Written specially for Grace, who is not quite three months old. Someday she’ll maybe appreciate it. Return of Baral Favain the Shendi Prince.
My dear, let me tell you about Baral Favain. He was a prince, which is a point in his favor, but he was a Shendi – and that is most certainly not. But perhaps it can be forgiven him, for it is accounted to him as righteousness that he once brought water to a prisoner his people had marked for death, and that this was the deed that caused him to be cast from his father’s tribe and banished to live among the people of a place far removed from his people’s territory.
Because the thrice-accursed Shendi were not then known here, and the king had no inkling of their evil usages and the cruel customs they practiced in the darkness of their nomadic camps, he let Baral Favain live, and not only live but dwell freely wheresoever in the land he was minded. It pleased the exiled prince to be humble, and to build with his own hands a hut of logs, among the simple farmer folk in the wooded foothills of the southern mountains that border the desert.
At first the people were wary of him, and the young children would dare each other to creep up and throw stones at his door before running away again, but as time passed, and they cautiously watched Baral Favain going about his quiet life, collecting wood for his fire, and snaring chikkas, the tree-climbing rodents, for his food, they came to see that he was a man of peace who had laid aside his sword – for the present – but might be provoked into drawing it again and was therefore still dangerous.
One night, the night of the fierce blue electric storm that destroyed the Freedom Tower in the beautiful capital city, the night of the khamsin from the desert, Olik Petir, the son of a woman in the hamlet among the hills, had stayed out late to find his mother’s milk-beast that had strayed into the forest, and was caught in the storm. For hours he stumbled to and fro in the swirling darkness, here tripping over a tree root and falling heavily among the hard wooden burrs of old shems-tree nuts, there staggering in the sand whipped up by the khamsin and running into a riyo-tree, crushing the deep violet flowers that blossom forth direct from the trunk, and releasing their heady scent that hypnotizes all but husky, puissant men of many battles.
Finally, Olik Petir came to a glade where the grass was short and close as if kept cropped by a flock of wool-beasts – as indeed it was. A blaze of light streamed from the unshuttered window of a hut at the end of the clearing, and toward this the boy made his unsteady way, leaning doggedly forward against the gale that slapped the hems of his shabby gray tunic against his legs, and flung fistfuls of sand and locks of his long dark hair across his face. As he approached, the door of the hut was slammed open, and a sinewy arm shot forth to drag Olik Petir within the sturdy walls.
Coming into the hut was like entering another world. All was peace and stillness, as if the raging storm were no more than a vague and troubled memory. From where Olik Petir stood on the threshold, with the door closed at his back, he saw a single long, low room, with rafters of the riyo-wood that is bluer than the blood in the veins of the king and smells sweetly sharp like newly mown hay. The walls were framed with beams of the same wood, and between the beams the logs were made flat with an adze, and washed white with fine river clay. In a fireplace of undressed rough stone, halfway along the room, a crackling fire gave a seeping warmth and a ruddy glow to the whole hut. The firelight glittered coldly on the huge green gem in the pommel of the broadsword, taller than Olik Petir himself, which hung down the end of the settle drawn up on one side of the hearth, and hotly over a suit of mail on the opposite wall.
Olik Petir shuddered in dread.
“Art hungry, lad?” asked the owner of the hut. The boy perceived that it was Baral Favain, and fell instantly to his knees.
“S-sir,” he stammered, “I pray you… I did not mean to trouble your eminence! My mother needs me; I beg you, let me go.”
“Thou’lt get but small ways in yonder storm, friend,” cautioned Baral Favain, going to a cupboard the boy had not noticed, and emptying it entirely, fetching forth bread and wine, milk, fruit, and meat. “Wilt stay to sup with me?” The Shendi prince laid these things, with trenchers, horn cups, and a tall candle, upon the trestle table before the settle. He was tall and stalwart, Olik Petir saw with a tremble in all his young joints, and though the prince’s gray eyes were gentle to the point of sadness, his mouth was set in a solemn line and his auburn hair flamed fiercely in the light of the fire.
“If you wish it, sir, I will stay.”
And so they sat and ate together, and Baral Favain first put salt from a wooden caster onto bread, and gave part to Olik Petir, and took the other part himself. At this Olik Petir was greatly comforted, for in that country, to share a man’s salt is to put oneself beyond reach of any malice he may harbor toward one, whosoever he may be. While they ate, they talked. Olik Petir found himself telling Baral Favain, who folk said was a warrior or a wizard or worse, and at all events untrustworthy, all the sorrows of his heart. He told of his mother’s anguish at her husband’s long absence and the many months she had not heard from him, of their poverty, of his shame at being mocked by the boys of the village for the wearing of an old, patched tunic, and at last of the loss of the milk-beast. To all this the Shendi prince listened in grave silence.
At length he spoke. “These are thy woes, child?”
“If thy mother is surnamed Petir, be at peace, thy milk-beast is safe in my barn with my livestock. As to thy tunic… if thou wilt be guided by me, rise and fetch my book from the shelf by the door.”
The book was large and thick, and bound in black hide traced with mysterious letters and figures in silver. When Olik Petir placed it on the table, Baral Favain unclasped the covers and paged through the illuminated leaves. Finding the page he desired, he traced along a line with his forefinger as he murmured the words written there in a foreign language, and then waved the boy over to the now empty cupboard whence he had brought their supper.
There on the shelf lay folded a crimson tunic of good wool, richly embroidered. Olik Petir’s mouth fell open, and he hastened to don the garment, which fitted him like a glove.
“Will it suffice?” smiled Baral Favain. When his lips were curved in a smile, he resembled less a grave wizard, more a kindly uncle. “I see by thy look thou art pleased. Say, wilt do me the honor of sleeping here the night? ‘Tis no weather for man or beast, and thy mother’s concern for thee will hardly be much sharpened by a few hours further delay.” Olik Petir slept deeply, with rich and fair dreams, upon Baral Favain’s warm bed set in an alcove at the end of the hut, while the prince rolled himself in his mantle and lay before the fire.
At dawn they rose to see that the storm had passed away in the night, and after they had broken their fast upon more bread and wine, Baral Favain laid his hands upon Olik Petir’s head, and blessed him in the name of the god of that place, who, he said, was kinder, greater, and wiser in every way than any of the multitudinous gods of the Shendi. Thereupon Olik Petir set off for home, his new tunic upon his back, and the halter of the milk-beast in his hand. Baral Favain stopped him once more at the end of the clearing, and, running after him, gave the boy a purse filled with silver.
“Tell thy lady mother,” quoth he, “that this is in payment for the two gallons of good milk I have had from her beast. Give her also my thanks. And tell her I shall read in my book and try to divine thy father’s whereabouts.” Olik Petir went on his way, with the purse in his crimson wool pocket and a song in his heart.
That was by no means the last time he met Baral Favain the Shendi prince – but I will save the rest for another time.