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datatime: 2022-11-26 16:12:56 Author:rkWhGWXs

I listened in amazement. All the years I had known him as a taciturn man. Drink had never loosened his tongue, but only made him more silent. Now the words were spilling out of him, washing away my years of wondering and suspecting. Why he suddenly spoke so openly, I did not know. His voice was the only sound in the fire lit room.

There is a dead spot in the night, that coldest, blackest time when the world has forgotten evening and dawn is not yet a promise. A time when it is far too early to arise, but so late that going to bed makes small sense. That was when Burrich came in. I was not asleep, but I did not stir. He was not fooled.

"I know. But he had a small lantern with him. He said he feared more to stay, feared he could not keep his resolve with you. To let you go."

"It's too dark for him to be walking," I said to the flames. I spoke carefully, fearing to break the spell of calm.

"When the Sandsedge war was done, Duke Grizzle took me home to his own stables. I bonded with a young stallion there. Neko. I had the care of him, but he was not mine. Grizzle rode him to hunt. Sometimes, they used him for stud. But Grizzle was not a gentle man. Sometimes he put Neko to fight other stallions, as some men fight dogs or cocks for amusement. A mare in season, and the better stallion to have her. And I ... I was bonded to him. His life was mine as much as my own was. And so I grew to be a man. Or at least, to have the shape of one." Burrich was silent a moment. He did not need to explain further to me. After a time, he sighed and went on.

"The first time I was hauled before the Prince, bloody and struggling still, I was shocked to see we were of an age. Almost all his troops were older than I; I had expected to confront a middle-aged man. I stood there before him and I met his eyes. And something like recognition passed between us. As if we each saw ... what we might have been in different circumstances. It did not make him go easy on me. I lost my pay and earned extra duties. Everyone expected Chivalry to discharge me the second time. I stood before him, ready to hate him, and he just looked at me. He cocked his head as a dog will when it hears something far off. He docked my pay and gave me more duties. But he kept me. Everyone had told me I'd be discharged. Now they all expected me to desert. I can't say why I didn't. Why soldier for no pay and extra duties?"

The gray one has words with Heart of the Pack. Shall I listen?

"No. It is so. Perhaps this dog does need a master." The mockery in his voice as he spoke of himself was more poisonous than any venom I had spewed. I could not speak. He sat up, let his boots drop to the floor. He glanced at me. "I did not set out to make you just like me, Fitz. That is not a thing I would wish on any man. I wished you to be like your father. But sometimes it seemed to me that no matter what I did, you persisted in patterning your life after mine." He stared into the embers for a time. At last he began to speak again, softly, to the fire. He sounded as if he were telling an old tale to a sleepy child.

He stopped talking. I heard him get up. He went to the table and picked up the bottle of elderberry wine that Chade had left. I watched him as he turned it several times in his hands. Then he set it down. He sat down on one of the chairs and stared into the fire.

"The first time I was hauled before the Prince, bloody and struggling still, I was shocked to see we were of an age. Almost all his troops were older than I; I had expected to confront a middle-aged man. I stood there before him and I met his eyes. And something like recognition passed between us. As if we each saw ... what we might have been in different circumstances. It did not make him go easy on me. I lost my pay and earned extra duties. Everyone expected Chivalry to discharge me the second time. I stood before him, ready to hate him, and he just looked at me. He cocked his head as a dog will when it hears something far off. He docked my pay and gave me more duties. But he kept me. Everyone had told me I'd be discharged. Now they all expected me to desert. I can't say why I didn't. Why soldier for no pay and extra duties?"

"Right on target." The sound he made might have been a laugh, if not so freighted with bitterness.

"When I woke up, the dog had a master again. Of a different sort. I know you've heard people say Chivalry was cold and stiff and correct to a fault. He wasn't. He was what he believed a man should be. More than that. It was what he believed a man should want to be. He took a thieving, unkempt scoundrel and ..." He faltered, sighed suddenly. "He had me up before dawn the next day. Weapons practice till neither of us could stand. I'd never had any formal training at it before. They'd just handed me a pike and sent me out to fight. He drilled me, and taught me sword. He'd never liked the axe, but I did. So he taught me what he knew of it, and arranged for me to learn it from a man who knew its strategies. Then the rest of the day, he'd have me at his heels. Like a dog, as you say. I don't know why. Maybe he was lonely for someone his own age. Maybe he missed Verity. Maybe ... I don't know.

No. Their words belong to them. I felt jealous that they were together while I was alone. Yet I also took comfort in it. Perhaps Burrich could talk Chade into coming back until morning. Perhaps Chade could leech some of the poison I'd sprayed at Burrich. I stared into the fire. I did not think highly of myself.

I sat up and looked up at him. The dwindling light of the fire made a shadowy landscape of his face. I could not read his eyes.

"No. It is so. Perhaps this dog does need a master." The mockery in his voice as he spoke of himself was more poisonous than any venom I had spewed. I could not speak. He sat up, let his boots drop to the floor. He glanced at me. "I did not set out to make you just like me, Fitz. That is not a thing I would wish on any man. I wished you to be like your father. But sometimes it seemed to me that no matter what I did, you persisted in patterning your life after mine." He stared into the embers for a time. At last he began to speak again, softly, to the fire. He sounded as if he were telling an old tale to a sleepy child.

"So I bonded, very young, to the only strong male in my world who was interested in me. A street cur. Mangy. Scarred. His only value was survival, his only loyalty to me. As my loyalty was to him. His world, his way was all I knew. Taking what you wanted, when you wanted it, and not worrying past getting it. I am sure you know what I mean. The neighbors thought I was a mute. My mother thought I was a half-wit. My grandmother, I am sure, had her suspicions. She tried to drive the dog away, but like you, I had a will of my own in those matters. I suppose I was about eight when he ran between a horse and its cart and was kicked to death. He was stealing a slab of bacon at the time." He got up from his chair, and went to his blankets.

"He taught me numbers first, then reading. He put me in charge of his horse. Then his hounds and hawk. Then in general charge of the pack beasts and wagon animals. But it wasn't just work he taught me. Cleanliness. Honesty. He put a value on what my mother and grandmother had tried to instill in me so long ago. He showed them to me as a man's values, not just manners for inside a woman's house. He taught me to be a man, not a beast in a man's shape. He made me see it was more than rules, it was a way of being. A life, rather than a living."

The gray one has words with Heart of the Pack. Shall I listen?

"I was born in the Chalced States. A little coast town, a fishing and shipping port. Lees. My mother did washing to support my grandmother and me. My father was dead before I was born, taken by the sea. My grandmother looked after me, but she was very old, and often ill." I heard more than saw his bitter smile. "A lifetime of being a slave does not leave a woman with sound health. She loved me, and did her best with me. But I was not a boy who would play in the cottage at quiet games. And there was no one at home strong enough to oppose my will.

I sat up and looked up at him. The dwindling light of the fire made a shadowy landscape of his face. I could not read his eyes.

"I was born in the Chalced States. A little coast town, a fishing and shipping port. Lees. My mother did washing to support my grandmother and me. My father was dead before I was born, taken by the sea. My grandmother looked after me, but she was very old, and often ill." I heard more than saw his bitter smile. "A lifetime of being a slave does not leave a woman with sound health. She loved me, and did her best with me. But I was not a boy who would play in the cottage at quiet games. And there was no one at home strong enough to oppose my will.

"Chade's gone," he said quietly. I heard him right the fallen chair. He sat on it and began taking his boots off. I felt no hostility from him, no animosity. It was as if my angry words had never been spoken. Or as if he'd been pushed past anger and hurt into numbness.

"I was born in the Chalced States. A little coast town, a fishing and shipping port. Lees. My mother did washing to support my grandmother and me. My father was dead before I was born, taken by the sea. My grandmother looked after me, but she was very old, and often ill." I heard more than saw his bitter smile. "A lifetime of being a slave does not leave a woman with sound health. She loved me, and did her best with me. But I was not a boy who would play in the cottage at quiet games. And there was no one at home strong enough to oppose my will.

He stopped talking. I heard him get up. He went to the table and picked up the bottle of elderberry wine that Chade had left. I watched him as he turned it several times in his hands. Then he set it down. He sat down on one of the chairs and stared into the fire.

"Chade said I should leave you tomorrow," he said quietly. He looked down at me. "I think he's right."

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