Ask Why Old, by Igor Ljubuncic

Updated: January 18, 2013

This was to be a long, standalone story that I considered bloating into a full book, but then never did.

The rider on the white horse bit into the apple and grimaced when he tasted worm and rot deep inside. He puckered his lips, letting the tart juices wrap his tongue, and watched.

In the field below, a throng was milling. They waved curses and pitchforks. Women stood foremost in the crowd, snarling at the focus of their attention. Men looked abashed and confused, but they were doing their ladies wives' bidding.

Eye gave a shrill cry before it landed on the rider's right forearm. Folding its wings, the silver-spotted hawk anchored its talons in the old, cracked leather of the gauntlet. The rider lowered his arm and resumed eating and studying the commotion.

"What do you think, hunter?" he asked his bird.

Blinking, the predator tilted its head in a different direction, disinterested.

The rider wiped a hand over his mouth. His pale silver mustache reminded of an otter's whiskers, he knew, but he had never listened to other people telling him how to look and dress. He had been born ugly and that was the best he could manage.

His horse farted. Casting the eaten apple away, the rider folded his gloved hands on the reins and observed.

The single oak was going to break a neck today, he thought. He wondered what the 'villain' had done to deserve getting hanged by the mob - and without trial.

That of itself was an offense worth hanging. The mass had not bothered to let the criminal have their pre-execution rights.

By the Rule of the Four-Leafed Spine, every criminal was entitled to the last hearing before the local burgomaster. In case the regional judge was not 'available' at that time, any clergyman could do, although priests of rank Devoted and higher were the preferable choice. Next, the criminal had the right to pray before his or her life was taken. And finally, every criminal was entitled to the Last Shock before he or she eternally expired.

All in all, a magistrate, a monk and a 'shocker' were needed. The rider on the white horse could not see any of the three attending the execution. It was a major insult to the Rule.

The rider scratched his scalp. It was mottled like the wings of his bird. The hair began to grow only behind his big ears, covering the rear half of his head. Forward, there was naught but warts and wrinkled skin and old battle scars. Back, the drape of lichen, yellow like mud and gray like mouse, that called itself his hair hung to his shoulders in wavy patterns. He watched.

Peasants armed with scythe, baton and adz were leading the criminal to the oak. Women hollered with animal zeal. Men posed nervously. Well, it was time he interfered, the rider on the white horse thought and moved down the slope.

"Hang her, hang her!" the crowd called in raucous voices.

Yvonna watched in anger rather than consternation at her antagonists. She was bound hand and foot and a piece of dirt cloth gagged her mouth, so she could not kick and flail and claw. Restraining her had tolled the village males three teeth, one nose and one black eye. Even now, they looked frightful around her, these big, brave men.

She was grimed in sweat and dirt and straw from the lice-infested litter they had given her for the night before the execution. Her bladder was close to bursting. She had not been given time to relieve herself before they had woken and taken her to the oak. It was bothering her more than the prospect of a noose.

Ropes cut into her wrists and ankles - ankles that some claimed were the best in the world. Her linen shirt clung to her back, itching. Her breasts showed through in the front, wet circles marking her pink nipples. All the village perverts could see them, bastards. And they did not miss a chance.

"Yeah, put her on that oak," a wrinkled hen shouted.

"'Tis 'bout time that slut hang," another fool added merrily.

Helpless verbally, all Yvonna could do was bite the cloth in her mouth.

The village elder lifted his arms aloft. "Silence!" he cried. Slowly, the din subdued to sporadic curses. Children in the back were throwing rotten fruits at the doomed woman.

"Put her up," a burly villager dressed in a jerkin turned black with body filth suggested.

The peasants warding the criminal hoisted her up onto the stool and pushed her neck through the oiled hemp noose. Her reddish-brown hair, the color of blood and rust, was inside the loop, as well.

Backing away, wiping her armpit sweat off their palms, the peasants joined the half-circle of spectators, by their wrath-inflamed wives.

The elder appraised the crowd, feeling important. His homespun robes dripped from his bony shoulders. A collar of leather round his throat marked him as the Seat of the Circle. Every village in the Domain Antrah had its circles and their seats.

"Hush crowd!" the elder commandeered. Oh, this was the peak of his glory. His first trial and execution. Deep swallows of rice brandy had helped muddle his brain and ease on the weight of guilt pumping in his chest.

"You be Yvonna of the Unkempt Farm, sired by one called Derrick? Answer now, 'cause we don't wanna use whips to bring out the truth," he preached.

The condemned woman nodded from atop the stool, towering above the crowd. Sweat trickled into her eyes. Flies and gnats buzzed. The sun glowered. Falcons circling in the sky above cried ominously. Pigs in the sties grunted and squealed.

"Goodly," said the elder. "Now, you is also one they called the Wicked Vixen, ain't it so?"

A bored look on her face, she agreed with a deep nod, looking impatient to be over with this matter.

"Goodly again," slurred the Seat, a bald, crooked, thin man that had reeds with hairs for arms and legs sticking out of his brown robe.

There was no scroll to read the accusation - no one was literate in the Hole, except the girl about to hang - nevertheless, it did not prevent the fool old man to spread his arms as if holding a piece of vellum between them and read from it.

"By the Rule of the Four . . ." He named them, "Justice, Law, Word, and Crystal, you have done crime against the people of Hole. Because of that, and here is witnesses behind me back, you will gonna hang from this oak that is gonna be your justice."

The throng howled like an angry pack of wolves smelling a lamb's blood.

"Silence," barked the drunken village head. "As things are and there ain't no protesters, we can proceed." He was proud at knowing that one scholarly word that rich of the high classes in the cities used. "Kick the stool under of her when I give mark," the man said.

The poor headsman spread his legs and readied the kick. One of the hamlet's husband, he was none too happy to murder one of their own. But his part was in the general guilt and he did not want to stand out.

There was a twang as of a cord snapping. There was a whistle of hornet and gadfly as one. A piece of iron a cubit long, with feathers of leather and a head of steel, rammed into the kicking leg.

Gasping in shock and pain, the headsman dropped, balance stolen under him in the flight of the crossbow dart. He rolled in the dirt, gripping the shin that bled, attempting screams that failed without breath in his mouth.

Like one, eighty some pairs of eyes of Hole turned to behold the danger. It was seated on a white horse, draped in black armor. Slowly, the horseman approached. No one moved.

"I can see you have good eyes for me shooter," the rider said instead of greeting as he approached within hearing range. "Traced me arrow all the way back to this toy." He toted the crossbow overhead.

Yvonna swallowed. Cold sweat bound her. She had been that close to dying. Now what?

Her bladder was bursting.

The rider picked at his nose, coming out with a snot-smeared finger. "This is the essence of your souls, what I got on me glove, peasants. Green and yellow, slimy." The crowd stared in helpless awe and astonishment.

The elder, his courage sharpened with rice brandy, dared open his mouth and speak. "What wrong have we done to you, stranger, to welcome us with your weapons?"

"You have done three major crimes, Seat of Hole," the rider mocked. "And better if I tell you not what they are."

The man on the ground was wailing in earnest. Hot, dark blood was gushing out, dyeing his breeches and skin. Three women had knelt down, trying to help him. They were pulling on the blood-slick shaft of the quarrel, hoping to pry it out, but all they were doing was widen the hole and fracture the pierced bone some more, tormenting the wounded person.

"You ain't gonna manage to pluck that thing out just so," he told them, his hawk flapping its wings once. "There are barbs on that bolt. Made so there could be no plucking. You must push the thing all the way through, then pull it out with pincers." He produced a pair and flexed them in his fist.

"What will you have of us, stranger?" the elder pleaded, starting to get terrified. "We have no money to give you."

"I want justice is all," he said. Yvonna noticed he had Carlant accent. He truly was a stranger. But what was he doing here, so far from his home? It was an unnerving thought.

"But we was doing justice," the Seat insisted.

"You was doing as pleased your twats," he said, drawing a collective gasp from the women.

"How dares you?" one of them hissed at him, her face pinched and scrunched like a cat's anus.

"I can do as bloody damn I please," the rider said. "Oh, but I didn't introduce myself. Rude of me. My name is Rudolph Hawkhand, better known as Razorfart. As you folks all so well know, I am the Chief Magistrate of Black Nest Autonomy, Arch-Rector of the Four in Their Name and the Head Appointer of the Death Rite."

Everyone paled. Even Yvonna. There was a dangerous man.

Apart from the mentioned, Razorfart was a notorious Armia leader. He commanded the Hawk Phalanx and was Sub-Marshall of the Pedestria Terrifica. He belonged to the third class and certainly bore no sentiments for the first. In his life, he had been tax collector, executioner, assassin, advisor to the Crystal Heart, and Voyager to the End.

Not a man to cross.

Definitely not.

Hawkhand clapped. "Take that girl down," he ordered.

Quickly, the peasants obeyed. A knife was flashed and the ropes cut. Yvonna massaged her joints as she stepped down from the stool on the hot dust. She glared malevolently at her former captives. When one of the villagers offered a hand for help, she pushed him away.

"There she goes again!" a woman shrilled.

"Quiet," the magistrate barked. The woman's lips went mute. "I will hear no words from fools. You, as their representative, Seat of Fools, may speak. Only you. What was the girl accused of?"

"I'm no girl," Yvonna snapped.

The Sub-Marshall pursed his lips, looking her way. "Oh, we've got a lion cub here, mewing. You shall not speak without my permission either. There are two ends to every story - theirs, yours. I will hearken both."

The elder swallowed a lump. His whiskered windpipe rippled. "The . . . girl was accused of adultery."

Razorfart nodded. "I see." He glanced at her. "You married, lass?"

She snorted.

The Armia leader swatted a mosquito on his neck. "She cannot be accused of adultery. She has no spouse to cheat."

"It works both ways," the elder whispered. "She tricked the village husbands into her bed. And they got wives. So, it's adultery after all."

Rudolph stifled a guffaw. "Nonsense. Your stupid village oxen cheated on their wives and it's the girl's fault? No. It won't be. If anyone needs be hanged those are your boys."

The Circle's head fidgeted uncomfortably. "Well . . ."

"Murdering an innocent is worse than adultery. Not only that, you have accused her with a lie and were going to kill her without judge, without priest and without the last man to pleasure her. That is so very wrong. I could have your village scoured by a compania of my pedestriani with the morrow's first light." He let the thought hang undecided. The peasants' dread was obvious.

"And what have you to say in your defense?" he addressed the Wicked Vixen. "I heard you called by a particular title. How is that you earned it?"

She sniffed proudly, brushing a ringlet of hair from her eyes. "I am younger, smarter, more lovely than they. How can they not hate me?" Angry protests were shot by the crowd. The magistrate raised a hand and smothered them.

"Continue," he bid her.

She squared her shoulders defiantly. "I like male company. What can I say, I cannot help it. I will not shun from inviting a man to my bed. It's their business to accept or not."

"But they don't stand a chance with her!" cried a wife.

"She's got them all bewitched!" wailed another.

"She trims her brows to look nicer!" a third voice offered.

"Yes, and her legs and armpits, too!" a fourth accused.

Razorfart smiled. This was an interesting affair. "So . . ." He silenced the mob. "The problem is with you women. Your husbands' . . . swords went to another front and you got jealous over it, is that it?"

There was no answer - no denial.

"She dresses like men and speaks like them," another incognito voice called.

"True rebel, the sinner of all sinners," Hawkhand mocked them. "What shall I do with all of you, primitives? Girl, since you were about to die by their hand, do you have any suggestion?"

Eyes turned from judge to criminal. There was fear and hatred in those many stares. Their lives depended on the word of a person they were about to retrieve to the Crystal and they did not very much like it. Rudolph's white whinnied. It was an elegant beast, between courser and charger, snowy with ashen splotches on its rump.

"Let them be as they are," Yvonna said.

Frowning, the Arch-Rector leaned in his saddle. "What? There is no bloodthirstiness in your mind? How can that be? You wish no revenge?"

She shrugged. "It will bring me nothing. But I do seek compensation."

The Appointer smirked. "And what would that be?"

Yvonna's grin was simple. "I want all my things returned to me."

Hawkhand shook his head. "That ain't compensation. That's law. In addition to what is yours, do you want to take anything from these men . . . and women?"

The girl smiled. "I have taken what I needed. Their wives' dignity, their husbands' shame . . . and their cocks," she added brusquely.

Razorfart choked on his spittle. "They have given me my nickname, 'cause they said my breath and words were as sharp as razor and left the stench of a silent fart. It seems there are more gifted than myself."

"I am merely gifted," Yvonna protested. "I did what I wanted. I got what I wanted. I followed my heart's desires. In difference to these poor fools, I am free. A free of the first class, unimaginable, is it not, sir?"

"Yes, quite so," Rudolph quietly agreed, studying the girl. Tall, lean, supple. Breasts small enough to cup in palms without any flesh slipping, just as he liked them. A bit thin, face lovely. Oval and soft-boned, with big cinnamon eyes and straight nose. Inspiring gaze. Impudent bearing. Hair that matched her temper. She dressed in snug leather trousers and tight, sleeveless shirt. Her feet were bare, but had a clean look. She was not walking barefoot, usually.

"Give the girl her boots back," he commanded.

The asked-for stuff was brought out shortly. The girl - well, for a grizzled Randolph, she certainly was young, twenty or so, he thought - did not possess much. She had spare, men's clothes, bits of essentials and a beautifying kit that the village ladies had condemned her of - tweezers for brows and leg grass. The priest, the soldier, the judge chortled.

"I will be leaving with your excuse, sir," she kindly but firmly informed him.

"You will not," he told her, yearning to see what her reaction would be.

"What's the alternative?" she asked, acid and venom of three spiders and two snakes in her fine, tilted voice. Forty years ago, Rudolph would have fallen in love. Today, he was glad his daughters had died so he had no grandchildren like her.

"You can hang - or come with me."

"No much choice I'd say," she hissed. "I will come with you, then." It sounded as if he were the worst thing in the world.

"Certainly," he said, mocking her, teasing her hot temper. "I did not imagine a village girl they were about to hang had any great prospects about the world. Or . . . do you?"

"None of your business," she snapped. Shocked peasants gasped.

"In the cities, you'd be flogged for this insult," he informed her coldly, hardly offended. If the words could kill, he'd be dead a million times by now.

"We are not there. But thank you, I will keep that in mind. Useful advice." She could not be serious. Even expressing gratitude brought out the devil inside.

The Sub-Marshall did not think she was the kind to fear flogging. "Gather your things and come. I will ride and you will hop on your legs at my flank. Is that inconvenient for you, lass?"

She sniffed. "Nothing a man can do is inconvenient for me, old man."

Gasps again. He turned to the crowd. "She tells the truth. I'm an ugly old man. Thanks for omitting the ugly, though. She is blunt, maybe dim-witted, but at least she had the guts to tell the truth."

"Balls, unlike some here," she corrected him.

"Balls," he repeated. He liked the mad girl.

"The size of pomegranate," she added.

He blinked. "I have spent many a year in Armia. I have met thousands of soldiers. None was so gifted as you claim."

She shrugged.

Yvonna and her meager backpack left Hole a few minutes later, trailing after Razorfart and his horse, called Snowstorm. He was leading south, into the sun.

"You're an interesting girl," he commented after a while. He dabbed the sweat out of his cheeks with a slovenly piece of silk. He reached behind him and pulled a skin of ale off its peg. "Drink?"

She looked at him. "I got my own water," she said.

He emptied half the skin before putting it down. The beer inside was not strong. It was diluted with water and had the taste of urine. But it was tastier than plain water. In Black Nest, the best water came out of human body.

They walked in silence. Snowstorm plodded on softly, raising puffs of red dust on the cactus-rimmed road. Gusts of wind howled lamely, sending bales of prairie grass rolling over the hill and rock. In the heat-shimmering sky, vultures circled on hot currents, long wing spans rigid and outstretched like crucified men. Once in a while, they pounced upon a rat exiting its burrow. Far off, wild asses raced over the hard soil. Other animals kept away from the sweltering heat. Clumps of thorny weed, tall and wizened, sun-parched yellow grass and stunted trees matted the horizon left and right. Rock veined with hieroglyphs of history grew in twisted shapes all over the wild. There was little evidence of people in Black Nest; a road here and there, a village here and there. Her rescue today was sheer luck.

Fear of almost dying passing away, Yvonna remembered her bladder. "I must go take a pee," she told him.

He looked at her. "Be sure when you squat no scorpion or snakes bite your lovely ass."

She sauntered away, ignoring his remark. She dropped low behind a chaparral of snakeleaf. As he waited, the Sub-Marshall helped himself to a piece of lizard testicles in sugar, a real candy. The Vixen was back in three minutes.

"How was it, did you enjoy it?" he teased her. "I hope you didn't sprinkle those fine ankles of yours."

"They are the best ankles in the world," she proudly claimed.

The Head Appointer wiped his hands on the crocodile leather of his trousers. His eyes, the color of water lily leaf filmed with red onion, followed her lithe body back to its place at his side. Her feet were sheathed in a strange kind of boots that looked half boots, half moccasins, half sandals . . . He realized he had one half too many . . . Anyway, they seriously emphasized those best ankles.

"We go," he said.

He could not keep the silence long. He loved to talk. Besides, Yvonna was more than just idle words to bid time. "Next time, I'd kindly ask you to take a skin off my saddle and when you go pissing that you fill the skin. All right?"

The girl was aghast. "Why would you wanna do that, perverted old man?"

He sniffed. "Perverted you say. Deities, you're a devil. Well, before I answer, tell me something. How old I am, in your opinion, girl?"

She shrugged. "First-born do not give opinions about priests and Armia commanders, let alone men of a higher class. Besides, if you think it's time for senility, I can't help it. You should know your age, oldster."

Rudolph wetted his otter's mustache. "Call me Ruddy." He was silent for a moment. "I'm eighty."

Yvonna looked genuinely surprised. "Well, if there's one good thing to be said 'bout you, then it's you don't look your age, grandpa."

Ruddy nodded. Grandpa. She had balls the size of watermelons. Even the Marshall did not dare call him that. The prophecies were speaking the truth . . .

"Thank you," he said cautiously. Eye took off on a hunt after prairie vermin. The Arch-Rector helped himself to a lizard eye in chocolate. "Want a candy?"

She shook her head. "No."

His mouth full, the ugly old man continued. "See the pox marks on my cheeks? Got sick at the age of ten. Almost died. But now, I'm old and healthy and don't seem much in the mood for dying, what do you say? There's a secret to my health and it's these."

He tapped the fat bags of his saddle. He flapped open one. Inside, chicken eggs were neatly piled, cushioned in cotton. "Every morning, I drink five raw eggs. Then, I drink a cup of sour goat milk. Next, I take a swallow of olive oil. And finally, I empty a goblet of a woman's urine down my throat. Never been sick since the first time I drank it."

Yvonna was disgusted. "Please don't tell me you eat dung and lace your cakes with -"

Rudolph coughed. His ugly face was red. "That is too much, young lady. Your tongue cuts sharper than Malkari sabers."

"Would I it were it so," she said, almost longingly.

"I drink a full skin of ale every day and another of rice brandy. Keeps me alert and hale like that prairie mouse." He pointed at a nervous little rodent leaving the urine-streaked entrance of a red rock cave amidst a pile of boulders. Eye snatched him out of the blue.  Well, better than a prairie mouse.

"Well, he'll have to eat that alone." The old man cracked his knuckles.

They walked till dusk. Or better, Yvonna walked as the white horse bore the Chief Magistrate. When the sun touched the lip of the horizon, Rudolph dismounted without hesitation and started to unpack.

Yvonna drank from her own skin, wiped the corners of her mouth and sat to watch. Her heart skipped a beat when the Sub-Marshall took his jerkin off and slid his sweat-slick shirt over his head.

Then, instead of charging her and molesting her, he donned a praying robe.

It was purple silk, embroidered in the five hundred Runes. Round his neck hung a large piece of crystal incised with his Word. Kneeling down, arms spread wide and eyes closed, the Arch-Rector started to mutter a prayer.

Yvonna looked into the maroon evening world. She could try to escape. She had a poniard in her backpack. She could stab him from behind while he prayed. She chose against it. Hawkhand had not lived eighty years on urine and honey and eggs only. He must have a hand in combat, too.

A quarter of an hour gone, the man was over. He neatly folded the robe, brushed the grains of sand and dirt off its smooth, velvety surface and stuffed it back into the saddlebag. He produced a vial, dripped some of the contents onto a piece of cloth and rubbed the handkerchief over his naked upper half. He was still muscular, if with sagging breast muscles and rolls down his slabs, peppered in wiry silver hair over age-dappled, wrinkled skin.

"What is that?" she asked him.

Cursing, he smacked a mosquito against his stomach. "Gnat-repellant. Based on lemon acid. It makes my nights serene here in the desert."

Her guts rumbled. She was hungry. "What do we eat?"

He stretched, shaking the stiffness off his back and behind. The riding had its toll. "Lizard, if you like."

She shivered. "I am a vegetarian."

Razorfart frowned. "What? What's that got to do with lizard?"

Yvonna snorted. "Vegetarians eat no flesh. Lizard is flesh."

Rudolph looked shocked. "Now, why would you want to do that? Eat herbs all your life?"

"Yes, among other things," she answered with a haughty note. "Lizards are not very tasty."

He grinned, yellow teeth flashing. "Better than scorpions or rats."

She smiled back, sourly. "I think I'll skip the joy."

The Sub-Marshall shrugged. "More for me."

Yvonna could not but gaze at him. "What are all those scars?" she asked, curious.

Rudolph looked down in shock, as if for the first time noticing them. "Oh, yes. Well, this was a hammer." He pointed at his collarbone. "This was a flaming arrow." He traced a long line down his side. "This was . . ." he rumbled on, telling of spears that had skewered him, swords that had cut him, bolts that had nailed and pinned him, clubs that had maimed him. All in all, he had an impressive palette of scars and memories. He knew them all.

"Won't you show me your scars?" he hinted rudely.

"I got none," she hissed coldly.

"How's that?" he wondered aloud.

"I was faster than the fools, and apparently, faster than you." She grinned with venom between her teeth.

Razorfart was hoping she would not send him to a premature pyre.

He settled down to eat. He lit a small fire and, in the meanwhile, Eye returned with an adder between his talons. Whistling a tune, Hawkhand went about preparing his dinner. He peppered the snake meat, sliced it into small pieces and spitted them on a stick. "Won't you eat anything?" he asked her.

"What?" she snapped.

The Chief Magistrate made a dumb face. "Uh . . . Well, there's bread and some liver paste . . ."

"No meat!" she barked. In the distance, coyotes yipped.

"No meat," he repeated in a whisper. "Hmmm. I have cockroaches in sugar. Surely that ain't meat."

"Surely," she mimicked, "but that is simply disgusting. Don't you have any cheese or butter or milk?" Then, she remembered his lips going from one skin to another, eggs, oil, urine . . . and lost appetite.

"I have," he said late, oblivious to the change in the girl's expression.

"Maybe another time," she politely refused.

"What will you eat, then? You can't stay hungry?" He looked concerned.

In the end, she settled for bread and water and forced herself to a fried egg with pepper and cinnamon. It did not taste splendidly as it sounded, then again, Yvonna had never been much into the food affairs. She looked upon it as duty - no pleasure. There were better pleasures . . .

"Got any interesting stories?" he asked her, munching.

She folded her legs beneath her. "No."

He licked the dripping grease off the edge of his knife. "What's wrong?"

Yvonna gritted her teeth. "I know what's this all about. So, let's be done with it."

Rudolph paused chewing. "Done with what?"

Words burst out. "Why did you abduct me? So you can rape me, isn't it? Come, now. Finish it and don't make me wait no more."

Hawkhand laughed softly. He put his cutlery down. "Mad girl. You think I took you along to rape you? Even if I wanted something like that . . ." He made a wistful face and tapped his crotch, "I can no longer do it. The age of my glory has long waned. I might be eighty, but . . ." He laughed again.

She reddened with anger. "What is it you want from me then, old man? I got a life of my own to live and have no times for your stupid games."

He looked up, those hazy greenish eyes dangerous. "No, girl. As the matter of fact, you don't. You no longer have a life of your own."

"Since when?" she growled.

The Appointed looked up at the moon. Full moon. "Since the Word decided it."

She fell silent. Word? What did Word have to do with it? She was a peasant girl, without much future. Deities did not want to mess with her. They had important people to pester.

But that went unanswered.

Yawning, Ruddy rose, stomped the fire and readied his bed - saddle for a pillow and a blanket of goatskin to lay the body on. He removed his boots and a sharp smell of feet spread. He would very much like to air his boots, but he could not afford it in the desert. Insects and scorpions liked to crawl into them. He lidded the tops with his filthy woolen stockings.

"Go to sleep, lass. We rise early. Don't worry about snakes. Eye will keep watch." He dropped down and started snoring immediately.

Glowing embers followed Yvonna through another pissing ritual - she deliberately did not fill the skin as asked - and the little preparations that women did before bed. She combed her hair, she scrubbed her teeth with salt. She used one of her thin quilts for mattress and another to cover her form.

She did not intend to get undressed. It was hot and clammy here in Black Nest, but there was the old man and bugs . . . She did not like either.

Yvonna started to think of escape. No. If she fled, she would be hunted and, once caught, killed. The Sub-Marshall had mentioned the Word. That interested her, too. Why would a third class fool, although one of the most famous fools in the Domain, want to tangle with her, a first class lass? There was more to this than just . . . What? She was not sure.

She would not run away for now, she decided. She would wait and see what this is about.

She lowered herself on her back. Small rocks massaged her back and it was pleasant for the first ten seconds, then the pain erupted instead of pleasure. Grumbling, she spent an hour flattening the soil beneath her before she finally went to sleep, satisfied.

A shrill cry from the spotted hawk brought her awake. Perching atop a rock, the bird was flaring its wings, letting cold dawn breeze caress its feathers. Knuckling mist and gum from her eyes, Yvonna rose to find her captor kneeling and praying. He ignored her.

Her bladder was bursting again. Cursing softly, she donned her half boots and ran to relieve herself. Rudolph tossed a skin after her and it hit her in the back. She cast it back into his face. He resumed praying.

"You're a stubborn girl," he told her when she returned.

"You're a mad, perverted old man," she told him upon her return.

The Arch-Rector folded the robe. "How was your night?"

"Excellent," she snapped, cynicism in her voice.

"Well nice." He rubbed his whiskered cheeks. He ought to shave. No. Maybe later. "Would you like some lizard?" he asked. "Or an orange?"

"Orange will be fine, thank you," she replied. "Where are we going exactly?"

"Some place nice that you will very much like," he answered cryptically, a beaver's leer on his face.

"I doubt it." She peeled the rind off the fruit. Juices sprinkled into her eyes. She sneezed. Tears coursed down her cheeks. Razorfart chuckled.

After he broke his fast on the usual lizard, the Chief Magistrate made himself coffee, with all the slowness in the world. He drank the damn thing bitter, in small sips as if tasting poison, then rolled his eyes back with every swallow. The muddy drink was a mystery to the girl. She could not imagine why anyone would wish to feel it down his throat. The coffee was spiced with kardamom and it was bitter enough to burn holes in stone.

Just as the pink-red sun lifted off into the world, they started on their way. Ruddy rode and Yvonna walked beside him. She did not mind. She had the stamina.

Clouds were white as snow and thin. Blue sky promised a simple hot day. Fire of the Dragon was the hottest season.

"Where are we going?" she repeated her question after three hours of silence.

"You will see," he said, not looking at her.

She halted and crossed her arms beneath those small breasts. "I am not going with you."

He nodded softly, closing his eyes. "Yes you are. Look, I am third class -"

Yvonna gritted her teeth. "Make me."

Hawkhand blinked his eyes open. He scratched a big, gnarly birthmark behind his left ear. "You are defying me, lass? I am the thunder and lightning of this realm. Do not play fools' games with me. Do you understand?"

"Third class, fourth class, fifth, I don't care. I am not making another step till you tell me where we are headed. I am not your beast, highborn. Third class or no, you will tell me. I am entitled to an answer."

Razorfart squinted. Sun glared in his eyes from the east. She stood at his right, in front of the yellow disc. He could yield, tell her what she wanted. But he was stubborn as she and the Protocol demanded it. No third class man was to stoop low for a baseborn. That would mean betrayal of the class if not a loss of personal dignity. Rudolph was too old for dignity to be lost. But he needed to discipline this wild filly.

"You are of the first class," he explained coldly. One last chance. "You are required by the Rule to listen to me. I am the Law. Please, be reasonable before -"

"You're an old fart," she rebuked, cutting his speech short.

The next thing she knew she was riding on that white horse, thrown over its rump, tied hand and foot and cursing into a rag gagging her mouth. Disinterested, the Sub-Marshall was whistling a tune.

After she quieted a bit, he decided to lecture. He bit into a tart apple he fished out from a bag. "You see, you did a fundamental mistake. You pissed off an old man with lots of authority in his old brain. That was not wise. You ought not to do that." He massaged his ribs. She kicked strongly. He examined the bite on his left hand. Even through the glove, she had the snake's sting. "You're one wild devil."

Eye circled in the sky, enjoying the high, hot winds. Dust billowed in the old man's face, sharpening like a file the coarse edges of his old, cracked skin.

Rudolph wished he could tell Yvonna what she desired to know. But he could not, yet. Things needed to be done. Prophecies had said so. Five years at the Mount Crystal, well, he did not want to think about that.

This young woman had been the focus of his life. In the past twenty years he had done nothing but hunted her shadow and scent, followed the rumor of her baneful spirit all around the Coin. When she had been born, he had drank a pint of his own blood hot from the vein. Now . . . What should he do?

He halted. His eyes were old, but as sharp as an eagle's. Yes, definitely . . . Those were humans further on the road. Three men.

"Do you promise to behave?" he asked.

She glared at him, face flushed red with blood and streaked with sweat rivulets. Then, fire left her eyes and she nodded, meekly. He reached and cut the bonds off her wrists. Reaching low, she freed her legs and slid off the horse. "What do you want?" she snapped.

"A, a, a . . ." He lifted a finger in warning. "Behave. And look there. You see? Three men. They could be hostile. I might need your help." He offered her the hickory hilt of a dagger. "Pray, do not use it upon my old skin."

Gently, carefully and full of doubt, she accepted the small weapon. "Wanna kill them?"

The Appointed smiled. "Maybe. Death is never late to come."

Slowly, they approached the human barrier. Three men with crossbows in their arms. Theirs were smaller and plainer than his example, which was steel and mahogany, chased with gold filigree. They handled wooden-stock weapons, probably illegally made.

"I see no domain brand on those lovely things," the old man informed them. "I guess they have not been crafted by our guilds. Greetings, gentlemen. What a lovely day. What an odd place to be."

One of them toted his weapon higher. He had eyes of a pig, an imperial beard and hair in unruly locks all about an egg face. "This was made by me own dad. Killed quite many a traveler as wouldn't give up on their purses. As what would you choose, old man and his bitch?"

Yvonna went taut, but Rudolph calmed her with a quick motion of his hand. "Now, that's an insult. Not to this dear lady here, but to the canine kind. You see, bitches are very loyal, to their pack, to their litter. They hardly mate twice a year. As can't be said of this devil here . . ."

The girl had the nerves and dignity to blush at that moment. Confused, the three men snickered uncomfortably.

"Let us pass," Yvonna blundered, spoiling the show.

Rudolph grimaced. He had to play her tune, now. "Yes, let us pass."

The swine man shook his head. "No. Purses first and a ride on your lady."

Yvonna shrugged. The Chief Magistrate flushed with rage. How dare she . . .? "We have no purses."

The brigands were inventive. "Then your horse then. Looks a nice piece of meat. Could got sold for a hundred silvers, ha? Come on, no more games or we pin your ass with darts." The two men behind him stepped forth.

Black Nest was known for highwaymen. Far from the Heart City, patrols rarely reached the region to sow law. Tax collectors almost never ventured into this hot cesspool. They had nothing to collect. But it was the home to criminals. Trade caravans, journeyers, casual passersby, and cattle drovers were the prey of the robber gangs, without Armia companiae to pursue the bandits and decimate them.

"You got it all wrong," he told them.

"Really?" the leader mocked, confident in the rightness of his deeds.

"Yes. You see, you see an old man on his horse and a girl afoot in his company. Those are the visual facts. But you are not asking yourselves the right questions. It is not why we are here. Is it why I am an old man? Why?"

The curly robber smacked his lips. "What are you talking about, old fart?"

Razorfart smiled. "True enough, old and fart. I am talking about your brains. Can't they ask the right questions? I am eighty years old. I have done my life. It is only reasonable to claim my ways were the right ones. Even if they seem like awful mistakes to some, they are not. For I have lived eighty years and outlasted much and many. That is what you ought to ask yourselves. Is this old man not too dangerous to tackle with? After all, he's eighty and still riding a horse, all so full of confidence in front of three armed men with crossbows. Hmmm? What do you say?"

"I say you're mad," the chief brigand said, amused.

"Madness is irrelevant." Hawkhand massaged the eaten apple in his hand, the third this morning. "You are young, prone to mistakes. Listen to the advice of older people. They might be old, but age is a token of strength and wisdom, not weakness."

"Your purse!" the robber insisted.

"Do you know who I am?" Rudolph asked.

"Yes, an eighty-year-old loon with books of camel shit in his head," the leader was courteous to explain. "But I don't want your dung, I want your gold. Spill it or I'll spill you. My patience is running low."

Ignoring the three, the Magistrate looked at the girl. "They just don't understand." He looked at them. "Ask not how old!" he shrieked. "Ask why old!" And then, he cast the apple at the swine's head.

Eye dropped from the sky, talons ripping. Snowstorm reared. Razorfart fired his crossbow. It was over in two seconds.

All three were wounded. The leader's face had been crushed with hoofs. One had his cheek ripped off with talons. The third lay with a bolt in his shinbone, shrieking.

"I told you," the Appointer was saying. "I told you. Now what?" He fished a new apple and ate.

Yvonna watched with fascination in her eyes. "Quite impressive, old man. Can you teach me?"

Rudolph glanced sideways. His mouth was full, cheeks dancing with apple bits. "What, farting?"

She grimaced. "No. This . . . psychologeme . . . mental stuff. How you tricked them and all."

The Sub-Marshall of the Hawk leaned low in the saddle. "First, I will teach you to say psychological without hesitation," he said. "When you master verbal skills well enough, maybe then . . . Wait now. Why would you want an old fart to teach you? You're young and smart. I'm old."

She turned away. "Forget it. I try to be friendly and you choose to play games of honor with me. Go to Crystal."

For all his eighty years, Hawkhand felt hurt. "I'm sorry, girl. I did not mean . . ."

Yvonna grinned. "I fooled you," she said with sadistic delight.

He paled, then turned livid. Huffing, steaming, he dismounted and kicked the leader in the stomach. "You're a devil. Deity Acidio must have sent you." The god was known for unsavory pranks and evil temper. A true monster. An old man's bane.

"It's his day in six," she said, still smiling. "What do you do with these men?"

He drew a sword. "I kill them. I cannot take them with us. They will be a dangerous burden. But to leave them to vultures is just too cruel. So, I will kill them. Ever seen it done?"

She nodded. "I will watch and will not retch, if that's your worry, sir."

Hawkhand cringed. "Please, call me Ruddy."

"When, if, ever, we become friends." She picked one of the crossbows. "Can I have it?"

"If you like. But there is no honor in bearing that weapon. It has killed innocent travelers. Arm yourself with noble weapons, if you like."

Yvonna appraised him coolly. "What death is noble? What weapon does kill nobly? It's all the same. People bleed and scream. Don't fool yourself - or anybody. I am a village girl, but I am not stupid. And I will keep the weapon."

Razorfart shrugged as he moved to the last man. "I have many nicknames," he spoke to no one in particular. "Many do not know this one, because usually they hear it before their death. It is Steadyhand. Goodbye, villain." He killed the third man.

Yvonna could not quench her dread. She had almost forgotten whom she was dealing with.

One old, very dangerous man.

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