Actions

Work Header

Chapter Text

CHAPTER TWO

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

I'm sitting on the back of our mountain – that is, on the northern side of the mountain, the side that is beyond the border and located in the no-man's-land of the black border mountains. Hamar and I used to sit in this spot to eat meals and to pretend that we could see as far north as Emor. Of course, our mountain is only a foothill in comparison to the other mountains, but the land to the north of us dips in such a way that our mountain actually looks taller than some of the other mountains. From this vantage point, you can see about one day's journey into the mountains, which takes you a third of the way to Emor, according to Fenton.

There isn't much to look at here, for what scrubby vegetation exists on the mountains is overwhelmed by the blackness of the rocky slopes, but right now I can see a flickering of light in the distance, accompanied by a low rumbling sound that has managed to travel this far, so I know that there must be a thunderstorm occurring to the north of us. It won't come this far – none of the clouds from Emor make it this far. Mountside receives all its rain from the south or the west or from whatever clouds have made their way over the ridge of mountains along the eastern sea-coast.

Mainly, what Hamar and I used to do here was listen: listen to the winds, and listen to the animals in the mountains, and pretend that we could hear the mountain patrol guards talking to each other, though we're too far south for that. Then, when we'd finished eating and listening, we'd play Jackal and Prey.

Father caught us playing here once, a few years' ago, and we could tell that his anger that we had crossed the border was combined with puzzlement that we could play Jackal and Prey in such a place. On the southern side of our mountain, where all the trees are located, Jackal and Prey is a game played through the eyes: you try to locate the prey by sighting him as he ducks around trees and bushes and rocks. But the rocks in the no-man's-land are so numerous that my father thought that you would have to spend years here before you could ever find your prey.

So we told him that we located the prey through sound, which made him even more confused. "How can you hear anything in the mountains, much less a prey?" he asked.

It's not as bad as everyone thinks, actually. It's true that the winds whistle through the mountains nearly without cease, and there are times when Hamar and I have to shout in order to hear each other. But every few weeks, the wind dies down altogether for a long period of time, and even when it doesn't, the wind is usually low enough that you can hear any sounds in the nearby mountains. Besides, there are the echoes.

Hamar and I experimented once to see how far the echoes go. Hamar stayed here, and I went a couple of hours' journey into the mountains, then dropped a rock. As a result of the echoes bouncing from mountain to mountain, Hamar could hear the rock's fall as clearly as though I had been standing beside him.

Hamar told this to our father, which of course was a terrible mistake, since it revealed how far into the mountains we'd explored. Our father didn't bother to tell us that we'd break our necks climbing over the loose rocks of the mountains, or would fall down one of the many fissures at the feet of the mountains. That might be true of someone who lived in central or southern Koretia, but those of us who live in the borderland spend our lives clambering over the slippery slopes or hopping across the deep chasms. Instead, he said that it is easy to get lost in the border mountains unless you travel by way of the passes. The mountains are so tall that you can't orient yourself by the sun except around noonday – even the shadows are no help, because everything is in shadow in the parts of the mountain that are low enough for men to climb. Our father said that a man who is fool enough to travel the mountains anywhere other than the passes is likely to get lost and die.

Fenton says that this is quite true, and that the worst mistake he made when escaping Emor was to leave the mountains next to the passes and travel through the other mountains. It enabled him to escape the patrol – even the patrol guards stay close to the pass – but he might have wandered around the mountains till he died if he had not reached the Koretian border by chance. Even then, he had nearly died of thirst by the time he was found by my father and our old priest and my cousin Emlyn and I. (Actually, he was sighted first by Emlyn, who always seemed to have a gift for knowing when something important was happening out of sight.)

Since our father was so angry, Hamar and I didn't bother to tell him the greatest discovery that we had made, which was that we could locate objects far away, just by the way that the echoes arrived at us. The experiment with the rock was actually superfluous, because Hamar had been able to trace my movements through the mountains by the sounds I made as I travelled: he could locate where I was every time some rocks rolled out from under my feet and even, when I was close enough, when I was panting hard from the climbing.

When I told Fenton this in confidence, he said that we had discovered one of the secrets of the mountain patrol – that this was why the patrol was so successful at locating border-breachers. "The patrol can hear a breacher coming about an hour ahead of time," he said, "and once the breacher is close enough, the guards use the echoes of his movements to pinpoint exactly where he is. With that kind of training, the patrol can catch nearly anyone who passes by them."

I doubt that the guards could have caught Hamar or me, because we learned how to run swiftly but silently over the mountains when we were playing here; otherwise our games would have been very short. We didn't stop playing here after our father forbade us to. We simply came here when the village council was busy in its meetings, or on dark nights when no one would suspect us of sneaking over here. Of course, everyone in the borderland knows how to walk over a mountain even on a moonless night, but nobody in Mountside suspected that we were foolhardy enough to do this in the no-man's-land, where the slopes are as black as the night sky. But this was when some of our best games took place.

Well, I'll never play Jackal and Prey here again, because I have no one to play with any more – none of the other boys in the village would be bold enough to come here. I called out Hamar's name as loud as I could a little while ago, and listened to the sound echoing off the mountains for quite a long time. I wonder whether the sound reached as far as the mountain patrol – if so, the guards must have wondered what it meant. It's the only tribute I can think of to pay Hamar: to send his name into the mountains that we both loved so much.

o—o—o

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

We have received word back from Cold Run, in response to my father's letter, sent by way of Fenton. The baron of Cold Run, Roderick, claims that the killing of Hamar was an accident and that the killer believed our home was empty at the time he lit the fire. Roderick therefore refuses to state who the killer is or to hand him over to Mountside for punishment.

We all had a bitter laugh at the idea of a fire-feuder not scouting beforehand the house that he was planning to set on fire. This is obviously just an excuse from Roderick, who must value the murderer in some fashion. Because of Roderick's lie and his refusal to surrender the murderer, my father declared that Cold Run has begun a blood feud. We have started to prepare for our side the feud – even emigrants such as Titus. As kin to the victim, my father will be sent to take revenge upon Cold Run for my brother's death.

In the meantime, my father says that we must observe the traditional three days of mourning, even though everyone knows that the Jackal does not wait three days in the case of a murder – he comes immediately to claim the body of murder victims. So Hamar's spirit is already in the Land Beyond, but father is determined to celebrate his life with proper ceremony. We men of the village will take our blood vows of vengeance tomorrow evening, after we light the balefire in honor of Hamar.

I spent this afternoon whetting my blade.

o—o—o

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

I went to see Fenton today, just after dawn.

Even though we are really too far north for such a construction, the priests' house is built in the style that became fashionable around the time that Koretia was born: it has an atrium in the middle, with a garden-bed of raised earth. Fenton uses it as a place to grow apple trees, however strange it may seem to grow trees within the walls of a house. He said once that the apple trees make him feel less homesick – the only time he has ever hinted that he misses his native land.

Now I found him busy, pulling the first apples of the season from the branches. I held the basket for him as I said, "Father wants me to make my blood vow of friendship today."

Fenton did not turn his eyes to look at me; he was trying to persuade a little green worm – which would no doubt destroy many of the apples on his tree – to crawl safely off the apple he was picking. "I imagine so. The blood feud begins tonight; you cannot take part in it unless you are pledged to one of the other men in the village."

"Yes." I let myself linger on that thought with pleasure, as I might have lingered on the last rays of summer sunshine. Hamar's death still made me feel sick and hollow inside, but at least we would be able to find his murderer and punish him.

"Do you wish to make your blood vow of friendship to your father, since Hamar is gone?" Fenton asked as he turned to drop the apple into my waiting basket. "Or do you wish another of your relatives to be your blood brother?"

"I thought . . . I thought perhaps it might be more pious to pledge myself to someone who is nearer to the gods."

I stammered a bit as I got the words out. I had spent much of the pre-dawn hours lying awake on my pallet, wondering how I would find the courage to make my request. My shyness was odd, for I am as close to Fenton as I was to my brother, but somehow, asking Fenton to be my blood brother seemed as bold as asking a god whether I might be a guest in his home.

Fenton gave me the barest flick of a look before turning his attention back to inspecting the apples in the basket. "Only the gods can say who is closest to them."

I bit my lip as my cheeks turned hot at this refusal. After a minute, Fenton added, "Here, put the basket down and come help me. I need the use of your blade over here, where the leaves are thickest."

I gladly helped but found I could not meet his eyes as we did our work. Finally, Fenton said quietly, "Do not think that I feel anything but the greatest honor at your offer, son of Berenger. If love alone were reason enough to pledge myself to another, my blood would already be on your blade. But I swore to my god, long ago, that I would not vow my blood to any man who took part in blood feuds."

"But—" I stared at the faint scar on his wrist that represented my father's oath to him.

Something that was not quite a smile touched the edge of Fenton's mouth. "Your father and I became blood brothers when I was newly arrived in this land, before I realized how matters of justice are played out in Koretia. I have received many fortunes from that vow: your father's friendship, the opportunity to serve as the gods' representative in this village, and the sweet enjoyment of teaching you. But now that I know of blood feuds, I cannot, in all conscience, allow myself to blend my blood with any man who takes part in them."

"But the gods ordained the blood feuds," I said in confusion, pausing from my work, blade in hand. "And the priests are the ones who bless the hunters."

Fenton, reaching high for an apple beyond my reach, said, "Not all of us."

After a time, he paused to wipe sweat from his forehead as he said, "I pray for the hunters' safety. I can do that much for them. But it is your father's decision to begin this blood feud, not mine."

"It was the decision of Hamar's murderer," I growled, misery and hatred washing over me again.

Fenton did not speak immediately. His face, bright in the early morning light, seemed as white as a bone. At last he said, "Let us leave the murderer aside. You know, as well as I do, that other men in Cold Run are likely to be killed in this feud. Is it right that their blood should be shed for another man's deeds?"

"They're shielding the murderer," I said quickly.

"We cannot know that they do so by choice. They may be acting under their baron's orders."

"They share the murderer's blood, for he is part of the village of Cold Run. Men who share the blood of a murderer deserve death as much the murderer does." The words tripped off my tongue easily, for I had learned them when I was young. Ironically, the lesson had come from Cold Run's priest, who had cared for us until Fenton became our priest.

"It is words like that," said Fenton, bowing his head over the basket, "which make me determined not to share my blood with any hunter."

I thought of this as I sheathed my blade and got down on my knees to begin inspecting the apples for worm-holes. I knew that Fenton's words could not be the words of a coward, not only because he is the bravest man I know, but also because he is in no danger of being killed. Any village man who does not bear a blade cannot be hunted in a feud, and Fenton never bears a blade. He cannot bear a blade, by his oath as a priest.

So his words puzzled me. Finally I decided that, being a priest who is oath-bound not to fight, he wished only to pledge himself to others in a similar circumstance. This made sense, that he would want to be blood brother only to men who were on a similar path of life to his own. And yet . . .

"What if," I said, my voice tight, "I should not be a hunter?"

His gaze flew over to me. "Your father would be angry."

His reply reassured me. He had not said, "No"; he had only shown concern about angering his first blood brother. Feeling myself on surer ground now, as though I had found a part of a cliff that did not crumble, I said, "I am a man, and I must decide for myself what oaths I take. If I had been blood-bound in friendship to Hamar, I would gladly have taken part in the hunt for his murderer. As it is . . . It's not too late for me to take another path, is it?" My words held more pleading than I would have liked.

"No," said Fenton, sitting back on his heels; he had joined me a moment before in sorting the apples. "It is not too late. Yet you place temptation in my path, Adrian. If I can keep you out of this feud . . . But that is a poor reason to bind myself in lifelong friendship to another man."

"You already said you wanted to be my blood brother." The words came more easily from me now. "If the only thing holding you back is that I'm to be a hunter, then I won't take part in the feud. It's as simple as that."

Fenton pushed back his hair under the hood of his robe, sighing. "It is far from simple. I see the possibility of another feud arising from this. And if you are doing this only for my sake—"

"No," I said quickly. "You are my priest. If you think it would be wrong for me to take part in this feud – if you believe that my god doesn't wish this for me – then of course I won't hunt. That would be wrong, whether or not you became my blood brother." The thought was rising in me that perhaps Fenton had specially chosen me for this role, as a Commander might have chosen one of his soldiers to remain away from battle in order to guard some important post. Normally, as a grown man, I would not be required to remain bladeless, as though I were a priest or a child. But perhaps Fenton believed that one man in this village should remain bladeless during the coming feud, as a visible symbol of the words of peacemaking that he had spoken at my birthday feast.

And he had chosen me. He believed that I had the strength to withstand the temptation of taking part in the hunt.

Something of my joy at being granted this special role must have conveyed itself to my face, for after looking at me for some time, Fenton said gently, "I wish I had the eyes of the Jackal, to know what will come of this. But as you say, you are a man, and it is your right to make this choice. Come, then, and I will pledge my everlasting friendship and faithfulness to you. May our bond never be broken, even by death."

o—o—o

And so we exchanged blood, and then I went home and told my father of my decision, and he shouted at length until he finally calmed down enough to say, "Well, in practical terms, this means little. I will find Hamar's murderer when I am sent out, and that will be the end of the feud. But you ought not to have misled Fenton into thinking that you are on the path to becoming a priest, Adrian. You know that, the next time a feud arises between us and Cold Run or another village, he won't want you to take part in it, because of the promise you made him."

This had not occurred to me; I had thought of myself only as a special sentinel for this coming battle, not as withdrawn from battle for all time. But I dared not express my doubts to my father; I said only, "That is farther away even than the death of Hamar's murderer. Surely you have better things to worry about at this time. Have you whetted your blade?"

This turned our conversation to easier matters – ways to trap and kill the murderer – and so, in the end, I escaped further rebuke from my father. As for my mother, I think she is relieved that I will be in no danger from the coming feud, though of course she cannot say this openly, with my father so angered by my decision. And Mira is too young to fully take in all that is happening; she still cries every night from Hamar's loss.

But I . . . I have a difficult role given to me by the gods, and I have a blood brother who will help me to keep my promise.