A body. Old. Haggard. A man, once noble-featured, battered by years, battles, littered with the scars of life’s torments, seen and unseen. His cold eyes stared off toward the distant day star, vacant and lifeless. His mouth was frozen in an almost ironic smile, as if death had only had the penultimate laugh in the end.

  “Who is he?”

  Lanoch leered over the body, clutching his dark ruddy cloak to his aching, hungry sides. Barren wasteland stretched out in every direction, grey-blue cracked earth swallowing light and life. The young man’s foot, wrapped in cloth and bits of leather kicked the body.

  “Ow,” he muttered to himself, almost absent-mindedly. He paused, as if waiting for the corpse to agree.

  Lanoch’s companion was an old woman, wizened by more than her fair share of death and misery. She stooped over the figure. Lower and lower she bent down until her nose was almost touching that of the dead man.

  “By the Light’s eye,” she hissed. A solitary tear gathered in her eye and tumbled down upon the dead man’s nose. The woman’s lips creased into a faint grin. “So. We meet again.”

  “Well?” Lanoch cajoled. “Friend of yours?”

  Delba smiled quietly to herself.

  “Saved my life, he did. What there was of it. Tylen. His name is… was.” She laughed. “Is. Tylen.”

  “Your life? Him?” Lanoch chuckled. “Not much of a judge of character, then.”

  “Piss yourself,” shot Delba. “He was a great warrior. One of the gifts of Lelijah.”

  Lanoch walked over to a broken walking staff.

  “If you believe in that sort of thing.” He picked up one end of the aged branch and sniffed at the break. “Wonder what killed him.”

  Tylen was wearing a simple white cloak atop a grey tunic. All of the signs of the great warrior had long left him, save the sinewy remains of forgotten strength. His clothes were simple yet affluent, humility dressed in wealth. No wound appeared on his body. The only sign of harm was a faint trickle of dark blood from the corner of his curled lips.

  Delba’s eyes narrowed as she studied him.

  “Once by steel, once by the tongue, and once to be taken home forevermore.”

  She reached into the neck of his tunic and pulled out the seven-pointed day star necklace he wore, sign of a priest of Lelijah.

  “Not a thief.” She bit down on the golden talisman. “Not a clever one, to be sure. Looks like he’s been here a week at least.” She looked around at the horizon in each direction. “Why ain’t you gone yet?” she asked the lifeless face. “Not the kind of place to run into someone unexpected-like. Come on.” Delba went around and lifted his feet. “You get his arms.”

  “Eh?”

  “Can’t leave him here. Lelijah’s priests need to be exposed on the highest point. I ain’t making no enemy of the Light, Lanoch. Now you help me.”

  Lanoch pointed at the nearest hill.

  “There? First, let me say, you are a superstitious old cow. Second, no. Third, you’re not going to make it that far carrying this corpse. Fourth, no. Fifth, if you die, then I’m lumped with two bodies to sort out.”

 

***

 

  Lanoch slumped to the ground.

  “Happy?” Tylen was laid out atop the hill, with the icy grey clouds of autumn stirring overhead. His arms were resting out wide, palms up to the sky. Delba sat near his feet, her arms also outstretched.

  “Manu hrathna lo ki. Manu hrathna sh’ta to.”

  The wind suddenly whipped into life, clearing the clouds in a great blue circle. The light from the ancient day star shone down on the great plain.

  Lanoch hunched over instinctively.

  “Bah,” he muttered, too tired to offer a considered rebuttal to the light falling on Tylen, and the sudden shift in the weather. He looked over at Delba, who was quite oblivious, still swaying gently in her trance-like state. “I honestly don’t know why I put up with your nonsense.”

  “Manu hrathna bu’hrana. Manu lo toku sh’ta.”

  Lanoch reached into his satchel, and pulled out a small clay bottle. Pulling out the wooden stopper with his teeth, he took a quick drink, wincing against the burn inside his mouth.

  “All the magic I need,” he mused. “I thought when people died, you couldn’t move them. You know, their bodies are supposed to go all stiff.”

  Delba bowed her head and made a clutching motion, then opened her hand, leaving her open palm facing the sky for a moment. Suddenly, she leaned forward and blew. As if it were dust, a tiny flicker of light danced off her hand and scattered in the air.

  “He ain’t dead. Not finally dead, least ways. That ain’t by the prophecy.” Delba smiled mischievously. “If you believe in that sort of thing.”

  “Which I do not,” snorted Lanoch. “All tricks and old stories meant to frighten children.”

  “Just because you ain’t believing it, don’t make it any less real.” Delba stood and put her thumb and little finger on Lanoch’s forehead. “Kalia be gone.”

  Lanoch stared back unimpressed. “I’d prefer hunger be gone. Can we find a way out of this wasteland now?”

 

***

 

  The unlikely companions had found each other two weeks prior wandering the Munirian Steppe since the last new moon. Lanoch had wanted to prove his bravery to his family, not out of superstition, to be sure, but from a need to prove himself. His life had been one of idle comfort, and a venture into the Steppe seemed to be the sort of discomfort which might prove that he was more of a man than his slithering, wisp of a brother, Drayligg. By the Code of Harnartha, all of the family’s considerable wealth would pass to the elder Monn at their father’s passing, and that was simply intolerable. That would mean a lifetime of work for Lanoch, and work was for Essels and slaves. Lanoch had far too much refinement to be classed an Essel, and he was certainly not going to sell himself into slavery, even if just for a season.

  “I’d never seen a dead body,” Lanoch confessed under his breath. His eyes darted expectantly toward Delba. “You?”

  Delba smiled coldly. Had it been dozens? Certainly dozens. And probably hundreds. The good and gracious, the cowards turned heroes, and vice versa, the countless giants of Delween, the innocents - far too many of them, their faces lost to the hardening of her years - and all the death wrought by the War of Skarak’gul. How had she not died herself? How had anyone survived those years? She was blessed, that was clear. Blessed by the hands of Lelijah, who had spared her the sorrows of Urlag, and the company of Dielim in the Shadowhall. It all seemed a blur, with frozen memories, like etched glass, a face here, a name there, of loves and wishes that had all faded into the abyss of brokenness that Muniria had become.

  “A few.”

  “I thought so.” Lanoch had by now dreamed up a Delba with a history, a story which in his mind was larger than could have possibly been the truth of this small, strong woman, but which paled like a candle against the full flame of her indomitable life.

 

  After what had seemed an interminable distance from the body of Tylen, and after following a track in a steady incline, they came upon a trickle of water. It ran ahead of them, uphill, widening slowly into a small steady stream, then into a brook.

  “Finally,” Lanoch gasped. “I am parched.”

  He stepped forward, reaching for his clay flask, eager to fill it, but Delba grabbed him by the wrist.

  “You can’t drink that,” she warned.

  A strange sound echoed across the steppe. Lanoch took several seconds to work out that it was singing.

 

“Miran harku nul

Ser bangu ku nul

Pira nostu gracha

Hara nest gracha”

 

  “Wh…?” Lanoch’s words were cut off by a sharp gesture from Delba. She nodded toward a curve in the stream ahead, where a small figure stood, hunched by the waters.

  Lanoch’s eyes strained. “Boy. I think.”

  They wandered up slowly, cautiously. The boy remained oblivious, singing to himself, and using his finger to stir the up-flowing waters. As he removed his finger, the water clung to it like fine shimmering honey.

  Delba smiled, and hunched over, in a friendly sort of way. “Hello there, my little friend.”

  The boy watched the glowing water ooze from his finger and back into the stream.

  “Once by water,” he said quietly to himself.

  “Once by the tongue,” continued Delba.

  “And once to be taken home forevermore,” the boy beamed. “Will you be there as well?” he squinted innocently.

  Delba looked a bit embarrassed, and Lanoch couldn’t help feel that she hadn’t been embarrassed for decades at least. “I expect only Huaki knows that. And he ain’t talking, eh?”

  “You know him?” Lanoch asked, leaning in.

  Delba turned from the boy, opening out to her companion. “This here is Lanoch. He’s a bit dim, but he has the heart of a lion, only he don’t know it yet. Lanoch, this here young man is named Tylen.”

  Lanoch gestured behind himself.

  “Same as…” Then he turned back, and looked deep into the boy’s eyes.

  The boy giggled and gave a wink. “If you believe in that sort of thing.”

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