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datatime: 2022-12-03 21:09:28 Author:vuQyGsSa

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.

What I had been snarling for earlier now seemed like an abandonment. The fear surged up in me, undercutting my resolve. I sat up abruptly, panicky. I took a long shuddering breath. "Burrich. What I said to you earlier, I was angry, I was ..."

"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.

"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.

"I first fought for some petty land chief in Chalced. Jecto. Not knowing or caring why we fought, if there was any right or wrong to it." He snorted softly. "As I told you, a living is not a life. But I did well enough at it. I earned a reputation for viciousness. No one expects a boy to fight with a beast's ferocity and guile. It was my only key to survival amongst the kind of men I soldiered with then. But one day we lost a campaign. I spent several months, no, almost a year, learning my grandmother's hatred of slavers. When I escaped, I did what she had always dreamed of doing. I went to the Six Duchies, where there are no slaves, nor slavers. Grizzle was Duke of Shoaks then. I soldiered for him for a bit. Somehow I ended up taking care of my troop's horses. I liked it well enough. Grizzle's troops were gentlemen compared with the dregs that soldiered for Jecto, but I still preferred the company of horses to theirs.

"I first fought for some petty land chief in Chalced. Jecto. Not knowing or caring why we fought, if there was any right or wrong to it." He snorted softly. "As I told you, a living is not a life. But I did well enough at it. I earned a reputation for viciousness. No one expects a boy to fight with a beast's ferocity and guile. It was my only key to survival amongst the kind of men I soldiered with then. But one day we lost a campaign. I spent several months, no, almost a year, learning my grandmother's hatred of slavers. When I escaped, I did what she had always dreamed of doing. I went to the Six Duchies, where there are no slaves, nor slavers. Grizzle was Duke of Shoaks then. I soldiered for him for a bit. Somehow I ended up taking care of my troop's horses. I liked it well enough. Grizzle's troops were gentlemen compared with the dregs that soldiered for Jecto, but I still preferred the company of horses to theirs.

"Duke Grizzle sold Neko and six mares, and I went with them. Up the coast, to Rippon." He cleared his throat. "Some kind of horse plague went through that man's stables. Neko died, just a day after he started to sicken. I was able to save two of his mares. Keeping them alive kept me from killing myself. But afterward, I lost all spirit. I was good for nothing, save drinking. Besides, there were scarcely enough animals left in that stable to warrant calling it such. So I was let go. Eventually, to become a soldier again, this time for a young prince named Chivalry. He'd come to Rippon to settle a boundary dispute between Shoaks and Rippon duchies. I don't know why his sergeant took me on. These were crack troops, his personal guard. I had run out of money and been painfully sober for three days. I didn't meet their standards as a man, let alone as a soldier. In the first month I was with Chivalry, I was up before him for discipline twice. For fighting. Like a dog, or a stallion, I thought it was the only way to establish position with the others.

"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.

"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.

"I first fought for some petty land chief in Chalced. Jecto. Not knowing or caring why we fought, if there was any right or wrong to it." He snorted softly. "As I told you, a living is not a life. But I did well enough at it. I earned a reputation for viciousness. No one expects a boy to fight with a beast's ferocity and guile. It was my only key to survival amongst the kind of men I soldiered with then. But one day we lost a campaign. I spent several months, no, almost a year, learning my grandmother's hatred of slavers. When I escaped, I did what she had always dreamed of doing. I went to the Six Duchies, where there are no slaves, nor slavers. Grizzle was Duke of Shoaks then. I soldiered for him for a bit. Somehow I ended up taking care of my troop's horses. I liked it well enough. Grizzle's troops were gentlemen compared with the dregs that soldiered for Jecto, but I still preferred the company of horses to theirs.

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.

"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."

"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.

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.

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

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

"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.

"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?"

"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.

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

"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.

Burrich had taken Nosy away from me when I was less than that age. I had believed him dead. But Burrich had experienced the actual, violent death of his bond companion. It was little different from dying oneself. "What did you do?" I asked quietly.

I heard him making up his bed and lying down on it. "I learned to talk," he said after a bit. "My grandmother forced me to survive Slash's death. In a sense, I transferred my bond to her. Not that I forgot Slash's lessons. I became a thief, a fairly good one. I made my mother and grandmother's life a bit better with my new trade, though they never suspected what I did. About a hand of years later, the blood plague went through Chalced. It was the first time I'd ever seen it. They both died, and I was alone. So I went for a soldier."

"I first fought for some petty land chief in Chalced. Jecto. Not knowing or caring why we fought, if there was any right or wrong to it." He snorted softly. "As I told you, a living is not a life. But I did well enough at it. I earned a reputation for viciousness. No one expects a boy to fight with a beast's ferocity and guile. It was my only key to survival amongst the kind of men I soldiered with then. But one day we lost a campaign. I spent several months, no, almost a year, learning my grandmother's hatred of slavers. When I escaped, I did what she had always dreamed of doing. I went to the Six Duchies, where there are no slaves, nor slavers. Grizzle was Duke of Shoaks then. I soldiered for him for a bit. Somehow I ended up taking care of my troop's horses. I liked it well enough. Grizzle's troops were gentlemen compared with the dregs that soldiered for Jecto, but I still preferred the company of horses to theirs.

Burrich cleared his throat again. I heard him shoulder deeper into his bed. For a time he was silent. He went on again at last, almost unwillingly. "The third time they dragged me in, it was for brawling in a tavern. The City Guard hauled me before him, still bloody, still drunk, still wanting to fight. By then my fellow guards wanted nothing more to do with me. My sergeant was disgusted, I'd made no friends among the common soldiers. So the City Guard had me in custody. And they told Chivalry I'd knocked two men out and held off five others with a stave until the Guard came to tip the odds their way.

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