For the first time in days, Manetho permitted herself to relax. She sat down on the stool outside the largest hut and closed her eyes, leaning back against the rough logs of the wall. Her knees, elbows, and back were one solid ache, and her head was beginning to spin from lack of sleep, but the last of the fevers were finally going down and the village was beginning to come back to life.
Not that it was much of a village. Near a dozen huts clustered around a communal green where the bake-ovens had been built, and not far off, a pond with privies built much too near it for any healer’s comfort. The inhabitants were all Ulven save for one stray Human, but they shared no clan or tribe: just a collection of farmers, soldiers, and survivors, driven from their previous abodes by the civil war. Their houses were still new enough for there to be sap between some of the logs, and even before the fever had sprung up among them, their children had been hollow-eyed and too thin.
Still, calamity had been avoided. Thank the lizard that he’d had his claw on them; Manetho never would have come this way had it not been for a too-chatty blacksmith at Hareford, a day’s journey west. He’d heard there was a new settlement of the displaced, but it wouldn’t last long … Why not? Well, you know refugees, he’d said. Dirty bunch no matter what race they are, no surprise they’re all getting sick …
When she’d arrived, twelve of the adults and ten of the children had been near comatose. The remainders had talked of sending for a mage they couldn’t afford. Manetho was no mage: just a healer, with a satchel full of practical remedies and a tired, dogged refusal to give up. But this time, at least, that had been enough.
The children had recovered the quickest. Young, spry folk with quick blood, despite their deprivation and illness. Now, as the last of the sickly adults groaned and staggered their way back towards health, the children were having an impromptu holiday.
There were twenty of them all told, and by any gods you cared to name, they made a riot. Currently, there was a minor war going on for possession of the tattered village green—boys versus girls. The girls had the advantage of numbers, but the boys made up for it in sheer volume.
“Not fair!” screamed Thannet, one of the girls’ ringleaders. She was a fair-haired child, the perfect picture of a young Ulven with snow-white fangs and china-blue eyes. The image was somewhat spoiled by the sheer amount of mud coating her face and the front of her dress. “You cheated!”
“Did not!” retorted Ulmar. He was younger than Thannet, skinny and sneaky, the kind of child destined to one day slip daggers into other people’s backs. He’d gotten a fine head start on his career as a rogue by tripping Thannet into the mud.
“Did not! You said we couldn’t throw mud!”
“We also said no pushing! It’s rude!”
“But we never said ‘no pushing into the mud!’ That’s different!”
Despite her exhaustion, Manetho stifled a laugh. Perhaps she’d been wrong: Ulmar might have a future as a lawyer.
But the argument was escalating, and to her great reluctance, she forced herself to stand up. A lot of screaming on the village green was not going to help the fever patients who were only just beginning to get the rest they needed.
“Settle down there,” she said, picking her way across the muddy green towards the argument. “Your parents are still trying to get their sleep, and you hollering won’t help them.”
“He threw mud at me!”
“Did not! I threw you in the mud. ‘s completely different.”
“Hah! You said you pushed me before. Can’t you make up your mind, liar?”
Lizard save them all; there was a whole crop of lawyers coming up in this village. Manetho silently resolved to never get caught in a crime within fifty miles of the place. She whistled loudly, breaking up the argument yet again, and crossed her arms.
“If you’re going to fight, children, do it quietly. Don’t you remember how awful it felt when you were sick? How much your heads hurt, and how badly you wanted to throw up? Well, lots of your parents still feel that way, and if you screaming makes it worse then they’ll thrash you black and blue once they’re better. Can’t you play nicely?”
“That’s boring!” one of the younger boys huffed. There was a chorus of agreement from several of his compatriots. Ulven youngsters: lovely and adorable until the mob started forming.
Manetho played her trump card. Fighting children were often bored children, after all. “All right,” she said. “If you promise to sit quietly, then, I’ll tell you another story.”
To her great relief, that got a chorus of eager agreement from the kids. Even Thannet, who often loudly prided herself on being too old and grown-up for such babyish pursuits, didn’t object. Manetho was still new enough to have stories they hadn’t heard yet, after all, and she’d begun storytelling while children were still getting over their fevers. Now she’d happily tell every last tale all over again if it would buy her patients a few more minutes of (gods-damned) peace and quiet.
“All right, make yourselves comfortable,” she said, pointing to a patch of grass away from the mud. The children did so with all the grace and ease one expected of Ulven: scrambling into place, bumping into each other, and breaking out in miniature scuffles over who’d pulled whose hair and who took whose spot. It was like watching a pile of puppies fight.
Manetho’s good humor faded a little at the sight. In ten years, these children would be farmers, craftsmen, tailors, bards—but all of them, in a pinch, soldiers. The Ulven, for all the mockery she could throw at them (and often did, she would admit), had a vitality and strength to them that her own race conspicuously lacked. Ulven were the bulwark of Mardrun, and these children would in their turn hold the line against Mordok and each other.
Her tribe had been different. There’d been few children among the Deshret Syndar, and though each one was prized, there was much to learn and heavy burdens to lay on their shoulders. There had always been the consciousness of being one of the few: secret, set apart, despised even by their Syndar brethren.
If she had been young again, she might have envied these Ulven children their freedom and ease. Being as old as she was, she instead mourned for what they would have to face.
“Now,” she said, trying to shake off her thoughts and put on a facade of good cheer as she sat down in front of them. “I have a lot of stories. But you’ve heard most of them already, so we might have to come up with something new.”
“Talk about the Battle for the Ironmound Village!” called one voice from the back.
“That one’s boring,” said another. Manetho belatedly identified that speaker: Olaf, the soldier’s son. An aspiring—though for the moment, stupendously untalented—bard. “Tell the one about the Blackpaw and the Red-Eyed Man!”
That got a chorus of assent from several of the girls. Manetho had told that story the first time they wanted a tale: heavily edited, of course, with all real names altered and the characters ginned up to resemble something from a good heroic myth. The girls had especially enjoyed it. Who didn’t like a story about a strong woman standing firm against a vile fiend?
(No mention of a Syndar healer ignominiously begging on the ground. That didn’t make a very good story.)
The group consensus, however, was against the Blackpaw tale. As much as they liked it, they’d heard it twice more since then, and novelty was what the mob demanded. Another squabble broke out, and the children temporarily stopped arguing to cheer on the two battlers. Manetho mentally ran through her list of stories and waited for the dust to settle again.
When it had (the winner triumphant, the loser insisting he wasn’t really trying to fight, honestly, I pulled every punch!), Manetho had decided.
“How about …” She paused for effect. “The Tale of the Thorn Curse?”
This was a risky move. It was an old story, stretching back far beyond Mardrun—and, knowing her tribe, farther back than her own lineage. She rarely had a chance to tell these stories, because they were full of things that Mardrun children would have no reference for: crocodiles and djinni and hot, blazing deserts. Things that even she recalled only in dreams. But she’d used up her stock of other tales, and if they really wanted novelty, they would have to call on the spirit of Faedrun for a few brief minutes.
There was some hemming and hawing among the children at that, but the word ‘curse’ was usually a guaranteed winner, and they assented. Manetho made herself comfortable, crossing her legs and pulling her leopardskin over her shoulders to drape just right, and began.
“Now attend and listen.”
That was the traditional way to begin these stories. It was ceremonial and solemn, both an instruction and a warning, and guaranteed to silence every Deshret Syndar in hearing distance. As far as Manetho could figure, it was the Syndar equivalent of the Ulven “You have impugned my honor” or the Human “If you don’t shut up right now, so help me I’ll—!” It didn’t have much of an effect on the gathered children, but then, they weren’t Deshret.
“Once, in days long past, in a tribe of Syndar on the cusp of the high red desert, there lived a brother and sister who were orphaned at a young age. The boy was near to manhood grown, and the girl was of an age to be wed, but because they had no parents, he had not been permitted to fletch his first arrows and she had not been permitted to put on her mother’s leopard cloak.”
Seeing that the assembled young Ulven didn’t understand the gravity of this insult, Manetho quickly improvised some extra details. “They were made to work like slaves all day, every day, carrying heavy jars of water and cleaning the tents of the elders.” That got more approval: no child, whatever their race or origin, liked having to carry and clean.
“Their names were Khepri and Serket.”
“Those are stupid names,” said one unidentified young critic of literature in the back of the group.
“They’re not stupid, they’re Syndar,” Manetho told him. “They mean Beetle and Scorpion.”
That got a chorus of giggles from her audience. “I’d die if my parents named me Beetle,” said Olaf, to general assent.
“And scorpions are gross.” That was Thannet, not to be outdone in voicing her opinion.
“They are,” Manetho agreed. “But in the deserts of Faedrun, there were scorpions as big as your arm. And there were gigantic black beetles that would come alive out of balls of—“ Dung. “—dried dirt, even though they’d been dead before. Beetles and scorpions had powerful magic, and you wanted to be respectful of them. Being named Khepri or Serket would be like being named Wolf or Bear.”
“Oh.” Thannet considered. “That’d be okay, I guess.”
“I’m glad my tribe’s ancient and revered traditions meet with Your Majesty’s approval,” Manetho did not say, though she was thinking it quite loudly. Best to keep the tart tongue for her patients, who were in need of correcting and often unable to run away. Instead, she took up the thread of the story again.
“One day, it came time for there to be a great meeting of all the elders of different tribes. The elders were to speak together and discuss the future of their tribes: who would marry, who would share knowledge, and whether they would make war. Khepri and Serket were ordered to prepare the bathhouse tent of crocodile skin, and they carried dozens of jars of water from the river and built great fires to heat the water.
“At last, worn out by their work, the twins fell asleep behind the bathhouse tent. When they awoke, the elders were standing over them, furious at them for sleeping. ‘What is this?’ cried one of the elders. ‘These worthless young fools cannot even serve us as our importance demands!’”
Unreasonable, shouting adults were always another easy villain for child audiences. That got some frowns and hisses from the group.
(The original word in the tale had translated as honor, not importance, but Ulven had very different concepts of honor from the Deshret, and Manetho had finagled the translation a little. Honor was to be respected among Ulven: self-importance and smugness, not so much.)
“’You must prove to us that you are worthy of being our kin, and not just lazy lie-abouts!’ declared the greatest of all the elders. ‘You shall have a task. You will go forth into the sunset, and walk until you find the place where the moon sleeps. There you shall find a mountain, and in the mountain you will find a cave, and in the cave you will find a bundle of thorn branches. Bring us the thorn branches, and all will be forgiven. But be wary, and do not commit any act which will disgrace your tribe! For it is known that one of us speaks for all of us, and one shame is shame upon us all.’
“So it was said, and so they must do. Khepri fletched his first arrows, and Serket put on the leopard cloak of her mother, and they went out together into the world.
“For three days they followed the moon, and could not find the place where it slept. On the dawning of the fourth day, they came upon a woman lying on the sand, a cloth covering her eyes. Khepri looked upon her and saw that she was beautiful, with long black hair as shining as a starling’s feathers and moon-colored skin that had never known the sun, and he told Serket they must stop and help this woman.
“’We must not,’ said Serket. ‘She is not of our tribe, and she will see any misstep we make. One shame will shame us all, brother.’
“’But it is shameful to leave someone to die,’ said Khepri, and they halted. They gave the woman water and revived her, but when she awoke, she cried out and veiled her face.
“’Leave me!’ she said. ‘My sight is so keen that I can see a fly’s eyes a thousand miles away. The sun blinds me, and I am useless to you.’ But Khepri and Serket shared with her some of their black eye paint, and she could see again. And so the three traveled on together.”
Here Manetho paused to swipe some of her own black mesdemet from her eyelid and playfully poked Erik in the nose. He giggled and went cross-eyed, trying to see the smudge of black left behind.
“Three more days passed, and as the sun rose on the fourth, they came upon a man sitting on the sand, his hands wrapped in bandages. Serket looked upon him and saw that he was handsome, with strong shoulders like a warrior’s and hair the color of the sun, and told Khepri that they must stop and help him.
“’We must not,’ said Khepri. ‘He is not of our tribe, and may be a bandit or a criminal. One shame will shame us all, sister.’
“’But it is shameful to leave someone to die,’ said Serket, and they halted. They gave the man water and revived him, but when he woke, he cried out and bowed his head.
“”Leave me!’ he said. ‘I am a swordsman of rare strength, able to cleave a man’s head from his body a thousand times a day. But my hands are broken, and I am useless to you.’ But Serket and Khepri cleaned his wounded hands and re-bound them, and he was able to grip his sword hilt again. And so the four of them traveled on together.
“Three more days passed. As the sun rose on the fourth day, they came upon twin children, a little boy and a little girl, asleep upon the sand. The boy’s skin burned with fever, and the girl’s skin shivered with cold. Now Khepri and Serket did not speak of any shame, for they were far beyond where they had begun and knew well how it hurt to be an abandoned child. They halted and revived the children with water, while the woman Keen-Eyes kept watch and the man Sword-Arm guarded them.
“’Please, leave us,’ said the little boy. ‘We are cursed!’
“’Evil spirits hate us,’ said the little girl.” (‘Evil spirits’ was not a satisfactory translation of ‘djinni,’ but it was the best Manetho could manage on the fly.) “’I am forever breathing out wintery winds, and my brother forever brings forth scorching flames. We are not meant to live, and so we were cast out of our tribe!’
“’We will not leave you,’ said Khepri. ‘We see now that many people have been cruelly given to the desert when they are no longer thought useful.’
“’To abandon the injured and the cursed is the only true shame,’ said Serket. And they gave the girl Ice-Eyes a heavy cloak to contain her chill, and wetted clay poultices to soak up the boy Fire-Hands’ flames.
“Three more days they walked, until they came at last to a mountain in the midst of the desert. When they looked up to the sky they beheld no place between the tip of the mountain and the rim of the moon, and they knew they had found the place where the moon slept.
“They entered into the cave and found there the bundle of thorn branches, surrounded on all sides by the bodies of the dead.”
The children had been sitting quietly, absorbing the tale, but glossing over bodies was too much for an Ulven audience.
“What kind of bodies?” someone yelled.
“Were they gross?” another added.
“I bet they were gross.” Olaf, naturally.
“I bet you’re gross.” And that was Thannet, not to be outdone.
“The bodies were …” Manetho momentarily groped for a translation. Heqer, “hungry,” would not carry the same meaning to these children of Mardrun. Stymied in her search for correctness, she went with gore instead. “The bodies were hideous beyond measure. There were men and women, all in armor with swords, strung up on the walls. Their faces were contorted in horrible leers, their lips peeled back, their teeth exposed. Great wounds had been gashed from their bellies, and their withered organs lay about their feet. Tiny spiders were skittering out of their rotting eye sockets.”
The children were pleased.
“Seeing this terrible sight, Khepri and Serket and their friends halted, for there was no monster in their sight that might have slain those men. Then they knew there was some evil magic on the thorn branches.
“’Beware,’ said the woman Keen-Eyes. ‘There are webs across those branches, o my friends! Webs too fine for any other eye to see.’
“Serket took her black eye paint and blew a cloud of it, and there! The webs stood revealed. Then came a horrible, blood-chilling shriek, for Isfet, the great spider, saw its trap had failed and fell upon them!”
She had a fair sense of her audience now, and didn’t hesitate to add more juicy details. “Isfet was the greatest, the queen of all evil spiders. She was as tall as a tree and as long as a longhouse! Her fangs, each as big as a dagger, dripped green poison that made the stone floor smoke where it dropped. Her eight eyes rolled madly as she bore down on the travelers!
“But the brave companions would not be frightened. Khepri brought forth his bow and shot many arrows at the beast, making it shriek in pain, while the man Sword-Arm waited for his chance. At last, with a mighty blow, he struck! The vile Isfet howled in pain as her jaws were cleaved open, and she thrashed wildly, her tree-trunk legs thumping and smashing on the floor. But Khepri’s aim was true, and this next arrow put out one of her evil yellow eyes. As she screamed in fury, Sword-Arm struck again!
“Her body fell into two pieces, steaming with black smoke and dripping black blood. And together in triumph, the heroes took up the thorn branches and went home.”
Manetho let that sit for a moment. The children were grinning at each other, clearly imagining themselves in the role of the heroic spider-slayers.
“But,” she said, and they looked up again, “it was now clear to them that these thorn branches could not be ordinary. Why would simple branches be guarded by such a hideous monster? And the companions wondered why it was that they had been sent to steal these things from Isfet, the great spider. Did the elders send them on a quest that would kill them? Or was there something in the branches that the elders wanted? Khepri and Serket were troubled.
“When they neared the place where the tribe had camped, and saw again the distant bathhouse tent of crocodile skin, they did not go into the camp. Instead, they sent young Ice-Eyes and Fire-Hands, who were quiet and clever, to hear what they could hear.
“The children crept unseen by the batthouse tent and heard the elders’ speech.
“’I do not think Khepri and Serket live,’ said one. ‘They are too long gone.’
“’So be it,’ said another. ‘But if they have survived? Imagine it, brothers! The cursed Thorn Army will be ours to command at last! There shall be no more tribes, but an empire of Feral Syndar, and we its emperors!’”
A couple of the children booed, and Thannet hissed between her teeth. Feral Syndar were not always well-loved, whether among their Syndar brethren or the other races, and threatening an evil army of them was a good, cheap way to get the audience on your side. Though to be fair, there was more to it than the Feral concerns: these children had had enough of wars and armies to last a lifetime.
“When Ice-Eyes and Fire-Hands returned to their companions and told what they had heard, there could be no more waiting. For the elders, who counseled so strongly against shame and bad conduct, had committed the worst of sins in hopes of simple power!
“As night fell, the group fell upon the camp. Together with their companions, Khepri and Serket brought swift and unrelenting vengeance on the faithless liars who had been their elders!”
That needed more details, of course. “Ice-Eyes and Fire-Hands put their hands together, and as her eldritch cold mingled with his scorching heat, a thick fog arose to blanket the camp. Within the fog came Serket, singing a mourning song, appearing from the mist like a demon from the darkness. The evil elders cried out in terror, for they were sure this must be a ghost, sent to punish them.
“But one, who had said they would be emperors, had no faith in any god and would not believe in spirits. ‘It’s a trick!’ he cried out. ‘Slay her, my brothers, or all is lost!’
“And they would have slain her, but hidden within the mist was the noble Sword-Arm, who would not see Serket harmed! No sooner had the faithless elder spoken than he spoke no more, for Sword-Arm struck!”
Manetho clapped her hands once, making the children jump, and let her head sag back, making a terrible gurgling noise as the elder was slain.
“His head went rolling across the camp, and came to a stop at Serket’s feet. She picked up the head and cried out: ‘Death to the faithless, who would kill their kin for power and betray all their honor!’
“Then came Khepri, his bow in hand. He loosed a dozen arrows in a dozen seconds, and the elders fell, gurgling on their own blood!”
The children were jumping up and down now, grinning from ear to ear, laughing with the joy of seeing evil punished. Manetho was swept up in the story herself: she gestured broadly, miming the cut and thrust of battle, inventing new details on the spur of the moment.
“But another lurked behind him, shrouded in the mist. He was the youngest of the elders, a bare hundred years, and he was as clever as he was evil. He dreamed of being an emperor and crushing all who were not Syndar under his heel. And so he leapt upon Khepri, rising out of the mist like a vile spirit of death!
“’Beware!’ cried the woman Keen-Eyes. ‘Behind you!’ For even the thick mist which the children had conjured was no barrier to her sight. Khepri dodged at the very last moment, and the treacherous elder’s blade struck only the sand.
“There was no time for his bow. Khepri seized an arrow from his quiver, and as the elder raised his knife again, he struck with the arrow in his fist. It pierced the elder’s heart—and as the wind came and the mist began to thin away, the liar fell, and there was silence in the camp. They had won!”
Manetho took a deep breath. She was somewhat aware that she’d been shouting at some point, and that was really not acceptable. So much for peace and quiet for her patients! But the children were smiling, and the old tale had new life in the tongue of Mardrun. Her heart beat a little faster.
Taking another breath, though, she calmed herself, and let her voice lower again to bring them towards the conclusion of the story.
“When the battle was done and Keen-Eyes, Sword-Arm, Ice-Eyes, and Fire-Hands were seen there with them, there were cries among some of the foreign tribesmen. For here were their sons and daughters, who had been forced out into the desert at command of the elders. There was weeping and joy, as Keen-Eyes’ mother embraced her daughter, and Sword-Arm’s father his son.
“And at the last, when all was finished, there were feasts and weddings: for Khepri married the lovely Keen-Eyes, and Serket wed the handsome Sword-Arm. And when the prayers were said, the bundle of cursed thorn branches was cast into the fire, so that whatever evil army was in its power could tempt no more.
“In life, health, strength, it was so.”
* * *
Evening was drawing on now. The children were gathered into one of the huts, where Thannet’s mother was dishing out watery stew from an enormous cauldron. In another day or two, when all of the adults were back on their feet, everyone would go back to their own homes and the daily life of the village would resume. For now, it was enough that they’d all gotten through another day.
Manetho did the evening rounds, preparing fresh teas for the patients and taking the pulse of the remaining fever cases. Doing well, all of them—the totems be thanked for their mercies. Spring fevers didn’t always kill, but too many had come too close for her liking, and to not lose a single one in such a large group was always something to be thankful for.
Her plan to get her patients some peace and quiet had gone a little awry. The minute the story ended, a miniature battle had broken out, with various children all taking the roles of Khepri and Serket’s magical companions and gleefully declaring that they would slay each other. Lacking fire and ice for the battle, mud had sufficed, and several of the children now eating supper looked more like bedraggled bog mummies than anything else. Lesson learned: next time, tell them something with a little less blood in it.
But … damnation, it had felt good. Manetho tilted her head back and looked at the sky. The sun was sinking, and the edges of the world were darkening. The first glimmer of stars could be seen on the blue velvet of the horizon. She hadn’t told the story how it was meant to be told, but she’d told it anyway, and for a few minutes all the tire and terror of the world had seemed to melt away. Her own childhood heroes, and her tribe’s words, had lived again.
They had life, these Ulven children did. They had energy and spirit and swift-running blood, and despite the deprivations of war and their own recent sickness, they laughed and battled with a fire in their eyes.
She wondered, sometimes, about their Great Wolf. Was he truly a god to them? Or was he simply a totem like her lizard—some wise animal spirit who had, for reasons known only to himself, taken an entire people under his paw? Either way, he had his work set before him and no mistake.
Spring was coming on. Summer would be here soon enough. And with spring and summer came war, as inevitable as the rising of the tide and the flight of geese. Manetho hadn’t been in any of the larger towns since the fall, but she still had ears, and she’d heard the rumors. Honor-bound gone missing. A move against the Mordok. And always, the whispers of discontent among the clans, and the benevolent bland smile of Prince Aylin that said everything and meant nothing.
She looked at the sky again.
“You be good to them, Wolf,” she said. Thannet and Olaf and Erik and Ulmar and all the rest flashed before her, smiling and bright-eyed, smeared with mud and ready to sink their teeth into any challenge. Had Brynja and Reyna and their ilk ever been so carefree?
“Be good to them,” she repeated. “Or I’ll ask the Lizard to shave you bald, Wolf. They deserve better than this.”