They had traveled for two days in relative silence, each wrapped in his own thoughts and only communicating when necessary.
Lee-Lack thought it was a shame and he would have loved to get to know his young companion better, but there were apparently dangerous zones in the Mukthar’s past where it was better not to tread, not even lightly. Lee-Lack had always understood that some privileges have to be earned, the gift of confidentiality being one of them.
He decided, for the time being, it would be prudent to limit the conversation to practical day-to-day subjects. Besides, there were enough things that he needed to think through carefully.
Thinking back, Lee-Lack suspected the Mukthar had needed some time to collect himself when he had left two days ago. The robber had taken the opportunity to take a nap, but Yllyesh still hadn’t returned when he woke a few hours later.
It had been almost evening when he had seen his companion emerge from the woods, carrying a dead piglet.
“It practically jumped into my arms,” the Mukthar had said with a nervous laugh.
“It must have felt sorry for your scarred hands and scraped knees,” Lee-Lack had replied.
He hadn’t asked any questions, glad that Yllyesh had seemed to feel better.
By the time they had prepared, roasted and eaten the piglet it had been too late to travel on, but it had tasted wonderful, and there was plenty of meat left for the next day.
“Maybe it’s a tradition not to speak too much while you’re on the mravindava,” Lee-Lack thought.
He flushed slightly when he realized the implication of what he had been thinking. They were not on some love journey. Most certainly not. On the contrary, if anything, Yllyesh’s story and his strange behavior afterward had killed whatever mood there could have been. Lee-Lack doubted that whatever move he tried to make to initiate some intimacy would be successful. Why was this so complicated? He wasn’t looking for some long-term commitment. Some basic mutual gratification would be sufficient, thank you very much. Shared body-warmth and release of tension. Nothing else was required.
The more he brooded about what he thought of as his simple requirements, the more he began to doubt they would remain uncomplicated for very long. To begin with, traveling together, just the two of them, would give them ample opportunity to repeat the experience. Several times a day if they so desired. Giving his unsuspecting travel companion a furtive glance, Lee-Lack was almost certain he would desire so. At least the first days.
There was nothing wrong with some healthy, vigorous sexual release. He had noticed it often enough during his time as leader of the Renuvian Plains Robbers. Even men who by nature preferred women — married men included — engaged in relationships of a physical nature with other men when traveling on the Plains without any female company available, often for weeks if not for months at a time. When on leave, the married men returned to their families and the single ones visited taverns that provided young girls for a price. Most of them, anyway. Yet, when back on the plains, the same pairs seemed to come together again. All this happened naturally and without much talking. A nod and a wink were more than enough.
These kind of silent understandings without commitment were a sensible solution to a very human urge. For Lee-Lack with his heavy disguise it wouldn’t have been very practical, not to mention it could possibly have tainted his leadership. Neither was he inclined to take an official lover like his predecessor had done. Instead, he had learned to help himself, quickly and surreptitiously. However, none of the previous objections existed anymore.
Lee-Lack was aware that he was lacking in knowledge of Mukthar customs. Especially those pertaining to bonds between young warriors. It was a major obstacle, because all things considered there was a distinct possibility he’d want more than just some noncommittal sexual relief.
Yllyesh was a Mukthar and, although young and not particularly awe or fear inspiring — notwithstanding the Mukthar’s own opinion on the matter — he still was someone you’d provoke at your own considerable risk. And yet, Lee-Lack felt protective about the younger man. More protective than he had ever felt about Norri-Nack, his younger brother, who he had always thought of as somewhat of a nuisance, if not a downright burden. Not that he disliked his younger sibling, and his relief when he heard his brother had survived the collapse of the robber’s cave had been genuine enough.
“Now that I know Yllyesh and this Annishi were more than just friends or chosen brothers it has become both easier and more difficult. On one hand, I wouldn’t be his first lover. That should make it easier, shouldn’t it? On the other hand, Annishi isn’t among the living anymore, and you can’t compete with a ghost. Then again, neither need you be jealous of the dead.”
The robber kept mulling over the pros and cons of the situation for some time.
“My chances should be fair to good, if not for this one thing. Something tells me this Annishi didn’t just die of a random illness or some freak accident. There was a tragedy of some kind. And Yllyesh isn’t over whatever happened to his lover by a long shot. Whenever we come too close to the heart of the matter, he gets teary-eyed and he drops the subject like a hot stone.”
Lee-Lack sighed loudly.
“Something on your mind?” Yllyesh asked.
“No, I’m tired. That’s all.”
“Let’s take a rest then. It’s almost evening and I’m feeling hungry anyway.”
It was that magical time between dusk and complete darkness when they emerged from the forest.
The little path made its way through a barren landscape. The wind blew noticeably harder.
“Smell the salt in the air?” Lee-Lack asked. “Hear those screeches? Those are seagulls. We’re near the coast.”
After about half a mile they reached the edge of the cliffs, and both men got off their horses.
The Mukthar stared with open mouth at the silvery expanse before him. He had been taught about the sea, and he knew what it was supposed to be, but seeing it with his own two eyes was something else again.
“That’s the sea?” he couldn’t help asking though he knew the answer.
“Yeah. Is this the first time you’re seeing it?”
Yllyesh nodded, shielding his eyes against the setting sun.
“Well, then you’re in luck. This is a marvelous vantage point. Come, let’s follow the rim on foot. It’s only another few miles.”
Lee-Lack laughed softly.
Another twenty minutes brought them to a sharp curve, and then they were standing on a promontory overlooking a bay, enclosed on three sides by almost vertical precipices. On the seaside, two rocky formations, shaped like natural piers, jutted out, one from each side, into the sea. From high up they seemed like two arms. The left one overlapped the right one, leaving a narrow channel. The harbor was situated right across the mouth of the passage on the southern side of the little bay. Tarbalainn itself occupied most of what little level land there was on the northern part.
“See those?” Lee-Lack asked, pointing out the rock formations.
“Yes, I suppose they do look like arms from here. But not from the sea. They hide Tarbalainn from sight of any passing ship. You have to know where the harbor is to find it. Even then you need an experienced pilot to steer the ship between the arms, as you call them. And even so a ship can’t enter or leave the harbor without the consent of the inhabitants. The channel between the arms can be closed on both ends by heavy chains.”
Yllyesh studied the layout of the harbor.
“It’s a natural sea fortress. And you could attack enemy vessels from upon the rocks. But Tarbalainn’s best feature is that it is invisible from the seaside.”
Lee-Lack nodded in agreement.
“See there?” he said. “That’s the main road into Tarbalainn.”
“It seems steep. Dangerous, even.”
“It is, though when the weather is dry and if your horse is well-behaved you can ride down. Carefully, anyway.”
Seeing a town from so high was another first for the Mukthar. His eyes wandered over the little harbor where two caravels and some smaller ships were moored.
The main street of the town was on the side of the bay and went all around it into the little harbor. The many inns and taverns looked out over the water. Light shone through the open shutters and doors. Even from so high above the town, the travelers could hear all kinds of noises. Laughter, cursing and singing.
“It’s getting dark,” Lee-Lack said. “We’d better make our way down into town. We’ll have to go on foot as it is and if we want to secure a place—”
“Let’s stay here for the first night,” Yllyesh said. “It’s getting dark.”
“Ah, well…” the robber mumbled indulgently. “Why not. It will be a mild night anyway.”
“Aren’t they beautiful?”
“Aren’t what beautiful?”
“The lights. The lights of Tarbalainn.”