The Blackgod-2#(8)
Author:J.Gregory Keyes

    PART THREE

    THE GODS OF SHE'LENG

    XXVIII The Drum Scout

    A few ravens took to the air as Ngangata led the way into the field, but most remained where they were, glutting themselves on the corpses that lay broken on the rough ground.

    “Harka?” Perkar murmured.

    “All dead. No one hiding in the woods. ”

    Nevertheless, Perkar joined the others in scanning the far tree line. It kept his gaze from touching the hollow regard of the dead, and, in any event, survivors of the battle could not be far distant, for the ruins of two yekts still smoldered nearby.

    Brother Horse and Yuu'han rode out impatiently, studying the dead and muttering to one another the names of their clans.

    Two bodies belonged to no Mang clan at all. They were clad in hauberk and helms like his own folk, and from beneath their steel caps bushed hair the color of wheatstraw. Perkar sighed heavily and dismounted.

    Studying their ruined faces, he felt a selfish relief in not knowing either of the men, though the bloodied embroidery on their shirts identified them as being of the Kar Herita or some closely affiliated clan.

    How often had he imagined this moment, when he would first see one of his own people again? From before the start of the journey home, of course, but in the last few days his every waking moment seemed plagued by visions of this first encounter. In his dreams—sleeping and waking—it was the broken body of his father or his younger brother he found first. For once, at least, his imaginings were more painful than the reality.

    “Six dead in all,” Ngangata told him, after making a circuit of the meadow.

    “The rest Mang?”

    “Yes.” Ngangata nodded. “Four Mang and two Cattle People.”

    “This is much deeper into Mang territory than I thought my people would ever come,” Perkar muttered, kicking at a stone. “This is such poor pasture for men to fight and die over.” He glanced up at the half man. “How are Brother Horse and Yu-u'han taking this?”

    The two Mang were riding over to inspect the ravaged yekts. Ngangata followed them with his gaze. “We all knew that it would come to this eventually.”

    “I've tried to talk them into turning back.”

    “Yes. But this war concerns them, too. They wish to see it ended as much as we.”

    “What if we come upon a battle in progress, Ngangata? I won't be able to watch my people fight without helping them, and neither will they.”

    “Then we must avoid any such battles.”

    “How?” Perkar asked irritably, aware that Hezhi and Tsem were approaching. Tsem's eyes were watchful, darting here and there, and his massive club was cocked back on one shoulder, ready.

    “I can help, I think,” Hezhi offered.

    “What do you mean?”

    “Well, I didn't think of this before because I didn't really understand what you meant by war. I didn't expect it to be like this.”

    “What did you expect?”

    “Well, the only wars I've read about were those fought by the empire. I always had the impression of enormous numbers of men all lined up and marching toward one another.”

    Perkar nodded. “That happens sometimes.”

    “I mean thousands and thousands of men,” Hezhi clarified.

    “Oh. I see what you mean,” Perkar said. “I have heard tales of armies that numbered as high as a thousand, but that was long ago.”

    “Exactly. And so I imagined that when we reached the borders of your country we would encounter a sort of line of soldiers, going on for miles, fighting each other. That probably sounds silly to you.”

    “It does,” Perkar admitted. “You might find a damakuta like that, surrounded by men fighting or under siege. But our country is much too large for the Mang to encircle. Most of the battles will be like this, fights over homesteads or damakutat. The heaviest fighting is probably in the Ekasagata Valley, where the best land is. There we probably would see camped armies. But that is the way we have avoided all along.”

    “Then it should be simple to avoid battles like this.”

    “No. The country is vast, but as you see, from here on it's a land of valleys and passes, narrow places. Raiding parties like the one that came here must be wandering around everywhere, seeking revenge, looking for some likely settlement to attack. We can never know where they will be.”

    “Of course we can. I can send out some of my spirits to check our path ahead.”

    “You can do that?”

    “I'm certain Brother Horse has been doing it. Remember when he counseled this trail over the last at the fork a day ago? I think he saw a battle ahead of us.”

    Perkar mulled that over. “If you can do that, at no danger to yourself, it would be best. I'd hate to have to put our friendship with those two to the test. I usually fare poorly in tests like that.”

    “Well and truly said,” Ngangata remarked, dryly but with no apparent malice.

    Perkar took a heavy breath. “Still, if we manage to get through the frontier unscathed, it will actually be more difficult to proceed through the pastures unnoticed. My people are watching carefully, I'm certain, and the thought of skulking about in my own country pains me.” He thought secretly, too, how desperately he longed to hear his own language spoken, taste woti again, see a face familiar from childhood.

    “Why must we take such care there?” Hezhi asked.

    “Because I cannot guarantee how any of us would be treated,” Perkar muttered. “Not by any but my own close kin. Passions are probably high against the Mang—which they will assume you to be, as well, Princess.”

    “But it's they who have invaded Mang lands, not the other way around,” Hezhi protested, indicating the burned yekts where Brother Horse and Yuu'han had begun chanting.

    “I know,” Perkar said. “But people die on both sides, and if a relative of yours is slain, it matters not to you who began the battle. It matters only that you avenge him.” He gestured at the dead men. “You can be sure that this man's clan will not remember that he led a raid into land not his own. They will only remember that he was slain by the Mang, and for that reason it is good to slay Mang in turn.”

    THE party traveled sullenly for the remainder of the day, the two Mang riding somewhat apart with their grief from the rest. They camped for the night in a small, high valley, the sort that made poor pasture for horses or cattle and was thus generally unsettled by both Mang and Perkar's folk. Perkar also hoped that it would give them a good view of the trail they hoped to pursue the next day.

    Before sundown, Hezhi followed Perkar up a narrow trail in the hillside; Tsem was convinced with some difficulty to stay behind, but he could see as plainly as anyone else what a difficult way it would be for someone of his size to tread.

    Hezhi admired the ease with which Perkar negotiated the ascent, which often became a climb, requiring the use of hands as well as feet. She always seemed to be just a bit too short to reach the next handhold with ease, her fingers a little too small to grip the same knob of stone with as much tenacity as Perkar did. And he was much stronger and tired less quickly. He often glanced back at her, a tacit question about her well-being in his eyes that both annoyed her by its implicit condescension and warmed her with its concern. It was a mélange of feeling she had come to associate with Perkar: irritation and fondness.

    At last they reached a high point, the balded peak of a ridge, and from there the folded, crumpled land spread out and away in all directions. There was no distance anywhere unserrated by mountains, and for an instant, Hezhi felt that she stood on the same mountain as she had with Karak, watching the souls of the dead drift skyward to She'leng.

    But here she saw no ghosts, only deep troughs filled with shadow and bloody sunset.

    Perkar edged toward the sheer western face of the ridge and extended his finger northwest. “There,” he said. “Can you see up this vale? Is there battle there tomorrow?”

    Hezhi considered the vista for a moment. “Where does your country begin?” she asked.

    “I'm not sure,” he answered. “Not far, surely. Here in the Spines there are few people of any sort, only mountain people of no nation, wild creatures.” He turned to her. “How long will this take?”

    “I'm not certain,” she answered.

    “Be quick if you can. I misjudged the distance and the light. Soon it may be too dark to go back down.”

    She nodded and removed her drum from its bag and, after just a moment of preparation, began a measured tapping, as Brother Horse had shown her. The drumming of the skin head quickly became ripples upon the surface of the otherworld, and she turned her vision inward and saw her companions. The mare welcomed her with a shake of her head; the bull lowered his deadly horns sullenly. The most recently acquired god—now in the appearance of a white swan—regarded her solemnly.

    “Which of you will go?” she inquired of them.

    The bull gazed up at her. In here, he was no skeletal creature animated by flame; he was magnificent, auburn with great shoulders cloaked in darker, longer hair, the eyes between his gleaming horns huge and brown, full of intelligence.

    “Take me, ” he said. “We shall thunder across the plains, we shall gore the lion, and trample the wolf pack. Too long have you kept me in this peaceful place. ”

    Hezhi's fear of the beast, as well as the passion and power he offered, clung to her even beneath the cold waters of the lake, but she shook her head. “Not today, not now. I only need a messenger, not a warrior. I send you, Swan.”

    She sent the swan out through the doorway, her vision carried in her eyes.

    PERKAR sat impatiently, watching as Hezhi's eyes glazed over and she tapped away on her drum. She was gone, not in her body at all, and that woke in him a faintly sick feeling, perhaps a buried memory of his own time in the otherworld.

    “It's still not settled,” he told Harka, while he waited. “I still don't know what will happen when I face combat again.”

    “It will be fine, ” the sword answered. “You are braver than you think. ”

    “I flinched in the face of the bull. If it hadn't been for Hezhi, we would all be dead.”

    “That would be true whether you flinched or not. Learn from your mistake, don't dwell on it. ”

    “A mistake is something you do on purpose that turns out to be wrong. That's not what happened with the bull. I was afraid. I didn't do that on purpose.”

    “ You've been afraid before. ”

    “This is different.”

    “I know. But courage exists only if fear does, too. The greater the fear overcome, the greater the courage. Fearlessness is only another name for stupidity. ”

    “Has no one ever carried you who was fearless?”

    “Of course. And he was as stupid as a stone. ”

    “What was his name?”

    “Perkar. ”

    Perkar furrowed his brow in annoyance and refused to provoke any more conversation from the sword. Instead, he set about gathering scraps of juniper and twist pine; it was clear that night would settle down before Hezhi was done, and it would be cold, this high.

    Sparks were dancing up when the drumming ceased; the only remnant of the day was a languid red rim on the western peaks.

    Hezhi shook her head sluggishly as her eyes seemed to awaken to him and the rest of her surroundings.

    “It's cold,” she sighed.

    “Come over here, let the Fire Goddess warm you,” he said. She nodded, picked up her drum, and padded along the ridge to sit across the flames from him. She rubbed her hands, working the fire's heat into her chilled flesh. Perkar fought his impatience, knowing she would speak eventually.

    And eventually she did.

    “Men are dying up there,” she said. “I'm sorry.”

    Cold fingers reached out of the night and prodded at his heart. “Many?”

    “I ?link so. More than fifty, more than I could count. They've stopped for the night, but I believe that in the morning they will begin again.”

    Perkar's lips drew into a thin line.

    “My father could be among them,” he muttered. “My brother.”

    “I'm sorry.”

    Perkar saw that she really was sorry. Her eyes were rimmed with wetness.

    “It's hard to cry over there,” she said. “Everything I feel is different, flatter. But now—” Her little shoulders began to quake. “They were just dying. Arrows in their throats, big holes in them—“ She stuttered off, wiping at her face.

    “Perkar …” she began, but he stood stiffly and walked around the fire, feeling foolish. He settled next to her and drew her against him, expecting her to stiffen, fearing she would.

    She didn't. Instead she seemed to melt into his side, her head nestling against his chest, where she sobbed quietly for a while. Her tears were contagious, and a salty trickle began from the corner of his own eyes. Almost unconsciously, he rocked back and forth, stroking her thick black hair.

    After a time, he had to rise and add wood to the fire, and he realized how reluctant he was to release her. When he returned, he felt awkward, uncertain whether he should hold her again or not. He finally reached for her tentatively.

    “I'm all right now,” she said. He withdrew his arm, embarrassed, and they sat there for a few moments in an uncomfortable silence.

    “What I mean is,” Hezhi began again, “you don't have to do that. You don't have to feel sorry for me.”

    Perkar snorted softly. “You know me well enough to know that I only feel sorry for myself,” he answered.

    “I don't believe that,” she said. “Ngangata thinks you ache for the whole world.”

    “Ngangata is the kindest man I've ever known. He flatters me. Still, he has never been shy about numbering my faults, especially my selfishness. Nor have you, for that matter.”

    “I'm sorry,” she said.

    Perkar glanced at her in surprise. “That's the third time you've said that tonight,” he remarked.

    “No, I am. A few months ago, when we were in the hills with the Mang, before all of this started, I thought we were going to be friends. But since then, I've been terrible to you. To everyone, really, and especially to Tsem. You think you're selfish—”

    Perkar smiled and began tossing twigs into the flames, where they stirred little cyclones of sparks to life. “The fact is,” he told her, “Brother Horse and Ngangata are right about us. We both see the world wheeling around our noses. We both think that the rising of the sun and the Pale Queen hinges upon us.”

    “It's hard not to,” Hezhi muttered. “So many people fighting and dying, and even the gods say we are the cause.”

    “No. Make no mistake, Hezhi. The gods are the ones who began this. You and I—”

    “I don't want to talk about this tonight,” Hezhi said suddenly. “It's all I think about, all you think about.”

    Perkar hesitated. He had been about to tell her, was right on the verge of telling her all of what Karak said—that she was the one who had the power to slay the Changeling. But he could tell her that later, tomorrow. There was time enough, now that he had decided to do it.

    “Well, then, what do you want to talk about?”

    “I don't know. I don't knowl” she lamented, helplessly frustrated. “What would we talk about, if we were just two people, with no godswords, no spirit drums, no mission, no war?”

    “Nothing. We would never have met.”

    “I'm serious. What would we talk about? What would you tell me if I were one of your people and we were alone here?”

    He chuckled. “I don't know, either.”

    “Well, try,” she demanded, crossly.

    “Yes, Princess.”

    “And don't call me that. Not now.”

    Perkar reached out, without thinking really, and stroked her hair again. “Now I'm sorry,” he said. ”I really am.” He realized what he was doing suddenly and pulled his hand away as if her head were a hot stone. She rolled her eyes at that, reached up with her tiny fingers and took hold of his, draped his arm back around her.

    “I changed my mind,” she grumbled. “I'm cold.”

    “Ah …” Perkar felt his face burning, but he pulled her close again. After a moment's thought, he unrolled a blanket and settled it over both of their shoulders. He took her hand in his and was gratified when she squeezed back.

    “Thanks again for saving my life,” he murmured.

    “Shut up. This is exactly what I'm talking about,” she cried, beating his chest with her palm. “Just tell me something, something of no importance at all.”

    Perkar thought for a long moment before he finally said, “I know a story about a cow with two heads.”

    “What?”

    “A head on each end. My mother used to tell me that story. There was a fox who owned a cow with two heads—”

    “Tell it, don't summarize it,” Hezhi insisted.

    “It's a silly story.”

    “Tell it, I command thee.”

    “Your wish I grant, Princ—Lady Hezhi,” Perkar amended. “It seems that in the long ago, in the days when people and animals often spoke, and the cooking pots had opinions, and the fence-rails often complained of boredom, there was a fox who had no cows. And he asked himself, 'Now, how might I gather a fine herd and Piraku—' ”

    “Is this a long story?” she interrupted.

    “Yes.”

    “Good.”

    And for a time they pushed away death and destiny, and Hezhi grinned at the antics of the fox and his magical cow, and in the end they fell asleep, curled together.

    HEZHI awoke first, uncertain of where she was. Her arm was asleep, and something warm was next to her.

    She remembered then and extricated her arm with great care from where it lay beneath Perkar's back. He was still sleeping, and she gazed at his face, astonished and confused by her feelings.

    It was nice, the way sleep smoothed away his pains so that she could see the face of the boy he had been, once, before their destinies became bound. The boy he might have been. How old was he? Twenty at most.

    And what did he feel for her? Pity? Protectiveness?

    She wasn't certain, but there was something in the way he held her, after she stopped crying, that seemed like neither of those things. It had seemed somehow desperate. And the oddest thing was that she understood that desperation, felt something akin to it. It was as if she had been growing a skin of stone, as if her face and fingers could no longer feel, any more than a piece of wood could. It was deeper than numbness. How long had it been since anyone held her, touched her? Even Tsem had been distant from her since the night they fled from Brother Horse's camp. She had not even realized how much she missed her contact with the Giant. She was hungry for any touch.

    But Perkar's touch was something else again, something special. It was more akin to what she felt when Yen held her, but it wasn't even that. Yen's touch had been exciting, forbidden, and sweet. This was something that caught in her throat, and usually it came out as anger or spite. But last night it manifested as something else entirely, something with deeper roots. She wondered what she would have done had he kissed her. Had he even thought about it? She had feared that he would kiss her, last night, force her to decide what she felt or retreat from it. Now she wished the decision had been forced, for the one thing she did not need right now was this powerful new uncertainty.

    What would she do when he woke? How should she react? She lay back and closed her eyes again, a mischievous smile on her face. Let him make that decision.

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