'Why am I not permitted to fight?'
Otah leaned back, and his mount, reading the s.h.i.+ft of his weight, slowed. His back ached and the raw places on his thighs were only half healed. The rain had soaked his robes, so that even the oiled cloth against his skin felt clammy and cold. The rain that pressed Nayiit's hair close against his neck also tapped against Otah's squinting eyes.
'How are you not permitted to fight?' Otah said.
'The men who are making the charge,' Nayiit said. 'The men I've been traveling with. That I've trained with. I want to be with them when the time comes.'
'And I want you to be with me, and with them,' Otah said. 'I want you to be the bridge between us.'
'I would prefer not to,' Nayiit said.
'I understand that. But it's what I've decided.'
Nayiit's nostrils flared, and his cheeks pinked. Otah took a pose that thanked the boy and dismissed him. Nayiit wheeled his mount and rode away, kicking up mud as he did. In the distance, the meadows began to rise. They were coming to the Dai-kvo from the north and west, up the long, gentle slope of the mountains rather than the cliffs and crags from which the village was carved. Otah had never come this way before. For all his discomfort and the dread in his belly, this gray-green world was lovely. He tried not to think of Nayiit or of the men whom his boy had asked permission to die with. We are his fathers, Maati had said, and Otah had agreed. He wondered if the others would also see Nayiit's duty as a protection of him. He wondered if they would guess that Danat wasn't his only son. He hoped that they would all live long enough for such problems to matter.
The scout came just before midday. He'd seen a rider in Galtic colors. He'd been seen as well. Otah accepted the information and set the couriers to ride closer and in teams. He felt his belly tighten and wondered how far from its main force the Galts would send their riders. That was the distance between him and his first battle. His first war.
It was near evening when the two armies found each other. The scouts had given warning, and still, as Otah topped the rise, the sight of them was astounding. The army of Galt stood still at the far end of the long, shallow valley, silent as ghosts in the gray rain. Their banners should have been green and gold, but in the wet and with the distance, they seemed merely black. Otah paused, trying to guess how many men faced him. Perhaps half again his own. Perhaps a little less. And they were here, waiting for him. The Dai-kvo's village was behind them.
He wondered if he had come too late. Perhaps the Galts had sacked the village and slaughtered the Dai-kvo. Perhaps they had had word of Otah's coming and bypa.s.sed the prize to reach him here, before his men could take cover in the buildings and palaces of mountain. Perhaps the Galts had divided, and the men facing him were what he had sp
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