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by L.T. Fawkes

They looked us over sourly. Their faces were tired and strained and they sagged in their saddles like half-filled bags of grain. Linon had warned us they were especially dangerous because they had been so long without sleep. Now, Linon sought us out with his eyes, face by face, reminding us again to be careful.

The one who was their commander sat stiffly in his saddle. He seemed to favor his left arm as if he had been wounded.

“Barragan,” he shouted.

His mount, like all the other exhausted horses in the infinite columns behind him, panted heavily. Its breath billowed from its nostrils in twin bursts of steam and dissipated into the cold morning air.

Someone rode up from the rear. All along the columns the horses started, as if they had waked suddenly and thought it was time to charge into battle again. The riders had difficulty calming them.

The rider stopped to the left of the commander and regarded us, one corner of his wide mouth pulling lower and lower. Then he spat into the dust.

“These are the ones we’ve been fighting for three months?”

The commander had to turn from his waist to face this Barragan, which meant the wound must be in his shoulder and had stiffened his neck. I looked at Linon to signal, but he had seen for himself. He was watching the men and listening.

“A mistake has been made somewhere, Barragan,” said commander. “This is some stray tribe of cast-offs. Idiots and cripples. Not the enemy we engaged.”

Now the commander spat. I curled my back even more and, not daring to look anywhere else, watched the commander’s spit drop to the ground. Watched the little balloon of dust rise above the tiny crater and slowly settle back.

Barragan sniffed at the air. “My God. I can’t stand the stink of them.”

I agreed with him. Linon had insisted we all roll in the sulfur powder we normally used only at our shrines to drive away devils. The stench was unbearable.

The commander, forgetting his wound, twisted to look to the rear. He groaned and bent forward in pain, and when he raised his head again I saw that he was very pale.

“Bring the captive forward,” he whispered.

Barragan turned his horse and rode back through the massed army.

My heart stopped. Captive? Had they taken Baral, or one of the other women or children in the group she was leading North? They had been gravely burdened because they were carrying all our possessions with them. Or had they intercepted Rilat, who had led another group of women and children South? Perhaps one of the older ones who carried a baby on her backs had tired too quickly.

The commander waited, hunched, his breathing labored, until Barragan returned pulling another horse behind him. When he reined in beside the commander and led the captive’s horse into the space between them, I saw to my horror that the captive was Walir.

He was still wearing his battle cloth. The rest of us had traded our finely-crafted loin cloths for rags during the night because Linon said that our only chance against such numbers was to cast ourselves into the wind. The women had carried away all our battle dress and all our weapons.

Now I stared at Walir and struggled to hold my face in an idiot’s leer. I hoped the others could manage to do the same.

Barragan leaned across the neck of Walir’s horse and studied the commander’s face. “With your permission, Sir, you must let me call up a litter for you.”

The commander gasped for breath. “One moment, Barragan.” He tried to focus his eyes on Walir. “Now, you. The truth. Are these your people?”

All life seemed to stop and wait for the answer. Walir, the renegade, the rogue, the trouble-maker, banished for cowardice two days earlier, and now the captive of our enemy, held our fate in his thieving hands. The idiot’s drool dried in my mouth. I stared at Walir. He sat tall on his mount. His hands were tightly bound behind his back. He played his eyes over us.

When he saw me he sniffed and made a face to show his amusement at the way we smelled. He gave me a slow smile and then he hooted.

“These?” He laughed. “Yes, of course. These are the ones who who cut your army in half.”

He laughed harder, rocking on his saddle. Nearby I heard Linon mimic Walir’s laughter in a high-pitched, idiot way. I quickly followed his lead, as did some of the others.

Walir sat back, watching, and shouted to the commander, “Behold. My people. And there . . . ” he pointed at Linon ” . . . that one is our brave leader. ” He hooted and laughed twice as hard.

Without a moment’s hesitation, Linon pointed back Walir and did a crippled little dance, laughing, his head rolling loosely above his neck. Most of the rest of us joined in.

The commander, who had twisted uncomfortably to watch Walir, became enraged by his behavior. A terrible change occurred in his face. All the skin seemed to pull back from his teeth. As Walir continued to laugh and we continued to mimic him, the commander drew his long gleaming sword, lifted it shakily, and drove it deep into Walir’s chest.

Walir cried out. His eyes bulged. He looked down, his hands went to the sword’s handle, his fingers touched at it all over, and then he fell.

The commander lost his balance with the effort of the kill. He fell over onto Walir’s horse, which shied and stepped away, so that the commander fell on top of Walir and they tangled together on the ground, arms and legs.

It was an astonishing sight. We all stopped and stared except for Linon. In his wisdom, he imitated Walir’s death cry, clutched his own chest, and threw himself to the ground laughing.

Fighting for self-control, we followed him one by one until we were all crying out and falling and laughing insanely. If some of our shrieks sounded more like grief than joy, our enemy failed to notice.

Barragan dismounted and separated his commander from Walir. Under our noise, I heard him scream for a litter. Three soldiers ran up with one. Barragan, assuming command, sent one of them to the rear with marching orders. Then he helped the other two load the commander onto the litter.

As they settled him down, Barragan leaned closer to hear something the commander said, nodded, and turned Walir, who lay in the dust, face-down and still. Barragan kicked him over, put one heavy boot on his chest, and drew out the commander’s sword, which he wiped across his pants and placed beside the commander on the litter.

They carried the litter up the hill to a waiting wagon, Barragan at the head and the other two at the feet. That was the last we saw of Barragan. The soldiers nearest us, and as far up the hill as we could see, turned their backs on us and waited with their restless horses until the slack was taken up and the line began to move. And then they marched away. The sun was nearly overhead.

We sat or lay in the dust, our eyes burning and our backs aching, until the last white plumes disappeared over the hill and the noise of the army had faded to an underground vibration that came up the ladders of our spines. Linon sent Ocar and Faran to follow the army’s retreat so as to warn us in the event it turned back. Then he sent runners after Baral’s group and Rilat’s group with orders to meet us in the mountain camp.

As the runners disappeared he crawled to a boulder and lay back wearily against it. Motioning for me to stay with him, he said to the others, “Go down to the river. Bathe and sleep. We’ll move tonight.

Linon closed his eyes. In a moment he was snoring. I lay flat on the ground, listened to the splashing noises coming up from the river where the others were swimming, listened to insects buzzing, and stared at Walir’s crumpled body.

After a short time Linon began to cough. For a few minutes his body shook with the dry coughing and then he lay back against the rock, breathing heavily. Finally he rolled his head to look at me and saw I was awake.

He sat forward, crossed his legs, and absently began to trace figures into the dust.

“We can’t fight them again, Kalan,” he said.


“They live only to make war. If they have families someone else must take care of them and feed them. They don’t have babies to worry about.”


“They find us too easily out on the plains. We can’t go out on the plains anymore.”


His finger continued to draw the soft lines in the dust. “We kill them and kill them and they send back new armies, each bigger than the last.”

I said, “They must have others in their own land raising their children to take their swords.”


Linon erased his dust figures and began a new design.

“From now on, we must stay in the mountains. Everything will have to be different from now on.”

I only nodded. We sat quietly.

“We will have to adapt ourselves to mountain winters. It will be difficult for us and for our children, but each generation after that will be a little more suited . . . ”

“What do you mean?” Even as I asked, I knew with cold certainty what he meant. He had spoken like this before, but never in this tone of finality.

“You know very well,” he said, reaching out to me and resting one calming hand on my shoulder. “Our ancestors bred particular wolves or we wouldn’t have the loyal dogs that sleep at our feet each night and keep our watch for us.”

“Do you want us to change ourselves into wolves?”

“Not wolves, Kalan.” He shrugged. “Stronger people. Mountain people.”

I sighed. “Oh, Linon. It will be so hard . . . ”

Which of our children could survive the mountain winters? I thought sadly of my own frail little ones.

Linon stood up. “One more thing to do here and then we’ll join the others in the river,” he said.

He walked over to Walir’s body. I followed. Linon squatted near Walir’s head and began to dig in the dust, dog fashion, the dirt spraying out behind him. I began to dig beside Walir’s feet. We dug steadily. When we hit clay, we found sharp rocks and carved into the clay until the grave was deep enough. Then we lifted Walir and lowered him and sat facing each other on opposite edges of his grave.

Linon sighed deeply and coughed. His eyes filled, but I didn’t know whether that had to do with the coughing, or the dust, or the future he had been drawing into the dust, or with our rogue, Walir. Linon shook his head slowly.

“He laughed at our rules, cursed our ancestors, let others do his work, and stole from them while they were doing it. More than once I had my hand on my knife . . . ”

“As did I,” I said. “But he had an honorable end.”

Linon nodded.

Solemnly, we pushed the dirt into the hole until the grave was tightly packed. Then, following our custom, we marked the grave with six stones, one for each of the directions in which Walir’s spirit was now free to wander. Then we walked to the river.

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