This far south the grass was nearly gone. There had never been any trees. The ground was orange, crumbled and old, and went on flat until the evening heat lapped it up.
“How long do you think our shadows are?” the boy asked.
“As long as the world is wide,” Jacsen said.
“Have you been that far?”
They kept on, Jacsen and the boy, shod hooves of their horses crushing baked shale, evening shadows long like a meridian on an empty map. A pale moon rose long before sunset.
“We’re not going to make it to the edge tonight, are we?” the boy said.
“Nope,” Jacsen agreed. “Not tonight.”
The southern horizon was getting nearer. It looked like the edge of the world.
Next morning, they’d hardly gone a mile when the boy found something dead. He crouched over it. He called Jacsen over.
“It’s a raccoon, ain’t it?” the boy said.
Jacsen stared at the carcass from his saddle.
“It looks just like you,” the boy said, awestruck.
His words rang ill and Jacsen felt suddenly sick. Heat sick maybe and he needed some water.
“What’s it mean?” the boy asked. He scanned the endless horizon as if there he’d find the answer, some place from where it might have come, but there was no place like that.
Jacsen looked south. He started off again and the boy called after him, “Don’t you want to bury it?”
“Why would I want to do that?” Jacsen said, not turning.
They lay on their stomachs, side by side, looking down over what had seemed like the edge of the world. It dropped only a hundred feet. Still, a long way. It was a canyon, or maybe once a seabed, bone-dry for thousands of years. Its far side, if it had a far side, was beyond the horizon. Broad mesas and narrow buttes rose within it like naked islands.
Cesler Grange was a fortress, not a farm. It clung to the ridge of the nearest mesa, a mile south. Its walls were towered, crenellated, and scarred by war. The iron mouths of cannons showed through its teeth. A switchback road to the canyon floor was, far as Jacsen could tell, the only way up. On the canyon floor between them and the Grange a company of soldiers was encamped.
Cesler Grange was under siege.
“Was your pa in the military?” Jacsen asked. The boy said no. “These are mercenaries, not Imperial soldiers. You can tell because all the regiment insignias are different. That equipment there, the tents, that’s all surplus. And they’ve been here awhile. See how many times they’ve moved the latrines?” He pointed to rows of darker earth where cesspits had been backfilled. “And see those pits in the ground there on the far side of the camp? That’s probably as far as the Grange cannons can reach, which is why the camp is where it is, just out of range. Those twelve-pounders they have–see them? the four of them?–those are useless. Where they’re placed, they can’t possibly reach the Grange.”
“Look there,” the boy said pointing to a mass grave. Lye dusted the bodies. “Is that where they buried my brothers?”
Jacsen didn’t know.
“Something’s coming,” the boy said. There was a plume of dust in the east. It was a column of cavalry, supply carts, and siege howitzers, snaking along the canyon floor. They flew Imperial pennons. From the top of the canyon wall, Jacsen and the boy spied down on it. It took the entire day to arrive.
A bleached, gray, wooden wagon rattled alongside the howitzers. It had no advertisements painted on its sides. It had no windows. It had a peaked roof. Bones were strung from its eaves like a fringe of icicles. They clacked as they swung. It was pulled by a team of four black horses. The horses knew the way themselves and the driver’s perch was empty.
“What is that?” the boy asked.
“Can you feel it?” Jacsen asked.
“What is it?”
“A witch,” Jacsen said watching the bones swing. “A bad one.”
As they watched, the boy tugged at Jacsen’s sleeve, begging for reassurance. In all the last four days, it was the closest the boy had ever come to him.
The boy’s father had pulled a rifle on Jacsen the moment he’d seen him. That hadn’t surprised Jacsen at all. He knew how he looked. He looked up to no good, armed as he was and with his hat pulled down so low.
The man’s had been the first house he’d seen in three days. Still, Jacsen hadn’t thought to stop at all except that he’d seen an iron water pump out front. The very sight of it made him thirsty, and probably the horse wanted water too.
And what he got was a gun on him.
On the porch stood the boy and his sister, side by side. She was maybe eight, dressed in gingham and a traveling bonnet. The boy was maybe ten, he in wool and homespun. They were both towheaded as dandelions. He clutched her left hand tightly in his right. In his other hand was a homemade wooden crutch. Standing still, he didn’t seem to need it. Just held it the way he did her hand.
The man stood beside a cart in the drive.
Over the barrel of his rifle, he looked Jacsen over, eyes lingering on each piece of iron and steel, the revolver on his thigh, carbine in the saddle scabbard, cavalry saber on his hip, and knife strapped to his leg.
Jacsen let the reins fall and raised his hands slowly. The horse stopped.
“I don’t know you,” the man said. “You a soldier?”
“No,” Jacsen said. “Heading down to Cesler Grange. Don’t mean anyone no trouble.”
“Only folk headed out that way are soldiers. No call for common folk.” He considered Jacsen some more, maybe looking for some sign that Jacsen was lying, some insignia or color. “If you ain’t a soldier, what are you then?”
Jacsen said, “I saw you had a pump.”
When the man didn’t move or say a word, Jacsen tipped his head toward the pump and said, “You mind?”
The man gave him a nod.
Jacsen lowered his hands and dropped from the horse. He nodded his thanks and led his horse to the trough. He worked the pump, everything slow and easy so as not to give the man any cause. “There ain’t no need for that gun,” he said.
The man said nothing. He kept the rifle on Jacsen.
The water was cool and he removed his hat, thinking to run some water over his head. When he leaned forward beneath the spout his sidelock fell from behind his ear, braids swinging, agates clicking, and the little girl said, “Papa, he’s a clansman!”
The man told her to be still.
Jacsen washed, then put back on his hat, pulling the brim low again. He filled his waterskin. Then he stood awhile as his horse drank his fill.
The cart was half loaded, everything tossed in and all jumbled up, no order to it, nothing rightly packed. “Looks like you’re moving out,” Jacsen said.
“Just get your water and go,” the man said.
So Jacsen looked away. The horse was still drinking and Jacsen thought to pull it away and go, but he let it drink.
The man’s house was stone. Its roof was thatch. The hex sign painted over the door had weathered nearly gone. The house stood on the edge of a field of pale yellow rye. There wasn’t a hill or tree or other home to be seen anywhere. Along the porch, there was a patch of garden. It was the only bit of color Jacsen had seen in too long and he couldn’t pull his eyes from the small flowers. Looking at them made the heat seem less, the plains less burnt out.
Those flowers took heart to tend. Not the man. The girl, then.
She was hiding behind her brother, bashful, and she leaned forward and whispered something into his ear and he shushed her.
Poor girl, spending her days tending her flowers and shushed by her men, so Jacsen smiled at her and said, “You’re a pretty little lady.”
Soft and cold, the man asked, “Is that what you like?”
Jacsen’s gut went all to ice.
“That why they sent you back here?” the man said.
Keeping cool, keeping level, Jacsen said, “I only meant you have a couple of fine children.”
“How–,” the man shifted his hands on the rifle stock leaving sweaty smears, “How much you give me for the girl?”
Water trickled down Jacsen’s forehead and into his eyes.
“Twenty shillings?” the man asked. “She’s worth twenty shillings. Ain’t been touched.”
Jacsen looked at the girl, more out of shock than anything, but still he blushed, ashamed to have looked and looked away. The boy wore only one shoe. It was a good shoe, seldom worn. His left foot was bare. It was badly clubbed, twisted in and sharply upturned. He stood on his ankle where a thick ugly callus had formed. Why his foot hadn’t been treated, Jacsen couldn’t figure, except that maybe there hadn’t been a surgeon nearby no more than there’d been a witch to retouch the faded hex sign over the door.
Jacsen had stared too long. The man said, “Boy ain’t worth nothing. You like him better, you can take him for free.”
“I don’t want your boy.”
“No. Nobody does. That’s why they left him.”
The boy was expressionless. How often had he heard that? How much had it chipped away at him? Still, he held his sister safely behind him.
“He’s your boy,” Jacsen said.
“My boy?” The man closed on Jacsen, stopping just short of pressing the rifle into Jacsen’s chest, and Jacsen went still. “Your kind took all my boys! You gave them guns. You forced them to fight. Then when they died you gave me a coin for each one and called it done! And that’s what you left me with.”
The boy stood like a stone.
“And now you come for him too? Take him, then.”
Jacsen saw the hastily loaded cart.
“Why didn’t you just take him the first time if that’s all you wanted?”
Jacsen saw the children in their holiday best.
The children like fetters, like ghosts.
And Jacsen’s fear of the rifle dried away. The man was only pointing it at him because he had to point it somewhere and was too much the coward to turn it on himself.
Jacsen pushed the rifle away.
The man faltered back. Jacsen didn’t look into his eyes. He didn’t care what was there. He had no pity for the man, only a deeper broader resentment for what fathers did to sons.
“I’m sorry,” Jacsen said. He turned away. He swung up onto his horse. “I only wanted the water.”
Fifty yards later the rifle shot cracked.
Jacsen wheeled, kicked his spurs and lashed the reins, praying the man had shot himself and not either of the children. But no, he hadn’t been that kind of man.
The little girl lay crumpled on the ground.
The man held the boy by the collar in his left hand, the rifle in his right, but he couldn’t hold the boy and reload at once, so he had to let go of one or the other. He let go of the boy.
The man’s eyes shot open wide at Jacsen thundering down on him. He started to raise the rifle to fend off Jacsen’s saber, but he hesitated. Jacsen cut the man down like wheat.
He flew past and hauled on the reins. His horse kicked up dirt and nearly fell, stopping so short. Jacsen threw himself down and scrambled over to the man. Breathing heavy, he stood over the body in a blood frenzy, ready for more, as if the man might rise even with his head attached only by a thread. That sort of thing had happened before.
Then he saw the boy pressed against the cart’s wheel, clutching it white-knuckled, drenched crimson in his father’s blood. Jacsen dropped his saber to the muddied ground and went to him.
The boy shrieked out of sheer terror and fought him like a hellcat. Jacsen couldn’t touch him. It was an hour before the boy would listen at all.
The number of soldiers on the field below had tripled. But the soldiers didn’t matter. The new battery of four siege howitzers, that was what mattered.
The witch would bless them. The Grange would fall.
From the witch’s wagon stepped a boy. The witch came after, clawing at the boy’s hand for support. They were dressed alike in black frock coats and top hats. The witch was a man, and he had a prentice.
“I didn’t know men could be witches,” the boy said.
The witch and the prentice stood side by side. Dressed like that, they looked to be father and son.
Their first night on the road, Jacsen had half expected the boy to never speak again. He sat at the very edge of the campfire light, as far from Jacsen as he could. He glared at Jacsen. And when Jacsen returned the look, the boy said, “You’d better not touch me. I’ll fight you if you touch me.”
“I ain’t going to touch you.”
“I know what Pa meant. What he thought I was good for. I ain’t slow.”
“I said I ain’t going to touch you.” Jacsen tore at the leather ties that held his knife to his thigh then flung it, sleeve, bindings and all, to the ground before the boy. “Take it. If I try to touch you, then you use it. Understand?”
The boy looked at it, doubtful, and at Jacsen, suspicious.
“Either take it or give it back,” Jacsen said.
The boy snagged one of the leather ties and dragged it to him. He pulled the knife from its sheath. In the boy’s hand it was ridiculously large.
“I could kill you while you’re sleeping,” the boy said.
And Jacsen said, “Then you’d be alone.”
The sun had set and they were descending into the canyon as fast as they could without causing a landslide behind them. The boy’s arms were tight around Jacsen’s neck.
At the bottom, in the debris of fallen rock, he found a good hole and tucked the boy in there. “You’re going to leave me here?” the boy asked. And Jacsen told him it would be alright and gave him his pistol and made sure he knew how to use it. “What are you going to use?” the boy asked. They’d left the carbine with the horses on the plain above.
“Sword. Always use blades on witches. Never guns.”
“Because they light up the gunpowder with their magic and blow your damn hand off.”
And now the boy was stalling. “It’ll be alright. A few hours is all I’ll be. Just stay here and keep quiet. Don’t come out until I come get you.”
He was only fifty yards away when the pistol went off. The sound ricocheted off the canyon walls again and again.
He sprinted back, blind with anger because he knew the boy hadn’t wanted to be left alone and had fired the pistol to make Jacsen come back for him.
He found the boy where he’d left him, and Jacsen was already cursing him because the whole damn camp would have heard the shots and scouts would be on their way. “Damn you,” he said. “God damn you.”
Jacsen may as well have slapped him, the look that was on the boy’s face.
Not two feet away from the boy was a dead diamondback, shot through.
Jacsen grabbed the boy’s arms rougher than he meant and scoured his sleeves for rips or blood. “Are you bit? Did it bite you?”
The boy said, “I’m sorry,” and began to tear up.
“Did it bite you?”
“No,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
“No. I shouldn’t have cussed you. I should have known you wouldn’t just–” Looking around for torchlight and patrols, he said, “You can’t stay here now. You’ll have to come with me. Arms around my neck. Let’s go.”
Jacsen ran, bent low, with the boy clinging tightly to him, the revolver still in his hand. He didn’t weigh a thing.
Their second night on the road, Jacsen and the boy and their weedy fire had felt like the only life left under cold stars. The world was burning away and the ground was too hard and dry. It held no heat.
“What are you going to do with me?”
“There’s an orphanage in Agoniste, Enston too if it’s closer. They’re Imperial orphanages but they’ll take Marchers. They’re good places. I’ll find one that will take you.”
“We’re going the wrong way for Enston or Agoniste.”
“Got some business south first, just like I told your pa.”
“What kind of business?”
Jacsen poked at the fire and didn’t answer. He didn’t want to scare the boy any more than he already had.
In the chill small hours, Jacsen, sleepless, watched the boy shiver. Anyone else and Jacsen would have curled around them to share his heat and keep them warm. Instead, he unrolled his greatcoat from his pack, and he emptied his pockets of the things he’d rather not lose: a slim leather wallet with his picks, a box of matches, and other things. And finally the hexed skull. He spread the coat over the boy.
He sat and cupped the skull in his hands. It was a raccoon’s skull. On the skull’s crown some witch had carved a starburst swirl. It seemed to shift around, and gazing into it was like watching a candle flame. He lost himself in it for a good long time.
It didn’t speak to him. It had only ever spoken the once when it had told him about Cesler Grange and the murdering witch.
Another witch, one he trusted or thought he could, had given it to him. “This is one of yours,” she had said. “Be careful.” And when Jacsen had told her he didn’t own a hexed skull, she’d only shrugged and walked away.
Jacsen shook it and held it to his ear. He closed his eyes and listened. He held it close to his lips and whispered hello. He shook it harder and thought to berate it, though that had never worked before either.
Then he felt watched, and he looked up.
The boy was sitting up, bleary-eyed. “What are you looking at?” the boy asked.
Jacsen hid the skull away. “Nothing, go to sleep.”
“Okay.” And the boy was out as if he’d never awoken.
Jacsen watched him sleep. The boy clutched at the greatcoat, pulling it toward his chest. His other hand held Jacsen’s knife, tight.
Soldiers were coming.
Jacsen didn’t blame the boy after his scare at the rockfall, but there was no time to be afraid now.
The command tent had been raised on a wooden platform, the better to keep out scorpions and snakes. The cramped space beneath it made a perfect place to hide. Perfect also for snakes.
The boy pulled away and hissed no. The soldiers rounded the corner. No time left, Jacsen yanked him under, into the gap, and held his hand over the boy’s mouth. “They’ll hear you! Hush!”
And one of the soldiers turned and looked directly into Jacsen’s eyes.
Jacsen went stone still, locked with the soldier’s eyes. His hand went slowly for his gun but his gun wasn’t there.
The soldier picked up a stone and flung it at Jacsen. “Go on!” he shouted, “Get!” and a second stone bounced and struck Jacsen in the cheek. Stunned and blinking Jacsen scrambled deeper into the darkness.
“It’s your eyes,” the boy said as the soldiers moved on. “He thinks you’re a coyote. Your eyes, they shine silver.”
Their third night on the road, the night before they’d reach the canyon’s edge, a creosote fire, and the boy finally asked, “What’s wrong with your eyes?”
“Nothing,” Jacsen snapped. “What’s wrong with your foot?”
“Clubbed,” the boy said matter of fact, but he folded his leg beneath him so that his foot was hidden and Jacsen felt like an ass. “My sister, she thought you were magic. Are you magic? Is that why your eyes are marked like that?”
“I’m not magic. It’s just a birthmark.”
The boy squinted. “Take off your hat.”
“Show me your foot,” Jacsen said. Like an ass. His ears went hot. He cursed himself. Then he took off his hat so the boy could see the shadowy mask that ringed his eyes and swept back across his cheeks. “It looks kind of funny, don’t it? Like a raccoon’s mask?” Jacsen said.
“Ain’t never seen a raccoon,” said the boy, looking close.
Then he unfolded his leg so that Jacsen could see his clubbed foot. The boy studied it awhile himself. “My brothers, they told me I was only a half-brother,” he said. “Told me my real pa was a wicked spirit and that’s why I came out wrong.”
“They were lying,” Jacsen said. “It’s a story people tell. I ain’t magic and you ain’t magic. They’re lying and you didn’t come out wrong.”
God, but it looked painful.
“There’s nothing wrong with you. I’ll give you a horse. I’ll give you a horse and a goddamn gun and we’ll show them what’s wrong with you. There ain’t nothing goddamn wrong with you.”
The boy was quiet. He looked away. He pushed himself to his feet with his crutch and limped away from the firelight. In the safety of darkness, the pale ghost line of his shoulders began to shake.
Too late, Jacsen realized that half-brother was as much as the boy had wanted to be.
At midnight the witch began to bless the cannons. Most of the soldiers watched on. Jacsen told the boy to stay put and slipped out among the tents.
He’d thought to leave the witch’s wagon alone. It was likely cursed. From the cliff, Jacsen had watched the soldiers pitch the witch’s tent then unload a large cartload of crates into it. Those crates were far more than the witch needed to bless a few cannons. Jacsen wanted to know what they held. But the wagon’s door stood open a crack and in the end his curiosity overwhelmed his better sense. He’d touch nothing. He’d only look. And he slipped inside.
Jacsen saw fine in the gloom.
To his left and right, against the wagon’s walls, were cabinets and cupboards and narrow counter-tops. Before him was a beaded curtain which separated off the sleeping space.
Above him, along the ceiling, ran twine from one side to the other. In every witch’s wagon he’d ever been in, bundled herbs had hung from these lines. Here, hung the tails of beasts. Horse tails and ox tails. Rat tails. Raccoon tails. They hung so low they brushed his hat.
In the cabinets to his left were clear jars filled with animal organs. Some held tiny hearts and eyes, but most held coiled tubes of ragged flesh ending in knobs. Severed genitalia. The witch dealt in fertility spells.
But there were none of the other things he’d thought to find. No clover, no sage, no poppies, no herbs or flowers or bark or roots at all. Everything here, every charm and material, was the dismembered part of an animal.
He saw the necklace. It hung from a peg in the corner. From it were strung scores of slender comma-shaped bacula, the penis bones of raccoons. Folk wore them for fertility and luck. They sharpened their tips to pick their teeth. Common enough.
But there were so many of them. A hundred. More.
It was too warm in here.
He stumbled against the cabinet behind him. The cabinet rattled and its door fell ajar and he thought he heard his name said. He turned to look. On its shelves were skulls. Raccoon skulls. Each carved with a starburst swirl.
He stumbled free from the wagon and breathed deep the open air.
Jacsen drew up cold inside the witch’s tent.
In the center was a butcher’s block. The walls of the tent were lined with cages, each locked with an iron padlock. They were stacked high. There were nearly eighty of them and each one held a raccoon.
Their silvery eyes were all fixed on him.
His heart was thundering and he went without thinking to one of the cages and fumbled his picks on the lock, his hands shaking so badly. And why were they shaking? His hands never shook. And why should he care? But he did, he cared deeply.
The hasp slipped open just as a voice in his ear whispered, “They paid him in raccoons.”
Jacsen whirled drawing and slashing his saber in one fluid sweep but the witch’s prentice was ten feet away, not as near as he’d thought, a trick of the voice, and something bit into Jacsen’s arm stinging like hell.
The prentice in his black frock coat and top hat just like his father’s lowered the small wooden dart tube from his lips and smiled.
Jacsen tried to rush the prentice. Each step took a year.
“They thought he was crazy,” the prentice said. “But as long as he’d bless their cannons they’d give him whatever he wanted.”
Two steps, two years, the world went sideways, and Jacsen fell.
The witch’s prentice couldn’t lift him, so he tied Jacsen where he lay. He tied him well. He went through the pockets of his greatcoat. He found Jacsen’s raccoon skull and welcomed it home.
Jacsen’s world wavers, heatstruck. He is looking into a cage at silver eyes in a black mask. –Your eyes, they shine silver! he hears the boy say. –I can see my own reflection, Jacsen thinks, like when he was young and he’d go down to the river pools and try to see his father’s face in his own. And his mother, she’d say, –Come away from there, Bandit. You’ll fall in and drown. –Don’t you worry, she would say, You’re the spitting image of your pa. But it wasn’t his reflection he saw but just a raccoon who’d crawled up beside him.
–I ain’t Bandit anymore, Ma. I’m Jacsen, now. Nobody calls me Bandit.
The raccoons, they’re spitting and hissing until the witch’s prentice lights a poisonous incense and fills their cages with numbing smoke. They curl mewling, drowning too. Then he takes one and slits it groin to throat and digs out its baculum for working luck magic and fertility magic, and he starts to separate pelt from flesh. It’s not yet dead and it twitches and whines.
It’s what they will do to Jacsen, too. And his agate-braided hair will decorate their hats, and his bones will clatter from the wagon’s eaves.
How many centuries had the witch lived and finally, finally come upon his end of days? He was old and wasted thin. His eyes were rheumy and clouded and Jacsen wondered if he weren’t blind. But his cracked and wicked smile said he saw Jacsen just fine, and was pleased with what he saw.
“He’s what the bones caught,” the prentice said. “Closest to the spirit-king as I’ve ever seen. Not sixth or seventh generation like the others. His grandson. Maybe even his son. He’ll make magic enough to give you a hundred years.”
“I ain’t magic,” Jacsen whispered. “She was a whore and didn’t know who, and it was just a story she told me,” but the fog hadn’t quite cleared and he could barely speak and the copper sweet butcher smell made him sick.
The ancient witch had already turned away.
Something brushed behind Jacsen then, soft and furred and clever. The raccoon tugged on his bindings and after a minute of tugging, the ropes fell away, first his wrists then his ankles. Then it pressed something familiar into his palm and it took Jacsen only a moment to know his own knife, the knife he’d given the boy.
The prentice, shoulder deep with blood, came and knelt next to Jacsen ready to cut.
Jacsen gave him no chance. He lunged for the prentice’s wrist and twisted cruelly as he could. The prentice yelped and dropped the knife and Jacsen swung him around and staggered to his feet, swaying still hazy, clamping an arm around the prentice’s throat and pressing his own knife beneath his jaw hard enough that blood slicked down.
The witch had a derringer aimed at Jacsen. He thumbed back the hammer.
And the towheaded boy stepped into the light, standing uneven, hips askew because of his foot but legs apart and two hands on the revolver like he was made for it.
They held that triangle, Jacsen, the towheaded boy, and the witch. None of them could miss.
The witch stared down at the revolver.
He grinned wide.
“Throw down the gun,” Jacsen said. “Throw it down! I said–!”
The witch pulled the trigger and fire spat and he flicked his empty hand toward the revolver. The bullet slammed through his prentice’s skull and into Jacsen’s chest. Jacsen stumbled and let the dead prentice drop and shouted in wordless horror, expecting the blast of six loaded chambers igniting and blowing the revolver to shrapnel, shredding the towheaded boy’s arms to the elbows.
But nothing happened. The revolver didn’t explode.
The boy pulled the trigger and the hammer fell against an empty chamber in a ridiculous, mocking click.
And in the moment of the witch’s stunned silence, Jacsen leapt forward and buried the raccoon’s knife in the old bastard’s throat.
Outside, the first of the blessed cannons fired. It sounded like the end of the world.
Jacsen’s chest hurt like hell, but he could breathe and his heart still beat, and as long as he kept his eyes squeezed closed he could manage the pain. The boy was cradling his head. “Look. Look!” he was whispering, “Look!” and he tapped Jacsen’s forehead to get him to look.
So Jacsen opened his eyes.
There were all the raccoons. The one had freed another and so on until they were all of them free, and now they crouched around Jacsen and the boy. They were piled one on another to get a good view, some standing upright, all small bandit-eyed faces pressed in, hackles up and bushy ringed-tails twitching, cringing with every ear-splitting cannon shot, but all focused intensely upon Jacsen.
Seventy raccoons waited.
“Talk to them!” the boy said.
I can’t, Jacsen thought. I don’t know how. He could only stare. He could feel the cannon fire through the ground.
“Tell them what to do!”
So Jacsen struggled to sitting, and feeling damn foolish, feeling like a child, he told the raccoons what they should do.
Fuses flashed and sputtered. Powder barrels and ammunition stockpiles all over the camp erupted in flame and smoke. One by one the blessed howitzers were thrown into the air on columns of fire, falling back to the earth heat-warped and useless.
The last thing to burn was the witch’s wagon. Its flames were blue and utterly silent.
South from Cesler Grange the horizon was jagged with blue mountains. There was gold and silver there, they said. And closer by, the high plains fields were pale as the boy’s hair.
“Got something for you,” Jacsen said and he dropped a deformed bullet into the boy’s open hand. “Keepsake,” he said. “Still’s got some of my blood on it. Don’t go washing it. They tell me it’s lucky.” The surgeon had said he was lucky. The skull of the prentice had slowed the bullet. It had come to rest just within the muscle of his chest.
The boy strung it on a leather cord and wore it around his neck.
And when Jacsen was healed enough to ride, they started north.