Naltu did not wish to lead the green men in an attack on Krigsgud, though they asked him. He was hesitant to slaughter the pink men, though they were not his tribesmen. Women and children laughed in the streets, and he saw no signs of the slavers who had taken Sijhi and his brother's wife in the south. The city confused him.
Bonham found him wandering. He was startled when she came to him.
"I'm heading back to get the cargo. Are we friends?"
"Yes. What is wrong?"
Bonham laughed and hugged Naltu. "Nothing. Those stones you gave me are worth a lot of money. So much I'm having a hard time selling them. You asked me a question I never answered."
"You answer few of my questions."
Bonham was dressed in dyed leather trimmed with black lace. She wore a tight net over her hair. "Do you understand money in the north yet? Why stones are valuable?"
Naltu crossed his arms over his chest.
"I don't want you to think I was trying to rob you when I took you from New Odrin. A single gold coin is a lot of money. A gold coin is a month's earning for a successful merchant, and I might hope to earn twenty in a year, and spend half that keeping my ship afloat. A gold is worth a hundred silvers, and a silver worth ten clays. And careful with your silvers, for the large coins with the enameled edges have the weight of ten of the smaller ones, and are worth as many times as much. A hundred silvers, then, is more than enough to keep you comfortable for a month. You're thin. Rest for a while, friend, let the green men hunt alone. Do you have more of those stones?"
"I understand trade," Naltu said, gruff, irritated by the lecture. "What is the cost of a rifle?"
Bonham shrugged. "Rifles are rare and valuable. From a smith, five hundred silvers, perhaps, though you will be asked to pay much more. You should barter. I don't know Krigsgud very well, but I'm certain you would pay far less for weapons from thieves, with all the risk involved in dealing with that sort."
She squeezed Naltu's wrists and left him to wander. Roasted food was sold on the street and the day smelled of the festival smoke. He walked from the city's east gate by night to find them. They moved into the mountains. He spent his time in the taverns searching for rumors of the slavers, but few cared. The green men grew restless and began to explore. Naltu worried that they would find the confrontation they sought.
A woman in leather armor approached Naltu. He was seated in a pub, sipping ale and staring at the fire. His ears were open, and he listened for the words he sought.
"You work on a ship?"
Naltu turned and stared at her, blank-faced. The armor had seen many seasons, but lacked the scars and stitches of battle. Her face was browned by the sun. He glanced over her shoulder. Two men watched, dressed similarly, with swords hanging loosely from their belts.
She gestured to one of the men. "Heard you're looking for cargo."
The corner of Naltu's lip curled. "Cargo to go west."
"I see," the woman nodded. "Where's your ship?"
"Anchor in sea. Not dock here."
"Right. So what're you looking for?"
Naltu crossed his arms over his chest. He continued staring past her shoulder. "Help for build ship."
"I see. I have what you're looking for. Maybe we'll finish our drinks and go for a walk?"
"No. You no have what I want."
Her eyes widened and she followed his gaze.
"Shit. Keep your hand off your weapon. Just come with us, alright?"
Naltu moved close. "You guard?"
"How'd you know?"
"Him behind, see two days ago. Follow Naltu. Face hid under linen hood."
She grimaced and put her hand on his shoulder, not loosely. "Your accent isn't Libbonese."
"No. Come from south."
Naltu shrugged, trying to shake her hand, but she held a grip on his shoulder. He sighed.
"Come to find brothers and sisters taken here," he admitted in a whisper.
"The gods. I'm tempted to believe you," she whispered in response, releasing him and stepping back. "Can we talk outside? This isn't a good place."
Naltu rose and led her out of the tavern. They walked to a wall, and after a time, were followed by the other guards.
"You have money to buy your people back? Is that it?"
Naltu shook his head and tapped the rifle bound tight to his back.
"Just need find."
"That'll get you killed."
He poked the hard leather covering her stomach. "I not alone. Bring thirty strong men hardened by fire and war. You hunt slavers?"
"No, I hunt buyers. It's a lot easier to go after a drunk sailor talking too much than the mercenaries in the cove."
Naltu nodded. "Cove. Where? I hunt mercen... men."
"What happens then?"
"Find home. Ship no take green men home."
She gestured. The other guards came closer. "I'll have a map for you in three days. Meet me at the eastern watchtower. After that, I don't want to see you again."
Naltu grasped her wrists in friendship, bowing his head. She laughed and repeated the gesture.
"I'm going to prison for this," she promised, walking away.
He traded one of his stones for a small cart full of rifles, powder, balls, and boiled leather armor. He was certain he lost in the trade, but the weapons were necessary and difficult to acquire. He hired a small donkey and found the green men. The men practiced with the rifles, hunting summer bucks and squawking turkeys. The green men would not eat the meat, but Naltu made them butcher the animals just the same, so that they would not shy away from blood and violence.
He returned to the city and released the donkey. He met with the woman at the watchtower and received the map. The location was simple enough to find, a series of caves and tunnels that were fortified and accessible only by water. He sold the meat to the taverns, then returned to the green men.
They made rafts of the dried reeds and floated by night to a rocky crag near the caves. They rested for a time, moving rocks so they would have a depression to hide within. The sun rose over the crags, behind the southerners, and for a moment, they were invisible.
The green men marched on the cove and raided. They were accustomed to hunting fast game and hiding from the horrors of the southern isle, and the pirates and slavers diminished. They would wait for a face to appear, and lead balls sung in the sky. The hunters slew fifteen slavers this way, and burned two old ships anchored in the cove by night.
A caravan came, escorted by twelve men on the third night the green men let the sun set on the cove, and there were six when the sun rose again. The green men raided in waves, and so the slavers never knew they were outnumbered. Green men took the horses and burned the carts and left the ruined cages outside the caves as a promise. Others in the mountain came, hearing the songs of the raids, and the war band grew to replace the few that fell.
At last, the slavers elected a leader and sent him to treat in the mountains. Naltu listened to the man's offer of gold and slaves, then brought his head to Ingram. The tribesman knew the bandits must be starving under the siege, and felt determined to end the conflict.
The slavers were crushed in an onslaught that they could not have defended against. Naltu brought new poisons to bear, cooked from the nettles of the mountains, that burned the lungs for only moments and then faded. The caves were filled with this fog when the green men charged, rifles cracking. Twenty slavers - tailors, cooks and book-keepers - were overwhelmed and shot and the survivors were cut apart with sharpened steel, and the cove was freed.
A hundred green men were released from iron cages, thin with hunger. He found the ledgers in the cove and counted hundreds of marks, though he could not understand the words. He found caches of coin, Opal and rum, and shared these.
Naltu knew the green men could not go home, for his time in Krigsgud told him that no ship would carry them. Bonham had been desperate. The green men vanished into the mountains, and Naltu returned to the city of the pink-skinned men.
Krigsgud was not uncomfortable for Naltu. The guards turned his eyes aside while Naltu sold the possessions of the slavers, returned to the city in a horse-drawn cart. He gave the ledger to the guards and then to the regent, and the man promised to investigate, though Naltu was uncertain as to the honesty.
The tribesman's purse grew fat and heavy, and he spent his time in the taverns, bored. Food was simple enough to find on the streets. The challenge of living had exhausted Naltu in the hostile south, but in the north, men grew weak and lazy. He wondered if he understood the choice of the farmer Rush. He sought out Bonham and learned she had left as a mate on a large ship sailing east.
Women found him exotic, but he was an amusement to them, and there was no desire. In defiance, he found them plump and slow. They did not challenge the men. Naltu went to bed when the moon grew new and thought of leaving the city before the next sunrise. The day came and the urge to wander compelled him. He traveled through the farms to the fields. He knew he grew round, laying next to fires under oak, but his body became stronger the more he slept, and the ache in his joints faded.
His father Hisimtu had earned recognition as a trader, and Naltu knew the games as well. The northern men were impatient braggarts. Naltu bought crops from the farmers, hired mills, and sold crates of meal to the captains of honest ships. His purse grew with more silver, but only the women in the taverns recognized this. Naltu was comfortable. His heart grew cold, boredom replacing the thrill of hunting men.
Tales of the green men crossed his ears. They raided caravans. Silver-garbed knights arrived with tales of prowess, and the raids stopped. Hot winds blew across Krigsgud and then cooled, and the trees changed color. His purse shrank, heavy silver replaced by gold and sparkling stones. In buying the shining baubles, he learned their value. He thought himself wealthy for a time, finding cleaner taverns with down mattresses when the rains came. He was tired each time the sun rose.
The last leaf fell to the ground. A man found Naltu. The man was dressed in the steel garb of the military, and bore elaborate wax seals stamped on linen and paper. The soldier asked if Naltu knew the words of the green men. The man asked that Naltu go north to a village in the foothills of the mountains. He was given direction and a promise that the roads would lead him true. Naltu polished his axe and sharpened his machete, for he did not need to cut through the hard reeds of the south that dulled an edge. He bought a horse and rode.
He moved to the hills and hunted. He found his spirit and made subtle demands. His belly flattened, his arms grew thick again, and his breath became full. Naltu walked the foothills and found the village of pink men. The huts were small but sturdy, made of mud and wood. There were twenty small huts, and two large. He avoided them, not needing trade, and moved into the mountains. He buried his money and valuables and kept only his food and weapons.
He wandered under the new moon. He climbed the rocks, careful not to slip, clambering until he could see the countryside before him. He shouted in a high voice, yipping five times, and then lit a fire and made camp. He hunted during the day, staying close enough to his camp to keep the embers hot.
The sun fell on the second day and Naltu saw the green men watching him from afar. Naltu checked his carbine, that the slow match was burning. He fired the weapon into the air and held it high so that the men knew it was not ready. Two approached him and sat around his fire.
Naltu offered them food from his pack, and they shared a metal flask of thick liquor. He sat beside them and pulled a hollow gourd from his pack. He filled it with the sweet grass grown by the pink men and dropped a coal from the fire. The smoke filled the air and Naltu inhaled deeply from a hole in the side of the gourd. He passed the gourd to the green men and they smoked with him.
"You know our ways, pink man."
Naltu bowed low. "I know the ways of the tribesmen of the south. I walked with Ychatl's men north to slay the slavers that raided our lands. Their blood has fed the earth, and now I hunt in these hills."
"You are a hunter, tribesman?"
"No," Naltu said. "I have no place."
"You wish to trade with us?"
"Perhaps," Naltu agreed. "But I wish to talk. I have heard stories of men wearing armor coming to the mountains."
The other man laughed. "They'll come and find only ash."
Naltu pointed to the village below. "You sit by the fire with me, and not with them?"
"No," the first man said. "Three winters past that village came. They build false caves out of twigs that fall in the storms. We ignored them, then traded for liquor and sweet grass. We gave them meat and furs, and we felled the trees they cower within now, and the huts became sturdy. But they have changed the land, and the fields in our caves grew barren."
"You prosper by mushrooms here, as the green men in the south?"
"Yes," the second answered. "We are not barbarians like you pink men. Meat sickens our children."
Naltu hummed. "And it is that village?"
The first man shrugged. "We drove them away for three moons. Our harvest recovered. They returned, and the crop withered."
Naltu looked down. "They, too, have children. Do you mean to slaughter them?"
The shrugging man raised his chest. "They have hired a witch. The monster is in that village even now. We'll challenge the witch and drive them away. We watch the mountains for the silver men, and they do not yet come here, though they hunt the distant roads."
"Will you stop us?" the second man asked.
"Burn the village and the silver men will rush through the mountains and cut your heads from your shoulders. Your needs seem just."
The fire burned brightly enough and Naltu could see the green men. They were dressed in the woven flax of the pink men, and wore small bows and darts across their backs. The knives at their side were wide and of northern construction. Naltu wondered if trade with the northmen had made the green men weak.
"You are right. But the pink-skinned men are greedy and these mountains are barren. We have lived in these caves with our fathers, and their fathers before them, all the way back to the beginning. These caves are the oldest in the south, older even than those in the tribes in the frozen lands."
Naltu shook his head. "I understand. Will you allow me to go to them when the sun sets in the valley tomorrow night?"
"Why do you care?"
"I walk in the footsteps of Ryusupo, healer, and along the path of Jihintasula as well. Ryusupo is with the children in the dirt of the valley. Jihintasula will not bless you in war until Ryusupo has left."
"You speak of Jihintasula with arrogance. Are you Shaman, pink man with no place?"
He thought for a long moment, sucking at the gourd for pause. "I know the ways. I am Naltu, tribesman of the south, orphan of the Ghislail. My brother Kertu is chieftain of the Tlictal."
"You have not answered the question. Do you hunt for the silver men?"
Naltu bowed slowly. "I do not hunt for the silver men. Your ways tell me you are hunters and farmers, not warriors, and below, do you not hear the laughter? It is the way of the south that warriors shall face only bold warriors, and it is the way of the wise to ensure this."
"Give us your blessing, then, Naltu. Drive Ryusupo away during the day. We will come down the mountain when the moon is high again. They do not know we perch watching them. If you mean to drive them out with words, then you do us a favor. The silver men scuttle like crabs and we will stand strong in the mountains, but we do this to defend ourselves. We have no time to wait for Jihintasula. The children go thin, and if they start to die, the women will call for blood and the men will have it. Because you come, we must hasten, so this happens tomorrow night."
Naltu bowed low, kissing the earth. "Then I give you the blessing of Jihintasula, goddess who sips the blood that falls from the living. If Ryusupo leaves this village, then you must show his mercy to the children. Do not slay those who do not fight."
The first man took Naltu's hand and then stood.
"Do you wish to trade, Naltu? We have little but what lies deep in the earth."
"In two nights, green man. I'll light my fire here. We trade then."
The men bowed quickly and moved away into the darkness.
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