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The thunder of hoofbeats. shouts in a harsh tongue. Krispos opened one eye. It was still dark. It felt like the middle of the night. He shook his head. He did not like noise that woke him up when he should have been asleep. He closed the eye and snuggled down between his mother and father on the straw palliasse he and they and his little sister used for a bed.
His parents woke, too, just when he was trying to go back to sleep. Krispos felt their bodies stiffen on either side of him. His sister Evdokia slept on. Some people have all the luck, he thought, though he’d never thought of Evdokia as particularly lucky before. Not only was she three—half his age—she was a girl.
The shouts turned to screams. One of the screams had words: “The Kubratoi! The Kubratoi are in the village!”
His mother gasped. “Phos save us!” she said, her voice almost as shrill as the cries of terror in the darkness outside.
“The good god saves through what people do,” his father said. The farmer sprang to his feet. That woke Evdokia, where nothing else had. She started to cry. “Keep her quiet, Tatze!” Krispos’ father growled. His mother cuddled Evdokia, softly crooned to her.
Krispos wondered whether he’d get cuddled if he started crying. He thought he’d be more likely to get his father’s hand on his backside or across his face. Like every farm boy from anywhere near the town of Imbros, he knew who the Kubratoi were: wild men from north of the mountains. “Will we fight them, Father?” he asked. Just the other day, with a stick for a sword, he’d slain a dozen make-believe robbers.
But his father shook his head. “Real fighting is for soldiers. The Kubratoi, curse ’em, are soldiers. We aren’t. They’d kill us, and we couldn’t do much in the way of fighting back. This isn’t play, boy.”
“What will we do, Phostis?” his mother asked above Evdokia’s sniffles. She sounded almost ready to cry herself. That frightened Krispos more than all the racket outside. What could be worse than something bad enough to frighten his mother?
The answer came in a moment: something bad enough to frighten his father. “We run,” Phostis said grimly, “unless you’d sooner be dragged north by the two-legged wolves out there. That’s why I built close to the forest; that’s why I built the door facing away from most of the houses: to give us a chance to run, if the Kubratoi ever came down again.”
His mother bent, rose again. “I have the baby.”
In her arms, Evdokia said indignantly, “Not a baby!” Then she started to cry again.
No one paid any attention to her. Krispos’ father took him by the shoulder, so hard that his flimsy nightshirt might as well not have stood between man’s flesh and boy’s. “Can you run to the trees, son, fast as you can, and hide yourself till the bad men go away?”
“Yes, Father.” Put that way, it sounded like a game. Krispos had played more games in the forest than he could count.
“Then run!” His father threw open the door. Out he darted. His mother followed, still holding Evdokia. Last came his father. Krispos knew his father could run faster than he could, but his father didn’t try, not tonight. He stayed between his family and the village.
Bare feet skimming across the ground, Krispos looked back over his shoulder. He’d never seen so many horses or so many torches in his life before. All the horses had strangers on them—the fearsome Kubratoi, he supposed. He could see a lot of villagers, too. The horsemen rounded up more of them every second.
“Don’t look, boy! Run!” his father said. Krispos ran. The blessed trees drew nearer and nearer. But a new shout was up, too, and horses drummed their way. The sound of pursuit grew with horrid quickness. Breath sobbing in his throat, Krispos thought how unfair it was that horses could run so fast.
“You stop, or we shoot you!” a voice called from behind. Krispos could hardly understand it; he had never heard Videssian spoken with any accent but the country twang of his own village.
“Keep running!” his father said. But riders flashed by Krispos on either side, so close he could feel the wind from their horses, so close he could smell the beasts. They wheeled, blocking him and his family from the safety of the woods.
Still with the feeling it was all a game, Krispos wheeled to dash off in some new direction. Then he saw the other horsemen, the pair who had gone after his father. One carried a torch, to give them both light to see by. It also let Krispos clearly see them, see their fur caps, the matted beards that seemed to complement those caps, their boiled-leather armor, the curved swords on their hips, the way they sat their mounts as if part of them. Frozen in time, the moment stayed with Krispos as long as he lived.
The second rider, the one without a torch, held a bow. It had an arrow in it, an arrow drawn and pointed at Krispos’ father. That was when it stopped being play for the boy. He knew about bows, and how people were supposed to be careful with them. If these wild men didn’t know that, time someone taught them.
He marched straight up to the Kubratoi. “You turn the aim of that arrow aside this instant,” he told them. “You might hurt someone with it.”
Both Kubratoi stared at him. The one with the bow threw back his head and howled laughter. The wild man did sound like a wolf, Krispos thought, shivering. He wished his voice had been big and deep like his father’s, not a boy’s squeak. The rider wouldn’t have laughed then.
The rider probably would have shot him, but he did not think of that until years later. As it was, the Kubrati, still laughing, set down his bow, made an extravagant salute from the saddle. “Anything you say, little khagan, anything you say.” He chuckled, wiping his face with the back of his hand. Then he raised his eyes to meet those of Krispos’ father, who had hurried up to do what he could for the boy. “Not need to shoot now, eh, farmer-man?”
“No,” Krispos’ father agreed bitterly. “You’ve caught us, all right.”
Along with his parents and Evdokia, Krispos walked slowly back to the village. A couple of horsemen stayed with them; the other two rode ahead so they could get back to doing whatever Kubratoi did. That, Krispos already suspected, was nothing good.
He remembered the strange word the rider with the bow had used. “Father, what does ‘khagan’ mean?”
“It’s what the Kubratoi call their chieftain. If he’d been a Videssian, he would have called you ‘Avtokrator’ instead.”
“Emperor? That’s silly.” Even with his world coming apart, Krispos found he could still laugh.
“So it is, boy,” his father said grimly. He paused, then went on in a different tone, as if beginning to enjoy the joke himself: “Although there’s said to be Vaspurakaner blood on my side of the family, and the Vaspurs all style themselves ‘prince.’ Bet you didn’t know your father was a prince, eh, son?”
“Stop it, Phostis!” Krispos’ mother said. “The priest says that nonsense about princes is heresy and nothing else but. Don’t pass it on to the boy.”
“Heresy is what the priest is supposed to know about,” his father agreed, “but I won’t argue about the nonsense part. Who ever heard of a prince going hungry?”
His mother sniffed, but made no further answer. They were inside the village by then, back where other people could hear them—not good, not if they wanted to talk of heresy. “What will they do with us?” was a safer question to ask, though not one, necessarily, with a surer answer. The villagers stood around under the bows of the Kubratoi, waiting.
Then more riders came up, these leading not people but the village’s herds and flocks. “Are the animals coming with us, Father?” Krispos asked. He had not expected the Kubratoi to be so considerate.
“With us, aye, but not for us,” was all his father said.
The Kubratoi started shouting, both those who spoke Videssian and those who did not. The villagers looked at one another, trying to figure out what the wild men meant. Then they saw the direction in which the cattle and sheep were going. They followed the beasts northward.
For krispos, the trek to kubrat was the best adventure he’d ever had. Tramping along all day was no harder than the chores he would have been doing had the raiders not descended on his village, and he always had something new to see. He’d never imagined, before, how big the world was.
That the march was forced hardly entered his mind. He ate better on it than he had at home; the Kubrati he’d defied that first night decided to make a pet of him and brought him chunks of roast lamb and beef. Soon other riders took up the game, so the “little khagan” sometimes found himself with more than he could eat.
At his father’s urging, he never let on. Whenever the Kubratoi did not insist on having him eat in front of them, he passed their tidbits on to the rest of the family. The way he made the food disappear earned him a reputation as a bottomless pit, which only brought more his way.
By the end of the third day on the road north, the raiders who had descended on his village met with other bands bringing captives and booty back to Kubrat. That took Krispos by surprise. He had never given any thought to the world beyond the fields he knew. Now he saw he and his family were caught up in something larger than a local upheaval.
“Where are those people from, Father?” he asked as yet another group of bewildered, bedraggled peasants came stumbling into the larger stream.
His father shrugged, which made Evdokia giggle—she was riding on his shoulders. “Who can say?” Phostis answered. “Just another village of farmers that happened to be unlucky like ours.”
“Unlucky.” Krispos tasted the word, found it odd. He was enjoying himself. Sleeping under the stars was no great handicap, not to a six-year-old in summer. But his father, he could tell, did not like the Kubratoi and would have hit back at them if he could. That made Krispos ask another question, one he had not thought of till now. “Why are they taking farmers back to Kubrat?”
“Here comes one.” His father waited till the wild man rode by, then pointed at his back. “Tell me what you see.”
“A man on a horse with a big bushy beard.”
“Horses don’t have beards,” Evdokia said. “That’s dumb, Krispos.”
“Hush,” their father told her. “That’s right, son—a man on a horse. Kubratoi hardly ever come down from their horses. They travel on them, go to war on them, and follow their flocks on them, too. But you can’t be a farmer if you stay on your horse all the time.”
“They don’t want to be farmers, though,” Krispos said.
“No, they don’t,” his father agreed. “But they need farmers, whether they want to farm themselves or not. Everybody needs farmers. Flocks can’t give you all the food you need and flocks won’t feed your horses at all. So they come down into Videssos and steal folk like—well, folk like us.”
“Maybe it won’t be so bad, Phostis,” Krispos’ mother said. “They can’t take more from us than the imperial tax collectors do.”
“Who says they can’t?” his father answered. “Phos the lord of the great and good mind knows I have no love for the tax collectors, but year in, year out they leave us enough to get by on. They shear us—they don’t flay us. If the Kubratoi were so fine as all that, Tatze, they wouldn’t need to raid every few years to get more peasants. They’d be able to keep the ones they had.”
There was a commotion among the captives that night. Evidently a good many of them agreed with Krispos’ father and tried to escape from the Kubratoi. The screams were far worse than the ones in the village the night the wild men came.
“Fools,” Phostis said. “Now they’ll come down harder on all of us.”
He was right. The men from the north started traveling before dawn and did not stop to feed the peasants till well after noon. They pushed the pace after the meager meal, too, halting only when it got too dark for them to see where they were going. By then, the Paristrian Mountains loomed tall against the northern skyline.
A small stream ran through the campsite the Kubratoi had picked. “Shuck out of your shirt and wash yourself,” Krispos’ mother told him.
He took off his shirt—the only one he had—but did not get into the water. It looked chilly. “Why don’t you take a bath, too, Mama?” he said. “You’re dirtier than I am.” Under the dirt, he knew, she was one of the best-looking ladies in his village.
His mother’s eyes flicked to the Kubratoi. “I’m all right the way I am, for now.” She ran a grimy hand across her grimy face.
The swat of his father’s hand on his bare behind sent him skittering into the stream. It was as cold as it looked, but his bottom still felt aflame when he came out. His father nodded to him in a strange new way, almost as if they were both grown men. “Are you going to argue with your mother the next time she tells you to do something?” he asked.
“No, Father,” Krispos said.
His father laughed. “Not until your backside cools off, anyway. Well, good enough. Here’s your shirt.” He got out of his own and walked down to the stream, to come back a few minutes later wet and dripping and running his hands through his hair.
Krispos watched him dress, then said carefully, “Father, is it arguing if I ask why you and I should take baths, but Mama shouldn’t?”
For a bad moment he thought it was, and braced himself for another smack. But then his father said, “Hmm—maybe it isn’t. Put it like this—no matter how clean we are, no Kubrati will find you or me pretty. You follow that?”
“Yes,” Krispos said, although he thought his father—with his wide shoulders, neat black beard, and dark eyes set so deep beneath shaggy brows that sometimes the laughter lurking there was almost hidden—a fine and splendid man. But, he had to admit, that wasn’t the same as pretty.
“All right, then. Now you’ve already seen how the Kubratoi are thieves. Phos, boy, they’ve stolen all of us, and our animals, too. And if one of them saw your mother looking especially pretty, the way she can—” Listening, she smiled at Krispos’ father, but did not speak. “—he might want to take her away for his very own. We don’t want that to happen, do we?”
“No!” Krispos’ eyes got wide as he saw how clever his mother and father were. “I see! I understand! It’s a trick, like when the wizard made Gemistos’ hair turn green at the show he gave.”
“A little like that, anyhow,” his father agreed. “But that was real magic. Gemistos’ hair really was green, till the wizard changed it back to brown again. This is more a game, like when men and women switch clothes sometimes on the Midwinter’s Day festival. Do I turn into your mama because I’m wearing a dress?”
“Of course not!” Krispos giggled. But that wasn’t supposed to fool anyone; as his father said, it was only a game. Here, now, his mother’s prettiness remained, though she was trying to hide it so no one noticed. And if hiding something in plain sight wasn’t magic, Krispos didn’t know what was.
From the Trade Paperback edition.