and the thing rolled, missed several beats before recovering, and then dove right at Perkar. He could see a pair of immortal heartstrings, iron-colored, and Harka swept out, eager to meet them.

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