Of Gods and Men
In the days of darkness before the war, men were called Rhunes. We lived in Rhuneland or Rhulyn as it was once known. We had little to eat and much to fear. What we feared most were the gods across the Bern River, where we were not allowed. Most people believe our conflict with the Fhrey started at the Battle of Grandford, but it actually began on a day in early spring when two men crossed the river.
—THE BOOK OF BRIN
Raithe’s first impulse was to pray. Curse, cry, scream, pray—people did such things in their last minutes of life. But praying struck Raithe as absurd given that his problem was the angry god twenty feet away. Gods weren’t known for their tolerance, and this one appeared on the verge of striking them both dead. Neither Raithe nor his father had noticed the god approach. The waters of the nearby converging rivers made enough noise to mask an army’s passage. Raithe would have preferred an army.
Dressed in shimmering clothes, the god sat on a horse and was accompanied by two servants on foot. They were men, but dressed in the same remarkable clothing. All three silent, watching.
“Hey?” Raithe called to his father.
Herkimer knelt beside a deer, opening its stomach with his knife. Earlier, Raithe had landed a spear in the stag’s side, and he and his father had spent most of the morning chasing it. Herkimer had stripped off his wool leigh mor as well as his shirt because opening a deer’s belly was a bloody business. “What?” He looked up.
Raithe jerked his head toward the god, and his father’s sight tracked to the three figures. The old man’s eyes widened, and the color left his face.
I knew this was a bad idea, Raithe thought.
His father had seemed so confident, so sure that crossing the forbidden river would solve their problems. But he’d mentioned his certainty enough times to make Raithe wonder. Now the old man looked as if he’d forgotten how to breathe. Herkimer wiped his knife on the deer’s side before slipping it into his belt and getting up.
“Ah…” Raithe’s father began. Herkimer looked at the half-gutted deer, then back at the god. “It’s…okay.”
This was the total sum of his father’s wisdom, his grand defense for their high crime of trespassing on divine land. Raithe wasn’t sure if slaughtering one of the deities’ deer was also an offense but assumed it didn’t help their situation. And although Herkimer said it was okay, his face told a different story. Raithe’s stomach sank. He had no idea what he’d expected his father to say, but something more than that.
Not surprisingly, the god wasn’t appeased, and the three continued to stare in growing irritation.
They were on a tiny point of open meadowland where the Bern and North Branch rivers met. A pine forest, thick and rich, grew a short distance up the slope behind them. Down at the point where the rivers converged lay a stony beach. Beneath a snow-gray blanket of sky, the river’s roar was the only sound. Just minutes earlier Raithe had seen the tiny field as a paradise. That was then.
Raithe took a slow breath and reminded himself that he didn’t have experience with gods or their expressions. He’d never observed a god up close, never seen beech-leaf-shaped ears, eyes blue as the sky, or hair that spilled like molten gold. Such smooth skin and white teeth were beyond reason. This was a being born not of the earth but of air and light. His robes billowed in the breeze and shimmered in the sun, proclaiming an otherworldly glory. The harsh, judgmental glare was exactly the expression Raithe expected from an immortal being.
The horse was an even bigger surprise. Raithe’s father had told him about such animals, but until then Raithe hadn’t believed. His old man had a habit of embellishing the truth, and for more than twenty years Raithe had heard the tales. After a few drinks, his father would tell everyone how he’d killed five men with a single swing or fought the North Wind to a standstill. The older Herkimer got, the larger the stories grew. But this four-hooved tall tale was looking back at Raithe with large glossy eyes, and when the horse shook its head, he wondered if the mounts of gods understood speech.
“No, really, it’s okay,” Raithe’s father told them again, maybe thinking they hadn’t heard his previous genius. “I’m allowed here.” He took a step forward and pointed to the medal hanging from a strip of hide amid the dirt and pine needles stuck to the sweat on his chest. Half naked, sunbaked, and covered in blood up to his elbows, his father appeared the embodiment of a mad barbarian. Raithe wouldn’t have believed him, either.
“See this?” his father went on. The burnished metal clutched by thick ruddy fingers reflected the midday sun. “I fought for your people against the Gula-Rhunes in the High Spear Valley. I did well. A Fhrey commander gave me this. Said I earned a reward.”
“Dureyan clan,” the taller servant told the god, his tone somewhere between disappointment and disgust. He wore a rich-looking silver torc around his neck—both servants did. The jewelry must be a mark of their station.
The gangly man lacked a beard but sported a long nose, sharp cheeks, and small clever eyes. He reminded Raithe of a weasel or a fox, and he wasn’t fond of either. Raithe was also repulsed by how the man stood: stooped, eyes low, hands clasped. Abused dogs exhibited more self-esteem.
What kind of men travel with a god?
“That’s right. I’m Herkimer, son of Hiemdal, and this is my son Raithe.”
“You’ve broken the law,” the servant stated. The nasal tone even sounded the way a weasel might talk.
“No, no. It’s not like that. Not at all.”
The lines on his father’s face deepened, and his lips stretched tighter. He stopped walking forward but held the medal out like a talisman, his eyes hopeful. “This proves what I’m saying, that I earned a reward. See, I sort of figured we”—he gestured toward Raithe—“my son and I could live on this little point.” He waved at the meadow. “We don’t need much. Hardly anything, really. You see, on our side of the river, back in Dureya, the dirt’s no good. We can’t grow anything, and there’s nothing to hunt.”
The pleading in his father’s voice was something Raithe hadn’t heard before and didn’t like.
“You’re not allowed here.” This time it was the other servant, the balding one. Like the tall weasel-faced fellow, he lacked a proper beard, as if growing one were a thing that needed to be taught. The lack of hair exposed in fine detail a decidedly sour expression.