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BEFORE THEY REACHED THE river, the horses had grown used to the corpse. Tacs had not. Of course it was cold enough except at the height of the day so that the dead flesh hardly smelled, and Tacs had bound it into a tight wrapping of his and the dead man's cloaks, to keep the spirits from getting at it. Still, at night, when Tacs was camped, Marag troubled his sleep.
On the morning of the sixth day after Marag's death, four days after they left the mountains behind, they came within sight of the river. Tacs had the grey horse on a long tether so that it could graze while it traveled. Seeing the glitter of water in the distance, he jerked on the tether and reined in his black pony, and for the space of two long breaths he sat motionless staring at the undulating line of trees that marked the river bank. The sight of the river overwhelmed Tacs, even more than if he had met another of his own people. In four months the only other Hiung he had seen was Marag, and now Marag he saw too much of, in the night.
He nudged the pony with his heels and gave the grey horse's rope a shake, and with the rope swinging between them the two horses started down the slope again. The river sank out of sight beyond the next rise. Although this steppe seemed level it actually rolled in long waves from horizon to horizon. Now in the middle of autumn the plain was crisp and brown. The dry grass rustled under the black pony's hoofs. Brown birds marked with white, brown mice and rabbits appeared and disappeared among the patches of weed and the stands of high grass. Everything smelled of dust and drying.
The grey horse stopped to scratch its shoulder with its teeth. Tacs kept on, his eyes moving constantly. With the river so close he knew he rode under the Kagan's protection. But the habit of watching was strong in him and Germans lived on this plain as well as Hiung. Tacs had seen that the soldiers of the Romans were mostly German and he could see no difference between the Roman Germans and the ones who served the Kagan. They were all dogs. The pony reached the end of the grey horse's leadline and Tacs was almost jerked from his saddle. He yanked on the rope; the grey horse broke into a trot to catch up. The black pony climbed in short lunges up the next slope into the roar of the wind.
There the river lay, apparently no closer, but now Tacs could see where the Roman bridge crossed it, well to the east. While the two horses walked on, taking him slowly down again into the trough of the plain, he thought uneasily of other ways to cross the river. Here it ran swiftly, deep between treacherous banks, and so late in the autumn the water would be freezing. He could not swim it, and the nearest ford was days away. He knew that the bridge was guarded by Germans, probably by Gepids. It had been Ardaric, the King of the Gepids, who sent Tacs and Marag away from the army in Italy and so caused them to be left behind when the Kagan suddenly retreated. Now Marag was dead in consequence. It was unclear to Tacs whether such a death required vengeance; he would have to talk to a shaman about it.
The high wind stirred up a whirl of dust as tall as a man and drove it skittering along the crest of the next rise, picking up dead leaves and bits of branch. Its careening path headed roughly toward the bridge. Tacs followed it. He had no choice—if he went north looking for a ford or an unguarded bridge, he would have to spend at least two more nights with Marag.
Throughout the rest of the day, he rode steadily toward the river. In the blue arch of the sky an eagle appeared and circled him awhile, perhaps waiting for him to leave the dead man. Tacs wondered if he might not now make a burial platform and leave Marag on it, here within the boundaries the Kagan had declared his, and thus have served Marag properly. Through the early afternoon he tried to argue himself into it, although the taboos and ritual of their people required three witnesses to bury a warrior. Gradually he became aware that he could not bury Marag here anyway because it was not truly land of the Hiung, and he switched to thinking of how he would catch frogs to eat, once he reached the river. The frog was one of his totems, and eating its meat made him agile.
In the late afternoon he came to a worn path in the plain, the road that led to the bridge. Turning to follow it, he rapped his heels against the black pony's ribs. At first the pony only pinned back its ears and snorted. Tacs kicked it harder, and the pony bucked, and Tacs smacked it across the ear with his open hand. Sulking, the pony stepped out into a brisk trot, towing Marag's horse along after him.
They came within sight of the bridge, and through the trees along the far bank Tacs saw a camp with a fire and a line of picketed horses. They had to be Germans; no Hiung would tie a horse with the whole wide plain to graze it on. Almost at once the men in the camp saw him coming and rushed forward to bar the bridge. They came on foot, running, half a dozen men. Tacs reined in. The Germans swung the wooden bar to close the bridge and stood watching him, talking among themselves. Most of them carried bows, and one or two even had swords, like the Romans.
"Come forward," one of them shouted, in German.
Tacs looked from side to side. There was no other way to cross the river. He reeled in the lead rope until Marag's horse stood with its head almost against his thigh and started forward.
The black pony caught the scent of the Germans and flung up its head and neighed. At its high squeaky neigh the German horses beyond the river surged and lunged against the picket rope and whinnied in answer. Tacs kicked the pony forward again. It pinned back its ears and Tacs patted its neck. He had taught it to hate Germans. Those at the bridge were waiting for him; one man came forward toward him.
"Who are you?"
"A Hiung," Tacs said stiffly, in German. "I go to Hungvar. The Kagan is my chief."
"So you say," the German said. "How do we know that you are not a spy, sent by the Emperor?"
They always said this. It was a German trick to try to keep him here, perhaps even to turn him back and force him upriver. Tacs choked down his anger. The Germans were all laughing at him, their teeth showing in the midst of their blond beards.
"I am the Kagan's man. My name is Tacs, my father was Resak, my brother is Ras, we are of the frog clan of the Mishni Hiung and our—"
"What's that?" another German said, going toward Marag's horse.
"Leave that alone," Tacs called.
The German leader lifted his pale bushy eyebrows. His red lips curved into a smile smooth as a woman's. "What could be in that bundle? Something you don't want us to see?" With his men crowding after him, he went up and reached for the rope that held Marag on his horse.
Leaning across the grey horse's back, Tacs grabbed the German by the wrist. "No. Don't—"
The German struck him with his fist. Hands seized him from behind and dragged him down out of his saddle. The black pony reared. A German had hold of its bridle; the pony lashed out with its forefeet, shrilling, and the German stumbled back. Wheeling, the pony galloped off into the plain, away from the bridge. Tacs cried out. On foot he was helpless. He flung his weight against the arms that held him, but the Germans held him fast; they were much bigger than he was.
"Don't kill him yet," the leader called. "Let us see what he was bringing to Hungvar."
With a knife he cut the rope and pulled the wrappings from Marag, and Marag slid rolling down into the dirt of the road.
Outraged, Tacs whined in his teeth. The Germans recoiled. Marag, covered with dust, lay almost at Tacs' feet. A sour stench leaked from the body. One of the Germans yammered out an incantation. The men holding Tacs let him go, backing away; their leader's face was twisted and he licked his lips.
Tacs knelt down beside Marag and pulled the cloaks around him again. To touch Marag filled him with fear, and the odor made his stomach heave, but he could not bear to see him lying covered with dust in the midst of Germans. He wrapped the cloaks carefully around Marag's feet and tucked his rigid arms inside and drew the thick folds of bearskin across his face. Seeing Marag's face, even stiff and distorted, reminded him again that he was alone and his friend was dead, and he straightened up and beat his body with his fists and wailed in grief and loneliness.
Their faces whey-colored, the Germans had backed off around him. Tacs lifted Marag up in his arms. The body was frozen in the shape it had taken while lying across the grey horse's back. It was hard to lift but easy to return to its place on Marag's saddle. The rope lay in two pieces on the road. The Germans deserved all the ill luck that cutting a rope would bring them. Tacs knotted the rope together and tied the body fast. Taking the reins of Marag's horse, he walked back along the path, away from the bridge, and whistled for the black pony.
When he had gone almost a hundred steps along the road, the pony came trotting up to him. The dust had irritated its eyes so that the rims showed red and gritty. It jogged up to the grey horse and sniffed its muzzle. Tacs picked up the trailing reins and mounted.
Seeing him turn toward them, the Germans moved away from the bridge, going either way along the river. Tacs lifted the pony into a lope. Marag's horse, short-led, trotted along beside for a dozen strides and broke into a canter. The bar of the bridge appeared before them, and Tacs felt the pony start to shy and tightened his legs on its barrel. Half a stride ahead of the grey horse, the pony leapt easily over the bar. They galloped across the bridge and onto the plain beyond, and Tacs swerved to follow the course of the river, but he slowed the horses only when the bridge was out of sight and the Germans well behind him.
HE COULD FIND NO FROGS; they had all died for the winter. In the dark, crouched around his little fire, he fought off sleep all night long, while the skin of his back crawled over his spine, and his whole body twitched at the merest sound behind him. Marag in his wrappings lay tamely on the far side of the fire; the horses alternately slept and grazed along the river bank. Tacs' eyes grew hot from lack of sleep. Once he dozed and woke just before he would have fallen into the fire.
With the rising of the sun he rode north, following the slow windings of the river. After the long months of being alone and far from the shelter of his own people, the river seemed like a friend to him. He listened to its voice and even sang to it once or twice. Now that the sun shone in the sky he no longer felt tired. Overhead the sky glistened as blue as the paints the Romans used on the walls of their houses. He and Marag had spent the night once in a deserted house in the hills, in Italy south of the City, and stared at the pictures on the walls half the night. With torches they had gone arguing through the whole house and found all the pictures. The people drawn on the walls were strangely lifelike but not real-looking at all. Marag had stubbornly refused to admit that they were pictures of demons.
He began to organize his memories of the journey in his mind, as a finished thing, so that he could tell his friends when he was safe among them. Marag's family would have to know everything of importance. The black pony trotted steadily along, the rein looped over its neck. Tacs took the feathers and pebbles from his long black hair and combed it out with his fingers. In his shadow he saw how long his hair had grown.
In the late summer his hair had been much shorter, back when he and Marag returned to the Kagan's campground, expecting to find thousands of men, and found only dead fires and blowing dust. At first they had hoped to catch up; racing after the army, he and Marag had killed one horse and nearly finished another, but the Kagan always moved fast and had a month's lead, and no one had waited.
He tucked the pebbles into his belt pouch and braided the feathers back into his hair. The river dipped down into a hollow on the plain, and the bank turned to half-frozen marsh: two storks, late migrating, drew themselves slowly into the air on their long wings and rose away from him. Underhoof the ground crunched and the pony stepped short to keep from slipping. The sound of the river changed to a quieter note.
He had felt about the trail of the vanished army much the same way that he felt now about the river murmuring and lapping at the bank beside him—as long as he followed it, he was safe. They had stayed close to the army's track all the way out of Italy, although the game there was gone and the grass eaten away. But in the high passes of the mountains, lashed with snow and the shrieking wind, they lost the army's trail. Two days later one of their horses slipped and fell over a cliff; the next morning Marag was sick. By mid-afternoon he was too sick to ride. They camped in the lee of a cliff. Both of them knew Marag would be dead by morning—Marag talked of dying and asked Tacs to take word of his death to his father. In the afterdawn Tacs lashed his body to his saddle and rode on. That afternoon he killed a white goat, scrambled across a snow-field to reach it, and ate the heart and tongue raw.
It would snow on this plain within the month, but before then he would have come home. He kept his eyes moving, in case more Germans patrolled his side of the river. In the late afternoon he saw, far off, three wagons drawn by oxen and followed by a herd of four or five horses: a family moving south out of Hungvar for the winter. The men herding the horses reined in to watch him ride by. Tacs lifted his hand in salute and the two horsemen threw their right arms up in answer. The sight of them and the brief communication filled him with triumph. He had come home. Winding in and out of the fringe of trees along its banks, the river led them along, and he sang it a song about following the Kagan's trail out of Italy.
THE BLACK PONY TROTTED steadily along. Tacs could hardly see the road, it was so dark. The deep night chill pierced him like needles. Ahead, on the crown of the hill, light showed on the high walls of the Kagan's stockade. There were more lights on the lower hilltop west of the river, but Tacs thought that to be the camp of the Gepids' king. The pony strode along without hesitation, its nose aimed precisely toward the stockade.
All afternoon the north wind had risen steadily; now Tacs could see how it churned the naked branches of the oak tree at the gate to the stockade, and when the pony carried him up the last steep stretch of the road, he could hear the branches rattling together. All along the back of his head, the hair stirred and stood on end. He looked hastily behind him, but in the dark he could see nothing except the lights across the river. He turned his face toward the patch of lights before him, on the Kagan's hill. He had been mad to keep going when the night came, he should have stopped and waited until morning.
The grey horse loped along beside him. The cold wind rose in a gust and howled around him, shoving him forward; on the grey horse's back, the wrapped corpse shifted and moved, and Tacs whispered under his breath. Once he had known magic against the dead, but he had forgotten everything except some fragments of the incantation. Although the words alone were of no use he had taken to repeating them anyway.
The pony carried him directly under the oak tree, turned a corner, and stopped before the great gate into the stockade. Tacs drew a deep breath. The wind screamed and gibbered at him; the gaunt branches of the oak rasped together over his head. The gate was shut, of course, and they would never let him in so late. But he could not stay out here, in the open, in the dark. He leaned sideways and pounded with his fist on the gate.
"Let me in. Oh, let me in."
He could go out to one of the camps on the plain around the stockade, but in the dark he might as easily ride up to a German, and he knew he could not face a German now. No one answered his call, and he beat on the gate; it was made of logs split lengthwise, with the bark left on that muffled his knocking.
"Go away," a voice called from the top of the wall. "It's after dark, the gate is closed at sundown. Go away."
"Yaya!" Tacs cried, relieved. "It's Tacs. Let me in." He strained forward against the gate, pressing on it with both hands, as if he could wish his way through the wood.
Up on the wall, Yaya swore in a panicky voice. Tacs glanced over at the grey horse. It shone with a strange pale radiance. The wind and the dark buffeted him, chuckling around him, full of demons. His skin crept at their touch. They wanted Marag's body to eat. The pony danced from hoof to hoof, its ears pinned back, and Tacs patted its neck.
Excerpted from The Death Of Attila by Cecelia Holland. Copyright © 1973 Cecelia Holland. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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