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datatime: 2022-09-25 15:21:09 Author:YpkFsyzC

I listened in amazement. All the years I had known him as a taciturn man. Drink had never loosened his tongue, but only made him more silent. Now the words were spilling out of him, washing away my years of wondering and suspecting. Why he suddenly spoke so openly, I did not know. His voice was the only sound in the fire lit room.

"He taught me numbers first, then reading. He put me in charge of his horse. Then his hounds and hawk. Then in general charge of the pack beasts and wagon animals. But it wasn't just work he taught me. Cleanliness. Honesty. He put a value on what my mother and grandmother had tried to instill in me so long ago. He showed them to me as a man's values, not just manners for inside a woman's house. He taught me to be a man, not a beast in a man's shape. He made me see it was more than rules, it was a way of being. A life, rather than a living."

"Chade said I should leave you tomorrow," he said quietly. He looked down at me. "I think he's right."

I listened in amazement. All the years I had known him as a taciturn man. Drink had never loosened his tongue, but only made him more silent. Now the words were spilling out of him, washing away my years of wondering and suspecting. Why he suddenly spoke so openly, I did not know. His voice was the only sound in the fire lit room.

"Duke Grizzle sold Neko and six mares, and I went with them. Up the coast, to Rippon." He cleared his throat. "Some kind of horse plague went through that man's stables. Neko died, just a day after he started to sicken. I was able to save two of his mares. Keeping them alive kept me from killing myself. But afterward, I lost all spirit. I was good for nothing, save drinking. Besides, there were scarcely enough animals left in that stable to warrant calling it such. So I was let go. Eventually, to become a soldier again, this time for a young prince named Chivalry. He'd come to Rippon to settle a boundary dispute between Shoaks and Rippon duchies. I don't know why his sergeant took me on. These were crack troops, his personal guard. I had run out of money and been painfully sober for three days. I didn't meet their standards as a man, let alone as a soldier. In the first month I was with Chivalry, I was up before him for discipline twice. For fighting. Like a dog, or a stallion, I thought it was the only way to establish position with the others.

"Chade's gone," he said quietly. I heard him right the fallen chair. He sat on it and began taking his boots off. I felt no hostility from him, no animosity. It was as if my angry words had never been spoken. Or as if he'd been pushed past anger and hurt into numbness.

"So I bonded, very young, to the only strong male in my world who was interested in me. A street cur. Mangy. Scarred. His only value was survival, his only loyalty to me. As my loyalty was to him. His world, his way was all I knew. Taking what you wanted, when you wanted it, and not worrying past getting it. I am sure you know what I mean. The neighbors thought I was a mute. My mother thought I was a half-wit. My grandmother, I am sure, had her suspicions. She tried to drive the dog away, but like you, I had a will of my own in those matters. I suppose I was about eight when he ran between a horse and its cart and was kicked to death. He was stealing a slab of bacon at the time." He got up from his chair, and went to his blankets.

"Only in the way that people who know one another best know how to hurt one another best," I pleaded.

I heard him making up his bed and lying down on it. "I learned to talk," he said after a bit. "My grandmother forced me to survive Slash's death. In a sense, I transferred my bond to her. Not that I forgot Slash's lessons. I became a thief, a fairly good one. I made my mother and grandmother's life a bit better with my new trade, though they never suspected what I did. About a hand of years later, the blood plague went through Chalced. It was the first time I'd ever seen it. They both died, and I was alone. So I went for a soldier."

"I know. But he had a small lantern with him. He said he feared more to stay, feared he could not keep his resolve with you. To let you go."

"I first fought for some petty land chief in Chalced. Jecto. Not knowing or caring why we fought, if there was any right or wrong to it." He snorted softly. "As I told you, a living is not a life. But I did well enough at it. I earned a reputation for viciousness. No one expects a boy to fight with a beast's ferocity and guile. It was my only key to survival amongst the kind of men I soldiered with then. But one day we lost a campaign. I spent several months, no, almost a year, learning my grandmother's hatred of slavers. When I escaped, I did what she had always dreamed of doing. I went to the Six Duchies, where there are no slaves, nor slavers. Grizzle was Duke of Shoaks then. I soldiered for him for a bit. Somehow I ended up taking care of my troop's horses. I liked it well enough. Grizzle's troops were gentlemen compared with the dregs that soldiered for Jecto, but I still preferred the company of horses to theirs.

I heard him making up his bed and lying down on it. "I learned to talk," he said after a bit. "My grandmother forced me to survive Slash's death. In a sense, I transferred my bond to her. Not that I forgot Slash's lessons. I became a thief, a fairly good one. I made my mother and grandmother's life a bit better with my new trade, though they never suspected what I did. About a hand of years later, the blood plague went through Chalced. It was the first time I'd ever seen it. They both died, and I was alone. So I went for a soldier."

Burrich had taken Nosy away from me when I was less than that age. I had believed him dead. But Burrich had experienced the actual, violent death of his bond companion. It was little different from dying oneself. "What did you do?" I asked quietly.

"It's too dark for him to be walking," I said to the flames. I spoke carefully, fearing to break the spell of calm.

He stopped talking. I heard him get up. He went to the table and picked up the bottle of elderberry wine that Chade had left. I watched him as he turned it several times in his hands. Then he set it down. He sat down on one of the chairs and stared into the fire.

I listened in amazement. All the years I had known him as a taciturn man. Drink had never loosened his tongue, but only made him more silent. Now the words were spilling out of him, washing away my years of wondering and suspecting. Why he suddenly spoke so openly, I did not know. His voice was the only sound in the fire lit room.

He stopped talking. I heard him get up. He went to the table and picked up the bottle of elderberry wine that Chade had left. I watched him as he turned it several times in his hands. Then he set it down. He sat down on one of the chairs and stared into the fire.

I sat up and looked up at him. The dwindling light of the fire made a shadowy landscape of his face. I could not read his eyes.

Burrich had taken Nosy away from me when I was less than that age. I had believed him dead. But Burrich had experienced the actual, violent death of his bond companion. It was little different from dying oneself. "What did you do?" I asked quietly.

"I know. But he had a small lantern with him. He said he feared more to stay, feared he could not keep his resolve with you. To let you go."

"When I woke up, the dog had a master again. Of a different sort. I know you've heard people say Chivalry was cold and stiff and correct to a fault. He wasn't. He was what he believed a man should be. More than that. It was what he believed a man should want to be. He took a thieving, unkempt scoundrel and ..." He faltered, sighed suddenly. "He had me up before dawn the next day. Weapons practice till neither of us could stand. I'd never had any formal training at it before. They'd just handed me a pike and sent me out to fight. He drilled me, and taught me sword. He'd never liked the axe, but I did. So he taught me what he knew of it, and arranged for me to learn it from a man who knew its strategies. Then the rest of the day, he'd have me at his heels. Like a dog, as you say. I don't know why. Maybe he was lonely for someone his own age. Maybe he missed Verity. Maybe ... I don't know.

"Chivalry dismissed the Guards, with a purse to pay for damages to the tavern keeper. He sat behind his table, some half-finished writing before him, and looked me up and down. Then he stood up without a word and pushed his table back to a corner of the room. He took off his shirt and picked up a pike from the corner. I thought he intended to beat me to death. Instead, he threw me another pike. And he said, `All right, show me how you held off five men.' And lit into me." He cleared his throat. "I was tired, and half drunk. But I wouldn't quit. Finally, he got in a lucky one. Laid me out cold.

"When the Sandsedge war was done, Duke Grizzle took me home to his own stables. I bonded with a young stallion there. Neko. I had the care of him, but he was not mine. Grizzle rode him to hunt. Sometimes, they used him for stud. But Grizzle was not a gentle man. Sometimes he put Neko to fight other stallions, as some men fight dogs or cocks for amusement. A mare in season, and the better stallion to have her. And I ... I was bonded to him. His life was mine as much as my own was. And so I grew to be a man. Or at least, to have the shape of one." Burrich was silent a moment. He did not need to explain further to me. After a time, he sighed and went on.

I heard him making up his bed and lying down on it. "I learned to talk," he said after a bit. "My grandmother forced me to survive Slash's death. In a sense, I transferred my bond to her. Not that I forgot Slash's lessons. I became a thief, a fairly good one. I made my mother and grandmother's life a bit better with my new trade, though they never suspected what I did. About a hand of years later, the blood plague went through Chalced. It was the first time I'd ever seen it. They both died, and I was alone. So I went for a soldier."

No. Their words belong to them. I felt jealous that they were together while I was alone. Yet I also took comfort in it. Perhaps Burrich could talk Chade into coming back until morning. Perhaps Chade could leech some of the poison I'd sprayed at Burrich. I stared into the fire. I did not think highly of myself.

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