He settled in his chair easily, resting his stick against the arm in the little crevice where an axe blade had struck. The dogs slumped at his feet, glad to be in the shade. The pup nuzzled at his hand for a moment.
Ki'ol took a deep breath, savouring the air. The breeze was light and fresh, blowing in off the sea with a sharp salt taste to it. The gulls bickered and squawked on the roof, fighting over some fish scraps stolen from the fishermen at the docks. There was a heavy footstep on the boards of the porch and then the usual greeting: "Morning, singer."
"Morning, Romen," Ki'ol replied, raising his hand in greeting. Romen disappeared into the inn, no doubt bearing some great sack of grain on his shoulder. Ki'ol leaned his head back on his chair and chuckled to himself. His days of being the inn's fetch and carry man were long gone.
"What are you looking so pleased with yourself for?" She sounded annoyed with him.
"Nothing," Ki'ol said absently. "Just reminiscing."
"Reminisce later, when people are paying." She banged down the bowls of water for the dogs, and stamped back inside. Ki'ol waited for her to come back with his breakfast. The smell of bacon and sausage drifted out to him on the breeze. The dogs whined, jealous. She shushed them, and sat down beside Ki'ol. "Not yet," she said. "It's still too hot."
"You're too kind," Ki'ol said with half a smile. She had never forgotten the day when he had burned his fingers. He listened to the way her knife and fork hit the ceramic plate as she cut up the food for him. It was a pleasant sound, rhythmic and gentle.
The pup sneaked a piece of sausage from the plate, and she slapped at him. "That dog's a thief!"
Ki'ol whistled sharply. "Hey! Little fucker… Come here." He reached down as the dog slunk to his feet, and he grasped the collar firmly. He leaned close to the dog's face and put a kiss on its head. "Learned from your old man, didn't you? I taught you well."
"Here," she said, tapping his arm and holding out the plate. "Breakfast. Will you have time to earn your keep before your carriage comes?"
"Of course, Temma." He waved his hand regally. "Just show me the way to the stool and I'll bring in some coin." She leaned down to kiss him, and he sneaked his hand into her blouse, giving her body a quick squeeze.
She giggled. "Eat your breakfast, I don't want you wasting away." She went back inside to see to her other patrons. Ki'ol picked at his plate of food contentedly. He settled in his chair, easing out his bad hip. His thieving, acrobatic life seemed many years ago now. That last fall had been the end of his dishonest career, apart from the odd purse slipped from a careless pocket.
He chirped at the dogs. "Psst. Old bitch. You want some bacon?" The pup pushed at his fingers, and Ki'ol kicked him away. "Not you, fucker." The old dog snaffled the greasy meat from his hand and grunted appreciatively. Ki'ol patted her side, tickled her ears. She licked his arm. "There now," he said, "we're set for the day."
He picked his plate clean and left it on the floor for the pup to lick. The day's patrons were beginning to arrive. Most of them greeted him on their way past, with a simple "Morning, singer." He counted them. Perhaps fifteen people had arrived, most of them fishermen arriving for some food and a song before they set out for a few days on the sea. He sighed, humming a little to warm up his voice. He'd let them pick the song today.
Temma appeared his elbow. She dusted the breadcrumbs from his front and helped him up. "They're in a sombre mood today," she said, putting his stick in his hand. "Maybe they know you're going away."
"Maybe they know you'll be in a foul mood without me," he replied, grinning. He sensed her scowl. "It's a joke, lover."
"You're not very funny," she retorted. She squeezed his arm. "I will miss you."
Ki'ol didn't reply. He would miss her cooking and her kindness and her warm curves at night, but he couldn't push away his delight at meeting his old friends again. The years had gone quickly, but every time he had told his tale of Talin and the Iron Band, he had missed his old life ever more keenly.
The tavern was dark and gloomy and he had to step carefully. Temma's hand on his elbow gripped a little tighter, guiding him more precisely. The dogs went slinking ahead of him, taking up their usual spot at the edge of the little platform where he performed. He eased on to his stool, propping his bad leg up on the smaller stool. Temma handed him his instruments and he settled himself quickly.
"Good morning!" he called. He was greeted with a ripple of noise in return. "What can I entertain you with today?"
"Silus the Minor!" somebody shouted. There was a murmur of approval. Ki'ol found his drum from its strap on his arm and began to tap out the rhythm. As he began to sing, the murky tavern room melted away and he imagined he was in Buoron again, lifting the hearts of Talin's kin in a troubled time. He couldn't hide the thrill from his voice as the crescendo lifted. At the edge of his hearing as he altered the drumbeat slightly, and softened his voice for the final verse, the coins were chinking into the bowl that was passed around.
He stopped for breath, and his audience banged the tables in appreciation. He cleared his throat and tapped the drum lightly. "Another?" he asked. " A quick one. I'm a busy man."
"The song of the Iron Band!"
Ki'ol laughed. "That's no quick one," he said. "Which is your favourite part? I can sing you a piece of it."
"All of it!"
"The dragon part!"
"The bit with the women!"
Ki'ol swapped his drum for his lute and picked out a chord. "I'll see if I can squeeze it all in," he said. "You'll have to forgive me for rushing some of it."
The words spilled easily from his lips. Every scene was vivid in his mind as he described the journeys and the battles, the moments of quiet desperation. He paid no attention to his audience now, telling every moment just for himself. The coins spilled into the bowl. His voice shook at moments of sadness. His heart soared with the victories. His fingers hesitated on the strings as he reached the end and the bitter moment when they had all left Buoron behind. The applause was sincere and respectful. He nodded in acknowledgement.
Somebody nearby called out, "Who wrote that tale, singer?"
Ki'ol shrugged. "Some young rogue," he said carelessly.
"Did you know him?"
"A long time ago." He forced a laugh. "Talented bastard, isn't he?"
"It's a fine tale," the man said. "You tell it as if you saw it all yourself."
"It's all in the mind's eye," Ki'ol said, waving his hand dismissively. "Pass that bowl around again, will you? It doesn't sound full just yet."
Temma put a messy kiss on his cheek as she came to take his instruments. "That's a tidy sum you teased out of them," she whispered. "If you weren't leaving today I'd give you a fun reward for your work." He smiled, slapping her rump playfully.
"Is the carriage here?" he asked.
"They're waiting out at the back," she said. "It looked so out of place at the front. Like… like a nobleman's coach."
"That makes sense," Ki'ol said, rolling a cigarette. "I don't think the man owns anything sensible apart from his sword. And even that is fancy."
"Who is he?" she asked, barely breathing the question. "Is he wealthy?"
"He's an old friend," Ki'ol said easily. "I've known richer men, but he's got plenty of fortune smiling on him. You're not allowed to meet him."
"Why's that? Afraid he'll take a shine to me?"
"No, lover," Ki'ol said, shaking his head ruefully. "I'm afraid that you will take a shine to him and leave me alone in the gutter." He stepped out into the sunlight at the back of the tavern, where the pigs burrowed in the mud in the little pen and the chickens scurried about. The coach horses snorted and shook their harnesses restlessly. He reached up to trail a strand of Temma's hair through his fingers. "You put all my bags in for me?"
"Everything," she said. "If I've forgotten a thing you can scold me when you get home." She kissed him. He felt the hesitation of her against his lips. "You will come back, won't you?"
"I'm sure I will," he said. "Be good while I'm gone. No flirting with Romen." He whistled to the dogs and they trotted at his side. The pup jumped up into the carriage easily. The old dog wheezed and heaved her way up the steps. Ki'ol clambered in, feeling for the seat in the sudden gloom. It was well-cushioned and comfortable. Temma pushed the door shut and squeezed his hand through the window.
"Make sure they take good care of you," she said. She was fighting back tears, he could tell.
"Mind your own business," he said.
She waved to the driver. "You make sure you drop him at the door of the house, don't you leave him in a street anywhere. You hear?"
"As you wish, my lady," the driver said, touching his hat. He set the horses moving and the carriage lurched forwards. Ki'ol slouched in his seat and the dogs lay down at his feet. It was a long way to Assim Har.
The driver was attentive and careful. They stopped at several inns along the way, and the driver patiently unloaded and reloaded Ki'ol's possessions at each stop. He didn't ask why the bags couldn't be kept on the coach, nor why they all had to be put into Ki'ol's room and not in the communal store at each inn. He ensured there was food and wine in the room, and that the dogs were well-fed, and then he would disappear for the night, returning in the morning to repack the coach and get them on their way.
Ki'ol slept with a knife in each hand. Whilst he felt safe enough in Temma's bedroom, soothed by her soft snores, out on the road he was alone and an easy target. He wasn't sure what made him so paranoid. The pup would hear any dangerous footstep well in advance and the animal was vicious when he wanted to be. Even the old bitch still had a pair of teeth on her.
He knew they wouldn't stop a dark elf with murder in her mind. She'd be quick and silent, and he would be helpless. He had heard the rumours passing through the village a few years ago, the stories of the new, secretive organisation of beautiful, deadly assassins. The rumours had sprung up at the same time as fishermen came to the tavern raving about a new brothel in a city further south on the coast, where the women were like jewels and their talents were priceless. The more cautious amongst them mentioned that several politicians had been linked to the place, and they had all wound up dead in one way or another. Ki'ol knew better than to say anything, but he had no doubt that the place was Pulan's doing. Sex and death went hand in hand with her.
He had never looked for her, as she had warned them, but every now and then he felt sure he was being watched. It would only be for a moment, perhaps a breath of perfume or a sound, nothing he could pin down definitely. Perhaps he had smoked too much leaf. Still, he didn't trust her not to sneak something poisonous into his luggage, or to steal into his room in the night.
He didn't sleep well. After the eighth night in a coaching inn, he was growing irritable.
"On our way, sir," the driver said, closing the carriage door on him.
"How much further?" Ki'ol demanded. "How many more nights on the road?"
"Just today, sir," the driver said. "I'll see to it that we arrive before nightfall. The horses are well rested and they'll run faster on these roads."
"Good," Ki'ol grumbled. He settled in for the ride. He still had a knife up one sleeve.
The heat of Assim Har hit him long before they reached the city itself. He wasn't sure how the horses were managing to keep such a pace in the heat, but they rattled along with the driver calling encouragement to them. Ki'ol fanned himself with his hat and the dogs panted on the floor of the coach. The dust sneaked in against his skin, into his ears and nose and he remembered how much he hated the city.
"Shouldn't be here too long," he told the pup, as the dog whined against his hand and sprawled helplessly on the warm boards. "Then you won't know what's hit you. You've not felt the cold before."
The noise of the city began to filter through. First, the ragged slums which had sprung up again after the war, the beggars tapping on the panels and the driver shouting at them to get out of the way. Then the less desperate market districts, where people pushed their wares at the windows. Ki'ol smiled to himself. They had no idea how useless it was to show him anything.
Finally they pushed through to the quiet calm of the estates, where the roads were wide and empty and the villas and palazzos sprawled behind closed gates. The carriage rolled gently along the smooth streets and turned into the gates as the heat began to fade a little. Ki'ol heard the gates being closed tightly behind them. Perhaps the nosferatu were still a menace. He had forgotten about those other dangers of the city. He'd have to find a wooden stake to sleep with too.
"Here we are, sir," the driver said, opening the door. "Mind the step."
"How many?" Ki'ol asked, tapping the first step with his stick.
"Fifteen, sir," the driver said. "I'll get your bags."
Ki'ol climbed the steps slowly, carefully, counting them. The pup had raced off around the garden, sniffing out the new territory excitedly. The old dog was too weary for such games, and she hobbled up the steps with Ki'ol. The palazzo doors opened as they reached the top, and Ki'ol paused.
"Old friend," Salahim said, "it is good to see you again." He grasped Ki'ol's extended hand and embraced him. "I surprised myself, I have missed you. It has been too long."
"Some years," Ki'ol said, smiling. "Got anything to drink?"
"Of course," Salahim said, stooping to rub the pup's head as he came gambolling into the palazzo. "My home is yours, as always. We will leave for Buoron in the morning. I asked them to stock the cellars just for you."
"You're a good man," Ki'ol said. He hadn't meant to sound so sincere. "Get me something, will you?"
Salahim put his hands on Ki'ol's shoulders, bewildered. He said, "Ki'ol, do you...?"
Ki'ol pushed him away half-heartedly. "Were you hoping for a comment about your best shirt?" he said. He shook his head. "I see sunlight and shade. Sometimes firelight. Not much else these days."
Salahim took him by the elbow and led him through the palazzo to a drawing room. "Neru can cure your eyes," he said, "if you want. You should have sent word. We would have come. We would have helped you."
"I'm happy being blind," Ki'ol said gruffly. "I get along just fine."
"And the limp you have now?"
"When my eyes were going, I had a fall," he said. "It was from a window of a house that wasn't necessarily mine. Misjudged the distance. Broke my hip."
"Why didn't you tell me? We would have helped."
"I'm done with all that witchery now," Ki'ol said, rubbing the dust from his neck as he sat in the cool gloom. "I think we've meddled with enough life. Normal folk have to live with worse. It's not so bad being a blind old fool."
Salahim poured him a drink and passed it to him. "You're quite the philosopher these days," he said. "What has happened to you?"
Ki'ol shrugged and took a gulp of the whisky. "What's happened to you, Salahim? You sound tired. You sound sad."
Salahim laughed, but bitterly. "I forget that your trade is to read people for their weaknesses." Ki'ol waited for him to answer the question, saying nothing. Salahim sat back in his chair and searched the room for a way to respond. He cleared his throat. "Tell me something. Why are you content without your eyes?"
Ki'ol snorted. "I've always been a simple man," he said. He waved his hand carelessly, knocking his glass across the table. "There's a tavern in my town, run by a good girl. There's something wrong about her, I hear the men talking, but I try not to listen. Perhaps she had a pox as a child, and she's not the prettiest wench on the coast, but she's a good girl. She likes me well enough. Takes good care of me, and I sing to earn her some pennies." He rubbed at his eyes with the back of his hand. Sometimes they itched and ached, still. "I can pretend she's beautiful. I don't know any different. In my head, she puts Pulan to shame. I want to keep it that way. She's a good girl."
"Have you heard from ka'eschia?"
"No. I don't intend to go looking for her." He laughed. "Not that I can any longer." He shifted uneasily. "Have you heard from her?"
"Nothing obvious," Salahim said. "Neru sometimes finds small things. A little token from another city left on a windowsill, or a packet of spices from a sea trader. She thinks ka'eschia brings them for her, but she has no proof. We've heard the rumours about the women. The assassins."
"How is Neru?" Ki'ol fished in a pocket for his leaf and rolled a cigarette. He felt a guilty pang of pleasure at smoking in Salahim's house. He knew the paladin would not say anything, but he could almost feel his disapproving look. "Did you marry her?"
"I did." Salahim couldn't keep the smile from his voice. "I would have liked you to have been there. I would have liked all of the Iron Band there." He got up and grasped Ki'ol by the arm. "Outside. It's a good night for you to smoke out there."
Out in the courtyard, the air was warm and still, and the little fountain gurgled away in the corner. The pup went scampering about across the sand and into all the corners, sniffing out beetles and spiders. The old dog flopped at Ki'ol's feet with a grunt. He rubbed her ears.
"So," he said quietly. He wondered for a moment if he was pushing too far, but his curiosity was strong. "You married her. What about sprogs?"
Salahim's silence was powerful. Ki'ol heard his long exhalation as he forced away a feeling that had risen at the question. Even the old dog whined, sensing the grief. Eventually Salahim said, "We tried. We're trying."
Ki'ol swirled smoke in his mouth for a moment. "Are you sure you're doing it right? If you need advice, I'm your man."
"No," Salahim snapped. The pup barked at his raised voice and raced to Ki'ol's side with a low growl. Salahim fought to compose himself. "She bore three children. Two boys. A girl. They would be about seven, four and two now. Every one of them was stillborn. I prayed, I asked the Oracle why. Nobody will tell me. Not even my own god. Neru says that the souls of our children will give life to another somewhere in the world. It's little comfort."
Ki'ol gnawed the inside of his lip, regretting his question. "I'm sorry," he said.
"She's with child again," Salahim said. "Every day I pray that this one will live. Every day I pray that this one will be an easy birth. I don't understand why we are being punished."
"I imagine it's more complicated than that," Ki'ol said. "It always is for the Iron Band."
"That was long ago," Salahim said. "That life is gone."
"But here we are," Ki'ol said, "all coming together again. That life will never leave us." He flicked his cigarette butt away. "Is Leo coming?"
"He'll be here in the morning," Salahim said. He took Ki'ol by the elbow to lead him back inside. Ki'ol whistled to the dogs. Salahim guided him through the palazzo and up the stairs, and Ki'ol was surprised at how easily his legs remembered the steps and the turns that took him to his room. He could still imagine how it looked, as if he had never left.
"Has anything been moved?" he asked Salahim as the paladin opened the door for him.
"It's as it was," Salahim said. "Do you need help?"
Ki'ol shook his head. "I'll be alright." He gripped Salahim's hand uneasily. "Bolt the windows, would you? I don't want anything getting in."
He woke with a start, his knife in his hand in an instant. The dogs were growling. The pup had moved close to the bed. He tried to listen, but he knew he wouldn't hear anything. One of the windows settled on its latch with a bang, and he thrust his knife out into the darkness.
"I know you're there!" he said, trying to sound confident. "I'll fuck you up."
The pup's growl deepened, and he prowled along the side of bed, up and down like a wolf. Ki'ol tried to guess the dog's movement and threw his knife desperately at where the intruder might be. The weapon clattered harmlessly to the floor across the room. The pup snapped at somebody, or something. The old bitch yelped as if she'd been kicked.
The window opened, creaking. The pup raced across the room, snarling. Ki'ol flung another knife, almost relieved to hear it fall to the floor with a dull thud. The window smacked shut and the pup fell quiet. He came padding back to the bed, still bristling, and he nosed Ki'ol's hand with a gruff noise.
"Good lad," Ki'ol murmured, rubbing his head. "That's a good lad." He lay back, trying not to tremble. He felt alone and vulnerable. He snapped his fingers and patted the bed. "Come on. Come up. Both of you." The pup hesitated just a moment, unsure if he was allowed, before leaping on to the bed. The old dog came wearily over and Ki'ol had to reach down and help her up. She dropped down next to him with a grunt. The pup paced at the foot of the bed for a moment before circling down at Ki'ol's feet.
With one hand on the old dog's stomach and the pup coiled at his feet, he felt a little safer. He swallowed the urge to call for Salahim's help, though he doubted the paladin would hear him anyway. He took a deep breath and tried to convince himself to sleep.
Ki'ol picked at his breakfast, unable to eat more than a few mouthfuls. Salahim put down his fork and put his hand on Ki'ol's shoulder.
"What's the matter?" he said.
"She was in my room last night," Ki'ol said. He pushed his plate away and rubbed at his eyes. "I think it was her. Or something else."
"I don't think she wanted to kill me. She just wanted to scare me. Bitch."
"Don't speak of her that way." Salahim pulled Ki'ol's plate back. "You need to eat, you'll be cold in the north. You're safe with us." He stood up as the sound of the main doors opening spilled into the dining room. "Neru is here with you. This will be Leo arriving. We must go soon. Eat."
Neru sat beside Ki'ol and took his hand. She spelled out a word on his palm. Eat. He laughed, and obeyed her. Even in her silent company, he thought he could feel her quiet power, just a slight coolness in the air nearby. He forced down a few mouthfuls of bread and some pieces of fruit. His restless night had left him feeling nauseous.
He turned to where he thought she was and gingerly held out his hand again. He said, "I hear you're with child." She took his wrist, and he was startled to feel the warm curve of her belly under his touch instead of the written words he was expecting. She held his hand there for several minutes, and after a few moments he felt the little life inside her turning beneath him.
"Feels strong," he murmured. She released his hand and he sat back in his chair. He sat with the question ready on his tongue, wishing he could ask her why her children had died, but too mindful that he might speak when Salahim was nearby. That was trouble that didn't need stirring.
There was commotion in the atrium, and Neru got to her feet. Ki'ol grasped his stick and she took his arm to guide him. The dogs pattered at his heels until the pup caught wind of the strange smell and stopped, snarling.
The growl that was returned was far deeper and more dangerous than the pup's vicious efforts. The old dog grunted. Perhaps she remembered Leo's scent from her time slinking at Rousseux's ankles in the dungeons beneath the city.
"You're scaring the little fucker," Ki'ol said. "Leave him be."
"He started it," Leo said, grinning. He looked Ki'ol up and down. The once-nimble bard was a shabby sight, lamed and worn by the years. "You look like a changed man."
"You look just the same," Ki'ol said, wrinkling his nose, "at a guess."
Leo laughed. "Less bloodied and bandaged than you might recall." He came to Ki'ol's side to take Neru's place at his arm. Ki'ol heard his deep breath. Leo shook his head, almost sadly. "So it's true what they say," he said softly.
Ki'ol snorted. "About doing it too much? I suppose it is." He had missed Leo's humour. "Still doesn't stop me." He hissed at the growling pup. "Psst. Stop that. He'll growl back at you."
"Do they have names?" Leo asked, glaring down at the pup.
Ki'ol shrugged. "I call the old bitch 'old bitch' and the pup is 'little fucker'. They're dogs, they don't care what I call them." He scratched the old dog's ears fondly. "She was Rousseux's dog. I found them half-starved. He must have just left them."
"I killed him," Leo said. He yawned, stretching. "Then I ate him."
Ki'ol wrinkled his nose. "How did he taste?"
Leo laughed. "Tough. Did you ever eat spiced meat from a market stall? He tasted like that." He tightened his hand on Ki'ol's arm. "The portal's ready. Come on."
The cold air spilled into Assim Har with a hiss, the mist burning away in the warm morning light. Ki'ol shivered. He had forgotten how bitter the wind was in Talin's homeland. He felt a heavy fur go around his shoulders, and he reached up to tug it closer.
"I had a feeling you would forget to bring warm clothes," Salahim said with a smile. "We're not far from the village. It's just a short walk in the mist."
Ki'ol reached down for the pup's collar, wanting what little security the vicious, wiry animal might afford him in a land full of creatures normally reserved for stories. A short walk in the mist would still be enough to kill them all.
"Relax," Leo said softly. "The fear is dripping off you. No harm will come to you."
"I didn't sleep much, that's all," Ki'ol said gruffly, but the half-man was right. The knot in his stomach was tight, almost crippling. Without his sight, Talin's homeland was just a maze of sound and terror.
Leo gripped Ki'ol's arm tightly to guide him carefully through the portal. His bare feet sank into the cold earth as he stepped through the portal and he shivered, shaking his mane. Although his animal skin was tough, the damp chill gnawed at his toes. He took a deep breath of the air and savoured the unfamiliar smells that came to him. Assim Har reeked of blood and sweat. High in the mountains, the air was clearer: a scent of blossom and earth, and far away wood smoke. He let his breath out slowly, watching the vapour coil and curl away in the breeze.
"This way," Salahim said, setting off along the trail with his hand resting on the pommel of his sword. Even he was a little uneasy. Leo felt Ki'ol cling to him even tighter. The pup strained at his collar, wanting to go and explore. The old dog crept at Leo's heels.
Buoron rose out of the mist after a little while. The gates were wreathed in a climbing rose which held heavy blue-white blooms on it. The frost covered its leaves and edged each petal in glittering silver. The smell was sweet and powerful in Leo's head. He could almost taste the nectar from where they waited. The gates opened for them quietly, and the guards nodded in greeting. The village was bustling with life, oblivious to their arrival.
They picked their way through the village, and only a few people stopped their business to greet them. It had been some time since the Iron Band had left Buoron. Perhaps they had been forgotten.
The place had grown. New paths had been carved out of the wilderness, and new buildings had been put up. A farrier had a workshop next to the corral where the war horses grazed on heaps of hay. A mill turned slowly, pushed by three boys who joked and laughed as they worked. An orchard was tended by a group of elderly men, and at the blacksmith's forge, two women were beating out a new shield. There were new houses, and a courtyard where children were learning the old sword forms from two warriors.
"What a change," Salahim murmured. "To think they used to live in such fear."
"There's a dragon here," Leo said, sniffing the wind. "It must defend the whole village." His ears caught the sound of Leila's voice from across the orchard. "This way," he said. She was calling his name. Perhaps she knew he was the only one who would hear above the noise of village life.
They crossed the orchard, where the grass was long and thick and the trees were heavy with fruit. Some was being wrapped and boxed carefully, some was being cast into a crate to be taken to the cider press. Chickens picked amongst the roots, and some piglets scurried about. The house on the other side was nestled amongst the trees, with the garden spread at the front. A rock outcrop jutted out from the hillside to the right of the house. The mist swirled about the dragon that was coiled at the top. It watched them approach, silent and stern.
Leila was waiting for them in the garden. Leo felt his step lighten at the sight of her. On her hip, she held a little girl, perhaps barely two years old. Clutching at her skirts was a four year old boy. On the porch behind her was a serious-eyed seven year old boy, already with a sword at his waist and a quiver of arrows on his back. Leo glanced at Salahim. Neru had shrunk back from the paladin, her head down.
"Welcome," Leila said, smiling. Leo couldn't help beaming back at her. She reached out with her hand to squeeze his. She grasped Ki'ol's hand too, and for a moment he felt his vague sight brighten. He mumbled a greeting, breathless.
Salahim stood apart from them as Leila kissed Neru's cheek. He watched as Leila then kissed Neru's hand. He saw the gratitude in her eyes. He felt the sickness in his stomach. It threatened to overwhelm him. He had buried three children, stillborn. Each time, the grief had driven between him and Neru. Each time he had asked for guidance why the small lives had failed, he had been given no answer. Now he saw it for himself.
When Leila met his gaze he had to look away. She touched his arm as she walked past, leading them to the house. She whispered, "I am sorry." Then, "It was not her fault."
He could not look at Neru when she came to his side to coax him to join them in the house. When she could not make him watch her hands, she took his palm to write out the words.
I did not give them away. The gods took them from us. I am sorry.
He felt her tears before he saw them. He took her in his arms and drew her close. He could say nothing. After a moment he turned her face up towards his and kissed her, took her hand and led her inside.
The house was modest and warm. Leo had to step in front of Ki'ol to lead him through the hallway, it was so narrow. Ki'ol's fingers were cold and frail on his arm. Leo had to stoop to get through the doorway to the living room where the fire roared in the hearth. He set Ki'ol down in the seat nearest the flames, and the dogs lay down at his feet. Leo was tempted to sprawl down with them.
"Where's the big man?" Ki'ol asked. He blew on his hands. "Or is he doing another of his not speaking things?"
"He's out with the morning patrol," Leila said. "He'll be back soon." She put down her daughter and the girl scampered off with her brothers. Leila gestured about the room. "Please, make yourselves at home." She smiled at Leo. "Anywhere you like."
He grinned back, and flung himself down beside the fire, stretching out on his back. He rubbed the old dog's belly gently. "Here's a good life," he murmured. He settled with his hands behind his head and closed his eyes. He heard Ki'ol's wheezing begin before the bard knew what was brewing. Leo rolled over. "That man needs a drink. Could we trouble you, my lady?"
Leila nodded, touching Ki'ol's shoulder lightly as his coughing fit began. "I won't be a moment." She left them, sweeping away into the kitchen. Leo watched Neru hurry after her.
Salahim lurched up from his seat. "I need some air," he muttered. He waved his hand at Leo. "You stay here with Ki'ol. Tell them… Tell them I needed some air." He went out into the hallway and glanced down where the kitchen door was ajar. Neru was drawing words on Leila's hand. He put his back to them and headed out into the cold.
It hit him in the chest hard. His throat tightened with the chill and his eyes stung. He folded his cloak around his shoulders and tucked his hands into his armpits. He stood in the shelter of the porch. Too long in Assim Har had made him soft, he thought bitterly.
He looked out at the garden that lay before him. Neat rows of vegetables were tucked away in one sheltered corner, and the rest of it was a lush, meadowy wilderness. An apple tree grew near the front fence. The two boys had shinned up it and were dangling from the branches whilst their sister sat at the bottom of the trunk, carefully pulling the petals from a handful of flowers.
Salahim watched them for a moment. The older boy was his father's son, broad in the shoulders even at his young age and already strong. He was serious and quiet. The younger boy was leaner, and a little less sure-footed. He laughed more readily, more carelessly. The little girl was quiet and happy, already with an uncanny likeness to her mother. She seemed to sense him watching, and she looked up, meeting his gaze.
The older boy let out a shout from his lookout spot at the top of the tree, and he swung down to the ground easily. The three of them all rushed to the gate, breathless with delight. Talin came along the path on a big grey warhorse, a sack of supplies over one shoulder. As he neared, the older boy dragged the gate open and held it there, waiting.
Talin slid from his saddle and bent down to scoop up his daughter in his arms. He kissed her, and she put her little arms around his neck, hugging him tightly. The younger boy punched at his legs, leaping about like a young buck. Talin grasped him around the waist with one arm and turned him upside down. The child dangled from his arm, shrieking with glee. The older boy had taken the reins of the horse and closed the gate, and he reached for the bag of supplies.
Talin set down the others and dived on his oldest child with a mock roar, and they wrestled on the ground for a moment until the boy emerged triumphant and victorious on his father's back. The big man swept up his belongings – supplies and children – and headed for the house.
Their laughter had sounded far away in Salahim's ears. When Talin reached the steps of the porch and saw him waiting, he stopped and put down the children. He held out the sack to the younger boy.
"Take this inside to your mother," he said. "Take your sister with you. Harlin, see to the horse."
As the children pattered away, Talin stepped up on to the porch and stood beside Salahim. "Welcome, old friend," he said quietly. "It is good to see you."
Salahim watched Harlin lead the warhorse across the garden to the stable at the side of the house. He forced himself to look away, to look at Talin. It was a strange sense of relief to see the warrior standing beside him again. The big man had changed. His broad shoulders were looser, his hands open. He leaned on the rail heavily, wearily.
"You seem well," Salahim said. "Your family too."
Talin smiled. "Every day I am blessed." He shifted his weight. "I will bear some pains for my whole life." He breathed the cold air deep into his chest. "Yet I care not." He put a hand on Salahim's shoulder. "What troubles you, Salahim?"
Salahim shook his head. He shrugged, clasped Talin's hand and smiled. "I do not mean to be troubled," he said after a moment. "After all these years, I have finally seen why we suffered. Why we fought. I pray those years are now behind us."
"Trust that they are," Talin said. "It is time to live well. Time to be at peace." He gestured to the gathering gloom as the sky was darkening with cloud. "There will be a storm tonight. A storm is lucky for my kin."
The younger children came back out of the house, the girl wide-eyed. She ran to Talin and reached for him, and he scooped her up. She hid her face in his neck, shivering.
"There's a monster," the boy said. "There's a monster in the house."
Talin glanced at Salahim, and his gaze became serious. He knelt beside his son, and set down his daughter carefully. He looked at them both earnestly. "Tell me, Raoum," he said, "what does it look like?"
Raoum clasped his hands anxiously. "It's big. And it has a tail. And lots of hair. But it talks like a man!"
"Where is it now?" Talin asked.
"In front of the fire," Raoum said. "The blind man is in there too. I don't think he knows it's a monster." He gestured with his hands. "It has big hair. Like a helmet."
Talin looked up at Salahim gravely. "So it has returned," he said. "I feared this creature would find me here." He took Raoum's hand, and made him grasp his sister' hand tightly. "Listen carefully. Raoum, you must run in and grab the monster's tail. Then jump on its stomach. If it rolls on its back, which I hope it will, you must poke it in the ribs with your fingers like this." He demonstrated on his daughter and she squealed with laughter. Talin raised a warning finger. "It's no laughing matter, dealing with this creature will be dangerous. Do you understand what you must do?"
"Yes, Da," Raoum said.
"Naima, you must run to the monster's head and pull on its mane. And poke it in the neck." Talin put his arms around them both. "It knows me. It will not suspect you. You two can be fast and catch it off guard. I'll come in after you in case you need help." He kissed each of them on the forehead. "Quickly. Before it comes out into the open."
The children nodded and went sneaking back into the house, hand in hand. Talin straightened and Salahim couldn't help smiling as Leo let out a yell, and then bellowing laughter spilled into the cold air.
"Come inside, friend," Talin said. "When the storm comes, only the dragon will revel in it." The rain was beginning to come down already. From its perch above the house, the Kerikan dragon stretched out its wings and growled into the sky. The distant thunder answered it.
They found Leo grappling with the children and the pup on the floor, tears of laughter running down his face. When he saw Talin in the doorway he reached out desperately.
"Call them off!" he begged. "Please! Mercy!"
"Let him suffer," Ki'ol said, slouching down further in his chair. "It's amusing."
"Pull his hair, Naima!" Raoum urged. "Poke him!"
"Don't poke him!" Leo cried, trying to protect his neck from the invasion of small fingers. "Please don't poke him!"
Talin took pity on him and picked his son up by the waist. "Enough," the big man said, ignoring the battering that Raoum landed on his stomach with his fists. "Leave him be. You've done well to defeat him."
"I am defeated," Leo said, flat on his back, exhausted. "Your children are mighty warriors." He reached up and flicked Naima's hair with a finger. She shied away. "Your daughter is the most fearsome of them."
"He's not a monster?" Raoum said, as Talin dropped him back to the floor.
"He's my friend," Talin said. He offered Leo his hand to help him up. A cold gust of air swept through the house as Harlin came in from the blowing rain and kicked off his boots in the hall.
Salahim stepped aside to let the boy into the room to dry out by the fire, and he looked again along the passage to the kitchen where Neru and Leila were still speaking. He took a deep breath and went to them.
They both turned to look at him, their eyes unwavering. He could not face Leila's brilliant blue eyes. Neru's black gaze was soft and safe. He sat down at the table opposite her, and she slid her hands across the wood to grasp his fingers. He squeezed her palms gently.
"You knew," he said quietly. "Why didn't you tell me?"
She let go of him reluctantly so that she could sign, I feared you would leave.
"Leave you? Never. You know that."
If you had known, would you still have endured the loss?
He caught her hands, held her still. His face was serious. "Be truthful with me," he said. "Was there ever a choice about what we would endure?" She shook her head slowly.
Leila sat at the table with them. "It was not a choice for her to make," she said gently. "The gods had decided the fate of her children. It was a choice for you, Salahim. If you had not stayed with her, there would have been no souls for the gods to give and take as they liked. If you had known what that fate was, you could have chosen to avoid it."
Salahim thought for a moment. "I could have chosen to accept it too," he said. He traced a black vein on Neru's hand with one finger absently. He lowered his gaze. "Did you really think, after all Talin has suffered for us, that I would not choose to bear the grief in return?" He met Neru's eyes again. "Did you think I would begrudge him happiness?" She shrugged helplessly. He let his breath leave his chest in a long exhalation. He reached across the table to brush her cheek lightly. "I wish you had told me," he murmured, "so that neither you nor I had gone through it alone."
She clasped his hand, threaded her fingers through his, and she mouthed, I am sorry. He leaned over and kissed her.
"This one is yours," Leila said as he sat down again. "Talin and I have had the last of our gifts from the gods, and I could not bear to take from you again." She shook her head sadly. "I did not tell him where our blessings came from."
"Keep it that way," Salahim said, surprised at his own conviction. "Let him be happy."
The storm was building outside. The wind wailed around the back of the house and rattled at the back door. Leila got to her feet, and she helped Neru up carefully. "Come into the warmth," she said, inclining her head towards the living room. "You came to be with your friends again, not apart from them."
The fire in the living room eagerly swallowed up a fresh log, and Ki'ol's dogs were snoring by the hearth happily. Leo was still stretched out on the floor too, basking in the heat. Talin sat in a big chair draped with furs. All three of his children were squeezed in around him, sleeping on his broad frame. Ki'ol had propped his bad leg up on Leo's stomach.
"I forgot how fucking horrible the weather is here," Ki'ol grumbled as the rain began to lash the window.
"Language," Leo murmured, smiling.
"I thought the kids had gone," Ki'ol said, wrinkling his nose. "They're bloody quiet."
"They're asleep," Talin said, stroking Naima's hair gently. "They were very excited to meet you."
"I'm surprised the storm doesn't wake them," Salahim said. Thunder rumbled overhead.
"They were born during storms," Leila said. "Harlin was thunder-born. Raoum and Naima were lightning-born." She went to draw the heavy curtains as the lightning lit up the room. "Many of our people are born in the storms. They say the storms bring out strong children."
"What kind of storm were you born in, big man?" Ki'ol said, chuckling to himself. "The earth must have moved."
"No storm," Talin said after a moment. "I was battle-born." He stared into the fire for a moment. "My father was out in a battle against the harpies. Most of the village had gone with him. By the time they came back, my mother had died." He half-smiled as the thunder pealed again. "No more harpy battles to be had here," he said. "The dragons have chased them far into the mountains. We can rest easy."
"I might sleep here all day," Leo said, stretching on the rug and yawning. "I don't sleep well in Assim Har, but this is heaven." He opened his amber eyes, glaring up at Talin for a moment. "Apart from being assaulted by your warriors."
Talin laughed. "You can handle them." He shook his head ruefully. "I do not sleep well either, my friend. I think we have not yet earned our rest."
"Nightmares," Leila said to Salahim's quizzical glance. "They began as he started to wake after you left. He does not remember what he sees in those dreams, but they make him shout in the night sometimes."
"I dream too," Salahim said. His eyes flicked from Neru to Ki'ol and back to Talin. "I think perhaps we all do. We have seen a great deal in our time."
"More to be seen," Leo said. He prodded Ki'ol's bad leg. "Except for you, of course."
"Fuck off," Ki'ol snapped.
They talked and shared stories as the storm shrieked about the village. Leila baked a fresh loaf of bread and a meal for them all, serving up sweet root vegetables with a spiced stew to keep the cold away. They all sat around the table in the kitchen, Naima on Talin's lap and Raoum perched on Leo's knee while he prodded the half-man's face and tugged on his mane and ears curiously. Harlin sat quietly beside Ki'ol, diligently refilling his plate and his cup.
Leo spoke of his travels back to his old home in the woods, and how he had roamed alone for months in the wild, letting his memory guide him back. He had found the little village where his mother had lived and where Rousseux had captured him, and he had spied on their life from a distance for a while. When a bear had come into the village one night, he had killed it and dragged it to the centre of the village before slipping away into the darkness. He had gone back to the wood shaman who had raised him and found him an old man with trembling, papery hands. The wood shaman had wept to see him alive, and had begged him to stay for a while. Leo had lived with him again for two years, hunting in the woods and strengthening his tortured body, before age and frailty had taken the shaman's life in his sleep. Strong and wild again, Leo had gone back to Assim Har to take on the pits once more.
Salahim had taken a seat on Assim Har's council, and used Leo's connections with the underworld to keep tabs on the city's more powerful seams of money. He trained squires at his order, and had set up a school outside the city gates where he bred horses from the Prince's nimble animals and trained the young paladins. He mediated between the Black Priests and the Fire Mages now that their uneasy truce of the war was finished.
Neru had tried to keep the connection between the two deities, and she had tried to teach them how to weave the powers together, but old animosities had quickly resurfaced. The Fire Mages had shut their doors to her altogether after a year or two. She had turned her attention to building up the Black Priests' power, spreading their influence through the city to purge the nosferatu and ease the sickness in the slums.
Ki'ol didn't speak much of his years away from them. He had mulled it over while he'd eaten, and had decided against sharing a tale of how he had thieved and gambled his way along the coast, whored from town to town and slept in gutters until his eyes had finally failed and he had started begging and singing for coin. He skipped to meeting Temma and taking up residence at her inn and earning an honest living as the bard for the sailors who passed through the town.
"It's an easy enough life," he said, setting down his cup. "She takes good care of me."
"We must come and see your new honest life," Talin said. "When Naima is old enough to ride, we will visit you."
Ki'ol stifled his laughter. "You! In Temma's inn! The place would implode." He found a hunk of bread on his plate and began to tear it apart. "They love you down there. Every day they want to hear your story. Imagine if you walked in!"
"I'm sure you get some credit for your part in our tale," Salahim said.
"They don't know who I am," Ki'ol said. He stuffed bread in his mouth to avoid saying anything more, but it was Harlin who spoke up.
"Why don't you tell them? It's your song. You saw it all happen. They should know it was you. They'd pay you more." The boy's voice was so like Talin's, it made Ki'ol shiver.
"You're right, lad," he said after a moment. "When I was younger I enjoyed that kind of glory." He shrugged. "These days it isn't about me. It's Temma's place, not mine. And it's your dad's story, not mine."
"It was our story," Talin said. "I could not have done it without you. Not without any of you."
"You know all about what your dad did, Harlin?" Ki'ol asked. "He told you?"
"I heard your song," Harlin said, "in our tavern. He said you told it just as it happened."
"And what do you think of what he did?" Ki'ol pressed. His song had not spared any of the gruesome detail, or any of the terrible sadness that had followed the Iron Band. It was hardly a tale for a child to hear about his own father.
Harlin thought for a moment, studying Talin where he sat at the head of the table, surrounded by his family and his friends at last. "I think it was a hard thing for a person to do," he said at last. "I think people should never forget it."
"I'll make sure of that," Ki'ol said. He mopped his plate with the bread. "By all means, big man, come to my little town and give the sailors a good day. You'd be more than welcome for the coin that would bring to my girl."
"Still paying, are you?" Leo said, grinning. Neru kicked him under the table as Ki'ol shook his head, sighing.
"Blind man discount," he said.
"What does that mean?" Raoum asked.
"They're talking about food," Salahim said quickly. He glared at Leo and Ki'ol as they started to laugh.
The storm shuddered around the house. Neru gasped and put a hand to her stomach, gripping the table edge suddenly. Leila caught her arm as she tried to stand. Salahim was at her side instantly.
"It's time," Leila said. "I knew it would be tonight. I prepared the room for this. Help her upstairs." She met Salahim's worried eyes. "Do not fear your past. It has brought you here."
Ki'ol stretched his bad leg out from the side of the bed and squeezed Temma's waist. He yawned.
"Their son was born strong and healthy with a big set of lungs. Screamed the house down. I think Salahim cried," he said. "The boy was thunder-born. They say in Talin's homeland that a thunder-born son will be a good leader and a strong warrior. Just like his dad."
"Just like his mother too, from the sound of her," Temma said. She nuzzled his neck. "I still can't believe you were in the Iron Band. All these years, you've kept that from me!"
"That, and a lot worse, my dear," he said. He smacked her rump playfully. "How about in a couple of years we get the Iron Band here? In your tavern?"
She squealed delightedly. "You could do that? Think of the coin we'd make!"
"Believe me, I've thought." He cracked his knuckles. "I'd better make a start on the next part of the song. We'll need to start spreading the word." He pushed her off, out of bed. "Bring me some beer, woman. And a piece of pie."