The village was awakening when Naltu arrived. The place was arranged like the camps of the south, and so the sun rose over his shoulder as he faced the mountains. He was watched with curiosity and was met by a large man covered in coarse hair and heavy clothing. The man's sword was strapped to his waist and a carbine hung from a strap at his shoulder. He met Naltu with a handshake.
"Call me Ithur. What brings you to Criest, traveler? Trade season's not for a month, so we don't expect outsiders here."
Ithur was strong and garbed in worn leather, riveted and of the sort he had last seen adorning the green men. Ithur's beard was neatly combed and waxed, and the man's age was evident by the white streaks that fell from the sides of his lips. His hair fell loosely around his neck.
Naltu wondered what he should tell the man, and decided against being direct so quickly. "I bring a message. Is there a chieftain?"
"You're a primitive, huh? I thought maybe you heard about our Magister?"
Naltu shrugged. "I do not know Magister."
"Well, our councilor is a busy man. Why don't you tell me what you've got to say to him?"
He shook his head. "The green men in the mountains have sent a warning."
Naltu glanced at ten strange barrels stored outside, like the oak casks used to ship liquor, but covered in black pitch that puddled on the dirt. He wondered what the men of Criest traded, for the sweet grass that grew in the fields would be ruined by the tar.
Ithur's face grew gray. "We've had problems with the goblins. I wish the military would wipe them out, but they hide in caves like rats. You're not here to cause problems, right?"
"Bring me to your councilor."
"Tomorrow, perhaps. Why don't you go to the tavern and find a room? You must have come a long way. You should rest."
Naltu locked eyes with the man and waited for a silent moment. "Tomorrow is too late."
Ithur huffed and wagged a finger. "Fine, then. Follow me."
Other men came to support Ithur. Naltu was led to a wide cabin and waited outside. Voices sounded through the wooden logs and then fell silent. Ithur left and told Naltu to wait. He produced a knife and whittled a small twig to dust while he sat on the ground. Beads of sweat formed on his hairless head.
The door opened and a tall man appeared. Naltu stood and wiped his breeches clean with his hands. Ithur insisted that Naltu leave his weapons outside, and the tribesman complied and followed inside.
The man's voice was tired. "The goblins are stealing our horses and crops. They took all the goats in the spring. We bought more, and those are gone, too.
I'm Ephan. Ithur says you are looking for our chieftain, eh? I'm the closest we've got. My father was the first one to build here, so the others looked up to him. He passed last winter, and I've taken his place."
The councilor was dressed in white linens, red ribbons stitched into the seams. The clothing seemed formal to Naltu, but the loose texture seemed comfortable enough for sleeping. Ephan's hair was strange, thick like the mane of a horse, and bundled into braids and layers, but white as snow. Naltu could see the edges of leather at the nape of Ephan's neck, and understood the piece to be a fake.
Naltu bowed low, showing respect. Ephan laughed and patted Naltu's shoulder. "No need for such formality."
The tribesman did not understand the last word, but inferred the meaning.
"Last night I slept under the moon in the hills. I spoke with the green men beside my fire. They say they come tonight to burn your homes."
Ephan laughed. "We certainly have had a difficult relationship with those rats. Burn our homes? They chased us out last year, but the military came back and sent them running. They were supposed to post a garrison, but a month ago, the garrison was called back. We've sent letters, and the military will return at the end of the week."
Ephan shrugged. "You think you're telling me some great news, traveler, but we've been prepared for them to come. We've hired a Magister."
"What is this Magister?"
Ephan cackled at Naltu's ignorance. "Magisters are powerful warriors. Last time the goblins just threw torches on our cabins. They damaged the fields. They're cowards and we'll put a stop to them. Let them come. We'll keep the women and children indoors until we've dragged all the bodies away for the wolves."
"They will not fight one who kneels before them unarmed. But they sing a promise to burn all your cabins and all your fields tonight."
Ephan flushed red. "What would you have us do, then? Disarm ourselves and kneel before goblins? We'll not do that, and we won't run."
"I bring you only knowledge of the choice. They come with fire."
Ephan made a flippant gesture, his fingers wiggling. "They can try. I do appreciate the warning. Ithur," Ephan hollered. "Take our guest to the inn. Mister Naltu, you've got good arms. If those goblins do show up, I'll throw a couple of silver coins your way for every head you deliver tomorrow morning."
Ithur led Naltu to the inn. The place was not built well, not like the tavern in the south, and not like the inns of Krigsgud. The floor was dirt and caked with spills. The tables were thin and creaking. Bricks lined the corner for a hearth, but the fire was reduced to embers. An iron pot hung over the coals. The air smelled of ale, and Naltu hungered. He paid for ale and was fed without trading a coin, the strange common arrangement.
One of Ithur's men watched Naltu, standing sober by the door. He was ignored. The inn's shadow grew long, observed through the open door. Naltu sat at a bench cutting the fat from a fox pelt, tossing the bits into a little pile on the dust. A bell rung. The few patrons left. The inn-keep checked the rooms, all but one, and ensured the tavern was empty. He knocked on the last door. Drunk as he exited, the keep carried a cask of liquor and Naltu alone. A covered pot cooled, hanging over the embers.
Naltu scooped the mound of fat from the dust and tossed this into the coals. The fire hissed and blossomed for a moment, fragrant smoke escaping high through a hole in the roof. A door opened and a figure emerged.
"No one's here," the figure spoke. The voice was strange, made of two tones, one deep like a man's, the other high like that of a woman. The notes echoed and confused Naltu.
Naltu turned. "Where have they all gone?"
"Hiding. Are you the tribesman?"
"Yes. I come from the south."
The figure's head bobbed. Naltu could see past the hood. The figure wore a blue mask, mottled like cracked ice. Thin strokes of black paint decorated the mask in a cross along the eyes and nose.
Naltu moved to a wall and found a clean wooden bowl and ladled stew for himself. He poured ale from a cask into a leather mug and sat, eating and drinking.
"Are you a hired soldier? Mercenary?" the figure asked.
Naltu finished the stew and moved beside the figure. The mask was complete, with no gaps for eyes or mouth, and the blue continued deep enough into the hood that he could not see skin or hair. Naltu wondered if the figure truly wore a mask, or if he stood near something that was not of men.
"No. Are you the witch the green men spoke of?" Naltu responded.
The figure laughed. "You don't know? I'm a Guild Magister, traveler."
Naltu's eyes fell as quick fingers placed a gold coin on the table. The hands were covered in sheer gloves, and the robe shifted, revealing pale wrists beyond the satin.
"I'll hire you," the figure offered. "I'm here to treat with the goblins that have been raiding this village. They will be less bold with you at my side. Are you a coward like that drunk inn-keep? Or are you fighting for them?"
Naltu shook his head. "No, not sell blood."
"How many are coming?"
"Two came last night. Many have escaped from slavers, strong men brought from the frozen land. They have tongues that would sip of the blood."
He switched tongues. "What do you have to offer the green men?"
She was silent. He repeated himself twice.
The figure remained still for a moment, and then spoke. "I don't understand. I don't speak that language."
Naltu nodded and spoke again in Spherian. "You don't speak the tongue of the tribes, yet you will treat? I think you come to kill."
"I need your help. I'll pay you."
Ithur screamed outside. Naltu bowed his head as the howl was silenced. He knew the lives of these villagers belonged to the leader, and he had provided counsel, and so the death was on Ephan. Still, the kill haunted his conscience.
Hooves resounded outside the door, and then feet. The green men had approached quietly. The door opened and five men entered brandishing clubs and short swords. None were known to Naltu. The blue-masked figure stood, and thick layered robes flowed with the color of the sea, but the form did not stand tall enough to intimidate. The figure spoke. The green men did not understand.
Naltu moved to the side, near the fire, and away from the others. The green men shouted, voices rising, and hefted blades with anger. Screams and yips penetrated the walls. Men surrounded Naltu, and he shook his head and said low words.
"Please," the figure pleaded, "why do you raid the village?"
Other words came from the blue mask. The witch had made her mistake. The men shouted and pushed the figure with their fists. One man found a small leather drum at his belt and began to tap the skin in a slow rhythm. The figure talked with words Naltu did not understand, and neither did the green men.
Naltu watched, his arms at his sides. The carbine lay next to him, slow match unlit. A green man rushed the figure with a slash. Naltu's ears screamed and sharp blades of ice filled the air. The man was rebuked and fell to the ground, black blood dripping from deep gashes in his face and neck. Another green man thrust a dagger into the figure's stomach, while a third smashed the figure's face with a wooden club. The mask shattered and jagged shards fell to the grown. The witch staggered back, falling onto a bench. They howled, blood hot, but were stayed.
Naltu turned his eyes from the floor and found a young woman's face behind underneath the hood. At last, he inhaled and spoke in his full voice.
"Enough," he said in a language the green men would understand. "You have won. The villagers cower in huts. You ride here for war, but they do not face you. They talk of a powerful warrior, and they send a woman who can not stand before you."
He searched for the two men he had smoked with, but they were not among these. The tallest of the green men turned to him. "Who are you, who speaks to us so?"
"I am Naltu, tribesman of the south, friend to Ychatl."
The green man nodded. "I know Ychatl's name. Ychatl would slay these cowards."
Naltu turned his eyes to the woman. Her mouth was wide and her face full of tears. "Ychatl is bold and fearless, and just, and I know for I have killed in his name. Why would he slay these peasants? He has preserved others. Ychatl follows Jihintasula and seeks honor. There is no honor in killing farmers."
The green man laughed and pointed to the bleeding figure. "They brought this. They brought this warrior to defend them. A woman, and I'll eat the heart while it beats, and take the head, and it will rot on my pike. I'll burn the village and swallow the children whole."
"No," Naltu promised. "This one did not come to fight you. Do you see a strong warrior? I could take any of your best, and I am not the strongest of the tribesmen. I do not see a warrior."
"You challenge me," the green man offered. "I'll slay you where you stand."
Naltu's hands glowed green. "No. Bring your chieftain. I am not pink-skin, not green-skin. I am here for Ryusupo. The Gods send me to heal your wounds."
The green man spat on the floor. "We are not savages like these. We are not weak like these, with glass faces. We have no wounds. Like the rivers, our blood flows freely over the earth."
Naltu turned to the broken man on the ground. "He dies. I'll give your man his life and we will treat."
"He's given his life at the heel of Jihintasula. What words do you have that are worth that?"
Naltu touched the hair of the crumpled Magister. Her skin grew pale and he knew she had little time left, but there would be enough. He switched tongues and spoke to her. "Witch, your heart slows. Treat, then."
She gulped and spoke. Naltu translated.
"This village is peaceful. We can find a way without spilling blood," she offered. Naltu explained to her why the green men had come.
She twisted, groaning. "They're upset because mushrooms won't grow?" She whispered in a lower voice. "I'm going to die over mushrooms."
"They have no food to fill bellies now, no harvest. You will die before the moon falls. They will suffer an autumn and a winter before the spirit falls from the bones."
"But that doesn't make sense. These villagers have nothing to do with mushrooms."
Naltu shrugged. "You are wrong. I do not know how."
The green man spoke. "Stand, then, witch, show me your strength."
He pulled his tunic high and displayed a scar across his belly. "Show me that you are as strong as I, and I will listen to your words. We will talk by the fire under the stars."
Naltu knew the green hunter to be cruel. He wished to watch her fall, to hasten her death and break the villagers who would be watching through gaps in boards. But in his offer was honor and hope for the villagers. Naltu translated the words.
The woman shifted, grasping for Naltu's hand. He stepped away. The green man laughed, and the others moved away from the door.
She stood, grunting in pain, and reached for the knife in her belly.
"Do not touch the blade," Naltu warned her. "You've killed today, witch. You'll follow us out and treat by the fire."
He turned and walked to the door. The green men left and Naltu followed. He watched the woman stumble, dizzy from concussion and weak from loss of blood. Tears fell, but pain kept her from crying.
The hood fell from her face and Naltu could see the fierce cold in her eyes. Her hair was yellow and tumbled from her shoulders. Among the Tlictal, she was of age to be mother to more than a single child, but Naltu suspected he was older than her. Remnants of the broken mask crumbled to the floor, but she walked. He raised his hand and she moved, crossing the threshold.
The fields were burning. Naltu's eyes watered and his nose ran with foul fluid, tasting of cinnamon and sulfur.
"I'll help her?" Naltu asked before letting his fingers touch her own.
The green man agreed. Naltu guided the woman to the ground and plucked the dagger from her stomach, cleaned the weapon, and returned it to the one who had cut her. He reached through her cloak and touched her skin and the flow of blood slowed. She gasped and fainted for a moment, then returned to wakefulness with a yelp.
She clutched at the wet clothes covering her, stained with fresh blood, black on sea-foam. Naltu sat beside her and the green men surrounded both. A bonfire had been constructed from carts.
"He stabbed me," she whimpered. "He stabbed me and you just watched. You speak their tongue. You're with them."
"I know the ways of the green men," Naltu apologized. "If I stood beside you, all would have come. These men come to fight, not to talk. But Tempkin is their chief, and he is wise enough, and I will say your words. Treat with him, as you say, before they burn you."
The Magister knew Tempkin from his horned helmet, unique among the bare-skulled goblins.
"I own your life, witch, and the lives in this village. You have been challenged and sit defeated."
She responded. "I came with open hands, and your men attacked me, and one lies dead while I rest here. How is this defeat?"
Naltu translated, embellishing. Tempkin laughed and shook his fists. The green men found casks of ale in the inn and drank. Tempkin grew calmer. Naltu could see the eyes of the green men, and knew them for folk who dreamed of simple things. He knew they did not wish the dreams of blood that would follow the night, and so they kept blades in scabbard.
The Magister inhaled. "I came here tonight because the knights knew I would draw you in. You say you are not barbarians, but the knights will come tomorrow and slaughter you like cattle. They will enter the mountains and slay your wives and children, and then ride to these homes. They will not tolerate what you are doing here."
Naltu repeated the words and watched the woman's face. She was scared but honest enough, and he told Tempkin that he knew her words to be true.
"Naltu, I have an idea. Can you help again?"
Naltu offered his hand.
"No, please, just listen," she pleaded, pointing to a pasture where a lone sheep lay slaughtered. "Go over there. Tell me if you can find any mushrooms in the grass, in the older manure."
Naltu did, and returned quickly. "No. Nothing but weed and shit."
"It's called blightwatch. It's a powder we sell in Dosille to stop a sickness in the sweet grass. That's why the air smells so foul. They've used far too much, and it's been tracked to the caves. Maybe killed the mushrooms there. Naltu, this is our fault. Tell Tempkin this won't happen again. Tell him we are wrong and we apologize, if it helps. Tell him we will make amends for the mistake, food if they need it, and more."
Naltu told Tempkin, though he changed the words.
"Tempkin, do your children fight for you?"
"You know there are no children here. How can this one make obligation on the others?"
"Because she is witch. Not warrior, but leader. She came to make the green men whole, not in battle, but in gift. The pink villagers have wronged you, and with the fires, she has told me how. Those stinking barrels that burn are full of stuff that is good for the sweet grass and bad for the green men. The villagers will not use this any longer. The mushrooms will grow again if you wash before returning to your caves, if you do not let your goats stray onto the plains until the long rains come."
Tempkin was surprised and wary. The Magister was a worthy opponent, worthy of killing the man, and she demonstrated her courage. Tempkin acknowledged the raid as a victory and ordered his men to finish burning the fields, leaving the huts molested but intact. The sky was filled with smoke.
The girl was near death when Tempkin's green men left. Naltu comforted her until the last man turned his back, and then pushed his hand under her clothes. She struggled as his hands searched, and then relaxed when the healing magic began to shape her flesh. She watched his face with wide eyes and pushed him away when her arms began to obey.
Naltu drained a cask of weak ale into his mouth. The girl watched him, not understanding until she searched her stomach and found only flat skin. She cried, exhausted and weak, and slept on the dirt.
She woke to the smell of stew inside the tavern. Naltu had stoked the fire and sealed the door to block the smoke from the fields, still smoldering in the morning sun. The light revealed the stains of her robes. She stank of fire and blood.
"What happened last night?"
"You fought green men," Naltu responded. "You lost, but were strong enough and forgiven. Shaman fear witch, but you are weak."
She remembered. "You're Naltu?"
"And you healed me. How did you do that?"
Naltu lifted his hands. "I learned from Shaman. You make ice from air. How that, witch?"
She laughed. "I think I owe you my life, don't I? My name is Perry d'Oncil, titled Mistress. I'm not a witch, I told you, I'm a Guild Magister. But you don't know what that means, do you?"
"No," Naltu responded. "I'm tribesman, southman. Did you learn ways of witches in swamps?"
"Swamps? Well, no. Magister. I thought the rumors of Scientia in the far south were unfounded. The Magisters haven't known a healer in fifty years. I suppose it makes sense, though, we have control of the elements, and your people have knowledge that we don't."
Naltu nodded. "The green men took your silvered knife and your horse and your things. Prize. Could not be stopped, you kill one of them, his children must be paid. They could take more, but did not."
Ephan entered the inn at mid-day, calling for the witch hidden in her room. She donned a mask from her robes that Naltu was sure she did not carry. She told Ephan of Tempkin and of the blightwatch. Another day passed, and Naltu returned to the mountains. Perry followed him.
Tempkin approached Naltu's fire at midnight. Perry produced six gold coins to buy food with, and said that the mushrooms would grow again as long as the villagers did not use the yellow powder that came in pitch-soaked barrels. She said that she would give the money to Tempkin if he let the villagers stay. She promised a cart full of flour and dried beans. Tempkin, eyes alight with the thought of bounty come winter, agreed.[ <= Previous | Up | Next => ]