On the day I perched downhill from Crossoak village, I had just about forgotten that love was a reason for doing things. The village kids ran around behind me, smashing wildflowers and screaming like Death and his five pallid whores. I appreciated flowers, but I didn’t say anything to the whooping mob. They exhibited a shattering fear of me on occasion—so gigantic it probably seemed like a game—and they tended to forget about it unless they concentrated on being terrified. It was a good sight healthier than their parents’ grinding dread, hiding in their houses when I walked past and making folk magic wards against evil behind my back. Anyway, some of the less obliterated yellow pin-blossoms were already pushing up from the grass. It was a shame to get blood all over them, but there it was.
I hummed a little nonsense song under my breath as I watched the three ass-dragging ex-soldiers two dozen paces downslope from me. They glared, their swords pointed at my face and their teeth bared. They also fidgeted and whispered sidewise to each other, which undercut their show of ferocity, but they hadn’t sagged and trudged off down the slope yet. One was chubby, one looked strong, and the third was just a boy, really. In my head, I named them Rotund, Nasty, and Pup.
I scooched my butt to a less splintery spot on my barrel and let my feet swing like raggedy pendulums. I had rolled this barrel here past the edge of town a month ago and tipped it on end for a perch. I’d grown tired of standing around while thieves and murderers dawdled over how to kill me. These three were dallying for an uncommon length of time.
Onni shuffled up from the lane behind me. He was striving to be unobtrusive, but for him, stealth amounted to holding his breath between wheezes, so he sounded like a horse about to collapse dead. I glanced and saw him wipe his sweaty palms down the front of his nice blue jacket, which gaped at the belly. He whispered, “Bib, they’re the first ones in a week. Maybe they’ll just leave. Do you think they might just leave? I think they might.”
I kept humming and shrugged. The rough-patched men hadn’t shifted as much as a foot. Rotund had lost his helmet somewhere on the trail, and his blond hair stood horrified in all directions. His friends had kept hold of their stained and torn gear, but their shirts hung loose.
Some poorly planned military venture had fallen all to hell a few months ago, probably overwhelmed by a few stern badgers. A stream of deserters and survivors had been trickling through the hills since then. They’d been rummaging around the less destitute towns for food, beer, clean beds, silver to steal, and women to rape.
Onni shuffled down to face me from the side. He was a good-looking man; even when pinched and anxious, his face was almost beautiful. “Could you please make yourself a hint more . . .” He sighed. “Intimidating? It might frighten them away.”
“You mean your heart doesn’t fairly shrivel from standing beside my imposing self? I do admit that my hair’s less red than it was, and I appear lean and a little shabby, but they should still be awed by my moral courage.” I smoothed my beard, which was grayer than my hair.
“Um, as a sorcerer, perhaps you could do something sorcerous? Turn them into . . . something?”
Without looking at him, I said, “For these sad fellows? Such a profligate indulgence in magic might change every person around in ways we can’t even imagine—if it didn’t destroy you outright by lightning, or a plague of vermin.” It was a good excuse to use when people wanted to see something shiny happen, and I didn’t want to admit I’d been tapped out of magic for years.
Onni coughed and scooted back a few feet. I winked at him, and he looked away. He settled for looking at something unlikely to engage in violence, a tree he must have known well, since I imagine he’d seen every day since he could walk.
“You can’t know what will happen, Alder Onni. They could come back tonight and slice off your head, and I can’t allow such an occurrence. I don’t want it said that I cheated you.”
To be frank, I didn’t want them to go away. They’d sure as blue skies earned death for doing some horrible shit somewhere. The anticipation of killing them was pleasurable, as good as knowing that a book and a hot bath were waiting, back when I could indulge in such opulence.
At last, Rotund yelled, “Go off and piss on your pillow, old man!”
I almost objected to that characterization, even though I was indeed old enough to be the little muck-sucker’s father. Instead, I called out, “You have no reason to be harsh, sir. We’re not overly violent people. Pass us by.”
Rotund grinned and Nasty leaned forward. Rotund said, “We’re taking your food, and wine, and whatever the hell else looks good in this rat turd of a place.” Pup nodded and shook his sword.
I created a masterpiece of a smile. “There’s a town just beyond us, popping with delights! You can luxuriate in the laps of nubile women before the sun sets tomorrow.” In fact, the next town up the road mustered a standing guard that would mash these fellows into grit and rancid butter.
“Gut yourself, you pile of pig vomit! We’re not walking around to some other damned town!”
“You do yourself a disservice. Life is chancy, and we have nothing worthy of a man like you. Pass, and I myself will bring you a mug of good beer as you walk around us.” I made my words confident and deferential at the same time.
Nasty said, “The bastard’s poking fun! Let’s kill him!”
I slipped down and stood beside the barrel. I looked hard at them and imagined ways I might murder each one. I could disarm the tubby one and break his neck, but there was no need to humiliate the man. I might stab him through the armpit and cut the big artery in there. He’d die in seconds. I smiled at Rotund and gave him a little nod.
Rotund may have known one or two serious killers. When I smiled, he stiffened and grabbed Nasty’s arm. “We’ll go around! We don’t mean anything.” He yanked at his confused friend. “Really, we’re sorry.”
Behind me, Onni exhaled like a fresh breeze. I remembered the song I’d been humming was something I used to sing to my little girl.
I bounded toward the idiots, drawing my sword as I ran. For a second, they just watched me. I have often seen such behavior, and I suspect part of their minds didn’t quite believe I was coming, which paralyzed them. I whipped a neat slice across Rotund’s bicep. He squeaked as his sword hand dropped useless, while Nasty hurled a professional cut at my head. I arranged to be somewhere else when it arrived by stepping inside his swing, almost belly to belly with him. I sliced hard. When I stepped away, he held his guts with both hands.
Pup lifted his sword for a blow that would chop me in two, so I popped him in the mouth with my pommel. As he staggered back, he dropped his sword. He fell and grabbed at the air with both hands, just in case some invisible rope or fence rail happened to be there.
Rotund sprinted away, holding his arm, swifter than I would have credited. I ran him down in a few seconds and tripped him. Before he could roll faceup, I slipped my sword into the base of his skull.
The disemboweled Nasty had slumped to his knees, begging his mother to make it stop hurting. I made a relaxed thrust through his left eye. He collapsed and went quiet with a shudder.
Pup had grabbed his sword and stumbled upright, his mouth full of blood and probably a broken tooth or two. I pointed my sword at his heart, and then I made my damned self stop.
I couldn’t have explained the act of will required not to kill the boy, not in a proper way. The closest comparison was ridiculous. I might describe the willpower needed to hold off pissing after drinking beer all night, with every part of the body and every single thought squeezing and grinding to just let go. I felt shame describing my compulsion to kill human beings in terms of draining my willy into a pail, but there it was. I wished that Harik, God of Death, Trafficker in Curses, He with the Saggiest Tits in the Heavens, would receive acid-laced scorpions into all his tender orifices for eternity.
I waved my sword at the boy. “Go. Go home. Get a girl and stop playing with swords like an asshole.” Slack-jawed, he blinked a few times, shuffled back, and stopped, wavering in place. I shooed him with my free hand.
Pup might as well have explained his intentions to me in detail. Hell, he might as well have sung them loud enough to echo off the hills at me. He spat blood on the grass, and then he wiped at his bloody chin. He lifted his sword, and his hand didn’t tremble all that much, which impressed me.
I turned away and began walking. “I hear my woman calling! I think I’ll go home and pound her in our bed that I made from the bones of young fools.” Of course, there wasn’t any woman calling, or a bed, but I hoped it would make the boy think.
I heard him suck air, and I heard him running up behind me. I turned and opened his throat, easy as brushing a fly off my shoulder. Blood sprayed, a lot of it, and he collapsed onto his side. He stared at me with his head cocked, working his lips like he wanted to make words. He died there, trying to tell me something that I guess he thought was important enough to be the last words he’d say.
Turning away, I made myself not look at him, but Harik’s nuts. It was satisfying.
Onni looked pale and clammy, as if he might vomit. He had vomited the first few times I’d sent visiting deserters on their way, by which I meant killing them like they were dim chipmunks. I strode past him toward the small town square and said, “Another job done, and done with aplomb.” He fidgeted with the wooden buttons on his nice jacket and didn’t say anything.
I tossed a copper bit to the closest boy. “Keep watch, young sir. If ruffians approach, you know where to find me.” I put some extra swagger in my walk and headed for the town’s modest tavern.
The people of Crossoak were a mass of faceless spuds wearing scratchy, mud-colored clothes. They didn’t think much of me, either. A few stared at me wordless as I passed, mashing themselves far back so as not to stand on the lane while I walked there. Most wouldn’t look at me. Some rabbity ones cowered inside and wouldn’t peek out. I had been there more than two months, and I’d never struck them, cheated them, or even yelled. I hadn’t called any of them nasty names, even though some of the oafs deserved epithets that would strike a meek person dead.
Over generations, the people of Crossoak had struggled their way up to the summit of inoffensive ignorance. They were proudly superior to all outsiders and all the things they had never experienced for themselves. I couldn’t chide them much for that. They lived better than almost any near-destitute folks I’d ever seen, so they were due a little conceit.
Crossoak’s founders had raised their town around a titanic oak tree in a mountain valley. They enjoyed good water, and the dirt would sprout crops if you smiled at it real big. Soft grass grew everywhere, and you couldn’t beat the damn stuff down if you tried. Timber and stone were close, neighbors were far away, and visitors were few. If they had added some gambling houses and whores, I might have considered retiring there.
The townspeople built their homes and barns solid, out of cut stone and unfinished oak—good for hiding from strangers. When hungry deserters had started showing up three months ago, hiding had proven a feeble strategy, so Onni had sent for help from the next town up the road. That town’s people were disinclined to go off and get killed in the defense of Crossoak. But I was there, and getting bored, and the venture seemed like a fine opportunity to kill a lot of people. Maybe help some people. If the chance presented.
Crossoak’s residents had cheered like screech owls the first time they saw me kill some deserters. They didn’t cheer anymore. The crowds dwindled after the first two weeks, and by the end of the month, nobody except Onni witnessed how well I was protecting them. He admitted that everybody had taken to hiding in their houses as much as possible, since they never knew when bloody violence would arise.
A few days later, I mentioned to Onni that I missed seeing the kids play while I sat outside. That afternoon, children resumed chasing and playing grab-ass all over the village. I questioned Onni about it that night, and he admitted that the villagers had decided to let their children watch all the killings rather than risk making me mad.
“They’re afraid you’ll kill them, Bib,” Onni had said. “Cut off their heads.”
“Krak and Harik! Why would I do that?”
“They don’t know. They don’t understand you, not any better than they understand a tiger. They just know if you decide to kill them, they’re helpless.”
I began to understand and respect the villagers’ fear, and even feel some of it. If I didn’t leave town soon, they would gather into a mob and batter me to death in my cot, or lock me in a house and burn it. Fighting prowess meant nothing against fifty men armed with assorted farming implements. I should have left right that instant.
But what if I left and some of Rotund’s buddies showed up tomorrow? Dead kids couldn’t smash wildflowers, and renegade soldiers had already killed one little boy before I showed up. I decided to wait a few more days. Maybe I’d make a little camp outside town and hide like a bunny at night.
I strolled into the dim, meager tavern like my family had owned it for twelve generations. The plank floor and tables had soaked up thousands of meals’ worth of cooking smoke. “Hello, Sunflower!” I said without interrupting my journey to the table where beer would soon arrive. Nobody else patronized the tavern just then. Proper people worked in the middle of the day, and everybody stayed out of the tavern while the unaccountable murderer was in residence.
The old, stringy woman who owned the tavern was as harsh a slice of bitterness as I’ve ever met, so I had named her Sunflower. Only when I sat and reclined against the wall did she move, forcing beer from a keg into a wooden mug. She crossed to my table in a dozen dancers’ steps and slammed the mug down like she was killing spiders with it.
When I lifted the mug, my hands decided that the period of post-murder satisfaction had ended. They jerked and tremored hard enough to slop half the beer out before I set it down. I flapped my hands to dry them, and then added Rotund, Nasty, and Pup to the tally of men and women I’ve killed. I had hoped to put that chore off until I was a lot drunker than I was now, but waiting wouldn’t make it any more agreeable. The contemplation of having killed people was a damn shot less pleasant than the anticipation of killing them.
Sunflower was scrubbing the worn planks by the doorway, using a gray rag that had probably been white when her grandmother opened this establishment. She glanced death and damnation at me and went on eradicating the blood trail that led up to my table.
I realized I was wet with Pup’s blood and was just starting to get sticky. I had craved a drink so profoundly I’d forgotten to change out of my murdering-people clothes and into my waiting-around-to-murder-people clothes. The realization made me feel all sunk in, like an old carcass.
My cot lay on the other side of the village, at the mason’s house. I would have paid someone a year’s journeyman wages in gold to hop over there and fetch me something clean to wear. Sadly, nobody in this town but children would fetch for me, unless it was a knife to cut my throat with, and children weren’t allowed in the tavern.
I tried to guess what Pup had wanted to tell me while he lay dying. It looked to have started with a B or a P, but I had no idea what a boy like that might think about. I propped my elbows on the table and lay my forehead in my palms, and I spent a couple of hours wondering when killing people had become so complicated.
Two days later, I hunched in the morning drizzle on the upslope side of town. I could have strained cheese with my ancient cloak, and I was as wet as any tadpole. I detested the man trudging downhill toward me, making me suffer more with every tedious step. The dimwit was coming from the direction of civilization, and that just made me despise him more. I figured killing him would gratify me as much as bedding any woman I’d known since my first gray hairs sprouted.
The dolt slipped and almost busted his ass. Only his staff saved him from flopping onto the mud, and that staff was substantially too tall for him in my opinion. He caught his footing with one arm flapping for balance, and then he tramped on, head down.
I couldn’t stand it anymore. “Hurry on down here and get killed, you dawdling son of a bitch! I want to go inside and get warm!”
He didn’t walk any faster, but I felt better.
I raised my hand when he was a dozen paces away, and he skidded a little as he stopped. He pulled back his cloak’s hood, and I saw he was young. Well, he was old enough to have made two or three babies already, but nobody would call him seasoned. He was middling height and weight, balding, and had impressive roly-poly cheeks that got pudgier as he blinked away raindrops. I wanted to remember his face when I added him to my tally of murders, but otherwise, his looks meant nothing. He likely hauled his internal organs around in the same places as everybody else, so stabbing any one I wanted would be easy.
I slipped out my sword, and I almost walked over and killed him right away. I held my weapon behind my back and rooted my feet. “Go around, or I’ll kill you deader than your sister’s virtue.”
“Hello there, Bib.”
That was a surprise, and not a nice one. It was like pulling down your bedcovers and finding a sweaty bison. “Have we met? Did I kill your father? Or your mother?”
“No, I don’t think so. I’m so glad I found you. I’ve been following you for what seems like forever. I’m Desh Younger. I’m a wizard.”
It was sad to see men go this crazy so young. “Well, magic me up something, Desh the Wizard. Maybe a chair that flies and shoots lightning, or a mug that never runs out of beer.”
The young fellow glanced up into the rain for a moment, and then shrugged. “I’m not ready for magic quite that complicated yet.”
“Well, what the hell good are you?”
Desh reached across his body to a big leather satchel, flipped it open, made a show of letting me see inside, and pulled out a bundle of cloth. “Here, I brought you a present, Bib.”
“If it doesn’t make beer, I’m not sure I want it.” I waved him over and took the bundle with my free hand. It was the nastiest looking parcel of cloth I’d ever seen. It must have been dyed by a blind drunkard, and it had been stained in ways only the gods could understand.
“It’s a cloak. See? Hold it up and see if it fits.”
“I wouldn’t get buried in the damn thing.”
“Go ahead and try it on. It can’t hurt you.” He raised his chin, and I saw that this floppy dandelion was daring me to do it.
“Scoot back over there.” I sheathed my sword, dragged off my cloak with a slopping sound, and shrugged into his. “What now? It better be good, or I’m going to break your foot for making me touch this awful thing.”
“Hold on a minute.”
I almost killed him right then.
“Just wait!” Half a minute ambled past us. “All the rain’s shedding off it, right? I bet you’re starting to feel warmer. Don’t lie.”
After a deep, searching breath, I nodded. “But it doesn’t let me fly, so don’t think too much of yourself.”
He smiled for the first time. “Bib, let me buy you a drink.”
Less than a minute later, we sat at my table in the tavern, close to the scorched stone fireplace, with Sunflower hissing and clearing her throat over our trails of rainwater. I held up my new cloak’s collar. “So, what do you want from me? And I still haven’t decided against breaking your foot.”
“You’re the only wizard I know of.”
“Well, that’s a stupid-ass thing to say. I am not.” I flicked water at him. “You aren’t, either. Besides, nobody worth a damn with magic would allow themselves to be called a prissy, squint-eyed wizard. They are properly referred to as sorcerers.”
Desh jerked as if I’d said his hand was really an ankle. “What’s the difference?”
“None at all, really, other than perception and morale. You wouldn’t walk up to a bull and call it a boy-cow, would you?”
Desh shook his head slowly.
“Anyway, no sorcery has happened since before you got a whisker.” He started to talk, so I bellowed, “Thus did the gods abjure mankind, destroying the men of legermain, abandoning humanity to the whims of famine, storm, disease, frightening beasts, gossiping neighbors, disturbing dreams, ungrateful children, and so on and so on. You get the idea. Sorcery doesn’t exist anymore, so there’s no way you can be a sorcerer, can you?”
Desh nodded at the dry cloak draped over the chair between us. “What about that?”
“You just have a talent. Every scrubby, grit-choked village in the world has somebody with a talent. Green thumb, a way with horses, never gets lost, can cook a feast with just flour and salt.” I pointed at the cloak. “Makes clothes that are unaccountably useful. Not too lovely, though. You’re not a sorcerer. Go home. Sew like a madman and be happy.”
“I’m never going back there.” Desh set down his mug with a clack. “Bib, I can feel the magic power in me. It’s a beautiful thing.”
I snatched his mug. “I’m not wasting beer on you. You’re going to live a life of disappointment and die young.”
“I paid for that. Give it back.”
I held it out to him, and he waved me off. “I give it to you as a gift, Bib. But you can’t steal from me. It’s not fair.”
“You’re definitely not a sorcerer. I hear the first thing they teach little sorcerers is that nothing’s fair.”
He leaned forward and watched me sit there and drip.
“I don’t know what else you expect me to say, son.”
“I expect you to tell me how to use magic.”
“You’re too naïve for such things. You’d disintegrate yourself the first day.”
“You might be surprised. It’s rare that I decide to do something and fail.”
The young man was worse than a tick. I decided to load him up with some half-truths and misdirection, and then send him on his way. “Desh, I bet you another beer that every single thing you know about magic is wrong.”
“Done.” He held out his hand to shake.
“Very well. Where does a sorcerer get his power?” I said.
“From hard work, study, and prayer. Lots of prayer.”
It was so ridiculous I almost tossed him out into the street. But I felt a sliver of pity for him, being such a damp meat pie of a man. “Wrong!”
“Fine. If you’re so horny to know the mysteries, I will skip most of the boring-as-bird-shit religious overtones, and we can go to the heart of the matter.” I rubbed my hands together and lowered my voice. “Every time you do magic, it’s the result of a juvenile, mean-spirited pissing match with some god. I mean, it’s so petty it would embarrass naked children on a dusty street in the nastiest village on civilization’s ass.”
Desh’s jaw twitched, but he kept quiet.
“Have you ever bartered with your neighbor for a pig or a quilt?”
“It’s exactly like that, except your neighbor is an inconceivably powerful, immortal crybaby, and the pig is a three-hundred-foot-tall pillar of fire you need to burn down a city. It’s the same thing, fundamentally. Just the details are different.”
Desh swallowed twice. “That’s crazy.”
“Let me ask you this. What does a man have to sacrifice in order to do magic? Or a woman. As a rule, women are better sorcerers than men.”
“They have to sacrifice whatever else they might have wanted to do with their life.”
“Not that, either.”
“I . . . don’t . . .”
“Himself, Desh. He trades himself away to the gods, one piece after another.”
“What kind of pieces?”
“I’m asking the questions, but I’ll humor you since you just found out that everything you ever knew was horseshit. A god will make a sorcerer do something, or have something done to him, to get power. Or maybe he’ll give up something or accept something he doesn’t want. For a little bit of power, the sorcerer could agree to get three bad colds that winter. For more power, he might have to steal money from his brother and throw it in the river. For a lot of power, he might have to take the blame for a murder he didn’t do.”
Desh leaned back and squinted at me. “Is this all true? Bib, don’t lie to me.”
I guess I should have been offended, but lying does happen to be one of my weaknesses. I couldn’t get too mad at him for seeing it. I was abusing the truth a little now, but I wasn’t smashing it all to hell. “I’m not lying, son. Now, based on your vast reservoir of sorcery knowledge, what’s the greatest danger to a sorcerer?”
“Disintegrating yourself. Well, you did mention it. Also, cooking yourself and blowing yourself up. You know, losing control of the magic.”
“Nope. Oh, control can be an annoyance, but the biggest danger is paying too much. Gods will ask a sorcerer to give up memories, forget how they feel about people, do things they thought only a monster would do—until they agreed to do them. A sorcerer has to decide for himself what price is too high, because the gods will take everything they can. In the old days, you’d see sorcerers as crazy as blowflies or wandering in the forest until they froze to death. They traded it all to the gods.”
Desh didn’t say anything.
I said, “And if you were an actual sorcerer, you might say, ‘Bib, how can I avoid paying too much?’ I’d tell you never to make the first offer. Making the first offer is a sure way to end up paying too much. Make the god extend the first offer. Do you understand?”
He nodded. “Don’t pay too much. How do I know if it’s too much? What are things worth? How do I know if it’s a good deal?”
I leaned across to tell him the one thing that was unequivocally true. “There are no good deals. There are bad deals, and there are deals that are less bad.”
“You’re just trying to confuse me now.”
“No, I’m just telling you things that are confusing. Last question. What is the most important thing for a sorcerer to know?”
Desh looked down and curled his lower lip. “I used to think it was knowing your enemy. Now I think it might be knowing what you don’t know.”
“Hah! You should know that sorcery is less about magic than you might think. Mainly, it’s about looking tough, being sneaky, and waving your hands around a lot.”
Desh crossed his arms and stared at me. “You must have given up a lot. What was the worst?”
“Ah, the worst. I can only make love six times a night now. It used to be a lot more.”
He raised an eyebrow.
“Really, I don’t remember. Nothing too bad. It probably just made me tougher and better looking.”
“Bib, I chased you through three countries for five months. You’re not so petty that you won’t tell me this one thing, are you?”
Maybe I had indeed become petty living out in these little rat-suck towns where everything was small and slow, and that was the way they liked it. Without thinking too much, I said, “I am on what we call an open-ended debt. I didn’t give up anything. Instead, I owe the repugnant, ever-to-be-regurgitated-upon Harik, God of Death, a certain number of murders. I’d be thrilled to tell you what that number is, but only Harik knows. So, I have to murder people until he says I’ve done it enough.”
“If the gods are gone, you can just stop killing people.”
“I thought that myself. I did decide to stop killing, but soon I got sick, and then disgustingly sick, and then grotesquely miserable. I decided not to find out what would happen after that.”
“Bib, if the gods are gone, how can Harik tell you when you’re done?”
“That is a problem, isn’t it?”
Desh coughed, shifted away from the table, bent over, and caught his breath.
“All right, relax. Don’t be such a dimpled daisy—you’ll embarrass me.”
“You’re crazy! Why did you agree to that?”
“It was the best deal I could get at the time.” I drank off my beer and held up the mug to get Sunflower’s attention. “So, do you still think you’re a sorcerer?”
“No. I’m not a sorcerer. Not until you teach me how. I have clearly found the right man. And I owe you a beer.”
After I had told Desh to kiss my foot and go to hell, I informed him that from then on, he was only allowed to talk to me about women and horses, the two least boring subjects I could imagine. The boy’s nervous, stuttering conversation proved my imagination feeble. I endured it for a while, then I spent the rest of the afternoon stomping around in the woods, kicking harmless bushes, and thinking about the gods. I tried to avoid thinking about them. It ate up hours I could have used thinking about better topics such as being tortured to death or eating small cakes with righteous women.
But sometimes the gods make my brain flap like a sparrow in a chimney. They’re a petty gang of selfish, devious, cruel beings, they gossip like women on wash day, and they aren’t scrupulous about telling tales while sorcerers are listening. They have burrowed deeper into my life than any person I’ve known. Every time I’ve talked to a god, I’ve been one careless word away from ruining my entire life, and you can’t say that about many human beings.
Thirteen gods sit around in the God’s Realm and fiddle with mankind. I can’t consider them all in one sitting without getting queasy, but a few stand out. Krak, Father of the Gods, despises everybody, including me. When he isn’t impregnating everything that’s slow or inattentive, he lounges around holding the impossibly searing light of the sun and frying bits off of lesser beings.
The God of War, Lutigan, hates me worse than leprosy. I once tricked him into testing the Chariot of Profound Redemption, built by Fingit, Blacksmith of the Gods. The damn thing crashed sideways and spun on its side until Lutigan vomited up some things that probably ought to have stayed inside him. Gorlana, Goddess of Mercy, tolerates me like I’m a dog that smells bad. I never knew her to do anything merciful unless she was rewarded with something rare or shiny.
Harik, the God of Death, stands first in my string of beings who should be slowly tweezed out of existence. The other gods despise him. He’s always putting things in order and recording everything that can be counted. I think mainly he does it so he can act like a bull with a gold-plated dick, as if any other gods care how many baboons have died since the beginning of time.
After the sun went down, I lay on my cot and thought about the gods some more. They sounded silly. They would sound sillier if they hadn’t wiped out three cities and a couple hundred thousand people in the past century. I slept poorly.
Another drizzly morning showed up at Crossoak, but I didn’t want to let those damned gods ruin my day. I was strutting by the time I found the kid who had stood watch on the upslope edge of town for me yesterday.
“You’re doing a magnificent job, son.” I tossed the boy a copper bit for today’s work. “I encourage you to squander that on hard living, but alas, you’ll probably save it to buy a chicken or a hoe someday.”
I had already paid the little girl watching the other end of town. Technically, watching for invaders was my responsibility, but I had farmed that out first thing. Onni never offered the town’s money to pay the children, nor had he set them to the task free of charge. Copper bits add up over a space of months, but I didn’t need the money. I could have bought everything in town, including the phallic oak tree, if I’d wanted to own a sleepy place full of people who hated me. I had stashed silver and even gold coins in half a dozen spots close to town. I know that seems like odd behavior, but I have proven I can get drunk enough to spend every coin I’m carrying and get nothing at all in exchange.
Moisture dripped down the tavern’s stone wall, and I traced my hand along it as I wandered up to the doorway. “Good morning, Sunflower!” She didn’t acknowledge me straight out, but she did sneer at the pot in the fireplace. I waved at Desh. “Good morning, Pain in My Ass!”
“Good morning, Bib.” Desh sat upright and stiff at a corner table, his staff propped close, and he watched me all the way to my scratched-up chair. “Bib, I’m handy with just about any task. Everybody back home says so. I can make—”
“Women and horses, young man! Remember, women and horses, if you want to share my tavern.” After our calamitous discussion of sorcery yesterday, I found that Desh knew less than a thimbleful about horses, but his knowledge of women was surprisingly nuanced.
Desh bestowed on me the same look he might give if he were swallowing a baby alligator. Then he smiled, shifted one table closer, and eased onto a chair. “Bib, I’m happy to wait for as long as I need to, so don’t think you can chase me—”
He never finished that thought. I yanked him up by the collar and hauled him to the door, banging him into a table and two chairs along the way. I tossed him into the soggy lane—not too hard.
“Women. Horses. And stay in your corner.” I left him on the wet grass and returned to my table, upon which had materialized gritty bread, sticky mutton stew, and a small beer. I winked at Sunflower, and she turned her back to me as Desh stumped inside.
In a day or two, I’d slip away from this town and leave the lad behind forever. I should have kicked him hard when he first walked into town and kept kicking him until he went away. In fact, it wasn’t too late to start kicking. Desh was sitting at his bare table in the corner, glancing at my breakfast now and then. I walked around the table between us, angling to get a good view of his left shin.
“There’s an army coming! There’s an army coming!” My watch-boy screamed the warning as he ran all the way to the tavern on the square. He sprinted inside, his wet shoes sliding on the planks so that he almost fell. He paused for a deep breath, and then shrieked, “There’s an army coming!” loud enough to wake my mother, who was not only dead but also buried on another continent.
“How big is it?” I asked.
“A thousand people!”
Having once been a little boy, I understood I’d need to see these thousand people for myself. I strode up the hill, trying to look sprightly and not at all nervous. I could see that riders had just entered town, three dozen of them, maybe more. When we were fifteen paces apart, I raised my hand. Almost unbelievably, they stopped.
I was prepared to kill three or four of them, and then run off into the woods. While they chased me over the next few hours, I’d occasionally slip in and kill a couple of inattentive ones. If Onni and his people were smart, they would run while I was still alive and keeping the raiders busy.
They were big men on big bay horses. The nearest were clean-shaven and ash pale with dark hair. They all wore the same blue and gray clothes—uniforms, so they were soldiers from some army I’d never heard of. They carried short, curved swords, and they hefted long spears.
I decided if they attacked, I’d keep the fight inside town. They would get tangled up in their spears, and I might slaughter most of them while breakfast was still hot.
A short, broad man, rather squatty among these fellows, said, “What town is this?”
Nobody’s uniform had any badge or sign of rank, but I supposed he was boss. “Do you want to know its name, or its defining characteristics?”
Shorty quirked an eyebrow. “Oh, please do provide both.”
“Welcome to the idyllic township of Crossoak, the home of fine mutton, jittery townspeople, and mean old women. I am Bib.” I insinuated a bow.
“I am Vintan Reth. Who is the nervous boy lurking behind you? Son? Servant? Paramour?”
I didn’t look behind me, so as not to invite Vintan’s cronies to poke a hundred holes in my back. Desh must have been standing back there, in the perfect spot to die uselessly.
“I owe the boy money. You can’t kill me. It’ll make him sad.”
“Ah, you’re trying too hard to be humorous. It’s a foolish gambit among serious men.” He leaned forward over his horse’s neck. “Bib—and that is a charming name by the way—I am a gentle soul and will allow you to redeem yourself.”
Some of his men shifted in the saddle, and a few looked away.
Vintan said, “Tell me about that paralyzingly enormous tree.”
“That’s just the festival tree. For hundreds of years, these people have dangled sacks of beer and dubious treats from it when the harvest is in.” Of course, the townspeople didn’t do anything like that and never had. I have a policy that when I talk to a threatening stranger, I never say anything that might be true.
He smiled. “Quaint. I’d even say picturesque.”
“They break off a twig for each man to carry around, and whenever he does something stupid, his wife tears off a leaf. When the twig is bare, he has to go home.”
“That’s eccentric enough to charm even me. How many of these villagers do you think would fit if I nailed them to the festival tree?”
One might think that was a horrible thing to say, but it’s not even in the top hundred horrible things I’ve heard said right before people started dying.
“That depends, Vintan. Did you bring a ladder?”
The man nodded. “An incisive question. I wish I were more at leisure. We might discuss torture and desecration, among other artistic endeavors. I so appreciate meeting a person of subtle thinking.” He looked at the bulky soldier next to him. “Kill him. Leave the entrails.”
I said, “Go on around us. Everybody will be happier.”
The bulky man pointed at two soldiers, who dismounted and walked toward me pointing their spears. Five seconds later, I severed one man’s left hand. Ten seconds after that, I thrust into the other’s heart under his arm. I turned back to the first one to slice open his throat, and at the end of twenty seconds, they both lay on the grass, one still and the other gurgling. The man whose job it was to point then employed his finger like it was the Spear of Lutigan, jabbing at a disconcerting number of soldiers and then at me. Eight or ten of them began to dismount. It was hard to tell exactly how many among the spears and nervous horses and jabbing fingers.
“Stop,” Vintan said, in the same tone he might use to invite you over for cake. Everyone stopped. Some men froze half out of the saddle, staring at him. “We’ll go around.”
Finger Man said, “Why? We can kill him. He can’t fight all of us!”
“Your tactical thinking must be precise. He can indeed fight all of us. He just cannot kill all of us. However, how many can he kill? Two more? Five? You and ten men with you? Why pay that price just to ride into a town with mean old women, perpetrate some pedestrian wickedness, and trot away as if we were covered in glory?” He smiled at Finger Man, who paled so severely he turned almost transparent. “We shall go around.”
Finger Man looked away, and I could see his jaw grinding so hard I thought he might have to eat soup the rest of his life. The soldiers collected their dead friends and remounted.
Vintan saluted me with his spear. “Bib, I regret missing this opportunity to chat with you about philosophy and then nail you to something.” He cantered back up the trail as his men turned their horses in place, and they all trotted out of town.
“Not too bad,” I said to Desh. “Now you can tell girls you helped vanquish an army using nothing but your blinking eyelids.”
“I thought we were sure to die.”
“You have an excellent grasp of probability. But we didn’t die, so let’s finish breakfast. You never know when some other calamity will come along and kill us. Hell, before I finish talking, a bear could jump out from behind that house and tear off my head. Life is chancy.”
Before I went back to breakfast, I strolled along the edge of town. Sunshine had arrived, and it was a beautiful walk, though a little steamy. My path might not have been random. I kept Vintan’s crew in sight until they had bypassed the town and ridden away southward.
If those soldiers had all jumped down to kill me when Finger Man said so, I still might have lived if I was smart. Of course, Desh would have died right away, before he ever understood that death was coming. But the boy had stood up and faced that little army with me. He hadn’t run away, so who was I to kick his ass all the way home?
I paid two more children on my way back into town. Both of the morning’s watch-kids seemed to have shirked their task after the terrifying army had “invaded.” That excitement had turned all the boys and girls into a throng of hornets, and they were charging all over town hitting each other with pretend swords and bawling when someone got hit too hard.
That afternoon, I sat slumped in a chair in front of the tavern. My hat was pulled down, and I wish I could say I was dreaming the dreams of a virtuous man, but I was just dreaming about cornbread. Desh kicked my boot and said, “Bib, will you teach me how to be a sorcerer? This isn’t a threat, but if you say no, I’ll just follow you around and look pitiful until one of us dies.”
“Desh, you are a courageous man. Almost a hero. Becoming a sorcerer is beneath you, and it would just mar your glory. Go home. And if you try to follow me, I’ll break your arm. If you keep at it, I’ll break your leg, and if you crawl after me, I’ll break your other leg and laugh at you.”
Leaning closer, Desh said, “I didn’t intend to tell you this—”
I never did find out what he didn’t intend to tell me. At that moment, my uphill lookout hollered, “Another army! Another army! Bigger than the first one!”
“Krak’s sizzling testes!” I didn’t charge up the slope, but I scooted right along. Somebody was arriving from uphill, just like Vintan had. Unless he’d made a huge circle back to reexperience the joy of my company, somebody else was paying us a visit.
I heard the clink-chink of chain mail before I got really close. These new men were arriving in profusion—likely twice as many as Vintan had brought. One of them carried a red and yellow banner, and that gave me nearly every detail I needed. These soldiers belonged to the King of Glass, who ruled everything around for dozens of miles. Crossoak belonged to him, so if he wanted to cram it full of his soldiers, he didn’t need permission from me. I’d never met the man, although I did think his kingdom’s name was pretentious as hell.
I called out to the riders in front, “Welcome, come on in! The alder’s probably hiding behind a sack of seeds somewhere, but if you want, I can chase him out here.”
Without stopping, a man with a chin like a plow said, “Who are you then?”
“Bib. The good citizens have hired me to be their spiritual teacher, to guide them down the path of rectitude and compliance. They are wonderful at compliance. You don’t have to worry about chastising them, or beating them at all, because they’re anxious to comply.”
“Hm. I’m Captain Dolf. We’re pursuing a war band of Denzmen. Have you seen them?”
“Why, yes, I have!” I walked alongside him as he rode. “They arrived at breakfast time. We chatted a bit, and then they went on south.”
Dolf and a fair woman riding next to him both squinted at me. He said, “They’ve been destroying villages all the way down from the capital. You were awful damned lucky.”
The woman pushed some stray yellow hair out of her face. “Yes, how did you avoid destruction?”
“I’m a better-than-average conversationalist.”
She leaned toward me, reins in her fist. “Pay attention to me. Those criminals killed thirty-two men, stole Crown Prince Prestwick, and are spiriting him away to their wretched land. They left no message or clue regarding motive. So as a favor to the Crown, and to me personally, please refrain from attempting mirth. Also, stop prancing around with your hands down your trousers and do something constructive!”
I just about halfway fell in love with her right then.