Methven - Day Thirty-Five - Part Five
They had the decency to leave me alone with my misery, then. That, at least, was a blessing.
Damn, that was stupid. Bruno told me it was booby-trapped that last night before we'd crossed the Bridge Between Worlds, while the two of us were setting up for our farewell hootenanny with Mantami's loving family -- what a swell party that had turned out to be -- and it wasn't that I'd forgotten his warning, exactly. It's just that, well, we were desperate and, when I tried to open Bruno's suitcase, I thought that maybe..
Oh, hell, I don't know what I was thinking. Maybe that, whatever that trap turned out to be -- Bruno hadn't bothered to fill in that little detail -- just maybe, the only booby it would get would be me, but the suitcase itself might still be around after I got the prize. Then the others could..I dunno. Find some kind of miracle inside that would make it right, somehow -- something that would put it all back together again.
That would put him back together again..
All around me the small, dark Methven men carefully avoided staring as they packed up our camp and loaded it onto collapsible drag sledges their pack horses had carried. Eventually, there was nothing left for them to pack.
So I stood up, wiped my eyes on my sleeve, blew my nose and went to where they all were waiting for me.
. . .
We rode until twilight that day, stopping only to water the "horses" and feed ourselves. Then we got up at dawn and did it again, for the next three days running -- and now I understand why cowboys walk bowlegged. That and why they don't sit down much. Horses bounce when they walk. I felt like I spent all three days being spanked with a leather paddle and, for the first few hours, I was in constant terror of falling off my mount.
I know why cowboys wear bandannas, too. There's a good reason why they call it the "dusty trail" -- and I coughed up big, black gobs of it every evening.
And, of course, Frank stuck me near the back of the party, just ahead of the pack animals -- three of which dragged the silvery forms of our foil-wrapped employers and our pal, Tong, toboggan-style. Our wounded companions seemed none the worse for wear, though. The things Tarn had called "stasis units" apparently made them the next best thing to invulnerable -- in fact, even the clouds of dust they raised as they bumped over the dry terrain didn't stick to their mirror surfaces.
Eventually -- and at the price of a mighty sore butt -- I started to get enough of a feel for my animal's rhythm that I found myself with some attention to spare for the view.
We were picking our way along the shoulder of the Vomisa Range by then, down towards the foothills that separate it from the Methven Plain& working our way back and forth across the slope, but heading constantly East by the compass. The air got warmer and drier as we descended and our mounts' padded feet and the wounded trailing behind raised a choking cloud of dust that got steadily thicker the closer we got to the flatlands.
The vegetation began to change, too. For one thing, the Methven version of conifers started thinning out, gradually being replaced by a variety of more deciduous-looking trees -- and some of them had decidedly odd-looking leaves. One featured long, thin, willowy-looking limbs with stemless clusters of triangular leaves spaced at two-foot intervals along them. The foliage of another was shaped like a cloud of miniature Maltese crosses that grew so dense that it concealed even the largest of its branches. There was one with round leaves, like a gingko, but with branches as gnarled as an oak and a fourth that was a dead ringer for an Earthly maple, except that its leaves were a zillion shades of blue.
The animals -- the reptilian birds and the inhabitants of the underbrush and tree canopy -- also changed as we approached the plains. The avians' plumage looked softer and fluffier, even as their colors became muddier and more muted. The scamperers in the underbrush, too, seemed to take on different forms -- they seemed smaller, rounder and more agile -- although I caught only glimpses of them as they fled from our noise and dust.
. . .
Around midafternoon of that first day, we topped the last major rise of the foothills and I caught my first glimpse of the Methven plains. Below, on our left, was a dense wood, that traced the course of a fairly substantial stream. To its right lay what appeared from our height to be mostly-level grasslands, dotted here and there with groves of trees. Even from a distance of miles, I could see herds of animals milling on the prairie.
And there in the distance -- a long, long ways away -- I could just barely make out a snow-capped conical peak, flanked by two smaller, darker cones that had to be our ultimate destination -- the Dragon Mountains.
. . .
By the time we made our evening camp -- right at the base of the foothills -- I had a million questions, but I was so exhausted that I could barely keep my eyes open long enough to eat. The last thing I remember of that evening was sitting down on my mummy bag to pull off my boots, before sleep, filled with dreams of death and helpless terror, dragged me down into its depths.
When Frank shook me awake at dawn, I was watching Blandy die again, his accusing eyes boring into me like horrible worms -- only his bisected corpse wore my face.
I'd bet I left bruises on Frank's arm.
There in the dawn's early light, I didn't feel much like keeping company with the others. I just took a leak, splashed my face with cold water and went off a little ways to drink my cup of s'lyme in solitude until the smell of food drew me back to camp.
"Y'look like shit."
"Thanks for noticing. Fuck off, okay?"
. . .
When we saddled up, I discovered I was stiffer than a calculus exam and mighty sore of fanny and inner thigh -- but I also noticed right away that I was keeping my balance a whole bunch better than I'd been able to do the previous day. That was fine by me.
We left the protection of the trees in less than an hour and struck off across the open plain. It didn't take long for me to decide that most of the animals I'd spotted from the ridge line the afternoon before were Methven horses, grazing on the dry, tough-looking grasses that covered the prairie. They kept a wary eye on us as we passed and they gave us a wide berth, but they didn't seem particularly frightened of us, otherwise.
Long about noon, we stopped in the shade of a small copse of trees -- mostly gingko-oaks -- for a quick midday meal. I took the opportunity to ask Tarn about those horses.
"Do those guys belong to anybody, or are they just wild animals?"
"They are unbroken and masterless."
"So they're wild, then?"
"All unbroken horses are wild, Mr. Drew."
. . .
That afternoon I first spotted the riders pacing us just at the horizon.
I dug my heels into my mount's sides and clucked to him and he obligingly sped up enough to let me move up from the back to the front of our little riding party, where Tarn rode. The Methven horsemen I passed on the way seemed a little irked to see me go by -- a couple of them scowled at me like jealous school kids and good old Frank jerked his head at me as if to say, "Get back where you belong, Earth-boy."
Even Tarn frowned briefly when I pulled up beside him. His horse snorted in agitation and I'd swear he actually tried to bite me.
"Your service, Mr. Drew."
"Yeah. Same here. Listen, have you noticed that we're being followed?"
The corners of his eyes crinkled and his lips quirked in a brief, flashing smile.
"I take it you're not too worried about it?"
He shook his head.
"Even did we not wear the livery of House Tarn, our party is too large for them to try its strength."
"Well, that's good to hear. So, who are 'they' and what's their story, anyway?"
"They are men who declare allegiance to no recognized House -- most of them undisciplined or dishonest or so lacking in honor or loyalty that no House will claim them as its own."
"Of a kind. Some have choosen to abandon their Houses. Others have been cast out."
"Like our friend, Baldy?"
Tarn's thin lips twisted in revulsion.
"Even they would not claim him as one of theirs."
Just then, Tarn's horse bared its teeth and lunged at my mount, who shied away so violently I was nearly unseated.
"What the hell is wrong with you, you stupid nag?"
There was no mistaking Tarn's frown of disapproval.
"You must return to your place at the rear, Mr. Drew. Now."
"Why? What's everybody got against me riding up front for a change?"
"Horses quickly learn which should lead and which should follow. Your horse follows. Now go, quickly, before they fight."
. . .
When we stopped to make camp that evening, Frank buttonholed me.
"Your service, Mr. Drew."
"What's up, Frank-o?"
"I would like a private word with you, Mr. Drew. Walk with me, if you would."
We strolled around to the other side of the little grove of ginko-oaks where the rest of our party was pitching tents and attending to the horses, getting far enough away from the others that, although I could hear the murmur of their voices, I couldn't make out any actual words.
"What's on your mind, Frank?"
"You must forgive me if my words are blunt, Mr. Drew."
"It is my duty to tell you that your behavior is unacceptable. It must change."
He held up a hand to forestall my tirade.
"You must listen now, not speak. When I have said what I am honor-bound to say, I will in my turn listen to you."
I was still angry, but it wasn't an unreasonable offer -- and, after all, he had warned me I wouldn't like what he had to tell me.
"I guess that's fair enough. Go ahead -- knock yourself out."
"You are an outworlder, thus you cannot be expected to understand the Way of the Horse. And Læ of Centra, who knows our customs well, evidently had no time to impart to you the basic courtesies. But you have nonetheless given offense to Tarn and we who ride with him -- not once, but repeatedly."
"I did not..oh, never mind. Go on."
"Firstly, you speak much too casually of the Outcast. We shun his name, as we shun him and all his works."
"We will speak of that later. For now, you must simply accept that what I tell you is true."
"Okay. I'll shut up. Say what you have to say."
"From hence forth, you must always greet Tarn -- and every other Methven you meet -- by offering him your service."
He made an exasperated noise.
"Because that is our custom, you fool!"
"Hey, don't insult me, little man. I'm only asking because I want to understand how things work here."
He started to respond, but I cut him off before he could get started.
"I'm not trying to offend anybody..but I don't want to take on obligations I don't understand, either, so I've been making it a point not to offer Tarn or anyone else 'my service', because I wasn't sure just what that entailed. If I understand you right, it's just a polite noise -- it doesn't oblige me to die for the guy or anything. Right?"
"That is correct. It is a formality..an expression of respect. Nothing more."
"Fine. From now on, I'll make it a point to observe the niceties. Anything else?"
"Yes. Unless he initiates the exchange, you must not engage Tarn in conversation."
"And just why the hell not?"
I almost added "It's a free country, isn't it?" But I bit my tongue just in time. For all I knew, it wasn't a free country at all.
"Tarn is the heir to a House Premiere. It is unseemly for one who has not established himself as his peer to approach him as if he were a common horseman."
"So what am I supposed to do when I need to talk to him -- send up a smoke signal?"
"I do not understand."
"Skip it -- it's too complicated to explain. Just tell me how I'm supposed to go about talking to Tarn."
"I am his Horse's Mouth. You must approach me and I will ask him to speak to you."
I'd say you're the other end of the horse, pal.
"Okay, you're the go-between. Got it. What else?"
"You must not speak to any unescorted Methven woman, lest you bring shame upon her, yourself and House Tarn. Likewise, do not mount another man's horse without his permission -- it is worth your life."
"Figures. Is that all?"
He gave me a measuring look.
"There is nothing else of great import, if only you conduct yourself with honor."
"Thanks for not insulting me. Can we talk about..whatshisface..the Outcast, now?"
His lips pursed in distaste.
"Believe me, I hate the guy as much as you do. He killed two of my friends, put Læ and Bruno out of commission and stranded my ass here. I'd as soon cut his throat as look at him. So, tell me, what's the story on the guy?"
"Once, his name was Li-Jenn. Then, his was among the Houses Major and Li-Jenn himself sat on the Council -- still, he loved power more than honor and his ambition knew no bounds. Nor did he shrink from treason to his kind."
"That he essayed assassination of the Council entire and confiscation of the land, retainers and horses of its murdered Lis, in order to bring about a new order of things, with no House independant of him and Li-Jenn as master of all Methven."
"I take it he failed?"
"His plot was betrayed."
"And he escaped and you've all been hunting him ever since, right?"
"No, Mister Drew. Li-Jenn, his First Horse and his Horse's Mouth all were captured. Li-Jenn himself was tortured to death -- slowly and with great care."
"I don't understand. You're telling me this Li-Jenn guy was executed -- but somehow he's still alive and kicking?"
"That is correct."
"How is that possible?"
"Ours is not the only House to ally itself with Centrans -- and not all Centrans love us as do Mistress Læ and those to whom she owes allegiance."
"So..what? Some kind of Centran bad guys cloned Bald..that is, Li-Jenn..and now he's got a bunch of copies of himself running around trying to whack anybody on Læ's payroll?"
"And all who claim friendship with House Tarn."
"Lovely. So, what am I supposed to call him, then? Li-Jenn?"
Frank shook his head.
"You must never refer to him so. Jenn is anathema to those Houses who swear fealty to the Council, its very name a mortal curse. In truth, it is best not to speak of him at all. When needs must, Methven refer to him as the Outcast. My own people speak of him as the Deadman."
"Wait a minute. You're not a Methven?"
"Certainly not. Many of my kind serve them -- as do I -- but I am not of their race."
"What are you then -- if you don't mind me asking?"
"You give no offense by the question. I am Fallin."
"'Fallin', huh? So, how come you ride with Tarn and his boys?"
"There is between us..a bond."
"What? Like an obligation of some kind?"
He again shook his head.
"The nature of it is difficult to convey to an outsider. Our people are like two faces of a single coin. Given time enough -- and trust enough -- one of us can attune himself to one of them. It is a powerful thing, to be part of such a pair."
"And you're matched up with Tarn?"
"Our melding has barely begun, but yes, we are linked, he and I."
"Then I apologize for having offended both of you."
"In Tarn's name and my own, I accept your apology."
(Copyright© 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Thom Stark--all rights reserved)