The stranger’s reaction was not what Ehomba expected. The man’s eyes grew suddenly, shockingly wide. Reaching up, he clutched the taller man’s wool overshirt and used it to pull his ruined, bleeding upper body off the sand until his face was only a foot away from that of his finder. In light of the terrible injury he had suffered, the effort of will required to accomplish this feat was nothing short of astonishing.
Staring straight into Ehomba’s eyes, he hissed in his odd, uneven accent, “You must save her!”
“Save her? Save who?” Ehomba’s bewilderment was absolute.
“Her! The Visioness Themaryl of Laconda!” Remarkably, and with what invisible reserves of strength one could only imagine, the man was shaking Ehomba by the front of his overshirt.
“I do not know of what, or of whom, you speak,” the herder responded gently.
Exhausted by this ultimate physical exertion, the wounded stranger collapsed back on the sand. He was breathing more slowly now, and Ehomba could sense Death advancing fluidly across the surf, choosing as its avenue of approach, as it so often did, its friend the sea.
“Know that I am Tarin Beckwith, son of Bewaryn Beckwith, Count of Laconda North. The Visioness Themaryl was my countess, or my countess-to-be, until she was carried off by that pustulance that walks like a man and calls itself Hymneth the Possessed. Many”—he coughed raggedly, and blood spilled from his lips as from an overfull cup—“many of the sons and masters of the noble houses of Greater Laconda took a solemn oath never to rest until she was returned to us and her abductor punished. To my knowledge, I and my men were the only ones to track the monster’s ship this far.” He paused, wheezing softly, praying for breath enough to continue.
“There was a battle this morning, on the sea. My men fought valiantly. But Hymneth is in league with the evils of otherness. He cavorts with them, delights in their company, and calls upon them to help defend his miserable self. Against such foulness and depravity even brave men cannot always stand.” Once more the watery blue eyes, the life fading from them, fastened on Ehomba’s own. “I pass on the covenant to you, whoever you are. I charge you, on the departure of my soul, to save the innocent Themaryl and to restore her to the people of Laconda. With her abduction, the heart has gone out of that land, and all who dwell within it. I, Tarin Beckwith, place this on you.”
Ehomba shook his head slowly as he gazed down at the stranger. “I am but a simple herder of cattle and harvester of fish, Tarin Beckwith.” He gestured with the tip of his spear. “And this is a poor man’s land, spare of people and resources. Not a place in which to raise armies. I would not even know which way to begin searching.”
Raising himself off the sand with a second tremendous effort, Beckwith turned slightly at the waist and pointed. Sunlight glistened off his visible intestines. “To the northwest, across the sea. There! Having defeated the only ones capable of following him, Hymneth the depraved will feel safe in returning now to his home. I am told it lies in the fabled land of Ehl-Larimar, which is far to the west of Laconda. Seek him there, or find another who will.” Once more, clenching hands clawed at Ehomba’s simple attire. “You must do this, or the innocent Themaryl will be forever lost!”
“You expect too much of me, stranger Beckwith. I have a family, and cattle to watch over and protect, and—”
Ehomba halted in midsentence. His encumbrance delivered, the life force spent, the spirit of Tarin Beckwith of Laconda had at last fled his body. Gently but firmly, Ehomba disengaged the insensible fingers from his shirt and laid the upper part of the destroyed body down upon the cool sand. It lay there, teal blue eyes staring blankly at the sky, as the herdsman rose.
It would be a privilege, he knew, to consume a chop cut from the flank of so brave and dedicated a man. When the time came for the sharing out of the food, he would make a point of making this claim to Asab.
As to the dead man’s trust, there was nothing he could do about it, of course. He had spoken him the truth. There were family and herd and village responsibilities to look after. What matter to him the troubles and tribulations of a people from far away, or the carrying off of one woman?
Suarb and Deloog came running over. They were young men, not yet acknowledged elders, and they nodded to him respectfully as they knelt by the now motionless form at his feet. There was excitement in their voices, and their eyes were alight with the pleasure to be found in something new.
“Etjole, you found this one, but you do not take his belongings.” Suarb eyed him uncertainly while Deloog gazed at the heavily embossed leather armor, openly covetous.
“No. I have no interest in such things. They are yours if you want them.”
Elated at their good fortune, the two youths began to strip the body of useful material. As he yanked on a pants leg, Deloog watched the taller, older man curiously.
“These are fine things, Etjole. Why do you not take them?”
“I have been given something else, Deloog. Something I did not ask for and do not want, and I am not sure what to do with it.”
The youths exchanged a glance. Ehomba was known for sitting and saying nothing for long periods of time, even when he was not guarding the herds. A peculiar man, for certain, but kindly and always helpful. The boys and girls of the village, and not a few of their parents, thought him peculiar, but nice enough in his own quiet fashion.
So the two young men did not make fun of him behind his back as he walked away from them, up the beach toward a point of rocks. Besides, they were too excited by their booty.
Working his way up into the rocks, Ehomba found a flat, dry place and sat down, positioning his spear in the crook of his right arm and resting his chin on his crossed forearms. Small waves broke themselves against the cool, gray stone. Farther up the coast, seals and merapes played in the surf, occasionally hauling out to dry themselves on the sun-warmed beach. The merapes would crack clams and abalone to share with the seals, who did not have the benefit of hands with which to manipulate rocks.
Out there, somewhere, lay lands so distant he had never heard of them, exotic and alien. A place by the name of Laconda, and another called Ehl-Larimar. A woman being taken from one to the other against her will. A woman many men were willing to die for.
Well, he already had a woman worth dying for, and two children growing up strong and healthy. Also cattle, and a few sheep, and the respect of his contemporaries. Who was he to go searching across half a world or more on behalf of people he did not know and who would probably laugh at his untutored ways and plain clothes if they saw him?
But a brave and noble man had charged him with the duty as he lay dying. As it always did, the sight of the sea and the waves soothed Etjole. Yet he remained much troubled in mind.
Half the day was done when finally he rose and started back to the village. All the bodies had been removed from the beach, leaving only the dark stains of blood to show where they had lain. Come high tide, the sea would cleanse the sand, as it cleansed everything else it touched.
That night there was a solemn feast in honor of the strangers who had died on the shore below the village. Everyone partook of the cooking, and it was agreed without dispute that wherever they had come from, it was a land of plenty, for their flesh was sweet and uncorrupted. As he ate of Tarin Beckwith, Ehomba pondered the unfortunate man’s final words until those around him could no longer ignore his deep concern. Not wishing to lay his melancholy on them, he excused himself from the company of his wife and their friends, and sought out old Fhastal.
He found her by herself off to one side of the central firepit, sitting cross-legged against a tired tree while chewing with some difficulty on the remnants of a calf. Though white as salt, her hair was fastened in neat braids that spilled down her back, and she had decked herself out for the evening in her finest beads and long strips of colored leather. She looked up at him out of her one good eye and smiled crookedly. The other eye, blinded in youth, gleamed chalky as milk. Given her few remaining teeth, it was no wonder she was finding the meat tough going.