The Forgotten Taste Of Honey
by Alexander Jablokov
Tromvi trudged up the hill from the harbor, where she had just packed the last of her trade goods into the hull of a ship heading to the east. What she had received in return already weighed on her horses’ backs. She smiled to herself as she remembered the sea captain, caught between a reluctance to say goodbye and the need to be ready for the receding tide, being uncharacteristically sharp with his crew. In the end, it had been she who turned away. She had her own affairs to settle before she could leave this place.
The sea breeze rattled shutters already closed despite the still-abundant daylight. Her boots alone crunched the street’s crushed shells. Even the ever-present cats had slunk off to chew their fish heads somewhere they wouldn’t need to look at her.
This was unusually bad. She was certainly used to the change that came during the last days of a trading trip, when her need became obvious. Smiling faces turned to cold masks and then disappeared behind bolted doors. Children who had once followed her around now hid behind fences and winged pebbles at her. And the streets grew miraculously empty.
But usually someone sought her out before the last day, to privately make an exchange.
Her fellow traders had good reason not to come down to the coast, despite the access to overseas goods: people here didn’t feel compelled by their own gods to do the necessary thing. Tromvi couldn’t worry about whether that would eventually doom them to revenge by inland gods. She needed a corpse to get home, and she needed it now.
Tall and sober, blue eyes sharp under a felt hat shapeless from too many rains, she walked the lanes of town, hoping for a glimpse of someone around a corner, or an eye in the gap beneath a loose shutter. She had noted a couple of people in town with the drawn look of someone worried about a poor burial decision. So she walked, visible and obvious, past the places where these people lived. Under her hat her hair cascaded in curls, white edged in black, like a mountain thundercloud. Her homespun cloak had a pattern from the new western valleys where her children had settled. It wasn’t like anyone could miss her. Still, no one darted out to reveal the location of an inappropriately buried body that needed to return to its birthplace.
She knew traders who left on their return journey home with this essential task undone. One such had spent an entire evening at a tavern explaining to Tromvi how exciting it was, to always be on the lookout for an uncomfortably buried body, with the possibility of an exciting discovery around each bend of the trail. He eventually ended up frozen to a tree below the bolted door of a mountain Gatehouse, not permitted to pass, and unable to descend due to an early storm. The next spring, Tromvi had been asked to take him home. She spared a prayer to his god to receive his body kindly and at full value, but already had a proper corpse, and so left him for someone who could use him.
A gust of wind brought her an out-of-place sound: the clang of a goat bell. She turned to see a nanny trot out onto the road. It glanced at her, then was on its way, seeming in a bit of a hurry, bell still clanging. That was a sound from the hills and the wide plains to the north of the mountains. She had not heard of anyone here keeping one.
She walked out past the last house to where the horses of her pack train cropped rough seaside grass. She got on her lead horse and headed up the road north. It wasn’t the direction home. Her last possible chance lay this way.
A man had come down from a farm up there to sell grapes and raisins, many of them to Tromvi’s friend Nemillo, the eastern captain. The grape seller had glanced at Tromvi, then away. Despite her age, some men still managed enough interest to look at her. She could tell this was something different.
Always laying up knowledge against a dearth, she had learned that he was named Wult, that he had married a woman from far inland who had never made close friends in town, and that she had died of a fever a couple of months before. That was before people realized the import of such questions, and stopped talking to her. But she had learned enough.
An hour or so up the rough road north, Tromvi found a spot beneath a rocky cliff, with a view of the crashing ocean, and tied up her horses. She took a moment to look out over the purpling water to the level line of the horizon, seeking Nemillo’s sails. Once or twice she thought she found his ship. Each time it proved to be a whitecap that then slid down into the water and vanished.
She led the last horse, the one bearing nothing but the reindeer-hide sack, down the trail into the inlet. After a couple of steep turns, well reinforced with laid stacks of rocks, the sound of the surf had vanished, and she was at a low house partly concealed by twisted pear trees.
Wult sat on a tree stump in front of his house repairing a net. He was tall, with sharp joints, a look Tromvi had always favored: big chin, stuck out ears, and a brush of reddish hair topping his long head. Her own husband, Greevor, had been much of that look, and that had been part of the joy of him.
He set his net aside.
“How did she first let you know?” Tromvi asked, because it had to be something like that, some power from the woman’s home god. Nothing else could have gotten one of these sullen seasiders to ask for help, their own god being so lax.
“She’s been dead two months,” Wult said. “The air thickened in her chest until she could no longer breathe it. I buried her in my family’s plot. One morning a week or two later, I felt her near me, pushing against my shoulder in bed. I rolled over to put my arm around her. It was just the blanket, knotted up. It had come off me. I was cold. When I got up, something stuck to my foot.” He paused.
“Fish scales. Fish scales all over the floor. Morning light came in, and they gleamed, from one wall to the other.”
“Had you fought about that?”
“Fought?” Wult said.
“About fish scales.”
“She was a mountain girl. I was up in the valleys to stay with mother’s cousins for my away. They taught me history, and the ties between our places. And every week it was climbing. Cliffs and ice. They said I would get used to it. I never knew there was so much down in the world. I was on a cliffside praying I wouldn’t fall and looked down to see a girl laughing up at me from the back of a horse, on the trail far below. I climbed down, and she was still there.”
Trading the smell of wet wool for the stink of fish scales—one definition of love. “You would track scales in.”
“You can’t really do anything about that!” An old grievance found its way into his voice. “They are . . . everywhere.” He closed his eyes. “But these were beautiful. Like a mountain weaving, made out of fish scales. Loops, twists, knots. Genuinely beautiful.”
“Who’s going to clean that mess up?” Tromvi wasn’t going to let him off easy.
“It will stay. Until I am ready, it will stay. Do you want to see it?”
“No. What next?”
Wult just turned and walked silently around the house. She took her horse’s bridle and followed.
Behind the house was a vineyard, heavy with ripening grapes. These were what Wult had been selling when Tromvi spotted him in town. He waited, for it took Tromvi a moment to see it.
Each tendril that held the vine to its trellis had been knotted, sometimes multiple times. Each grape stem was knotted as well. No living hand could have done that without breaking the stems.
“Did she usually repair your nets? Mountain girls make rugs, and decorate the edges of homespun. They have nimble fingers.”
“I was trying to save her from misery.” He looked across the vines. “She was fleeing something terrible, a bad choice she had made, when, she said, she looked up and saw me holding onto the rock like a baby clinging to its mother, and realized you could also move toward something. Toward here, it turned out, where she never felt at home. She’s telling me what a big mistake that was, now . . .”
“She’s not the one speaking to you.” Tromvi knew the truth wasn’t really comforting, but it was all she had. “She’s buried out of place. That usually doesn’t matter as much as it should. Sometimes, though, a god wants to make sure someone returns to it. It strengthens their urge to return. The god in whose territory the body is buried feels the irritation, like a boil or a rubbing collar, and eventually moves to do something about it. The results can be unpleasant. She needs to go home.”
Wult stood with his head bent for long minutes. There was a time in every trade when this moment came. Tromvi knew better than to speak, though she was desperate to be on her way. It was the ability to remain silent that distinguished a successful trader from one who perpetually failed to realize value.
“This way.” Wult grabbed a shovel from the neat line of tools behind the house, and led Tromvi from the vineyard, up over a rise, and down to a sheltered flat area. Boulders etched with a few runes each marked where the graves were. “My parents. An aunt, and a few elders, forgotten. And . . . her.” His eyes widened and the shovel fell from his hand.
The newest grave’s soil had been disturbed and then patted back down, handprints visible in the soft dirt. Remu herself lay on the slope above the little cemetery, amid the summer flowers.
She lay on her back, eyes closed, dressed in a simple shift with some embroidery at the hem. Her light brown hair was tied and braided in the shoreline fashion—Tromvi imagined the village women doing their necessary work, while feeling secretly pleased that, at least once, this outland woman would have her hair done properly.
She was clearly dead, with her skin pulling in folds over her cheekbones. But not two months dead. Nothing had eaten her eyes. She lay amid the purple and yellow flowers of the wild pansy called Heart’s Ease. She had dried flower heads amid her fingers. Bees buzzed higher up the slope. The preservation of her body showed that her god had an unusually strong interest in her return.
“Remu loved flowers,” Wult said over Tromvi’s shoulder. “Particularly spring flowers in the mountains. Blue ones, she said. Dark blue. Did her ghost come out just to pick them?”
From what was on the corpse’s fingers, Tromvi rather thought Remu had been deadheading the blossoms, like someone ensuring a continued show of bloom by her front stoop.
“She’s not a ghost,” Tromvi said. “She’s just not buried in the right place, and the god here has been prodded by hers into doing something about it. I will do the duty and return her. Where was her home?”
That was good luck. Hellstor was within two passes of Krovisklull, Tromvi’s home. Men from Krovisklull regularly moved up to work in the Hellstor copper mines and just as regularly died of drylung there. Hellstor would not lack for corpses needing to be repaid to the god of Krovisklull. After picking one up, home would be a quick downslope.
“She told me that from the heights of Hellstor, on a certain day of the year, you could look down at the Moon and see that there is a hole in the top of it,” Wult said. “As if it is a bead from a broken necklace.”
“Each mountain valley has its own special view of things.” Tromvi pulled the soft reindeer-hide sack off the horse’s back. “There is no need for you to watch this.”
Wult’s prominent voice box moved up and down. Then he turned and walked away, out of sight.
Tromvi immediately regretted not requesting his help. Remu was heavier than she looked, and her limbs flopped around as Tromvi tried to shove her into the sack. She tried not to grunt, and certainly not to swear. Eventually, somehow, she got Remu fully in and stitched up the opening.
The largest corpse she’d carried in that sack had been that of a man nearly seven feet tall, and she’d felt discomfort at the way his head and knees visibly pressed out against the soft leather. The smallest was a child from Korbath who’d fled her home with her parents only the week before and been unable to withstand the winds of the heights they had been forced into. Tromvi wrapped the hide around her three times but still felt the cold radiating from her as she took the girl back to Korbath. The parents had continued on their trek alone.
Wult returned when her job was done.
“Remu would come out here and sit among the bees,” he said. “I didn’t like it. I never learned what she was fleeing when she saw me and changed her life. There was some darkness, some magic she had delved into, probably with others. She said her honey was just a simple housewife’s spell, nothing deeper or darker than that, but I didn’t believe her. My suspicion hurt her, I could see. We would fight. Finally I left her to her bees. But that led to even worse things.”
He looked at the spot where his dead wife’s body had lain. The bees seemed to find it particularly interesting: a half dozen buzzed around the flowers crushed by her weight.
“The women here already knew everyone they cared to know. They barely spoke to her. Her bees wandered these fields and rocks and made a shoreline honey. She thought if the other women tasted their own sunlight, gentian, and dune plum blossom in the honey, they would grow easier with her. She took each of them a dripping comb of it and was welcomed. Maybe they regretted their earlier coldness. Unfortunately, soon after they tasted it, several of the women developed an urge to . . . to . . . milk a goat.”
“But, how?” Despite herself, Tromvi found herself interested. “What did the honey do?”
“It was not a simple domestic trick, that became clear. There had been a laborer here who had come down from the north after a bad winter. He worked various farms and slept out. He even worked here with me, helping harvest grapes. The night before Remu’s bees finished the honey, he had died, alone, in a field of flowers. The bees, she told me, must have harvested his last thoughts along with the nectar of the blossoms. And, it seemed, he had once been a shepherd, up there in the north.”
“Someone did get a goat,” Tromvi said. “I saw it, in town.”
Wult buried his face in his hands. “Everyone will know who couldn’t resist. It will be a deep shame.”
“No one would speak to Remu again,” Tromvi said.
“No. No one. She had only me, and I was angry at her myself. She did her job, I did mine.” His fingertips stroked the soft leather of the sack that held his wife’s body. “You need to go. If you head further north, and then west, there is a convenient spot to camp, two miles along, where the trail crosses the stream. Tomorrow, if you continue on that way, you will strike the main route west.”
* * *
A week later the setting sun caught Tromvi climbing the long ridge toward Crowfoot Pass as fast as she could. She was far from anywhere she wanted to be and moving farther from it. Views along the Spine to east and west opened out around her: chevrons of stippled snow, blue crags, cascades that flashed in the last of the light. She paid no attention to any of it.
During her time trading by the sea, two warriors in the southeastern plains had quarreled, and one had hacked the other to death near a spring sacred to the dead man’s family. The result was a wide feud through the southern lands, pulling in close relatives, collateral relatives, and people who had once shared a piece of dried reindeer meat with the wrong stranger. Armed bands now clinked along the trails.
Tromvi had faced down any number of tough negotiators, but the thought of a swinging ax in a gauntleted hand filled her with terror. She couldn’t talk her way past it. To evade the violence, she’d been forced off her chosen route. The horses caught her mood, and, despite the occasional headshake and snort, kept up the pace.
There was another east to west route up here, along the higher slopes of the Spine, that would lead to Hellstor while keeping her away from the combat below. It had more up and down than she liked. Her horses would reach home thin and unhappy. But she had little choice.
She’d been catching glimpses of the Crowfoot Pass Gatehouse’s stone tower for a day and a half. It never seemed to get any closer. Now the trail took a jog around a ridge, climbed out of the last of the trees, and emerged on the rough stone of the pass itself. The tower loomed over her.
At the gate’s pointed arch, she grabbed a hanging metal bar and struck the bell for entry.
* * *
“So this woman died at the seashore.” Hakratt, the Passkeeper of Crowfoot Pass, stopped so suddenly near the top of the winding stairs that Tromvi almost collided with him. “But she was from Hellstor. Definitely from Hellstor. How did she end up there?”
“She met a man from there,” Tromvi said. “And returned with him to his home by the sea.”
“That doesn’t seem like enough reason. She died down there, after all. She probably knew she would. Something must have . . . driven her.”
Hakratt’s large body blocked the way up, and Tromvi found herself clinging desperately to the worn stone step with her toes, finding nothing on the rough walls to grab on to. It was a long way down.
“She was fleeing something,” Tromvi said.
“Ah. What was her life like, do you know? Children?”
“I saw no children. Otherwise . . . I don’t know.”
“Better so. Did her husband know what she fled?
It wasn’t like a Passkeeper to gossip about the past life of a god-bound corpse or even to acknowledge its existence after he took it away and performed the secret procedures Passkeepers used to confirm the body’s home god. Hakratt, clearly punctilious, had taken quite a long time with the corpse before emerging and performing the ritual of acceptance. And now he was just going to stand there until Tromvi lost her grip on the sloping stone step and tumbled down the winding stairs.
Or told him something else.
“She never told him why. She never said anything. Her past was a mystery to him.”
Either that satisfied him or he remembered his manners, because he finally led her into the top tower room, a surprisingly large space. A fire burned in the fireplace, and food had already been laid on a table. A couple of carved bench chests against the walls and the folding stools by the table were the only moveable furniture.
“Ale for the trader,” Hakratt told the young woman who stood against the wall. “Ah, and cheese. I see we have some left.”
He settled at the table with a goblet of ale and a wooden plate. Tromvi noted that he had taken most of the cheese. “This isn’t your usual route to the west. I’ve never seen you here before.”
“No. There is a feud, to the south.”
“And those squabbling warriors below scared you.”
“I thought it prudent to take this route,” Tromvi said.
“Ah, prudence. That’s considered quite a virtue among you people.”
“You people”: it was going to be a long night. Passkeepers existed to ensure and regulate the regular traffic in misplaced bodies across Scarpland. Only traders carrying certain specified goods on a large enough number of horses were required to carry a corpse to pass by. Despite the intimacy of this relationship, the Passkeepers, coming from warrior clans remote from trade, never felt anything but contempt for those who came through their gates.
“I’m traveling alone,” she said. “Prudence is a necessity, not a virtue.”
“Of course, of course.” He seemed distracted, fiddling with the cheese rinds, clinking his ale goblet against his plate. “You’re from Krovisklull. Peaceful now, but troubled in the past. Those events must have touched you.”
No surprise that a Passkeeper instantly knew her home place and god. But it was odd that he had gone from mocking her for being a cowardly trader to asking earnestly after her past. Though Passkeepers did tend to eccentricity. Their Gatehouses were always situated in remote dry spots in the middle of swamps, on cliff sides above the sea, or high in the mountains. People who chose that life were odd, and only became odder.
“My husband, Greevor, died at the Frinhyrding Ridge fight. From his cousin Nithker’s squabble with those up there.”
“Oh, that was more than a squabble, I’d say. That was a strong fight.”
“It was hard midwinter when they went up there,” Tromvi said. “The fingers they didn’t lose to sword blows turned black with frostbite, and they had to cut those off themselves.” She knew the story was famous. She usually excused herself if anyone tried to tell it.
“Did you start trading to keep your children alive?”
“My children were ready to go out on their own. I had to support my mother.” Going out trading was a way to keep her mother alive while not having to spend most of the year in Neffu’s company. Setting out on her first trading journey had been like being let out of a dark root cellar.
Why was she telling the Passkeeper even as much as she was? Hakratt was a handsome man, with curling golden hair, dark eyes, and wide shoulders that his leather jerkin showed off, and he had that dark charm that came with unspoken needs. Perhaps her time with the Nemillo had made her sensitive to men again. If the feeling was welcome, the possible consequences weren’t.
Then the serving girl, running up and down the steep stairs from the kitchen far below, brought some roasted meat tough enough to have come from an ox that died in harness, and some partly burned vegetables. Tromvi had eaten better at sod houses on the north plain.
Partway through the meal, Sabir, the old gray-bearded man who served the Gatehouse as major domo, came and whispered something to Hakratt, who nodded at what he learned. Tromvi noticed that the serving girl, sweaty hair now plastered to her forehead, tried to overhear, until a quick glance from Sabir sent her back to her station against the wall.
At the end of the meal, Hakratt licked the sauce from his fingers like a small child, though the serving girl stood by with an ewer of scented water. Tromvi nodded at her as she washed her own hands. The young woman would not meet her gaze.
“Excuse me,” Hakratt told Tromvi as he stood. “I have some business to attend to.”
“Then I will thank you for your hospitality and get back to my horses.”
“No!” He seemed to realize he had barked the word, and forced a smile. “We still have things to talk about. Asni, could you get the musicians up for our guest?”
The young woman had the frightened look of someone who had no idea what her master was talking about. “Musicians? Do we have . . . ?”
“Of course we do.” Hakratt bared his white teeth. “Ah. Those two . . . I forget their names. The kitchen boy and that man in the stables . . . don’t they play?”
“Kergl and Hrostopp?” No child made to stand and recite an unlearned lesson could be less willing. “The ones who played at the midsummer dance?”
“Yes, of course, of course. Get them up here. Listening to some music would please me.” Asni still hesitated. “Go!”
The young woman fled down the stairs.
Hakratt sat with Tromvi and chatted about how much fun that party at midsummer had been, with its singing and dancing. She gathered he had watched it from his tower room. He seemed to sense her compassion for his loneliness and told her Passkeeping was a proud task. But at some point he needed to train up a successor. Such people usually did not stay at their initial Gatehouse. Without such new Passkeepers, it would be hard to ensure the happiness of the gods. He had neglected this task, and it was long overdue. Despite his easy speech, his fingers were tight on his empty goblet. Tromvi could see his desperation to go. What she couldn’t see was his reason.
Eventually the serving girl, Asni, returned with two young men, both blinking, hair sticking up, clearly awakened from sleep. They sat down on a bench by the fire and commenced to torture a hurdy-gurdy and a drum. The hurdy-gurdy had a crack in the body that made the already buzzy instrument sound like an angry beehive.
Hakratt nodded at Tromvi and, without further explanation, disappeared down the stairs. The two musicians played what sounded like the same tune over and over, with grunts and yowls for punctuation. Asni leaned her head against the stone side of the window and fell asleep standing up.
After a long while, Hakratt returned. He listened to the music for a moment, then clapped his hands. The musicians stopped immediately, gathered up their instruments, bent their heads once to Tromvi, and disappeared back to their pallets.
It seemed impossibly late, as if the Passkeeper had managed to discover a new region of night, a vast expanse of gritty eyes and heavy limbs unknown even to nightguards standing watch at midwinter.
“Give her more ale!” Hakratt commanded. Asni jerked, blinked, and then ran to do his bidding.
Tromvi’s goblet was almost full. Asni managed to pour a little more in, making it impossible to pick up without spilling. She looked apologetic, then scuttled back to her wall.
Hakratt had remained standing. “I have gone through a long examination. I see things about the burdens you traders carry that you could never understand. This is hard knowledge to acquire, and sometimes even dangerous. And what we learn is forever afterward a burden. . . .”
Not knowing what to do with what sounded like another complaint about being a Passkeeper, Tromvi remained silent. But she could tell he was winding himself up to something.
“I can’t permit you to take this body west with you,” he said at last. “It is too dangerous.”
“What?” Tromvi stopped herself from standing. She didn’t want to challenge him. “But I must—”
“Don’t tell me what you must. The danger is real. Know that.”
“I’ll take the risk,” she said.
“It’s not the danger to you that I’m worried about. This body’s danger comes from the knowledge and memories it bears. There may be a magician out that way—word is not clear, as it never is about such. This woman . . . I don’t know what drove her, why she did what she did, but what she did is now buried inside of her. And what that was could be of immense interest to someone along the way. You would not be able to stand against such.”
“But . . . I need her. To get to Hellstor.” She had a thought. “Unless you have a way for me to pass the next Gatehouse without a corpse.”
“Through Kretrock Narrows?” He smirked. “I don’t think so. Merni there is quite precise. She needs to see a god-bound body, and will accept nothing else.”
“Then nothing! You can’t take this woman west with you. The reasons are too complex for someone like you to understand. I could put you in danger just by telling you.” He turned to her and forced a smile. “You’re welcome to return back south with her, if you wish, and find another route.”
“Is . . .” To her embarrassment, Tromvi found her throat dry at the thought of heading back into feud territory. And that damn ale goblet was too full to lift. “Is it safe to go that way? Has the fighting ended?”
“Tell me, Asni,” Hakratt said quietly. “Has it ended?”
Asni closed her eyes and turned away. Gatehouse staff came from the surrounding area. She probably had close relatives in the fight and got news of who had already been killed.
“Come outside with me, both of you.”
Tromvi had the urge to overturn her untouched goblet. She was stopped only by the knowledge that Hakratt wouldn’t be the one cleaning up the spilled ale. Instead, she followed him down the twisting stairs.
Dawn had begun, but would not give enough light to see anything for some time. Far down the dark slope of the mountainside glowed a single bright dot.
“Where is that, would you say, Sabir?” The Passkeeper had the tone of a man buying a sheep, just wanting another opinion on the shoulder line.
Sabir, the gray-bearded major domo, sucked his remaining teeth.
“Markmonnen’s farm, most like.” He breathed for a moment. “Maybe Drudel’s.”
There were no buildings visible from this far, no way to see specific flames scorching up from a barn roof, or know if the walls were about to fall in. If anyone was screaming, the sound did not carry.
That tiny spot was right where her southbound trail descended.
Other Gatehouse servants, awakened by their voices, had emerged into the cold predawn and now stood near them, looking down at the burning house of someone they knew in complete silence. An older woman put an arm around Asni’s shoulders.
“You can leave by the west gate tomorrow if you leave the body,” Hakratt said. “Plenty of people die between here and Kretrock Narrows. You should have no trouble finding another one.”
Tromvi straightened up, because she knew a straight body encouraged a confident mind, and gazed down the slope toward the fire. It terrified her, but she would have to do it. There was no way she was going to head out of the Gatehouse without the body that would get her home.
She was about to turn to Hakratt to thank him for his hospitality and tell him she was heading south when he said. “Of course, there is another choice.”
It was a base negotiator’s trick, to pull out a third option once someone has finally made a reluctant choice between the two equally unpleasant ones on offer. For a man who lived his life above the clouds, serving the gods and their agents, he had good timing.
Though he was clearly waiting for a desperate question from her, he was not going to get it. She stood completely still. Minutes went by. It was quiet enough there, far above the dying farm, that Tromvi heard the man’s eventual shrug as a groan of leather.
“Come along, then, and we can see what there is to see. Sabir. Light is coming, but bring a torch, can you? There might be some uneven footing, and our guest is unfamiliar with our passages.”
Beyond the forecourt they descended, first over some hacked-out steps, then down untrimmed rock layers, to the lower wall.
“Ah, here it is.” Hakratt gestured, and Sabir brought his torch so close that spurts of burning pitch struck Tromvi’s cheek. She stepped away from him, and he grinned at her.
The doorway was secured by an iron bolt. Hakratt watched calmly as Sabir, holding the torch in one hand, struggled with it, almost burning himself. Tromvi did the same, trying not to feel grateful to Hakratt for punishing his servant on her behalf.
When the bolt came loose, the gate swung open on nothing. The light had grown enough that Tromvi could make out the far peaks. A wind blew up from below. Beyond the threshold, the rock fell away.
“Take a look,” Hakratt said. “It takes some care. But your horses must be used to mountain trails.”
Reluctantly, Tromvi leaned against the gateway’s side and looked down.
For a moment, her mind refused to even recognize it. Finally, though, she saw the trail. It was steep and rocky, sometimes disappearing, but a trail that led down into an emerald valley dominated by a hanging glacier.
“Tell her, Sabir,” Hakratt said.
“This valley drops to the southeast. Rough country, but passable. It debouches beyond the Krongriver Plain. Beyond . . . the trouble.”
She followed Sabir’s pointing finger. The upper part of the valley was a wide bowl with a glacier and a lake, with a cascade tumbling down the steep ridge, but to the right the way was gentler and she could trace a possible route until it vanished into the trees.
Going that way would take her back almost to where she had started, losing her weeks. She knew a sensible move would have been to give Remu’s corpse up to this man. He was right—someone would surely have died between here and Kretrock Narrows. It was a dangerous area with more bodies than traveling traders. She could get home. To her own surprise, she found herself unwilling to do it.
Hakratt couldn’t just take the body from her, though she sensed he wanted it—whether to keep it out of the hands of others or for his own purposes, she couldn’t tell. While competing traders had been known to steal corpses from each other in desperate situations, no Passkeeper had ever taken a body from a passing trader. Such an act would have consequences, both to the Passkeeper who did it, and to the whole way people kept the gods of Scarpland satisfied and out of their way. But perhaps a body could be given, if not taken. She’d heard other stories of Passkeeper misbehavior recently, though traders always told vicious stories about Passkeepers.
Hakratt had failed to get Remu’s body from her through guile. Had he given up? Maybe as long as the body was kept off the trail between Crowfoot and Kretrock, he would be satisfied.
These mysteries would have to remain unexplained. The only thing Tromvi wanted now was to get out of here and never see this place again.
“I thank you for your hospitality,” she said. “Now let me collect my corpse and get my horses.”
Copyright © 2016. The Forgotten Taste Of Honey by Alexander Jablokov