Frej Wasastjerna


     Radeyann finished preparing his Firelance spell and sighted at the deer a couple of hundred feet distant. It seemed not to have noticed him, hidden as he was behind a fir. While he still disliked killing animals, the expedition had to eat. Here in the northern wilderness, people from whom it could have bought food were few and far between, even if it had had enough money or trade goods to spare for food.

     Just as he was about to cast the spell, he heard a scream behind him. It sounded like a child. He jumped up and turned. In the tall grass beyond the edge of the forest, a head topped with bristly hair moved rapidly away from him, as if a four- or five-year-old child were running. In the sky, an erpinya was diving toward that head, beak wide open and talons extended.

     He launched the Firelance at the erpinya, being careful to aim a little ahead. It hit the erpinya squarely, blowing its chest open.

     The head rose a little higher and looked at him. It wasn't a human child: no humans had that shade of gray-brown skin or a lumpy nose like that, at least none he had seen yet. It had to be a piek. Not that he had ever seen one before, but in the bestiaries in the library of the White Order there were pictures like that. So he had wasted a Firelance rescuing a half-grown piek.

     He turned around again. The deer was gone, of course.

     Well, they would have to eat erpinya meat, then. It was edible, and there was plenty of meat on a flying reptile of that size, but it tasted nasty.


     Half a year earlier, he had stood in the Hall of Justice in Miann-Shadalni.

     "The verdict of the Commission," High Commissioner Virantek had intoned, "is that Radeyann acted correctly in returning to Fuvan from Halann. The situation had grown too dangerous. Horekt was guilty of insubordination and sabotage, but since it seems likely that he saved the expedition by bringing the situation to a head the way he did, he is merely docked twenty days' pay.

     "The expedition was only partially successful, though. Although it did return with a lot of interesting information, there still remains much to learn about the lands to the west. Therefore it is the decision of the Commission to order Radeyann to lead a new expedition to explore the west. Since the declining health of the Emperor, may he live ten thousand years, and the uncertain succession suggest the possibility of a political crisis in the not too distant future, we cannot send a large expedition. It is decided to send three junior wizards, including Radeyann, who has demonstrated his resourcefulness, and three soldiers, posing as traders this time in the hope that the Halannians will be less suspicious of traders. Radeyann may choose the other five members, provided they volunteer and the Order can spare them..."

     Beredan had volunteered, but Garak had not. "I'm sorry," he had said, not looking Radeyann in the eye, "but I think that, uh, that sort of, well, dangerous life isn't for me. I'll rather stay in the library and do some reasonably safe research or something..."

     Who wouldn't prefer that, Radeyann had thought. Do you think I like risking my life? But as a Kahha I'll never win the right to marriage without risks. Anyway, I was never asked. The Commission volunteered me, and that was that.

     Instead of Garak, they got another apprentice sorcerer named Maraktin. To Radeyann's great relief, Medor had volunteered and had taken with him two other soldiers from the previous expedition, Lisken and Hedral.

     The next quarter-year had been used for planning, preparing and waiting for reasonable weather. It had been decided that the new expedition would take a much more northerly route, skirting the northern edge of the Great Steppe. Maybe, by going through the northern forest, they could avoid the sometimes belligerent nomads of the Great Steppe. Moreover, it would be good if they would reach Halann somewhere far to the north, where presumably nobody would recognize the members of the first expedition, possibly suspected of espionage or something.

     One day in late winter, the new expedition had set out almost due north with six men and twelve horses, six of them carrying trade goods. In the event, Radeyann's suspicions that moving through the forest itself would be too laborious and slow had proven justified, so the expedition had followed the edge of the forest. At night they rode across the steppe, in the daytime they slept in the forest or walked through it, leading the horses.


     Radeyann was on guard together with Hedral. The other four men were sleeping in the tent. Radeyann was sitting on a convenient stone, relieving his boredom by trying to think up variations on the Dispell Magic spell but at the same time sweeping his gaze over the surrounding forest. Hedral was pacing back and forth.

     The forest appeared entirely peaceful in the slanting afternoon sunlight. Insects flitted among the dark fir trees, alighting on white and yellow flowers that Radeyann didn't recognize. A cuckoo called in the north, but Hedral's footsteps covered most other sounds.

     Out of the corner of his right eye, Radeyann sensed movement. He immediately turned his head in that direction but saw nothing suspicious. Then he heard a rustling on his left and looked that way and saw a naked tail with a bush of hair at its end -- a piek tail? He stood up, then Hedral shouted, "Alarm! Wake up!"

     Radeyann wondered what spell to use if they were attacked. A Fireball might be the most effective choice, but did he dare use it in a dry forest?

     Several pieks rushed out of the forest. They had sneaked up to within a hundred feet before being detected. There was no time for a spell if they were hostile. Pieks generally got on well with humans, but the way these were running towards the camp seemed hostile. Radeyann drew his dagger.

     A piek threw a net at him. It wrapped itself around him. He tried to cut it with his dagger, but he had severed only one strand when the pieks were upon him, throwing him down and pinioning his arms.

     He struggled, but in vain. The pieks were smaller than he was, about four feet tall, but there were too many of them and they were stronger than they looked. In a minute they had his wrists bound painfully tightly behind his back and his mouth gagged. In the meanwhile other pieks had captured both Hedral and the men in the tent. The horses neighed in alarm, but they were tethered to nearby trees and couldn't do anything.

     While he couldn't move his arms to gather uruop the way he usually did for a spell, a little would have seeped into him anyway, enough for a weak spell. But with his hands bound he couldn't shape it for a spell, so he was no more able to use sorcery than to fight.

     The pieks raised him upright, then they began marching off to the northeast with all six human captives and all twelve horses. Not only his wrists hurt, so did his rear and back, which had taken the blow when he fell.


     Distressing as the situation was, there was one good thing about it. He had an opportunity to observe the pieks. They looked just like the more reliable books said: like small, lumpy humans with gray-brown skin, unruly pale hair and a tail, dressed in animal skins. Some of them carried spears and all of them had knives, while a few carried nets like the one that had captured him. On the few occasions they said anything to each other, they spoke an unfamiliar language, but it didn't sound too unlike the human languages he knew. They were perhaps less inclined to chatter than humans would have been.

     The question was: would he ever be able to bring this information back to Miann-Shadalni?

     Another good thing was that, since Makatrin too was gagged, they were at least spared his wisecracks.


     Finally they came to a clearing filled with other pieks. The whole clearing was already in shadow, only the treetops around it were still in sunlight. In the middle of the clearing a big fire was burning. On each side of the fire stood a thick, forked stick, and another stick, long enough to span the distance between the two forked sticks and, as far as he could estimate, thick enough to bear the weight of a big elk, leaned against the forked stick on the right.

     Preparations for supper were apparently under way. But he couldn't see any meat lying around. The books said pieks usually didn't eat humans.


     With his mouth dry in spite of the skin gag and with his testicles feeling as if they were trying to crawl into his belly and hide, Radeyann hoped that, if this was going to prove an exception to the rule, the pieks would at least kill him and the others before frying them.

     An old-looking piek said something and pointed at Makatrin. Two other pieks grabbed him and marched him towards the fire, then one of the drew his knife.

     Somebody shouted.

     A small piek emerged from the crowd and shouted something to the one who had just given an order. The two talked for a while, then the old one gave a new order.

     The men were ungagged. Then the old piek said something.

     As leader of the expedition, Radeyann supposed it was his job to answer. "Excuse me, I don't understand," he said in Tshezz. With his hands bound, he couldn't cast any language spell.

     The old piek spoke again. Suddenly Radeyann recognized the language -- it was Kahha, his own native language! The accent and grammar were atrocious, and moreover it was more than a decade since he himself had spoken or heard Kahha, but now he recognized it.

     "Does you speak Kahha?" the piek had asked.

     "Yes, I speak Kahha," Radeyann answered.

     "You comes here in our forest without permission and poaches our animals. That means you shoulds be killed. But this small brat says you saves his life, so we not kills you."

     "I'm sorry, I didn't know we were supposed to get permission to enter your forest and to hunt here."

     "You kills our animals without permission and without apologize to they's souls. That very wrong. But if you not know that and if you save small brat, we not kill you. But you musts promise to help we."


     "Water trolls in river kills us when we goes to river. You musts help we kill water trolls. Promise?"

     Radeyann hesitated. He didn't want to promise to kill anyone, especially not to kill beings who had done him no harm just to help beings who had very nearly killed him and his comrades. On the other hand, he had to promise something. Presumably the pieks wouldn't release the humans otherwise.

     "I promise to help you," he said.

     "You musts swear to it. Swear on something important."

     "I swear on my honor as a member of the White Order to help you."

     That was not an oath to break lightly, but it could be broken if really necessary. To members of the White Order honor was important, but less important than duty. Besides, since he had sworn under duress, the oath wasn't really binding. But he did have to try to uphold his oath, though he did not consider himself obliged to commit murder for its sake.

     He also had to swear on behalf of the whole expedition that they wouldn't harm the pieks. Then he had to tell the other members about that oath. After that the men were released.

     "What was all that about?" Medor asked when he was ungagged.

     Secretly pleased that, for once, being a Kahha had proved useful, Radeyann related the conversation to his comrades. The old piek wanted to start the campaign against the water trolls immediately, but Radeyann pointed out that, for humans, it was difficult and even dangerous to walk through a forest at night, and in any case they were tired. The piek consented to wait until dawn.


     They reached the river in early afternoon. Radeyann had spent the day planning what to do, and now he began to execute his plan.

     He walked right to the edge of the water, then said in Kahha, "Stay well away from me, at least two hundred feet distant! The spells I cast will be dangerous!" He made shooing motions with his hands, and the old piek spoke in his own language to the other ones.

     Then Radeyann told the other expedition members to stay clear also. Soon some of the pieks were out of sight in the forest, the others, along with the humans, crowded the bank a couple of hundred feet upstream and downstream of him.

     He began by casting a language spell on himself so that any sentient being nearby would understand him and he it, regardless of what language it spoke. The uruop flowed strong and clear here, presumably not depleted by earlier use, so he felt invigorated by the spell rather than tired. Then he crouched down and slapped the water thrice. "Is anybody there? I, Radeyann of the White Order, call on you to come forth!" he shouted.

     For a while nothing happened. Then a head emerged in midstream: a pale green head with a crest like the dorsal fin of a fish. "What do you want?"it said.

     "Are you what the pieks call a water troll?" he asked.

     "Yes. We call ourselves the athisik. What kind of being are you and what do you want?"

     "I am a human, a sorcerer from the White Order in Miann-Shadalni in the Empire of Fuvan. The pieks have compelled me to promise to help them. They complain that your people kill them. Is that true?"

     "Yes, and why not? They shit and piss in our river, and they steal our fish. Is that not reason to kill them?"

     "Maybe," Radeyann said slowly. "But, if they were to stop shitting and pissing in your river and stealing your fish, would you then be willing to leave them alone?"

     Now the athisi paused. "Maybe," it too said. "That is not a question I can answer myself. Our people must talk it over."

     "Then do so. I will in the meantime discuss this proposal with the pieks."

     The head vanished, and Radeyann went upstream to the old piek. The pieks had heard the exchange; some of them approved of Radeyann's proposal, a few did not. The whole tribe gathered in the forest near the river and began debating.

     Some hotheads opposed any restrictions on the "immemorial right of our tribe to piss in the river". Others considered the idea reasonable. After a while the leader lost his temper and shouted, "What would you say if the water trolls were to piss in your drinking water? This human has made a quite reasonable proposal, and we should accept it!" A few young males glowered, but the tribe decided to accept.

     The humans and pieks had to spend the night in the forest waiting for the response of the athisik, but the next morning two athisik showed up with an affirmative answer. It then took a while to hammer out the details, but in the end it was agreed that the pieks would no longer defecate or urinate in the river. Anyone who broke that law would be punished by the pieks themselves with a severe spanking, and if he repeated the offense, he would be killed. The athisik, on their part, would use the right bank of the river, not the left one where the piek tribe lived, when they needed to shit or piss.

     Pieks were forbidden to fish, but they could buy fish from the athisik in return for meat and timber, which the athisik promised not to take from the left bank of the river, and for any other trade goods that might suit both parties.


     “We were awfully lucky,” Medor said.

     For a while Radeyann didn’t bother replying. He just lay on the raft, gazing idly at the trees slipping by as twenty athisik towed the expedition downstream, towards the west. Finally he said, “I have to agree. Making peace can’t often be this easy. The pieks and athisik must have grown accustomed to being enemies, with no one really wondering whether it might be possible to find a way out. Well, they are said not to be very intelligent.”

     “Humans can be pretty stupid too,  when we want to,” Beredan said.

     “Sure,” Medor said. “But I didn’t just mean that. We came as close as that to being killed, but instead we wound up not just alive but given food for twenty days by the pieks as thanks for making peace, and with the athisik giving us a free ride. And all because you happened to save a piek child.”

     “All’s well that ends well,” Beredan said. “I, for one, am a bit tired of walking across a continent for the third time.”

     “I don’t doubt that Whitejaw agrees,” Radeyann said, looking at his horse. “Still, it scares me how close it came to ending badly. I hope we don’t have more adventures like this.”