Banner of the Hawk 24

At the hartwa, Caul tied the kakai and helped Beshu down from the slope saddle. There were traces of red leaking from the bandages under his mail. Once on the ground, Beshu straightened himself and Caul led him into the hartwa.

Emira fed the stranger and Caul. Khadil had already eaten. He sat back picking his teeth and making talk to learn what he could from Beshu, but without effect. Beshu was silent — a great, grim, hulking figure that gave Khadil no confidence. Finally, Beshu said, “I have to see to my kakai.”

“I’ll go with you,” Caul offered. Beshu did not respond, but neither did he demur. Outside, Caul said, “If you leave him in the byre, Khadil will steal him.”

“You think I couldn’t stop him?”

“I think if you bleed any more, you couldn’t stop anyone. Let’s take him up the creek a ways and tie him on a short rope so he can graze.”

Beshu nodded and mounted. It took him two tries to get into the saddle. Caul said, “Can I do anything for you?” Beshu shook his head.

Caul led the kakai about a quarter of a mile to a meadow he knew well. When they arrived, Beshu said, “Boy, when I leave in the morning, go with me.”

“Where?”

“Anywhere is better than here. Your work is keeping both of them alive. You could make a living doing the same work for some Lord or in some town, and be free of them.”

“Emira took me in.”

“I know her type, boy. When you’re gone, she’ll make him do the work you’re doing. You don’t own her anything. He needs you. She doesn’t.”

“All right.”

Beshu swung down and fumbled in his saddlebag for the block and tackle that was required to lift a heavy slope saddle in the field. Caul went up a tree to tie off the topping line, and slid down to do the lifting, but Beshu had already begun. Caul started to say, “Let me,” but before he could get the words out, Beshu heaved on the line, gave a muffled cry, and collapsed on the ground. The slope saddle was in disarray; Caul jumped to it, and settled it back into place, then turned to Beshu.

His face was waxen in the faint twilight. A dark stain covered the front of him, and he was cursing monotonously. “I took a point, boy. A little blade that slipped through my mail. I thought I could wait it out and heal, but I guess it ticked my lung.”

He choked then, and coughed up a gout of blood. For a moment, he couldn’t get his breath. This was the end of him, and they both knew it. He put out his hand and Caul took it. “Get out, boy,” he said. “Get up on my kakai, take my sword with you, and get out before that breecher knows you’re gone.”

“But you . . .”

“Boy, you’re talking to a dead man.”

He once again burst into bloody coughing. Caul held him through it. When it subsided, he said, “Good boy. I’m glad you’re here.” He was silent for a long time, then he said, “I had two sons. Grown men now. I wasn’t any good for them. They had to make their own way and so will you. But that’s not so bad.”

He had another coughing spell, worse than the last. He fell so silent that Caul thought he was gone. Finally, he whispered, “Life is tough, boy, but that’s all right. It just makes the sweet things sweeter.” He chuckled. “Even now, old and worthless and with a hole in my chest, I still don’t want to die.”

Caul waited for him to continue, but that was the last thing he said. more Monday

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