The second day in Two Kills, my heart pounded in my chest like a horse galloping and it felt as though I had to stretch the skin of my chest to get enough air. I had Gannara loosen my breastplate buckles so I didn’t feel like I was fighting the metal as well as the thin air.
After that my head felt better, but 1st Nuninibas one of the senior Mahid, riding immediately in front of me suddenly sagged, slid sideways in his saddle. His horse shied toward the cliff-face and he fell on the edge of the trail, unconscious.
I swung down from Nasty, throwing a “Halt!” yell back over shoulder. Nasty obediently stopped as his rein hit the ground and I hesitated and backed up. He was Mahid. If he were injured or ill it would be one less Mahid to escape from. Then I flung myself forward. “Man down! Man down!” In that instant Nuninibas became my man and my charge not an enemy captor.
Nuninibas's foot was tangled where he’d fallen and the horse bucked and crow-hopped, kicking back, driving me back from where I could have reached him. “Whoa! Whoa!”
Eforas, one of our medics, riding ahead had gotten down and lunged for the trailing rein. "Eforas!” I yelled, helplessly, and watched the disaster unfold. The horse with its packs, reared up to try and get away from Eforas and this thing flopping against its belly and overbalanced, dragging both men with it. Eforas let go, his boots on the edge of the chasm, he threw his weight backward but one heel slipped.
I might have caught hold of him. I might have caught him if I had moved faster as the horse went over. I might have but I did not. One of his heels slipped. The horse fell back, its hooves sliding on the narrow ledge, caught on Nuninibas's limp form and fell over the cliff edge. It screamed as it fell, and Eforas cried out, he’d tried to stop, to catch himself but was too late. He let go in time. He should have been able to recover from that but one of his bootheels slipped.
They fell like a spinning fleshy snowflake, grabbing or clawing at the air as if they could catch hold of it and save themselves. Nuninibas fell limply. And all three smashed into the trees so far below, with breaking smashing noises. Eforas’s trailing, living cry cut off as he smashed onto the impaling branches, green and white and red marking his trail until the unbroken branches bounced back, covering his smear with green. The horse’s screams silenced as it slammed into the rock.
2nd Amitzas had made it back to me by now and stood, looking down at the distant wreckage. If you didn’t know what to look for, you would never know it was the bodies of two men and a horse.
“What happened?” He snapped out, gazing down into the rift.
“Nuninibas collapsed.” I said. “I don’t know what happened to him. He just fell out of his saddle and the horse spooked.” I fought off spots in front of my eyes. The bloodfire had made breathing just that much harder. “Eforas tried to settle the horse, to save Nuninibas who was tangled in the harness. He didn’t let go fast enough.” Why did Nuninibas collapse? Why did he fall out of his saddle? What happened? And... why didn't I grab Eforas? He... should I just hate him and be glad he died? Should I? They are my enemies and my brothers. Prison-guards and family all at the same time.
“Nuninibas was probably overcome by the height. Rest they in Selestialis.” That was all he said and turned back to his own horse. I don’t care if I hate their guts, I thought. They deserve funeral rites. And 14th Joras dead at Hayel’s gorge. They deserve rites. They died obedient and doing their duty. You don’t just slough off people as if they were an inconvenient blood spot on your sleeve. Even if they are Mahid. They deserve better.
I added their names to the tally in my head. 2nd Amitzas was completely forgetting that as Heir, even in hiding, I was technically the Highest priest in the Temple. I was supposed to be doing the rites. He was using the Holy Book to beat me into shape, forgetting that I would one day be the only legitimate interpreter of that Holy Book for him. How could he forget? Or was he just thinking that I would ignore his sins for the next six years?
He could not know that I did not think of myself as the hinge of Selestialis but as the lowest forzak. For a man certain of his place in the world and certain of mine he had some significant blind spots. He was certainly thinking I would forgive anything he did to me physically because it would all be covered under my father’s command, ‘... raise him as I should have been raised...”
Binshala did feel better when we got down out of the pass, though we had to stay camped another day in a swampy area off the beaten track for her recovery.
I began to pray to my forefathers for her when I did my Ten Tens practice, feeling that perhaps the ritual motions would help. That was ridiculous I knew, since the Gods don’t have ears for the damned. If They did, how could They stand the screams from hayel? So the forzak must somehow become invisible and inaudible to the Ten. It was part of my separation from Them. One of the Solstice prayers begs that we never be distanced from the Gods because that is the only true hayel. It is probably more true than these childish images of physical torment we paint, since hearts and souls suffer so much more profoundly than bodies.
The swamp was a misery. The midges thick enough to clog one’s nostrils so you had to blow and blow masses of snot and bugs because you didn’t want to open your mouth. I certainly didn’t. I figured that 2nd Amitzas was tight orificed enough to not have to worry about it.
Binshala said, on the second day that she would leave this camp if she had to be slung belly down over a horse and carried that way, so I assisted in the rigging of a horse litter. Nasty was lead horse because he’d obey me well enough to not kick the flinders out of the litter. I wished that Ailadas could have been the rear rider because the rearmost horse was vicious enough to keep trying to bite Binshala or the litter and the Mahid rider kept having to kick it behind the cheek to distract it. My nurse curled up as close to Nasty as she could and endured.
Having Ailadas on his own horse enabled him to ride next to me, and drill me on my reading, while we rode in the moonlight. The road was wide enough for three abreast and maintained well enough, even in this wilderness. The old Arkan roads had been built smooth and solid, centuries ago and no one tried to keep them smooth enough for express wheels out here.
I tightened up as 2nd Amitzas reined his horse next to mine but did not stop reciting. “... the accounting methods of the early Reniirean Period were originally laid down by Joras Tranias, Aitzas.”
“Correct, Spark.” It was dark enough that I could barely see Ailadas’s movement as he looked across me to the First Second. “Honoured Guardian of the Spark of the Sun’s Ray,” he said without the faintest trace of irony.
“Honoured tutor of the Spark of the Sun’s Ray. He progresses well?”
“Indeed, Honoured Guardian.”
“Spark of the Sun’s Ray. Do you know your own Mahid’s Maxims?”
“I am aware of them, Honoured Guardian.”
“You must know them better. Tutor. See that he learns the Maxims. I shall quiz him, shortly.”
“Of a certainty, Honoured Guardian.”
We were silent as 2nd Amitzas spurred his horse forward once more, showing his impatience only in how he rode.
“The Honoured Guardian would be more at peace with the world and himself,” I said. “If I were merely a Mahid come late to Mahid training.”
“Indeed,” Ailadas answered me. Behind me I was certain I heard Binshala smother a laugh.