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Fiction

The Child Support of Cromdor The Condemned

Cromdor the Calderian, thrice-cursed, thrice-condemned, (I’ve forgotten the rest, but believe you me, there is thrice-more) had nearly finished his tale when the traveler slipped in. As he had for the last ten days and ten before that, Cromdor had a packed house. ’Course, “packed house” is relative—last winter a mudslide tore away half the common room, and Yargin had been rebuilding when he fell through the thatch and died on that floor. Damned if Greta, his daughter, didn’t ever try to stop his goats from getting in, or doing their business in the corners.

So’s only the old folks came. A fine summer night, and we’d have sunlight until midnight, and stories to go with it, but the young ones were mostly down at the church, praying for the holy warriors on their mission in Ursalim, worshipping the new Bleeding God. Don’t the weather matter? The crop? How’s one god gonna keep track of all that?

Point being, the traveler stuck out.

“She was a wench, let me tell you.” Cromdor liked to stretch out “wench,” a grumbling roll like rocks coming down a mountain.

Greta groaned. “Always with the wenches. Now you’ve got to describe her.”

Cromdor’s enormous, broken-toothed grin was like some mean old cat’s. “This wench had skin like ivory—”

“Always ivory. Ivory or creamed coffee. Never a freckle.” Greta didn’t miss a step.

“Ivory,” Cromdor said. “And hair red as flame.”

“Not raspberries, then? Flame?”

“She had that same hair in one other place,” Cromdor said, and everyone chuckled. “And do you know in Coria they use those sorcerer’s tattoos? A man gets in well with a Corian girl, he’d better check the spells where he’s putting his—”

“Cromdor.”

Young guy stood in the doorway. Skin a deep, burnt brown. Like the parchment Cromdor passed around once in a while, full of some kind of writing we couldn’t read, Cromdor included, that told about his deeds. I would have suspected this boy to be Amaric, like one of them women Cromdor talks about, but Cromdor always said they’re born with that skin, rich as cream in coffee, whatever in the name of Friya’s dugs coffee is (none of us had a right idea what ivory looked like either) but he was tall as any northerner. Boy was also dressed up thick as three bears, festooned in way too many damn furs for summer. He had about the craziest thing on his face I’ve ever seen someone wear. Round pieces of glass like he’d cut the bottoms out of two lord’s cups.

Cromdor took a drink—least he meant to, but his glass was empty. “Greta! Fill me up and this boy, too, so he can hear the rest of the story.”

“Get your own damn drink,” Greta said, as usual.

“I’m not here for stories,” the boy said. “Do you remember Dary? Peasant girl, in southern Galia? During the border wars, in High Preston Hollense’s time.”

“I don’t reckon time by Church boy-buggers.” He grabbed the pitcher from Greta and took a deep drink. “What sort of man are you, with that skin and those things on your face?”

“Your son.”

“Ah, Carn damn me,” Cromdor said, slamming his ale down.

• • • •

We mostly cleared out. Cromdor was staring into his ale, looking about like someone’d hit his ass with the hammer of Gar. Before the Gods, we’d all wondered about his kids. Either all those wenches were lies, or the man had more bastards than a king.

Greta smacked me on the shoulder with a wet rag. “Your daughter wants you home, Olen.”

“My daughter kicked me out this morning,” I said, “and told me not to come back till tonight, ’less I was planning to help with the roof.” Just saying it made my back ache.

“Nah, come on over, Olen,” Cromdor said. “You were one of them mages, weren’t you?”

“Magistrate,” I said. “No mages anym—”

“Whatever. Make your useless ass useful.” Cromdor slammed the table. “More ale, woman!”

The boy sat. “Who’s this Darcy?”

He took the things off his face and breathed on them, then started rubbing them carefully. Never seen anything like it. “Dary. A black-haired girl,” the boy said, and I could just hear Cromdor describing her. Buxom, raven-haired, and she had an appetite! Mark me, those peasant girls know more tricks than fancy courtesans . . . “Lived in a farm outside Faires. You were passing through with a war party to fight the Amars in the Pirren mountains.”

“I fought a lot of Amars. And bedded a lot of wenches.”

The boy muttered something incomprehensible. “What?”

He cleared his throat. Funny how someone could look furious and terrified at the same time. “She gave you a green stone, in gold filigree.”

Cromdor blew out one lock of his long black hair. “Phew. Hold on, boy. I think I remember her. Buxom, raven-haired, and she had an—”

“I want it back,” he said. “She’s sick, and I need money to bring a doctor to Faires.”

Cromdor laughed. “How old is she? Come now, boy. That was a while back. She’s lived a good life.”

“She was thirteen when you got her pregnant,” the boy said.

Now, I don’t know how they do it elsewhere, but around here that’s mighty young. Cromdor can talk all he wants about the courts of sorcerers and kings, but in the countryside, a fella comes adventuring through town, all bluster and blade like Cromdor, we keep a weather eye on our daughters, and keep a weather eye on that fella, and hurry him fast as possible. I caught Greta looking at Cromdor out of the corner of my eye.

“How old are you, boy?”

“Nineteen years.”

“How old does that make her exactly?” Cromdor had a good sword arm, but the man never learned sums.

“Look,” he said. “I’m a physician, but I can’t figure out what’s wrong with her. I need one of my old teachers to come to my village to look at her, but even he can’t afford the trip. You are my father, and you owe me . . . something.” I suppose it was polite as you could be, were you collecting from your long-gone father.

“Physicians’ guild is swimming in money,” Cromdor said. “Even I know that.”

“I was trained by Amars,” he said. “I’m not—I’m not like most of my countrymen.”

“You pray to the Bleeding God?” Cromdor asked.

“No,” the boy said. “I pray to the Thousand Gods of the Amarites, one and a multitude.”

“Well, that’s something, ain’t it? A start, by Carn.”

• • • •

Cromdor said he was going to look for the jewel. Greta and I shared a look. There was nothing in that shed of his ’cept a sharpener and a bar tab he couldn’t read.

Greta came over to me. “I told you. Didn’t I? I said trouble’s going to come sooner or later.”

I didn’t answer. Every once in a while, someone reminded us that Cromdor was a nasty old drunk who showed up out of blue, saying nothing about his past unless it had to do with killing and wenching.

“This may be a foreign concept to you, Olen, but a man’s debts come due,” Greta said.

I was just working up a good response—maybe something about calming down, and getting the goats out before she gives a customer trouble, when she hollered, “Look at that!”

Damned if the boy didn’t unroll a mat in the corner and start praying! Greta and I, we stared like we were watching a Frosthand try to kiss a human. (Which happened, you know—poor old Pandrig Hargund, the fellow was nice to one of the young ones after its mother tossed it out, and now Pandrig’s frozen till the end of the world.) (Which ain’t far off, not with all the young ones acting so. Bleeding God my bleeding arse.)

Boy finished his prayers and stood up. “You Amarites,” I said. “You have lots of gods?”

“Amarites are a tribe. I’m just one of the Faith,” he said. “I studied with them, because the physicians’ guild wouldn’t teach a bastard boy.” He rolled up the mat. “There are a Thousand Aspects of a Thousand Gods, all gods one and all gods many.”

Blubbery nonsense. “Good to hear, boy. Job’s too big for one god.”

Greta leaned in close to me. “What’re we going to do when Cromdor ain’t got what the boy asked for?”

“That’s between Cromdor and his son.”

“Olen,” she said. “This is a matter of thurgisk.”

Just like Greta to bring that up. “Cromdor ain’t one of us. Can’t hold an outsider to our rules.”

“All decent folk observe the inheritance of a father and son, Olen.”

Thurgisk. That word used to get me riled up. My father would chant it, and he’d hit the table, and he’d bellow how you’re nothing if you don’t have a son and something to leave to him, pass on a holdfast, pass on the true gods, all the way back to when my great-greatfather decided to stay here and not go reaving across the sea with Karik the Red-Hand, because he cared for the ground under his feet and the gods and thurgisk, thurgisk, thurgisk.

My wife gave me one living daughter and three stillborn sons, and the last son killed her. If I hadn’t been such a damn fool, talking about having a son, talking about thurgisk like it’s the point of living, saying life wasn’t life without a son, well, can’t second-guess the gods, but I reckon she might still be alive.

Cromdor came stalking back in then. To his credit, he was a bit blowed, his belly heaving as if he really had gone home and searched his things. I thought he was about to put an effort into apologizing to the boy when he turned to me. “Frosthands.”

“Now? Where?” I stood up, practically knocking Greta over. “It’s the middle of summer!”

“The monks in their mine found something that wasn’t iron.” Cromdor picked up a tankard. “Some ale before we go into battle?”

Greta shook her head. “I’m not running your tab up again before you die.”

“By Carn, woman! A man needs a drink before—”

“Ah, excuse—” The boy mumbled something, coughed, and repeated it.

“Speak like a man! What in the seven hells are you talking about?” Cromdor snapped.

“What happened to the monks?”

“I’ll tell you someday,” Cromdor said, “or the bards will. Come on, Olen.”

“You come, boy,” I said. “We’ll need good hands.” The boy grabbed some of those silly furs he’d covered himself with and headed out. If he wasn’t careful, someone was going to shoot him and make a rug out of those skins.

We crossed the village and Talwic’s pasture, the field of mud it was. Talwic’s never learned to graze his cows properly. Ahead of us, the path wound up through the black pines like a white snake. I could feel myself getting blowed already. Or maybe it was fear. A man ought to be afraid. The monks brush off the old gods, and they brush off our offerings and proper prayers, but they can’t ignore a Frosthand. No man can.

Can’t figure if the Frosthands are intelligent. If they wanted our pasture, or our food, or our women, they could have them in a second. But they don’t want to do much except come in the dead of winter and freeze whatever they touch. You just have to pray they are satisfied when they split your fencepost and hope they don’t get into the cattle.

“So what do you figure you’re going to do against Frosthands?” I asked Cromdor. He was clad in his usual loincloth, holding a naked sword.

“Figure it out when we get there.”

The boy chose that moment to speak up. “My mother’s necklace. What did you do with it?”

Cromdor blew out a sweat-wet string of hair. “I reckon I lost it when Malkior the Cruel took me captive. Had a few other things that were worth a good bit of money. Malkior took bloody everything. Lucky for me his serving-wench had a good eye for manhood, and she sprung me.”

“Now hold old was she?” I asked.

“Keep your old mouth shut, Olen,” he grumbled.

“Don’t go getting huffy,” I said. I leaned in closer to Cromdor. “Do right by this boy, Cromdor.” I may have argued with Greta on the particulars, but I wasn’t about to see anyone shirk a fatherly duty. (Unless it involved fixing my daughter’s roof. A man’s back is only meant for so much.)

Cromdor pulled me ahead of the boy and muttered. “I don’t force women, Olen. I hold to few things, but I hold to that.” And after a moment, “They don’t bloody tell me how old they are!”

“You ever thought to ask?” He didn’t answer. “Now, look here, Cromdor, I ain’t saying you’re that kind of man, but you oughtta have some sense!”

“A young man with a willing wench? Have sense?” He laughed.

I went flush. It ain’t something to be real proud of, but at my age, a man likes to hear about the willing wenches. I drank up them stories of smooth-skinned coffee brown girls and flame-haired girls, begging Cromdor to pull their diaphanous (figure that’s some kind of wool?) robes off. Reminds me of a time when I could see over my belly and swing an axe without throwing my spine sideways. “Well, it ever occurred to you . . .” Took a minute to find the words.

“Carn damn it, Olen, speak your piece and be done.”

I cleared my throat. Think like a magistrate and a father, not an old fool, Olen. “Occurred to you there’s more going on when a young girl comes to your bed?” He gave me a stare like I’d said something crazy. “Big strong fella rolls into town, some young girls, they might figure if they open up their legs, that big strong fella won’t cause much trouble. Others, well, they’re too young to know not to play with fire.” He was looking like I was some craven in his stories gone and turned on him. “I oughtn’t be the one telling you this! I said it a hundred times, the gods give us all just enough wits as we nee—”

“Shut your mouth.” He had a dark tone in his voice that said violence.

I forced myself to gaze at those rage-filled eyes. “You been adventuring a long time. Speaking as a magistrate, debts come due.”

He looked like he was going to whack my wise old magistrate head right off. Praise the Gods, he stormed on.

I followed, wheezing up that hill.

“If I might ask, what are you speaking about?” the boy asked.

“Oh, I didn’t say anything he didn’t already know,” I said, and kept on going. It was a sad thing and a fool thing at once, to know them wenching stories wouldn’t go down the same anymore.

Up here, black sentinel pines surrounded us, with few of any other trees except a few gnarled scrub oaks in the spots where lightning had burned out patches of forest. The black pines marched up, and up, and up to the snow and the rocks ripping the sky apart, where the gods’ own drinking halls were.

I knew the monks had been digging a mine up here, although we’d all told them that a little bit of copper or iron wasn’t worth the bears, wolves, and Frosthands. But who needs sense when you’ve got just one god telling you what to do?

The monks were gathered around a prone body. The boy—Amir, or whatever he’d said—broke from behind us and ran forward. “I’m a physician,” he said, the loudest he had spoken yet. When he talked that loud, his accent really sounded kind of funny.

I hurried after him. Cromdor didn’t break stride, walking as easy as you please, just as if he were a young man striding into battle and his gut didn’t hang out over his loincloth.

The prone fella on the ground had a face looked half-cooked away. “Burns?” I asked.

“What happened?” the boy asked.

A tall thin monk—young fellow—said, “It was cold! God’s wounds, it was cold, like steam. A cold that burned him.” He shivered; cold in the summer sun!

“I need water,” Amir said, loud as you please and with a funny accent. No more mumbling. “I can make a poultice for this, but it needs to be clean and bandaged. Fetch dressings!”

“I can get it,” an older monk said. “I can run.”

Amir hardly nodded. He yanked out a mortar and pestle from his bag and started smashing up some funny-looking plant.

“What’s this about Frosthands?” Cromdor said.

One of the other monks pointed.

I hadn’t noticed it, being focused on the monks and all, but there it was, a Frosthand. Lying on the hillside, among the trees, up a bit from the gaping entrance to the mine.

Gods take me. Thing was taller than the bloody inn, all long legs and long nose and warty skin like a knotted oak tree. After a moment, a moment where I was ready to piss my trousers, I realized it wasn’t moving. It sat in a pile of mud. I could see water oozing out of its skin, like a sponge getting squeezed.

Dead, too, dead as a stump. The monks had hacked its neck.

Crazy as you please, Cromdor just walked right up to that Frosthand and kicked it. Water went rushing out in a pool around Cromdor’s fur-covered boots.

“Lost its magic.”

“I killed it,” said the first monk to talk. Young, thin fellow. Pale eyes and bright blonde hair and wound tight as a cornered snake. He clutched the haft of a broken sword. “After I cut the creature, my blade shattered.”

“Lucky your arm didn’t freeze,” I said.

“We dug into Hell,” one of the monks said. “The devils will rise if we don’t seal the—”

“You didn’t dig into Hell, you dumb unwashed chanting idiots,” Cromdor said. “You dug into some Frosthand’s lair.” Cromdor grinned, a big toothy grin like a yawning cat. “If we’re lucky, you’ll get a pool of water. Every summer, wenches will come here to bathe their supple young limbs.”

“There’s more of them down there,” the monk said. “When we hit the cold, it shook the whole mine, and collapsed some of the walls, and that Frosthand came charging out of another cavern. There are hundreds more of them!”

Cromdor didn’t even wait for a by-your-leave. He just charged right into that mine, through the cold mist rising. A couple of those monks shouted after him and started to chase him, but they gave up real quick.

The twitchy monk, the one killed the Frosthand, hung back, eyeballing the last spot Cromdor had stood.

A monk returned with the bandages that the boy had asked for, and he set to work wrapping up those cold-burns. I sat down a bit—took a while to get comfortable with my back throbbing already, and all winded, too—and figured I was going to wait. You figure that out after a bit, listening to stories. There’s a lot more waiting around, and having to piss (more than a man should at any age—I’m a busted pump, Wethin Skyfather take mercy) than they tell you.

I thought. Mostly, against my will, I thought about what Greta had said, and about thurgisk. About my wife, and about how it still gets me a bit when I see a man, like Cromdor, don’t want to know his son, don’t think about what he left that mother with.

Suppose that’s why I stood up and wandered over to where the boy was. Well, took another piss first, but then I headed for the boy.

“I don’t have much of this,” Amir was saying, as he rubbed some bright green concoction into the burned man’s skin. “In the drylands, it’s valuable as water. Understand that.”

I had to grin, thinking of all the times Cromdor had talked about valuables from foreign lands in that same damned tone. “You understand? Smear it on your burns twice a day. Do not throw it out, do not mistake me, do not treat it cheaply.”

“Boy,” I said. “Ymir. Amir, I mean. Come over here.”

The boy walked to me, looking back at the pit in the earth. He pulled the furs around his shoulders. “Should we go in after him?” he asked. “He should have come out by now.”

“Boy, even if half of Cromdor’s stories are pure lies, I still think he can handle himself in a cold hole in the ground,” I said.

The boy stared at the hole as if it was indeed a pit to Hell. Southlanders, I tell you.

“So you just find out Cromdor was your daddy, or you just didn’t have the inclination to find him?”

“I always knew,” the boy said, his voice as bitter as an old woman with a grudge. “Always.” After a moment he said, “They tell stories about him. All over. I’ve heard about Cromdor the Fearsome, the Brave, the Battle-Hardened, in every tavern on this journey.”

“Your mother talk about him much?”

“There is little to talk about.”

A man’s got to think hard about what to say to this kind of boy. ’Course, I didn’t. Sometimes I’m as big a fool as Greta says. “I reckon that Cromdor owes you plenty, then. We’ll find some way to get the money your mother needs—”

“It was a long time ago,” the boy said. “I only came because she was bit by a spider, a red spinneret. I drained the bite, and I gave her the anti-venom, but something’s still in her, poisoning her blood. One of my teachers knew spiders, understood poisons.” He paused, a bit choked. Not much more than a boy indeed. “Thirty and three is too young to die. Not after the life she’s had.”

Cromdor came up out of the mine. “Olen!” he bellowed.

And here came my part in the story. I hustled over to him. “What’s down there, Cromdor?”

“Get those kneelers out of here,” Cromdor said. He leaned in close. “You’ve got about five young Frosthands in there. No bigger than babes. And their mother.”

A Frostmother. Gods preserve us.

“Better if I show you.” Cromdor grabbed my arm. “You come, too, boy. You won’t see this in the southlands, and you’ve got the furs for it.”

The monks remained behind, staring after us, but they weren’t ready to mess with Cromdor yet, it seemed. Down we went. The mist was thick and icy, like small flakes of snow. Amir put his thin hand on my arm. I looked back to see that the seeing-glasses over his face had grayed out with the mist.

It was cold. The kind of cold you don’t want to think about in summer, the kind that made me wish I had brought furs like Amir’s. Or more. My hands were shaking, and I had to clench my teeth to keep them from rattling. Cromdor even showed goosebumps, he who never wore a thing save his loincloth and a sword.

We went through a few tunnels until we got to one half-collapsed. A pile of dirt and rock had filled half the tunnel, and a kind of cold white light, like that which comes from snow on a dark night, was filtering in through the gap in the wall.

“Up here,” Cromdor said, his breath steaming.

I scrambled up the pile of earth and rock, and I looked into the Frostmother’s eyes.

Thick coils filled the cave, piled from top to bottom. Fat coils as big around as a plow-horse, curled around each other, lying in rings. But it wasn’t all snake, because from the underside of the coils, a few little pink dugs sprouted, like a cow’s udders in a row. Little Frosthands curled against some of those dugs, their spindly white hands clutching at their mother’s teats. They squirmed to get close to the cold of their Frostmother the same way pigs in a barn might curl up to the warmth of the mother.

In the heart of those coils, a sightless black eye stared out at me. I mean black. Black as night without a moon or stars. Black as the depths of a well. Drew me in, it did, and whispered like a man telling a story. Stories of deep, dark nights, of sweet cold, of warmth draining out of a little living thing, of the joy of blood freezing . . .

“Olen!”

“Cold.” I whispered it. The boy did, too. “Cold, cold, go to the cold, suckle the cold . . .” There we were, walking toward the thing, ready to latch onto its udders.

Cromdor saved us. That iron grip yanked us both back, threw us to the ground. “Keep your sense! You never felt magic before? If she breathes on us, touches us . . .”

I nodded. He’d snapped me out of it for now, but I could not look at that eye, that old, black eye.

Cromdor leaned on his sword. “Maybe we could kill the babes, at least, without waking the Frostmother.”

I gave him a level look. “You’re going to kill babes on the nipple.”

“You know what they’ll do when they get older.”

The boy spoke up. “This is old magic, you say,” he whispered. “I have heard of this, from my mother. Spirits of fire and air, ice and ash. Ancient things, for whom men are like mice.” He whispered now. “Olen, the gods of this place are watching. And we should not cross the old magic.”

Cromdor and I stared at the boy. And right together, we nodded. What else could you do, when a fellow spoke sense?

Up we went. I’ve never been so glad to get away from anything as much as that deep black eye.

The monks were waiting. That sharp-eyed monk with a blade watched us leave the hole in the ground. “Well?”

“Well,” I said. “That was a sight.” I spoke louder. “These are the Frosthands’ mountains, and we ought to know better. A man can kill all the wolves he wants, if they skulk around his farm, but the gods gave these mountains to wolves and bears and Frosthands, and the valley to us to farm.

“You fellows know what the Frosthands’ll do, right?” I got nods from most of them. “I reckon we should move the mine somewhere closer to town. Just leave this spot alone, and pray to the gods—to your god—that you stay safe. Even the supple wenches should leave it alone, Cromdor.”

The young monk stepped forward. He’d gotten a new sword from somewhere. He held it at the ready, and I could tell he knew how to swing the thing, just as much as Cromdor did. “Thank you for taking the risk. We have this monster in hand.”

“Boy,” I said, “let it alone. Trust me.”

“I have a duty, old man, to God.”

A half-cup of sense would have gone down right in that crowd. Instead, Cromdor shoved me out of the way. “Olen made the decision.” He walked right up to the young monk, who put his new blade up. Old Cromdor didn’t stop till that sword was an inch from his nose. Cromdor’s hand twitched on his own sword hilt. “Get.”

“For the Gods’ sake—” I said.

“Please get out of the way,” the young monk said.

Cromdor shoved him.

The young monk came back lightning-fast, stabbing Cromdor’s shoulder. Cromdor roared, and pulled himself backward, yanking his shoulder away from the blade, but it was too late—he’d dropped his old, scarred sword. Blood poured down Cromdor’s arm. The young monk stepped forward and slammed his fist into Cromdor’s face, right with the hilt of the blade. Cromdor crumpled to the ground.

The young monk stood over Cromdor, chest heaving. He looked up at me. “Please move—”

Cromdor jumped to his feet. He punched the boy, and that punch was like Gar pounding out thunder on the sky. I saw a jaw crack, teeth scatter, and the young fellow dropped the sword and tried to rise warily, but he was a bit too dizzy to really hold himself up.

Cromdor snarled, and kicked the young monk’s feet out from under him. He stepped on the monk’s good hand, pinning it down. “Listen to your elders, you little pig’s ass.” He raised the blade and, neat as a woman slicing bread, he chopped right through that wrist, robbing the young monk of his sword hand.

He screamed. A jet of blood flew in the air from his stump, fell, splattered across the grass.

Cromdor looked up at his son and smiled a wicked, broken-toothed smile. “See? We needed you!”

• • • •

“Sew it up already, woman!”

Greta looked up at me and I shook my head. “Cromdor, your son said to staunch it till he came back, and I reckon he knows.” Actually, what he’d said was even a good sewing job is like to cause rot with a wound this deep.

“He’s off with those Carn-damned kneelers! Give me the needle and thread. I can sew my own wound closed.”

“I’m here,” said the boy from the doorway.

He came in with one of the old monks. Myself, Greta, Cromdor, and Greta’s old goat glared daggers at that kneeler. The monk didn’t seem to notice. He put a hand on Amir’s arm. “Thank you,” the monk said. “You did a great service. I will give you a letter, from me to the physician’s guild, speaking of your work with the servants of God.” The old monk looked at us. “We will call a magistrate tomorrow to discuss this situation. My young brother was rash, and responded with more force than was perhaps needed. Nevertheless . . .”

“Get over here and sew me up already, boy!” Cromdor roared.

“Just a moment.” Amir shed his furs again, and wiped his forehead. He removed those funny bits of glass and cleaned them again. The night was half-gone, dark outside at last, and the boy looked tired. “Olen, have you any warm water?”

“Had a pot boiling on the stove half an hour ago. I’ll get you some.”

“Get some more lanterns, too.” He had a cake of soap in one hand, I noticed. “Do you have any drink? Not beer. Something strong.”

“I’ve got some of Dad’s old gurkild,” Greta said. “Even at half-strength, it’d stand your hair up.”

“Get it.”

I fetched lanterns, and Greta fetched gurkild in jars, and Cromdor grimaced but said nothing. Going by his stories, he hadn’t taken a wound like this in ten years. Ten years of drinking and fattening and rotting away.

The boy opened up Cromdor’s wound, and carefully pulled out the sopping, blood-drenched dressing. The wound was big and ragged and purple. Dark and still oozing blood, if not gushing, once we’d packed the dressing in. Waiting had been the worse for it.

“Godsave,” Greta muttered. “Just a thimbleful of sense. They’re going to sing of Cromdor the Stubborn, who was too damned stupid to live.”

“Lie down,” Amir said.

“I’m doing this on my feet,” Cromdor said.

“You’ll need to lie down after I give you this,” Amir said, holding up a bottle and a sponge. “I soak the sponge in this mixture and put it on your face.”

“There poppy in that?” Cromdor asked. His son nodded. “Not taking it, boy. Sew me standing up, awake. No poppy.”

He looked back at me. I shrugged. “I reckon he’s taken some real hurts in his day.”

“Even a big man can be knocked out by pain,” the boy said. I wondered if he was even a bit concerned for Cromdor, or if he was talking like a physic. It was hard to tell, and it wasn’t just that accent done it.

He took some kind of pump out of his bag. Looked a bit like a bellows, if you could fill a bellows with gurkild, then work it one-handed. And he did, gurkild and water not far off the boil, smelling so strong it nearly knocked me out, and then he worked the pump and flushed it into Cromdor’s wound.

Cromdor thundered and roared like a bull in a pen, but he didn’t move, not after two or three flushes of the wound. His big fists tightened on the table he was sitting on, tightened till they were white. Blood and gurkild and water ran down his arm in trails.

“All right,” Amir said. “I need to pull the sides of the wound apart and put a couple of deep stitches in before I stitch the surface together. Olen, will you help?”

Cromdor’s face was getting mighty pale. “Show me what to do, Amir,” I said.

“It’s not too different from cutting meat. You hold this side, and pull a bit so I can see what’s in there. Imagine you are trying to get some tendon out of a chunk of beef. It helps, I think.” He spoke very calmly.

“Don’t . . .” Cromdor was looking sick. “Just do it, boy.”

“Drink some of the gurkild, at least,” Greta said. “Listen to me. Please.”

He slowly nodded his head, and she brought the ceramic jar to his lips, and he drank, and I held the wound apart so the boy could put a few tiny, tiny stitches into the meat of Cromdor’s arm. I’ve never seen anyone work that fine, not a seamstress, but the boy just slipped a few quick loops in, and then he was sewing up Cromdor’s skin.

And then we were done, and Cromdor was gasping for air.

“I didn’t see any rot in there,” the boy said. “You’ll need to wash it every day and smear some of this drink at first over the surface of the wound, so as not to disturb it. Wash it every day, you hear?”

Cromdor looked up at the boy. Sweat was running down his craggy face, the drops gathering at the edge of his nose, hanging on the ridges, collecting in the hollows under his small black eyes.

“I have nothing for you,” he gasped. “Nothing. I’m not . . . I’m not that kind of man.”

Amir waited a moment, and then he did one of them peculiar Amarite things, I think. He put two fingers to his lips and flicked them away, as if to say that he had no words worthy of speaking to his father.

• • • •

Amir just bedded down in the corner, and asked Greta if she couldn’t bring a couple of extra blankets. His seeing-glasses folded up nicely; they had a tiny hinge in them, it turns out, as fine as a clockmaker’s dream. I never seen the like. The sun was up by the time I trudged home, and my daughter gave me hell about the roof, and I only got a few hours of sleep and a few more hours playing with my greatdaughters before I trudged back, after some more talk about the roof, and more, and let me tell you, that roof could take up this whole story if I let it, but the point is, I needed to see whether the boy was getting on.

I came back in time to see Amir at his prayers again. Greta was bustling about the tables, making sure not to look, but that didn’t stop a few of the other old-timers—Urgut was staring and muttering, “Damnedest kneeling. Damnedest kneeling I ever saw.”

“Lay off, Urgut. Boy’s got a thousand gods to pray to, you know. He ought to kneel.”

“Seen Cromdor?” I asked Greta.

“You ought to be home, Olen,” she said, “getting some sleep.”

“I wanted to make sure Cromdor’s all right.”

“Cromdor isn’t getting out of bed for days, not after last night, and not after all the gurkild he drank.”

“I’m here, woman,” Cromdor called from the door.

In the corner, Amir went right on praying, until he finished and he rolled up his little rug. He looked around the room, a bit resigned, I think, to getting stared at. And he looked at his father.

“Boy,” Cromdor said. “I came for you.”

Amir put on those seeing-lenses, walked over to his father, and said, “You might tear the wound.”

“I took far worse, boy, and from your precious Amarites, too. Some wailing madman with a curved sword, on a little horse. More like a big dog. Mean, though. Underestimated him and . . .” Cromdor heaved with breath. “Come with me before I fall over.”

The two of them left. The boy put a hand around Cromdor’s waist. All the old-timers remained, staring after them.

I snuck out the back and followed them, at a length, back to Cromdor’s hut. Now, I know I shouldn’t have, but I had been a bit invested in Cromdor’s thurgisk, as a magistrate should be, so I had to see if it was done right.

I snuck around the back of Cromdor’s hut in a circle, and plopped myself down on the grass the best I could. They were out in front, talking.

“. . . tried to make me a king, you know. In Kerisoth-Beyond-The-Sea. Ever heard of it?”

“No,” Amir said.

“I killed the Ancient One, this big, fat creature. Five tentacles it had, and a beak that was bloody with the scraps of young virgins. It had tentacles of the spirit, too, that went into their minds. Everyone in Kerisoth-Beyond-The-Sea was so happy, lived in the greatest kingdom on the Earth, loved the Ancient One, and didn’t mind taking their young daughters to its bloody jaws. There was a young wench, the ripest, sweetest virgin dreamed up by the gods, eighteen summers and blonde, and she was the only one who could resist the Ancient One’s pull, and she and I . . .” He hesitated. “Anyway, they wanted me to rule them when it died. I probably should have taken them up on it. I’d have more than just a shit-smelling hut at the end of the damned world.”

“I see.”

“I don’t know if you do.” Long pause. Long enough I figured he could hear me. “I didn’t force your mother, boy. I’ve never forced a woman, not once. I hold to few things, but I hold to that.”

“I believe you.” From what I knew of the boy, he believed that Cromdor was telling the truth as he saw it. “But you did not know her. You did not care to. You do not know what she gave up, how she worked, to raise me.” And in a way that was half between anger and sadness, the boy said, “She deserves more than to be one of your stories.”

They went silent so long I worried they’d heard me. Cromdor rustled around in the hut. “Can you read this scroll?”

“Yes. It’s in High Camyrian. A corrupted script, but I can read it.”

“Take it,” Cromdor said. “Take it and you’ll see.” He hesitated again. Cromdor had a hard time finding the words when they weren’t about wenches and battle. “Boy—son—I was barely off the teat when the Racians took me as a slave. They burned my village. They killed my mother. They whipped me every night. If I cried for my mother, they whipped me harder. I used to lie awake, promising Carn that I would be something more than a slave. Promising my mother.” The silence lasted a long time after that, before Cromdor spoke again. “So I broke free. I killed the slavers. A boy, killing men. Then I killed the slavers’ masters. Then their king. I’ve killed hundreds of men since. I made myself into a man for stories.” His hand audibly brushed the parchment. “Cromdor the Condemned.” His voice fell to a whisper. Didn’t know he even knew how to whisper. “And Carn knows I have regrets.”

I knew what he was saying. Maybe Cromdor had a thimbleful of wisdom at last. There were a thousand Cromdor stories, but there would be no story of how he defended his own hold, grew old with his love, raised his son, sewed a nasty wound with a calm demeanor and a steady hand.

He had chosen to be the man in the stories, and that closed off a better, truer man’s story.

The silence lasted long after that. “There’s a copyist in Yarg-Ennel named Nicodal. He begged me to let him copy this scroll. I bet he’d give you money for it. You pass through Yarg-Ennel on the way here?”

“I think so,” the boy said. “I think that was the old name of one town.”

“It’s got to be worth something,” Cromdor said. “Those stories got me a lot of free drinks.”

Well, after a minute Amir bundled Cromdor into his bed, telling him he’d better get to sleep. Amir snuck off a bit and I stayed there, just thinking, also sitting because my back hurt so bad I didn’t think I could get up.

“That work, Olen?” Cromdor said after a long time, voice coming sleepily through the wall of the hut.

I started. I should have figured Cromdor could hear me. As he told it, he had ears like a cat. “I reckon that’s a kind of thurgisk,” I said.

“Good,” Cromdor said. “Leave me alone now. Carn’s balls.”

I got myself up after a while, and I ran by Greta’s keep one last time to find Greta talking to the boy, Amir. One hand on his arm, and then she hugged him just like a mother. I seen lots of women talking to lots of men, and it looked like she had almost convinced him to stay, whether or not his mother was sick. But he turned, and off he went.

“He’s off already.” I said. “The old carry on, and the young come and go. Hope his mother’s still around when he gets home.”

“Olen, I don’t want to be the kind of woman who says all men are fools, but I’m tempted.” Greta laughed. “The things you can’t see. That boy’s mother’s dead.”

“Say what?”

“Long gone. A few years at least. You think a boy that dedicated would leave his mother’s side were she sick?”

I stared, open-mouthed as a goat. “Well, damn, what’s he here for? Get some money off Cromdor?”

“I think a boy like that is smart enough to know Cromdor ended poor.” She paused. “Thurgisk.”

I started to answer, to tell her that thurgisk was a man’s duty to his son, not the other way around, but I stopped. Like all things the gods made—all gods—there’s a lot in that little word. “Thurgisk.”

She eyed the sky. A few clouds were creeping in from the north, high and gray but thickening. “You got a roof to fix, Olen.”

“We don’t need to go into that.” I watched the boy go, and figured that I’d seen the gods move today. A bit.

“Olen, the roof.”

I tried to ignore the drop that plunked down on my head. Suppose the Gods were trying to tell us all something. ’Course, it ain’t like anyone’s going to listen, with some new fool god, with some new fool ideas, and nothing but a bunch of old stories to let you know the way things ought to be.

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Spencer Ellsworth

Spencer Ellsworth

Spencer Ellsworth lives in Bellingham, WA, with his wife and three children. He works as a teacher and administrator at Northwest Indian College, and his work has appeared & is forthcoming at Tor.com, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Michael Moorcock’s New Worlds, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and many other places. You can read his blog, listen to his band and find links to his stories at spencerellsworth.com.