Midsummer is a hot sticky thing even in the woods. At least here the shade keeps the worst of the heat off you, but then there are the bugs. Back in my home city we didn't grow bugs like this. I think there was a law against them. On top of that it was a slow day with not a trader to be seen along the path. They must have all been doing the sensible thing and sitting in an inn somewhere sucking down cool beer from the cellar, not hanging out in the middle of a lightly traveled nowhere hoping to collect a toll or two. I decided to call it a day even though the sun was only an hour or two past noon.
I hadn't gotten far when I heard a rapid stride approaching from the east. It was unbelievable that someone was running in this heat, but at least today wasn't going to be a total loss. I moved back to the middle of the path to intercept whoever it was.
A single traveler jogged toward me at a steady pace. From the glimpses I caught of him between the trees he didn't look like a big man, and when he got closer I saw he wasn't a man at all. He couldn't have been a day over fourteen. Well, it was none of my business why some kid was wandering around by himself. Probably some tragic story. We all have our problems.
When he got to within a few yards I spoke up. "Hold up there! This is a toll road, and I'm here to collect."
He stopped, but stood there with a silly grin like he wasn't taking me seriously. "Someone owns this stretch of wood? You've got to be kidding." His voice was deeper than I expected and I couldn't place his accent. I expected he'd be out of breath from jogging like that, but he wasn't.
"It's a private road. I'm the owner." I looked him over. Pack on his back, some kind of outlandish longsword slung between the straps, black hair worn in a pigtail that went down past his waist, skin fairer than most. I noted the fine cloth of his tunic with its old-money extravagance of white-on-white embroidery, the intricate leatherwork on his boots, and the gem in his ear and decided to charge him a premium rate. "Thirty sesterces."
"Thirty!" he laughed. "Sorry, no."
"Look kid, you really don't want the trouble I can make for you." I could see no weapons except for his sword, and he couldn't possibly draw it the way he carried it. I towered over him by more than a foot, must have been nearly twice his weight, and was armed with sword and longbow. When I drew myself up and glared down at him that should have intimidated him. Instead, he snickered.
"First, I don't have all that much money with me and I have better things to spend it on than highway robbery. Second, I don't believe you own this road any more than I do. And last," his smile broadened, "give me any trouble and I'll give it back a whole lot worse. Bye!" He darted around me like a minnow and was off.
I nocked an arrow, drew, and called out, "This is a warning shot. The next one'll hit!" I let fly. And then... I didn't understand what I saw. The arrow should have flown just over his right shoulder. Instead, he had stopped in his tracks and the arrow was in his hand. I couldn't tell how it had come to be there. If I didn't know any better, I'd swear he caught it. It probably hung up in a bush or something and he grabbed it from there, but he must have done it very quickly.
He turned and walked back toward me, still holding the arrow. His grin was starting to irritate me. "Some people," he said, "might take unkindly to that kind of thing." He shifted his grip and snapped the shaft in two, one-handed, then let the pieces fall.
"They're supposed to. Now pay up!"
"Sorry kid, but you've got it coming now!" I charged forward and made a grab for him. There was a light touch on my arm and thigh.
Next thing I knew I was looking up at sunlight filtering through green leaves and dark red hair. Tree litter tickled my ears, my quiver was digging painfully into my back, and my head felt like someone had hit it with a hammer. I tried sitting up but that made everything spin, so I rolled onto my side instead. I was lying at least a dozen feet from the path and had no recollection of why. My headband had gotten knocked sideways. When I pushed it up to get my hair out of my face, there was the kid squatting beside me. At first he appeared to be staring into space even though he was looking in my direction. Then his eyes focused and met mine. Bright, bright blue, with something flickering deep inside. I felt a twinge in my gut.
"Sorry about that," he said. The irritating grin was gone, and the smile that took its place was genuine and apologetic. "I was kind of clumsy with you."
I was too confused to make any sense of the situation and mumbled something incoherent before trying to sit up again. The result was no better than before.
"Just stay down for a bit. So, you been in this business long?"
I didn't feel much like talking but silence would have been awkward. "About a year."
"You can't get a lot of traffic though."
"Enough to get me by."
"You must not want much. Is there a town nearby?"
I gave my head an experimental shake to clear it, and immediately regretted it. "About a half day downriver. I get there every few weeks."
"Hm." He glanced up at the sun, which was lower than I remembered from before. "A little far to drag you. You must camp somewhere close, then."
"It might be for the best if we got you over there so you can be comfortable. Come on, I'll give you a hand. I'm really sorry about this."
This time when I sat up and things started to spin, he grabbed my wrists and steadied me. He had a strong grip, and his hands were well calloused. "What happened?"
"I threw you. You weren't supposed to land on your head, but I screwed up."
"Hell of a trick."
He got me to my feet and supported me as we made our way to my camp.
The forest bordered on the River Hin. This far up it has too many shallows to be navigable and isn't as broad as it becomes by the time it joins the Ambar, but it's no small stream. On the inside of a wide bend was a broad bank of sandy clay at the foot of a bluff of jumbled boulders. Mostly I camped on the bank. There was a small cave about ten feet above the river. I stored my supplies there and used it for shelter when the weather turned sour.
It was only about a quarter mile away and I managed all right until we got to the edge of the bluff. The climb down was an easy one, but although heights didn't usually bother me, looking down made me dizzy again and I swayed where I stood. The kid held my arm firmly with one hand, and put the other at the back of my head right near the base of my skull. I felt a sudden rush and my head cleared enough that I could get my balance again. I felt shaky even so, and I let him help me down.
He deposited me near the firepit and then found my woodpile, got the fire going from his own tinderbox, and asked where I kept my food. I told him where to find it in the cave and he returned with a piece of dried meat and some root vegetables. He looked at them with the same unfocused gaze I'd seen on him when I came to, then at me. "Sit tight. I'll be right back." He scrambled up the bluff and disappeared into the woods.
Before long he returned bearing an assortment of mushrooms and greens. After a flurry of slicing and chopping he started throwing the ingredients together onto my big skillet, first the roots and meat, then the stuff he'd foraged. He added a drop of two of oil and some spices from a box he brought out of his pack, and before long he scooped two heaps of the stuff into bowls. "Here you go. Eat up. It'll help put you back together."
I looked at the mixture dubiously. I didn't recognize half of what he put in there. "This won't kill me?"
He was already munching away. "My cooking hasn't killed anyone yet," he said between bites.
I gave it a try. It was tasty, easily as good as anything I could get in the best inns back home and much better than anything I could make myself. More than the flavor, there was something about it my body craved. Once I started I couldn't stop, and I was finished almost before I realized it. There was enough for a second helping, so I had more. By then my head felt much better.
"Wow. Where'd you learn to cook anyway?"
"My master. He thought a fighter should know how. I guess this isn't too bad."
"And this is the same guy who taught you tricks like how to toss me around like you did?"
"It's more than just tricks. It's something you build your whole life around." He began to clean up the cooking utensils. "What should I call you anyway? This'll be an awkward night if we have no better names for each other than 'hey, you!'"
I laughed. "I'm Tamarick of Luz in the Tripolis. You?"
"Kitaro of Lipak."
I stared. "Lipak? You're the youngest son of King Peredur?"
"There aren't any other Kitaros this side of the Saevian Sea."
"Aren't you dead?"
He laughed. "I get that a lot. I had no idea the story spread so far."
The trouble in Lipak a few years ago had worried more than just the traders who did business with the dwarves. With half the countries in the old Empire at war each other there was a huge demand for the best arms, and for that you have to have the dwarves' alloys. "No one wanted to take their trade through a civil war," I said. "It was all anyone could talk about back then."
"Hm. I guess it could have turned that way. Father made himself pretty unpopular. But there isn't anything up there except the trade, and no one was going to ruin their livings to spite him."
"So what did happen?"
"I had a disagreement with my father and brothers that turned violent. In the end Father disowned me and my brothers did their best to kill me. They came close to succeeding." He talked like he was discussing the weather instead of a brush with death. "Anyone passing through who didn't stick around for the next couple of days could have thought they did, I guess."
I thought about how easily he'd handled me. "They must be amazing fighters."
"Nah. They weren't a match for me, not even together. It was a complicated situation I wasn't ready for. And it was a few years ago." His eyes narrowed and an edge came into his voice. For the first time since I laid eyes on him, he looked very dangerous. "If it happened today, it would go very differently."
If he was who he said he was, and I had no reason to doubt it, he couldn't possibly be as young as he looked. He had to be about my age, eighteen give or take a year. He certainly didn't look like a kid at the moment.
Neither of us said anything for a short time. I thought maybe I should change the subject. "So, Kitaro―"
He shook himself and his grin returned. "My friends call me Kit."
"And here I'm wondering if I should call you 'Your Highness.'" He snorted at that. "I'm your friend?"
He ticked off on his fingers as he spoke. "Well, you tried to take my money and threatened to shoot me. But then you didn't get any money, I don't think you were really going to shoot me, and you've been pretty reasonable about me giving you a concussion. So yeah, probably."
"You could have killed me if you wanted."
"I only wanted you out of the way. Gods, that's embarrassing."
"You throw me like that without even trying and you're upset that I landed wrong?" He nodded, his face red.
What a weird kid.
The sun disappeared behind the trees as we sat near the fire talking. I asked him about how he learned to fight, and he told me a little about his training. He'd been at this since he was three years old.
"So now what?" I asked him.
He shrugged. "My master didn't think he had anything left to teach me, so if I want to keep improving I have to get some experience. I had no reason to stay in Lipak anyway."
"What, you're wandering around looking for damsels in distress to rescue or something?"
"Or something," he laughed. "So how did a city boy like you end up in the middle of nowhere, waylaying passers-by?"
"Hey, it's a legitimate enterprise! Half the men calling themselves nobility these days got started―"
"I'm not saying it's wrong. Five hundred years ago they guy we call the first king up in Lipak was doing pretty much the same thing."
The truth was out of the question. He'd probably be gone tomorrow and there was no real need for me to make a good impression on him, but I found myself wanting to. I couldn't deny the reason why. If I let my mind wander, it would fix on his long, glossy hair, his perfect lips, the subtle bulge of muscle under smooth skin where it showed in his bare legs and forearms. It was all I could do to keep my eyes from giving me away.
What I ended up saying was at least half true. "What was I supposed to do? Stay at home, work my way through the family business, take it over someday? Spend my days in an office chair, or on the city council playing stupid political games? Forget it!"
He laughed. "You don't exactly look the tradesman. Unless all the tradesmen in the Tripolis are over eight span tall and built like champion wrestlers. Where'd you learn to shoot like that? Not many archers could put an arrow that close to someone's ear when it's a moving target at thirty paces. I wouldn't expect that from a tradesman either."
"Everyone there practices archery a couple of times a week. I just happen to be good at it."
"What's that for?"
"Defense. There's no standing army, but if the city fathers have to they can draw on practically all the men in the three cities to fight."
"Sounds like a bad place to invade."
"That's the idea. My grandparents remembered the Empire as having been pretty bad for business, what with all that tribute going to New Regellus. No one wants them back, or anyone like them."
"Is that how you learned to use a sword, too?"
"That was something else. The families who run the bigger houses have started acting like aristocrats, when here we're supposed to be a republic. So I had a lot of tutors when I was younger. I ended up learning dueling, music, art, that kind of stuff. I didn't take to most of it, but I liked knowing how to fight."
"Yeah, sounds pretty stupid, but that's what everyone was doing no matter how much the city fathers tried to stop it. Learning the sword was just a good idea. Almost everyone wore one."
"So after all that they expected you to settle down and... What is it you guys did?"
"Made pickled vegetables, mostly. Mother of Mercy, if I ever see a pickle barrel again, I think I might puke into it."
Kit mimed tasting a delicacy. "Amazing! You must share your recipe!"
"It's the secret ingredient. No one else uses anything like it."
Kit was good company and made for a much more pleasant evening than I ever had by myself. After a while I got out my flute and played a few of my favorite tunes. He seemed to enjoy the music, and I liked having an audience other than the local wildlife. When I finished he was looking heavy-lidded.
"So where do you sleep?"
"In the cave when it rains, but I usually bed down out here in good weather."
He turned his face to the sky and looked around. "No rain for at least a couple of days. Hope you don't mind, but I'm about to drop off." He spread out his bedroll next to the fire, pulled off his clothes, and wrapped himself in his blanket as he lay down. "Good night." I replied in kind, and he was asleep almost immediately.
It seemed a foolish thing for him to do. We'd only just met. Although we were friendly enough he still had no reason to trust me, and he must realize I had very good reason to fear him.
Not that I did just then. I stared at him across the fire. Asleep, relaxed, and with the firelight bringing out the fine bones of his face, he looked almost like the young boy I'd first taken him for and not dangerous at all.
When I became aware that the agonized moans disturbing my sleep were no dream, my eyes snapped open. It was still dark and the fire had burned down to embers. On the opposite side of the firepit Kit was thrashing around on his bedroll. I could hear no distinct words but his moans became louder and more anguished until with a cry he sat bolt upright. For a moment he was still, but then his shoulders sagged, he buried his face in his hands, and his body shook with quiet sobs. This didn't go on for very long before he ended with a deep, shuddering sigh and laid back down. By his breathing he must have gone back to sleep right away.
I remained awake a while longer.