This morning, even more people came to watch Pepper exercising than yesterday. Sheth and his parents hadn’t come, but Dyana did. She stood and watched him with her hands on her hips. The cloth around her breasts reminded him of a bandage, and with her short hair she looked kind of like a boy from the front, if you didn’t look closely. She hadn’t smiled and waved or anything when she got there, but he was busy so maybe that was why.
The sun was warmer than it had been all winter, so warm he took his shirt off even though there was still melting, slushy snow everywhere. The exercise made him sweat, so spring must finally be coming.
Jump, thrust, kick. Punch, squats, block. Over and over, a little different each time. He was glad it was so easy to remember, because everyone watching made him nervous and he didn’t want to mess up. Despite the weeks he’d spent with them, he still felt like a stranger. And he was one.
Halfway through, Dyana walked over and joined him with a subtle half-smile. She stood just a bit ahead of him and started leading through the motions.
Pepper had no idea she even knew the exercises, but she did, and she did everything right as far as he could tell. When he got behind a little because she was distracting him, she slowed down a bit until he caught up, then led him through the stompy part without slipping on the gravelly dirt even a little bit.
When they got to one of the jumps, she jumped higher than she was tall, higher than he thought a person could even jump. He made a sound halfway between a laugh and a cough at his amazement, and she turned back and gave him a sly look and said, “Not high enough? I wasn’t really trying.”
He had to look closely, but it seemed like she was just joking around with him, not like she could really jump higher than that. She had a certain sparkle in her eye, and her subtle half-smile looked sincere. He tried to think of something funny to say, but nothing came to mind so he said, “That wasn’t high at all!”
She gave him a look like ‘oh yeah? I’ll show you!’ and jumped even higher. This time she did a backward roll in mid-air and landed on her feet again. “Your turn,” she said, gesturing with an open hand.
“I don’t know how!”
“You don’t know how to jump? You just push off the ground and lift up both feet at the same time.”
“No, I can’t jump that high. I’m just a kit!”
“We’d better just keep going, then,” she said. She resumed the exercises, and he quickly got in line behind her.
He thought about how she hadn’t come to find him the last couple days, even though she visited Sheth several times and the parents let her in. She slept away from the camp and spent most of her time away, and he hadn’t wanted to wander out far enough to find her. That made the last several days even more lonely than normal, because he knew she was around but not talking to him. None of the Night People talked to him, either. So what should he think now? Was he not so alone anymore? It made him happy and uncomfortable at the same time.
As he followed her through the rest of the exercises, Pepper had a burst of energy in him that hadn’t been there before. He’d worried about Dyana that whole time, and whether she’d leave, or keep ignoring him or something else. But she didn’t leave, and she was being nice to him this morning. It felt good to have a friend again. Maybe too good, like eating too much food after being hungry for a long time.
After they were done, Pepper was left out of breath and tired; Dyana liked to go faster than he was used to, and use bigger, harder movements. But on an impulse, he jumped forward and gave her a hug around the waist. She hugged him back and gently tussled his hair, then softly flicked one of his ears after letting go. It stung a bit, but he didn’t mind. He felt warm all over, and it wasn’t just the sunlight.
“Thanks for doing the exercises with me,” he said, since he didn’t know what else to say.
“I think tomorrow, I’ll make you do it all correctly. I don’t think your feet were correct one single time.”
Even though her voice was friendly, what she said made him feel ashamed, especially in front of all these people. Her words hit him right in the heart and left a bruise. Before any water came to his eyes, he looked at the ground and looped his tail around his ankles, then turned to leave.
“Wait, hold on, Pepper. I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings. Oh, spirits, I really offended you, didn’t I? No, come on, turn around. I didn’t say that right. Listen. You did all the right motions, just like your Papa taught you. But you still have plenty to learn, because there’s a difference between a punch, and a punch.” For emphasis, she punched the air and Pepper felt a puff of air blow on the fur of his ears. The wind on his eyes didn’t help keep them from watering.
“How many men do you know who can kick a tree over? Aren’t women weaker than men? So how come I can do it and they can’t?”
Pepper glanced around at the crowd, who were now watching with even more interest than before. Especially Farat, the war leader. He always watched, usually while he sharpened something. Now, though, the big demon’s hands were still as he paid attention.
“I don’t know,” he said.
“You’re too old to learn everything, but there’s still a lot I can teach you.”
“Maybe later,” said Pepper. He looked at her for just a moment to see a look of dismay, or maybe anger, or annoyance, or something else; he wasn’t sure. He wasn’t good at that, not like Flower. But she looked unhappy as he turned to leave.
He picked up his shirt and slid it on as he walked, a bit more quickly than normal, to go find some breakfast. Not all the demons ate in the morning, and sometimes Natuak had bread or dried meat, and sometimes not. But the normal meal wasn’t until after noon, and Pepper knew he’d be hungry by then if he didn’t find something.
If he were still a slave, or he were living somewhere no one knew about him, he could just steal something and no one would ever know. But they all knew how sneaky he was, and anytime something went missing for any reason at all, Natuak came to ask him about it. So far, he hadn’t taken anything that wasn’t given to him, but Teshwan and some of his friends had caught a bunch of fish and hung them to dry, and if Pepper was going to steal something, it would be that. He could smell it from every part of the camp. But they’d know—they probably counted them.
He wished it was colder, because now that all the snow was melting, all the paths were so muddy no one could walk on them, which just meant they made other paths, and those all got muddy too. It hadn’t been cold enough to freeze last night, and now as he trudged between the tents, every step made a squishy sound no matter where he tried to walk. It was stupid. Why couldn’t he be captured by people who made roads out of stone like the Laophileans? Those probably didn’t get all muddy all the time. And the rain probably washed the roads clean, not made it worse.
Natuak must have heard him coming, because before Pepper opened the tent flap the old demon said, “Leave your shoes outside, little Black-tail.”
Pepper tried not to sigh too loudly and he bent down and unlaced his leather shoes. When he pulled his feet out of them, they stayed in the mud, the tops of them just barely visible. He didn’t have anywhere to step, so he more or less just fell over and flopped through the tent flap so he wouldn’t get muddy.
Natuak was grinning widely, but in a friendly way and not sarcastic. “I hate this time of year,” he said. I like the white snow of winter and the green of spring, but the brown and wet of in-between, I do not enjoy.”
The old demon just had his loincloth on, so he hadn’t gone outside yet today and didn’t look like he was planning on it. He sat crosslegged near the brazier, above which he had a plate cooking a thick piece of flatbread. A small pot with a stopper rested by his wrinkly knee, one that Pepper hadn’t noticed before.
Pepper plopped down across from him and inhaled the aroma of the bread. It was barley and oats again, not wheat like Papa fed him, but it was always good, and the demons put salt in it. Where they got so much salt in the winter, he had no idea, but they did, and it made it delicious.
“Do you know what I miss the most of our days upon horses, riding across the plains? A steady supply of butter. I wish I had some now to go on this bread. And to go on the apple I also wish I had,” said the old demon. The man was being friendly and kind again, not stern or distant like he sometimes was. Pepper never knew, but when he was being nice, it always seemed suspicious now.
“I’m just happy to have bread,” said Pepper.
“You always say the saddest things, you know that?” said Natuak with a sigh.
Pepper frowned; that wasn’t what he meant. He’d just meant that he was happy to have bread, not that he wasn’t given enough food. But it came out wrong.
After a moment of awkwardness for both of them, Natuak smiled again, a bit less sincerely this time, and took up the little pot by his knee. He pulled out the stopper and tilted it over the bread and poured out enough honey to just about cover the whole thing. “Take it all, if you want it. I already had one.”
“Are you sure?” asked Pepper. Where did they get honey from? They must have been saving it for a long time, and it was next to the brazier to warm up so it would pour. How long had it been since he’d eaten anything sweet?
Before the old demon could even answer, Pepper picked it up with both hands even though it was almost too hot to hold. Some of the honey dripped off the side and ran down his hand halfway to his elbow, and for once he was glad all his fur hadn’t grown in yet. He hurriedly licked up all the excess before it could drop on the ground.
“I didn’t think kittens would like honey so much,” said Natuak. He looked sincerely amused again. Somehow, he could smile with just the wrinkles around his eyes. He took another wad of dough and flattened it with his hands and set it on the plate to cook.
“I’m not a cat,” said Pepper, and immediately regretted it. The old demon was being nice, so he shouldn’t be ornery in return.
“Yes, you’re a Skythander. But your people are very cat-like, don’t you think?”
“I’m Pepper of Wolves, not of Tigers or Panthers. Or I was before Papa adopted me. So, not a cat. A wolf.”
“I suppose you do look a bit like a wolf, if you insist.”
Pepper didn’t insist; he hadn’t thought about it for a long time. Papa hadn’t ever cared about the difference, so he and Flower never talked about it. It didn’t matter now that they were basically Laophileans. Papa probably didn’t even remember them telling him. Had they ever mentioned it to Mama? Probably not.
He stuffed his mouth with bread and honey. His first bite was so big he could hardly chew it. All the honey was at the top of his mouth where he couldn’t taste it, and then it got a little dry. The next bite he was more careful, and the next one. It seemed like he could feel the warmth of the bread as it travelled all the way down into his stomach.
“Thank you for the honey,” he said, his mouth still half-full, when he realized he was forgetting his manners.
“You are welcome, little one. Eat it all.” The old demon pushed his hands against his knees to stretch his back, then relaxed to watch Pepper eat.
Pepper tried not to look as uncomfortable as he felt, with the old demon just sitting there watching him like that. He ate slowly, and soon his discomfort disappeared in the rich sweetness of the honey and the warm flatbread.
When it was all gone, he could tell Natuak wanted to say something, because he hadn’t moved and it was obvious now, so he said, “You want me to do something again, don’t you?”
The old demon smiled big enough to show his teeth, all of which he still had despite his age, but only for a moment. “You are getting wiser! Yes, that honey is a bribe.”
“Why don’t you just ask me? Why do you think giving me honey will work? I’m not a little kit anymore,” said Pepper. A bitter sort of anger swirled around inside him, but gently, like a mist.
“Can I not give you honey if I want to? It is my honey. Perhaps I just wanted to watch you enjoy something, my sad little Black-tail.”
“I’m not sad,” replied Pepper, trying not to sound as spiteful as he felt. “I’m bored.”
The old demon sighed and gave him a look of real pity. His black-and-white speckled eyebrows scrunched together, making even more wrinkles than usual around his horns. His mouth twisted into somewhere between a smirk and a frown, and Pepper felt his own heart shake to see something so genuine.
Natuak lifted the lid off the brazier with a stick and stirred the coals. He said, “I did not wish for you to be so lonely. I want you to play with the other children. To hunt and gather wood, to pretend fantastical things. Be as a child should be, even if you are close to leaving childhood behind. But I cannot give you the friends you need. Do you know why? Why do you think that is?”
“Because you…” started Pepper, but then he had to stop and think. The Elder was in charge, so he could just make the parents let him see the children. And there were children around—he’d snuck peeks into enough tents and done enough listening to know that. But they never came outside, and if he asked, no one let him in.
Once, and only once, he’d snuck into a tent after both parents were gone to introduce himself. The two girls, one younger and one just a bit older than him, stared with their silver eyes wide open and said nothing. They backed away from him and refused to answer until he left. After he got outside, he heard them whispering furiously but he couldn’t quite make out what they were saying.
But why? Why, really? He had thought it was just to show he wasn’t part of them, and he shouldn’t start getting wrong ideas. Or perhaps that they just didn’t like him. That’s what it felt like. Finally, he answered, “I don’t know.”
“I will tell you. It is because my Night People are faltering and cannot see past their jealousy for what little remains. Look at the furs of this tent. Do they look old?”
Pepper turned to look at the wall of the tent where the old demon was pointing. He hadn’t paid much attention to it before, but now that he looked at it, the wall was starting to come apart where the threads were ripping the furs around the edges. The demons kept the fur side in and greased the outside to keep the water out, but they always smelled musty and animalish inside. He’d noticed before but hadn’t thought about it.
“Making houses of brick, clay, and plaster, takes too long. We move around far too often for that. And where shall we grow flax to make linen? Or graze sheep for wool? No, we only get cloth if we trade for it, and many will not trade with us. But do you see that rabbit pelt there? The gray, next to the bear? I have had that rabbit pelt since I was Teshwan’s age. Now, imagine someone came along and cut it out and stole it. What would that do to my tent?”
Pepper gazed thoughtfully at the small, uneven gray patch in between larger furs and imagined a hole there. If he wanted to fix it, he’d have to find another one that size, or pull lots of the tent apart and sew it back together different. But it wouldn’t really go—all the furs were already stretched and puzzled in together as tight as they could be. He’d have to patch it with something else.
Looking around the room, there were plenty of furs and blankets on the floor to use. Natuak liked to keep the whole floor covered. It helped keep the cold of the ground out when they slept, but not very well. It was better than nothing, or a rat-eaten blanket with holes on bare dirt like Master had given him.
“Well, you’d have to patch it with a different piece. But you have those ones on the floor to use, so you could,” Pepper answered.
The old demon nodded without smiling and said, “Yes, I do. But if I take a fur from the floor, then will I not have a bare patch on the floor? And suppose the person comes back and steals the new piece? What then?”
“You could always just keep patching it, and maybe you could catch whoever was taking it,” said Pepper. He thought he knew where this was going—everyone had to do their part, and people had to stay where they were put because everyone was only good at one thing.
“Only for so long, little Black-tail. Only for so long. Hunting a rabbit and skinning in and preserving the floor takes time, and all that time I might have a hole in my tent. It takes far longer to replace than it takes to steal. I can steal in an instant, but can I replace in an instant? Soon I have two holes, and three, and soon I have no tent at all.”
“But…” started Pepper, but then he shut his mouth because he wasn’t sure what to say anymore.
“I remember that rabbit fur from when I was a youth, riding the last of our horses and dreaming of glories to come. There is no other like it in all the world, and if I put a different fur in its place, it would never be the same. And I am old now—shall I go hunt a new rabbit myself? If someone stole that fur, I would be heartbroken, but I could replace it and repair my tent. But if they stole from me ten times, or twenty? I could never keep up.”
The old demon stopped talking and looked at Pepper like he was expecting a response, but Pepper had no idea what to say. He could think of all kinds of things you could do—go somewhere else so they stop stealing, or catch the person and make them stop. And there were lots of Night People living here, so some probably hunted all the time and there should be lots of furs. He had the feeling he was missing the point, so he just kept his mouth shut.
“Suppose someone stole furs from my tent twenty times. Each time I had to go out and hunt and skin and cure and sew, and each time they came back and stole from me again. After twenty times, how do you think I would feel about a stranger who came by and happened to look at my tent?
“So it is with our people. Do you see? We have become so few that any who are lost might never be replaced. We might already be too few to survive, even with rich and peaceful lands. The Allobrogians have stolen too many of our children, and each one is a missing patch in the tent. The cold wind blows through us, and we hide and shiver in fear.
“Dyana found Sheth, but she tells me she could not find her way back there again quickly. She knows little of wayfinding. Your Papa helped our Etiya rescue her little Yetu, but she has not found us again, and I think she is dead.
“I can see your mind working, Black-tail. I can see all those thoughts in your head. You are imagining new ways to hunt, or protect, or some such thing. You might think ‘why do you not just run away’ but are children not more precious than furs? And where shall we find replacements?”
At this, the old demon shut his mouth and gazed at Pepper like he’d just taught him a lesson. But that was dumb. Natuak was right about Pepper having lots of ideas. If you couldn’t stop people stealing, then why not go live somewhere else? There was land out there somewhere. Just keep looking until you found it, or you found a tribe weaker than you and could take theirs. If you kept losing children like that…
You’d want to get them back. You’d have to. The realization was almost physical in how it slammed into his mind. People weren’t like animal furs. You can’t just swap them out. No wonder they didn’t leave! If there was any chance… If there was any chance, then they’d stay. Papa was still coming for him, after all. Papa would never allow holes in his tent.
And you had to get the people back, because you couldn’t just swap them out. There’d always be a hole if someone was missing.
Pepper knew that better than anyone—he had holes all over him. His first little village, his first Mama and Papa who got killed, then all his new family. He couldn’t just give them up if there was a chance he could get them back. No one could give up like that.
How long would it take him to build a new family? Could he even do it? And it would never be the same, even with all new people. He’d always know about the ones he lost.
Pepper’s mouth went dry. No wonder the Night People were like this, keeping him away and not letting their children play. Always watching him, watching each other. Always whispering to each other, watching everything. They’d lost too much, too many times. Of course they were afraid of him. How could they trust anyone? They didn’t have an Androkles protecting them.
He felt like he could understand them now, especially Natuak, the father of a whole tribe of people. It might be the first time he ever really understood someone else, other than maybe Flower. But he looked up at Natuak’s old, yellow, watery eyes and he did understand. They were like him.
He could just picture what had happened to them. A raid, just like the one that took him from Master. Early morning chaos when half the Night People were still in bed. Armed men charging in from their hiding places and rushing back out with any child they could get a hand on. The Night People trying to come together in a force big enough to stop them, trying to chase them. Finding one, getting him back. Losing track of another. And another. Because they’d all flee in different directions, or maybe there would just be enough of them that chasing would be suicide.
But the feeling of loss, once they learned who was taken; that, he could imagine best of all. The mourning after all the terror and shock—that would stay, and stay, and stay.
“You are a child whose head is full of thoughts. Has anyone ever told you this?”
Pepper glanced upward and then away, worried he’d look sarcastic. But that was a silly thing to say—everyone’s head was full of thoughts. Unless Natuak meant that his head was full of serious thoughts, like a wise man, because that was probably true.
Natuak flipped the second piece of flatbread, which looked like it was done cooking. He poured a generous helping of honey on it and handed it to Pepper. “I am sure a boy like you can handle two.”
Pepper wasn’t hungry anymore but he wasn’t about to turn down something so delicious and rare. He took a huge bite, so big he wouldn’t be able to talk. The hint of salt in the bread made all the flavors come out more, and the honey tasted sweeter than ever. While he ate, he kept finding his eyes resting on that little gray patch of rabbit fur. He wasn’t even thinking about it, really; just looking at it. Until he noticed what he was doing. Then he started thinking about it.
When he was finally finished, his mind felt clearer and his stomach felt like it was going to burst open. Natuak said, “Now, little Black-tail, are you ready to find out what the bribe is for?”
“Yeah,” said Pepper, licking the last of the honey off his palm, slightly nervous. Natuak didn’t look like he was about to ask something dangerous or weird, but…
Natuak nodded and said, “I have a problem. A great riddle, and I would like you to help me solve it. Wake up all your cleverness. Are you ready?”
“Good. It is a problem with three parts, and the first is this: The Allobrogian leather-faces have some of our children, and we want to get them back, but we do not know where they are kept.” The old demon’s demeanor grew more serious and he spoke more quietly. “If we do not get them back, it is likely that the Night People will be no more. Our tribe will die. That is the first part.”
“Okay,” said Pepper, unsure how to respond. There were still five hundred Night People or so, so how many did you need? Well, all of them you could get, but--
“The second part is that they are turning them into berserkers. It is not a quick process, and many of them will recover if we get them soon, but every day will damage them more and more until they are broken and cannot be saved. We do not have time to sneak around the King’s lands looking for them. We must find them soon.”
Pepper asked, “How does that happen? How do you make them berserkers?” He thought he knew the answer already, because being stuffed in a dark hole in the ground for a long time would break anybody, but maybe Natuak would say something else.
Something dark passed over the old demon’s face and he hesitated. He even lowered his horns to scowl, but not quite far enough to point them at Pepper. He replied. “The part you saw, the confinement, is only the first step. I am the only one of our tribe who still knows the whole process. Myself and King Lugubelenus may be the only living souls with that knowledge, but he may have shared it with the Prince and a few of his advisors. It is a closely guarded secret because a berserker is so powerful. I wish for that knowledge to die with me, and I will not share it.”
“Oh,” said Pepper, feeling uncomfortable. He started to imagine all the other things they would have to do to a child to break their mind and make them so strong, but he forced it away. He kept his eyes wide open and focused on listening.
“The third part is that your father Androkles knows where our children are. Fortunately, he is coming. Unfortunately, he will be angry and you seem to think he will try to kill us. Is that right?”
“Oh, well, he might not try. I could go meet him first, and then we could just leave, and then he probably wouldn’t. I don't think he wants to come fight all of you if he doesn’t have to.”
“I admit that at first, I did not believe half of what you told me about him. Who could believe such stories as those? But Dyana is a commanding woman and hard to deny, and she tells us your stories were true. She claimed that if he wished, he could kill us all. Once, I was merely amused and humoring you, but now I think I must be careful.”
A warm flash of indignation filled Pepper and he said, “I didn’t lie.”
“Who has spoken of lies? You are a child and I judge you as one judges a child. But to the matter at hand. Here is the whole problem, so listen well. Our children are captive. We must find them soon. Your father is coming and he knows where they are. So how shall we get him to show us? That is the problem. Do you think he will guide us, if we ask?” said Natuak, although from the sound of his voice, he probably already guessed the answer.
Pepper leaned back and thought about it. It hadn’t occurred to him that there might be anything else to do after Papa showed up. Just leave. But the Night People really did need their children back, so it was a good question.
Papa didn’t like the Night People at all, so why would he want there to be more of them? But he liked Sheth, so maybe Sheth could ask. But would Papa really go back into the King’s lands to save people he wished were all dead? No. And the Night People didn’t have any gold, or at least not enough to bribe him. Slaves were worth a lot of money, so maybe… No, that wouldn’t work. Papa would never accept a demon slave, because they slept in your same house and he wouldn’t trust them. And they probably needed all the adults to raise the children anyway.
Maybe Pepper could say how they took care of him, and explain that they weren’t bad people, just scared, and they weren’t like from Papa’s stories. But Papa might just want to fight them anyway, no matter what Pepper said. The bad ones from Papa’s stories were so bad that it wouldn’t matter that some of them were nice. He’d say something like “You don’t spare a pack of wolves just because you like one of the pups.”
No, the only things Papa cared about were the things that were his—his family, his people, his City, his fathers, his honor, his oath…
Although Papa did say he always tried to talk first, and that was mostly true. Papa would talk first if he could. It just never worked out. Not that Pepper had seen, anyway. He always ended up having to fight. Papa might be the only person in the world worse at talking than he was.
"What we ask of him is dangerous. He will have to take a small group of us back into the King’s lands. It might take weeks, and he will be hunted. He would risk being killed, so—
Pepper interrupted, “They couldn’t kill him. That won’t happen. But he wouldn’t want to take his whole family with, so he’d have to leave us somewhere, and I don’t think he’ll do that either.”
“It is a risk either way. So what can we offer your papa that he would accept? We have no gold or silver, or much wealth of any kind," said Natuak. "We could capture some leather-faces for him as slaves, but he might not want to feed them. If he wanted some, he would simply take them himself. In all this camp, there is only one thing we have that he might accept in trade. Can you guess what it is?"
"Furs?" said Pepper.
"Oh," said Pepper. "Me."
"Correct. You are the only thing here he would value. What do you think he would do if we held you ransom?"
Pepper felt something dark and frightening twist inside him. His mouth was dry when he answered. "When Papa gets really mad, stuff around him lights on fire, and people fall over and sometimes die just from that, and if you're far enough away then you won't but it still makes you feel too scared to do anything, so all of you would probably fall over or run away, except for me."
"Because you'd be chained up?"
"No, because I can stand it. Me, and Flower, and Mama. Flower and I had to fall down because it was... too much, but we didn't die, and we were fine right after. And if I had to, I could stand up next time. I'm stronger now than back then. And so could Flower. Garbi couldn't, but--"
"Androkles' anger will kill a fighting man outright, but not a couple little boys?" asked Natuak with one eyebrow up slightly and a hint of a smile.
Pepper was pretty sure that the old demon said that as a joke like it wasn't true, even though with Natuak it was hard to tell. But it made him feel indignant anyway, and he said, "Yes, because we're the sons of Androkles. And you're not."
There was a long pause, and this time Pepper met Natuak's gaze and refused to look away, or even to blink very much. The old demon's watery, dull-gray eyes stared back at him, long enough for Pepper to start getting nervous that he would look away first.
Natuak's gaze softened, but he didn't look away, or drop Pepper's gaze for an instant. He said, "Child, it is true you are very sneaky. But your father is just a man, and your brother is just a boy. You are no different from other people. Do not--"
"Say that after you hear Flower sing," said Pepper.
The old demon, mercifully, turned his gaze aside first, because Pepper's eyes were starting to get watery from staring too long and he was worried they'd drip and then Natuak would think he was crying.
Natuak looked into the brazier with a sigh, then poked the embers inside with a stick to make them hotter. "You father certainly did not teach you to be humble."
"Thanks," said Pepper, trying not to smile.
The old demon snorted and grinned, baring his sharp, yellow teeth. Natuak must have really liked the joke because he even looked a bit more energized--he sat up straighter, and his arms moved with more life than before.
Pepper kept thinking the old demon was about to say something, but he didn't. “I’ll try and think of a way that Papa might help you.” He smoothed out the fur on his tail and rose to his feet, then picked a crumb off his shirt and ate it.
"Do you want us to be saved, then?" asked Natuak. He wasn't looking at Pepper, he was just looking into the brazier.
Pepper paused awkwardly to think about it for a moment. He'd just said that because it seemed like the thing to say, and he really was going to try and think of something, but, well, if he said yes, was he committing to something? Was he making an oath? He’d help if he could because they were like him, but--
"Go and find Farat and tell him that I want you to have a knife. Then go find Pel and tell her that I would like to see her. Tell Dyana as well. Will you do that?"
"Who is Pel?"
“Ask Farat where to find her. You know who Farat is, yes?"
“Yeah. Why do you want me to have a knife?"
"In case you need to stab an Allobrogian. You are sneaky, are you not? Go and come back when you have found Pel and Dyana and gotten a knife."
Pepper didn’t know what to say to that, so he just nodded and slipped out the tent flap, careful not to open it very far and let the cold air in. He stepped into the bright mid-morning, almost as bright as when there was still snow everywhere. He had to shade his eyes with his hand to see where the ground was dry and where it was muddy until he was halfway to the practice field.
His mind raced with all kinds of thoughts, just like Natuak said. Why was he getting a knife? Of course he should have one; Papa had even given him and Flower knives once. Pepper had accidentally cut Garbi a little, so Papa put them in the bottom of the cart and that was the last anyone saw of them. He knew better now, so it was fine if he got one.
But most of the demons looked at him like they thought he was about to steal something, even if he was just sitting somewhere playing. Farat, the big war leader, had nothing but glares for him. But if he had a knife, he could do all sorts of things, like carve wood. And he could try hunting. He could sneak up on a rabbit or a bird if he found one, and now that he had a knife, he could get the skin and meat himself.
And he had another thing to think about. He wanted the Night People to be okay, and to get their children back and be safe. But how much did he want that? What was he willing to risk for them? They weren't Papa's Laophileans, and they weren't Skythanders. He’d pick his family over them, if he had to choose. But who would help them if Papa and him didn’t? It was too hard to decide, no matter how he looked at it.
When he got to the practice field, nobody was there anymore, not even Dyana who probably didn't have anywhere else to go.
He sighed and looked around, wondering where he should look next. The sunlight was warmer than yesterday, especially on his black hair. Even his tail felt like the sun was warming it up. He stood there for a moment and tried to soak in all the sunlight he could, raising his hands and straightening his tail and stretching. It made his stomach sting a little because he was too full.
Pepper felt nervous about asking Farat for anything at all, especially a knife, so he was a little relieved the man was gone. They’d hardly said a word to each other all this time, even though the tall demon always seemed like he was trying to keep an eye on him. And he talked with Teshwan a lot, the young demon that Pepper had bitten when they captured him. Teshwan still wanted to kill him, probably. At least he wasn't walking around with a big bandage anymore. Pepper hadn't dared get close enough to see if he had a scar.
He sucked his presence in and stepped into the trees that surrounded the camp, determined to circle around the outside until he found someone whose name he knew and might talk to him. If nothing else, he could try Sheth’s parents again, even though it had been several days and they still wouldn’t let him come in. He stepped silently from shadow to shadow, inhaling his presence deeper and deeper so no one could see him. It felt like he was getting better and better with so much practice lately, but how could he test it? No one but Natuak had ever spotted him.
And besides, anyone could hide behind these pine trees. The branches went all the way to the ground, and all someone had to do was stay behind them, or slip inside by the trunk, and no one would ever see. Just the footprints.
So he practiced not leaving footprints by stepping on rocks or plants instead when he could. The melting snow left a lot of mud, but it also exposed other things for him to step on. And sometimes he had to jump across...
A short while later, he gave the camp another good look, but no one was out. Did they go hunting again?
A little head peeked out from a tent over by the stream, one that Pepper wasn't sure he'd ever seen anyone in. The demon child looked like he might be close to Pepper’s age, but it was hard to tell from over here. It was probably a boy since he had short hair; lots of the women had short hair, too, but not most of them. Most of them put it in braids like Mama.
The child was looking all around at everything with what might have been curiosity or urgency--he was too far away to tell. If the child was peeking out the tent like that, maybe the parents were gone? Maybe he could tell Pepper what tent Pel lived in? Or maybe he wanted something, like he had to make water and there was no one to guard him.
Stepping out from the trees, Pepper's heart pounded in his chest as he suddenly got scared to go see what the boy was doing. What if he ignored him like the other children, that one time? Or what if the parents were in there and they got mad?
The boy's eyes locked onto him and Pepper realized he'd forgotten to hide. He was just standing right out in the open, sunlight and everything. His heart almost stopped still when the boy waved for him to come over. Pepper didn’t move, and the child waved again, urgently and looking around everywhere to make sure no one else saw.
Pepper glanced behind himself just to make sure, but that was silly because he already knew there was nobody back there, and the boy was looking right at him.
He nodded and the boy ducked back into the tent. Concealing his presence again, Pepper made himself hide as hard as he could and crept low over the open ground, more concerned now about stepping on something noisy than leaving footprints. There were footprints everywhere here, most of them in deep mud, but if someone heard or spotted him, they might ask what he was doing and not let him go see what the boy wanted.
The sunlight pressed its way through his heavy woolen shirt and made his back warm, just like his ears and tail. He couldn't hide from the sun. But instead of feeling good, it just made him more nervous. Exposed, like the sun was shining only on him. He focused more and more on sucking in his presence and hiding, so much it was hard to keep his eyes open. Closer and closer he stepped as silently as he could.
A noise surprised him--footsteps crunching through the gravel on the other side of the tent he was sneaking up to. A flash of panic nearly broke his concentration, since he was right out in the open.
He gave up moving so quietly and dashed forward to crouch alongside the tent, then crept forward to peek around and see who was coming.
Pepper almost bumped into some people arriving just at that moment and opening the tent flap to go in. The first was an older man with speckled black-and-white hair and an arm twisted by an old injury. Pepper had seen him a few times, far out away from the camp keeping watch on the road. The second was a young woman, small for a demon, or maybe not all the way grown despite her long horns and the little child she clutched to her chest. Pepper wasn’t sure he’d ever seen her before.
He had no time to think so he crept in behind the young woman as quietly as he could. He stayed behind her, and when she sat, he huddled back as close to the edge of the fur tent without brushing it and making it move. He breathed low and steady and kept his presence hidden. When it sank in that he had just snuck into a tent with a bunch of adult Night People who probably didn't want him there, panic swirled inside him, but he pushed it away and just kept on focusing on staying hidden.
There was no one else in the tent yet, just the two demons and the little one. The boy Pepper had seen was gone. Unless he was hiding too, maybe under that blanket? But it didn't look big enough. Could he hide like Pepper could? Pepper had never had a chance to see if he could spot someone else doing it.
"Is he coming?" the young woman asked.
With her back to him, Pepper couldn't see the child she was holding very well, just the little feet on either side of her stomach. The child was probably younger than Sheth, though.
The sentry man said, "Yes, he'll be here any moment. I sent Tleyewat running to get him as fast as she can go. Farat, too, and Jeg. Probably Teshwan, if he isn't busy."
"What about Natuak?" the young woman asked, flicking her tail out from behind her to wrap around the child on her lap. The child said something, but it was baby talk that Pepper couldn't understand.
"Farat will decide about him later," said the sentry.
"Is Farat the elder now?" she asked, her voice quiet and tense.
"No, but there has been difficulty between them. I will explain later." The sentry put some new coals into the flat, bronze brazier and blew on them. "I have a hundred things I want to ask. It is hard for me to wait."
"I have a hundred things I want to say, father. It is hard to wait," said the young woman. "I'd let you hold Yetu, but he'll snatch him away as soon as he gets here."
Pepper wasn't sure if he should look directly at anyone. Would his yellow eyes reflecting the light be noticeable, even if he was hiding? He needed to test it out with Flower someday. But when he glanced over anyway to see the sentry wiping tears off both cheeks and smiling so hard it looked like an expression of pain, his fear began to be replaced by guilt.
The guilt was quickly replaced by anger when he realized what was happening—this woman had been gone and was back now with her family. Or something like that. This was a homecoming, a reunion. It was the second time he’d had to watch one that wasn’t for him. The anger inside him felt dirty as it simmered, like he shouldn’t feel that way, but he did. He did.
He realized if the woman's husband was coming, then he'd look at her when he came in, and if he jumped on her to give her a hug they might fall right where Pepper was. Pepper crawled inch by inch along the interior of the tent, sucking in his presence all the while, and sat further around where he didn't think anyone would come. He looked around for the boy who’d disappeared, but he couldn’t see him anywhere. He could be in one of those baskets, though. Two of them were big enough. But that was a bad hiding place, because they kept food in those.
The young woman's father looked down at the little child and said, in a high-pitched voice like everyone used for little ones, "You're such a big boy now! Do you remember me, Yetu? Do you remember your grandpapa?"
The little child regarded the grandpapa for a moment, then gave a little grunt and buried his head in his mama's shoulder. The young woman smiled apologetically, but the grandpapa didn't look that sad.
But then he got a concerned look on his face and asked, "Is he... alright?"
The young woman paused for a moment, then opened her mouth and shut it again. She nodded.
The grandpapa looked down, but at an angle so he wasn't pointing his horns. "I'm glad," he said. His voice was cracking and constricted, and when he fell silent again, Pepper saw his shoulders shaking with silent sobs. The young woman crawled around the brazier and hugged him with one arm, holding the little one in the other.
Pepper almost got up to sneak out, because this was not something he wanted to be around for. It made him feel angry and sick and he didn’t want to be here.
But before he could, he heard footsteps approaching at a run, and in an instant a young man burst through the tent flap and shouted, "Etiya!"
It was one of Teshwan's friends, a youth whose name he'd never heard. The young man all but jumped on the young woman and soon the whole little family was hugging each other and weeping openly. Watching it made Pepper's heart ache, and no matter how hard he tried to just focus on hiding, he couldn't keep his eyes from filling with water, part in sympathy and part in regret. He slowly tried to wipe his cheeks, but the water from his eyes just kept coming and coming and then the fear came back, fear that he'd stop hiding on accident and they'd look over and see him just sitting here intruding.
The realization struck him that he knew who the young woman was. Natuak had mentioned her by name, a woman who went to get her child and never came back. Etiya. It was probably the woman Papa had helped by lifting up the rock that one time. Yetu was the child Papa rescued.
Pepper decided he could wait and hear what she had to say, even despite how upset he felt at being here. She was connected to Papa and him, and he wanted to know where she’d been all this time. Months.
Not long after that, Farat appeared in the entry. The tall demon had to bend forward to keep his horns from poking the ceiling of the tent, which made him look like he was looming over everyone like a monster. He wore his leather armor, painted all black and gray in vicious designs. He smiled, though. Pepper had never seen him smiling before, but it was a sincere smile that made little wrinkles around his eyes and didn’t look forced at all. He had two knives in his belt, one on each side. Would Farat give him one of those two?
“It looks like I’m interrupting,” said the war leader, taking a seat at the brazier. His voice was surprisingly casual and pleasant.
“You are, but we’ll forgive you,” said the sentry.
Etiya handed her little Yetu to the young husband. The child looked unsure, but didn’t complain or cry. After a moment, the child seemed to remember him and gave him a big hug around the neck. The husband smiled and hugged him back, then put the child on his lap and held him in both arms.
Once everyone was settled in, Farat said, “I only have a few questions, and then I’ll leave you alone. I’ll keep quiet about it for a while, too, so you can have some time alone. I think tonight we’ll have a fire gathering for you.”
Etiya nodded and said, “Thank you. I could really use some rest.”
“I believe that. Now, my first question is where did you find him? What was it like there? Did you find the others?”
The young woman said, “I didn’t find him until well into the snows, and it was pure luck. I happened to see smoke from enough fires that I thought I was near a village. I knew the King’s soldiers were in the area, so I hoped I might overhear something, and I needed food. I wanted to rest warm, too, if I could find a place.
“I found… Sorry, I’m trying to think of where to start with it. They had…” said Etiya. She looked uncomfortable and shifted where she sat. She looked younger the more Pepper watched her. How old was she? Dyana’s age? “Sorry, I just haven’t talked for so long, I’m not used to it.”
“It’s fine. Take your time,” said Farat. Pepper couldn’t tell if he looked impatient or not. He sat perfectly still with his tail resting on his shoulder and his hands folded in his lap.
After a moment, Etiya said, “They had this field cleared out, about the size of our camp. All over, they had fires burning, big ones. I have no idea where they got all the wood, because they didn’t clear out the forest around it. They had these stones, flat ones too heavy to lift. Too heavy for three of us to lift, I’m sure. They were the size of a horse, all over the field. Probably thirty or forty. Maybe more. They had a whole team of leather-faces tending the fires, carrying wood and keeping the embers hot. I watched them for the rest of the day, waiting for a chance to go in there and see what it was. I had no idea.
“After night fell, a rider came in and gathered up some of the leather-faces to follow him, and the rest left in another direction. Once I was sure there was nobody around, I crept in and looked around. The rocks were warm from the fires, and the ground wasn’t even cold. But the rocks weren’t warm enough to cook anything on, and none of the fires had pots or spits over them.
“I wasn’t there for much longer before I caught movement out of the corner of my eye, and when I looked, I saw one of our children sitting on one of the stones, too far away for me to see who it was. I was so shocked I stood up and ran over without thinking to keep low, and as I got closer, he looked like he turned and jumped behind the rock, just out of sight.
“When I got there, he was gone. He just—” Etiya stopped talking and looked around the room. She looked upset, but more than that Pepper couldn’t tell. “I’m sorry, this is all so strange. You’re not going to believe me. You must think I’m losing my sanity.”
The young man smiled awkwardly and said, “No one thinks that. Just keep going.” Pepper thought he must be trying to sound friendly and comforting but not doing it very well.
Etiya gave him a look that was either pained or grateful and continued. “When I got over there, the boy was nowhere to be found. There was nowhere he could have gone, either. He just vanished. I thought I must be breaking apart. That it was all too much and I was losing it. And I was. I stared at the rock for a moment, then just sat down on it. I think Yetu heard me, because he… he started screaming. And I heard it. I heard him screaming from under the rock.
“No, at first I thought he was inside it somehow, or it was his shade. But I knew it was him. I just knew. I recognized his voice, and… I just knew. I tried digging him out, but the ground was too hard without a tool, so I ran everywhere trying to find one but there was nothing. Just nothing. So I went back and tried to lift the rock by myself. I knew I couldn’t do it, but I wasn’t even thinking. I just had to get him out no matter what, and…”
Pepper thought Etiya looked more uncomfortable about not being able to explain it properly than feeling bad about remembering it. She looked around in frustration, her hands and tail in restless motion.
After a short but awkward pause, Farat asked, “So how did you get him out?”
“I didn’t. There was… By the lord of dusk, you’re never going to believe this. I don’t even… I can’t…”
Farat gently said, “It’s okay, dear Etiya. Just tell us the story. The proof of your words is right there in Yweteh’s lap.”
Yweteh, thought Pepper. He wanted to learn all their names so he tried hard to remember.
“That boy, I don’t know what he was. But I know I saw him, and somehow he showed me where Yetu was. He must be part of the next thing, the thing that… I just don’t know if it was a spirit, or a vision from Calishek. I just don’t know.”
Palthos! thought Pepper. That had to be it! Palthos could be any kind of child, according to Mama, so it must have been—
The room was silent. Painfully silent. All the Night People stared at each other with their eyes wide. No one breathed.
Pepper realized with sudden terror that he had said the god’s name out loud! He didn’t even realize he was doing it, just whispered it right there without thinking. He sucked in his presence as hard as he could, hiding with all his might.
They started looking around the tent, scared now. Their eyes passed over him a dozen times. He was looking at the ground, but he could feel their gaze on him. No one said anything. No one saw him.
“Did you hear that?” asked Etiya, almost whispering.
The sentry nodded, and so did Yweteh. Farat said, “I think it was someone in the next tent. Please, keep going. What happened?”
“A frost giant with blood all over his furs and a scowl like wildfire appeared only a few steps away. Just appeared, out of nowhere, walking toward me. I didn’t see him until he was almost close enough to grab me by the horns. I thought he was there to kill me. I don’t even know where to begin to describe him… just huge. He could not have been a man. No man of any tribe could be that big or that strong. I hissed and bared my claws, ready to fight my last, but he didn’t care. He just ignored it.
“I don’t remember if he said anything to me or not, but I remember he had no fear of me at all. He just walked right up to that stone and lifted it up by himself with hardly even a grunt of effort. It was nothing to him. I grabbed little Yetu out from under it and thanked him and ran. I was too scared to do anything else. I just ran. I don’t even remember where we slept that night.
“The next morning, I followed my tracks back to the field, but it was full of leather-faces again. Right then I realized… that’s where they’re keeping all our children. It wasn’t just Yetu. They’re keeping them under the stones there to keep us from stealing them back. I don’t know how many of our men it would take to lift one, but I couldn’t even budge it. Even if we try running a raid…”
The Night People all looked saddened by the news. They hung their heads and stared at nothing. Pepper could imagine what they were thinking—the little raiding party that had stolen him from the Allobrogians wouldn’t have much luck against a place that well-guarded, and if it would take ten men or two horses to move a rock, how many children could they even save before they were driven off?
Farat looked up and asked, “Could you find it again? That field?”
“I could find it easily from the King’s Fort, or the long east road. You’d have to get me back to those, though.”
Yweteh asked, “Why did you wait so long to come back after finding him? We all thought you were dead.”
Even Pepper could hear the pain the young man was trying to hide. It reminded him again that the Night People were just like him—lost, alone, and missing their families. They were like a whole tribe of orphans.
In fact, now that he thought about it, maybe it was Palthos that he saw beckoning him to come in here, not a demon child at all. Palthos wanted him to hear this. The god was still watching out for everyone! The thought spread inside him like the heat of a good cook fire after a day in the snow.
Actually, did the Night People have a god looking out for them? They mentioned Calishek and how he was their tribe’s sire, but no one had made a sacrifice that he had seen. He would have to ask Natuak.
Etiya had been thinking about how to answer her husband’s question, and finally she said, “I wasn’t sure I could find my way back in the snow. I left in the fall, and it all just looks so different. I didn’t even try. I found a place we could sleep, near a village where I could steal enough food to get by, and I thought it would be better to wait. I’m sorry. I missed you, and I wanted to come back. I really did. But I was…”
“You were too scared you’d freeze to death,” said the sentry, coming to her rescue. “Which was correct. You’re here, Yetu’s here, and that’s all that matters.”
Farat abruptly stood and said, “I think that’s all I need for now. You’ve given me a lot to think about. Come on, Kema, let’s leave these two alone. Yweteh’s been without a wife for half a year, and that’s intolerable for a seventeen-year-old. Let’s go find Jeg and tell her not to visit for a while.”
When the sentry stood up with a mischievous grin on his face, Pepper did his best to remember that his name was Kema.
“Wait,” said Etiya. “I’m not done yet. There’s something else. Something you have to know. It’s why I came back before the snow was gone.”
Farat turned and gave his attention back to the young woman. “I’m listening.”
“There was a slave revolt in the King’s Great Hall. A slave from the south that the King had been showing off killed every last soul at a Feast, including the Prince. The King escaped with his life, but the slave and a Skythander child he took are on the run. The King has called up all eight armies and is slowly tightening all the roads. All of them. There’s already nowhere to go except further into the wilds.”
Kema’s jaw dropped, and Yweteh went rigid. Farat was motionless for the space of two breaths before he said, “How do you know this?”
“I heard the whistles myself. I’ve been hiding near a stronghold. They’re… the slaves are heading east. Towards us. Chances are tiny that they’ll take the one path that comes here, but Farat, he killed the Prince. The Prince! And there’s no telling where the King’s armies will go to catch him. We have to move. You needed to know.”
Kema said, “I cannot believe someone actually managed to kill that monster. Did the messages describe the slaves?”
“Just that the southerner has long black hair and lots of muscle, and the Skythander has pure white fur and the palest skin. They might be trying to free other slaves as they go.”
For a time, the tent was silent. Farat’s eyebrows were furrowed as he stared at the ground, deep in thought. Kema looked fearful and kept eyeing the tent flap.
Etiya said, “I came as soon as I heard. I’m sorry.”
Farat looked up and Pepper thought he saw resignation on the man’s face. “No, you have nothing to be sorry about. What you have done is heroic. This is dire news, that’s all.”
Kema said, “Farat, that sounds like Androkles, doesn’t it?”
Farat closed his eyes and bowed his head, deep in thought. He flipped his thin, black tail off his shoulder and smacked it against the side of the tent, probably on accident. He flicked his eyes open and looked up as a throught stuck him. "Etiya, did the messages mention the King's berserkers?"
She said, "Oh, I'm sorry! How could I forget to mention? Yes. He's bringing all of them out. All of them."
The war leader hissed quietly to himself and Pepper thought he detected fear on the man's face. "All of them? How can he even control that many?"
Kema, the grandpapa, said, "I doubt Natuak is still up to taking one of them down, let alone twenty or thirty. Farat, we have to--"
"You're right," interrupted Farat. "If the King catches a hint of our scent, we'll be annihilated. We have no choice—we're moving. Send out word immediately.”
“And the kitten-ghost?”
“We’re telling Natuak that he spied on our conversation and said he was going to go save his Papa, and we couldn’t catch him. Find him, kill him, and hide his body in the snow for now.”