Read an Excerpt
Land of the Burning Sands
By Neumeier, Rachel
OrbitCopyright © 2010 Neumeier, Rachel
All right reserved.
Gereint Enseichen sat on a narrow pallet in the lowest cellar of the Anteirden townhouse, waiting. He leaned against the rough stones of the wall, stretched his legs out before him, and listened to fierce sand-filled winds over his head pare the cobbles of the street down to bare earth. He could hear the savage wind, the scouring sand, faint crashes that marked the explosions of distant windows, the cracking of wooden beams, the collapse of stone walls: the destruction of the city under the ruthless wind and heat. Sometimes the very earth that surrounded him seemed to tremble in sympathy with the storm above.
Of course, the house’s cellar was deep. Maybe Gereint only imagined he heard those sounds. Maybe he only imagined the occasional faint shaking of the earth. But if he went up the first flight of stairs to the upper cellar and then up the second flight to the door to the kitchens… If he did that, he would surely find the storm. Surely it had by now raked down from the north and fallen across Melentser. If it filled the world outside, it would be dangerous to go up those stairs.
Or if he imagined the faint sounds of destruction, if the storm hadn’t yet arrived… it might be, for Gereint, more dangerous still.
Only if the storm had already come and destroyed Melentser and blown itself out would it be safe for him to leave the safety of the deep cellar. Gereint tilted his head, listening. Maybe the faint screaming of the wind, the raking hiss of blown sand, was his imagination. Maybe those sounds were not his imagination at all. Either way, he had no intention of going up those stairs. Not until he was certain the Fellesteden household was well away—and until he had given the storm ample time to arrive, rake across the city, and die.
According to Andreikan Warichteier’s Principia, distance alone would break a geas. On the other hand, Pechorichen held, along with most other authorities, that only death could do that. How Warichteier had tested his idea was not clear, as no one geas bound could walk away from the man who “held the other end of the chain” unless he was given leave to go. But Gereint had not walked away from Perech Fellesteden. He had simply allowed Fellesteden to walk away from him.
If the geas actually broke, that would be best. If it merely became quiescent, that would do. Just so long as Gereint was not driven to follow the road south after his master, he should do very well. At the moment, he felt merely uneasy. He knew Fellesteden must be furious with him. But, sealed away beneath stone and earth, he was unable to hear his master’s call, blind to the man’s undoubted fury. The geas could not compel him to follow a man who was not there.
Or so Gereint fervently hoped.
The desert’s coming had driven everyone in Melentser into chaotic retreat southward, on roads never meant to accommodate such a massive number of refugees. Or… probably not quite everyone. Gereint wondered how many others might be tucked away in cellars and wellhouses, waiting for the desert to drive the upstanding citizens of Melentser out of the city. The desperate, the stupid, the mad, those unfortunates both crippled and destitute: Probably few of her last inhabitants would survive Melentser’s fall by more than a day or so.
Gereint counted himself among the desperate rather than the stupid or the mad, and hoped he would find no reason to change his mind. He had made good use of the scant days of preparation. No one had been able to keep careful count of supplies in those last days: Pilfering had been easy and nearly safe. Here in the cellar, he had a bottle of the Fellesteden’s best wine, two rare books from the Fellesteden library, a change of clothing, decent boots a little loose in the ankle, a few coins, nine fat candles, two lanterns and four jars of oil, a twelve-hour sand timer, a bag of apples, some fresh bread and soft cheese, plenty of the hard cracker and dried beef that travelers carried, and six skins of clean water. He had not had time to make the waterskins himself, but these were the best he had been able to find. They should keep the water clean and cool; they wouldn’t leak or spoil. They were for later. For the present, he had a small barrel, which had once held ale and that he had refilled with water before lugging it, with some difficulty, down to this cellar.
Aside from his own stolen supplies, there was nothing in this low cellar but empty racks where wine had been stored. It was a pity that all the racks were empty. The Anteirdens had been renowned for the quality of their wines. But they had left nothing behind when they closed their house, which they had done quickly: Berent Anteirden, head of the Anteirden household, was a decisive man and not inclined to risk his family by dithering. Unlike Perech Fellesteden, who had indeed dithered and let his own household’s flight become… usefully chaotic.
Was he hearing the sound of sand scraping against stone overhead? Or was the sound merely in his mind? Gereint squinted up at the close-fitted stones of the ceiling and decided the sound was real. Probably.
To drive back the dark and his too ready imagination, he lit the second lantern as well as the first. This was profligate, but he had plenty of oil. He had made the lanterns himself and stolen only quality oil for them; the light was luxuriously clean and clear. There was nothing to do but wait for the dry storm to blow itself out. He did not intend to go up those stairs until enough time had passed to reasonably suspect it had. He picked up one of the books, Gestechan Wanastich’s history of Meridanium, and let it fall open at random. Illuminations picked out in gold and powdered pearl glittered around the measured stanzas that marched down the page: On this night, my friends, on this night of fire and iron / On this dark night of fire and rage / When we leave our wives weeping behind us / To play the game of death among the broken stones where the deadly wind cries…
Gereint closed the book and set it aside. All his masters had been men of learning, or at least had wished to pass themselves off as such. Inclined toward old beautiful books even as a child, Gereint had learned early that a slave’s best comfort and surest escape was to be found in black ink and painted illuminations, in philosophy and history and poetry. But perhaps not Wanastich’s poetry, just at this moment when all his hope was bent on a more literal and far more dangerous kind of escape.
The other book was also a history, Berusent’s great Casmant Historica. At least it contained no grim poetry, Berusent not being of a particularly dour temperament. Gereint picked it up, opened it to an account of the founding of Breidechboden, and read a few lines. But he found he could not concentrate. He put this book, too, aside, folded his arms across his chest, and stared at the ceiling.
How long would it take the storm of wind and sand to consume a city? A day, a night, and another day? That was how long Anteirch’s account gave for the destruction of Sarachren. But then, Anteirch had fancied himself a poet. “A day, a night, and another day” was a poetical convention if Gereint had ever heard one. How long had it really taken? One day, three days, ten? Sarachren’s destruction had happened too long ago, been recounted by too many unreliable historians. No one knew how long it would take for Melentser to disappear into the red desert. But if the storm took longer than three or four days to settle, Gereint would surely wish he’d stolen more food.
The sand timer ran down three times—counting off, as it happened, a day, a night, and another day—before Gereint lost patience and allowed himself to go up the first flight of stairs and open the heavy, close-fitted door that led to the upper cellar. He paused, then, listening. There was no sound at all. The air was different: not cool and moist. It was light and dry, with an unfamiliar scent to it. Like… hot iron, hot stone. Maybe. Or maybe that was his imagination again. But a haze of dust glittered and moved in the light of his lantern. That was not imagination.
He went up the second flight of stairs. Red dust had sifted under the kitchen door and down the steps. It gritted underfoot; it puffed into the air when he scuffed it with his foot. When he gripped the stair railing, his hand left pale prints in the dust. He touched the door. But then he merely stood there for a long, long moment. He told himself there was nothing to fear. He heard nothing, even when he pressed his ear to the door. The storm… probably the storm had subsided. And if that was so, then there was nothing to fear. No one would be in the kitchens. No one would be in the house. No one would be in the city—certainly no one important. Probably nothing would move in the broad streets of Melentser but wind and sand and one desperate man willing to risk losing his life in the desert if he could only lose the geas as well… Lifting his hand, Gereint rubbed his thumb across the brand on his face. The smooth scar of the brand still felt strange to his touch, though it had been there nearly half his life.
The door’s brass knob was warm to the touch. Gereint turned it and pushed. The door did not budge. It was not locked: Gereint could feel the latch move. He shoved harder. To no avail.
He knew at once that sand had drifted across the door. Perhaps a lot of sand. Perhaps the kitchen was filled with it; perhaps the house was buried in it… Terror smelled like hot metal and hot stone: Fear lived in a handful of red dust. Gereint shoved frantically.
The door gave. Not much. But enough to suggest it could be forced open. Enough to let him push back panic, breathe deeply, stop fighting, and think.
The pressure was against the lower part of the door. He set his back against the stone wall of the stair landing and his feet against the door right at the base and pushed steadily.
The door opened a crack, heavily. Heat and light poured through the crack, and sand, and plenty of red dust. If there had been more than a few inches of sand on the other side of the door, Gereint would not have been able to open it. He couldn’t quite block out this realization, though he tried. It was a well-made, sturdy door: Strong as he was, he probably would not have been able to break it. Clever fool: clever enough to hide in a nice, cool, secret death-trap… Anger as well as fear loaned him the strength to shove harder on the door, against the sand that had piled up against it.
The crack widened. Light and heat, dust and sand, and through it all that strange dry smell to the air, as though heat itself had a scent. Red sand and silence… He found the kitchen empty and silent when he finally had a gap wide enough to force himself through. The shutters on the windows were not merely broken, but missing. Splinters clung to the twisted brass hinges. The door that had led to the kitchen garden was missing as well. And the garden, itself: gone. Buried under sand, which had drifted much more deeply outside than in. Dust eddied in the corner where a white-barked birch had stood. No trace of the tree remained. Gereint could see the Fellesteden townhouse, but… ruined, nearly unrecognizable—half the roof and part of the wall broken, the brick deeply etched by blowing sand. The house looked a hundred years old. Two hundred.
Everything outside the house was drowned in heavy light and red sand.
By the angle of the sun, it was late afternoon. Gereint scooped sand away from the kitchen door and retreated back down into the cellars. It seemed to him that even the deeper cellar was drier and warmer now; that the smell of hot stone was perceptible even here. He shut the heavy cellar door, looked down at the red dust that had settled on the floor, and wondered how far the desert now extended.
His supplies… He had never thought himself generously supplied. But he had thought his supplies at least adequate. Now he thought of the powerful heat and red sand and tried not to doubt it.
That evening, as the powerful sun sank low in the west, Gereint sat in the shade of a broken wall, waiting for sundown and looking out across the ruins of Melentser. The sun was blood red and huge; its crimson light poured across broken stone and brick, across streets drifted with sand. Dust hazed the air, which smelled of hot stone and hot brass. Scattered narrow fingers of jagged red stone had grown somehow out of this new desert: a new inhuman architecture of twisted knife-edged towers. These strange cliffs were like nothing Gereint had ever seen. They pierced the streets, shattered townhouses, reached sharp fingers toward the sky. If one had torn its way out of the earth beneath the Anteirden house… But, though he flinched from the images that presented themselves to his mind, none had. Now the red towers cast long shadows across the shattered city.
Nothing moved among those towers but the creeping shadows and the drifting sand. And the griffins. A dozen or so were in sight at any given moment, though rarely close. But three of them passed overhead as the sky darkened, so near that Gereint imagined he could hear the harsh rush of the wind through the feathers of their wings. He stared upward, trying to stay very small and still against the dubious shelter of his wall. If the griffins saw him, they did not care: They flew straight as spears across the sky and vanished.
The griffins were larger than he had expected, and… different in other ways from the creatures he’d imagined, but he could not quite count off those differences in his mind. They looked to him like creatures made by some great metalsmith: feathers of bronze and copper, pelts of gold… Gereint had heard they bled garnets and rubies. He doubted this. How would anyone find that out? Stick one with a spear and wait around to watch it bleed? That did not seem like something one would be able to write an account of afterward.
Spreading shadows hid the red cliffs, the streets, the kitchen yard where once the garden had grown. Overhead, stars came out. The stars looked oddly hard and distant, but the constellations, thankfully, had not changed. And he thought there was enough light from the stars and the sliver of the moon to see his way, if he was careful.
Gereint stood up. His imagination populated the darkness around him with predatory griffins waiting to pounce like cats after a careless rabbit. But when he stepped cautiously away from the wall, he found nothing but sand and darkness.
He had already drunk as much water as he could from the barrel. Now he picked up his travel sack, slung its strap across his shoulder, and walked out into the empty streets. He carried very little: the candles and a flint to light them, the travel food, one change of clothing and a handful of coins, and the six skins of water. More than he had truly owned for years.
The hot-brass smell of the desert seemed stronger now that he was moving. Heat pressed down from the unseen sky and hammered upward from the barely seen sand under his boots. He had read that the desert was cold at night. Though the furnace heat of the day had eased, this night was far from cold. The heat seemed to weigh down the air in his lungs and drag at his feet. The sand, drifted deep across the streets, was hard to walk through. Both the heat and the sand bothered him far more than he had expected.
He did not head south nor straight east toward the river. Those were the ways the people of Melentser had gone, and above all he did not want to walk up on the heels of any refugees from the city. He walked north and east instead, toward the unpeopled mountains. His greatest fear seemed unfounded: The geas did not stop him choosing his own direction. He could tell that it was still alive, but it was not active. He felt no pull from it at all.
Casmantium did not claim the country to the north, the mountains beyond the desert—no one claimed that land. Rugged and barren, snow capped and dragon haunted, men did not find enough of value in the great mountains to draw them into the far north. But a single determined man might make his way quietly through those mountains, meeting no men and disturbing no sleeping monsters, all two hundred miles or more to the border Casmantium shared with Feierabiand. The cold magecraft that shaped geas bonds was not a discipline of gentle Feierabiand: When a geas-bound man crossed into that other country, the geas should… not merely break. It should vanish. It should be as though it had never been set.
Or so Warichteier said, and Fenescheiren’s Analects agreed. Gereint was very interested in testing that claim.
Maps suggested that the foothills of the mountains should be little more than forty miles from Melentser. On a good road in fair weather, a strong man should be able to walk that far in one night. Two at the outside. Across trackless sand, through pounding heat… three, perhaps? Four? Surely not more than four. How far did the desert now extend around Melentser? All the way to those foothills? He had planned for each skin of water to last for one whole night and day. Now, surrounded by the lingering heat, he suspected that they might not last so long.
While in the ruins of the city, he found it impossible to walk a straight line for any distance: Not only did the streets twist about, but sometimes they were blocked by fallen rubble or by stark red cliffs. Then Gereint had to pick his way through the fallen brick and timbers, or else find a way around, or sometimes actually double back and find a different route through the ruins of the city. He could not go quickly even when the road was clear; there was not enough light. Yet he did not dare light a candle for fear of the attention its glow might draw.
So it took a long time to get out of Melentser; a long time to clamber over and around one last pile of rubble and find himself outside the city walls. A distance that should have taken no more than two hours had required three times that, and how long were the nights at this time of year? Not long, not yet. They were nowhere close to the lengthening nights of autumn. How quickly would the heat mount when the sun rose? Gereint studied the constellations once more, took a deep breath of the dry air, drank a mouthful of water, and walked into the desert.
The stars moved across the sky; the thin moon drew a high arc among them. The arrowhead in the constellation of the Bow showed Gereint true east. He set his course well north of east and walked fast. The night had never grown cool. There was a breeze, but it was hot and blew grit against his face. Sometimes he walked with his eyes closed. It was so dark that this made little difference.
Already tired, he found that the heat rising from the sand seemed to lay a glaze across his mind, so that he walked much of the time in a half-blind trance. Twisted pillars and tilted walls of stone sometimes barred his way. Twice, he almost walked straight into such a wall. Each time he was warned at the last moment by the heat radiating into the dark from the stone. Each time he fought himself alert, turned well out of his way to clear the barrier, and then looked for the Bow again. Usually the ground was level, but once, after Gereint had been walking for a long time, he stumbled over rough ground and fell to his knees; the shock woke him from a blank stupor and, blinking at the sky, he realized he had let himself turn west of north, straight into the deep desert. He had no idea how long he had been walking the wrong way.
Then he realized that he could see a tracery of rose gray in the east. And then he realized that he was carrying a waterskin in his hand, and that it was empty. It had not even lasted one entire night.
The sun rose quickly, surely peeking over the horizon more quickly than it would have in a more reasonable land. Its first strong rays ran across the desert sands and fell across Gereint, and as they did, he felt the geas bond to Perech Fellesteden fail. It snapped all at once, like the links of a chain finally parting under relentless strain. Gereint staggered. Stood still for a moment, incredulous joy running through him like fire.
Then the sun came fully above the horizon, and Gereint immediately discovered that he’d been wrong to believe the desert hot at night. Out here in the open, the power of the sun was overwhelming. Unimaginable. No wonder the sunlight had broken the geas; Gereint could well believe the sun’s power might melt any ordinary human magic. Once well up in the sky, the sun seemed smaller and yet far more fierce than any sun he’d ever known; the sky was a strange metallic shade: not blue, not exactly white. The very light that blazed down around him was implacably hostile to men and all their works. Indeed, hostility was layered all through this desert. It was not an ordinary desert, but a country of fire and stone where nothing of the gentler earth was meant to live. The great poet Anweierchen had written, “The desert is a garden that blooms with time and silence.” Gereint would not have called it a garden of any kind. It was a place of death, and it wanted him to die.
He had hoped he might be able to walk for some of the morning. But, faced with the hammer-fierce sun, he did not even try. He went instead to the nearest red cliff and flung himself down in its shade.
The day was unendurable. Gereint endured it only because he had no other option. As the sun moved through its slow arc, he moved with it, shifting around the great twisting pillar of stone to stay in its shade. But even in the shade, heat radiated from the sand underfoot and blazed from the stone. He could not lie down, for the heat from the ground drove him up; he sat instead and bowed his head against his knees. The sleep he managed was more like short periods of unconsciousness; the twin torments of heat and thirst woke him again and again.
He stayed as far from the stone as he could get and yet remain in its shade, but the short shadows of midday drove him within an arm’s length of the cliff and then he thought he might simply bake like bread in an oven. The occasional breeze of the night was gone; the air hung heavy and still, very much as it must within an oven. If there were griffins, Gereint did not see them. He saw something else, once, or thought he did: a trio of long-necked animals, like deer, with pelts of gold and long black scimitar horns that flickered with fire. They ran lightly across the sand near him, flames blooming from the ground where their hooves struck the sand. As they came upon Gereint, the deer paused and turned their heads, gazing at him from huge molten eyes, as though utterly amazed to find a human man in their fiery desert. As well they might be, he supposed.
Then the deer startled, enormous ears tilting in response to some sound Gereint could not hear, and flung themselves away in long urgent leaps. They left behind only little tongues of fire dancing in their hoof prints.
But perhaps he only hallucinated the flames. Or the deer. The heat was surely sufficiently intense to create hallucinations. Though he would rather have seen a vision of a quiet lake where graceful willows trailed their leaves…
He could not eat. The thought of food nauseated him. But Gereint longed for water. His lips had already cracked and swollen. Berentser Gereimarn, poet and natural philosopher, had written that, in a desert, the best place to carry water was in the body; that if a man tried to ration his water, he would weaken himself while the water simply evaporated right from the waterskin and was lost entirely. Gereint wanted very badly to believe this. That would give him every reason to drink all the water in his second waterskin. But Gereimarn had been a better poet than philosopher: His assertions were often unreliable. And the thought of emptying yet another skin of water in his first day, of being trapped in the desert with no water left, was terrifying. Gereint measured the slow movement of the sun and allowed himself three mouthfuls every hour.
Even at midsummer, even in the desert, the sun did have to retreat eventually. Shadows lengthened. The hammering heat eased—not enough, never enough. But it eased. Gereint got to his feet before the sun was quite down and walked away from the stone that had, all day, both sheltered and threatened to kill him. He walked quickly, because now that the heat was not so desperately unendurable, what he really wanted to do was collapse into an exhausted sleep. But if he did that, if he did not use every possible hour for walking, he knew he would never reach the end of the desert.
How long had he estimated for a man to walk forty miles? Fifty, if he could not keep a straight course? He worked out the sums again laboriously in his head. He felt he was trying to think with a mind as thick and slow as molasses, but it helped him stay awake enough to keep his direction clear. He worked the sums a second time, doubting his conclusion, and then a third. How quickly was he walking? Not fast, not once his first burst of speed had been exhausted. Not four miles an hour. As fast as two? That would make it sixteen miles in eight hours. Sixteen? Yes, of course, sixteen. Or if he managed three miles in an hour, wouldn’t that be… twenty-four miles? That would surely take him clear of the desert by dawn. Wait, were the nights eight hours long at this time of year? He should know the answer to that… Anyone would know that… He could not remember. If he could get to the mountains by morning… He had to. How fast was he walking?
Gereint stopped, sat down, and finished all the water in the second skin and half the water in the third. He made himself eat some of the cracker and dried beef. He had lived through one day in the desert; he doubted he would survive another. So he needed to walk fast and not let himself fall into a heat-induced trance, and to walk fast he needed strength.
He did feel stronger when he got back to his feet. He found the arrow’s head in the Bow and set his direction. Then he counted his steps. He allowed himself a mouthful of water every two hundred steps. He counted in a rhythm to keep himself from slowing down. When he stumbled and caught himself and realized he’d once again been walking in a daze, he began to count by threes. Then by sevens. Then backward from five thousand, by elevens. He told himself that if he lost count, he’d have to start over and forfeit his mouthful of water. That self-imposed threat helped him keep alert.
He finished the third skin of water and began on the fourth. He tried to suck on a pebble, but the pebbles of this desert neither felt nor tasted right in his mouth; they tasted of heat and hot copper and fire. He spat one out quickly, drank an extra mouthful of water, and tried to fix his thoughts on the northern mountains. There would be streams running down from the heights; it might be raining. He could hardly imagine rain.
It crossed his mind that it might be raining in the south. Perech Fellesteden had intended to take his family all the way south to the luxurious southern city of Abreichan: He had property there. Well, Fellesteden had property everywhere, but his holdings in Abreichan were among the largest.
If Gereint had gone with his master, he would be in the south. Maybe walking through the rain. But… he would still be with Perech Fellesteden.
Lifting a hand, Gereint traced the brand on his face with the ball of his thumb. Traced it again. Lowered his hand and lengthened his stride.
It occurred to him some time later that the ground was tending somewhat upward.
Then the sun sent its first deceptively gentle rose glow above the eastern horizon.
Gereint stopped and waited, straining his eyes for the first glimpse ahead of the mountains. He felt he was poised at the tip of a moment; that though the sun was rising, time was not actually passing; that the whole desert waited with him for the answer to the question of time and distance.
Then the sun rose, blazing. Heat slammed down across the desert like a smith’s hammer on a glowing anvil. Ahead of him, dim in the distance, Gereint saw the first high foothills that led up to the great mountains. As far as he could see, the hills were red with fiery sand. Heat shimmered across them.
Gereint stared at the hills for a long moment. Then he laughed—it was not much of a laugh, but he meant to laugh. He drank the rest of the water in the fourth skin in one draught. Then he threw the skin aside and strode forward, straight into the teeth of the sun.
That burst of defiance lasted only very few minutes. Then, from striding, Gereint found himself suddenly on his hands and knees, with no memory of falling. For a moment he thought he might simply lie down and let the heat finish killing him. But the desert was too profoundly inimical; he could not bring himself simply to give way to it. He crawled instead into the shadow of a narrow bladelike spire that pierced the hot air and collapsed in its meager protection. Red heat beat up through him from the sand and closed down around him from the air, but he did not know it.
He woke in cool mist, surrounded by green light that filtered through branches dripping with water. A blanket guarded him from falling drops. A fire crackled an arm’s length away, its tiny warmth a comfort rather than a threat. He was not thirsty. In fact, he felt a languid sense of well-being that at first was too foreign to recognize. Fragrant steam rose from a pot on the fire… Soup, he recognized eventually. The recognition drifted through the languor without urgency.
“Are you hungry?” a voice asked.
Gereint thought about this question. He did not quite know the answer, nor did it seem important. The voice was unfamiliar. A faint uneasiness made its way through the clinging vagueness.
“Can you sit up?” the voice asked him. “Come, now. Try.”
Gereint did try, the uneasiness biting more sharply. He found himself weak, but less so than he had expected. A hand on his shoulder supported his effort… He turned his head, trying to focus his gaze on the owner of that hand. His vision faded oddly in and out.
“That will pass,” the voice reassured him. “You need food; that’ll get you back in proper order. Can you hold this mug? Try. Drink.”
Gereint closed his eyes and sipped. It was a rich broth, thick with bits of meat, not beef… not mutton… venison, maybe. He drank the broth and found his attention sharpening, the languor receding. Strength seemed to pour outward from his belly through all his limbs. A recollection of the desert came back to him, the long walk and the final glimpse of the red desert going right up into the distant hills. The memory was vivid and yet seemed somehow long ago. It held little horror, and no terror.
Then he remembered the reason he had walked into the desert, and terror went through him like the crack of a whip. He put the mug down sharply—the handle broke off in his hand, he was dimly aware—and looked for his… benefactor.
The man wore the sort of good, tough, well-made clothing that any ordinarily prosperous man might wear for traveling, though the ring on his left hand looked more than ordinarily valuable. He was plump, round faced, older than Gereint… maybe in his fifties. Not tall. Not intimidating. He even looked kind, for what little that impression might be worth. But he was not meeting Gereint’s eyes.
Then he did. And that was worse. There was a knowledge in that gaze that Gereint had desperately hoped he would never see again.
Gereint tossed the blanket back, got to his feet, and stared down at his own bare feet. His boots were gone. Fellesteden’s little silver chains were no longer woven through the steel rings that pierced his ankles between bone and tendon. Instead, each ring was woven through by a neat little cord.
This was not exactly a surprise. Gereint had not needed to see those cords to feel the renewed bite of the geas. He lifted his gaze again, slowly.
The other man looked nervous, as a man might who was alone in the mountains with another, stronger man of dubious character and temper. But he also looked self-assured. He didn’t seem wealthy enough to have owned geas-bound… servants. Even so, Gereint was sure the man knew exactly what he’d done with those cords.
Gereint made his voice soft. An easy, quiet voice. Not defiant, not angry, not frightened. Just… soft. Coaxing. “Let me go. You’re kind… I can see that. There’s no risk to you in letting me go. You don’t even need to cut those cords. You can just tell me to walk away, not to come back. And I will. I promise you, that’s all I want: a chance to walk away into the mountains…”
“Be quiet,” said the man.
So he wasn’t intimately familiar with the limits of the geas after all. That was, on the whole, rather more reassuring than not. Gereint did not point out his mistake, but obediently shut his mouth and waited.
“Kneel,” ordered the man.
Gereint dropped immediately to his knees, not waiting for the bite of the geas to enforce the command. He bowed his head, though his new master hadn’t commanded that. They had to try their power; it meant nothing. There was no reason to take it personally. It was what they did later that mattered, after they discovered they could do anything.
“All right,” said the man. “Get up.”
He sounded uneasy, which might be good… or otherwise. Some of the worst masters were the ones who felt guilty about the power they held over you. A man like this, prosperous but not noble, might well be one of that sort. Gereint got to his feet. Glancing covertly at his master, he said gently, “You don’t need to do this, honored sir. It’s not required. You can simply command me to walk away.”
The man looked uncomfortable, but he shook his head. “I need you, you see. My—my companion died, in the desert. And then my poor burro… You were really much too heavy for her.” He glanced regretfully at the pot simmering over the fire, a glance that suggested the final fate of the burro. “Everything was so much more difficult than I expected…”
Gereint could believe that, at least. He said softly, even knowing the effort was hopeless, “I’ll help you with anything you need, sir. You saved my life, didn’t you? You don’t need the geas, I promise you. Or I’ll help you now, and then, later, all you need to do is tell me to walk away…”
The man shook his head. “What did you do?” he asked abruptly.
“Nothing. I was not guilty,” Gereint declared without hesitation. “I had powerful enemies, the judge made a mistake, I was condemned unjustly. Will you compound the injustice?”
Surprise gave way to disbelief and then to a kind of wry humor. “Yes, I recall Andreikan Warichteier says in his Principia Magicoria that the geas gives no control over the tongue, the eyes, or the thoughts. What did you really do?”
A first glance had definitely not suggested such perceptiveness. Nor had Gereint expected any random traveler to have read Warichteier’s difficult and often abstruse Principia. He should have remembered that the man had known he could use a plain cord. Most people thought you needed the little silver chains mandated by custom. This man was more acute than he looked. Gereint let his face show something of his surprise and dismay and exclaimed without hesitation, “Nothing, honored sir! That is the truth.”
The man tilted his head to one side, regarding Gereint with something that might almost have been sympathy. “I need your help,” he declared. “And I won’t release a dangerous criminal.” He glanced around at the damp woods that surrounded them. “Even here, though I admit it seems unlikely you could do any harm here. You were in Melentser, I suppose? Where did you mean to go? Feierabiand? It’s a long way. Even so…” His brows arched interrogatively.
There was no reason to deny it. Gereint shrugged. “Feierabiand, yes. But the desert was much worse than I’d expected. But why were you…?” He cut the question off short, bowing his head.
But the man did not seem to notice the impudence. “Collecting some things from a private residence. I see you brought a few books out with you, too.” He gestured at Gereint’s small pack, lying beside his own. Then he shook his head, apparently in wonder at Gereint’s folly. Or maybe at his own. Said, with obvious pain and grief, “A few hours in, it was supposed to be; a few hours out. How difficult could that be?”
Gereint would have offered fervent agreement, only it wasn’t his place.
The man sighed and glanced around at the woods, green and dripping even though the mist had cleared. Then he looked sharply at Gereint. “What’s your name? How do you feel? You should be quite recovered. Are you?”
“Gereint,” Gereint said. “Yes… master. I think so.”
A second sharp look, this one distinctly uncomfortable. “I’m Eben Amnachudran. Call me by my name, please.” He glanced around once more. “There’s plenty of time left in the day. Put your boots on. Have another mug of soup. There’s some cracker in a pouch by the fire. Have some of that if you like.” He walked away, began putting things away in a good-quality traveler’s pack.
Gereint put his boots on, binding the steel rings flat against his ankles with strips of cloth so they wouldn’t chafe. He had another mug of soup and some of the hard cracker. He felt… well. Amazingly well. Too well. He wanted to ask the man… his master… he wanted to ask if he had done something, what he had done. But those questions might be dangerous, and anyway the answers were tolerably obvious. So his new master was a mage of some sort, and with at least a little skill in healing. Likely he would not care to have Gereint asking about such things. Better to test his new master’s temper with simpler questions.
Along with the ordinary pack, there were saddlebags. Four of them. Heavy, as though they’d been loaded with bricks. Gereint tried to picture the plump, soft-handed Amnachudran carrying even two of them for any distance, and failed. No wonder he’d brought a burro. And a companion. A friend, from the grief in his voice when he spoke of the man. Killed by the desert. That was certainly believable. The desert was visible from the woods: a straight line that cut across the hills. Behind that line was brilliant furnace heat blazing down on red sand and stone. On this side, trees dripping with moisture and a rain-fed stream racing its way down the mountainside across gray rocks. The stream ran straight into the desert and vanished; even the old streambed was barely discernable on the other side of the line. A long dimple in the sand, and then nothing.
“I think I can manage the pack and one of the saddlebags,” Amnachudran said, coming briskly over to Gereint. “Do you think you can carry the other three?”
Gereint gave him a sidelong glance. “What if I said no?”
“I would tell you to try.”
“I could probably carry all four.”
“Try three for now.” The plump man hefted the fourth, grunting, along with the two light packs. He glanced at the sky, heaved a resigned breath, and plodded away, east and south. Toward the Teschanken River, Gereint surmised. And then south along the river, toward Metichteran? Or across the river toward Tashen? He didn’t ask. That was a good example of a question that patience would answer.
Three saddlebags, none of them made to sling properly from a man’s back, were an awkward load. On the other hand, compared to walking unburdened through the griffins’ terrible desert… there was no comparison. Even carrying three bags to Amnachudran’s one, Gereint found he had to slow his stride to match his… master’s. At first, he followed the other man. Then, seeing it made Amnachudran uncomfortable to have him at his back, he came up unbidden to walk beside him. The man gave him a grunt of acknowledgment and for a time they walked in silence. The woods dripped. Birds sang. Somewhere high overhead, a hawk cried. Gnats whined, but fortunately did not seem inclined to bite.
Amnachudran called a halt after about two hours. He dropped his saddlebag and the packs heavily to the ground beside another of the many little streams and stood for a moment with his hands braced on his knees. At last he straightened slowly, with a groan. He looked older now. The plump softness gave him a young sort of face, but Gereint revised his estimate of the man’s true age upward.
Gereint dropped his three heavy bags beside the one. He wondered what was in them. Nothing that rattled or clanked or chimed. Unless it was packed so as not to rattle or clank or chime. Maybe he would find a chance to look through a bag later. Maybe Amnachudran would catch him at it. Maybe the things in those bags were secret and important, mages’ things. Exactly the wrong kinds of things to be caught examining. He measured Amnachudran with a covert glance. Then he made a fire, found the small pot, filled it with water, and got out the packet of tea and a mug.
Amnachudran watched all this, frowning. “I didn’t tell you to do that.”
“I have to do everything you say.” Gereint measured out tea. “That doesn’t mean I can’t do anything without your command. Do you not want tea… master? Ah, forgive me. Amnachudran, sir.”
Amnachudran ignored this small provocation. He asked, “Why did you get out only one mug?”
Gereint was honestly surprised. He sat back on his heels, regarding the other man. “You expected me to get out two? That would be presumptuous.”
“But you seem—” The other man stopped.
“Ah.” Gereint felt a tug of reluctant amusement. He kept forgetting Amnachudran’s perceptiveness. Or wanting to trust his kindness. Or even both. Worse than foolish: dangerous. And surprising. He said after a moment, “Yes, but carefully. Nothing quite so blatant as… ah… getting out two mugs.”
“Get another out,” said Amnachudran. He sat down on a rock beside the stream.
Gereint found the mug with the broken handle and measured out more tea.
“How long have you been…?”
Gereint didn’t look up. “Nineteen years.”
A short pause. Then, “How old are you?”
Gereint brought his master a mug, kneeling to hand it to him so he wouldn’t loom over the smaller man. “Forty-two.”
“Almost half your life… What did you do?”
“Murdered the governor of Breidechboden.”
Amnachudran choked on a mouthful of tea, coughed, caught his breath, stared at Gereint, and at last laughed incredulously. “You didn’t!”
“Well, no, I didn’t,” agreed Gereint. He went back to the fire, folded his hands around the other mug. Sipped, watching Amnachudran carefully over the edge of the mug. “I was caught plotting to assassinate the king himself, which he should have expected after he forbade public houses to serve ale after midnight. What does he expect young louts to get up to if they’re thrown out on the streets while still sober enough to stagger?”
Amnachudran, undoubtedly remembering the uproar about that short-lived law, laughed again.
“No,” Gereint conceded. “Not that either. I told you, I didn’t do anything. I had the wrong enemies and not enough friends.” Not enough friends and too many cousins, and too many of those had turned out to be among his enemies… He hadn’t intended to speak truth to this man, and paused for a moment, hearing bitter truth echo unexpectedly in those last words.
Trying to shake off a sudden surge of bitterness—not a helpful emotion, for a slave—he said, just a little too harshly, “I’ll carry these bags wherever you require. Please… once I have, let me go. You don’t need to trust me. Do you think I’ll stay anywhere in Casmantium?” He traced the brand on his face with one thumb. “Believe me, honored sir, my whole ambition would be to avoid meeting anyone at all until I was well into Feierabiand.”
Amnachudran held up one finger. “You murdered someone.” Another finger. “Or you raped a girl.” He opened his hand again, shrugging. “Those are the two crimes for which a man is put under the geas. There aren’t any others. I don’t see how I can let you go. I don’t think girls in Feierabiand ought to be raped, any more than the ones here.”
Gereint said tightly, “I did not rape a girl.”
“I’m glad to hear it. Whom did you murder?”
“I told you—”
“I don’t believe you.”
“Neither did anyone else,” Gereint said tightly. “Why should you?” He swung away and stamped out the fire. He also picked up all four saddlebags, leaving only the two packs for Amnachudran.
“I can…” the other man began.
“Four balance better than three,” Gereint snapped. He strode away, south and east.
They did make better time with Gereint carrying all the bags. He was too proud to let the pace slacken; an odd vanity, for a man who ought to have had every vestige of pride beaten out of him years ago. But there it was. He let Amnachudran call the halts, which the other man did every few hours. But he was glad to have them. Ten years ago, even five, he would not have needed those breaks. He had hoped, briefly, that he might grow old a free man in Feierabiand. Now that seemed unlikely.
A little before dusk, they came to the Teschanken. This far north, the river was narrow, quick, and cheerfully violent: It flung itself down from the great mountains and raced through the hills. Far below it would meet the Nerintsan and turn into the stately, broad river that watered the south.
“We’ll follow the river south tomorrow,” Amnachudran declared. He walked out onto the pebbly shore and stared downstream. “If we’re where I think we are, we should cross it about noon, be home before supper—” He stopped suddenly.
A griffin flew past not a spearcast away, fast and straight, flinging itself through the air northward along the path of the river. The late sunlight blazed off it, striking ruddy gold and bronze highlights from its pelt and feathers. The light seemed somehow a far more brilliant light than seemed to fall across the rest of the world. The griffin’s feathers seemed to slice the air like knives, its beak flashed like a blade, flickers of fire scattered from the wind of its wings. Gereint could not speak; Eben Amnachudran seemed struck as silent as he.
There was no time to be afraid, and, it appeared, no reason. The griffin did not seem to see them at all, though they stood so close to the path of its flight. Its eyes, fiery copper, were intent on its own course. Before they could breathe twice, it had flashed by and was gone. Though the sunset still painted the sky in carmine and violet, all the colors of sky and earth seemed somehow muted for its passing. The whole world seemed caught for a moment in a subdued quiet. Not a single bird rustled in the woods around them, and even the river seemed to run more quietly along its swift course.
At last, Amnachudran cleared his throat. “I believe that may have been one of the most terrifying things I have ever seen. Beautiful, but terrifying. But what was it doing on the wrong side of the border between fire and earth?”
“It was flying north,” Gereint said tentatively. “Maybe it was trying to get back to the desert before full dark. Doesn’t Beremnan Anweierchen write that griffins hate the dark and cling to the day, on the rare occasion that they venture into the country of earth?”
“But he doesn’t explain why they ever do so venture,” Amnachudran pointed out. “Besides, it would need to turn west of north to return to its desert. Though perhaps it intends to.” Then he hesitated, turning to study Gereint. “You’ve read Anweierchen?”
The question shook Gereint out of the memory of fire. He shrugged, said shortly, “My old master had a good library,” and set the saddlebags down in a row, then began to collect wood for a fire. The wood was drier here, at least. The swift-moving little river might yield something better than dried beef. He looked through Amnachudran’s pack for hooks and line, with a careful eye on his new master in case the man resented his rummaging.
But Amnachudran did not seem to care. He watched Gereint for a moment and then said, “There aren’t any hooks. We didn’t think there would be much opportunity to use them.”
Gereint nodded, picked up Amnachudran’s knife, selected a bit of wood, and began to make a hook. He turned over the question before he asked it, but guessed Amnachudran wanted to talk about simple things, nothing to do with griffins or fire. So he asked, “We?”
The man’s face tightened in grief, but he answered readily. “A friend. The man who owned the house that’s now in the desert. He was older than I, but neither of us thought… It was his heart, I think. The desert was worse than we’d… We had reached Brerich’s house, but I wasn’t in the same room when he was stricken. If I had been, perhaps…”
That was not simple, after all. And it recalled the desert far too vividly. But Amnachudran seemed to wish to speak of his friend. So perhaps it was as well Gereint had asked, after all. He set the hook aside, found a length of cord, and delicately unraveled it to make a finer thread. He rolled the thread between his fingers as he worked, coaxing it toward strength and lightness, feeling it become supple under his touch. “I’m sorry about your friend,” he said sincerely. “But how did you… If you don’t mind, how did you find me?”
“Ah. That was luck. And poor little Fearn. You had one of your waterskins open, did you know? I think she smelled the water.” Amnachudran, apparently not having much confidence in Gereint’s efforts, dipped water out of the river, put the pot over the fire, and began to cut up dried beef. But he didn’t order Gereint to stop making fishing line. Picking up where he’d left off, he added in a quiet voice, “But she couldn’t carry both you and the bags. Even with me carrying two of the bags, she didn’t quite…” His voice trailed off.
Gereint carefully tied the line he’d made to the hook. Tested his knot. Glanced up. “You could have left me there.” He touched the brand on his face. “It would only have been the death of a murderer or rapist.”
Amnachudran shrugged. “You were face down. I didn’t see the brand at once. By the time I did see it, I knew you might live. Once I knew that, I couldn’t leave you.” He didn’t ask, Are you glad or sorry I saved your life? But his eyes posed that question.
Gereint stared back at him for a moment in silence. He said at last, “That desert is not the place I would choose to leave my bones.” Gathering up his line and hook, he went down to the river.
By full dark, the soup was boiling and two small fish were grilling over coals.
“I didn’t think you’d catch any,” Amnachudran admitted, turning one of the fish with a pair of twigs.
“I was lucky.”
“That was a good hook. Nor would I have thought you could make decent line out of that cord.”
“It’s a knack.” Gereint turned the other fish.
“You’re a maker.”
And Amnachudran was far too perceptive, and far too difficult to lie to. It hadn’t been a question. Gereint said merely, not looking up, “It makes me a valuable slave, yes.”
There was a pause. Then Amnachudran began uncomfortably, “How many…? That is, how many men…?”
This time, Gereint did glance up. “How many masters have I had? Is that what you would ask? Five, in all. Each worse than the last.”
“Your family…” Amnachudran hesitated. “They couldn’t protect you?”
“Protect a murderer?” Gereint asked bitterly. The older man looked down. Gereint, observing the flinch, paused, lowered his voice. “You could be the last of my masters. You saved my life: You might save it again in a different way…”
“Stop asking me for that,” Amnachudran ordered in a low voice.
“You can’t command my tongue,” Gereint reminded him, waited a beat, and added, “Of course, you could order me to kneel and hold still, then beat me unconscious. Or at least until your arm was too tired to lift. You haven’t got a whip, but”—he gestured at the woods around them—“there’s plenty of springy wood. That would probably work. Shall I cut you a—”
“Be quiet!” Amnachudran commanded him, his tone much sharper.
“If you don’t wish to own a geas slave, you could simply tell me to walk away—”
“You want me to lose my temper,” Amnachudran said suddenly.
The other man studied him. “Of course you do. Because you want to know what I’ll do if I’m angry. You need to find out how far you can push me—and what will happen if you push me too far.”
Gereint didn’t try to deny this. He’d never had a master more intelligent than he was. It occurred to him now that Amnachudran might be the first.
For a long moment, the other man only continued to look at him. His plain, round face was difficult to read. He said at last, “Gereint. Get up.”
Gereint got to his feet.
“Walk that way”—Amnachudran pointed into the woods—“fifty paces. Sit down with your back to the fire. Stay there till I call you. Go.”
Gereint turned immediately and walked into the woods. Carefully, because it was dark under the trees. And chilly. He counted off fifty paces, found a rock, sat down. Wrapped his arms around himself for warmth. His imagination populated the darkness with wolves. Griffins—no, griffins would, like the one they’d seen, have headed for the desert as dusk fell. If it had been headed back to the desert. But surely it had been.
Dragons, then. Did dragons hunt by night? Would fire keep a dragon away or draw it? He knew there was almost no chance of dragons this far south, but he nevertheless half believed he heard some vast creature shift its weight away off in the dark.
Probably there was a better chance of wolves. Fire would definitely keep wolves away. Though not from fifty paces behind him. He tried to think about poetry instead of wolves. Gestechan Wanastich’s measured cadences came to mind, unfortunately. Fire and the dark and women weeping: not what he wanted in his mind at this moment. And hadn’t Wanastich actually written something about wolves? Ah, yes: the part of the Teranbichken epic with the snow and the black trees and the wolves’ eyes glowing in a circle… Imagination was a curse, Gereint decided, and closed his own eyes. He knew perfectly well there were no wolves.
He wished he’d had a chance to eat that fish. He might have picked up a blanket, at least, if he’d been quick. Amnachudran might have let him keep it. He wondered whether the man meant to leave him out here all night. Probably not. Maybe. The command had been sit. Gereint would not be able to lie down. Though he probably would not have found a dry spot to stretch out, if he was going to be left out here all night, he was going to regret his inability to try.
Behind him, Amnachudran shouted his name.
Gereint jumped to his feet and, despite the darkness, walked back to the fire much more quickly than he had left it. Once he stepped out into the light, the idea of wolves seemed ridiculous. He walked more slowly back to the fire and stopped, facing his master.
“Well?” asked Amnachudran, looking shrewdly up at him.
Gereint dropped at once to his knees. “Pardon my insolent tongue, master—sorry. Forgive me, sir. I won’t—”
“Stop it!” Amnachudran stopped, took a breath, and continued more mildly: “I don’t want you to, um. Grovel. What I was asking for was simply your opinion.”
Taken aback—again!—Gereint asked cautiously, “May I get up?”
“Yes!” Amnachudran gestured toward the blanket on the other side of the fire. “Sit down, get warm, eat your fish. Tell me, are you going to stop prodding me for a reaction? Are you satisfied?”
Gereint settled by the fire, poked at the fish. Ate a bite. Amnachudran had boned the fish for him and had a mug of hot tea waiting along with the beef broth. Gereint had more than half expected his master to call him back to the fire. But this additional small kindness was so far outside anything he had expected that he did not even know what to feel about it.
He looked up, met the other man’s eyes. “You asked for my opinion and whether I’m satisfied. Very well. You certainly haven’t lost your temper. I’m satisfied you won’t, or not easily. Or did you wish my opinion about the punishment itself? Very well: It was effective. I don’t want you to do that again, for all you avoided brutality very neatly. Thank you for calling me back to the fire.”
“What you said. About being made to kneel while someone beat you unconscious. Someone did that to you?”
Amnachudran might be a clever man. A perceptive man. But judging by his tone on that question, he was in some ways surprisingly innocent. Gereint controlled an impulse to laugh. He answered, with considerable restraint, “Oh, yes.”
Amnachudran looked revolted. “I’d thought… You’re right that I don’t want a geas slave. Now less than ever. I’d thought, once we get back to my home, I might find out your old master’s name, send you—”
Cold struck through Gereint’s body like death. There could not be many geas-bound men of his size and general description. Even if he refused to give Amnachudran his old master’s name, the man could easily find it out. He put the mug of tea down, stood up, came back around the fire to where Amnachudran sat, and knelt. Put his palms flat on the ground. Bent to touch his forehead to the earth.
“I know you don’t want me to grovel.” Gereint straightened his back, looking the other man deliberately in the face. “My most recent master, now. He likes a man to grovel. I’m sure he was very angry when he realized he would have to leave me behind. He would be very grateful to you if you returned me to him. He’s a powerful man; his patronage could probably be useful to you. Me… he would expect me to plead for mercy. He would expect me to eat the dirt in front of his boots. I would do that for you, except you wouldn’t like it. If you were searching for an effective threat, you’ve found one. Don’t send me back to him. Please, don’t. Just tell me to walk—”
“Away into the mountains, I know—”
“—back to Melentser. I would rather that than go back into that man’s house.”
There was a pause.
“What did he do to you?” Amnachudran asked, his tone hushed.
Gereint said gently, “Eben Amnachudran. You’re a decent man. You don’t want to know.”
This time the pause was longer.
Gereint bowed his head, drew a slow breath, let it out. He didn’t get to his feet, but said instead, “I know you won’t free me. You’ve made that clear. I won’t ask again. I’ll ask this instead: What can I do to persuade you to keep me yourself? Not sell me, nor give me away, nor above all send me back to my old master?”
Amnachudran stared at him.
“You were right, of course: I have been pushing at you. I’ll stop. I’ll be respectful—I can be respectful. I’ll call you by name, if you prefer. I won’t grovel, since you don’t like that. You can treat me as a hired man rather than a slave, if you wish. I can play that role. I can play any role that pleases you. You were right: I’m a maker. I could be useful to you—”
“Stop!” said Amnachudran, rather desperately.
Gereint shut his mouth. Rested his hands on his thighs, deliberately open and easy. Waited.
“What was it that you did?”
Gereint flinched, he hoped not noticeably. He began to speak, hesitated. Said at last, “If I tell you again I did nothing, you’ll think I’m lying and be angry. I don’t want that.”
“Just tell me the truth!”
“You’re waiting for me to lie to you. Are you so certain you would recognize truth, when you’re listening for lies?”
Silence. Finally, Amnachudran made a disgusted gesture. “Eat your supper. Go to sleep. I’ll think about your request… later. When we’ve gotten to my house.”
The geas could compel Gereint to eat the rest of the fish and drink the tea. But even the geas couldn’t force him to sleep, though it could make him lie quietly with his eyes closed.
The morning came watery and pale through the mist that rose from the river and the damp woods. There had been no sign of wolves or griffins or dragons. Or if there had been, it must have been in the small hours near dawn, when Gereint had finally slept a little.
Amnachudran had coaxed the fire back to life and made tea. He glanced up as Gereint got to his feet. “There’s plenty of cracker. I’m sorry there’s not time for you to catch more fish. But we should be home by evening.”
Home. His, of course. Did he mean that it would be Gereint’s home as well? Probably not. Gereint didn’t ask. He went down to the river and washed his face and hands. Came back and began to roll up the blankets and stow away the little pot and other things. Ate a piece of cracker. Drank the tea. He couldn’t tell what Amnachudran was thinking. If he was thinking about anything other than his home.
“I know you’re much stronger than I am. But I think I could carry—” Amnachudran began.
“No, sir. That’s not necessary. Just carry the packs,” Gereint said. But respectfully. He inspected the straps on the saddlebags and spent a few minutes lengthening some and shortening the others. “We’re crossing the river, are we? How waterproof are these bags? I brought some tallow candles. If you have a little oil, I can probably improve them.”
“Thank you, Gereint. Yes. When we stop.”
Gereint nodded, slung the straps over his shoulders, and straightened. The bags seemed to have grown heavier. He didn’t let himself groan, but only glanced politely at the other man, waiting for him to lead the way.
The sun came out. The mist lifted. The river dashed cheerfully down the hill beside them. There was even a deer trail to follow. All in all, a pleasant morning. Gereint only wished he was alone, less burdened, and heading the other way.
On the other hand… on the other hand, he could be in Breidechboden. In Perech Fellesteden’s house. Compared to that, Amnachudran’s house, whatever it was like, would surely prove a perfect haven. Probably the man hadn’t yet decided whether to grant Gereint’s plea. Gereint glanced at him, a cautious sidelong glance. He did not want to annoy him. But he did not seem easy to annoy… Gereint asked, “Is it Tashen? Where your house is?”
“Near Tashen,” Amnachudran agreed. “My house is out in the country, between the mountains and the city. Near the river, in fact. After the ford, we’ll turn almost due east, walk fewer than ten miles. My house is at the base of some low hills, where a stream comes down year-round. It’s easy country there, open and level, good for orchards and wheat and pasture. The apples are just beginning to ripen now. My wife loves apples; she’s collected dozens of varieties…”
Gereint made an interested sound, listening with half an ear to descriptions of orchards and gardens and the new pond they’d just built and stocked with fish. Amnachudran was clearly wealthier than Gereint had guessed. And there was a wife. Gereint wondered whether she would object to the presence of a geas-bound servant. Would it be possible to win her over, make himself so immediately useful that she would object if her husband wanted to get rid of him?
But there were grown children, too, he gathered. With children of their own, in and out of their grandparents’ house. Geas bound or not, Amnachudran or his wife might reasonably hesitate to bring a murderer into the house where their grandchildren played. Or a rapist.
Gereint’s thoughts tended darker and darker. He doubted he could persuade Amnachudran to release him, but the more he thought about it, the less likely it seemed that the man would keep him either. Even if he did not send him back to Fellesteden… If he sold him, what were the odds Gereint’s next master would be kind? Kind men did not buy geas slaves.
What were the odds, if he was sold, that it would be to someone from the city? The court nobles and the lesser nobles, the rich men angling for power and influence… Those were the men who liked to own geas-bound slaves. He might very well be sold and re-sold until he found himself in Breidechboden after all. If he were sold to anyone in the king’s city, Perech Fellesteden would almost certainly learn of it eventually.
Gereint was very silent by the time they reached the ford, about an hour past noon. The river was wider here, still fast but not deep. Rocks thrust up through the water. A man would not be able to walk from one bank to the other without getting his feet wet, but he might come closer to that than Gereint had expected. In the spring, the river might be impassable. But now, only one thirty-foot channel looked difficult, and even that did not look actually dangerous.
And on the other side, fewer than ten miles away, Amnachudran’s house. Perhaps forty miles from Melentser as the falcon flies. It seemed both infinitely farther than that and, at the same time, hardly any distance at all.
Amnachudran stared at the river and grunted. “Could be worse. I thought it would be worse, in fact. That’s lower than we’d usually see, even this time of year.”
Gereint, not very interested, nodded politely.
“I’ll make tea,” Amnachudran said, “if you’ll see what you can do about the saddlebags?”
Gereint got out two of the tallow candles and found Amnachudran’s jar of oil. And the broken mug, since his master was using the pan for the tea. He melted the candles with the oil over low flames, rubbed the hot tallow between his palms, and nodded toward the first of the saddlebags. “It would be easier if they were empty.”
Amnachudran opened the first bag without a word. It contained books. Maskeirien’s eclogues, Teirenchoden’s epic about the nineteenth war between Ceirinium and Feresdechodan. Histories and poetry, natural philosophy and political philosophy. Leather embossed with gold; fine heavy paper illuminated with dragons and griffins and storm eagles and slender sea creatures with the tails of fishes and the proud, fine-boned faces of men. Nothing common. Not a single volume that was not beautiful and rare and precious. They made the two books he’d stolen look almost common.
Gereint wondered why he had not guessed. Heavy and valuable, but not breakable; valuable for themselves and not merely for their market price. Exactly the sort of riches a man might risk the new desert to recover. Especially if he’d thought, A few hours in and a few hours out, how difficult can it be?
No wonder Amnachudran was willing to wait in order to enhance the waterproofing on the bags before he carried those books across the river. Gereint rubbed the tallow across the leather. He gazed dreamily into the air while he rubbed it in, thinking about waterproof leather, about tight seams, about straps that closed tight and firm. He tried not to let himself be distracted by the books themselves, although he couldn’t resist a glance or two as Amnachudran unloaded the second bag.
“The oil won’t stain the books?” Amnachudran asked. He touched the first cautiously, inspected the tips of his fingers.
“It might if someone else did this,” Gereint answered. “Not when I do it.”
“It’s a matter of knowing exactly what I want the oil to do and not do. And yes, it’s a knack.”
Amnachudran grunted and, finding his fingers clean and dry, began to replace the contents of the first bag and unload the third. “Just how waterproof can you make these?”
Gereint, massaging melted tallow into leather, shrugged. “It would probably be better not to actually drop a bag midriver.”
Amnachudran grunted again and went to get the fourth bag.
Midchannel, the river was chest deep. And very fast. Gereint took his boots off and waded out cautiously, leaving the books behind while he tested the footing and the strength of the current. He came out shaking his head. “I don’t like it… It’s not too bad when you’ve got your hands free and no weight to carry…”
“I have rope,” Amnachudran offered.
They slung the rope from shore to shore; it just reached. Then Gereint took the packs and his boots, and Amnachudran’s boots, across first. The technique seemed sound. He could brace an awkward weight on his shoulder with one hand and cling to the rope with his other. He took three bags across, one after another, while Amnachudran watched anxiously. Then he came back for the last, standing back to allow Amnachudran to precede him into the water.
“Be careful,” Gereint warned him as they came to the deepest part of the channel. “Chest deep on me is—”
“Just about over my head. Yes, I know. Even so, it’s the nearest thing to an easy crossing anywhere above the bridge at Metichteran. I admit, it looks easier when you’re ahorse than it does when you’re on foot.”
Gereint shrugged. “Keep hold of the rope. I’ll be right behind you.”
Amnachudran went ahead of Gereint, hand over hand along the rope, gasping with cold and sputtering as the racing water dashed into his face. He made it to the first of the broad stones on the other side of the channel and began to pull himself out of the water.
Gereint, ten feet behind the older man, saw the log come spinning down the river just too late to shout a warning. It hit Amnachudran’s legs with a thud Gereint could hear even from that distance, tearing the man away from the rope. He cried out, falling, but the cry was choked off as the water closed over his head; Gereint, appalled, saw him come back to the surface in time to smash against one stone and then another and then go under once more.
Gereint heaved the last saddlebag toward the rocks without watching to see where it landed and flung himself into the current. He fended off a rock with his hands, followed the rushing current by instinct and luck, glimpsed the log, hurled himself after it, found himself in a great sucking undertow, went down. Found cloth under his hands. An arm. Stone beneath: He kicked hard and broke into the air, rolled to drag Amnachudran up as well, slammed back first into stone. Cried out with pain and at the same time clutched for any handhold he could find. The current pinned them against the stone. Gereint got an arm around the other man’s chest, dashed water out of his own face, and found pebbles rolling under his toes. The river was fierce, here, but not much more than shoulder deep. And he could see where another stone offered support against the current.
Amnachudran was limp. Gereint tightened his hold, got his feet against the rock that supported them, and lunged for the other stone. Made it, and now the water was only chest deep. He dug his toes into the river’s rough bed, heaved Amnachudran up onto the stone, made his way around it to where the water was still shallower, grabbed the man’s arm, dragged him across his shoulder, and slogged for the shore. Dropped him—not as gently as he’d meant—on a shallow shelf of pebbles and sand. Fell to his knees beside him and felt for a pulse in his throat. Found one. Rolled him over and pressed to get the water out of his lungs; made sure he was breathing on his own. And only then realized what he’d done.
Gereint climbed to his feet. Everything had happened so fast; too fast. He felt dizzy and ill. His back and hip hurt, his knee hurt with a deep ache that told him it was at least wrenched, maybe sprained. The palms of his hands were raw—how had that happened?
But Amnachudran had suffered much worse. But he was still breathing, though the sound had a rattle to it that suggested water in the lungs. His pulse was rapid and thready with shock. There was a lump the size of a small egg above and behind his ear. Gereint thought one of his legs was probably broken.
Letting the other man drown hadn’t occurred to Gereint fast enough. But now… an unconscious man could not command his help. Without care now, Amnachudran would probably die. Gereint stared down at him. He could not kick the man back into the river; even without the geas he didn’t think he could have done that. But… he wouldn’t have to do anything so active, would he?
The situation at this moment was too uncertain for the geas to bite hard. His master was too near death, maybe. Too deathly. Interesting word, “deathly.” The geas seemed to accept it as nearly the same as “dead.” Gereint was fairly certain he could simply walk away. His hip hurt; his knee hurt like fire. But it didn’t seem to be sprained. He could walk well enough. He didn’t even need a stick.
Judging from his previous experience, when Fellesteden had left him behind in Melentser, distance alone would suffice to keep the geas quiet. And now Gereint knew, as he hadn’t then, that if he could step into direct desert sunlight, it would break the geas—and he could step back out immediately. He’d made a slight detour, yes. But the mountains still waited, and Feierabiand, and final freedom from the geas.
If Gereint walked away and, against all likelihood, Amnachudran did wake… well, then, he would be hurt and cold, with the chill of the night coming and no fire. It would not take wolves to kill a man left hurt and alone in the dark. He would die… alone and abandoned… fewer than ten miles from his home… Gereint cursed.
Then he heaved the smaller man up into his arms, grunting as his back and hip flared with pain. He limped back to clear ground near the saddlebags and put the man down there. Found out the blankets, and laid one out on the ground for a bed. Stripped away the wet clothing. A great spreading black bruise showed where ribs were probably broken. The leg was gashed as well as broken, but there wasn’t much blood. Gereint bound up the gash and covered the injured man with the other blanket. Made a fire, afraid all the time that Amnachudran might wake after all. But he did not stir. Gereint glanced at the sun. Hours yet till dusk. And Amnachudran’s breathing already sounded better. The pulse in his throat beat more strongly. If Gereint left him now, he might be all right. Though the leg… But surely his family was waiting for him. They must surely expect him to be on his way home. Someone would come down to the river soon to look for him.
Gereint went back to where he’d left the bags and packs. Absently collected the fourth saddlebag from the shallow water where it had fallen and put it with the others. The books it held were dry, he found. Then he looked at the book he held blankly, wondering why he’d bothered to check. He put it back and did up the straps.
He changed into dry clothing. Found his boots and put them on. Did not look back at Amnachudran. Most carefully did not look. If he looked, he might find himself compelled to go back to him. If he didn’t look… If he fixed his mind firmly on the sky and the river and the sound the wind made in the leaves… why, then, he could swing a pack over his shoulder and walk away, upriver. He didn’t look back.
The geas didn’t stop him. He’d thought it might, at this last moment of abandonment: an act of defiance more active than merely letting Perech Fellesteden walk away from him had been. But the geas did not stop him. It wasn’t gone. He knew by this that Amnachudran still lived. But it did not bite hard. An unconscious master, a master who was dying, was not something, perhaps, that the geas magic understood very well. He walked on.
Amnachudran was already too far away to call him back.
But Gereint hadn’t even gone a mile when he saw the griffins. This time, there were three of them: one bronze and brown, one copper and gold, and one—the one leading—a hard, pure white, like the flames at the very heart of a fire. The air surrounding them was dense with light, so that Gereint had to squint against it to see them. It smelled of fire and hot brass; the air shimmered with heat.
As the other griffin had done, these were flying along the river—only these were heading south, downriver. Unlike that other griffin, these very clearly knew he was present: The white one tilted its head and looked down at him as it passed, a flashing sapphire glance of such hot contempt that Gereint swayed and took an involuntary step back. But they did not hesitate in their course or drop toward him, for which he was fervently grateful.
The griffins flew low, so low that their wingtips nearly brushed the topmost branches of the trees, so low that Gereint was gripped by a compelling illusion, as the last one soared past, that he might have touched its feathers if he’d reached out his hand. He wondered if those feathers could be as sharp edged and metallic as they seemed—probably not. But the light flashed off their beaks, and off talons as long as his fingers and as sharp as knives. It came to him, vividly, what those talons might do to a man… to a defenseless man, say, who had been left abandoned and injured on the riverbank… He shut his eyes, trying to close out the images his imagination suggested to him, as well as the too-brilliant light.
When he opened them again, the griffins were past, out of sight. The light was only ordinary sunlight, and the river and woodlands seemingly untroubled by any memory of fire.
The griffins surely would not stop to trouble Eben Amnachudran. They did not seem inclined to stop for any reason. The other one had not paid any attention to them; these three hadn’t stopped to tear Gereint to pieces, though they’d clearly seen him. Why would they pause to kill a man who was, after all, already dying?
They wouldn’t. Gereint was certain of it. Almost certain. He took a few steps along the river, northward.
Then he stopped again. What if the griffins passed Amnachudran by? They probably would not pause to kill him. The scholar had thought them beautiful as well as terrible. Maybe he was awake now. Maybe he would see them pass. Helpless as he was, he would be frightened. He would watch the griffins pass by—surely they would pass by. And then he would wait. And for what? How long would it take for the injured man to give up hope? How long might he linger, in pain and growing despair, until he finally died quietly there by that fire? While his wife and children and grandchildren waited for him not ten miles away?
Gereint could not put that image out of his mind. It was worse than imagining griffins tearing the scholar to ribbons. How long would it be before someone came down to the ford looking for the man? Who would it be: His wife? One of the grandchildren?
So it wasn’t fear of the griffins that made Gereint turn back south. After all, if they wanted to kill Amnachudran, Gereint could never stop them, even if he was there. But the image of that kind, civilized, cultured man waiting in slowly dying hope, while the hours passed, maybe days, and no one came… that was what made Gereint turn back.
It took about a quarter of an hour to get back to the ford. Everything was exactly as Gereint had left it; there was no sign that griffins had stopped there. This was almost a shock, even though he had thought it unlikely that they would. Nor was Amnachudran awake. But he was still alive. Gereint stood for a moment, gazing down at him, and wondering if he wished the man had died. He did not know. But he knew he could not simply leave him a second time.
It took another quarter of an hour, maybe, to make a litter with green saplings and the blankets. Longer than seemed likely to get Amnachudran on the litter and the saddlebags arranged. Gereint discarded the packs, only tucking his own books into one of the saddlebags. He would not need tallow candles or a cooking pot now.
Then he picked up the stripped ends of the saplings and leaned into the weight.
His knee screamed as he took the weight. But the leg held. Blades of pain lanced down his back and stabbed into his hip, but he still thought nothing was actually broken. His hands hurt when he gripped the poles, though next to the knee and hip that seemed a minor distraction. Less than ten miles, Amnachudran had said. How much less? It had better be a lot less, Gereint thought grimly, or he would never manage it.
The ground might be easy compared to the high mountains, but soon enough Gereint doubted whether he’d manage this last leg of his journey after all. Merrich Berchandren had famously declared that the last mile of any journey was always the hardest. If the last mile was harder than the one he was currently traveling, Gereint did not look forward to it.
Now, though, rather than trying to coax the geas to sleep, he could actually use it. He pretended Amnachudran had ordered him to get him home. He imagined the man’s pain-filled eyes and strained tone: Gereint, get me home. The geas couldn’t really be fooled, but then, getting his badly injured master to his home was a desperately important service. There was no pretense about that. He glanced over his shoulder at Amnachudran’s white face, thought hard of getting the man to shelter and safety, and felt the geas shiver awake at last and bite down hard. After that there was no question of stopping: Next to the compulsion of the geas, neither his hip nor his knee nor his bleeding palms mattered at all.
Gereint had been tall, big all through, all his life: He had been big for his age as a child and a boy and a youth, and once he’d got his growth he’d seldom met a stronger man. And much good it had done him. But his strength served him now. And hard-trained endurance. And sheer doggedness… The sun slid lower in the sky behind him. Shadows stretched out. The countryside opened out, patches of open meadows and woods replacing forest and then pastures replacing the woodlands. Gereint watched the shadows to keep his direction. He tried to remember to glance up sometimes, look for apple orchards and a house set against hills where a stream came down. He was thirsty… Thirst became a torment as soon as he thought of it. He had not thought to fill waterskins at the river. He put one foot in front of the other, though half his steps were short; he could no longer bend his right knee very well. But that was all right because the pain of his hip would have shortened his steps anyway.
Dusk, and shadows stretching out to cover the countryside, and no house with candles in its windows to light home a late traveler… He had missed the house. He knew he had missed it. Every little rough place in the ground made him stumble. He should just stop, wait for dawn. But he couldn’t stop, not now, no matter how unreasonable pressing forward might be. Not until the last shreds of his strength had been spent and he just fell where he stood… He realized, dimly, that he was no longer going straight east, and for a long moment could not understand why. Then the breeze shifted, and he blinked. Apples. It was too dark now to see the trees, but he could smell the fruit on the gentle breeze. He lifted his head, turned his face toward that sweet fragrance… There was a light. There was a lantern, after all: a lantern in a high window, and beyond the light, dark rolling hills that cut across the starry sky.
Gereint made it through the orchard and right up to the gates of the house’s yard. The gates were closed. He stood for some time, too dazed to understand why he had stopped. Then a voice called out from within the gate, and another voice answered. Gereint did not understand anything he heard, but he let go of the litter poles. His hands, cramped from hours of gripping, could not open. But he could hammer his fists against the gate. He could not form coherent words. But he could shout, hoarsely.
There were more voices, then. And the ringing sounds of boots against flagstones. And the scraping sound of wood against wood as the gates were unbarred. Lantern light spilled out as the gates were opened, and incomprehensible voices exclaimed. Gereint barely heard them. He was aware only of the geas relaxing within and around him. He did not even feel himself fall.
Excerpted from Land of the Burning Sands by Neumeier, Rachel Copyright © 2010 by Neumeier, Rachel. Excerpted by permission.
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