Thursday, March 25, 2010
Lakhoni marveled at the sight before him. Blue—vast, pale and glimmering in the dawn light—stretched from horizon to horizon. Mist clung to the great mountains far to the east. The tallest, Sinhael, had its tip completely obscured by the gauzy clouds that seemed to never leave the mountain—as if they were the breath of some mighty being that inhabited the mountain. Sinhael—Heaven's Tower. Lakhoni wondered if it was true what Lamorun had told him, that some of the First Fathers had climbed the mountain and disappeared, supposedly taken up to the heavens.
Old wives' tales, no doubt.
Lakhoni tore his gaze from the mighty peak and drank in the sights of the surface world, feeling like he could take a deep breath and consume the trees with their deep green leaves and needles, the taste of a fresh day, the feel of new air on the skin. He could consume it and become one with it, leaving a world of bloody nightmares and painful training behind.
He sighed. He would never have thought that after only two weeks of being underground he would feel as if he were coming back to life on his first journey to the surface.
"Cub!" Gimno's voice rasped, sounding like a porcupine's quills might sound if they were used to scrub stone clean. "Wake up!"
Lakhoni rebuked himself for his reverie and cast about to find Gimno. The tall, tattooed man leaned on a nearby tree. "Will you be joining us today?"
Lakhoni forced a smile—it was becoming easier. He noticed that with each day that passed since the young boy had been murdered and nothing else horrible happened, the fake smile and enthusiasm became easier to force. He felt more and more able to conceal the emptiness that skulked in his soul. "I just wanted to give your old legs a head start," Lakhoni said.
Gimno's eyes went wide. "My old--?" A moment passed and Gimno barked an appreciative laugh then began moving through the trees.
Lakhoni joined the man, feeling nearly naked in the chill air. He wore only leather breeches with a thick strap around his waist which held a short knife. Walking on the stone cavern floor seemed to have hardened his feet even more than they had been before, so the forest floor didn't bother him. But the chill of day—which must have been nearly the first day of winter—made him long for the tunics he had left at his village.
He was sweating before the sun had moved more than a hand-span upwards in the eastern sky. Gimno set a fast pace, sliding through the trees and around or over brush like one of the great cats Lakhoni had heard about. The tall man didn't seem to make a sound. Lakhoni, on the other hand, still had trouble running without pain in his side. His head seemed to be completely better, but Corzon had only removed stitches from his side a few days previously.
Within another hour of running and gritting his teeth, Lakhoni knew where he was. His jaw aching, he called out to Gimno. "To my village?" A stab of apprehension filled him. What would he see there? Would the fire have consumed everyone?
"Of course," Gimno said, slowing to a walk. "You must claim your property."
He remembered. When Gimno had first appeared and led him away, the tall man had said something about everything in the village being Lakhoni's, since he was the only survivor. Fear of what he might find and feel slowed his steps.
"Come along, cub." Gimno slapped Lakhoni's shoulder. "If it were not difficult to do this, there would be no point in it. You will be stronger afterward."
They sympathy in Gimno's voice seemed real to Lakhoni. As he lengthened his stride, Lakhoni tried to resolve the many different sides to the tall man. Gimno was happy to see a young buy murdered but then seemed to be able to express sympathy, love and even a sense of humor.
Lakhoni tried to move faster, even as images of the previous weeks flitted through his mind. Gimno smiling with Vena and joking with Anor. Gimno's stolid patience as Lakhoni practiced a complex pattern of thrusts and feints with a stone dagger. Gimno's face and chest smeared in blood. Sharing a laugh with Corzon.
Gimno slowed, then stopped, turning toward Lakhoni. "We are here."
Lakhoni peered through the trees and realized he had not been paying attention to the last few minutes of the journey. He and Gimno stood behind the hut that had been Salno's, distinctive for the intricate carvings on many of the stones making up the walls. His eyes darted from hut to hut, something inside him telling him that someone else might have survived, that at any moment he could see movement.
Lakhoni stepped out from the shelter of the trees. The sun was over his left shoulder, so he had to take a few more steps to leave the forests' shadow. A chill, not from the autumn day, passed through him. As he approached the well, he saw that there were no stains from blood spilled upon the ground. Rain must have fallen at some point during the last weeks. He passed the well and within moments stood before the dark jumble that remained from the bonfire. Somehow the coals and embers must have stayed hot for a long time, because he could only see black, grey and white ash.
With a start, he realized that some of the white was gleaming bone. He turned away, fighting the sudden urge to empty his stomach. His throat tightened with the strain.
"You must let the dead go," Gimno said, his steps quiet as he crossed the village center. "They know nothing of you now."
Lakhoni squeezed his eyes closed, seeking strength from inside. I won't let them go. I will not betray them like that.
"But never let your anger leave," Gimno continued.
Again, the tall man's seeming ability to understand Lakhoni's thoughts threw him off guard.
"Your anger," Gimno said, "will push you through the pain and discomfort of learning to be one of the warriors for the Separated. Your anger will remind you in the dark of night, when you want to cry yourself to sleep, when your body feels like a skinned bear, why you fight."
Lakhoni mulled that over. "But you keep saying that I should never fight angry. That when I am fighting, I must be completely without feeling or emotion."
Nodding, Gimno smiled. "Yes, you remember well. But this anger is the type of anger you put in your soul, letting its heat fill you." Gimno looked up into the blue sky, then seemed to survey the trees surrounding the dead village. "This is pure anger, not the shallow kind you feel at a slight or offense."
Lakhoni stepped back and turned, making for his old home. It looked different somehow- the way a house looks when there is nobody in it. He felt like he could remember seeing his old home as if it glowed, when the conversation and joy of his family seemed to fill it to bursting. Now it sat derelict, the stones resting tiredly atop each other. "So pure anger is what you put away, banking it like a coal for a time you will need it."
Gimno's grunt confirmed to Lakhoni that his understanding had been correct. "Yes. Put it away, but not too far. Where you can reach it. It will give you strength."
Stepping into the dimness of his home, Lakhoni felt deeply what Gimno was saying. He remembered the day he had spent gathering his family and friends' bodies. He remembered the hot yet… stone-hard feeling that had filled his muscles. He knew this pure anger that Gimno spoke of. I have already felt that strength. He looked around the hut, seeing nothing that he cared to claim. And you, Gimno, have added to it. You and your people.
An image of crimson blood floating off the point of a dagger flashed through his mind. The revulsion had faded over the fourteen days since the little boy's death, but fury at his own inaction and impotence still blazed in Lakhoni's stomach.
A shiver ran through him; the heat inside of him contrasting sharply with the chill of the late-season day. Tunics. He had tunics somewhere. And his warm bear skin that he wore in the winter. Surely it would get cold even in the caverns of the Separated.
If he was still there when winter had fully arrived.
Lakhoni searched the hut, quickly turning up his tunics. He had to get away from the Separated soon, but he felt that it was still too early. He knew that Gimno was watching him closely. And Corzon, though friendly, seemed to be constantly glancing over at him during meals and gatherings.
No, Lakhoni thought, I can't leave any time soon. I'm still too new, still untested. I have to become nothing unusual, something commonplace. He felt that if he could get to a point where his comings and goings were unsupervised and unquestioned, he would be ready. The Separated would not let him go easily. Their hidden home under the ground was far too valuable of a secret. It was possible that they might hunt him once he got away in order to keep him from telling others about the cavern.
Where is my bear skin? It occurred to Lakhoni that he had been absentmindedly searching for the skin for quite a while. He checked under sleeping mats and in every nook in the small hut. He couldn't remember wearing it any time recently, and he was sure nobody else had used it.
"The raiding party," he murmured. Thieves and murderers. They had taken the bear skin, of course.
He realized suddenly that he lived with thieves and murderers; that he was trying to be counted as one of them. He needed his bear skin; he had to get away soon, even if it meant leaving in the dead of winter. He felt like every moment he stayed with the Separated was one step closer to the death of his soul.
Lakhoni whirled at the loud voice.
"We cannot tarry long. The day is not our friend." Gimno's voice easily carried through into the hut.
"Coming," Lakhoni said. He dropped his mother's sleeping mat back to the ground. Dark flecks, blown by the wind raised by the falling mat, scattered. Lakhoni turned to the door, then stopped. Dark dirt? The floor of the hut was pale, packed dirt. Where had the dark stuff come from?
"Cub," Gimno's voice came again. "You need to see this."
The serious tone made Lakhoni look toward the door. "Okay." Lakhoni lifted his mother's sleeping mat again. Pale, hard-packed dirt was all he saw. But some darker dirt seemed to be gathered at about the center of where the mat usually sat. Lakhoni quickly folded the mat back on itself and knelt, his hands in the dark dirt. He ran his fingers through it, then felt something hard and straight. Bending closer, he brushed dirt away from the hard thing. He blew on it and a straight line was revealed, as well as a corner. Knowing Gimno could walk in at any second, Lakhoni quickly blew again, using his fingers to completely uncover a pale stone that matched the color of the dirt perfectly. It was completely square. Jabbing a finger under one corner, Lakhoni lifted.
The stone was heavy, but Lakhoni was able to get more fingers under it, then his other hand. A hole, as deep as the length of his arm, gaped at him. It was empty, but the dark dirt around the edges of the hole told Lakhoni that something had recently been taken out. He probably wouldn't have noticed anything, except that his mother's mat had preserved some of the more moist dirt, leaving the black flecks.
What was in here? Did the raiding party take it?
Lakhoni felt movement outside the door to the hut. He dropped the stone, replaced the mat and moved to stand up.
Too late. Gimno stood in the doorway.
"What is taking so long?"
"I can't find my bear skin."
"And you think it might be on that bed? Were you planning on taking a nap?"
Lakhoni stood. "I thought it might be under a bed, or around one somewhere."
"Obviously the king's dogs took it."
Gimno fixed Lakhoni with a hard look. "They are thieves, almost as bad as the Usurpers. The Usurpers took the birthright from their elder brothers—the greatest sin committed by any of our people. But Lemal's dogs kill and steal with the sole purpose of getting gain for their master."
Gimno gestured for Lakhoni to follow him. "Not probably, cub. They took it."
Lakhoni followed Gimno out of the hut, his mind racing. What had his mother been keeping under her bed? Had his father known about whatever it was? Had Lamorun or Alronna known? If they had, why hadn't they told him as well?
Was it possible that the king's raiding party had slaughtered the entire village for the sole purpose of finding whatever it was?
Lakhoni glanced down at the ground where Gimno was indicating. He crouched and looked closer. A footprint, the toes pointing toward his family's hut.
Gimno smiled fiercely. "Overcome the limited teaching of your previous life and use your brain. Unless it is scrambled permanently from that blow you took."
Lakhoni gritted his teeth.
"Look closer," Gimno said.
He did so. He quickly noticed something he hadn't seen before. It was a footprint, but there was no outline for the toes. Even if the print was older than a week, there should still be a sign of toes. "Somebody wearing a shoe of some kind."
Gimno struck Lakhoni on the left shoulder. "There! How do you know it hasn't worn away?"
"It's not the stormy season. Early winter is almost always still and dry." Lakhoni looked around some. "No animal tracks. No signs of any kind of weather. This print has not faded or deteriorated much. So no toes means a shoe."
"Good. What else?"
Lakhoni sat back on his haunches, considering. "Nobody in my village wore shoes. Neither do your people."
"Our people," Gimno said firmly.
"Our people." Lakhoni carefully kept his emotions under control, his face still. He stood and walked carefully around the immediate area, scouring the ground. "This one's on top of older prints without shoes. Probably from one of the king's raiding party."
"A good guess. It might be that Lemal's dog's wore boots of some kind." Gimno raised an eyebrow. "But keep looking."
Lakhoni hunkered down again, trying to take everything before him in. He looked around the village center, trying to order events in his mind. He ignored the other Separated who were gathering items from the huts and making a pile near the well. A glimmer of a thought came to him. He turned to the dirt again. In a moment, he found it: blood. Once he found the first patch, he could easily distinguish the dark patches in the dirt. He looked back at the print.
"But this print is on top of blood. On top of my old prints too. Someone came here after that night."
Gimno nodded. "Yes."
"Not the king's men. This is someone else." Confusion struck him. "But who else would have come here?"
"That's a stiff leather boot. Someone prosperous."
Lakhoni stood and faced the tall man, who also stood up. "Who would have come? And why?"
The lines in Gimno's face hardened. He looked out over the dark trees, in the direction of the cavern of the Separated. "I can tell you who. It is a guess, but my gut tells me I am right. But I cannot tell you why." He started toward the trees, gesturing at the other men. "We leave now."
With arms full of blankets, pots and other things culled from the village, the men of the Separated melted into the trees.
"Gimno," Lakhoni said. "Who? Who came here?"
His tattoos glistening in the sun, Gimno continued into the trees. Lakhoni hurried to catch up, his heart beating quickly. He realized something all of sudden. Gimno was scared. This hurry and the weight of the tall man's voice told Lakhoni that the warrior was scared.
Gimno's voice rasped through the shadows of the forest. "The Usurpers. The Usurpers came to your village."