SOUTHERN CENTRAL PLAIN, FAL'BORNA LAND, MEMORY MOON WANING, YEAR 1211
He was being hunted. Somehow he had become their prey, like the rilda that grazed on this plain. Except slower. So much slower.
Stam Corfej had been peddling his wares among the Fal'Borna for the better part of eight fours, more than half a lifetime. He knew as well as anyone how hard the white-haired sorcerers of the Central Plain could be. He'd bargained with them, been threatened by them, been called a cheat and a dark-eye bastard and worse. More than once he'd considered giving up on the Qirsi and returning to his native Aelea. A peddler could do well in the Mountain Nation, perhaps not inland, but along her rocky shores, in Redcliff or Yorl.
But it had never taken him long to dismiss the idea of returning to the sovereignty. Whatever gold he might make in Eandi territory he could double and then some trading among the Fal'Borna. He knew the tastes of the golden-skinned clan. He knew their ways, and he knew how to best them in a negotiation.
And while he didn't particularly like the white-hairs, he had never felt threatened by them. At least not until now.
It was said among peddlers in the Southlands that commerce cared nothing for the color of a man's eyes. Qirsi and Eandi, white-hair and dark-eye; they had spent nearly a thousand years fighting the Blood Wars, learning from their fathers to hate the other, and passing that lesson along to their children. But when it came to trade, men and women of bothraces managed to put aside their enmity. Gold was gold. The Qirsi might have thought the Eandi brutish and cruel, but they loved Qosantian honey wine; Eandi nobles cursed the white-hairs and their frightening magic, but they decorated the hilts of their swords and the hands, wrists, and necks of their mistresses with gems from the Nid'Qir.
Stam had done well over the years catering to such appetites. He'd traveled the length and breadth of the Southlands searching for wares that would fetch a good price. He'd traded in the fishing villages of the D'Krad and the woodland towns of the M'Saaren, the shining cities of the H'Bel and the septs of the Fal'Borna, and he had learned a great deal about the likes and dislikes of all the Qirsi clans.
So when he saw those Mettai baskets that Brint HedFarren was selling at the bend in the wash, where he and his fellow merchants often gathered, he jumped at the chance to buy them. The Mettai were renowned for their basket weaving, and these baskets were as beautiful as any Stam had ever seen. Tightly woven, brilliantly colored, and, best of all, clearly dyed by hand, which increased their value. If Barthal Milensen and Grijed Semlor and Lark hadn't been there claiming their share, Stam might well have bought every one that Young Red was selling. As it was, he only got twelve.
Who would have guessed that twelve Mettai baskets--fewer, actually, since he still had three in his cart--could kill so many people? Who would have thought that they could destroy two good-sized septs so quickly and so completely?
That night in the first sept, Stam had no idea what was happening. At first it seemed that the pestilence had come and he assumed that he would fall ill like the Fal'Borna around him. But as the night wore on and the white-hairs began to destroy their z'kals with fire and shaping magic, he realized that whatever illness had struck at the sept was nothing like any pestilence he had ever seen. He fled the village, amazed that he had managed to survive and wanting only to put as much distance as possible between himself and the horrors he had witnessed.
Three nights later, when the same disease struck at another sept he was visiting--a sept more than eight leagues away from the fi rst--he began to suspect that this was more than mere coincidence. He still didn't understand, but he knew that he wanted nothing more to do with white-hairs and their magic.
He decided that he'd lingered too long in the north. He resolved to turn his cart south and make his way to the warm waters of the Ofirean Sea. The Snows were coming; the plain was no place for an old merchant during the cold turns.
A few days later Stam stopped at a Fal'Borna village along the Thraedes River, intending to trade for some food and wine. This wasn't a sept, but rather a small, walled city, known as H'Nivar. It had once belonged to the Eandi, but it was taken by the white-hairs during the last of the Blood Wars. As Stam approached the north gates of the village, he saw a line of peddlers' carts stretching in his direction. He slowed, unsure of what to make of the column.
"Pardon, friend," he called to the trader at the end of the line. "Can you tell me what's going on here?"
The peddler, an old Eandi man with long grey hair and a full beard, shrugged, puffing on a pipe filled with what smelled like Tordjanni pipeweed.
"Word is, th' white-hairs are searching all peddlers' carts."
The man shrugged again. "Don' know."
"Baskets," came a voice from farther down the column. A young woman peered back at them, the wind making her long red hair dance. "They're looking for baskets, just like all the Fal'Borna."
Suddenly, Stam found it hard to draw breath. "Why?" he asked, barely making himself heard.
The woman frowned. "Haven't you heard about the plague?"
He felt light-headed. "What does the plague have to do with baskets?"
She waved her hand, seeming to dismiss the question."Probably nothing at all. But you know the Fal'Borna: They're always looking for some new reason to hate the Eandi."
"They claim it's a Mettai curse," said the merchant in line ahead of the woman. "They think that the Mettai and some merchants have conspired together to destroy them." He laughed. "As if the Mettai would trust us."
The woman said something in return. Stam didn't hear what it was. His mind was racing. Baskets? A plague? A Mettai curse? What had he done? What had HedFarren done to him? Had it been his baskets that sickened the people in those two settlements? He didn't understand how it could be possible, but then again, the blood magic of the Mettai had always been a mystery to him.
He shouldn't have left the way he did. He would have been better off waiting there on line for a while longer before pretending to grow impatient. Then he might have been able to steer his cart away from the city without drawing attention to himself, without giving anyone reason to think that he'd had anything to do with the baskets. He might even have learned more about this curse the others were talking about.
But in that moment, all he could think was that he had to get away from the Fal'Borna as quickly as possible. He knew just how brutal the Qirsi of the plain could be with their enemies.
And he was their enemy now. He hadn't intended it; he hadn't known what he was doing. But they wouldn't believe that, nor would they care even if they did believe it. He was a dead man.
He turned his cart around and started back the way he had come.
"Hey, where are you going?" asked the man who had been in front of him in line.
Stam didn't look back. "I have to go."
"It doesn't affect us, you know," the man called to him. "This pestilence. It won't make you sick. You have nothing to worry about."
Stam nodded, but he said nothing and he didn't look back. It was all he could do to keep from using his whip to make Wislo, his cart horse, go faster.
"What an idiot," he heard the man say to the others.
About the only thing Stam did right that day was turn north rather than immediately striking out eastward, toward the Silverwater Wash and the safety of Eandi land. As a lone rider heading away from the city to the east, he would have been noticed instantly by the guards at the gate. By steering Wislo to the north for a league or so, he was able to use the column of waiting peddlers' carts to conceal himself from the Fal'Borna.
Not that any of this occurred to him at the time. Instead, his mind was consumed with questions. Had Young Red known when he sold those baskets what they would do to the white-hairs? He had been awfully eager to be rid of them. At the time Stam believed that the young merchant didn't know the value of his wares, though looking back now he realized how foolish he'd been to think so. Brint HedFarren, despite his age, was already one of the most successful merchants in the Southlands, a rival for old Torgan Plye himself. Of course he would have recognized the quality of those baskets. He sold them for a bargain price because he wanted to be rid of them. It was the only explanation that made any sense.
Was HedFarren in league with the Mettai? It seemed a ridiculous question, or rather it would have only a short time before. Now, though ...
He followed the river north from H'Nivar for several hours before realizing that he was making a mistake. He needed to get out of Fal'Borna land, and instead he was driving his cart into the heart of it. He considered his options for a moment or two, but quickly recognized that he had none. To the north lay the septs of the rilda hunters; to the south he'd find only the Ofi rean and the great Fal'Borna cities along its shores. The J'Balanar held the lands west of the plain, and though the Fal'Borna and J'Balanar had fought battles in the past,both clans were Qirsi. If the Fal'Borna declared Stam their enemy, he'd be no safer among the J'Balanar than he was here.
He had to turn east and hope that he could cross the Silverwater into Stelpana before the Fal'Borna found him. As soon as he formed this thought, however, he felt his entire body sag. He'd never make it. He was at least thirty leagues from the wash, and with the moons on the wane he'd have little choice but to cross the plain by day and rest at night.
Still, Stam turned his cart, determined to reach the wash or die in the attempt. Once more, he had to resist the urge to drive Wislo too hard. It wouldn't do to kill the beast before they crossed into Eandi land, and he couldn't afford to appear to be in too much of a hurry.
He kept an eye out for Fal'Borna riders, septs, and villages. He forced himself to stop periodically so that Wislo could rest and graze and drink from the rills flowing among the grasses. And when he stopped for the night, he made do without a fire, despite the cold. Since he hadn't reached the H'Nivar marketplace, he was still short on food. But he could do nothing about that now. He would get by on a few bites of dried meat and hard cheese in the mornings and evenings. He had an ample gut; he wouldn't starve. And with the cold rains that had fallen over the past turn, he'd find plenty of water.
He continued this way for two days, and by grace of the gods, or by dint of skills he hadn't known he possessed, or thanks simply to sheer dumb luck, he encountered no Fal'Borna. At one point on the second day, he thought he spotted a sept to the north, but he turned slightly southward and drove on, glancing back over his shoulder repeatedly, expecting at any moment to see riders bearing down on him.
By the fourth day, Stam had started to convince himself that he would be all right, that the Fal'Borna weren't even looking for him. Early on he had imagined the other merchants mentioning him to the city guards at H'Nivar, describing his odd behavior and noting that he fled immediately uponhearing of the plague and the baskets. But Eandi merchants had no reason to help white-hairs at the expense of one of their own, no matter how strange they might have thought him. He might still give himself away through some chance encounter with the Qirsi, but he didn't think he had anything to fear from the merchants.
He had been at a loss as to what to do about his three remaining baskets. Just as he didn't build a fire for fear of drawing the notice of the Qirsi, he didn't dare burn the baskets out here on the open plain. Nor could he risk just leaving them in the grass. What if some innocent Fal'Borna came across them and didn't know the risk? What if it was a child? He didn't particularly like the Qirsi, but neither did he wish them harm. And he refused to be the cause of any more suffering like that he'd seen in the two septs in which he'd sold Young Red's baskets.
So he carried them with him, and deep down inside his heart he was glad. They were the only weapons he had that might give him some advantage over the Fal'Borna. He didn't want to use them this way, but if the Qirsi gave him no choice, he would. At least, that's what he told himself.
On the sixth morning after he fled the gates of H'Nivar, Stam woke later than usual, his heart pounding in his chest like a war hammer, his stomach tight and sour, his breath coming in great gasps. He'd slept poorly all night and had finally been driven from his slumber by a dream of Qirsi horsemen who pursued him across the plain, laughing harshly at his vain attempts to outrun them with his plow horse. It had been raining lightly when he went to bed, so he had slept in the cart. Now, though, the sun was shining and it was uncomfortably warm beneath the cloth covering that protected his goods from the elements. He tried to sit up, but his heart still labored and the queasy feeling in his gut seemed to be worsening by the moment.
I'm sick! he thought, fear gripping him by the throat. I'm dying!
He'd believed all this nonsense about a white-hair plague,and now he was going to die of the pestilence out here alone. The bitterness of this irony actually brought tears to his eyes.
For several panic-filled moments, he tried to decide if he was truly dying or if he was just a fool. In the end, he was forced to conclude that he was a fool and that everything he was feeling could be traced to his nerves rather than some disease. He forced himself to get up and crawl out of the cart. He had trouble keeping his balance at first, but the cool air steadied and calmed him. After a few long, deep breaths he began to feel better.
He took a drink of water, which also helped. A bit of food might have been a good idea, too, but he wasn't quite ready for that.
Stam started toward Wislo, who was grazing a short distance away, and noticed immediately that the old beast looked agitated. He was switching his tail wildly. He held his head high and had his ears laid flat, and he was scraping his hoof in the dirt. Stam stopped and scanned the horizon, a different sort of fear taking hold of him.
"What is it?" he asked in a low voice. "What's got you upset?"
Wislo shook his head and whinnied.
Stam gazed westward for another few moments, but he saw nothing. He was convinced, however, that something was out there. It could have been wild dogs, which moved south out of the highlands in packs as the Snows approached. It also could have been the Fal'Borna.
He'd never been one to place much faith in his own intuition, but it seemed too great a coincidence that he should wake up feeling as he did and then find Wislo in such a state.
"They've found us, haven't they?" he said. "Or they will have soon enough."
He made his decision in that moment. If the Fal'Borna caught up with him as he was driving his cart toward the Silverwater, they'd assume the worst. But perhaps he could deceive them.
He led Wislo back to the cart, put the harness on him, and climbed into his seat. And then he started westward, back the way he had come. Perhaps if the Qirsi encountered an Eandi merchant making his way into their land, they'd believe that he had been in the sovereignties all this time. Surely they wouldn't be able to blame him for anything that had befallen their people during the past turn.
This was Stam's hope, anyway.
Before he and Wislo had covered even half a league, he spotted the riders. There were at least a dozen of them, and they were driving their mounts hard, heading due east on a line a bit north of the one Stam had taken. They seemed to spot him just a moment or two after he spotted them, and they turned right away, thundering toward his cart, their white hair flying like battle pennons.
They reached him in mere moments, reining their horses to a halt a short distance in front of him and brandishing spears.
"Stop right there, dark-eye," one of the men called to him.
He was broad and muscular, with golden skin and bright yellow eyes. He might have been a few years older than his fellow riders, but otherwise there was little that distinguished one of the riders from the others. For all the years Stam had spent among the Qirsi clans, learning their ways and taking their gold, he had never figured out how to tell one Fal'Borna from another, or one J'Balanar from another of his kind.
"Greetings," he said, raising a hand. He was pleased to hear how steady his voice sounded.
"What are you doing in Fal'Borna land, Eandi?"
Stam let his hand fall to his side. He thought this an odd question, but he tried to keep his tone light. "I'm a merchant."
"Do you think we're fools? Of course you're a merchant. But what are you doing here?"
He opened his mouth to answer, hesitated, then repeated, "I'm a merchant."
The Qirsi and the rider next to him shared a look.
"Where have you come from?" the second man asked.
Stam had never been a very good liar, so he thought it best to keep his answers simple. He almost said, "Aelea," but that would have put him too close to Mettai lands. Instead, he said, "Stelpana."
For some reason, this seemed to pique the Fal'Borna's interest. "Where in Stelpana?"
He felt a bead of sweat trickle from his right temple. "Nowhere in particular. I just visited a few villages along the east bank of the Silverwater."
"And how many days ago did you cross?"
Stam hesitated, chewing his lip. He wasn't exactly sure how far he'd come since leaving H'Nivar, and he didn't know how many days' travel he was from the wash.
"I ... maybe ... I don't know. Three days?"
Again the Fal'Borna exchanged looks.
"Three days," the first man repeated.
Stam nodded. His mouth had gone dry.
"What goods are you carrying?"
The one question he'd been dreading most.
"The usual. Blankets, blades, cloth, some jewelry, a few flasks of wine."
"A couple, yes."
Their bearing changed. Clearly they'd already been suspicious of him; now they appeared to grip their spears tighter, to regard him with open hostility.
"Where did you get them?" the first man demanded in a hard voice.
"I traded for them with another merchant."
"I ... I don't remember. It wasn't someone I'd met before."
The Fal'Borna frowned. "Where was this?"
He felt as if he were sinking in mud. Every lie he told seemed to compound the last one, and he was having more and more trouble remembering what he had said a moment before.
"One of the villages," he said. "In Stelpana."
"You've had them long?"
"No. Just a few days."
"I take it these are Mettai baskets."
He nodded. "Yes."
"Why would you bring them into Fal'Borna lands now?"
"T-to trade. I'm a merchant. That's what I do. But I can leave. I can turn back, if you want me to."
The first man shook his head. "Get off your cart."
"Off!" the man said, his voice like a smith's sledge.
Stam hurriedly climbed off the cart, his legs trembling. The Fal'Borna nodded to two of his riders. Immediately the men jumped off their mounts, strode over to Wislo, and unharnessed him.
"What are you doing?" Stam asked.
"We're going to burn your cart, and we don't wish to harm your animal."
"No!" Stam said. "You can't!"
The man grinned darkly. "No? Perhaps you'd prefer that we search your cart. Perhaps you'd like us to handle those baskets you're carrying. Isn't that why you brought them here?"
Did they know that he'd been in their land all this time? Did they know what had happened to the septs he'd visited?
"I ... I don't mean your people any harm. I never have. You must believe me."
"I don't. If you've just come from Stelpana, then you know that your people and mine will soon be at war, if we're not already."
Stam's eyes widened.
"That's right, Eandi. We know about the army your people are gathering on the other side of the Silverwater. We also know about your alliance with the Mettai."
Stam had no idea what to say. He wasn't even sure that he believed the man. An army? An alliance with the Mettai? It made no sense. Why would the Eandi sovereignties attackthe Fal'Borna? Why would his people risk the resumption of the Blood Wars?
The hatred that divided Qirsi from Eandi was as old as Qirsar and Ean, the gods who had created the people of this land. The two gods--who were both brothers and rivals--had instilled in the people their enmity for each other. Eandi fear of Qirsi magic was rooted in the earth, like the mountains of Aelea and the woodlands of Tordjanne. The Qirsi's contempt for the Eandi was as fundamental to life on this plain as water and air. The Blood Wars had been over for a century, but the truce that followed had done nothing to change the way white-hairs and dark-eyes regarded one another.
But during the last century of the old wars, the Qirsi had beaten the Eandi armies in battle after battle. They'd taken the fertile land of the Horn, pushing the warriors of Stelpana back across the Thraedes. And then they'd gradually taken the Central Plain as well, forcing the Eandi to cede more territory, until at last the white-hairs held everything west of the Silverwater.
Now, according to this man before him, the Eandi were planning an attack. It made no sense. Or did it?
"They've allied themselves with the Mettai?" he asked. "You're sure of this?"
The Fal'Borna bristled. "You think I'm lying?"
"No, of course not. I just ..." He shook his head. "I don't understand why they'd do this."
"Your kind hate us. Isn't that enough?"
But it wasn't enough. Yes, the Eandi of the sovereignties hated the Qirsi, and they hated the Fal'Borna most of all. But to send thousands of men to their deaths ...
They must have believed they had a chance to succeed. Was the magic of the Mettai that powerful? Could it win this new war for them?
"Step away from your cart, dark-eye. Unless you want to burn with your baskets and the rest of your wares."
It hit him like a fist to the stomach, stealing his wind,nearly making him gag. Young Red's baskets. That was why the Eandi were attacking now. From the way the merchants at H'Nivar spoke of this white-hair plague, Stam gathered that it was sweeping across the land, destroying septs and villages just as it had those he visited.
"Move, dark-eye!" the Fal'Borna barked at him.
Stam staggered forward, away from his cart. After just a few steps, though, he stopped. "Wait. My gold."
"Your gold will burn along with everything else. The fires we conjure spare nothing."
"But that's all I have. How will I live?"
The man regarded him, the look in his eyes so cold it made Stam shudder. "You won't," he said.
Stam felt his legs give way. If it hadn't been for the Fal'Borna warrior beside him, who grabbed him by the arm, he would have fallen to the ground.
"I don't deserve to die," he said. "I'm just a merchant."
"You're an Eandi, and your people are about to invade our lands. You've just crossed the Silverwater carrying baskets that you know will kill us. You truly expect us to spare your life?"
The man narrowed his eyes. "You didn't what?"
Stam straightened and pulled his arm free of the warrior's grip. If he was going to be executed, he'd die with his pride intact. He wouldn't let the white-hairs hold him up, and he wouldn't be killed with a lie on his lips.
"I didn't just cross the Silverwater. I lied to you."
"What do you mean?" the Fal'Borna demanded. "Why would you lie about such a thing?"
Stam actually laughed. "I thought I was saving my life."
The man stared back at him, a stony expression on his square face.
"I've been trading on the plain for nearly half the year. The last time I was in one of the sovereignties, the Growing hadn't even begun. I lied to you because I sold baskets in two villages that were then struck by the wh--" He wincedat what he'd almost said. "By this pestilence that's killing your people."
The Fal'Borna glared at him. "If you're arguing for your life--"
"I'm not. I'm simply telling you the truth. I didn't know what the baskets would do. It took the second outbreak of the pestilence for me to begin to understand, and even then I needed to hear other merchants speaking of it in H'Nivar before I finally made the connection."
"When was this?"
"A few days ago. I've been trying to reach the Silverwater ever since."
The man shook his head. "But this morning--"
"This morning I sensed that you were near, so I turned around and pretended to be driving onto the plain instead of leaving it. If I had known that war was coming ..." Stam shook his head. "I don't know what I would have done, but I wouldn't have bothered with this deception."
"You know that we still intend to kill you."
Stam nodded, taking a long, unsteady breath. He wasn't ready to die. Then again, he wasn't sure he ever would be. His had been a good life. Suddenly his eyes were filled with tears.
The Fal'Borna eyed him briefly. Then he faced Stam's cart. An instant later the cart burst into flames, the wood popping violently, the cloth that covered his wares turning black and curling like a dry leaf. Wislo had been led away from the cart, but still he reared when it caught fire.
Stam was surprised by how little smoke there was. The Fal'Borna was right: Qirsi fire burned everything.
"There are more baskets, you know," Stam said, staring at the blaze. "I wasn't the only merchant who bought them."
"We know that. We'll find the others."
"And you'll kill those merchants, too?"
"We're at war," the Qirsi said, as if the answer was obvious. "The Fal'Borna won the plain by showing no mercy to our enemies. We'll defend our land the same way."
"We're merchants, for pity's sake! We didn't intend--"
"Enough," the man said. He didn't raise his voice, but he didn't have to. "Your death will be quicker than those of the Fal'Borna you sickened with your baskets. Think of that as you go to Bian's realm."
Stam wanted to be brave, to die well, as he had heard soldiers phrase it. But he couldn't help the sob that escaped him in that moment.
Abruptly he felt pressure building on the bone in his neck. He tensed, opened his mouth to scream. But no sound passed his lips. Instead he heard, as clear as a sanctuary bell, the snapping of bone. And all was darkness.
Copyright © 2010 by David B. Coe