Yet more from the beginning of the series of doorstopper fantasy novels that I am not writing.
The Great Stone Roads, when they were made, were widely hailed as marvels of thaumaturgical engineering, and observers had found both poetry and peril in the fact that they were wrought from magma channeled from the Maw of Cthrec Ygal itself. Smooth ribbons of a stone that was neither granite nor basalt, a foot thick and the width of three tall men, connecting every city between Ruin’s Rampart and the Sun’s Home—the like had been an aim of every Valithalan Regent since the Scourge of the Dinnain. But now the regency was abolished; Ain had stridden from the woods’ dark and made the Dinnain line anew, and with him the wizard Caleb Left-hand had finally come into his own, and stone roads were as commonplace as printed books and loom-woven cloth. And no regent had dared to dream of roads that spanned rivers without benefit of bridges, nor that stayed day-bright even at the blackest hours of night, nor that shed snow and ice like a hot pan sheds water drops. Even floods and mudslides seemed curiously reluctant to cover the Great Stone Roads; wolves and bears stayed clear of them while deer and rabbits loved to dwell close by, and the few old oaks that fell to block the roads rolled obligingly when they were pushed away, or else parted under the saw-crews’ blades like paper. There seemed to be only one factor neglected by Left-hand and his corps of engineers, and that was the movements of the earth, to which the stone of Cthrec Ygal had not been enchanted to adapt, or else resisted adaptation for reasons of its own. And so it was that each of the Great Stone Road hosted a few noticeable cracks. Most were hairlines, more apt to be found by the Tassarian fanatics who search the roads for the face of the Smithwife or the Adversary than remarked on by any traveler who wishes to get where he is going; a few were inches wide, and some of these had sheared enough to break a cartwheel or trip an uncareful walker.
It was by one of these latter that the girl found the old man. She was skinny, dark, and dirty, her eyes too big for her drawn face and her legs yet too long for her torso. He was no less dark, and no less dirty, but built like a beerbarrel and lying face down in a slick of blood, with his toe still positioned where it had evidently snagged the crack in the road to bring him down. At first she thought he had cracked his skull and died, but on examination, it seemed the blood came from a wound in his shoulder; his head seemed to have survived the fall intact, perhaps because his great thickness of beard had served as cushion. After the girl had made this determination, she took all his coins, ate as much of his food as she could comfortably stomach and then a few bites more, and took both weapons from his belt—the dagger, which she kept, and the blackened hammer, which she had to drag with both hands to hide it behind a spruce tree. She would have taken his boots, but they were huge and heavy, and even in her own state of questionable hygiene she did not wish to contemplate their smell.
After the girl had made these improvements to her own circumstances, she sat down by the old man (but not too close) and stared at the dagger for a while. During this time he woke up twice. The first was just to stir and make some noises that, though unfamiliar to the girl, were unmistakably obscenities. This made her look at the dagger rather more closely and wiped the look of well-fed satisfaction off her face, replacing it with the kind of misery one experiences when all options are unpalatable. The old man’s second waking was more vigorous, and he managed to lever himself up (with no help from the girl, who was frozen, her knuckles white around the dagger’s grip) and roll over on his back. From this posture he looked at his surroundings for a while and then focused on the girl.
“Where’s my hammer?” he asked.
“Not here.” She gestured with the dagger. “I have your dagger.”
“Right. Did you stab me?”
“No. You tripped.”
“I’ve heard that one before. `I was holding the knife to cut up some onions, and he just stumbled—”’
“Yeah, well, if I’d wanted to stab you, why wouldn’t I have just murdered you?” the girl asked, scornful. “Anyway, that’s not a stab wound.”
The old man looked over to his shoulder. “What do you know from stab wounds?”
“It’s ragged. If I’d stabbed you, it’d be clean.”
“I think you were right before,” said the old man. “You couldn’t stab a turnip. But if one happened to stumble into your knife, I’m sure the wound would be ragged. Why are you just sitting there?”
“Can you get up?”
The old man sat up. His eyes rolled back in his head, but he managed to catch himself before he fainted, and lowered himself back to the prone position. “Not if you believe that act.”
“I robbed you,” said the girl, “and now I’m deciding whether or not to kill you.”
The old man stared at the girl for a while. “Well,” he said. “Thanks for the warning.”
“It wasn’t meant to be a warning,” said the girl. “I wouldn’t have said it if I’d thought you could do anything about it.”
“I can always prepare my soul,” said the old man. “But I’d sooner reach some kind of accommodation.”
“Me too,” said the girl. “You seem like you’d be useful if you could walk. But I don’t know if that’s going to happen any time soon. But I don’t want to leave behind someone who might come after me later.”
“How would I even find you later?”
“We’re traveling the same direction on the same road,” said the girl. “Though I’m starting to think you aren’t very smart. Why are you trying to talk me out of helping you?”
“I’m trying to understand what’s going on,” said the old man.
“How does that usually work for you when you’re bleeding to death on the road?”
“About as well as backtalking potential allies works for little girls who are starving to death on the road.”
The girl shifted her weight a bit at that and looked down at the dagger. “When are you going to be able to walk?” asked the girl. “And how can you prove to me that you won’t hurt me when you can?”
“If you give me back my coin, my hammer, and my dagger, I won’t have any reason to hurt you,” said the old man. “I can’t get the food back, so I won’t try.”
“I need the dagger,” said the girl.
“You’re welcome to it,” said the old man. “And I can always make more coin, although I’d like that back. But you don’t trust me. And what I’m telling you is that, if you don’t trust me, the best thing for you to do is make sure I can’t gain by hurting you. Which means you should give back anything you think I might want, even if I say I don’t want it, so I don’t have to take it back. In case I do want it.”
The girl pressed her lips together and looked down at the road. “Sometimes men do things to girls.”
“Not me,” said the old man. “I’m not much for girls.”
“Sometimes men are vindictive.”
“I’ll sign a contract if it makes you feel better.”
The girl took a deep breath and let it out, then grabbed the dagger by the tip and sent it skittering across the stone to the old man. The coin-purse followed.
“Very good,” said the old man. “Now go get my hammer.”
The girl did, dragging it through the mud with two hands again. The old man winced when she dragged it over the stone; it shrieked and left a powdery white path. He took it by the handle, then hefted it one-handed; in his hands it seemed no heavier than the dagger. He picked up the dagger, which he had set down, then nimbly flipped it round and offered it grip-first to the girl. She shook her head. “I don’t want it.”
“I know. But I need you to have it. I can’t use it in a fight, not with this thing in my hands.” He hefted the hammer again, this time in his left hand, and spun it along the axis of the shaft.
“Are we going to get in a fight?”
The old man shrugged. “If we do, I won’t have time to toss it to you. Take it.”
She took it. “I warn you,” she said, “I’m pretty good with these.”
“I don’t doubt it,” said the old man. “What’s your name?”
She glared. “It’s Grim or nothing. What about you?”
“Lam. Nice to meet you, Grim.”
“Don’t say it that way.”
Grim glared again. Lam shrugged carefully out of his pack. “We’ll be on our way faster if you can feed me something.”
“I don’t feed men.”
“Then this could take a while.”
“I’ll go get firewood.”
“You couldn’t carry enough firewood to warm a thimbleful of spit. Anyway, I’ll be up in a few minutes. We’ll camp where there’s shelter.” Lam unlaced his pack and used his good arm to pull out a filthy blanket while Grim watched, making quick passes in the air with the dagger. The blanket was followed by a mostly-empty skin, a grease-spotted sack, and a little book bound closed with a leather thong. Lam pulled an apple and an onion from the sack; the apple was bright but bruised, the onion papery. He bit into the onion first, his eyes watering. “Got quill and ink in there?” asked Grim.
Lam took his time chewing before he spoke. “If I’m to teach you ciphers, I’ll have my coin back.”
“I know my glyphs and ciphers.”
Lam swallowed, coughed, then wrestled his way upright, though the effort bled what little color had returned to his face. “Then it costs double.”
Lam raised his eyebrows coolly and, just for a moment, Grim shrank back. Then her face twisted up into a sneer. “I suppose any comments I could make on your mouth would be superfluous,” Lam said evenly.
“Best not to make any, then.”
“True as f***.”
“Consider them unmade.” He frowned a bit in thought. “In the sense of never made. Not like I made one and then unmade it. Doubly superfluous.”
Lam took a bite of apple and shrugged. Then he took another bite. Grim looked resolutely away and began to play with the knife again. After a few moments of that, she got up. “I’m going to get some firewood. Might cut up some kindling with this.” She tossed the knife up and twirled it on its long axis, as Lam had done with the hammer, almost losing her grip when she tried to catch it again.
“Girl,” said Lam, “you may do as you like with that knife. Better than you have tried to blunt it.”
Grim made a face and stalked off. Lam waited for her back to turn for the last time—for she did turn back toward him twice, hoping to catch him looking—then took another bite of onion and watched her wander into the sparse forest. He chewed and felt the bits of onion burst, felt the stinging juice prick at his mouth and eyes.