Suffering and Bitterness

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Pibbibib, or "Backstabber"

In the night, Roj awakened from an uneasy slumber. Outside the cave, someone was moaning. The young man raised himself and felt his stomach grow queasy at the sound of the groans. Was Noli the ill one? Quietly Roj arose and went forth. There was barely enough light to see the slanted surfaces of the cave wall and the rock path outside. Beyond the entrance, he found Healdin sprawled before him in the starlight.

“Lady!” he exclaimed.

“Water,” she whispered. “Please, Roj, fetch me the water skin.”

He rushed inside and grabbed the water pouch. He listened for Noli and heard him snoring soundly from the back of the cave, despite his vow to stay awake. Quickly Roj carried the water back to Healdin. She was so weak he had to lift her head to help her take a drink. He gasped to see a slight amount of blood dripping from her mouth.

“Lady, you’re bleeding. What’s the matter?”

Slowly, Healdin sipped a few mouthfuls of water and lay back down. “The worst is over. The malady often passes in a few hours.”

Roj refrained from pressing further about her sickness. “Do you want me to leave you alone?”

“No, Roj, I would have you stay, if you are willing.”

“Of course, I’ll stay.”

“Good. You will be a comfort to me. Please tell me of your family.”

“All I have left is my sister,” he said as he sat on a rock beside her. “My mama and papa died of the camp fever about five summers ago.”

“Tell me of your mother.”

Roj felt his throat tighten. “What I recall most about her was her touch. Everyday she hugged my sister and me. My papa said she would spoil us with her hugs. But Mama said she had only hugs to give us, and she would not have us go forth each day without them.”

Healdin gave a weak smile. “Indeed, she was a wise woman. I would like to know more of her.”

Roj bit his lip. “There’s not much more to tell. When the fever came, she lasted longer than Papa. But it laid her low, much as you look now. Near the end, she could not keep down her food. How I hated those days. And she wouldn’t let us touch her. She feared the fever would take us, too. All Remy and I could do was watch her go. She gave us no more hugs.”

Healdin reached out and took his hand. “Thank you, Roj. This night you have brought me a tender comfort. I perceive that you have not considered your mother’s death for many days. I hope some day to help you recall the better times with her, too. Now I beg you, help me return to my bed. I will rest there and fall into a deep sleep. But you must wake me in the morning.”

At first light, Noli arose sleepily and stumbled forth on his way to relieve himself. He went to Roj and kicked him lightly. “It’s morning, boy,” he said. “We’ve got a long walk in front of us.” He turned and saw Healdin sleeping soundly nearby. “Our rescuer looks even less fierce in the day than in the night. Look at her. She looks pale as death.”

“She became ill in the night,” Roj said. “She was bleeding from her mouth. It scared me, Noli, but she said it would pass. In a moment I’ll wake her.”

Noli stepped forward slowly, shading his eyes as they adjusted to the early light outside the cave. The sun was rising above the hills, but it had yet to shine in the bottom of the rocky canyon. Noli took a few more steps and then froze at the mouth of the cave. “Roj,” he called. “Come here.”

Startled, Roj obeyed as Noli raised his right hand and pointed outside. There in the early light stood their four horses, the same ones the old MuKierin had released the day before.

“By the Stone Woman!” Roj exclaimed. “Lady, our horses have showed up. How did that happen?”

“Friends brought them,” Healdin said weakly, pushing herself up on her knees. She stood and followed the men from the cave.

“Look at this, Noli!” Roj shouted. “Here is ol’ Sandy, your mare-crazed stallion. And the packhorse looks to have all our provisions. We’re whole again. We don’t need to worry about the debtors’ chains or about walking back to Kierinswell.”

Noli moved cautiously toward the horses, squinting as if they might be a mirage. Gingerly he stroked Sandy’s mane and looked back soberly at Roj. Next he went to the packhorse and removed his sword. He nodded sharply as he attached the blade’s scabbard to his horsehair belt. “This sword belonged to my papa,” he proclaimed to Healdin, who by this time had reached the cave’s mouth. “He served a term as a soldier, and he taught me to swing this blade with all the skill of our forefather Kierin.”

The lady turned to Roj, asking, “And do you have a sword?”

Noli snorted. “Ha, the boy doesn’t fight. The fighter in his family wears a skirt. That would be his sister, my woman.”

“I was given my papa’s sword when he died,” Roj explained. “But a day came when Remy and I needed food. She held tight to the ten silver coins for her dowry and wouldn’t give them up. Instead, she sold my sword. Indeed, right now I wish I had a blade, though the truth is that I don’t know how to wield one.”

Noli grabbed the reins and turned his horse around. “Roj, let’s get ready to go. We’re getting out of here. I’ll ride in front.”

Healdin said, “I would ask that you stay here longer and permit me to rest through the morning.”

“No,” said Noli. “I want out of these cursed hills. We’re going to leave as soon as possible, with or without you.”

“I shall ride with you. Let us hope we do not come to regret your haste.”

The sky remained clear and the sun was shining in the canyon when they set out from the cave. Noli rode in front, then the lady, with Roj in the rear, atop the sorrel stallion, and their other horses behind him. Healdin rode her own gray mare. They followed the dry streambed for nearly a mile, and then climbed up a path leading over the ridge. At last they came to what appeared to be the main trail. On that wider road Roj took the opportunity to catch up and ride alongside Healdin.

“Did you grow up in these mountains, lady?” he asked.

“No, my people come from far away. We live in a land of green hills and great forests and much water.”

“Does such a place exist?”

“Indeed, it does. I hope you will see it some day.”

Roj noticed she was wincing. “Lady, are you well?”

“I suffered much last night, Roj, and I remain weak. Perhaps we can rest soon.”

Roj glanced toward Noli, who had ridden far ahead to the crest of a hill. Suddenly his brother-in-law halted and raised a hand in warning. On the other side, at the bottom of the slope, the hermit was kneeling atop a small boulder. The old man’s arms appeared tied behind his back. Behind him stood some odd creature, but its head and body were covered with a blanket. To Noli, the creature seemed smaller than a human, but he couldn’t be sure; it stood completely hidden beneath the blanket. “Horse dogs,” the creature screeched in the tongue of the MuKierin. The words seemed weak, more like the sound of a cawing bird than a human. “Show your manhood. Stop hiding behind the woman. I will kill your kinsman unless you step forward. Are you cowards?”

Noli drew his sword and rose up in his saddle. “Let him go, you dog!” he screamed.

“Cowards!” The creature cawed again. “Women! Gutless MuKierin! Will you not stand up for one of your own? Must I kill this old man because you will not challenge me? I shall kill him!”

Noli glared back to his kinsman. “Come on, Roj!” he yelled. “We have the horses. Bring along your fierce woman and let’s free that old man.” At once he spurred Sandy and yelled defiantly, “For the Stone Woman!”

Slowly Healdin stirred herself, but Roj had already ridden ahead and begun to uncoil his horsehair rope. “Wait, Roj,” she cried. “It is a trap.” She urged her mare forward after the two men.

With his sword extended, Noli galloped down the trail toward his enemy. Suddenly, a rope was pulled taut and low across the path, catching Sandy’s front legs. The stallion buckled headfirst into the dirt. Noli flew overhead and tumbled wildly along the trail. As he did, a strange warrior jumped out from behind the boulders. The fighter looked immense. He was outfitted in worn, black leather armor. On his head, he wore a leather helmet, from beneath which flowed a great mass of shaggy hair. On his face were some sorts of markings. And in his right hand, he held a sword.

“Noli!” Roj cried. He had no sword, but he held out his rope and spurred his horse down the trail. Healdin watched in alarm at his charge.

Onto the trail strode a new warrior, the very one who had tripped Noli’s stallion. This warrior, also clad in black armor, raised a sword and made ready to strike Roj down. The young man had little time to react. He swung his horse left, galloping off the trail and down the hillside. Part way down his stallion lost its footing and the animal toppled over. Roj managed to tumble to the uphill side as the animal careened and rolled down the slope.

The two warriors each went after a different victim. The first drew near and stood over Noli. The horse hunter had broken his left arm in the fall and could barely struggle to his knees. Noli closed his eyes as his enemy pulled back his sword. But the deadly blow never came. Instead, the sword thudded to the ground. Noli opened his eyes to see the warrior shudder and collapse, three arrows protruding from his chest.

A shriek of victory sounded from the hillside, even as more arrows shot forth. The warrior approaching Roj quickly ducked amid boulders. He scurried behind the great rocks until he reached the safety of a nearby cave. The seeker, meanwhile, was dragged away by the cawing creature, which tossed off its covering and was revealed as yet another warrior, even bigger than the first two and also adorned in black. His height had been hidden because he had been standing in a pit dug behind the rock. This last fighter held the old MuKierin as a shield and backed up to the cave. At the entrance, the captor drove a long knife deep into the hermit and flung him to the ground. Then, the two surviving warriors disappeared into the cave.

The fall had bruised Roj, but he arose from the dirt and ran to the fallen hermit. He tried to attend to the old man’s wound, but the seeker stopped him. “The King’s power,” he sputtered. “Find it for the MuKierin. Do not let the evil ones take it.”

“Rest, kinsman,” Roj said softly. He scanned the ground for any sign of what the old man might be talking about. A tall, strange woman approached from the hillside and knelt beside the hermit. Roj looked in wonder to see a silver helm upon her head and a breastplate of silver mesh over her white gown. He backed away as she knelt beside the hermit and set down a round shield and a silver-tipped spear. Gently, she put one hand against the old man’s wound and a second upon his throat. She looked up at Healdin and shook her head. “He sleeps with his fathers,” she said in MuKierin.

Slowly, Roj rose up and turned back toward Noli. His brother-in-law was lying on his back with one knee bent upward. Two more women warriors knelt over him. Roj shuffled over as pangs of grief began to well up inside him. One of the women looked up as he approached. “His arm is broken,” she said of Noli. “But he lives.”

“Did we save the old man?” Noli asked.

“No,” said Roj. “They killed him.”

“Blast them! We’ll avenge him, Roj. We must. Somehow we must make these dogs pay for what they did to us.”

A few paces away, two more women examined the dead warrior. He seemed a giant, with flesh on his face and hands and a mass of unkempt hair flowing from his scalp and beard. Dark brands, not tattoos but actual brands burned on with hot irons, disfigured his cheeks, forehead and arms. The brands on the cheeks depicted lightning bolts and skulls, and a broken star was burned into the center of his forehead. Upon his black armor hung the delicate bleached bones of the humans he had slain, both finger and toe bones. Roj looked on in disgust as the women dragged away the corpse.

Healdin approached, looking weak and shaken. “How I feared for you,” she said. “Indeed, I am amazed that you survived.”

Roj heard the fright in her voice, but his own heart was pumping too fast for her words to sink into his brain. He turned back toward the dead man and asked her, “Who are these savages?”

“They are evil ones, and they delight in the destruction of your kinsmen,” Healdin said. She pointed toward the corpse. “That one was called Yuikki, or ‘Sneaker.’ The one who chased after you is named Weakling or ‘Wuuf” in their tongue. His allies gave him that name to chide him, but do not be fooled, Roj. To your people he has ever been a deadly foe. And the one who killed the old man is Pibbibib, ‘Backstabber’ in your tongue. He is the leader of these three. It was Pibbibib that pursued you last night. It was he whose path I blocked. For generations, these three have killed horse hunters on this mountain. And now the seeker sleeps with your ancestors, too. We must bury him according to the custom of your people.”

“Lady, he spoke of a power, the King’s power. He told me to find it, not to let the evil ones take it. What did he mean?”

“We will not speak of such matters now. You remain in danger. Let us bury your kinsman and retreat to safer ground.”

Six white-gowned women took the old MuKierin’s body to a high place off the trail and dug a shallow grave. Roj went with them. He removed the dead man’s horsehair belt and black stone necklace. These he placed in a sack, which he took and tied to the back of his own saddle. Healdin stayed behind and attended Noli, whose left arm ached mightily and was starting to swell. The lady built a fire and brewed a special tea. Noli drank it and felt a little better. Afterward, the lady set the broken bone and splinted it with two pieces of white wood. When Roj returned, Noli was sitting atop Sandy, grimacing but anxious to leave this place of death. “We will not go far,” Healdin told Roj. “We will stop soon and let your kinsman rest. I must lie down and sleep, too.”

They set off with six women warriors in front and as many behind them. Roj felt nauseous. Healdin rode beside him in silence for a few minutes. At length, she said, “Your kinsmen and you were brave but foolish today. My people might have saved the old man if you had not been so rash.”

Her words stung. “The old man saved our lives,” said Roj. “We were obliged to do the same for him, but we failed him. Now his enemies must become our enemies. We must avenge his death. It is our way.”

“It is a bent way,” she replied. “But you will not have to go looking for these evil ones. They will come seeking their revenge on you.”

“What do you mean?”

“They lost one, too, not that they cared for him. But you stood against them and we killed Yuikki. Now Pibbibib and Weakling must report this disgrace to their masters. They will be branded on their arms and sent out to hunt you down.”

“What are you saying? It sounds like we’re as good as dead.”

“No. You are safe as long as you listen to me.”

“None of this makes any sense.”

“You must be patient. We will speak tonight by the fire. I have much to tell you.”

They rode until early afternoon. By that time two dozen women had joined the party. Most of them carried great bows and quivers of arrows—rare sights in the Dry Lands where good wood was so scarce. These women wore silver helms and fine mesh breastplates over white gowns. Some held glistening silver shields and wooden lances tipped with silver points. Many rode silver or gray mares. To Roj, these strange females made an unsettling sight. Nonetheless, he accepted their presence, at least for now, and simply hoped there were enough of them to deal with their enemies.

At last, they reached a sand-colored pass above a great canyon. From there, the women could command the high ground and keep watch on the trail below. A camp already had been set up with a dozen beige tents and a picket line that held at least thirty horses. In the center, a thin, wrinkled-face woman stood waiting with folded arms. Healdin dismounted and kissed the old woman. “I must rest,” she told Roj, before disappearing into a nearby tent. Meanwhile, two women warriors took Noli off his horse and helped him shuffle to a clean tarp placed on the ground. There he lay down and curled up in pain. Other women took Noli’s horse, the packhorse and their own animals to the picket line. No one spoke to Roj, but he dismounted and followed with his own stallion. He noticed that several women already were slinking among the surrounding boulders outside the camp, apparently looking for a place to ambush any intruders. They took with them tan shawls, which they used to camouflage themselves against the rocks.

After caring for the horses, Roj went to help make Noli as comfortable as possible. The trail had been a rough climb, with many a switchback and rock staircase to it, and his kinsman looked worn and pale. The old woman emerged from Healdin’s tent and, over a small fire, began to concoct a new brew, this one stronger than the first one that Healdin had made. Noli drank it and soon was sleeping deep and peaceful on the tarp atop the sandy ground. Roj put a blanket on him and turned to Noli’s nurse. “Thank you, woman. Thank you for helping my brother-in-law get some rest.”

“You are welcome, MuKierin. Call me Mirri.”

More women kept showing up and reporting to the old woman. To each, she gave duties. She sent some over to the next hilltop and another group to the rocks just beyond the camp. Meanwhile, she oversaw the cooks as they tended six pots and kettles boiling with soup and stew over a large campfire.

With nothing else to do, Roj walked to the edge of the camp to check on the horses. Healdin’s gray mare stood free, not tethered by bridle nor halter rope. Its immense eyes locked on the horse hunter as he approached. Roj slowed his advance and changed course, but the mare followed his every stride. He halted and found himself staring back in wonder. Together they fixed their minds on one another; neither moved for a full minute. Mirri noticed the encounter and walked up to Roj.

“This mare is from the stallion’s bloodline,” he said. “Somehow I can sense it.”

“Yes, they are brother and sister,” Mirri said. “The mares do not take on the spots of their sires, but still they belong to a most wondrous breed.”

“I can almost hear her in my head.”

“Indeed? Then you are a strange one.”

Roj frowned. “Too many people have given me that title, and I’m not sure I like it.”

“What does the mare say to you?”

“Well, I don’t hear any actual words. But I get a strange feeling that she is wondering whether I have enough courage for what lies ahead. It’s as if she’s asking whether I’m a man or a coward.”

“Well, that is no surprise. Every woman in this camp is wondering the same question. But I think the mare may be the first to know the answer.” The old woman gave a wry smile and walked away.

Later, the company came together for the evening meal. Roj judged the stew the tastiest of his life. The smell of the venison and herbs soon woke Noli. The cooks, however, first made the injured man drink a bowl of green soup, which they said was made especially to help heal his broken bone. But the men really went after the stew. They both had three portions. Then they took twist bread—dough wrapped on sticks and placed beside the coals—and wiped up the last bit of gravy off their plates. They washed the meal down with a swig of red wine and lay back on their blankets like the kings of the clan.

After dinner, three women took out stringed instruments and began tuning them. The sun was low now and everything its rays touched glowed golden, from the nearby rock outcrops to the farthest ridges. There, as the last light of day bathed the pass, the women began to make their music. They started soft and gentle—just a fiddle, harp and mandolin—instruments unknown to Roj. Soon, a woman added her voice, and then another as the chorus came round again. The words were strange but soothing. They conveyed a sense that all was right in the world, that night was settling once more over the mountains as it had done countless times before, and the day would come again.

After the song ended, Healdin appeared from her tent. She held a fiddle in her left hand. Other women drew near with rhythm makers, drums, guitars and other stringed instruments. Roj sat up on his blanket. Nearby, Noli drifted between waking and sleep. For a moment, the company stood silent. Presently, a horn sounded far off down the mountain. Closer still a second horn echoed the same five notes of a minor scale: Mi, Rae, Doe, La, Sol. A third horn blew the same flourish just outside the camp. Healdin put her bow to the strings and repeated the strain. Once more her bow sang the notes and then built a lively melody upon them. Other instruments joined in; the rhythm makers kept a syncopated beat. The chorus that followed sounded regal, with a choir of voices singing sweet and strong, and the sound of the lady’s fiddle soaring above it all. The song went on so for a few minutes. Then Healdin dropped her bow and one singer took over, and the music changed. The woman sang high and pure, but her voice conveyed sorrow and unfulfilled longings and a hurt over that which was lost. Next came a slow chorus filled with voices singing some bitter refrain. The singer called out plaintively and the stringed instruments echoed her melody. Roj ached to hear a song of such beauty and pain. He longed to know the singer’s words, and the cause of her grief. At length her voice began to fade, as if darkness itself was swallowing her up. Indeed, Roj’s ears strained to listen as the song gave way to silence.

Then Healdin again raised her bow. Its eerie wail shot across the mountaintop, echoing the singer’s sorrow and sending shivers through Roj. The singer joined in while the other instruments played soft and low. Roj’s rescuer began a new melody, one that allowed for the singer’s song, yet was not bound to it. On and on her fiddle played, higher and higher, and then in the chorus the choir proclaimed: “Fidden Gadaeyo, Ta Elladoena Fidden Gadaeyo!” A horn sounded a flourish and Healdin answered with her strings. Then the choir and the singer joined in. All hint of sorrow was gone now. Boldly they sang the words again: “Fidden Gadaeyo, Ta Elladoena Fidden Gadaeyo!”

Roj didn’t mark how much longer the music lasted. All he knew was the song was ending and he wished it would go on and on. He stared at Healdin standing there in the firelight as the music came to a close. Quiet once more descended upon the mountains. The company savored the moment. Roj observed the satisfaction upon each face and the warm glances that the musicians gave one another. He turned to see Noli sleeping peacefully beside him.

Healdin soon retreated to her tent. Roj watched anxiously for her to return to the fire. He feared she might retire for the night. The other musicians left. Three of them entered Healdin’s tent. Roj felt an urge to get up and go there, too. What would she think if he asked to speak with her? What would he say? He didn’t have a clue. Frustrated, he lay back down on his blanket.

Copyright © 2011 by Robert Digitale