“We’ve a lot of horses now, that’s for sure,” Yllyesh said when he came back. “We already had three and your grandmother appears to have had two of her own.” He sat down and poured himself a beaker of water.
“The horses in the stable are mine, as is the house,” Lee-Lack grumbled. “And the gold,” he added silently.
“We can’t leave her lying outside like that. The smell might attract wolves,” the Mukthar said as he sat down.
“I’m too tired to do anything about it now. Serves her right. The old hag shouldn’t have drugged me. Let the wolves have her if they want her poisonous, tough carcass. I’ll do it tomorrow.”
“There are still a few hours before it gets completely dark. I’ll take care of it.”
“Thanks,” Lee-Lack said, just a little bit too quickly. “I wasn’t looking forward to having to bury her. Anyway, there should be a shovel in the shed next to the stable. Bury her somewhere in the forest in an unmarked grave and don’t tell me where. Make her disappear. Meanwhile, I’ll try to get some warm meal ready by the time you return.”
“Be careful, you’re still a bit shaky, I think.” Yllyesh got up.
Lee-Lack gave him a curt nod and smiled.
“I’ll be all right. Just don’t pet me on your way out.”
The Mukthar laughed out loud.
“He’s so carefree and uncomplicated,” the robber thought. “If he hadn’t proposed it himself I would never have guessed he was about to bury someone.”
“What will you tell people who come asking for her?” Yllyesh asked after he had returned from his grisly job.
“To mind their own business?”
“That I don’t know where she is.” Lee-Lack guffawed. “That happens to be the truth, as long as you don’t tell me.” His face turned earnest. “Not many people know she lives — lived — here, and those who do, know also she regularly goes to Dermolhea on her own. Went, I should say. The roads are dangerous. She was an old woman. Anything could have happened.” He gave Yllyesh a mirthless smile. “Poor Grandmother.”
“Yes, I suppose there are a lot of wooded areas between here and the surrounding towns and villages. A lot of things can happen in the forest.” The Mukthar had spoken in a grave tone.
“How his mood can change in an instant. One moment he’s all lively and bouncy, and suddenly he has a face as if the world is about to end.”
“Have you decided yet what you want to do?” Lee-Lack asked. “I could give you some money to cover your expenses for a few weeks. Months even if you’re careful.”
“No, I still haven’t got any idea what to do.”
“Well, what would you be doing if your people had been victorious at the Zinchara?”
“That’s easy. Shigurtish was planning to occupy the whole province of Amiratha and the duchy of Landemere. I would probably have been put in command of a garrison of some important castle, or even a city, maybe.” Yllyesh frowned. “No, all things considered, the great commands would have gone to close friends of Shigurtish, like Khrunosh. He couldn’t have completely ignored me, of course, but he probably would have fobbed me off with some unimportant post.”
“Even an unimportant post isn’t going to happen. Maybe I should rephrase my question. What would you be doing if your faction had won and the invasion hadn’t happened?”
“Ha. That’s an easier one to answer. If my faction had won we would be running the Bear Mukthars, the tribe and the territory, and I would be a negotiator. An ambassador, if you will. I and one of the most important frishion of the tribe. The first son of the third queen, no less.”
Lee-Lack rubbed his temples with two fingers of each hand.
“An ambassador, you say. Help me understand. Ambassador of what? To where?”
“To Ormidon, of course.” Yllyesh frowned again. “Or to Lorseth, maybe. That would depend, though I don’t know on what. Anyway, that’s something that… I wouldn’t decide.”
“And there are those rainy clouds in his eyes again,” ~Lee-Lack thought.
“What could Mukthars conceivably have to negotiate about?” he asked. “Were you going to try to extort money from the Ximerionians without having to fight for it?”
Yllyesh’s eyes flickered furiously.
“What do you mean? Like you were doing to their merchants?” he asked.
Lee-Lack too flared up in anger, but he got himself under control quickly. He gave the Mukthar a wry smile.
“I guess I deserved that. Nevertheless… were you? Were you going to try to extort money from the warlord or his father?”
“It’s complicated. Although it’s not critical yet by any means, conditions will get cramped for the Bear Mukthars in the future. All available land was claimed a long time ago by one tribe or another. That’s what made the last expulsion so cruel. There was nowhere in all Mukthar territory for the new tribe to go. Nowhere safe, that is. It was as good as a sentence to be made into shorringah. Everyone expected, no, everyone knew they would be caught by some tribe or other within weeks. They had no means to resist, since they weren’t allowed to take anything with them. In fact, they were chased away naked. Of course, nobody ever dreamed that the new quedash would take his màhai—”
“I see, the new king took his people in the other direction. Outside Mukthar territory.”
“That he did. He basically did, out of necessity, what my — Annishi’s — faction wanted to accomplish through negotiation. Annishi’s plan was to colonize the Renuvian Plains, north of the River Mirax. We would do so anyway, but we also wanted to send embassies to the Ximerionian authorities to ask for their… well, not exactly permission, but sufferance maybe? Annishi was a dreamer, but a practical one. He wanted to invite the Ximerionians to colonize the southern part of the Plains. He thought we could mutually benefit from trading. The Somertian Mountains serve as a natural border now. The River Mirax would become both the new natural frontier and the way to communicate and trade.”
“At no stage would Mirkadesh have been involved in the negotiations. All decisions would have been made over our heads,” Lee-Lack thought. He had to admit though that the plan had merit.
“So what happened?” he asked out loud.
Yllyesh didn’t answer immediately.
“I told you,” the Mukthar answered eventually. “The others… the war faction won. They argued it wasn’t the Mukthar way to negotiate. Mukthars didn’t parlay. They took, sword in hand, what was rightfully theirs. The Ximerionians would never respect us if we came begging. Sooner or later they would betray us. Better fight for what we wanted. For what we needed. Didn’t we have a right to live? We needed more space, but the Ximerionians would never give it to us willingly, although they left it unoccupied themselves. Annishi had proposed we peacefully occupy the uninhabited parts of the Plains, north of the River Mirax. Shigurtish argued that once we would have successfully done so, Ximerion would attack us. Better prevent their criminal intentions by attacking first.”
Lee-Lack was stumped.
“By the Gods,” he said, “I never knew—”
“Shigurtish too was quick to invoke the Gods,” Yllyesh sneered. “The Gods favor the strong and brave, and especially Mukthars. Weren’t we, after all, the chosen children of the Gods and Goddesses? How could we fail against the weak and effeminate Ximerionians?”
“We always thought it was just a raid.”
“No, a lot more was involved. A lot more even than Shigurtish openly claimed.”
“Yes. Isn’t that always the case when princes want to wage war? How did Shigurtish convince the tribe? Didn’t… didn’t your faction argue back?”
“Of course we did. Then the arguing stopped, and Shigurtish’s faction won.”
“They murdered Annishi,” Yllyesh said.
The Mukthar rose and went outside, closing the door behind him with a slam, and leaving Lee-Lack bewildered and wondering.