The next morning they rose rather late. Not only had they been dead tired, but after the bath they had been so relaxed they had fallen almost immediately asleep. They had shared a bed, and although nothing of an intimate nature had happened, Lee-Lack felt at ease — and, in a strange way, safe — with the young Mukthar sleeping beside him.
They lingered at breakfast and Yllyesh made his loaf of dark bread last as long as he could. When the last piece was gone, he stretched.
“Well, I suppose you want to be on your way. I think I’ll—”
Yllyesh drawled out the words, as if he wanted Lee-Lack to stop him.
“Have you any idea already what you’re going to do, or where you are going? Or how you are going to get some money?”
“I guess something will eventually—”
“You keep saying that, but it won’t. Besides, your shoulder may feel all right, but it still needs looking after. You can come with me.”
“Didn’t you say your grandmother was looking after your place? Won’t she be afraid if you bring a Mukthar into the house?”
Lee-Lack laughed out loud.
“Are you worried you might scare my grandmother?” he asked with a smirk.
“I’m told we Mukthars inspire awe and fear,” Yllyesh said, in a sulking way.
“Maybe. Generally speaking. In numbers. But you on your own? Not so much. Besides, my grandmother can chase a mad bear away by grinning at him. No, it’s the other way around. I’d better prepare her before you show yourself. She might shoot you on sight, no questions asked. She almost killed me last time I returned home. Just to keep herself and me fit. Or so she claimed.”
Yllyesh didn’t reply, but his face had become a tad paler.
“She’s a warrior woman,” he said. There was genuine admiration in his voice.
“She’s a violent hag,” Lee-Lack said. “And a greedy cow,” he added silently.
“And another thing,” Yllyesh said when they were on the road for an hour. “You still haven’t told me why you took care of me instead of killing me.”
“I’m not sure. You posed no immediate threat. You were in pain…” he said. “And now I’ve sort of gotten used to having you around.”
“Maybe I was lonely after all these weeks on the road by myself. Maybe it was just a reflex. Like when you take care of a wounded animal.”
“You don’t have to come with me. If you have somewhere better you’d rather be, you can take your leave.”
“No, no, no. You’re right. It’s nice to have company after roaming the Plains on my own for so long. Not to mention you paid for a soft bed, a warm bath and two good meals. I owe you.”
“Yes, I’m your benefactor. You’d have died of hunger and exposure without me.”
Yllyesh laugh rang thinly through the air.
“You’re funny,” he said without much conviction.
“You’re easy to please. That’s all.”
“I wish I could repay you,” Yllyesh said. He looked at the silver bracelet on his right wrist. “It’s not worth much, but… but…”
“And he’s tearing up again,” Lee-Lack thought. “For a Mukthar he sure weeps easily. He’s right, though, that bracelet isn’t worth much, mainly because it’s thin and narrow. But it’s beautiful and exquisitely crafted. Maybe it has a personal meaning. An heirloom?”
“Keep your jewelry,” he said, feigning he hadn’t noticed the distressed tone in Yllyesh’s voice. “It looks good on you. I’m sure, sooner or later, you’ll find a way to pay me back, if you think Mukthar honor demands it. Otherwise, consider it my treat.”
“Yes, I’ll think of something,” Yllyesh said, with almost palpable relief.
For a while they passed a lot of travelers. Many wore items of authentic Mukthar clothing or imitation ones.
“It must have been going on for a while now. I never noticed, and if not for Yllyesh, I still wouldn’t have.”
Some people looked at the Mukthar in passing, and started whispering among themselves. It obviously pleased Yllyesh, who tried to make his face look grave and brooding.
“Awe. Fear,” he growled when Lee-Lack gave him a curious look. “We inspire them.”
“Yea, sure,” the former robber chief mumbled back.
“Are we there yet?” the Mukthar asked a few minutes later.
Lee-Lack laughed out loud at how the fearsome barbarian warrior had turned so quickly and easily into an impatient youngster.
“By midafternoon we should be able to see the village of Dullcarry in the distance. From there it’s only a few miles. I’ll go on to talk to my grandmother. You’ll wait in the woods. When I think it’s safe I’ll come and get you.”
“She’s just an old woman. A bit distrusting, maybe. Surely, you’re exaggerating.”
“No, I’m not.”
“How come you were all alone all these weeks? Didn’t you meet other Mukthars on the Plains? I mean, Mukthars like you, not… not the ones who made a pact with the warlord.”
“I met plenty. Most of them traveled in groups. I told you I and my friends weren’t exactly popular, so I avoided them.”
“Groups? Large groups?”
“No. Half a dozen at most. Like you said, the Plains are a large place. And those that roamed the western parts, especially the great forest there—”
“The Pashira Forest.”
“Yeah, that one. Anyway, if they venture too close to the woods, they’re likely to be attacked by your Mukthars.”
“Ah, yes, what with the expulsion and there being a state of war between the old and the new tribe.”
“Exactly. I’ve seen it happen, concealed and from a distance.”
“They were killed?”
Yllyesh didn’t reply immediately.
“Made into shorringah, killed, or made into shorringah and killed,” the Mukthar said eventually.
“What exactly happens to people who are made into a shorringah?”
“Shorgah. Shorringah is the plural of the word.”
“Never mind. What happens to them?”
“There is no exact procedure, but shorgah means non-human. You can imagine what happens to them.”
“Let’s suppose I can’t.”
“All right then, if you insist. Animals don’t wear clothes and neither do beings inferior to them, so those are the first to be removed. Usually, next the tongue is cut out, unless those executing the procedure aren’t satisfied with the wordless shrieks. Some want to hear it beg. Beg in vain, of course. Nose and ears are cut off as well. If it faints, they wait until it recovers before they cut off its balls.”
“They cut off his testicles? By the Gods, that’s cruel. I suppose they put out his eyes as well.”
“Its eyes. And no, they don’t. Neither do they pierce its eardrums. They want it to hear every insult and see every laughing face as it is degraded to less than a beast. At last they cut its hamstrings. It will never walk on its feet again.”
Lee-Lack didn’t ask anything further. He looked sideways at Yllyesh.
“Well, what do you know, his eyes are moist again. It’s a vicious practice, but you’d think being a Mukthar he’d be used to it.”