The young man looked at Lee-Lack with contempt.
“I am a Mukthar, Ximerionian. I’m not afraid to die. Do what you must do.”
“If you’re not afraid to die, then why did you try to hide that a you are a Mukthar?”
“How… Why would you think—”
“Don’t take me for a fool, boy. You threw your weapon away because it would betray you as being a Mukthar. Only Mukthars use those ragged knives.” Lee-Lack gave the young man a mocking smile. “Your saddle pad told me all I needed to know. Not only are you a Mukthar, you’re a high-ranking one. Either your family is filthy rich, or you’re a noble, perhaps a frishiu even. Most Mukthar tribes have lots of those.”
“We count among the leading families. I didn’t try to hide who I was. I didn’t want my dagger to fall into enemy hands. That is all, Ximerionian.”
“I have a theory, Mukthar. You did try to hide who, and more importantly what you were.”
“Are you blind, man? My clothes. Nobody but us Mukthars wear these kinds of clothes.“
“You’re right. Funny, though, you should mention being blind. I thought you wanted to hide who you were, in case I was a scout for a patrol of soldiers. After all, you don’t want to lose your eyes. You must have heard the story how the warlord—”
“Anashantish…” the Mukthar spat. “He blinded over seven thousand prisoners. He didn’t even care whether they were officers, nobles or frishion. It was a despicable, dishonorable—”
“It was a great clemency,” Lee-Lack roared. “It was a mercy none of you deserved, barbarian, after you had put Mirkadesh to the torch and slaughtered its innocent villagers. I was there, you monster. If it had been up to me, I would have killed you, slowly and painfully. All seven thousand of you. Vermin like you don’t deserve to live.”
The young Mukthar had come half upright again on the one shoulder that would bear his weight, but now he let himself fall back onto the ground.
“You’re not a Ximerionian, are you?”
“No. I’m a Mirkadeshi, so you see there is no reason why I would spare you.”
“No, there isn’t. Do what you have to do.”
Lee-Lack looked at the young warrior. For the first time he noticed the Mukthar was quite handsome. A face with regular features and a well-trained body. He was still holding his sword in his right hand, and he put the point of his blade on the young man’s chest. The Mukthar didn’t move. He didn’t even close his eyes.
“Aren’t you going to beg for your life?”
For a while the young man remained mute.
“Well?” Lee-Lack asked, becoming angry.
“What’s the use? You’d only think I was making up whatever I said to save my life.”
The former robber chief hesitated.
“You don’t know that,” he said. “I might believe you. Try me. Make it sound good.”
For the third time the Mukthar came half upright, leaning on his right elbow. The sword withdrew slightly. He squinted his eyes, looking at his enemy.
“He looks vaguely like Annishi,” the Mukthar thought.
“I… I wasn’t with Khrunosh when he and his horsemen attacked Mirkadesh. I was with—”
“Am I supposed to believed that?” Lee-Lack raged. “You have a fine horse, well equipped, and your strong legs tell me you’re a horseman. How—”
“I told you,” the young Mukthar bit. “It’s utterly useless. You won’t believe anything I tell you. You won’t even hear me out before calling me a liar. Kill me already, and have done with it.”
Only now Lee-Lack noticed how very young the Mukthar warrior was. Involuntarily he smiled. He himself had been much younger when he joined the Renuvian Plains Robbers.
“Don’t mock me, Mirkadeshi,” the young man snarled.
“He has spirit, that much is certain,” Lee-Lack thought, amused.
“Very well,” he said. “I’ll hear you out, and then I’ll decide—”
“Don’t expect I will grovel before you,” the young man replied. “I refuse to and Mukthar honor forbids it.”
“All right, no groveling,” Lee-Lack said, trying to keep a straight face. He actually began to like the indomitable nature of the young man, wounded as he was. “Maybe we could exchange names. That’s not groveling, is it?”
There came no reply.
“I’ll go first. My name is Berwinn,” Lee-Lack said, and he smiled encouragingly.
“I… I… My name is Yllyesh,” the young Mukthar said after some internal deliberation.
“Is that your real name?” Lee-Lack said, in a mock-distrustful tone.
Yllyesh shot him an angry look.
“Mukthars don’t lie. Mukthar honor—”
“I beg to differ. A Mukthar of my acquaintance by name of Prince Shigurtish — you might have heard of him — lied straight to my face, not all that long ago either.”
Yllyesh tried to sit completely upright and, in doing so, accidentally leaned on his dislocated shoulder. He didn’t cry out, but he let himself sink back slowly onto the ground, grimacing with pain.
“Easy, warrior,” Lee-Lack said.
“I told you not to mock me,” Yllyesh exploded.
“Or else?” Lee-Lack asked with a broad smile.
“Shigurtish is a dog. Our quedash should declare him a shorgah for his crimes and for losing a battle against a child.”
“Oh, well, that child ordered his eyes put out. He’s a blind dog now. But even so, I don’t think your king would kill his first queen’s and his own third son.”
“May he soon rot in Murokthil, and when he does, may the poisonous rotten teeth of Shardosh gnaw on his heart and liver,” Yllyesh said, spitting in rage. “May all the devils fuck him in the ass and may his balls—”
“Leave some curses for me, Yllyesh.”
The young Mukthar took a deep breath.
“May the day come I can cut off his balls and ears, cut out his tongue, cut his hamstrings, and piss on the shorgah’s face.”
Lee-Lack laughed out loud.
“For a lost battle? All that for a lost battle?”
“And for loss of honor. And for—”
Yllyesh stopped abruptly.
“And for?” Lee-Lack asked.
The Mukthar sighed.
“Lots of things. Lots…”
“Why are you still here, Yllyesh?”
The question took the young warrior unawares.
“What? What do you mean?”
“Why are you still here? Here, as opposed to safely over the Somertian Mountains in Mukthar territory. And now that I think of it: why do you still have your eyes? Both of them.”
Yllyesh didn’t answer.
Lee-Lack crouched down next to the young man.
“Did you flee the battlefield?” he asked, lowering his voice. “Maybe it was your first battle. You’re young. It’s perfectly normal that you’d want to live. Were you afraid for your life, and did you run? Are you a coward, Yllyesh? One never knows until one’s courage is put to the test in a real battle. So, are you, Yllyesh? Are you a coward?”
The Mukthar looked at Lee-Lack, his eyes filled with hate.
“You wouldn’t be able to insult me like this and live to tell about it if I had the use of both my arms, Mirkadeshi.”
“Berwinn, call me Berwinn,” Lee-Lack said, unperturbed. “If you didn’t flee the battlefield, then how did you… get away?”
Yllyesh hesitated for a moment, as if he didn’t know exactly how to begin.
Lee-Lack waited patiently.
“You’re a horseman yourself,” the Mukthar began after a few minutes. “You know that it isn’t easy to control a horse when it panics. It’s not so much that I fled the battlefield as that I was carried off it by my stallion. The Ximerionians had a unit of archers and they had bows, so big, I had never seen them before. They had a range and power you wouldn’t believe…” Yllyesh glanced at the man he knew as Berwinn, but Lee-Lack wasn’t mocking him this time. “We were supposed to cover our right flank and at the same time attack the enemy foot soldiers, when suddenly those archers rose as if out of the ground. They were standing on the far bank of the River Zinchara, and yet their arrows sunk deep into the sides and legs of our horses. Most animals fell, and those that didn’t panicked and tried to escape. We were carried along, unable to do anything. It took all the remaining force we had to stay in the saddle.”
“All right, so you were carried off the battlefield. Let’s say, against your will. But eventually you must have been able to get your animal back under control.”
“Yes,” Yllyesh said, appeased because he wasn’t called a coward anymore. “Yes, like you said, eventually. It took some time, though. The horses had dispersed in all directions. While trying to stay in the saddle, I had lost all sense of where I was.”
“So, you thought the battle had to be over and there was nothing useful for you—”
“No, no, no. I wanted to return to the fighting. I still believed we could have won. I never met anyone…”
“The plains are a big place,” Lee-Lack said.
“Finally — it was already dark — I noticed lights between some hills. Under cover of the dark I went looking to find out whose they were.” He gulped, remembering what he had found. “They weren’t ours. They were fires made by the Ximerionians. They were putting out the eyes of my comrades. Hundreds, no, thousands were blinded with red hot iron stakes that night and the next day.”
Lee-Lack put a hand upon Yllyesh’s good shoulder.
“All that happened almost two months ago. You escaped, whether you planned to or not. Why didn’t you just return home?”
The young warrior was surprised by the gentle gesture.
“I couldn’t. You see, I was one of those who had opposed the invasion of Ximerion. How would it have looked, you think, that I wasn’t killed in battle, or captured and blinded, when so many were?”
“Yes, it would have been hard to prove you weren’t a traitor.”
“Hard? How about impossible? There had been a division in the highest ranks of the Bear Mukthars. Both factions were headed by a frishiu. My side lost, and I… I lost… My loss was personal.”
Yllyesh turned his head away from his captor to hide his anguished face, but too late. Lee-Lack had noticed.
The Mukthar was definitely in his early twenties, Lee-Lack reckoned, but in some way he looked younger. Less experienced, maybe. Or less thrown about by fate. He was still vulnerable to the vagaries of life. It made him seem in his late teens.
“A Mukthar leading a cushioned life… It seems self-contradictory,” he thought. “And yet, who knows, maybe it’s the same with them as it is everywhere. The offspring of the rich and influential people have different life experiences.”
“Even if I could return home, I wouldn’t be welcome anymore. I was against the raid — but it was more than just an assault — and yet I survived. They would soon come to a conclusion.”
“Yes. They would call you a traitor.”
“And I’m not,” Yllyesh cried out. “I’m not. Really, I’m no traitor.”
“It may be only a small consolation, but I believe you,” Lee-Lack said, patting the Mukthar’s good shoulder.
Yllyesh didn’t know at first what to make of that.
“Thank you,” he said after a few moments. “As you can see, I have nowhere to go.”