First published in Black Gate #11, August 2007.
Even at only eight seasons old, Ilias knew Cineth's god didn't really eat children, no matter what his older brother had told him. Castor was only two season older and Ilias knew he lied a lot, sometimes to try to frighten Ilias and more often to make himself sound knowledgeable. So when Castor pointed out the new Chosen Vessel at the market, Ilias wasn't sure whether to believe him or not.
He was sitting on his heels, watching ants build a nest in the dirt, bored by the adult haggling all around him. The afternoon sun was warm and bright and the market tents were all pitched under the big trees of the plaza. Men and women haggled over bags of grain, amphorae of wine and olive oil, fleeces, goatskins. The further end of the market was where the potters and metal-workers and other crafts spread their blankets to sell pottery and dyed cloth, knives and trinkets of carved wood and copper and polished stone jewelry. Ilias could smell the grilled meat someone was selling down there, and knew there would also be cheese and fruit and flatbread with honey. He also knew if he went for a closer look at any of it, his father would give him a clout to the head. Normally this wouldn't have stopped him; if Ilias minded clouts to the head he would have never done anything worth doing. But a tension in the air all through the day had told him that his father's quiet temper had already been pushed to the limit; pushing it further was not a good idea.
He had noticed the family long before Castor pointed them out because they were standing near the edge of the plaza, talking to some of the merchants who bought crops. The woman was young, her tawny hair braided with beads, and she wore a rich blue silk stole over her gown. The man with her wasn't wearing a sword, but then nobody but travelers carried serious weapons to market. He was tall, olive-skinned, with red-brown hair, like the Syprians who had always lived on the coast, and was dressed in worn leather boots stamped with gold and a sun-faded green shirt over pants trimmed with leather. Though his hair was more than touched with gray he still wore it in a long queue past his shoulders, and it tangled in his copper earrings. Ilias thought he must be a warrior, to attract such a young wife. Even though she wasn't as pretty as Ilias' mother, she looked wealthy, and could easily have bought younger husbands.
The only boy in the group was a little younger than Ilias; shouting with excitement, he ran past the man and was scooped up and captured, laughing delightedly. An older girl ran up to show the woman a beaded bracelet she must have just bought. The woman took the girl's hand to examine it, and the man leaned over to give it serious attention, the struggling boy still tucked easily under one arm.
Watching them, Ilias was torn between cynicism and a twist of bitter envy that soured his stomach, though he wasn't sure where it had come from. The adults actually seemed to be enjoying the company of the children, something he viewed with equal parts fascination and skepticism.
Castor's sandaled feet suddenly appeared and his brother said, "There he is. That's the new Chosen Vessel."
Ilias pushed to his feet, shaking dusty hair out of his eyes, frowning. He and Castor both came from inland Syprian lines, with light-colored hair and short stocky frames. Except Ilias had always been judged prettier by everyone in the family. His hair made long curls even when it was dirty, and Castor just looked like he was wearing a dusty mop. "Him?" he said with cautious approval, eyeing the man across the plaza.
The old Chosen Vessel, Livia, had been killed last year. Ilias had only known her well enough to recognize her in the market, but she had been Chosen Vessel his whole life, and he had hidden under his and Castor's bed and cried the night the word had come of her death. He had heard the poets' stories and knew the Chosen Vessel was given to the city by the local god. Its gift to the Vessel was the ability to see curses and track them back to the wizards who came to kill and snatch people away. Even Livia's presence in the town had been enough to keep away the dark creatures, the curselings the wizards created to come out in the night and destroy whole villages. Her death had made going out at dusk to help get the sheep and goats into the pens a test of Ilias' courage; every moment he had expected something horrible to jump out of the brush, either to eat him or carry his family off to be a wizard's slaves. That was a fate he didn't even wish on Castor or his oldest sister Niale.
It hadn't been until days later that someone had finally explained that Menander, the Chosen Vessel from the Uplands, would protect Cineth until the new Vessel was ready to take up Livia's duties, and that it was the god's presence that kept the curselings away. Ilias had been relieved and desperate to hide it from Castor. Pretending he knew what he was talking about, he said now, "He looks like a good one."
"Not the man, shithead. That's Ranior, he was lawgiver years ago. The boy's the new Vessel." Castor looked down at him with utter contempt. "The god doesn't choose Vessels that are already grown."
Ilias rolled his eyes in exasperation, pretending he knew that. He had known it, actually, but in his limited experience Chosen Vessels were like lawgivers and warleaders; older people, with gray hair and lines on their faces. It was hard to remember that the new Chosen Vessel would start out as a child. "I know that. I meant the boy."
"Did not." Castor aimed a shove at him, which Ilias easily ducked. Castor's natural instinct to bully his younger siblings had been thwarted; though Ilias was smaller, he was already stronger, as Castor had been sickly for the first years of his life. Ilias was also an expert in dirty fighting; his cousin Amari, who had three elder sisters who had apparently been trying to murder her since birth, had taught him everything she knew. Ilias' older sisters were all too old to bully their youngest brother, but it helped keep Castor humble.
Watching Castor glare at him, Ilias could tell "the god eats children" lie was about to make another appearance, as a last-ditch attempt to make Ilias feel young and stupid.
But as Castor opened his mouth, Ilias' father shouted for them. Both boys flinched. Ilias eyed Castor, delivered the parting shot, "You're standing in ants," and ran to catch up with their father.
The days after that were filled with work and Ilias spent most of his time in the herd pens. His mother had sent away the older boys from the neighboring farms who usually helped because she said they were gossiping too much, so there had been that much more work for Ilias, Castor, Amari and their older sisters and cousins.
The day before had been wonderful; it had been the first time Ilias had been allowed to help with the sheep-shearing, and his father had spent most of his time patiently teaching Ilias and little supervising Castor.
Despite that, dinner was disappointing, not that Ilias saw or ate much of it. A year or so ago their cousins had had a crop fail and lost their farm, and had come to live at Finan House. The old stone house was like most country places, and arranged in a square around the atrium, the rooms facing in to the shaded portico. It still looked big to Ilias, but it was only one story tall, and not made to accommodate so many people. Ilias hadn't seen the inside of the dining room since the others had arrived. There were no boys in their cousin's family either, and the influx of extra girls put Ilias and Castor even lower in the family hierarchy.
Now Ilias sat out on the sparse grass in the atrium with Castor, Amari, and his only younger sibling, his sister Taelis, who had just started to walk. "This has nothing in it," Castor complained, poking at his bowl.
Ilias grimaced in agreement. The grain porridge, without meat, lentils, berries, or honey or anything else that might have made it palatable sat in his stomach like a stone. Niale had taken over the management of the house a season or so ago and she never got the amounts of anything right. "Didn't they bake bread today?"
"Yes. I saw Niale making it this morning." Amari was watching the door under the portico that opened into the family dining room, her brow furrowed. "But there won't be enough for us."
Castor frowned at her. "Why not?"
"Niale measured the grain wrong, dummy," Ilias told him, helping Taelis cram porridge into her mouth. She leaned against him, chewing happily, and dripped pasty lumps onto his pants.
There had been arguing all through dinner, the voices too muted for Ilias to quite make out, so he had been just as glad not to be crammed in the too warm dining room, even if there was better food in there. The spring breeze and lengthening twilight made the atrium cool and pleasant, though no one bothered to fill the stone-bordered fountain from the big cistern anymore. The flowerbeds were all overgrown too, except for the patch where the squash and beans were planted. Some of the other girls were eating at the low table on the opposite end of the portico; Amari should have been with them but she didn't get on with her siblings or Ilias' older sisters. "There's no money," she said, sighing and poking at her own meal. She wasn't much older than Ilias but her family's troubles had made her grow up faster. "Your mother didn't get as much for the fleece as she thought she would. And Niale's going to need some of it to buy her husband."
Ilias rolled his eyes. "She would." Even at his age, it seemed a stupid thing for Niale to do now. To choose this year to demand to be married and to pick a man from a town family who wanted coins instead of another farm family that would have been content with a few sheep and cows on account. And the man wasn't even a warrior.
Amari shrugged. "He'll help with the shearing." But she didn't sound as if she thought it was a good idea either.
"I do that now," Ilias said loftily. Castor sneered and Amari ruffled his hair.
They had finished eating and Castor was collecting the bowls. Ilias had picked up Taelis, meaning to take her off to the girls' quarters to get washed. He had just put a wet noisy kiss on top of her head to make her squeal and giggle, when he looked up and saw his father standing on the portico, staring at him.
Something in his father's expression made Ilias uneasy. He tucked Taelis up against his chest, while she obliviously pulled at his hair with sticky hands. I didn't do anything, he thought, I think. He had so many chores he didn't have time to get into trouble. Oh shit, I was supposed to sweep out the shearing shed. Then his mother came out, furious, hair and bangles flying, and struck his father across the face.
Castor made a faint distressed noise and Amari looked away, her jaw set. Ilias just hefted Taelis and carried her off, hastily crossing the atrium. He found his sister Igenia in the girls' quarters and deposited Taelis with her, then climbed out the window. He knew his mother hated to be argued with, and he was surprised his father had made the effort, whatever it was about.
Outside the shelter of the house the wind was turning cold. In the growing dark, Ilias ran across the dirt-packed yard down to the big shed. It was just a big wooden building, its roof rounded planks, the beams supporting it anchored by stone blocks. It was too dark to see inside it and he found flint and tinder in the light box and got an old clay oil lamp lit, wrinkling his nose at the rancid scent of olive oil gone bad. By its light he found a broom and carefully swept out the shed, though he didn't think it looked that dirty. That done, he put out the lamp and wandered outside.
It was full dark now, too dark to see the tree-covered hills or the fields though the cool wind carried the strong scent of pine and the not so distant sea. He washed his feet in the cold water of the trough and then sat on the edge, listening to crickets sing for a time. Then he remembered wizards and curselings, and the dark didn't feel so friendly anymore. Not long ago, he had heard a story in the market, of an isolated village where a wizard had come and cursed everyone to follow him away into the Barrens. The Chosen Vessel for Thalmyris had followed and managed to kill the wizard, but was only able to bring back a few survivors. The wizard had forced them to kill and eat the people who couldn't keep the pace, and once released from the curse by the Vessel, most had killed themselves in horror.
Ilias decided to go inside; even though the god was supposed to be watching for wizards, the Chosen Vessel was still only a boy.
He didn't bother going to the front door with its big stone porch; that was only for visitors. He went to the window in the small room off the kitchen that he and Castor shared. The room was barely large enough for a narrow wooden bedstead; it had originally stored amphorae for the kitchen and still smelled like it.
Ilias scrambled over the stone sill into the nearly pitch dark room. Castor said nothing though from the lack of snoring Ilias could tell he was still awake. He sat on the thin little rug to untie his sandals, feeling the cold stone through the cloth, then stripped off his shirt and pants.
He climbed up into the bed and groped for the blanket when a hard shove to the ribs caught him by surprise. He fell back out of the bed, landing on the hard floor with a thump. Angry, he scrambled to his feet, glancing worriedly toward the uncurtained door. It led into the big echoing kitchen, which had an archway out onto the portico, and he knew the sound carried right out to the bedrooms. "Stop it," he whispered harshly. "You want to wake somebody up?"
"Get away," Castor whispered back.
Ilias flung his arms up in bewildered fury. "I'm supposed to sleep here, shithead."
"Not anymore." He heard the bed squeak and blankets rustle as Castor must have rolled over to face the wall.
Ilias stood there a moment, baffled. Castor hated to sleep alone. Most people did, but Castor had nightmares and cried. And Ilias' blanket was on the bed, the one his mother had woven for him when he was born, with the colors worked into galleys and whales and leviathans. It was a symbol of Ilias' status in the family, such as it was, and the one thing he would take with him when someone finally bought him for a marriage. An event that couldn't happen fast enough as far as he was concerned at the moment. "Give me my blanket."
"It's not here." Castor's voice came out of the dark, rough and angry. "Niale took it."
Ilias sneered, doubting it. If Niale had actually stirred herself to help with the washing, it would have been the talk of dinner. But he was tired and Castor would get paid back for this in the morning. "Fine," he said finally, "You stink anyway."
Stiff with fury, he pulled his shirt and pants back on and went out through the kitchen. He padded along the portico to the younger girls' room and slipped inside the door. The room was warmer and he could hear a lot of sleepy breathing and Igenia's snoring. Pausing to let his eyes adjust, he made out the dim shapes of the three beds, the clothes chests and baskets. Stumbling over piles of fabric and stubbing his toes on invisible objects he made his way to the bed Amari shared with Belia and Sirae. Fortunately, Amari slept on the outside. He poked her tentatively.
Her head lifted, hair tousled with sleep. "What's the matter?" she whispered, blinking.
"Castor kicked me out of bed."
Amari lifted the blanket, saying tiredly, "Come on."
He climbed into the warm bed, snuggling up to her side, telling himself this was better anyway. This bed had a feather-stuffed mattress and his and Castor's was filled with hay, which poked out through the cloth cover and itched. And Amari smelled pleasantly of a recent bath and gladiolus oil. But he couldn't help whispering, "Was there another fight? Why is Castor mad at me?"
Amari shifted to make more room for him, causing muttering and grumbles from the bed's other occupants. She wrapped an arm around his waist and sighed into his hair. "No. Your mother called him in with the others to talk, but there wasn't any shouting. I don't know what they said."
Ilias put it down to Castor's moodiness and subsided into sleep.
Ilias didn't wake early enough and got trapped into being forced to wash and having his hair combed out and rebraided by Amari and other assorted sisters and cousins. That was the problem with having older girls in the house; either they were hostile like Niale or they wanted to treat him like a practice baby. The benefit was that he got to share their breakfast of pomegranates and bread with honey. It was so good he even let Igenia braid in some red clay beads and a feather. Niale looked in once, her face turning stony when she saw him. She twitched the door curtain closed again and they heard her sandals stamp on the portico, causing Amari to mutter, "Bitch." Igenia and the others giggled in appreciation.
He escaped finally and walked out onto the portico to find his mother, his father, and Niale standing in the atrium and staring at him. He froze, startled, and his mother motioned for him to come to her.
Ilias went reluctantly, dragging his bare feet in the grass. He had obviously done something. He saw Castor, watching from the other side of the portico, and pointed at him, hoping to deflect attention. "He pushed me out of bed."
Castor just looked away.
His mother lifted one of his braids, looking at the beads and feather. He looked up at her, proud of the fact that she was far more beautiful than the Chosen Vessel's mother. She wore a light lavender gown, sleeveless to reveal the olive leaf designs on her copper and silver armbands. Her hair was a rich dark brown, caught up with clasps set with polished purple stones. He knew she liked the girls better and that was the way of the world, but he sensed a chance to ingratiate himself and leaned against her skirts. He knew he was too big to be picked up but he was hoping for something. Instead she stepped away, asking him, "Did you eat this morning?"
"No," Ilias said earnestly. The only good thing about having so many siblings and cousins was that in the general confusion it was sometimes possible to get fed two or three times for a single meal.
But his mother and father only exchanged an opaque look. His father said quietly, "You're certain? You won't change your mind?"
His mother's expression turned cold. "I've told you what I want. If you can't do it, I'll send you back to your family and find a man who can."
His father didn't reply, and his mother drew her skirts up and walked away. Then his father put a hand on Ilias' shoulder. "Come on, you can come into town with me."
Ilias threw an arch look at Castor, but his brother was staring at the paving stones between his feet.
He followed his father down the portico and out through the back entrance of the house. Ilias was surprised to see the gelding already saddled and waiting, its reins looped over the gate that kept the goats out of the other cistern. He ran to pet its nose and it dropped its head to investigate his hands for treats. It had a light brown coat, with a dark pattern of spots speckling its back and rear haunches. It was the horse he had had his first riding lessons on, and he dearly wanted it to be his someday, though realistically he knew it would be Castor's first.
He waited until his father settled into the light saddle, then reached up to be hauled on behind him. They rode out of the yard, past the herd pens and onto the track through the forest.
The sun broke through the scattered beeches and as the trail curved up the hill, Ilias craned his neck for his first view of the sea.
His father, who seldom said anything to him beyond "go here" and "do this," said suddenly, "You know you're not my son."
Ilias nodded, still trying to get a glimpse of blue water and breakers past the trees. "Yes. Castor and I are Timeron's sons, mother's second husband that died." It was why they looked different from all the others, but Ilias had only the vaguest memory of his birth father. Prominent women might have two or even three husbands. Though she wasn't particularly prominent, Delniea, Amari's mother, had two, Vendiead and Safronias. Niale has said it was why Delniea had lost her land, but the two men had been a great help in getting the hay in this season. "But there's always just been you," he added with a shrug.
His father made a noise as if he was about to speak, but said nothing.
They didn't take the quick way into town, but a smaller road that went up into the deep forest over the hills. Without a chance of glimpsing a galley on the open sea heading toward Cineth's harbor, Ilias drifted off, leaning against his father's back. He woke up when his father reined in.
They were in a clearing near the rocky top of a hill, surrounded by pine on all sides. His father reached back for his arm, sliding him off the horse and depositing him on the gravelly dirt. "I need to do some business with the hunters. You wait for me here."
"All right." Ilias looked up at him, shaking the hair out of his eyes. He wanted to see the hunters too, but he knew appeals like that wouldn't be welcome. He glanced around at the rocky hilltop, at the pines clinging to the slopes above it. "Where are they?"
"Just past that hill there." His father pointed, but didn't look down at him, just turning the gelding and walking it away.
Ilias hopped a few steps, brushing the gravel off his feet, realizing that nobody had bothered to make him fetch his sandals. He wandered around a little, but the rock-studded outcrop didn't have much entertainment value about it. The wind pulled at his hair and blew dust, and it would probably be more comfortable down under the trees, but his father had said to stay here. And he didn't want to miss a chance to go to the market without Castor. He threw pebbles for a while, bored, then became intrigued by some oddly shaped stones and began to build a fort.
Engrossed in it, he constructed the palisade, the boatsheds and the causeway. Then his stomach grumbled and he noticed the sun had moved to directly overhead. He frowned up at it, squinting, thinking, There's not going to be much of the day left for the market. And it was time for the noon meal, though he couldn't smell anything cooking from the direction of the hunters' camp. His father had probably changed his mind about the market, but Ilias could always lie and tell Castor they went anyway.
Ilias looked around, finding he had run out of stones and pebbles in his immediate area. He dusted his hands off on his equally dusty pants and went to look for sticks to make the war galleys.
He scuffed his feet in the dirt, wandering around the craggy outcrop. Following it around the top of the little hill, he realized he had been in the lee; this side was much windier and seemed to be drawing cold right off the snow-capped tops of the distant mountains. He shivered but the ground here was covered with bleached twigs and sticks, just what he needed.
He stared down for a moment, frowning. No, it's bones. He sat on his heels, poking at them thoughtfully, picking up one with a delicate curve, like the fastener of a hair clasp. They were animal bones or fish bones, like those the little water lizards left beside streams. He investigated further, poking into nooks and crannies, searching for some evidence of the small predator that lived here. Then he picked up a smooth round rock.
Looking at it, seeing and not seeing the holes for eyes and nose, it seemed a long time before he admitted to himself that what he was holding was a small human skull.
Ilias set it down with care, not wanting to make anything angry. Unburied or unburned bodies meant no rites had been done, and the dead person's shade must still wander this area. But how could bodies go unburied when the hunters' camp was so close? He stood up, moving carefully over the gravel and rocks. But he hadn't heard anyone, couldn't smell any woodsmoke, and no one had passed by.
He counted six more skulls, none quite as large as his.
He stood still for a long time, biting his lip, then started toward the hill his father had pointed out, where the camp should be. I just want to look at it. I won't go down and bother him.
It wasn't a long walk, but the rocks were beginning to hurt his feet, and he should have been wearing boots for it. He had a hand-me-down pair from Castor at home, as useful there as his forgotten sandals. As the hill steepened up into a cliff face the walk became a scramble, and he dug his fingers into the dirt and dried grass. He reached the top, relieved, and looked out over the little valley.
The empty little valley. There was a meadow with high grass, undisturbed by horses or people, and a stream near the far end, spilling over rocks to disappear into the trees down the slope. There hadn't been a camp here for days, from the look of the undisturbed grass. Ilias shifted uneasily, unwilling to admit that there was a cold chill creeping up his back.
He climbed down and went around the rocks, back to the fort. He sat in the dirt next to it, his arms wrapped tightly around his knees. His eyes stung from unshed tears though he wouldn't tell himself why he wanted to cry. It's a mistake, he repeated, over and over again. Or you didn't understand. Adults said things all the time that didn't mean what you thought they meant. He'll be back. After a time, when the sun had moved further into afternoon, he wiped his nose on his sleeve and went back to work on the fort.
But the afternoon lengthened into twilight and his father didn't return.
The light was starting to fail, and Ilias' stomach was cramping with hunger and his throat was dry. He was still pretending to play with the fort when the breeze turned unexpectedly chill, lifting his hair and cutting right through his lightly woven shirt. He looked up, shivering, and saw another boy crouched in the dirt, not ten paces away.
Something told Ilias immediately that he was looking at a shade. The boy was crouched in the lee of a rock, as if trying to find protection from the wind. He was much younger than Ilias, maybe Taelis' age, if that. His skin was a pearly pale, like the inside of a seashell, but tinged with blue, his hair dark and matted. He wore only a light tunic, grubby and torn. Ilias met his eyes, and they were old and knowing. Those eyes said, You're big enough to walk down off this hill. I wasn't.
Ilias jerked his head away, taking a sharp breath. Numb, he pushed to his feet. He tried not to look at the growing pools of shadow under the rocky crags, not wanting to see more small shades looking back at him.
He stood for a long moment, shivering. The forest was dark, the sharp contrast between the sunlight still lingering on the top of the hill and the shadows under the heavy green branches making it look like another world. Then he started to walk.
The ground was softer, but in the deep green twilight he couldn't see more than a few paces ahead or behind. Ilias had been out in the meadows near home in the dark, and on the beach and in the orchards, but never in the forest, not alone. He hesitated, but the path his father had used was impossible to see. He started downhill, knowing the road had to be down there somewhere.
Nobody talked about it, but everybody knew people took unwanted babies to a place out in the hills to die. Ilias knew this had to be the place. He paused, one hand on the rough bark of a tree, his bare feet balanced on its thick roots. "I didn't do anything wrong," he muttered, the unwanted tears stinging his eyes again. His family wasn't that poor, that they couldn't afford to feed him. And he wasn't a baby. He helped with the herding and the feeding and watering. He helped take care of Taelis. When he was older, somebody like Amari would want to buy him for a marriage. And his father had taught him to shear sheep yesterday.
I forgot to sweep out the shed. But he had done it before he went to bed, surely they would have seen it this morning. He gritted his teeth, remembering Castor kicking him out of bed last night, saying he didn't sleep there anymore. He knew. Amari and the other girls hadn't known, except for Niale, but Castor had. He knew now that Castor hadn't been lying when he had said Niale had taken Ilias' blanket. It was part of making it look like he had never existed.
Maybe Ilias hadn't done as well at the sheep-shearing as he had thought. Maybe it had been some kind of test that he had failed without knowing it. But he didn't see how that was possible. He had done well for his size, as good as Castor who was bigger and older. It must have been something else. He pushed off from the tree, wincing as he stepped on a splintered branch.
He walked a long time, long after the night deepened and he could only glimpse patches of moonlight through the branches, until the whole world was darkness and rustling leaves and there had never been anything else. His legs ached and his feet hurt from stumbling on pine cones and hidden rocks. Everything he had ever been punished for as far back as he could remember came back to him in painful detail, but none of it seemed bad enough for this. Maybe they just wanted to scare him.
He barely recognized the stream when he heard it, didn't realize it was there until he tripped on a root and fell on the muddy bank. He crawled down to it, put both hands in the icy cold water and drank.
The water set heavily in his stomach when he pushed himself up and wiped his mouth. He was shaking with weariness but he didn't want to sleep here. If I die here no one will find my body and do the rites. He didn't want to be a shade and he didn't know how long it would take him to die. He struggled to his feet, waded across the cold stream, and kept walking.
Some long time later he blinked, startled to find himself lying on cold hard-packed dirt. He pushed himself up, yawning. It was still night, but a little more moonlight fell through the leafy branches above, enough to see he had found the road. He must have just collapsed on it and fallen asleep. I guess I wasn't dying, he thought in relief. He rubbed his gritty eyes. His stomach felt completely hollow, like the inside of a drinking gourd, sloshing with the water he had drunk. He didn't feel like he was dying, except maybe in his feet. Maybe the only reason he had thought he was dying at all was that children left out in the hill place always died.
He managed to stand, stumbling and wincing. The dirt wasn't much easier to walk on and the openness of the road made him feel exposed, as if things were watching him in the dark that hadn't been able to see him among the trees. He limped forward, biting his lip at each step, trying to remember how far they had come before his father had turned off the road.
Maybe this was the test itself. Maybe if he found his way back tonight that would prove he was good enough to stay. But Castor's words kept coming back to him; there was a finality there that chilled him more than the cold dirt and the night breeze. His mother had always loved the girls best, but he had always thought he was the favored boy. Everyone always said he was prettier than Castor, that he looked more like his father Timeron, and it had always been good for extra treats on festival days. If he had known, if he had had any warning at all, he could have tried harder to be good.
After a long painful time of limping on more or less level ground, Ilias found himself toiling up a hill. Maybe things just felt different in the dark, but he didn't remember a grade this steep. The road was rough here too, and he kept stumbling into holes. Rubbing an aching knee, he stopped, coming to a reluctant realization: there was no hill like this on the road home. The wagon would have trouble on this slope and he knew he would have remembered it distinctly.
Ilias gritted his teeth against a sob and wiped his grimy face on his sleeve, confronting two thoughts: This is the wrong way and even if you find your way home, they could just take you right back to the hill. He shook the second one off, telling himself, no, it's just a test. He had to figure out what he had done and find a way to make it right. And none of that mattered if he didn't figure out where he was.
He had started out at the right point and had crossed the stream, but he must have veered off a straight path in the forest. He didn't even know if this was the right road. It might not lead to someone's farm at all, it might lead right out of Cineth's territory altogether.
Sudden fear cramped his stomach as he wondered if he had gone beyond the safety of the god's bounds, if this was a place where wizards and curselings roamed. He turned back and stopped again, staring. In the darkness not too far distant, he saw a flicker of firelight. In another heartbeat it was gone.
Ilias took a couple of steps forward, squinting hard into the dark, his heart pounding. He could just see a faint glow. It could be home, a thought whispered, but he knew in his gut it wasn't. But it had to be a torch or a lamp in a house, mostly blocked by trees or a fold of rock. Then the wind brought him a snatch of sound, hoofbeats on packed dirt.
Limping and stumbling, he ran back down the road. He found the edge of it by falling into a ravine and rolling through brambles. He scrabbled to his feet, trying to keep going straight and hoping he wasn't doing as badly at it as he had coming through the upper forest. He blundered into rocks, trees, up another small rise and stumbled to a halt.
Spread out below, cupped in the darkness of a small valley, was a big farmstead. Oil-lamps hanging in the portico lit the shadowy outlines of a big flat-roofed two-story stone house. More torches and lamps let him catch glimpses of outbuildings, herd pens, grapevines, orchards, and a large garden. Several men and women were standing around in the yard talking, the wind bringing him snatches of their voices. His heart squeezed with relief and he took a sharp breath, wiping his nose on his sleeve. It wasn't home, and it wasn't a near neighbor, though he might not be able to recognize the place in the dark. I did it. He hadn't found his home, but he had found somebody's home, and it had to count for something.
Ilias felt his way down the hill, his hands skimming the lush grass. Moving parallel to the house, he finally tripped over a rock and found the edge of a rough cart track that must lead down to the farmyard. He padded down it, his feet throbbing with every step. The track curved around the hill, leveling out as it approached the large dirt yard. He could hear the horses more clearly now, he just wasn't certain where they were.
"What's that?" someone shouted.
Still some distance from the torchlit yard, Ilias stopped, turning back as he heard hoofbeats. He saw horses and riders, dark frightening shapes, and backed hastily away.
An unfamiliar voice called out, "A curseling!"
Where? Ilias thought, stumbling and looking around in alarm. He flinched away from a form that seemed to materialize right out of the dark. "I'll tell you when there's a curseling, you idiot." The speaker was a sour-voiced man, suddenly standing over him.
"What is it, Menander?" another man asked. His voice was deep and calm, and the confusion seemed to lessen when he spoke. Ilias saw a form swing down from the nearest horse, tossing the reins to another shadow shape. Ilias could smell horse sweat and leather.
"It's a boy." The sour-voiced man sat on his heels to face him. People came toward them from the farmyard, one man carrying a torch. As the light fell on them Ilias blinked sweat and dirt out of his eyes to see that Menander was a man older than his father, inland Syprian, with light-colored hair braided back in a long queue. "Now who are you?"
"Ilias." He heard his own voice sound raspy from the dust of the road. He stared at the sword hilt poking up above the man's shoulder, wishing he could touch it. It was carved with a ram's head, the scrolled horns delicately detailed.
"He's not from Andrien village, and there's no other farms near here." That was the deep-voiced man, standing beside them now. Startled, Ilias looked up to recognize the man he had seen at the market days ago, Ranior, who had been lawgiver. The man with the boy Chosen Vessel. He was wearing a sword too, its hilt carved like a gull's wing. The men in Finan House never wore their swords, and Ilias desperately wanted a closer look at these. "No curses?" Ranior asked, frowning slightly.
"Not a one." Menander reached down to touch one of Ilias' feet, frowning at the bloody dirt that came away on fingers. Curses? Ilias thought, baffled, then realized with a shock that this must be the Menander, the Uplands' Chosen Vessel, who was watching over Cineth now that Livia was dead. "You've walked a long way, haven't you?"
Ilias wasn't sure how to answer that question, so he kept silent. Menander didn't press, asking instead, "Are you alone out here?"
That one he could answer. Ilias nodded. "I was on the road and I saw the light from the house."
"Where did you come from, son?" Ranior asked quietly.
"I--" Ilias looked up into the man's kind face and for a moment couldn't speak. This morning he would have told them the truth without a heartbeat's hesitation. He had never been a liar, except to Castor and his sisters and cousins. He knew the difference between lying to annoy a sibling or to get an extra helping of dinner and a serious lie. But that was this morning, and this day had made it all different. "I got lost," he finished. "My father said we'd go to the market, but I got separated from him and I've been trying to get home. But I took the wrong way through the forest and missed the path, and I think it was the wrong road. I don't know where I am."
He must have sounded every bit as miserable as he was, because no one questioned it. Menander lifted his brows and pushed to his feet. Ranior leaned down and scooped Ilias up, carrying him toward the house.
The yard was a confusion of horses and people and torchlight. Ilias winced away from it, relieved when Ranior carried him up the steps and into a lamplit entry hall. Ilias caught a glimpse of double doors opening into the atrium and dull red walls. The floor was a mosaic of a seascape with galleys sailing among forested islands. Ranior carried him through to another room, past two men who seemed to be guarding the door.
This room had dark blue walls, with border paintings of olive and laurel leaves. Bowl-shaped oil lamps, smelling sweetly of good olive oil, lit the room. There was an older girl there, the girl Ilias had seen with Ranior in Cineth, sitting on a cushioned bench with her legs curled up. She looked up, staring in surprise as Ranior deposited Ilias next to her. "Who's this?" She wore a sleeveless yellow shirt that was too big for her and a pair of doeskin pants with grass stains on the knees. The kind of clothes girls and women wore to ride or take sheep to market or sail on a boat, not that the women in Ilias' house ever did those things.
"We found him on the wagon track, lost," Ranior told her, already heading out of the room again. "Take care of him for me, Irissa." He stopped to ask the two guards, "Where's Treian?"
"He's taking a look around the atrium," one told him. He had a badly scarred face. The other man was missing his right arm below the elbow. They both looked like fishers or gleaners, wearing shabby sun-faded shirts and the short kilts most people wore on small boats, their only ornaments made of wood or shell. Except they had swords across their backs, soldiers' swords, plain unornamented steel, with leather wrapped around the hilts. The man hesitated, watching Ranior worriedly. "They're saying it's the one that got Livia. Is that true?"
Ranior paused, his face set, harshly etched in the candlelight. "I don't know, Cylides. Menander hasn't had a good look at him yet."
Ranior's bootsteps sounded loud on the tiles as he went back toward the front entrance. Irissa was looking at Ilias in confusion. Her brown hair was held back in frazzled braids and she wore copper rings in her ears. With a bewildered expression, she asked, "Did the wizard try to steal you?"
"No." Ilias stared at her, baffled. He looked at the two men, who were staring watchfully out the door. Past them, Ilias could see the other room was lit with more bowl-shaped oil lamps, and had dining couches and a low table. A wide doorway, banded by a couple of painted columns, opened out onto the atrium. The one called Cylides glanced at him, and the lamplight caught the gleam of silver among the scarring on his cheek. Ilias looked at Irissa again. "There.... There can't be a wizard here." There were people here, and lights, and wizards were only in dark places, the deep forest, the hills. But he remembered the story about the isolated village and felt a chill settle in his stomach. But she had to be lying, the way Castor lied.
"There is one here. It's trying to kill my brother." Irissa took one of his feet, wincing in sympathy. Ilias was distracted by how awful they looked in the lamplight, all dirt and blood. "You've been walking barefoot on the road? How far?"
"Ow," Ilias told her so she would be careful, though she hadn't hurt him yet. He was wary of older girls on principle, knowing that some could be friends like Amari, some indifferent, and others outright enemies. "I don't know, I'm lost. There's a real wizard, not a made-up one?"
"Very real." Irissa pushed to her feet, biting her lip as she looked around the room. "I don't have any water or bandages, and we're not supposed to leave the room. Does it hurt very badly?"
"No," he told her, still not sure she was telling the truth about the wizard. For all the times he and Castor had seen curselings in shadows, part of him had known it was just pretend. But his older sisters and cousins usually hadn't bothered to lie to him, except when Niale told him his mother hated him.
"We can send for water when Treian comes back," the man with one arm told her, still keeping his eyes on the torchlit atrium.
There was a red-glazed warming jar on the hearth, with a set of matching cups. Irissa dipped a cupful out of the jar and brought it to Ilias. At the smell of warm wine mixed with honey and water, Ilias forgot everything else while he gulped it down. He was thirsty and this was a treat he usually only got when he was sick. It soothed his throat and warmed his stomach and for a moment all he wanted to do was lie down on the cushions and sleep. Irissa brought him another cup before he could ask. She told him, "I'm Irissa, and that's Cylides and Macritus. They're from Andrien village. What's your name? Do we know your family?"
"Ilias. I don't know. I don't think so." He didn't think that was a lie. He had never been taken to visit this house as far as he could remember, and he had never seen his father talk to Ranior in the market. He drained the second cup and wiped his mouth on his sleeve, saying hurriedly, "How can there be a wizard here? Is it really after your brother?" He wasn't sure why he was reluctant to give her his family name, he just knew he wanted to delay the moment as long as possible. It would mean things would change, and right now this room felt safe, wizard or not. He knew there were two worlds now, one where people took care of you and one where they didn't. Having gotten back into the one, he meant to stay in it as long as possible.
Irissa's brow furrowed as she looked at the couch on the other side of the room. "Giliead is the next Chosen Vessel. Didn't you know that?"
Ilias looked blankly at the other couch and realized the lumpy blankets piled there were actually covering another boy. He could see tufts of brown hair sticking up past the reds and golds of the dyed wool. "I knew that," he said automatically. Maybe he hadn't believed it until just now.
At the doorway, Macritus, the man with the missing arm, shifted impatiently. "What's he doing?" he said, sounding as if he was mostly talking to himself. "Treian?" he called softly.
A faint sound pulled Ilias' attention back to the other couch. Giliead was awake and sitting up, regarding him with grave blue eyes. He was just a boy, a little younger than Ilias, with wavy brown hair coming out of his braids and a mark on his cheek from a fold in the pillow. "Treian's not there," Giliead said, blinking sleepily at Irissa.
"He's supposed to be." Irissa glanced back at him impatiently, but Ilias thought she was more worried than annoyed. "Macritus, could you--"
"Don't." Giliead's voice was suddenly urgent. He shifted, sitting up on his knees, pushing the blanket down. "He's out there, 'Rissa."
Macritus was still looking out into the other room and the atrium, frowning, but Cylides turned to look at Giliead, asking, "What do you see, Gil?"
Between one heartbeat and the next, the doorway filled with a solid darkness, the cold breath of death. Ilias yelped, scrambling back and tumbling off the couch, staring in frightened incomprehension. Irissa fell over the couch as the darkness rolled over Cylides and Macritus, even as the two men shouted in alarm and stumbled backward.
The darkness struck Ilias and knocked him backward, and the room went black. He lay on the tile floor, blind, cold and numb, so shocked he couldn't even feel terror. It was like standing in the surf on the beach and being struck by a sudden powerful wave; the darkness took his breath just the way the foamy water would have. After another moment it passed and he could see the blue-painted ceiling again, the firelight reflecting off it as if nothing had happened.
Dizzy and sick, Ilias rolled over and saw a strange man standing in the room. He was young, dark hair gathered in a queue, his jaw set, his eyes grimly determined. His clothes were fine, a dark green sleeveless shirt and pants, boots and a broad leather belt stamped with blue and gold designs, silver rings in his ears. There was blood on his hands, staining a copper and leather wristband, as if he had been butchering meat.
Cylides and Macritus lay tumbled on the floor, unmoving, and Irissa was sprawled on the couch, her expression dazed, shaking her head uncertainly. Ilias realized suddenly that the darkness had been exactly like a sea wave; it had struck harder at the people who had been standing up. He had been closer to the floor and it had mostly rolled right over him.
The strange man's eyes went to Ilias and moved dismissively away. Then he saw Giliead still sitting on the couch. He smiled, an oddly sweet expression, and said, "There you are, boy. I've been looking for you."
Wizard, Ilias thought. It was a poet's story come terribly alive. He opened his mouth to yell for help and it was suddenly as if there wasn't a breath of air in the room; his voice came out as a near-silent croak.
Still crouched on the cushions, Giliead watched him evenly. He didn't look like a boy confronting a monster. His expression was mildly curious, as if he had idly wondered what this moment would be like. He said, "I was always here."
The wizard took a step forward, still smiling but eyeing Giliead narrowly. Tumbled between the couch and the wall, Irissa struggled weakly to get up. Ilias saw a cup had fallen beside the table leg and started to edge toward it. He felt as if he was trapped in one of Castor's horror stories of curselings and wizard-slaves. The wizard ignored both him and Irissa, still watching Giliead. He said, "Menander was a fool to think he could protect you."
He wants to make Giliead afraid, Ilias thought, knowing it by instinct. Ilias stretched and reached the cup, lifting it uncertainly, meaning to throw it. Giliead flicked a look at him and Ilias thought the other boy didn't want him to interfere, at least not yet. He kept hold of the cup and didn't move, trying to breathe as quietly as possible.
Giliead told the wizard, "The god protects me."
From the couch Irissa managed to speak, her voice a strained croak. "Menander's here, he'll kill you!"
Ignoring her, the wizard took two long steps suddenly, reaching down toward Ilias. Before he could scramble back the man grabbed his hair, yanking him half off the floor. Still watching Giliead, he said, "Silly little boy. Gods don't protect Chosen Vessels."
Ilias clawed at the painful grip, still unable to cry out, but the man had jerked him up so his toes barely touched the ground. His eyes blurry from pain tears, he saw Giliead show emotion for the first time. His eyes narrowed, the other boy looked angry. Giliead said, "You let him go."
A door banged somewhere and a woman burst into the dining room. Ilias recognized her from the market, but her hair was tied back now and she wore a red-brown dress, and her face was strained and angry in the lamplight. She carried a weapon Ilias had only seen a few times before, a long-handled knife with a hook on the end, that he knew was for fighting on war galleys. She saw the wizard and froze for a heartbeat, her eyes widening in shock as she looked from the wizard to Giliead, then to Irissa still trying desperately to push herself up off the couch.
The wizard said with an easy smile, "Come and join us, Karima, the more the better."
"How did you--" she started to ask, then must have decided it didn't matter. Her face hardened and she lifted the knife, starting forward.
Giliead said sharply, "Mother, don't. You need to get out of the doorway."
Karima stopped, throwing him a startled look. She won't do it, Ilias thought, despairing though he didn't know why it was important. Mothers didn't listen to their children at the best of times, let alone a moment like this. Emotions flicked across Karima's face, uncertainty, fear, resolve. Then she stepped sideways, out of the doorway.
The wizard started toward Giliead, dragging a struggling Ilias with him. "Don't try to trick me, boy, there's no one to help you. Menander is searching for me in the woods again, and the others follow him."
Giliead just cocked his head thoughtfully, "You shouldn't have used curses. You were real quiet up to then, and it couldn't hear you."
The man stopped. Ilias couldn't see his face but he heard him breathing hard, and he felt something change in the room, as if the air smelled different, or pressed harder on his skin.
"There's a thing you don't know," Giliead continued, still calmly, "The god doesn't protect the grown Chosen Vessels. But it's different when we're children."
Try as Ilias might later, he couldn't remember what the god looked like, though Gil always claimed it had come down the chimney and passed within a pace of him.
Ilias saw the puff of ash from the hearth, and heard the wizard yell in alarm, loud and shrill. He let go of Ilias' hair and Ilias fell, scrabbling rapidly away. He looked back in time to see the wizard fly through the doorway as if he had been shot out of a bow. He struck the low dining table with a crash and the wood shattered beneath him, leaving the wizard sprawled on the tile floor, unmoving.
A clamor of shouts and running footsteps came from the front of the house. Karima stepped toward the wizard's prone body, lifting the boat knife cautiously, but the man just lay there, one last breath sighing out of his limp body. If she hadn't moved out of the way, Karima would be smashed under him now.
Irissa managed to sit up, clutching her head with a groan. "It took the god long enough. I thought he was going to kill all of us," she muttered. Cylides and Macritus both began to stir back to consciousness.
Ilias shoved himself upright and limped over to Giliead. The younger boy slipped off the couch, standing barefoot in an oversized blue shirt. An ordinary boy again, he chewed self-consciously on his thumbnail. "Is he dead?" Ilias asked him quietly. The wizard looked dead but he wanted to be certain.
Giliead nodded solemnly. "Yes."
"Good." Ilias took his hand and limped into the dining room with him.
The room and the atrium beyond seemed full of people suddenly, calling out in alarm, talking, anxiously leaning over the two half-conscious guards, helping Irissa stand. Someone scooped Giliead up and when Ilias stumbled and nearly fell, someone grabbed him too.
They ended up in the kitchen, with herbs bundled up to dry hanging from the rafters and big storage amphorae stacked against the walls. It was still pleasantly warm from the banked fire in the big cooking hearth. There were a lot of people in there too, most of them armed, talking urgently. In all the confusion, Ilias got handed over to a young woman called Sabiras, who was probably Niale's age, but her olive skin had darkened from the sun and her hands were calloused and hard from work. She wore loose pants and a shirt with the sleeves tied back, and her jewelry was all shells, with polished cowries on her armbands. She set him down beside the hearth and made concerned noises over his feet. She got some warm water from the pot sitting in the coals and cleaned the cuts, which hurt but he managed to bite his lip and not cry. If his behavior was going to be reported to his mother, he wanted to be sure he didn't make any mistakes. And after what had just happened with the wizard, it seemed a small thing to cry over.
Irissa sat next to him, holding a cup of warm wine someone had given her. "Mother, I think the wizard did something to Treian," she said. Her hands were shaking a little, making the liquid tremble inside the red-glazed cup, but her voice was firm. "We called but he didn't come."
Karima bit her lip, her expression still tense. She kept absently squeezing Giliead's shoulders, as if making sure he was still there. "They're searching the house now. If he's hurt, they'll find him."
"He's dead," Giliead told her, still calmly. "The god's showing me. I think he's out in the woods. Treian, I mean. It thinks the wizard killed him when he got separated from the others after dusk, and the wizard made a curse on himself so they thought he was Treian." Giliead frowned in concentration, his eyes distant. "It wasn't a good curse. Not good, I mean it didn't work well. He had to stay in the dark, or people would have seen he wasn't Treian. The god says he must have known Menander would see through it, and so he had to act when he realized Menander and Ranior were returning." He blinked. "Can I go to bed now? I'm sleepy."
Ilias stared, then looked at Karima and Irissa, both listening in growing consternation. Appalled, Karima said under her breath, "He was here in the house all that time. And the motherless bastard killed Treian." She pushed to her feet, shaking her head.
Ilias took a sharp breath. "He waved his hand and we couldn't--"
Sabiras put a hand over his mouth. Ilias looked up in surprise. "You were too startled to call out, it happened too fast. That's what happened, isn't it?" She looked at Irissa pointedly. "Irissa?"
Irissa looked blank for a moment, then nodded in startled comprehension. Ilias realized others in the room were listening and that Karima was staring at him with concentrated intensity, as if willing him to make the right answer. He didn't understand but he nodded emphatically. Sabiras removed her hand, saying, "Good."
Ranior and Menander returned, but Ilias didn't see them, only heard them talking out in the atrium. He got a quick bath in warm water, and a clean shirt to put on that was far too big for him. Irissa told Sabiras Ilias hadn't eaten all day, and Sabiras brought him a bowl with lentils and bread soaked in mutton broth, and the fact that these people still had bread this late in the day just confirmed Ilias' opinion of Niale's bad management of their house.
They didn't ask him any questions, until Sabiras carried him to a bedroom on the opposite side of the portico. It was nearly as big as the room Ilias' sisters and cousins slept in, but there were sheepskin rugs, and only one bed and a couple of clothes and blanket chests. It wasn't as warm as the kitchen, though the winter shutters in the outside window were tightly closed.
Giliead was already in bed, his face buried in the pillow, with Karima seated on a stool nearby. As Sabiras put him down on the bed, Karima asked him, "Ilias, how did you get lost today?"
When she smiled, she was pretty, nearly as pretty as his mother. "On the way to town."
"You walked from Cineth?" Sabiras asked, brows lifted.
"No, we didn't go all the way there. I got lost on the way." He rubbed his eyes, just wanting them to stop. He was more glad than ever that he had lied. He was being treated like a lost child; he wasn't sure what would have been different if they knew he had been...left, but he wasn't willing to take the chance. "I'm sleepy."
Karima and Sabiras exchanged a look he couldn't read, but they didn't ask him any more questions. Sabiras tucked him under the blankets and they both left the room.
Giliead rolled over and cuddled up next to his side, and Ilias put an arm around him. Ilias hesitated, the asked, "Why wouldn't Sabiras let me tell them why I didn't call for help?"
Giliead blinked. "Because it was a curse on you and Irissa. It's gone now, and it didn't do anything to you. But people might hear about it, and say you should have a curse mark, like Cylides."
Ilias knew what a curse mark was. People who had been under a wizard's curse had to have a silver half-moon branded into their cheek. He had never seen one before because those people weren't supposed to be around normal people. He wanted to ask a question, but he couldn't put it into words.
Giliead seemed to know what he wanted to ask. "Cylides needs a place to live, so he lives in Andrien village, down on the beach. Ranior says having a curse mark doesn't mean he's done anything wrong. It means a wizard did something wrong to him."
Ilias asked, "So why does he have to have it? It isn't fair."
Giliead shrugged, nestling into the pillow. "Because people are so afraid of curses. Anything that has to do with them." He eyed Ilias thoughtfully. "Ranior says people are afraid of Chosen Vessels, too."
"I'm not," Ilias said automatically, before realizing it was true. He had seen a wizard now, he knew what there was to fear, and it wasn't Giliead or Menander. He could hear voices, through the shutters and from the doorway, and knew there were people on guard. But there had been people on guard when the first wizard got in. "What if another one comes?" he said aloud.
Giliead shook his head, barely awake. "The god's under the bed."
Ilias bit his lip. He didn't think Giliead was lying, and he didn't want to look. But he was too exhausted not to drift off, and he slept soundly.
The next day was mostly spent sleeping. Ilias finally woke buried in the blankets, feeling hot and a little sick, with Giliead using his back as waves to sail a toy boat on.
The shutters were open, revealing warm afternoon sun and the branches of an olive tree moving gently in the breeze. Blearily, he crawled out of bed onto the sheepskin rug in front of the banked hearthfire. Giliead had been up for some time, judging by the scatter of wooden toys. Remembering last night, Ilias leaned down to cast a suspicious look under the bed, but there was nothing there but a little dust.
Ilias examined his feet with a grimace. The left one felt fine, if tender. The right was swollen, the skin stretched tight, and the cuts on the heel and just below his toes were red and ugly. He didn't think he could walk on it, at least not today.
He picked up a toy galley, trying to think what to do. The boat was scarcely bigger than his cupped hands, but precisely carved, the eye for the ship's soul carefully picked out over the bow. It was old, with traces of the paint that handling had worn off.
"Ranior made that for my sister," Giliead told him, settling next to him. His fine hair had completely come out of his braids and he was still wearing the same shirt he had slept in. "She gave it to me. She's going to be a captain and sail to the Chaeans."
"Is she your only sister?" Ilias asked absently, turning the boat over. He had a wooden horse, not carved as well as this, and battered from years of play. It had come from Timeron and Castor hadn't wanted it anymore, so it had been Ilias' to play with. "If she's the only girl, then she can't go to sea. She has to stay here and take care of your family's land, so the people who live here don't starve."
Giliead frowned, taking the toy ship back as if Ilias had just lost the right to hold it. "She can be a captain if she wants."
It wasn't worth arguing about. Only women could own things like houses and land.
Sabiras came in then, looked at Ilias' feet, and made him get back on the bed.
She cleaned Ilias' cuts again and put on smelly ointment and bound his right foot up to keep it clean. Then she made up for it by bringing them bread, fresh and still warm, and fish with pickle sauce and lentils. Ilias ate all of his and half of Giliead's portion, since the younger boy had been awake earlier for breakfast. Sabiras lectured him on staying in the bed, not walking around and especially not going out in the atrium or the farmyard to play in the dirt.
Ilias felt better after the food. "Are there still wizards outside?" he asked her, scraping the last of the sauce off the plate. Until the wizards were gone, he couldn't walk home.
Sabiras hesitated, and Giliead, sprawled on the foot of the bed and pushing another wooden boat across the fold of the blankets, answered for her. "There's no curses, so there's no wizards."
She glanced at Giliead a little uncomfortably, then quickly smiled at Ilias to hide it. "There you go. That's what Menander says as well."
Ilias got out of bed as soon as she left, but it really did hurt to walk. So he played with Giliead on the floor, naming the wooden toys after famous wizards and Chosen Vessels from the poets' stories, and reenacting their battles. Ilias hadn't played like this in a long time; Castor had decided he was too old for these kinds of games and was too busy trying to bully Ilias to want to do anything interesting. Giliead was still young enough to have fun.
The house was quiet except for the occasional reassuring sounds of Sabiras or someone else talking out in the passage, or the lowing of a cow out in the fields. Once Ilias heard Ranior's voice outside, speaking to someone in a serious tone as the leaves crunched under their boots. It was odd to be in a house so quiet, to have a whole room to themselves for their play, but Irissa seemed to be Giliead's only sibling.
He was so wrapped up in the game, he didn't even know Karima was watching them until Giliead, laughing at Ilias' rendition of Ifaea finding the edge of the world, rolled onto his back, smiling, and said, "Hello, mother."
"Hello, Gil." She smiled at him openly, not hesitantly the way Sabiras did. "Menander needs you to talk to the god for him. Can you do that?"
"It's in the hay barn, where it's dark and cool. It doesn't like bright light," Giliead told her, rolling over to prop his chin on his hands. He explained to Ilias, "Menander could talk to the god himself, like he talks to the Uplands god, but he wants me to practice. Our god likes him, though. He sounds like pine needles in the wind."
Ilias nodded seriously, fascinated. It was a novelty to talk to someone who told you interesting things, rather than badly made-up lies.
Karima sat on the floor, her green dress pooled around her. "Ilias, let me see your feet." Her voice, calm and firm, was impossible to disobey and he shifted glumly to face her, stretching his legs out. She looked him in the face when she spoke to him, and he couldn't remember when his mother had last done that.
He held his breath as she took his foot, but she handled it gently, not hurting him. "You need to listen to Sabiras and not walk on this," she told him, adding almost absently, "What's your family name?"
"Finan," Ilias said, then bit his lip. She had caught him by surprise, before he could decide to lie.
She nodded, her eyes thoughtful. "You're Timeron's son?"
"Yes, but he died and I don't remember him."
"I see." She smiled a little, and he thought she looked tired. "We'll send a message today and see if we can't get you home soon."
Ilias nodded, but he knew it wouldn't be that simple. And he didn't want to be carted home like a stray goat. He wanted to prove himself, to show he could get home on his own. That was the point of this.
Menander didn't come until later that day, when the sun was just beginning to set.
Irissa had come in earlier, not long after Karima, and proved that she wasn't much like Ilias' notion of an older sister. She played games, and then they sat on the floor and read to them out of a poet's story that Ilias had never heard before, a long story about a voyage down the coast, and fighting with Hisians. When she was done, Giliead said, "Read about the Chosen Vessels, 'Risa."
"You've heard those stories," Irissa told him repressively, rolling up the parchment and tucking it carefully back into its leather case.
"Not all of them. And Ilias hasn't heard. And you can stop before the end."
"Stop before the end?" Ilias asked, poking Giliead in the ribs to make him squirm. "Why do you want her to do that?"
Giliead defended himself half-heartedly, laughing. "She doesn't like to read the parts where they die."
"They die? That's a lousy end," Ilias said, still tickling.
"Chosen Vessels always die," Giliead said, smiling. "That's what everybody says." Then Irissa threw a pillow at them and refused to read to them at all.
Menander came in not long after, his face shaved and his hair re-braided. He sat on the floor by the fire and told Giliead things to tell the god, and things to ask it. It was all fairly dull, just questions like "what does the sky look like" and "ask it which way the wind is blowing" and Ilias stopped listening, until they were done and Menander was getting up to leave. Then Irissa asked, "Why did the god help Giliead and not Livia?" Ilias had been wondering about that himself.
Menander shook his head, looking off toward the window and the field beyond, the shadows long as the sun set. "The gods, and especially this god, the god that Chose him, can see and hear Giliead very clearly now, better than we can see and hear each other in this room. It sees through his eyes, literally, and so it knew the wizard was here, where Giliead was, and it could get here in time to help him. As we get older, we lose that close contact. We can still speak to them, and they to us, but it takes time and effort." He turned back to them, ruffling Giliead's hair as the boy looked up at him solemnly. "The god didn't help Livia because it didn't know she was in danger until it was too late."
Impulsively, seeing this was the last time he might have the chance, Ilias asked, "Did the wizard do any other curses last night?"
Menander eyed him sharply, but Giliead turned to look at him, his expression serious. Giliead said, "There was only one other, besides what he did here in the house. He did one when he crossed the river from the Uplands, just a little one to keep the wagon ferry from seeing him -- that's how Menander knew he was coming. He might have thought he was far enough away that the gods couldn't hear him, but they both did. Our god and the Uplands god. Then he killed Treian."
"Oh." Ilias subsided, leaning back against the pillows. "So the gods can hear it every time a wizard does a curse?"
Still watching him, Menander answered, "Some wizards are more subtle, but this was a young one, and his curses were loud. He probably didn't realize how loud." He lifted a brow. "Why did you want to know?"
Ilias shifted uncomfortably. "Something happened last night...when I got lost. I thought I might have gotten lost because of a curse."
Menander nodded, understanding. "There was nothing like that."
Ilias nodded, resigned. He hadn't really thought so, anyway.
After another day, Menander returned to the Uplands, and Giliead was allowed to go outside the house again, though he chose to stay with Ilias, who was still confined to the atrium until his feet were well. Karima said nothing further about the message to the Finan, and Ilias found it easier to put it out of his head, pretending to himself that this was just a visit.
That was easy to do. Even with people from Andrien village wandering in and out, there was less confusion and turmoil in this house. Meals might be at odd times but there was always plenty of food, and it actually tasted good, even when visitors came at the last moment. Irissa seemed to actually enjoy her brother's company for the most part, and Karima and Ranior were...different.
By the third day Sabiras had pronounced Ilias' feet well enough to walk outside the house, as long as he wore a pair of sandals she found for him. He and Giliead had been helping her milk the goats, and were now sitting out on the short wall of the pen. From there, Ilias could see into the stable, and he noticed Ranior's horse was gone. "Where did Ranior go?" he asked.
Giliead frowned down at the dusty ground. "To your house."
Ilias sat bolt upright, staring. Giliead flicked a guilty look at him. "How do you know?" Ilias demanded.
Giliead bit his lip. "I heard them talking this morning, while you were still asleep."
"He's not back yet?"
If Ranior had left this morning... Ilias didn't think it was that far. "Come on." He pushed to his feet.
They sat out under the olive trees in the orchard, where they could see the wagontrack down from the road. Every moment seemed to wear on Ilias' nerves, though Giliead fell asleep, curled up at the base of a gnarled trunk.
Finally he saw Ranior coming down the track, walking his horse. Something about the set of his shoulders told Ilias that Ranior was tired, though the distance to Finan and back couldn't have been that long. Giliead woke, blinking and rubbing his eyes. "He'll talk to mother first. Want to listen?"
Ilias nodded, not trusting himself to talk. Giliead scrambled up and led the way back through the orchard, then around to where the bulk of the house shielded them from the view of the barn and the front yard.
There was a field on this side of the house, with a shady stand of oaks, stretching away up to the beginning of the forested slope. There was a sheep pen out there, and some of the herdsmen were sitting on the stone fence talking. Giliead crept close to the wall of the house, Ilias following. The herdsmen were out in the bright sunlight and he and Giliead were in the shadow of the arbor; he didn't think the men would be able to see them.
They waited, crouching in the arbor, long enough for Ranior to take the mare to the barn and water her and wipe her down. Then, still in a crouch, Giliead moved through the sparse grass down the side of the house until he was under a broad window. He didn't have to gesture or glance back; Ilias could already hear Karima's and Ranior's voices. He settled next to Giliead, his shoulder against the cool stone, to listen.
"They wouldn't admit it, of course, but he was on the hill, all right," Ranior was saying. "I found his tracks, and the tracks of the horse that brought him, and a place where a child was digging in the dirt, playing. He must have been up there for most of the day, before he tried to find his way back."
"He knew, then." Karima's voice was quiet.
"Oh, he knew, all right. Maybe not at first. But he knew enough to lie when Menander asked him what he was doing out there." There was a pause and Ilias heard Ranior draw a long breath. "People are still leaving children there, as if the law means nothing. There were more bones than last time, but it was a bad harvest for some, and the fishing hasn't been good this year. Too many new babies that the families can't afford to feed. I did rites for as many as I could find, but I'll have to get Menander to go out there and make sure there are no shades left behind."
Karima was silent for a long moment. "When they didn't respond to the message I sent, I was afraid of something like this, but...." Ranior must have nodded, because Karima continued angrily, "It's madness. There's a dozen families I can name off the top of my head who would take in a little boy his age with no more thought than they'd spare for taking in a stray lamb."
"Do you think the Keneans are right, that she killed Timeron? That she's always been mad?"
"No, no. But she was never the same after he died. And Ilias looks like him. As soon as I saw him, I thought he must be a Kenean. And I think she's had too many children, the fool. I know she went out of her head after that third girl was born and never managed to quite get back in. That can happen with too many births, so close together."
"What about the other husband, what's his excuse? He hasn't had too many births."
"Love for her, maybe. Fear she would send him away." Karima let her breath out, sounding angry. "I can't get over it."
"She braided his hair and put beads in it, then sent him out to die."
"There's a lot of people living in that house, a lot of other children. I don't think most of them knew where he was being taken." Ilias heard footsteps come toward the window. "And even if some of them did.... She controls the purse-strings and her sister hasn't a goat to her name. If they argued too hard with her, they might find themselves out in the cold."
Ilias had heard enough. Numb, he eased away from the window, quiet and cautious by habit. When he was far enough away, he pushed to his feet and walked out from under the arbor. Giliead trailed along at his side, and the herdsmen glanced up at them, but away from the window they were just two boys walking in the afternoon sun.
In a little voice, Giliead asked, "What's the hill?"
Ilias took a deep breath. "It's where your family takes you when they want to get rid of you." It was the first time he had said it aloud.
Ilias avoided the front of the house, where someone might see him, heading toward the sparse forest at the base of the slope. There was a footpath here that was a short cut up the hill to the road. There was nothing he needed to go back for. His own clothes had gone into the mending basket as too stained and ruined to wear again without being re-made. The brown shirt and blue pants, trimmed with leather braid and painted designs, were hand-me-downs Irissa had grown out of. The sandals had probably been hers too. The only thing he had that he had brought here with him were the beads in his hair, which Sabiras had braided back in after his bath. "You need to go back," he told Giliead.
Giliead kept pace with him. "What are you doing?"
"I have to go home." He had to know for certain.
Giliead caught the tail of his shirt. "I don't want you to go. I want you to stay here and be my brother."
Ilias yanked the shirt free, telling him sharply, "I've got a brother."
"The one that sent you away to die?"
Yes, that one. They were almost in the shadows of the trees, and Ilias gave him a shove, pushing him back toward the house. "Go on, go back. You're not allowed to leave the farm without a grown-up."
Giliead halted, watching him with tear-bright eyes. "You aren't either," he tried.
"I don't live here," Ilias told him, and started up the footpath.
It wasn't that long a walk. He knew now he had come down from the hills at an angle, confused in the dark, and had crossed the stream and hit the road a long distance out from where he should have. Finan was closer in towards Cineth than Andrien.
The road, which had been such a dark frightening cavern at night, was now just the road, dusty and uneven, shaded by the tall trees arching overhead. It got better as he walked further away from Andrien, smoother and less rocky the way he remembered.
The sun had only moved a little further when he passed the pathway turning off down toward the Greian land, and he knew he was very close. When he saw the familiar bend in the road, he began to run.
There was no one in the yard, no one around the pens or outbuildings, but his aunt's husbands and the older girls would be out with the herd. The house looked different, as though he had never seen it from this angle, as though he had been gone years instead of only a few days. He slowed to a walk as he crossed the yard, thinking he saw movement at one of the windows. His heart was pounding, but it wasn't from fear.
The door, heavy wood speckled with old paint, stood shut when it should be open to keep the front rooms from growing stuffy. He stepped up onto the stone porch and used his fist to pound on the door.
It opened abruptly and Niale stood there. His older sister had their mother's darker chestnut hair and olive skin, but her nose was sharp and her eyes too narrow. She was dressed in a rich purple robe, the sleeves tied back to bare her arms. "What are you doing here?" she demanded.
Her voice was hard and cold but her cheeks were flushed and he knew she had seen him come up the path; she must have been standing on top of the door to open it so quickly. And he still wasn't afraid. "I live here," he told her.
She tried to stare him down, her favorite trick, but her eyes slipped away from his after only a heartbeat. She stared over his left shoulder, saying, "You ran away. Don't expect to just come back here."
She didn't add anything like "we were worried to death" or "everyone was so upset" or "we searched all night" and that made it sound even more like the lie it was. In a way, it told Ilias all he needed to know. "I didn't run away. I know you know that." Her face stiffened but before she could reply, he added, "I didn't tell anybody."
For a moment she was flustered. He took a step forward, looking up at her. "I won't tell anybody, ever. Just let me come back."
Her expression hardened then, and she said with grim finality, "You ran away, you abandoned your family--"
"That's not true!" he shouted. It was the word abandoned that took his temper. "You know it's not true!"
Her face twisted for an instant and she flicked a look at someone standing inside the foyer, out of his sight. Stepping back with a grimace, she said, "Ilias, just go away!" and slammed the door.
He stood there a moment, breathing hard, then turned away, stepping down off the porch, scuffing his sandals in the dirt. His face felt hot and his head ached, as if he had been crying for hours, but his eyes were dry. Then he saw a man on a horse trotting down the wagon path. It was Ranior, riding the yellow mare from the Andrien stables. Someone must have noticed Ilias was missing and had managed to get Giliead to tell where he had gone. Ilias knew Giliead had only told because he had wanted to. Even at his age, instinct told Ilias that Giliead would be nearly impossible to break with only parental pressure.
Ranior reined in nearby. He looked down at Ilias, his face regretful, saying, "Ilias, come away from there. It's not going to do any good."
Ilias had the impulse to run. Not because he was afraid of Ranior, but because it would mean giving up. But the horse recognized him and stretched out a velvet nose. After a moment, Ilias stepped toward him.
He started to reach up to take Ranior's hand, then memory of the last time he had done this stopped him. "We're going back to Andrien?" he asked, watching Ranior's face. He had heard Ranior and Karima's opinion of people who abandoned children, but he wanted to make certain. He didn't know the words to put it into yet, but he knew unthinking trust was a thing of the past.
"Yes, we're going back to Andrien," Ranior said it without impatience, meeting his eyes, as if he knew exactly what had passed through Ilias' thoughts.
Ilias reached for his hand, gripping his wrist as Ranior pulled him up onto the horse.
"I don't understand," Ilias said, looking at the house one last time.
Ranior let his breath out, shaking his head. "To tell you the truth, I'm not sure I do either. But.... If they take you back, they have to admit what happened. They have to admit that they let it happen."
Ilias didn't understand that, didn't want to understand it. "Can't they just pretend it didn't happen?" he said, feeling small and stupid again.
"No, they can't do that." Ranior lifted the reins, turning the horse back toward the road. "Come on, or we'll miss dinner."
It was still a long time before Ilias called Andrien home.
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© Martha Wells 2007
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