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Gods of Nabban
By K.V. JOHANSEN
Prometheus BooksCopyright © 2016 K.V. Johansen
All rights reserved.
Something stalked him through his dreams. She was hungry, reaching ... Hyllau, reaching for him. The Lady of Marakand, but her face was burnt black, charred and flaking away like Hyllau's and she closed her mouth over his, pressing down on him, tongue forcing ... He caught her by the throat, to choke and throttle, to end this one slavery, at least —
There was more strength than one might think in Ghu's compact frame. He jerked Ahjvar's arms open, away from his neck, and pinned him to the ground like a wrestler. Ahjvar woke as his head thumped the earth and the ground hit him hard in the back.
Bunched muscles turned to water, as if he had run to the point of exhaustion. Ghu's fingers bit into his wrists, forcing Ahjvar's arms down as he leaned over him, a knee heavy on his chest. The blind dark of a cloudy night wrapped them; their fire was nearly smothered in its ashes.
He couldn't answer yet. Breath wheezed and sobbed in his throat.
Ghu released his grip, cautiously, and Ahjvar rolled away, arm over his face, shaking, teeth clenched on the plea. He could not ask to be set free; he had promised, so he would not, not yet. But he had to swallow the words, choking on them. Let me go. Let me die now. I can't do this.
Ghu put an arm over him, pulled close and held him tightly, till his shuddering eased to mere shivering against a cold that was not the autumn air.
"Hush." The command was hardly more than a stir of air against him. "Listen. I was going to wake you before long anyway. They've caught up. We're watched."
There was nothing to hear but his own harsh gasping, still too fast, too shallow, too loud.
"Shh, shh. It's all right, Ahj." A hand on his chest, breath in his hair. Encircled, safe. The Lady was dead. Hyllau's very soul was destroyed. He caught at Ghu's hand, gripped it, but didn't push him away. Lay still that moment longer, being safe and trying to settle his breathing, to be awake and sane and of some use.
He remembered. They had been stalked through the hills all that day, since early in the morning. Six riders on horseback, never closing in, never letting themselves, they thought, be seen. Ghu had kept the dogs, white and grey Jui and dun Jiot, in close, though they had been alert and bristling, wanting to investigate. Most likely the six were after the camels and, if they had seen it, Ahjvar's sword and the rings in his ears; they couldn't think Ahjvar and Ghu had any other wealth, just two more masterless wanderers come east from the defeat of Marakand's mercenaries at the Orsamoss. They might be ragged and growing gaunt with short commons, but to such men they would still be worth robbing. There was the gold and sea-ivory of the sword's hilt and the camels were still in good condition, better fed than their masters. Ghu cared for them well and had stolen only the best to start with, not but what the Praitannec kings had owed him more than the price of two camels for their victory.
When no attack came by dusk, Ahjvar and Ghu had made their camp with a careful eye to the ground. Trying to outrace the dogged pursuit, when they had no safe fastness to run to, seemed futile, as did making any great effort to lose them in the hills. Besides ... they had been fairly certain who the six were. If the brigands lost Ahjvar and Ghu, they would only go looking for other prey, less able to deal with them.
At Ghu's insistence, Ahjvar had slept the first half of the night; he had insisted in turn that Ghu wake him, let him take the second watch. Ghu had done so, and Old Great Gods forgive him, Ahjvar had slept. He did not even remember lying down.
He might as well be an invalid for all the use he was. His body healed. Wounds did, far more quickly than another man's might. He had only clean scars to mark his road from Sand Cove to Marakand and the Lady's well, to the battle at the Orsamoss and the burning tower at Dinaz Catairna. His mind, heart, soul, whatever, was another matter. A cripple. Even waking, there were long gaps in his days, as though his mind slept, or curled away small somewhere, leaving the body to manage the camel and the business of not falling. He would wake to awareness, though his eyes had never closed, and the light would be changed, the sun travelled several hours on its way, the land about them new.
Ghu should have known better than to trust him.
In some moods, he was strongly tempted to threaten to knock Ghu around the ears for treating him as a struggling child, letting him run, there to pick him up when he found he couldn't. Even for a grumble that would not be meant or taken seriously, he wasn't going to complain of the nursemaiding, though; it was Ghu who risked hurt, lying near to seize him back when the nightmares turned too foul. They might be only memories, festering unhealed wounds of the mind that he deserved to carry, not madness, no possessing ghost lurking in them, but even so ... fast as Ghu was, the fading bruise on his cheek was Ahjvar's doing, two nights old. It was the murdered shepherd who had woken the dreams again, when he'd been a week without them. He turned over, face-to-face, muttered on a sigh, "Sorry." No atonement, and none for sleeping when he should have watched.
Bar himself from dreaming? He had attempted it, briefly, a few weeks back. The nightmares had leaked foul and vicious into his waking mind, or his half-waking; the periods where he lost time and place and self turned to horrors, and that ... that was worse. To be mad in the daylight world ... He had burnt the woven knot of herbs he had made against the nights, but the spell had been already failing, too weak to hold against the strength of the dreaming.
His sins; the dreams were his just punishment and atonement to bear for them, maybe, whether on the Old Great Gods' road, or Ghu's. He could not set them aside.
"Watched? Where are they?"
Neither dog was by them. He rose on an elbow to look. There. Pale, slinking wolf shape: Jui, just barely visible in the thinning night. The dog came up, keeping low, lay at Ghu's feet, watching the deeper darkness along the willow-lined bend of the coulee, just where a pool of water still lasted. That was where Ahjvar would have been. The rest of the slowly rising land was open of any cover but the night, grazed earlier in the summer, though no herds were near now.
"Four in the trees. Two up on the high ground, lying flat. They've been there a while." Ghu sounded apologetic. "You needed to sleep."
That someone had been keeping watch after all made him feel no less shamed for his failure.
"You get downstream, keep out of it." Old habit, to make sure the boy was safe out of any killing when he went about his work in the Five Cities. But Ghu was not that boy.
"And leave you alone? No, Ahj." After a moment, Ghu added, "We knew they were going to come on us sometime, once they started following. It may as well be now. These are the same who murdered the shepherd."
Ahjvar had been a king's champion once, and a king's wizard, too, a long lifetime ago. The king's wizards might divine truth from lie, when charges were brought for royal judgement, but those thus condemned might still appeal for the justice of the sword, a trial by combat within the circle of nine witnesses, which was generally only to have a more honourable death than the slow hanging that was the fate of wilful murderers and certain other most heinous criminals, the king's champion being the best sword of the tribe. He did wonder if Ghu had gone so far as to make the two of them bait, if he had on his own decreed a trial by deed, to give the justice the little chieftains of this land might fear to exact from the lordless mercenaries when they travelled in gangs. He could not be certain any more what Ghu might and might not do, but the man would do it quiet and clear-eyed and whole. His simpleton groom — hah. He would trust Ghu's instinct for guilt or innocence over any wizard's divination, including his own, and Ghu's judgement, too, and set his sword to serve what Ghu appointed.
Two days past, they'd come upon a shepherd slain with her dog, her hut burnt and her ghost confused and lost on the hillside, what was left of her flock still keeping close, sensing her there. Six, she had told them. Foreigners, four men and two women, and they'd killed her the previous day for the bit of barley meal and cheese in her summer hut and a couple of sheep they could have driven off unchallenged. She had had more sense than to face them; she'd been hiding in the thorn thicket, she and her dog in silence, but they searched and found her and dragged her out ...
Ahjvar and Ghu had buried the shepherd and the dog together, setting them free to take the road to the Old Great Gods, getting well away before her kin could come seeking her, to make mistakes about which wild and lawless wanderers might have done such a thing. The two of them could have been the warlord Ketsim's followers, Praitannecman and colony-Nabbani together, Ahjvar dressed in battlefield gleanings and Ghu, barefoot, having worn through the soles of his boots, in a too-tight caravaneer's coat scorched and shredded to rags.
The road ran over a thousand miles through the hills beyond the eastern boundaries of the Praitannec kingdoms before it climbed to the dry uplands that became the eastern deserts, near enough now that sometimes the sun rose in the yellow haze of some distant, dust-bearing wind. These hills they travelled, though, were not so unlike Praitan, but wilder, emptier. There was dry scrub forest, the trees low and tangled, where reclusive demons, spirits of the land, watched warily as they passed: a blue-eyed stag, an owl, a white wolf without a pack. When they ventured into the shade of such woodlands, the camels paced crunching along paths drifted with past years' curled leaves, brown and leathery, smelling of resin. When there was a demon, it would trail them, unspeaking, attracted to Ghu, uncertain about Ahjvar.
For the most part, Ahjvar and Ghu had kept to the open lands, the rolling hills where lower scrub and autumn-yellowing grasses were grazed by wild goats and antelope and the sheep, asses, and camels of the semi-nomadic hillfolk. They were Praitannec kin, pale of hair and eye, skin an oak-tanned brown; Ahjvar could have passed for native here, but for his tongue. They spoke the same language, or near enough, but with a guttural desert-harsh intonation, not the singing lilt of the seven kingdoms farther west. They had no kings, only chieftains ruling tribes of a few families, which drifted seasonally up and down their hills between high summer camps and the stone and sod huts of their winter villages, nearly abandoned in this season, in the sheltered valleys. The goddesses of the shallow, stony rivers, like the gods of the hills, were quiet folk. If either had priest or priestess it would be only some gentle holy person living apart, half a shaman, or a wise elder who had settled to be companion of their god in their old age. Such gods did not always denounce Ahjvar as cursed or an abomination in their land, and sometimes the holy ones would offer them a meal and shelter for the night, drawn, like the demons, to Ghu. Sometimes they asked for the tale of the western upheavals and an accounting of why their lands, usually disturbed only by bands of young folk who took to caravan-raiding or an outbreak of reiving between neighbouring chains of hills, were so beset now with wandering bands of lordless foreign folk, desperate and rapacious brigands. Ghu would tell them of Marakand's war on Praitan and the victory of the kings of Praitan. Ahjvar left the talking to him.
Some of the mercenaries and Catairnan traitors, Praitannec warriors who had betrayed their queen, might be looking for honest work, hoping to find hire on the road or in Porthduryan, the town at the desert edge. Not many. The three cities on the coast south of Praitan would have been the better destination for such. Any who had come so far east as this were brigands now, even if they had not started out so.
And what was there to tell the folk of the land that Ghu and Ahjvar were any different? Only the god-touched holy ones saw otherwise. The brigands certainly did not.
Not long to wait now; enough light to see the shadow-shape of the dun dog Jiot, settling by the hobbled camels, who were likewise wakeful but chewing their cuds, unperturbed.
Ahjvar reached over Ghu, feeling for his sword. He wouldn't sleep with it within reach, nor a knife. He didn't trust himself. His hand found the hilt, ivory and gilded bronze, the pommel a snarling leopard's head. Northron work, very old. Lost heirloom of an ill-fated house. He slid it clear of the scabbard, laid it by his hip while he groped again and pulled his boots on, lay on his back. Ghu rolled over, chin on his arm, his forage-knife under his hand, that broad-bladed, angled tool that could cut a man's throat as easily as an armful of fodder. Ahjvar still heard nothing, but he was not sure Ghu did either, or if in some way he might perceive what the dogs did.
The trees along the coulee had solidified out of the thinning night. He could see them now, leaves hanging still, heavy against the windless dark blue. Mist crept off the pool, fingers of white snaking about the lower trunks. A shout. The trees birthed running shapes, a single figure pulling ahead. Ghu rose to one knee, ignoring them, watching up the hill. Ahjvar leapt the embers of the fire and went the other way. The woman in the lead was Northron tall, with an axe. Without a shield, he didn't much want to deal with that axe face-to-face. He dodged at the last, struck low as she tried to follow him, cutting across the backs of her knees, and continued around to drive the circling weight of his long Northron sword up and into the following man's belly, steel grating between the bronze plaques stitched to the man's jerkin, bearing him down. A second woman came at his unguarded side. He abandoned his sword and the dead weight on it, hooked her feet out from under her, seized the hilt and shoved the dying man clear of his blade with his foot, and had the sword free again as the woman flung herself up and closed in on him, grim-faced. He might have asked her why it took six of them to kill one unarmed girl. He might have offered quarter and told her to run, if for no other reason than to show himself he did not have to kill her but by his own choice, yet there was Ghu, with no better weapon than a peasant's knife. So that was his choice. They were convicted and dead anyway. His father would have hanged them.
She was a Grasslander with a horseman's sabre and the small buckler they used, and so was the last man of the four who rushed at him from the side, blade sweeping, braids flying. He had to turn between the two of them. Could have used a shield, yes, or a stick, or just about anything, really, to block that. It was a harried few moments, till he took the woman's head half off. The blade had dulled its edge, scraping armour and bone, and he paid in blood for that delay in jerking his sword free, felt the man's sabre skim and bite his warding arm, but it saved his face, and the man's savage grin gaped as he ran him through. No armour. He pushed him down and cut his throat, a mercy he likely did not notice, and killed the crippled axe-woman on the ground as she tried to drag herself away, before looking around for Ghu.
Both dogs were barking now, loud and angry, and Ahjvar, all unwilling, could hear the wailing of the confused and angry ghosts. No other human cries, though, now that the last woman was silent. A camel, finally, decided something was amiss and bellowed.
There. Ghu rose from where he had crouched, wiping the blade of his forage-knife clean on a handful of grass. Someday I may have to learn to kill, he had once said, and, Not this day. It seemed so long ago. A lifetime's journey. Even before that, they had argued over whether Ghu would learn to use a sword, once it began to seem inevitable that the boy was his, a stray cat that could not be driven off. Ghu had persisted in his refusal, but he surely had not tracked Ahjvar across half Praitan and hauled him from the Lady's hell in the midst of battle without shedding blood.
To mourn that sacrificed innocence seemed ungrateful of the gift.
No. What Ghu had set aside to claim Ahjvar from the curses that held him was not a child's innocence, but his freedom. A doom chosen before he would otherwise have done so, or one he might still have rejected altogether. He could have abandoned Ahjvar to the mercy and the death the devil Dotemon might have given him, and kept on his westward wanderings. But he had not, and so he was bound to the east, and Ahjvar would not abandon him. Not this day. That was all he could promise, yet. Each day anew — not this day.
Excerpted from Gods of Nabban by K.V. JOHANSEN. Copyright © 2016 K.V. Johansen. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books.
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