The next day, about an hour before noon, they reached the county of Mirkadesh. The mountains had dwindled into hills and those had eventually turned into a softly undulating landscape. The narrow tracks turned into broader paths and ways, and at last they reached a well-traveled road.
Lee-Lack noticed how Yllyesh tried to keep his face down, but couldn’t quite manage it as his inquisitiveness won time and time again over his attempts to be cautious.
“Don’t worry. Without your distinctive clothes and weapons nothing distinguishes you from any other young man. And you can look around all you like. There are a lot of traveling merchants on these roads, some from as far as Zyntrea, the independent city states or the midlands of Ximerion. I’m sure they’re used to being stared at.”
Yllyesh nodded and, more relaxed now, began to take in his surroundings.
A group of travelers was resting beside the road.
“Oh, oh, oh, look, there,” Yllyesh said. “That man standing over there. He’s wearing a Mukthar cloak. Look. Look. See the fur lining on the hem?” He pointed the man out to Lee-Lack.
“If you’re looking for trouble you’ve found it,” the owner of the mantle shouted at them.
“No, no, no,” the Mukthar replied immediately. “I was admiring your cloak and I wondered where it came from.”
Mollified, the man smiled.
Yllyesh and Lee-Lack got off their horses as well. The Mukthar inspected the coat from up close.
“They told me the original ones are rare,” the proud owner said. “They certainly are expensive enough. I bought this one in Dermolhea. One of the great merchant houses buys them from our Mukthars, so you know they’re authentic.”
“Our Mukthars?” Yllyesh asked, astonished.
Lee-Lack poked him in the side with an elbow.
“Excuse my friend. He has been sick. He was bedridden for months and missed all the fun.” Lee-Lack gave the man a knowing wink.
“Some renegade Mukthars fought for the warlord against their own invading tribesmen. As far as I understand it, that’s what happened. The prince-warlord gave them land in return.” The man laughed. “Clever little fellow. He didn’t give them land in Ximerion, but in the Renuvian Plains. Land that wasn’t his a few months ago and which the new settlers will have to develop.”
Yllyesh looked at the man with big eyes.
“Yes, Prince Anaxantis gave them a large piece of land, stretching from the coast, this side of the River Mirax, to and including the Pashira Forest.”
Yllyesh gave Lee-Lack a what-did-I-tell-you look.
Out of politeness and to avoid arousing suspicion, Lee-Lack steered the conversation away from all things Mukthar, and for a while they engaged in light banter with the little group before taking their leave.
“That’s it,” Yllyesh said. “At the first opportunity, I’m changing back into my own clothes.”
“The man had just the one coat. You have a Mukthar shirt, Mukthar pants, Mukthar boots, Mukthar—”
“Guess what? I am a Mukthar,” Yllyesh interrupted his companion in an irritated tone. “They’ll just have to take me for one of their Mukthars, won’t they? I look young enough.”
“Annishi always said I looked young for my age,” he thought, and the pain of the memory made him grimace for a fraction of a second.
“Wait. What? Young enough? What do you mean you look young enough? Young enough for what?” Lee-Lack asked.
“To look the part. I think you’ll find your Mukthars are all younger than twenty.”
“And you are not?” Lee-Lack was genuinely surprised.
“I’ll have you know this is the twenty-second summer I see, but I look young for my age. Annishi always said so.”
“My humble excuses. My mistake. I can see now that you’re positively ancient. In a youngish way.”
“Laugh all you want, but it so happens I can pass for one of your Mukthars.”
“That man said a renegade group of your tribesmen fought for the prince-warlord. Why? And they’re all younger than twenty. Says you. Again, why?”
“I’m close to getting a major headache, and, please, try to remember that although I know a very few Mukthar terms, I don’t actually speak Muktharesh. What is a vrang… vrang…”
“Vrangmàhai. There is no exact translation in Standard Palton, but it means something like the proscription. Or the expulsion. It’s how Mukthar tribes expand and occupy new territory. When resources become scarce, the younger tribesmen and women, between the ages of fifteen and twenty are cast out from the tribe. They effectively form a new one, and a state of war exists immediately and automatically between the two tribes. That forces the young people to run away as far as they can. If they’re caught by their former tribesmen, they’re killed without mercy. If they’re caught by another tribe, they’re more likely to be made into shorringah. It’s an ancient custom. Maybe it was necessary once in times of scarcity.”
“Now that you mention it, I seem to have read something like that, a long time ago. A rather cruel custom, if you ask me.”
“You have no idea. Anyway, those he called our Mukthars are a new tribe. The result of the most recent vrangmàhai.”
Lee-Lack thought for a while.
“Hm… I can see now why these Mukthars would fight on the side of the warlord. After all, they were at war with their former tribesmen. I can also see how a custom like the expulsion would come in handy in times of need. Were conditions so dire?”
To the former robber chief’s surprise the young Mukthar was on the verge of tears.
“By the Gods, our boy tears up easily,” Lee-Lack reflected silently.
“Not at all,” he said, when he thought he had his emotions and his voice back under control. “It had been a difficult few years, yes, but nothing warranting such harsh measures. Even at the time most people saw clearly it was a political move. It was the final downfall and elimination of one faction orchestrated by another.”
“Your faction won?”
“What? No, no, no. I’m sure I mentioned it earlier. My faction lost.”
“And yet you weren’t touched by the vrangmàhai.”
“I was too old. I escaped by three months and a few days. I told you, I’m older than I look.”
“Don’t mock me, Mirkadeshi,” Yllyesh brought out with some difficulty.
Lee-Lack noticed the inner turmoil of the Mukthar.
“I’m sorry, Yllyesh. The Gods and Goddesses… fate… life… whatever you want to call it… hasn’t been kind to me either lately. All the same, I shouldn’t have made light of your troubles.”
Yllyesh didn’t answer and remained silent for a long time.
“Whyever am I apologizing to a Mukthar?” Lee-Lack asked himself silently.