Excerpt from Live Free or Die

Sorry for all the updates in quick succession! Trying to get things up to date for you guys. 🙂

This is an excerpt from a short story directly in the Menyoral line. It’s the answer to the question: where was Evan during Oath Bound?

~*~

It’d been lovely seeing Mam and Pap again, and all his brothers and sisters and uncles and aunts and cousins, and Gram: all the clan. Still, Wallace couldn’t say he was sorry to see MacNair Hill shrink in the distance, either. It shrank until the other mountains blocked it from view and the North Wing faded into a purple shadow. Nothing had changed under Hill, and Wallace, in roaming the outside world for six years, had. He’d grown a foot, thereabouts, and even before he’d left he’d been ducking to get from room to room. His old bedchamber, which had been cramped when he’d left, was now too small to do much beyond get inside; and the touching fact that Pap had ordered it preserved exactly as he’d left it didn’t change the reality of his having to camp on the surface.

They’d all gushed over his beard, though, especially Pap. He rather thought they’d been more excited about that than about his leaf. It was short for a proper Bearded clansman, but that hadn’t stopped them. Sorcha, his sister, had done it up in two braids that hung down his neck. She was his elder sister. They all were older than he, really, but he’d out-aged them all except Sorcha, and even she was a little close for comfort. It was passing strange to have grown, well, older in his body than Alasdair, who’d always seemed so mature. And they all still thought of him as a bit of a baby, their human foundling.

Three rough-and-tumble, wrestling weeks with the MacNair clan had been more than enough. They were all sorry to see him and Evan go, but Mam had given him an extra-large box of lichen cookies, which he still had a taste for after all those years, and Pap a fine claymore forged just for him. And now, well, it was a nice time having Evan all to himself, without even Henry. Fine fellow he was, Henry, but he would make Wallace pluck and skin and dress every damned thing; he chewed mint and spat all the time, which was disgusting; knuckled Wallace’s head even when Wallace grew taller than he; and at least a hundred other irritating habits. Wallace missed him like mad.

Still, there was Evan. Everything seemed good with Evan about, and all to himself! Well—mostly. They’d joined up with a caravan about a fortnight out from the Hill, about three days out onto the vast plain called the Wastes: a wide expanse of short, browning grass, dotted with shrubs and every so often a wee, tough tree. Wallace had never been up here before. When he’d left MacNair Hill the first time, Evan and Henry had taken him straightaway over east to Knightsvalley. This time, like the first, they stopped at the great oak that had, so it was said, given the Lady Her beautiful staff.

This time they were off west rather than east, overland to Windish, for Evan didn’t like to sail. There, they were to meet with Vandis, Dingus, and Kessa. Wallace had never been to Windish, either, and the prospect of a place where everyone lived in massive trees excited him. He couldn’t wait to get there, but so far the journey had been all pleasure, and so mayhap he could wait a bit.

He and Evan walked together, even after they joined the caravan, swapping the new stories they’d picked up at Moot. There were a lot this year; Dingus had told plenty Wallace had never heard before, and he shared them all with Evan, sometimes smoking herb out of Evan’s pipe, which had been a gift from Santo, and which Evan had owned as long as Wallace could remember. It was shaped like a pelican’s head, smoother than silk, and inside the beak it was stained with black resin, and outside it was rubbed shiny by finger and thumb. He’d always wanted to smoke out of it with Evan, and now that he was a Junior, he had, and did. They shared with anyone who asked, except the kids, of course, and the stories they shared with everyone.

It was a wonderful day, though a bit hot and dry for Wallace’s taste. He had a mouth like cotton from the herb about an hour ago, and dust stuck to the sweat on the nape of his neck, but his new claymore bounced slightly on his back, sheathed and stowed in his baldric in case he should need it. Evan walked alongside, and for once they were quiet, enjoying the scenery and the way the late-afternoon sun flung their shadows out long on the short grass, behind and a little to the left.

The caravan pulled off the road in the gloaming. As night gathered and the stars began to wink in the indigo bowl of the sky, supper went on the smoldering fire of caribou chips: a big pot of oats and dried fruit, and a skillet the cooks kept sizzling with rashers of bacon.

Once the chores were done, the merchants and guards came together in the center of the circled wagons to talk and wait for the food. Wallace had been helping a few of the guards take the horses down a low rise to drink from a muddy streambed, nearly dry after two weeks with no rain, and now he led two back, reins caught up in each hand. He dropped them off where they were all being staked out to graze and headed for the fire himself.

Evan stood by one of the wagons, talking to Faisal, a merchant in the caravan. Wallace couldn’t quite hear them, but Evan turned when he came into the circle and returned the broad grin Wallace got at seeing him. When he turned back to Faisal, Wallace still grinned. Evan was little, so he was, short and slight with a sharp face, and it was a wonder he didn’t burst at the seams with greatness.

Wallace went to the fire. “Need any help?” he asked the women tending supper, Faisal’s wife and three daughters.

“Ah, no thank you, Wallace,” the wife said—he thought of her as Mrs. Faisal, to tell the truth. He couldn’t remember any of their names but the middle daughter’s. Zahira. He supposed he might be excused by anyone but Franny, since Zahira was about his age and so pretty his heart nearly stopped to look upon her. She usually wore a deep rose dress, very loose, with loose pants underneath, but when the wind blew it would tauten and silhouette her willowy shape, whether before or behind, and Wallace’s mouth would go dry. It might not have felt so bad, except there was Franny; and not only did he understand, now, about sex and how much fun it was, but he also couldn’t have any of it.

Well, he thought, when Zahira smiled at him with almond-pink lips, mayhap I could, but I oughtn’t. She had golden-olive skin that looked as soft as her mouth, and hair like shiny jet, and her eyes… black, black eyes. In the firelight she looked made of gold, and she ought to have been so far above his touch that not even in his wildest dreams could he have her, but she seemed to like him well enough.

“Hello, Wallace,” she said, tucking a thick lock of that hair behind her ear. The two thread-thin gold bangles she wore slipped down her wrist with her sleeve.

He gave her a slight bow; he didn’t trust his voice. His claymore shifted, and he straightened again, flushing, before it could knock him in the back of the head.

“Today I was listening to your story about the dragon with the head cold. How funny! I loved it.”

He kicked at a pebble. “I got it off my friend at Moot. You can be sure he told it better than I did.”

“I can’t imagine that,” she said, and then Mrs. Faisal scolded her to stir the porridge. Blushing, she wrapped a cloth around the handle of the pot’s lid. It took her two hands to lift it.

Wallace closed the distance between them in three steps, reaching for the thick, cast-iron lid. “Let me.” When he took it from her, their hands touched, and she blushed even more deeply, which made him blush. Stop it, he told himself, and thought firmly of Franny. While Zahira stirred the porridge with a long-handled spoon, he took a step back. Space ought to help. And he looked up, so as not to admire her bent over the pot. His vision adjusted slowly from bright fire to dark sky, and every time he blinked there were more stars shining above.

A thin shadow sailed down, blotting the stars. It looked to be coming toward him, and some instinct had Wallace raising the pot lid. Not half a heartbeat later, something pinged against it and fell to the ground at his feet. He stared down: an arrow. “Evan?” he called. “There’s an—Evan!” More arrows hissed down around him. He pulled himself in small, small as anyone his size could be, and still felt one graze him, just barely, shoulder to elbow, tearing his tunic but leaving his skin untouched. The rest thudded into the dirt around him, and one struck deeply into Faisal’s eldest daughter, sank into the juncture of neck and shoulder. She screamed, fell screaming, kept screaming into the sudden mayhem. She hardly bled.

Wallace lifted the lid over his head. The rest of the caravan scattered; more arrows rained down, bouncing off his makeshift shield, driving into Faisal’s daughter, and he swallowed a moan of fear. There, under the wagon that just a moment ago he’d been leaning on, was Evan, beckoning to him. He scuttled across the circle with the lid held high and slid underneath, just in time, an arrow thumping the earth where his hand had been not a blink before. He lay for a moment, gasping, looking at the shadowed bottom of the wagon. The claymore lay under him, uncomfortably hard in his back, and he turned to his stomach.

Evan turned, half upright, and looked out of the circle of wagons, a bare sliver of his sharp face visible in the dim firelight. The thunder of hooves came to Wallace’s ears, and the soft weeping of Faisal and his family. He followed Evan’s eyes, his breath snagging in his chest. Outside the circle he saw the shapes of horsemen: some few of the caravan’s outriders, the ones on shift, and more, huge, on great muscled steeds. Horses screamed, and men. One of the outriders was so close to the wagon when his horse took a blow that its blood ran underneath, wetting Wallace’s elbows before it soaked into the dry earth, and the rider thumped hard into the wagon overhead, shaking it.

Evan went to hands and knees, pulled a foot up, like a runner in competition.

~*~

This story was really a challenge to write. I hope you give the rest of it a look! It’s available here.

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