Talen sat at the wooden table in nothing but his underwear because he had no pants. Somehow, during the middle of the night, they had walked off the peg where he’d hung them. And he’d searched high and low. The last of their cheese was missing as well.
The cheese he could explain: if you were hungry and a thief, then cheese would be a handy meal to take. But it was not the regular poverty-stricken thief who roamed miles off the main roads, risked entering a house, and passed up many other fine and more expensive goods to steal a pair of boy’s dirty trousers hanging on a peg in the loft.
No, there wasn’t a thief in the world who would do that. But there was an older brother and sister.
Talen had two pair of pants to his name. And he wasn’t about to ruin his good pair by working in them. He needed his work pants. And to get those, he needed leverage. The good news was that he knew exactly which items would provide that leverage.
It only took a few moments to find and hide them. Then he went back to the house, cut three slices of dark bread, and put them on a plate in the middle of the table next to the salted lard.
River, his sister, came in first from outside carrying a massive armload of rose stems clustered with fat rose hips. Talen sighed. She already had fifteen bushels of the stuff in the back. Were they going to make rose hip syrup for the whole district? And he knew he’d be the one who would have to cut each and every hip and remove the seeds so her syrup didn’t end up tasting like chalk. It was a thorny business, even if he did wear gloves.
River walked to the back room to deposit her load and returned. Blood spattered her apron. A thick spray ran from her cheek to throat.
“What happened to you?”
“Black Jun,” she said. “The cow that was bred by that rogue bull, her water broke last night, but the calf was too big for a normal birth.” She shook her head. “Jun’s brother-in-law from Bain cut into the cow this morning and made a mess of it.”
“Did she die?” asked Talen.
“Not yet,” said River, “but such a wound, even with old Nan’s poultice, would take a Divine’s hand to keep it from corruption.” River had been apprenticed to Nan, who had midwifed as many cattle as she had humans. That’s where River learned how to take a calf that couldn’t be pulled, by cutting in from the side. That’s where she’d learned about the virtues of everything from pennyroyal to seeding by moonlight. She could have learned far more, but old Nan went out late in a rainstorm one night and tumbled down a steep slope to her death. Even so, as unfinished apprentice, if River said the wound was bad, it was bad.
“And the calf?” asked Talen.
“Saved,” she said. “For now.” She took off her bloody apron and hung it on a peg on the wall.
Under the apron, River was wearing her work pants, which would have been a much easier mark for a clothing thief since River’s room was on the first floor of the house. Of course, she’d only point out that nobody would look for pants in a girl’s room. Which was true for most women, but River wasn’t most women. She wore pants to everything but the dances and festivals, and even then she threatened to do so. Skirts were a bother in the fields, she said. A bother on a horse, and a bother when hunting. And nobody was going to tell River otherwise.
Talen gave his bloody sister his most pleasant smile.
She looked at his bare chest and legs. “Where are your clothes?”
“That’s a good question,” said Talen.
River shook her head and went to the cupboard to get her pot of honey. She searched about and then turned around, looking as if she’d lost something.
There was nothing like her cinnamon honey. It was not the thick amber that most of the honey-crafters sold. This honey was thin and clear and tasted like moonlight. River got it from a lovesick dyer who lived on the far side of the settlements and liked her despite her pants. He said the honey came from bees that made their hives in the cliffs there. He had also said that his love for her flowed like the nectar of the pale green flowers that clung to the cliffs, that she was his flower and he her bee, and that their pollinations would be more wild and splendid than anything a pot could contain. All of which proved that the dyer knew nothing of women. At least, not River. She had smiled at the dyer’s sentiments, but that didn’t make the dyer any less of an idiot or his hands any less blue. River was not a girl won with declarations of wild and amorous pollinations or delicious gifts, even if the gift was spiced honey that cost three weeks’ worth of labor.
Ke, Talen’s older brother, walked in next with flecks of barley stalks caught in his tunic. Ke was built like a bull. In the summer he looked even more like one because he shaved his hair short. He did it, he said, to keep his head cool and make it easier to clean. But it also allowed others to see the thick muscles in his neck. He retrieved his bow and archer’s bag from his bedroom. The bow was made with wood, horn, and sinew, and it was so powerful only someone with his massive strength could draw it more than half a dozen times. Da, because of his strength and size, was sometimes called Horse. Ke, having inherited all of Da’s muscle, had picked up the name of Little Horse, but he wasn’t a horse. That was too noble a creature. Ke was a bull, no doubt about it.
Talen, of course, inherited all the wit in the family, but nobody seemed to value that. He was never referred to as “the bright one” or “that great blaze of brains.” Instead, he got names like Twig and Hogan’s Runt.
Ke sat at the table. His bow was blackened with charcoal and linseed oil and then covered with a good layer of goose fat and beeswax to protect it from the wet. He’d always been an excellent archer. Da had seen to that. But Ke was now something more. He’d proven last year in the battles with the Bone Faces that he was an efficient killer as well. He pulled out his crock of goose fat to rub in yet another layer, then looked back into the bag. “Hey,” he said, and opened the mouth of the sack wider to fish about in its contents.
“Lose something?” Talen asked.
“Where are my new bowstrings?” Ke said.
“Strange,” said Talen. “All sorts of things going missing today.” He tsked. “What a negligent bunch we must be.”
It took River about two seconds to catch on. “I want my honey,” she said.
“I want my trousers,” said Talen.
Ke looked up from his sack. “You took my strings?”
“You took my trousers.”
“What would I want with those?” asked Ke.
“What would I want with your bowstrings? They don’t fit my bow.”
River put her hands on her hips. “That honey has a special—”
“Oh, don’t act like you’re offended for the dyer,” Talen said and began to work his way toward the door.
“Who said anything about him?” River asked. “That honey’s imbued with vitality. Now, hand it over.”
“Pants first,” said Talen. He continued to move until he stood between them and the doorway.
Ke narrowed his eyes.
River cocked her head, threatening a fight. She tightened the yellow sash she used as a belt. This is what she did when she wanted to run. The two of them exchanged an evil glance, and Talen knew if he sat where he was a moment more, they’d have him.
“Trousers!” he demanded. Then he dashed out of the house in his bare feet and underwear and into the yard.
To his surprise, Talen found Nettle, his cousin, opening the door to the smokehouse to get something to eat. He was supposed to be on a patrol with his Father, but Talen didn’t care what he was supposed to be doing. He was here now, and could even the odds in this fight.
Ke and River charged out of the house hard on Talen’s heels. At this point Talen was most worried about River. He darted left, and thanked his instincts. A short length of firewood flew past him. River, in addition to being a healer, was a thrower, deadly with spoons, pots, and sticks at twenty yards. She could whip off a wooden garden clog and fling it with ferocious aim at your head before you’d even taken five steps. Talen knew: he had the bumps to prove it.
Talen ran past Nettle. “Trip them!” he said.
Nettle, the Mokaddian traitor, did no such thing. He cut a link from one of the hanging sausage chains, took a fat bite, and stood back to enjoy the show.
Talen raced toward the woods beyond, but River had the angle on him and sprinted to cut him off. Thank the Six she hadn’t had time to pick up anything but a stick. Talen veered toward the garden.
“Pick up the pace,” Nettle called out. “They’re gaining on you.”
“Coward!” Talen yelled back. He dashed around the garden fence, turned to avoid Ke, ran back toward the house, and found himself boxed in between the midden and the barn.
He had two choices. He could make a run at one of his dear siblings and hope to blow by, or he could go up the old walnut tree and hope they would stay at the bottom and do nothing more than shout insults and threats up at him.
He wouldn’t get by Ke and his long arms. Talen had enough room to get by River, but she was daring him, grinning at him to just try.
He made his decision.
Da had fashioned a wooden slab bench and put it next to the trunk of the giant walnut tree. Talen ran for the bench. When he was close enough, he took one running step to the bench then another to an old knob sticking out about five feet up the trunk. He followed the momentum upward, grabbed a branch, pulled himself up, and stood on a fat arm of the tree well out of the reach of his brother and sister.
“That’s about the dumbest place you could have chosen,” said Ke.
Talen climbed a few branches higher and looked down at the two of them. “The joke’s up.”
“We don’t have your hog-worn trousers,” said Ke. “You’re the one who loses things on a regular basis.”
Talen did not lose things on a regular basis.
He saw Ke bend over and pick up a number of rocks. “You come out of that tree or I’ll knock you out,” said Ke.
“No,” said Talen. “I think you need to give up your childish games.”
But Ke threw a rock instead.
Talen ducked. The rock flew straight and true and would have made a pretty bruise, but a small branch stood in the way and sent the rock wide. Goh, he needed to put more branches between him and those rocks, so Talen climbed until the branches were no bigger than his thumb.
He couldn’t see Ke or River from this height. Nettle stood over by the well, finishing his sausage, and using one hand to shade his eyes from the sun.
“You smelly bum,” Talen called down to him. “Do something!”
“Jump!” shouted Nettle. “He’s coming up.”
Talen heard the leaves rustling below as someone ascended toward him.
Nettle was a fine one to stand there and call out instructions. Talen must have been at least forty feet up in the air. The barn roof would have been perfect had it not been thirty feet away. There was nothing else around him but hard ground below. He had nowhere to go. He could not simply jump out of the tree at this height.
Ke was right—running up this tree had been idotic.
He caught a glimpse of Ke climbing below him and to the left.
Maybe he could get around him. Talen did not want to be at his mercy in the tree. He climbed down toward Ke. He would get close, then move to the other side and away.
“I’m going to give you one last chance,” said Ke. He looked up at Talen with that happy look that said Talen was a rabbit and he was a dog that had just found his next meal. He was maybe only six feet away.
Talen scuffed the branch and sent small particles of bark down into Ke’s face.
Ke ducked, and Talen made his move. All he needed to do was get to a branch four feet below him and to the right. It would be a quick climb from there to the ground. He swung down, but Ke had been expecting the move, and suddenly he was grabbing at Talen’s leg.
Talen moved out on his branch. Ke followed. Talen jumped for another branch. He grabbed it with both hands, pulled himself upward, but before he could get a leg up, the branch cracked and swung him to the side.
It was dead and rotted.
Talen looked for something else to grab, but he couldn’t see anything close; then the branch popped again and broke entirely from the tree.
Talen reached out, grabbing for anything, but it was too late, and then he was falling headfirst. He yelled. He saw Ke’s face then a wide-open space beyond with nothing between him and the ground but a branch that would most assuredly break his back.
If this fall lamed Talen, he’d be good for nothing but the war weaves. An image of him at the wizard’s altar in Whitecliff flashed in his mind, the Divine draining his Fire away, the essence that fueled the days of his life, so it could be used by a better vessel—by a dreadman. The dreadman would give Talen homage for the gift, but Talen didn’t want any homage.
He yelled, a long “Nooooooo!”
A stick poked Talen’s eye. Then his ankle caught, and Talen swung into the center of the tree and smacked his head.
Ke grunted. “Grab a branch,” he said.
Talen looked up. It felt like a piece of bark the size of his thumbnail was stuck in his eye; he could barely see, but it was clear that his ankle was caught not in a fork of two branches, but in Ke’s iron grip. Ke bent over a branch holding on to Talen’s ankle, his face set in determination.
“You’re slipping,” he said.
Talen twisted around and finally found a branch. He grasped it with both hands. “I’ve got it. Let go.”
But Ke did not let go. He repositioned his grip and said, “You’ll hang here until you tell us where you’ve hidden our stuff.”
Talen’s eye ran like a river. “What about my trousers?”
“Goh,” said Ke. “If I come across your trousers I’m going to burn them. Then you’ll have something to yell about.”
“Hoy! What’s going on here?” It was Da, standing at the base of the tree.
“They’ve taken my work trousers,” said Talen.
“Is that so?” Da asked Ke.
Talen still hung mostly upside down, the blood rushing to his head.
“It is not,” said Ke.
“You three,” Da said. “Today I come out of the barn to find one of you hanging naked in a tree. What am I going to find tomorrow? Get down. Both of you.”
Ke looked down at Talen. “You’re lucky.” Then he flung Talen’s legs away.
Talen clutched the branch. His body swung around like a festival acrobat’s. His grip on the branch slid. Then he reached out with one foot and caught another branch to stand on.
Talen steadied himself. When he’d finally cleared his eye enough to see, Ke stood next to him. “You should thank me for saving your neck.”
“You’re the one who put me here,” Talen said.
“I’m the one who didn’t murder you,” he said, and then descended to the ground.
Murder indeed. Talen watched Ke go and realized the truth was he had been lucky. Lucky Ke had been that close. Lucky he’d tumbled just the right way for Ke to grab his ankle. And Ke had held him as if he were nothing more than a sack of potatoes. Why couldn’t he have gotten at least half of Ke’s strength?
He sighed. It was going to be annoyingly inconvenient to have to wear his fine pair of pants to work in. And at week’s end, when he cleaned them and hung them out to dry, he’d have to sit around in his underclothes and bat the biting flies away.
Talen climbed out of the tree and stood before Da.
“Did you look for the pants in the barn?” Da asked.
Of course he’d looked in the barn. He’d looked every where. “I’m not going to ruin my good pair.”
“Then work in a leaf skirt. I’m not buying any material for another pair. Nothing in heaven or earth will make me feed negligence.”
“I wasn’t negligent.”
“It doesn’t matter anyway,” said Da. “Put on your good ones. Get the peppercorns. You’re going to the village to get some hens from old Mol the fowler. I’ve had too many days without eggs.”
“Last night you said you wanted to see us up and in the fields with the barley.”
“Well, I’m saying right now that I want some hens. And you’re going to get them.”
“Shall I go along?” asked Nettle.
“No,” said Da. “You’re getting back on your horse to take a message to the Creek Widow.”
Excerpted from SERVANT OF A DARK GOD by John Brown
Copyright © 2009 by John Brown
Published in 2009 by Tom Doherty Associates, LLC.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.