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The Mang Wastes
Hezhi Yehd Cha'dune, once-princess of the empire of Nhol, yelped as what weight her small body possessed was suddenly stolen from her in an explosion of force and wind as the thief—her horse Dark—shook all four hooves free of the earth. For a moment they hung almost still above the uneven slope of shattered stone and snow, but Hezhi knew—knew in her belly—that when they struck back down the mare would just keep falling, tumbling head-over-tail down what seemed almost a sheer grade. She doubled her hands in Dark's mane and leaned against her neck, straining to hang on to the barrel-shaped torso with her legs, but when the horse's hooves were reunited with the ground—first front and then thunderously rear—she slapped back into the saddle with such force that one leg kicked unwillingly free of its stirrup. The surrounding landscape blurred into jolting white, gray, and blue nonsense as she ignored the free-flapping stirrup and just held on. Then, suddenly, the earth was flat again and Dark really ran, digging her head into the wind, hammering across the half-frozen ground like a four-limbed thunder god. The mare's flat-out run was so smooth, Hezhi's fear began to evaporate; she found the stirrup, caught the rhythm of the race, and her tightly held breath suddenly released itself in a rush that quickly became triumphant laughter. Never before had she completely given the Mang-bred horse her head, but now that she had, the chocolate-and-coffee-striped mare was gaining on the four riders ahead of her. When one of them—perhaps hearing her laughter—turned his head to look back, she was near enough to see the surprise register in his unusual gray eyes.
Thought you could leave me back farther than that, didn't you, Perkar? she thought, with more pride than anger. Her self-esteem doubled when the young man's expression of amazement became one of respect. She felt her own lips bow in glee and then promptly felt stupid for beaming so, like one of those useless creatures back in the palace or some brainless child. Still, it felt wonderful. Though she was only thirteen years of age, it had been many years since she felt anything at all like a child, good or bad. It couldn't hurt to smile and laugh if she felt like it, could it?
She clapped Dark's flanks harder and was rewarded by a burst of even greater speed from her steed—and was consequently nearly thrown over the mare's head when the animal quickly stamped to a halt to avoid crashing into Perkar and the others, who had stopped suddenly.
"What?" Hezhi sputtered. "Are you trying—"
"Hsst, Princess," Perkar stage-whispered, holding up a finger. "Yuu'han thinks our quarry is over the next rise."
"And?" she shot back, though lowering her voice, too.
"We should walk from here, or we may panic them," another man answered. Hezhi switched her regard to the second speaker, who was dismounting. He swung his right leg over his mount's head and let his thick, compact body slide to the ground; his boots crunched in the thin layer of snow. He was clothed in heavy breeks and an elkskin parka tanned white. In the hood, his face was paler than the coat, like bone, and his thick hair fell from one side in a milky braid. His eyes, on the other hand, were black, set deeply in his head beneath cavernous brows and a forehead that sloped back rather sharply from them, the legacy of his unhuman father.
"Thank you, Ngangata, for explaining that," she replied, "though I haven't the faintest idea what you are talking about."
"It's what we brought you to see," Perkar explained, also dismounting. His hood was down, his short chestnut hair in wind-combed disarray. He was slighter than Ngangata, narrower in every dimension though nearly as bleached looking to Hezhi's eyes, many shades fairer than her own sienna complexion. Lighter by far than their other two companions, Yuu'han and Raincaster, who were both Mang tribesmen, flesh burned copper brown by the fierce sun of their native deserts and plains.
"You brought me to see nothing!" Hezhi answered. "Indeed, you tried to leave me behind." She gestured back toward the hills they had just spilled down, where the highlands crumbled into the more gradually rolling plains the Mang called huugau. But even as she said this, she blushed; Perkar was grinning broadly and Ngangata not at all, but the two Mang were both studiously looking down and away from her. After half a year among the Mang, she knew what that meant. They were trying to keep her from seeing their smiles, which meant Perkar was telling the truth. They had intentionally goaded her into following and let her catch them.
She pursed her lips and made to wheel Dark about.
"No, wait!" Perkar shouted, forgetting his own admonition to silence. "We just wanted to see how well you can ride."
"You could have merely asked," she replied icily. But she was curious. "What did you decide?"
"That you have learned to ride as well in six months as even many Mang do not in six years," Raincaster answered, turning his youthful, aquiline features frankly on her. That startled her. The Mang never dissembled when they spoke of riding skill.
"I—" She frowned in frustration. Was she supposed to be angry or not?
She decided not, and dismounted. On the ground, her legs felt wobbly, and the snow immediately began leaking cold into her feet to match the numbness of her nose. "What am I supposed to be seeing, anyway?"
Perkar gestured in the direction they had been riding. Here the huugau was gently rolling, as if a sky god had pressed down on the hills with a great palm. The ridges and valleys were still there, but they were so gradual that one could be fooled into thinking their high places merely represented the distant horizon; this was especially true, Hezhi found, when they were blanketed with snow. "Over the ridge," Perkar explained, and the Mang nodded their slight but clear assurances.
"Very well," Hezhi said. "Let us go, then." And with that she marched past the men, striding quickly toward the ridge.
Perkar stood rooted for an instant as Hezhi brushed past him, the hem of her long vermilion riding coat trailing imperiously behind her, short bob of obsidian hair bouncing with her stride.
He looked to the other men, but Ngangata was fighting a grin while the Mang studied the earth.
"I'll watch the horses," Yuu'han assured them, and Perkar nodded, started at a jog to catch up with Hezhi. She heard him coming, though, and broke into a run.
"No, Princess!" He tried to whisper loud enough for her to hear him, but it sounded only like steam escaping a kettle—and she heeded it no more than that. But then she reached the crest of the hill, and her booted feet slowed. Perkar came alongside of her just as she halted completely.
"By the River," she gasped, and Perkar had but to agree. In fact, the vista before them reminded him of the River, the Changeling, upon whose banks Hezhi had been born, a watercourse so wide one could scarcely see its far bank. But this river—the one before them—was of meat and bone, not water. It flowed brown and black, tinted reddish on the woolen crests of its waves, the humps where the great muscles of the beasts piled high behind their massive heads.
"Akwoshat," Perkar breathed in his own tongue, despite himself. "Wild cattle. More cattle than all of the stars in heaven."
"I have never seen anything ..." Hezhi trailed off, shaking her head. Her black eyes shimmered with wonder, and her mouth was pursed as if to say "oh!" She was very pretty, Perkar thought. One day she would be a beautiful woman.
"There's your Piraku, Perkar," Ngangata said softly, padding up behind them. "Drive a herd of those back to your pastures ..."
Perkar nodded. "Would that it were possible. Look at them. They are the most magnificent beasts I have ever seen."
Raincaster had arrived, as well. "You would never tame them, Cattle-Man," he whispered. "They are like the Mang, untameable."
"I believe it," Perkar acknowledged. At this distance it was hard to comprehend the proportions of the individual animals, but they seemed to be at least half again the size of the cattle he knew, and the proud, sharp horns of the largest could probably fit his body between them. These were the cattle of giants, of gods, not of Human Beings. But they were beautiful to behold.
"You really brought me to see this?" Hezhi asked, and Perkar suddenly understood that she was speaking to him, not to all of them.
"Yes, Princess, I really did."
"I wish you wouldn't call me that," she said.
To his surprise, she reached over and squeezed his hand. "Thank you. I forgive you for trying to make me break my neck riding down from the hill. Although we could have seen this just as easily coming down here at a leisurely pace."
"That's true. But admit it—you love riding. I've watched you learn."
"I admit it," she said, releasing his hand.
They stood there silently for a time, watching the slow progress of the herd. Now and then one of the beasts would bellow, a proud, fierce trumpet that sent chills straight to Perkar's bones. The wind shifted in their direction, and the smell of the wild cattle swirled about them, powerful and musky. He literally trembled with homesickness then, with such a fierce desire to see his father's damakuta and pastures—and the man himself—that he nearly wept. Flexing and unflexing his hands to warm them, he was only absently aware of the arrival of other riders behind them, of the soft crunch of boots approaching.
"Ah, well," a reedy voice piped. "Look at this, Heen. My nephew Raincaster has no more sense than to let our guests stray onto the open plain."
Raincaster turned to the new arrival and shrugged. "As soon hold the wind as this one," he replied, gesturing to Perkar. "Yuu'han and I thought it best to go with them—keep them in our sight."
"Heen," Perkar said, shaking himself from reverie to confront Raincaster's accuser, "tell Brother Horse that I have no time to travel at the pace of an old man."
Heen—a tired-looking spotted mutt—looked up when Perkar said his name, wagged his tail slightly, and then sniffed at the scent of cattle. If he conveyed Perkar's message to the old man who stood beside him, Perkar did not notice. Nonetheless, the old man—Brother Horse—glared at him. He was shorter than Perkar, most of the difference in height coming in his bandy, bowed legs. It was remarkable, Perkar thought, how the man's wide mouth could be downturned and still somehow convey a sly grin. It was, perhaps, the guileful twinkle in his dark eyes or, more likely still, the memory of a thousand smiles etched into the brown leather of his heavy square face.
"This pace has kept me alive much longer than yours is likely to serve you," Brother Horse admonished. "And you, Granddaughter," he said, shaking a finger at Hezhi. "You should be wise enough not to follow young men when they set out alone. I have never known an instance in which they failed to find whatever accidents wait along the trail. Let them go first, flush out the dangers. That is what young men are for."
"Oh," Hezhi replied, "I had no idea they had any use. Thank you, Shutsebe, for the advice."
"Yes, Shutsebe," Perkar said, bowing, calling Brother Horse "grandfather," as well. Of course neither he nor Hezhi was actually related to the old man, but referring to someone—sixty years old? eighty?—thus was only common courtesy. "And see, we have found all your dangers for you."
"Have you? Have you indeed?" Perkar shrugged. "You see them." He gestured at the cattle.
"I see them, but do you?"
Perkar frowned at the old man, puzzled.
"Raincaster?" Brother Horse asked.
The young Mang pointed with his lips, downslope and to their right. "Spotted Lion over there, crouched down, watching that straggling calf. She scents us, but she will stay away."
Brother Horse grinned at Perkar's gape of astonishment.
"A lion?" Hezhi asked. "A lion is near?"
Raincaster nodded. "That's why you shouldn't run off alone," he explained. "If the lioness had been watching the herd here rather than down there when you came running over ..." He shrugged. Perkar felt himself blushing at his own stupidity. Of course where there were wild herds there would be wild hunters.
"Why didn't you say something?" Hezhi demanded.
"I would have—later," Raincaster assured her. "When it would not be an embarrassment to speak it." The young man shot Brother Horse an admonishing glance.
Brother Horse only chuckled. "Raincaster, do not forget that they are like children in this land. We have to treat them that way." He stepped forward and clapped Perkar on the shoulder. "I don't mean that in a bad way, Perkar."
"I know that," Perkar replied. "And you are right, as usual."
"Everyone knows their own land the best," Ngangata put in. He had been silent throughout the whole exchange. "So I'm sure that Raincaster meant to mention the second lioness, downslope and on our left hand. Twenty paces." His voice, though a very faint whisper, got the attention of everyone. Even Brother Horse started a bit.
"Stand tall," the old man murmured. "Stand tall and walk back."
Perkar laid his hand on the hilt of his sword. "Harka?" he whispered.
"Yes?" his sword replied in a voice that was born just within the cup of his ear—a voice no one else could hear.
"This lioness ..."
"I was just noticing her. She may be a slight threat, but I sense no real intent to attack." Perkar suddenly felt his eyes move of their own accord, and a nearby jumble of rocks and scrubby bushes suddenly revealed, in their midst, a yellow eye and the darkened tip of a cat's muzzle.
"And the other? Why didn't you mention the other?"
"She is no danger at all. My task is to keep you alive, not to prevent you from appearing foolish. It would take more enchantment than I possess to fulfill that obligation."
"What of Hezhi? She might have been in danger, when first she ran up there."
"I can sense danger only to you, not to your friends," the sword replied.
And so the four of them walked backward until they reached their horses, where Perkar thought he heard Yuu'han—who, true to his word, had waited patiently for them—chuckle dryly.
They waited, mounted, while Raincaster went cautiously back to the ridge and made his offering to the god of the herd. Perkar could see the little wisp of smoke and hear the young man singing in a fine, clear voice. He feared that the lioness would choose to attack the lone warrior, but Raincaster went unmolested.
Perkar understood the man's determination to make the offering; back home he and his family sacrificed daily to keep the good graces of the gods of their pasture—how much more important that must be here, where the land was untamed, where many of the gods must be like the lioness, seeing them only as potential prey. He shivered. It put what he and Ngangata were soon to do into a different perspective. And it had been foolish of him to so endanger Hezhi; though she had learned more than seemed possible in a few months, it was important to remember that she had been a captive in her father's palace for nearly her entire life. She did not even have the natural cautions he did, and his served him poorly in this treeless land. Inwardly he nodded. Any thoughts he had entertained of asking the young woman to join Ngangata and him on their journey vanished. She would be safe with Brother Horse; he knew the ways of this country, had survived them for many years.
The decision brought many kinds of relief with it. It was undeniable that he was developing some small sort of affection for Hezhi, though it would be impossible to articulate exactly what he felt. In her, pain and distrust were so tightly bound; he wished sometimes that he could draw her into his arms and somehow understand, soothe away some of that hurt. But she would detest such closeness; it would harden her. And at other times, he had no wish to touch Hezhi at all, much less hold her. There was still so much for him to forget, when it came to her ...
As Raincaster sang, the remainder of the Mang hunting expedition came down out of the hills, slowed by the travois their horses carried, packed with meat, pine nuts, and skins for winter clothing. All told, they numbered some thirty men and women and fifty horses. The thin cry of an infant rose clearly from the approaching riders. For the past two months they had all camped in the hills, hunting, singing, and drinking. It had been a good time, and it had given him some chance to heal, to forget his crimes, to be merely a man of eighteen, hunting and riding with Ngangata, Yuu'han, and Raincaster. Now, however, it was time to shoulder his burdens once again.
Excerpted from The Blackgod by Greg Keyes. Copyright © 1997 J. Gregory Keyes. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted January 11, 2001
Keyes made an excellent book with the Waterborn with and original story line and original characters. In the Blackgod he keeps up the excellence and is a great respite from traditional books with the Medieval Ages all about them. It ties up all loose ends and makes a surprising ending. All in all this book is abound with twists and turns and is recommended to anyone who reads.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 31, 2000
The first book he wrote was outstanding ( the waterborn) the second matched up or, maybe, even surpassed its 1st. The book is about now how Hezhi is finally away from the changeling she and Perkar must fight other obstacles to keep her safe and defeat the Changeling once and for all. This book is trully breath taking, the series is now my favorite book of all time. At times I wanted to put it down , even force myself to put it down, because I was sad to see it come to an end.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 23, 2009
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Posted February 2, 2010
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