The collection of mudbrick homes encircled by their wattle-and-daub palisade looked dirtier; smaller somehow than when I’d departed. The thorn trees I remembered climbing as a child were but stunted stumps with no sign of the spreading green canopies where laughing doves nested. It seemed like only last season but one glance at the numerous scars standing out in pale streaks on my sun-browned forearms was all reminder I needed that I’d been away for years.
“I’ll be back and I’ll bring you a pearl,” I’d told Anel as we kissed one last time before I followed the recruiter. “The mercenary forces are rich. Wait for me. I’ll return and we can leave this place and buy ourselves a farm in the highlands. We can keep a few cows and raise a family.”
My dreams had been simple then, and had been all that sustained me when one year had become two, then three. A dozen had passed since the callow youth I’d been first gained blisters from wielding a sword.
I’d known other women over the years that I’d been gone; sloe-eyed courtesans in Ashdiri ports and garrulous Delrochian tavern wenches had all shared the pleasures of their flesh, but one woman drew me here. In my mind’s eye Anel was still the dusk-skinned beauty with a fall of mahogany hair she kept in a single braid. I still recall the feel of her small hand in mine and the way she used to twine the wild loves-me-not into flower crowns for us. We’d be the summer king and queen, and the whole world was ours for the taking.
A fierce yammering of hounds started as we began down the ridge and my grey gelding snorted and pricked his ears but held steady. The beast was possibly one of the most phlegmatic I’d owned—a seasoned destrier I’d purchased off a knight who no longer sold his sword to the mercenary captains. Such were the times. A dozen years of warfare and I too was considered an old man, though I was one season shy of thirty summers.
Children’s screams of excitement sounded with the dogs, and a ragged band both four-legged and two burst from the palisade gates to greet me halfway across the hard-baked ground. They were covered in the same ochre dust that rose in puffs with each footfall, so much so that their clothes carried the same yellowish hue as their skin.
Then the youngsters crowded my mount, the tallest among them daring to lay his hand on the stirrup. “Milord! Do you bring coin?”
I laughed and reached into a pocket for a handful of copper bits. This small change would hardly buy a decent meal with a drink at most respectable inns but to these children I must hold a considerable fortune. “Share it with your friends.” I tipped the coins into the lad’s grubby hands. He couldn’t be older than eleven summers and it was sobering to see someone who’d been born and had grown so much in the time I’d been gone.
Momentarily distracted by my generosity, the children fell behind as I continued riding. The gelding quickened his pace, no doubt under the assumption that this outpost promised a meal of soft hay. “You’ll be lucky if you get muddy water, old man,” I muttered beneath my breath.
What had I expected? The sheer poverty of my home struck me with an almost physical blow as I reined the horse in before the well. The thatched roofs were badly in need of repair and numerous walls sagged dangerously. While the palisade had been whole at the entrance, an entire section had been burned down at the back, with three of the homes no more than tumbled ruins--fire-blackened mudbrick and beams that stood up like ribs. I knew the signs well and my heart contracted. Raiders had passed through here too.
A few scrawny chickens clucked about but the place appeared deserted.
“Is there anyone here?” I called. “I mean no ill.”
The children boiled into the compound behind me and I made eye contact with the eldest. “Where’s your mother?”
“Call her, please.”
Movement at the doorways of several of the huts snagged my attention. Women. They hung back, raggedy shawls pulled tightly around their shoulders. Where were all the men? Uncle Shem with his bushy beard and booming laughter? Dorrick, who could carve horses out of wood that were so lifelike one could almost see them prance about? Experience informed me coldly I should be the last to wonder about their fate.
One by one the womenfolk approached, faces pinched with fear and hunger so that I could see the skull beneath the skin. I thought one was Aunt Shel, but I wasn’t sure. She had lost a lot of weight and favored her right leg. Her hair stuck out in wild white wisps on either side of her face. For some reason my tongue cleaved to my palate and no words formed on my lips.
My gaze darted from one to the other. Seven women remained, and not one of them was Anel. That was until I caught sight of one who hung back. Her belly was distended in the advanced stages of pregnancy. I think I only recognized her because of the way her hair was braided. But those sunken cheeks... Her tremulous toothless smile greeted me and I gripped the reins tighter.
“No,” I whispered then dragged the gelding’s head around. I didn’t care that the horse thirsted. I dug my knees in so that he spun with a squeal of outrage. There had been a small watering hole an hour’s ride back. Once this had been a deep pool shaded by willows. Now there’d be enough water to sustain us on the ride back to Ysul. If I rode hard, I’d meet up with my old mercenary company before they departed for the war in Abdur.