“Remind me again, why did we have to undress all three of them and take every last stitch of their clothing with us? That was a disgusting task, you know.”
Yllyesh wrinkled his nose.
“I want to make it easy on the animals to devour them. The sooner the better.”
“Ha. Good thinking.” The young Mukthar frowned. “Why did we have to take these stinking rags with us?”
“We’ll discard them far away from the corpses of their former owners. I want to make it easy on the wild beasts, not on the military governor’s soldiers.”
They rode on in silence for a while.
“When will we be there?” Yllyesh asked. “There’s barely an hour of sunlight left.”
“Two hours at least.”
“Before dark. Now shut up.”
Lee-Lack had set two of the three horses free, after having taken off their equipment, which they had loaded on the third horse. He wanted to use it as a beast of burden annex spare riding horse. The equipment was old and barely maintained. He got rid of it a few miles down the hidden path where there was a small ravine. The clothes Yllyesh didn’t plan on using went the same way.
After an hour the path broadened a bit. From higher up the mountains a rivulet tumbled down.
“Oh, nice,” Yllyesh cried out. “Fresh water.”
“We have to go just a little higher.” Lee-Lack pointed to an inconspicuous little path that split from the main one.
After a few minutes they came to a small plateau with a natural basin. The rivulet, coming from higher up, filled it, and the water overflowed on the other side on its way down.
“Oh, oh, oh, this is beautiful,” the Mukthar said in an admiring whisper. “You can see for miles over the plains.”
“Yes, even from in the bath — that’s what I call the basin — you can see almost as far as the Pashira Forest.”
The Mukthar wasn’t listening anymore. Leaving a trail of discarded clothes, he undressed completely and jumped into the water. The basin was shallow enough for him to stand upright in, leaving his chest above water.
“There’s an underwater ridge in the back. You can sit down there and enjoy the view in comfort,” Lee-Lack said as he secured the horses on a small tree that had managed to grow between the rocks. He rummaged in the saddlebags of his horse and retrieved a small pouch. He went over to the basin and put a piece of soap on the rim of the basin.
“Oh, by all the Gods and Goddesses, what a beautiful sight,” Yllyesh enthused. “Soap. Real soap.”
As the young man reached for the bar of soap, the robber couldn’t help smiling at his young companion’s undisguised joy over such a banal item. He also noticed that although the young Mukthar had discarded all his clothes, he hadn’t taken off a small silver bracelet he must have been wearing all this time.
“There’s a large boulder to your right, just under the surface. It’s perfect for washing the clothes you will be wearing tomorrow.”
“Just when I had forgotten about them,” Yllyesh said with a sigh. He hoisted himself out of the basin and went, naked and dripping, to the horse they were keeping in reserve. He made a jerking movement with his head to get strands of wet hair out of his eyes. Lee-Lack studied the Mukthar who was retrieving the dirty clothes from the saddlebags.
“He can’t be much older than twenty,” the former robber chief mused. “He must train regularly.”
At that moment Yllyesh turned around.
“I was admiring your muscles,” Lee-Lack said.
The Mukthar smiled in a self-conscious way. He struck a clumsy pose, flexing his muscles. The clothes fell to the ground.
“Annishi insisted we keep ourselves in shape,” he said. “I tried to keep it up. Not that I had much of anything else to do, these last weeks.”
“Annishi?” Lee-Lack inquired.
Yllyesh smile vanished and he picked up the clothes he had dropped.
“Someone I knew, back home.” He walked over to the right side of the basin and put the clothes on the rim, where he could easily reach them. Then he jumped back into the water.
“Coming?” Yllyesh asked.
“Yeah,” Lee-Lack said, and he began slowly to undress.
The Mukthar didn’t seem to mind being naked in company, but Lee-Lack wasn’t as uninhibited. Not that he was shy or easily embarrassed, but for years he had had to hide his true appearance and by now it had become second nature. He had to make a conscious effort to completely undress, and he was uncomfortably aware that Yllyesh was looking at him sideways. The look in the Mukthar’s eyes was familiar. It was, the obvious differences aside, how Sanduvar Blacktooth had looked at him — and yet not.
Then he realized he had no reason whatsoever to hide any longer, and neither was he Sanduvar’s boy anymore.
He ditched his breeches, his last piece of clothing, and jumped in the basin, splattering water over the rim and on Yllyesh.
The young Mukthar laughed as he saw Lee-Lack shiver.
“You don’t like cold water?” Yllyesh asked.
“It always takes me a few minutes to get used to it. I think it comes from high up and deep within the mountains, so it is cold.”
“I prefer warm water myself too.” Yllyesh grinned as he soaped up. Then he let himself sink beneath the surface. Moments later he resurfaced, shaking his head vigorously, and wiping the water from his face.
“He’s like a young puppy,” Lee-Lack thought. He couldn’t help smiling.
“What are you laughing at?” Yllyesh asked, a bit unsure.
“You seem to be contended, no, completely happy because you have a bar of soap.”
“Oh, but I am. I had just gotten used to the idea that I would feel sticky and itchy all over my body most of the time, only very occasionally being able to wash myself — rinse, more likely — in a river or a pond. And then the Gods sent you and your soap.”
Lee-Lack laughed out loud.
“Who’d have thought Mukthars would like soap so much.”
“And why wouldn’t we?” Yllyesh asked as he soaped the clothes they had taken from the dead men. “You don’t need to be dirty to be a brave warrior, you know.”
Lee-Lack didn’t reply but waded to the far end of the basin, and, resting his arms on the rim, looked out over the plains.
It was nice to have someone around who was so easy to please, he thought. Behind him he heard clothes being beaten against the rock, and Yllyesh panting from the exertion.
“Shall I help you wring those?” he asked, looking over his shoulder.
“Nice of you to offer. I hope we can squeeze the dirt out of them. I’ll drape them over those bushes when we’re done. They’ve got the whole night to dry in the wind. If we give it a few hours tomorrow, the sun will do the rest.”
While twisting the pants, a squirt of water got into Lee-Lack’s eye. Yllyesh chuckled.
Lee-Lack wrestled the pants from the Mukthar’s grip and used them as a weapon. Yllyesh fell backward in the water.
“Oh, you want a fight?” he said, more as a challenge than a question, and his head disappeared beneath the water.
Moments later, Lee-Lack felt his legs being pulled from under him. He resurfaced, chortling, to the sight of Yllyesh, his face one big triumphant smile.
“Never underestimate us Mukthars, Mirkadeshi,” he cried out.
Lee-Lack face darkened.
“It’s not so much that I underestimated you Mukthars. I trusted you.”
Yllyesh froze where he stood.
“I… I’m sorry, Lee-Lack, but I—”
“I know. You weren’t there. It wasn’t your call.”
“No, it wasn’t. Still, I’m sorry and I feel responsible—”
“Don’t,” Lee-Lack barked. A sense of futility came over him. “Don’t,” he repeated, softer. “It had nothing to do with you. I’m sorry I brought it up.”
He turned around, and again leaned on the rim where the water overflowed and gushed downward. He traveled the plains with his eyes.
“It was my responsibility, and it was my fault. I should never have trusted Shigurtish.”
After a few minutes he felt hands on his back.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“I’m washing your back,” Yllyesh said. “Do you want me to stop?”
“No, it’s fine.”
It was more than fine. How long had it been since he had been touched, other than in a purely day-to-day, practical way? Since the days he had been the lover of Sanduvar Blacktooth, he silently answered his own question. The reluctant lover, who hadn’t dared show his reluctance.
“Good,” Yllyesh said, rubbing the bar of soap over Lee-Lack’s back. “Stay like you are.”
Lee-Lack wasn’t about to turn around anyway. Not with a hard-on, he wasn’t.