Whistling something playful and melodic that floated up from Esk’s memory, Luca returned home with a full bucket of clean water. Nobody had been at the well. Apparently, many still had stocks of rainwater collected during the recent downpours.
The boy swapped the full bucket of water in his hands more than once as he walked home, but didn’t stop to rest. He took pleasure even in the painful sensations in the muscles of his tired arms, back, and everywhere else; the pain meant that he could feel. He was alive!
With his inherited knowledge as a traveler, Luca realized that Karim had killed him, had split his skull with a large rock with sharp edges. Esk’Onegut’s inhabitation of his body had allowed him to survive, and the traveler’s boredom, laziness and self-pity had allowed him to keep his individuality. The initial restoration as the traveler had settled into his body had instantly healed all his cuts and bruises. It was a good thing that Luca had thought to wash the blood off his body with water from the barrel in the yard before he went in to see his mother. That water was no good for laundry, but it was fine for day-to-day needs.
He stopped by the door. He heard a hushed conversation from within. Since his healing, Luca’s hearing had become perfect. He could pick out every word.
“Admit it, Prisca, you don’t have a chance of paying the wergild,” said an oily male voice in even tones. “Do you want your son sent to the mines?”
“You speak nonsense, Nemania,” his mother spoke in tired and quiet tones. “Everyone knows Luca has been a cripple since birth. How could he have maimed your son?”
“You mean to say that Karim is lying to me, woman? My son is no liar! That monster of yours broke his collar bone! You’ll pay for the treatment and compensate for his suffering.”
Luca heard the resignation in his mother’s voice. She still hadn’t collected the seventy five silver she needed for Kora...
“Seven gold. Without delay. Pay today, right now..!” Nemania fell silent, chuckled and added: “Or come see me after midnight. Pay it off that way!”
Luca’s mother fell silent, and Karim’s father took on a comforting tone, still just as oily.
“Prisca, listen to me... If you are diligent and obedient, perhaps I will reduce your debt. What do you say?”
Luca didn’t hear whether his mother said anything in response, but he knew for certain why the innkeeper had invited her over. He was old enough. He himself had only dreamed of such things in restless and sweaty dreams. But his mother and Nemania in the same bed? It was a shame his father wasn’t here to...
But he was here! Angry with himself, he rushed into the house just as Prisca was about to agree to the innkeeper’s terms. Nemania’s hand was already snaking its way under her skirt.
Luca’s eyes widened in fury. Breathing heavily and clenching his fists, he shouted.
“Get away from my mom, creature! Get your filthy hands off her!”
“Feisty boy.” The innkeeper chuckled, but removed his hands. “But what does she herself have to say? What do you say, Prisca?”
“She says: get out of our house! Mom won’t come to you, don’t even think about it! Your son and his friends threw stones at me and nearly killed me! They split my skull!”
“Wow,” Nemania breathed in shock. “It’s true, he walks. I thought that brat of mine was lying, making it all up. But here it is... Well, where are your bruises? Got anything to back up your words?”
Luca reached for his temple to move his hair aside and show his wound, but then froze, remembering that it had disappeared.
“They... healed,” he said falteringly. “I’m telling the truth...”
“I thought as much.” Nemania’s gaze switched to Prisca. “What have you decided?”
Prisca cast a sidelong glance at her son, and her tired indifference to the whims of fate, the submissiveness with which she had been ready to accept her impending degradation, her shame at that willingness — it all disappeared, replaced with pride.
For the first time in her long years, she saw her son’s resemblance to her husband, Severus Dezisimu, saw the same bravery and nobility that he had poured into his sword to achieve standing in society and to capture her heart.
“My son has answered for me. No!”
“Well, no means no,” Nemania agreed readily.
Roughly elbowing his way past the boy, he walked to the door, but then stopped, thought for a moment and turned back.
“But still... this...” The innkeeper frowned, looked Luca up and down. “How? You just up and started walking? No temples, no healers, just you? All it took to heal a cripple was a good knock on the head? Really? I should patent that idea!” He laughed. “Alright, boy. Live your life. For now. Prisca, if you don’t bring me the money by the evening, I’ll send your bastard to the mines. You know that the word of a Kovachar is stronger than oak!”
He slammed the door hard as he left.
At that moment, a line appeared before Luca:
Tsoui points: +1. Current balance: 1.
Connecting this information with what had happened up to now, Luca realized that the two events were interlinked. Nodding to himself, he approached his mother and put down the bucket of clean water he’d been holding all this time. He wiped the tears from her cheeks with the back of his hand and hugged her. He held her close, realizing that they were the same height His mother sobbed as she spoke.
“What’s going to happen, son? What now?”
“Nobody will believe him, mom. Look at my arms; they’re thinner than canes. How could I break his collar bone? Sir Judge is a sensible man, he won’t believe their tales.”
“Yes, of course, he’s fair...” she agreed with some doubt in her voice.
Prisca calmed down completely once Luca reminded her about her unfinished laundry and Kora, who was still languishing in jail. She had no fear of ending up in the mines, but if they didn’t pay her bail in time, the girl risked being sent to an orphanage. The deadline was the next day. Stumbling, Prisca rushed to the basin.
“Mom, let me help you. I’ll hang the laundry.”
“I can do it, son. We need to boil the pot, bring clean water...”
The day passed in these labors. Luca carried water back and forth, brought wood from the yard, hung and took down laundry, gave it to his mother to iron, helped to fold it. His muscles burned as if bathed in acid, but the boy bore the pain, remembering that his mother had done all this on her own.
At dusk, they put the newly clean laundry into baskets, each of which belonged to a separate house for which his mother worked.
Prisca never tired of praising all the gods for her son, and when Luca got ready to go with her to deliver the laundry, she took it as a given. There was a man of the house again!
And so she felt her anguish even more harshly when the city guards forced their way into the hovel, led by a small and angry constable distracted from his dinner.
“Luca Dezisimu! You are accused of attempting to murder Karim Kovachar! Take him, boys!”
Alex (Aleksei) Bobl is a literary agent and a science fiction writer, author of 13 novels. An ex-paratrooper, he used his military knowledge and experience to write his debut novels for S.T.A.L.K.E.R., a bestselling science fiction action adventure series set in a post-apocalyptic Chernobyl.
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