It had been raining since I set out for the last push up the pass. The trail had been uphill for days and days and my horse was tired and I was tired. As we gained altitude, it had grown steadily colder. I hoped the pass would top out soon or we'd be in snow, which for a southerner like myself was not a pleasant thought.
It had been clear from the beginning of the grade that someone was ahead of me in the pass. The signs of a single wagon were unmistakable. Ox-drawn, at least four people, two of them women. No horses, no other livestock. It was probably a demented trader or itinerant peddler hoping for an early spring. There were no other signs that anyone had come up here this early in the season. At the bottom of the last push to the crest, the other trail had been at least a week old. It had been raining for five days now, and now near the top of the pass, the trail looked fresh. Perhaps it had been made in the early morning of today.
It was near dusk when I topped out. There was a chill wind blowing down from the snow only a few hundred feet higher on the mountain. Ahead a fire flickered, perhaps two hundred yards away. They were peddlers; I could see their wagon clearly enough. Nonetheless, before I rode forward, I reached down and pulled my small crossbow from the pannier and cocked it, notched a bolt, laid it offside on the withers of my horse.
I stopped well outside the light of the fire, and helloed the camp. Unless they were blind and deaf to boot, I was no surprise.
A voice called me to come on ahead, and I did slowly, coming at an angle to hide the weapon. One man stood off to one side of the fire, looking in my direction. He was tall and gaunt, wearing a buckskin shirt and pants of some coarse woven material. Another man stood further back, in the shadows; I couldn't see him well at all. I laid my hand casually across my saddle, my fingers nearly on the grip of the bow.
"Good even, travelers," I said in the formal greeting of the caravans.
"Good even to ya, good sir!" the man closest to me said. He was standing so I had a clear view of his empty hands. The other man could have had anything in his hands; he was hard to see at all.
A woman came around the corner of the wagon, drying her hands on the apron she wore over rough buckskin breeches and tunic. "Light and set, good sir," she said pertly. "We have some stew, not much, but on a cold night like this, anything warm serves." She was not as old as the closest man, but no spring chicken. She wasn't ugly, but time had used her rather hard. Still, she stood erect and looked me in the eye.
I finally found the fourth member of the party. She was just a girl, youngish, in her mid-teens. She was sitting on a barrel, one leg cocked under her, the other dangling down and around behind the barrel. She was wearing a thin dress, damp from the misting rain. The dress wasn't very long and the way she was sitting revealed quite a bit of her legs. She made a small movement of her hand. I ignored her, looking around, ostensibly to check out the lay of the land in the last failing light of the day.
"Ride fast!" she'd said in the sign-talk of the caravans.
I didn't meet her eyes, instead I returned to the man and his woman. "Thank you, good sirs and ladies; however I am of the south. I am allergic to that white stuff on yon hill." I gestured with my rein hand. "I have yet a half hour of daylight, I should be well down the other side before I make camp."
The man closest to me sniffed the air. "Could be it'll snow tonight; rain for certain. You might be right. Our beasts are done in; we'll stay here tonight even though we've topped the pass. Doubt if it'll come down very hard, if it does."
Which squared up well with the light drizzle occasionally spitting from the sky and my own prognostications. "I'll being going on then, thank you for the offer, travelers."
My horse stepped briskly past the camp and I made sure I stayed well away from any of them, my hand lightly on the stock of the crossbow. As I rode by the young girl I heard a faint sound and I turned my head just the slightest amount. The foot I couldn't see around the side of the barrel was visible now, as was the dull gleam of her slave shackle. My hand closed on the crossbow and I watched them very carefully until I was well past.
I clicked my tongue to speed up my horse -- not overmuch, just a little. And when it was finally full dark, I did not pull up and camp, but swung down and continued yet a bit further, before spending a few more minutes moving well off the road.
I found a largish clump of rocks, and moved around behind them before picketing my horse near a decent clump of grass. I hauled my gear a few yards further from the trail, to a gap between two rocks that was just a bit wider than a man. I put my pack and sleeping roll there and used a saddle blanket to simulate a lump under them. I took myself off twenty feet higher in the rocks, overlooking my horse. I wrapped myself in my blanket and settled down for the night, crossbow in one hand, dirk in the other. It was a dark, wet and cold night.
Much later I heard a whicker and came wide awake quickly, listening to the darkness around me. It was snowing lightly and it was much colder. I could hear nothing and see nothing. Even so, my mind's eye pictured the younger of the two leading my horse away, his hand over the beast's mouth to muffle any more noise.
A moment later from where I had left my pack, I heard a short "wheet" of a blade, followed by a dull thump. A voice muttered softly, "Damn you!"
It was a trick my uncle had taught me as a boy. He'd beaten it into me, actually. The men of his hall would hang small bells in a darkened room, then take us in with our bows. With a string they would make a bell ring; we were supposed to hit the target we could not see. I had gotten rather good at it. The flat snap of my crossbow echoed over the hills, followed a second later by a muffled grunt of surprise from below. Then, not a sound.
Deftly I cocked the bow again, using the borderer technique that does it without any sound. After a bit I eased as quietly as I could to one side, then went motionless once more.
In the first dull gray light of dawn I was tired, but still alive. I glanced over at my packs. Sure enough, the older of the two men was tumbled in the rocks, a quarrel heart-high, but a little to the right of the heart. That was his right, centered in his torso. My uncle would have nodded and cuffed me once again for being too timid. A light dusting of snow covered the body, but the snowfall was slowly picking up steam. I had been a day's ride from Yergan Camp, now I was two or three, on foot.
I moved back uphill slowly, at an angle away from the road. It had not snowed hard enough to obscure the horse tracks leading upwards and I stayed well to one side of the road as I continued slowly, wary of an ambush.
I was nearly back to the summit two hours later when I heard them coming. The wagon wheels were loudly crunching the gravel and snow on the road. I found a sizable boulder and hid against the downhill side and waited. Sure enough, when the younger man passed, he was attentive in all directions, except behind him. I didn't know what kind of thieves these were, but they should have stuck to peddling. Horse stealing was dangerous. Robbing living people was even more dangerous. Not being curious about what happened to the other man, lethal. And he was riding my horse.
The wagon was a little past even with me when I shot the young man from his seat on the horse. I aimed low and the bolt took him in the middle of his back. Centered again. My uncle would have been very irritated with me. But this was about life and death, not making a perfectionist happy. Five quick steps and I had the reins of the wagon in my hand, pulling hard. The woman pitched forward, helpless to stop her motion.
She came up, dagger in hand, sweeping overhand at me. I blocked with my left arm and put my own dirk in her gut. She never uttered a word, but spat in my face, after she looked down.
I pushed her away with my now empty right hand, letting her fall.
"Boy tol' me he kilt you," she said, wrapped into a ball of pain.
"He took the horse and ran like a jackrabbit," I replied.
"Stupid. As stupid as his old man." She coughed, gushed blood and died.
I toed the blade from her hand and tossed it a few feet away, in the middle of the road, and retrieved my own.
The wagon had turned in obedience to my pull and the oxen had stopped, facing a scree of rocks down a steep slope. I moved warily towards the back of the wagon first, not wanting to trust anyone.
The girl was in the back. I cursed softly when I saw her. She had been badly beaten. There was blood and bruises everywhere on her body; she no longer wore a dress or anything else. There was a bloody mess between her legs and more bruising still. Evidently somebody had taken failure out on her.
On top of that, she was still shackled. What kind of person shackles another in a wagon moving over the mountains? That was like tying them to a rock and dropping them over the side of a ship. The same kind of fool, I supposed, who left with his father to kill a man and steal his horse and showed no interest in what had happened to anything but the horse.
I owed the girl nothing. I would never, ever, have shared a camp with these folk, no matter what the circumstances. But one of them had either seen her warning, or suspected it.
I made sure the wagon brake was on, and then lifted myself inside. Her eyes opened briefly and there was a hint of life in them. "Am I dead?" The voice was small and weak.
"Then they are."
She smiled faintly. "For as long as I can remember," her voice was unaccented High Tongue of the Valley, educated class. Her voice failed her then, as her thin frame was wracked by coughs and shivering.
Even so, she rallied and continued, "I wanted to be alive when they died."
She could no longer control her body. The coughing was enough, nearly, to tear her lungs out. I hastily found a badly used blanket and wrapped it around her. She was silent, but trembling until I finished.
Her eyes were fever bright. "I never thought it would happen. I always thought it would be me dead first." Her voice was barely above a whisper. Had there been a wind, I'd not have heard her.
"Thank you for letting me die last." Her voice vanished into the far distance, as consciousness left her.
I rummaged around in the wagon and found some cleaner blankets and added them to the stack around her, even lifting her up to slide one underneath. After that, I went outside, intending on gathering some firewood for a fire.
It took only the briefest glance at the weather to realize there was no point.
While there had been no wind earlier, there was now. And snow, snow like I'd heard tell of, but never seen before. I cut the oxen loose and did not give them a second thought, except for the one I hamstrung close to the wagon. I brought my horse and tied him to the back of the wagon, using double knots, a hobble rope and a second tie rope. If he got away, all three of us could die.
I dribbled a few drops of water, all I could find, into the girl's mouth.
She looked up at me. "I'm still alive," she murmured, sounding astonished. I brushed her hair gently. Something about her spoke to me on a level that passed my comprehension.
"Be still and save your strength. There's a big storm outside," I told her. "Are you hungry?"
She shook her head.
I handed her a piece of jerky anyway. "Gnaw on this. It's salty; it'll go down good." She did and to my surprise, managed to finish it before falling asleep.
It was true I'd been born in a sizable city, Cher'bal, but I'd lived most of my life at my uncle's keep, deep in the swamps and hills of the south. I wasn't a city boy, not any more, nor was I from these northern mountains. I was here out of duty, not preference or training.
There was no way to go down the mountain to my warm sleeping furs, nothing I could do would retrieve my pack, with another blanket for me and a blanket for my horse.
I searched through the peddler's goods; there was little food, no water, nothing of value except the shelter of the wagon. I could only pray it would suffice.
Towards afternoon I roused a bit and looked outside. The wind howled and the snow swirled in dervish circles that begged one to come out and dance in it. My horse was gone. My stirring woke the girl too, who looked at me silently, her wide eyes never leaving my face. "Get under the blanket," she said, softly.
She saw my hesitation and laughed harshly. "Ya's gots more tings dan me, but bein' warm is the onliest now ting. We's share or we's both deaders." Now her accent was that of the northern streets. She was very odd, that was for sure. It was like there were a half dozen girls wrapped inside her body.
But she was right and stiffly, stubbornly, I crawled in next to her. She cursed my cold body, until her shaking and trembling left her senseless.
I was embarrassed. Never in my life had I needed this sort of help merely to stay alive. And never at such a terrible cost to another.
Hours later I awoke, aware that I was sharing the blankets with a furnace. I shook her gently, but all I got was a mumbled, "Thirsty." There was no light, but I remembered earlier seeing a small pile of snow on the front seat of the wagon. It was still there. I grabbed a handful, and let it melt in my hand, and then I dribbled it into her mouth. I was still doing that, when the lights in my private world faded away.
When I awoke, it was because the rising sun was striking me in the face. Having heard many a story about how fiendishly cold it could get after a storm, I stuck my nose out, most tentatively. It was almost balmy. I could hear a slow, drip, drip, drip of water from the wagon cover. I moved slightly, deathly afraid that my companion would be a frozen corpse, only to find a living, normally warm, body next to me. I breathed a faint prayer.
A faint voice came from close by. "Sun's been up for half an hour."
"Sorry," I told her, "on a sunny spring day, a body's got a right to just lie about and enjoy."
"Don' wanna be rude." This accent I didn't recognize. "But if I don't get up soon, we's both going be even more damp and uncomfortable than we's now."
I glanced forward in the wagon. "Unless you want to wade in the snow, try the wagon seat."
She grinned. "Suits me. Sorry." She shook one leg and I heard the clink of the chains, "Not going far, I guess, neither."
"Be sorry for the things you can help. Soon as you get done, though, I gotta piss over the side myself."
Two minutes later we were both shivering again under the blankets. "We need to get you some clothes," I told her. "I'll see if I can find where the chisel is." Trying to convey my intent.
She spoke cynically. "Never heard a man say that to me before. Always the other way 'round. And none of you ever had trouble finding something to poke me with, either."
"Not planning on poking you, girl. Just bust the damn shackles."
She was silent for a long moment. "You know what they do to me, they catch me as run?"
"Whip you bloody, kick your head in, rape you and leave you for dead."
Another long silence followed. "Something like that."
"Well, you're free of that now."
She shook her head. "You sayin' it, don't make it so. I'm a slave, mister. They remind us of that all the time. If my current owner drops dead before I's sold, then I belong to the first Magistrate who grabs me, to be sold at auction. Money goes to the Magistrates."
I looked her in the eye for long moment and she smiled wearily. "Maybe you could buy me? I sure could use a master like you. Handsome, a bit, you are."
I shook my head. "I don't buy people. In any case, I don't need to buy you. As soon as we get to town I'll set my seal on your freedman's papers. I'll give you a little something to tide you over until you find work."
She laughed. "Find work? You a crazy man? I tell you -- no way I'm yours. Sorry, they know us, up and down the trail. The first Magistrate sees me and I'm on the block. Might not be for a while though, until I get over the whipping I'll get for letting my master get killed."
I got up and went outside. It was chill and the snow a pain, but I quickly found what I was looking for. A moment later, the shackle lock was broken. I spent another while, managed to gather enough semi-dry wood to build up a fire.
I found a copper bowl and melted snow in it and found her a rag. I went back to where she huddled under the blankets. "Come by the fire. You need to wash off the worst of the mess." I held up a small bit of wound unguent I carried with me. "I've this for the worst of it."
She moved reluctantly, still weak and in pain. Nonetheless I merely watched as she got out and found a warm spot close to the fire. She washed as best she could with the hot water, even managed a quick rinse of her short hair.
For some time I contemplated her. The easiest thing, of course, would be to ride on, drop her with the nearest Magistrate and forget her. While she had tried to help me, there was nothing I had done differently because of her warning than what I would have done without it. My job was never to take chances and I was good at what I did.
However, she had literally risked her life for me, a stranger she'd seen for one or two seconds to judge my worth on a dark evening. And the fact is, of course, that fate has a way of talking to you that you can ill afford to ignore. Maybe she hadn't helped me this time -- but it wasn't from lack of trying. There was no way I could just leave her to her fate.
I sat down a short distance away and sawed on a piece of deer hide hung from the wagon side, making two oblongs. "Hold a foot up," I said, and she obliged.
I used a bit of charcoal to outline her foot, and then quickly cut some more, took out a small hand awl that was always with me, and punched braid holes. I clipped two of my elbow tassels and laced the sandals loosely.
"Little big for me," she informed me.
I grinned and walked a few feet and dug in the snow where the woman had died. I pulled the fur muffler away from her and took it back to the fire to dry out, then cut it to shape as lining for the shoes.
"Pretty handy," she told me when I handed the shoes to her.
"You walk far in this snow barefoot, you won't have any toes. I don't feel much like carrying you," I replied, more roughly than I felt. She was putting them on, however, even as I spoke.
"Come here," I commanded.
She approached me warily.
I sighed, half in exasperation. "Turn around and hold out your arms."
She did as bid, and I held one of the blankets up and sketched more charcoal marks; body, sleeves for a tunic, then again, on the other half of the blanket for the lower half of her body.
Two hours later I was a little tired, but she semi-preened. "You are real handy with that knife and braid." There was awe in her voice. "Never seen a man do that sort of thing before."
I shrugged. "I spend a lot of time in the wild. You need something to do on the bad weather days or you go mad. You'd be surprised how good some of us are at making clothes. When we get to Trove, I'll get some fabric and I'll see that a real dress-maker does it right."
She sighed. "You are nice, Mister. I like you, I do. I liked you from the first second I saw you. But, Mister, you try this and you'll end up like me -- not me like you."
I shrugged. "Magistrates rule with the King's laws. If the King says you are free, you are free."
She laughed sarcastically. "Let me guess, ya's the King! Rescued the little slave girlie, us'ta be a princess herself! We'll live happily ever after!" She looked at me and shook out of her new tunic, standing nude in front of me. "Look at me close, Mister! I'm no princess! Never was!" Her body was covered with bruises, some older than others. Many of the bruises were in personal places.
"Junior liked to poke me every couple of hours, if his old man didn't have anything for him to do or anything for me to do or didn't want to poke me himself. And the old woman, she'd much rather I took care of her than her men. I did them all, couple times a day. I'm not real brave; it was that or die. I didn't want to die."
I held her tunic out for her. "I saw you before and you're not going to get poked by me. I'm not a boy lover, it's just I prefer women, not children so skinny I'm like to pick up splinters. And no, I'm not the King. I'm from the Green Lands," I waved west. "Way and the hell off that way, far across the sea."
She looked at me, not many people were living legends; and the Green Lands, here, were legend. "I'm not the King, but the man I work for is married to the king's daughter. If I talk to him, he'll talk to his wife, and she'll talk to her father."
"I don't know the King, but I bet you he don't listen to servant's gossip much, not if he's a good King. I hear he's a pretty good King."
"Trust me on this," I told her emphatically. "What is the worst that can happen to you? They'll take you and you'll be a slave again. No one expects a slave to talk; when we come to the city, I'll do the talking. If any blame comes, it'll come to me. Satisfied?"
"You want to live long enough to get to explain anything, you shouldn't have cut the shackle."
I was weary and there were many things that needed to be done. "Do you have a name?"
She snorted again. "You are from far away! They tol' me I was a found child, wandering the northern plains. I don't remember. Only name they ever called me was Chat."
Slave. How original.
"What do you call yourself?"
"Chat," she said simply. "Anything else, it'd been the death of me."
"You think about a name then. Pick one for yourself. That's what free people do, you know. Pick for themselves." I paused, "I am Chira Khan." It had been a long time since I had used my full name, but it seemed right now. "Khan means Lord, in my homeland. Like the Lords of the Realm here, but here, I am just a servant of another. I am called Chira, by those who know me well."
I remembered clearly what had happened ten years ago. Then I was a foolish young man, much given to saying things that I shouldn't and doing things even more stupid. I was the fifth son of a minor noble, condemned to having four strapping older brothers, all healthy as oxen. Two of them had gone into the clergy and I'd seen what sort of life that was like and had opted for fostering with my uncle, a hard, veteran soldier.
"Chira, you have heard about the ship in Ker Junit? The one from oversea?" Bharra Khan had asked me one evening. Yes, that man. The greatest man who ever lived.
I'd thought I'd been called before the Khan because of the fight I'd had the prior night in an inn with a noble's son. I had not expected a quiz. "Yes, my Khan." At least I could say something. "I talked to some of the sailors off her. There are some interesting stories those men tell."
"They have some very interesting stories," he agreed. "I want you to return with them."
It was a bolt from the blue. "Return with them?" I tried to keep the future from my thoughts; I could not. It was winter and come spring, Bharra Khan and a quarter million men would march against Terget-baya. As a fifth son the only way I would ever gain lands was if we won and won big -- and if I did well in the campaigns. War was an uncertain way to make one's way in the world, but in this there was little uncertainty. We were going to lose and all of us would die.
"Of all my people, Chira, when that ship made port, two of my spies went to talk to them ... and told me you'd already been there."
"I am a romantic, Bharra Khan. I like stories about oversea. I never dreamed I would actually meet anyone from there."
"I know, neither did I. Neither did they. If you do this Chira, now, tonight, before you go I will see you ennobled. I will deed three squares to you, squares of your choosing from my portion of the conquest of Terget-baya. A moderate town, Chira, anything except a city. But the price will be steep, Chira."
"Lord, the reward is more than I could ever dream," I'd said, the musty cobwebs of the drunken night gone.
"A year for each square, Chira. Don't come back for three years. Send word, if you can find a way, but stay that long. I need to know them very well."
Bharra Khan, as all knew, was the greatest man who would ever live, as Terget-baya was the most evil. Bharra Khan had spent two years living in the lands of Terget-baya, learning the evil one's ways. He'd returned and in a space of six weeks, dealt the first blows to the Overlord that anyone had ever delivered. And he'd brought back a desert girl as wife, a woman who was, so far as I could tell, the finest woman any man could ever hope to wed.
I'd gone and a year later one of the Trove King's trading ships trying to repeat the feat returned, most of the crew dead. They told stories of death and destruction and the banner of Terget-baya flying over Ker Junit. Two years later the Trove King tried again. That time the ships sent never returned and after that, no more ships were sent.
I shook my head. "Of course, first we must get off the mountain. It will take us two or three days to Yergan Camp. We should be safe there until a caravan comes. I have money, we'll be safe."
She shook her head. "I got no choice, Mister. If I go by myself, I'm dead. Sure as the sun rises in the east. I hope your stories are as handy as your sewing -- we'll need them."