Rain soaks the canvas of the wagon and drips spitefully down the back of my neck. Windy and wild, this rain is no blessing from the dark heavens. This is the weather for huddling up and enduring, for sitting indoors and listening to the pounding on roofs and gushing through gutters and drains. It is no weather for travel, but I must press on. I have long and far to go.

I may not sleep in an inn tonight. I am tired and sore, but old men are always tired and sore. It matters not where I lay my head tonight; tomorrow, I will be back in this wagon. Back in the rain. More tiredness and more pain.

I do not recall the way I came. I have pulled my wide cap low down over my brow. If you travel enough, all roads are the same. I am travelling through the forest—the dark forest—but the whole world is dark. It will be weeks before dawn. When will I see the Sun? Only moonlight lights my way.

On the wagon rolls. There, a man sits by the roadside, huddling beneath a tree, his ragged black clothing and wide straw hat soaked. He looks even more miserable than I feel. No one should be out in this rain.

The poet says that mercy is like rain. I do not see the similarity. Still, it would be a mercy—a simple mercy—to stop and offer the soaked man shelter and a lift. Small kindnesses are all the blessing I can give. I cannot stop the rain or make the Sun shine, but I can do this. I flick the reins and bring the horse to a halt.

“Hi, stranger!” I call, and the black-clad man looks up at me. “You look wet.”

“Yes,” comes the single, harsh reply.

“Can I offer you a lift?” I ask.

“Yes.”

The black-clad man jumps with surprising grace up onto the wagon beside me. Now that he is closer and in the light of my lantern, I can see that he is tall and thin, as tall and thin as I am. The lower part of his face is covered with a dark neckerchief to keep out the damp, but above, two bright, black eyes shine out. Across his back, I see that he carries a black-bound blade. Is he a warrior? He does not look like one. A warrior would be broad-chested, muscled, and better armed. He looks like a scraggy old man. He looks like me.

“My name is Utas,” I offer.

“Pleased to meet you, Utas,” the dark man replies.

I wait a bit, but he does not offer his name, so I ask.

“What is your name?”

There seems to be a bit of a pause, as a stiffness or readiness comes over the dark man. He looks at me and then answers, “Erroi.”

A single word; that is all he offers—nothing else.

“Pleased to meet you, Erroi,” I say.

“Yes,” replies Erroi. “Pleased to meet you.”

For a while, we trek on through the gloom and rain in silence. No, that is not correct; it is not silent. We hear the flapping of the wind through the canvas of the wagon, the slap of the horse’s hooves on the road, and the creaking of wooden wheels, but we do not share words—not for long miles. We do not sleep. Our eyes do not close. We gain no rest or peace. But we slumber, barely aware of the world passing around us.

I’d like to say I woke with a start, but I did not. A log—a fallen tree?—lies across the road. I can see it stretching straight across the track. There is no way around it. The road is too narrow to turn around, and even if I could, there is no other way to go.

Two men step out from the forest and stand at the side of the road. They are armed. They are well armed, and one of them is very strong looking. They are bandits. The two bandits have rolled the log across the path. I consider charging the horse past them to escape, but there is no chance of that; the old horse is unlikely to break into a gallop and the cart would most likely crack an axle going over the log. I have no option. I pull the wagon to a stop and say a silent prayer.

“May I help you, sirs?” I ask. Fear is no excuse for abandoning courtesy.

The two bandits snigger.

“Shut your trap and get down out of your wagon!” demands the larger of the two bandits. These two do look like warriors… or at least one of them does; he is big-chested and muscled. He is armed with a sword and shield, and he is clad in studded leather armour. There are two daggers hanging from his belt, and a round, metal cap covers his head. The scrawny bandit is dressed in rags and is unarmed. He walks to the horse and holds it so it will not bolt. Slowly, I ease myself down from the wagon. In some ways, it is nice to stretch for bit. Perhaps I will get only a small beating.

“You too,” demands the bigger thug, pointing at my passenger.

Erroi does not move. “Why?” he asks—a single, harsh question.

“Because I say so! Now move it, before I climb up there and drag you down by the bits!” snarls the bandit.

Erroi leans back with casual ease. “Yes,” he says. “Come up here.”

The bandit draws his sword and leaps to the wagon to pull himself up… or, at least, he tries to. I do not see clearly what happens. It is a blur of black cloth whipping, black blade swinging, bandit falling, red blood flowing, and bandit dying. It is so quick that I can barely gasp before it is over, and the air is tangy with the smell of blood… so much blood.

“Wha—” the small bandit and I stammer in unison, and before we can form a word, a black shadow flutters over me and over the bandit. There is no ringing of steel or clashing of swords. Instead, Erroi is now standing over the second prone bandit, and his black blade is pointed at the bandit’s throat.

“Wait,” I call, and Erroi turns to look at me, but keeps his blade against the bandit’s throat.

“What?” Again, a single, harsh question.

“There’s no need to kill him. You’ve bested him; just send him on his way.”

“If I do not kill him, he will return with others and try to kill us again,” says Erroi. “Better to kill him now. They would have killed us if they could have.”

“No, no, sir,” begs the bandit. “Stolen from you at least, perhaps beaten you a little, but not kill; we’re not murderers.”

“He was and would have,” says Erroi, indicating the corpse of the other bandit, and we both know he is speaking the truth.

Still, to save a life is not a small kindness; it is a great one. I can­not make the Sun shine or stop the rain, but I can plead for a life.

“He’s only a boy,” I say.

“Boys grow,” says Erroi, “and he will have friends.”

“Please,” begs the boy. “Kilhanga was no friend of mine. He used to beat me and made me come with him. I’ve never killed anyone, I swear.” We both know he is speaking the truth.

“What is your name?” I ask.

“My name is Mukito,” the boy replies.

A name is a magical thing, a special thing. Perhaps we could have killed a bandit in cold blood, perhaps we could have killed a boy in cold blood, but we could not kill him now. His name has made him real; it has made him one of us.

“My name is Utas, and this is Erroi,” I say.

Erroi looks at me with his black eyes. During the scuffle, his neckerchief slipped down from his face, revealing thin features and a long, straight nose. He looks at me and sheathes his sword. Is he disapproving or relieved? I cannot tell.

“So you have decided,” he says. “Boy, Mukito, you will come with us.”

“Come with you?” Mukito splutters as he gets to his feet.

“Yes. If you will not come with us, then I will kill you,” says Erroi.

“But—”

Before Mukito can say more, Erroi silences him with a glance. “Do not try to run away,” says Erroi.

Now Mukito is standing up in his ragged, muddy clothes. He looks barely more than a child; he is barely more than a child. He is a child.

“Perhaps the boy has a mother,” I suggest.

“Everyone has a mother,” says Erroi and gestures towards the log blocking our path. He and Mukito lift the log and roll it out of our path, and then Erroi climbs back up onto the wagon.

“Wait,” calls Mukito and runs over to the fallen body of his companion. He gathers up the dead bandit’s weapons and gear and strips him naked. I can see the cruel cut from Erroi’s sword tracing a line of gaping black-red down his chest. Mukito rolls the dead bandit out of the road and then, to my surprise, spits in the bandit’s face and kicks him hard.

“That’s for all the beatings you gave. I swore one day I would be even. I guess I’ll just have to settle for this. I am well rid of you.”

“Is there no kindnesses you would wish to repay also?” I ask, hoping to soften the boy’s anger.

Mukito just snorts.

“This is a harsh world, sometimes people in it are harsher than they mean to be,” I advise.

The boy does not reply.

“It seems that even though he beat you, he fed you and clothed you,” I add. “Perhaps he meant to train you up to be a bandit. Perhaps that was the only life he knew and that was all he could think to give you. He must have kept you safe from beasts, or perhaps from the bigger and worse members of your band. Surely, he has done some small kindness that you cannot now recall. Offer a prayer on your companion’s behalf. In that way, should his spirit cross your path, it will be in your debt.”

“A prayer will cost you nothing,” says Erroi. “Come with me and we will both say one. That way, should he come to haunt me tonight, he will be in my debt and then he will be merciful.” Erroi walks over to the corpse.

Mukito stands over the prone corpse beside Erroi; his head is bowed and he mutters a few words that I cannot hear. I can see a single tear trace a line on his already wet and muddy cheek. He wipes his eyes with a ragged sleeve, then he moves to put the bandit’s belongings in the back of the wagon.

“Wait,” I cry. “I don’t want that bloodied, flea ridden gear in with my cargo. If you want it, carry it in the front.”

Erroi gives me another strange look. I wonder if he knows what I am thinking. Mukito puts the gear in the front of the wagon and then climbs up.

“Yes, that’s right,” I say. “Stay in the front where we can see you. I don’t want you rifling through my wares.”

Now there is nothing to do but to ride on. Throughout the disturbance, the horse has remained calm and undisturbed. I climb up and seat myself between the two passengers and flick the reins. The horse starts forward. I move closer to my destination.

At first, we travel in silence—the same silence we travelled in before, full of the sounds of the wagon and the rain. Mukito would like to talk, but he is afraid, afraid and excited. Erroi has pulled his neckerchief over his long nose and tugged his straw hat over his eyes. He is pretending to be asleep. But he is not; he is watchful and alert. I do not talk. I must think what to say. I have seen that Erroi is more than just a traveller, and I have acquired a boy. It seems it will be difficult to rid myself of my passengers.

The boy cannot stay silent for long. “Where are we going?” he asks.

Where indeed? I think.

“There is a town further on,” I reply. “Can you see the lights? We will stop there and sleep.”

Erroi breathes in, a little mock snore laced with laughter.

“From there, you and your new master can go where you will,” I continue, irritated.

That gets Erroi’s attention. He straightens up and pushes his straw hat back. “I am not his master; you are. The boy goes with you.”

“You spared him. When we get to the town, you can either take him with you or let him go. He’s not coming with me. I have far to travel and scarce enough to feed myself on the journey,” I reply.

“You stayed my hand. The boy is your responsibility,” Erroi states flatly.

“If he was my responsibility, we would have left him where he was,” I respond.

“Killing him would have been more merciful than leaving him,” Erroi replies. “If he had gone back to his band empty handed, without the fat bandit, they would have killed him, and not a swift death with a single sword stroke.”

“Please,” says Mukito, “the great swordsman is right. Don’t send me back.”

Erroi laughs. It is a good, clear, ringing laugh, full of pleasure and amusement.

“I’m not a swordsman,” he says.

“I have never seen better,” says Mukito, and truthfully neither have I.

“I am not a fighter,” says Erroi.

“Are you a magician, then?” asks Mukito.

“No, I am not a magician,” says Erroi and pulls his straw hat over his eyes; he will say no more for now.


At length, we arrive at the town. It is a poor town and food is poor and expensive. But every town is poor and food is always poor and expensive, except when the Sun comes out. We halt at an inn and after I have made the horse comfortable and secured the wagon, I send Mukito to sell the weapons and the gear he took from the dead bandit.

“He will not come back,” says Erroi.

“If so, then may he prosper,” I respond.

To be rid of the boy for the cost of the few coins he can raise from selling the bandit’s gear will be a bargain. But Mukito does come back. Although he tries to hide it, Erroi is pleased the boy has returned. Perhaps he is a better man than I am. Who would wish a child to be cast adrift in this lawless place, with only a few coins to keep him?

“Will you bring your goods into the inn for safekeeping?” asks Mukito, and walks over to the wagon to help. But I shake my head and wave him away. Erroi laughs again.

We enter the inn. It is good to come in out of the darkness. There are lanterns and a bright fire. I turn to ask Erroi if he will eat with us, but he is gone. I feel a little sad. But Mukito and I sit at a table near enough to the fire to warm and dry us.

“It is like the Sun,” says Mukito, reaching towards the fire to warm his fingers.

“Have you seen the Sun?” I ask.

“No,” says Mukito. “I have just glimpsed it from a distance, but my mother always used to say the Sun is like a fire. One day, I hope I have enough gold to pay for a visit to the Sun.”

“It takes a lot of gold to visit the Sun. It is a far journey to the City of the Sun, and even then, Vatu only unshrouds it on one day a year. Other than that, you must pay gold and tribute to Vatu. Even then, he is as likely to keep your gold and send you away without opening the box of the Sun as he is to show it.”

“Have you seen the Sun?” asks Mukito.

I gesture to the innkeeper and he comes over.

“For both of us please,” I ask.

The innkeeper returns later with two bowls and places them in front of us. The food is poor and meagre, but Mukito is glad of it. It is not difficult to see that he has had a hard life.

“So,” I say. “You have a mother, at least?”

“Everyone has a mother,” replies Mukito.

“Yes, but not everyone can remember them, especially not poor bandit boys.”

“She’s dead,” Mukito says flatly, as if that explains everything. “She died when I was small.”

What to do, I wonder to myself. Perhaps I can place the boy with a tradesman or a hunter. I surely can’t take the boy with me. It is a pity that Erroi has deserted us. He could have taken him.

“Stay here,” I say and go back out to check the wagon. As soon as I step outside, Erroi appears.

“I thought you were gone,” I say. “I would have bought you a meal in gratitude.” I realize that I have not thanked him for… For what? For killing a man? For loading me down with Mukito? For saving me from a beating or death? I could not be grateful for any of that.

“I was here,” replies Erroi.

“Well, go and warm yourself by the fire. I have to check on a few things.”

I turn to go to the wagon, but Erroi remains where he is. I try again.

“Mukito is in there; you should keep an eye on him,” I say, but still Erroi remains. How can I get rid of him? “Here,” I say, casting a coin over to him. “Go and rent us a room.”

Erroi catches the coin with one swift, graceful, fluttering movement, but does not move. It is no use. I turn to go inside again and will come back later.

“I know,” Erroi says.

That stops me.

“Know what?” I ask.

“What is in the wagon,” replies Erroi.

“How can you know that?”

“I know,” says Erroi.

I see there is nothing for it. I tend to things and then return to the inn. Mukito is still sitting at the table, but now his head is lying on his arms and he is asleep. It is a shame to wake him. I gently shake him and gesture upstairs.

Our room is not large. There are three beds and some dirty-looking blankets. It makes no difference which bed I take; they all look hard and uninviting and smell of urine. Perhaps we would have been better to have camped out of town in the rain. Mukito takes his worn boots off and climbs into the nearest one.

Erroi is here. How he got in, I don’t know. I had locked the door behind us. He is sitting on the bed opposite me.

“You should bring her in,” he says. “She will be safer here.”

“Can I trust the boy? Can I trust you?” I ask.

Again, Erroi’s eyes hold a mocking look. “I think you can trust the boy, at least.”

“But not you?” I ask.

“No, not me,” Erroi says, shaking his head, “but I already know.”

Erroi helps me carry the bundle up to the room. We lock the door again and set the bundle on the floor. Carefully, we begin to unwrap it and there, lying in the blanket, frail and ill and beautiful, is my daughter.

I lay my daughter in the bed and I lie on the floor. I replace the dirty blankets with her soft, silken wrappings and she sleeps; her hand reaches out to me and her breath is soft. She sleeps through the night. It is a small kindness, for which I am grateful. I stay awake all night, looking at her glowing skin and pale, silvery hair. Even in this world, there are things too precious to lose; things a man will give his life for, things a man will give up anything for.

Erroi seems to sleep all night, but who can know for sure? Certainly there are soft snores from both him and Mukito. But perhaps he is also keeping watch. If so, I am grateful. I am grateful he saved the life of my daughter today also.

In the morning, it seems I slept after all. Erroi is awake and alert. Mukito is still asleep. He is barely bigger than my daughter. Perhaps we should wrap up Alaba before he wakes. I move to cover her with the silk wrappings, but as I do, Mukito wakes up. He rises up, snorting and stamping his feet and wiping his eyes. And then he stops.

“What…” he begins to say.

“Hush!” says Erroi. “No one must know she is here.”

Mukito gathers himself. He is a quick thinker. He nods his head and says nothing. He helps us wrap Alaba in her silks, and then Erroi and Mukito carry her to the wagon.

At least it has stopped raining. I am ungrateful for the blessing of rain. We gently place Alaba in the back of the wagon amongst the other bales of silk. You would think that the wagon contained only cloth.

“Where will you go now?” asks Erroi.

“Further on,” I reply. “To the next town, for now. That is enough for now.”

“Why is that town better than this?” asks Erroi.

I do not know how to answer. Maybe he is right; maybe we should rest here, for a while at least. I have been travelling so long and so far. In the end, there will be no roads left to travel. In the end, every journey finishes. But my journey is not over, not yet. I can still run. I say nothing and just shrug. Then I turn and hitch the horse to the wagon. Mukito has climbed up onto the wagon seat. To my surprise, so has Erroi. He has huddled down and pulled his straw hat over his eyes.

What is the name of this town? I do not recall. It is like so many other towns; a wall, a gate, a market, an inn, and soldiers. Vatu’s soldiers are everywhere. We wait to be allowed out of the gate. There is some kind of holdup. It looks as if the soldiers are checking for something. Perhaps my journey will end here. Eventually, it is our turn. A soldier comes up to the cart.

“Where are you going?” he asks.

“Kota,” I reply.

“That’s a long way,” replies the soldier cheerfully. “What are you taking there?”

I slip down from the wagon.

“Come, let me show you,” I say. “Silk, some of the finest you’ll ever see.” And I open the canvas flap at the back of the wagon. “When I get there, I’ll be able to sell this for a fortune. I’m getting old and this will be my last trip. When I sell this, I will have enough to settle down.”

The soldier looks and runs a hand over a bolt of fine, sky blue shot silk.

“It’s beautiful silk,” he agrees, looking over the load. I know what he is thinking. He is imagining his lover dressed in blue silk. He wishes to do her a kindness. A soldier is not paid well; it is a poor life, yet every soldier has a lover. Why is that?

“Yes, it is beautiful,” I agree. “I paid a good price for it. But I will get a better price when I sell it. There is a lot of it, though, and it took nearly all my coin to buy it. I had hoped to sell a little here to pay for our lodgings. I took that bolt to the market and the best offer I got was ten gold pieces for the whole bale. I’d rather starve than let someone steal from me.”

The soldier is startled. Ten gold pieces is a lot of money, but not an awful lot of money. Certainly more than a soldier could afford to pay. He sighs. The picture of his lover in blue silk begins to fade from his mind. I must work quickly.

“He said he wanted a sample to show a customer, and like a fool, I cut him a length. Look here.” And with that, I pull a length of cloth a yard long out from under the bolt of blue silk. A yard is not a lot of cloth, but it is enough for a chemise or bodice. “Totally worthless to me now.”

I must be careful. I can tell the soldier has a good heart and that means he will be harder to fool. I cannot just give him the cloth. He would think I was trying to bribe him, and that would make him suspicious. I take the blue cloth and start to fold it away. I shake it out on to the wagon, and in the torchlight, the blue silk billows like the sky in sunlight and settles on the wagon like a blue ocean. Because the soldier is not greedy, he will not ask me for it or offer me a price.

“You would think the fool could have offered me a few shillings for it, at least,” I grumble. The price is ridiculously low, but I know the soldier will not be able to afford more, and if he could, it would no longer be a small act of kindness to buy it for his lover.

“How many shillings would you want for it?” asks the soldier. I can hear hope in his voice.

“Why? Do you like it?” I ask. “Soldiers don’t wear blue silk very often.” My voice is laced with surprise.

The soldier blushes slightly; I forget that most of them are still children.

“It’s not for me. It’s for someone else,” the soldier says and blushes more. Now he is thinking not of his lover in her dress, but of her grateful and happy eyes.

“Well…” I hesitate. If I ask too much, the deal is off; too little and I arouse his suspicions.

“Twelve, twelve shillings,” the soldier says. “It’s all I can afford. You’ll need to wait here while I go and collect the money. Will you wait? Is it enough?”

The soldier is more honest than I thought. Twelve shillings is almost a fair price. I would rather he had offered less and let us on our way. I hesitate and the soldier misinterprets my pause.

“Fourteen shillings,” he says. “The sergeant owes me two shillings. I’ll get them from him.”

I cannot let him talk to his sergeant about us. That could be disastrous.

“How much have you got on you now?” I ask. “I had hoped to make the next town today. I don’t like to camp wild at my age; it hurts my bones. Give me what you’ve got and it’s a deal.”

Again, the soldier sighs. “Six shillings. But I’m off duty soon. I’ll give you the six now and catch up with you and pay the rest.”

“Yes, six shillings,” I agree. “The thing is worthless to me anyhow.”

I take the six shillings that the soldier has in his pouch. He offers me a few coppers that he has left over, but I wave them away. I hand him the folded silk, which he stuffs into his jerkin, and then he waves us on. We are through the gate.

How many lies did you tell today, old man? How many more lies will you tell?

Outside the walls, the glow of torches quickly fades as we follow the path onwards. There are torches along the pathway for the first few miles, but as we go on, they become fewer and finally stop. Soon, we are back in the gloom, lit only by our own lantern and by the stars. The moon has risen, but it is a bare fingernail of scarce light. As we leave the bare, withered fields, there is less and less company on the road. Eventually, we are trekking over desolate moorland. As far as I can see, there is only scrubby heath.

“Tell me now,” says Mukito. “What is going on?”

“Can I trust you?” I ask.

“Yes, of course!” says Mukito, forgetting that he tried to rob me just yesterday.

Perhaps Mukito is right; perhaps the past is insignificant, perhaps we just have to trust those around us. I suppose I need to trust Mukito and Erroi.

“I have lived in the City of the Sun,” I say.

Erroi interrupts. “You do not get brown skin like yours living anywhere else. Like I said, I know. You do not need to explain anything to me. I know.”

“I didn’t know that,” says Mukito. “I suppose it makes sense. The Sun makes skin golden. My mother told me that, but I never thought about it. Yours is very golden. Now that I think about it, it’s the most golden I’ve seen. Not that I’ve seen many with golden skin. My mother’s skin was golden, but not as golden as yours. And she had spots of gold on her face and arms, like a sprinkling of gold dust. Her hair was golden too, not like mine.”

“Freckles,” says Erroi. “They are called freckles. I think if you lived in the City of the Sun, then you’d have them, too. And your hair would turn golden.”

“Would I?” ponders Mukito. “Does everyone in the City of the Sun have freckles and golden hair?”

“No, indeed not.” I laugh. “Very few. Freckles are kisses of the Sun. The Sun must have loved your mother very much, by the sounds of it.”

“You don’t have golden hair,” says Mukito.

“No, very few people in the City of the Sun have golden hair. Most have dark hair and dark eyes, like mine. Dark skin, dark hair, dark eyes; they help shield you from the fierceness of the Sun. But golden skin and golden hair—they let you embrace the beauty of the Sun. You must not think we get to see the Sun every day in the City of the Sun. Only once a year will Vatu take the Sun to his highest tower and open the box of the Sun to shine on the city and the valley, for one day. Every other time, there are only cracks of sunlight coming through windows and under doors or glowing through the cracks in the stone walls of his palace.”

“Why does Alaba not have dark skin?” asks Mukito.

I cannot bring myself to answer; instead, we trek on farther through the dark. When the moon slips below the horizon, we stop. We have travelled far and now we are tired and hungry. We have not made the next town, but I did not really wish to. Mukito loosens the traces of the cart and rubs the old horse down. Then he leads the horse over to a clump of dry rushes. It is not much for the old horse to eat, but it is as good a meal as she will find in this desolate world. We will eat scarcely better. Erroi has collected a few dry twigs and lit a small fire using our lantern. We sit around the fire for warmth and I busy myself cooking a thin gruel. It will be poor fare, but scarcely worse than what we ate at the inn.

“How far from the Sun do you think we are?” asks Mukito.

Not far enough, I think, but just shrug and do not answer.

Erroi replies instead. “We are a long way from the Sun. On the day the Sun shines, it barely reaches here, I would guess. It must takes days, or weeks, possibly months to get to the City of the Sun from here. As you go further from the Sun, plants grow slower. In the Valley of the Sun, whole fields of corn sprout up and ripen, ready for harvest in a few hours, and apples burst into flower and fruit and flower and fruit over and over. Forests grow faster than a man can take an axe to them. Here, I’m guessing, the fields barely yield fruit.”

Mukito looks at Erroi, wide-eyed. “I don’t believe you,” he says and looks at me for support.

“Erroi is correct,” I tell him. “When the Sun is out in the Valley of the Sun, nature is bountiful and generous. It is a great blessing, but also hard work. Some will dance in the streets and celebrate the warmth and beauty of the Sun, but most of the people must harvest, and then harvest again and again, until the Sun goes away for another year. The Sun is glorious and fills your bones with strength and health. Even old men have the strength to chop and dig and plant and hoe and water and harvest.”

Mukito looks up. “When the Sun came out, Kilhanga would make me gather nuts and berries, great big baskets of them. But no matter how big the baskets were, we were always short of food just before the dawn came. We were always hungry those last few weeks before sunup. All you could see was a bright glow coming from the Valley of the Sun, and then the warmth. Even if it was hard work, it was still the best day of the year. When the Sun went down, we knew we would not be going to bed hungry. When my mother was alive, she would buy corn seed and we would plant it and harvest it, but after she died, Kilhanga never seemed to have any coin. Even when he stole it, it did not last.”

Erroi interrupts us again. “He is coming.”

I turn and see a lamp moving in the dark. It is the honest soldier riding towards us.

“You should let me kill him,” says Erroi.

“No, he is just an honest boy doing what he thinks is best,” I say, horrified because of the cruelty of the suggestion and because I know he is right.

“True,” agrees Erroi. “Still, it would be easier.”

Eventually, the soldier catches up with us. His face is smiling and he is pleased to see us. “Hosta loved the silk! Thank you so much,” he says. Hosta must be his lover. No, not his lover, his sister, a younger, favoured sister. The boy is kinder even than I had supposed. I cannot let Erroi kill him, no matter what.

The soldier dismounts and we pretend to make him welcome.

“You have come a long way,” he says. “I thought you were going to Kota. You’d have been better sticking to the main road. I was going that way, but I asked some travellers and they said they had not seen you and suggested you must have come this way.”

“You should not have troubled; this is a long ride for six shillings,” I say.

“Eight shillings,” corrects the soldier. “I said I would pay fourteen shillings. I got the two shillings the sergeant owed me. He grumbled a bit at first, but when I showed him the silk, he said even at fourteen shillings, it was a bargain.”

Part of me is glad he has told his sergeant. Now I cannot let Erroi kill him, no matter what. If I did, they would be hunting for a cartload of silk and three travellers all over the dark lands. We would be stopped and taken at any town we visited.

“Come,” I say. “Come and eat with us. Tell us your name.”

“My name is Zintoa,” says the soldier, “and I have to say, this is the worst gruel I’ve tasted in a long time. You should put some salt or honey in it, or berries. Don’t you know there are edible berries growing on the heath? Here, let me show you. You need to get right down to the moss.”

For a few minutes, he and Mukito take one of the lanterns and scrabble around in the heath. They return to the camp with a handful of dark red berries that look like drops of dried blood.

“Put them in the gruel and let them stew for a bit. They’ll burst and let the flavour spread, and a little sweetness. Trust me, it will be worth it,” says Zintoa. “But here, I’m forgetting to give you your money.” He hands over eight shillings.

“I thank you for your kindness, large and small,” I say, and I mean it. All kindness brings joy to the heart that receives them. I am touched to find such kindness in the dreary world.

In a few moments, the gruel is cooked, and I must say, much improved. Mukito carries a bowl over to the soldier and Erroi scoops up a large bowl for himself. Mukito is not much younger than Zintoa, a few years perhaps. A few years may seem like a long time to the young, but it is as nothing.

“Tell me, what was the holdup this morning?” asks Mukito. He is only trying to make conversation and means no harm, but I stiffen and Erroi shifts onto his feet.

“We were looking for a girl,” says Zintoa. “Vatu is determined to find her. Why, I don’t know. There are lots of girls in the world. How would we even know which one it is he’s looking for? When I gave Hosta the silk, I said we could dress her up and send her to Vatu. She’d like to live in the City of the Sun, and so would I.”

Mukito looks down at his feet guiltily. I hope that Zintoa does not notice and I curse Mukito for a fool under my breath, but it is not his fault. I should have trusted him. I should have told him. Erroi was right.

“Why would you like to live there?” I ask.

Zintoa laughs. “Why, because it is always warm and bright and there is lots to eat. Sometimes you can go up to Vatu’s palace and he has big parties where he opens up the box of the Sun and you can all dance and sing in the sunlight for days and days on end.”

“Really?” asks Mukito.

“Well, I don’t know. I’ve never been there, but that’s what they say,” says Zintoa.

Is that what they say? Perhaps it is. Those that have never been there can imagine whatever they like. Certainly, there are parties at Vatu’s palace, where girls must dance for days on end, and other things.

“I thank you again for your honesty and kindness,” I say. “But you have a long ride home now. Perhaps you should be going.”

I am bad mannered to suggest a guest should leave, but Zintoa is not offended.

“Yes, of course,” he agrees and turns to mount his horse. Perhaps if he had ridden off then, all would have been well. Perhaps the Gods punish me for my rudeness. Perhaps all things are written and the Gods’ will always prevails. But as he turns to leave, a great beast rears up from the moor. Where it has come from, I do not know. It must have been stalking us. Our horse rears and screams and Erroi leaps to his feet. Erroi moves to draw his sword, but Zintoa rushes forward towards the beast.

“Leave this to me!” he cries with the confidence of youth and draws his sword. Erroi ignores Zintoa’s request and moves to intercept the beast before it can harm the soldier.

I stay him with a motion of my hand.

Erroi looks at me reproachfully. “You will not let me kill the soldier, but you will let him die thinking he is defending us?” he hisses.

Shamed, I nod, and Erroi leaps forward in blur of black cloth and shadow. The beast, a great cat, is dead instantly, but not before raking its claws across Zintoa’s arm and chest. The soldier is wounded, not fatally, but severely. There is lots of blood. Mukito is first to Zintoa’s side. He is the only one of us who is not thinking it might be better if the soldier dies.

“Hold still,” says Mukito, and checks Zintoa’s wounds. “You have ribs broken and you are losing blood. Quickly! We need to bind and clean these cuts. There are a couple of punctures that look worrying.”

Erroi is looking at me. I know what he is thinking, but the soldier has done me small kindness and I owe him that at least.

“There is canvas in the wagon,” I say. “It is stiffer than silk and more absorbent. It will give more support. Also, you will find oil; use it to wipe the wounds, then cut the canvas into strips and bind them.”

Mukito runs to the wagon.

“Also,” I continue, “bring out Alaba. She will need to be fed. The soldier will not be going anywhere now. We cannot wait for him to leave and we cannot hide her longer.”

Zintoa seems not to hear. He is crying softly in pain. He is lucky to be alive; the cat would surely have killed him. We are also lucky to be alive. Once again, Erroi has saved my life. Even now, in despair, I live. The Gods have saved me; I am faithless.

Erroi tends Zintoa’s wounds, and Mukito and I carry Alaba over to the fire. He feeds her what is left of the gruel and I watch. Alaba eats well. I did not think she would eat so much.

Zintoa struggles to sit up. “Will you kill me now?” he asks. He understands. He is quicker than I took him for.

“Of course not!” Mukito says. “Utas is not a murderer, and neither am I.”

May the Gods bless you, Mukito, for reminding me of that.

“But you think I am?” asks Erroi, with amusement.

“No, not a murderer,” says Mukito.

Zintoa sinks back and sighs. “Then what?” he asks. It is the question we all wish we could answer.

“We could leave you here after we’ve gone,” suggests Mukito, but we all know that would be murder by another name.

“I could take him back to town,” Erroi suggests, but can I trust the life of the honest boy to the dark man? Erroi told me I could not trust him.

“I’ll take him,” says Mukito. “On his horse. We can lash him to the horse and I’ll lead it to the town.”

“What happens to you, boy, when you turn up with a soldier’s corpse?” sneers Erroi, and he is right. Even if Zintoa is not a corpse, Mukito will be locked up, or worse. It would be his death instead of the soldier’s. How is that fair?

“We’re going nowhere tonight. We need make no decisions now. Bring Zintoa closer to the fire. When you lose blood, you lose heat. We need to keep him warm. There are blankets in the wagon. Bring them. And make sure he drinks enough water,” I say.

Once the soldier is settled, I carry Alaba close to the fire. She also needs to keep warm. I sit and watch the stars spin in the heavens. I cannot sleep. Mukito is sleeping and Erroi is at least pretending to sleep. But Zintoa lies all night with his eyes open, staring at Alaba and the soft glow that comes from her skin. I cannot see her face, but she does not turn away from him.

In the dark lands, there is only one dawn. Each day is signalled only by the singing of birds at the rising of the moon. The birds sing and Erroi and Mukito awaken. There can no longer be any delay. It is time to decide. No. I have already decided.

Mukito goes to wrap up Alaba.

“Leave her,” I say, and I carry Alaba and set her carefully in the front of the wagon. She looks at me, saying nothing, but she smiles; perhaps she knows what I will do. Then I carry Zintoa and place him beside Alaba.

“So,” says Erroi. “That is not what I would do.”

“Thank you for your kindness, my friend,” I say. “Please look after Mukito.”

Then I turn the wagon and trek back to the town.

“Goodbye, friend,” calls Erroi.

“Wait!” shouts Mukito, but Erroi is holding him back.


© 2020 David Rae