From the author: Kaul — a boy on the brink of manhood — is torn in two when his alternately loving and abusive father is turned into a crippled beggar. Can a wizard who deals with demons help Kaul bring his father home to the healing country of Leal?
A squall brought early dusk to the harbor at Discort. Merchant schooners and fishing boats lay at anchor within the breakwater, buffeted by the sharp gusts, rigging singing. Fish guts and salt scented the spray whipped against the docks. On the quay, warehouses and sailors’ pubs were shuttered against the rain.
Kaul hunched his back to the wind and wound his way up a mud lane to a crisscross of alleys lined with shanties. Rain drenched his worn sweater and plastered his hair and beard to his face. A bit of warmth out of the rain would be welcome, and a bowl of gruel. Even his father to talk to, if he wasn’t too drunk. By the demons, Kaul wished there was a way to keep Dagh from counting the poor coins in his purse.
Home. He ducked into the hovel huddled in the lee of a stone wall. Within, a fire sputtered on the grate, spilling spasms of light and warmth onto the furnishings; two straw mats, a table and two chairs, and Dagh’s old sea chest from Leal.
His father stirred a small pot of gruel over the fire. The stump of his right hand, puckered with wrinkled white scars at the wrist, rested on his leg. “So. You’re back.” Dagh drained his tin mug of rum. “Where you been all the day?”
Kaul turned from the cook fire to strip off his clothes and pull half-dried breeches and a shirt from a peg. He didn’t like watching Dagh drink. “Hauling. Bolts of silk. Limes. Tea.”
“Don’t you never mind what you’re hauling as long as you get wages. You get wages this time?”
“Demons, I never knew a boy as stupid as you. Hauling sacks of grain last month for no wages.”
Kaul tossed his purse on the table. “I got wages.” He dipped his finger into the hot gruel.
Dagh rapped Kaul’s knuckle with the back of his spoon and he snatched his hand back. “That’s mine. You cook your own.”
Kaul sucked his knuckle. With the rum, he could never tell if his father would tussle with him as if he was still a boy, or smack him like a brawler in a tavern. He reached for the purse. “I’ll put the money in the jar.”
“Not so fast!” Dagh’s stump pinned his fingers.
Kaul withdrew, a sick feeling creeping into his stomach.
Deftly, Dagh opened the purse with his teeth and his left hand, and poured the coins on the table. “Four coppers?” His face flushed. “You call that wages? It doesn’t pay for the food you eat! I got more than that just for mending a broken gate, back in Leal.”
But they weren’t in Leal. “Three lads were turned away. Didn’t get work at all.”
Dagh slapped him across the face. “I know fair pay. You been to the tavern to give money to a wench. Haven’t you?”
Kaul hung his head, staring at the calluses on his fingers. “Yes.”
Dagh sighed. “Ah, get on with you.” He poked Kaul with his stump and nodded at the pot. “Have some food. Go. You’re just a thick-witted fool is all.”
Kaul stepped through the flap they used as a door and dipped a cup into the rain barrel. He wasn’t a fool. The shells had been against him, was all.
Dagh chuckled and shook his head. “That last one. That merchant’s daughter.” He scooped the coins into his pocket. “You’re a piece of work, aren’t you? You! Thinking that fine little filly would look at a lout like you!”
“She liked me.” Kaul drank his water and spooned gruel into a bowl.
“Because you grew some muscle from hauling ballast?” Dagh snorted as he pulled his gruel from the grate and sat at the table to eat. “Now, this one. Ugly, too.”
“She’s not ugly.”
“Is that back talk, lad?”
Kaul ducked his head. “No.” His shoulders ached and bed beckoned.
Dagh’s black-dyed hat and sweater lay on his pallet.
“You working tonight?”
Dagh grunted. “Someone’s got to bring in money.”
Kaul shuffled to the table with his porridge and cup. “Shouldn’t work when you been drinking.”
For an instant Dagh stared at him beneath eyes wide with surprise. “You scummy rat. Who do you think you are, to tell me what to do?”
Kaul fixed his eyes on the table just beyond his gruel.
“You think you’re smarter than me? Huh?” Dagh slammed his pot on the table.
Kaul waited, motionless, knuckles white.
“I’ll bet you wish I was dead. Do you, boy? Huh?”
Rain beat on the roof and dripped onto the cobbled floor.
Dagh plopped down and poured the last of his rum into his cup. The smell of it reeked from his pores, sickly sweet.
“I want to come.”
“You?” Dagh spooned porridge into his mouth.
“You let me come last time.” Someone had to watch out. Dagh didn’t run as fast, wasn’t as alert, after the rum.
“That was a mistake.”
“I gave you a leg-up over the wall.” Maybe Kaul could earn the money he should’ve brought home in wages.
“Hmmmph.” Dagh drained his mug.
“I could be a lookout.” Kaul flicked his gaze up hopefully.
Dagh’s features softened. “You don’t want to be a thief. You see this?” He held up his stump. “That’s what you get in my line of work. You want to lose your hand?”
“I’ve got quick hands. I’ve been playing the shell game. I win almost all my wagers.”
“Win? Oh, that’s good. You bring home four coppers for a day’s wages. That’s what happens when you think you’re clever enough to win at shells. You’re daft, lad.”
Kaul hunched over his supper.
“You’re young. You should be doing something with your life. My brother, Hauken? He had sense. Stayed on the farm.”
“I know, you told me.”
“Didn’t go off looking for riches in the city, like me. This city was the death of your mother.” Dagh stood and pulled his dark sweater over his shirt. “But you never listen. How many times have I told you, get out of here? Huh? Go to your uncle in Leal. But do you listen?”
“I don’t know Hauken.”
Dagh put on his hat. “He’s got it good in Leal. Hard work. That’s what makes a man. Not these city streets full of pickpockets and rum and plague. I’d go, myself, but how do I get on a King’s ship with this?” He held up his stump. “I’m branded, now, lad. They don’t let thieves into Leal.”
Kaul stood. “I want to stay here. With you.”
“Ahh! You daft boy!” He grabbed Kaul around the neck and jabbed him in the gut. Kaul laughed and blocked the stump with his forearm, grappling his father around the waist. He was taller than Dagh now, but his father outweighed him and in a moment Kaul was tripped onto his back.
Dagh helped him to his feet with his good hand. “I said you’re a stupid lad and you are. All right, you can be the lookout. But stay out of the way.”
Kaul grabbed his wet sweater and pulled it on.
Dagh clutched him by the shoulder and pulled him close. “And if I say run, you run, hear?” he said. “And don’t stop. Not for nothing.” He pushed him away. “You big oaf.”
Kaul pulled on his hat and they made their way through the deserted streets. Rain, slowed now to a steady thrum, kept even the King’s Men behind shutters. They made their way by back streets up the escarpment to the district where larger houses stood looking out over walls of stone, to the sea. Here, they took more care, watching for private guards as well as the King’s Men.
Dagh led the way to a servants’ lane beneath sodden trees, to where the courtyard wall of a large house had fallen into disrepair. With Kaul’s help, Dagh scrambled over the wall. Kaul cast about for large stones from the ruin and, climbing into the garden, created a step for Dagh to use on his return. Then he scrambled over the wall and waited on the lower limb of a tree.
He listened. There was no light. The wall and house were merely lesser darknesses in the inky night. He strained his ears, but the patter of rain on stone, on gravel, on leaves, masked any sound that might signal a guard’s approach. In his mind, he followed Dagh’s progress. Climbing to a balcony or shuttered window? Finding a room darkened and empty, or pregnant with a sleeping form? And where in such a huge house would he look for gold? Would he tread open corridors to reach a more likely room?
Running feet caught Kaul’s attention before he saw the black bulk appear out of the gloom. He scrambled from his perch and boosted himself onto the wall, reaching a hand down to Dagh. Dagh grasped him firmly and he pulled, catapulting both of them into the bushes. Dagh shoved something long and hard into his hand and Kaul pushed it beneath the cord that held his breeches. “Run,” Dagh said. “Split up.” Dagh disappeared down the servant’s lane and Kaul ran in the opposite direction. In a moment he heard shouts and the sounds of many feet in pursuit.
He ran up the alley. He crossed a street to another servants’ road. He dodged, twisting through the maze of streets and lanes, exhilarated with the chase. The sound of his own footsteps, soft and sure on the cobbles, gravel and hard-packed dirt, filled his ears and he ran on, unknowing if others followed.
By a torrent of rainwater gushing from a sewer, he crawled beneath a clump of bushes. He sat in the mud, listened, tried to hear the sound of hunters over the noise of the water, the rasping of his breath, the beating of his heart.
He imagined sudden arms pulling him roughly to his feet, his own wild struggles, grasping at—a branch—anything to use for a weapon. There was the thing Dagh had given him, digging into his belly. He pulled it from his belt and caressed its smooth surface. A candlestick. Gold, perhaps? Or silver? Even brass would fetch more than a month’s wages, if Dagh had its mate. They could eat meat, even buy one of the limes he had hauled today from the foreign schooner.
He pushed the candlestick back beneath his drawstring of his breeches and listened. Nothing but raindrops pattering on leaves. Carefully, he withdrew himself from his hiding place and looked up the street. No sound, no motion. He made his way back down the escarpment, back to the hovel.
The fire was out. Kaul did not need to light the candle to know that the place was empty. He wrapped the candlestick in a shirt and pushed it under the straw of his pallet. He returned to the lane. A drunken beggar was making his way up from one of the pubs by the sea. Kaul reckoned it was not yet midnight.
He peered through the rain, up the hill toward the wealthy district, down the hill toward the harbor. The faint sounds of merrymaking drifted from the quay. Kaul turned his footsteps downhill.
The noise of the crowd grew as he approached the docks; calls and cheering. He rounded a corner and saw a group of twenty or so gathered outside the King’s Men’s post. Onlookers from the nearby pubs drifted out of the warmth of their common rooms to see what was going on. Kaul’s stomach heaved as he made his way through the throng.
The King’s Men had Dagh. One brandished a silver candlestick, while two others held the old man’s arms as he wrenched himself this way and that, shrieking for mercy. The pronouncements of the captain were drowned by the goading of the crowd, but his actions were clear. It took three men to hold Dagh’s left arm on the block. One soldier brought out a broad-bladed axe and Dagh’s struggles renewed. The axe-man bent over him, giving instructions, but Dagh’s eyes rolled and he screamed. The axe-man seemed to shrug; then, raising his weapon, he brought it down, once, with a sickening crunch. Dagh’s hand came free and bounced to the ground. Dagh shrieked again, then collapsed, the other two guards falling on him in surprise. Blood spurted over the onlookers.
The men lifted Dagh and carried him into the guard post. The throng surged forward to see, blocking Kaul’s view. Kaul heard the sizzle, smelled the stench of burning flesh. The scream of pain rose over the shouts of the crowd.
Afterward, Kaul felt a strange lightness, as though he were not standing in the street, not looking down on his father’s broken body, not the recipient of smirks and looks of pity as the others brushed past him, returning to taverns or inns or their own dry beds, relieved it was not them; not them, this time.
As from a distance, he saw himself bend down, look at the half-closed eyes, slide his hands carefully beneath his father’s shoulders and hips, look into that terrible face for permission and, finding nothing, heave him up like a sack of grain to his shoulder, and stagger to his feet. The street flowed past him, smeared into a blur of rain. The only reality was the warmth of that great weight on his shoulder.
Kaul brought Dagh home and laid him on his pallet. Dagh cradled his left arm, the fresh stump leaking slightly where rawness showed in cracks between patches of blackened skin. The blood and vomit on Dagh’s clothes had hardened, and he was shivering.
Kaul built a fire. He stripped away Dagh’s clothes, cringing when a clumsy movement brought a recoil of pain from his father. He wrapped him in blankets and watched him. Dagh lay unmoving, unspeaking, unseeing.
In the following days, Kaul lowered his head whenever he spotted a King’s Man in the street, but they seemed no more suspicious of him than any of the nameless rabble. Thieves and pickpockets sank into the shantytowns like stones in quicksand, and plunder did not resurface.
Rather than lessening, Dagh’s pain grew. Kaul didn’t have the kind of money a wizard would charge to mend the wound, not without selling the candlestick. And, beneath his thoughts, Kaul knew the injury was not the source of his father’s pain. But Dagh’s moans pushed Kaul’s thoughts onto spiral paths. What if? What if he hadn’t asked to come that night? What if he hadn’t squandered his money? What if....
He counted out the coppers and bought rum for the pain, and watched as his father became agitated, and ranted, and made great plans, and wept. His heart clung to his father’s grief through every change of mood, waiting for the tussling matches to return. But it was as though Dagh had forgotten. And when the rum ran out, Kaul bought more, and stayed by his father’s side through the grief again; and again.
He worked until he was sick of the smell of fish. He brought home money to have it flung from his hands. He cleaned the vomit and the filth. Each day, Dagh sat in the street with his two stumps laid out in front of him and a hat at his feet, raving on about Leal and the good life and Hauken’s farm. The rains of winter turned cold and flurries of snow came. Dagh began to cough and become thin like so many who lived in the alleys behind the quay.
One morning before the sun rose, Kaul lay on his mat, the incessant, circular logic of his thoughts in abeyance. His eyes rested on Dagh, asleep at last, face drawn and gray in the light of the fire. There was something different about him. A repose. A peacefulness Kaul had never seen.
The warmth of his blankets, the silence of the snow, the languor of sleep—Kaul clung to the moment, held the chaos and belittling at bay for just a few minutes. If only Dagh could rest as other men did; as he did now, in sleep.
Kaul rose to his elbow. That was it—
Dagh needed to go home. To Leal.
Kaul ate his breakfast, his mind racing. He’d always known that the wounded arms were not the problem; healing them would never be enough. It was his father’s spirit that sickened here, in the city. His father had been dying ever since he left Leal. Now, Kaul was drawn to that face, its frown for the time being erased. Kaul would bring his father home. There was a way.
The arrangements did not take long. The silver candlestick brought Kaul more money than he’d ever seen in one place, though he knew it was a scrap of the thing’s worth. It was enough. He found a wizard and booked passage on a schooner bound down the coast.
The wizard, Gallinule, arrived at the appointed hour.
It had been snowing for two days and flakes swirled in the dark as the wizard entered the hovel. Dagh sat at the table, having drunk enough rum to be incoherent. Kaul rose from his pallet, his hands cold now that the moment had come.
Dagh lifted his head. “What’s he doing here?”
Gallinule stepped beneath the lintel, his large frame filling the hovel. “Your father does not know of our contract?”
“He knows. He just forgets.” Kaul knelt by the table. “Dagh. Remember? What you told me to do?”
Dagh waved his arm belligerently in Kaul’s direction. “You spent money on a wizard? You idiot! He can do nothing!”
“Remember Leal? Dagh? You wanted to go to Leal to see your brother?”
“I can’t go to Leal!” Dagh said. He held up his arms. “You see these, boy? See them?”
“Gallinule is going to help us.”
“He can’t give me back my hands!” He looked at the stumps and began to weep. “Fool! Fool of a boy! Why did I ever take you with me?” His lip trembled and the tears coursed down his cheeks.
Kaul turned to where Gallinule unpacked his sack and caught the wizard’s glance of pity. Gallinule set a black candle on the floor and lit it, then extinguished all other light from the hovel. “How will you get him to the wharf?”
Kaul stuffed one of the pallets into Dagh’s old sea chest and took it outside. “I have a box,” he said quietly. “The harbor is down hill. I can skid it.”
Gallinule lifted his sorrowful eyes from his work. “I have a mule and a cart. I will help you.”
Kaul nodded his thanks.
The wizard emptied a powder into Dagh’s mug. “Drink this,” he said to the old man. “It will keep your body safe on its journey.”
Dagh looked as though he would protest, but the wizard’s gaze commanded him to obey and he swallowed the potion.
Gallinule pulled a rooster from his sack. “We begin.” He slit the rooster’s throat and, within the confines of the small space, painted a circle of blood on the floor around the candle and around Dagh’s chair. “You will be safe as long as you remain outside the circle,” he said to Kaul.
Kaul listened as Gallinule wove his spell, chanting the ancient words to bring forth the power of the demon from its place among the stars. The wizard worked his way around the circle, his hands threading together the symbols of the seven spheres of the universe, opening the doors between earth and the chosen demon’s realm. He coaxed the creature with words and promises in a language Kaul had never heard.
A cloud formed above the candle; a nebulous sphere that shifted and darkened as Gallinule chanted. Within the orb, a being appeared which gained in substance and grew until it filled the protective circle, rearing its head to the ceiling of the hovel. The creature coalesced into the form of a misshapen man. A huge phallus hung beneath its round belly; its body was clothed in boils and long hair, and horns sprouted from its forehead. Eyes like embers gloated fiercely over the small room and hesitated on Kaul, filling him with terror.
“Gozhob!” Gallinule stepped behind Dagh, drawing the creature’s attention to the old man. “Here is your purpose. Here is your reward.” Gallinule brought his hands down on either side of Dagh, who blinked stupidly at the creature. “Take this one’s life force, and hold it as I command. Spew it forth again into this man’s body when you are bid.”
Kaul watched as the creature’s eyes rolled cunningly around the room. The eyes came to rest at last on Dagh, and it growled assent.
“This one,” Gallinule pointed to Kaul, “will summon you in three days’ time. He will speak the ritual words over the body. You will release the spirit when he bids you to do so.”
The demon grew darker at these words, but Gallinule raised his hands. “Obey me. Fulfill your oath!”
Gozhob’s form swirled within its sphere and its eyes burned. It reached out toward Dagh, and the old man lifted a little from his seat, clutched useless wrists to his chest and slumped forward into Gallinule’s steadying hand. The demon swelled and darkened, then dissolved into nothingness. The candle spluttered and went out.
“Light another candle,” Gallinule said. “There is nothing to fear. You may step into the circle. Gozhob is gone.”
Kaul did as he was bid. A sudden dread clutched him as he saw Dagh lying in the wizard’s arms, his sallow skin translucent, mouth slack, eyes blank. “He’s dead!”
“Hush,” Gallinule said. “He is not dead. As you contracted, his spirit is carried in the demon. The physic he drank will keep his body safe for three days. Gozhob will wait until sunset of the third day for you to reclaim your father’s soul.”
Kaul’s back and hands felt cold. He knelt beside his father. “He looks... so....”
“No one, not even the King’s own physician, will detect life in him. It is as we agreed. Gozhob will return his spirit when you command him with the words ‘nur tyem, setaf tiris.’ Remember these words.”
Kaul repeated the words silently, and nodded.
“Good. And remember, do not let the spell fool you. You have until the sun has set on the third day.”
Kaul touched his father’s limp arm. His intellect told him that Gallinule spoke the truth, that this was their agreement, but his heart pounded and his eyes burned, unbelieving.
Gallinule laid Dagh on the ground. “And now, my fee.”
Kaul groped for the bag of coins and paid the wizard.
Gallinule put his hand on the boy’s shoulder. “You have your sailing papers? Enough money?”
With difficulty, Kaul pulled his gaze from the limp form of his father. He counted the silver remaining. “Yes... enough.”
“And when does your ship sail?” he asked gently.
“With the morning tide.”
“Then you’d best get him aboard. Where is your box?”
Kaul pulled himself to his feet and with great weariness, brought the coffin into the hovel. Gallinule helped him lay the body within, packing straw from the second pallet for cushioning. Kaul winced with each blow as Gallinule nailed the lid shut.
At the wharf, Gallinule bid Kaul goodbye. The clouds dispersed like a blanket rolling away, exposing the harbor to the sharp cold. Frost edged the ship in the moonlight and silvered the ropes. “May you sail on to good fortune,” the wizard said.
It was still dark when the tide turned and the schooner lifted her sails to glide from the calm waters of the harbor into the winter chop of the sea. Wind and waves tossed the vessel like a cork, and rain and sleet drove Kaul below where he hung in a hammock and retched into a bucket. Yet it was not sea sickness alone that caused his stomach to churn. Like a moth circling a candle, his mind returned again and again to images of his father wakening inside the coffin in confusion and terror, of the deck hands prying the lid away and discovering the deception, of a noose lowering around his neck.
Day passed, and night, and still the schooner sailed through the storms. The second day dawned. Gray waves and gray sky passed with stubborn sameness until he could no longer see them in the dark.
The third day. At mid-afternoon, the schooner dropped anchor in a bay near a village nestled into the arms of a low hill. The crew lowered a longboat from the ship with the boxes and crates that were to end their voyage in Leal. Kaul sat next to the coffin with his back against the old sea chest. A feeling of emptiness, of hollowness pressed on his stomach.
Two of the King’s Men strolled down the beach as the longboat approached. “You coming to Leal?” one shouted into the wind, wading into the waves to pull the boat up onto the sand. He wore a good-natured smile that reminded Kaul of someone he’d seen before.
Kaul fumbled out of the boat. “Yes.” The word croaked out from a dry throat. “Yes,” he said again.
The soldier with silver in his beard nodded, and the men pulled the boat ashore with a mighty heave. The crew slung boxes out of the boat and Kaul pulled his aside. Two children stared at him, their play among the bits of driftwood arrested. The older of the King’s Men oversaw the grocer and the ironmonger as they checked the manifest, while the other soldier, the one with the bright blue eyes and the wide mouth, ambled over to Kaul. “People don’t often come to Leal,” he said. “What’s your business?”
The knots in Kaul’s stomach tightened. He kept his eyes at the King’s Man’s feet. “I’ve come to find my uncle. My father died. I’m bringing him home.” He bent and opened the chest for the King’s Man to inspect, then stood back meekly.
The man took a cursory look in the chest then pointed to the coffin. “This is your father?”
“Yes—please don’t open it. He’s been dead... three days on the ship, and two before that.” He couldn’t let the King’s Man see Dagh’s stumps.
Kaul nodded, his eyes firmly directed to the sand.
The older soldier handed the manifest to the mate. “Not plague, now—” He marched up the beach as the grocer and the ironmonger hurriedly tugged at their supplies, alarm written on their faces.
“No, no. He’s old, that’s all.”
The older King’s Man called over his shoulder to the mate. “Bring a crowbar!”
Kaul’s breath burned in his throat. “Please,” he whispered.
“Don’t... hurt him.”
“He’s dead,” the older soldier said.
“Yes. Of course. That’s right,” Kaul said. “He is.”
The mate brought a crowbar. Kaul shoved his hands under his armpits as the two bent over the box. His breath came in short puffs that misted the air.
The nails were pulled from their sockets with a rending sound.
The lid clattered to the pier and the soldiers gagged at the release of the stench. Illusion, Kaul told himself. Illusion —
“He’s a thief,” the mate said. “He’s been caught.”
“Twice,” the younger King’s Man said. “Leal has a law about thieves.”
“But he’s dead,” Kaul said. “He can’t rob anyone now.”
The mate leaned on the crowbar and looked at Kaul. “Maybe you’re a thief, then.”
Kaul held out his hands. “I’m not. Look. I’m a dock hand.”
The younger King’s Man studied Dagh’s face in puzzlement.
The older soldier covered his mouth and nose with a handkerchief and leaned over the coffin to listen to Dagh’s chest. He poked him and lifted an eyelid. “He’s dead, all right.”
The King’s Man straightened. “Let him go.”
The mate shrugged and hammered the lid into place and took his crowbar back to the boat. Kaul hugged his hands beneath his armpits, lest the soldiers see relief visibly wash over him. Only a few minutes, an hour, and he would find a secluded place. Chant the words before sunset —
“Who’s your uncle, then?” the younger King’s Man asked.
“His name is Hauken.” Kaul breathed again and reached for his sea chest. “He has a farm—”
“Hauken!” The King’s Man said in surprise.
Kaul’s hand froze in mid-gesture.
“Your uncle?” the man cried. “Then we are cousins! Hauken is my father.”
“Yes! Our farm’s just up the road. I live there with him—and my mother, and my brother and four sisters.”
Kaul stared. Yes, the smile was familiar, though Dagh had not smiled that way since... Kaul couldn’t remember. When Mama was alive. And the way this man punched the air to emphasize a point, and the way he tossed the hair from his eyes—
“My name’s Airn.”
“I’m....” Kaul took in the village all over again—the beach, the ocean, the rocky headland. This was his family’s home.
He flinched at the knot that gripped his throat. “I’m Kaul.”
Airn’s gaze moved from Kaul to the coffin. The silence of gulls and breakers and the men pushing the longboat into the surf hung between them. Thief.
“I promised Dagh I would bring him to Leal. To—” He had to finish. “To bury him.”
Kaul managed a brief glance at Airn’s stricken face. “Don’t worry. I won’t come to your farm. Once I’ve earned passage, I’ll go back to Discort. You don’t have to tell Hauken. About Dagh.”
Airn’s eyes flicked to the other King’s Man. “No,” he said. “Dagh was my father’s brother. He’ll be buried in the town graveyard, with the rest of our family.”
“My father will want to know.”
The older King’s Man nodded. “I’ll find you a horse and cart.” He walked up the beach toward the village.
No, this was all wrong—
Airn smiled again, this time—what? Sorrowfully? Pityingly? “And you are my cousin. You must come to the farm. My father will want you to join us.”
“But Dagh—” The words tumbled from Kaul’s lips before he could stop them. “He’s a thief—he was a thief. You’re a King’s Man—”
Airn put his arm around Kaul’s shoulders and shrugged. “I’m sure... there were circumstances.”
Circumstances, yes! Life in Discort was hard. Kaul knew that. Dagh wasn’t bad. He wasn’t. Anyone in those circumstances would have done what Dagh had done. Survive, any way he could.
The King’s Man brought the horse and cart, and they loaded the chest and coffin. As they bumped over the frozen ruts, Airn recounted his family’s story, but Kaul couldn’t fix on the words.
This wasn’t the plan. He was supposed to find a quiet spot in the forest and summon Gozhob to restore Dagh’s soul before anyone discovered them. He hadn’t intended to look for Hauken at all.
Now, his cousin—his cousin the King’s Man—knew Dagh was a thief. And, thought he was dead. How could Kaul explain Dagh’s return to life now? And what would happen to Dagh, after all, if Kaul brought him back now? A life in prison? The gallows? And what would Airn say when he found out that Kaul had lied to him?
It had all gone wrong when Airn met him on the beach.
But... a cousin. The offer of a home. Kaul shook his head. A cousin!
Airn turned the horse through a gap in the hedgerow into a snowy lane. Fields, cut into odd shapes by fences of stone, fell away over rolling hills to the forest in the distance. Just ahead, a group of buildings on the edge of an orchard clustered around a well. Smoke rose from the chimney of a comfortably rambling house.
A man—Kaul could have sworn that it was Dagh, by his gait—strode from the barn, coiling rope over one shoulder. He stopped when he saw the wagon. A small boy at the well stared for a moment, then ran into the house calling, “Mama! Mama!”
Airn jumped to the ground. “Father! Look who’s come! Your nephew, Dagh’s boy. His name is Kaul.”
Kaul slid across the wagon seat and let himself down. A woman hastily pulling a thick shawl over her shoulders hurried from the house, followed by the boy and four wide-eyed girls.
Hauken’s coiling slowed, his face a mask of wonder. “Dagh?”
Kaul hung back, looking to Airn for a sign.
“My nephew?” Hauken dropped the rope in the snow and spread his arms wide, peering into Kaul’s face in amazement. He gathered Kaul in his arms and held him close for a heartbeat, then pushed him back to look into his face. “Kaul?”
Hauken’s eyes brightened and his throat worked. “I had a letter. Once. Remember, Airn? We got the priest to read it to us?” He fixed his gaze on Kaul’s, drinking in his every feature. “Dagh said he had a son.” He nodded in confirmation. “Boy, you look so like your mother.” His lips pressed closed and trembled, eyes fierce with remembrance.
Kaul pricked with hot shivers. His uncle’s frame was small, like Dagh’s, with short legs and powerful shoulders and arms, and his skin had the same leathery look from sun and wind. But his face was fuller, his hair thick and fair, his nose straighter.
Moisture glistened in his eyes as he smiled in a way that made Kaul want to curl in his arms and feel strong hands on his back. Kaul ducked his head, inviting forgiveness, and was rewarded with another close hug.
“Now, now,” the woman said, prying Hauken’s arms from him to give her own hug. “Another son of the family! Such a blessing!” The girls and little boy crowded around in excitement.
Hauken sniffed and looked over the wagon. “And Dagh?”
“My father. He’s....” Kaul hung his head. How could he keep repeating the lie?
“Kaul brought Dagh to be buried in the town graveyard.” Airn looked at Kaul with a slight nod that said ‘tell him.’
“My father—” Kaul stopped, and all eyes were on him, open, expectant. “My father had a hard life,” he said.
Airn nodded again, a prompt.
“He—he died a thief.”
There. It was out. Kaul hung his head in the shocked silence.
“Well,” Mother said.
The late afternoon wind chilled.
“Hauken.” Mother’s voice was a whisper on the breeze. “The boy must come in and have dinner. He’s thin as a chick.”
Hauken nodded and put an arm around Kaul’s shoulder, leading him to the house. “Forgive me.” His voice strained to speak against his grief.
Forgive Hauken? After all the lies Kaul had told?
“I can’t think of Dagh, except the way I saw him last. Twenty years ago, hauling that sea chest up the gangplank on that big ship. He had plans, Kaul. Confidence. The whole world was too small for him. He and your mother were going to Discort to make their fortune.” He stopped at the door to the house. “Whatever happened along the way... well, I don’t know about that. He’s still my brother. You’re my son now.”
Kaul shook with the responsibility.
“Come in, then, and eat. Airn will bring your chest as soon as we’ve laid Dagh in the barn.”
The girls crowded him inside, giggling until Mother set them to supper chores. The smell of savory meat and the warmth of cook fire and candle light surrounded him.
“I’ll hang your coat on the peg,” a little girl said.
Through the window, Kaul watched as Airn and Hauken pulled the coffin from the wagon. The sun touched the horizon.
“Here’s a basin of hot water.” The oldest girl dimpled a smile and set the steaming bowl before him.
Minutes remained. Airn and Hauken strained under the coffin’s weight. Gozhob awaited the consummation of the soul he carried. Nur tyem, setaf tiris. He only had to run from the house, open the lid, and cry out the words and his father would be alive.
“Girls. Put the chicken on the table.”
The sun was a burning semi-circle resting on the hill.
He was a thief, already, for using the money from the candlestick. He was a liar for saying Dagh was dead. If the sun set without the words spoken, he would be a murderer as well.
“Pour the ale. Put the gravy in the pitcher.”
Kaul could not move his feet.
The sun disappeared behind the hill.
The sounds of plates clinking, chairs pulled out. A giggle.
If he ran to the top of the hill, now, just now, would the sun still be shining over the sea? Kaul stared through the window at the empty farmyard.
Dagh was dead.
Kaul pounded his fist into his chest. Tears of fear and relief and betrayal and grief streamed down his face. Dagh was saved from the gallows, wasn’t he? Saved from prison? From the censure of the village and the disappointment of his family?
Yes. Safe. In the fiery belly of a demon.
Hands touched his shoulders. “Weep, child.” Mother’s voice. “Tears will cleanse you. Let them come.”
This story originally appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies.