As promised in the previous post, here’s my short story from the Spring 1979 issue of Shapes and Names, the literary magazine of Harding College (now Harding University). The cover art at left was created by Jerry Palmer.
My short story, at over 8,000 words, was by far the longest piece, and reading it now, I certainly see a few problems (not least the fact there’s absolutely no reason this particular story has to be set in a fantasy world, except that was where my mind normally wanted to set stories…some things never change…because there’s not the slightest hint of magic in it. It could have been set in the present day and probably would have been even more effective. But, hey, I was 19.)
Writing-wise, I’m pretty pleased with how smoothly it flows. I did fix a couple of things, some of which were typing errors by whomever prepared the magazine–scene breaks missing so scenes ran together, that kind of thing–but this is essentially exactly how it appeared. Should you be a young writer (and I’ve worked with a lot of them) you might be interested in comparing your own writing to where I was at 19. It may very well give you great hope for your future success. 🙂
Just for fun, here are the names of the other writers published in that issue of Shapes and Names. Recognize any of them? Ellen Brenneman, Doug Thompson, Lamar Culpepper, Bliss M. Foster, Bruce Cook, Ellen Brenneman, Jonathan Cloud, Randy Anthony, Leta J. Hall, Chuck Bryant, Ron Garner, Cecil Price, Sharon Goetting and Steve Leavell.
And Eddie Willett. Here’s his offering.
By Eddie Willett
Originally published in Shapes and Names, Volume 2, Number 2, Spring 1979
Published by the Department of English of Harding College, Searcy, Arkansas.
Kati looked up from the bar to the time candle that stood above the long row of ale barrels. Half an hour ’til midnight, he thought. Half an hour left in this stinking inn.
He poured the ale that had just been ordered and set it down on the bar. Taking the proffered copper piece, he turned back to the barrels, bunging up the one he had just emptied and opening the next in line. “Five years I’ve been doing this,” he muttered. “Feels more like five hundred. Well, at least it’s almost over.” He turned back to the bar; there was no one there, so he leaned against the barrels and reflected on his sixteen years of life.
Sixteen years tomorrow, he reminded himself. Tomorrow you will be an apprentice, and your stepfather will no longer be able to force you to his will—although your master surely will.
He wondered to whom he would be apprenticed. He knew his stepfather had been making the rounds of the tradesmen and craftsmen of the village for a month, seeking the highest bid. Kati had urged Ilar, the carpenter, to make a bid—Ilar was a friend, and his craft was something that attracted Kati—but Ilar was also poor, and Kati’s wishes did not enter into the matter. His stepfather was concerned only with how much money he could get for his stepson before Kati was lost for good.
His stepfather had never seen him as more than an asset like a horse or a cow, Kati thought. That’s all Lirra, Kati’s mother, was to him as well. Not that his truefather had been any better—it was his truefather’s fault that Urall was now the boy’s stepfather. His truefather had abandoned Lirra without a word after she was pregnant with Kati. The marriage had been secret, because his father had been a soldier, and strict military tradition forbade soldiers from marrying. His father could have been thrown in prison or even executed if the marriage had been discovered.
That idiotic tradition had meant that after she was abandoned, Lirra was in danger of disgrace and exile. If her baby had been born while she was apparently unwed, she would have been driven from the town.
Then Urall had stepped in. He had somehow found out about the secret marriage and the pregnancy, probably from a drunken friend of Kati’s father. He came secretly to Lirra and offered to marry her, to give the baby a father and to save her from disgrace. Also, Lirra’s family was wealthy, and the dowry…
Lirra had no choice but to agree, although she disliked Urall. The marriage took place, the dowry was given, and if the birth of Kati took place two or three months early—that was a minor scandal, compared to the dishonor that would have been Lirra’s if the baby had been born fatherless.
Lirra had told Kati the truth when he was barely thirteen but had pledged him to keep his knowledge a secret. Kati had been glad to know the truth—he had never liked Urall, and it had troubled him, since a boy was supposed to love his own father. He was relieved to know that even Lirra did not love Urall.
But the knowledge of his past also awakened a great many questions in Kati’s mind. He was known in the village as a serious, quiet boy with few close friends. For Kati brooded long and often on the identity of his truefather, the soldier named Var, wondering why he had left Lirra, left her to marry a man she hated for the good of Var’s son.
His brooding had had the inevitable result—he had grown to despise that faceless man who had so crushed his mother’s happiness, so that a cold fire of hate burned ever in him, and he had become determined to seek Var out and face him with his deeds.
Thus it was that Kati’s thoughts ran once more to his truefather as he rested behind the bar, and he promised himself again that he would earn his freedom from apprenticeship quickly and leave the valley of Mountainshade to seek out Var, the soldier.
The fact that he had never been out of the valley and had only a hazy notion of what the outside world was like did not trouble him.
His daydreaming earned him a blow from his stepfather that snapped him erect. He spun on Urall, his dislike for the man flaring, but he held himself in check; after all, it was his last night.
“There’s a new customer, boy,” his stepfather said, ignoring Kati’s glare. “In the corner. See what he wants, and see that he gets it. You have close to half an hour of work left in you that is mine—and see that I get it!”
Kati nodded coldly and went to the corner table, where a dark-clad stranger lounged, head bowed. “May I help you, sir?” Kati asked, wondering, for strangers were rare indeed in Mountainshade.
The man raised his head, revealing cold grey eyes beneath coal-black hair. For a moment he looked at Kati in silence, then spoke abruptly. “Who are you, lad?” he said.
“Kati, sir, son of Urall,” Kati said. “May I help you?”
“Son of Urall?” The man shook his head. “I think not.”
Astonished, Kati could find nothing to say.
“What is your mother’s name?” the stranger went on.
“Uh—Lirra, sir, daughter of Lirras.”
“Ah.” The man nodded, as if he had expected that. “Bring me ale, lad, and send Urll to me also. I have a matter to discuss with him.”
Kati had regained his composure, and his curiosity was with him full force. It galled him to be dismissed without an explanation of how the man knew what he obviously knew. He stood his ground. “Not until you tell me who you are and what you want.”
The man looked at Kati in surprise. “Tell you? Does a master tell a servant why he wants something done?”
“You are not my master.”
“No?” A trace of a smile played around the man’s lips, then was gone. “Go. Tell your stepfather that I wish to speak with him. Your questions will be answered when I deem it appropriate. Now bring me ale and bring me Urall!” This time his voice brooked no delay.
Kati spun and strode back to the bar, his mind seething with suddenly roused questions and hopes. Could this stranger be his truefather? If not, how did he know what he knew? Something about the man made Kati think he had been a soldier, as had Var.
He told Urall what the stranger wanted, and Urall took the ale to the man himself. For a few moments Kati was kept busy serving at the bar; when he had opportunity again, he looked into the corner, and saw Urall start to get to his feet, shaking his head. But something passed from the stranger to Urall, and Urall sat down again abruptly.
More men came to the bar, and the candle was just reaching midnight when Kati could again look into the corner. His stepfather was sitting there alone; with a shock Kati realized that the stranger was coming to the bar.
Kati took off his apron. The candle burned to midnight; he was no longer bound to work in the inn, or to obey his stepfather. Until he was apprenticed, he was free from authority—and that was how he would face this stranger. If this was his truefather, that was how he wanted it.
The stranger came to the bar and ordered more ale, speaking to Kati. Kati ignored the order and faced him. “I no longer serve here. I am free of my stepfather and not yet apprenticed. Now you will answer my questions!”
“You flatter yourself, lad,” the stranger said. “You are not free, and I will not answer your questions until I see fit. You are free of your stepfather, but you are already apprenticed. To me.”
“To you!” All his questions were driven from Kati’s mind.
“Yes, to me. I paid well for you, too, and I expect to get it back from you in work. We are leaving here, tonight. You will go out to the stable and get my horses—a matched pair of black geldings. My wagon is against the stable wal1. You will hitch the horses to the wagon, then come back in and get me. By daylight I want to be out of this valley.”
Kati stood still, unable to comprehend what had just happened. His future, which a moment before he had thought he had arranged, had been ripped away and replaced with a great unknown. “Apprenticed to you?” he repeated stupidly.
“Yes,” the man said impatiently. “Now do as I ordered you!”
Numbly, Kati did so. He could do nothing else. When the wagon was hitched up, he went in and got his new master, who then ordered him to get in the back. “There are enough furs back there to make you comfortable,” he said. “It’s going to be cold until the sun reaches us tomorrow morning—by which time I hope to be climbing the eastern pass.”
“But —will you not even take me home first, so I can gather my clothes and say goodbye to my mother?” Kati asked in horror.
“Your mother will find out that you are gone soon enough from Urall,” the man said gruffly, “and you will have no need of anything you may own. I will provide for you. Also, I’m in too much of a hurry for sentimental farewells. Now get in the back and be quiet.”
Kati, despite his fears and questions, slept soon after he had crawled into the furst with which the wagon was loaded. The cold twilight of false dawn surrounded them when he woke. Rising above the sides of the wagon were sheer rock walls; before them the road climbed steeply up ato a narrow-seeming jagged slash on the horizon.
The wagon had stopped, which was what had awakened him; now his master came around the back and shook him. “Get up, lad. It’s your turn to suffer cold.”
Reluctantly Kati climbed out of the warm furs, shivering. He saw that his master had one drawn about his shoulders, and he did the same. “It’s too narrow to drive the rest of the way up the pass,” his master said. “You’ll have to lead the horses. It will take over an hour; wake me when you can see the other side.”
He crawled into the back of the wagon, and Kati walked slowly to the front. As he urged the horses forward, he realized that he now had a perfect opportunity to escape this unwanted master. If he waited an hour, the man would surely be asleep; then he need only urge the animals to keep going and run the other way. With luck he could be well away before the man woke; and Kati knew the slopes of the valley well enough to keep from being found.
Kati seriously contemplated the idea for a 1ong time, but he finally decided against it. The man had aroused his curiosity; if he was not Kati’s truefather, then he must have at least known Var. Perhaps from him Kati could learn the way to his truefather, and for that he would put up with many indignities.
If the man was not Var, then he was of the same mold, Kati told himself as he recalled the night before. Who else could be cruel enough to snatch away an only son from a mother who had suffered so much for him? Despite himself, tears formed at the thought of Lirra waiting for him to come home, only to hear from Urall that her boy had been sold to an unknown man and taken the One God only knew where. He wept for her, and although he would not have admitted it, he wept for himself.
Lost in thought, he had made a great deal of progress up the pass without realizing it; and it was with surprise that he discovered he was walking almost on a level. The path rounded a broad shoulder of rock just before him; as he passed the curve the rock began to drop, and he saw the outside world for the first time.
The towering rock walls dropped away from the path; on the left there was now a deep ravine, while on the right, the slope rose steeply up toward the high peaks.
Below him the mountain range tumbled off into foothills, green and rounded, and the trail wound down through them and beyond them. The lower, pine-shrouded slopes gave way to grassy plains. A river wound silver through farmland. At the very edge of Kati’s sight there was a blue haze that might have been the sea; between him and it, but very distant, rose the spires of a mighty city, shining in the rays of the fresh-risen sun.
Kati had stopped abruptly when the world opened out to him, and called back to his master. He stood and stared until his master called, “All right, all right, it’s beautiful. Now get moving, or we’ll still be in the mountains at nightfall.”
His eyes on the horizon, Kati stepped forward. His foot met not the solid rock on the trail, but a piece of shale. It twisted and slipped out from under him and shot off into the ravine. Kati fell heavily and painfully on his side and followed it, hearing a shout from his master as he fell.
Somewhere along the way his skull met a rock with a sol id crack, and he finished the sliding fall in a grey, red-shot fog.
For a few moments he knew nothing; then he became conscious of pain in his head and side; and finally his vision started to clear. He saw the face of his master bending over him, and blinked. His master looked genuinely concerned.
“Are you all right, Kati?” his master said.
Kati closed his eyes for a moment and considered. “I—I think so,” he said. He put a shaky hand to his head; it came away red.
His master leaned forward. “I don’t like the look of that,” he said. “Can you stand?”
Kati answered by trying to get to his feet. A black curtain swept down and a roaring filled his head, and he found himself on the ground again. “Don’t try it again” his master warned. He tore a strip of cloth from his tunic and roughly bound Kati’s bleeding head. Then he stood and looked anxiously back up the slope to where the horses stood patiently waiting. “I can’t carry you, and you certainly cannot climb—but you can’t stay here.” He walked a little way away, and stood looking up. “I’ll need a rope,” he said finally, “but I have an idea.” He started climbing back up the hill. “Don’t try to move, Kati,” he called back.
Kati was not about to try to move. His head was painfully throbbing and the curtain of blackness was threatening to cover him again. And the attitude of his master had him sorely confused. He had decided the man was like Urall—interested in Kati as a piece of valuable property. But if the man had been Urall, he would not have shown the concern this man showed. Urall would have seen to it that Kati was cared for—but he would have been furious with Kati for having the accident in the first place. This man was genuinely concerned in Kati as a person. Why? Who was he?
Kati didn’t know, and he couldn’t figure anything out through the pain and dizziness. He lay quietly, drifting in and out of unconsciousness, while his master worked frantically. Some time later he heard his master’s voice and opened his eyes. “All right, Kati, I’m back.” Cool water trickled between Kati’s lips and he swallowed gratefully. “You’re going to have to raise up, Kati, just a little. I’ve made a sling from one of the furs off the wagon. I’m going to tie you into it, and get the horses to pull you up. I’ll take it as slow as I can, but I’m afraid it’s going to hurt.”
Kati didn’t try to say anything. He lifted himself up on his elbows, enough so that his master was able to get the edge of the fur under his shoulders. Then he slowly eased the rest of Kati ‘ s body onto it, wrapped it around him, and tied it in place. Kati’s world faded out again during the process; when he came to, his master was back at the top of the hill, and had started easing him up.
The journey was a nightmare. It was impossible to ease Kati over the rough places; the hillside, shale-strewn, was all rough places. Each rock filled him with pain. Two or three times he fainted momentarily, but complete unconsciousness escaped him, until near the top of the slope.
Perhaps his master grew overconfident, or perhaps the horses rebelled. All Kati knew was that there was a terrible jerk, his injured head struck a rock, and his world exploded into red, fading quickly to nothingness.
Kati was floating in an endless sea, gently rocked by the waves. He was immensely comfortable; his head no longer hurt, and he could no longer feel the rough rocks beneath him. A distant voice was calling his name…
Kati came fully awake. He was lying on a soft bed, covered with a warm, down-filled comforter. The rough bandage around his head had been replaced with a carefully wound one, and his pain was only a distant throb.
A strange face was bending over him…a woman. Kati blinked at her. “Wha—where am I?”
The woman smiled at him. “Not very original, but encouraging,” she said. She put a hand to his bandaged brow. “You’re in the Laughing Dog Inn, in Terberston; and I’m Helos, the matron.”
Kati absorbed this, then asked, “Where’s my master?”
“Your…master?” She frowned, then said, “I suppose you mean your uncle…?”
“Uncle?” It was Kati’s turn to frown.
“The man who brought you in called himself your uncle, and gave his name as Tyree.” She got to her feet, and smoothed the coverlet down around Kati. “And now I had better go tell him you are awake. He has been very worried about you since he brought you in three days ago—he seems to think your accident was his fault.” She went to the door of the small room. “You just lie still and be quiet,” she said, and went out.
Kati was far too comfortable to move, and too busy thinking in any case. He had heard of Terberston; it was the first town to the east of Mountainshade along the road to Telgar, the King’s city.
The name of the inn or the matron meant nothing to Kati; nor did the name of Tyree. He had certainly never heard of an uncle of his by that name, and he thought he knew all his uncles—then he sat up, causing his head to throb painfully, as he realized what that meant. He did know all his uncles—all his uncles on his mother’s side, and all the uncles he had inherited from his step-father. But if this man was his truefather’s brother…!
He settled back again to mull over the possibility. It didn’t make sense, though—why would Var’s brother take Kati from the valley? To punish Lirra? But it was not Var who had been wronged, it was Lirra who had suffered. It was Kati who should be hostile, not Tyree!
He saved your life, Kati told himself.
If it had not been for him, your life wouldn’t have been in danger, he retorted. He took you from your home and your mother—and he is Var’s brother.
The result of his arguments with himself was that when Tyree came into the room, he did not receive a warm reception. Kati had summoned the cold anger he felt toward everything connected with his truefather.
Tyree came in and shut the door, smiling. “Ah, you are awake!” he cried cheerfully, stepping forward. “And you look much better. You were as pale as a ghost when I brought you in.”
“I suppose I should thank you for that,” Kati said cooly. “Uncle.”
Tyree looked at him sharply at that, then settled himself in the chair by the bed. “Helos told you, I assume.” He sighed. “Well, you would have learned it soon, anyway. Yes, I am your uncle—I am Var’s brother.”
“And how is my dear father?” Kati said. “I trust he is as well as the day he abandoned my mother.”
“Is that what you think?” Tyree said. “That my brother abandoned her?”
“That’s what I would call it,” Kati flung at him. “He left, without a word— arranged to meet her one night and never came. I would call that abandonment— though perhaps you have a nicer word for it!”
Tyree looked as if he had an angry retort, but he snapped his mouth shut instead and rose. “I do not need to defend my brother; that he can do himself. But remember this, lad—it was your mother who put him where he is today—and you, though you were not yet born!”
“And where is that?” Kati demanded.
“Where I am taking you, for he sent me to get you and bring you to him, though I urged him to leave you where you were. When you see him, may you learn to keep your mouth closed until you have truth to fill it!” With that Tyree strode from the room, slamming the door shut with enough force to set Kati’s head throbbing again.
Tyree’s remarks were wasted on Kat. All he had heard was that he was being taken to Var—and he looked forward to that meeting fervently. His mother had spent sixteen miserable years married to a man who did not love her and whom she did not love, for Kati’s sake as much as her own—and he wanted an explanation for every second of those years from the man who had brought them about.
Kati recovered quickly under the excellent care of Helos. His uncle did not visit him again, causing the matron to murmur more than once that it was almost as if he did not care for the boy now that Kati was out of danger. Kati could have enlightened her, but didn’t.
She kept him in bed for another four days, before allowing him to get dressed and take short walks around the courtyard of the inn; a ten-day after he had been brought there, she pronounced him fit, and told his uncle as much.
Tyree nodded. “Then tomorrow we leave,” he said. “This delay has been too long already. See that our wagon is prepared at dawn. We’ll want no breakfast.”
Kati heard Helos remark as she moved away, “I would not be in that lad’s place with such a master.”
Indeed, hostility reigned on both sides. Kati did what he was told, and Tyree said nothing more than was necessary in giving Kati his orders.
They left the Laughing Dog at first light the next day, and continued eastward; to the village gatekeeper’s inquiry as to their destination, Tyree replied, “Telgar.”
Excitement penetrated Kati’s shell of aloofness. Telgar—the golden city of the King, ancient seat of wisdom and might, a name steeped in legend—but the cold thought intruded, “And the place where Var is,” and the excitement died in the renewed cold flame of anger.
The journey was free from incident. The King’s highway was well-travelled and safe for those who did not travel at night. There were frequent inns, and Tyree and Kati took advantage of them, although Tyree grumbled that the prices went up the closer they came to Telgar.
It was a ten-day after they left Terberston that Telgar came into sight. Not even Kati could sustain anger all the time; for the time being it receded as the first gleaming towers of the Palace rose above the horizon. Kati recognized it as the city he had seen from the mountains.
It was dawn when they first saw the city; it was late afternoon when they came to its gates. All through the day Kati had watched it coming closer; a rare jewel set in the rich green fields. The Palace, white and gold, was set aloof on a high, rocky peak. Beneath it spread the teeming city, and around it was raised a high, strong wall. Then around the entire city was raised an even larger wall, so wide that two wagons could be driven side by side on it, and many times taller than a man.
But this was a time of peace, and the massive ironbound gates stood open as Tyree drove the wagon up to them, although from on high armed soldiers looked down on the two as they entered the city of the King.
Kati looked about him with open eyes and mouth. He had never seen so many people. They had come in at the main gate, and before them stretched the Broadway, straight as an arrow, leading to the inner wall that surrounded the Palace hill. Along it moved thousands of people; merchants, nobles, peasants, farmers, children, soldiers, vagabonds, minstrels—every conceivable type of person was congregated there. Their voices mingled together in the characteristic roar of the city; there brightly colored clothes dazzled Kati. He suddenly felt very unimportant and shabby as Tyree drove the wagon passed the party of nobles, who ignored them.
Then he remembered Var, and leaned forward. “Will you now tell me where my true father is?” he demanded of Tyree.
“In my own time,” Tyree said. “First, I will take us to an inn of my acquaintance; then I will go to see your true father alone. After that, I will know when—if ever—I will take you to him. And may you have joy in the meeting!” He would say no more.
Kati no longer had eyes for the city; instead, he brooded. When his uncle went alone to see Var—then Kati would have again the opportunity to escape he had had in the mountains. But he was less sure now that he wanted it than he had been even then, and no doubt that was what Tyree was counting on. He knew Kati wanted to face Var, and that if Kati fled Tyree, he would never have that opportunity. Or would he…? Kati saw the answer to this problem, and smiled.
The inn they pulled up before was far off the Broadway, and less than fashionable. It was a dark, grimy edifice of black wood and stone, and the dirty stable boy did nothing to enhance its image. Kati would not have trusted him behind his back in broad daylight.
Tyree tossed the boy his reins, however, and jumped down, motioning for Kati to follow him. Together they went through the door into the common room. It was dimly lit, smoky and smelly; the men standing around drinking were hard to see and very disreputable-looking when they could be seen. Kati stayed close beside his uncle, doubting the wisdom of the plan he had come up with. Tyree went straight to the bar and asked for the proprietor. The maid called for him, and he came into sight a moment later.
Kati was expecting a fact, greasy, thief; the man who came into sight was tall, lean and handsome, except for a terrible scar on his left cheek. He moved with grace, and Kati, looking at him, thought that he had been a soldier at one time. He wondered how the man had ended up in such a place; and Tyree spoke. “I trust my usual room is available,” Tyree said quietly.
“Of course, sir,” the owner replied. He looked full at Kati, then back at Tyree. “But you are very late.”
“An unavoidable delay,” Tyree said. “Thank you, sir.” He placed a few coppers on the counter. “May we have meat sent to our room? We have driven far today.”
“Of course.” The owner withdrew, and Tyree led Kati up the stairs and along a narrow hallway to the door which stood open.
The room that they entered was surprisingly clean and well-furnished. There were two beds, a low table and chair, a shuttered window, a fireplace stocked with wood, and two candles. Tyree took off his cloak and laid it on the bed. Kati remained standing while his uncle opened the shutters and sat down.
A servant arrived bearing the meal Tyree had called for. Again, Kati was surprised, for the food and the wine were good, as good as or better than the food that was served in his stepfather’s inn.
For a time Kati thought of little except eating; but when Tyree finished and rose to leave, Kati quickly stood, too. Tyree motioned for him to relax. “I am going to see Var, alone, as I said. I shall be back before midnight. Tomorrow, perhaps, I shall take you to see him—or perhaps not. I shall see. You remain here. I’m sure you are weary—sleep. If you need aught, call for it. I am well known here.” With that Tyree took his leave.
Kati hesitated for a moment. He recalled the grim faces in the common room; the stable boy; and the teeming masses of the Broadway. He knew nothing of the city and its ways.
Then he steeled himself. He would not spend the rest of his apprenticeship under the thumb of Var’s brother, but neither would he leave without facing his true father. Quietly he opened the door and slipped out after his uncle. Tyree was already down the stairs; Kati crept down into the common room, and watched from the shadows as Tyree went out. Then he hurried to the door himself and eased it open.
The sun was sinking; in its long rays he could see Tyree just leaving the courtyard. Afraid he would lose Tyree in the winding alleys of the city, Kati abandoned caution and ran after him. He flattened himself against one corner of the stable and looked down the alley after Tyree. His uncle turned another corner, and Kati ran again.
It grew dark, and more than once Kati thought he had lost Tyree. The last time Kati stood bewildered in a black, narrow, dead-end street. His uncle had to be in it somewhere. But where?
Kati crept warily down the street, expecting Tyree to spring out of the shadows at any moment to demand why Kati was following him. Instead Kati came across a low, well-concealed door. He stopped and listened. He could hear Tyree’s voice and someone else’s. Taking a deep breath and praying that the door was well oiled, he tried to open it a crack.
It moved easily and quietly, and bright yellow light shone through. Kati put his eye to the slit, but could see only Tyree, pacing back and forth. He decided to use his ear instead, and by placing it to the crack was able to hear what was being said.
“I brought him as you asked,” Tyree was saying, “but I beg you to reconsider. The boy does not love you, Var. In fact, he hates you. He believes you abandoned his mother.”
“That is one reason I want to see him—to explain—”
“Explain! Your explanation will not change his opinion. He’s as hardheaded as you are, and he has nursed his hate for years. He will demand to know why you never returned or sent word.”
“You know why”
“Yes, yes, I understand, but he won’t. He will say that you were relieved by what happened—relieved that you did not have to stay with his mother.”
“I have paid dearly for such ‘relief,’ brother!”
“You don’t have to convince me, Var. I am trying to explain to you how the boy thinks. He has grown up in Mountainshade—he knows nothing of the ways of men or of war. To him there can be no excuse—no excuse for your leaving, and no excuse for your failure to return or send word.”
“I know why you did not, but can’t you accept the fact that he will not understand? You cannot heal such an old wound with talk, Var; he will not love you.”
There was silence for a long space. Kati held his breath; he knew he was being discussed, and agreed with Tyree. There could be no excuse for what Var had done.
Var finally spoke again. “Tyree, if he does not love me, so be it. But he is my son—and I would know him. I would see the flesh of my flesh. Bring him to me.”
Tyree started to make another protest, but Var cut him short. “Tyree, your arguments are to no avail. Bring my son to me!”
Tyree made a curt bow, and came toward the door. Kati flung himself into the shadows, and waited, not daring to breathe, until Tyree had left the street. Then Kati went back to the door. Taking a deep breath, he thought, Now there will be a reckoning! He pushed the door open and went in.
Var was standing, head bowed, looking into the fireplace. The room was small and stuffy; there was a bed in one corner, a chair and table in the center, the fireplace and nothing else. The man by the fireplace did not turn around, but said, “Tyree, it is settled. Bring him to me!”
“I am not Tyree, and there is no need to bring your son to you. He is already here,” Kati said coldly.
Var spun, and Kati gasped. It was the owner of the inn! “Kati!” Var said. “How—?” He took a step toward Kati, but Kati stepped back.
“Do not touch me,” Kati said. In him burned brighter than ever the cold fire of fury that he had carried with him so 1ong. “I followed Tyree here; and I will be gone before he returns. I just wanted to lay eyes on the man who destroyed my mother’s happiness—my ‘truefather’.” Kati made of the word a curse. “I will not stay long, and I will spend no more time as the apprentice of the brother of a man such as you.”
Var’s face had suddenly aged. “My son—“ he said in a weak voice.
“Am I?” Kati said. “Tell me, what are these sweeping excuses Tyree spoke of? I would like to think that I spring of a man who is at least honorable enough to feel guilt for what he has done.”
“Tyree warned me you would be like this,” Var said in a voice of pain. “I did not believe it. Do you hate me so much, then?”
“Hate you?” Kati’s fists clenched, and his voice trembled. “I would kill you if I could!”
Var stepped back, shaking his head, horrified. “What have I done?” he said. “What have I done? I—I could not help it! I thought it was for the best—”
“Explain it to me, then,” Kati demanded, tight-lipped.
Var bowed his head and turned back toward the fireplace. “Seventeen years ago,” he said in little more than a whisper, “I was a young soldier. The kingdom was at peace, as it had been for years; but tradition required all young men to join the military before marriage. Tradition! Tradition brought all this upon me.
“I had been put on border patrol. We were garrisoned in Mountainshade, and also manned the watchtower above the Western pass, that looks out over the desert land of the T’arkierl tribes. There in Mountainshade I met a lass, fairer than any I had known before. Her name was Lirra. We met in the spring, and in the autumn we were secretly married. The military tradition against marriage is strong, but I could not wait, and I had only three months left in my time as a soldier; then I would be free to settle with her in the valley. My orders would last me the time remaining; I would be remaining in Mountainshade.
“One night I was with her early. I was not on watchtower duty, but I had to spend a period at the garrison for guard duty. I left her, promising to meet her at a later hour at a place we both knew.
“That night, while I was at the garrison, the T’arkierl attacked. Every man in the garrison was ordered to the watchtower, in case the enemy tried to reach the interior of the country through Mountainshade.
“The war spread, and I was carried with it. I could not get in touch with Lirra, for if the marriage had been found out in peacetime I would have been subject to disgrace and even banishment—in wartime it would be considered a form of desertion, and I could have been executed.
“When the war was over, a year later, I went back to Mountainshade and inquired after Lirra. I was told that she had made a very good marriage to a wealthy innkeeper and had had a son—a son born rather soon after the wedding. There was some talk about that, but it had happened before. Then I knew that I was a father—and that I could not return to my wife. I had no right to take her from a secure home, or to break up a marriage that, I was assured, was such a good one. I dared not even see her.
“So I left. But I left in flight, for my secret marriage had been known to one or two of my friends, and somehow my captain learned of it. I had fought as well as the next man, and received my wounds, but superstitious military men care nothing for facts; tradition is their idol. I knew I would find no mercy in my captain.
“Thus I came where you find me now—hiding in Telgar, operating a tavern whose clientele is mostly thieves and ruffians, living in a smoky, windowless cubbyhole, I who fought for my King in the fortress of the Lord of the T’arkierl himself!” His voice had raised to a shout, but it was in a whisper that he said, “That is my story, my son, make of it what you will.”
Kati had listened in silence, face impassive, but torn open inside. He wanted to believe Var—how he wanted to! He wanted to claim Var as his father, joyfully, he wanted to find out what kind of man he had sprung from—but the cold flame within would not let him. He had held his hate too long to let it go in a moment.
He heard himself speaking. “A noble tale, as you tell it. Yet as I hear it, a not-so-noble one. You left my mother married to a mate she hated, a man who married her only for her dowry, whom she married only to avoid the disgrace of having her baby born without a father. Then, when you return, you do not make your name known, and tell your tale, which would have dissolved the hateful bond between Lirra and Urall and cleared my mother of even the slight on her name left by my early birth!” Kati’s throat tightened with grief and anger, and the cold fire swallowed him whole. “You never loved her,” he cried, “and you never loved me! She was no more than a—a whore to you—you cared not enough to risk yourself for her by proclaiming your marriage!” His voice broke, and weeping, he screamed, “You destroyed all joy in my mother’s life, and you ask for my forgiveness—my love? I deny it! I hate you, Var! You bastard, I hate you!” Blinded with tears and fury, Kati fled from the room.
At the end of the street he ran into the returning Tyree and flung him to one side, then vanished into the night.
Tyree stared after him, then ran to his brother’s room. Var was sitting on the edge of the bed, deep, racking sobs filling him. “Var?” Tyree said quietly.
Var didn’t look up. “In the name of the one God, Tyree, why didn’t I listen to you? He hates me, with every fiber of his being he hates me. Why did I not leave him where he was? He has exposed me for what I am, Tyree—a coward and a liar, for I have lied to myself for years.”
Tyree sat beside him, a hand on his shoulder, saying nothing until the sobs had ceased. Then he said, “You are no coward, Var. What you did, you did out of love for Lirra, however Kati sees it. You could not know the true situation.”
There was another period of silence, then Var raised his head. “There is only one thing I can do,” he said. He got to his feet and Tyree did likewise. “I shall go back to Mountainshade, and reveal myself. Let come what may, Lirra deserves the truth—will not have her hating me, as well.”
“But her husband—and the military—”
“He is not her husband; I am. He can keep the dowry, which is what he married her for. As for the military—I will face that as it comes. I have been running too long, Tyree, and running is something I never did in battle. I have been wrong to do it in life. If I must, I will leave the country—but with my wife and son!”
Tyree looked at his brother with something like a grin. “Var, for the first time in years you sound like my brother of old. He was never one to run from anything. So be it!”
“I must talk to Kati—” Var said, going to the door.
“No—” Var looked at Tyree with widened eyes. “No, he said he would not spend any more time as the apprentice of my brother— that means he is loose in the city—”
“—and in this part of the city, at night!” Var exclaimed. “Come on—he can’t have gone far!”
The two brothers ran into the night.
Kati had run, unseeing, along alley and street. Now at last his weeping and fury subsided, and he slowed to a walk. For the first time he realized he was lost.
He came onto a street that was dimly lit by light from a noisy tavern. Outside the inn stood men, some engaged in quiet and earnest conversations; others slouched in the shadows. Kati didn’t like the look of the place; he crossed to the other side of the street and walked quickly on.
He moved on around the next corner into a pitch black street. He moved along it slowly, touching the wall on his right. After a moment he stopped and listened; almost he thought he had heard following footsteps, but there was no sound when he stopped. “An echo,” he said aloud—but his voice did not echo.
The street stretched on and on; it was lined with tightly shut doors and shuttered windows from which no light escaped. Far ahead, though, Kati saw a lantern gleam, and hoped that he was at last coming to a better-lit and safer part of the city.
Then he heard footsteps again—running footsteps! He spun around, but something hit him in the chest and he fell…
Var and Tyree had run along the street that Tyree had seen Kati take. They guessed that the boy, in his anger and tears, had run straight. As they ran, they hoped to meet someone who might have seen the lad, but the streets were deserted until they came to the tavern.
Var hesitated. He knew the place. The lowest establishment of its kind in the city, and its customers made his own look like gentlemen. But they had eyes, and could have seen Kati. He stopped Tyree and went up to one of the men standing outside, a bearded, one-eyed man who ignored him. “Your pardon, sir,” he said courteously. “Did you perhaps see my son run by here? He is a tall lad, of about sixteen summers, wearing country garb.”
The man looked at Var out of his one good eye, and with the greatest contempt spat on Var’s boot. Var looked down at the boot.
He retained his smile. “I have not heard an answer yet.”
“Aye, and ye’re not going to, dandy. Ye had best leave here if ye wish to do so with a whole skin,” the man said with a sneer, placing his hand on an ugly knife in his belt. “In fact, I think ye’ve already been here too long.”
Var’s smile vanished as if it had never been; his left hand lashed out and gripped the man’s wrist, while his right forearm came up under the man’s chin and smashed his head against the wall. Holding him pinned. Var said coldly, “I do not leave until I receive an answer, my friend, and you will provide that answer.” The man struggled to pull out his knife, but Var’s grip was unbreakable, and as Var increased the pressure on the man’s throat, his eyes widened and he gave up the struggle.
“Your pardon, sir!” the ruffian gasped.
“Aye, sir, I saw your son. He passed the inn, on the far side of the street, and turned toward the Broadway, moments ago.”
“And did he pass in safety?” The man gave no answer, and Var’s forearm cracked his head back against the wall again. “Well?”
“Nay, sir, he was marked by Charlo, who followed him, thinking to get a copper or two for a mug of ale off of him.”
“Tyree! Var cried. He threw the man to one side and ran, leaving the ruffian gasping curses and clutching his throat. As Var and Tyree turned down the corner Var heard a cry from far down the street, and heart pounding he ran with all his might, leaving Tyree behind.
Kati could not see his attacker, but he could feel the sharp prick of the knife at his throat, and cried out. “Quiet, boy!” the man said, slapping Kati hard across the face. “Give me your money—all of it!”
“I—I have none!” Kati stammered in terror.
“What?” the thief cried angrily. “Are you lying, boy? For if you are, you’re a fool— and a dead one. Get up!” The man stepped back, and Kati got slowly to his feet—and ran.
It was an action of instinct, not of thought. Kati ran toward the light he had seen at the end of the street, conscious of the man behind him, praying that he was the faster of the two.
He was not. He was hit in the back and sent sprawling, his head cracking hard against the flagstones.
The thief jerked him over onto his back, and this time the knife did more than prick. Kati gasped as the blade laid open the skin of his throat. “J ust a little deeper, boy,” the man said, “and you’re dead. Runn in g like that, you must have money. I want it!”
“I have none!” Kati cried in fear. “I have nothing but the clothes I wear—I have run away from my master!”
“Then pay with your life!” the thief cried in fury, and raised his knife to plunge it into Kati’s heart. Kati screamed, seeing his death.
Then someone grabbed the thief’s arm. The thief cried out, startled, and tried to break loose by driving his elbow back. The unseen rescuer gasped, and his grip loosened. The thief jerked his arm loose and swung his blade around in a vicious, whistling arc. Kati’s rescuer cried out, and Kati guessed that the blade had met flesh. Ignoring his own streaming throat, he got to his feet and leaped on the thief’s back, knocking the knife away.
The other man drove a solid fist into the thief’s stomach, and the thief fell beneath Kati, struck his head on the pavement and lay still.
Kati staggered to his feet. “I thank you, sir,” he began weakly, then fell to his knees. The man gripped his shoulder and helped him up, though he staggered himself, wounded.
Running footsteps heralded the approach of someone else. “Var, what—”
Kati jerked away from the man’s grasp. “Var!” he cried.
“Son,” Var said quiet.ly. He made no move to touch Kati again.
“Why?” Kati said. “After what I said to you, you should not care about me—I would have said you have never cared—”
“You were wrong, Kati,” Var said. “I love you deeply, as I loved your mother—and still do. Kati,” he continued urgently, “do not judge me by the past. You have shocked me out of a morass of self-deceit. I have made a decision—I will take you back to Mountainshade, and tell all the truth. Then let what happens, happen. I’m through running.”
“You—you swear this?” Kati said in amazement.
“I do,” Var said. Tyree stood quietly by.
Kati, for a moment, felt the cold flame inside him, tellig him that he could not trust this man, that this was some evil lie. But then he remembered the thief his father had saved him from, taken a wound from, even after what Kati had said to him and ca1led him, and the cold fire was doused, never to be rekindled.
Kati’s he ad whirled and his wounds pained him, but as he staggered and almost fell he cried out the one word Var was longing to hear. “Father!”
Strong hands caught and supported him, and Var said, “I’m here, Kati.” And as he slipped Kati’s arm around his shoulders, he added, “And from now on, I will always be here.”
Together the man and his son went toward the light.