Beside the coals of the dying fire, within the trampled borders of our abandoned camp, surrounded by the great forest of the winter country, I waited for a terrible death.
I had been waiting since midday. Before long, dusk would fold itself across the land. The Lau must surely come soon. I faced south, so that my death would not ride up behind me on his tall horse and see my back and think that I was afraid to face him. Also, I did not want to look north because I did not want to see that trodden snow and remember my brother leaving me behind. That might have been a different kind of cowardice. But I could only face one direction. So I faced south.
The fire burned low. My brother had built it up with his own hands before he led our defeated warriors away. Now it was only embers, and the cold pressed against my back. I wished I could build the fire up again. Mostly that was what I thought about. That was as close to thinking about nothing as I could come. It was better than thinking about the Lau. I hoped they came before the fire burned out, or I might freeze to death before they found me. Even an Ugaro will die of the cold eventually, without fire or shelter.
I tried not to hope that I would die before they found me.
Then I heard them, the hoofbeats of their horses, and there was no more time for hope. I held very still, though stillness would not protect me now. Nothing would protect me. I was not here to be protected.
They came riding between the great spruces and firs, tall dark men on tall dark horses, with the Sun device of their banner snapping overhead in the wind. Ten, twenty. Twice twenty. And even this was only the vanguard. I stood up to meet them, raising my hands to show that I was bound to a stake driven into the frozen earth—to show that I was tuyo, left here for them. They looked at me, but they rode past, down the trail my brother and our warriors had left. They rode through the remnants of our camp, around the fire and around me, and a little distance more. At first I thought they meant to leave me to die alone in this place while they went on to pursue a broader vengeance against my people. That would have been a death even more terrible than the one a tuyo should face. But then they came back and circled around me, not many paces away, looking down at me. My relief was so great that for the time it pushed away fear.
I knew immediately which must be their warleader. My people prefer silver, which is the metal that belongs to the Moon. The Lau decorate their warleaders with gold, as befits the people of the Sun. This man had gold thread worked into the collar of his coat and the backs of his gloves and the tops of his boots. He did not carry a sword or any weapon, only a polished black stick as long as a man’s arm, with gold wire spiraling around its length. I had seen illustrations, so after a moment of puzzlement I recognized this as a scepter. This man was not only a warleader, but a scepter-holder, carrying the authority of the summer king. I had not known any such had come to the borderlands. At least my death would come at the hands of a worthy enemy.
The scepter-holder’s horse was the color the Lau call fire bay and we call blood bay, which is common for their animals and very rare for ours. It was a fine animal. The Lau breed beautiful horses, but they belong to the summer country. They are too long-legged and too thin-skinned for the cold of Ugaro lands.
Like their horses, the Lau are long-legged and thin-skinned, and they like the cold no better. They are a graceful people, with elegant features and smooth brown skin. Lau men often grow beards, rare for Ugaro men, but they shave them short, just to outline the jaw and mouth. The warleader had a beard like that. He had cut his hair short to match. No Ugaro man would do such a thing; for us, cropped hair is a mark of shame. We tie our hair back or leave it loose, but we do not cut it.
For a moment, while the warleader gazed down at me, the silence was almost complete. A horse picked up one foot and set it down again, and the wind blew across the snow, and leather creaked as a man shifted his weight in the saddle. Other than that, there was no sound. At last the warleader dismounted. He was far taller than I; even taller than most of his own people. He looked cruel to me, with a hard set to his mouth. I knelt and bowed my head to show the proper respect the one defeated owes to the victor.
He looked at me and then at one of his people who had come up beside him. He said to that man, “We must have pressed them even harder than we knew, if they’ve left a tuyo for us. I suppose this must be the son of an important Ugaro lord, but he seems merely a boy.”
I must have jerked in outrage, for he turned quickly to look at me again. I said, speaking carefully in darau, “Lord, I have nineteen winters, so I am not a boy either by your law or ours. You should accept me as tuyo. No one could set any fault against you for it.”
He tilted his head in surprise, perhaps at my words, or perhaps because I spoke darau at all. He asked, “What is your name? What is your father’s name?”
I answered, “Lord, it is a son of Sinowa, lord of the inGara, who kneels before you in defeat. It is a brother of Garoyo, warleader of the inGara, whom you hold in your hand. My name, if you wish to know it, is Ryo. In leaving me for you, my brother acknowledges defeat. Accept me as tuyo, permit my brother and our warriors to withdraw, and my people will not challenge you again.”
He nodded. But he said, “I understand that giving you to me constitutes a promise to cease hostilities. I might have trusted the efficacy of that custom when your people raided mine more rarely. Today, I don’t believe I can expect much of a check in your people’s aggression.”
I could not protest. He was right. The war was too important for the inGara to step away from it. But I said, “Yet my people will not wish to face you a second time, lord, for to do so would be an offense against the gods.My father and my brother will take care to stay out of your way. Is that not enough?” I took a breath, making sure I could speak steadily. Then I said, “Please, lord. Let that be enough. Whatever vengeance you desire for every blow my people have struck against yours, take that vengeance on me and be satisfied.”
Again a pause stretched out. The warleader looked into the forest, the way my brother had gone. Then he looked around at the long shadows and the deep forest that spread out all around that place. At last he turned back to me. He said, “Well, this is the first time anyone has ever offered me a tuyo. No doubt it will be a novelty.”
“My lord, surely—” began the soldier beside him, but the warleader lifted his hand and the man fell silent.
The warleader tucked the scepter under his arm, drew a knife, and stepped toward me. I set my mind at a distance so that I would not disgrace myself or my people by flinching at the first touch of the blade. But he did not begin my death. Instead, he cut the thong that bound me to the stake. So I understood he would take me back into the summer lands and kill me there. It meant he intended to take his vengeance at greater leisure than was possible here in the winter country, but even though I knew I should wish to have my death over and not waiting ahead of me, I could not help but be relieved at any delay.
He put the knife away and said to the man beside him, “Take him to my tent and hold him there.” Then he walked away.
I had known many Lau had pursued us, but I had not guessed how very many until I saw their camp.
The Lau are not a brave people, but they are so many they do not need to be brave. When they fight, they stand in close formations that Ugaro cannot break. When we attack their lands, we are quick, striking at undefended farms, then disappearing into our forests. Sometimes they pursue us across the river that marks the border between their country and ours, but not often, for we have taught them better. In the winter country we can evade them and stay out of their reach, and harass them by shooting from a distance their bows cannot match. During the long cold, they must be especially cautious, for our land itself becomes deadly to them. Yet this time they had come in force, disregarding the risk that snow might begin to fall heavily enough to weaken them and hinder their retreat. This scepter-holder was braver or more reckless than most of his people.
The camp was taking shape quickly and quietly, with no arguments about where any tent should be set or who should do which of the waiting tasks. The warleader’s tent was the same as the rest: plain canvas with pegs to fasten the entry. The Sun banner stood beside it; otherwise I would not have been able to pick it out. The Lau soldier took me into the tent and pushed me to sit down. I might have stared at him to show that I was not afraid. But I did not wish to be insolent, only proud. I lowered my gaze and knelt down where he had indicated.
Three lamps, made of fine, clear glass set into bright copper, hung from hooks. In the middle of the tent, a brazier smoldered, taking the edge off the chill. At the back of the tent stood a small table and one chair. A pitcher and some cups, glazed pottery rather than the pewter one might expect in a camp of warriors, rested on another table. The pitcher drew my eye more than any of the other things. I was thirsty, though I had eaten a little snow during the afternoon. I did not ask the warrior for water. No such kindness was due an enemy, far less a tuyo. I tried to think about nothing.
After a time, not long, the warleader came into the tent. Two more soldiers came with him, but they stayed by the entry. The warleader turned the chair to face me, dropped into it, and beckoned to me. I got to my feet, came forward the few steps necessary, and knelt again. The soldier who had brought me to the tent moved to stand behind the warleader’s chair. The warleader gazed at me, frowning. “Tuyo,” he said.
I bowed before him. “Lord.”
“I’m not entirely familiar with the nuances of the tuyo custom. Sit up and look at me, Ryo inGara, and tell me: what is the usual manner of death for a tuyo?”
Straightening, I looked him in the face as he had ordered. “Anything,” I told him. “A tuyo might be stoned.” If he were lucky. “Or flayed alive.” If otherwise. “With so many men as are here in this camp, it could be hard to make a tuyo live long enough to satisfy them all. Small cuts, little burns, fingers taken—” I raised my bound hands illustratively. “A little at a time. Such a death can be made to last a long time if you are careful.”
“Yes, I see,” said the warleader, and I thought for an instant that he meant to begin immediately. Instead, he leaned his chin against his fist and regarded me for a little while. I could not guess what he was thinking. Perhaps about the war, about the Lau we had driven away from the borderlands or killed, the farms we had burned, the grain and cattle we had taken for our own. Perhaps about the men of his own he had lost in the short, sharp battle that had occurred when he had closed his trap, before we had understood we had to run.
Perhaps he was thinking about vengeance. About the uglier kinds of death.
At length, he asked me, “How many sons does your father have?”
I answered, “Four that walk the land of the living, lord, and four that walk the land of the shades.”
“In which of those categories do you count yourself?”
“The second, lord.”
He nodded as though he had expected that answer. “Even with four sons remaining to him, your father will surely be angry when he understands what happened to you.”
I hesitated because I did not know how to answer. Finally I said, “My father will indeed be angry, lord. But he will agree that it was better to lose a son than to lose all the warriors who fell into your trap. He will have no choice but to agree my brother was right to leave me for you rather than risk your men coming against the camp of our families. He will not set any fault against my brother for leaving me, nor against you for my death.”
He looked at me for some time. His expression was impossible for me to read. Finally, he asked, “Is there any limit to what I can do to you? To how long I can make your death last?”
I answered as steadily and clearly as I could. “There are no limits at all. The manner of my death may be any that pleases you.” I tried not to imagine what that might be. I knew something of the Lau and their customs, but I did not know very much about the cruelties they might prefer.
The warleader stood up, drawing his knife. It seemed unlikely he would begin it here, inside his tent where the blood would go everywhere, but I was not sure. I set the fear aside, breathing slowly and deeply so that I would not flinch.
He cut the thong that bound my wrists. Then he sheathed the knife and walked away. He poured himself a cup of water, standing with his back to me while he drank it. He took his time, and by the time he faced me again, I had recovered. I sat back on my heels as I knelt, keeping my back straight so that I could look at him as he preferred. I did not know why he had cut my bonds. I did not know what he would do next.
He said briskly, “I shall have to consider your fate. As the custom is unfamiliar to me, it may take me some time to settle upon appropriate … measures.”
While I was trying to understand this, the warleader turned to the soldier by his chair. “Bread and salt, Lucas,” he said. The man drew in his breath, but the warleader raised his eyebrows and the other Lau closed his mouth without speaking, turned, and went out.
The warleader poured more water into his cup and brought it to me. I hesitated, but he commanded me, “If you’re thirsty, drink.”
I took the cup from his hand. The water settled my stomach a little. I wanted to ask what he would do. But he had said he would have to think about this, that he did not know himself what vengeance to take. I wanted to ask when he would decide. More than that, I wanted to creep out of his sight and hope he forgot all about me. Such fools men are made by fear. I managed, with an effort, not to move or speak.
The soldier came back with a round loaf of bread and a little packet of salt. These things he presented to the warleader with a flourish, the way a man might offer his lord a weapon or a prize. Something with heft; or something fragile. Something that mattered.
The warleader tore off a piece of the bread, sprinkled it with salt, and faced me. “My name is Aras Eren Samaura,” he told me. “I am lord of Gaur—that is a county in the northeast of the summer country. You may address me as Lord Aras or my lord. Stand up and take this. Eat it.” He held the bread out to me.
I got to my feet and took the bread from his hand. I thought of the way the soldier had given the bread to him, with that showy little gesture. “This is not only bread,” I said. “It means something. What does it mean?”
His eyes narrowed, and I thought he would hit me for my insolence in questioning him. I bowed my head in apology and braced myself for a blow.
But the soldier laughed. He said to me, “Bread and salt is guest-right, and a more ill-considered, reckless gesture the gods have never seen in this world! But there’s no dissuading him, you know. Raise your chin and stand up straight! Lord Gaur’s guest should never cower like a beaten dog.”
I think I have never been more astonished in my life.
“Lucas, please,” the warleader said to the man, his tone sharp. But he spoke to me more gently. “But he’s not wrong. I will treat you honorably if I can. Among other things, once I give you guest-right, I’m not likely to flay you alive or remove your fingers one joint at a time. Now eat the bread.”
I ate it. The bread tasted of wheat and barley and salt, and of the ashes of the hearth where it had baked.
“Good,” said the warleader. Lord Aras. “Now, I will expect you to obey whatever orders I—or Lucas—may give you.” He indicated the other man with a little tip of his chin. “Talon Commander Lucas Terion Samaura. Call him by his title, or sir. You will obey him or anyone I set in authority over you. Do you understand?”
I hesitated. Then I said, “Forgive me, lord. I do not wish to be insolent. But you said you accepted me as tuyo. You said you would consider my fate. I understand your words, but I do not understand anything.”
Lord Aras tapped the scepter gently against the side of his boot. It made a quiet sound. He said, “I have accepted you as tuyo. I do indeed intend to consider your fate. As you inform me there is no limit to how long I may draw out your death, I see no reason to rush my deliberations. Giving you guest-right seemed the simplest way to make certain I have no need to hurry the matter. I’m likely to come under some pressure to surrender you to one civil authority or another. Guest-right takes care of that. Not even my king could require me to give you up now, not that he would be likely to try. Do you need to sit down?”
Taking this as permission, I knelt quickly. I rested my hands on my thighs, breathing deeply. I knew now—it was obvious—that he did not intend to put me to death. Not right away. Perhaps not at all. I did not understand this, and it was surprisingly hard to accept, but I thought it was true.