Driven by crushing taxes from the farm where his family had lived—and died—Krispos had come to the. city seeking what fortune a good mind and a strong back could earn. He had a single goldpiece to his name—the gift, years past, of a nomad chieftain to a ragged peasant boy. Now, though the night was raw and the inn was warm, he was loath to spend that coin, for the barbarian had claimed it carried magic.
Keep his lucky goldpiece or trade it for a warm, dry bed? Krispos tucked the coin away and stepped back into the wet streets—all unaware that so simple a choice would lead to a world of peril and possibility. . . .
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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 paillasse 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.