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Law Links

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Law Links 1
GOD OF VENGEANCE
 

CHAPTER ONE
 

Begun on the first day of September in the 940th year after the giving of the law, by Adrian son of Berenger, from the Village of Mountside in the Land of Koretia.


Hamar and I played Jackal and Prey this afternoon, with Hamar as the Jackal, and with me as the Jackal's prey. I spent three hours hiding amidst the mountain rocks, creeping away whenever Hamar came near, and he never caught me. Eventually Hamar called to me that I was cheating, and I came out and we argued about it and would probably have ended up duelling each other except that I was reluctant to get blood on the new dagger that our father gave me this morning.

Finally I told Hamar that it wasn't fair that he always played that he was the hunting god, while I was always delegated to being the hunted. He responded that I play the prey better than anyone else in the village – which is true – but I pointed out to him that I am just as good at being the hunter as I am at being the hunted. "Besides," I said, "I came of age this morning, and if you want to be at my birthday feast this evening, you ought to acknowledge that I am a man."

He sulkily allowed me to take the Jackal's role, and I caught him within a quarter of an hour. My father said this morning that Hamar and I ought not to be playing such games any more, since we are both men, even if I am only sixteen and Hamar is just two years older. But Fenton said that even boys' games have value to a man and that some day I may be able to make as much use of my hours spent at Jackal and Prey as I will of what I learned in the rite he performed over me late last night.

o—o—o

Fenton and I were silent for a long while after the rite was done. We were in the sanctuary, of course, but the small chamber seemed strange, for I had never been there at night, and Fenton hadn't lit so much as a candle. He had even shuttered the windows so that the uninitiated would not chance to hear the words he spoke. The only light came from the full moon, which shone down through the smoke-hole onto the altar. I could barely see Fenton.

He had tried to put his arm round me after it was through, but I pushed him away – it was the first time I had ever done that, but I wanted him to know that, being a man, I was now old enough to be strong on my own. So I had dressed, still shivering, and he had gone over to the table against the wall and poured wine for us. He paused after pouring the first cup, and for a moment I thought he would share a cup of wine with me, as he sometimes does with my father. But then he poured a second cup of wine and came over to where I was standing, staring through the cracks of the shuttered window.

He handed me my cup before he unlatched the window and swung it open. Light from my family's home, several spear-lengths up the mountain, spilled into the room. I could see, through the open window of our hall, that my parents were sitting on their chairs next to the central hearth. My father had Mira upon his knee and was bouncing her up and down as though she were riding a horse. She was squealing with delight as though she were a small girl instead of being thirteen and close to her coming of age.

I longed to join them, to return to the familiar safety of my house, but I was worried that would make me appear a coward. So I sipped from the wine, though my stomach remained so tense that I feared I would be sick.

Finally I said, "Perhaps I should have picked another god to serve. One whose rite isn't so frightening."

I meant this as a joke, and I tried to smile, but Fenton said seriously, "In many ways, the Jackal is the most merciful god. Some of the other god-rites are far worse."

I looked over at him then. He was leaning back against the altar, sipping his wine, and his face was shadowed by the hood of the frayed priest-robe he has worn for eleven years. He looked as calm as ever, just as he had looked calm when he spoke in the name of the god and raised the knife over me as I lay upon the altar. . . .

On impulse, I put my cup aside and came over to take Fenton's hand. For a moment I felt foolish; his hand was as steady as ever. Then I felt, very faintly, the tremor within him, like a thunder-roll deep within the earth.

It was then, I think, that I truly understood what it means to be a man: to put thoughts of others before thoughts of myself. I said softly, "I'm sorry," and for a moment I could think of nothing but Fenton's pain.

Then he turned his head to look at me. As the firelight fell upon his face, I saw his smile, and I felt foolish and boyish again.

"It's of no matter," he replied. "I have performed this rite many times before, and on other occasions it was far worse. At least this time I knew that the god would not require the worst of me."

I wanted to ask how he was sure that the Jackal would not accept my proffered sacrifice, but I thought the better of it. I let go of his hand and rubbed the back of my neck. It seemed odd to feel the soft night-breeze blowing where, only a short time before, my boy's-hair had been. I said, before I could question the wisdom of my asking, "Has a god ever required the full sacrifice when you performed the coming-of-age rite?"

To my relief, he shook his head. "Only once did he come close to doing so when I took part in a rite. And on that occasion, I was nearly the victim."

He lifted his hand as he spoke, in order to bring the cup to his lips. As he did so, his sleeve slipped back far enough for me to see the faint lines of his blood vows. He has three of them. One is the vow he took when he became a priest, and the second is the vow of friendship he took with my father. I have never asked him about the third blood vow. Now I found myself wondering: Had Fenton become blood brother to one of the other priests in the priests' house when he was in training? And was a vow between priests so great a matter that he had feared he would need to offer up a full sacrifice to his god or goddess?

Or perhaps he was simply referring to what had happened when the priest from Cold Run made Fenton a priest. I knew, of course, that the coming-of-age rite for a priest is different from that of an ordinary man, since the priest makes a greater commitment to his god or goddess. I supposed the rite must be far more frightening.

I felt again that odd tenderness I had felt before, and I wanted to find a way to remove Fenton's mind from what had just happened. Desperately, I looked about the grey-shadowed sanctuary. Thus I caught sight of my back-sling, lying near the door.

I raced over to it and pulled the bound volume from it, then ran back to Fenton. "Look!" I said, thrusting the volume into his hands. "I've never shown this to anyone. See what I've been keeping."

He opened it slowly, read aloud the first few words, and smiled. "Now I know why your Emorian has been improving so rapidly during recent months. I thought it must be due to more than my lessons."

Feeling shyly pleased, I pointed to the first entry of my journal. "You see?" I said. "I even date the entries the Emorian way: 'The fifth day of February in the 940th year after the giving of the law.' What does 'after the giving of the law' mean?"

"That's a lesson in itself," Fenton murmured. He was flipping through the journal rapidly, far too quickly to be reading the entries, so I knew that he wished to preserve my privacy. "Some time soon, when we have time, I'll explain Emorian law to you. I ought to have done so before now, I suppose, but it has been hard enough a task to teach you the Emorian language."

I grinned, not offended. We both knew that I had no special talent for learning foreign languages. It was a tribute to Fenton's talent for teaching that I now spoke his native language as well as I did.

He came to the final page, which was completed, and closed the volume. As he handed it back to me, he asked, "Will you continue to write this?"

I nodded. "I'm starting the second volume tomorrow. Today," I amended, looking at where the moon hung in the sky. "A new volume for a new life."

Fenton's eye lingered a moment upon the moon, and I found myself wondering whether he worships the Moon Goddess. He has never told me who his god is – there is a great deal Fenton has never told me about himself. Sometimes I feel that he is as mysterious as the gods, and that he is hiding something of vital importance from me. Something that would transform my life.

For a moment, standing in that dark sanctuary, I almost thought he would tell me. But all that he said was, "My only suggestion is that, from now on, you write as though you were speaking to an Emorian who needed to be told about Koretian life. Those first few words you wrote in your journal . . . I would not have understood them when I first came to Koretia. Not because you lack command of the Emorian language," he added, seeing my expression fall, "but because I was unfamiliar with Koretian customs. Knowing another person's language is only half the struggle. You must try to make clear to them how you think, so that they can understand ways that are strange to them."

I thought upon this for a while. Finally I said, "What do I need to explain to Emorians about Koretia that they don't already know?"

He looked at me for a long moment, his light-skinned hand curled around his cup. Finally he said, with a firmness that surprised me, "Emorians know nothing about Koretia. You will need to teach them everything."

o—o—o

I thought about that afterwards, while lying in bed at home. I suppose that I must accept Fenton's statement as true, since he was born in Emor and spent eighteen years there as a slave. I asked him again last night, for the twelve dozenth time, to tell me about his escape through the mountains. . . . But perhaps I should explain, for the benefit of my Emorian reader, that I live in northern Koretia, and my village is built on the side of one of the black border mountains between Koretia and Emor. We found Fenton one day, lying atop our mountain, where he was nearly dead after his escape past the border mountain patrol – I know that I don't have to explain about the patrol, since they are Emorian soldiers, after all. My father told me that Fenton is the only man he has ever known to slip past the patrol, either coming out of Emor or going into it, and I think it was mainly out of admiration for his bravery that my father made Fenton his blood brother and therefore made him a member of our village. For – I realize once more that I must explain – most Koretian villages are made up entirely of single families, relatives either through birth or through blood vows of marriage or friendship.

Fenton spent six years in the priests' house at our capital city, which is in southern Koretia, but when he had learned his calling he returned here. My father asked Fenton to come back here to tutor me, and he even allowed Fenton to teach me Emorian, which my father calls a godless language, but which Fenton says could be of use to me since we have several people of Emorian blood in our village. Emor may be godless, says Fenton, but it knows certain things Koretia does not know, and we who live here in the borderland are in the best position to take what is good from both lands and combine those goods into something new.

Needless to say, I do not report such remarks to my father. Tonight my father is giving me a birthday feast – a thoroughly Koretian one, with nut tosses and blessings and blood vows. Afterwards we will sleep by the fire in order to watch the Jackal eat his prey. (That's what we call it here in Koretia when the fire burns its wood.) I will bring along this second volume of my journal, in case anything happens at the feast that is interesting enough that I would want to write it down.

Perhaps, now that I am a man, I will be able to peer into Fenton's spirit and know what he is, in the same manner as the Jackal knows me.

o—o—o

The second day of September in the 940th year a.g.l.

I suppose that I ought to be reluctant to write in this journal again, considering its role in what happened at my birthday feast. But when I told Fenton what had happened, he said that I must model myself on the Jackal and not destroy the good in my eagerness to erase the evil. Fenton does not say, as my father says, that the Jackal ate his prey and that what happened is the will of the gods. Instead, Fenton says that the ways of the gods are mysterious, and though the gods do not bless the evil deeds that men have done, they are able to take these deeds and turn them to good.

For this reason, I will continue to write in this second and now sole volume of my journal, though it feels odd to take up this book once more and remember it lying between Hamar and me on the night of my birthday, like a murderer's thigh-dagger hidden in its sheath.

We were sitting around the outdoor fire in our village green, which must have been selected for its purpose for the simple reason that it is the only piece of reasonably flat open ground in Mountside. What other flat places there are on the slopes of our mountain – usually naked boulders jutting out from the sparse grassland – are occupied by houses such as our own. My mother, who lived in Cold Run before she vowed herself to my father, often complains about how uncomfortable our rock floor is compared to the dirt floor she grew up with. My father, over the years, has always made the argument that such stony barriers prevent fires from spreading from one village house to the next, and I suppose that such an argument is now irrefutable.

We had already had my birthday blessing and the prayers to the gods – that took a while, since Fenton prayed to all seven rather than reveal which gods are worshipped by the people of our village. Some people, like my brother, consider their god-service something to be spoken of only to the priest. My brother and I were sharing wild-berry wine from one cup, since we were short of drinking vessels, and at a certain point Hamar commented, "The Emorians think wild-berry wine tastes like poison."

I had just received one of the nut bowls that was being passed hand to hand around the fire. I took a nut, gave the bowl to Hamar, and said, "Where did you hear that?"

"From Titus – I heard him talking to Lange. He said that the Emorians believe their wine to be the best wine in the Three Lands."

"Well, they would," I said in disgust. "They think that everything they do is better than what is done in Koretia and Daxis. They even say that it's better not to believe in gods."

"No!" Hamar stared in astonishment at this blasphemy.

"That's what Fenton says," I said calmly, having recovered from my shock at the time I first heard this. "He said that the Emorians believe that Koretians use the gods as an excuse to indulge themselves in passionate and irrational behavior."

I thought it best not to add that Fenton had said that the Emorians were sometimes right about this. Hamar leaned back his head to sip from our cup, as well as to watch one of the nuts soar over the flames and then crack at the moment before it reached the fire. We joined in the cheers and applause. Hamar said idly, "Do you suppose that Emorians have nut tosses?"

"I don't know, but I know they eat nuts. Fenton said that he tasted some Daxion nuts when he was a slave and that they were delicious."

Hamar frowned as he took from the man next to him the bowl of blackroot nuts. "Not that I want to accuse a priest of such a thing, but he must have been lying. Daxion nuts are a noblemen's luxury."

"Well, his master was rich, remember? —Oh, blessed of the gods," I said enviously as I noticed that Hamar was holding the last nut of the bowl he had been handed. He stared at the flames for the moment, formulating his thoughts, and then sacrificed his nut to the fire. Hamar was always eager to show off his throwing skills: as a result the nut went too high, then plunged quickly into the fire before it was hot enough to crack.

"Too bad," I said. "What did you pray for?" Then, at Hamar's look: "You can tell me, since the god didn't accept your sacrifice. The prayer won't be answered in any case."

Hamar shrugged, reaching over to take the wine cup from me. "It wasn't an interesting prayer," he said. "I prayed to the Sun God to protect me from harm."

"Is that who your god is?" I said with interest. "Why did you choose the Sun God?"

Hamar shuffled the heels of his shoes against the ground, which was dry in the late-summer heat and therefore gave off great clouds of dirt that rose into the night sky. "The Sun God is the most powerful god, I think," he said. "More powerful than the Jackal God, more powerful than the Moon Goddess – I don't know why people choose to serve the other gods. The Sun grows our crops and he makes the fires that warm us, like that one." He pointed to the balefire.

Annoyed, I said, "That's the Jackal's fire – he's eating his prey."

"Well, but who says that? Father, who worships the Jackal, and Fenton, who is his blood brother and wouldn't say anything to offend Father."

I rose to my feet and kicked the dust at Hamar, saying, "Don't you dare say such a thing. Fenton would never lie about the gods, not even if it meant hurting Father or anyone else."

Hamar jumped up and put his hand on his dagger hilt in a clear challenge. "Don't you dare say that my god isn't the most powerful!" he shouted.

A few heads turned our way, but not many, for our village had already had three duels that night, though only one of them resulted in serious injury. I could see my father watching us with amusement. He had kept out of our quarrels ever since we had reached an age where he trusted us to be able to duel without drawing more than first blood – and he had made it clear that such blood must not be deep.

I considered taking Hamar aside and teaching him a lesson, but I decided that Fenton would not be pleased if I were to quarrel with my brother on my birthday. "Peace," I said and held out my left hand.

Hamar considered this for a moment, then said, "Peace," and clasped my hand as though our palms were sliced and we were joining our blood in a peace oath.

I waited till we were seated again before saying, "Anyway, Fenton says that all of the gods are the different faces of the Unknowable God."

"Oh, well, if Fenton says . . ." Hamar's words dissolved into giggles as I attacked my brother's sides with my fingers.

I released him from my tickling eventually so that I could take another nut bowl that was passing my way. I noticed with envy that only two nuts were left. Taking my nut, I passed the bowl to Hamar, saying, "Here's your second chance."

Hamar was still catching his breath from my attack; he said between gasps, "You take it. If I tried it now, I'd probably drop it on Father's head. Besides, I owe you a birthday present."

Satisfied that this would now be a perfect birthday, I took Hamar's sacrifice, made it my own, and prayed to the Jackal, saying, "God of Vengeance, God of Mercy, God of Judgment: I do not yet know how you wish me to serve you, but I know that Fenton is your servant, as he is the servant of all the gods. Since he is the wisest man I know, give me the strength to do something courageous which would please him. Hunting god and trickster god, as my sacrifice, accept this, all that I have." I tossed the nut toward the fire.

It cracked while still clear of its flames, its sound breaking through the light chatter and laughter about me. Amidst the applause of the others, Hamar said with balanced criticism, "That's better than your usual throws."

"Thank you," I said, judging it better to interpret this as a compliment. Feeling a warm glow after the sign that my prayer would be fulfilled, and wishing to make up for my quarrel with him, I said, "Hamar, I've been writing a journal."

"Have you?" he said vaguely. He was looking over the fire at Fenton, who had risen to his feet. "Do you suppose that he's going to start the blood vow now? Oh, he's only walking over to get more wine. Listen, Adrian, I know what blood vow he has chosen for tonight – I heard him tell Father."

"You ought not to tell me," I said uneasily. "It's supposed to be a surprise."

"Well, you'll be finding out in a short while anyway, and I don't want you to look crestfallen. It's not at all an exciting one, like the one he gave me at my coming of age. He's going to have us take a peace oath."

"A peace oath?" I frowned in puzzlement. "You must have heard wrong. We're not feuding with anyone."

"We're feuding with Cold Run," said Hamar.

"Oh, that," I said, dismissing the matter with a wave of the hand.

It occurs to me here that blood feuds may not familiar to my Emorian reader. Fenton told me once that the Emorians don't take blood vows, which obviously must have been some sort of joke on his part, but perhaps the Emorians don't take certain types of blood vows, such as feud vows. Our village's feud with Cold Run had not yet reached the stage of blood, though both Hamar and I half hoped that it would, as we had never before witnessed a blood feud. Of course we had witnessed a dozen or more lesser feuds. This one had started when Richard of Mountside, driving his cart, ran over the prize rooster of Tabitha of Cold Run and refused to pay for the creature, arguing that the rooster had darted in front of his wheels. Since that time we had progressed from livestock theft to drilling holes in wine barrels to water-traps that left the victim squealing in indignation – I knew that Hamar had done the last, since he had gleefully confessed to me that he had drawn the lot for this deed. Otherwise I would never have known, for, except on the rare occasions when a fire-killing occurs during a blood feud and the victim is avenged by his nearest kin, those who take part in a feud are known only to the village priests who draw the lots.

I knew that Fenton was worried because we were only two stages away from a blood feud, but everyone said that the people of both villages were too wise to shed blood over such a small matter. Anyway, the dispute would be ended as soon as someone was caught in the act of carrying out a part of the feud. This being the case, I could not understand why Fenton would waste my birthday vow with a peace oath, which was usually used only to settle a prolonged blood feud. But I was too loyal to Fenton to voice my disappointment; instead I hid my feelings by saying, "Oh, listen to me, will you? I've been writing a journal for several months now, all about everything that happens to me. I just started the second volume – it's lying next to us here."

That caught Hamar's attention. He was always the sort of person who needed to have something right in front of him to fully understand it, this being the reason he did so badly at playing Jackal and Prey. I sometimes wondered too whether he hadn't inherited most of the Emorian blood in our family, for he was as pale-faced as an Emorian, and he sometimes talked about the unseen gods as though he were not quite sure he believed in them – but of course I would not insult him by pointing this out to him.

Now he said, "I wondered about that book, but I thought it was one of those volumes Fenton taught you to bind."

"He did," I said, "but I only bound blank pages, so I decided to fill them as a journal."

"What does it say? Does it have anything in it about me?" He reached toward the book.

I pulled it hastily from his hands, remembering what I had written about him earlier that day. "Not this one," I said, offering a silent apology up to the Jackal for my falsehood. "My earlier volume has some passages in it about you." Some of those passages, I knew, were complimentary enough to my brother that he would be pleased to hear them.

"Read them to me now," he ordered.

"I can't. I don't have the first volume with me. I hid it back in the house, where you and Mira couldn't paw your way through it."

"Then fetch it," ordered Hamar. He's like that sometimes.

I could see that he was on the point of going into one of his rages, so I said wearily, "You can fetch it yourself. I've hidden it in—"

"I can find it," he said, clearly annoyed that I had so little faith in his hunting abilities.

I shrugged and turned my attention back to my wine flask. When I looked again, Hamar was gone.

After a minute, I regretted his departure. All around me, villagers were chatting and laughing, but Hamar and I had set ourselves slightly apart from the rest, and no one rose now to take Hamar's place.

I looked about. Drew was on the other side of the fire with some of his playmates, and he looked longingly at me, but I was sure it could not be a manly act for me to go sit with a cousin so much younger than myself, so I turned my gaze away from him toward the younger men of the village. They were all standing in a knot, gathered round Drew's father, Lange, who was talking about the latest village council meeting. I realized, with a lowering of the heart, that I would have nothing to contribute to such a conversation.

Leda was sitting nearby, holding her baby and smiling as she watched Lange. I was trying to decide whether it would be manly to go talk with my own sister when, to my relief, I caught sight of Fenton gesturing to me. I rose and rushed to join him.

He said in a low voice, "Adrian, where is your brother? Your father wants to start the village's vow-taking now."

I looked at the hall, which was farther down the mountain. "He went back to our house to fetch something."

"Well, have someone bring him back here. He should be present for the ceremony, and he will need to be here for its sequel, when you and he exchange vows."

I looked round, but Leda was now in conversation with one of the more garrulous older women in the village; I knew that it would be difficult for her to extract herself from the talk. After a minute's more frantic searching with my eyes, I found Mira.

She was sitting with her friend Chloris, who recently married Titus. Some of the older boys were saying at the time of the marriage that Emorians do terrible things to their women, but I had known better than to pass that information on to Mira; my sister is a terrible gossip. Besides, Titus has lived in Koretia for three years now. He has had time to become civilized.

When I told Mira what I needed done, she treated me as though I was still a boy. "Fetch him yourself," she said, tossing her hair back over her shoulder. Then she said to Chloris eagerly, "Go on. What did he do next?"

Chloris turned pink; she was trying to bite away a smile. I sighed and stepped back out of hearing, turning my eyes toward Drew.

At that moment, though, I heard my father call for silence, and I knew that it was too late. I ran over and was just in time to scramble onto the speaking rock beside Fenton. My father remained below us, waiting for the moment when he would be called forward to help administer the vows.

I looked round from the heights of the speaking rock at the view before me. All in a cluster around us and the balefire were the men and women and children of the village – about thirty households in all, along with a few unmarried men who had become members of our village by vowing their blood to a blood-brother. That same vow – the one I was about to take with Hamar – is always taken by the village's boys when they become men, as a way of showing their loyalty to the village . . . and also, of course, because a double bond of blood to one's village, through birth and through friendship, makes a man more likely to exact vengeance in a feud.

So there were blade-carrying men and boys there, and very young boys who yearned to carry blades, and the women and girls who brought new sons into the world – and daughters too, for women and girls are needed to help with the healing of wounded men and the preparation of corpses. The last is a secret among women: the art of preparing a corpse so that it will stay fresh for three days, even in the hottest weather. But other than that, women are never allowed to take part in blood feuds. I'm glad I was born a boy rather than a girl.

Beyond the villagers stood the wooden houses, built on rock and dirt, including our own house: a hall, along with a loft where Hamar and Mira and I slept.

And beyond that was the Sea of Koretia, as it is called: the long stretch of green woods, nearly unbroken within the triangular bounds of the mountains that enclose Koretia. Sometimes, on clear days when I'm on top of the mountain, I've thought I could see Capital Mountain, where the priests are trained, and at its foot the city where the King lives and his lords meet in council. But my father says that the capital is much too far away to be seen – many days' ride away. Only Capital Mountain serves as a dim and distant sentinel of the capital's position.

We of the borderland are almost a people apart, for it was here, the stories say, that the tribesmen from the northern portion of the Great Peninsula met the tribesmen of the southern portion of the Great Peninsula – who, it was said, had originally travelled over the Koretian Straights to the east, from mainland areas that were turning into desert. And when the northern people met the southern people, they intermarried and formed a common language. And that language was what we now call Border Koretian.

Then, after a few generations, most of the people left the borderland, the northern people spreading north and the southern people spreading south, so that the Three Lands of the Great Peninsula came to be formed: Koretia and Daxis to the south, and Emor to the north. But here in the borderland, some villagers stayed, preserving the ancient manners of speech and living. We who are their descendants hold the memories of what the Great Peninsula was like, back in the years before the Three Lands were formed.

Or so Fenton has told me. None of this was on my mind on my birthday, so I know that the reason I am writing all this down is to avoid writing what came next on that day.

o—o—o

Presently I became aware of Fenton speaking, though not because he was speaking about me. He was describing how the Jackal, after tricking his enemies, would often forgive his enemies and make peace with them. He was leaving out the stories where the Jackal killed his enemies, and I could see from my father's expression what he thought of this selectiveness in the recounting. But like all the other villagers, he remained respectfully silent as the gods' representative offered us a glimpse of the wisdom of the gods.

After a while, Fenton became more concrete in his examples of acts that should be forgiven: he was citing acts that had taken place during our present feud in Cold Run, and I realized that Hamar had been right when he said that Fenton would require us to take a peace oath with Cold Run.

This reminded me that Hamar had still not reached the speaking rock in order to exchange his blood vow of friendship with me. I scanned the crowd with my eyes, trying to see whether, after finding my journal, Hamar had dilly-dallied in order to talk with some of the other boys.

Fenton was saying, ". . . and those who seek peace will experience the peace of the gods in their hearts, but those who seek fire and blood—"

He stopped suddenly. His head jerked up, as though he had heard the eerie wail of a jackal.

And at that moment, as Fenton was staring up the slope, and I was staring at Fenton, a woman screamed. A man cried, "The hall! It's on fire!"

o—o—o

By the time we reached my house, flames were leaping through the roof. I – who had shouted almost incoherent warnings on the way that Hamar might be in the hall – would have run into the building immediately, even though black smoke was pouring out of the open door. But Fenton caught hold of me and held me; for a priest, he is very strong. As I struggled in his arms, he said, "No. Look – your father is going in."

I turned my head in time to see my father duck his way through the doorway. He was carrying a face-cloth in his hand, which seemed odd, until I saw that it was dripping with water. He had it over his mouth and nose as he disappeared into the blackness.

More water was arriving, brought by the women from the mountain brook – women always seem to be quick-witted at such times. I saw Leda thrust her baby into Mira's arms so that she could help with the water-carrying. Drew and some of the other boys had run off to fetch the village's one ladder, other than our loft ladder, but they returned, panting, to report that the ladder was in a state of disrepair, as it was being mended by Warner, who is our village carpenter.

The men had joined the water-carrying now, and people were throwing water onto the flames, though it was clear that this was of no use. The flames were eating the walls of the house like a ravenous beast.

And my father and brother were still inside.

Suddenly my father emerged, stumbling, coughing. Fenton let go of me, and we both ran over to him.

"No . . . good," he was saying to Lange when we arrived. "Loft ladder is . . . burnt. Can't reach . . ."

At that moment, there was another scream, and the villagers, crying out, began to point.

I looked up. There in the tiny loft window, too small for anyone to crawl through, was a face I knew well, and a hand carrying a blade. I could not hear the voice above the roar of the flames, but the gestures that Hamar made with his dagger were clear enough.

The villagers had gone silent. Someone said, quite unnecessarily, "He wants us to avenge his death."

There was a crack, like the crack on the day that the gods split the Great Peninsula from the mainland, and I heard Hamar give a great cry, and then the hall collapsed, and there was no sound but for the crackle of flames.

o—o—o

Lange was shouting again, calling upon the village men to dig into the rubble of the hall. The men came forward eagerly enough, but it was clear that it would be some time before they could follow these instructions, for the fallen timber was still red-hot. Leda, crying openly, continued to pour water onto the lingering flames, while Drew and Mira huddled together with the baby, with my mother standing behind them, her arms protectively round them as she gave out small, whimpering sobs.

And I – I who had stood by all this while and done nothing, I who had sent my brother to the place of his death – stood numbly, unable to weep as a man should weep on such a day. I felt nothing, except for the presence of Fenton's hand on my shoulder.

Then I heard my father call my name. I turned and saw that he had tears streaming down his face. He gathered me into his arms, and I pressed my face into the hollow of his shoulder, closing my eyes and trying to rid myself of the image of the flames and the sound of Hamar's voice in the final moments.

When I looked up again, Fenton was gone.