"If you were not so troubled by the double curses of your height and your width, those being extravagant nearly beyond the reckoning of men proportioned by more reasonable hands, the blow you took would have separated your head from your torso," said the lean scrap of a man caught by the neck between Amram's hands.
Amram was forced to acknowledge that this was likely the truth. He felt weak in a way that previous difficult experience suggested was tied to long hours of dreamless, drugged, and aching sleep. One moment, there had been nothingness; then the instantaneous, violent reaction of a soldier to a stranger's touch. Now there was pain, and wondering, and the question of what to do with a man who had come perhaps more near to his reasonable creator than he realized.
Amram's hands were indeed quite large; broad and strong, too. They were more than strong enough to wring the life from men brimming with abundances of spirit, fire, and well-muscled fight. What those hands were capable of doing to scrawny creatures like this man, who dangled harmless as a kitten held by the ruff of his fragile neck, haunted Amram some nights as he dreamed.
He loosened his grip and the man between his hands sagged until he was free. He bent over his knees and took a few quick, shallow breaths. He touched his long, pale neck with long, pale fingers, exploring the boundaries of the red marks left by Amram's prodigious hands.
"I suppose this bruise will be all the repayment I see for my skill, and the fine work I wasted keeping your thick head attached to your thick neck." His voice was mild and morose; milk with honey, gone slightly spoiled.
Amram was awake enough now to recognize the language, as well as the words; his accent marked the man as one of the Frankish Jews. As Amram's betrayers, the men who had so recently attempted to separate what he felt was an admirably solid head from an admittedly large body, had been Franks of indeterminate and somewhat heretical beliefs, this should have been no comfort. However, he relaxed, saying in the Frank's own language, "As your masters have no doubt relieved me of all my earthly belongings, save this fine head, I suppose that is true enough."
The Frank blinked at him, fine, pale lashes sweeping down over shadowed eyes. He showed not quite enough expression to indicate surprise, but it was apparent that he was caught off guard by the fact that Amram could speak his language, and with an accent passably similar to his own. Little did he know that Amram could speak many others besides. His skill in that regard had saved his life many times over. It was as valuable to him as the ax that had probably been melted down already; the horse most likely saddled by another man's hands.
"Those fools were no masters of mine," the Frank said. "I have no master here. I will make my own way," and it was his arrogance, his certainty, which led Amram to realize through the haze of pain, sleep, and herbs that the man was merely a boy.
Or, no; not quite a boy but barely a man, lost in the awkward place in between the two. His skeletal frame, the delicacy of his hands, and the softness of his uncalloused fingertips were all indicators of his youth. Amram's eye, trained by many years spent in many armies, separating the cavalry from the archers from the foot soldiers, noted that he would be no solid lion of a man even if he were unlucky enough to reach Amram's own advanced age. He would undoubtedly remain rangy and lean, like the desert foxes Amram had come across in his travels; fleet and bony and cold-eyed, they were, disdainful and unimpressed by mere men.
Amram touched his own neck. He found the thick pad there reeking of blood, with a harsh herbal smell underneath.
"I've come to remove that stinking mess from your corpse, if corpse you'd finally become, and replace it with fresher linen, if corpse you were not," the Frank said. He nodded at Amram's hand on the unpleasant, fouled bandage. "I suppose since you are not only more violent than the average dead man, but also more inclined to protest, you may object now, if you so desire -- despite the tremendous idiocy implied by such a choice."
Amram peeled the bandage away himself. It was stained, filthy and disgusting, but the horrid colors of putrescence were not present. The wound, when he traced its outlines, was warm but not dangerously so, nor did his hand reek when he took it away.
"Your skill is impressive," he said, surprised now himself. He'd heard that the Jews of this region were as adept in the healing arts as their Eastern cousins were in trade; as he and his own people were in learning and the careful but broad application of piety. Amram's misstep, his stumble, the bite of a sword into the muscle and sinew of his neck, should have proven fatal. The Frank's skill could not be doubted, though the reason behind his efforts could not be guessed.
Long hands gestured, sharp and graceful, impatient. "My skill is not as great as your opponent's failure. Come now, I will do what little more I can to prolong your life, miserable as it might be."
Amram sat still, his hands down, wondering. Even seated on the ground as he was, he nearly dwarfed the kneeling young man focused so intensely on his cloths, his creams, Amram's thick neck. But at no point since he'd inadvertently woken Amram and almost been strangled for his trouble had he shown fear, or the disgust that many men affected when threatened by another's superior size. His care showed little enough of tenderness, but he was quick and deft with his hands, careful to cause no further pain instead of attempting to provide comfort.
When he was satisfied with his work, the Frank stood and took a step back, crossed thin arms over a spindly chest, and said, "I have done what I can. No doubt you wish to thank me. I do not wish to hear it, as it will only make me wonder why I bothered, in times such as these."
"Then I will not thank you," Amram said, obliging. "I will instead spare your life when I escape this miserable cave, and let that be gratitude enough."
The Frank shrugged, sniffed, disdainful. "Escape is unnecessary, giant. I found you bleeding on a pile of refuse, and undertook the task of returning you to life out of some misguided notion that such a thing should not be borne by reasonable men such as myself."
Amram considered this. It seemed the debt of gratitude he owed this odd scarecrow was deeper by far than the bruises he had given as thanks so far. Some reparation would be due; if not to the Frank himself, then to their shared God, or to the dozens of minor gods Amram had learned to respect over his unfortunate life. He had lived in the world for a long time, and knew very well how ingratitude was itself repaid.
But the room had begun to spin around him in different directions all at once; he was sickened by the motion, though gently, as he would have been by the rocking of a ship at sea. A hand at the back of his head guided him to a small pillow, surprisingly soft; a hand at his chest helped to push him down.
"Sleep," he was told by the sour milk voice of the Frank. "When next I startle you awake, you can perhaps repay me by finishing what you've begun."
"I will not," Amram said, thick and slow. Perhaps it was the murky certainty of creeping dreams that made him sure, but sure he was. He would repay this mercy shown to him, and he would do so in full, whether or not the Frank desired it or, more likely, whether or not they both came to regret it.
When next Amram awoke, he felt clear-headed and, although hungry enough to eat an ox -- a team of oxen, served with a vast field of rice and a lake of broth -- he also felt more strong. Not quite himself yet, but close enough.
He rose, and looked around himself for the first time. The pallet on which he had been lying had been made on the dirty, rather foul floor of a cave. It had obviously been some creature's den at one point or another in the not too distant past. A lamp guttered sickly in the corner, and on another thin pallet sprawled the Frank. His long, golden hair gleamed in the light, and his pale face was dull and sad with sleep.
The Frank seemed to own almost nothing. His possessions were limited to a metal bowl, a spoon, the lamp and bedrolls. A few books had been piled with care in the one clean corner of the cave. A leather bag, worn and mended, sat near them. Amram imagined that it contained the mysterious tools of a healer's trade.
The cave was neither cozy nor even hospitable; it was barely habitable, and Amram thought he saw why the Frank might find life barely worth living, when he seemed to be living inside it.
Amram's own meager possessions, or at least those which had not been stolen from him when he was betrayed, were arranged in a neat row near the books. He slipped into his boots with the efficiency of a soldier used to escaping enemy camps in broad daylight, and then he slid on his shirt. His dagger, the one that nestled against his calf under ordinary circumstances, he tucked into his sleeve. He knotted a belt around the broad plane of his forearm to hold it in place.
He stood over the Frank, who did not stir. For a moment, Amram contemplated murder, and gratitude, and kindness, and the various permutations thereof.
Then he slipped away, into the shadows and the cold; a large and silent ghost gone out to seek the night.
With his ax in it, Amram's hand felt complete. With his spotted stallion between them, his knees felt at home. Amram had been a wanderer for many years, and knew that he would remain a wanderer until the inevitable day he became a hanged man.
His heart sometimes yearned for the peace of a hearth, his lap for the weight of a grandchild, his arms for the warmth of his daughter and his wife. Those were old desires, and empty, voracious ones at that, impossible to satisfy. His hands and his knees had long ago become the captains of his body; he could not trust himself completely, so he had come over the years to let them plot his course.
That the course they had plotted led him back to a narrow cave cut into a sharp blade of hillside was unexpected.
He dismounted with grace, said a few kind words to his stallion. The beast was a well-bred, intelligent creature, who had examined Amram with sharp, curious whuffs of breath and then nuzzled the palm of his hand when Amram had located him in the betrayers' camp.
He tethered the second horse, a bad-tempered mare named Goat-eater. She was strong and fast, a good horse for a gentleman of the road, but a beast more likely to take a chunk out of a man did not exist at their current distance from the fires of the underworld. Still, she was a fine gift, and Amram was pleased with his choice. He risked a hand to scratch her nose, then approached the half-hidden entrance of the cave.
Once inside, he allowed the Frank to capture him. A sharp needle pressed against his neck; a thin, strong-smelling body pressed against his back.
"Giant," the Frank hissed, and Amram found himself surprisingly glad to be in the presence of that sour voice again.
"Thief. Did you not realize I have little enough to steal, when last you were here?"
"I realized," Amram said, aware of the sharp tip of an otherwise laughable weapon digging into his skin as he spoke. "I do not come to relieve you of your pitiful belongings."
"Oh," said the Frank. "Then perhaps you've come to relieve me of my pitiful life?"
"The favor I owe is not so grand as all that," Amram said, and after a moment more, the cold steel at his throat fell away.
Amram turned. Now that they were both standing, and it was day -- though barely so, in the gloom of the cave -- and Amram was neither drugged nor fevered, the Frank was an interesting sight. Lean, yes, and young, though no stripling boy after all. He looked underfed, and clearly spent too much time in his little den. His scarecrow hair was long, straight and golden as wheat, and his hands were long, straight, and white as the bones of an old corpse. He was dirty, and poorly dressed, but neat. It was as if he were finicky as a cat but slovenly all at once. His eyes gleamed with intelligence, and old, old despair.
"I am Amram," Amram said, inclining his head. "And I have brought you a horse."
The Frank hesitated, watching Amram, wary. Some believed there was power in names; Amram believed in many things, a little bit at a time for each, and so he waited, patient.
"I am Zelikman," the Frank said, after time enough had passed for several rivers to wander down new paths, mountains to form in old plains, entire generations to leave their bones to dust their homes. "And I do not need another mouth to feed."
"You will like this one, I think," Amram said. "Come with me, Zelikman. She waits just outside."
"I can barely care for myself and the occasional half-dead giant," Zelikman argued, looking up at Amram with his arms crossed over his chest and his long, skinny face wreathed in a scowl. "I have only just come here; my skills are not in high demand. There seems to be more value in killing than in healing in this place."
"Then go to a place where there is more appreciation for your art." Amram touched his hand to his neck, where the sword wound throbbed but healed clean. He regarded the Frank, this scarecrow known as Zelikman. Despite himself, he found his heart guiding words that made his hands and knees despair of him. "Or allow me to teach you new skills."
Zelikman snorted. Something in the sound reminded Amram of the mare outside, mean and more than a little unforgiving, but curious and willing all the same. "And what could you teach me, giant?" he asked. "How to lose my head in battle?"
Amram regarded him; the skinny shape of him, the finicky dress, the pale face and sharp needle, and he thought carefully. Once again he'd been led somewhere unexpected, unexplored, but it seemed right. He smiled, slow and easy, and said, "I will teach you how to lose a fight."
In the time that followed, Amram taught Zelikman how to punch, how to stab, how to cut, and how to fake death. He taught Zelikman how to fall. He taught Zelikman how to speak to horses; Goat-eater blossomed under his sour but patient voice and his surprisingly well-trained hands, which were light and easy on the reins. He taught Zelikman how to steal, and outrace pursuers, and how to hide.
He did not need to teach Zelikman how to kill. At that, he proved adept; a healer's skills were a formidable weapon.
They traveled north. They rode through cold, lonely towns where cold, lonely men paid cold, lonely coins to see the spectacle of a giant African fight a skinny Frank. The rewards weren't many, but they made better money than Amram had made alone. More than that, Amram found that Zelikman made good, if morose, company.
"Tell me more about your home," Zelikman demanded, half in a dream, smoke from his pipe wreathing his head. He had made a stew of rabbit and herbs that had been better than anything Amram had enjoyed in many meals. The smell of the pipe on top of a full stomach left them both content and quiet.
Amram did not smoke, but he approved of the affect that hemp seed and honey had on his partner. The smell had come to symbolize the man for him; a strange comfort in and of itself.
"Beasts lived on the plains," Amram said, slow and quiet. He stared up at the stars as he spoke. "In numbers like the herds of lights in the sky. Some of them had many wings and two legs, and some had two faces, feathers, and no legs at all. One had four legs, and the shape of a horse. It possessed a fine horn of white, like the tusk of an elephant, that grew between its ears. That was the most rare and fierce of them all."
These were all lies, half-remembered fancies from the stories Amram's wife had told their daughter Dinah as she braided the girl's hair, or talked her into sleep. Amram had not thought of them in many years, but had begun to recount them to Zelikman only weeks into their journey. Perhaps the smoke of Zelikman's pipe had more impact than he'd like to think.
"Did you charm those beasts the way you charm Porphyrogene and Goat-eater?" Zelikman asked, his voice bored and disinterested to hide that he had attempted to keep the story going.
"No," Amram said. "They were all too beautiful and dangerous for men to approach."
"Or for African giants to approach?"
"Or that," Amram said. His saliva had seemed to thicken in his mouth; he swallowed, almost choking. "But children -- my daughter, I have not seen her -- her name was Dinah. The beasts would sometimes carry children away, to tend their herds in the stars. They took Dinah there to be with them -- the winged beasts, and the feathered ones, and the ones with the horns."
There was silence for a long moment. Then Zelikman shifted, leaned companionably against Amram's shoulder. He smelled of road dust, horse, and pipe smoke. He was not very warm, or heavy. Amram leaned back against him, and Zelikman took the weight like a thin, strong branch that swayed only slightly in a storm. "That was very wise of them, I imagine," Zelikman said, quiet and somber, considering. "If she had your way with beasts."
"Yes," Amram said. It was only Zelikman's smoke that made his eyes water as he gazed up at the stars. "Yes, that is what I imagine, as well."
Folded together in a roll of blankets, they were not as much separated by physical distance as by an aching silence.
Amram had spent many cold nights curled around welcoming bodies. His wife had been a warm and generous guest in his bed, and his brother-soldiers had never minded the comfort of close quarters. He well remembered the small, delicate curve of his daughter's body tucked against his chest during the long nights of her childhood, though he sometimes wished he did not. Her trust in him, her faith that her father would keep her warm and safe always, seemed so misplaced now that he held her only in his dreams.
Sharing a bedroll with Zelikman, on the other hand, was not unlike attempting to draw comfort from that improbable needle he wielded as a weapon. He seemed to occupy no space at all, was stingy with his warmth, and threatened to spill blood at the slightest wayward touch.
Zelikman had very little faith to offer. He drew up tight and tense in the pocket of space Amram had granted him, and he would likely sleep only in small fits and starts. Were it not for the burn of the cold that he must have felt very deep in his bones, protected as they were by such thin layers of muscle and fat, he would not have allowed Amram to crowd him up against the rock wall of their shelter and build their bed around them.
Amram knew this, but built their bed up regardless. He had little enough of his own faith to share, and would not waste any trusting in the ability of skinny, city-bred Franks to survive long, cold nights.
"You would do well to relax," he rumbled, his own voice rough and tired, and Zelikman shuddered; a silent laugh.
"You would do well to mind your tongue," Zelikman said. "When I wish you to speak, you will not. When I wish you to be quiet, you will speak."
"I was married for a time." Amram shrugged a shoulder. "There are defenses against nagging fishwives that every married man must learn; I apply them now as I see fit."
"God save this young bachelor from the wisdom of married men," Zelikman said, but he was amused now, a little, voice warming even as his body did. "And did this skill serve you well in this marriage of yours?"
"Well enough." Amram thought of his wife, of her laughter and the way she had opened her body for him.
"Better than it will serve you here," Zelikman said, still amused. He had relaxed somewhat; Amram could feel it. He was closer, looser-limbed as he shifted and resettled under their combined blankets. "Poor Amram, so far from the comforts of wives, or prostitutes, or those camels of which he is so fond."
"I like their eyes," Amram agreed, letting out a yawn that expanded his ribcage until it felt like it would crack, and also like he would never take a deeper, more satisfying breath. He tucked his head down a little and, yes, finally; their bedroll had warmed enough to become nearly comfortable for giant Africans whose skin sometimes longed for the sun. The warmth would keep even thin Zelikman alive for another night, at least.
"You like that they hate me," Zelikman said, drowsy, and then there was silence again. Amram smiled to himself and yawned again, then slept, content.
When Amram first met Hillel, he was slung over the beast's broad, bony back. His head hung down nearly to Hillel's front knee, and his legs seemed likely to drag in the dirt if he made the slightest shift in position. He didn't shift, largely because it seemed inadvisable, given the speed at which they were crossing the scrub grass of the godforsaken hills.
Zelikman's hands were braced on his waist, helping to hold him in place. Arrows whistled past them, and there were angry, shouting voices at their backs. Amram did his best to keep from distracting horse or rider, and the voices faded; the arrows' whistles became sad plinks as they failed to reach their targets.
The hills were gleaming with light by the time Zelikman gave the horse a soft command in Ge'ez, the words rolling off his tongue with a comfort and assurance that pleased Amram as both a teacher and a man who missed his home. The horse seemed to understand; they slowed, slowed, stopped in a shallow valley, taking shelter in a pocket of fog that was already fading in the haze of dawn.
Zelikman's hands were very strong, with long, narrow fingers. They seemed frozen in place. Amram felt the horse taking great, billowing breaths underneath him, its shoulder slicked with sweat. For a long moment, Zelikman was silent, and Amram waited to see if this would be where they would stop. He was not generally a docile, patient man, but his head swam and his body ached and he was willing, for the moment, to let his partner and the horse decide.
Eventually, Zelikman sighed. It was an almost imperceptible sound, but Amram relaxed, and the horse did as well. It shook its shaggy head, snorted wetly. Zelikman said, "Well done, my friend," a comment clearly not meant for Amram, who had not done very well at all, requiring rescue and spurring that speedy gallop across the hills and plains.
It was an easy enough matter for Amram to get his feet on the ground, but it took him longer to stand. His head was tremendously displeased with the experience of all his blood rushing to his feet and it went light for a moment, the world lost to a white fog thicker than what swirled at their feet.
He came back to himself upright, however; Zelikman and the horse held him with the comfort and ease of long partnership, though Amram last saw Zelikman with Goat-eater only hours ago.
"Ah," Zelikman said, voice ripe with grim satisfaction in just that simple sound. "You're back. I trust the khan returned you tolerably sound, relatively sane, and with an adequate number of bruises."
"Excellent host," Amram said. The horse snorted and moved away at the sound of his voice. It watched him with one eye, mouthing at dry grass with its loose, wet lips. Amram wove a little on his feet but, after a moment's consideration, found that he could stand without support. Tolerably sound, relatively sane; bruises broke like floods across all the planes of his body, but they would heal. "Terrible breeder of horseflesh."
"They've gifted us with an animal of little physical beauty but tremendous stamina. All the better to outrun their rather well-aimed weapons." Zelikman touched the sweating shoulder of the stocky, unattractive horse, and with that alone, Amram would have known that it had become a permanent member of their partnership. The affection in his tone as he murmured to the beast, leading it deeper into the valley, was just confirmation.
"I gifted you with a perfectly sound mare not many years ago," Amram muttered, and Zelikman shook his head, a little grim; the fate of Goat-eater was clearly not an issue into which Amram ought to pry.
He would miss the irascible mare and her unexpected grace; she had proven to be a sound and tolerable companion over the years. As long as there was no need to dip into their unfortunately light purse to procure a new mount for Zelikman, however, and no need to double up on Amram's own stallion, Amram would only say a prayer to guide Goat-eater on her way. He had no cause to lament or complain.
Especially given that Zelikman and his new, four-legged friend had saved Amram's life.
"Any time you want to get your large, shining bald pate out of the open and under cover, you're welcome to avoid drawing attention to our position," Zelikman said. Amram rubbed the top of his head, grinned a little to himself, and followed Zelikman wherever he and his bony, brave horse would lead.
"We take the next road," Amram said, reining up. "Do you not recall the cairn there? We take that road, and in a few hours time, we have beds and stew and bread enough for an army -- Than's Inn, at the next road."
Zelikman and Hillel looked at him with identical, long-suffering expressions. "This road leads us to the Farrs, and the Farrs lead us to money enough for beds, stew, and bread enough to last us a year," Zelikman said. "The Farrs owe us."
"Then let us ride on to Than's Inn tonight, and the Farrs tomorrow. You know I have no patience for debtors when I am weary and my belly has been empty too long."
"That is exactly why we go to the Farrs tonight." Zelikman nudged Hillel down the road a few paces. "Your ax shines with much greater hunger when your belly is empty. Come, Amram. Do not doubt me on this; we go to the Farrs."
"We go to our deaths," Amram told Porphyrogene, the only member of their party who heeded him at all, anymore. "We go hungry to our deaths, my friend." But he let the anxious stallion follow Hillel -- not long until he lost Porphyrogene's respect as well -- and said a few small prayers that his words would not twist into a truth come to pass.
"You will not do this again." Amram painted Zelikman's side with a heavy, pungent paste. Zelikman had made it himself, and swore by it. It had saved Amram from the discomfort of having his head rot off his neck when they were newly met, and so he applied it to Zelikman's wounds with tremendous care and great anxiety. He murmured prayers to his God of the blue skies as well as any others who might overhear as he worked, to assure that it would do the same for Zelikman, whose skill was far superior to his own and could only be matched by Amram's varied faiths. "You must not. This ages me unduly, and I have not many years to waste."
"I will not," Zelikman agreed. "Though you will live as many more years as I do, or I shall make your ghost a miserable one indeed." He gasped, arching, and his bone white face went even whiter. Amram hushed him but he continued anyway, his voice rough and grating. "It was only foolish sentimentality that provoked me; I believe that was cut out, along with my spleen."
"You have lost nothing that will not grow back, tougher than before." Amram smoothed more paste carefully along the last inch of Zelikman's wound. a deep gauge across his bony side, almost down to the bones, to the hard curves of his ribcage.
Under Amram's huge, dark hands, Zelikman's skin was covered with his blood. Amram had expected worse. He had expected to be putting the mysterious inner workings of a Frankish madman back inside his partner's skin, and then sewing him closed for burial. "It is your stupidity that offends," Amram said. "To jump in between a man and a blade -- Zelikman, never again."
With that, Amram gave up on words. There were none adequate to his purposes in any language. Amram had cried out when he saw Zelikman fall to a Farrs blade meant for him. The sound of his own voice then, the sound of Zelikman's wet, gasping breath; those were words of anguish no matter what the tongue.
Amram knelt by Zelikman's side, his fingers on Zelikman's ribs where his partner's wound was stitched, cleaned, and salved, the dried blood dripped down. He let his silence express his meaning.
Zelikman reached across and clumsily patted Amram's hand. "You shame us both with this foolish weeping," he said, wry and amused. Amram's eyes were dry but he understood Zelikman's meaning; the reserved Frank was not prone to displays of sentimentality at all.
Amram, though no more prone to such things than his partner, found himself saying, "Zelikman, I would not end our travels together. If our paths should diverge, I would follow where yours led. Although it would no doubt be a cold, mean little city to which you would go."
Zelikman was silent for a moment, then squeezed Amram's hand. "I grow ever more mindful of the creaks in your old bones," he said. "I endeavor to follow dry, warm roads on your behalf."
Amram snorted. "It is of Hillel's old bones that you think most often."
"And wisely so, though I was trying to comfort you, old woman." Zelikman's hand slid away; he would soon be asleep. His voice began to drift and drowse. He said, "Our roads go on together now; do not trouble yourself thinking otherwise. It's become one and the same journey...Amram, my old giant...."
He was asleep.
Amram's hands seemed glued to Zelikman's side with blood and herbed paste. Under the hardened pads of his fingers, Zelikman's heart beat slow and strong. Amram was careful not to disturb him, peeling his hands away with slow, smooth, cautious movements. He washed them in the bucket of water that had been cooling beside him, dried them, and pulled the blanket up carefully over Zelikman's narrow, white chest.
Though Zelikman would not hear him, and would undoubtedly have either expected or begun an argument for the sake of arguing if he had, Amram said, "One road." On this, his heart, hands and knees agreed; there was wisdom, comfort, and adventure in Zelikman's words.
"Thank you, Zelikman," Amram said, and then he rose, and went to feed the horses.