“Etjole! Come and sit with an old woman and we’ll give the young girls something to gossip about tomorrow!” Her grin fell away as she saw that his expression was even more serious than usual. “You are troubled, boy. It clouds your face like smoke.”
Crossing his own legs beneath him, he sat down beside her, waving off her offer of meat, broiled squash, or bread. “I need your wisdom and your advice, Fhastal, not your food.”
Nodding understandingly, she picked at a strip of gristle caught between her remaining back teeth as she listened to him tell of his encounter with the dying stranger on the beach. When he had finished, she sat silent in contemplation for a long moment.
“The stranger placed this burden on you as he lay dying?” When Ehomba nodded, she responded with a terse grunt. “Then you have no choice.” Idly she fingered the lightly browned slices of squash in her bowl. “Are you or are you not a man of conviction?”
“You know that I am, old woman.”
“Yes, I do. So we both know what this means. You must finish this man’s work. One who dies in another’s arms is no longer a stranger. Like it or not, he bound himself to you, and in so doing, his mission was bound to you as well.”
The man seated across from her sighed heavily. “That is also how I interpreted what happened, and it is what I feared. But what can I do? I am only one. This Tarin Beckwith had many warriors with him, and they were not enough to save him or allow him to succeed.”
Fhastal sat a little straighter. “They were not Naumkib. They were from outside the stable world.”
He was not persuaded. “They were still men. That is all that I am.”
“No it is not.” A gnarled fist the color of spoiled leather punched him several times in the upper arm. “You are Etjole Ehomba, herder, fisherman, father, warrior, and tracker. The best tracker in the village. Can you not track that which is not seen as well as that which is?”
“That is not so great a skill. Tucarak can do it, and so can Jeloba.”
“But not as good as you, boy. You know that you must do this thing?”
“Yes, yes. Because this Tarin Beckwith, whom I do not know, put it on me as he died. This is not fair, Fhastal.”
She snorted, her nose twitching. “Fate rarely is. If you want me to, I will explain it to Mirhanja.”
“No.” He uncrossed his legs preparatory to rising. “I am her husband, and it is my responsibility. I will tell her. She will not take it well.”
“Mirhanja is a good woman. Give her more credit. She understands honor and obligation.” She fumbled a slice of fried pumpkin into her mouth. “How old is your boy?”
“Daki will be fourteen years next month.”
Fhastal nodded approvingly. “Old enough to do a turn or two looking after the herd in your stead. Time he started doing something useful. The little girl will have a harder time accepting this, but her tears will pass.” Reaching down, she removed one of the many colorful fetishes that hung in bunches around her neck. It was a fine carving of a woman, done in the shiny gray horn of a stelegath. As he leaned forward, she slipped the cord from which it hung over his head.
“There! Now I can go with you. I have seen the Unstable Lands in my dreams, and now I can travel with you to see them in person.”
He smiled fondly as he studied the figurine hanging from its cord of sisal fiber. “You mean that this image can go with me.”
“Oh no, big handsome!” She cackled gleefully. “It is the image you are speaking to right now, the image that the village children make fun of and call names behind my back.” She pointed to the necklace. “That is the real me.”
For just an instant, he thought he saw something in her blind eye. Something flickering, and alive. But it was only a trick of the weak light, distorted by the cook fire.
“I will carry it as an amulet,” he assured her, not wanting to hurt her feelings. Fhastal meant well, but she was a little crazy. “So that it will bring me luck.”
“If you’d carry it somewhere else on your body, it might bring me luck.” She laughed madly again. “I hope that it will, Etjole.” She made shooing motions at him, like a mother hen guiding one of her brood of chicks. “Now then—go and see to your wife, so that you may lie with her before you leave. Make your farewells to your children. And be sure to stop by Likulu’s house. She and the other women will gather some small things to give you to take on your journey. Meet me tomorrow by the stone lightning and I will set you on your way. I can do no more than that.”
He straightened. “Thank you, Fhastal. With luck, I may be able to return this woman to her people and return home in a month or two.”
He did not believe it as he spoke it, but that did not matter. Fhastal did not believe it either. Without discussion, they chose to connive in the illusion.
MIRHANJA TOOK IT HARD, AS ETJOLE HAD KNOWN SHE WOULD. He tried to explain slowly and carefully, not forgetting to include the confirming conversation he’d had with Fhastal, reminding his wife again and again why he had to go.
“If I did not do this thing, then I would not be the man you married.”
Lying next to him, she reached over and hit him hard on the chest, a blow arising out of frustration as much as anger. “Better half a live man unconvicted than a whole one dead! I don’t want you to go!” She pressed tighter against him, her thigh curling over his flat stomach. She was nearly as tall as he, but in this she was not exceptional. The women of the Naumkib were famed for their statuesqueness.
“I have to. He who betrays a dying man’s obligation is himself dimmed forever in the sight of the heavens.”
“But you don’t want to go.” She kissed him ferociously on the neck.
“No,” he confessed as he turned to her in the bed, “I do not.”
“Tucarak would not go. Not even Asab.”
“I do not know that, and neither do you. But you do know me.”
“Yes, damn you! Why must you be such a good man? You are going to try and save a woman you have never met, of a tribe you do not know, from a land no one has ever seen, for a man you knew only for a moment as he lay dying. I know the depth of a warrior’s obligations, but can you not be even a little bit of a knave just for me?”
“You are so beautiful.” He was running his fingertips light as a summer breeze over her forehead and back down across her hair, smoothing out the curls, trying to smooth away her fears as well. But despite his best efforts, they kept springing back up again, just like the curls.
“And you are a fool!” She placed gentle fingers on his lower lip. “And I am cursed because that makes me a fool’s wife.”
“Well then, Mrs. Fool, at least we are well matched.”
“Promise me one thing, then.” She looked over at him, her eyes moist. “Promise me you will not stay away long.”
“No longer than is necessary—wife.”
“And that while you are gone, when the nights are cold and lonely, you will not lie with the beautiful women of far-off lands, but will remember that I am here, waiting for you.”
He smiled, and the love he felt for her poured out of him like water from a cistern. “No live woman could compare with even the memory of you, Mirhanja.” He covered her then, feeling the warmth of her surge up and around him, and she sighed beneath him even as he wondered when next he might feel a part of her again.
* * * *
Early the following morning Daki stood solemnly watching, maturing in the moment, but Nelecha would not let go of the leather strips that hung down and over his woolen kilt. For so slim a child she had a lot of energy, all of which she put into crying “No, no!” over and over, until her eyes were red from the seeping and her throat was sore. Eventually, reluctantly, hopelessly, she let herself be gathered up in her mother’s arms.
He and Mirhanja had made their own farewell the previous night. Several of Ehomba’s closest friends among the men of the village had come to see him off. He did not tell them he was going to meet Fhastal or they would have laughed at him. As it was, there was no laughter. Only firm handclasps and sympathetic waving of hands as he turned and started off along the coast path. They understood why he was going, but he could tell that, tradition notwithstanding, several among them disagreed with it.